Tag Archives: politics

Success Doesn’t Mean Making Enemies

October 14, 2015

At the end of last night’s Democratic presidential debate, the moderator quoted Franklin D. Roosevelt’s adage, “I ask you to judge me by the enemies I have made,” before asking the candidates to name the enemies they’ve made during their careers.

Iterations of the quote abound, such as from Sidney Sheldon (“To be successful you need friends, and to be very successful you need enemies”) and The Social Network movie’s tagline (“You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies”). It’s repeated by self-help gurus.

That doesn’t mean it’s true.

It would have been refreshing to hear somebody challenge the basic premise of the claim. It’s a tantalizing mantra because it excuses our interpersonal failures as virtues. To say that success means making enemies is to believe that life is a zero-sum game, that every success is achieved at the expense of someone else’s failure. That everything is a fight. And it’s crap. People are confusing enemy-making with courage, with standing up for one’s beliefs, and that’s a false equivalency.

I posit that one can advocate for a position without making enemies of those who oppose you. Be courageous and assertive, but be humble. Call a spade a spade when you have to, but be respectful. This is particularly imperative for the next U.S. president, who ideally should be leading, building consensus, and forging alliances.

I’m not going to judge you by your enemies. I would rather judge you by your friends.

You Hear That Sigh of Relief?

June 26, 2015

hand_thumb_upThat sigh of relief you’re hearing across the country is because of the two landmark Supreme Court rulings this week on the Affordable Care Act and gay marriage.

I’m personally relieved about the Affordable Care Act decision. My family’s ACA-compliant health plan, with its $12,000-plus deductible, is already a major headache. But it would have graduated from headache to coronary inducing if an adverse ruling caused my monthly premiums to double as well. Antonin Scalia can troll all he wants in his dissenting opinion, but I suspect he’s too rich to empathize with what might have happened to my wife, 3- and 5-year-olds, and me had things gone the other way.

As for this morning’s decision about gay marriage, bravo. That one stirs up my dormant sense of patriotism, too. I’m happy for my gay friends across the country who’ve suffered as second-class citizens. Hopefully, this ruling will help unwind the vise of bigotry.

Letter to Editor Published

December 14, 2014

The News Leader this morning ran my letter to the editor about civics tests for high school students. Here’s what I said:

Del. Dickie Bell has proffered a civics education bill to hold back high school diplomas until students can pass an American civics test similar to that required of naturalized citizens. It sounds like a good idea, but it has troubling implications.

Why does this particular area of knowledge, but not others, warrant the special hostage-and-ransom treatment? Is it because the ability to read and write well, for example, isn’t as emotionally charged as a topic connected to immigration?

The answer to ignorance isn’t to burden high school seniors with yet another standardized test. Bell’s bill is a Band-Aid solution to a larger disease, which is the overall decline in public education caused by a lack of proper support for teachers. If you want graduates prepared to assume their civic responsibilities, then make their education a central budgetary priority rather than using it as yet another ideological tool.

Instead of wasting resources erecting barriers in front of students, let’s try nurturing them the right way. Give educators more money and not test requirements.

Matthew Warner

The house editorial is on the same subject. The editorial board didn’t really take a position (i.e., copped-out) on the separate civics test and just said civics is a topic worth learning, one way or the other.

Film Industry Tax Credits are a Good Thing

November 17, 2014

My first movie, a long four years ago. Watch it online.

The Associated Press this morning breathlessly reported that a rich Virginia lawmaker and his “politically connected father” received $1 million in tax incentives for filming a Civil War-themed movie here last year.

(In case you don’t know, receiving tax credits in exchange for filming somewhere is a normal film industry practice that often determines where production companies shoot their movies and TV shows.  The hosting state, while foregoing some tax dollars directly from the film companies, receives collateral economic benefit.  Productions require huge support apparatuses that spend lots of money on things like catering, hotels, and hiring local film crews and actors.)

