Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Break Announcement

If anyone bothers to check this blog for the next week or so, there won't be anything new, as the holidays fill me with too much cheer to be truly angry at everything. I'll be back with fresh vitriol on January 2 or thereabouts. Meanwhile, in honor of the season and the city I grew up in, here's a video from Harvey Danger (they did "Flagpole Sitta," but also some other songs).
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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Why Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Sucks

Christmas is here, the most capitalist of all our holidays, and with it comes a host of Christmas carols that often seem designed solely to drive shopping mall employees insane. These carols are part of our collective cultural DNA—somehow all of us, even the non-Christians, have the lyrics to “Frosty the Snowman” clogging up a corner of our brains. We hardly ever stop to analyze these carols, or even think about them for more than a second. Whether the carol is a thinly veiled warning to the followers of a vengeful and angry God (“Santa Claus is Coming to Town”), a litany of pagan nature-love (“O Christmas Tree”), or an incomprehensible story-song that no one knows the words to (“Good King Wenceslas”), Christmas carols are nothing more than background to our frenzied last-minute shopping trips.

One song that is a little more than background is “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” Written by an advertising executive in 1939 to appeal to children (seriously), it became so popular that it spawned several ubiquitous TV specials and a feature-length film. The song itself if the heartwarming story of a reindeer who learns that we are all special and can be helpful in different ways.

Ha ha! No, the song is actually about abusing those who stand out in any way until they become useful to the capitalist enterprise, then praising them and hoping they'll forget that you taunted them. Rudolph is only accepted by the other reindeer once he guides Santa's sleigh, and only then—if the “foggy Christmas eve” never happened, Rudolph would still be mistreated and no one would give a sack of coal. Luckily for him, his deformity turned out to be one that Santa could make use of.

It's an ugly story, and one that gets repeated over and over again outside of the North Pole. Just like Rudolph, the typical artist is usually abused and cast out by society, only to be praised by that same public once his art has become famous. From Van Gogh to Edgar Allen Poe to Kurt Cobain, the song remains the same: nobody likes you until everybody does (sometimes this process doesn't happen until you're already dead). Then, when everybody likes you, your suffering and years of ostracism are explained away. “Oh, sure we called you names, but that was because we didn't know how important you be!” say the public, or the other reindeer. “Now, how much for that painting? I just love your work!”

The ugliness of this cliched tale is that the artist (Rudolph) is expected to be fine with everyone who used to torture him. At the end of the song, when Rudolph is surrounded by his admirers—former enemies—how does he feel? Angry at them for being utterly two-faced? Is he secretly plotting his revenge against the worst of them? Or is he afraid that some day they won't like his nose anymore and he'll be cast out again?

One thing's for sure—unless Rudolph is a naive, gibbering idiot, he won't accept their shouts of glee at face value. He's saved Christmas, sure, but how long are these reindeer going to remember that for? Or someone else will save Christmas, and they'll tell that savior he'll go down in history too, abandoning Rudolph. But that sequel is not recorded in the song—maybe next Christmas will be foggy too, and Rudolph will remain in the limelight. Merry Christmas Rudolph. Remember: as long as you're useful, everyone will love you.
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Monday, December 21, 2009

Why the Tea Party Movement Sucks, Expanded version

Last week I talked about the chance of the Tea Party movement sabotaging itself like the 60s radicals did back in the good old days, when the protestors were young, liberal, and fuckable. That might be true—it's hard to imagine that nominating Sarah Palin, for example, would be a step in the right direction for right-wingers—but I don't think I explained the reasons I find the Tea Partiers so personally distasteful, so I'm revisiting the topic.

Now, I'm not one of those liberals that gets irrationally angry at the mere mention of conservative policies, or brands any critique of Obama as “racist.” Libertarianism appeals to me for many of the same reasons Anarchism does, and we certainly need criticism from both ends of the political spectrum to keep everyone busy and to test our convictions and arguments. To push for fiscal responsibility, to ask whether this country should continue borrowing money to finance a war and expand the social safety net—those aren't nutty propositions.

But the Teabaggers (as the left-wing blogs have dubbed them) are nutty, just like any mass organized protest group is nutty. If they weren't on the fringe of political opinion, they wouldn't feel need to protest to make their opinions heard. Some of them dress in crazy outfits, wave openly apocalyptic banners, and make vague threats of violence, like, “Sure, you can take my gun—take the bullets first.” (That's from the comment boards on Redstate.)

The 60s protestors were nutty too. But they were utopian nuts. They wanted to build a perfect society, founded on their principles of peace, democracy, and fucking each other pretty much all the time. They had hope for the future, and even though their ideas were a little off-kilter—taking a bunch of drugs, plotting terrorist bombings—their ideals were intact.

Teabaggers don't aspire towards utopia. Instead, their rhetoric is focused on denying dystopia, which is an altogether more depressing proposition. They believe that we are in a slow spiral towards a Stalinist state in which the individual will have no rights, and they care less about building something than they do making sure the “Socialist” society never gets built.

As a cause, this fucking sucks. Their passion is not progress, not the advancement of man or peace, but a sort of conspiracy-theory-driven anti-tax movement. “Don't take my money!” is their rallying cry—what's more empty and materialistic than that? Are they saying that a small change in the marginal tax rate denies them their rights? Or that earning a thousand dollars more a year would make them happy? Will defeating a bill to grant a subsidy to uninsured people make the world a better place? In a perfect universe where Tea Partiers could have all the tea they wanted, what would they do?

Maybe they would abolish the federal government, or the entire government, in which case I would say, “Go get 'em, guys!” But that sounds a lot like Anarchism, and I have the feeling that the Teabaggers want to keep the police and the military relatively intact. Their ideal world would probably be a bit like Galt's Gulch in Atlas Shrugged, where the free market has magically done away with poverty, only with Christian morality somehow mixed in there. That does not sound like a fun place to spend time.

It may sound a little trivial to criticize a protest movement for not being “fun” enough, but when you look back on the real accomplishments of the late 60s, you have to admit the best thing to come out of those radical, weird days was the music, the clothes, and the art—the fun stuff. I doubt the Teabaggers will achieve the political goals on their agenda (which is basically just stopping Obama's agenda), and unlike those 60s radicals, they won't have made much of a mark in the cultural fields either. Or at least I hope they don't. After all, this is the kind of painting they like, and this is the kind of protest song they like. “Fortunate Son” it ain't:
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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Why the Tea Party Movement Sucks

Once upon a time, a large number of people were unhappy with the direction the country was going in. They felt alienated, underrepresented by their government, and abused by those in power. Now, a whole lot of people feel that way pretty much all the time and don't do anything about it and just head off to their shift at Taco Bell, but these people I'm talking about could afford to take some time and let everyone know how they felt about The Issues. They expressed how they felt by wearing bizarre outfits, waving handmade signs that were sometimes clever, sometimes purposely offensive, and occasionally occupying buildings and refusing to leave. This, surprisingly, did not result in great social change. By the time the protestors organized themselves into a fully viable political movement, most of the country was sick of them and their presidential candidate got destroyed in the general election, despite a whole lot of hoopla about a “new era of politics.”

