On a recent trip to the town that I grew up in, I looked over the latest political ads and listened to comments people made about the upcoming election. Aside from the expected vitriol, there is also the undercurrent that I heard a few times that those who are “anti-coal” cannot win in that town.  Coal is not even an issue in this election—this is simply a presupposition held that prevents it from being an issue going into the political realm there.

I grew up in Western Kentucky; my grandfather and other relatives spent time in the mines and they hardly glamorized or praised it—it was simply what you did to put food on the table, it was a job waiting for folks in that part of the country when they came home from the war. Sometime less than 10 years ago, mining came back in a big way to that part of the state. I don’t recall too many of the guys from my older siblings generation (about 10 years older than me) being in the coal business, but I would estimate that more than half of the males I graduated high school with who remained in the county went into the mines.

Mining is dangerous work. Mining also can be fairly profitable (very profitable for the businessman at the top of the enterprise, but profitable in a working-class sense on the ground thanks to the advances that organized southern progressives earned through the unionization process), but for those doing the work it certainly isn’t as profitable as it should be weighed against the massive amount of hours most miners work and the risks they take on, especially given how much the controlling forces earn at the top of the industry.  Interestingly, it’s become a sort of “status symbol” or identifier as well, in ways that previous generations did not make it so. Even the big “Coal Miner’s Daughter” style hits focused on the stark, desperate quality of the work and were catalysts for the unionization process—such country blues songs were the unofficial soundtrack to the protest movement which attacked unfair wages (check out the magnificent “Harlan County” documentary). Now so, drive through the western portion of Kentucky and you’re apt to see dozens of bumper stickers displaying drivers as “proud wife/mother/son/cousin of a coal miner” or “10 feet from hell,” etc. 

Environmental Ethics classes and discussions rarely break through the barrier of culture—no matter how much academia fine-tunes the points of the arguments which prove the dangers that the mining, transportation, and use of fossil fuels does to the ecology of local communities and the entire planet, folks who mine still have to put food on the table and they’re unlikely to be interested in academic arguments that label their work as “bad for the earth.” They’re actually more likely to dismiss such arguments as patently false because they did come out of academia in the first place, given the current cultural climate of division. There are those strong voices, those writers and speakers from the regions they are addressing who should have more clout among such an audience—Wendell Berry, for example, who consistently understands the nuances of culture, ethics, religion, politics, and ecology and is a Kentucky native himself. Some of his work, like that which affirms the value of tobacco farming, has been looked on by some academics in a startled manner, but his arguments are cohesive and his care is for the health of the entire community from which he comes—now and later. Yet even voices like Berry’s don’t reach miners in Kentucky and even if they did, food still has to go on the table. In the post-recession era, towns that depend on the jobs mining brings have even fewer economically viable employment opportunities. 

And that’s the angle of the issue that is more of note and should be expressed to the communities dependant on mining work. I know people from Eastern Kentucky and Western Virginia who left the abject poverty of an entire community when they move away. Towns in those areas hit the coal boom in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and when the mountains had been knocked down, the pollutants pushed into rivers, and fossil fuels all extracted, the mining companies packed up and moved, taking the capital with them. Eastern Kentucky and Western Virginia fell into deep, pervasive poverty. My worry for Western Kentucky is that it will follow the path of its neighbors in this aspect—with such examples of poverty so geographically “close to home”, how is this so completely overlooked in short term politics? Granted, the type of mining done in Western Kentucky has yet to reach the overall devastation level of extensive mountaintop removal done in Eastern Kentucky, but the economic problem facing them is the same—if one generation completely focuses in a tunnel-vision fashion on short-term economic sustainability without crafting business and enterprise for the next generation, the only choice for that next generation is to follow suit: into the mines. But if this generation is the last, or one of the near last, generations to have work in the mines, the next generation is left with no job opportunities of the legitimate kind. This prospect doesn’t even take into consideration the very real aspect of global warming and ecological destruction that a reliance on fossil fuels enhances.

