MOVING GOALPOSTS

Posted in Ed vs. Logical Fallacies on July 30th, 2012 by Ed

This news item is a bit outdated, originally appearing in April of 2012, but I came across it recently and it's full of quotes of the too-good-to-pass-up variety.

Recall last year when Florida Gov. Rick Scott – who totally doesn't own a chain of drug testing clinics, because he transferred his majority stake to his wife in the kind of "share shuffle" that is illegal in nearly every state outside of the former Confederacy – led the charge to drug-test all TANF ("welfare") recipients. Think of the money Florida will save when it can deny benefits to all Those People with their crack and their weed and their bath salts and whatnot!

Stunningly, the state did not end up saving any money. In its first four months the failure rate for benefit applicants was slightly over 2%. Since the state was obligated to reimburse the 98% who did not fail for the cost of their test, the cost to taxpayers far exceeded the amount that would have been paid in benefits to the drug using applicants. In four months, the program was almost $50,000 in the hole. In the grand scheme of a state budget this is not much money. The point, however, is that as a vehicle for fiscal responsibility this law is an abject failure. Few applicants failed the drug tests and the number of applicants was essentially unchanged.

The net savings of -$50k means that the law accomplished its real, which is to say unstated, purpose of funneling tax dollars to medical testing companies like the ones Rick Scott totally doesn't own. The problem for pro-testing lawmakers is to find a way to continue the policy now that its stated goal of saving money has been given the lie. Well that's not so hard; if you miss the goal, just move it to wherever the ball landed.

It turns out that they didn't write the law to save money. It was about morality and The Children all along!

Chris Cinquemani, the vice president of the Foundation for Government Accountability, a Florida-based public policy group that advocates drug testing and recently made a presentation in Georgia, said more than saving money was at stake.

"The drug testing law was really meant to make sure that kids were protected," he said, "that our money wasn't going to addicts, that taxpayer generosity was being used on diapers and Wheaties and food and clothing."

Florida's governor, Rick Scott, who supported the measure last year, agreed.

"Governor Scott maintains his position that TANF dollars must be spent on TANF's purposes — protecting children and getting people back to work," said Jackie Schutz, the governor's deputy press secretary.

Here is Ed's free lesson for the day: When an idea is pitched with "making sure that kids are protected" as a primary selling point, run. Run like your ass is on fire.

It's amazing how easy it is to turn a failed law into a success. Just redefine "success" on the fly and you can't go wrong. I can't see this type of argument without immediately having Iraq War flashbacks. Remember 2004? What a great year that was. It was the year in which we learned that we invaded Iraq because of al-Qaeda, and if not because of al-Qaeda then because of chemical/nuclear weapons, or human rights abuses, or Bringing the Fight to The Enemy, or establishing a foothold for democracy in the Middle East, or whatever other bullshit excuse seemed plausible at the time. Boy, moving those goalposts sounds exhausting sometimes.

NPF: MANTLE & MAYS REDUX

Posted in No Politics Friday, Skip this if you hate sports on July 27th, 2012 by Ed

Sometimes fate conspires to create natural rivalries between athletes. When two players begin their careers simultaneously (i.e., Eli Manning and Philip Rivers) and share similar roles it is obvious that their careers will be measured against one another. Perhaps the most famous example comes from the 1951 baseball season when two brilliant rookies – 20 year old Willie Mays and 19 year old Mickey Mantle – began their careers within weeks of one another. Over the next two decades they were inextricably linked as they smashed records, won awards, and on two occasions (1951, 1962) squared off in the World Series. Mantle enjoyed more success, winning an astounding seven World Series titles to Mays' one, while Mays racked up better numbers and was arguably the more complete player.

Obviously I was not alive in 1951, but most accounts of their rookie season indicate that the career path of both players was apparent the moment they reached the majors. That is, everyone knew as soon as they laid eyes on these guys that they would be superstars (although note that Mays' first great season didn't come until age 23, after a year of military service. Anyone else surprised to see that he missed a year for Korea? I certainly never knew that.) They both passed the eyeball test. Now certainly there is a hindsight bias in effect here; it is easy to look back on a superstar and say "Ah, I knew it all along!" Nonetheless, the near-immediate success of both players – Mantle led the league in OPS in his second season – suggests that it did not take a ton of prescience to recognize that these guys were both going to be incredible.