Plan 9, the zombie movie I’ve been involved with, likewise received help from the Virginia Film Office in exchange for keeping the production local.  It was produced by a Virginia company, Darkstone Entertainment, which most likely would not have filmed here if not for the tax incentives.  The same goes for the Virginia lawmaker Del. Peter Farrell’s film company, Tredegar Filmworks, who stated the tax credits and grants were the primary reason they choose to shoot in Virginia.  As a Hollywood line producer said earlier this year, shopping for tax credits and rebates is “the single most important financial decision made in the earliest preparation of bringing a script to life. It wholly affects both the creative look and financial bottom line from day one.”

Another fun movie I made. No, I didn’t get any tax incentives for this one, either. Watch it online.

So what’s the problem?  Well, according to Del. Scott Surovell, the intent of the Virginia tax incentives was actually to lure Hollywood billionaires, and not Virginia legislators, to film in Virginia.  Furthermore (or so implies the subtext of the Associated Press’s reportage), Del. Farrell and his politically connected father were just too darn rich (and therefore evil) to benefit from a tax incentive.

Do you already see the contradictions here?  Del. Surovell is saying you can film here if you’re a rich Californian but not a rich Virginian. Hell, you shouldn’t even get the credit if you’re a Virginian.  Which means that a small independent company like Darkstone, for instance, should have filmed in North Carolina.  Darkstone is neither a non-Virginian company nor a large, wealthy one.

Hey, Del. Surovell, what’s the matter with a Virginia tax program that benefits Virginians?

(And, by the way, wouldn’t you rather that a period piece about Virginia history get filmed here in Virginia?)

Unfortunately, this isn’t just a Virginia controversy. Lawmakers in Maryland are torturing themselves with a similar debate over film industry tax credits. Primarily spurred over productions of “House of Cards” and “Veep,” the argument there is whether these incentives should exist at all.  A recent report to the Maryland assembly states that “for every dollar granted in credits, state and local governments received only about 10 cents in tax revenue in return.”  The report also alleges that visiting film productions don’t create lasting benefits in job creation.

Let’s assume all this is true and these incentives, which exist in 37 states, are a waste of time.  Let’s assume they’re too costly to taxpayers, don’t leave lasting positive benefits, and that they’re benefiting the wrong people.  Why then is California so absolutely desperate to keep film production local?  They even have a term for it, “runaway productions,” I guess because anything filmed elsewhere is technically running away from its true home in Hollywood.

I co-wrote this one. Alas, you can no longer watch it online.

Two January articles from the Los Angeles Daily News are fascinating.  Start with “Why TV, film production is running away from Hollywood,” and you’ll learn California hates that places like Virginia and Maryland are luring film crews away. A lot of people in the film industry can’t afford to live in California anymore because they’re no longer getting the work. Between 2005 and 2012, the California film industry lost 12,400 jobs due to the runaway effect.

To put a human face on these numbers, read “Middle-class Hollywood workers lose jobs, income when filming flees Los Angeles.”  You’ll read about people losing their homes and vehicles and having to delay starting families because their jobs are getting siphoned away.  It reminds me of when an American car factory shuts down in favor of an overseas factory because it’s cheaper to do business elsewhere.

As awful as that all sounds, these articles illustrate some basic truths that California learned long ago, and which it’s desperate to prevent Virginia and Maryland from learning: that there is big money in the movie business; it’s a major industry; and rightly managed, it can be a boon to a state’s economy.

So I encourage Virginia and Maryland to fine-tune their programs to support the movie industry. If Maryland is worried the benefits of its incentive programs are too short-term, then it should creatively seek ways to make those benefits long-term. That’s better than just scrapping the program altogether.

And Virginia . . . man, just get your head screwed on straight.

