Don’t let Banksy get you down

banksy

We’ve all seen it by now. A hasty peace sign with the Eiffel Tower set inside, calling to mind recent tragedy. Like most viral memes, “Peace for Paris” quickly escaped its original creator, a little-known graphic designer named Jean Jullien. Subsequent research attached Jullien’s name to the work, but I’d wager most of us still haven’t heard of him.

In fact, following the attacks, another artist’s name dominated online speculation about the image. Another artist, whose name is a buzzword for all that is insufferably hip. Perhaps Jullien’s casual brushstrokes evoked spray-paint on concrete. Maybe the symbol was painted, with studious irony, on a wall outside the UK Ministry of Defence. That’s right, I’m talking about Banksy.

I have nothing against Banksy’s art. Much of it is brilliant, a stenciled satire on the hypocrisy, venality, and all-around badness of society. It is vandalism, sure, but the places where it appears are so barren and ugly that modification could only improve them. Combining technical skill, an eye for irony, and a healthy absurdist streak, Banksy lets even the most oppressive facades denounce their own culture of oppression.

I’ve never been a street art nerd, but I admired Banksy enough to feature one of his works – rioter throwing bouquet of flowers – as my Facebook profile for several months. I’ve seen his film Exit Through the Gift Shop, a strange ode to fellow street artist Thierry Guetta. His ribbing of the police and CCTV are appreciated. But wasn’t there something obscenely predictable about our eagerness to credit him for the Paris drawing?

From the moment the rumor hit social media, I didn’t think Bansky really created the image. Not to imply that Banksy (whoever he/she/they are) doesn’t share in the collective grief over what happened. But anyone familiar with his repertoire knows that Banksy’s work is rarely straightforward. There’s always an angle, an implied critique of the viewer and of society.

If I had to guess, I’d expect Banksy to side with Team Beirut and lace his Paris picture with a critique of colonial bias. But never mind that “Peace for Paris” wasn’t his usual style: it was a pop image with some meaning, and thus he must be behind it. Banksy’s brand is so powerful that building owners count can themselves lucky when he “defaces” their property. If I owned a building, I’d expose a blank concrete wall, maybe mount a fake camera and some official-looking sign, hoping he’ll show up.

This isn’t an attack on Banksy. It’s a critique of the social thinking that sustains him. In the internet era more than ever, we expect regular doses of our favorite stuff delivered in a predictable way. Even someone like Banksy, who exists to disrupt that culture, is now a poster-boy for middle class would-be revolutionaries. Our media culture neutralizes criticism by appropriating it.

Maybe the real problem lies with street art itself. And hasn’t the name of Banksy become almost synonymous with that enterprise? He’s an unknown quantity, an outlaw, and anonymity has only added to the allure. Banksy’s mystique has driven speculation that he may be a collective of many artists, each working in “his” signature style.

Hmm. That’s not so very different from the co-creation, co-authorship, sharing, and collective brainstorming favored by digital capital. Like an online alias, “Banksy” lets him operate without dragging his own name around. Even if there is someone from Bristol who pioneered the Banksy phenomenon, what’s to prevent a skilled artist from passing off a forged Banksy? Art, writing, video, music – all intellectual property is now at risk from those who would devalue it. Or worse still, those who would catapult it to fame as a meme: something that issued from the roiling froth without an owner, author, or history.

If I had to criticize street art, it would be for making the ephemeral cool. For telling young people that the system will inevitably erase what they create, and convincing them that is a good thing. It is perfect irony that Snapchat has built a billion-dollar business around graffiti’s promise: that your subversive image will linger for a moment and then be washed away.

Of course, when those creations are powerful they’re not really erased. What can be erased are the rights and property privileges of the original creators. And it’s doubly hard when you’re coming from the left: if your creative portfolio consists of thinly-veiled socialism, what right do you have to demand royalties? The creative knowledge worker, who wants to work for good, finds that he or she can’t get paid for it.

I know nothing about Jean Jullien. I can’t say what kind of person he is. But I know he has to call himself graphic designer, not artist, because he wants to make a living doing what he enjoys. Banksy can call himself an artist: he deserves to. But Jean Jullien created an image that won’t disappear.