I feel like baseball fans are experiencing the same thing this season, a rare opportunity to see two young players who are quite obviously generational talents entering the league together. I'm referring to 19 year old Bryce Harper and 20 year old Mike Trout. Simply put, I've never seen two players enter the league at such a young age with such obviously elite talent (with the possible exception of Alex Rodriguez, who was similarly impressive at 20). Everyone knows about Harper, a #1 overall draft pick who has made headlines since he was 14, but if not for a baseball obsessed friend mentioning some of his mind-boggling minor league numbers I would not have been familiar with Trout before this season. Lots of young baseball players show the potential to be great, but not many of them are already great. Especially with Trout, it is so obvious to even the most casual fan that he has an astonishing level of talent that it would be more surprising if he wasn't a Hall of Fame caliber player 15-20 years from now.

Harper is playing a good CF – a position, mind you, that he never played in his life twelve months ago – and has more natural power than anyone this side of Josh Hamilton. His speed is above average but not elite, but he is likely to put up .300-35-100 seasons for the next dozen-plus years with the potential for 40-50 homer seasons. Trout, conversely, might top out power-wise at ~25 HR but he has ~.350 plate discipline and is probably the fastest player in the majors right now. There are some batting titles and 50+ SB seasons in his future, and probably a lot of them. More importantly, his talent looks completely effortless, whether he's leading the league in steals, winning the batting title by 20 points, or making over-the-wall catches he has no business making in center. He missed the first 20 games of the season languishing in the minors and yet he leads the league in three counting stats – runs, steals, and WAR – while putting up a ridiculous .356/.414/.606 at the moment. If he doesn't falter, he's likely to be just the third player to win RoY and MVP awards in the same season.

To make the comparisons more compelling, Harper and Trout have personality differences similar to Mays and Mantle. Mays was flashy, a big talker, and an anomaly in an era when black athletes were expected to Know Their Place. Harper is similarly brash – the words "arrogant" and "asshole" have been bandied about over the years – reflecting his healthy ego. Mantle, on the other hand, was seen as the quieter, all-American (read: white) boy with almost unbelievable five-tool talent, similar to Trout. Let's hope Trout doesn't turn out to be a surly closet alcoholic too.

There are only two previous times that I saw a player and immediately thought, "This guy is going to be in Cooperstown if he doesn't get hurt" – A-Rod and Frank Thomas, the latter of whom clearly lacked the all-around skill sets of guys like Trout and Harper. Even Ken Griffey Jr. didn't strike me as great immediately, and the numbers reflect that it took him several years to build up to superstar-level numbers. No one can predict the future, of course, and Harper/Trout might blow out a knee tomorrow and never be the same player again. It's also possible, albeit unlikely, that this is just a fluke and they will revert to being average players soon enough. Caveats aside, if I had to bet my life savings ($57) on one or both of these guys modeling for a bust in Cooperstown 25 years from now, I would do it with confidence.

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MITTSTERIOUS

Posted in Election 2012 on July 26th, 2012 by Ed

Last year, as part of his "Republicans like some of you older folks might remember, back before the entire party lost its mind" character, Mitt Romney had the following to say about climate change:

I believe the world is getting warmer, and I believe that humans have contributed to that. It's important for us to reduce our emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases that may be significant contributors.

About six months later – this time in Campaigning Romney mode – he sounded a different note:

My view is that we don't know what’s causing climate change on this planet. And the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try to reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us.

And now with Election Day slowly creeping into view, the campaign is taking pains to clarify that Romney is "certainly not a denier" of climate change. Well, that should clear things up.

Two things.

First, I do not believe, nor have I ever believed, that giving different answers to a question at different points in time is a sign of inherent character flaws or a lack of honesty. People can change their minds about things. Ideally candidates DO change their stances as issues evolve.

