NPF: EXOTICISM

Posted in No Politics Friday on October 24th, 2014 by Ed

Anyone who does a substantial amount of traveling in the continental US can tell you that there is a depressing sameness to the vast majority of this country. The background scenery changes, but 99% of the country is a collage of strip malls, gas stations, and chain restaurants that make it almost impossible to determine where you are. It would be fun to blindfold a few willing contestants, take them to some random small-to-medium city, and have them take their best guess at the location. How many people could actually tell Akron from Amarillo?

Since I travel either to see scenery or friends, this bothers me only on the existential level – the vague sense of unease that our culture is losing any sense of regional identity as it is replaced by the blandest kind of conformity. Most Americans have made uneasy peace with the fact that Indiana looks like Kansas looks like Alabama and frankly there's not a whole lot of local color. When we travel internationally, though, we definitely want to feel like we've traveled internationally. We want that shit to look foreign, son. That's why we feel so outraged when the internet reminds us, for example, that the Pyramids at Giza are within spitting distance of a KFC / Pizza Hut. We don't want to see air conditioned chain restaurants; we want our trip to Egypt to be a romantic adventure in the desert, perhaps involving us mounting a camel at some point and interacting with The Natives. Noble Savages or whatnot. Well, it turns out that the Natives in Cairo, a city of about 10 million, drive the same car you do to a job that probably pays better than yours and spend most of their time in public the same way Americans do, which is to say staring at their phones.

I don't think Americans are unique in this respect; I believe that people from all over the world travel with the expectation of seeing something "exotic" and appropriately foreign. When we visit Paris we want to see scenes that come straight from 1960s Hollywood Paris. We want Africa to be one endless safari dotted with nomadic spear-wielding hunters. In Rome or Venice (a city essentially preserved as a museum for foreign tourists) we expect romance and artistic splendor to fill the air (instead of, you know, pollution). And everywhere we expect the local inhabitants to be charming and filled to the brim with quirks and character.

The most "foreign" place I've ever been is not terribly exciting – some of the less populated areas of Brazil. At first I have to admit that I was a bit surprised at how different-but-not-that-different from the US it was. It's hard to fly 6000 miles and encounter an Olive Garden without getting a bit of that "I didn't come here to see this shit" resentment. And the more I thought about it, I accepted the fact that there are KFCs all over Brazil for the same reason there are KFCs all over the USA: because people want to eat there. As much as I hate seeing the absolute worst parts of mass produced American culture infecting the rest of the world, it's the worst kind of snobbery to get upset at Egyptians for liking Pizza Hut because it somehow diminishes the Exotic-ness of our travels. The world is not a movie set designed for our personal enrichment. It would be great if people in other countries told McDonald's to piss off because McDonald's is terrible, but not because it ruins my fantasy image of what Paris should look like.

WHAT NOT TO DO

Posted in Quick Hits on October 21st, 2014 by Ed

With the internet now a permanent (and in many cases central) part of our lives, the process of maturing to adulthood is going to have to be updated and expanded to include learning to avoid arguing with critics and trolls online.

This is not an easy lesson to learn, but most of us get there eventually. As a younger person I was ready to argue to the death with anyone who dared to speak a critical word in my direction. Orienting oneself toward the internet in this manner is exhausting and, more importantly, pointless. When we are younger and more idealistic we tend to imagine the internet (and real life, for that matter) being full of people who are in earnest, looking to engage in an honest exchange of ideas. Eventually we realize that most of the people who comment on things online are merely trolls who enjoy saying whatever will raise your ire, or people who are in earnest but who are far too stupid to either make a coherent point or understand the ones anyone else might make.

We also learn that with increased visibility comes more criticism, and that is a reality in any facet of life or format for communication. More hits mean more trolls. It's just the way of the world. The absolute best way to handle it, whether you are a famous celebrity or a highly visible author or a minor blogger of no particular renown, is to ignore it. There is nothing to be gained, ever. At best it is a total waste of time as you try to engage a stranger who most likely does not have any interest in a legitimate exchange of ideas; he/she simply wants to tell you that you suck and then move on. At worst, it makes you look bad – petty, thin-skinned, overly sensitive, and possibly a little unhinged.

It baffles me that no one explained this to an author named Kathleen Hale – nor did she figure this out on her own – who went Borderline Stalker on one of her critics…and then wrote a masturbatory navel-gazing piece about it for The Guardian.

Exposing one's thoughts on the internet invites the criticism of others who are often emboldened by anonymity or distance. It's difficult to do this, whether for money or for the hell of it, without being able to tolerate people telling you how much you suck. It's difficult bordering on impossible, though, if one lacks the self-awareness to realize that writing about it in an effort to garner sympathy or internet merit badges.

