Saturday, December 22, 2012

Past the Apocalypse, What Now?

Today is December 22, 2012. The fact that I'm writing this is evidence that the Mayans—or at least their modern interpreters—were wrong and the world did not end. So, life on earth continues today in much the same fashion as it did yesterday. But is that a good thing?
Don't misunderstand. I'm glad the world did not come to a fiery end (though I never expected that it would), but I’m also saddened that predictions of our demise went so far and high over our heads that we did not stop to consider the precious and precarious nature of our lives on earth.

Temple of Quetzalcoatl, December 21, 2012
Many people that I know met December 21, 2012 with wide smiles, whimsical laughs, and alcohol (and sometimes drug) induced altered states of mind. Throughout the day, they went about their normal routines without a serious consideration that this was the day it all could end. I imagine that most others on the planet did the same thing.
But, consider if the world had ended yesterday. If the human race died, what legacy would we have left for the universe?
In 2012, there is still inequality and indignity rampant even in the most “enlightened” representative republics of the west. Outside of the so-called enlightened west (and sometimes even within), human beings (adults of both genders, and even children) are trafficked as slaves, murdered by the thousands and millions for believing in a different faith or being born with a different color skin, and die in wars fought over lines on maps and the whims of a few elite dictators or politicians. Worse still, millions die each year from starvation and disease because of nothing more complex than indifference. And this is only a partial and small list of the horrors of human life.
            I recognize that I am painting a dim picture. I also acknowledge that plenty of good people in the world spend their waking hours working to prevent the horrors I describe above. Nevertheless, the every situation I describe is happening at this very moment as I write and you read this essay.

            December 21, 2012 was not the end of the world. Neither was December 22, 2012.  However, the nature of life is that it comes to an end. That is true of microscopic life forms, plants, animals, human beings, and even planets. Should the human race survive on earth for billions of years to come, this planet will eventually cease to support us as our sun grows larger and earth’s temperatures grow hotter as a result.  Eventually, earth will be consumed by the sun as it expands before exploding in a supernova. But, life on earth may end long before then. On any given day, all that stands between the entire population of our world and its annihilation are a few men who chose to live one more day without launching a weapon of mass destruction.
            Life is precious—and temporary. The fascination surrounding December 21, 2012 is a gift to help us remember that. Most people laughed about it, but I hope that people will look back on December 21, 2012 not as a joke, but as a wakeup call. The fact that the people who were convinced that they had successfully predicted the future based on the Mayan calendar turned out to be wrong is a valuable lesson of a simple truth:  the future is uncertain.
            The question we must ask is not when the world will end, but how (and I do not mean by which method).  How will we leave the world when we’re gone? Will it be much like it is today, full of strife and senseless death? Or will we meet the end united as one people—a people free of murder, war, and inequality?

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Bore

Where's Bilbo?
And so the end of all things came to pass in 2012 when Peter Jackson delivered onto us The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. So mystified were we by bumbling dwarves, lack of a clearly defined protagonist, and sequence after sequence we’d already seen in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, that we decided to end the human race out of sheer boredom. Oh how the Mayans must have wept when they foresaw this calamity!
                Ok… In actuality, part one of Jackson’s new Middle-earth trilogy isn’t that bad, but it also isn’t that good. Clocking it at almost three hours and telling the story of just the first 100 pages of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic children’s book, The Hobbit is a bloated work with terrible pacing and insufficient character development.
                Until the end credits rolled, I kept asking myself who the film’s protagonist is. Though the movie opens and closes with Bilbo Baggins, a lot of material in the middle focuses on Thorin Oakenshield, often at the expense of developing Bilbo’s character. The central story often feels like it is about Thorin, not Bilbo, and this is a stark contrast from Jackson’s first trilogy, which always successfully keeps audiences focused on Frodo, even as the story follows the journeys other characters.
                The mixed focus might be more forgivable if Thorin was a more complex character, but he is the stereotypical angry soldier seeking revenge. He listens to no one, carries a chip on his shoulder, and is so rough around the edges that I could not begin to care about him or his quest.
                The rest of the dwarves are no better. Only one other—and I forget his name—gets anything to say and do. The rest of the bunch are there for alleged comic relief, but their silliness evokes the horrors of Jar Jar Bink’s gags more than it summons a hardy laugh (though they are nowhere near as bad as Binks!). Nevertheless, the movie spends a good deal of time introducing their characters, rendering the beginning of the film rather boring and lifeless. Also, to the disappointment of this fanboy in particular, Gloin, father of the memorable Gimli from LOTR, gets only a single line of dialogue.
                Also along for the ride are Radagast the Brown and the Necromancer, but neither character is given enough to do in this film to make their presence seem important. They are pretty clearly set up for part two, but that does not excuse their hallow presence in this film.
                Where the film succeeds is in its story nods to the LOTR trilogy. My favorite scene takes place in Rivendell, where Gandalf is reunited with Elrond, Galadriel and Sauruman. The White Council discusses the coming war, but remains focused on the dwarves’ quest.  Equally breathtaking is Bilbo’s confrontation with Gollum. In the moment Gollum cries and screams as he realizes Bilbo took the Ring, Jackson finally returns to being a storyteller by connecting the audience to the depths of Smeagol’s twisted soul. It is a moment more compelling than any other in which Gollum has been featured on screen.
                However, redundant—perhaps even reductive—thematic connections to the LOTR trilogy, both visual and musical, weaken The Hobbit. Jackson tries very hard to connect this story to Tolkien’s bigger and far superior epic, but the effort falls flat. Visuals of Gandalf saving the day, a fellowship running across a bridge in a dark chasm, and eagles saving the day feel repetitious. Where they were once exciting in LOTR, in The Hobbit they are simply standard. Though handled with beauty and care, Jackson brings nothing new or vital to them. Much of the film’s soundtrack also borrows from the LOTR to the film’s detriment. Some of the musical connections are appropriate, but others simply try to add a level of grandeur to the adventure of Thorin and Bilbo that is simply doesn’t deserve when compared to the life and death struggle to stop the end of the world.
                Perhaps the most disappointing thing about this film is that Jackson seems more concerned with its technical aspects than telling its story. However, the film’s saving grace is that, even at its worst, the film does not detract from the enjoyment of the original trilogy. In a few fleeting moments, it even adds some additional lore and breathtaking wonder to the Jackson LOTR world.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Grand Old Party Needs New Direction

