KING FOR A DAY

Posted in Quick Hits on January 16th, 2012 by Ed

Here's something I wrote almost four years ago to the day for the Martin Luther King holiday. Seeing as how the election of a black President did not in fact end race as an issue (as right-wing commentators predicted) I see little need to update it. Instead I will quote myself liberally:

Martin Luther King, like "the Holocaust" or "the Founding Fathers", has become a perfunctory public relations tool. White America has the annoying tendency to bring him up as a form of tokenism, a la "And to show you how I'm down with the colored folk, I will now talk about how great I think MLK was." He's a backdrop for cheesy advertising, motivational speeches, and sidebars in textbooks. We bring him up a lot on our patronizing photo-op Trips into Harlem ("I support Dr. King…..and mandatory minimum sentencing!"). He's lauded for his "peaceful" and dignified approach (unlike that nasty Malcom X, who doesn't make white people feel quite so good about themselves). We remember and talk about, in essence, everything except what he actually stood for. We go as far as to innocuously call the holiday "Human Rights Day" just to completely de-contextualize and water down any potential discussion of the racial elephant in the room.

Let's not talk about how there are now more black men in prison than college – and that the black prison population has risen from 150,000 (in 1980) to 800,000 (today). A 350% increase in 25 years seems reasonable. Like many white Americans, I was raised to believe that there are more black people in the justice system because more black people commit crimes. I guess no one thought it strange that they apparently started committing all of these crimes in 1980. Maybe they had a national meeting and decided to go on a spree. We can't talk about that, because that would entail talking about how the entire "War on Drugs" is little more than a thinly-disguised War on the People We Don't Want In Our Neighborhoods. Of the black men born between 1978 and 1982, 16% are either dead or in prison. Think about that for a second.

Let's not talk about black/white income inequality, or the torrent of race-baiting we see from the media, talk radio, and elected officials, or the white hysteria about "reverse racism" and "racial quotas." Instead let's just warmly applaud a 45-second news story about that likeable man who had some sort of dream, a dream that, whatever it was, apparently worked out OK.

We live in a country in which intelligent people still raise their kids to roll up the windows in "black neighborhoods," to believe that everyone on welfare is black (and they're on it because they're too lazy to work), to think that the ignorant black people are going to unfairly take the law school spots that are rightly Ours, and to think that one can believe all of these things and somehow Not be a Racist. We live in a country where we don't debate racial issues, we debate Free Republic propaganda about how MLK, if alive today, would be rubbing elbows with Trent Lott in the GOP caucus. Can't blame the right wing for trying to claim him, since he and his message have been reduced entirely to Dalai Lama-esque mascot status.

Hard to believe that was four years ago, and hard to imagine how many years from now we will still be having this same conversation.

NPF: IT COULD HAVE BEEN WORSE

Posted in No Politics Friday on January 13th, 2012 by Ed

Popular music is one of the more common ways to depict generational divides for a good reason. Very little music is timeless; the vast majority has a shelf life of a few years at best and tends to be aimed at whoever happens to be in high school at any given point in time. So nothing is more familiar to the point of being cliched than the image of parents listening to their children's music with a sense of bewilderment about how one could listen to such crap. Indeed, being unable to understand or tolerate what The Kids are listening to these days is one of the first and most reliable indicators that you're getting old.

Currently an alarming number of the teens and tweens are listening to this type of thing:

OK.

I'm 33 years old. This music is not aimed at me or people in my demographic, so it goes without saying that I'm not going to like it. But Jesus Harold Christ the Third, this shit is just unlistenable. Does every generation of old people say that? Of course. Your parents told you that your (Elvis Presley / Chuck Berry / Beatles / Led Zeppelin / Sex Pistols / Devo / Black Flag / Public Enemy / Nirvana) was godawful racket, "just noise", and the definition of headache-inducing unlistenability. It would be ridiculous for people who are old now to say "Well our parents were wrong, but we're right: this crunk / autotune /screamo / electronic shit is not even music" without being both hypocritical and wrong.