I’ve always tried to take up for the viewpoint of those that don’t have the time or the gumption, or even the “luxury” of considering ecological and economic issues in such a conceptual way. Awhile ago, I was part of a classroom debate on times when economic justice and environmental justice compete and seem incompatible. I immediately thought of and mentioned the issue of coalmining—economic justice insists that workers in Kentucky and Virginia be able to earn a living wage and that they be reasonably safe and secure on the job; environmental justice insists that we switch methods from fossil fuels to sustainable and clean energy, now before it is too late. These ideas compete because if we switch methods abruptly, those miners are left without a job. Therefore, a realistic solution to this problem insists that transitory work and government umbrellas move the very same miners into positions of transition work, offering them work in clean fuel. Obviously, this means that any candidate suggesting such a move will be deemed “anti-coal” by the shadow-puppet organizations (ala “Friends of Coal”) who will fund the conservative opponents. The question is, can such ideas be expressed for the truth they are to people who don’t desire to hear their truth?  

Advertisements

Halloween Playlist

October 17, 2010

To complement my Halloween posts on Horror Novels and Horror Films, here’s the official RATDOTL Halloween Mixtape liner notes.

1) (Don’t Fear) The Reaper – Blue Oyster Cult

There’s a reason BOC’s most famous song has been in too many horror movies to count–it’s really freaking creepy. It’s not aggressive, heavy, or sonically over-the-top. It’s that understated subtle musical spookiness that makes this the best Halloween song ever (well, see the next pick).

2) Main Theme from “Halloween” – John Carpenter

This is probably the most recognizable scary theme in history from arguably the best horror movie ever. Carpenter’s direction was great but the success of his film has as much to do with this composition since it’s what cemented the film and it’s lead into popular imagination.

3) Creepy Green Light – Type O Negative

Almost any TON song would work good on a Halloween mixtape, but this one is my choice. It depicts a man waiting by the grave of his former lover who has assured him of her return and that it would come in a wave of green light.

4) Lucretia – Megadeth

Oh, c’mon! Starting an overtly ’80s speed metal song featuring Mustaine’s somewhat bizarre vocals with a witches cackle? That’s Halloween buddy!

5) Candy – Magic Kids

Nowhere near horror on this one, but what’s the day without a little candy? Of course this is a knowing sappy yet beautifully simple rock song in the Cheap Trick style (and also one of the best pop songs of 2010) that’s about the dude’s lover being sweeter than candy, but it’ll suffice.

7) Mother – Danzig

The best metal song ever also works as a scary song since you’re apt to “find hell with” Danzig…just make sure “your children don’t walk [his] way.” This one’s a power chord monster, but equally frightening (perhaps more frightening, actually) is the acoustic, slowed-down cover by Christian rockers Anberlin who play Danzig’s tongue-in-cheek song completely straight.

8. Hallowed be Thy Name – Cradle of Filth

COF have enough scary songs on their own–Beneath the Howling Stars, Malice Through the Looking Glass, From the Cradle to Enslave–but this cover of Iron Maiden’s early ’80s classic is the best for our purposes here. Dig that first-person narration of a man counting down to his execution by gallows in medieval times.

9) October- U2

A short, melancholy ballad from U2 to put the holiday in it’s context month.

10) Sink Hole- Drive By Truckers

DBT is able to conjure up some of that “dirty south” Charlie Daniels-style scary when they feel like it. “Sink Hole,” about a man who kills the banker coming to repossess his house and “buries him in the old sinkhole” before “going to church on Sunday, [and] look[ing] the preacher in the eye” builds from a series of down-tuned southern garage-rock riffs that complement the lyrics.

11) God of Thunder – Kiss

Gene Simmons’ signature scare song was penned by Paul Stanley, but hey, it was meant for Simmons. This one sounds better on old copies that weren’t remastered–the more murk the more this sounds like a misplaced Sabbath song.

12)Welcome to My Nightmare – Alice Cooper

Alice, despite as nagging and contradictory as he seems now that he’s an aging fundamentalist, was a helluva showman. This ballad of introduction to his world is good schlock.

13) Caught a Lite Sneeze – Tori Amos

The medieval sounding strings in this song put it ahead of even the rest of “Boys for Pele” and make it one of the most fun somewhat gothic songs Tori has ever done.