Write a Novel and Go to Jail

September 2, 2014

. . . At least that’s how it’s looking for Patrick McLaw, the eighth-grade school teacher in Maryland being punished for authoring The Insurrectionist, a novel whose synopsis begins as follows: “On 18 March 2902, a massacre transpired on the campus of Ocean Park High School, claiming the lives of nine hundred forty-seven individuals–the largest school massacre in the nation’s history.”

A read of its Amazon page shows The Insurrectionist, authored three years ago under McLaw’s pseudonym of K.S. Voltaer, to be a Hardy Boys-style thriller that pits the sleuthing skills of three high school students against an at-large serial mass murderer. The book’s sequel, Lilith’s Heir, deals with the psychological aftermath of the shooting.

Is the series any good? I intend to start reading it and find out.

Except that’s not the attitude of McLaw’s employer, the Dorchester County Board of Education, and the local sheriff’s office. As The Atlantic reports, the following reactions have ensued:

  • the author has been placed on leave from his job
  • a K-9 unit searched the school he teaches at for bombs and guns
  • the police searched his residence
  • the author’s background has been investigated
  • and the author has possibly been arrested and forced to undergo a psychological evaluation

Were any weapons found? Was any specific threat made against Dorchester schools? Does the author have a criminal record? No, no, and no.

What exactly was the probable cause for this treatment?

I and other writers find this behavior troubling and a complete overreaction. No one directly involved in this investigation appears to have even uttered the phrase “First Amendment.”

The only upside I can see to this is his books have received some terrific free press. I hope his sales pick up enough for him to hire a great attorney through the ACLU and take these people to the cleaners.

In a Week When Racism is Flaring, ELITE DAILY Makes It Worse

August 19, 2014

Unless you live under a rock, you’re aware that Ferguson, Missouri, recently entered a time warp to the 1960s. Racial tensions are so thick there, you could choke on them unless you’re wearing a gas mask and carrying a Molotov cocktail to light the way.

Sane people would figure this isn’t a time to antagonize folks unnecessarily. So what was the website ELITE DAILY: The Voice of Generation Y thinking when it published this headline?

Deep-Fried Tequila Is Actually A Thing, And It Will Get You White Girl Wasted

What follows is a fluff piece about the wonders of soaking angel food cake in tequila, all under the lead of: How many times have you found yourself uttering a phrase resembling, “I just want to get drunk without actually drinking”?

I’m disgusted with my Generation Y juniors for writing something so thoughtless. It makes me think you’re a bunch of tone-deaf, racist, sexist alcoholics. Do you really think white girls act drunk all the time, whether or not they’re drinking? What the fuck does drinking have to do with race or gender anyway?

Lest the point is lost on you, let me rewrite the headline this way: “Deep-Fried Tequila Is Actually A Thing, And It Will Get You Nigger-‘Ho Drunk.”  Doesn’t sit so well, does it?  Think next time.

Traditional v. Self-Published Writers — Do You Even Care?

July 24, 2014

There’s a lot of pixellated ink being spilled over the Horror Writers Association’s decision, announced today, to allow self-published writers to qualify for its voting tier of membership. (I voted “nay” in the referendum, by the way.)

The HWA allows anyone with a serious interest in the genre to join, but to have a so-called “Active” membership, you must be a professional writer. To prove oneself as a pro, you have to submit evidence of so-many sales for so-much money.  This qualification bar isn’t unique to the HWA. The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), Mystery Writers of America (MWA), and Romance Writers of America (RWA) all have similar requirements for their highest membership levels.

If you’re not a writer, though, you may not give a shit, and I wouldn’t blame you. On its surface, this is nothing more than a bit of legalistic hairsplitting within the publishing industry. The HWA has merely chosen to accept evidence of a type of financial success as a writer, in which writers may be their own publishers through places like Lulu.com, CreateSpace, or PublishAmerica, as an alternative to evidence of financial success through publishers like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt‎, Simon & Schuster, and Random House.

What? I hear you say. Did he just compare Lulu to the venerable Houghton Mifflin? Yes, I did — and with its decision, so did the HWA. And that’s where lowering the bar rankles people like me. (It also rankles former HWA member Nicholas Kaufman, who has an excellent reaction piece on his blog.)

