A CERTAIN WEARINESS

Posted in Rants on April 16th, 2015 by Ed

As soon as Trevor Noah was appointed Jon Stewart's successor, I knew it was coming. Without knowing anything about Noah beyond a very small number of appearances on Comedy Central's ratings juggernaut, I knew it was only a matter of time until someone, somewhere would uncover a reason that nobody is allowed to like him. Evidence that he is a Bad Person. He was going to be deemed racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Mennonite, or something that would remind us of the imperfections of his character. It is part of the modern "callout culture," and it is fucking exhausting.

You would think that grown men and women could recognize some sort of happy medium between condoning racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive words and actions and going to the opposite extreme and deeming nearly everyone guilty of something. But who are we kidding. We lack the subtlety to do anything other than blindly accept and endorse offensive shit as Just Fine or to wildly overreact and point fingers (and level accusations) like a bunch of self-righteous teenage straight edge kids who just discovered that the bassist in that one skatecore band smoked a cigarette.

I will make no defense of Trevor Noah's jokes – which, in addition to being somewhat offensive were, more importantly, really stupid and un-funny. If he or any other person says something offensive it is fair to hold them responsible for it. What bothers me is the fact that the second he got the job, someone sat down and went through five fucking years of his Tweets until they found something sufficiently insensitive to run breathlessly to the principal's office and tattle on him.

I've been updating this site five times per week for more than ten years. Anyone with endless time on their hands could, if I suddenly became famous, mine those millions of words to find something Unacceptable. Like any human being, I'm sure that not every word I've ever said was perfectly inoffensive to anyone and everyone. And I would submit, perhaps self-servingly, that if you were able to find something I wrote in 2003 that you (or a large number of people, even) found offensive it would not be conclusive evidence of my character and fitness for interacting with human society. It might be something that would deserve attention – Does it represent the way I feel today? Am I proud of it? Do I regret it for reasons other than dislike of the consequences? Do I understand how and why someone else found it offensive? – but in terms of my underlying character as a human being I think the fact that someone read 5,000 blog posts to find a Gotcha quote speaks more poorly of their character than the quote does of mine.

This is the one and only Gin and Tacos Thing I have ever spoken to another writer about before writing. I asked, "Is there any way to be critical of this "callout culture" without sounding like a whiny white male who is sad that he can't tell racist jokes anymore?" And she told me, "No. So just go ahead and do it." I'm sure some people will take it that way. And that is unfortunate, because I honestly think there is a balance that could be struck between making sure that closet racists, woman-haters, etc are made known and this kind of obsession with finding something Wrong with everyone. And yes, I think someone sifting through five years of tweets upon first hearing of a comedian is, if not legitimately obsessive, at least on the Obsession Spectrum.

We are addicted to the rush of being offended and we love tearing down our idols. Always have, always will. I'm not going to join the Patton Oswalt brigade of "Oh dear, You People are so sensitive that it's silencing my white male voice!" I don't feel in any way censored by having to think about the way that things I say and do might offend someone else. If Trevor Noah told antisemitic jokes, then I suppose it is fair that he answer for that. It's getting ugly, tiring, and depressingly predictable, though, this drill of mining the past until we can find The Dirt on everyone in the public eye in even the most insignificant way. Let's let this guy do the new job he's been chosen to do and judge him on the basis of what he does rather than putting him under a microscope until we find something from the past that we can use to pre-disqualify him.

JUST THIS ONCE

Posted in Rants on April 14th, 2015 by Ed

Last week in South Carolina we heard a sad story for the umpteenth time, one so familiar that we don't even need to know the details to complete it. Black male, police officer, minor infraction, "struggle", gunshots, dead body. Like school shootings or the weather, it has become part of the background of American life. It is estimated that every 28 hours a black male is killed by the police or a gun-toting vigilante; it's difficult to keep up even if one is willing to try.