14) I Put a Spell On You – Screamin’ Jay Hawkins

This 1956 blues song went from a lovelorn ballad to an eery, raging, “cannibalistic” (as some critics lamented of it in the ’50s) shriek of blues rock terror. CCR covered it as a straight-ahead rock classic but the 1990s version by Marilyn Manson sounds like an outtake from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and thus fits the original tone much better (though all 3 of these mentioned versions are terrific).

16) Reptile – Nine Inch Nails

This is the scariest song NIN ever recorded. I saw Reznor perform this one at a Halloween concert I attended and it cemented it as my favorite horror rock song ever.

16) Halloween – AFI

AFI is disparaged a lot for various reasons, usually for things that are unfairly heaped on them. At their best, as they were in this phase of their career, they were a perfect mixture of punk, goth, pop, rock, and horror-lite in the vein of the Misfits. This, a Misfits cover song, is pretty great and was produced with a much sonically clearer sound that makes it work better than the original in some ways. 

A few years ago at Halloweentime, I posted a blog with my 10 Favorite Horror Films. This year I have 2 new posts for the season, starting with this, 10 (of the) best horror novels. I’m stressing the “of the,” here, because there are several newer titles (past 10-15 years) that certainly would be outranked by certain classic horror works (some of which are also found here); this list is not “authoritative” or all-encompassing, it just consists of 10 novels that are pretty terrifying in different ways, most of which are pretty literate to boot.

10) The Store – Bentley Little

Little’s books are a bit preposterous. He takes everyday concepts–moving into a gated community, getting an insurance policy, and in this case, shopping at the newly opened mega-mart in town–and blankets them with creeping horror that becomes exceedingly worse until it reaches epic proportions. The build-up in such tales make these books page-turners, but with such constant “one-ups” in the narrative process, Little is never quite able to deliver an ending worthy of all that has come before it. I always close his novels feeling a bit let down because of that; but the process leading up to that ending usually makes it worth the read. That being said, “The Store” is my favorite work of his, probably because I hate Wal-Mart so much. The citizens of a small Arizona town are at first ecstatic over the newly opened “The Store” mega-mart, but as it begins to push out all of the local businesses and recruit all of the thus-unemployed workers, things get increasingly dark. The Store begins to ask odd demands of its workers and to provide dangerous products for its customers.

9) Endless Night – Richard Laymon

First off, I have to issue a warning– Laymon’s books are not for everyone. Despite a seemingly general consensus of support and acclaim from within the horror-writers community (from indie writers to King and Koontz), there’s a reason some critics labeled the work Laymon did as “churning porno-violence,” (as one memorable reviewer put it). At his worst, Laymon is not worth your time and probably not good for your soul (skip his short stories, most of which remove all wit to leave only mindless gore). At his best, though, as “Endless Night” showcases, Laymon can truly terrify you more than any other writer. “Endless Night” opens with a home invasion–a group of teenage boys armed with hatchets and spears, dressed in clothes made out of flesh break into a house for the sole purpose of murder. Teenage Jody, who is sleeping over with the daughter of the family, escapes with the family’s 12 year old son. From there, the story races along at practically break-neck speed, pausing only to focus on the back-story of the murder club and how they began (scenes which rank with the scariest of the book). “Endless Night” works where other Laymon books do not, partly because the protagonist is likable. Many of his works focus on leads that are so corruptible that you cease to want to root for them–when they turn out to be like their opponents, it’s simply too nihilistic. Granted, he wasn’t usually gifted in full character development, but it works well enough here to propel the story along. Another worthwhile book of his is “In the Dark,” a great mystery like scavenger hunt with a charming lady librarian as protagonist.

8. Horns – Joe Hill

I reviewed this book here earlier this year when it first came out. It’s a bit new to add to a “best of list,” but it’s so good and Hill is such a fresh talent that I can’t help myself. His characters work wonderfully, his setting seems real, the suspense keeps the pages turning, but the substance of the story is what sticks with you and keeps you pondering it afterward. A dark love story and fantasy, a Shakespearean drama in many ways–a really excellent horror novel that bursts out of the genre in the right ways but stays within in the right ways as well.


