Episode 132: Written by Writers

Ensign Pete Fenzel Jump-Kicks the Alien: The Overthinkers tackle the creative process and the responsibilities of discourse.

Matthew Wrather hosts with Peter Fenzel, Mark Lee, and Jordan Stokes to overthink metaphors for the creative process, conversation stoppers, and the responsibilities of discourse in light of recent events imprecisely described as tragic.



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17 Comments on “Episode 132: Written by Writers”

  1. Redem #

    You know when you mention writting about the difficulty of the creative process and how boring it would be, can’t help but think of Barton Fink


    • fenzel #

      I love Barton Fink; it’s dead-on in a lot of ways. I once performed the John Goodman role onstage in an “evening of scenes” with my high school theatre company. The wrestling choreography was pretty hilarious.



  2. Johann #

    Regarding “responsibilities of discourse”, I remember a couple of years ago, there was a terrible school shooting in Germany, where a teenager killed several people and later himself. I listened to an interview on the radio with a school psychologist – actually, he was the head of the German association of school psychologists. When he was asked: “Who do you think is to blame for this horrible event?”, he replied something like: “I am not sure, maybe the parents for leaving a gun accessible to the kid, maybe the school, maybe society. I just don’t know how to answer this.” I was outraged with that, because apparently never once did it come to his mind that THE KID WHO DID IT is to blame for it. I mean, this was an expert on these kinds of things, and how can he totally ignore personal responsibility in this case? The kid who did it was about 16 (if I recall correctly), an age when teenagers are starting to get taken seriously in our country, and he had most likely no diagnosable psychic illness. Why can we not blame him and instead have to look for these “causes” in his external surroundings? After all, a lot of these killers say something like “society made me do it”, that’s THEIR EXCUSE, and it is a very lousy and terrible excuse and we shouldn’t follow it.

    I think similar things can be said about the shooter in Arizona. Sure, he probably was “crazy” in the common usage of the word, but that doesn’t free him from personal responsibility for his horrible actions.

    And now for something completely different:
    Wrather brought up the question whether there are conversations that ought to be stopped. I think, it depends on whether or not these conversations are public or private. Sure, it may be difficult to distinguish between the two, there is of course the inevitable grey area. But consider this example: In Germany (and some other countries), denying that the Holocaust happened is illegal, when you do it publicly. I see the infringement of free speech that this entails, but I must say, as a German I am glad that we have this law and that we can keep Neo-Nazi lunatics from spreading their twisted views this way. At the same time, I think that saying things like this – even when they are outrageous – to a closed, private audience should be ok.


    • Matthew Wrather OTI Staff #

      I’m glad that you bring up the issue of public vs. private space; it’s something we didn’t really get into on the podcast. I have come to think that one of the characteristics of our society (American, anyway; I can’t really make claims for elsewhere) is the blurring our outright removal of a useful line between public and private space for discourse.


    • petrlesy #

      there is an ongoing court process in my country with blog owner who published an article where someone argued about the number of Holocaust victims – that just seems ridiculous to me
      making taboos from historical events doesn’t seem like the best way of dealing with them

      what is better way of protecting democracy – banning and prosecuting neo-nazis or letting them speak so everyone can see for themselves how stupid they are?

      i can understand that some topics are more sensitive and even with the most careful wording someone’s feelings might get hurt but i still fail to find an example where sum of “overall social good”? is higher with no discourse (just my two cents here, i know there is no way of determining things like social good)


  3. Gab #

    Fenzel, this is mostly for you:


    In a class I took specifically about free speech Supreme Court cases, the decisions we read made a distinction between incitement to action and depiction that inspires action- the latter is protected under the First Amendment. So with the root beer story example, if it was about a dude breaking into Fenzel’s place and such, and someone did, indeed, break into Fenzel’s place and robbed him of his root beer, that author would be fine; but if it said, “Go break into Fenzel’s house!” as more of a command, and then someone did it, the author would be held liable to some extent. (Note: that’s a simplified version- there are a number of nuances and such to it, and I took the class three years ago, but that’s a skeletal sum from what I remember.)


  4. Edvamp #

    I made the mistake of listening to this late at night so I might have missed a key element regarding the Free Speech section. Was it that the founding fathers didn’t so much feel that most speech was worth protecting as the inspiration for the 1st Amendment but rather that it is better than the alternative?

    If so I kept thinking of The People Vs Larry Flynt, where Larry’s argument was if the Constitution could protect his right to free speech, speech that held no real public value, discourse or exchange of ideas, it would protect anyone’s.