Let's say it anyway. I think old people are finally right. Half of this stuff isn't even music. Now that making music no longer requires being able to play an instrument (ProTools), sing (AutoTune), or even how to program (hundreds of idiotproof software packages for churning out mediocre electronic music), it shouldn't surprise us that the resulting product isn't music. And having grown up on Disney Pop, The Kids These Daystm think that music has always sort of sounded like a Mountain Dew commercial.

See? I'm old now. This both puzzles and horrifies me. Do young people actually pay to see this live? Are high school boys making mixes full of this cacophony for high school girls they have crushes on? What are kids singing along to in the car? What about this music is there to connect with listeners on an emotional or personal level? Is "Brokencyde" going to announce a reunion tour in 20 years to joyous applause? Is this going to be on "Oldies" playlists in 2030? Sure, musical fads never age well but there is at least SOME level on which people can still enjoy Disco today (i.e., dancing and enjoying kitsch).

This stuff is popular and, I'm sorry, that's terrifying. I don't mean to go all Andy Rooney or full-on Grandpa here, but these "artists" blow on a level that our parents never had to try to comprehend. Of course not everyone in the current target demographic likes it, but the fact that anyone does is just another reason that I'm terrified for the future.

Oh, and before you type out your scolding comment, listen to as much of this as you can:

Crunk indeed, folks. Crunk. Indeed.

MEH

Posted in Quick Hits on January 12th, 2012 by Ed

Everything annoying about elections gets progressively worse with time. The cost increases exponentially, the TV spots get dumber and more numerous, and the media coverage is shallower and more shrill. Personally, I find fewer things about the process to be more annoying than the endless primary season debates. And even compared to 2008, the number of debates feels out of control this time around. The news networks understand that it's essentially impossible to criticize them for having too many debates – Having the candidates talk about issues and take positions is a Good Thing! – and the entire election is one big Sweeps Week for TV news. "Special" events like debates always provide a ratings boost, although having fifty of them tends to make each one a bit less special.

The fallacy, of course, is that viewers are getting anything of value out of debates in which the candidates rarely answer the questions, usually stick to well rehearsed, soundbite-style remarks, and generally act like a bunch of high schoolers vying for Homecoming Court. Despite that, debates reel in the viewers. For example, Saturday evening's ABC debate posted "solid ratings" of 6.3 million viewers even though it had to compete with NFL playoff games. It's a positive sign that people want to tune in and watch these circuses in an effort to learn something about the political process, I suppose.

Wait. Are those ratings actually encouraging? The media reports on that subject lack context. What does 6.3 million viewers (or even 7.6 million from the highest rated of all the debates, back in December) mean?

First of all, it's obviously not a big number in the context of the voting-eligible population as a whole. It's also not a very big number in terms of…anything else on TV, really. That NFL playoff game opposite the Saturday debate had an audience literally five times larger (31.8 million). Even that highest rated debate with its 7.6 million viewers pales in comparison to the most pedestrian primetime offerings on the networks. The weekly Nielsen Top 25 shows that the current 25th-ranked show on TV is something called "Rules of Engagement" on CBS. Last week this show – a rerun episode, no less – got 8.5 million viewers. The best debate ratings can't even post the kind of ratings that get network shows cancelled. It's hard to feel great about our prospects or the level of political efficacy among the electorate when interest in what is supposedly the biggest of all electoral contests is so dismal.

Pessimistically, we could look at this as yet another indicator of how dumb, immature, and uninterested the average American is. We'd rather watch a blowout football game or some lowest common denominator CBS series than to watch debates among presidential candidates. Then again, without defending the viewing habits of the American public it is reasonable to suspect that people are intentionally avoiding these debates because there is so little content. The GOP field is a clown car of full of knuckleheads and they're revealing almost nothing of substance during the debates. Even if I feel like I should be watching, my brain understands that I'm not going to learn anything useful from doing so. So we see misleading reports of "good ratings" suggesting enthusiasm for or at least attentiveness to the election. Debates might deliver higher ratings than the network's available alternatives, but that's hardly an impressive claim.