Second, I am not naive enough to believe that candidates or elected officials do not play to audiences. The same question answered in different settings (and before different groups of voters/donors/etc) are going to sound different. It has been claimed that one of FDR's greatest gifts was to give a single speech that would lead opposing sides on the same issue to conclude that he agreed with their viewpoint. This is inherent to politics.

With those caveats, there is something difficult to define that feeds the perception among both Republican primary voters and the electorate in general that Romney is completely insincere. I don't think he is a bad person, and other candidates have gotten passes in the past on issue positions that, um, "evolve" over time. Why can't he get a pass on anything?

It's subjective and difficult to define, but something about this guy just screams "I will say anything to get elected." It's the same label Kerry had to wear in 2004 (nb: we'll talk more about the similarities between these two campaigns as the election progresses) and it is often fatal in elections. Eight years ago, Rove & Co. exploited this weakness, real or perceived, to devastating effect. We may be in for a repeat of that in 2012. The truth is that even when Romney answers a question directly and completely, we still walk away feeling like we have no idea where he stands because everything about him, his career, and his self-presentation screams "I will tell you whatever you want to hear if you'll please just love me."

Maybe I'm projecting that onto Mittens just as Obama's detractors see lies, hate, and manipulation behind every word he speaks. The perception does not appear to be limited to raging liberals, though. Why? Is it the hair? The obvious daddy issues? The slick, upper class glibness? The used car salesman tone of voice? Or is it merely the frequency with which he changes issue positions, the cumulative impact of which is to lead us to assume that nothing he says is to be taken seriously? If Romney can't find a way to prevent potential voters from visualizing an "All statements subject to change" subtitle under everything he says, even the billions of corporate dollars being poured into the campaign won't make it dramatic or interesting.

TOO MUCH

Posted in Quick Hits on July 24th, 2012 by Ed

Being young(ish) and living in college towns among people who tend toward the less lucrative college degrees, a high percentage of my friends would make good case studies for a Quarterlife Crisis reality show. To be blunt, I don't know many people who are terribly successful, financial or otherwise (and I certainly am not either). Let me put it this way: it's the kind of social group in which having health insurance is a cause for great envy. Even my friends and acquaintances who are gainfully employed in something more rewarding than the service industry live with a lot of anxiety and the sense that the world is crumbling around them. Basically, I have a very large social circle spanning most of the country and I can honestly say (anec-data!) that most people I know are at least somewhat depressed. To be in one's 20s and 30s today is to be overwhelmed by debt, overworked and underpaid (or not working at all), and constantly second-guessing every choice that led to this outcome. It's a biased sample, but not totally unrepresentative of the problems facing people in this age bracket.

The explanations for this are numerous and we could spend weeks discussing them all; everything from parenting techniques to macroeconomics to technological advances is relevant to understanding the predicament of the first generation of Americans to do worse than its parents. One specific explanation that has been very interesting to me lately is the psychology of indecision and the consequences of making too many choices among too many options. It doesn't matter that many of these choices are of minor importance – Where should we go for dinner tonight? Am I eating too much wheat gluten? Which toothpaste is right for me? – because the psychological cost is a function of volume as well as intensity. And there are reams of research providing evidence that it leads to depression, anxiety, lack of focus, and other problems.

The toothpaste aisle is my favorite example of this phenomenon. The next time you are in the Box Store or whatnot, stop and take a look at it. I mean, really look at it. There are, what, 75-100 different kinds of toothpaste? Maybe more. God only knows what the difference among them could be. There are dozens of flavors (all essentially identical but with creative naming variations on "mint") and all kinds of pseudoscience claiming different benefits as a marketing angle. The truth, of course, is that you can probably grab any tube of toothpaste approved for sale in the U.S. and, provided it's used regularly, reap exactly the same rewards. Your teeth will be clean and your breath will smell half-decent. But there's something about the experience that is paralyzing; we always worry, "Am I buying the right one? Which one is the best value for the money?" And then we worry about the consequences of choosing the wrong one (70s commercial voiceover guy haunts your dreams: "Gingiviiiiiitissss….")