7) Off Season – Jack Ketchum

Ketchum’s “Off Season” and Laymon’s “The Woods are Dark” have a very similar history–both focused on a surviving tribe of cannibals that time forgot, living in America and encountering vacationers. Both books received cult praise but were faced with publishing difficulties resulting in edited and misshaped versions hitting the shelves in the states to lackluster reviews while the full versions (or closer approximations to them) hit in the UK and Europe, resulting in a bigger fanbase abroad for the authors while they were unknown at home. Both novels were eventually pieced back together and published as originally intended this past decade. Ketchum’s is  a much more fulfilling and terrifying work. Ketchum is a real writer, which makes his scares all the more scary. He works at the reader both viscerally and psychologically, getting into the inner workings of his characters.  I think more than any horror writer, Ketchum shares much more with classic noir and pulp writers like Raymond Chandler in that you get the sense that a literary writer is “slumming it” in the “lower” genres. His attention to detail sends each jolt over the top but not in a forced or non-genuine manner. “Off Season” presents us with a survival race from a group of people who should be unbelievable but who are painted so well that we feel they could very well exist. (I also recommend Ketchum’s “The Girl Next Door,” a book that will stick with you longer than you wish it to. Its tale of hideous evil done by “ordinary” people, mostly youth, would be hideous were it played for exploitation value, especially since the story is based on fact. Yet Ketchum works it into a non-glorifying meditation on evil–which is worse, that which is done or that which is allowed to happen without an effort to halt it? And what does that do that type of evil do to the community, those goaded into it, those victimized by it, and those that survive it?

6) The Hellbound Heart – Clive Barker

Barker was the standout talent to emerge from the aftermath of the “splatterpunk” movement of horror writers–those balls-to-the-wall, in your face, shocking, blood dripping writers. Barker has a mind built for dark fantasy and a talent that is equal parts literate and obscene. “The Hellbound Heart” at it’s 130 some odd pages was the inspiration for countless “Hellraiser” films due to the gripping imagery of the main baddies present here, the cenobites (of which “Pinhead” is one). “The Hellbound” heart is a great short novel with truly great (but horrific) prose. It’s about desire that knows no bounds, about betrayal, sin, corruption and violence. It’s a warning to those that chase the “highest pleasures” without grounding a foot in reality, and it’s a modern day Faustian fable of (practically) unequaled parallel.

5) Ghost Story – Peter Straub

I’ve babbled about “literate” qualities in quite a few of these entries, but Straub takes the cake in that regard–he’s truly like the old generation of horror writers, those who worked squarely in “literature,” whose work probed terror areas yet delivered artistic work and prose, developed characters, and cemented immaculate settings. This isn’t quick, flashy, or violent horror. This is creeping, supernatural revenge horror. It’s much more like Hawthorne than Koontz or Laymon. It’s a modern classic novel that just happens to be a horror novel that takes its time to settle into you for scares that come with thought.

4) Pet Sematary -Stephen King

I’ve argued for King’s literary respect before; I’ve always felt that, despite his glowing popular reviews and massive sells (and somewhat because of those factors), King has often been slighted by the more “upper-end” literary critics. “Pet Sematary” is not his absolute best work–that honor could belong to “The Stand,” “The Dark Tower” series, or “Bag of Bones,” among others–but it is his scariest tale, his most stream-lined horror story. The only competition in that area would be his massive “It” tome, but what “Sematary” lacks in epic scale against “It,” it makes up in morbid yet oddly sentimental meditations on subject matter often swept under the rug in modern Western society. “Pet Sematary” is about death, and the statement made by a character in it (Jud) that “sometimes dead is better” is its theme. King’s own fear of losing his son (which didn’t happen) inspired this close look at what could have happened (well, until the part where the resurrected Gage comes back in worse shape).

3) Lord of the Flies – William Goulding

You might try and say that “Lord of the Flies” isn’t horror, that it’s literature…but you’re kidding yourself. This tale of “civilized” private school children resorting to ruthlessness in their own constructed society when marooned on a desert island is a horror classic.

2) Dracula – Bram Stoker

“Dracula” may not bet the best vampire story of all time, but in Stoker’s original presentation of it, it’s certainly on the short list and every vampire tale to come after owes a nod to it whether it follows from it or reacts back on it. It’s epistle style narration works very well for the story and learning of the neurosis that Stoker had and the history behind the real “Vlad” only adds to the reading of the work itself.