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THE COURAGE TO SPEAK

Posted in Rants on January 10th, 2012 by Ed

The recent death of Christopher Hitchens, like all deaths of semi-famous people these days, prompted a wave of tweets, posts, and social networking eulogies ensuring that for one day we all paid more attention to Hitch in death than we ever did in life. While that dynamic is strange on its own, what puzzles me more is the way that so many people spoke fondly of him for his willingness to say unpopular things and his general reluctance to give any shits about offending people. That's worth a closer look.

There is little doubt that Hitchens was a talented writer. At his best he was a skillful, provocative raconteur who found great joy in taking shots at the powerful. His takedown of Mother Theresa was classic Good Hitchens; I mean, who takes shots at Mother Theresa?? Well as it turned out, he made quite the argument that perhaps she was not the living saint she was made out to be. This is good writing. He was also the rare media loudmouth who was willing to stand behind his opinions. When the editor of Vanity Fair challenged Hitchens, who had spoken dismissively of claims that waterboarding amounted to torture, to receive a waterboarding, he did it (and concluded, obviously, that it's hard to imagine what is torture if waterboarding isn't). The bottom line is, anyone who reacts to the death of Jesse Helms by penning a column entitled "Farewell to a Provincial Redneck" is doing something right.

At his worst, Hitchens was little more than an unusually eloquent drunk, a misogynist, xenophobe, and warmonger who seemed to take leave of his critical thinking skills when the question of scary brown foreigners reared its head. He described his pro-Western worldview as a matter of "defending civilization", but in practice it looked a lot more like garden variety Islamophobia (arguing that the Iraq War death toll was "not high enough") and neocon foreign policy frames. He argued that women are not funny in a manner that he considered unbiased, rational, and unemotional, but the end result was a rant worthy of any drunk in a bar ranting about his ex-wife. He painted Michelle Obama as a race-baiting militant out for Whitey on the basis of a paper she wrote in college suggesting that black students feel alienated on campuses that are almost entirely white. These are not the attitudes of a critical thinker – they are the knee jerk reactions of an old man quite comfortable with the social hierarchy that places white Anglo-Saxon men firmly at the top. We'd expect to hear such arguments from Glenn Beck, and we often do.

Hitch fans have always been eager to excuse away these outbursts as ideas with which we don't agree, but for which we still tip out hat to the author for continuing to champion unpopular viewpoints. He is one of the most frequent recipients of the "Well I didn't agree with everything he said, but blah blah blah" type of praise one reserves for people we antiseptically call "controversial." The problem is that there is no inherent value in saying unpopular things. Some of these unpopular viewpoints Hitchens put forth are unpopular because they are stupid, without intellectual merit, or simply offensive. The Westboro Baptist Church has unpopular views. So does Michele Bachmann. So does Thomas Frank. Do all three deserve our praise?

Hitchens is probably compared to HL Mencken more than any writer in the past half century, and for good reason. They were the leading dyspeptic commentators of their day, using pens filled with bile to write scathing obituaries of the powerful and aggressive criticisms of the popular. But Mencken was also a racist, a reactionary in his own right (though he detested that quality in others) whose ideal world saw women in the kitchen, the colored folk in Their Place, the world subservient to American interests, and people like himself exalted. There is nothing courageous or laudable about that. Does it mean that nothing Mencken, Hitchens, or any other flawed personality may have written is without value? No. But the tendency to praise them for their willingness to say controversial things is a strange one. The popularity of a viewpoint plays no role in determining its merit. To applaud him for bravely writing sexist, racist, or culturally hegemonic ideas suggests that we are glad that someone said such things. I for one am not.

THE MORE THINGS CHANGE

Posted in Election 2012 on January 9th, 2012 by Ed

The worst part about living through 2010 was not the outcome of the election but the preferred media narrative of the Tea Party ushering in some kind of sea change in the GOP. In reality, their overwhelming losses in 2006 and 2008 gave the Republicans a good opportunity to re-brand their party, perhaps even to come up with a new idea or two. Instead they chose simply to double down on the same selective interpretation of Reaganism that they've pounded like a drum for the past thirty years. The Tea Party was tangential, just a bunch of inchoate anger and nonsensical demands that happened to benefit the GOP at the polls. Business as usual meets populist freakshow. The result is that the GOP of 2012, despite the major domestic crises of the past four years, is not different in any meaningful way from George W. Bush's Republican Party. Look no further that the Iowa Caucus results (and impending Romney blowout in New Hampshire) for proof: the prize in these primaries goes not to the daring, but to the one who does the best job of reciting the Commandments of the faith. The party can theoretically choose anyone, and in Iowa they chose two candidates who, although different, are essentially carbon copies of the most recent GOP president.

