Thursday, December 29, 2011

US Post Office: Threat or Menace?

You know how

  1. Andrew Sullivan sometimes says something real dumb and then 
  2. takes it back after weeks of having his mistakes pointed out to him and then
  3. he tries to defend himself by noting that the blog is a record of him "thinking in real time" and then
  4. you scream at your computer that you were thinking in real time also but, magically, you got to the right answer weeks ago and he's an old privilege-kisser who can't see past his benighted biases?
Well I have biases of my own, and one of my big ones is the US Post Office: I'm for it. The USPS is second only to the DMV in terms of getting shit on by stand-up comedians and sitcoms. You can picture the set-up from almost any TV show: lazy postal employees shooting the breeze while hard-working people on their lunch-break wait in line. When was the last time we had a heroic postal worker--outside of David Brin's The Postman? (And with defenders like that!)


Part of my bias is that, when people talk about the post office, to me, it sounds like conservatives talking about the evils of government. So that's one reason why I'm biased and it's a bad reason: I like the Post Office because the rhetoric against it is boilerplate "drown the government in a bathtub" nonsense.

But here's my secret: I've almost never had a bad experience with the post office. People I know have lots of classic stories--the unmoving lines, the surly help, the lost packages, the opened envelopes... Actually, now that I think of it, no one I know has an "opened envelope" story. And just today, we got packages that were supposedly lost by the mail--but it turns out that the sender had our address wrong. So that's another victory for the post office.

We have lots of data about how the post office reaches more people more of the time than FedEx or UPS or the other private carriers that conservatives get so hot about, but maybe we need some more happy anecdotes and heroic representations.

Or what's this bias for?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Mutant registration act: threat or menace?

RadioLab did a recent piece on a customs loophole whereby human-shaped dolls get taxed at 12% and monster dolls get taxed at 6%--which led Marvel lawyers to argue that their mutants action figures were not human. Jad and Robert overreach and try to make a connection between human-mutant relations in the comic and in the customs tax bracket.

But they did get me thinking about the Mutant Registration Act, which seems a) like an invasion of privacy that might be warranted in the case of child molesters--but not in the case of innocent people--and b) maybe not such a bad idea.

I say this because Marvel's X-Men has been used as an allegory for various real-world prejudices, like anti-Semitism, Civil Rights-era racism, and homophobia--and a registration act for those would be pretty ridiculous, right? Has anyone--even the most terribly prejudiced--ever recommended a registration act to keep an eye on homosexuals in our midst? (Wouldn't that also force many anti-gay activists to admit that being gay was a state, not a choice. After all, a registration act for people who choose to wear plaid would be pointless and constantly shifting.)

But why would a registration act for mutants be potentially useful? Because each mutant is an individual, with individual powers. (Which, if you think about genetics that underpins their mutant powers, is kind of weird.) It may be useful to know what powers are out there.

But we still run in to that whole "privacy" issue and that whole "innocent" issue--mutants aren't guilty of anything other than being mutants, so by what right could their privacy be abridged?

Oh, shut up, my bread machine is done making bread.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Ben Nelson retires, nation mourn-celebrates

Ben Nelson announced today that he would not seek reelection, meaning that Nebraska might elect a Republican for Senate.

(A: Incumbents usually do better and races with two aspirants are more a toss-up; B: Nelson announced this now, leaving Democratic officials with less time to find a replacement; C: Nebraska isn't the most Democratic-friendly state.)

Now, there's not a lot to love about Nelson as a Democrat, so part of me is happy to see him go--but will his replacement be any better? Time for some postulates!

  1. A guy who votes with you sometimes is better than a guy who never votes with you.
  2. But optics matter, and a "Democratic supermajority" that can't do its job damages the Democratic brand. So a "Democratic supermajority" made up of Nelsons and Liebermans is a potential net-loss--they may vote with you sometimes, but make you look bad the rest of the time. 
Which is more important? Nelson's occasional votes in support of the Democratic agenda; or his damage to the Democratic Party as a whole by blocking Democratic bills while under the name of Democrat?

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Notes for a future post on cyberpunk

I'd like to say that my political awakening was probably somewhere between Alien/Aliens (corporations will kill you for a profit) and Neuromancer (corporations will remake you to suit their needs, but man, do they have cool stuff!); so, naturally, when the fun podcast Writing Excuses attempted to define cyberpunk, I was bound to have some serious thoughts on the matter.

This post is not those serious thoughts, but only my initial thoughts/my dissent from what they said at Writing Excuses. In order:
  1. Yes, Mary Robinette Kowal is correct when she notes that the "punk" has to do with a gritty, street-level aspect. Things are not clean and perfect. In an interview, Gibson noted that the dirty sneakers in Alien was a big influence, and we can see how that's a serious change from our previous images of space travel.
  2. There's an argument about whether "cyberpunk" as a literary genre has more to do with hacker/anti-corp culture ("we'll make it ourselves") or not--and I definitely agree with Mary (again) that the "maker" culture that we live in now is only partly present in many of the foundational works of cyberpunk. For instance, Gibson's Neuromancer includes a lot of mods, but also a lot of brand-name stuff, stuff that they just collected--the military-grade "icebreaker" that they get is Chinese military, not something they made in their garage with their maker-bot.
  3. They discuss the East vs. West dynamic of cyberpunk, but that's only part of it; cyberpunk takes place in a post-industrial world, where capital is free to flow, so it's a world of globalization that extends beyond East vs. West. There's nothing really strange in doing African or Arabic cyberpunk, as all those elements exist in the foundation texts.
  4. Is there a big fear of corporations in cyberpunk? This is one of the standard academic lit readings of Neuromancer, that the corporations will do a number on your very being and we'll all end up programmable ROMs in the machine, like the Dixie Flatline construct. What that reading misses is a) how there are spaces beyond corporate control ("perversity" is one name for it, historical trauama is another); and b) how remaking of the self occurs in non-corporate settings (Dixie training Case).
  5. Similarly, does cyberpunk have a fear of technology? It seems more ambivalent to me.
  6. Does cyberpunk have a sense of wonder or a world-weariness? That's such a great question that I think I need to take a few days off to re-read "The Gernsback Continuum," which has a lot to say on this issue.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Stanhope vs. O'Neal: Charity vs. What's Owed To You

This is just a short note on Christmas Eve Eve in response to two comedians on Marc Maron's damn WTF podcast. (Is it just me or do other people feel like being subscribed to podcasts lays an obligation on one? I'm really trying to catch up in all my podcasts. More on that in the future.)

In his podcast interview, the late Patrice O'Neal talks to Marc Maron about the difficulties of being black in America; and in that talk, he says something about the difference between being given something as a gift and having something as a right: gifts that you're given aren't really yours--they can be taken away, they impose obligations on the receiver. (Hmm, come to think of it, I get those free podcasts kind of like gifts, so it's no wonder that I feel a little imposed on by them.)

Doug Stanhope, as a fine upstanding libertarian, notes that taxation is slavery (oh man, I'd love to have heard Patrice O'Neal rip into that comment) and that he likes giving to charity but doesn't like being taxed. (What would his account look like if he were paying for toll roads and bodyguards instead of enjoying our crumbling tax-built highways and police? Argh, libertarians.)

What Stanhope likes about charity (he gets something back by giving a gift) is exactly the problem that O'Neal identifies. I wish these two had had some time to discuss this issue.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

What if we gave a War on Christmas and no one came?

Confess: you tear up when you think about the spontaneous Christmas truces of 1914. I do--there's something undeniably great about opposing infantrymen in the trenches coming out of the trenches and meeting in No Man's Land to sing carols, exchange gifts, and play football. Actually, I think a large part of my love for the Christmas truces is because of their spontaneity and mass motivation--this is an Occupy protest before Twitter (#OccupyNoMansLand).

But the only thing that makes the Christmas truces possible is the shared notion of Christmas. (It's interesting to note that German Prince Albert brought a lot of German Christmas customs to England when he married Victoria; so it's not completely surprising that the major truces on Christmas 1914 involved the British and the German forces. It's even less surprising once you remember that the French were still looking for payback for the Franco-Prussian War of 1870; so let's not overstate the role of culture here.) For instance, you couldn't have a Christmas truce during the Russo-Japanese War; heck, you couldn't even really have a Christmas truce on the Eastern front of WWI because the Russians (Eastern Orthodox) and the Germans (Western) don't celebrate Christmas on the same day.

All of this is prelude to my main interest, which is the ridiculous--and not so ridiculous--claims that there's a war on Christmas in America. We're all familiar with the standard Fox News outrage machine turning out perfectly identical claims that whites/Christians are under siege because someone is asking for "special" rights. On one hand, when you look at those claims, what you almost always find is that these other groups (Muslims, gays, blacks, etc.) are asking for the right to be treated equally under the law. So it's ridiculous to claim that there's a war on "us" (whites/Christians/men/Republicans).