1) Frankenstein – Mary Shelley

Shelley’s novel is a milestone even if the distortions and over-use of the “Frankenstein” monster character inadvertently attempt to dilute the importance and artistry of the original story. So, forget everything you’ve ever read or seen regarding this myth and pick up the original novel. It’s deeply literate and gothically romantic–not in the love story sense but in the passion-more-than-intellect, feel-more-than-think trajectory of events. This is a sad book; a heartbreaking terror story, each moment of scares is tempered with the overall tragedy of affairs. Yet it’s so nicely written that it’s joyful, in a dark way. The depth of this work really comes in the philosophical realm–is this man creates monster a dark mirrored version of the Creation myth in Genesis? No doubt that’s a blasphemous thought for many to entertain, but in a more “positive” religious sense, is this what happens when humanity plays at being Godlike? Yet the monster is the tragic hero, despite the violence he gives to the world in “Frankenstein”–he wanted only love and did not receive it even from his creator–he wanted a companion and was denied it. He lashed out in violence and his story became the best modern monster tale and the blueprint for every good horror story to follow it.

“Today it may be Al-Qa’ida, but tomorrow it will be some other group of another region, of another religion or of no religion, that will undertake terrorist acts in support of their political cause. So long as the peoples of a few highly industrialized nations continue to control and utilize for their own benefit an outrageously disproportionate share of the world’s resources, the world will not be safe from terrorism.” *

Fr. Thomas Michael’s statement is a persistent yet hard truth. As one who studies Islam and Christianity in ethics and theology, and with hope of increasing interfaith work between these two communities, as well as peace keeping in general, I’m saddened that terrorism is the issue most people want to latch onto and discuss; yet I’m also realistic, and I know that this is an inescapable issue and one that cannot be avoided. It’s disheartening though. I think of the beauty of the Qur’an, the depth of spirituality present in the way most Muslims worship and pray, the rich history and innovations in Muslim history, and the socially-minded efforts Islam can inspire for justice, and all of that is overlooked as Islam is condensed down for most Americans to be a religion that has halted progress and inspired terrorism. That’s a claim I do not support, but I do concede that it’s naïve to claim that Islam and terrorism should never be mentioned in the same sentence. Terrorist acts by radical Islamists** do indeed occur. The fact that they do, sadly, is why we in the west have bothered to learn about Islam at all in recent years.

Fr. Michael recounts a prayer meeting in Turkey and contrasts that image with terrorism. Michael is invited to lecture at a theological conference in Turkey in celebration of Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. He is applauded and warmly welcomed for his speech which looked at Muhammad from a Christian perspective; at the celebration he observed the 20 and 30 year-old Muslims on break from class and work, a mixture of doctors, students, lawyers, cab drivers, etc; acoustic guitars were strummed, poems composed and read, prayers said; then the crowd dispersed back to work and study—they had spent time talking about how to implement their faith in a way that makes the world around them a better place. Fr. Michael asks the reader, “who is more representative of the world today, these young people in Istanbul for whom Islam is fundamentally  a religious faith, a path to approach God in worship  and a project  for doing God’s  will in daily life, or those who want to kill and destroy in the name of God?” ***

The problem is that this picture of the faith is not what we see on the news. Nor does mainstream news tell us of those on pilgrimage to Mecca from all over the world who travel humbly in sister- and brotherhood. Nor does the news report the statements and work of people like Tariq Ramadan, the Muslim professor from Oxford who has worked for and written powerfully advocating for a progressive yet coherent and uncompromised modern application of Muslim faith and practice coherent with democracy that maintains the full essence of the religion yet fits it into its time-place context in a way good for both the believer and the believer’s neighbor, even if that neighbor be a Christian or an atheist. The news doesn’t report on food banks in Detroit organized and ran by Muslims who give to the needy regardless of their faith. The news doesn’t report on the thousands of Muslims in Dearborn, Michigan who hold any number of jobs, contribute to society, and use their prayers and call-to-worships as a way to inspire them to be and do more and better in all that they do (and similar communities in NYC, LA, and practically every other medium to large city throughout the US).

But there are so many horror stories; there are the sermons that are vehement against Jews and Christians preached by particular imams throughout the world. There are the governments who oppress women, gays, and Christians throughout Africa and the Middle East who declare themselves “Islamic.”