Rick Santorum, who is likely to disappear shortly after his 15 minutes of being Not Mitt Romney, takes Bush's unwavering social conservatism and combines it with a total lack of intellectual curiosity on domestic issues – where his policy position is essentially "Steer it as far to the right as possible, then go a little further" on any given issue – and hard neocon foreign policy (Israel! Israel! Israel! Also fuck Iran!) Like Bush, Santorum has the ability to hold totally insane, occasionally terrifying policy positions but look to primary voters and TV viewers to be a nice, sane fellow. Seriously, watch Rick Santorum on a talk show. He seems nice. He sounds normal. He isn't. Contrast him, for example, with the visibly deranged Michele Bachmann to see how important this quality is in the modern GOP. Be crazy, but look sane. Don't scare everyone.

Romney, on the other hand, is like Bush in that underneath the marketing (Remember "compassionate conservatism"?) he is nothing but the classic "pro-business" corporate shill brand of Republican. He appears to care about nothing much politically, hence his numerous flip-flops on social and foreign policy issues, except cutting taxes, starving the government, and making America safe again for the ludicrously rich. Other Republicans hate him not because of this political stance; indeed, he is in perfect concert with most of them on economic issues. They hate him because he is a Mormon, and an insincere glad-hander, and an opportunist, and a pretty boy, and generally an all-around sissy. He's not a Man's Man, not a Real Christian Jesus-fearing red-blooded American. Or, more accurately, not one who can or cares to fake it. GW Bush's ridiculous cowboy act was semi-believable, at least enough to fool the rubes. Romney looks like the white bread, prep school asswipe he is.

And these are the two candidates the process appears to have chosen to duke it out. If they could somehow combine Romney's staggering wealth, fundamentally elitist economic ideas, and non-threatening self presentation with Santorum's militant social conservatism and Real Guy authenticity, they'd have the perfect candidate. That is, they'd have George W. Bush again. They rejected the glib Perot-like straight talk of Cain, Bachmann's American jihad, Perry's frat boy insincerity, the reanimated corpse of 1994 in Gingrich, and the old school liberal New England Republicanism of Huntsman. Ron Paul, as ever, is just an old coot with a devoted but insufficiently large cult of true believers. They chose Santorum (who is fundamentally unelectable, being insane) and Romney (who no one actually likes and most actively loathe).

Hey, you know who's stupid? Tim Pawlenty. He dropped out on account of a meaningless straw poll won by Michele Bachmann almost a year ago. Were he running, he would be killing it right now. The primary voters are desperate for anyone who isn't Romney, but all of their existing alternatives are obviously flawed. T-Paw is as bland as they come, an empty vessel with the requisite devotion to Reaganomics. He wouldn't be much of a general election candidate, but I bet he'd be neck-and-neck with Romney right now.

So, the GOP staggered out of 2008 with an opportunity to take the party in a new direction. Instead they punted. Refusing to come up with a single new idea, they chose the path of least resistance, the sweet spot in their comfort zone. They chose the two candidates who reminded them the most of Dubya, who was the candidate who reminded them the most of Reagan, who was the candidate who reminded them the most of Barry Goldwater. It would be bad enough if they were nominating second rate Reagan clones, but this year this appears to be a competition between two pale imitations of George W. Bush. Rather than write anything new, they're covering a cover song. With the GOP so adamant in its refusal to change and the balless, corporate Democratic Party offering only the illusion of opposition, it is no mystery why everyone can see that our ship is heading straight for the rocks but we seem to be unable to change its course.