Photo credit: fingertrouble via Flickr cc

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The new flower children

student protest

I’d like to talk about my feelings. Specifically, my pain. Today my pain comes from how badly people treat political correctness. I sit here, listening to people criticize political correctness, and, well, they’re not bad people who want to hurt political correctness’ feelings. They just don’t understand that they’re causing pain. They don’t understand that their microaggressions are making political correctness feel bad about itself.

And it’s not political correctness’ responsibility to educate its critics about why they’re being problematic. The critics need to educate themselves. Why should political correctness teach people what’s not okay? Why should the debate be framed on the critics’ terms? As a former critic of political correctness, I took the time to learn about what it has gone through – what it still goes through – in this country. So can you.

You see, political correctness wasn’t born into privilege. It spent its childhood braving the cramped corners of the American psyche that deal with guilt, suffering, and centuries of deferred justice. Political correctness had a hardscrabble adolescence filled with mockery and condemnation. Political correctness wasn’t the kind of idea that could just fit in with the rest. It was different, and it knew it was different. It just didn’t understand why different was bad.

So political correctness suffered. There was a lot of pain, a lot of impotent anger. But when it got older, it met some other ideas that looked just like it did: they were the same kind. And these new friends weren’t awkward and insecure and ashamed of who they were. They liked themselves. Mostly they were older ideas, veteran tenants of the collective psyche, an eclectic bunch. But they accepted political correctness as one of their own.

The coolest members of this little set were freedom and its partner equality. They were the de facto leaders, though the group didn’t really need leadership. They were friends. Freedom and equality were actually pretty popular, but they remained edgy. Not like bland, beautiful health and prosperity. Freedom and equality fought a lot, but somehow they always got back together.

And then there were democracy and socialism, one well-groomed, the other haggard and limping. Environmentalism smoked and swore and got chided for it by sustainability. Political correctness had a crush on diversity but didn’t know what to say. Diversity was very attractive after all, and got a lot of praise for it.

Political correctness still felt uncomfortable with its new friends, but at least it wasn’t alone. And miraculously, things got better. The gatekeepers of the collective American psyche changed their tune. College campuses, newsrooms, corporate offices – everywhere it went, political correctness caught on. It was an exciting time.

But it was also a sad and painful time, because even though a lot of people went along with political correctness, it didn’t feel like it belonged. It wasn’t cool like the rest of them. Even on the campuses there was a sense of quiet judgement. Political correctness worried that it just wasn’t likable. That it made people feel very uncomfortable about themselves and others, like they had to walk on eggshells all the time.

And that’s not what political correctness wanted. The problem was, political correctness didn’t know what it wanted. People tugged it this way and that, trying to benefit from it while condemning it under their breath. They said political correctness and freedom couldn’t get along, and the vibe between the two got weird. Even sweet diversity became distant, and political correctness thought they’d never be together.

So political correctness sulked and complained and pissed people off. This went on for a while. One day, freedom and equality had one of their spats. Equality came outside, sat down next to political correctness, and said, “I want to tell you about somebody you’ve never met, someone who doesn’t come around here anymore.”

“Dead?”

“No, fairness isn’t dead. Freedom says fairness lives inside all of us, but I don’t know about that. What I do know is that fairness is like us, an idea like you and I. But fairness is also unique.”

“Special?”

“Maybe. Fairness is important when you’re young and fades when you get older. It sounds childish, and people call it by different names, like justice. Fairness makes people uncomfortable just like you do. But fairness has the power to move people in the moment, to make them angry, or sad, or joyful. When people talk about us, usually they’re really talking about fairness. Fairness is a child’s voice speaking ancient wisdom. Fairness is…well, fairness unites us and makes us powerful. And yeah, special.”

“But what does fairness have to do with me? I’m not wise, how can I be!”

Equality grinned. “Fairness speaks though you. Really. You are brash and sensitive, you provoke people. They might not like you, or even respect you. They’ll say life isn’t fair, just deal with it. And people will deal with it. But in the back of their minds you’ll be there, growing every day. In the back of their minds you’ll say: Life isn’t fair. But it should be.”

Photo credit: Francisco Osorio via Flickr cc

What Is Like?

like button

One day, Twitter changed its favorite button to a “like” button adorned with a little red heart. For a few hours the mock-rage was palpable. Then, in a quick turnaround, that all evaporated as users settled into the new normal. Did we like the favorite button? Are we sad it’s gone? It doesn’t matter – today it feels like the favorite never existed.

