The Autumning Empire

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Archive for the month “April, 2013”

Art House 007: How Heineken Poisoned the Well of the West’s Most Beautiful Franchise

This piece was read by the author at Late Night Library’s 2nd Anniversary Party “Read It Like You Mean It” on April 26.

The Autumning Empire

James Bond fans are angry. Very angry. At a time of economic chaos and global uncertainty, we need archetypes that are consistent and reliable. Can you imagine Homer Simpson eating caviar? Hamlet making a fart joke? Carrot Top making a successful joke at all? No, this is not the time to “experiment,” “shake things up,” or “think outside the box.” Yet the creators of Skyfall, the latest James Bond film, have done just that. In a scene that’s created no small measure of hullaballoo and controversy, audiences will now be forced to watch Daniel Craig’s 007 drink not the customary shaken-not-stirred vodka martini. No, instead fans throughout the world will be treated to the spectacle of the world’s greatest secret agent and super spy sipping on…a Heineken.

Why? In the name of god, why would anyone allow this to happen? The answer is simple: money. This is product placement, nothing…

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The Triumph Over Will: Why Educators Need to Get it Right About Who Wrote Shakespeare

Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare. We celebrate it on April 23. Best present you can give the man is to acknowledge his authorship of his magnificent body of work.

The Autumning Empire

Imagine that you’ve enrolled in a creative writing class. Perhaps it’s not the only course you’re taking, but for you it’s by far the most important. So you throw yourself into your work with passion. Every day you hit the page, and soon, you begin to stretch the limits of your ability and imagination. Characters leap out from nowhere. Your facility with language skyrockets, and your work as an artist matures. Even your classmates and instructor begin to take note of the scope and depth of your writing. And at the end of the year you are rewarded, because the incredible risks taken have paid off with an enduring and meaningful body of work.

But now pretend that after the class is over (perhaps a year or two has passed), you are abruptly called into your professor’s office. There, he accuses you point blank of plagiarizing every single word. “This…

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Justin Bieber


200px-Anne_FrankJustin Bieber belongs to a class of celebrity that my friend Rob calls, “low hanging fruit.” If it’s an easy target that ye seek, then Justin Bieber is your man. Tacky, stupid, superficial, and marginally talented at best, Bieber makes old school embarrassments like The Backstreet Boys look like the presidents on Mt. Rushmore. Recently, the tween idol made his bull’s eye even bigger when he graced the Anne Frank House not merely with his presence, but his signature in the museum’s guest book.  Anne Frank’s indomitable spirit, which has transcended the horrors of death and even the Holocaust, so moved Mr. Bieber, that he was  compelled to write:

 Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber.

Congratulations, John Lennon: history officially forgives you for saying “we’re more popular than Jesus.” And thanks to Justin, we can now truly comprehend the horror of the Holocaust, and realize, finally, what might have been. If only. By imprisoning Anne in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, the Nazis ended not only her life, but the possibility that she might realize the fullest height of human potential by becoming a Bieber disciple.

Whatever. Like I said: low hanging fruit. Bieber is a huge and easy target, and probably not worth the time. Then again, my middle school students who have heard at least one of Justin’s songs far outnumber those who’ve read Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. Perhaps this fruit tree needs a little more shaking.

The advent of the Justin Bieber and Anne Frank (isn’t it weird saying those names in the same sentence?) event reminded me of an equally bizarre moment on NPR’s Fresh Air on December 17, 2012. Three days after twenty-six people were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Terry Gross began the program by saying:

Today is our first broadcast since learning about the shootings in Newtown. Our thoughts are with everyone in that community. 

 My guest today is Barbara Streisand.

StreisandOops. Oh well, what are you gonna do? Bump Streisand? Besides, how could anybody have predicted this tragedy when the interview was taped? What, are we not supposed to have fun any more? By allowing these tragedies to reduce our appetites for entertainment and leisure, we’re playing right into the hands of the murderers.

Terry Gross is a thoughtful and intelligent public figure, whereas Justin Bieber…isn’t. But like it or not, both of them missed the big picture by putting the spectacle of entertainment on equal footing with humanity’s insatiable appetite for death and cruelty.