I'm talking, of course, about the 60s. American politics were moving to the right back then, with the rise of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and their teams of media manipulators, many of whom are still on the political scene, or working behind it. (Karl Rove and Roger Ailes both got their start working for Nixon.) The protestors—the Yippies, the SDS, the Weathermen, the Black Panthers—did not get what they were fighting for. Racial inequality, capitalism, and corporate greed went on unabated, as did the Vietnam War. The demonstrators succeeded mainly in getting laid and breaking the Democratic Party into tiny pieces from 1968-72, which of course led to a series of depressing (if you were a leftist) defeats. You can make the case that the extremism on display actually hurt the protestors' cause.

Discussion question: is the same scenario developing, but on the right side of the aisle?

Like the 60s radicals, the “Tea Party” protestors are dissatisfied with both political parties, although they lean more towards one side than the other. Tea Partiers' officially stated claims (lowering taxes and defeating the health care bill) are less important than vague feelings of anger towards the status quo, just as vague anti-capitalist anger and utopian ideals were more important to 60s radicals than the ending of the Vietnam War. Just like the protestor groups of old, the Tea Partiers are made up of several different groups, each with slightly different aims, and just as in the 60s, these groups squabble amongst themselves over arguments that make no sense to outsiders. Just like the Black Panthers threatened violence, so do some Tea Partiers threaten violence. And as that Congressional election in upstate New York last month shows, the Tea Partiers are just as willing to spit in the Republicans' eye as the Yippies were willing to spit in the Democrats'.

Right now, the Tea Party movement is popular. Democratic incumbents are going to lose some elections next year. But it's normal for midterm elections to go somewhat badly for the party that just got put into power. And right now, the Tea Party is hip and new, so people like it, just like everyone liked Tamagotchis when I was in fifth grade. The elections are a long ways away, especially the 2012 contests, and whoever emerges as the Tea Party's favorite candidate (Sarah Palin, maybe, or this guy) might be too extreme for a majority of the country, just like George McGovern was too extreme back in 1972.

The Tea Party movement sucks for three wholly separate reasons: firstly, it makes liberals froth at the mouth and become completely incoherent (like in this column) much as I imagine conservatives lost their minds over hippies. Secondly, from a conservative point of view, they might end up becoming extremists and refusing to accept useful compromises, thus losing elections for the party they're closest two. Finally, they don't use drugs, get laid, or create interesting music—they're like hippies without the fun. Blech.

(Most of the history in this post is stolen from Nixonland, a book that, in a just world, would be more widely read than Atlas Shrugged.) .
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Monday, December 14, 2009

Why Unemployment Sucks

Most people have a fairly easy decision to make when they wake up each morning: Should I go to work or stay in bed? You want to stay in bed, even if your job is Delicious Candy Taster or Famous Television Personality, because every job has a number of uncomfortable, often painful downsides—that is why you get money for working. Yet, with herculean efforts, we all get out of bed and stagger into the shower and even put on a giant rat suit, if our job is Mascot, because that is what it means to be a full and functioning member of Society. Also, we have bills and sometimes baby mommas to pay so: we go to work.

Unless, of course, we have no work to go to. Then our decisions upon waking up are more numerous, and more fraught. What time is it? What should I do today? Should I look for work? Should I masturbate? I should really look for work today, shouldn't I? How do I do that? Should I masturbate again? If I don't look for work, what should I do? What's on Hulu? How long can I stay inside my apartment before it becomes weird that I haven't left yet? Can I justify buying more weed, even though I don't have a job? MST3K is on Hulu now? What's my dealer's number?

Without a job, our days are completely free and the daily planner applications on our cellphones are useless. You should be refreshing Craigslist every hour, scanning job sites every day for leads, and roaming the streets with your bundle of resumes tucked under your arm. Maybe you do that for a couple of days, or a week, but if you are out of work much longer it becomes harder to convince yourself to look for work. Here's where the problems start.

You start growing a beard, even if you are a woman. You start riding the bus, not to go anywhere, just to have something to do. You never see the friends you have, because they're always at work or doing things that require money. You wear the same clothes for days, because what difference does it make? You start to believe the universe will provide a path for you. It doesn't. You contemplate joining the Navy or the Marines, or hitchhiking around the country. You tell yourself you need to take charge of your life and stare at the wall for several hours. You walk past a guy who is probably selling crack and think, I wonder what that's like, and mean both selling and smoking crack. You chicken out and go home, wondering how long you can go without paying rent. Your unemployment benefits start running out and you start watching homeless people very closely. How do they get by? Could you do that? Are you attractive enough to be a successful prostitute? Do you have to be attractive to be a prostitute?

People with jobs seem mysterious after too much unemployment. You watch them from your seat on the bus. Where are they going? Do they like having jobs? What's a job like? How did they get one? You follow some of them off the bus until they go into a building. This is getting weird, you think. You walk into a fancy restaurant and order thirty dollars of food for yourself, which you can't afford. You fantasize about having sex with the hostess, then you fantasize about being a hostess at a restaurant like this. Then you would meet new people and you could pay rent again! But all of the restaurant jobs in this town require experience. How does one start a career as a restaurant employee, if no one will hire you without experience?

Jesus, you think, what a horrible society we live in, in which all of our value and connection to society is based around what we do for a living! How can we live this way, with our lives so caught up in our relationship to the perverse and cruel capitalist economy? You read some Communist literature online, but it's pretty dense and you give up. You read that unemployment is 10 percent, does that mean 10 percent of people in this country are having the same problems you are? Jesus. What a fucked-up situation. Fucking banks. Fucking mortgages or whatever. You hope someone will give you health insurance soon, because if you get hit by a car right now, your life is pretty much over. That's a pretty grim thought. You check Craigslist again.

(Image stolen from Unemploymentality.)
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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Why "Just Wars" Suck

So everyone's favorite and least favorite sitting President accepted the Nobel Peace Prize yesterday, in the middle of escalating a war. Can you say awk-waaaard? (That should be delivered in a falsetto, if you actually say it.) Forget the Obama had to deliver a speech accepting an award "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples" only a week after announcing that he plans to send 30,000 more men with guns in order to kill some people. So he fell back on that old politician's friend, the idea of the “just war.”