A funny thing has happened with the South Carolina incident, though. Nobody has rallied to the officer's defense. His department hung him out to dry. Conservative talking heads refuse to talk about it. No one is handing over hundreds of thousands of dollars for his "legal defense." The reason, of course, is that the entire incident was videotaped and so clearly contradicts the traditional Police Story (there was a struggle, he took my gun, I was afraid for my life, etc.) that the usual parade of full time cop apologists can't even muster the energy. Oh, and it's kind of hard to generate sympathy when you're on video trying to plant a Taser near the guy you just shot. In the back. That's a level of callousness and corruption that even a Darren Wilson fan can't condone.

The distinctly American aspect of this reaction is the complete inability, or perhaps conscious unwillingness, to make the connection between this incident on video and thousands of other nearly identical incidents that happen not to be on video. This is a story that plays out time and time again across this country every year, and every time it is the officer's word versus the victim or witnesses and we are compelled to accept the official version of events. The idea that the one time the officer lied happened to coincide with the incident being clearly and completely captured on video redefines implausibility. I know that reactionary/authoritarian types are good at faking naivete when it protects them from thinking. What they no doubt tell themselves (and the rest of us) is the old Bad Apple argument – this was an unfortunate and isolated incident and all other incidents in which literally the exact same thing happens and the cop gives literally the exact same story are in no way connected.

The shooting and the callous reaction of the shooter are understandably the focus of most reactions to this depressingly predictable and familiar video, but the part that jumps out to me (and should be the most telling, at least to a sentient person) is the effort to plant the Taser near the dead body. I'll tell you what – ask someone in your circle of friends or family who is in or has worked around law enforcement what the phrase "drop knife" means to them (alternately, "drop gun"). True, I've never previously heard "drop Taser" but the officer in this video had to improvise. Work with the tools you have, right?

People are stubborn and often willfully ignorant. A person would need to have both of those qualities in spades to compartmentalize this incident in a separate reality. This cop was full of shit but all the others – the ones whose behavior isn't captured on video – are best consumed unskeptically. I refuse to believe that the hundreds of black (or otherwise inherently "dangerous") men who end up dead after what should be innocuous encounters with police are the violently resisting, weapon-grabbing, Hulked out monsters who require nothing less than a lethal response that the police always claim they are. If you think this is the first dead black male who had a weapon tossed near him by the cop who just shot him, in a just world you'd find out the hard way how these situations unfold in reality. Without the video, this would have been swept under the rug just like the hundreds of others; "Cop kills black male" isn't even news anymore without something more to make it interesting.

RAGE SUPPLY

Posted in Rants on April 12th, 2015 by Ed

I'm at the point of Internet Success (which is like Success, except it doesn't improve one's life in any way) at which random strangers send me things that are relevant to our collective interests. Recently a reader posted this picture, presumably from the office bulletin board. One of his coworkers sounds like a he has been hitting the Swanson Angry Man dinners a bit hard for…decades, presumably.

angryman

I've posted many times over the past decade about Tax Rage. I simply do not get it. There are so many things worth getting angry about and I don't understand how someone's life could be so sad that they obsess over taxes. You know those people who seem like they can talk about literally nothing else? To me they are as pitiable (but somehow more socially accepted) than a guy whose conversational abilities are limited to weird hobbies or Deep Space Nine. The idea of mustering that much anger, that much enthusiasm of any kind about something as mundane as property taxes would be impressive if it weren't so sad.

Reading the small print, the property tax increase in question is $7.92 per assessed $100,000 of property value. According to a real estate site, the median price of a single-family home in Xenia, OH (address in the upper right corner) is $105,000. The median price of homes sold recently is $129,000. Using the higher figure to give Mr. Histrionics the benefit of doubt, an owner of that median priced home would pay under this proposed tax an additional ($7.92 x 12 months x 1.29) $122.60 per year.