But again, you’re a reader, so why should you care? If someone has made thousands of dollars as a self-published author, then surely that proves they know just as much about writing as do the traditionally published authors (i.e., writers who did not finance the publication of their books) who made the same amount. In fact, some self-published authors even make a living off their writing, whereas some traditionally published authors (like me) do not. Both species of writer are “professional” in their own right, you might say.*

If you’re not a writer or publisher, though, you might not care about these distinctions (other than that it is damn hard to find a good book these days from among the hundreds of thousands published every year, thanks to places like Lulu).  This is the 21st Century, you old fart! you might say.  In fact, my colleagues in the HWA went so far as to label me as antiquated, stunningly misinformed, ignorant, and insulting.

Well, that may be.  Maybe I’m wrong, and this is the sparkling new wave of the future. Maybe this will invigorate the HWA’s enemic membership numbers and shine happy rainbows all over its future intra-organizational discourse.  That’s its hope, anyway.

But my questions are these.  The next time the HWA needs to swing its dick around inside a fight arena like what’s happening over at Amazon, will it be taken more or less seriously?  The same for any other discussions with bookstores (brick-and-mortar and online), publishers (traditional or not), library associations, and schools.  I also wonder if I’m going to have anything in common with writers who may not have ever submitted a story for publication or received a rejection letter.  And lastly, I wonder this: if I perceive no value in an HWA membership, should I quit?

Do you care what just happened in the HWA?  Maybe I should ask that of myself.

*The schism between traditional and self-pub goes way back to the so-called Golden Rule, which says, “Money flows to the author and not from the author.”  Writers who merely swipe a credit card to see their book in print, regardless of its quality, are usually seen as an insult to those who compete against other writers for a limited number of publishing slots.  When viewed from the perspective of a reader who has to wade through 200,000 self-published titles more likely than not to be crap (because there wasn’t a quality-control barrier between the writer and the printing press) in order to find a single non-crap title (more likely than not from a traditional publisher), this can quickly be seen as a zero-sum game.  Self-pub’d writers can gobble up the limited pieces of a reader’s attention-span pie.  In fact, the perceived quality of self-pub’d titles is so bad that chain bookstores usually won’t stock them — a decision that manifests as a blanket prohibition against a printing technology known as Print On Demand (POD), which unfairly victimizes those traditional publishers, such as Raw Dog Screaming Press, who have used POD because they can’t afford a 10,000-copy offset run.

Creationism v. Science

February 6, 2014

A fascinating presidential-style debate played out the other night between Bill Nye “the science guy” and Ken Ham, head of the Creation Museum. You can watch it through the following YouTube embed:

The Creation Museum is a 70,000-square-foot facility in Kentucky that purports to demonstrate how the Earth was created in accordance with a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis. There, you can see pseudo-Smithsonian exhibits about dinosaurs and cavemen between visits to its petting zoo and planetarium.

Bill Nye, on a mission to discourage the teaching of religion in the science classroom, engaged in a nearly 2.5-hour debate with Ken Ham about whether the Book of Genesis is a viable explanation for the world’s origin. Genesis says, for example, that the world was created in six days. Ham augments this to state that the Earth is only 6,000 years old.

Ham claims there is a distiction between what he calls “observational science” and “historical science.” Observational science, he says, is science based on first-hand observation. This would include any knowledge about nature that scientists presently discover through the scientific method and experimentation. Historical science, he says, includes anything that scientists deduce about the Earth’s past.

These definitions, which Ham seems to have invented, are the foundation of his argument — and it’s precisely here that it all crumbles down like a house of cards. He says that scientists can’t make any statements about paleontological history (“historical science”) because they cannot directly observe things that happened in the past. First of all, this is provably wrong every time we look into the night sky; the star light we see originated from stars millions of years ago. When we look into the night sky, we are looking into the past. If a star is 500 light years away and we can see it through a telescope, it has taken 500 years for that light to reach our eyes.

