VICTIMHOOD

Posted in Quick Hits on February 28th, 2013 by Ed

The iconic political image of the post-Reagan era, for my money, is the 2003 Schwarzenegger campaign (in the California gubernatorial recall election) using "We're Not Gonna Take It" by Twisted Sister as its theme song. To see Arnold and his fellow Orange County millionaires on stage stiffly pumping their fists to a dated song about the terrible unfairness of it all was…rich. It requires the kind of total lack of self-awareness usually found only in ancillary characters in slasher movies.

If there's one thing I honestly, legitimately do not understand about politics, it's how so many well-off conservatives have managed to convince themselves that they are the victims of an unfair society. They are the luxuriously oppressed, the forgotten, long-suffering minority that has everything that money can buy. The urge to grab these people, shake them, and scream "WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOUR LIFE? WHAT DO YOU NOT HAVE? HOW ARE YOUR NEEDS GOING UNFULFILLED?" is overwhelming. With right-wingers I know well, I have actually done this on more than one occasion. The amount of delusion necessary to allow someone to sit in front of a 70" TV in a giant house with two luxury cars in the garage and complain about the unfairness of it all is incomprehensible.

Recently I sat in a classroom (observing silently, neither teaching nor participating) while a group of about 20 freshmen in an honors class took turns complaining about the terrible unfairness of the concept of taxing an inheritance (the topic of the day was Edmund Burke). This segued into some broader griping about taxation – the entire concept is "wrong" and immoral because, like, what right does the government have to take MY money? Tropes about punishing success were trodden out for their moment in the sun. And I'm watching this, half terrified and half bemused, thinking: Here is a bunch of kids at a $40,000/year private university on mom and dad's dime, to say nothing of the cars, $2000 Macbooks, "Study" Abroad trips, Greek system dues, and other expensive things with which they have been sent off to college, whining their hearts out about how thoroughly our society screws the rich. I know that college freshmen are not well-known for having a lot of perspective on anything except themselves, but it still surprises me to see such a total lack of self-awareness on display from what are supposed to be the best students in the whole crop. That anyone could have so many advantages that he or she did nothing whatsoever to earn yet still think that the deck is stacked against them is difficult to condone.

I spent the hour channeling Dave Chappelle and thinking, "Should I be choking somebody?" In hindsight, I probably should have. There are some kinds of ignorance that can't be dislodged with words.

THE BOY WHO CRIED MANUFACTURED DRAMA

Posted in Quick Hits on February 27th, 2013 by Ed

Having somehow survived the harrowing twin ordeals of the Debt Ceiling and the Fiscal Cliff, it is with stoic hearts that we stare down the gaping maw of the Sequester. Now that we've been down the "OMG there's a deadline and this is such a crisis!" road a few times the script feels pretty uninspired – the cable news coverage (with clocks counting backward menacingly), the grandstanding legislators, the screaming lobbyists, the grave punditry, and the USA Today-style graphics, all leading up to a last minute "compromise" that will be lauded by all and sundry. It seems like the Great Sequestration Showdown of '13 just hasn't gripped the viewing public with the same intensity as previous installments of this drama. Or perhaps that's just me editorially projecting my own staggering lack of interest in seeing yet another iteration of this tired dog-and-pony show.

This makes me feel guilty, as I know this is important. Not only am I supposed to find this interesting, I am also responsible for convincing young tuition-paying people that it is interesting. The problem is…it isn't. This is a pattern; a new normal of Republican brinksmanship in which the party shouts "Do as I say or I'll shoot!" while pressing a gun to its own temple. Despite the Tea Party-led chants ("Pull the trigger! Pull the trigger!") they will chicken out at the last second. The Democrats, given what they have become, will give them half of what they want anyway, because Bipartisanship and Good Faith and Cookies. And we will end up with more bad policy, another bill designed to shower money on people who are important while also making Tough Choices and cutting spending to show that we are Serious People. Being neither all one thing nor all the other, it will accomplish nothing.