But on the other hand, there's something not completely ridiculous about these claims. Because a lot of people who grew up white, hetero, Christian, blah find themselves unable to assume that everyone is like them anymore--and that leads to serious hardship.

First, that means philosophical/ideological hardship--if you know that there are other ways to live, then you have to question the way you live. (For another, and not generous example, we could think about the information-poor society of North Korea, where people don't really know that there are other ways to live--that's the life of a white, hetero, Christian growing up in America in the 1950s.)

Second, not being able to assume everyone is like you leads to some other hardship. For instance, if you have to think before you say "Merry Christmas," that's one more thing you have to think about. (And it's always easier to take things for granted than to think about them.) And if you have to shop around many places because you can't find something you need for your religious observation, that's another type of hardship.

Which is a long way for me to say that I live in a city of 90-100k people and I'm having trouble finding Hanukah candles.

UPDATE: I found Hannukah candles, but they're at this shop in the mall which seems geared towards the very Christian--which means that their interest in Judaica may be associated with the creepy right-wing interest in Greater Israel (Israel and its illegal settlements) as a stepping stone to the Jew-free world of Jesus's return. Maybe I'll go talk to them about that.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Should we have invaded North Korea?

Christopher Hitchens, Vaclav Havel, and Kim Jong Il--which of these was a threat to the world?

It seems clear that, among those three recent deaths, it's Kim Jong Il who leaves the world a better place merely by leaving the world. (At the very least, no more Kim Jong Il-directed films like his 1985 monster movie, Pulgasari.) I don't know what this will mean for North Korea (and it's nuclear program), but it seems like his son Kim Jong Un will take over with some disruptions. (This blog post at the New Yorker argues that the regime will probably survive with Chinese assistance, in part because China doesn't want a collapsing state on its borders. No word on how South Korea would react to a nearby collapse.)

But since Christopher Hitchens recently died and all his bad support for the Iraq War is getting a necessary airing, I wonder what he would say about Kim Jong Il's death and its potential to change that country without American soldiers and money. Because I liked Hitch best when he was excoriating religion, it's hard for me to imagine him as a foreign policy commentator. (Luckily, with Greenwald on the beat, I don't have to imagine what an idiot Hitch could be about Iraq and endless war on terror.)

But I don't need to imagine how Hitch felt about North Korea:
These conclusions of his, in a finely argued and brilliantly written book, carry the worrisome implication that the propaganda of the regime may actually mean exactly what it says, which in turn would mean that peace and disarmament negotiations with it are a waste of time—and perhaps a dangerous waste at that.
I like the way Hitch leaves the sentence with "disarmament negotiations with it are a waste of time," which slightly buries the lead--that "peace... with it [is] a waste of time." What a thinker! Who else would have the courage to suggest that peace is a waste of time? This is from a review written in 2010 and it sure seems like Hitch is gearing up for a war to remove Kim Jong Il--a mission which has been accomplished by time.

So, the world is better without Kim Jong Il--and maybe without Christopher Hitchens.

Addendum:
I especially like the way Hitch ends this review, with the note that the North Koreans are basically like Wells's Morlocks:
Unlike previous racist dictatorships, the North Korean one has actually succeeded in producing a sort of new species. Starving and stunted dwarves, living in the dark, kept in perpetual ignorance and fear, brainwashed into the hatred of others, regimented and coerced and inculcated with a death cult: This horror show is in our future, and is so ghastly that our own darling leaders dare not face it and can only peep through their fingers at what is coming.
What does it mean that "This horror show is in our future"? It sure does sound like the end of The Time Machine, where the bourgeois Londoners ignore the dangers of devolution; but it also nicely situates those who recognize the danger (i.e., Hitch, other warmongers) as having a super-temporal view of what needs to be done.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

How many pageviews is your good name worth?

This post is light on links because it's about linkwhores--and who wants to give them the satisfaction. In case you don't know, a linkwhore is someone who wants links; but I'm particularly interested in those who go ahead and write inflammatory material in order to get attention.

Recently, a writer at Forbes named Gene Marks wrote a ridiculously dumb piece about how, if he were a poor black child, he would overcome all his difficulties just by working hard and being better and using technology. And he rightfully got ripped all up and down the internet.

Now, there's a chance that Gene Marks is an authentically dumb person on the topic of race and opportunity. But there's also a chance that he wrote a dumb piece in order to get attention (i.e., links). After all, many contributing writers get paid according to the number of pageviews, so it's not impossible to think that our outrage is his financial gain.

Unfortunately for Gene Marks, things that happen on the internet tend to stick around, as teenagers on Facebook learn to their regret every day. So, how much do you think he'll ultimately pay for this?

Unfortunately, as Alex Pareene recently noted in his hacks of the year list, most hacks still have a job  being hacky--maybe because they're hacks, not despite that.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Whose success? (on team sports and Tim Tebow)

This will be very short because I know nothing about football or the football equivalent of baseball's sabremetrics; but it seems to me that people have the same problem discussing Tim Tebow that Andrew Sullivan does talking about successful and wealthy people.

That is, many people say that Tebow is a great quarterback because his team is winning; and others say that he's a terrible quarterback whose team wins only through their hard work and luck. So which is it--personal success or teamwork and luck? Or a little of both? There are numbers involved, so can't we just crunch them and get beyond opinionated arguments that keep veering into political/religious issues? Get on it, Nate Silver!


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Can a dictator have good taste?

When the rebels got to Qaddafi's palace, there was a lot of pointing-and-laughing at his tacky and outlandish stuff, from jewel-encrusted guns to scrapbooks full of Condi Rice. There's a certain element of that which was just "how the mighty have fallen" and "how weird the mighty are"--the press ran almost the same articles about Qaddafi that they did about Michael Jackson's Neverland (even calling Qaddafi's compound "Neverland"). And with Sacha Baron Cohen's new movie, The Dictator, I feel like we're going to get a retread of Qaddafi's weird taste in art, in fictional form.

Which raises the question for me, is there some connection between power and a taste for kitsch?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Super Short Review Duo: Limitless (2011) and Friends with Benefits (2011)

As a break from all the heavy stuff the last few days...

Limitless
There was an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where Data wanted to play as Sherlock Holmes on the holodeck--you still with me?--but the problem is that Data was so smart that he could solve the mystery immediately.

Limitless runs into that problem in reverse: it features a drug that makes people super-smart--but the characters still insist on acting pretty dumb. Sf author and critic James Blish would call this an "idiot plot": a story that only occurs because everyone acts like an idiot. There's probably an interesting story to tell here about addiction, motivation, conflict--imagine what Jason Reitman could do with a story about a dangerous drug and the people pushing it (or hoarding it). But while this movie is visually fun, it's the shallowest treatment of these topics possible.

And it's my fervent hope that, some day, a movie features that drug that will unlock the potential of the human brain--"we only use 10% of the brain, blah blah"--and then someone on that drug suffocates because they're calculating stock market fluxes in the part of the brain that should be tasked with breathing.

Friends with Benefits
Friends with Benefits has a similar issue, in that it's a surface-level view of the issues (emotions, sex, friendship, personality) with a nice sheen--whereas Limitless was visually interesting, Friends with Benefits keeps the story moving with fun dialogue. But no dialogue is so fun as to obscure the essential fact that this movie is product--plastic, rounded edges to make it seem more organic, high-caliber actors brought in for walk-ons with cliche traits (Alzheimer's dad, free-loving mom). I feel like this movie could have been written with a few spins of some story-wheel app on someone's iPad.

Recommended or not recommended? Not recommended.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Why Andrew Sullivan isn't a good source for economic morality

We've inherited a bastardized version of Adam Smith in America, a version which remembers "the invisible hand" but forgets everything that Smith ever wrote about moral sentiments and moral capitalism. And I think we need to get back to discussing the potential morality of capitalism since we seem to be stuck with capitalism for now.

So let's talk morality and capitalism, focusing on one particular person and his morally incoherent ideas about taxes: Andrew Sullivan.

Andrew Sullivan is a) not an economics expert; and b) not a terrible person (as far as I can tell). And yet, he can take terrible positions on economic issues (including economic rhetoric) because they seem the morally correct ones--and he needs to translate economics into morality in order to feel a certain mastery of the topic. Case in point, Sullivan's sticky-fingered hold on the concept of "the successful," which he cannot let go.

For quite a while, whenever Sullivan wanted to talk about the upper-class, he talked about "the successful" rather than the wealthy, the rich, the upper class, the %1 percent, etc. That was a rhetorical choice that expressed his worldview: people with money had worked hard to get it, so taxing them would be punishing them for their success. Even now, when he's altered his thinking enough to say "the wealthy and the successful," he won't let go of "the successful" and the rhetorical defense of low taxes on the wealthy that it implies.

