Saturday, April 2, 2011

Confessions of an April Fool Hoaxer

Skip all this "how we decide" mumbo jumbo and take me straight to the James Polk joins FOX NEWS April Fools post! I can come back here later.

OK, time to fess up.

Yesterday's FOX NEWS blog post was, of course, an elaborate April Fools hoax. I know, I know, if you bought into it, right about now you're most likely nose diving into that uneasy feeling in the gut that comes when you realize you've been had. Believe me, I've been there. I was taken in a few years ago when I fell headfirst into a Marketplace story about how the government, instead of sending out stimulus checks as authorized by Congress, decided to mail homeowners the equivalent value in the form of an air conditioner or a washing machine explaining it was being done to boost manufacturing. They interviewed mock government officials and mock homeowners and Robert Reich, who I think has some brilliant sociological observations, and the report had the the tone and structure of the typical story airing on Marketplace. But it was fiction. I had developed a rigid set of assumptions about the Bush administration, so the constructed narrative, aided by atmospherics and Robert Reich's righteous indignation, played on my own preconceptions to hook me in. And I never saw it coming.

And you know what they say about the word "assume"? When you ASSUME, you make an ass out of Uma Thurman. (Ouch! Sorry, that's my favorite Al Frankin joke.)

Such is the power of narrative to pass off misinformation as truth and get away with it. When cynically used as a device to trump facts and reality and rational thinking in an effort to con people into acting against their own good judgment and best interests to enrich the perpetrators of the narrative, it's immoral. FOX NEWS became the setting of this little hoax, in a wicked twist of absurd irony, because it's their standard modus operandi.

So I decided to take advantage of the age-old April Fools tradition to put together an art piece that I hope was an entertaining and stimulating read (it's packed with oblique references, so if you're into dry contextual humor, you might want to give it another run-through) with a creative commentary on the cynical (and dangerous) ethos of America's modern-day mainstream corporate media.

Why is it that this pearl necklace of absurdities strung one after another was, for many, plausibly believable? In the most positive light, I am comforted and humbled that so many who know me and are familiar with my work truly wish the best for me and are of the opinion that I've earned the legitimacy of an opportunity to step onto a bigger stage with a national audience, and a story like this - even with it's outrageous twists and turns and questionable venue - triggers a suspension of disbelief born purely out of goodwill.

But it also might have something to do with the media phenomenon of manufacturing drama by "sensationalizing the trivial," especially on cable television with FOX NEWS as standard-bearer. In the current media environment, reality shows pluck talentless individuals out of obscurity solely on the basis of their ability to create drama and conflict, and those who offer reasonable ideas and speak in whole paragraphs can't find a minute of airtime as the 24/7 news cycle is monopolized by the politicians and talking heads who push the most divisive ideas, claim the most outrage, and loudly spew the most anger. In an environment where the critical societal and environmental problems of our day (many of which, coincidentally, have solutions that might possibly cut into the bottom line of vested corporate interests) are buried under layers of highly stimulating distraction, anything - even the implausible scenario of FOX NEWS hiring James Polk as a sustainability commentator - is possible.

And, if we are not aware that this ongoing cascade of melodrama is indeed a distraction, we fall into the trap of accepting the chatter as "normal."

In a way, this is a cautionary tall tale. Because we're all pushed and pulled by savvy marketers who feed us bogus narratives, whether it's the hip branding of a soft drink designed to drive up sales when the taste tests are crummy, or a political "movement" that triggers and activates our fears as a method of winning elections and setting policy then the candidates are disingenuous and the ideas are unpopular. A little bit of healthy skepticism and some awareness of context helps. But we're all taken in from time to time. And we either figure it out, or someone clues us in, or we remain oblivious and robotically move in the direction of the bogus narrative all the while ignoring our better judgment.

In a way, it's easier to just go with the narrative. It doesn't require much thought or messy introspection. And even when we wise up, a part of us doesn't want to believe we've been betrayed. It's still easier to dismiss reality with the cloak of denial and run with the narrative, because as soon as we fully acknowledge that we've been had, here comes that sickening feeling. And the feeling might just be unbearable if we have to admit we've been fooled into enthusiastically supporting bad ideas and backing candidates who push through policies that hasten our demise.