The problem is not simply that we have trouble choosing from a large number of options, but that we A) are made to fret endlessly about the consequences of the "wrong" choices – How is your kid going to get into Harvard if you don't pick the right diapers? – and B) the choice often provides very little benefit for the cost. What do 100 kinds of shampoo or 50 different TVs get us? It gets us propaganda about how we live in the Greatest Bastion of Freedom in the history of the world. Try getting the TV you want in Soviet Russia! Everyone gets the same TV there…if they're lucky!

This was somewhat rambling, and for that I apologize. But this has been on my mind quite often lately, and the social, political, and economic ramifications are pretty clear. More choices in more areas are more likely to make us feel depressed, indecisive, and anxious than to make us feel fulfilled, happy, or successful. Sometimes I think it would be just great if the toothpaste aisle consisted of a single plain white box labeled "TOOTHPASTE." Would any of us really be worse off in that case?

STORMY WEATHER

Posted in Rants on July 23rd, 2012 by Ed

Americans have the unique ability to think about mass murder and spree killing the same way they conceptualize natural disasters like hurricanes or tornadoes; it's just a thing that happens and can't be stopped. When it strikes there's nothing we can do except hold a vigil, say "Oh, how awful", donate something to the survivors, and go about our day. Usually within about a week we manage to forget it ever happened, and then a few months later the cycle repeats itself.

There is no sense in the wake of these tragedies that it is possible to do anything to prevent them from recurring because, like many other issues in our political process, one half of the potential means to address the problem are completely off the table. The only acceptable solution is more guns, more bullets, more firepower, more high-capacity magazines, and endless complaining about the meager, ineffectual regulations in place (background checks, etc.) that stop only the dumbest and least creative criminals. The media and political process inevitably conclude that, gee, if only more people in the theater had been armed they could have shot back…and, uh, hit the attacker in the dark, smoke-filled theater amidst all the panic and confusion.

Oh, he was covered in body armor? Hmm. I guess it's time to legalize more firepower. Concealed carry permits and armor-piercing ammunition for all!

Despite the fact that the "Armed citizens are the best first responders!" argument fails in a half-dozen different ways in this instance – the attack was over in the blink of an eye, the film goers were taken completely by surprise, they were likely unable to see the gunman let alone shoot him, and he would be unharmed by handgun ammunition anyway – it is still all we will hear in response. Like the only solution to economic questions is lower taxes, the only answer to crime, especially gun crime, is more guns. More, more, more. Someday we'll have enough to be safe. But not yet.

The most baffling part about the logic of the NRA-led response is that it is based on a premise that is ignored as soon as it is established. The argument is that guns don't kill people – unhinged or evil people do. OK. Let's accept that premise in full. Why, then, does the NRA fight so hard to make it easier for evil or unhinged people to have access to things like high powered ammunition and large magazines? If the world is full of the scary people they blame for gun crime, these things only serve to make them more efficient killers. We are told that people like the Columbine killers were so full of hatred and violence that if they had no guns they would have used other weapons…and then we are not allowed to point out that they wouldn't have managed to kill a dozen people with a knife. The AR-15 with a 30-round clip didn't make the guy in Aurora, Colorado a killer. It just ensured that he would be really good at it. Change the elements in the equation – weaker ammunition, smaller magazines, a less powerful rifle – and there are fewer casualties. Period.

Second, if the world is full of loons who want to kill their fellow man and we are not allowed to take away their guns (indeed, we are required to give them every possible tool for upping the body count) then I have an alternative. Congress should pass a law that anyone in the U.S., resident or otherwise, can present himself at any hospital, religious institution, or police/fire department and request immediate inpatient psychiatric care at no cost and with legal protection against job loss for missed time. People don't snap and become killers overnight; it is usually a long process of isolation, depression, plotting, and desensitization to violence. Why not attempt to intervene when they first have the thought, "Maybe I should kill a bunch of people in a theater" rather than letting it progress to the point that the idea is palatable, even normal? Of course this wouldn't help everyone. There are those who would not accept mental health treatment even at no cost. However, it would stop a few people who might otherwise become violent. Seems like it might be worth the cost, no?

