SCENES FROM A CAVE

Posted in Quick Hits on February 14th, 2012 by Ed

I have a special place in my heart for "Hey dumbass! I bet you forgot Valentine's Day! Buy this for your wife/girlfriend!" advertising on male-oriented TV shows, websites, and magazines. While it's not good to perpetuate the idea of obligatory gift-giving (Won't She be mad if you don't get anything?) I find most of this advertising hilarious and harmless. That is, it advises men to buy such ludicrously awful gifts – things that no woman on Earth would ever want like Pajamagrams or things involving teddy bears – that I can't get angry because I'm laughing so hard at the idea of anyone falling for it.

Now. Two snapshots of where we're at as a society in 2012 and where we've taken the "Buy her this crap, she'll love it!" concept.

1. This was a very expensive Super Bowl ad for something called Teleflora, a 1-800-FLOWERS knockoff:

For those of you unable to watch and listen, the ad features beer commercial variety closeups of a hot woman in skimpy clothing and it ends with the line "Give, and you shall receive."

HEY GUYS, DO YOU GET IT? ORAL SEX. BUY HER FLOWERS AND SHE'S GONNA BLOW YOU. WITH HER MOUTH. ON YOUR PRIVATES. YOU WILL RECEIVE A BLOWIE. THAT'S WHAT THIS COMMERCIAL MEANS. TELEFLORA IS THE MIDDLEMAN IN A STANDARD FLOWERS-FOR-B.J. TRANSACTION.

2. I can't find the video, but there is a staggeringly offensive commercial for the latest Twilight film on DVD. It instructs male viewers to purchase said DVDs and watch them on Valentine's Day. That seems reasonable enough, I guess. If one's special lady likes Twilight, she would probably enjoy spending the evening that way. But the ad also reminds us that we should watch this film because "afterwards, it'll be Valentine's Day for you."

THAT MEANS SHE'LL DO THINGS TO YOUR WIENER! GET IT? WINK WINK WINK!

Bear in mind that the target audience for Twilight is tweens and high school girls. It takes a special kind of boldness to advertise one's product as an effective way to get a 14 year old to have sex with you.

Well, it looks like satire and reality have finally intersected:

In the past I have been accused, with justification, of being less attentive to cultural misogyny than I should be. If it's going to be this obvious, it looks like I won't have to look very closely after all.

DANCE! DANCE!

Posted in Rants on February 13th, 2012 by Ed

Earlier this month, the Council of Catholic Bishops (CCB) and other Catholic organizations flipped out at the potential for new health care laws to require them to offer contraception to employees and their insured dependents. This is not a bad point. A law requiring that was bound to cause controversy. Fortunately there was a simple workaround. The administration altered the rule to allow religious organizations to refrain from paying for or providing employees with any information about birth control, but insurers are required to offer it at no additional cost to any insured person who requests it directly or through a doctor. Since every insurer on the planet covers some kind of contraception, this would seem to be a fair compromise.

Shockingly, neither Bill Donohue or the U.S. CCB were satisfied. They retain "grave reservations" and remain convinced that Catholic organizations will end up having to pay for contraception indirectly. Their concern is somewhat odd, though. I mean, what contraception would they be paying for? Catholic doctrine proscribes it, so we can deduce that the (overwhelmingly Catholic) workforce covered by Catholic churches and non-profits wouldn't use it anyway.

Take a minute to finish laughing. Let me know when you're ready to continue.

With so much attention focused on the Vatican, the Bishops, and other people in visible positions of leadership in the Church, the media end up overlooking the reality that few Catholics beyond a devout minority adhere very closely to its doctrine. As I assume is the case with all religions, most people who identify as Catholics, even if practicing actively or semi-actively, treat the rules of their faith as a buffet. They choose the parts they want to follow, disregard the rest, and overlook the resulting inconsistencies between their creed and their actions.

To wit, a recent survey concluded that 98% of Catholic women use or have used modern (i.e., not Natural Family Planning) methods of birth control. Even if we assume that this is an overstatement, it underscores a real gap between church doctrine and the beliefs of the faithful.