NPF: DAZZLING

Posted in No Politics Friday on January 6th, 2012 by Ed

During World War I, the British experimented with something called dazzle camouflage, a manner of painting ships so that they might be more difficult for German u-boats to torpedo or otherwise molest. The theory behind it was quite simple: when the image of a ship set against a featureless background like the open ocean is broken up by random, jagged lines, it becomes difficult or impossible for the human eye to determine the ship's size, direction of travel, and orientation. This example (HMS Argus, 1917) shows that the technique didn't exactly make a ship less visible, but imagine watching it through a periscope from a great distance and the effect becomes clear.


"Schiesse! Das crazyboot!"

While I've always found it interesting and with a strange kind of aesthetic appeal, dazzle paint disappeared with the development of things like radar and long range aircraft. But apparently there is a new application for this very old idea: dazzle makeup as a means of subverting that incredibly creepy facial recognition software that is quickly and quietly becoming omnipresent. Artist Adam Harvey's project, CV Dazzle, is more interested in making an artistic statement than a political one, but the practical application of this kind of personal fashion is obvious.

Do they look a tad silly? Of course. It is the concept that is compelling, though, not necessarily the fashion-forwardness of the results. Facial recognition relies on concepts like symmetry and ratios among features, and without these even sophisticated technology is of limited effectiveness at identifying faces.

So, if we all break up our faces with bizarre hair and makeup tricks, that should buy us a couple more years until SkyNet's capabilities are updated to defeat our attempts to deceive it.

2011 GINANDTACOS.COM COCKSUCKER OF THE YEAR: DONALD TRUMP

Posted in Rants on January 5th, 2012 by Ed

Donald Trump has always been a rich man. Indeed, despite his carefully cultivated image as a financial impresario, "The Donald" (file that under "How to tell if you're an asshole: Referring to self in third person") earned his money the old fashioned way. That is, he inherited it. And somehow the fact that he or his enterprises have declared bankruptcy on three separate occasions has not prevented this country from viewing him as a titan of industry, a brilliant financier who can fix America with the same brilliance that made him a billionaire.

People see Trump this way not because he is a modern J.P. Morgan but because many years ago he became a living, three dimensional version of a cartoon rich guy. He is the closest real-life equivalent to Scrooge McDuck, combining the soullessness of an American plutocrat, the ego of a WWE character, and the class and aesthetic tastes of a Saudi prince. Trump is Tony Montana in Scarface, the man who surrounds himself with the gaudiest, tackiest trappings of wealth he can find and then wonders why no one respects him. As comedy genius John Mulaney notes, Trump is less rich guy than a 1930s hobo's idea of what it would be like to be rich:

Jokes.com
John Mulaney – Donald Trump
comedians.comedycentral.com
John Mulaney Comedians Stand-Up

But so what? There are thousands of rich guys with inflated opinions of themselves. And why now? These are not new developments; Trump has always been a sad, vain excuse for a human being. He has a long track record of assholery, such as his "Lynch the bastards" attitude toward crime and punishment and his well-documented misdeeds as a landlord and developer. But 2011 was the year in which his pathological need for attention suffocated whatever bits of restraint or good sense were rattling around in his oversized, oblong skull. Thus he made several months of our lives nearly unbearable this past year with his ludicrous, insincere foray into presidential politics for no reason but to get the media and public to pay more attention to him. No, not in the context of a campaign. Just in general. He did all of this to make himself feel important.

Many observers were surprised when Trump threw his hat into the ring of Republican presidential hopefuls. Nothing about Trump's politics had been particularly right wing in the past. In fact, he had to change his position (compared to just a few years ago) on nearly every current political issue in order to pitch himself to the GOP faithful. It struck remarkably few talking heads (or viewers) as odd that a fiftysomething man would have such an all encompassing change of heart, and it soon became apparent that his plan to avoid questions about flip-flopping focused on spewing forth as much lowbrow, pseudo-populist insanity as possible.

While never previously one to support fringe conspiracy theories, Trump discovered that spouting Birtherism garnered him significant attention – much of it negative, but he ain't picky. So he quickly reinvented himself as Mr. Tea Party, the ultimate Obama Skeptic and champion of all things nutty in the realm of foreign or economic policy. His stream-of-consciousness dialogue was so bizarre that even most right wingers wondered about his sanity, as when Charles Krauthammer described Trump's idea to invade Middle Eastern nations to take their oil as "the stuff you expect from a guy in a bar at closing time with slurred speech." He became buddy-buddy with leading conservative nutbars like Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin. And the media ate it all up.