Edward Said, activist and journalist, never forgot his Palestinian roots even though he lived in the west. His work on Orientalism did its best to smash the biases and misperceptions of such concepts as “east vs west,” us vs them, occidental vs orientals. Said recognized the lingering affect that western imperialism and colonialism had on most of the world; the idea that the west has got it “right” is welded into our psyches and any attempt to implement western style life throughout the rest of the world that fails is deemed a tragedy. We must realize that there are other ways that are “right,” even if they aren’t our own; we must also recognize the political and economic problems that drive most of the tragedies throughout the world, even when those tragedies are given the false stamp of religion. Most of us in the US or UK would not want to live under “sharia” law but most of us are unaware of the vastly different ways of understanding, formulating, and implementing that law is understood by the many different Muslim schools of thought. The violence in Sudan, Iran, Lebanon, etc. is often viewed through a religious lens and I do not doubt that some terrorists see themselves as true to their faith; I also do not doubt that others will continue on their false path even when they are bluntly proved to be in violation of their faith, and there are numerous anecdotes proving that. Illiteracy and hunger keep the populations at the whim of madmen dictators; false interpretations of religious texts and complete undermining of the proper essence of a religious tradition and its history by those dictators perpetuates it. Thus we have an “Islamic government” in Sudan contributing to a horrific genocidal war, often played off as “Muslim versus Christian” without noting the violence that was there before that became the reason, the violence born out of British occupation. Further south in Africa, Joseph Kony built his children’s army to attempt to establish a Christian theocracy in Uganda, raping and murdering his path across the continent—he claimed this movement was founded on the Ten Commandments, and even the most religiously illiterate person on the planet can see the hypocrisy in that. Christians murdered Muslims in the thousands in Bosnia; Jews and Muslims murder each other daily in the Palestine-Israel region. All of these give religious reasons, yet all of these actions are wrong and in contradiction with those religions.

Yet I have hope that things can change; Christianity itself is only a few hundred years past the wave of violence done in the Crusades, the violence before that which pitted Christian against Christian in the streets fighting over the nature of the Trinity and the formulation of Creeds, etc. The Reformation, the Enlightenment, and, yes, secularization played a part in that. Arguably many aspects of those same forces ushered the west into a “post-Christian” era, but the forms of Christianity which left the West and are now vibrant, powerful, and peaceful throughout Africa, Korea, China, and Latin America are going strong. Cultural Revolution can lead to less fundamentalism and religious violence; the struggle then becomes one of figuring out what faith means in a new era, but good things can come from that as well. I have hope in projects like that of “Wahat al-Salam,” and its work to do peace studies in Jerusalem with students of all Abrahamic faiths. I have hope in projects like “A Common Word,” which is laying ground rules for inter-faith work in the West between Muslims and Christians. I have a lot of hope in possibilities, but I hope more can join the work to make these things reality. Tolerance and peace does not come without effort—perhaps the easiest daily step we can make is attempting to understand the truth of the other rather than believing only the lies about them.

* Fr. Thomas F. Michael, S.J. “A Christian View of Islam,” Irfan A. Omar, ed. 152.

**Though often used interchangeably, “Islamist” more often refers to the political faction of Islam which seeks to establish Islamic states whereas “Muslim” is the term for a believer in Islam.

*** Ibid, 151.

“I guess there’s just a meanness in this world,” are the final words of and reason given by Charles Starkweather for the murders he and his girlfriend committed as narrated by Bruce Springsteen in his dark folk “Nebraska” song. Springsteen’s song might take creative liberties by narrating the first-person perspective (including that famous line), but the story at the heart of it did happen. That’s not what this article is focusing on though—this is about that “meanness in the world.”