Now, let's get something straight. I don't enjoy paying taxes because nobody really does, and I'd rather have $122.60 than not have it. I do not believe $122.60 is an insignificant amount of money, although that means different things to different people. My rule of thumb for evaluating the relative worth of a given amount of money in your life is: If you dropped it in a gas station toilet full of liquid trucker feces, would you reach in to get it? If the answer is yes, it's a lot of money. At least to you. For someone living on the margins of the economy, $8 or $10 per month might be a big deal. To anyone else losing that amount might be unpleasant but – pay close attention to this part, Tax Rage Guy – it's not going to kill you. You'll live. $122.60 is not the difference between the guy who wrote on this flyer being able to eat or not, and I'm hard pressed to see how $122.60 could be the difference between a middle class homeowner's life bringing him happiness or misery. To someone who can afford a median priced home, I don't see how a hundred bucks could be a game-changer.

To be certain I don't want to give away $122.60 any more than the next person. My point is that if the law demanded that amount of money from me to pay for woefully underfunded public schools it wouldn't ruin my day. I don't understand how so many people can get so angry over something so comparatively insignificant – and I'm a fairly angry person. When I have to pay bills or send the IRS money once per year I react the way I imagine most half-normal people would: I write the check, I say "Fuck" a few times, and then I forget about it once it's in the mail. You might say that's just privilege talking and that if I were poorer I would feel differently, a point that would be valid if only the people who do the most bitching about taxes were poor rather than old white people losing sleep over the idea of poor people taking Their Money.

HE WHO IS WITHOUT SIN

Posted in Quick Hits on April 9th, 2015 by Ed

After years of stop-starting various endeavors related to this website I have decided to go all in on the New Republican Bible project. I am re-writing the Gospels and other highlights of the New Testament with Jesus as a modern Republican in the vein of Scott Walker or Sam Brownback, hopefully to be completed by Christmas 2015. It will make the perfect gift. God willing, it will be available in print and electronic formats. The foreword will be written by Jesus himself.

Though I am on record as anti-crowdfunding and though it would be entirely within reason to call me a hypocrite, I've set up such a page. My goal isn't to solicit donations but rather to get pre-sale/pre-order numbers high enough, potentially, to interest a publisher. I certainly don't consider self-publishing beneath me but ideally I can get someone interested in this who isn't me. If you think you are a person who would buy such a thing, why not go ahead and do it now?

With any luck – which, of course, is not something that seems to apply to my endeavors in most cases – this will work. It's just ridiculous enough to.

THE TOWN LOS ANGELES DRANK

Posted in Quick Hits on April 7th, 2015 by Ed

On the heels of last week's post about California and the strain on our water resources, here is a great if lenghty piece delightfully titled "The Town Los Angeles Drank." It goes into a great deal of detail on just how complex, costly, and increasingly audacious the plans and infrastructure necessary to meet the giant state's water needs are getting.

Aside from the obvious relevance to the current drought and long term questions about the availability of water, the article touches on just how timid governments are these days to propose anything ambitious…anything at all, really. The 20th Century was defined by massive, expensive public works, and where would California be without them (think Hoover Dam)? The 21st is unfolding as an era in which everything the government does is Bad, anything it tries to do with fail, and the only acceptable Big Programs are the ones that take public funds and hand them over to private industry (Bush's prescription drug program or the ACA come to mind). And businesses, of course, know how to do things The Right Way. The only problem is that the free market is incapable of incentivizing them to solve unprofitable problems, meaning that the role of government is to slop enough money into the trough to spur them into action.

If that seems backward and inefficient to you, or if basic questions of accountability are coming to mind, you're a communist.

Fortunately California is a little less beholden to articles of right wing ideological faith than, say, Kansas but they've had their moments over the years. This is a state that made it illegal for its legislature to raise taxes, invented the Three Strikes law, and shat Ronald Reagan and Bob Dornan upon the rest of the nation. When the staggering cost of keeping the water flowing to the state's megacities as well as its agricultural backbone becomes clear, will the state pony up or will the process of governing be derailed by another idiotic ballot proposition? Based on the state's recent history, it could go either way.