As Obama noted in his speech, war has been around a long, long time and is not going anywhere any time soon, for a variety of reasons. Now, the people who advocate for wars are hardly ever the people who go to fight in them, because, duh, fighting in wars causes you to kill people, die, get maimed, acquire irreversible psychic damage—it's a no-win scenario for the participants. So the warmongers have to convince the would-be soldiers that it's a good idea to go and kill and die and so on, which is no easy task. God has been frequently invoked in the preparations for war (“It will please Him greatly if we take that hill!”), and money may also be brought into the mix (“Okay, how about a hundred bucks if you fire a gun in that direction?”). But holy wars are becoming less and less common, and not all that many people are willing to die just for the sake of a check, so more abstract reasoning for war had to be invented: “We aren't fighting for God, we're fighting to defend Democracy/Our Country/World Peace And Stability!”

Obama's ingredients for a “just war” are these:
“If it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the forced used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.”
Well, that sounds fine, right? Right?

One obvious problem is that wars are always said to be in self-defense or in last resort. Even Osama bin Laden's fatwah against America was couched in the logic of self-defense in his manifesto. We invaded Iraq because we had to stop them from attacking us, and Afghanistan because militants in their country already attacked us. And the rationale for the Vietnam war was that if Vietnam fell to communism, a whole lot of countries would fall to communism and the reds would be on our doorstep. Who's to say with any certainty what is and isn't self-defense?

And “proportional force” is vague too. What would be proportional for the 9/11 attacks? Or Pearl Harbor, for that matter? Did the Holocaust justify the Dresden bombings? Did Japan's brutality in China and Korea justify dropping the bomb on Hiroshima? And most importantly, does that mean that if one side uses atomic weapons, one side could use them too, in the name of “proportional force?”

Then again, atomic weapons would kill civilians, and Obama's unequivocally against that. Um, “whenever possible,” which sounds an awful lot like the generals' promise to avoid civilian casualties in Vietnam, and we know how that turned out.

Obama's speech was nuanced, but it wasn't new. Every leader of every country always desires peace, yet somehow there are always reasons peace is impossible. And Obama's plea for countries to unite against rogue states sounds somewhat familiar too: “Sanctions must exact a real price. Intransigence must be met with increased pressure -- and such pressure exists only when the world stands together as one.” That sentiment isn't far from Henry Kissinger's “A sense of responsibility and accommodation must guide the behavior of all nations.” I don't want to compare Obama to a war criminal, I'm just saying Afghanistan is starting to sound like same song, second verse. (Maybe there's a reason that among all the wars Obama mentioned in the speech, Vietnam never comes up.)

Obama is right when he says that some wars are unavoidable. When confronted with totalitarianism and religious fanaticism, what else are we supposed to do but fight back? But the war in Afghanistan that Obama is now responsible for isn't as simple as World War Two, or even the Spanish Civil War. We aren't fighting a dictatorship, we're trying to build a country, something that I don't believe has ever been successfully done. The president of this fledgling country stole the election and pledged to fight corruption, which would be fine if it weren't little bit like Lil' Wayne telling kids not to do drugs. Then there's the small problem that the Taliban pays it's fighters more than we pay our Afghan fighters. And there's the difficult, mountainous terrain, Al Qaeda's fighters across the border in Pakistan, the opium trade that won't go away...when you look around for comparable war, Vietnam is the only one that comes to mind. I may not know a lot about foreign policy, but I know that this situation sucks. The problem is that instead of being a just war, Afghanistan is rapidly turning into just a war.

Obama's Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech (WSJ)

(Image at top stolen from an article in the Korea Times)
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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Things That Don't Suck: The Flaming Lips

After downloading and listening to the Flaming Lips' latest album, Embryonic, I have decided that the Flaming Lips are crazy. Not crazy in the usual drugged-up-boozed-out-rock-band way, or the Syd Barrett/Brian Wilson “No, I mean actually diagnosed as insane” way. The Flaming Lips are crazy because unlike nearly every other popular recording group, they don't seem to care whether anyone likes them.

Clarification: a lot of people do like them a lot. In fact, Embryonic debuted at number eight on the Billboard Top 100, so they did sell a lot of records, but on the other hand: holy shit, this album does not sound like something that should be on the same list with Taylor Swift, Jay-Z, and Barbara Streisand, who were all in the Top 10 with the Flaming Lips that week. Weird synthesizer buzzes and clicks obscure drum-and-bass grooves, parts of the album sound like they were recorded by and for machines, and there's that extended two-note guitar solo during “Powerless” that's practically an anti-guitar solo. This is not a radio-friendly or fan-friendly album. It is, however, friendly enough to people uncool enough to still be taking psychedelic drugs in this day and age. Coincidentally (or not), Wayne Coyne's lyrics sound like the kind of insights one has when coming down from an 18-hour acid trip: “I wish I could go back/back in time/but no one ever really can/go back in time.” What? Whoa, man, whoa. We're traveling in time, but, only in one direction.

Embryonic isn't my favorite Lips album, and parts of it are hard to listen to, but I appreciate that a modern rock band is willing to make my ears hurt. The Lips could have recorded versions of their 1999 mostly-undisputed masterpiece The Soft Bulletin over and over again, but like time, man, they're constantly moving forward.

Most bands try to find a sound that fits them and mostly stick to it with small amounts of tweaking over the years. This is true even in the case of “experimental” bands: was Sonic Youth's last album a different from the one that preceded it? And as awesome as Radiohead's In Rainbows was, wasn't it a lot like OK Computer, which they recorded last decade? Some of these bands seem to be performing the same experiment over and over again, and getting the same results. Whether you like or dislike or feel completely neutral towards the Lips, you have to admit that they're at least willing to try new things, even if those things alienate their audience or are utterly incomprehensible. (See: Zaireeka.)

And it should be mentioned, finally, that these guys are getting old. They've been making music since the mid-80s and they've hit that age where most artists are content to play their hits in exchange for sexual relationships with inappropriately young groupies. Thankfully, the Lips never had any hits, except for that song about jelly and not using it. I suppose when you aren't successful doing something one way, it doesn't hurt to try it another way—then again, the Lips don't seem like they could stay in one place musically or artistically for very long no matter how rich they get. As their kandy-kolored tangerine-flake streamlined live show indicates, they're fully willing to do almost anything—drop confetti from the ceiling, prance around in animal costumes, roll around the audience in a giant plastic ball—just for the hell of it, or to see if people will dig it. “What the hell, why not?” seems to be their motto a lot of the time, and that's not such a bad motto for any artist in any medium.

