Archive for August, 2010

There’s no getting around it: America is divided. We’ve become more polarized, less tolerant of one another’s ideas and points of view. Less likely to reach across the divide of discourse, less likely to see the ironies of, seek alternatives to or break the paradigms of our own thoughts, less likely to live outside the echo chamber where we repeat the thoughts of our family and friends without thinking for ourselves, where we can’t synthesize seemingly incompatible political ideas. We’ve moved farther apart than ever, refusing to discuss things in a way that might bring us together.

Of course, I’m talking about the tragedy of last night’s Emmy Awards.

Oh sure, Jimmy Fallon was funny wandering the hall like a minstrel and breaking the proscenium stage to sing with Julianna Margulies and Stephen Colbert. Yes, a lot of quality shows were justly rewarded. You don’t even care that they are still calling January Jones a leading lady when she has gotten less air time on Mad Men this year than some of the extras.

But TV has, like America, become polarized, and when you look past the opulence of this gala event, all you see is cleavage … a wider gap than ever between quality and crap on television. The Emmys now have a category for best reality TV show. For those of you who enjoy oxymorons (or just morons)–here is your category. It must be embarrassing for wordsmiths in a writer’s medium to watch the Vandals, Saracens and Goths with their vulgar, vomiting beasts of burden ride across the red carpet and leave horse turds everywhere.

What used to be called television is today called “scripted television.” These are the things that stir our spirit, fire our imaginations. You might now call them paintings, and reality TV, contrariwise, is a mirror. Is a mirror on society interesting? I guess it depends on how interesting the people in them are. Mostly, I see people on reality TV picking their noses. And when it comes to, say, the Jersey Shore, I find the stuff in my own nose more interesting.

Emmy night lays bare this cleavage (sorry, couldn’t resist), where the best of our artists, like Matthew Weiner, who has tickled our fancy with Mad Men, sit cheek by jowl with Kim Kardashian, who tickles just ass men.  Where Tina Fey, who writes so many jokes on every page of 30 Rock that she makes the paper turn black, competes against the likes of Snooki, who, inside and out, is just turning black.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics suggests all systems are in a constant state of flux moving toward disorder. If you’ve read the work of Ilya Prigogine, the great Nobel laureate winning chemist, you realize that once these chaotic systems reach a level of polarization, they seek a quick, violent means of finding order again. Volatile chemical states reach disorder and strange things take place. Geopolitical disorder also allows weird things to take place. Imagine the Spanish Civil War. First, the political center disappeared in Spain, and pretty soon you had a breakdown in representative government in which each side refused to recognize the other. Then you had skirmishes, three years of conflict and discord and violence, and eventually a return to stasis and conformity in the form of a 40 year fascist dictatorship. Sometimes, amid discord, strange things emerge (like the paradox of an “anarchist government” in Barcelona).

But I like to think Prigogine could also have been talking about television. In a state of disorder, broadcast viewers flee to cable. Cable viewers flee to TiVo. TiVo viewers flee to the Internet and handheld devices. There is no conformity of quality or censorship. We live in a wild west, where a medium that used to be strictly regulated for the family now features regular nudity and sexual situations because the money people have become desperate. We now hear the word “shit” a lot. JWoww will show you her tits. Desperation can lead to phenomenal art (as it did when Hollywood movies underwent similar change in the 1960s). But it can also lead to people breaking the law to get on television. Sooner or later, the system will seek stasis and one side will win. The exhibition or the exhibitionists.

My fear is that people who want to watch something that aspires to be good are going to seek it elsewhere outside of television. Which is sad, because good television can be seriously great (like it is on Mad Men, 30 Rock, the Sopranos, etc.) When the good shows start to disappear from regular TV, the people who stay behind will turn it into a 24-hour spy camera. The Sony Masturbation Helper.

It’s great to see Mad Men and Breaking Bad and Lost win so many awards for their quality, but the Emmys remind you of this disorder between us–that the good shows aren’t the ones getting the ratings. Most regular people find it comforting for some reason to watch people threaten each other on Hell’s Kitchen, beat each other on Jerry Springer, or screw up their big moment on American Idol rather than try to work out that obscure Dorian Gray reference on Mad Men (Note to Weiner: nicely played!).  It’s the same reason that high school gossip is so compelling–it allows you to live vicariously rather than live. It allows you to validate yourself and measure your own worth by the failure of others. It asks you to judge everything and do nothing. Which is very, very, very attractive.

I like to think of this as using TV to live outside of your body. It’s one of the themes of a song I wrote called “TV Head.” Technology is changing our brains, doing the organizing for us so that we can do the intuitive work of life ourselves. But it’s also allowing mankind to follow a spiritual impulse he’s had since he wandered out of the African savannas–to not be himself. When he cannot reconcile the substance that is spirit with the substance that is flesh (and when he can’t see how, as some have argued, that the two are biologically interrelated), he seeks to escape and live inside Jonah’s whale. He becomes obsessed with ghosts. With the idea demonic possession. He seeks heaven, as if there he will find answers as an angel he can’t find now in the encyclopedia. Rather than seeking heroes, he will seek Ryan Seacrest.