Oh, right. That would be socialized medicine, and the AM airwaves and internet comment sections would fill to bursting with warnings about freeloaders faking it to get a free vacation on the taxpayers' dime. I guess we'll stick with the status quo, and our defense against heavily armed mass murderers will be the vigilante fantasies of adult children who feel powerful when armed and thus foster the illusion that guns are making them safe.

SOUTHERN CHARM

Posted in Rants on July 20th, 2012 by Ed

By August 1 the three year experiment of combining Ed and the Deep South will come to an end. I will move back to the flatlands of the Midwest from whence I came. Right off the bat, let us note that I am not leaving because I hate it, but rather out of professional necessity. I no longer have a job here and a school in Illinois was willing to hire me. If it was up to me, I would stay, all kidding and "Ha ha the South blows" jokes aside.

I did not expect to like living here; as many people from Up North do, I moved here with many preconceptions of what life in the South would be like. For the most part, these assumptions proved…remarkably accurate. People assume that the South is barely survivable in the summer (Check. I don't know how anyone lived here before air conditioning. Oh, wait: not many people did, and they were really emphatic about buying other people to do manual labor for them.) It is mild and pleasant during the winter (Check). Many of the rural areas are incredibly depressing (Check). People are really conservative (check) and into the Jesus (check). And then there's the big one that people assume: that everyone is racist. Eh…

My experience has been that race is indeed the 900-pound elephant in the room in the Deep South. People remain very sensitive about the topic, and many people, especially older ones who retain pre-1960 memories, still have a muted sense of "knowing one's place", if you follow me. Overall, however, I have not come away convinced that race is a much bigger issue/problem here than anywhere else. It is probably closer to the forefront of social and political issues here – i.e., more issues end up being "about" race to some extent – but not by as large a margin as one might expect. Hell, there's probably more racial tension in LA, Cincinnati, or Chicago than in Atlanta.

One thing about the race issue did, in my experience, stand out like a sore thumb, though. Living around the Midwest, overt racism – the "I hate this group of people and have actual malice toward them" kind – always seemed to be a lower class phenomenon. The people in Chicago, for example, who are most likely to sit around a bar bitching about Darkies or whatever are knuckleheads from the bottom of our high school classes who regularly get fired from their job delivering pizzas. This has very much not been my experience in the South; the "Bubba" types – lower class, thick drawls, driving red pickup trucks – are not the people from whom I have heard terrible, racist things. Down here the racism seems to be, or at least feels like, a suburban, private school kid phenomenon. That's just my impression. I have no data here. It's merely an observation.

Look, I am not saying that no one who lives in the suburbs and has a lot of money in the North is racist. My point is that I was expecting the South to be populated with racist hillbillies when for the most part the hillbillies are pleasant people (although not free of unpleasant ideas, thanks to their involvement in the more lunatic branches of Protestantism). On the occasions on which I did hear really racist stuff, it was inevitably coming from the mouth of someone who did not fit the Redneck stereotype at all. I heard people say some horrible shit – eugenics appears to have a strong underground following among well-off suburban white kids – and not appear to have the slightest idea that they were saying something racist.

Although this surprised me, it makes sense. Lower class people, black and white, probably have some un-PC ideas about one another but regularly have to interact (going to the same dilapidated public schools, working the same shitty jobs, etc). For the people with money down here, the segregation is complete and the white kids of Marietta are raised on an unbroken diet of Boortz/Beck/Limbaugh, Falwell-type religion, and private laments about how much better things were before…You Know. Before the "social order" was changed by meddling outsiders.

In other words, the people who should know better – the ones with high incomes and access to education, culture, and so on – seem to be more likely to hold and express racist beliefs than the ones who wear the stereotype of being racists. Part of this reflects sample bias; I live in a college town (obviously) and college kids are notoriously parochial, sheltered, insensitive, and at times arrogant. Sometimes younger people say racist things because they are repeating things from people who raised them. Regardless, although it pains parts of my brain to admit it, I do believe that the Redneck Southerner might get more crap than he deserves. Conservative as hell? Religious in the extreme? Culturally unrefined? Sure. But they're hardly roaming the streets complaining about The Negroes or refusing to work next to a black person. The only Southerners I've encountered who appear to have attitudes of that kind are named things like Mason and Ashley and went to $25,000/yr high schools.