But let’s set facts aside for the moment. (You know, those pesky facts that always get in the way.) Ham says that because scientists can’t be firsthand witnesses to what occurred in the past that anything they state about the past — particularly more than six millennia in the past — cannot be trusted. In fact, to do so, he says, is akin to a religious belief. And because scientists are teaching in the science classrooms, this is how “the secularists have hijacked historical science” and are forcing our children into an alternate religious worldview.

In Ken Ham’s world, all of the overwhelming evidence uncovered by geologists and paleontologists about the age of the Earth and the universe — the majority of which overwhelmingly gives the same answers — is nothing more than a gigantic red herring implanted in the ground and in the background radiation of the universe by . . . you guessed it . . . God. You see, 6,000 years ago (when the Earth was formed), natural laws worked differently. Of course they did, because that’s when creation was happening. But then, once everything was set in motion, the world started working as scientists understand it today through experimentation. Plants and animals evolve. Carbon atoms decay at predictable rates. And they assumably will continue to do so until the end of time or at least until the end of Revelations. But not 6,000 years ago! No, no. All that bunk about ice core samples and rings around trees is all evidence that has been put there by supernatural agency.

Take a few minutes to watch the debate. It’s an awesome display of the keep-the-blinders-on mentality of creationism. A couple of Ibuprofen beforehand might be a good idea.

Are the Publishing, Theater, and Movie Industries as Bigoted and Sexist as Everyone Thinks?

September 26, 2013

There’s a literature professor in Canada named David Gilmour who sounds like a pinhead. In a recent Hazlitt interview, he says:

I’m not interested in teaching books by women. Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories. But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women. Except for Virginia Woolf. And when I tried to teach Virginia Woolf, she’s too sophisticated, even for a third-year class. Usually at the beginning of the semester a hand shoots up and someone asks why there aren’t any women writers in the course. I say I don’t love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.

In one fell swoop, he slams all writers who are female, Chinese, or gay.  And people who aren’t “serious.”

So yeah, he sounds like a racist, bigoted, misogynistic pinhead.  And maybe he doesn’t like comedy, either.  Responses like this one (“you might as well shit all the beds while you’re at it”), this one (“a curdled mess of intellectual mediocrity”), and this one (“Gilmour’s extreme point of view is a perfect example of the woman problem in literature”) are right to call him out on it.

But here’s my question.  How would people have reacted if, say, Gilmour were a female literature professor who said she only wanted to teach novels written by African American women? There are entire academic fields devoted to African-American studies and women’s studies, so I don’t believe this is improbable.

While I’m posing this hypothetical scenario, let’s assume this professor makes the statement with an absence of judgments against writers who aren’t African American women.  Perhaps that makes the comparison invalid, in which case I’m sorry for wasting your time.  But would Gilmour be in the fire right now if he’d just said, “All those other writers are fine, but I simply prefer to teach books by white male heterosexuals”?  You tell me.  Is the actual problem here that: (1) he only wants to teach books by white male heterosexuals, or (2) his decision is being motivated by racism, bigotry and misogyny?  My worry is that it’s not just #2.  If the objection is also that he’s daring to limit his scope of study to a particular gender or race, then there’s a bit of hypocrisy at work.

My headline above casts a wider net than just literature and publishing.  Prachi Gupta, the Salon writer I quoted who complains about the “woman problem in literature” links to another interesting article she wrote about novelist Jonathan Franzen.  In a New York Times discussion about sexism, Franzen complains that the New York City theater scene is “most glaringly dominated by male sexism.”