ROCKETS' RED GLARE

Posted in Rants on October 20th, 2014 by Ed

I was living in Bloomington, IN when they demolished the Hoosier Dome (aka RCA Dome) in nearby Indianapolis and I kind of regret not making the drive to watch it come down. After considering it, I decided that it was a little too white trashy / low brow to drive an hour to gawk at a giant building imploding. But what the hell, it's a spectacle and not the kind of thing one sees very often so why not.

In that spirit, I won't make the same mistake again by missing the opportunity to watch St. Louis burn to the ground in a couple weeks when the grand jury announces that we don't even need to bother with the formality of a trial before letting Saint Wilson off the hook.

This case is following a very familiar pattern, with details extremely friendly to the Official Version of Events being leaked at regular intervals while dragging the Grand Jury process out long enough, the police hope, to give everyone a chance to lose interest or forget. Mind you, details like the victim's blood being found on the police car don't actually prove anything about the Official Story. They are the kind of details one would cherry pick to support it while conveniently ignoring other questions like, "If you fired twice in the car, why was it necessary to shoot four more times when he was 15 feet away?"

But no matter. The point – one we've had reinforced quite often lately – is that the amount of force one uses to retaliate against a black male who makes you Feel Threatened (legitimately or otherwise) cannot be questioned, second-guessed, or challenged. Once you determine that you are Afraid for Your Life, basically you can pull out a gun and keep pulling the trigger until you feel sufficiently less afraid or run out of ammunition, whichever comes first.

I'm not going to lie, I hope the good people of Ferguson raze that place. Some places are so terrible that there's no compelling case for their continued existence. And all the while we will have to listen to White America talk about Looting and Those People and Like Animals and sometimes I think maybe it would be best if we just leveled the whole country and started over.

YOUTHFUL SHENANIGANS

Posted in Rants on October 19th, 2014 by Ed

Growing up in the Chicago area I was only vaguely aware that anything existed south of Interstate 80. I did hear rumors of some distant hamlet called Carbondale, which would not be noteworthy (or perhaps even exist) except as the location of Southern Illinois University. With respect to SIU alumni and faculty, some of whom are among my friends, SIU is a party school. Located near nothing, excepting the fireworks-and-Oxycontin vortex point at which Missouri, Kentucky, southern Illinois, Arkansas, and Tennessee converge, SIU is the school that Chicago-area high school students choose when they can't get into University of Illinois, or UIC, or Northern Illinois, or somehow not even Illinois State. While some of its academic programs are actually pretty good, the modal SIU student does not really belong in college and has interests ranging from drinking to getting high to facilitating unplanned pregnancies.

Southern found its way into the national news once per year at Halloween, when the students rioted. Literally rioted. Tore that one-horse town a new asshole. Overturned cars, smashed windows, injured themselves and one another, and set fires. It got to the point at which the school was known for little other than the annual Grain Alcohol Thunderdome. After many years of tolerating the rampage – Party Schools face the Catch-22 of trying to limit delinquent behavior while admitting to themselves that it is part of the attraction for potential students – Carbondale and the university cracked down hard in 2000 after a particularly destructive melee. Bars were closed on Halloween, fraternities were not allowed to host parties, and so on.

Even young and conformity-prone Ed kind of thought it odd that for so many years it was considered Good Old Fashioned Fun for thousands of mostly white college kids to have a riot. Euphemisms like "party" or "disturbance" were used; the police responded but with remarkably little enthusiasm, content to let the kids go nuts and make a few arrests of kids who crossed the line from Acceptable Crimes (minor property damage, disorderly behavior) to Unacceptable Crimes like assault or use of weapons. The authorities seemed to treat the riot like a regular, predictable weather event – batten down the hatches, board up the windows, and wait for the destruction to run its course. Because what else can you do, right?

It goes without saying that there is a double standard involved in media coverage of and social attitudes toward "urban" riots – the kind that involve poor and dark-skinned people – and the Youthful Shenanigans of white middle class college kids. The former must be repressed with the maximum available force to ensure that the natural order of society is not disturbed and that the poor remain docile, servile, and without illusions about their second-class status. The latter…well, that's just boys being boys. After all, it's important for white college students to get the opportunity to rebel against the social institutions that bend over backwards to coddle and privilege them.

THE WISDOM OF CROWDS

Posted in Quick Hits on October 17th, 2014 by Ed

Audience participation post: Use the comments to post the best (by which I mean worst) things you have read or heard about Ebola so far. Given that most Americans possess a third grade understanding of biology, it is the epitome of "This would be funnier if it were not so sad" to listen to their scientific theories. Particularly when those theories are combined with their inherent nativism, racism, and pathological desire to use everything that happens anywhere in the world as an excuse to go off half-assed on Obama.