And that, in short, is the exact opposite of what I expected based on 30 years of South stereotypes from my Yankee upbringing.

I LOVE YOU, DAD!

Posted in Quick Hits on July 17th, 2012 by Ed

Dispatches from the Oh for fuck's sake file: apparently "Purity Balls" are a thing. They are not popular like soccer, but more like polo – a niche interest unknown to most of us but wildly popular with a small, deeply disturbed segment of the population.

As a feminist, I found the purity balls themselves the most difficult to watch. Young women and girls are dressed in ballgowns, their hair professionally done. They pose with their fathers under white arches decorated with flowers, like prom dates. And the midst of all this revelry, they promise to remain virgins and their fathers, in turn, pledge to be the protector of that "purity." Some are given rings – it reminds me of a wedding ceremony.

Go ahead and read the whole piece, and if you're not sufficiently disturbed you can check out a recent documentary or some shorter clips on YouTube.

The insularity and the narrowness of worldview that are necessary to make this sort of thing seem normal are staggering. Examples like this one make clear why homeschooling is so popular among Evangelicals and other far-right Christian sects. Only by completely controlling (and shrinking) the world to which a child is allowed exposure can a tween girl have a pseudo-wedding to her dad for the purpose of remanding her hoo-hah into his custody until it Dad gives it away to whatever 19 year old chronic masturbator she meets on her field trip to the Creation Museum. How else does a spectacle like this unfold without someone, if not everyone, stopping in their tracks and loudly asking no one in particular what in the hell is going on. Hell, an emotionally healthy person might even veto this clusterfuck in the planning stage.

But wait, there's more! Aside from the perverse theology underpinning something like this, there's a healthy dose of good ol' American materialism involved:

That's why purity balls are so effective, not just because they rely on religious and cultural indoctrination—that would be too easy. Purity balls sell young women the idea of love. This is how your father will love you. This is the way to get a man who will love you and is worthy of your love. This is how you get God's love. It's a powerful message, one that resonates because it promises what we all want: an amazing love story.

The problem, of course, is that it's not really about love. Sitting outside of a purity ball, in black-tie attire, Lisa tears up as she explains the events aren't just about the party.

"It's a beautiful moment with their father to say, 'I care enough about you to invest in an expensive hotel and expensive meal and a lovely dress for you.' To say that you’re valued."

The number of levels on which this is twisted and demeaning can hardly be counted. In its defense, however, it is just one of a dozen different ways little girls have fake "weddings" at various points in childhood and adolescence in our society. Actually…no, scratch that. We endure some messed up rituals when we are too young to resist, but at least we don't have to marry our dads.

I don't think there's enough therapy and pharmaceuticals in the world to save any of these kids. I guess that's the advantage of filling their heads with this insanity before they're old enough to think or push back.

IT'S JUST LIKE THAT

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

You know how much I love propaganda as art and comedy. And history has shown us repeatedly that there's no propaganda as consistently hilarious as what we get from the military.

On a weekend road trip to see a spectacular example of a Usonian house, I drove through Huntsville, AL and couldn't resist stopping at the NASA Space and Rocket Center (home of Space Camp and the descendants of a lot of amnestied Nazis). Among the many interesting exhibits about the space program and rocketry was the gratuitous, thoroughly modern Army PR/Recruitment/Propaganda display. Not dwelling in the past, the exhibit focused heavily on ultra-modern technologies like drone aircraft. Since the home of Space Camp is a place that generally draws a lot of young people, the placards for this display (one of which I had to photograph so you might believe that it existed) was aimed at kids and teens. I always wondered how one might go about explaining the concept of a legion of flying death robots to a prepubescent audience. And now I know:

The text reads, "Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are small planes similar to, but a little larger than, the remotely controlled toy planes one might purchase at a local mall."