    The US has almost fetishized free speech and repeat it as a mantra, but most people really don’t think about it (or in this case overthink about it). I don’t believe that any protected speech has no value beyond just the fact that it should be protected. The whole point, or a large part of the point at least, of having protected speech is to allow undirected, unrestricted discourse. And like undirected scientific research, you never know where undirected discourse might bear fruit. Yeah, most of it might be crap, 9/11 conspiracy theories, racist trash, pure titillation or whatnot. But in the Larry Flynt case, speech that started out simply as a parody of Jerry Falwell ended up as a Supreme Court case that helped define and clarify the 1st Amendment.

    In the case of Holocaust deniers in Germany, I am pretty torn. While I certainly respect the right of a country to try and minimize the wounds from constantly bringing up the Holocaust, I’ve always been of the mind to let people with idiotic beliefs or ideologies take center stage and convince people that they are morons. Reading White Power forums convinced me that while individuals might be dangerous, the movement overall poses no threat to the country. By allowing Holocaust deniers to spout their views in the face of overwhelming evidence shows them up as lone crackpots. But restricting them makes them seem like an underground movement that the government is afraid of because they ‘know too much’.

    Or, did I totally miss what was actually being said?


    • fenzel #

      The missing piece here is the sequence of events. The United States had a federal government for 12 years before the Constitution, and it was another 2 years before the Bill of Rights were ratified, which is where the hard protections for freedom of speech and religion and stuff come from.

      So, it follows that the Bill of Rights wasn’t _essential_ to the initial existence of the country, and it didn’t spring fully formed from the collective heads of the Founding Fathers seconds after the surrender of General Cornwallis.

      Why wasn’t it essential? Because the original government structure of the United States, the Articles of Confederation, didn’t have any powers that would have reasonably allowed it to _limit_ things like free speech. It didn’t have many powers at all – it didn’t even officially refer to itself as a government.

      So, the first question to ask isn’t “What is worth protecting?” The question is “What is this ‘protection’ we’re talking about? Is it necessary, and is the central government interested or empowered in providing this ‘protection’ at all?”

      There was a lot of tension early on in the history of the country (and in the middle of the history of the country, and up to recent events in the history of the country) about the individual states not wanting the others to interfere in their affairs. The Articles of Confederation was a way of dealing with this – it gave the states almost total autonomy, except they couldn’t raise armies or declare wars.

      Unfortunately, this made the country almost totally incapable of dealing with even medium-sized crises. We didn’t have things like State Troopers or even standing police departments yet. One of the more notable crises happened here in Massachusetts, where a bunch of veterans from the War of Independence who were losing their homes and being put in jail because they hadn’t been paid any wages for fighting in the war and were away from their homes for a long time – and were thus incapable of paying their debts – formed a militia, stormed an armory, and started other sorts of ruckus. Even if their cause was just, this was a problem – you can’t have people raising private armies and running around in your country shooting people and seizing your military supplies with impunity.

      Because the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was forbidden from raising an army by the Articles of Confederation, and because the local militias were pretty sympathetic to the rebels, there wasn’t anybody in the state who could put a stop to it. The country was so detached and disinterested in each others’ problems that the central government didn’t do much either. Eventually they arrested about 1,000 people and put down the rebellion, but not before a lot of deaths and embarrassment.

      So, stuff like this made a lot of people think, “Hey, this form of government sucks. It seems nice in theory for states to have nigh-unlimited rights and sovereignty within this country, but in practice, it makes government really ineffective in even its most basic tasks, and people can’t or aren’t going to deal with the problems the government needs to solve on their own. We need a stronger central government.”

      That’s where the U.S. Constitution got started – more than a decade after the Articles of Confederation were practically in force, and about 5-6 years after they were officially the form of government.

      The U.S. Constitution created the Presidency, the Congress and the Judiciary the way they currently exist in America. The whole thing is designed to allow them to do what is necessary to get their jobs done, but to each have very clear limits on their own power and the power they have over the states. Getting the Constitution finished was a balancing act with a lot of negotiation.

      The Bill of Rights was a product of that negotiation. It wasn’t strictly a matter of principle – it was a safeguard put in place against the new government out of fear by some of the convention delegates that the new government would abuse its power. Without the new government, it wouldn’t have been necessary.