Links preferred, but tales of things overheard around the office are certainly welcome as well. I'm looking to compile a Best Of, which shouldn't be hard considering that people who believe that evolution is a Lie from the Pit of Hell are now arguing that Ebola became airborne in four months.

Don't let me down.

PROPERTY RIGHTS

Posted in Rants on October 15th, 2014 by Ed

Two related anecdotes.

1. A woman who has recently moved to this city is walking down a residential street with me after dark. She is at the tail end of five minutes of stories relating surprise at the frequency and intensity of catcalling here relative to other places she has lived. We approach three 18-to-21 looking males hanging out on a street corner. They are obviously wasted. As we walk past, they say nothing to her but one nods toward me, makes eye contact, and gives me the trying to be cool "sup" that young males do.

2. A different woman is having dinner alone at a bar. She texts me to live blog the old creeper who is accosting her (not physically) and does not seem willing to leave her alone. She laments that she does not have a boyfriend or at least some male to sit next to so that she might go to a bar and sit there in peace.

It's equal parts intriguing and disturbing how often men treat women with respect – not invading their personal space or shouting things at them that they would prefer not to have shouted at them – not because they think women deserve to be treated with respect but because they are with a man. The inebriated young men didn't refrain from making suggestive comments because they realized that it's inappropriate; they refrained because I was next to her. Old creepers and "pickup artists" do not leave accompanied women alone at bars because they recognize that ignoring all the "please stop" signals is behavior that trends toward Rapey. They do it because the has a Sold tag on her and is already the property of some other man. And many men who would happily treat women with the utmost disrespect would recoil at the thought of disrespecting another man by hitting on his Property.

Many years ago I accompanied a female friend, at her request, to a car dealership. Being younger it didn't occur to me at the time that I wasn't there because I have any special automotive knowledge that might have been useful. I was there because if the (inevitably male) car salesman wouldn't treat her too insultingly in front of Her Man. Women are probably so familiar with and used to this dynamic that they barely bother to think about it anymore. I, on the other hand, never thought about it seriously until the two incidents above happened in quick succession. I understood intuitively for a long time that having a male companion helps women receive better treatment from other men in some circumstances. However, I only recently did the math – women only get treated respectfully incidentally, as a side effect of respecting another man's ownership.

MY DAD OWNS A DEALERSHIP

Posted in Rants on October 14th, 2014 by Ed

Hopefully by now you have seen this video of a bunch of Tech Bros (allegedly Dropbox employees) trying to kick some teenagers off a soccer field in one of San Francisco's many neighborhoods in which real people are being displaced by this decade's version of Gordon Gekko.

The root cause of this incident, leaving aside the social tensions and gentrification issues in SF for the moment, is a simple misunderstanding. Apparently the park district has made some kind of policy change that allows fields to be reserved and they haven't done a great job of communicating that to residents. It's not that the Army of Bros is wrong to be peeved. But you would think that just one of them, or possibly even more than one, would be aware enough to say "You know, there's no way we are going to come out of bossing around and arguing with a bunch of teenagers looking like anything but assholes." It's like these people have some kind of status-induced autism that makes them completely oblivious to what is an appropriate way to conduct oneself in public.

It might have made more sense to leave and call the park district in an effort to get them to resolve the problem on future weekends. I mean, that's what a normal adult might have done. Instead, they decided to let the world get a good look at who they really are and trot out every Frat Asshole cliche on the planet. On camera.

I can never tell if these people honestly don't understand that they are being huge assholes or if they figure that they're so rich they don't have to care what anyone else thinks.

CONFUSION REIGNS

Posted in Quick Hits on October 12th, 2014 by Ed

I remember distinctly the following conversation when I was in first grade. Back then I was called Eddie. Don't call me Eddie anymore.

Eddie: "What part of America did Christopher Columbus find?"
Teacher: "Today it's part of the Bahamas."
Eddie: "So he didn't discover America?"
Teacher: "Well we call all of this the Americas."
Eddie: "And there were people there when he got there?"
Teacher: "Yes, there were indians."
Eddie: "Mrs. _____, why was Columbus important?"
Teacher: "We have to move on."

It's pretty trite at this point to point out that the man whose name had to be anglicized to make him sound un-foreign enough to be an American hero wasn't all he is cracked up to me. Nobody really cares because holidays are hard enough to come by in the United States and nobody wants to lose this one. A day off is a day off. But my god is it silly watching people actually "celebrate" Columbus Day. Maybe this, along with wearing track suits everywhere, is the only good thing about being an old Italian man and we shouldn't try to ruin it. In 2014, though, it's hard to believe anyone still takes seriously the idea that Senor Colon was a great man worthy of our admiration.