It’s become a bit of a tech cliche. Every time Facebook, Twitter, or some other social network changes its user interface, a million voices cry out and are suddenly silent. They lose interest: what was strange one hour becomes old news the next. Our “learning curve” on tech operates with blistering efficiency. Where else but the corporate web do we instantly adapt to changes we didn’t choose or anticipate?

Before I wrote this, I made a point to avoid the tech insiders and social media experts. I wanted my take on the change to be pure and unadulterated. And my take is this: the new like button is a very important change, not in itself, but because of what it stands for.

Building the bird’s nest

For better or worse, social media is our foremost utility for giving and receiving the written word. Twitter has become the roosting ground of choice for journalists, critics, and assorted members of the commentariat. It represents everything the mainstream writing market prizes: wit, brevity, celebrity, saying a lot with a little. It’s also a serious place to escape from “friends” and interact with strangers.

On the day of the change, I checked some of those strangers’ accounts, people I don’t know in person, people who care about written communication. Predictably, they had already posted variations on snark, witticism, and honest comment. Mostly tongue-in-cheek condemnations of the new interface. I may be more gullible than they: my initial response was simple confusion.

For a second or two after logging on, I didn’t comprehend that the favorite had a new face, that the change was just cosmetic. For a brief moment Twitter was an alien planet, an arena with changed rules and I the last to know. And that’s the problem with social media as a communications utility: great writing breaks rules, makes them up, and takes the reader beyond what’s on the page. But corporate social media binds us to its will from the moment we check the box marked “I agree.”

Is social media any worse than 20th century mass media, with its publishers and networks and gatekeepers? I’d argue that it does better on idea exchange (but not idea monetization). But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t address the new problems it engenders.

Here are two reasons I think Twitter’s minor change is noteworthy. You may have considered these before, in various guises, but I’ll put them out there anyway.

“Liking” culture

What’s the history of the like? Why did such a noncommittal expression become so laden with social meaning? I’m taken back to elementary school, when it denoted childish crushes. Back then, “she likes him” was a very different statement than “I like playing with Legos.”

As adults, we’ve made the vocabulary of liking even more complicated. On social media, we subject a potential like to a series of mental conditionals before we even click the button. If I like this post, then what will so-and-so think? Liking, now as then, can mean many things. But the language of the like isn’t one of signifiers and semantics as much as messy unspoken codes.

Facebook’s proposed dislike button reveals the like’s feebleness when something is said earnestly, seriously, inviting love or hate. Those are times when the like feels wrong, when we are driven to cobble together phrases and write a comment, however ungrammatical it might be. Writing is a productive act, in the simplest sense of making something that wasn’t there before.

On the flip side, the like button is consumerist. It’s a way to package and create reputation the same way money packages and creates value. It reduces all things to an eternal present where the eyes glaze over and the feed scrolls on, full of cute selfies, baseball games, and trips to Machu Picchu.

The Orwell effect

Don’t get me wrong, the present is a great place to be, maybe the best place. But when we write, we link past to present to future the way storytellers did for countless fire-lit centuries. We can like stories, but we can’t really tell them with likes alone. Social media simultaneously magnifies and suppresses our collective ability to tell stories.

It’s ironic that while Twitter is the utility of choice for writers and journalists, Facebook does a better job weaving historical record into its interface. Facebook’s timelines let users revisit posts and celebrate (or laugh at) past events and opinions. That can be jarring for Millennials who have radically changed during their years on Facebook! Twitter, for all its timeliness, is stuck in the present. All of its features prioritize what’s going on right now. All of them, that is, except the erstwhile favorite.

The name says it all: a favorite tweet was a bookmark, a way to preserve fleeting witticisms before they disappeared in the scroll-down abyss. Favorites let users keep track of interesting people without actually following them. The tool let us acknowledge the tragic or the negative without implying approval. Sure, we can do these things with the like, but a like isn’t really a bookmark at all. On Facebook, Instagram, etc, liking is spontaneous and quickly forgotten.