So better to just go along with ruse, right? At least we'll have company.


My wife and I gave up TV when the US underwent the digital conversion back in 2009 (not that either one of us watched much television anyway) opting not to invest in the necessary hardware. We haven't missed it a bit, and in fact, we've found that by dispensing with the small amount of habitual TV watching in which we did engage, we freed up time for more rewarding activities, and we both feel that not watching television has enriched our lives.

But the biggest advantage of nixing the TV is the refreshing absence of so-called news. Americans watch a lot of TV, and I've been in homes and businesses where the television is always on, even when no one is actively watching. The more TV we take in, the more we are desensitized to the harshness and not-so-subtle behavioral triggers buried in the chatter. Try going without watching TV news for a while, say a year or two, and your experience and perception will be profoundly different. On a recent trip to local airport to pick up a friend, it was impossible to ignore two mounted televisions both tuned to FOX NEWS as they blared vitriol to passive onlookers who seemed completely conditioned to the idea that this was normal. Yet the messaging was a loud constant stream of hate, anger, and divisiveness. Normal? To me, it felt like I was being force-fed poison - the kind of poison that tears societies apart.

Apologies to anyone who did not appreciate the little April Fools prank. But I have to say, it's probably the most fun piece of writing I've created in quite some time. I promise I'll not set set you up with another bogus piece of fiction masquerading as reality ... until next year!

Friday, April 1, 2011


I would like to take this opportunity to thank the many people who over the years have visited and supported the New American Village Blog. It's been an eventful last few years of blogging and - I'm getting a little misty-eyed here - it would have been impossible for me to keep getting up at 4 am to launch into exhaustive research for yet another fresh and insightful blog post had it not been for the support and encouragement of the thousands of loyal readers who just kept coming back for more. (You know who you are!)

But now it's time to turn the page. As you surely have noticed, I've been taking a bit of a break from the day to day posting as of late, but I haven't exactly been sitting on my hands. Now that my agent has officially consummated the deal, I'm free to disclose that FOX NEWS is bringing me on board as a regular commentator in their new blogger series America, Hell Yeah! Fair and Balanced ™ set to debut this summer on My contract runs through November 6th, 2012 - election day - with an option year if FOX decides to continue the series. (I'm keeping my fingers crossed!)

What turned out to be a pretty involved process all started back in early January when FOX contacted me about trying out for this gig along with, as I found out later on, over 200 other bloggers. Turns out, the producer has been following my writing on the New American Village blog since she came across one of my very early posts from about three years back (which is about 100 in blogger years) entitled Strip Tease where I lead off with the observation that "strip malls are the pornography of real estate development."

After a winnowing out period over the next few weeks where I submitted about a dozen pithy shoot-from-the-hip mock blog posts on given topics, I made the the interview cut and FOX flew me to New York for a week where, in what I can only imagine to be an American Idol-style circus of an audition, I made the final cut along with Ed Begley, Jr. for the sustainability guy slot.

Maybe it was the adrenalin rush from being in New York, or possibly my new prescription of adderall, but I was so "on" that week. My lucky break came when they told us we had to think of a special original project that would get our topic across to the FOX audience in a unique, entertaining way. It just so happened that Sarah Palin was there taping something or other so I approached her about doing a weekly one photo /one caption dueling commentary on sustainability that I'm calling Sustain This, America!

To my delight, she was quite enthusiastic about the idea (I don't care what you've heard about SP, she's really a lot of fun) so we grabbed a cameraman, ducked into a studio and took a few quick stills while hand writing our captions on a post-it note. Bang, bang, the technical guys there slapped a few samples together over the course of the next hour or so, and I made my pitch. The shot that blew everybody away was on the topic of conservation where her caption was "Enough Said." I don't think her impromptu pose will wind up in the series, but let me tell you, witnessing it was one of the highlights of my life. (I'm pretty sure the FCC, at least with the composition of its current board, doesn't let TV networks show full moons, at least not without a stiff fine.) Don't get any bright ideas web surfers; her handlers were pretty adamant about keeping that image under lock and key along with her crotch grab for the domestic drilling commentary with strict no-publish orders until "a time and place of her choosing."