He recently posted a video explaining his thinking for why he's holding onto "successful."

And here are the problems with his thinking on the subject:

1) No one is a self-made success
Sullivan's main complaint is that class war in America focuses on the immoral, lazy inheritors of wealth and not those bold, creative self-made men, like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

Now, let's accept Sullivan's argument that Jobs and Gates did something cool--but they didn't do it in a vacuum. Malcolm Gladwell makes this point in Outliers: for example, Gates was clearly dedicated to computers, but he had access to a computer only thanks to the work--and the taxes--of the people who came before him. Or we could go to Edward Bellamy in Looking Backward:
Was it not wholly on account of the heritage of the past knowledge and achievements of the race, the machinery of society, thousands of years in contriving, found by you ready-made to your hand? How did you come to be possessors of this knowledge and this machinery, which represent nine parts to one contributed by yourself in the value of your product? You inherited it, did you not?
Emphasis mine because the book is from the 1880s, but Sullivan still hasn't absorbed this. Let's call this problem "the apple pie from scratch problem," after Asimov's joke that, in order to create an apple pie from scratch, one first has to create the universe. In other words, no one is a self-made success. So one would think that those who succeeded (thanks to the previous work of others) might have a moral obligation to give back.

2) Can you tell the successful from the wealthy?
If the government were able to tell the successful from the wealthy, Sullivan might begrudgingly support a higher taxation on those who merely inherited their wealth. (If only there were some form of... inheritance tax.) See, in Sullivan's mind, the successful have a greater moral right to their wealth, whereas the wealthy probably do not. So maybe if we could separate them, we could treat their money differently.

But let's take Jon Huntsman, Jr. as an example of how hard it is to tell those two things apart. Huntsman is probably a smart, hard-working guy. But as Colbert pointed out, Huntsman had a meteoric rise to Chair of the Huntsman Group from the lowly position of... Vice President. Was it Huntsman's success that helped him be born into that family?

Or take Sullivan, a first world success story both as a blogger and as an HIV survivor. How much of his success is due to his talents and how much is due to the luck of being born at a particular time and place? If, after all, luck plays such a huge role in his success, can he claim to have a moral right to the fruits of his success?

3) Incoherence much?
Sullivan moans about how higher taxes are a punishment (because money is good); and then he wants to elicit sympathy for the hardships of being rich (because too much money is bad): "that kind of money is a horrible curse in a way to a life of ordinary living and to real living." Leave aside the weirdness of "real living" and just note the incoherence of that: You can choose one or the other--money is a reward for hard work that we can't morally tax or money is a curse that we should feel sorry about--not both. If too much money is a curse, then taxation isn't punishment  but relief.

Also, notice that Sullivan talks about work as if money is the only or primary reward. There's no remembrance of Adam Smith's moral questions about economics, about how capitalism was meant to improve the world.

4) Objectively pro-wealthy
Sullivan comes from a different culture, and he pisses and moans about the British left, so he might feel that "class war" is the worst thing in the world. But to paraphrase Sullivan (who paraphrased Orwell when he said that people who objected to the war with Iraq were "objectively pro-Saddam"), if you wash your hands of the class war, then you're objectively pro-wealthy. If there's a car and a dog on a collision course, and you don't take a side, then you're ensuring a dog-free world.

5) Feelings--nothing more than feelings!
Sullivan includes that old line (much mocked over at Balloon Juice) about how we need to celebrate the wealthy because they are... what? Job creators? Morally superior to the rest of us? This line helps move the conversation from numbers and economics (which Sullivan doesn't understand) to questions about affect and feeling. And this line exposes Sullivan's confusion between charity (giving something that you have no obligation to give) and taxation (paying back for the things that you have benefitted from or that you want to benefit your children).

Sunday, December 11, 2011

I don't want to go to Zion (part 3)

So let's say you care about Jews (unlike the end-times Christian Republican support of Israel, which has nothing to do with Jews as Jews and only cares about Jews as pawns in their Christian worldview); and let's say you've realized the ahistorical (i.e., bullshit) nature of the arguments about Jewish authenticity that underlie a certain pro-Zionist argument.

That is, we reject the argument that you can only really express your Jewishness in Israel; but conversely, that doesn't mean that my brand of Jewishness--bagels, Woody Allen, shiksa girlfriends--is more authentic. (My brother and I are both our parents' kids, but we've developed differently. Is one of us more authentically inheritors of our parents' legacy? In order to answer that nonsensical question, you'd have to define what our parents' legacy was, which would be a process of highlighting certain aspects and downplaying others--and who's in a position to make that call? Authenticity-search is a game with no winners.)

Which is why, if some people feel the need of Zion to express their Judaism, then more power to them. In that way, I'm a Zionist. Bet you didn't see that one coming.

But I'm a limited Zionist, a two-state Zionist. Because if you claim the right of self-determination (as Zionist Jews do), then you have to accept the right of other people's self-determination, like the Palestinians.

(Which is why Newt Gingrich and others like to refer to the Palestinians as an "invented" people--he can accept self-determination ("a People should have a homeland") and still deny it to the Palestinians ("not all people are a People").)

The concept of Zion-for-Jews relies on self-determination; and no self-determination can overpower another person's self-determination. (That is, your self-determination can't include subjugating another people's.) Which is why the only coherent Zionism these days is for a two-state solution.

Or for a single state that treated everyone equally. Because, honestly, Kosher and Hallal can get along pretty easily (hold the yogurt sauce) and everyone likes falafel.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Netanyahu's Army (on Zionism)

OK, so, let's say you think Jews are more than just pawns in a Christian fantasy of the end times--what do you do about Israel?

Well, first, let's separate out Jews from Israel--which is not easy: A lot of pro-Zion forces like being able to call anti-Zionists anti-Semites; and some anti-Zion speech treads close to traditional anti-Semite rhetoric. This is a hard issue, in part because the founding story of Israel relies on a lot of philo- and anti-Semitic ideas: Let's remember, when Herzl proposed Israel, he wanted a place for Jews to get back to the land and away from the European traditions of money-lending, urbane Jews.

But what if those traditions have come to be at the heart of your Jewish identity? This reminds me of Ralph Ellison, in his review of An American Dilemma:
But can a people (its faith in an idealized American Creed not-withstanding) live and develop for over three hundred years simply by reacting? Are American Negroes simply the creation of white men, or have they at least helped to create themselves out of what they found around them? Men have made a way of life in caves and upon cliffs; why cannot Negroes have made a life upon the horns of the white man’s dilemma?
Herzl didn't ask himself this question; and though Herzl eventually settled on jettisoning this life that Jews created for themselves upon the horns of the European Christian's dilemma, one of his previous plans was for Jews to jettison their Judaism by converting to Catholicism. So, Herzl: a little too quick to throw things out.

Which is one main problem I have with pro-Zionist forces who argue that you can only really be a Jew in Israel. (Did you see Netanyahu's government's recent ads (now canceled) on how Israelis shouldn't marry American Jews because they're not real Jews?) We could call these "hipster Jews" since they're obsessed with a notion of authenticity; but what they really are is eminently ahistorical, as if Jews/Judaism were a fixed notion throughout time--as if we got the tablets from Moses and immediately made matzah ball soup and told our children to become doctors.

So, when I was in Israel, I enjoyed the fact that everything shut down for Shabbat; and then everything seemed like a party after Shabbat, when all the restaurants opened up and we went out for dinner at a time that's probably past my bedtime now. But that particular observance of Shabbat is merely one type--not the only available expression of Jewishness.

Oh, boy, this is going to be a three-part argument about Zionism. And every part will have an Elvis Costello song (modified) as a title!

Part 1: Conservative Christian support is a poisoned pill that supports Zion but denies agency and worth to Jews.
Part 2: The pro-Zion argument that Jews need Israel to be authentically Jewish is ahistorical.
Part 3: ?

Friday, December 9, 2011

What's so funny about peace, love, and Zionism?

The two major types of podcasts I listen to are (1) those that bore me and (2) those that anger me. So: NPR's Science Friday--boring; On the Media--aggravating.

CBC's Ideas usually bores me (and, to be fair, has some occasionally interesting things to say), but recently--and how jealous is Science Friday now!--made that coveted jump to aggravating me with their two-parter on Zionism.

I don't mean that I was angry with the show, which ultimately falls into that safe spot of saying "it would be better if we could just talk openly about this." (Bleh, but sure, let's.) I was more aggravated by the people who were interviewed, almost all of whom were professors. ("Man on the street" reporting may be unrepresentative, but "man in the ivory tower" is by definition unrepresentative.)

So you know what time of year it is: bells are ringing and angels are heralding--it's beginning to look a lot like time to discuss Israel and the position of Jews in America.