This raises the question of why exactly Obama is supposed to care what the CCB or other "Catholic leaders" have to say. Those people, by definition, are the strictest, most hard-line adherents to Catholic doctrine – which is to say that they are not representative of the U.S. Catholic population. Let's be frank: anyone devout enough to care about this decision isn't voting for Obama anyway. For the casual Christmas-and-Easter Catholic it's a non-factor. And of course there's nothing on Earth that Obama could do to please Catholic bishops, the Catholic League, and other religious right groups.

So why exactly is he supposed to care what they think or respond to their criticisms? These people are so used to being treated as important that they expect an elected official whom they will refuse to support anyway to dance for little more than their amusement. If he completely caved and gave them exactly what they wanted, they would declare victory and give him some kind of backhanded compliment before going right back to telling people not to vote for him. But the media need a narrative and something to fill airtime, so contrived drama about "losing the Catholic vote" and the bilious discharge from Bill Donohue's facehole will continue independent of facts, data, or logic.

NPF: GROWING UP, SELLING OUT

Posted in No Politics Friday on February 10th, 2012 by Ed

I had been looking forward for quite some time to two comedy experiences from the past week – seeing Mike Birbiglia live and seeing John Mulaney's new album/TV special. Birbiglia has the combination of a dry delivery, traditional joke structures, and the tendency to get weird that I really like. Mulaney's first album, the "criminally overlooked" The Top Part, is hands-down the best comedy album of the Obama years. His measured delivery and tenor voice on that disc helped make him one of the more unique and recognizable new comics in recent years. On the basis of that album I was beginning to wonder if John Mulaney might be the funniest man alive at the moment.

So I saw Birbiglia's live show and listened to Mulaney's new one (New In Town). I laughed at both. A few times I even laughed hard. But I can't hide my disappointment.

Unbeknownst to me, Birbiglia has been appearing on NPR quite a bit lately, which guaranteed that the audience in the large venue in which I saw him was predominantly old white people with a smattering of young hipster types. Accordingly, his 75 minute set was more of the one man show variety than a true stand-up act. He delivered the kind of material (dating is hard, being a kid was hard, etc etc) that might appeal to the widest possible audience. He definitely was funny, but he pushed the boundaries of…nothing, really. It's not even a clean-vs-dirty thing; there was profanity, a few sex jokes, and so on. In terms of the ground he covered, though, it was all very safe. Standard comedy tropes.

Mulaney's new special has him using an entirely new delivery – why he went from the slowest build-ups this side of Stephen Wright to this rapid fire approach is not clear – and a similar reliance on less creative subject matters. He's a bad driver. He has a girlfriend (and hilarity ensues). Wacky stuff happens when you live in New York City. And he actually closes with an 8 minute ass/poop joke. There are laughs to be had, but nothing at all to make the listener say "Wow, this guy is something special."

Both of these guys are now far more popular than ever before. Birbiglia has a movie coming out and is selling out 1000-2000 seat venues with high ticket prices. Mulaney is a writer for SNL and is all over Comedy Central now. I doubt they are looking for any tips or have any reason to question the choices they've made recently. They've done what makes sense from a career perspective. If the choice is between doing dark, weird material and touring in a van 10 months per year or recording TV specials, getting high profile writing work, and making big money headlining, then the choice is pretty obvious. It saddens me, though. All of the weirdness, all of the edge, is gone. They feel flat compared to their earlier stuff.

Is that inevitable? I mean, is that what we have to do to become successful? I'm not talking strictly about comedy here – any creative pursuit (and a lot of non-creative ones) has the same dynamics. Is this simply part of a maturation process or is it selling out, consciously or otherwise? It feels counterproductive to push the envelope for years in order to get noticed and then immediately retreat to what I like to call Meet the Parents territory – that is, a product three generations can enjoy simultaneously without anyone getting bored or offended.