So there I was, sitting in a room with Ed Begley, Jr. (what a stick in the mud!) where Rupert Murdoch himself had been brought in to make the the final decision. As Mr. Murdoch was going on and on about what he expected out of this project, Ed Begley all off a sudden just started shaking his head and saying "bullshit, bullshit, this is all bullshit" and he got up and stormed out of the room. Well, at that point, I was sure that Begley, the polished actor he is, was creating a big drama just for show to land the part, and it got pretty confusing as they all rushed out after him trying to convince him to stay on, even to the point of offering the spot to him right there in the hallway. But he told them to "go to hell" and left so they offered me the job.

So, starting this summer, I'll be posting regularly at on sustainability issues. They've also got me lined up to be a regular guest (piped in from WXXV on the coast) hucking it up with Mike Huckabee on his show (I guess this means he's seriously not considering a run for the presidency), occasionally going toe to toe with Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, and chitchatting with what seems to me to be an endless cast of sexy blond anchors all trying to - as Mr. Murdoch put it - "knock this guy off of his talking points."

I'm pumped!!!

Note to long-time readers: Unfortunately, and my agent said I had no choice in this matter, FOX NEWS demanded that I change the name of the blog from "the New American Village" to "the New American Suburb." (Truthfully, considering the size of the compensation package, I really don't give a damn what they call it.) So come summer, please reset your bookmarks to and join in on all the FOXed-up fun. See you there!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Pamphleteer in Purgatory

Dear Readers,

I'll be back shortly after the new year, refreshed and rejuvenated, and with some luck, something to say.

Meanwhile, I invite you to explore three years of essays, photos, and insights. Come on, take a chance. Type something into the search box and maybe you'll get lucky.

Or check out my series of photo essays on the buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright. Lots of original photos, a few observations, a couple of films, and at least one drawing by yours truly.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Thank you for visiting my blog. See you in 2011!

James Polk

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What is Sustainability?

This week's newspaper column: (Read it in the Hattiesburg American.)

The concept of sustainability has been sustaining the earth for as long as it’s been around – that’s why this planet is still here. Yet there seems to be some disagreement among twenty-first century humans about the meaning of sustainability.

Some people claim that sustainability is a collection of costly boutique solutions only affordable to the extravagantly wealthy for the sole purpose of elevating guilt about how their retched excesses are allegedly destroying the planet. Wrong. Sustainability is not an isolated tactical solution here and there; it is set of interdependent principles that work to sustain the life of the planet and its inhabitants. Here are a few hopefully-not-so-boring concepts:

Sustainability is self-perpetuating. In a sustainable world, life goes on naturally as the decayed remains of the old feed the next generation of growth. In a sustainable world, there is no waste to be buried in a landfill. The last phase of one cycle is the first phase of another. As architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart put it so poetically in their classic book “Cradle to Cradle” - waste equals food.

Sustainability is holistic. Isolated solutions are inconsistent with sustainable practices. The history of man is full of unintended consequences as a result of isolated solutions. Use DDT to control pesky mosquitoes and you wind up killing humans, channelize a river to prevent floods and you deplete rich farmland of important replenishing nutrients, kill off a species here and another codependent species dies off, and the list goes on and on. Even when it’s not apparent, decisions in our physical world are never truly in isolation . In a highly sustainable environment, everything is connected to everything.

Sustainability is organic and dynamic, and nature is the best example of sustainable growth. In nature, growth happens where renewable resources abound. In the wild, diversity is a constant. Life flourishes when multiple species of flora and fauna exist in close proximity. Nature encourages integration and coexistence. The most sustainable places on earth are where, naturally, the greatest diversity occurs. A suburban lawn - limited by choice and Roundup weed killer to one grass species - by contrast, is one of the least sustainable micro-systems on earth.