It doesn't help that the Republican Jewish Coalition hosted the GOP fail parade presidential hopefuls falling over themselves in declaring undying allegiance to Israel--and then going out to say that it's a shame that Americans can't say "Merry Christmas" to each other. (Seriously, did no one at the RJC want to discuss Rick Perry's ridiculous ad that avers that there's a war on religion? Especially because it's clear that for Perry, "religion" = "Christianity.")

Can we talk about that now? Republican support of Israel has a few motivations--and none of them is "self-determination of a religion or ethnic group." There's the enjoyment of seeing brown people be oppressed and there's the eschatological aim of the religious right. (Remember: the end-times Christian support of Israel has as its goal a Judenfrei world. That's how Perry can say that he supports Israel as a Christian: in that religious worldview, the Jews are pawns meant to fulfill a specific role before exiting stage left--assuming stage left leads to Hell.)

But let's put aside the self-serving and anti-Jewish support of Israel from the Christian right/Republicans. How should the rest of us feel about Israel, those of us who care about Jews? More on that tomorrow.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Conservate hate machine

When I started this blog, I told myself that I wouldn't let it become too much of an end zone-dance celebration of conservative failures. (Although, my second post was about how Rick Perry and Christine O'Donnell reacted dumbly to being questioned, so you can see how far I got with that plan.)

But I have to comment on Erick Erickson's "confession", in which he confesses that he breathes oxygen. No, wait, he confesses that Newt Gingrich makes him uncomfortable--which is like confessing that he breathes oxygen. Don't we all feel a little uncomfortable around Newt. Exhibit A:


We could discuss Erickson's fetishization of character--what makes Erickson uncomfortable with Newt is his history of marital fidelity, not Newt's questionable political history. But what I particularly liked in this confession was Erickson's paean to Rick Perry:
I hope for a Perry rebound. He’s on his first wife still and has the most consistent record of conservative policies. And we hate the same people and institutions. We have the same general world view. 
Emphasis mine, because--my god--how could I not emphasize that Erickson's political leanings seem to be motivated by affect. Maybe that's an attempt at humor (which doesn't mean it's not true); and maybe he doesn't feel the need to elaborate what he hates since this is on RedState.com (where everyone knows what he hates--Commerce, Education, and, uh, the third one).

But can you imagine a worse way to run a movement than (1) to fetishize character ("on his first wife still")--especially in a form that has so many factors. (I mean, where's the wife's agency and personhood in Erickson's formulation? Or is marriage just an expression of the husband's character?); (2) to ignore policy deficits while lauding conservative consistency (what about Perry and the children of undocumented immigrants?; what about vaccinations for children?)--which is just another way of emphasizing character over politics; and (3) to found your support on undefined hate.

Actually, maybe hate wouldn't be such a bad foundation for a movement; only I always get the feeling that conservative hate is poorly directed--fine, eliminate Commerce, but what about the Census?--and so often defined as "liberals like X, therefore I hate X."

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Can Arabian-themed fantasy help people get over their Islamophobia?

I don't even know, but I'll take anything to help. In 2007-8, I started hanging out on conservative forums to figure out why people supported Bush, and I found a lot of Islamophobia, usually of the sort that goes "I'm tolerant of religion, but Islam is a type of political organization." Or "I'm ok with moderate religions, but Islam isn't moderate!"

Nothing I could say seemed to alter those people's thoughts on the issue; but recently I've been listening to some of Saladin Ahmed's Arabian-/Islamic-themed fantasy stories, and I wonder if that's a way to inject some appreciation and tolerance into the discourse.

My hopes aren't up on this, of course, because I don't expect these hard-core Islamophobes/racists to pick up any fantasy with the word "crescent" on the cover. But might these works help the borderline racist/intolerant accept a particular type of real-world difference by cloaking it in fantastic form?

Monday, December 5, 2011

What's the same between New York and Texas?

Dead deer on the side of the road. That's what New York and Texas have in common.

To get my laptop checked out at an Apple Store, I drove from San Angelo to Austin--200 miles for a two-minute diagnostic. On the plus side, I also stopped by the Austin Whole Foods and a Chuy's where Sarah and I got a good meal a few years ago--and that definitely helped me decide to drive to Austin rather than--gasp--San Antonio.

Austin felt a little different than San Angelo, but today I want to talk about the apocalyptic hellscape in between the two cities. I'm really looking forward to making that trip again, with more time so that I can stop to take pictures of detention centers, signs advertising local stores ("Venison World"!), and houses in the middle of fields, totally alone, but lit up with Christmas lights.

Sure, "hellscape" isn't accurate and neither is "apocalyptic"--I should probably say "post-apocalyptic." Not the day after the End, with fires still burning and scarred survivors reduced to cannibalism or venison, but a few months or years after, when there aren't people left and when the green is well on its way to taking back the world. Except in Texas, it's not so much green trees and grass that cover everything, but a mix of gray and green and brown. (The landscape was probably more green and alive-looking on this trip because it rained the whole time I was on the road.)

In a way, the Texas roadscape reminded me of the trip to Bard College, especially at night--dark, rural spaces crossed by empty roads. Except not totally empty, because the roads were popular hang-outs for suicidal deer (or teenage deer who think they'll live forever). On this trip to Austin, I saw three deer carcasses, which is probably about the same deer/mileage in upstate NY.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Wildlife of San Angelo (including a manger scene)

1) Dogs and dogshit:

Do you remember the part in Barcelona where one American says to another that he loves dating Spanish women because he can be a jerk and blame it on cultural difference? Sure, wasn't there a moment back there when everyone watched Whit Stillman movies?

Anyway, I always remember that scene when I come into a new situation where I can't tell if there's a cultural difference or just a personal lack. For instance, at the apartment complex where I live in San Angelo, there's a lot of people who don't pick up after their dogs. 

So, is this a cultural difference between Illinois and Texas? (Something like: there's so much space here, it doesn't matter if you pick up after your dog. Or, more charitably: it's so hot here, that after a few hours, the dogshit has turned to dust.) Or is this a cultural artifact of small city living? Or is this a reflection of the type of person who lives in this apartment complex?

2) Birds of prey:

In Chicago, I once saw a peregrine falcon eating a pigeon on the Lakeshore path, which was pretty cool; in San Angelo, I just saw a hawk of some kind being harassed (in flight) by some songbird, which was also pretty cool. 

So, for birds of prey, it's a tie between Chicago and San Angelo.

3) Manger scenes:

Someone in my apartment complex told me that it was the first day of Christmas--on December 1st. Yesterday--to celebrate the second day of Christmas?--Sarah and I went to go see this manger scene, which might be up until... who knows when Christmas ends around here. It was a cold day with a light rain, so I was glad to see the cast changing. (The first angel we saw looked totally like a pouting teenager, so I'm sure she was glad to get out of there, too.) 

Beside the people (and their fake beards), the scene featured at least one donkey, some goats and something that might have been a small llama (filling in for the more climactically appropriate camels?). Also, very loud Christmas carols.






Friday, December 2, 2011

Why mic checking is like Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift

Occupy Wall Street got banged around a bit for its hand-signal method of deriving consensus, as if reporters couldn't tell the difference between alternative methods of communication and jazz hands. (It reminded me of this comedy sketch where this ancient Roman invents clapping while all the others--who still wave their togas to signal approval--are appalled.) Personally, I think OWS hand signals allow for a greater level of precision and participation than clapping; but I can understand that, from the outside, it might look ridiculous.

By contrast, I haven't seen as much criticism of the human microphone. (Exception: John Oliver did a Daily Show segment where he said the human microphone was annoying.) In Zuccotti Park, the human microphone seemed like a sensible way to get around restrictions on electronic amplification; and it's spread to other Occupy groups since it fits so well with the ideology: the human microphone is participatory, consensual (you have to agree to repeat what someone else says), potentially equalizing (everyone can potentially speak with the same volume), and group-oriented.

(Which makes me think of the "edge" scene from The Lady from Shanghai:
“A guy with an edge. What makes him [points to the jukebox] sing better than me? Something in here [points to his throat]. What makes it loud? A microphone. That’s his edge.”
“Edge?”
“A gun or a knife, a nightstick, or a razor, something the other guy ain’t got. Yeah, a little extra reach on a punch, a set of brass knuckles, a stripe on the sleeve, a badge that says cop on it, a rock in your hand, or a bankroll in your pocket. That’s an edge, brother. Without an edge, there ain’t no tough guy.”
The human microphone might seem like a blunt instrument, but you could say that's the point--it removes edges.)

So we all love the human microphone at Occupy rallies; but what about the recent use of "mic checks" to interrupt speakers or politicians giving speeches? It still has all that participatory goodness; and it levels the playing field between people with microphones and people without. But even if it's a group activity, it's still basically heckling and shutting down someone else's ability to be heard.

