Monday, May 3, 2010


Just Blowing Smoke will be taking a brief hiatus while I take care of some personal obligations, relocate to more familial environs, recharge my batteries, and take up the long overdue quest to rediscover some creativity. Have no fear however. Regardless of the requests of some to make this departure of a more permanent nature, Just Blowing Smoke will be returning to tilt at windmills before you know it ... 

I can think of no more fitting way to begin this latest transition in life than with one of my favorite quotes from Tom Stoppard: 

"We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered."

Sunday, May 2, 2010

But Seriously ...

I find that without perhaps intending it to, that this has become a theme weekend for me. I wrote the TFP Column "Leaving It To Professionals" last week after becoming increasingly incensed by some of the talking-heads on the cable news channels insisting that only members of their journalism school club should get an opinion on matters of import. I believed then, and I do now, that their spouting on the subject was little more than some intellectual snobs performing an act of mutually satisfactory sexual congress (sorry, but that's as obscure as I could make the reference).

I may not always agree with Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, or Sean Hannity (though far more often than not, I find that I do agree with local WSPD hosts Fred Lefebvre and Brian Wilson); but they appear to do their research on the subjects they choose and therefore have just as much right to spout opinion as many of the other pundits on radio and cable ... and at least as much as media trolls Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews.

I followed up yesterday with a post in this blog, "Area of Expertise", where I might have appeared to contradict myself by saying that actors or musicians should probably refrain from expressing opinions about subjects they are untrained on; but I was not. As I said in the piece, everyone has a right to an opinion and to express it. Publicly doing so however, carries an obligation to do some research before expressing oneself. Being given a national stage on television or radio provides them an additional mantle of expertise (real or imagined) that mandates even more of an effort to perform due diligence on the subject they speak on.

Having said both of these things already, it seems as if it's time to wrap it all up in a pretty package and tie it up with a bow. For the most unstable of perches has only two legs, and there is a third that should recommend itself to your consideration. That of course is how serious all of this is and how serious those saying should be taken.

We live in truly interesting times, and many of the decisions being made today will have an impact far into the future. There are hard choices being made as we speak about the role of government in this country, the role being played by corporations and unions in that government, and of the role left to its citizens (or the role they will be allowed to have) in the coming days. These are subjects of serious import and there are many meeting, speaking, and writing on them (many far better than myself). Since most people do not have the time or the interest to research the data on the wide variety of subjects out there, let alone attempt to cohesively analyze it, the work that these pundits do is extremely important. They are not of themselves however, important at all except as a source.

As important as these ideas and their interpretation might be, we need to be careful not to lionize those expressing them. Media personalities are in fact no different than the rest of us. They have their strengths and their weaknesses, and the only thing that might truly set the major ones aside is that they have performed their professions well and promoted themselves with equal alacrity.

In fact there is a distinct danger in creating something more of these personalities than they deserve. Power and influence are dangerous toys to play with, and more than one media figure (or politician) has fallen prey to abuse its temptations. We need to be careful to separate the knowledge that we desperately need from the people supplying it. The last thing that we need is to create a cult of personality around such people.

Even we humble bloggers hold no special place in society. Most do what they do in fact, because of a desire to inform or simply they simply love to do it. One can admire their pluck in taking a stand or skill in expressing it, but they are still a part of the same flawed humanity as the rest of us. Their work should be critically examined and even judged, but no special place should be assigned to those who do it.

So please, take the issues being put forward with all due seriousness. Study the arguments on both sides with equally sober consideration. Expose yourself to all of the punditry on these subjects that you can stand without tearing your hair out. Please however, do not confuse the serious nature and import of the subjects with how serious you take the people who are dealing with them.

It is only through enlightened skepticism that we truly become informed. That holds true for people as well as ideas.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Area of Expertise

I was surfing TV stations recently when I came upon a couple of actors speaking out about the passage of immigration legislation in Arizona on one of the cable news networks. It isn't important which station we are talking about, nor are the actors names particularly important. What was important however, was that neither of them appeared to have actually read the legislation they were commenting on and it appeared that they were simply mimicking some talking points that they had heard or read elsewhere. 

Their lack of informed opinion was the point that struck me ... that and the fact that the only reason anyone was willing to listen to what they had to say had nothing to do with what they knew and was all about who they were. So I asked myself: What makes the opinions of actors (or musicians for that matter) in any way important on subjects other than acting or music? 

Certainly an actor can have credibility when it comes to speaking about the theater, doing TV, or making movies; but how does that translate to expertise in the area of state or federal legislation (or any other subject for that matter)? If achieving celebrity is to be the arbiter of who gets to have opinions, one might just as easily accept their opinions on medical ethics or nuclear physics. If being famous is the only scale that counts, one could just as easily decide that since everybody seems to care what the judges from American Idol think every week, we should send them over to negotiate peace in the Middle East once and for all.  

This is not to say that celebrities have no right to an opinion or to express it. They in fact have the same rights of free speech that everyone in this country has. Nor is this an indictment of a particular point of view that any chooses to express (whether I agree with it or not), but instead a question of its relevance. If you choose to speak out publicly on a subject, then you need to at least take the time to become informed on it. If the mainstream media is going to give you a national platform to express your convictions, then someone in charge should make sure that you have some idea of what's going on before allowing you to do so.

The whole thing took me back (way back) to my days in high school, when those of us who were not the popular or cool kids were so concerned about the approval, the personal style, and the opinions of those who were. Looking back on it now of course, I realize now that members of the football team or the cheerleaders were in no way smarter or better than anyone else; but we certainly seemed to think so at the time, and far too often we let them influence our decisions. I would venture to say that those who still have any contact with these people today would probably not consider asking for their views, let alone continuing to follow their lead. 

This need to influence on the part of the famous seems to stem from the atmosphere that makes up the celebrity lifestyle. Catered to at home and at work by an entourage of handlers, assistants, and agents (all of whom would like to keep their celebrity jobs), these performers are surrounded by little more than a group of human bobble-head dolls. The result of such an atmosphere is foreordained: spend enough time with people who always agree with you (whether you're right or not) and you can't help but grow into the belief that your opinions are not only always right, but of greater value to the world at large. Few of us exposed to such constant approbation and worship could retain the proper level of humility, or fail to succumb to a feeling of ingenuous self-importance, if not false omniscience. 

Now I know that there are some celebrities that take a genuine interest in causes around the world. They take the time to do careful research, consult with actual experts in the field, and try to gather as many facts as possible before putting themselves forward. They then use their celebrity to draw attention to causes and lend their support with personal appearances and with monetary donations. For this they deserve our respect. 

I fear however, that they are the exception rather than the rule. Most seem far less involved and far too easily swayed by whoever manages to bend their ear while massaging their ego. Having once been swayed, they mount their steed of self-importance and ride off in quest to right a wrong that they don't understand and which may not exist; secure in the knowledge that as one of the beautiful people, they will never really be questioned. 

Overall, I think that the world would be better served if these over-aged "popular kids" spent more time concentrating on their art and craft, and less pontificating on subjects that they saw on a PBS special or read about in People Magazine. No matter how pretty they are and how far-reaching their celebrity, most of the world's great issues are simply outside their area of expertise.