Yes, Billy. That is exactly what UAVs are. They're currently engaged in some pretty heavy "nation building" in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Maybe you can fly one too someday!

NPF: THE SUBTLE ART OF NOT BEING AN ASSHOLE

Posted in No Politics Friday on July 12th, 2012 by Ed

To people who say money can't buy happiness, I don't agree. The price of happiness is whatever it costs to buy a Jet-Ski. Ever seen anyone frown on a Jet-Ski? You haven't, because it's not possible. (*acts out sobbing while Jet-Skiing*)

That, delivered well, is funny. It's a Daniel Tosh joke. I consider it evidence that Daniel Tosh has the ability to be funny. He understands how a joke works. It starts with a universal premise and then takes an amusing twist that the audience is unlikely to see coming. Then it's acted out to emphasize how ridiculous the twisted premise is in reality. Good one, Dan.

Eventually, however, he realized that shock value is one of the cornerstones of humor, and a particularly easy one for a moderately clever person to exploit. Why bother writing good material when you can just say a bunch of "Oh no he di'int!" stuff? So Daniel Tosh got lazy and decided it was easier to do a bunch of shock material rather than write jokes. The problem is that over time it has been more difficult to shock audiences. Sex? Porn? Whackin' it? Dead babies? Racism? Abortion? Audiences are used to all of it at this point. As Jane's Addiction once warned us, nothing's shocking (anymore). You can only say "faggot" so many times and tell so many stories about masturbating. We get it. You're edgy.

So, there's rape. Rape is still offensive because, you know, it's horrible. It still shocks people. And it's OK to make jokes about things that are shocking. The problem is that most comedians are too lazy (or too stupid) to figure out how to tell a joke properly about something terrible. Here's a joke I use as an opener quite often.

It's so hot down here during the summer that I actually walked up to an Atlanta cop and begged him to shoot me.

*pause for tepid chuckle*

…and it would have worked if I was black.

*pause*

I'm kidding, of course. If you're black you don't have to ask an Atlanta cop to shoot at you.

I'm kinda proud of that one. It's not straightforward ("Cops are racists, amirite?") but it uses some misdirection humor to make the audience think about something that is fucked up. Racism: It's a Terrible Thing. So it's possible to tell a joke that makes people remember, "Oh, right…rape is a serious problem and it happens all the time, and it's ridiculous to believe stupid things like 'She was asking for it'." An uncharacteristically strong column on Jezebel includes a lengthy discussion of this point, with examples.

Daniel Tosh leans on rape jokes like Katt Williams leans on the F-word. They're not particularly well thought-out or funny. He just says "rape" a lot to keep things "edgy." And in that context – if the rape or the rape victim are the butt of the joke – it just isn't funny. His Twitter account has a "#rape" hashtag with dozens of jokes and references. His TV show includes at least one in every episode.

The problem with this whole ToshTroversy started here: with Tosh telling yet another stupid, un-clever, and lazy rape joke. People coming to his defense and wailing about censorship – a common response among comedians – miss the point. This is a classic Can vs. Should problem. You CAN say whatever you want. Should you? Should you tell a story in which your "clever" twist is that someone gets gang raped at the end? Sure, I guess…if you suck at comedy.

I have a lot of things to say about heckling, and that is the part of this story on which I originally focused. No matter what the comedian says and no matter how justified you believe you are, yelling at the stage is always an asshole move. Sorry. Try doing comedy sometime and you will understand what I mean. Comedy is not just a person talking, it's a person doing a performance that he or she has practiced hundreds of times and that relies entirely on flow and timing. If you fuck that up, the performer is going to be an asshole to you. He or she is going to do whatever is possible to get you to shut up and stop ruining the act as quickly as possible. The audience paid to see the performance, and it is a dick move to stop it akin to talking loudly on a cellphone in a movie theater.