I mean, we can all agree that Kanye West looked like a jerk interrupting Taylor Swift to register his dissent over her VMA win; so would he have looked like less of a jerk if there were a group of people repeating what he said? I think he'd still look like a jerk, whether he was borrowing Swift's microphone or brought his own.

So I'm not thrilled with the increasing number of mic checks, though I love the human microphone at rallies.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Cactus makes perfect (or "The Red State Blues")


Did you hear the news? I live here now:

This is actually San Angelo State Park, where the buffalo may roam, but are hard to spot. (In fact, there is a herd of American bison here and on the way out of the park, we saw one grazing on some dry grass.) Technically, I don't actually live in this park--though that is a suitable plan B.

But I do live in Texas now, which makes me think of the tagline for the old computer game Obsidian: "Your Rules Do Not Apply Here." I mean--my god!--they don't sell hard alcohol in grocery stores, as they did in Illinois. How's a person supposed to stand that?

I don't yet have any serious red state blues to complain of (I saw far more anti-Obama bumper stickers when I was here a few weeks ago, checking out apartments); as usual, misconceptions are like battle plans--they don't survive contact with the other side. So, what do you expect in Texas? A guy in a pick-up truck with a cowboy hat? Yeah, I saw that--but I also saw his Pomeranian in the passenger seat. Or what about cowboy boots and denim shirts? Yeah, I see lots of that--but I also saw this one guy in cowboy boots go get one of the frilliest coffee drinks I'd ever seen.

So let's see how this Texas thing goes; future posts on this topic will be marked "Cactus makes perfect," narrowly beating out my other idea, "Dismember the Alamo."

Monday, November 7, 2011

Excuse(s) my absence

Hello, uh, world!

I haven't been posting a lot here recently because I've been very busy moving down to San Angelo, TX (for girlfriend-related work reasons).

But I'm just about all settled in, so it's time to relaunch the blog and get into more of a schedule, including some posts about what it's like moving from Chicago to Texas. More on that, as the newspeople say, as it develops.

Monday, September 12, 2011

What's the value of those "where I was on 9/11" posts?

This may sound awfully curmudgeonly, but why do so many people write posts/articles about where they were on 9/11? Why is there even a site dedicated to collecting these stories? I don't want to tell people how to run their blogs/columns/skywriting service, but I am curious as to what the impulse is behind this.

Is there something therapeutic about returning to memories of that day--are the writers trying to work through their trauma (or the traumatic lack of trauma for those who have very tenuous connections to the famous sites of that day)? Are they offering their stories as part of some collective attempt to capture that day in the hope that... what? Is there some trace of self-indulgence in thinking about the unalloyed trauma --before things got really bad--as pointed out by this Onion article, "Nation Would Rather Think About 9/11 Than Anything From Subsequent 10 Years."

When my parents tell me where they were when Kennedy was shot, it helps me understand my parents more; and it gives me a view of history that I might not otherwise have. Maybe some future generations will get that same educational value out of these stories of where regular people were on 9/11; but I don't care to read them because I can't see the value.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Is Wilfred (US tv series) a buddy comedy or a dog-and-man comedy?

That's a terrible question because so many dog-and-man comedies are really just chips off the classic buddy comedy block. Think about the classic Odd Couple--uptight guy vs. messy guy. Now, remember Turner & Hooch--uptight guy vs. messy dog. Free-spirits tend to come in and teach uptight people some things about life, and occasionally, vice versa. (Maybe Paul Rudd's Our Idiot Brother is really about a golden retriever--they're usually as affable as Rudd.)

In fact, the introduction of a dog--or a baby or a stoner--into an uptight person's life is a tried and true formula, and it doesn't totally seem to matter which it is for the general plot development, as long as it's one socially adjusted person and one socially maladjusted person. (Maybe this is why The Odd Couple endures: both of them are both adjusted and maladjusted and we take both their sides.)

(Similarly, many zombie apocalypses really set up some tension between the people left; so the zombie part could be replaced by many other types of apocalypse as far as plot development and character growth go. So, in these mismatch movies, it doesn't matter what the mismatch is.)

So, what about Wilfred, the tv show where Ryan (Elijah Wood) is a social drop-out--he doesn't want to be a lawyer and the first episode involves a suicide attempt, which is really taking "maladjusted" almost too far--and he meets the dog Wilfred, who he sees as a man in a dog costume (Jason Gann)? Who's the socially-adjusted one?

The dog in human society is definitionally maladjusted, as evidenced by the times when Ryan follows Wilfred's lead (shitting in a neighbor's boot, having sex with a stuffed animal). In other words, we put up with a lot of dog's behavior because they're dogs and don't know any better. But in Wilfred, from our POV, seeing a man act like a dog reminds us how this is inappropriate behavior.

But Ryan, as I already said, is no Felix--he tries to commit suicide, he smokes a lot of pot, he talks to a dog. But I think there's still a tension there in that Ryan has the possibility of being a socially adjusted human, whereas Wilfred, not so much. (Oh, this just makes me want to read Bulgakov's Heart of a Dog, where a Soviet scientist turns a dog into a man.)

Or maybe recent buddy comedies and other sitcoms (following Seinfeld's lead?) have changed their dynamics; as with It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, maybe there's no desire to have a nice, normal person to play off against the others--you just need everyone to be cracked in a particular way.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Why do conservatives love the mythological Reagan?

I don’t love being in the position of psychologizing from afar (or attributing “false consciousness” to people I don’t really know), but that’s the sort of position we have to occupy once we agree on some pretty indisputable facts:

a) Reagan’s policies (as a whole) would put him to the left of the leaders of the Republican Party right now.

Ezra Klein has a pretty good summary of how the Reagan administration pivoted from some textbook conservative policies once they failed (hmm, these tax cuts don’t seem to be working) and implemented some non-conservative policies (these tax raises help offset the deficit, who woulda thunk it?). If you think Mitt Romney has to distance himself from the Massachusetts health care laws, imagine what Reagan would have to do to distance himself from four tax raises. Would Grover Norquist even let him into the tax pledge club? (Also, see here for more on the Gipper's heterodoxy from today's orthodox.)

b) Conservatives love Reagan.

Is this simply a case of nostalgia smoothing over the rough edges of Reagan’s policies (besides his tax raises, Reagan’s rough edges include engaging in diplomacy with our potential enemies without preconditions!)? Is this simply another case of conservatives revising history to make it more in-line with their own beliefs (e.g., the real racism today is against whites, therefore the Civil War wasn’t really about oppressing black people but about the government oppressing white people, big government argle bargle)? Is this simply biographical nostalgia, a longing for a time when they were young(er) and carefree?

I know I have to fight my urge towards monocausotaxophilia (thank you, Kim Stanley Robinson, for that word), the love of single causes to explain complex effects. With such a complex issue as this, it could be many or all of those factors and a few more besides. Actually, I'd guess that every conservative might have slightly different reasons for this, though I'd be surprised if those factors didn't factor in somehow for everyone. (Heck, it was the 80s--when we could watch Stallone shoot up Afghans and Soviets! When men could be men and women in business were marked as dragon ladies who just needed to inherit a baby to be turned into real women!--and what conservative wouldn't love to turn back the clock to that time?)

But on top of that question (why do conservatives love Reagan and ignore his policies?), I have another: why do they even need to hold up a hero without holding up his policies? My ungenerous impulse is to say that there's some more father-figure worship, some identity-politics that wants character without policy (policy often means compromise).

Does the left do this with, e.g., FDR? I don't see it; I bet if you Google N-grammed "FDR" vs. "New Deal" in left-liberal blogs, you'd find a pretty high number of people referencing policies rather than people. Is there a conclusion to be drawn here (a conclusion that isn't too self-serving, like "the left is actually interested in governance, whereas the right just wants an ideal myth")?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

How do you read Tom Lehrer's song "Smut"?

I've been listening to a lot of Tom Lehrer recently because I've been trying to write comedic songs for my comedy writing class at the Second City and are you still reading this sentence?, because it's not getting any better.

Let's cut to the chase: Lehrer is very ironic and often political--is there a way that his political irony supports some actual political position? Or is his irony critical of any political position? Does it have answers? Or only questions?

(It occurs to me also that Jonathon Coulton is not so much a Snuggie, as opined by a Planet Money guest host, as he is an apolitical Tom Lehrer, making catchy funny songs out of nerdy things. Coulton's "Re: Your Brains" is a funny song about a terrible coworker-turned-zombie, but it's not as acid-pointed as Lehrer's "Wernher von Braun," about the Nazi scientist-turned US scientist whose "allegiance is ruled by expedience.")

Let's take Lehrer's most ambivalent song, "Smut," a song that defends pornography because it's fun, not because it's a freedom of speech issue. Here's how the song goes:


(If you need help following the words, here are the lyrics.)