Based on the results of the 2012 election, one thing is becoming increasingly clear. The Grand Old Party (GOP) is exactly that: OLD. Last night’s election of the first openly gay senator as well as passage of same-sex marriage by popular vote in two states and the legalization of marijuana in two states signals that social norms in this country are changing—and changing fast. Just eight years after Rick Santorum, former Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, and President George W. Bush turned same-sex marriage into a divisive national social issue, and just four years after California passed Proposition 8, voters have turned out and turned policy around. This is the progress many liberals and more moderately inclined Americans have hoped for, but this is not the kind of progress that should be linked solely to the campaigns and policies of Democratic or Independent officials.
            If Mitt Romney hadn’t come out so staunchly against immigration or against things like abortion and same-sex marriage, he probably would have won this election. CNN’s protestations to the contrary, the media’s description of Obama’s victory as “decisive” is overstated. His lead in the popular vote is narrow and, even with Florida under his belt, he still wins with less electoral votes than he did with four years ago. The candidates and analysts alike maintained that economy was a central focus in this campaign, but the discourse to which I was a party to over the last several months heavily focused on social policy such as overturning the Defense of Marriage Act and making sure that the next President does not appoint ultraconservative Justices to the Supreme Court. For many, it seems, considerations of the next four years took a backseat to considerations about the next thirty years.
            Amid this climate, Republican candidates stated that children born from legitimate rape were part of God’s plan for women and continued to run on platforms that would illegalize abortion and treat gays as second-class citizens. Romney, who was considered to be fairly moderate as the governor of Massachusetts, moved further to the right and yet didn’t seem to produce a solid position point on very much. This is where the Grand Old Party clearly failed. Long ago, the GOP may have been captured by conservative Christian elements, but the time has come to start moving beyond that increasingly smaller base and embrace a larger, evolving demographic. Republicans need to offer the country a truly different direction, one that focuses on government and economic policy and does not alienate minorities and strip people of all walks of life of their basic human dignity. It’s time for the Rick Santorums, Sarah Palins, and Michelle Bachmanns of the party to adopt a more moderate platform, or step aside entirely. Note that Santorum was voted out of his senate seat, lost the Republican primary, and that Bachmann won reelection by a sizably narrow margin. As many news media stations pointed out last night and early this morning, relying on old white men to vote them into power as in years and decades past, representatives of the Grand Old Party fumbled big time.
A divided America showcasing changing demographics -
            I implore Republicans, or independents who supported Romney, to spend the next four years working within the Grand Old Party to help begin the process of reformation. I respect the Republican Party for having differing economic policy goals than the Democrats. Our democracy is strong when opposing viewpoints are explored, debated, and consistently refined to form a more perfect union. However, we must be careful not to be so opposed to one another as to keep dividing the country and continue holding presidential elections in which we feel that we’re merely choosing the lesser of two evils.* Parties should have enough opposing viewpoints to make their existence meaningful, and to make their disagreements engines of change and progress. However, a party cannot be so out-of-touch with the general population that it renders its existence distracting—maybe even annoying—but essentially useless.  This is what seems to be happening to the Republicans. Refocusing the Grand Old Party on its core beliefs—small government, lower taxes, and greater opportunities for generating wealth through private entrepreneurship without getting entangled in outdated social policies—will restore the Republican Party to a position of import and respect.  Alternatively, leaving the party in the hands of extremists weakens the party further and hurts the country that we all—Democrats, Independents, and Republicans alike—love.

*The 2008 election was not a choice between the lesser of two evils, as both parties ran history making candidates and offered meaningful discussions of change, hope and a strong direction for the country.  However, this presidential race felt like a return to the Bush/Kerry election cycle. Judging by the numbers by which Obama won reelection as well as media analysis about independent voters, it seems that many voters were not particularly strongly enthused by either candidate.