Archive for the ‘michael raysses’ Category

Taking It Dry

November 3, 2009

Written By: Michael Raysses

Growing up, my Father had strange ways of teaching me about the world. Sometimes he would just utter an old Greek adage to illustrate a point. “A fish rots from the head down” comes most readily to mind. Regardless of his method, though, he would never expressly say what it was he wanted me to learn. Instead he would just suggest that I observe life and take note of what I noticed. One of his favorites that baffled me for years was when he recommended that I watch the way people interact, especially in those instances in which one of them is subordinate and poses no prospect of doing anything of benefit for the other.

This dynamic comes to mind when contemplating the issues of art and culture, especially as they relate to a civilization up to its earlobes in war, economic distress, and a malaise so pervasive it defies categorization. How do we accord art and culture in the post-We’re-At-(Undeclared)-War-In-Afghanistan-But-No-One-Bothered-To-Mention-It-So-Let’s-Pretend-It’s-Not-Really-Happening era? How do we treat art and culture when they arguably pose no obvious benefit to us as a civilization? And the unfortunate answer, as my Uncle Tasso would say, is that art and culture are taking it dry.

But before we proceed, we need to understand the slippery nature of the topic at hand. Like beheading a hydra, defining culture can be elusive—just when you think you’ve nailed it down, at least two more meanings spring up. In fact, in Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions, authors Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn compile a list of 164 meanings of the term. Broadly speaking, though, three meanings come to mind when discussing culture. It can touch on excellence of taste in the fine arts and humanities, i.e., high culture. It can represent an integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for symbolic thought and social learning, or it can manifest as the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group.

Regardless of what definition you choose, though, what is palpable is a sense of cultivation or improvement—that culture’s driving force is the betterment or refinement of the individual, especially through education, through art, and then onto the fulfillment of national aspirations and ideals. Sadly, what is even clearer is how this view is lost in
the current political milieu.

Back on March 31st of this year Time magazine’s Richard Lacayo reported on the annual lobbying blitz in our nation’s capital called Arts Advocacy Day. That’s the one day when various art groups from around the country plead their case that art is not only intrinsically good for people, but that it’s good for the economy too. In that piece, he cited the following statistic in reference to the National Endowment for the Arts’ budget:
“Thirty years ago, the NEA received a modest 12 cents per $100 of non-military discretionary spending. Today that is just three cents per $100. If the NEA had simply maintained its 1979 percentage of discretionary funding, its 2008 budget would have been $613 million.”
To give the issue of the NEA budget some context, consider this: The budget peaked in 1992 at $175 million. But a mere three years later, the budget was slashed by a Republican House majority to $99.5 million, a 39 percent cut. The freefall continued up until 1997 when the same House voted to eliminate the NEA altogether, an idea that was mercifully rejected by the Senate.

Though things have calmed down in the last 10 years, the 2009 NEA budget request by the Obama White House is just $155 million, an increase of only $10 million. Admittedly, that would be on top of the $50 million that the NEA got in the stimulus bill. But given the boatloads of funds dispersed by the feds to financial institutions who represent themselves to be too big to fail, (when in fact all they are is too greedy to succeed), $205 million seems Uncle Sam’s version of rolling up a wrinkled $20, stuffing it into our unsuspecting hand, and telling us to go buy ourselves a Coke or something nice.

These are tough economic times that demand fiscal accountability. So what do we get for our hard-earned tax dollars from the NEA? We get the benefit of the express mandate of a designated arts organization by our government. It is an entity dedicated to bringing the arts to all Americans, while providing much-needed leadership in the field of arts education. Its influence has impacted the development and preservation of folk art, theater, opera, literature, dance, as well as other realms of artistic expression. Though the majority of direct public funding is still generated by a raft of other federal, state, regional, and local agencies, the role of the NEA as the de facto leader in its field can’t be understated.

But watching the federal government’s treatment of the NEA and of art and culture generally, I suddenly understand my Pop’s wisdom. The fish in this case, the federal government, has most definitely rotted from the head down. How else do you explain the gap between the proposed NEA budget and a Department of Defense budget for the 2009 fiscal year that comes in at anywhere from between $925 billion to $1.14 trillion, depending on whose numbers you use?

I am aware of how naïve this might sound. But there is no balance in our current state, no recognition or action to engage the things we know are our civilization’s lifeblood—our culture and the art that springs forth from it. What shocks me even more, though, is that there is no national dialogue on this issue anywhere in the mainstream media. The orgy of defense-related spending is now a way of life, beyond question because it flies under the radar of public perception

Suddenly my Father’s obsession with the notion of watching two entities interact comes into distinct focus: You measure character in a vacuum of potential benefit. How does a dominant entity treat a subordinate one when there is no perceived value to be gained? In this case, I am afraid Uncle Tasso had it right.

Michael Raysses is a writer/actor/National Public Radio commentator living in Los Angeles. E-mail him at

Apolitically Incorrect – A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Oil and Gas Lease Auction

September 24, 2009

Written By: Michael Raysses

Greetings, folks. Welcome to Apolitically Incorrect. I will be your host and emcee, thanks to the good folks here at Chicks with Guns, who have asked me to write a political column for the magazine. My only problem with a “political column” is that I think it’s a dated notion. As far as I’m concerned, everything is political.