      The Bill of Rights didn’t get ratified for a few years, but its introduction was critical in getting some reluctant states on board with the Constitution. It’s a political document, not holy scripture, and it served specific political purposes.

      The thing we talk about on the podcast is that the rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights aren’t arbitrary — they are largely based on abuses or perceived abuses by the British government on the American colonies or on the original American colonists, motivating them to leave Great Britain in the first place.

      So, the “freedom of religion” in the Bill of Rights has to do with seventeenth century rules in England against the building of Puritan churches in certain places (what is now Congregationalism), and also the fact that different states had different religious traditions (Maryland was famously Catholic, while the other states were mostly different kinds of Protestant). It’s a good principle, sure, but it’s not something that was put in there just to be idealistic – there were specific things that people remembered that they were trying to prevent from happening again, and which they saw the new federal government as likely to do.

      You could argue that they were right — as Mark points out in the podcast, the whole “Ground Zero Mosque” thing was a pretty clear violation of the First Amendment of the sort the Founding Fathers would have been very familiar with. Whether they would have shown “Mahommadians” the same sympathy they reserved for themselves and each other is of course tangentially important, I guess, but its the specific sort of government activity they were afraid of the U.S. Constitution empowering the central government to do – it is unlikely New York would have endeavored upon such a thing without all the money and pressure coming in from places like Virginia, Utah and Texas to interfere in their politics for national political reasons.

      The second amendment probably comes from the French and Indian War and other times when colonial militias were the only line of defense against raids by Native Americans or rival colonists and were necessary for protecting homes and property, because the government in England didn’t really care too much about whether or not colonists’ properties or lives were protected in their protracted fighting with the French. How could they? They were thousands of miles away, and the people giving orders had never been to these places or met these people.

      The Third Amendment has to do with how the British quartered their troops in the homes of American colonists against their will during a variety of military campaigns. The Fourth Amendment came from specific political crises in both Great Britain and the American Colonies in the 1750s and 1760s.

      In Britain, the issue was the Crown abusing its power to clamp down on dissent by basically authorizing individuals to bust in on people’s homes and figure out if they were working with this specific dude who was publicly criticizing the government. In America, it had to do with certain merchants getting contracts from the British crown to gather taxes, and those contracts expiring at the death of George the II. There was a fair amount of chaos involving the renewal of the contracts under George the III – people had been abusing the power granted in the contracts and the whole process was not handled well — How could it be? The people making the decisions had never met any of these people and lived thousands of miles away.

      Etc. etc.

      So, it’s pretty basically incorrect to say that the Bill of Rights are like the 10 commandments, enshrining 10 key ethical principles that the Founding Fathers felt were important enough to get special protection from the government. They were the product of the negotiation over the constitution and they were made in reference to specific, real-world abuses of the power of central governments, which many of the congressional delegates had experienced in their own lifetimes.


      • Edvamp #

        Thank you for the clarification. It sounds like another of those things in history where the reality is not as romantic as the current visualization of it. Reading this almost reminded me of warning labels on hair dryers, we only need them after someone electrocutes themselves.


    • Edvamp #

      Interesting. I’ve thought that public political discourse in this country has gone to hell since 9/11. Since then all politics has been life and death, like if you don’t agree with my tax legislation then you are with the terrorists.

      I don’t believe political rhetoric incited this person to murder. The call to increase the maturity of political debate shouldn’t be to prevent more incidents like this. It should be simply because the current state is embarrassing and childish. When I watch politicians or pundits of any political bent argue I get very frustrated and depressed.

      On the radio news last night, I heard a report of a Republican politician responding to the ‘gun target map’ issue by saying that he knows of Democratic politicians who do the same thing. No discussion on the actual merits, whether they will continue doing it, whether they shouldn’t have done it or that it isn’t a big deal, etc. Simply a finger pointing and saying, “Well, they’re just as bad!”


      • fenzel #

        So, yeah, the guy was crazy and all that, but he did try to assassinate a Democratic Congresswoman and a bunch of her supporters at a political rally. He didn’t just try to shoot the guy at the Tim Horton’s. And he left a note claiming responsibility and saying he went to assassinate a Democratic Congresswoman at a political event.

        This isn’t like shooting Reagan because you think it will make Jody Foster like you (SPOILER: it won’t). The only people who only really give a crap about finding out where these Democratic congressional town meetings are are conservative talk radio hosts and tea party organizers.

        Think about who your representative in congress is. Do you even know?

        Do you think the schizophrenic homeless guy outside the Tim Horton’s knows?