So the cleavage is not just within Christina Hendricks’ generous embonpoint. The rift in the Emmys is within us. Life is short and none of us wants to say we spent the entire journey watching Kim Kardashian achieve our dreams for us when she has no discernible skills or talents. The thing I like about a show like Mad Men, for instance, is that it’s so smart it makes me do the work. It makes me live in my head. It forces me to do something other than just sit there. And, unlike most of the other manifestly awful things on television, it reminds me that sitting is exactly what I’m doing. I have to ask myself, “Could I be more interesting than Don Draper if I tried?”

Ask yourself. What’s in your nose?

You can listen to my song “TV Head” here: TV Head

Image: Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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It seems like whenever you tear down a building, rats always come out.

Likewise, there’s a certain stink of hypocrisy that always surrounds controversial topics like Park 51, (also known as the Cordoba Project), the 13-story Muslim cultural center (and small mosque) planned for construction in Lower Manhattan. If you haven’t heard, it’s a mere two blocks from the World Trade Center site, where thousands of Americans (of all faiths) lost their lives in a jihad carried out in the name of Islam by extremists almost nine years ago.

Because 9/11 is such a sensitive topic for so many Americans (especially New Yorkers), it requires extra critical thinking by both sides–especially, I hate to say, by those hurting the most. Those most inclined to yell and those in best stead to do harm to other people.  But instead of tolerance or listening or ratiocination, we have instead the pastiche and passion play that now pass for democracy: screaming tantrums, threatening, bulling, political posturing, recrimination and thumb sucking cries of persecution by the people who actually hold the real power.

And of course there are lies. Stinking piles of them reeking like a colony of dead rats behind your drywall. Untruth can be found on both sides of the debate. Opponents who know nothing about New York City think the mosque is going up right on the site, not two blocks away (and if you’re not familiar with the place, two blocks in New York City can take you through as many cultural dynamics as the Epcot Center). Some liberals (even, sadly, the otherwise heroic Keith Olbermann) have said there will be no mosque at all, which is odd considering that the Park51 site itself advertises a small mosque.

But it’s probably no surprise that Cordoba House opponents are the ones lying more, not only about the specifics but about the big picture. Do they have a good reason? After all, politics play a role in how we use our space. Yes, the First Amendment protects Muslims and whatever the hell they want to build even if they want to build it within homogeneous white enclaves. That’s an irrefutable fact.

But you’ve got to pick your battles. Law is not the only yardstick with which we measure our relationships to each other and at some point you have to turn to the Cordoba House builders and ask … did you have to plan one so close to the World Trade Center? It’s just two blocks away. If the objective of Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam, was to build interfaith bridges and span the gulf between cultures, as he says, I would argue that not every beachhead is a good one for a bridge. You have to find the shortest span where the goods are really going to flow and where there can be some real commerce between us. It might be right for you to fight on legal points, but it wouldn’t further your stated cause.

If you are going to fight, I would have to start arguing again, for opponents, that lots of churches in the United States get denied permission to build for all sorts of reasons all the time. It mostly happens because they run afoul of municipal ordinances–their domes are too high, or their driveways cause traffic problems, or the planned use of the adjacent community centers do not square with local zoning and cause disruption. If I were on the New York City planning commission, I might make a reasonable argument that safety and traffic and historic use of the land are all factors to take into account before I let, say, Oral Roberts build a giant golden egg in an overdeveloped downtown. Some have argued to protect the building that’s already there with landmark status. A nice argument unless you’ve seen the building. There’s also the argument that the developer is a bit unsavory, so why should the city help him out?

But if it’s reason you’re looking for, why do I feel the Muslims have more of it?

Hopefully, if you are paying attention, the month of debate has reinforced the point for you that bigoted conservative pundits lie as easily as Kelly Slater surfs. After fanning across the country for the past year and a half like self-flagellating monks, they have cried that their Constitution has been under attack–and by that they mean the universally prescriptive, strictly constructionist view of the Constitution that allows no “experiments” like Social Security, the Federal Reserve, Medicare, the CIA,  presidential cabinets or greenback money. If you want proof, you have only to go to YouTube where these zealots insist that their freedom has been hijacked by extra-Constitutional chicanery, thus they have every right to harass health care reform supporters and bray like mouth-frothing fanatical anabaptists.

Yet when the time comes for them to defend the actual text itself, the Elephants are no longer in the room. Not one high profile Republican has stood up for the First Amendment in this case except for always reliable libertarian Ron Paul. Who’s against? Palin. McCain. Gingrich. Giuliani. The Tea Party leadership. Meanwhile, others such as George W. and Mitt Romney are conspicuous by their silence.