The thought that everything is political is a logical extension of the disintegration of the lines that once separated distinct topics into cozy realms. Remember the good old days when there was “news” and “entertainment”? Right, now what we get is “infotainment”—the ugly, ill-informed Siamese twin born of their unholy coupling. The offspring bears faint resemblance to its parents while providing none of the benefit of its lineage. For better or worse, I feel that the same fate has befallen politics. It has lost its place as a free-standing topic. And I would argue that this is the case no matter whose characterization of the term we use.

Personally, I like Ambrose Bierce’s definition best: “Politics is a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. It is the conduct of public affairs for private advantage.” It’s technically accurate while paying more than just lip service to the oxymoronic fate that has befallen the phrase “public service.”

You may well disagree with my idea, but if you consider the case of one Mr. Tim De Christopher, perhaps you’ll think otherwise. Oh, and when I refer to Tim’s case, I am not kidding—it’s The United States of America, Plaintiff, vs. Tim De Christopher, Defendant, Case #2:09cr00183DB. But I am getting a little ahead of myself here. Allow me to backtrack.

Back in December of last year, De Christopher was just your average environmentally active, 27 year-old economics major at the University of Utah. He had just completed a final exam when he was on his way to take part in an organized protest of an auction of oil and gas exploration leases offered by the Bureau of Land Management. Opponents of the proposed auction had two majors gripes with the proceeding: the amount of land involved was too broad in its scope, and the speed at which the auction had been put together virtually assured that the BLM wouldn’t be able to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s that are federally mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency in situations like this.

Not surprisingly, they also felt that this was the Bush Administration’s version of a Blue Light Special, because the lands in question were pristine parcels that abutted Arches and Canyonlands National Parks in the southern and eastern parts of Utah. These tracts of land were (warning: gratuitous Latin phrase alert!) sui generis, as in ‘one-of-a-kind.’ Though the BLM buckled to pressure from a raft of environmental groups and reduced the size of its initial offering, the auction went off as scheduled.

This was the scenario posed to De Christopher that morning. A nameless foot soldier in the fight to preserve what little is left of Mama Nature’s prime real estate, he had grown tired of the futility of the environmentalists’ efforts. It was a feeling that was palpable when he arrived that morning. It was an emotion that took on razor sharpness when contrasted with the efficacy De Christopher aspired to. Feeling the bottomless gap between his morals and his actions, De Christopher paused.

And then lighting struck…

In a fit of anti-authoritarian brio, De Christopher infiltrated the auction as a means of disrupting what he viewed to be not only a fraudulent sale, but one that would irretrievably damage national natural treasures.

Surprisingly for De Christopher, gaining access to the proceedings proved to be relatively easy. Consistent with the BLM’s haste in putting this auction together, they neglected to enforce the standard security measures typically required. De Christopher showed his driver’s license, filled out a small form, was given a bidder’s paddle, and escorted in. (Personally, I can’t believe they didn’t make him at least demonstrate the Vulcan death grip or something.)

Once inside, he witnessed the auction process. Then, he soon began actually bidding on parcels, driving up their costs merely by waving his bidder’s paddle. But because his mission was to save the land, not just raise the price of having a shot at drilling and exploration, he decided to bring his ‘A’ game—De Christopher was in it to win it.

Which is exactly what he did. He proceeded to win 13 bids, totaling 22,000 acres, at a cost of $1.8 million. Sensing something was amiss, he was detained by the authorities, who then quickly released him into the arms of a hungry media longing for its next morsel. From the outset, De Christopher copped to his actions, and even went so far as to admit that the only reason he had committed the fraudulent bids was to save the imperiled land.

Public support sprung up for Tim faster than an oil speculator at a hastily prepared sale of oil and gas leases. Within a very short time, he was able to raise $100,000 through his website,, to cover the cost of the initial payment to the BLM for the leases in question, as well as for what was sure to involve prospective legal defense costs.

Then on February 4th, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar invalidated the oil and gas leases that had been auctioned off, which for all intents and purposes could arguably be construed as the government’s admission of “my bad.”

But keep your eye on the bouncing ball, folks, because remember, everything is political, and when everything is political anything can happen, which is exactly what transpired here. Though the leases in question were voided by the feds, the man who felled the oil-and-gas-industry Goliath with a bidder’s paddle and did so without destroying, defiling, or otherwise desecrating anything, unless you count the derailed locomotive of greed that was expecting uncontested whacks at the piñata placed so generously before them by the Bush administration, that guy was the butt of the federal government’s idea of an April Fool’s joke.

Because on April 1, 2009, Tim was indicted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Utah for two counts of violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Act. (A lesser charge of wearing a flannel shirt to a government auction was considered but ultimately dropped.)

Let’s pause for a moment to review, shall we? The government conducts a highly questionable sale of oil and gas leases that it ultimately voids; yet later they decide to criminally prosecute the man who provided them the opportunity to reconsider and correct their reckless conduct by wielding a bidder’s paddle? (Paging Mr. Kafka, Mr. Franz Kafka!)