CAN THIS 900 POUND GORILLA PAY TUITION?

Posted in Rants on April 6th, 2015 by Ed

Another week, another "Why does college cost so damn much?" article, this time in the NYT. The author discounts the argument that states have slashed funding for higher education by emphasizing that adjusted for inflation, state support is much more extravagant today than prior to 1980. Instead, as I have suggested in the past, he blames:

the constant expansion of university administration. According to the Department of Education data, administrative positions at colleges and universities grew by 60 percent between 1993 and 2009, which Bloomberg reported was 10 times the rate of growth of tenured faculty positions.

Even more strikingly, an analysis by a professor at California Polytechnic University, Pomona, found that, while the total number of full-time faculty members in the C.S.U. system grew from 11,614 to 12,019 between 1975 and 2008, the total number of administrators grew from 3,800 to 12,183 — a 221 percent increase.

This argument is irrefutable. The number of administrators in higher education today dwarfs any previous era. Moreover, their penchant for paying themselves lavish salaries is a big part of the problem. What does it tell you that among mid-career academics it is often tempting to make a push to go into administration? It's not that anyone thinks it's a good idea to quit being useful as a teacher to become another soul-crushing bureaucrat, but when you realize that the people who do the least work make 250% of your salary it has some appeal.

That's not the whole story, though, and everyone in higher education is terrified to talk about the rest. Some of the administrative bloat is pointless. The rest of it is a result of two legitimate problems. One is that competition for students is intense (at private schools, "desperate" doesn't go far enough to convey the enrollment situation these days) and colleges increasingly look to compete by turning the experience into a playground. Not only do they need to spend billions collectively on creature comforts – elaborate Rec Centers, luxury student housing and food, etc – but they have to hire countless paper pushers to administer the programs intended to keep students entertained. A gym is more than throwing up a building and filling it with treadmills. There have to be group fitness classes, semester long programs in whatever is trendy, a calendar full of events, and anything else you'd find on a cruise ship or resort.

The second part is the one people only whisper about. More and more students are going to college over the past two decades, partly driven by the availability of loans and the inability to enter most fields without a degree. The end result is that moreso than any time in the past, today there are huge numbers of students flocking to college who have zero ability to succeed there. Universities of course want to retain these students, and in order to do so they have to create a massive bureaucracy of support services. Any skill tangentially related to completing college level work now has a lavishly staffed support center devoted to it on campus. A writing center, a study skills program, tutoring services, a math helpdesk, a massive bureaucracy devoted to the shockingly large share of students diagnosed with various disabilities, and anything else you can imagine.

If you want to stay open, you have to admit a certain number of students. In an ideal world you accept only students who can succeed given the nature of the school. In reality you end up taking a lot who probably can't. And if you accept students who do not know how to write sentences in English, you better have someone ready to hold their hand if you expect them to last longer than a semester. That costs money – a lot of money.

When you add up the cost of huge salaries for presidents, provosts, deans, and deanlets, recreational facilities that resemble theme parks, athletic programs (a competitive D-I football program costs a small fortune), shiny new buildings, and an army of functionaries tasked with guiding students who sometimes lack even high school level academic skills through college coursework, it makes sense why costs are exploding. Those of you who went to college in the ancient past can attest to how austere the accommodations were, how barebones the support services were, and how little "fun" universities paid to provide.

There definitely are too many administrators and they have a terrible habit of paying themselves too much. But some of the growth has been of necessity, as more and more students need more and more help to have any hope of succeeding at this academic level. That isn't cheap. College costs a lot more than it used to. But "used to" didn't include paying half a million bucks to bring Katy Perry to campus and having to teach high school graduates how to do math involving fractions.

Tags:

NPF: TORA! TORA! RAY?