Hell, if you put me in that position I'd probably make the same choice to soften the material up a little and make it more accessible. A skeptic might say that the previous sentence is a fancy way of saying "dumb it down", though, and he or she would have a point. I wish there was some magical world in which John Mulaney could be richly rewarded for being John Mulaney rather than for taking a step, however small, toward being more like everyone else. I don't want to sound like the 15 year old who shit-talks bands who sign with record labels for "selling out, man." These guys need to eat and I have learned quite well the lesson that comedy does not pay well if at all on the lower rungs of the ladder. It simply depresses me that the market for real creativity is so small. I wish that people who write, paint, play music, act, talk, or whatever didn't have to work within such narrow confines in order to earn recognition and achieve success. Because being a starving artist is neat and all that, but so is being able to afford, you know, medical care and rent.

ALL ONE THING OR ALL THE OTHER

Posted in Quick Hits on February 8th, 2012 by Ed

I have minimal time tonight so I apologize for not giving this topic the attention it deserves. From Lincoln's famous "house divided" speech:

In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed. "A house divided against itself cannot stand." I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.

Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction, or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the States; old as well as new, North as well as South.

Abe is referring to the various attempts to compartmentalize, minimize, or otherwise make the issue of slavery conveniently recede into the background so politicians would not have to deal with it. Of course they all failed and ultimately the nation had to confront the question directly and decide it definitively.

For years now the Supreme Court has been doing its damnedest to pass the hot potato on gay marriage. Different states have passed different laws regarding it and different federal courts have issued conflicting decisions. Because the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the Constitution requires things like marriage licenses issued in one state to be recognized as valid by others, it simply is untenable for this patchwork, confusing approach to continue. Now that one federal district court has ruled California's Prop 8 unconstitutional we have reached the decision point. Gay marriage bans cannot be unconstitutional in one state or one federal court district but constitutional in others.

We have kicked the can down the road for too long already. It is time to decide whether we will become all one thing or all the other. Is this legal or is it not? Will all states recognize legal gay marriages or will none? The Supreme Court appears to be painted into a corner. An appeal of this decision is a certainty and it is unimaginable that the Court would be so derelict in its responsibilities that it would not accept the case. My confidence in the current Court to make the correct decision here is shaky, but regardless we need this issue to come to a head. The status quo is untenable and it is time for the Supreme Court to do its job.

As an aside, if the dissenting opinion in the Perry case is any indication we are in for some disastrously poor legal reasoning from the gay marriage opponents on the Supreme Court.

BACKMASKING

Posted in Rants on February 7th, 2012 by Ed

One of the first times I clearly remember thinking that the entire world is run by crazy people was during the early 1980s moral panic about "satanic backmasking" in heavy metal music. Various religious groups and self-appointed moral guardians accused groups that were popular at the time such as Judas Priest and Led Zeppelin of hiding secret satanic messages in their songs, messages that would be revealed if the tracks were played backwards. Even at the age of six I understood that this was beyond ridiculous, and I began reconsidering my previous assumptions about the intellectual competence of grown-ups.

To be fair, backmasking is a technique that appears on a number of popular recordings since it was popularized in the Sixties by the Beatles. The problem is that the human brain is good at pattern recognition (it can find things that sound like words from a bunch of random noises) and it's even better at hearing what it wants to hear. If you're convinced that a backward Def Leppard song contains satanic messages, then lo and behold you're going to find some. So we destroy the line between actual backmasking done intentionally by artists and the figments of Jerry Falwell's imagination.

Many of you might not remember this wave of hysteria (complete with high-profile trials against bands accused of inspiring listeners to do horrible things with hidden satanic messages) but you see something very similar today in politics: the insistence that everything is secretly brainwashing people with the hidden liberal/gay/feminist/etc agenda. Remember when Tinky-Winky the Teletubby was secretly pushing the gay agenda? Or when the Muppets were secretly pushing a radical anti-oil agenda? Just two of many examples of creeping liberal brainwashing in action.