Which brings me to Orwell. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the ruling regime edited old newspapers to make all of history match the Party line. Twitter’s change is less drastic, but it follows the pattern. Not only has Twitter abandoned the favorite; it has obliterated all evidence that the favorite ever existed. To a new user joining today, the like was always the like. My favorites are now listed as likes. But they weren’t likes when I clicked the button – they were favorites!

I don’t mean to complain about a petty distinction. I just want to point out how easy it is to rewrite history on social media, for the user and for the company. If these platforms are the record of our times, shouldn’t key decisions about them involve more than data collection and targeted advertising?

In the end, I like the like. To dislike the like would be pointless, and worse still, uncreative. The like is enfolding us in its bland, uncritical embrace. There’s nothing wrong with the like. But a world of likes has got me questioning, where is the love?

Photo credit: Owen W Brown via Flickr cc

Fight for the Right to Ramble

adventure

Mass shootings are interesting – horrifically so – because they escape the mold of social crime (the “prison-industrial complex”) and flow from the psychoses of an individual. They have given rise to fitful ideological intercourse about gun control, autonomy, and how we should talk about the issue. I discussed the first two items on that list (however briefly) in my previous post, and now I’d like to touch on the final one.

High-profile mass killers tend to leave behind manifestos justifying or explaining their intent. Off the top of my head, I can think of Dylann Roof, Elliot Rodger, and Christopher Dorner (the rogue LAPD officer: not really a mass killer, but treated like one). The content of these reports is, in most cases, unconscionable. But it is striking that when stories about the manifestos do break, they are described, almost invariably, as “rambling,” as in “a rambling 5,000-word account entitled ‘God’s Plan For Me.'”

From the limited sample of such “literature” I have read, that description is quite accurate. Deep in their psychoses and paranoias, the perpetrators have little time for concise argument. Historically, we’ve seen more eloquent defenders of racism than Dylann Roof. Better rhetoricians than Elliot Rodger have advocated for patriarchy. But why are journalists and other observers so eager to apply the word “rambling” to the writings of depraved individuals? Since when has a literary ramble become associated with sick, twisted thinking?

This must sound quite petty and nit-picky, but it points to a deep and pervasive trap that has befallen the world of words. Namely, we’ve entered into an era of Orwellian Newspeak, of abbreviated language and meaning. But there’s no Big Brother, no repressive authority demanding we edit down our dictionaries. We’re doing it to ourselves. We need to stop and think, maybe leave the building and go for a little ramble round the block.

See, the word ramble means “to walk or go from one place to another place without a specific goal, purpose, or direction.” (That’s from Merriam-Webster.) Rambling is the domain of the transient, the wanderer, the pilgrim: a romantic type, prone to sudden outbursts of poetry mediated by spells in drinking holes and houses of ill repute (or, perhaps, country churches). The ramble excites a venturesome, individualistic part of the human mind, making it a favored plot device of novelists and screenwriters. To ramble is to cut fetters and be free.

That’s why I’m suspicious of any attempt to criminalize the ramble, especially in writing. The fact that someone chose to write in a rambling fashion doesn’t diminish the content’s truth or falsehood. In many cases, a roundabout and indirect path to meaning sets the reader on an emotional or intellectual journey. All good fiction rambles. An abstract summary of a novel’s “meaning” might help booksellers, but it’s not what the reader comes for. Even the great expository and scientific works of bygone eras rambled to a sometimes preposterous degree. That’s because the author felt those topics were important, even if we do not.

Maybe I’m giving the ramblers undue credit. In professional and business circles, rambling just doesn’t work, and many literary ramblers simply lack the talent to sharpen their prose. But editorial passion for concision can overextend itself, cutting into subtlety. And user-friendliness advocates have released a torrent of abbreviated listicles, self-help pieces, and trivia features. These aren’t necessarily bad, but they can be very limiting.

We have entered, for better or worse, the age of the brainstorm. The belief that sudden flashes of insight can be had by sitting down and working at thought until the picture pops into focus. There’s a lot to be said for the brainstorm, but I don’t think it can be complete without the meditative ramble. The one complements the other. The off-topic ramble may be impotent without the brainstorm’s aggression, but the brainstorm lacks perspective without the ramble, the meditation, the silent moment. I think we have the brainstorm down, but society could use some rambling practice.