And not an hour will pass until we are warned in ominous tones of the date of the next looming showdown, hopefully coinciding with the Memorial Day summer blockbuster release schedule. Be still, my heart.

SHOCKING DEVELOPMENTS

Posted in Rants on February 26th, 2013 by Ed

As difficult as this may be to believe, I actually felt bad for Rush Limbaugh once. Once. A little less than ten years ago, he was hired by ESPN as an NFL commentator. If you don't remember this, don't feel bad. He had the job for all of about six weeks before the network fired him for comments he made about Eagles QB Donovan McNabb:

"Sorry to say this, I don't think he's been that good from the get-go," Limbaugh said. "I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve. The defense carried this team."

Good to know Limbaugh knows as much about football as he does about anything else. (For the unaware, McNabb was great, especially when he was young. No, he never won a Super Bowl. Neither did Jim Kelly, Fran Tarkenton, Dan Marino, Dan Fouts, or any number of other "greats".)

ESPN initially backed Limbaugh.

Earlier, ESPN executive vice president Mark Shapiro came to the conservative Limbaugh's defense.

"This is not a politically motivated comment. This is a sports and media argument…We brought Rush in for no-holds-barred opinion. Early on, he has delivered."

In other words, they brought in Rush Limbaugh to do exactly what Rush Limbaugh is known for doing. He did it, and then they fired him. The ratings for their NFL show were flagging and they wanted someone to generate some interest in it again. They hired someone for the shock factor and told him to be shocking. My point is not that what he said is defensible; the point is, the network can't act surprised that they hired Rush Limbaugh and he proceeded to act like Rush Limbaugh. The guy is not an unknown quantity. So the issue is not really what he said per se, but why ESPN would hire him in the first place.

OK.

Hypothetically, if the Oscars hired a black bear to host the ceremony, who is to blame when it turns into a trainwreck? Is it the bear's fault, or would it be more logical to ask, "What kind of moron would hire a bear to host the Oscars?"

The world was deluged with "Seth McFarlane offended everyone on Earth and is a raging asshat" pieces today. He was highly offensive, crude, and not even particularly funny (note: if you're going to be incredibly offensive you have to at least be funny). I'm reading all of this and thinking, "What exactly did they expect when they hired Seth McFarlane?" His humor is offensive, crude, sexist, homophobic, and ever since the first Family Guy cancellation, not particularly funny. He proceeded to deliver a performance that was offensive, crude, sexist, homophobic, and not particularly funny. Shocking.

The many criticisms of McFarlane read like they could have been written two weeks ago, with the specific jokes added at the last minute. That makes perfect sense, since anyone with a functioning brain stem saw this coming a mile away: the gay jokes, the awful songs, the attempts to embarrass celebrities in the crudest possible way, the bathroom humor, all of it. So the issue is not McFarlane, as he merely did exactly what could have been expected of him in that situation. I mean, the guy is not going to go out there and do PG-rated Billy Crystal humor. If he tried that, it would probably be excruciating to see. It's not what he does. No, the issue is with the Academy. They hired him. What made them think that was a good idea?

It's so much easier to blame individuals than a faceless organization. The idea that they would hire McFarlane and he would somehow censor himself or deliver a highbrow or family-friendly performance – something he has never done in the history of ever – is an effort to deflect blame from where it belongs. The Academy and the TV networks paid for shock value, they got it, and it worked (look at the coverage the "controversy" generated). So while everyone's beating the dead horse and taking a whack at the asshole who was paid to be his asshole self and proceeded to be an asshole, the bigger issue – the judgment of people who have actual decision-making power – is ignored. Again.

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ED vs. LOGICAL FALLACIES, PART 23: RUSSELL'S TEAPOT

Posted in Ed vs. Logical Fallacies on February 25th, 2013 by Ed

As a person with no children, I learned long ago that when people with children are talking about parenting it's best not to participate conversation. I used to take the "Just ask questions" approach but I found myself on the receiving end of too many rants. Unfortunately my new strategy doesn't work well in one-on-one situations. Recently I was getting the "Parenting is overwhelming" speech from someone I know pretty well, and I was at a point where I needed to say…something. I thought it would be safe to mention a few things I've read about the Parenting Guilt industry – you know, those commercials and "news" stories about how you're hurting your baby unless you do/buy X, Y, and Z. A lot of new parents live in fear that if they ever feed their child something that isn't certified organic quinoa with fresh kale, Junior is going to get cancer or, I don't know, burst into flames on the spot.