Of course, some high profile Democrats like Sen. Harry Reid have also showed us the white feather, turning tail against the haters and coming out against. But in a courageous move (one badly needed from him lately) Barack Obama did, and for that he was falsely labeled a Muslim (again). Mike Bloomberg stood up for freedom of religion, and for that he was called a hypocrite for not supporting the Second Amendment also. In other words, no other notable right winger (unless you label Paul right wing) will fight the merits of the issue itself. Nobody supports the First Amendment here when it’s a Muslim right that’s being discussed. Why? They are playing a game of reverses and switchbacks. They want only to win.

I had hoped that eight years of George Bush running up enormous deficits and doing away with civil liberties by creating a law outside the law would expose the simple truth that most conservatives don’t believe what they say about big government. They have had plenty of chances to prove the purity of their libertarianism and they fail repeatedly. Only recently have some of them come around to the idea that gay marriage is an issue that ought to be accommodated by their “leave me alone” view of government. But most of them haven’t, and the 9/11 mosque just shows us again that right wing libertarianism is a smokescreen for conservatives whose biggest desire isn’t freedom but power. I’m talking about the usual suspects: Rush, Newt, Side Show Glenn, Laura, Ann … etc.

But those are just extremists. Let’s talk about the people who really matter: New Yorkers and 9/11 victims’ families. Most New Yorkers don’t want this mosque. But in Manhattan proper, the vote swings toward Park51. (The borough most against is dependable Republican bastion Staten Island, whose opponents are 73% strong and a good five miles away by boat.) Even if most New Yorkers don’t want the mosque built, they have also said Imam Rauf has a right to build it. That might seem like an unimportant distinction to you (or The New York Post), but it isn’t. When New Yorkers say “I don’t like what you’re doing, but you have a right to do it,” it’s important for you to read the inflection because it defines the statement. It suggests that New Yorkers might understand the bigger picture here–individual liberty–than the people from Scottsdale operating Web sites.

We also have to remember that Muslims are New Yorkers, too. “A small community!” you say. Try about 600,000 (according to one conservative estimate). Let’s do some math people: the Muslim population in New York might be bigger than the total population of all other U.S. cities except the top 25 or 26. If I told Christians in any city under 600,000 in this country that they couldn’t build a new church there because of Christian persecution of the Indians, I’d be laughed out of town.

Which brings me to the next point about 9/11 victims. The idea that we were attacked by Islam rather than Islamic fanatics is a fantastically awful meme that has to stop in this country. If you are a well-meaning Christian, you must be aware that this sort of criticism opens you up to personal responsibility for the Crusades, the Inquisition and the genocide of indigenous American peoples. Newt Gingrich, a man considered a serious contender for president in 2012, has made the comparison that a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero would be the same thing as hanging swastikas near a Holocaust museum (in other words, he’s calling a mosque an implied threat). Honestly, if you really find it odious that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calls the Holocaust a hoax, how can you sit still when such a high profile American politician calls a quarter of the world’s population murderers?

Then we have to talk calmly with the victims’ families. Not all of them are against the Mosque. Those who are against have to concede a few points for their pain. They refer to this crime scene as hallowed ground. I’d like to say you had me at “hallowed.” But as we all know from The Wall Street Journal and the phone book, there are topless bars right around the corner from this hallowed ground that nobody has ever complained about. And as much as we might like to see the entire area turned into a park, the fact is that we’re putting up new giant commercial buildings with vast business space. That’s political reality and ought to be a much bigger pain to victims’ families. Helpless to do anything else, it’s much easier to project anger on Muslims. The families opposed now seemed not to care that there have been other mosques in the area over the last decade (within four blocks, if not two). Why are they bothered now by something that hasn’t bothered them before? If anybody is injuring them more, I’d say it’s the people inciting them to hatred. In fact, since the horrible day that our country was attacked (a day in which the ashes of the World Trade Center flew down on my house in Brooklyn), the people we have had to distrust the most are the people telling us whom to be angry at. Newt Gingrich is Iago. Sarah Palin is Cardinal Richelieu. Glenn Beck is Lady MacBeck. It was bad enough that we had to attack Muslims in the street after 9/11. But it was people who used that hatred to convince us to invade Iraq, a country that had not attacked us, that are just as culpable. They have the same strategies. They have the same political interests. Your pain is their gain. Your anger is their medicine show.

If your family member was a victim on 9/11 and you are at peace with this strategy … you find you must indeed continue to hate all Muslims for what happened on 9/11, then I can’t tell you anything other than that’s a war you’re never going to win.

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A song with references to one of my favorite books from high school. My wife likes this song because it reminds her a bit of Pink Floyd. That wasn’t my intention, but I’ll go with it.

Just click to play.