In conclusion. Maybe citing the manifestos of mass shooters isn’t the right tactic to promote something I think is positive. Or maybe we really are in a struggle to preserve and extend the diversity of language, to feel confident writing something that doesn’t score well on SEO and won’t attract a tribe of people who want to live better. Maybe this isn’t a joke and I mean what I say. Or maybe it’s just a ramble.

Photo credit: Tanti Ruwani via Flickr

Here’s to the climate hawks

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In the investment field, we’ve got bulls and bears. In military policy, peace paragons are doves and the warlike are hawks. And green activism has a long association with the ‘dove’ side of politics. In a piece from Grist (dated October 2010), David Roberts proposes just the opposite: that staunch environmentalists refer to themselves as ‘climate hawks’.

Though he explicitly abhors “rebranding” the environmental movement, that is exactly what David Roberts is doing. His gripe: common monikers for the solar-organic-composting crowd are weak and overused, prone to co-opting by those who want to parrot a green agenda without truly diverging from the status quo.

By contrast, the climate hawk is an assertive, even aggressive animal. Compromise may be part of the climate hawk’s DNA, but it’s a small part indeed. In true Stephen Colbertian fashion, the climate hawk is all about saving America and the world, no holds barred. That is a noble thing, and necessary.

Green isn’t a brand, but words do matter

As the heady 60s and 70s wane further into the past (case in point: I was born in 1990 and really shouldn’t be talking about the counterculture at all!), the progressive American left has lost its revolutionary fervor. That is significant. Whether it is good or bad in the long run, I’m not sure.

Those who advocated coming together, dropping out, and bringing forth the Age of Aquarius are now at the helm of a global information economy like nothing before seen. And young people, well, we just don’t find the idea of revolution alluring or viable, like the good hipsters we are. Maybe we know our history too well.

And the green movement does need reworking (I’ll stay away from “rebranding”), starting from within. It needs to speak the same language as the ongoing groundswell for economic and social justice. It needs to leave the ideological hang-ups of the 20th century behind, while keeping those lessons close to heart. I like “climate hawks,” but the term may not have real longevity.

For one thing, climate may be the focal point of the national/international green debate, but ever since the skies over Los Angeles cleared it has annoyingly become an niche issue. It might just go mainstream in China (whose skies remain murky), and I’m interested to see how their regulatory infrastructure develops. Wider thinking about the planet will prevail even if it has to be the hard way, and resources, land, cities, and justice are as crucial as climate.

The warlike connotations of “hawk” also call to mind this country’s deep political impasse. It’s hawk vs. hawk out there in Washington. Most of us see only squabbling special interests, and that turns voters away. We’d much rather be consumers, since buying stuff makes us happy in the short run and politicians don’t seem to be doing much in either run.

The bad ideology we’re afraid to call out

On the other hand, I see where Roberts is coming from. Words like “sustainability”, “environmentalism”, and even “green” have morphed into milquetoasts. They are usable, but they lack fire and zest. They can now imply compromise and selling out.

Real environmentalists question the ideology that says: “growth is best in all cases, never mind who benefits, and to be without growth is to be damned.” They are right to be concerned when even clean tech must embrace that angle to stand a chance.

An intense focus on climate change, even as a keystone issue (pun intended), doesn’t quite pinpoint systemic causes, a root structure that might persist even in a sustainable, clean economy. And no, I’m not talking about “capitalism” as such. An irrational attachment to the romance of economic growth above all other concerns – perhaps.

It is for this reason that climate hawks, and even (risking melodrama) “justice hawks” shouldn’t go away. They’re needed. But true success for the green movement will come when it is so mainstream people take it for granted.

There was a time not long ago in Christian Europe when townsfolk would find their weekend thrills watching accused heretics get hanged in the village green.  Now we are outraged when one man gets flogged in Saudi Arabia. I can only hope a similar trend toward dignity and respect will emerge in our relationship with the planet.

 

Photo Credit: Rodrigo_Soldon via Compfight cc

What Would Frodo Do?

lord of the rings

“One of [this story’s] sources was a great-limbed poplar tree that I could see even lying in bed. It was suddenly lopped and mutilated by its owner, I do not know why. It is cut down now, a less barbarous punishment for any crimes it may have been accused of, such as being large and alive. I do not think it had any friends, or any mourners, except myself and a pair of owls.”