She indicated that she was worried all the time about saying the wrong thing to her child, and I said, "It's not like one wrong word is going to turn your child into a serial killer." I was trying to be sympathetic, or something. She responded not-jokingly, "How do you know that?" Silence returned. I mean, I thought it was self-evident that saying, "Stop that! You're driving me nuts!" to a child is not going to scar him for life emotionally or turn him into a deviant. But hey, I can't prove it, so certainly my theory is invalid.

In 1952, Bertrand Russell wrote the following regarding the existence of god:

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.

Russell was talking about religion specifically, but he raises a broadly applicable point about the burden of proof – which rests on the party advancing an implausible hypothesis – and the difficulty many people seem to have distinguishing between validating A and being unable to invalidate it. The fact that I can't prove to you that there is not a teapot orbiting Mars is not evidence, either logically or empirically, that there is. Not surprisingly, this kind of argument is quite popular. After all, if you can't prove me wrong then I guess I can keep the status quo! Win.

This is similar to argument from ignorance, which we've already covered. But that was back in 2007, and I like Russell's imagery enough to give it a post of its own.

And seriously, you can give your kid a damn Whopper or swear in his presence on occasion. It's not going to kill him.

NPF: NOT WHAT I IMAGINED

Posted in No Politics Friday on February 22nd, 2013 by Ed

Alaska is the only state I've never visited, and sadly it's probably the one that I am most interested in seeing. It's vast, it's mostly empty, and it's…different than the rest of the U.S., right? It's the pristine wilderness! America's last frontier!

Well, according to a certain TV series called Alaska State Troopers, Alaska is a frozen Arkansas. The parts where no one lives are pretty; the parts where there are people look like U.N. refugee camps in Siberia.

I only discovered this show recently, as I dislike A) reality shows and B) police. Anything combining the two would be unlikely to appeal to be. But I'm fascinated by Alaska, it's too cold to leave the house, and the first two seasons are up on Netflix now. The die has been cast.

Six episodes into the series I have learned that Alaskan settlements are giant trailer parks full of meth labs and the most hardcore alcoholics you'd ever want to meet. Oh, it's a dry county? That's OK, we'll drink air sanitizer. And then we'll start beating the shit out of each other, because did you miss the part where we drank goddamn air sanitizer? Of course I understand that a show about police is going to show us exclusively the saddest parts of society. Nonetheless it's interesting to me how easy it is to turn someplace into a paradise in your mind, and how surprising it is to realize that it's kind of a dump. It makes perfect sense that cabin fever combined with high unemployment and not much to do outside on account of the weather would make Alaska an ideal place for alcoholism, domestic violence, and other Trailer Park Pastimes to take root.

I don't consider myself an exceptionally naive person, but for some reason I expected Alaska to be full of relatively happy people because, you know, they live in Alaska. Their neighbors are bears. Everyone gets free money every year from the Permanent Fund (oil). Snow-capped mountains. Glaciers. I thought everyone would be into, like, skiing or something. It turns out they're mostly into acting like guests on Jerry Springer.

Yes, I still want to go to Alaska. It might be more pleasant if I avoid contact with any of its inhabitants, though. Why couldn't you be my snowy paradise, Alaska? How will I live knowing that Nome, no matter how isolated and peaceful it looks on a map, is a permafrost-covered version of Camden, NJ?