As soon as I heard about the Chrysler Super Bowl ad ("Halftime" starring Clint Eastwood) in the weeks leading up to the game, I was pretty sure that it would ignite a shitstorm of ridiculous accusations from conservatves about…something. It wasn't clear what or how, but somehow this commercial was going to be secret liberal propaganda. Sure, it stars lifelong Republican Clint Eastwood pitching cars for a quintessential Old Money megacorporation. That doesn't matter though. It's, you know, a secret Obama ad or something.

And of course that is exactly what has happened. The right's leading intellectual lights are lining up to accuse the ad – which was a parade of Chrysler vehicles under generic "America is awesome and will rise again!" sentimentality and stirring pictures/music/narration – of everything from being an Obama campaign ad to some sort of corrupt bargain with Chrysler executives who need to get Obama re-elected in exchange for the bailout money they received (from George W. Bush). I know that doesn't make sense to you or me, but that is because we are not paranoid wingnuts.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, a song just a song, and a commercial for cars just a commercial for cars. Conservatives' wild imaginations ensure that nothing is really what it seems anymore. You can't see the subtle messages, but their trained eyes can detect the liberal agenda everywhere and they're eager to explain to the rest of us that essentially everything except Fox News, John Wayne movies, and old video clips of Ronald Reagan is thinly disguised left wing propaganda.

THE STAND-IN

Posted in Election 2012 on February 6th, 2012 by Ed

Over the last few weeks I've heard several people bring up the following analogy in conversation, and Forbes made a headline out of it after the Florida primary: Mitt Romney is the John Kerry of The GOP. We will continue to hear this analogy throughout the election, which makes sense because 2012 is shaping up to be similar to 2004 in many respects. But how similar are they?

Although imperfect, the comparison works on levels beyond the superficial. The main characteristics they share in common are, in no particular order: great personal wealth that they're willing to blow against an incumbent, the generic "Looks like a president" physical characteristics (tall, white, full head of graying hair), the perception of aloofness stemming from their fortunes, and complete malleability on issues and ideological positions. They are the kind of classic, people-pleaser politicians who follow the general direction of the wind. They both fit stereotypes that their parties try to avoid – the Massachusetts Liberal and the Plutocrat.

They are both also the kind of person you nominate when the party doesn't have any good candidates. They both pass the "You'll Do, I Guess" test with flying colors. As long as the field is full of scrubs – the 2004/2012 analogy works well here – everyone gravitates to the tall rich guy who doesn't sound completely insane or have lots of baggage. Nobody wants to nominate someone like Kerry or Romney, but you have to nominate someone and Boring > Crazy in the hierarchy of default nominees.

That said, there are some key differences. Nobody in the Democratic Party had the kind of hostility toward Kerry that vast segments of the GOP appear to have toward Mittens. Most people found Kerry drab and, if anything, more liberal than the median Democrat. Romney, on the other hand, is treated as an impostor – "not a real conservative." Romney's religion also introduces an element into the campaign that was absent in 2004. Issue-wise, Kerry may have been "flexible" but he looks as dogmatic as the Pope compared to Romney. And despite the fact that they share great wealth, their means of acquiring it was different and, for Kerry, less controversial.

I think the overarching premise is valid, though more because of similarities between the elections than the candidates. We have an incumbent hovering at or slightly below 50% approval and subject to fanatical hatred from opposing partisans. The incumbent is vulnerable, if only the challengers could rustle up a decent candidate. Unfortunately they can't, so they go with the best of a poor field and hope that being Not Bush or Not Obama is good enough to motivate people to support their weak nominee. It isn't, and the relatively unpopular incumbent squeaks out a win in a low turnout election in which no one gets excited about anyone or anything.

Romney = Kerry isn't a bad analogy, but the key difference is Romney's lack of acceptance among key elements of the GOP base. I just didn't see that with Kerry. Democrats were severely ambivalent toward him as a candidate, yes. There was not the sense that he was a Fake Democrat, though, nor wings of the party talking about 3rd Party or independent candidacies to wage ideological war. It was a rare example of the disorganized Democratic Party uniting, and now with Romney, and to a lesser extent McCain, we see the usually lock-step GOP splintering into factions that can't agree about anything except Obama Bad.