So, what do you think of that? Does Tom Lehrer support pornography or does he support limitations on pornography?

We don't get any help from Lehrer's tonal choice or from his rhyme choice. That is, wouldn't it be great if the use of slant rhymes and forced rhymes showed that Lehrer was being ironic? Well, unfortunately this song features a mix of forced rhymes ("uncut / unsubt...le") and perfect rhymes ("quibbled / ribald / nibbled"). So we're not getting any help there.

(And doesn't Alan Moore's Lost Girls seem like an expansion of the lines about Peter Pan and the Wizard of Oz being a dirty old man?)

Lehrer really digs in here, to the point where a First Amendment-supporter (or any American bourgeoisie) might be uncomfortable: are you sure you want to be on the side of hardcore, the obscene, the "lurid, licentious, and vile," the dirty, slime, the indecent, the filthy, etc.? Lehrer rings through a lot of terms that most people don't want to associate themselves with, especially in a public audience.

And this is why I think this song is really powerful. Because it's cheap and easy to support free speech, Lehrer wants to make it more expensive for us:
But now they're trying to take it all
away from us unless
We take a stand, and hand in hand
we fight for freedom of the press.
In other words,

Smut! (I love it)
Who doesn't want to be for freedom of the press? Everyone supports freedom of the press in the abstract. Supporting freedom of the press is easy, and there's nothing heroic about doing the easy thing, a joke that Lehrer drives home in the spoken intro to "The Folk Song Army":
You have to admire people who sing these songs. It takes a certain amount of courage to get up in a coffee-house or a college auditorium and come out in favor of the things that everybody else in the audience is against like peace and justice and brotherhood and so on. 
But when Lehrer sings, "freedom of the press. / In other words, / Smut!," he's making our support of the First Amendment a little more costly to us by showing the connection: "freedom of the pres"="smut!" So if we totally support the First Amendment (of course, I do, what a ridiculous question!), then we support the free speech rights of pornography (oh, hold on a minute).

So where does Lehrer fall on that issue?

I'm not actually sure; I could say that he supports free speech, but that's partly because I want him to fall in line with my thoughts. (Which is often a problem of interpretive criticism: we want our favorite creative types to share our feelings. That's one reason I love H. P. Lovecraft: he keeps me honest since I can't pretend that he shares my politics.)

But I could also say that, in pointing out the connection (free speech = smut), Lehrer is hinting that we need some limitations on free speech. Or maybe he's implying that banning pleasure is a losing proposition? Or maybe, with that line about obscene "murals" and "stained glass windows," he's pointing out the class issues of prohibitive laws (oh, we can enjoy our ____ just fine, but those poor working-class slobs just can't be trusted with alcohol/porn/violent media/the vote)?

So, it seems to me that Lehrer poses some complicating questions, but I'm not sure he provides any answers. Is this the condition of all intersections between comedy and politics?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Does the government work (in fiction)?

I don't have an answer for this one.

I just finished Justin Cronin's The Passage (my negative review here), which hits a bunch of "government bad" tropes: the US government surveils intrusively; can't prevent terrorism; can't rebuild storm-ravaged New Orleans; funds secret experiments; kidnaps children; unwittingly unleashes a plague of vampires on the world. And then, in the post-vampire apocalypse, the fictional government we see has a much smaller scope (a colony of a hundred people), but hardly inspires trust.

Actually, how many fictional apocalypses do you think have government roots? Probably more than the apocalypses that are rooted in private action. (Off the top of my head, I can only think of one privately-caused apocalypse: Ward Moore's Greener Than You Think. There's got to be more, though, right?)

But what about non-apocalyptic situations in fiction: does government work in a day-to-day capacity? Or is it too hopelessly corrupt and too baroquely complex to do any work?

(Although here's a thought: once we include "police" as a category of government, does the rate of successful work go up?)

Monday, September 5, 2011

What's the difference between "ferrets out" and "sighs"? (On Andrew Sullivan)

Actually, this is a post on speaker attribution, but it's sexier to say it's about Andrew Sullivan (meaning: Andrew Sullivan's blog).

I greatly enjoy Sullivan, even though he's frequently wrong (he generally admits it, eventually) and has a worldview (Catholicism, conservatism) that means that, on some level, we disagree about the foundational facts about existence. And this goes (broadly speaking) for his under-bloggers and interns--I have some differences with them, but I generally think they bring up interesting things.

But Sullivan & co. occasionally drive me crazy with their speaker attribution verbs--"says," "ferrets out," "sighs," etc. 

For instance, recently, ZoĆ« Pollock recently wrote that "Kristin Dombek ferrets out one reason for The Book of Mormon's success"; and then Pollock goes on to quote Dombek talking about the success of religion. That's an obvious mistake and a somewhat common one over at The Daily Dish: they often quote the part that seems most interesting (why is religion successful?) even when they point to the actual topic of the essay (why is The Book of Mormon successful?).

But that's not what bugs me. What bugs me is that Pollock refers to Dombek's speculation as "ferret[ing] out." Did Dombek hunt for this insight intensively? Did she bring this truth to light by following it down some rabbit hole? Or did she look at some stuff and say, "hey, here's an idea I have that isn't really supported by any particularly large body of evidence?"

Now, I enjoyed Dombek's piece, but I think Pollock throws a little too much weight behind Dombek's idea through her choice of words--and what's worse, does so without coming out and saying it.

To be fair, though, Pollock is just one person and you can see that this issue is pretty widespread at the Dish if you look for "sighs" as a speaker attribution; for a few examples: "Adam Serwer sighs" (and here), "Greg Scoblete sighs," "Amanda Marcotte sighs," "Felix Salmon sighs."

It makes me wonder if Sullivan sees other people as balloons with tiny pricks in them, slowly sighing out their disappointment.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

How would you update Jekyll and Hyde?

A translator once told me that foreign books have to be re-translated on a generational basis--every 50 years or so, if I remember correctly--because of shifts in the target language. It seems to me that a similar thing may be true of all sorts of texts: we need someone to update them as we go along.

I don't mean that we can't enjoy the original Sherlock Holmes stories as they are; I just mean that certain issues can shift in focus, so that an updated version may help us to understand our present, in a way that the original couldn't. (Although switch it around: the original can help us understand the past; and comparisons between the two may help us understand the process of history. Yay, something for everyone!)

Look at Steven Moffat's Sherlock: Holmes is still a sociopath savant, Watson is still helpful but slower than Holmes, the crimes are still a little ridiculous--just like the originals. But rather than just play the old stories over again, Moffat's Sherlock can play with the homosociality of Holmes & Watson (which raises the mashup idea: Sherlock on the Jersey Shore) and with the notion of the instability of labor.

(In other words, Holmes is a consulting detective, which sure sounds nice; but how is that different than the hellish uncertainty of an adjunct professor or a day laborer? Monk also played with the economic uncertainty of being outside the institution.)

So, let's say you wanted to update the Jekyll and Hyde story, what should get emphasized while keeping the same general themes of the book?

It seems to me that you would have to jettison the central mystery of the Stevenson story (Jekyll and Hyde are the same man!) since everyone probably knows that already. But perhaps there's some other suspenseful mystery that could be added. (I've only just started watching Steven Moffat's version of the story, which includes a potential conspiracy, so it seems like that's the mystery: what do other people want with Jekyll?)

In my mind, Jekyll and Hyde lives near Frankenstein in that they both have a Gothic imagination of science; I guess you could push that element and make Jekyll into... a rogue AI avatar of Hyde. Say, Hyde is a computer specialist and a therapist, he creates a program to help cure people--which does help, but the program turns out to be malevolent. (Rather than just helping you deal with your issues of abuse, the AI would become the abuser.)

But it doesn't seem to me that Jekyll and Hyde is primarily a story about science-out-of-control. (And how many evil computer programs do we really need in fiction to help us deal with our insecurities about computers?) It's primarily a story about sin and repression--Dracula without the invasion worries.  So the question isn't "what technology are we worried about?" (as it would be with Frankenstein), but "what do we feel about sin and repression?"

What's the answer to that? I'm not sure.

(Although it occurs to me now that Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea takes a very Jungian position on Jekyll and Hyde; that is, Ged splits off his shadow,  just like Jekyll does with Hyde; and the shadow then ruins things a bit, like Hyde; but the solution for Ged is to reabsorb that shadow and accept it as part of him, which seems like an unthinkable solution for Stevenson's text. And then there's the Dorian Gray solution, which isn't very clear.)

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Would President Gore have gone to war with Iraq? (Prove me wrong)

Among the bloggers I read (more on that in a few days), Slate's political commentary has the reputation of being contrarian to the point of idiocy.

So when Steve Kornacki argues that President Gore would've gone to war against Iraq just like Bush did, it's well worth pausing to find the inevitable mistake(s).