But the more I think about it, the heckler is not the important issue here. The take home point is that he/she-got-raped jokes are lazy, stupid, and only amusing to dolts. Taking the low road and going for the easy shock laugh does not take talent and does not make one good at comedy. Audiences have to be sentient and willing to think a little bit about what they hear in a comedy club – if you decide that you are offended by any mention of rape in any context on a comedy stage, you're not much brighter than the people who laugh at Tosh. And if the comedian isn't thinking carefully about the substance of the joke – Who's the butt of the joke here? What's funny about this, and why? What am I trying to say? – he's not doing his job.

So this controversy has a relatively simple solution: Comedians, stop being lazy dickbags. Don't tell jokes that have no purpose beyond shocking or offending the audience. Try saying something useful. If you're unwilling or unable to do that, then at least avoid being hateful and offensive. Tell some fart jokes or something. Even if you don't care whether the audience is offended or belittled, self interest should be enough to talk you out of this. Nothing says "I'm a hack" quite like rape jokes. You're not edgy or clever. You're a cliche. Don't you want to be a little better than that?

(PS: Seriously though, stop yelling shit at the stage. Everyone who does it thinks they have a great reason. Most of them are wrong.)

THE SUPREME COURT, PART II: UNDERMINING

Posted in Rants on July 12th, 2012 by Ed

On Monday we talked about how the political process is turning the Supreme Court into a kind of super-legislature to resolve the contentious issues that elected officials lack the will to resolve themselves. That's bad enough on its own but the political process follows it up by using the Court as a punching bag, undermining public confidence in institutions that are supposed to be symbols of trust, consistency, and fairness.

One thing that differentiates the American right from conservatives in other similar nations is its willingness to throw the institutions of the state under the bus for short-term political gain. The heart of conservatism, at least historically, is the defense of institutions: the family, the state, religion, and so on. While the liberals are running around promoting a libertine "Do as thou wilt" philosophy, conservatives traditionally grab the moral high ground by defending culture, traditions, and social institutions. That happens today in some instances (the defense of "traditional marriage", for example) but for the most part, the American right's ability to defend the institutions of the state (i.e., the government) has been crippled by decades of ideological litmus-testing that have promoted free market worship above, quite literally, god and country. In other words, Americans rarely defend their institutions when they make unpopular decisions. If the Supreme Court makes a decision that the right doesn't like, no one says "We don't like this outcome but we accept it as legitimate, and we will work within the process to change it." Instead, the message is, "If the Supreme Court does something we don't like, then fuck the Supreme Court. It's corrupt, undemocratic, and untrustworthy."

When teaching the presidency, I always assign Al Gore's concession speech after the debacle of the 2000 election. The quote that stands out to me:

Now the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken. Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court's decision, I accept it. I accept the finality of this outcome which will be ratified next Monday in the Electoral College.

This is in line with the spirit in which the Constitution was written and those so-often-exalted "Founders" hoped the system they created would function. You will not like every decision the government makes, and the fact that you do not like it does not mean that the government is not functioning. By the time they reach seven or eight years old most small children have grasped the fact that one does not always get everything one wants in life. I think that the authors of the Constitution expected nothing more than that we would apply that life lesson to the democratic process.

The problem is that it's just too tempting and there's too much cheap political gain to be had from feeding the anti-government paranoia that fills the heads of so many Americans. They rail against "activist judges" and promote the idea that if the legal system produces an outcome with which you disagree, you should be able to ignore it. If the Court does something you do not like, it is evidence that the Court is controlled by dark forces and cannot be trusted. The end result, of course, is that what is supposed to be the least political (although certainly not apolitical, as we discussed earlier this week) is held in the same regard as the rest of our political institutions. Opinion polling shows that the Court's approval rating among the public isn't much higher than the President's mediocre rating, although both certainly dwarf Congress's miserable performance.

You may be thinking that the reason Americans believe, as the polls show, that the Court makes decisions based on personal political ideology is because the Court does exactly that. Given our embarrassingly low levels of information, though, that assumption is tenuous. It is more likely that we assume this about the Court because we don't know anything about it except that we don't trust it and it makes decisions that we dislike. The more highly visible the Court becomes, the more it is undermined. The more it is undermined, the more we believe that the entire government is worthless. The more we believe that, the more "small government" rhetoric and the people spouting it seem appealing.