Ford 632
Performed by ER Salo Deguierre
Music and Lyrics By Eric Rasmussen
Copyright 2010

And I won’t speak the truth to you
When the jackboots come I won’t say my name to you
The daylight came up faster than our eyes can meet it
When the morning comes it’ll tell you who you really are

And when I looked into your eyes the look was the same
From the dawn of time lovers look away in shame
But when the daylight came up that morning
And the thugs broke down the door
Now I won’t speak the truth to you anymore

And when they hauled you away you were wearing my new jeans
And when you stuffed your legs and belly in between
I saw right away how my jeans fit you
And my shoes and my shirt and my coat
And I won’t ever wear those hated clothes anymore

Two lovers fall to the garden from the skies
And they clean that garden’s beauty with their eyes
For any kind of love they could beg or steal
In a world that they can touch but they can’t feel

And I won’t say your name to the officer
And you won’t say my name to me anymore
Your face it looks like mine does in the daylight
And when I looked across the bed to my surprise

A policeman’s daughter you only brought him shame
That’s why you couldn’t bring yourself to say his name
But if I tore my eyes out completely,
I could still hear it in my brain
You brought me joy but you only left me pain

And you’d take my name if it weren’t already yours
And I won’t speak the truth to you anymore

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One of the best movies you've never seen.

I don’t usually review movies I haven’t seen. But there’s a lot of hype surrounding the release of the new horror movie The Last Exorcism, directed by Daniel Stamm. You might have seen ads for it and advanced press calling it this year’s Paranormal Activity, which, you might remember, was last year’s Blair Witch Project. The film claims to include “found footage,” and has a home movie feel. Supposedly,we’re going to see a real possessed person get purged.

Or are we?

Pseudo-documentaries have reinvigorated the scary movie genre (you might even call them a genre themselves, depending on how finicky you are about naming new categories). They underline what good scary movies are–an appeal to that part of your brain that fears secrecy, disorientation, alienation and a lack of context–and thus makes you most open to manipulators. Did you ever notice that there is very little actual visual and sound information in the Blair Witch Project? That’s part of its genius (or its hustle). Whoever made it (or marketed it) knows that your brain was doing all the work and imagining awful things when actually nothing was happening (and I’ve watched it twice. Really. NOTHING happened). The real geniuses were the guys at Artisan Entertainment (I like to think it was a Don Draper type) who told the filmmakers at the festivals to shut their mouths and not do any more interviews. The mystery was part of the artistry.

When I saw the poster for The Last Exorcism in the subway, I wasn’t as horrified by the picture or the gnomic tag line  “Believe In Him,” as I was by the names on the credits: writers Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland. These two  guys are already responsible for one of the best films you’ve never seen and it’s not a horror film at all but a comedy. A sublime comedy called Mail Order Wife, which they directed together. If you haven’t seen it (and the current IMDB numbers suggest that you haven’t) then I’ll give you the best recap I can without too many spoilers. In it, a documentary film crew (with Gurland himself) follows a doorman from Queens as he uses a mail-order bride service to track down and marry the girl of his dreams, a catalog wife from Burma named Lichi (Eugenia Yuan). The doorman (Adrian Martinez) has no social skills and no charm. He turns his new bride first into a maid, then a sex slave. This is all too much for the film crew and Gurland, who gets personally involved with the story (and Lichi).

The first reaction you have watching Mail Order Wife is vile discomfort. Adrian has a crippling lack of social skills and is bereft of elegance. Watching him turn from a schlub into a monster is, in fact, kind of like watching a horror film. But then something happens. The plot turns really bizarre about 30 minutes into it, and we’re no longer sure if we’re watching a documentary at all. Everybody turns into an asshole, including Lichi and the filmmakers. It’s all so funny, though, you stop caring.

It might sound smug or cute or annoying, when a director suddenly suggests he’s pulling your chain, but in this case, it’s really cool. I have watched this movie three times and it never bores me. Even if it is just a ruse, the behavior of the people on the screen is familiar, and you oddly feel refreshed thinking maybe you’ve been delivered from the pain of the reality. Real life is always more awkward than fiction. Maybe that’s why a well-directed mockumentary can also make you feel disoriented the same way a horror movie can. Maybe the two genres are more related than we think.

Werner Herzog, the German filmmaking genius, has recently had a lot of fun with this idea by delving into mockumentaries that are purported at first to be real. Herzog, who has admitted that a lot of his ’70s “histories” were made up, likes to remind the audience that they are the ones doing a lot of the work of narrative. The filmmaker is just laying the tracks.

The first time I saw The Blair Witch Project, I was dating a very brainy woman with an advanced degree, the kind of person unlikely to get fished into a dead camper yarn. And yet she went for the movie like catnip. The funniest thing to me was that she was too afraid to even look at the screen most of the time and instead looked down into her lap. In other words, she didn’t see the Blair Witch Project, at all. She only heard it. What did that do? It made her even more frightened. Having less information made it more effective.