I don’t live in New York, so I’ll have to take Franzen’s word.  I live in a small Shenandoah Valley city, and I’m submitting my small portfolio of stage plays to various markets.  And instead of feeling like, as a white male heterosexual, that the world is my oyster (as if anyone’s race, gender, or sexual orientation should even matter, and no, they shouldn’t), it feels like most of the open submission markets are restricted to playwrights who are not male, white, or straight.  I need not apply because of my genetic profile.  Yes, saying “it feels like most” is admittedly unscientific, but that’s my perception every single time I sit down to market my work.

And it doesn’t stop there.  I’m also an aspiring screenplay writer.  I’m now experimenting with a movie-industry equivalent to Publishers Marketplace called The Black List.  During sign up, I learned about this great program they have to connect new screenplay writers with Warner Bros. in something called a blind script deal.  It sounded awesome until I got to the part about this promotion being intended for writers who are either female, in a minority, or over 60.  Foiled again.

Returning to publishing, a few years ago I attended the RWA annual conference.  Out of about 3,000 attendees, about 2,997 of them were women.  This convention was so large, sophisticated, and well run that it made the SF/F/H conventions I normally attend look like keggers on my back deck.  The RWA is full of women who are dominating the publishing profession at all levels.  Since then, my wife and I have often visited New York for marketing meetings with New York publishers to discuss their website campaigns.  Most of the people we see around the table are women.  So, from my perspective, I think women are doing just fine in publishing — and what’s more, I believe they achieved their success through hard work and merit, not through any special privileges accorded to them because of gender.

Look, I don’t wear my race, gender, or sexual orientation on my sleeve.  Those qualities are unimportant to me, and I don’t use them to judge others.  As much as possible, my wife and I are raising our children to be blind to these things, because racism, sexism, and bigotry are evils that should be stamped out.  I believe that all people deserve the same rights and privileges as anyone else.  Look back through my blog posts in support of gay marriage, and you’ll see how passionate I am about this.

And this is why I don’t believe restricting competitive opportunities to anyone on the basis of genetic characteristics is helpful to anybody.  This is the old debate about Affirmative Action, in a way.  Two wrongs don’t make a right.

Are the publishing, theater, and movie industries as bigoted and sexist as everyone thinks?  From my perspective, as a relatively inexperienced writer (and I say that without a trace of irony, even after over twenty years), I have to say it looks that way.  But the bias doesn’t always seem skewed in the direction popular opinion holds.

But hey, I don’t live in New York or Los Angeles.  I don’t have the specific data the policy makers of the entertainment industry used to justify such programs and markets.  I could be wrong, and this could just be the sour grapes of a frustrated writer.  So educate me.  Tell me about your experiences.

The Origin of Religion

March 18, 2013

I’ve written frequently about my admiration of Julian Jaynes and his seminal 1976 treatise, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. It’s a work that, unfortunately, “has been more or less eliminated from the history of ideas,” as a reviewer observes about a posthumous followup, Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes’s Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited, by the founder of the Julian Jaynes Society. Although I haven’t read Reflections, I agree with the general conclusions of the book review, which gives a broad summary of Jaynes’s work and life. You should take a few minutes to read it.

It’s sad that Jaynes hasn’t received more mainstream attention just because he was an intellectual who didn’t know how to market his work. “Origin likely would have fared better had it been presented as literary provocation rather than scientific fact,” reviewer Rachel Aviv writes. “But Jaynes saw his book as a work of science, and so it was critiqued, deconstructed, and made nearly irrelevant because the theories were impossible to test.”

I’ve read anecdotally that what she says is true. Jaynes was a psychologist in a field that expects its members to have their work peer reviewed before publication. Perhaps bullheadedly, he chose to bypass this step because he already knew what his peers would say about it.

All this being said, I still wonder how often a trained scientist proposes a comprehensive theory explaining why religion exists.

In this week that has seen the selection of a new pope and has continued to see the destinies of entire political systems shaped by conjectures about what deities want for our lives, I can’t think of a more relevant book for anybody who fancies himself an atheist, agnostic, or plain old skeptical intellectual with an admiration for science.

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind remains one of my favorite, 5-star books.