Monday, December 22, 2008


It’s amazing what people focus on in order to avoid having to deal with really serious problems. Psychologists see this phenomenon all the time, where toilet seats and personal ticks become the ostensible reason for huge rows out of all proportion to the alleged offense.

The same mind-games apply in the world of politics. While public budgets and economic activity in California are going to heck in a handbasket, politicians in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and now San Diego are focusing on matters of monumental triviality—such as the urgent need to ban those ultra-thin plastic bags that stores have used for decades.

A committee of the San Diego City Council recently passed a resolution (2-1) to support a ban of these grave environmental hazards that apparently aren’t biodegradable and allegedly have damaged some marine animals. Encinitas is considering a similar proposal.

For retrograde heathens who might persist in the sinful habit of toting their groceries in paper bags, a 25-cent fee per bag is being considered. This “fee” (not a tax, of course) has also been pondered by our nothing-else-to-do state legislators. Perhaps these geniuses hope to close California’s 12 to 20 billion dollar budget deficit with this new assessment—thus balancing their books on the back of seniors who have enough trouble getting purchases from the check-out counter to their deadly carbon-emitting vehicles.

The words of Gaia priestess and city council member Donna Frye sums up the over-the-top argument against these dastardly petro-gauzes: “The fact of the matter is that when you think that almost every single piece of the planet probably has a piece of plastic on it, at some level you have to start asking yourself, 'Is that the kind of planet we want to pass on to our kids?’”

Personally, I can remember when these gossamer-thin containers were considered the P.C. thing to ask for—as opposed to those evil (but biodegradable) paper bags that only “wascally Wepublicans” were insensitive enough to use. Now our cultural commissars want to give us a new choice: Bring your own reusable bag or pay 25 cents for each paper bag.

This polyethylene crisis came upon us quite suddenly, and alternatives to an outright ban have been considered as little as objections raised by that large chorus of scientists who reject global warming alarmism.

What about those biodegradable organic-based bags? What about recycling alternatives? How about providing some definitive evidence of the grave environmental damage done by those wispy polyethylene sacks that have the great virtue of sealing up refuse thrown in trash bins at apartment complexes—thus reducing the bins’ allure to flies and minimizing wind-blown debris?

On the other hand, in the midst of a significant recession with ballooning budget deficits and out of control pension obligations, what better issue for clueless politicians to tackle than plastic bag pollution. Maybe the matter can even be placed on the next ballot as a constitutional amendment—alongside urgent global warming, cow flatulence legislation.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Another thousand meters, a matter of seconds, and the F-18 jet would have crossed I-805 and crashed in the uninhabited western terrain of Miramar Air Base. Assuming the pilot’s successful ejection, the event would have been a scary and costly “incident.” As it was, the aircraft destroyed two houses and killed four members of a family—an infant, a 15-month old child, a wife, and her mother. The “incident” thus became a Christmas-season tragedy.

I suspect the pilot was following the railroad valley that separates the apartment-rich area around University Towne Center from the residential housing to the south. I once lived in an apartment to the north and spent many hours walking through the canyon’s trails. Amid the usual finger pointing and outrage that the deadly crash has spawned, the amazing comments of the grieving husband and father, Dong Yun Yoon, haven’t received the attention they deserve.

During a gut-wrenching seven minutes before national media cameras (with jets flying overhead) this simple man of faith, backed by his pastor and members of his religious community, exhibited qualities seldom seen under such circumstances.

Of the pilot Yoon said, “Please pray for him not to suffer from this accident.” Yoon also referred to the pilot as “one of our treasures for the country” and said that he didn’t blame him for the accident: “I know he did everything he could.”

Remarkably, Yoon also said, “I know there are many people who have experienced more terrible things”—a statement that’s certainly true, but not for most Americans whose current “catastrophes” center on 401(k)s, home values, and job security.

Rather than expressing bitterness, Yoon said, “It was God’s blessing that I met her about four years ago… She was such a lovely wife and mother... I just miss her so much.” He also expressed confidence that God would take care of the loved ones that had been so violently ripped from him. Yoon was uncertain, however, what he could say to his father-in-law, whose grief he also took upon himself: “I don’t know if he will ever forgive me.”

Whether this attitude will survive contemporary pressures toward litigation and recrimination is unclear. I recently saw a news scroll that said Yoon was seeking legal representation—a reasonable action for which he can hardly be criticized. I suspect that many folks would be reassured by a more “typical” response from Yoon—especially those folks who discount religious faith and who view Yoon’s willingness to forgive as a sign that he hasn’t yet been Americanized.

Then there are those who feel that Yoon’s response harks back to a spirit of grace and gratitude that many of us have lost—to the ability to think of others and thank God, even in the midst of great suffering. What’s undoubtedly the case is that the spirit exhibited by Dung Yun Yoon reflects the true spirit of Christmas—the spirit of divine hope and forgiveness in a world filled with darkness.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008


When belt-tightening time comes, every group has reasons for preserving its share of the public pie—for explaining why a budget cut will precipitate an apocalypse of Katrinaesque proportion.

My favorite self-serving rationale was put forward by an arts group that claimed cuts in its budget constituted an attack on the poor. I don’t know if the perpetrators of this argument actually believed what they were saying or if they were just employing a logical ruse they thought might succeed.

To me it’s clear that the primary beneficiaries of government support for the arts are individuals in the artistic community, especially managers who pull down salaries well north of a hundred grand. I also suspect that poor folks, given a list of government programs, wouldn’t put art subsidies high on their priority list—which brings me to the annual “quo vadis” inquiry about the California Center for the Arts.

I’ve not yet heard the Arts Center called a poverty program, but I suppose anything’s possible, as cutbacks get closer to the bone. What’s true, I think, is that the Center was conceived as a status symbol and merchant magnet by individuals who wished to change Escondido’s image from that of a “migrant-rich” bedroom community to that of an inland haven for artistic sophistication.

The tug-of-war between those two cities played out year after year in terms of program offerings, ticket prices, and empty seats. The winner of that struggle, as burgeoning deficits suggest, is a community more at home with concerts on the green than with a majestic venue comparable to one recently built in Mesa, Arizona—a Phoenix “suburb” with a population nearing 500,000.

This result doesn’t reflect badly on the Hidden Valley, especially given the fact that the arts, at least in recent decades, haven’t clearly served to elevate the culture or to present a reasonably accurate portrait of reality. Instead, what many of the arts have regularly provided has been an elite community’s warped view of the world—a view through the eyes of what critic Lionel Trilling long ago dubbed the “adversarial culture.”

A prime example of this perspective is the Broadway smash musical “Rent”—an “updated” version of Puccini’s “La Boheme” that features a cast of struggling New York artists, half of whom have contracted AIDS or are HIV positive. Not surprisingly, this slice of self-referential artistic life didn’t fare all that well at the CCAE in 2007. By contrast, “Jesus Christ Superstar” packed ‘em in—an audience preference the programming director described as fickle.

I suspect that the avant-garde, Vietnam-centered dance-play “Movin’ Out” ($52-67) and “The Mortified Guide to…Epic Romance” ($27) will meet with the same tepid reception as “Rent.” Clips of the latter production (that invites audiences to “witness personal redemption through public humiliation”) are available online. Here is one of its tamer comic lines: “Social (life) in college means beer drinking and cheap fondling of ugly girls.”

Given fare of this caliber, CCAE budget deficits reflect well on the community.