Further reading: this cool profile on Wayne Coyne.
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Friday, December 4, 2009

Why Sportswriting Sucks

In my last post, I attacked sports columnist Rick Reilly pretty aggressively, basically implying that he had wasted his writing career accumulating a portfolio of schmaltzy sob stories about parentless little league pitchers and goalies with one arm who overcome the odds. That's a little harsh, in hindsight. For one thing, the guy has also written three (no doubt mediocre) novels. And after reading his Wikipedia page, I found out he encouraged people to donate money to a charity that fights malaria in Africa. He might generally suck, but he's not evil or anything. More importantly, he doesn't suck any more or less than the current crop of mainstream sportswriters.

Some highlights of sportswriting history: in the beginning, there was The Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, and local newspaper sports sections. That was pretty much it for print sports media. You could also watch some games on television--but not many, because cable didn't exist—and listen to games on the radio. Suffice to say, information oversaturation was not a problem. Then in 1979, ESPN debuted, and slowly grew into a four-channel monstrosity. The NFL became overwhelmingly popular thanks to TV. Athletes starting earning very, very large amounts of money and becoming celebrities separated from their fans by cameras. Talk radio let people yell at each other and for unclear reasons became incredibly popular. Then: the Internet! Fan websites developed where local constituencies could grouse about their lazy, overpaid players and incompetent front offices. Bill James introduced statistical analysis to baseball and it spread to other sports thanks to a small army of tech-savvy, number-loving geeks. Somewhere along the line, we lost interest in horse racing and boxing, formerly the most literary sports. ESPN began televising press conferences and athletes began Twittering complaints that used to be told to sportswriters. The steroid scandal made everyone angry and self-righteous and the media focus on athletes became more intense, to the point where the only difference between ESPN and TMZ is that they follow different people around (for an example of this, see Woods, Tiger).

What's the end result of this exponential expansion of sports media since the 70s? I would argue it has made the average fan more sophisticated.I would argue it has made the average fan more sophisticated. We can now watch every minute of every game our team plays, whereas before we could only listen to them on the radio. We have access not just to the local sports columnists' views but to a gigantic universe of opinion from fans, old-media types gone digital, and number-crunching Jamesians. We pay attention to how much our teams are paying the players and criticize their contracts. We have invented entirely new statistics, like Football Outsiders' DVOA. When an announcer tells us what happened on a football play, some of us know better than he does. When a writer gushes about a baseball player's “grit” or “leadership” we can snap back, on a fan site's messageboard, “What about his .306 OBP?!”

But what about the newspaper sports columnist? After all, he's still writing for the general public, not the fanatic fans or the stat geeks. So despite all this upheaval in the industry, the sportswriter's job hasn't changed a whole lot. Watch the game from the press box, go get a couple standard-issue quotes from the players and coaches (“We gave it our all, but at the end, we came up a little short. We can't think about this game, we have to move on to the next one”), type up your story. Repeat for years. If you get a column: praise charity work, grit, players that come from rough homes or poverty; denounce bad coaching decisions, drugs, the flaunting of wealth, “me-first attitudes.”

The problem with this system is that reading the articles that get produced this way is like watching Olympic Diving—the same exact thing happens over and over. It's not a coincidence that my three favorite sports books (Ball Four, Moneyball, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) weren't written by sportswriters, nor is it all that strange that Bill Simmons, the most popular sportswriter on the planet, dodged this system entirely and came out a more interesting writer because of it. The sportswriting sausage factory produces the same kind of article again and again. It's not a terrible article, but we don't need so much of it. (This not-exactly-spectacularly-interesting profile of Saints receiver Marques Colston is a fair example.) If we want to find out what happened in a given game, there's the play-by-play of every game available on the internet. People who write about sports in that traditional, cliche-ridden, analysis-free style so popular on ESPN and in newspapers are becoming the appendixes of media: once probably useful, now vestigial, and should probably be removed by medical professionals for everyone's safety.

Which brings us to Mr. Reilly, who started writing about sports in 1981, for a newspaper, before the media landscape changed. In comparison to some of the articles published during his tenure at Sports Illustrated, he's actually pretty good. He finds interesting, off-the-beaten track stories, and usually avoids rehashing the topic of the week like so many of his contemporaries. (Really? Steroids and cheating are bad? Who would have known without our country's Sports Columnists?) He seems to genuinely believe in the old cliches about sportsmanship, and there are worse things to believe in.

On the other hand, those cliches have a way of winding up in his columns, and he reduces every story to good guy versus bad guy. If you are an actual sports fan hoping to read something that sheds light on an aspect of the game, he will disappoint you every time. Distressingly, his website has a quote from Publisher's Weekly praising him as “One of the funniest humans on the planet,” which can only mean that his website comes from a dimension where very few humans remain on Earth, and one of them is Rick Reilly. And that column of his I linked to on Wednesday is simply an inexcusable, naive piece of garbage from someone who does nothing but sit around and watch Field of Dreams all day.

But this is supposed to be an apology of sorts to the guy. So, Rick, it's not you. It's not me, either. It's just that your industry and the boring style it spawned is dying. Thank God.
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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

An Open Letter to Rick Reilly about why Sports Suck

Hi Rick,

How are you doing? I worry about you sometimes. You've made it your personal and professional mission to write columns about “human interest” sports stories, stories meant to warm our hearts. Like last week's story of a father and son separated due to some bad luck who find each other thanks to Facebook. Uh, and the son is a defensive end at some small university, so I guess that counts as a “sports” story. Or your fawning profile of Texas quarterback Daniel “Colt” “Pistola” McCoy, who is under a lot of media scrutiny but is also, surprise, an ordinary guy who likes to fire guns at trees when not watching DVDs on his laptops. Or your even more fawning profile of the Williams sisters, tennis players, of whom you say: “Their achievements rank with any set of sisters in American history” Or how about that story about Little League, where you criticize a over-litigious mother while practically getting an erection over a kid who broke his arm but found a way to participate in Little League anyway (you really, really like Little League, don't you Rick?).

Anyway, I worry about you because nearly every single one of your columns is an attempt to justify sports as character-building, or noble, or pure, and the reason is obvious: if sports were just a diversion that helps distract us from our soul-sucking day-to-day existences and helps advertisers reach out to the coveted 18-to-34-year-old-white-male-with-disposable-income demographic, if that's all sports was, your devotion to them would be pathetic. So you sift through all the commercial garbage that surrounds sports and seek out the good, the honorable, the cuddly—no matter how banal or maudlin or tangentially connected with sports it is.

That kind of pathology can't be healthy for you, Rick. You're in constant denial, working so hard not only to produce your column but to keep the words “it's just a game” out of your head. And finally, in your last column for, your pathology spilled out onto the page and revealed probably more than you wanted it to.