NPF: PENDULUM

Posted in No Politics Friday, Skip this if you hate sports on October 10th, 2014 by Ed

There cannot be a baseball fan on Earth, Yankees devotees included, who is not a little embarrassed by Jetermania. The national sports media's overindulgence in #2's final month was at parts ridiculous ("Jeter's final night game!") to the unwatchable (various "tribute" videos from annoying NYC personalities). People are so sick of hearing about Jeter that there has been a strong and unsurprising backlash of articles critical not only of the media coverage but of Jeter as a person and a player. While many of us have been on the "Shut Up about Jeter" bandwagon for a decade now, it filled to overcapacity in the past two months.

So that is how I find myself sitting here about to defend, and even laud, Derek Jeter. I am as sick to death of the coverage of his retirement as anyone else, but even as a career Yankee hater I have a hard time believing that any half-serious fan could say with a straight face that #2 is not an all-time great player. All of these sarcastic headlines about honoring "one of the 500 greatest players of all time" might inspire some giggles but are patently ridiculous.

Derek Jeter has that Ben Affleck disease – just looking at his face and listening to him talk creates an irresistible urge to punch him, even when he's saying something intelligent. He benefits from playing on teams that are always loaded with expensive talent. He lives in the media capital of the US, if not the world, and his every accomplishment is reported on in glowing terms. All of this is true. Fine. Look at the numbers, though, and you see an absolute, slam dunk, first ballot Hall of Famer and that's not even debatable. Oh, I'm sorry…are there a lot of other shortstops with 3465 hits, .310/.377/.440 career slash numbers, eight 200 hit seasons, and 96 career oWAR? I guess he should wait until the rest of them are inducted. If they existed.

The criticisms of Jeter are well known and valid. He was not a great defensive player. He was an average one for the first half of his career and then a liability in the field over the second half. For how many great HOF hitters is defense a consideration? Most HOFers were either undistinguished defensively, played next to none (Molitor, Thomas, etc), transitioned to easier positions like 1B in their 30s to hide their defensive deficiencies (Murray, Foxx, Mize), or had allegedly fantastic defensive skills that were mostly mythical (Brock, Stargell, Winfield). When guys are great hitters, nobody cares about their defense. Dave Winfield was about as useful in the field as a traffic pylon in the field; I don't recall that mattering much when he became Hall-eligible.

Jeter also gets considerable criticism for how bad his final season was. This is so stupid it isn't even worth discussing. Pick ten random HOF hitters and look at their final seasons. Look at what players who are practically worshiped like Ripken, Brett, Murray, and Mays did in their final season (or two). Everyone hangs on a year or two too long, usually in a desperate effort to pad counting stats or reach milestone numbers.

Did he benefit from playing on high payroll, talent-stocked teams? Yes. And he was consistently the best or one of the best players on those teams when they were successful. He also delivered in the postseason, a notable shortcoming of many HOF caliber hitters.

In short, I get it. I understand that everyone is sick of Jeter and that the media coverage was so far over the top that it's hard not to hate him for it. That said, don't be an idiot. He was not a perfect player, but with the BBWAA opening the doors of the Hall to mediocre Nice Guys like Rice, Dawson, and Perez in recent years there is not a single decent argument against Jeter, the best hitting shortstop of the last 100 years, being anything but a lock for Cooperstown the moment he is eligible. Fuck that guy, but he could hit.

SELF-PARODY

Posted in Rants on October 9th, 2014 by Ed

An economics textbook could probably phrase this more eloquently than I do, but I'm fond of saying that the final stage of the life cycle in capitalism is self-parody. First you sell people an SUV, then when you get criticized for it you sell even bigger, dumber SUVs. You try to entice people to eat at a place called Golden Corral, and once you become the symbol of the rural obesity epidemic you install a fountain that oozes pestilent, lukewarm chocolate on any object placed in its orbit. First you sell the Shake Weight as an exercise implement, then you make fun of yourself and sell even more as joke gifts. Basically, you make one last financial windfall on an idea by becoming a caricature of exactly what you were accused of being all along. When everyone mocks your bad food and gargantuan portions, fuck it: introduce the Super Size.

Now that the bloom is off the rose of the Susan G. Komen For the Curetm foundation, fewer people look at it as a good way to support cancer research and more look at it as a shameless marketing firm that will slap a coat of pink on anything for a buck. The foundation appears to have embraced the hell out of that stereotype, partnering with some fracking company to paint an industrial sized drill bit pink. You know. For the Curetm.

drill

This is not the Onion. A company engaging in an activity proven to increase cancer rates in the vicinity came to Komen, proposed splashing some pink paint on their equipment, and the people running Komen said, "Sure, why not!" Because fuck it, right? Once people have figured out that you're a joke you might as well be the biggest joke you can be. Having long since established that shame is not a relevant concern in free market capitalism, once you no longer care about your reputation the opportunities to cash in become legion.