This past week there was a news story about a Rutgers student who committed suicide after being “outed” by a roommate and another classmate who used a webcam to post video of him and a male sexual partner on the internet without his knowledge. After reading a report of this on Yahoo! News I did what I should really get out of the habit of doing—I scanned through the reader comments posted under the story. I say I shouldn’t have done this because I am always angry after doing so; it seems that the majority of people who bother to post an opinion on a news story on such sites are of the bottom of the barrel when it comes to reason, compassion, and being informed. The first comment I read was beyond asinine— it stated that no one should assume they ever have privacy and that a student such as this should have been prepared for his private encounters to become public knowledge. Well, personally, I don’t think I should ever have to worry about being live-streamed on the internet when I’m in my personal bedroom; digital age or not, that should not be a rational worry for everyone to keep in mind. Such a comment also lacks anything approaching proper compassion and it does not admit that speculating about someone’s decision to commit suicide (“he should have been prepared for this to come out”) is preposterous. The comments to follow were most often even worse than that one. Then Ellen released her video statement condemning the bullying that leads to such tragedies—and many not lenient to Ellen’s point of view for whatever reason got very defensive.

The internet atmosphere– such as the continuous hateful comments on each and every new story, social networking which gives a soapbox to every hateful opinion, etc. made me think of some of the points The Christian Science Monitor make in their reaction article to this: “Has Digital Age made students callous?” The ability to stream video, distribute opinions, and anonymously criticize or cyber-bully someone has opened up the realm of possibilities in which to manifest “meanness,” but it’s a bit naïve to blame it only on the “digital age”—this meanness has been around long before the internet and teenage bullying has as well.

Yet it does seem there is a widespread “culture of meanness” that is simply acceptable in our society today; there’s the Celebrity culture of E!, Perez Hilton, and tabloids which delight in any and every story that involves a celebrity with marital problems, scandal, or addictions. The snarky hosts of popular shows like “Tosh.0” who infuse every joke with a look-down the nose that says we who are watching the mishap of others while the host makes fun of them are all in on the joke and are better than they are. It’s funny that the genres of pop culture that many have often pointed at as fostering “meanness” and bad behavior—Horror films, death metal, video games— really are often more of a haven for those that are bullied than an influence for those who are bullies (an interesting recent address by an Anglican priest in England focused on that despite its flaws, heavy metal deals with life, death, and darkness better and more head on than most mainstream venues). No, the things that seem to foster more “meanness” than these such things (for after all, those above mentioned venues often exorcise more demons than they implement) are the acceptable, daily barrage of sarcastic meanness that places all influence on attitude and none on truth and compassion, that is threaded through practically every Fox “News” broadcast, that is present on the cover of every supermarket tabloid, that is posted on the status of every bully trying to get a laugh out of others by belittling someone else. There have been arguments before that humor is rooted in meanness and hatred, be it projected inward or outward. I’m not that pessimistic, but I see the point; I also acknowledge that anger can often be righteous and humor tinged with anger can express some deep truths (Bill Hicks, even Lewis Black). But it’s the pointless meanness that isn’t even passionate enough to be anger, the off-the-cuff “I’m better than they are” attitude that permeates our voyeur culture that is disturbing. When that humor is divorced from figures who are public and accepting of that status and placed on average people and neighbors, through venues like Youtube and Twitter, that is when the ante is upped, so to speak.

So how do we confront this “culture of meanness”? Theologian Nancy Bedford wrote a piece entitled “Little Moves Against Destructiveness: Theology and the Practice of Discernment.” Though she was focused on liberation, economic, and ecological issues, such an idea is applicable here too. Systematic, structural change is long, hit and miss (often miss) work. Sometimes the best we can hope for are these “little moves” that attack these large problems bit by bit (which of course doesn’t ignore the necessity of sometimes making ‘larger moves” but often a lot of little moves become that larger move). We simply must be kind, as generic as it sounds. It’s easy to be hateful; but every day someone you meet might be fighting what feels like a losing battle. Disagreements come and when the issues matter these disagreements must be argued out, but they can be done so with respect for the other as a person. A smile or a kind gesture can often be that thing that eases the pressure another is feeling—there have been many times in my life when someone I don’t think I particularly like or agree with on anything turns out to be the person who does something for me extraordinarily kind—even those acts that seem simple can mean so much more. We can also refuse to sink to the level of going mean for laughs, however easy; it’s simple to do, to make an off-hand remark at someone’s expense to earn a laugh. This may even seem harmless sometimes, but we must realize it’s not always going to be perceived as harmless. Life is tough; we who attempt to hold to any type of faith which sees a larger purpose in life need to be extra-careful to be a light to the people we come into contact with more often than a force that dampens their own light.
Peace.