SCENES FROM A CAMPUS

Posted in Quick Hits on February 21st, 2013 by Ed

Two vignettes:

1. Florida Atlantic University sold the naming rights to its football stadium. This is not particularly noteworthy these days. I wrote many, many years ago that it was only a matter of time until the NCAA copied professional sports and went down that road. It is a bit unusual, however, for a university to sell naming rights to a private prison corporation. The company donated $6,000,000 to the FAU athletic department for the privilege. I have to disagree with the tone of the NYT piece, which emphasizes the everything-is-for-sale environment on campuses these days. While that is certainly true, it's more pertinent to ask why these multimillionaire alumni are so eager to throw money at the football team rather than the university itself. As for the Times' point, many people find me strangely untroubled by the proliferation of corporate sponsoring, advertising, and naming on campuses. It's a zen thing; we've been moving in this direction for 30 years as a society and I've already made peace with the fact that eventually we're going to be reading or playing commercials at the beginning of each class. It's inevitable.

2. Auburn University has announced an absolute monstrosity of a "Recreation and Wellness Center" to begin construction this year. It features, among other things, a "five story fitness tower" and:

50-foot rock climbing wall with an auto-belaying system, four bordering caves for lateral climbing, a a 20-foot wet rock climbing wall in the 20,000 gallon leisure activity pool, a 45-person hot tub in the shape of a tiger paw and a third of a mile indoor track with a corkscrew formation and 10 feet of altitude.

In the past decade universities have started an arms race of non-academic amenities to entice students to campus in a very competitive recruitment environment. They're constantly jockeying to have the most opulent dorms, the most mall-like food courts, and the most Outrageous leisure activities. Gyms are a natural place for the university to be ostentatious, as it's always part of the campus tour for mom, dad, and a 17 year old with no interest in things like degree options, gen ed programs, and student-faculty ratios. In the early 2000s the fad was climbing walls; everybody had to acquire and show off a fucking climbing wall. So Auburn did took the next logical step and built, like, five climbing walls, a double-decker suspended running track, a giant "leisure activity" (read: not for swimming) pool, and a 45 person, tiger-paw-shaped hot tub that is bound to have the most disease-ridden water in Alabama – no small feat – within days of entering into service.

I understand why universities do this. It makes sense. But in an age of declining budgets, rising tuition, stagnant salaries (except for the administrators, of course), and watered down higher education, it's sad that we're competing for students by building them amusement parks, essentially. Yes, kids go to college in part (or wholly) to have fun, but good lord, do we have to be so explicit about it? College kids will manage to have Fun regardless; it would be nice if we didn't have to build, quite literally, big shiny playgrounds full of toys for them. Oh, but woe to the campus that doesn't follow Auburn's lead.

Next thing you know, we'll be offering them free spring break trips to Cancun, alcohol and Valtrex included.

THE STICKS

Posted in Quick Hits on February 20th, 2013 by Ed

A few weekends ago I went to a minor league hockey game for lack of other entertainment options. Minor league sports are an interesting animal, because the teams are an awkward combination of two very different types of player. Some of them are in the 18-22 age range, and they're playing in the minors to get a little experience and (hopefully) work their way up to the big leagues. They get labels like "prospect" to indicate untapped talent. They have Potential. The rest of the players are considerably older – maybe 26 to 30-something – and they are no longer called prospects. They're the prospects from 5-10 years ago who never made it. They're minor league Lifers. They're here because they weren't good enough to make the jump, and now that they're old (in athletic terms) the odds are high that they're never going to get any better.

I watched these kids – and really, many of them look quite literally like kids – and older guys mixing together awkwardly on the ice, and I thought about how difficult and sad it must be to make the transition from Prospect to Lifer. Is there some singular moment at which it hits you that you're never going to accomplish your goal? Do you wake up one morning at age 24 and suddenly realize, "Oh crap, this is as far as I'm ever going to get"? Or is it a slower process full of denial and bargaining before you ultimately accept that you're never going to make it because you're not good enough? Either way it must be remarkably unpleasant. Most of these guys have been training for this since they were old enough to walk. It must be a tremendous blow to their psyche to realize, or perhaps be told explicitly, that they've failed.