Sustainability takes the long view, and is not necessarily efficient in the short run. “Slash and burn” expediency has quickly enriched many a businessman, and the pressure of tomorrow’s stock price is no friend of green solutions, but sustainability is the one thing that is essential for our long-term survival. Non-sustainable solutions are like sparklers: fast spectacular burn - then nothing. Sustainable solutions, by nature, endure and become stronger with the passage of time.

And most important, sustainable solutions are not necessarily costly. In fact, Mother Nature has been providing no-cost solutions long before humans lurched at the reins. By taking our lessons from nature, we have a ready roadmap to all things sustainable.

Put away your GPS and, instead, take a good look at the world around you.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Compost This

This weeks newspaper column: (Read it in the Hattiesburg American.)

My tomato plants lived a long and fruitful life. May they rest in pieces … in the compost pile.

More and more, people are starting their own backyard compost piles. Far from being a Johnny-come-lately idea, humans have practiced various forms of composting for millennia. Early farmers found that a mix of animal waste, straw, crop residues and other organic material would gradually turn into a rich, fertile, soil-like substance that was very good for growing crops. Archeological evidence shows signs of deliberate composting in Mesopotamia a thousand years before the birth of Moses, and George Washington - father of our country – was so much a proponent of compost that he constructed a special structure solely devoted to composting.

What is compost anyway?

When green organic material – grass clipping, table scraps, animal waste, etc. – containing large amounts of nitrogen are combined with brown organic material – dried leaves, wood chips, etc. – that have lots of carbon, a curious thing happens. Microscopic bacteria and fungi go to work to speed up the decomposing process, and the material breaks down into a dark, fertile blend. Mother Nature does this all the time; active composting just speeds up the process.

So what are the advantages of composting?

When added to the soil in your garden, compost supplies necessary nutrients lessening the need for synthetic petroleum-based fertilizers. The highly organic nature of compost holds moisture keeping your garden from drying out too quickly on hot summer days. And the loose structure of compost helps aerate your soil facilitating healthier plant growth.

On a broader scale, what goes into the compost bin does not have to be picked up, transported, and buried in a landfill. The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that lawn clippings and table scraps comprise over a quarter of all the waste that winds up in American landfills. And who pays for that? You do. In an age of clamor for smaller government and lower taxes, composting on a grand scale can reduce public expenditures. Many cities in the US have instituted city-wide composting programs that are reducing the cost of trash pick-up and disposal.

You can purchase a home composter, and there are plenty of good ones on the market, but if you’re a budget-minded do-it-yourselfer, you may want to consider making one. All you really need is about a three foot by three foot space in your back yard. Choose a location that is convenient to your garden, has good drainage and has at least partial shade. You can construct a bin out of wood and chicken wire, but it really can be as simple as layering dried leaves and table scraps on the ground. Turn the bin or stir the pile regularly to keep it well oxygenated, and if it dries out, add a little water.

Think about starting a compost pile when you turn in this summer’s garden. Add table scraps, fall’s falling leaves, and even this newspaper, and by spring, you’ll have a healthy and inexpensive head start for your next garden.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A More Perfect Union

This week's newspaper column: (Read it in the Hattiesburg American)

“Be the change you want to see in the world.”

When taken to heart and followed up with action, this is one of the most empowering and result-generating quotes I’ve ever come across. Of course, these words of wisdom were uttered by a meek, 90 pound man who was credited with breaking the will of the mighty British Empire and gaining independence for the nation of India - one Mahatma Gandhi.

On a more personal level, some years ago I was with a friend and mentor of mine – architect and futurist Doug Michels – when someone asked him if he was going to attend the big protest for I-can’t-remember-quite-what. He replied, “Absolutely not. People can protest if they want – I really don’t care – but I don’t think it does any good.” Doug went on to say, “I spend my time designing the world I’d like to see and I think that makes a much bigger impact.”