Those aren’t the words of a radical environmentalist. They weren’t penned from the far edge of the bleeding-heart left. Their author was JRR Tolkien, whose imagination conceived some of the most enduring stories of our time. I don’t need to argue his appeal. I don’t need to tell you about the books, the movies, the fandoms, the arcane debates we overhear between Tolkien nerds (I mean scholars). Strange as he might find it, Tolkien has become quintessential pop.

I have nothing but love for everything LOTR, and Tolkien’s influence on my nascent greenness ranks right up there with Abbey and McKibben. His environmentalism – his love of nature – is remarkably, shall we say, organic. Unlike some green writers who arose during the mid-century counterculture, Tolkien was a spiritualist, artist, and thinking man’s man at heart.

Stewardship, not ownership

His passions were sacred rather than political. A cursory look over Tolkien’s background reveals a profound Christian religiosity underlying Middle Earth, despite its lack of outright religion. And that interests me, though I’m not religious, given the political chasm between greens and Christians today.

Bilbo’s pity and mercy keep Smeagol alive so he can eventually “help” Frodo destroy the Ring. Tolkien’s empathy for the late poplar tree is a logical conclusion from Christian mercy. It should extend, we might reason, to all humans, animals, and living denizens of the Earth.

These days we tend to doubt grandiose moral systems (with good reason), and it’s hard to find good secular backing for that idea. One place to look is the “land ethic” proposed by Aldo Leopold, which extends ethical protections beyond humans.

The stories of Middle Earth urge us to be stewards of the environment, each in our own way. Use of natural resources for our gain is fine, but abuse isn’t. In Genesis 1:26-28, God tasks humans to care for the Earth as tenants in a house they do not own. All the Earth is hallowed, since it is a part of God’s original creation.

Common purpose with other idealists

I’m not ashamed of calling the green movement an idealistic one. Although we don’t agree on – and probably shouldn’t try to formulate – specific green doctrines, there is real positive energy in ideals, something all the scientific pessimism and policy frustration in the world cannot match. As long as those ideals don’t discourage rational criticism (which they too often do), they should have a place in the debate. Religious people are idealists in their own way, and we shouldn’t be too quick to jump on the leftist political bandwagon and villainize them.

Still, the religious right hasn’t exactly been on the planet’s side of late. So what’s the problem? Apart from bloc-focused politics that feed on ill will, discontent, and a victim attitude, what are some logical reasons Christians might shy away from environmentalism? Several come to mind:

  1. Some take Genesis 1:26-28 as a call for human dominion over the Earth, not stewardship. My take is that the term “dominion”, as it occurs in the passage, connotes badly to modern Americans. The original formulation was probably something closer to stewardship than ownership, considering the ancient lord’s (oft-ignored) moral obligation to be a gracious master. Besides, the Earth is God’s creation. As Christians see it, he is the ultimate landlord. Any “dominion” we might have shouldn’t extend to trashing the place.
  2. The Apocalypse: if the world ending is a good thing, why worry about climate change at all? Theologically, Christians might be less keen for a long-term sustainable future, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is, again, God’s creation. If we are to be its stewards, we need to be absolutely certain WE didn’t cause the problem. That wouldn’t be the Second Coming, it would be dereliction of divine duty.
  3. “We’re special because we’re created in God’s image.” Whether or not that’s true, humanity’s material and technical prowess far outstrips that of any other species. We ARE like gods to the animals and plants we live with. And so far we’re behaving more like the jealous god of the Old Testament than Jesus Christ.
  4. “It’s an issue, but individual salvation is more important.” I’d say Christians aren’t the only ones with this stance. Most people support green aims on paper, but too few actually put in the time and money to drive positive change. We may need to reach pastors and make the connection to social justice on the ground: my initial green activism took me to a church basement in South Chicago. It may also be that Tolkien’s own Catholic church, judging by recent statements from Pope Francis, will be more eager to help the planet than individual-focused Protestant denominations.

Tolkien empathized with the poplar tree because his conception of God included mercy and pity. Unlike the man who “lopped and mutilated” the tree for the crime of being large and alive, Tolkien mourns it. I won’t go so far as to say the tree’s death mirrors the sacrifice of Christ, but surely it was just as innocent.