I have high hopes for The Last Exorcism because it might have more in common with Mail Order Wife than the names on the poster. It’s shrouded in mystery, for one thing. The filmmakers will say very little about the story and critics are playing along. The producers have already started a brilliant ad campaign that has their minions going into demonic spasms on Chat Roulette.

I don’t necessarily want Botko and Gurland to launch a new horror film career. I would prefer they make me laugh. Instead I secretly hope this movie continues the career they already started of movie deconstruction. Something that will shake up viewers who have become numb watching Snooki and The Situation fall into alcohol blackout and somehow accept it as reality. In other words, I do hope there is a real exorcism going on in The Last Exorcism–and that it’s the audience that’s getting it.

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I’ve always been fascinated by the story of Malinche, or Marina, the Nahua woman from the Mexican Gulf Coast who was sold as a slave to Cortez, became his translator, his mistress, mother to his child, one of the first mestizos and therefore the symbolic mother of Mexico. I’m obsessed with her story because nobody in literature seems to be as exalted and at the same time maligned. She’s considered a forerunner of her new country on one hand and a traitor to her people on the other, a motherly whore. Even her nickname “Chingada” means literally “a woman who is fucked.”

Cortez & Malinche

Her legend is such that she’s been referenced everywhere from Laura Esquivel and Octavio Paz novels to Neil Young songs and even Star Trek.

I myself have been so intrigued by her tale and this legendary beauty of hers, one so great it supposedly undid a culture and bewitched statesmen and warriors, that I’ve named at least two different characters after her in my fiction. I also wrote a song about her when I was 22, which I’m sharing with you now in an updated version.

“La Chingada,” by ER Salo Deguierre is either further exaltation or further insult, depending on how much you think the song sucks. The good news is that, if Malinche were here, she would no longer have to listen to the song on MySpace. That’s right, I’ve upgraded my Word Press account and embedded the song on the blog. Just press to play.

La Chingada

I hope to post (and repost) more music here in the next few days.

La Chingada
By Eric Rasmussen

Copyright, 1992, 2010

Marina they trade you for horses

And swift galleasses that slice through the seas

Marina, they trade you for flowers and meat

And took you away from me

When you came back you had learned a new language

Were decked out in colors, a mistress to kings

But do you remember at all

When we sat all alone

and knew none of those things?

Marina, caught up in intrigue

You helped the invader to bring down a king

Sat by while his own people stoned him to death

For the shame that he brings

Marina now some fish swims inside of you

What kind of child will you be mother to?

Will he hate your impossible beauty and body

As much now as I do?

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Snooki is overtaxed. MTV

One of my favorite shows on television (let’s be fair, 50% of what I watch on TV) is “The Soup,” with Joel McHale, the kind of show that the brilliant (if right now sadly ill) cultural critic Christopher Hitchens might call “low humor,” but one that actually gives its viewers a way to deconstruct the shows that currently pass for cultural communication–mainly the malady of reality TV for which there seem to be no antibodies. For some reason, these shows fulfill a need in our psychology to watch a lot of emotionally limited and brutish people fight, fuck, fall in love, and get drunk without ever having to balance a check book or pay the cable bill. Why do we watch? Maybe it’s because we know that the sloe-eyed, pneumatic, contumacious and inebriated Snooki is slowly (very slowly) gaining the path to wisdom. This makes her picaresque journey useful to us in invisible ways. We now know how not to behave and hopefully not to hit a lady in the face, even if we think she has it coming.

There is another conversation going on in America that’s not on cable TV, but you are likely familiar with it if you have a living grandparent with access to e-mail, a back channel of communication where Americans buy their penis creme as well as similarly specious topical anodynes from anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist. Often these e-mails are spiced with the names of legitimate news organizations so that they look like properly vetted journalism. But they aren’t. In reality, they are usually written directly by special interest groups and are meant to fool the rank and file into making Chicken Little decisions about their money. My late mother, a tax preparer and bankruptcy attorney, told me that people were coming to her asking to irresponsibly liquidate their holdings because of what they read in these e-mails (and saw on Fox News)–decisions that could have destroyed them financially.

Thursday an e-mail came across my desk talking about the expiration of the Bush tax cuts in 2011. The e-mail informs the reader that marginal tax rates are set to rise and that folks at all income levels will see increases next year, that their family farms will all of a sudden be subject to a 55% estate tax, that normal folks will see penalties for being married, having children and owning businesses. In other words, we’d be going back to the tax schedules of the Clinton era. Advertised as one of the largest tax hikes facing average Americans in U.S. history, these increases promise a new recession because they will overburden U.S. businesses, murder stock prices, kill investment and strangle innovation.

In other words, all the stuff that happened during the Internet boom. And who should you blame for the new recession? That’s a no-brainer. Democrats! They tax and spend, after all.