You start out with the story of your journalism professor telling your that you were “better than sports.” Then you explain to us why you “will never be better than sports,” mostly using the lazy writer's friend, the rhetorical question. For fun, I've decided to answer some of them for you:

“Sports fans can be buried in a coffin that is painted in their favorite team's colors and logo. Anybody buried in a Chicago Symphony Orchestra coffin lately?”
No, that would be insane, just like getting buried in a Green Bay Packers coffin. Instead, people donate millions of dollars to the Chicago Symphony because they love it so much.

[after an anecdote in which football players conspire to let their autistic teammate score a touchdown] “Ever see that on Wall Street?”
Well, I imagine some financial companies do hire people with Asperger Syndrome because those people tend to be good with numbers and complex math problems. There's a
Danish software company (Google doc) that hire only people with Autism, which seems more useful and less condescending than “giving” a kid a touchdown.

“College football teams fill 100,000-seat stadiums. Seen the history department do that?”
And Hitler drew bigger crowds than that. Your point?

“If sportswriters are so trivial, why did Frank Sinatra want to be one?”
Maybe because he was drunk all the time.

Speaking as a Sonics fan, whose team got moved to Oklahoma city because the NBA thought it could make more money there, sports is not some magical realm more virtuous than the cold, cynical real world. What about those NFL players who have brain damage as a result of entertaining us? What about my Sonics, or the Hartford Whalers, or the old Cleveland Browns, who were moved from their cities by selfish men for selfish reasons? What about the culture of drugs and booze that permeated professional sports for decades? What about the culture of steroids that permeates them today?

If you want to hold sports up as an example of the good inside us, I can hold it up as an example of everything that's wrong with us. For every kid who found meaning and purpose in putting a ball through a hoop, there's another kid who was humiliated and felt like shit just because he couldn't hit a baseball.

Sports is a vessel. For a lot of people, especially men who aren't encouraged to share their emotions, it's a way to express themselves. We can be sentimental about sports (I know you can) because it occupies a masculine place in society. No one will call you a pussy for crying over the World Series. And some people fill their lives with sports, just like people fill their lives with math, or literature, or music, or politics. It doesn't make sports magic, Rick.

Oh, and I doubt your journalism professor was attacking sports when she told you you were “too good for sports.” She probably meant you were too good for sports journalism. Because while journalists have uncovered corruption, called attention to the plight of the unfortunate, and told the public what it didn't want to know but needed to know, sports journalists don't do any of that. They cover a game for a living and try to get quotes from millionaire athletes who hate their guts, which is pretty depressing. Your professor wanted you to put your talents to work for a cause that really mattered. Oh well, looks like it's too late for that now, doesn't it? Have fun writing about the kid with one leg who's playing in the Little League World Series.

Rick Reilly: Why Do I Love Writing About Sports? This Column Should Answer That Question [ESPN]
(Shout out to
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Monday, November 30, 2009

This Baby should Be Allowed to Smoke Weed and have an Abortion: Sucky Thoughts on Sucky Laws

I hope everyone had a restful Thanksgiving eating unnaturally large factory farmed turkeys and barely tolerating our racist relatives. The holiday season is now officially here, and many people around the country will be putting aside differences, gathering together with their families, and letting Christmas spirit and heavily spiked egg nog wash their troubles away.

But that's not happening on this blog. Now, let's talk about abortion.

Abortion is in the news again, thanks to the unholy mess that is the health care debate. Right before the health care bill passed the House, an amendment was added on to it that would effectively block federal funding from paying for abortions in the unlikely event that a health care bill gets passed. (It could have further-reaching effects on abortion availability, as explained here.) Pro-choicers are angry about this, but pro-lifers, understandably don't want their tax dollars to go towards killing babies. (Then again, I don't like my money going towards killing Iraqi civilians, but what are you going to do?) The Hyde Amendment already limits the use of federal funding on abortions, so the Stupak Amendment to the House bill is not unprecedented—still, it gives people a chance to yell at each other about abortions, which is at least a change from yelling at each other about Socialism.

Yelling is really the only way we can debate abortion because it really is impossible for us to discuss this rationally. If you believe that unborn fetuses are people, abortion is child-killing and must end—and if you believe that unborn fetuses are people, nothing is going to change your mind. On the other hand, nothing short of a religious conversion is going to turn a pro-choicer into a pro-lifer. Many Liberals think that if people were properly educated about the health care bill and the benefits of state-run health care in countries like the United Kingdom, they'd accept the Public Option as the best possible solution to the health care “crisis.” That's not an option in the case of abortion, unless God comes down from His mountain and tells everyone that fetuses aren't people until the second trimester.

But let's dodge the question of whether abortion is murder for a second. What do pro-life groups want? Presumably, they want no more abortions to be performed. Some of them don't even want anyone to use birth control, because every sperm is sacred. But people are going to have abortions even if they're illegal, just like teens are going to continue to drink and my first-floor neighbor is going to continue selling weed.

Maybe making abortions illegal will restrict access to them and reduce abortions in number, but it's already tough to get an abortion in this country, as this excellent post points out. No one, not even loose New York City Liberals, gets an abortion just for the hell of it. Pro-choicers sometimes argue so strenuously in favor of the “right” to get abortions, it sounds like they are in favor of abortions, when in reality nobody is in favor of abortions. Some women, though, for a variety of reasons, will occasionally want an abortion more than they want a child, which is to say they desperately don't want a child. And most of them are so desperate, they won't care whether an abortion is legal, or whether it's going to cost them most or all of their life savings. Even assuming that abortion is murder, you have to know that people are going to have them, no matter their legal status.

What criminalizing abortion would really accomplish is that it would signal our society's deep disapproval of abortion, just as we disapprove of murder, or bigamy, or smoking a joint. But can't we disapprove of something without making it illegal? We don't approve of heavy drinking as a nation, but we allow it, because we tried outlawing it, and guess what? People still got shitfaced, criminals took over alcohol distribution and got rich off of it, and prohibition turned out to be such an obviously bad idea that even Americans realized it. The same thing will happen with the war on drugs, for the same reasons—I hope.

Assume the Stupak amendment is really a step down the road towards making abortion illegal, or so scarce only a few centers around the country have appropriate facilities. That won't be the end of abortions, it will just the beginning of a lot of “off the grid” abortions, as women will have to resort to coat hangers, unlicensed doctors, or simply drinking so much that they miscarry. And that would really suck.

Anyway, happy holidays everyone! Remember to use a condom.
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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Why Thanksgiving Sucks

Everyone's second-favorite explicitly secular national holiday (after Halloween) is here, and with it comes a smorgasbord of traditions. We get together with our families, eat turkey and potatoes, watch NFL football, parade down the streets of New York, and participate in an orgy of bargain shopping the next day. At one point, Peanuts characters got mixed in somehow, and since 1989, the President has ceremonially pardoned a turkey.