Posted in No Politics Friday on April 2nd, 2015 by Ed

When remembering and retelling the story of World War II and the destruction of Pearl Harbor, Americans tend to forget that Hawaii wasn't even a state at the time. It was, to paraphrase a great account of the attack, essentially a colonial pineapple plantation / naval base. The weather was probably as much of a draw as it is today, but in 1941 Hawaii must have felt considerably more…backwater-ish. Located in the literal middle of nowhere before the days of rapid, safe, affordable air travel, when the natural splendor and nice weather wore off the American transplants in Hawaii must have found themselves with little entertainment beyond what they created.

A mainland American lawyer named Ray Buduick filled his spare time by restoring and flying a private plane – the flimsy, open, Red Baron type that was still popular at the time. One Sunday morning near Christmas in 1941, Ray and his teenage son took off a little after 7 AM to kill some time with an aimless flight around Oahu with the airspace all to himself. I can see the appeal of that, certainly. After straying farther out over the Pacific he was surprised to see in the great distance what appeared to be other airplanes. A lot of them. He was curious and flew toward them until it was unmistakable that not only were they airplanes but hundreds of them. No sooner had he and his son realized this that they heard strange sounds like something was whipping past their tiny plane at high speed. That mystery solved itself in short order when several bullets struck their right wing.

Turned out that random lawyer Ray Buduick and his teenage son Martin had, quite without meaning to, entered the United States into World War II.

They had stumbled upon a gaggle of Japanese fighters loitering over the ocean as they waited for the larger, slower bombers in the attack squadron to catch up. As they turned toward Honolulu and Pearl Harbor, Buduick took a perpendicular route away from the attacking planes and hoped that none of the Japanese would bother to break away and follow him. Then, with the attack in progress, they circled back and somehow landed their damaged POS safely.

It might not be technically correct to say that Ray Buduick started the Pacific War, but since I assume that any heirs who could sue me for libel have passed on or do not read things called Gin & Tacos let's be real clear: Ray Buduick totally started the war. Alright, perhaps it is more fair to say that while he may not have started it in the geopolitical sense, he was the first American to come under attack from Imperial Japan, all because he decided to take up flying rather than, say, woodworking. It wouldn't have been exciting but at least he wouldn't have been shot at by Japanese fighter planes for building a credenza in his garage.

AHH, MEMORIES

Posted in Quick Hits on April 1st, 2015 by Ed

It has been a long time, but just in case you feel like reliving the anger and amazement at the howling stupidity of your fellow citizens all over again the CIA declassified the ration of shit / document used to justify the Iraq War.

I don't see why this would be especially newsworthy. It's not like there's anything to be learned from that experience.

I BELIEVE IN MAGIC

Posted in Rants on March 31st, 2015 by Ed

Midwestern states haven't done a great job of passing useful laws lately, but Illinois is making progress toward a law to ban "rolling coal." For those of you who live in areas that are populated by people who read books and have hopes and dreams, let me briefly explain: that is "the act of modifying a diesel vehicle, usually a pickup truck, to spew black smoke and soot." Last summer a number of viral videos of homemade smokestacks on otherwise normal pickup trucks inspired this insipid trend, giving morons everywhere a new way to warn people of their existence.

If this is the kind of thing that seems fun or amusing to you I'd recommend a nice, tall glass of acetone before bed tonight.

I read a lot of auto-themed blogs and look at a few Euro car message boards on occasion. Between the comment sections and the general level of discourse on any male-centric message board you can imagine the kind of stupidity one can come across in those corners of the internet. It's not quite as mind-numbingly bad as what you see on sports-oriented stuff, but it's still about what you could expect in terms of political and social commentary from an interest that appeals mainly to men, mostly white, of average or better income. Let's just say The Unions are to blame for a lot of things wrong with various cars and car companies.

When the topic of "rolling coal" comes up, as it does periodically, two things stand out. One is that the idiocy of the people who do this is agreed upon as close to unanimously as anything I can recall seeing on the internet. Even the troll-iest of trolls can bring themselves to say "lololol awesome!" or "I don't see anything wrong with this u bunch of whiny pussies" on this topic. Americans do not appear able to agree on anything save that people who do this are idiots. Second, people believe some very strange things about how incentives work.

