NPF: IT'S ART

Posted in No Politics Friday on December 6th, 2013 by Ed

Maybe my friends are weirder than yours, but over the past two days I've seen a link to something called "Vaginal Knitting" posted on Facebook about 25 times. One can only see such a phrase so many times before the seesaw tips from revulsion to curiosity. Plus, as I have no objection to either knitting or vaginas individually, there was some potential here.

It turns out that vaginal knitting (described here, with an embedded and completely not-even-a-little safe for work video) is just your typical first year Art School bullshit. It is strongly reminiscent of another internet sensation, the 2010 "performance art" piece "Interior Semiotics", which featured a teen art school hipster opening a can of Spaghetti-Os (past their expiration date for good measure) and inserting them into her vagina before an audience full of fellow art students making some of the most amazing Reaction Faces you'll ever see.

I'm starting to think that Performance Art is just things being inserted into and taken out of the vagina.

Nothing says "low hanging fruit" like making fun of the over-the-top pretentiousness of Fine Arts students or the desperate pleas for attention of someone who thinks that adding the vagina to anything – including knitting – makes it a bold Feminist statement. Yet no matter how silly it is, someone on the internet will defend it. Gawker tried to salvage it by pointing out that the exhibition's "power lies in the fact that the same feminist themes and visuals that shocked us in the '60s and '70s still shock us today." But do they? Do they really? Is "shocking" an appropriate description of the reactions to this nonsense? To me this is neither shocking nor offensive, it's just stupid. It's tired and formulaic; take something boring, do it naked or stick it up an orifice, and call it art. Most people grow out of that around 19.

So don't be offended. It's just a vagina. And resist whatever urges you might have to explain how this is either art or some sort of bold statement about women. Try "No, this is just stupid" and leave it at that. Doing something like this is the simplest path to rapid fame on the internet, albeit with the substantial downside of guaranteeing that you will be known as "that woman who put yarn in her hoo-hoo and knitted with it" for the rest of your life. That saying that all publicity is good publicity is unpersuasive here.

FLAILING

Posted in Rants on December 5th, 2013 by Ed

In political science there is a shrinking but still quite depressing group of academics who studied the internal politics of the Soviet Union ("Sovietologists") and, due to tenure, outlived the Evil Empire by a couple decades. This is sad to me because these people specialized in something that has zero useful applications at this point, yet some of them are still around. The art of Sovietology involved using what little information was available to Western academics to make predictions about the heavily opaque internal politics of the Communist Party leadership in the USSR. They looked for signs that certain individuals were gaining or losing power and made educated guesses about the conflicts within the system, hidden from public view. It was, to put it mildly, an inexact science. Critics said it wasn't a science at all. But given that the entire Soviet government was shrouded in mystery to most Americans (even the intelligence services were only marginally aware of what was going on in any aspect of Soviet government and society except for the military) it was a useful effort.

When the USSR fell, ideally all of these people could have just retired or something. Some tried to transition to post-Soviet studies, but this is in fact a very different endeavor, theoretically and methodologically. Some tried to peddle their analysis for the Russian successor state ("Kremlinology") but information about Russian politics is not nearly so hard to come by as it was for the USSR. For the most part these folks, all of whom are pretty old now, are like a rotary dial telephone; a relic from a previous era, interesting but useless.

This is not unique to academia – the State Department, military, and other government agencies were full of these people in the 1970s and 1980s. Most of them are gone now. Most of the institutions of our society and government have come to grips, a quarter-century later, with the fact that the Cold War is over. But not everybody. Some people – neocons, for the most part – just can't let go. Either they are constitutionally incapable of updating any aspect of their worldview or they lack the intelligence to understand that the Cold War paradigm is no longer useful. It is not possible to keep the same framework in place and simply update the names – strike "USSR" and fill in "terrorism" or "North Korea." The world is different. Very different.

I feel the same sort of sadness when I see people like John Bolton, who recently generated some attention with an op-ed about how agreement or no agreement, someone needs to bomb Iran anyway. People like Bolton are forever stuck in 1980. The answer for everything is "Bomb it" or "Give the Pentagon more money" or ideally both. These aging Cold Warriors have been flailing around for two decades looking for an enemy, for a new Evil Empire to plug into their monochromatic worldview. But there is no modern equivalent of what the USSR was during the Cold War. It's pathetic to watch them try to make a new Soviet-sized enemy out of the table scraps available to them – an "Axis of Evil", for example, consisting of D-list wannabes that barely count as regional powers let alone global ones. Look at the dilemma this way: what would become of Superman if Lex Luthor and the other villains in that universe disappeared? Suddenly Superman would seem pretty irrelevant. He would either have to disappear or spend his time busting shoplifters and jaywalkers. And that would just be sad to watch.

It is reassuring, though, to realize that absolutely no one pays attention to these people anymore. Does anyone take John Bolton seriously? Does anyone care what he has to say about this or any other subject? The neocons had a chance to reassert their relevance in the early George W. Bush years and they blew it with Iraq. They were exposed for what they are: a sad group of people who are no longer relevant resorting to outrageous fabrications in an effort to make some third-rate dictator seem like an extremely dangerous boogeyman. Lacking what their belief system requires – a relatively equal opponent with nuclear weapons or their equivalent – they had to fabricate one. And now all but the most fact-impervious right wingers see with hindsight how little of a threat a country like Iraq posed or poses.