NPF: REALLY

Posted in No Politics Friday on February 3rd, 2012 by Ed

Two things I was fairly certain I would never do: say "You should all read this thing in Marie Claire!" and comment on the death of Don Cornelius. Having already done the former this week, let's go ahead and knock out the latter.

The famous Soul Train host died on Wednesday, leading to many topical Facebook posts and shared video clips. I remember the show well from childhood – it followed Saturday morning cartoons and was also popular on Sunday evenings – but it is hardly an integral part of my life or memories. It has been a good 25 years since I watched or thought about it. But this clip, of the much-loved "line dance" portion of the show, caught my eye:

A lot of things have changed in 30-plus years, obviously, but it is striking how much different these people look than the ones we see on TV today (or would see if Soul Train was still on the air). They look like real people. No fake hair, fake boobs, fake nails, fake collagen-pumped lips, fake eyelashes, or fake smiles. The women don't look like porn stars and the men don't look like steroid addled He-Men with abs like cheese graters and zeppelin arms. They're all dressed loudly but quite differently. And they look like they're having actual fun rather than wearing fake, practiced personalities for the camera.

Nothing's easier than idealizing the past – usually unjustifiably – so I'm trying to tread lightly here. It's just surprising to me in a way that has probably already occurred to older readers to see how the idealized image of cool people listening to cool music has become so overwhelmingly fake and detached from reality in a relatively short period of time. Would any of these women make it on an MTV-type program today without a boob job and/or lipo? Would any of those guys be trying to make it in Hollywood today without hitting the gym until they looked like UFC fighters? And we wonder why kids transition to adulthood with such horribly distorted self images these days. I'm sure the pressure to be thin and pretty has been around forever, but it would be nice if Hollywood suggested that you could look like an actual human being and still be cool.

RACE FOR THE CURE TO BEING RELEVANT

Posted in Rants on February 2nd, 2012 by Ed

I have been of two minds about how to approach this. One option is to be thorough, do some research, and make a careful, reasoned argument about why the Susan G. Komen Foundationtm is a marketing consultancy masquerading as a charity, a fact only reinforced by their recent actions regarding Planned Parenthood. The other is to put my gall bladder on the keyboard, crank the Dillinger Escape Plan, and let the bile-laced invective fly. Press A for the first option or B for the second.

That's what I thought. No one ever picks A.

As a preface, please consult Lea Goldman's outstanding, well-researched article "The Big Business of Breast Cancer", which represents what may be the one and only outgoing link to Marie Claire magazine I will ever offer. It details the proliferation of scams in the charity industry (a fitting, if oxymoronic, term) that has sprouted up around breast cancer. There are many organizations that use the funds they raise primarily to raise more funds and pay handsome salaries to the administrators and their talentless family members. It is a long read but well worth it. Note well the point that breast cancer research is hardly suffering for lack of funds. The author conservatively estimates six billion dollars funneled toward research annually with almost no progress made since the 1970s.

Second, just in case you missed what all of the fuss is about, the Susan G. Komen Foundationtm For the Curetm announced on Wednesday that it will no longer be making grants/contributions to Planned Parenthood for early breast cancer screenings for the poor and/or uninsured. Nothing says "We're committed to stamping out breast cancer by encouraging regular, early mammograms" like eliminating funding for mammograms.

OK.

The Susan G. Komen Foundationtm has been on my personal shitlist for many years (this post is from 2008). If this is what it takes to get you on the heretofore lonely Screw Komen bandwagon, so be it. But you should not have a low opinion of Komentm because of their announcement on Wednesday. You should have a low opinion of them because they're a fake charity run like any other company with a product to sell. In this case the product is a combination of guilt, pity, and hope dissolved in a weak acid and dyed a nauseating pink.