All of that stuff is fine, and getting together with our families once a year reminds some of us why we moved away in the first place, which is great, but it's frustratingly unfocused. Why are we doing all of this stuff? What deep social urge is satisfied by watching a giant inflatable Spider Man float through Manhattan while pouring gravy on a large cooked bird? The harvest festivals of old were meant to thank God (or the Gods) for a bountiful harvest, and while thanking Jesus or Mohammed for making it rain is obviously not something we're going to do, there's no reason we can't spice our traditions up a bit and make them a little more integrated. Here are some suggestions:

-Quit the sissy symbolic “pardoning” of a lone turkey. Instead of publicly not killing a bird, which is boring, why can't the president slaughter the animal on live television as a formal beginning to the holiday season? He could do it right before the Lions game. Imagine Barack Obama making a speech about the importance of family and sacrifice to American and then slitting a turkey's neck and getting his hands covered in blood while a crowd cheers. You're telling me people wouldn't watch that?

-Similarly, worshipping the icons of consumer culture by turning them into giant balloons and parading them through our largest city isn't going far enough. The Thanksgiving Day Parade needs be a non-stop celebration of our material riches. A balloon shaped like a TV would allow the announcers to wax poetically on the great benefits that TV has given us, and they could tell us about the great deals Best Buy offers on Sony flat screens sets. Charlie Brown and Snoopy could be wearing Old Navy sweatshits. The marching bands could play non-stop ad jingles. It's not like the parade makes any pretensions at being non-commercial, right? Let's go all the way with this.

-Marijuana and gay marriage need to be legalized. This doesn't have anything to do with Thanksgiving, but it would be nice.

-Finally, I'd like to see Thanksgiving become a little more public-spirited. As of now, we're forced to spend the whole day with our families. There is no caroling, no trick-or-treating, no watching a light-covered ball drop from a high place while a crowd chants numbers. We need to bring the giving of thanks into the public sphere to make a truly memorable holiday. How about massive eating competitions held in parks? Or what about not enforcing public drunkeness laws for a day so everyone's drunk relatives can lurch around the streets together? Thanksgiving traditions are founded on a pack of lies anyway, so there's no reason we can't change them. If we can't think of anything else, let's gather around and watch Obama slay the Presidential Turkey and sing the traditional Thanksgiving song, “Thank you for the X-Box, Microsoft!” Doesn't that sound nice?
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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Why the Seahawks Suck

So my Seattle Football Seahawks lost yesterday. Again. Badly. They let Brett Favre, the oldest starting quarterback in the league, throw the ball to whoever he wanted to. They gained four yards rushing, which is pretty hard to do. They were beaten in nearly every way you can be beaten and still legitimately call yourself a football team. Once again, I find myself rooting for a team doomed to fail again and again over the course of a season—I imagine this is how Republicans felt last November.

The pain of rooting for a loser is something that non-sports fans (and Yankee fans) rarely experience, or understand. It's not that they keep losing. Losing can be endearing, like in the movie The Mighty Ducks or when a cat can't figure out how to get out of a cage. We can relate to failure, most of us. Our teams work hard, they try their best, but they hardly ever win, because they aren't fast enough or talented enough or they simply can't catch a break. Losing is painful, but it makes the victories sweeter. When our once-mocked team wins, they've triumphed over an indifferent and cruel universe that stood in their way—just as we, the toiling, unsuccessful fans, hope to do one day.

The problem with seeing my beloved Seattle sports franchises this way is, it's not true.

The Mariners, Seahawks, and Sonics (before they finally left the city like a girlfriend fed up with the stink of failure) are unlucky, sure, but they were/are also incompetent, and not just on the field. The Mariners didn't draft Washington native and future two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum because he was short. The Sonics drafted Mouhamed Sene, an African who could barely play basketball, because he was really tall. And as I was reminded by this interview transcript with former coach Mike Holmgren, many of the Seahawks' current problems stem from letting All-Universe Guard Steve Hutchinson leave.

Hutchinson's job, for the non-sports fans still with us, is to push very big men out of the way so slightly smaller men could move the football into the end zone. He was good at this, so good that the Seahawks were considering “franchinsing” him, or paying him a lot of money and not letting him leave. They did not do this, partly because, as Holmgren said, “a left tackle is worth like a quarterback, you pay him whatever you have to pay him, but a guard, you can get a guard.” This turned out not to be true, as the Seahawks haven't found a replacement for him yet and as a result, the very big men are not pushed out of the way—that's why we only had 4 yards rushing yesterday.

So we lost Hutchinson to the Minnesota Vikings because of a contract that made it impossible for Seattle to match Minnesota's offer. That was bad, but then we signed the Vikings' Nate Burleson to a similarly structured contract that the Vikings couldn't match, basically out of spite. Now, Burleson is a receiver. At the time, we didn't need a receiver. We still have too many receivers and not enough linemen, and what Holmgren said about being able to get a guard for cheap is actually true for non-premium wide receivers like Burleson. So the Seahawks failed to keep a good player when they could have, and then overpaid a mediocre player to get back at the team who outsmarted them.

That team who took Hutchinson, by the way, was the team that just beat us 35-10. The Vikings are on their way to a playoff bye and a chance to listen to The Who, while the Seahawks are on their way to spending the next few years spending time with their families when the good teams are playing for the Super Bowl.

That's bad, but the worst part is the Seahawks, like the Lions and the Rams and the Bills and especially the Browns, are bad because they are a poorly run football franchise. Rooting for them is like rooting for your unemployed friend who huffs glue in the parking lot behind the 7-11 and lives with his parents. You hope he gets it together, but you're pretty sure all of his problems are his own fault. Unlike teams that are “lovable losers,” it's hard to identify with the Seahawks. No one wants to admit that failure is their own fault, and we don't want to admit that our sports teams lose because of fundamental managerial incompetence. Unfortunately, my sports teams do. Good luck in the draft guys. You'll need it.
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Friday, November 20, 2009

Why Michael Jordan Sucks

Bless me, oh Sports Fans, for I have sinned. Just last week, I had a negative thought about Michael Jordan.

The blasphemous thought happened while I was reading this article on Yahoo—apparently, LeBron James, the Best Basketball Person of this era, wants the NBA to retire the uniform number 23, a number he shares with Michael Jordan, who is the Best Basketball Person of all time. For those of you who aren't sports enthusiasts, retiring a number leaguewide is the highest honor a player can achieve—the only athlete to have gotten such treatment that I can think of off the top of my head is Jackie Robinson who, y'know, was the first black baseball player back when the country really cared about baseball. LeBron's reasoning for giving Jordan the same respect as a man who received death threats for integrating a sport? From the article:

"Jordan did a lot for the game, more than just on the court," James said. "He was bigger than the game, but always stayed inside the game, if you understand what I mean. He set it up for a lot of guys like myself. His influence to the game is way more than what he did on the court."