The older I get, the more I realize that the crappy part of aging is not the weird physical pains, the wrinkles, or the receding hairlines but the slow process of realizing that none of the things you wanted to do with your life are actually going to happen. It's that moment when you look at your surroundings and realize, This is it for me. This is as far as I'm going to get. You look at the goals you had and the things you wanted to do and you realize that not only are they unlikely to happen, but they're unlikely to happen because you aren't good enough to accomplish them.

That's what getting old is, I think. It's the point at which you're forced to accept that you can't make happen any of the things that the young version of you wanted to do. After you reach this point, the statement you will hear a lot in your thirties and forties – "Oh, you're still young!" – is true only in the physical sense.

TURN IT UP

Posted in Uncategorized on February 19th, 2013 by Ed

I've sat on this too long for it to qualify as timely, but those of us on the top half of the planet might be interested to know that it's so goddamn hot in Australia that they had to make up new colors for their weather maps. I think purple represents "Somebody please kill me." Unsurprisingly, massive wildfires have followed.

aussie

Meanwhile, American winter weather is careening wildly back and forth between massive snowstorms and January tornado outbreaks. And while we have gone several months without a city being submerged, I think The Onion pretty much nailed this back in November with, "Nation Suddenly Realizes This Just Going To Be A Thing That Happens From Now On."

Following Hurricane Sandy’s destructive tear through the Northeast this week, the nation’s 300 million citizens looked upon the trail of devastation and fully realized, for the first time, that this is just going to be something that happens from now on.

Gradually comprehending that this sort of thing is now just a fact of life, citizens all across America stared blankly at images of destroyed homes, major cities paralyzed by flooding, and ravaged communities covered in debris, and finally acknowledged that this, apparently, is now a regular part of the human experience.

“Oh, I see—this is just going to be how it is from here on out,” said New York City resident Brian Marcello, coming to terms with the fact that an immense storm that cripples mass transit systems and knocks out power for millions in the nation’s largest metropolitan area can no longer be regarded as an isolated, freak incident, and will henceforth be just a normal thing that happens.

You know, no big deal. We just kinda broke the planet. Move along. Let's learn more about Clean Coal or something.

THIS IS NOT A PIPE

Posted in Rants on February 18th, 2013 by Ed

There are a number of topics on which I feel confident, if not competent, enough to be a dick. Art is not one of them. I am a big fan. The first thing I do when I visit a city is go to the art museum(s). If all I had to do was answer trivia questions about artists or explain different movements, styles, periods, and so on, I'd write something and not feel too much like an idiot. But I just don't have the smug confidence of the art critic that would allow me to describe in great detail, "This is shit, and here's why." I can spot said shit from a mile away, but I lack the vocabulary to explain its flaws.

That's why I'm glad someone else wrote a lengthy takedown of the artistic talents of Chinese political dissident/artist Ai Weiwei. In the same way that people tend to be sensitive about criticizing Israel for fear of being labeled anti-Semitic, criticism of Ai has been largely verboten lest it be interpreted as criticism of his political activism. His willingness to speak out against the Chinese government is laudable, regardless of how effective it is. He was beaten nearly to death by Chinese police at a political protest in 2009. The guy is not a fake activist or some guy posting "F the System" on Facebook. But art galleries throughout the Western world have tripped over themselves to hold Ai exhibitions, and frankly his work often borders on sophomoric. Two good quotes from the lengthy article:

The Hirshhorn has recently purchased Ai's more than thirteen-foot-high Cube Light, which, with its row upon row of jazzily back-lit gold-toned crystals, suggests the retro-glam décor for an upscale bar or nightclub. While a wall label explains that Cube Light "interrogate[s] conventions of culture, history, politics, and tradition," it seems to me that the only reasonable response to this caramel colored concoction is to order a martini and make it extra dry. I confess that Ai lost me completely with Cube Light, part of what the people at the Hirshhorn refer to as his "celebrated chandelier series." The glitz of Cube Light reflects a side of his sensibility that some progressives will dismiss as high bourgeois kitsch, although at times it is unclear whether Ai is parodying a taste for swank Chinese porcelains and beautifully crafted wood furniture or celebrating it. The truth is that he may not be entirely clear about this himself.