Or do they? The Democrats actually have a bill to continue the Bush era cuts–at least for 98% of us. It would keep marginal tax rates at the same level for all but the top two brackets, the highest of which will go back up to 39.6%. In fact, the rich will still see a small tax benefit because of the way income margins are staggered (they see the cuts at the lower rates, too, until they reach $200,000).

The Republican version of this bill extends the cuts for everybody, of course, which increases the deficit by more than $36 billion and relinquishes almost that entire amount to millionaires, according to a report by the Joint Committee on Taxation. If you are a millionaire, I respectfully say to you that you are sitting on this money these days anyway more than you are investing it, and you don’t need it.

You don’t hear much about the Democrats’ extension from your grandparents because Americans tend to hew to the prevailing political narrative the same way they do to Snooki’s progress through the vomit-skinned hot tubs of Jersey and Miami. It is much easier to repeat the meme that Democrats tax and spend. It is a story line that writes itself in our heads and thus we fail to break down the numbers, even when they show the story is patently false. The Democrats are your mother. They want to save the world but can’t. They are idealists who will spend your money for failed ideas of the public good. They are the reason for the recession. (Hopefully you don’t remember back that far.)

Storytelling is one of the quickest ways people learn. But it also allows people to program us. What if I told you that I knew for a fact Snooki, in her darkest moments, turns to quiet contemplation and reads Baudelaire; if that were true, you would likely not accept that news, and MTV would fire her. We all need her instead to be drunk, vulgar and provincial because then it feels better when somebody hits her in the face. Two thousand plus years ago, we were the same way, only we wanted to hit that smack-talking bitch Antigone. These days, we want to smack Barack Obama in the face. We want to punish him for his eternal ideal of commonwealth. The desire is so strong we aren’t even smart enough to notice that the freakin’ taxes haven’t even risen yet. We argue smugly that the stimulus package failed because that fits the welfare mother storyline but we don’t acknowledge that obscenely low tax rates haven’t helped either.

The truth of Grover Norquist’s statement, cramped as it is, is that the Bush tax cuts, if left to expire, would indeed bring us back to Clinton-era tax levels. What he won’t tell you, obsessed as he is with chimeras, is that Bush’s tax cuts mostly helped the wealthy in the first place. What he won’t tell you is that Clinton-era taxation helped us balance the budget. What he also won’t tell you is that most of what we have to pay for is two wars that Americans overwhelmingly approved in 2001 and 2003. The U.S. government is not taking YOUR money. The U.S. government is asking you to pay for something you already bought. OK, to be fair, maybe it has put one other item on layaway–better health care. Why? You said for years you wanted that too.

But nobody can deny that your taxes will definitely rise if a gridlocked Congress cannot come to agreement. And it’s not because of oppression but because of game theory. Republicans themselves have a vested interest in killing the Democratic version of the tax cut extension. Because then they can claim it was an example of Democrats taxing and spending, which you know, is as true as the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree or Jesus walking on water. They only want you to go along with the Republican version, which will require the government to keep borrowing from the Chinese to pay our teachers, repave our roads and keep former employees of our nation’s manufacturing base from living in Hoovervilles. Why do Republicans want to keep borrowing? Because they like unsustainable short term solutions and because Americans don’t really understand what their economy is made of right now: credit based on past economic strength. Sooner or later, Peter Luger is not going to take our white credit card.

If you don’t believe,  you have only to realize that some roads in this country are going back to dirt, teachers are being laid off, and unemployment benefits are being threatened.

If you do understand this, you must be able to fight this storyline wherever you encounter it (from Republicans or “centrist” Democrats alike): “Your tax bill is not going up under Obama, Grandpa. But frankly, it should.”

If you don’t understand this, there’s a crab lice infested hot tub I’d love to sell you in Little Silver.

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I must apologize, dear “Beauty is Imperfection” reader. I posted six new songs the other day, and advertised one that I don’t think was quite ready for air time. Though I won’t bore you with technical details, suffice it to say that I do the final mixing of these songs in my headphones to make them sound the best I can (with my limited technical ability). “TV Head” is a song I like a lot, and though I worked hard to make it sound good in actual speakers, I didn’t realize how much the song would be hurt by the thin bandwidth of an MP3 and the even more horrible degradations of the MySpace player, didn’t realize how the diminishing sonic returns of such formats would make my ditty sound really rank by the time it reached your tender ears. I should have given it an extra listen, and I didn’t. I’ve tried to fix some problems, but I might well take it down and futz with it a little before reposting. Sorry if you heard it and it made you sick. I guess it’s too much to ask you to imagine how it should sound.

Just when I was most disillusioned, I had dinner and wine with a new friend last night, an excellent musician named Christian who has really got music production down and understands audio engineering in ways I can barely fathom. You can check out his work with his band Montalfish here and see what I’m talking about.

Christian was very gracious to give my music a listen last night and tell me that, despite its flaws, it has some promise, and I’m grateful for some of the tips he gave me, mostly about my drum parts (not tight!)