Gathering allies

Each of the “races” in Tolkien’s Middle Earth exhibits a unique brand of environmentalism. Hobbits are agrarians, gardeners, lovers of good tilled earth. Elves appreciate the world for its eternal beauty. The Ents are guardians of unspoiled wilderness. Dwarves seek to maximize the ground’s mineral wealth. And Men, well, we do a bit of everything.

In Middle Earth, the good guys win battles because they assemble coalitions, sometimes at the last moment. Their reasons for fighting might differ, but here’s the thing: they HAVE reasons. What they oppose, on the battlefield and in their hearts, is a psychotic Enemy obsessed with growth at all costs. That is, an Enemy whose motivations are irrational, wasteful, and completely out of touch with the Earth. Does Sauron exist in our world?

In the time given to us, we need to look past old political divides and gather allies. This involves working alongside Christians and other religious people who place an intrinsic value on life, evolved or created. It’s what Frodo would do. And Jesus.

#WWFD

 

Note: the quote comes from Tree and Leaf, a small volume Tolkien published in 1964.

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Angeles Chapter video builds on John Muir’s legacy

The Sierra Club draws its strength from passionate people. This idea motivated Angeles Chapter volunteers to create “Be Inspired and Get Involved With the Angeles Chapter.” Profound environmental challenges have arisen in the century since John Muir walked here, but his legacy lives on. I was happy to participate in the video’s filming and write an article about it for the Angeles Chapter.

Click here to read full article.

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Two things we’re not supposed to talk about

argument

How do you feel when you watch FOX News or MSNBC? How about after that inevitable glance at Youtube comments? If you’re anything like me, your gut reaction to today’s onslaught of annoying opinions is, well, annoyance.

The good news is most of us are, in fact, reasonable people seeking balance.

Here’s the problem. The silent majority, at least in the US, cling to one sacred tenet of polite conversation: whatever you do, don’t bring up politics or religion.

When somebody goes there, the conversation rarely survives intact. Disagreement leads to arguments or tension, souring the atmosphere. Agreement gets us nothing but bland affirmation of what we already believe.

It’s easier to string those issues along, go to church and laugh at Colbert, and mistake a lack of conviction for mature thinking.

It’s easier, inundated as we are with constant content, to adopt the hipster’s attitude that an earnest opinion is a naïve one.

Result? The loudest and most influential voices are often:

  1. Overzealous and uninformed
  2. Paid to say what they say

And that isn’t how it should be.

It’s okay to talk about what you believe.

It might be harder for people with strong political or religious beliefs to discuss them, simply because they hold their views closer to heart. These beliefs are off-limits because we need to protect them or they’ll shatter. But don’t most of us already know that breaking down preconceptions is the key to an expanded mind?

Great missionaries and political activists, if they’re sincere, speak from a desire to learn. They aren’t content to listen and then teach. Their development is ongoing, which is precisely what makes them such powerful teachers.

This means you’re not unqualified. Education, life experience, expertise – these are powerful assets. At the same time, lack of these things provides perspective, ensuring room for everyone to grow.

Intent matters as much as delivery.

In the communications business, it’s all about how you say something, what you do to get the word out. That is well and good, but when the message involves something deeper than which smartphone to buy (and even then), having sincere intent does everything to reduce the annoyance factor.

Next time you bring up politics or religion – and you should! – think about why you went there. Far too often, I find I’m doing it in a passive-aggressive way, saying something controversial as a sarcastic jab or to make myself feel more in control. It puts people off and exhausts everyone in earshot.

If I say the same words from a desire to help others, the remark goes over more smoothly. In fact, people might actually appreciate it. It means you’re someone they can trust in a world often measured, let’s face it, by personal gain.

This is a proven creed: you help yourself by helping others.

So next time a casual conversation strays toward something actually important, consider putting your feelings out there. People might get mad, but isn’t that better than passionless monotonous blandness?

Controversy is the spice of intellectual life. It is civilization’s chattering engine. Would you be okay with an uncontroversial life? Not me. Besides, if you don’t let real people know how you feel, your rant might just show up on Youtube later.

Photo Credit: Aislinn Ritchie via Compfight cc