And then in a move that put the “crap” in craptacular, on April 3, the BLM levied an $81,000 assessment against Tim for the voided leases. And because that wasn’t surreal enough, they then withdrew the assessment a couple of months later.

Finally, on September 25 in a federal courthouse in Salt Lake City, a judge will hear the government’s motion to keep De Christopher from using what’s known as the necessity defense. This is a legal theory that claims he acted as he did out of the necessity of protecting the environment in the face of impending climate change. Basically, they don’t want a jury to hear about issues of protecting the environment and impending climate change. The government just wants the jury to know that Tim did what he did intentionally, with no regard for the context in which his decision was made. Why? Because if the jury hears those facts, they might actually find in Tim’s favor. And, God forbid, if they do that they may actually provide judicial notice of climate change as a matter of fact.

Right about now you’re asking yourself “What’s that smell?” It’s not teen spirit, and it’s not napalm in the morning—it’s the stench of government in decay. And without going full-Ambrose Bierce on you, it is the conduct of public affairs for private advantage.

Now it’s safe to say that we as a nation have become used to diminished expectations. Even with the election of a man who is actually qualified to run the country, we know better than to expect much that even remotely approaches efficiency from our government and its agencies. But what we can’t condone is when our government is guilty of what in its best light looks like gross malfeasance, especially when they are given a chance to grant themselves a reprieve by a citizen who has the balls, heart, and spirit to act consonant with his moral compass, a device conspicuously absent from the government’s decision making process.

I have given up expecting bureaucracies like the BLM to actually do that which they are created to, which in this case is to manage federal energy sources in an environmentally sound way. (My italics.) What galls me most deeply is the wholesale lack of respect for resources present in this case. (Um, I don’t know whose italics those are.) And by resources, the untapped oil and gas that lies beneath the ground in Utah aren’t all I am referring to. I am talking about the very real, immeasurable and invaluable human resource of people like Tim De Christopher! (OK, that’s definitely my exclamation point.)

If we are ever going to extricate ourselves from the wringer we have wedged ourselves into, we need people like Tim De Christopher—inventive, committed, and compassionate—not in jail, his contributions to society neutralized while sapping limited resources by being incarcerated—but in the vanguard of the vital democracy we remember ourselves to be.

But De Christopher is just one guy. One extremely committed guy. And the funny thing is, before he infiltrated that auction and waved that paddle, he was a guy just like me. And just like you. And the momentum of that decision has resulted in the prospect for some real progress to be made in the corner of the political realm dealing with climate change via, of all things, the judicial branch.

It’s been said that two wrongs don’t make a right. This case proves an exception to that rule. The BLM failed in its responsibility to adhere to federally-imposed environmental guidelines before holding the auction. Tim, by his own admission, represented himself to be a qualified bidder, which he wasn’t. When the Department of the Interior voided the sale, the two negatives perpetrated by both parties multiplied to create a positive—the lands in question are safe for the time being. The decision to prosecute Tim is the perfect final touch for those who like a little closure with their lunacy. That Brett Tolman, the U.S. Attorney who is prosecuting this case, wants to participate in some perverse act of reverse-alchemy by attempting to spin political straw out of environmental gold is regrettable. Our focus now must be on what we can do to support Tim in this scenario.

Tim told me that what moved him to act as he did was the realization that he could actually handle serving time to save the imperiled lands. What he couldn’t live with was waking up ten years down the road, seeing those lands ransacked by the oil and gas industries, and live with the knowledge that he had the chance to do something about it and didn’t.

Well, we have a chance to endorse Tim right here, right now.

Go to Make a donation, write your representative. And if that leaves you feeling like you want to do more, then go to and really throw your oars in the water. And if that’s not enough, just ask yourself what it would take for you to align your morals with your actions. Nothing could be more political.

Michael Raysses is a writer, actor, and National Public Radio commentator; he lives in Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at (Author’s note: no animals were harmed in the writing of this column.)

Michael Raysses

June 17, 2008

Position: Contributing Writer (Politics)

Location: Los Angeles, CA

Bio:Born in Gary, Indiana, (yes, that Gary, Indiana), Raysses is an ex-attorney-turned-writer/actor. Having a profound love for the classics, he has fashioned a writing career that harkens back to another era—which is to say, he writes. Author of the syndicated column Greek to Me, Raysses’ work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times Sunday magazine. He contributed to the New York Times bestseller The Right Words at the Right Time, Volume 2. Raysses has also lent his pen (and voice) to National Public Radio’s Day to Day Show, contributing several pieces of commentary to that program.

In life as in his writing, Raysses appreciates candor. To that end, he is currently looking for creative ways to avoid finishing a first draft of his memoirs, entitled “Lies I’ve Told Myself.”

Musically speaking, Raysses was the little-known sixth member of the Spice Girls, Old. Since being drummed out of the band, he has refocused his efforts on creating a Dixie Chicks tribute band comprised entirely of post-operative transsexual men-to-women called the Chicksie Dicks.

Hope springs infernal…

Columns At CWG: Politics