But since that will take some time, and since I’m not as disappointed with some of the other songs on here, I’ve decided to share the next one with you anyway.

This one is called “Leaving Babylon,” and is a short story of political intrigue set to music. I should add that I created an alternate version of the melody sung by cats that, as far as I know, is the only recording my wife likes.

Leaving Babylon by ER Salo Deguierre.

“Leaving Babylon”
By Eric Rasmussen
Copyright 2010

He was just right out of college
On his first tour of Baghdad
Working for a private concern, a no-bid contract for his dad
His first assignment is to carry a suitcase filled with pounds and gold
A payoff for some Baathist Army to keep the locals in the fold

He was disguised inside a convoy when they hit an IED
He was blinded and left bleeding, an Arab boy helped him to see

For two months in a cinder block cell, the Arabs retrain him as their own
To hold the standard of the Sunni, fighting for the pan-Arab home
But he was carrying special orders, with that million dollar check
Embarrassing to the multi-nationals, the M15 marks him for death

He doesn’t even know his father
He doesn’t even know his name
He just wants to find some morals
In a world where there’s no blame

In business handshakes there flowers money
On CNN there flowers fame
But only purity of purpose
Can keep the borderline man sane,

He’s caught downwind of fair Bathsheeba,
her ablutions drove him mad
And he lost his moral compass
Lay her body in the sand

Swimming in her shallow kisses,
don’t know which God to call by name
So he raced out into the desert
Sackcloth ashes and a cane

Have you come to throw a boulder
And to strike Goliath dead?
Or could you wake up back at Dartmouth
With a co-ed in your bed?

Someone take me to the Green Zone
Call the Congress if you please!
Let me just talk to my mother
I throw myself upon my knees

As you lived among the Pagans
Did you lose your mother tongue?
Did you eat the heathen idols
As Bathsheeba drew her gun?

Someone take me to your leader
I don’t want to die alone!
How I weep as if for Zion
And for my imagined home

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Promotional materials for a well-known Christina Aguilera album.

I know that you have a lot of things on your desk right now–the BP oil spill, fights over government spending and debates over whether to let the Bush tax cuts expire. These are not small issues. Some environmentalists even fear there are thousands of deep sea oil wells just as poorly tested for safety as the Deepwater Horizon was. And of course, national debt has become a crippling concern, as U.S. citizens demand services and infrastructure and overseas military spending that they seem unwilling to pay for with higher taxes. This leads us to finance more government spending with debt, selling out to the Chinese and the Saudi Arabians to do for us what American productivity used to. An unsustainable condition.

So I am almost embarrassed to call your attention to a problem that might seem small by comparison, but I believe it is eroding our national morale, making us weak at the wrong times, even crippling our ability to act on these pressing concerns.

I am talking about the song “Beautiful” by Christina Aguilera. Mr. Obama, I have heard this song every day for eight years, on car radios, in clubs, in grocery stores, in convenience stores, in delis, in airports, at the beach, at the spa, in the U.S., and even in Japan. I find that no matter where I go, I cannot escape the cello-driven, melisma-laden 2002 hit song penned by Linda Perry for Aguilera’s Stripped album. Now, I would never pass a value judgment against a song that has brought pleasure to millions and which indeed boasts an incredible vocal. The song is a great one, in which Aguilera’s voice rides the crests and troughs of more than two octaves, where she shows off her many nuances of mood and feeling and shading, not just wasting notes, but using them to look into the heart of a person in the darkest of states, someone reeling in the fugue of depression and emaciated self-esteem. She claims that she is beautiful in every single way, that words will not get her down, and that her listeners should feel the same way.

But if I were to pick any song in the history of recorded music that I would want to listen to every day for eight years, would this really be the song? Is this one better than, say, “When the Saints Go Marching In?” or “Someone To Watch Over Me?” If most people had a choice, wouldn’t they choose a song by Cole Porter or even the Beatles? But even then, could we do it every day? For how many years could a person really stand listen to “Hey Jude” every day, or “You Are My Sunshine” or even “Happy Birthday” and “Jesus Loves Me”?

At some point, even Christina Aguilera would likely admit by now, the importance of her message has likely become trite from overexposure. Michel Foucault once wrote that the proliferation of discourse on a subject of sexuality was one way of hiding the truth of it. We use certain words so much that we become numb to their meaning as anything but empty discourse, and they start to ring false. I believe something similar has happened when I listen to the words of “Beautiful” over and over and over and over again. I believe Christina Aguilera doth protest too much, and that by constantly declaring hers and others’ need to repair their fractured self-image, she has lulled us into a cultural welfare state of mollycoddling and patronizing that actually makes our self-esteem lower than ever.

In other words, I think Christina Aguilera is talking to us like we’re a lot of stupid, not-beautiful dummies who constantly need reassurance to salve the open wound that is our collective American soul. She’s keeping us weak and unattractive. I am reminded of the episode of “The Odyssey” where the lotus-eaters wasted away on pleasant sensations. I also think of that episode of “Quantum Leap” where Scott Bakula is transported into the body of a retarded man and starts acting as retarded as everybody treats him.