Asked more recently about the project, Ai had this to say: "Because the Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads is animal heads, I think it's something that everyone can have some understanding of, including children and people who are not in the art world. I think it's more important to show your work to the public. That's what I really care about. When Andy Warhol painted Mao in the 1960s and 1970s, I don't think many people understood Mao, either—it was just this image that people knew, like Marilyn Monroe or somebody. So they might see these zodiac animals like that—like Mickey Mouse. They're just animals." Ai may be a hero when it comes to speaking out for the victims of the Sichuan earthquake, but when he talks about his art he is jeeringly manipulative. It is hard to have patience for an artist who justifies his work with references to Mickey Mouse.

I'm sure it's somewhat awkward to explain these concepts in a foreign language, but this sounds like the ramblings of a college sophomore. It points to a larger problem with the art world – Ai has been adopted by the jet-set as a cause célèbre/mascot alongside nonprofit/foundation favorites like the Dalai Lama, Sudanese child-soldiers and Aung San Suu Kyi – but also to a larger problem with all of us, as this is just another symptom of our lost ability to take anything at face value anymore. We live in a world in which any artist who can throw together something banal and sell it with a verbose, pseudo-intellectual cover story is considered Very Serious and Important. Even though it is for a good reason – art is subjective and we often lack the vocabulary to dissect it – it's very rare that anyone calls artists on these things. It amazes me that journalists can listen to statements like the above without saying, "I'm sorry, but what in the hell are you talking about?"

Now that we're willing to accept that anything and everything is art, we're susceptible to every manner of deception whether it's done by others or we do it to ourselves. We tell ourselves that the great political activist must be also a great artist, and that his work is an incisive commentary on the Chinese political system. We're reluctant to confront the possibility that the great political activist is an artist, albeit not an extraordinarily talented one.

NPF: FROZEN IN TIME

Posted in No Politics Friday on February 15th, 2013 by Ed

I've always been fascinated by the idea of traveling to strange places. This is odd given that the most exotic place I've been in 34 years is…England. Travel is the exclusive province of the rich, unless going to Orlando is one's idea of "travel." But I digress.

Since I read a Time-Life book about Robert Falcon Scott and the race for the South Pole as a child, going to Antarctica (which anyone with a spare $15,000 can do!) has been #1 on my list. Despite the fact that it is summer in the Southern hemisphere, the current temperature is -50 F (-46 C) at Amundsen-Scott right now. This is fascinating to me and I want to experience it even though it is likely horrifying because that is so cold my brain can't even comprehend what it would feel like. I've experienced the other extreme (120 F days in Arizona, or, even worse, 110 F days in places where humidity is a thing) and I did not find it to be that shocking. Yes, it was incredibly hot, but I've always lived in places where 100 F days happen annually and, frankly, 110-120 isn't that much more extreme.

In terms of cold, however, I don't think I've experienced anything colder than about -10 F. People have a tendency to wildly exaggerate how cold it is, especially in the Midwest where wind chills (an unreliable measure of…anything, really) are reported alongside temperatures. The fact that Tom Skilling says it "feels like" -35 F does not imply that the temperature actually got that low. When the South Pole says -50, they mean it.

What does that feel like? Is it painful? Does one end up with ice-filled nostrils? The best account I've ever read of the experience is in Going to Extremes by Nick Middleton, a very solid travel writer who decided to go to the hottest, coldest, wettest, and driest places on Earth. It turns out that the coldest inhabited place is the godforsaken town of Oymyakon, Siberia, which once recorded a temperature of -90 F (-67 C). Vostok Station, Antarctica once recorded a staggering -129 F, but as it is hardly occupied the author discounts it. His narrative about the conditions in the town (and the habits of its 472 residents) is light reading and thoroughly enjoyable. Turns out they drink a lot of vodka to "keep warm."

It's probably ludicrous to want to travel long distances to suffer, but I still want to experience something like this once before I die…which might be very soon in those temperatures.