Jordan did have a lot of off-the-court influence. His numbers and championship rings aside, the guy was the NBA for years. Every kid shooting hoops in a driveway would mutter, in the tones of an announcer, “Two seconds left...Jordan going for the's good!” No one, except for maybe a few backwards Utah natives, told themselves they were Karl Malone. When Spacejam showed Jordan playing against aliens for the future of the planet, no one batted an eye. Duh, of course MJ would play the aliens for Earth. Who else would you pick?

But Jordan's immense media presence wasn't something that came from him, or was the direct result of his efforts. He was the best player in the league for years, sure, and probably the best of all time, but he was also the best-marketed player in the history of the game. The NBA and Nike needed a charismatic, superhuman star to sell their sport and their shoes, respectively, so it was in their best interests to create one. Along comes The Bald One, a kid from North Carolina with talent and killer instinct oozing out of his pores, and voila! The biggest selling of an individual to the public outside of a presidential election was born.

MJ is capitalism incarnate. He represents the American dream that if you just do one thing fantastically well, you will be rewarded with wealth and fame. By the time he was 30, the guy was less a athlete and more of a brand. In person, Jordan's competitiveness could turn nasty and petty, but on a billboard or a commercial, he was MJ, and as far beyond human concerns as Zeus.

LeBron, like me, grew up in a time when Jordan had long since ceased to be mortal. , which might explain the bizarre sentiment that Jordan “set it up” for him. Everyone knew LeBron was going to be an NBA superstar by the time the guy was 15. What exactly did MJ do to help LeBron along that path? Jordan didn't shake the foundations of a league like Jackie Robinson did, and he didn't alter the way the game is played like Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain did. If Jordan had come along twenty years earlier, before Nike and before Commissioner David Stern's shrewd marketing instincts, he would have been just another great player.

And here we come to my sin—I just used “Jordan” and “just another player” in the same sentence. Sure, he was the best player in a sport and the subject of the best advertising campaign in history, but the most he did for the game of basketball—as opposed to the NBA—is show that sports stars can become really, really rich and famous if they play your cards right. He's spent most of his retirement gambling, endorsing Hanes underwear, and running the Charlotte Bobcats into the ground.

One thing LeBron said in the above quote is right on the money: the man's influence wasn't about what he did on the court. Even as some sportswriters praise Jordan for winning a lot, treating each game as if it mattered, and wearing a suit to press conferences, his real accomplishments were in the world of advertising, and in that world he was more like ball going into the net than the player shooting it. The titles Jordan won were nice, the all-time scoring record is gravy, but the meat of his accomplishments in the capitalist arena he was playing in was the money he made for everyone, including himself.

So best of luck following in Jordan's footsteps, Lebron. Not on the court, where you are already the best player on the planet, but in the much larger court of selling yourself to people and making more money than God. Some advice: don't make brown-nosing comments about your idol. After all, MJ would never do something like that. As his Hall of Fame Speech showed, he's a nasty son of a bitch:
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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Why Tipping Sucks

Tonight, all over the western world, hundreds of thousands of diners in thousands of restaurants will be faced with the most difficult question of their day: how much should we pay for this meal?

Paying for a meal in a restaurant is far more complicated than a purchasing decision like, say, buying a car. With a car you may have to figure out the “APR financing” or whatnot (I clearly don't drive), but in the end you and the salesman figure out how much money you need to exchange for the car. When the waiter puts the check on your table, on the other hand, you have to figure out how much you should pay by asking yourself a series of quesitons that touch on mathematics, altruism, and the very fabric of our existence as social animals.

Was the service good? Was it unexpectedly good? Was the food satisfactory? If everything was good, how much should we tip? Fifteen percent? Twenty percent? Do you calculate that before or after adding the tax? If the service was not good, how much should we tip? Will we come back to this restaurant? Did my wife see me staring at the waittress's cleavage and if so, will she get mad at me if I tip too much? Was our water refilled enough? If I only want to leave thrity-nine dollars, can I ask for change for two twenties, or will the staff think I'm cheap? Do I care what the staff thinks? Does the waittress wear shirts like that just for tips? If she does, should I reward such behavior?

But why do we go through this process? Having to tip makes people stressed out. Couples have arguments over whether they should have tipped more or less. Waiters and waitresses end up resentful of diners' power over them, and get undertipped often enough that they don't like the tipping system either. Cooks, busboys, and other back-of-house staff sometimes don't get tips distributed to them, or individual waitresses will pocket tips instead of splitting them with the rest of the staff—meaning that a good deal of the time, everyone is unhappy that tipping is a part of our culture.

The easy solution would be to pay wait staffs more and work the increased salaries into the menu prices. That way, paying for a meal would be as simple as paying for sneakers, marijuana, or furniture. The only downside to this is waiters and waitresses wouldn't leave work with a bunch of wrinkled cash in their pockets—then again, since they're probably just going to go out and get drunk with that money, is that really a downside? Maybe our young food workers would be more fiscally responsible if we bumped up their paychecks and didn't give them spare change.

The current byzantine estimation process of service and food quality known as “tipping” is the opposite of a “magic eye” puzzle—the more you look at it, the less sense it makes. Waiters suffer when they give good service and they get stiffed; they don't know how much they're going to get paid for their service in advance, which is a pretty demeaning position. Customers suffer from having to deal with questions over who, how much, and whether to tip. Like war and segregation, tipping is a system that harms everyone who comes into contact with it. Normally I consider it outside of this blog's misison to suggest solutions, but here I feel obliged: please, United States Congressmen, take a break from debating health care to make tipping illegal and force restaurants to pay their workers a fair wage. Compared to the other stuff you're dealing with, it'll be easy. Thanks in advance.
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Friday, November 13, 2009

It's Official: The Who Suck Now

Writing this blog gives me a lot of time to contemplate not only the multitudes of things that suck, but also the nature of suckiness itself. Many things suck, but they do not suck equally, or even in the same ways. Some things, like machine guns and Battlefield Earth, sucked from the moment of their conception onward. Others begin their existences suck-free and decline over time, like American democracy or Michael Jackson. Much of the time, transitions into suckitude occur so gradually the naked eye cannot observe them. It's only a few times every year we are priviledged enough to witness the transformation of a once respected, even revered, person or institution into a sorry, senile, sucktastic mess. It's a beautiful moment, or at least it's the exact opposite of a beautiful moment.