I say this to you, Mr. Obama, not because I have anything against Christina Aguilera or her other great songs such as “Ain’t No Other Man.” It’s only that I believe that this song has lulled me into my own fugue state more times than I would care to count over the last few years, sapping my vitality at moments when I would be better served by the joy of expression that comes from listening to, say, The Ramones, an expression some social critics have called violent and crypto-fascist, but one you must admit gets you pretty charged in the morning. I also feel that “Beautiful” dulls my perspicacity, putting me in a contemplative mood at the worst possible moments, perhaps when it’s more important that I stay sharp and count change or stay on the ball at the Post Office. Just as a side note, most of the people who work for the U.S. Post Office are rude and don’t like absent-mindedness when you come to their windows. The kind of absent-mindedness caused by a song like Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful.”

Ultimately, that dreaminess, that lofty, airy, ethereal demand to live in the moment, has turned us all into wide-pupiled, belladonna-drunk 19th century ingenues, the type regularly ridiculed by Chekhov, Flaubert and Aaron Spelling. If the economists will follow up on it, I believe the song has directly hampered our gross national product, earnings per share and EBITDA and has exacerbated our trade deficit.

I’m asking you to pass a law that will give the radio back to the public in a nationalized radio format like the BBC’s, one that has some responsibility to the public good. Or if that is too much in our politically charged era, I ask simply that you ban this song like George Bush banned the stimulant Ephedra. I supported him then, I will support you now. Thanks.

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The Coffee Golem

Her face is dappled in the window
Mottled reflection of the morning:
Pointillist noses, crisp burned curls
Of cat tail lip, coxcomb eyebrows
Until, lying again
She pours for me a pungent cup of her inspiration
Sallying, tart in the window
A recipe for breath, tongue, eye and nostril …
Soon a new face is brewing

Together we pull down the muslin corners
The sheet falls, a spirit rises within it
Last anesthetized night, the walls were furry with
Lilies and dried musk roses
Her blown skirt was to balloon–
Not afraid of what would be blushed into it, and
Was held down until we’d chased sleep.
It found us again at morning
Erupting from the bubble of what is indifferent
It crawled to the top of dawn, where every color
Is a different breath;
Every truth a little death

Last evening’s muse,
Now trimmed for flight
And I’m left heavy in the bed
as she flies away with her nectar,
No longer made of night

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You didn’t ask for it. And yet I’m giving it to you anyway: new music from ER Salo Deguierre. I am sorry to keep sending you, dear “Beauty Is Imperfection” reader, to listen to this stuff at MySpace, which I’m sure we all hate equally by now. It’s just that I haven’t found a music player I want to pay for, and I still don’t think I’m quite ready for the ITunes store.

While most of my music is made at my kitchen table with nothing more than a guitar and a cheap drum machine, this new song benefits from the addition of a MIDI controller and the background vocals of my beautiful wife Stephanie. Because she doesn’t quite approve of my musical hobby, I had to fool her into doing this by convincing her it was a sound check and then manipulating her voice electronically. OK, that’s an exaggeration. But only a minor exaggeration.

I’ll be posting lyrics here over the next few days for different songs, but this was the first one I finished. It’s not quite about my recent personal pain, though it touches on some themes I’m obsessed with–mostly what it means to be alive and to be in your own body. Enjoy (if possible).

TV Head
By Eric Rasmussen
Copyright 2010

What would you do if you woke up in the morning
Your brain unplugged and you wake up with a TV head?
What if your friends came over just to watch you?
They don’t even know how long that you’ve been dead

The remote control is so polymorphously perverse
You have to touch each button just to stay alive

La la la la la la la la la
La la la
When you find me dead and gone
La la la la la la la la la
La la la
You can turn my spirit off or turn it on

I am nothing more than a receiver
Turn me on and keep my antenna high

What would you do if your car was possessed by the devil?
And the thing it just won’t come to life?
What if Beatrice ripped out of the bull’s belly?
What if Jonah wrote his name on your ribs with his knife?

What if she held her tongue up in her hand to show you?
How she never ever again would lie?

La la la la la la la la la la
La la la
If she ever sees me frown
La la la la la la la la la la
She can stab me with her smile till I go down

The whale has taken over my life completely
Aren’t you glad you’re you and you’re not I?

What if your ghost was trapped within your freezer?
What if you watched yourself from across the hall?
Floating through your life outside your body?
Drifting away atop your own weightless soul?

I’d give anything just to touch her face again
Hers is the only body I have known

La la la la la la la la la
La la la
Sometimes you gotta sing a song
La la la la la la la la la
La la la
Because you’ll be dead someday yourself before too long

I am just a ghost inside a freezer
You can only free me with your eyes

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