For some reason, this Fresh Air moment haunted me when I learned of the Boston Marathon bombing. Yet another national tragedy left me outraged, but not in the way I expected. Let’s go back to the wording of that Fresh Air intro. “Our thoughts are with everyone in that community.” Months later it came back to me on the Monday of the Boston bombing as I, like everyone else, rushed to social media to find out what was happening and, more importantly, give voice to my outrage and grief. Here’s a small sample of what the America had to say:

Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Boston.

Everyone at “Anderson Live” extends their thoughts and prayers to all affected by today’s tragedy at the Boston Marathon.

Thoughts & prayers for sisters & brothers in Boston.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to all involved in the Boston bombings.

I read and heard that phrase more times than I could count: thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers. I played it over and over like a skip on a vinyl LP. Thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers. Finally, I experienced the unthinkable: anger, not at the bomber, but at the grievers.

I’m not talking about the victims or their grieving loved ones. I mean people like me: long distance bystanders, members of the shocked public, numbed into impotence and horror. Thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers. Is that all we have to offer? Thoughts and prayers? Don’t get me wrong: I do my fair share of thinking and praying. (Although, to be honest, I do a lot more of the former than the latter.)

But all of these thoughts and prayers make me wonder: why are they reserved only for the victims of atrocities from which we are removed? Why is the American public not compelled to think or pray for victims of bombings that we pay for with our own tax dollars?  The United States bombed and killed five people and injured seven more in a drone strike to South Waziristan on Wednesday, just two days after the Boston bombing. Did you read about it in the paper? Did you hear about it on the news? Did Anderson Cooper send his thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers to the victims of those bombing attacks?

I suppose we can justify those bombings as the “war on terror.” Perhaps we can comfort ourselves by the fact that our tax dollars are killing people that President Obama and the CIA have labeled as “enemies” – even though none of the dead or injured received a trial proving their guilt. After all, how many thoughts and prayers can one person muster? I gotta save my compassion for the next tragedy – I’m sorry, tragedy on American soil that’s carried out by someone not wearing a uniform so I can hop on Facebook or Twitter and send out my thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers when I’m shocked by humanity’s barbarous cruelty.

Give a man a uniform (or a remote control bomber) and suddenly “insanity” and “senseless killings” are transformed into “foreign policy” and “collateral damage.” I know it’s a tough pill to swallow, but those killed by American drones (estimates range from 1,998 to 3,316) in the past nine years are just as dead as the victims in Aurora, Sandy Hook, and Boston. The only justification for withholding compassion for victims on foreign soil is to adopt our government’s rationale for the bombings: these people are our enemies, and therefore deserve to be killed. Huh. I wonder if that’s the rationale that the bomber or bombers used when planning those killings in Boston.

Thoughts and prayers and other useless gestures: they are the last refuge of an impotent public obsessed with tragedies beyond our control. Those paid for by our tax dollars are taken care of by government secrecy and (for the most part) a compliant media. Soviet era Eastern block countries suppressed embarrassing news altogether; in America, we just shove it onto page 7.

What does all of this have to do with Justin Bieber and Anne Frank? Only this: it’s all part of the same collective cognitive dissonance.  21st century Americans have no sense of our own place in the now that makes up our unfolding history. Justin Bieber trumps Anne Frank. Barbara Streisand trumps Sandy Hook. Thoughts and prayers trump meaningful reflection and action to end the violence that we pay for.

This blog has a modest readership at best, but if for some reason you are a survivor or a bereaved loved one of Boston, Sandy Hook, Aurora, or any of the like tragedies springing from our country like hydra heads, I’d like to say this: I am sorry, so incredibly sorry for your losses. I wish that I could bring your loved ones or your good health back. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that you or yours did to deserve this, and I can only imagine what courage you must be summoning at this very moment. And even though we’ve never met, I pledge my thoughts, prayers, and actions to make our world a place where violence is not welcome. The perpetrators and enablers of private and public massacre are united by a common belief: that all life is equal, but some lives are more equal than others.

How much difference can I make? I’m not really sure, but I am willing to try.  To be honest, sometimes this blog, and my own forays into social media, give me an inflated sense of my own historical importance. Call it imperial hubris. When it comes to fruit, maybe Justin Bieber’s hanging just a little bit higher than we thought.

But we all hang with him.

David Berkson

April 17, 2013

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