Kornacki is working off of a Vanity Fair/60 Minutes poll that asked if things would be different if Gore had been president. That Kornacki decides to focus on the Iraq war is telling, since he probably couldn't get anywhere if he took other parts of the Bush administration. What about Medicare Part D? What about the Bush tax cuts? What about water-boarding and domestic surveillance?

But let's take Kornacki's hypothetical seriously: would Gore have invaded Iraq like Bush?

Jonathan Bernstein at the Washington Post does some good work on this score, pointing out that Gore would've been more committed to multi-lateral action, which would've probably meant more time for weapons inspectors, which would've meant less of a reason for the invasion at all. (And let's add: a drastically different, less cowboy-swagger approach to the invasion if it had happened.)

And Matt Yglesias at ThinkProgress argues that, post-9/11, a Gore administration would've heavily invaded Afghanistan rather than split the focus with an invasion of Iraq.

But no one seems to be pointing out one other counterfactual possibility (and please, prove me wrong): if Gore had been president, would 9/11 have happened at all? Various Clinton-era initiatives produced information on Al-Qaeda; and there's at least some chance that a Gore administration would've paid more attention to Clinton-era info than the Bush team.

So, would Gore have gone to war with Iraq? No, because no 9/11 would have meant little-to-no interest in foreign military adventures.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Does Gallagher make any good points with Marc Maron?

I highly recommend the podcast WTF with Marc Maron, which is one of the best interview shows out there. Maron is a stand-up comedian and his guests are other comedians (stand-up, sketch, improv); and they get into some very personal issues, including sexual kinks, emotional hang-ups, and long-simmering feuds; but they also get into professional issues, like breaking in, career trajectory, and the process of developing material.

And sometimes (often), the interview can get into political issues, as it does when Marc met Gallagher (episode 145). This interview is somewhat notorious since Gallagher left halfway through; it's such a notorious interview that it's included on Gallagher's Wikipedia page. Long-story short: Marc asks Gallagher about his homophobic and racist jokes (about which, more here), Gallagher says they're just jokes and walks out.

It's strange to hear Gallagher get political ("Arabs are the enemy") when he occupies the same part of my brain as Double Dare. And I think it would be easy to dismiss Gallagher by saying that he's an old man and Fox News is the Nickelodeon of the dementia set; or maybe he's just bitter about how history is leaving him behind ("I have two stents in my heart, I could die during this interview").

And it would also be easy to point out the inconsistency of Gallagher's position: the "I'm a comedian, I'm not running for political office"/"it's a night club" defense doesn't fit with his bitterness about how people missed the "insightful satire" of the Sledge-O-Matic bit.

But I will say this for him: Gallagher is coming from an older school of comedy--go watch his non-prop work and it's like a time tunnel to an era of one-liners and bits, of vaudeville performers rather than POV work ("there's no show involved, they're slovenly"). It reminded me of the meeting between Louie C. K. and Joan Rivers in Louie: Louie has some trouble with his audience and Joan tells him to suck it up because you do the job--you play to the audience you have, not the audience you wish you had.

Even with that said, though, Gallagher presents the comedian's role as comforting the comfortable: if your audience has an issue with gays, a gay joke will make them laugh, and your job (says Gallagher) is to make them laugh--and anything that happens after that is not his business. (Which gives me another opportunity for this classic Foucault: "People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don't know is what what they do does.")

By contrast, Maron and Louie seem more interested in afflicting the comfortable, including themselves, with their self-lacerating self-consciousness. Which seems like the more important type of comedian. Do you remember what George Carlin said about his job in Occupation: Foole?

"I'd spell it with the final 'e' just to piss them off."

Friday, August 26, 2011

Does anyone know: Where do accents come from?

Where do accents come from? I'm thinking of large-scale accents, not personal idiosyncrasies; and I'm wondering about their original development, not the transmission of established accents to new speakers.

Take just one example: the Long Island pronunciation of "or" as "ar" of which my girlfriend never lets me forget. "Orange"->"Arange"; "Horror"->"Harrar" (or "Harra"); "Florida"->"Flarida."

Where does that accent come from? Is it a confluence of different speaking styles/languages? Is it a remnant of some original language that has survived? Is it the weather?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

What's so great about political gaffes?

Like it's older uncle, the Freudian slip, the political gaffe is supposed to show us the truth beneath the mask we wear, whether that truth is repressed (Freud's real interest) or merely secret (the usual way we think of Freudian slips).

And perhaps we're particularly interested in political gaffes because politicians are such slick products: like iPods, politicians are not supposed to have anything but a surface. So any reminder of how politicians have invisible interiors will get our attention.

(Perhaps this also helps explain why charges of hypocrisy are always so interesting to us: Larry Craig's sexual misadventures reveal something interior and hidden, whereas a Barney Frank man-scandal would be a little less juicy since his homosexuality is on the surface. Although there we have an infidelity angle, and anti-gay advocates would make hay of that charge of hypocrisy.)

Taking a slightly different tack, On the Media recently did a segment on the life of political gaffes, which boils down to confirmation bias: if you think someone is an idiot, you're more likely to recall moments when they said something idiotic. I think this does a pretty good job explaining (away) many gaffes and their lack of power to sway: many gaffes expose a truth we're already supposed to know.

Which makes it seem like gaffes are really not that important when it comes to well-known, national figures, since 1) everyone pretty much knows what they think about these figures; and 2) these figures have a long history of speaking and acting that should reveal to us their priorities.

So, for instance, Perry says he's opposed to Social Security; and maybe his language is interesting (why "unconstitutional"?); and maybe now he's trying to walk back that language (or chew his way out--and as usual, cover-ups make you look worse than the initial problem); but if he hadn't said that, would anyone doubt that he's an orthodox Republican/radical conservative? (Is there really a difference now between those two?)

There are some gaffes that are revealing--for instance, since no one is supposed to be racist, a gaffe revealing a politician's racism may expose something previously unknown; but by and large, the political gaffe today is an exercise in high-fiving your friends. When was the last time a gaffe really pulled the mask down and showed us an interior truth?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Should Anthony Weiner have resigned?

This is an easy one for me: no, I don't think he should have.

See, at the time of the scandal, people latched on to the idea that Weiner's sexting capital-T Told us something about him--he had bad impulse control, he didn't think things through, his decision-making was suspect. And I would be right there with those people if Weiner had been some unknown guy and this was all we knew about him.

But he wasn't--he had a long Congressional history that could have capital-T Told us about him. When I looked at those pictures, here's what I thought: "I like his social positions, but some of his positions on Israel worry me."

(I also kept thinking about the Cold War attitude towards homosexuals as a liability; which meant that anyone who was homosexual had something they needed to hide--which might have made them a liability. Now, post-Weiner, I await the first sexting-blackmail scandal.)

So, Weiner (and team) made the wrong call, and here's the result: his seat is up for grabs. I don't think it will go Republican, but it's a waste of time and money for the Democrats.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

How will you feel in a driverless car?

Did you hear that Google's driverless car was involved in a five-car accident?

There's some question over whether this particular accident is the fault of the car's computer or the human who may have been attempting to drive; and in all this excitement, I hope we don't miss the priceless information that this crash involved three Priuses and two Accords.

I don't think this incident will become a rallying point for anti-driverless car activity, if only because the driverless car isn't too visible at the moment. (Now, if that driverless car started reading your emails and mining your personal data, that would be a different story.) I also assume that the future could include driverless cars that our descendants live with peacefully--descendants for whom the notion of "driver" seems a little archaic. ("Isn't that the software that runs my 3D printer?")
But I am looking forward to the convulsions between now and then, when people who are used to driving are confronted with the loss of that experience. (Will we lose that experience? If human-driving turns out to be less safe than computer-driving, then insurance rates will be higher for human drivers, and only the rich will afford to drive themselves. That seems as or more likely than laws against human driving, but we end in the same place: average Joe will take a computer to work.)

What will that be like, to be cargo in the vehicle that has come to be synonymous with self-determination and independence? I'd like to think that a lot of the bad behavior we see on buses and planes has to do with crowding; but part of me wonders if some that bad behavior comes from panic over one's own agency.

So, will driverless cars increase or decrease road rage? My guess: increase, unless we figure out some way to make "driving time" a lot more like "leisure time."

Monday, August 22, 2011

Is Jon Huntsman politically dead or undead?

Here's a question I won't even pretend to answer.

You may have heard that Jon Huntsman declared himself a fan of science, which is all well and good for conservatives when the subject is something like 3D TVs, which aren't contradicted by Biblical revelation. But Huntsman apparently believes scientists might be right about evolution and global warming. (I'm sure there's something in Leviticus about global warming being anathema; although why the fundamental conservatives would take that seriously and still eat shellfish is beyond me.)

Let's be honest: Huntsman hasn't had a very good showing this cycle, so I don't think he was ever going to be the nominee. But what has he done by setting himself so far from the rest of the pack?