Wednesday's decision has been described as motivated by pressure from pro-life groups, but in reality Komentm is (and always has been) run by right wingers and closely aligned with conservative politics. The organization's current president, Karen Handel, ran for governor of Georgia in 2010 and lost in the Republican primary. Sarah Palin endorsed her. During her campaign she promised repeatedly to defund Planned Parenthood. She took over Komentm a few months ago. You do the math. On a personal note, Karen, I hope you get cancer. I hope the doctors find it too late to do anything but treat your pain, and I hope they do a poor job of that. Cut and paste that at your leisure to prove how mean-spirited and Uncivil liberals are.

Komen's founder and CEO, Nancy Brinker, is a big money Republican with ties to the past three Republican administration who received a political appointment from George W. Bush as a reward for her fundraising largesse. She draws a salary of $459,000 annually, money well spent compared to the 39% of its budget the foundation spends on "public health education" (i.e., marketing itself). Not to mention that they also spend a million bucks per year in legal fees to threaten other non-profit groups who use the phrase For the Curetm, to which Komentm claims to have intellectual property rights.

That last part is important to the organization, of course, because every successful marketing campaign needs a good logo and a slogan. And that's all Komen is – a consulting firm that helps large corporate clients sell more of their products through pinkwashing campaigns. By slathering everything from pasta to baseball bats to perfume to fast food with the Pink Imprimatur, consumers are led to believe that their purchases are making meaningful contributions to breast cancer research. Somewhere down the line a few cents per purchase may trickle into those bloated coffers, but the immediate and motivating effect of that pink packaging is to get you to buy things. In short, Komentm is a group of salespeople selling image. Whatever money benefits the sick, researchers, or recovering patients is ancillary. Getting those big, fat tax-exempt checks from their Partners for the Curetm is what drives their business model.

Am I too cynical? Consider their lack of discretion in choosing Partnerstm. Nothing says "We're serious about stomping out cancer!" like a pink bucket of fried chicken or pink bags of deep fried snacks. It's ridiculous on that "Earth Day brought to you by Ford" level.

There is a special circle of hell devoted to people who conceal their own selfish behavior with the appearance of charity and good deeds. I suppose that people who make so much money on the suffering of others need some way to look their spa-treated faces in the mirror every morning, but the rest of us need not be deceived. I have never purchased a Komentm-labeled product and I hope you will make a similar arrangement with your conscience today. Playing politics with people's lives is low, even by the withered standards of morality in the corporate world. The 60% of women whose breast cancer is detected before it metastasizes survive almost without exception. The 40% of women whose cancer is detected after metastasis almost inevitably die within five years.

Regardless of whether they cave to public pressure and reverse this decision, I would love to see the Susan G. Komen Foundationtm and its self-aggrandizing, silly publicity stunts reduced to ground zero. I want corporate sponsors to feel like they'd rather put a swastika on their packaging than another Komentm logo for fear of a public backlash. And I want to prove that charitable giving is not wedded to the act of shopping. And since I'm so much better at pointing out what's wrong with everything than at offering solutions, here's what you should do if you want to help the fight against breast cancer:

1. Donate directly. Call or visit the Sloan-Kettering or Johns Hopkins/Avon cancer research institutes and ask how to make a donation that will go 100% toward research. Or donate to the American Cancer Society, which contributes less to research but does a lot of quality-of-life things like buying wigs or prosthesis for cancer victims. Donate locally to a hospital or hospice in your area that will use your money directly on patient services rather than commercials and administrative salaries.

2. Donate your time. One afternoon helping Chemo patients by cleaning their home or running their errands is worth more than all the yogurt lids in existence.

3. Say no to fake activism and Cause Marketing.

4. Remember that people die from things other than breast cancer. Cervical and ovarian cancer are overlooked. Men needlessly die from the reluctance to get regular prostate exams. AIDS is still a thing. Heart disease is the #1 killer of men and women. Depression is a leading cause of death among young people.

5. Share this with as many uninformed people as possible. On Facebook, via email, or whatever. Show them Lea Goldman's article. Explain patiently why Planned Parenthood is used as a pinata by every floundering right wing political figure to score cheap points and get the rubes whipped into a frenzy. If you encounter said rubes directly, insult them. Suggest that his or her parents were related prior to marriage.