        Why would such a guy even focus on a congressional representative?

        Oh, you mean there are radio stations telling people 24/7 to hunt down and harass congressional representatives at these specific events? And there are whole television stations devoted to getting people riled up at these specific people? And there are rallies where thousands of people show up with death threats to these people, and images of them doing this and carrying guns are broadcast all over the television?

        I wonder whether people who are able to brush this off have ever actually listened to conservative talk radio or watched Fox News for more than a few hours. I’d wager maybe not – unless they’re doing it out of fear of culpability.

        I would believe these arguments that it was “just a crazy person” except his choice of target was _so specific_. If he’s really so crazy that he just wants to go deranged and kill people – why did he ask the aide if he could see her and then patiently get on the line to speak to her before losing his patience and rushing her?

        This is like if some random guy from Redding, Massachusetts assassinated CC Sabathia at an autograph-signing event in Westchester. Anybody who tells me it didn’t have anything to do with baseball and the New York Yankees is either straight-up delusional or lying to cover his ass.


    • fenzel #

      This is hilarious. As OTI’s leading expert on Blood Libel, we should get Shechner in here to explain to everybody what it is and how it works.

      I for one didn’t even know Sarah Palin baked bread. I thought she was more of a carnivore. But I’d imagine that the helicopter and high-powered rifle do give her a certain tactical advantage when hunting Christian babies for food.


  5. Rob #

    Wow, Stokes, “You have to fight the octopus.” That brings me way back… I haven’t thought about Ultros in at least twelve years. FFVI FTW.

    So is Booth a Returner? Which one? Perhaps Locke? … I know these analogies aren’t compatible with one another, but I think the game would probably portray Lincoln as Gestahl and Sherman as Kefka…


  6. Timothy J Swann #

    Most discussion in Britain of the shootings is based on a fair degree of incredulity that there isn’t similar amounts of gun control to us, probably because we don’t have a written constitution, let alone one enshrining such rights. I was shocked when the Supreme Court affirmed that the Second Amendment originally referred to an individual’s rights, since I thought they might say that it referred to the militias but people could still have constitutionally protected guns. At the very least, we expect better, more thorough checks for sanity, or the restriction of the type of guns available. We’ve also seen legal responses to mass shootings, e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Firearms_%28Amendment%29_%28No._2%29_Act_1997 (This isn’t meant to come across smug, just to show how weird we find the responses to the shootings in our culture)

    Of course, lacking a Second Amendment, we also lack a First Amendment, and have more specific laws on ‘hate speech’, as well as very strong libel laws, which have made us the Libel Capital of the world, with non-British plantiffs and defendents being tried in our courts.

    It’s an interesting contrast on both counts.


  7. Howard #

    I think there are two things to keep in mind. First, violent political rhetoric is bad, regardless of whether or not it leads to actions like what happened on Saturday. Second, there’s no evidence that political rhetoric actually did contribute to this particular case. People are complex, and I don’t think it’s as easy as pointing at one thing and saying that if we stop being uncivil then nobody will ever do this again. I also don’t want to give in to the argument that “Oh, he was clearly crazy, so we don’t have to change anything.” The response should be “Yes, there are crazy people out there. That doesn’t mean you should egg them on.”

    However, on some level the debate over the civility or violence in the political conversation isn’t the one that’s really the problem. What’s really at issue is the content. If you consider what’s been said about President Obama and the Democrats in the two years since he took office, there’s really no amount of civility that would make it okay. Is there any polite way to say that Obama is a foreigner who, with the help of Nancy Pelosi and ACORN, is trying to destroy America by implementing a government takeover of the health care system and taking away all Americans’ guns? (For the record, the ONLY action that Obama has taken on gun control is allowing people to take concealed weapons into national parks. No joke.) It’s just so much easier to pack lies into a statement than it is to debunk them. I don’t think it’s true that you can’t have your own facts anymore, and I don’t see an easy way out of it.


  8. JosephFM #

    Sort of off the main topic and a bit late, but I was listening to Winamp on random (yes, Winamp – their new Android app is great) earlier, and it brought me back to that point y’all made about how certain media that have basically nothing to do with the horrible events sort of become off limits for a while because of them, because they just seem to be in really bad taste, even though media with arguably a more direct connection don’t cause the same reaction. That is to say, the Bowling for Columbine point.

    What made me think of this is that the song that came on was “Pop The Glock” by Uffie. It just felt wrong.


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