Is Huntsman shooting himself in the foot today in the hope of getting a bionic leg to run with in 2016, as James Fallows thinks? (Although Fallows doesn't give you anything like that extended metaphor. You're welcome, internet.)

Will this moment of defiance set off a reaction of GOP moderates trying to take their party back?

I'm not sure what the Huntsman campaign is thinking--maybe "go out in a blaze of glory"? But my guess is that this moment of defiance is less like Warren Beatty in Bulworth--telling it like it is and shaking up the establishment--and more like Andy Kaufman reading The Great Gatsby to the audience. Maybe realizing that he would never win the race, Huntsman decided to play an entirely different game. That's great, but you're never going to win a game meaningfully when no one else is playing.

So I salute Jon Huntsman's attempt to bring conservatism into the 20th century (only one century late!), but I don't think he's going to succeed.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Are magicians made or born?

This idea has popped up a few times at all my favorite web hangouts, so I think it's time someone burst this particular bubble. Let me sharpen my needle.

On the science fiction (and occasional fantasy) blog io9, author David Liss makes the claim that our idea about magic has changed: it used to be that anyone could be a magician--all you needed was the right book or the right pact with the devil (or whomever); but sometime in the last century, our idea of magic has become more elitist--only those who are born with the right spark can become magicians. Without any claim to certainty, Liss pegs this change to around the time of Bewitched, which wins him points, because I used to love that show.

Pretty soon, Alyssa Rosenberg was making some interesting connections between this idea (magic is only for special people) and a sense of powerlessness that we might feel in the face of powerful forces--dynastic, corporate, or what-have-you. (I'd want to connect that to Carl Freedman's comments in 2004 on the transition in GOP politicians from Reagan--the everyman--to Schwarzenegger--the inhuman. But just because I like this idea of Rosenberg's doesn't mean it's true.) And then Andrew Sullivan thought this idea was worth linking to.

But it's not. And here's why:

(1) Liss doesn't really provide any evidence demonstrating that there was this shift from the everyman magician (everymage?) to the elite born magician.

He mentions Faust, which I'll give him: anyone can pact with the Devil and become a magician or witch. He also could have mentioned the magical scientists/mathematicians, like Pythagoras or Paracelsus--anyone can be an alchemist or magical-scientist, since all you need in those cases is to be smart enough to understand the formula/read Enochian/run the numbers. And let's add Shakespeare's Prospero as a significant figure of the "being a magician is a choice" school of thought. (After all, Prospero could quit being a wizard because being a wizard wasn't an intrinsic part of him.)

(Actually, "read Enochian" is an interesting example, since Enochian was the work of two people--the everyman John Dee and the special medium Edward Kelley. Gosh, it's hard to come up with examples to support Liss.)

Against those examples, we have Merlin, often a half-demon; Tolkien's inhuman wizards; Leiber's inhuman Ningauble of the Seven Eyes and Sheelba of the Eyeless Face; Ursula K. Le Guin's Ged (born of a smith, but born special); and pretty much every other case of a chosen hero having a special destiny--and most of those are clearly before Bewitched

(Sidenote hypothesis: It's no surprise that the everyman using magic often occurs in horror--c.f., any Lovecraftean story--whereas the innate magician often appears in more epic genres, like fantasy.)

So, before I could give Liss this point, I'd really like to see more examples proving the switch from everymage to elite mage.

(2) Further, Liss's argument slips between the idea of inherited power and innate power--both of which may be undemocratic and elitist, but which aren't the same sort of undemocratic elitism.

That is, if anyone can be a magician, you've got a wide degree of social mobility: for example, the village smith can become a wizard if only he finds the right book or makes the right pact or etc.--this is the scenario that Liss wants (everymage). This is the radically democratic model.

But if magical power is inherited, you have no social mobility at all: in that case, only wizards can become wizards (tautology intended)--and this is the scenario that Liss fears is dominant today (the elite mage). This is the radically undemocratic elitist model.

But if power is innate--but not inherited--then you've got a wide degree of generational social mobility: the smith can't become a wizard, but his son can become a wizard. (Cf. Ged in Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea.)

The perfect example of this is the most popular contemporary wizarding world, Harry Potter: one's parental magic ability is not an absolute predictor of your magical ability. Magical parents have unmagical children and vice versa; for example, Hermione Granger may face social stigma for her unmagical family, but she could still be the most powerful wizard in the world.

That model is undemocratic and elitist--but not radically so (which is kind of the scenario that Liss paints).

(3) Liss ends his post with this impassioned and rather touching comment:
From Aladdin to the Golden Ass to Faust, in the past we told stories about people who acquire the ability to do magic--and sometimes benefit and sometimes suffer. That could be us. Now we tell ourselves stories about magical people who struggle to deal with their special gifts. Those people are not us...
And yet, we used to tell stories about Greek gods and demi-gods and mythic heroes--figures who were innately what they were, who were categorically different from us. We could all aspire to be heroic, but we didn't need to identify ourselves completely with these figures to do so. It seems crazy to claim that we used to tell stories only about people we could identify with. This is a touching comment, and I think Liss might not be totally wrong (see my above comment on the transition from everyman Reagan to inhuman Schwarzenegger as political model).

But the brush he paints with is too broad. This is a bubble that practically pops itself.

So, Liss's essay is thought-provoking, but doesn't work since (1) it lacks evidence of the shift he posits; (2) slips between two forms of elite notions that aren't the same; and (3) misrepresents our narrative legacy of caring about--identifying with--characters who are different from us.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Is Colbert good for liberals?

Behind this question about Colbert and liberalism, there's a larger question here about the role of comedy in politics, but I'm going to ignore that larger question for now.

(And by "ignore," I mean I'm going to say just this: Daily Show-co-creator Lizz Winstead says (to Alyssa Rosenberg at ThinkProgress) that one of the difficulties of conservative humor is that it's harder to defend the status quo with humor. That doesn't seem right to me; I agree more with Martha Nussbaum when she pointed out that parody can be used for progressive ends (parodying gender norms) or for conservative ends (parodying the flaunting of gender norms). Not all subversive parodies are progressive.

(I might want to say that, even though it's easy to imagine conservative humor existing, there isn't a lot of it around now; but the truth is, it's probably just not very funny to me. Like pictures of Obama as an African witch doctor--that shit probably kills in certain circles.)

Now that I've ignored that bigger question, let's get to the particular question: is Colbert good for liberals?

Some friends and family recently told me that they feel bad for Colbert's liberal guests, since the guests can't keep up with him; and since Colbert is such a magnetic personality, the audience might end up liking him and his conservative/ironic worldview. In other words: the sincere liberals look like saps and the "conservative" ironist looks affable and calm. (Unless Jane Fonda is crawling into his lap. More of this, please!)

Satire and parody are notoriously difficult to read; and Colbert is a great example of that, since he was the object of that study that showed that liberals see him as satirical and conservatives see him as sincere. And part of that problem is that today's conservatives seem largely to exist in a realm of self-parody--it's not always easy to tell The Onion from The New York Times when the subject is conservatives.

But however much fun Colbert is to watch, I think his character remains distant from the audience for several reasons, not limited to his stupidity and venality. (His shilling for Prescott Pharmaceuticals is in the same register as his shilling for Republican policies.) Even more important, Colbert remains distant precisely because of his irony, which is not too hard to recognize most of the time.

(And if you don’t believe that, you could watch his regular show and his show from Iraq and notice the difference; Colbert breaks character sometimes to laugh at the jokes in his regular show, but he breaks character all the time in Iraq when he’s talking about something he sincerely cares about.)

So, yes, Colbert sometimes steam-rolls his guests, and if he’s talking to liberal guests, it can seem as if his steam-rolling is bad for liberalism. But I don’t think that’s the case, because in those situations, the joke is usually on Colbert; for instance, when Colbert asks a guest, “Bush: great president or the greatest president?,” we don’t laugh at the guest, who can’t answer, but at Colbert, who has such a limited view of the world and is clearly cheating to maintain that worldview.

So I don’t think he’s bad for American liberalism. We like watching Colbert, but no one wants to be him. Unless Jane Fonda is crawling into his lap.

Friday, August 19, 2011

If you can't answer the question, don't run away--stuff your mouth

A short post: If you're confronted by a question that you can't (or don't want to) answer, I think it's better to stuff your face, a la Rick Perry--who couldn't answer why he thought Social Security was unconstitutional because he was chewing a popover--rather than to leave the interview, a la Christine O'Donnell--who didn't want to discuss her views on homosexuality with Piers Morgan.

Perhaps Twix will use Perry in their "Need a moment?" ad campaign. Or maybe his handlers will learn to stuff his mouth before he says dumb things. I hope they don't--it's nice to have the reminder that he's thinking dumb things.