Already enamored with Trump the Celebrity because of his popular reality TV series, the Trump presidential talk dominated the news cycle for months. Each day he sent the media into another frenzy with his latest, craziest sound bites. He polled well for a while, suggesting that some portion of the public might seriously consider the idea of voting for him. Then, as abruptly as his potential candidacy erupted in our public consciousness, he declared that he would not run after all. Some of us speculated that Obama had embarrassed Trump out of contention by providing his full birth certificate, which was no doubt humiliating to the newly minted Birther. The truth was even more shameful, though: the whole idea of a presidential candidacy was fake. It was a cheap publicity stunt for his stupid TV show and for his own ego gratification. His announcement of his initial intentions and later his withdrawal from consideration coincided remarkably well with the beginning and end of the spring season of The Apprentice, a show wherein the bloated asshole fake fires washed-up celebrities for, um, "entertainment", if you can call it that. Here's a fun by-the-numbers breakdown of exactly what TrumpMania subjected us to for those months, which might otherwise have been more bearable.

Oh, and of course he's still trying to be relevant in the GOP field and we can expect him to get more vocal about the idea of an independent candidacy when a new season of The Apprentice needs the hype. Trump took an already circus-like election atmosphere and somehow made it worse. We expect the worst candidates (Bachmann, Alan Keyes, etc.) to do this, but we also expect that they're doing it because they want to win the presidency. For Trump, it was nothing but a long promotional tour for the Trump brand, which amounts to little more than his face – with its ridiculous hair, beady snake eyes, and mouth like a puckered asshole – basking in the glow of cameras and microphones.

So kudos to you, Donald Trump. You are an asshole nonpareil. In a year stuffed from stem to stern with cocksuckers, you unhinged your jaw like a snake and managed to outdo them all.

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THE CALVINBALL TOURNAMENT

Posted in Rants on January 3rd, 2012 by Ed

I like teaching, generally. One of the best things about it is the discretion it allows. Yes, there are certain things one must include in a course – I can't teach American government without talking about the Constitution or how a bill becomes a law – but there is a wide amount of latitude. No one hands me a script and says "You are obligated to tell the students that evolution is just a theory." There is no standardized test to prepare for. I like that because it means I never feel like a fraud, telling students that something is true when I believe otherwise.

It's getting increasingly difficult with time to talk about the presidential nominating process. I have to do things like take the Iowa Caucuses seriously and pretend that the primaries are interesting to me. They aren't. Not at all. This is all a big circus to me. The candidates are so bad it's almost surreal, the outcome isn't terribly relevant (Hell, it barely matters which party wins, let alone which candidates the parties choose), and most of the so-called "contenders" haven't a chance in hell of winning the nomination anyway. But most of all, the process itself is simply ludicrous. The pre-McGovern-Fraser system, which allowed party insider delegates to hand pick nominees irrespective of public preferences, was hardly a great one. Compared to what we do today, however, at least its incestuous politics and corruption had some semblance of dignity since most of the dirty work happened behind the scenes. What we do now is just embarrassing. It makes no sense whatsoever.

I get paid to pay attention to this stuff and it's supposed to be interesting to me, and even given those circumstances I can't muster the energy to get into it right now. These candidates are so bad, the amount of money in the process so absurd, and the failure of the media so complete that I'd be lying if I said I took it seriously or thought the outcome was important. Sifting through the waves of misinformation and accounting for the idiosyncratic rules of the Caucus itself (which make polling particularly ill-suited to predicting the outcome) is far more trouble than it is worth.

When will this process get so absurd that it will change? It's not impossible. It happened in 1824, it happened during the Progressive Era with the introduction of primaries, and it happened in 1968. The question is, given the current health of our political system and electorate as a whole, would we end up replacing it with something worse? The evidence suggests that we would. And that has become the guiding principle in American politics – disgust followed by detachment, apathy based on the conviction that we can always make things worse by opening them up to change.