Imagine what TV news would be like if, instead of criticizing the motivations and actions of others, talking heads offered up discussions about their vision of the future and provided solutions to the issues of the day. Imagine the richness of the discussion if, instead of flame-throwing accusations and hyperbolizing about how the other guy’s policies are going to destroy everything, we had real visionaries collaborating in good spirit on ideas of how to make our lives better. I gave up television years ago exactly because of the divisiveness it fosters, but that would be television worth watching!

But divisiveness – “compare and contrast” is the gentle euphemism used most often – is what drives TV ratings, you say? Maybe so. Not politically smart, you say? Maybe so again. But where has this intellectual food fight in the form of constant criticism and assailed motives gotten us as a nation? Not very far. In fact, the more divisive we become, the more it seems we move backwards as a society.

I am old enough now to notice a discernable change in the way people argue. Once upon a time, there was an openness to ideas and a more collegial give-and-take when it came to debating issues. Now, it seems that arguments are more like football games: “My team is for this and your team is for that and I’m never for anything your team is for because we’re locked in mortal combat. Go team go!”

For a change of pace, try forgetting completely what you don’t like about something or someone, and detach from ‘who’s for this’ and ‘who’s for that,’ and focus on the things you would like to see in the world. You may find that you have much more in common with those you oppose than you think.

When ‘show me your birth certificate’ is replaced with ‘show me your vision, and by the way, here’s mine,’ we’ll be well on the way to realizing a more perfect union.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Feng SHe Launches Today

There's excitement in the air. Today is the launch of a brand new website devoted to achieving a balance of masculine and feminine energies in all areas of our lives. It's called Feng SHe.

And, I'm delighted to announce that I was selected as a regular contributor to the site. I'll have a weekly column exploring aspects of feminine/masculine balance in all areas creative. Click on the Creativity icon to read my articles.

So please click in to on a regular basis and join the discussion.

Directly from the heart - thank you!

James Polk

Monday, August 2, 2010

Buck Up, America

This week's newspaper column: (Read it in the Hattiesburg American.)

“If you think you can, or if you think you can’t, either way, you’re right.”

Attributed to Henry Ford, this is one of my favorite quotes, and it’s especially applicable to the current debate over fossil fuels and renewable energies.

Voices arguing against moving away from traditional dirty energies – most notably oil, gas, and coal – in the direction of clean energies proclaim that running America on renewable energy is a pipe dream, a fantasy – “pie in the sky!"

But I ask you: Whatever happened to that good old American “can do” spirit?

True, Henry Ford took a lot of ribbing for his idea of bringing horseless carriages to the mass market. (The buggy whip manufacturers were especially skeptical.) “What a silly idea,” they said. “Who would want to ride around in one of those things? They’re too expensive. They’re ugly. There are not enough roads to handle automobiles. They can’t possibly work for everybody. Pie in the sky!”

But we got over it, and by the mid-twentieth century, the automobile had transitioned from pipe dream to the American dream. And the buggy whip manufacturers somehow managed to make the transition too.

And now look at us arguing against our own ingenuity once again. This time, it’s not horseless carriages taking the brunt of the mocking criticism, it’s solar panels and wind turbines and alternative energy technologies we’ve only begun to explore. I don’t believe for a moment that we, as a society, are incapable of transitioning to clean energies; it’s simply a matter of will.

The vision of a clean-running America may very well be out of reach for those who close their minds off to the infinite creative possibilities lying ahead of us. But American innovation can only be throttled for so long. Eventually, either we advance as a nation, or we’ll be leapfrogged by the rest of the world. China, with its substantial investment in renewable energies, sustainable cities, and high-speed rail is on the verge of doing just that.

But everybody isn’t quite as down on renewable energies as are the current crop of nay-saying politicians and oil men. Right now, all across the US, in garages and labs, innovators and entrepreneurs are positioning themselves to be the next Henry Ford – this time, in the area of renewable clean energy.

That’s why I’m optimistic about the future of renewable energy. That’s why, regardless of all the negative talk, regardless of all the “here’s why we can’t” diatribes, this country is about to go through a fundamental revolution in the way we produce and use energy, and we’ll all be better off.

Years from now, our children will look back and wonder why we put it off for so long.