The mantra of the Internet White Guy is used a lot: "I totally disagree with this and think anyone who does it is awful, but I don't think it should be illegal." You know, because Freedom or Big Government is Bad or (insert nonsense interpretation of some part of the Constitution) or Obama or whatever. Coal-rolling is far from the only subject on which you will hear this. Government is bad, laws are bad, so we should condemn unacceptable behaviors and…what, shame people out of doing them? Wait until they see the light? Live with it indefinitely?

What, for example, other than a harsh fine is going to convince people to stop doing this? We are not dealing with logic here, nor are we dealing with rocket scientists. Right-wingers always go on and on about how stupid The People are, and yet their preferred "Let The Market handle it" solution depends entirely on individuals being rational enough to realize that their behavior needs to change. And in this case, that change needs to take place in the absence of any incentives to do so.

To be clear, if you're not comfortable with the idea of making certain behaviors against the law then you are comfortable living in a world in which they continue indefinitely. No matter how many times you click your heels and make wishes, people aren't going to stop doing terrible shit just because you tell them you disapprove. People stupid enough to do something like this have the irritating tendency to fail to respond to reasoned arguments.

LABELING

Posted in Rants on March 29th, 2015 by Ed

Those of us 40 and older no doubt remember Ronald Reagan's first summer in office (1981) coming to a crescendo on August 3 with his now-infamous ultimatum to the nation's striking air traffic controllers. Their union, PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) was effectively broken in the process. When Reagan demanded that the 13,000 employees return to work within 48 hours or forfeit their jobs, it was no idle threat. Since public employee unions were forbidden by law to strike, he was able to use the authority of the Attorney General and Secretary of Labor to de-certify PATCO. With the possible exception of the auto sit-down strikes, the Norris-LaGuardia Act, or Youngstown v Sawyer, it was the most important moment in 20th Century labor history in the United States.

Recently I recalled doing some research years ago and coming across Reagan's press conference Q&A after making his announcement (transcript here). I was struck at the time, and reminded over the past few days, at how frank he was. Unions were still fairly popular in 1981 although their decline in power and popularity was already underway. And Reagan, for whom I think you all know I have no excess of admiration, said, "Here's what we're going to do" and then did it. While I disagree vehemently with the course of action he took, at least he had the decency to be honest about it. When shitting all over a group of people, in this case PATCO, an elected official should never be hesitant to say "The purpose of these actions is to shit all over PATCO." If he has the strength of convictions that he claims to have, there should be no hesitation to tell the situation exactly like it is.

This came to mind over the weekend watching and listening to Mike Pence nervously sputter into cameras in an attempt to explain that despite all appearances to the contrary, the recent law passed in Indiana totally isn't about legalizing discrimination against gays. It is a textbook case of the lady protesting too much, with every appeal to "religious freedom" making it sound less and less likely that religious freedom has anything at all to do with the motive. Throughout all of this – I've received a heavier than usual dose of this controversy since I lived in Indiana for 7 years and still have dozens of friends there – I find myself desperate for someone, anyone, to come out (phrasing) and admit that they just don't like The Gays much. Pence has promised to "clarify" the "intent" of the law, and I'm hoping that will consist of explaining that Indiana has a huge population of old, rural, white people who fear change and hate their shitty lives so they need to pretend it's 1950 and take it out on some social minority group. If we can make it sound noble by appealing to religion, all the better.

To many of you there may not be much of a difference in practice between "discriminatory" and "discriminatory and sanctimonious." It's true that the effect of the law is the same no matter how it is packaged and sold. I'd argue that in a way the rhetorical obfuscation makes it worse. The animosity is real no matter how we burnish it with florid words, so why kid ourselves?

(Oh, and fun fact: Ronald Reagan was the only president who was actually in a labor union – the SAG. Of which he was briefly president.)