They're going through the motions again with Iran, and no one outside of the boardroom of the AEI appears to be buying the idea of Iran as a terrifying global menace. Deprived of a real enemy packing nukes, they're reduced to issuing hysterical warnings about countries that might be trying to build nuclear weapons – 75 years after the US, Britain, the USSR, and other true global powers did so. It's like the United States of 1950 deciding that some tiny nation posed a threat because they were attempting to figure out how to build machine guns. If the current situation with Iran is less ridiculous than that it is only slightly so.

FALSE CONSCIENCE

Posted in Quick Hits on December 3rd, 2013 by Ed

The noted Jesus enthusiasts who run Hobby Lobby – America's #1 retailer of craft supplies and unbelievably tacky shit – are trying to get out of their legal obligations under the Affordable Care Act. As a large chain, I suspect they would be obligated to provide insurance for a good number of their employees who lack it at present. Predictably, they are claiming to be entitled to some sort of conscience exemption on the grounds that the ownership doesn't want to pay for it their deep Christian beliefs will not allow them to pay for any insurance that covers birth control.

This comes up every couple of years, usually when some pharmacist claims to be morally unable to dispense birth control prescriptions, and it never gets less ridiculous. It betrays a complete lack of understanding of what a conscientious objection is. I came across this excellent explanation from a Quaker – a group that has experience with CO during military drafts – of why this is so misguided:

I believe in Conscience Protection. I believe people should have the right to refuse work that violates their principles. If a draft were called tomorrow, I would wholeheartedly support people's right not to serve.

But if someone serving in the military came to me and said they wanted me to defend their right to refuse military service, but that they also wanted to keep their job and be paid as if they were actually serving in combat, I would laugh in their face.

A pharmacist demanding the right to keep their job even if they refuse to dispense legal medication is like a Marine demanding to keep their job even if they refuse to follow lawful orders. That’s not "conscience protection," that’s a handout to someone who wants to be paid not to work.

Unsurprisingly, Hobby Lobby and their ilk want to have it all ways. They want to do as their supposed morals dictate and flout the law, as though we all have a right to pick and choose what aspects of the law we will follow based on our preferences. I'm legally obligated to pay taxes for two wars I find profoundly immoral. If I chose to, I suppose I could stop paying whatever portion of my taxes goes toward that end. But what right would I have to complain when the IRS put me in jail or seized my assets to cover my tab? None. Absolutely none. Because a genuine act of conscience is not necessarily one for which you are protected from all of the potential consequences.

LIMB FROM LIMB

Posted in Quick Hits on December 2nd, 2013 by Ed

People who don't get a kick out of Black Friday shopping – and personally I find the idea about as appealing as Ann Coulter's used panties – certainly seem to get a kick out of mocking Black Friday shopping. I used to be one of them. As I've mellowed out with age I see it more subjectively. Maybe some people who enjoy wading into crowds of holiday shoppers at the mall think I am nuts for enjoying attending a hockey game. I don't get it, but people like different things. Hell, some people like the bagpipes, and that's the worst thing humans have ever made.

One of the new rituals for anti-Black Friday fans is posting videos of people fighting over merchandise or while waiting in line for Black Friday sales. Here's a gallery of them. This is my favorite:

I've seen a lot of complaints about the classism inherent in mocking people who are fighting over discount Wal-Mart merchandise, which would make more sense to me if these people were poor in any meaningful sense of the term. It's facile to fall back on arguments like "Even the poorest American is wealthy compared to a starving African refugee", but in this case that isn't even necessary. Bargain hunters? Sure. Overspenders? Maybe. But no one who's out to blow hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on disposable crap – toys, electronics, gadgets – for Christmas gifts is poor.

The disturbing part is that this video of comparatively well-off Americans looks eerily similar to those clips of filthy disaster victims, famine-stricken children, or war refugees. Just replace the bag of UNICEF rice with some virtually useless tablet computer and make the surroundings cleaner and more sterile. That's ultimately what bothers me when I see these videos or the endless stories about fights, injuries, or even worse breaking out on Black Friday. I can't put my finger exactly on the logic leading me to this statement, but I always think: This is what They want. They want us tearing one another to pieces over a fucking stuffed toy or a handheld electronic device that will make the journey from Chinese sweatshop to leaking heavy metals in a landfill in less than two years. "They" are looking at these videos and smiling, possibly drumming their fingers and letting out a Burns-like "Excellent…"

Sure, this is a small sample of people. We're not all like this. It's nonetheless disturbing how many people seem to be ready to resort to rudeness at best and violence at worst to defeat their fellow Americans in the quest to buy shit. A rational person might look at the last remaining PS4 and think, "Crap. Well, I can always go home and order it on Amazon." Instead, we deem it socially acceptable to fight over it like we're dying of cancer and it's the last batch of chemo drugs.

It's in someone's interest to encourage and condone that mentality in this country. That's what I think about every year after Thanksgiving.