I'm referring, of course, to the sorta-announcement that The Who (or at least the last two geriatric members of The Who) will be playing the halftime show at the Super Bowl this year.

The Super Bowl halftime show is an inexplicable, unliked tradition that nevertheless serves a vital function: it lets us know when a band has turned the last corner of their careers and become officially irrelevent. The Super Bowl is the most mainstream, most popularly accepted television event in existence, and any band they invite to play on a stage surrounded by fans with glowsticks will be almost universally liked—of course, if something is universally liked, that's the signal that it should be taken out and shot.

The Who used to be an awesome band. They made a huge amount of noise, broke equipment, lit things on fire, did drugs, and got people pissed off. They hoped they died before they got old (two out of four ain't bad, I guess). They were definitely not the kind of band you wanted to bring out before Middle America, if you were looking for an uncontroversial, “safe” choice.

Now? Well, now they're two old men playing rock music that has been approved for consumption by the advertisers of the United States of America. Nothing will be set on fire unless the fireworks malfunction.

For bands, the Super Bowl halftime show is like the Tonight Show, only exactly the opposite. You play the Tonight Show when you've released your first hit single, when the mainstream is just getting used to you or getting introduced to your first major album. You play the Tonight Show around the time hipsters accuse you of “selling out.” By the time you get to that bizarre stage in the middle of a football field witht the horrible acoustics, no one is accusing you of “selling out” because everyone already knows that you've sold out, if only in the sense that you've made a shitton of money and won't be coming out with any more interesting music. The only career anyone can have after putting on a short set bookended by a overhyped football contest that is now basically an interruption between commercials is a zombie career, the kind of career the Stones have now. You tour, you play your motheaten hits, you may even release albums to keep up the illusion you're still a vibrant musical force, but you are no longer cool. In fact, you kind of suck after a Super Bowl.

Everyone knows this, which is why a lot of people are shocked when the Super Bowl books an act that they actually enjoy, like Springsteen a couple of years ago. Springsteen fans were excited to see him on that big stage, but some of them also got a worried feeling in their guts—Bruce's best work is behind him, isn't it?

Yes it is, and The Who's best work is even farther behind them. At least their halftime performance (if the Internet rumors are right about this) won't take away their old stuff, which definitely did not suck. Here's a clip from back when The Who were still dangerous in a very literal way that few rock bands ever are:

The Who to Perform at Super Bowl (Sports Illustrated)
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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Why the Health Care Debate Sucks Harder

If you are one of those poor souls who actually follows the news, you'll have noticed that the Affordable Health Care for America Act, or H.R. 3962 for short, just got passed in the House of Representative 220-215. This is a pretty exciting result, the legislative equivalent to watching the Chargers beat the Giants 21-20 last Sunday. Actually, Saturday night's vote shares a lot in common with Sunday afternoon's game. They're both only one of a long, long series of contests, and just as the Chargers' win doesn't mean they win the AFC West, the House vote doesn't mean that I can now go visit a government-paid doctor about the throbbing pain in my left eye. The House Bill is guaranteed to die in the Senate, as the few moderate Democrats who have the country's nuts in their hands refuse to let anything that has a whiff of abortion or the public option get passed.

The health care “debate” is also like a football game in that the fans of one side stay the fans of their side. No Giants fans became Chargers supporters after Sunday, and neither group would be willing to cheer for a “non-partisan” third option like the Bengals. As with gay marriage, abortion, and Sarah Palin, the lines for the battle over health insurance have been made and there's no crossing them.

This political climate provides us with hours and hours of entertaining televison, as people can yell at each other for hours on end, or wave signs about the holocaust in front of government buildings to their hearts' content. Unfortunately, it also means that there's no reason to talk about what's actually in the bill.

Let's say you're a Congressman. For the sake of arguement, we'll assume that miraculously, you've actually read the 1,900-page behemoth that is H.R. 3962. You may have some nuanced views about the health insurance debate. The problem is your constituents, the people who elected you and have the power to not elect you a year from now, don't have nuanced views. Some of them think that the bill is “socialism,” some think it's not socialist enough, some of them are confused and think it will mean the end of Medicare, some people are against anything the government does, some of them are convinced that the public option is the best thing since sandwiches, some people are uninsured and just really need a doctor to look at their left eye, which is now looking really red and puffy. These people aren't interested in the complex ins-and-outs of any bill—that's what they have you in office for, they figure. They also want you to vote exactly the way that they, the uniformed voters, would vote in your position.

So unless you're a Representative from an extremely Democratic or extremely Republican district, you, Mr. Congressman, are scared shitless of any health care bill coming to a vote. You'll have to make a decision that a guaranteed 40 percent of your voters are going to hate you for, and all that's on your mind, if you care about reelection, is not making a vote that more than 50 percent of your voters will hate you for. At this point, does it matter what's in the “reform” bill? Or are people's perceptions of the bill more important than the reality?

(Hint: it's the second one.)

Here's the way the debate is going to play out for the next few weeks: abortion, abortion abortion! Filibuster? Rising costs, abortion, pre-existing conditions, costs, costs, abortion! Homosexuals? Socialism! Socialism! Abortion!

Then, sometime in the distant future, a bill looking even more ragged than the bill in that Schoolhouse Rock video above will become a law, and some people who didn't have insurance before will have it. If my eye is still hurting, I'll get it looked at. Some other people's taxes will go up. America's medical costs will stay about the same. And the endless war for the politcal soul of America will move on to the next battle. Whoop-de-doo.
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Monday, November 9, 2009

Why The New York Times Real Estate Section Sucks

The economy has taken a turn for the worse lately, as you may have noticed. The New York Times Real Estate section certainly noticed, and they've written a heart-wrenching piece on the decline of the fortunes of an oft-ignored minority who was hit especially hard by the recession. No, not blacks—young, wealthy bachelors who can no longer afford lavish Manhattan apartments thanks to the rising unemployment rate.

Or so the article implies by mentioning that 7.7 percent of young men are unemployed in New York. It goes on to describe specific examples of young men who, while not actually unemployed, have been forced to adjust their lifestyles in horrifically inconvenient ways.

For instance, there's former MTV reality-show host Jason Brooks, who “paid $5,000 a month for a 2,000-square-foot TriBeCa loft that he shared with his wife..Now, says Mr. Brooks, whose stage name is Brooks Buford, he pays $1,600 a month for a tiny studio in SoHo.”

When I read that passage, my heart went out to this fine citizen, who lives off of royalties from his recording career. It sounds like a divorce, rather than the economy, forced him to change his lifestyle, and he may pay more than three times the rent I do, but still—SoHo! Blech! I bet his building doesn't even have a doorman! Is that any way to treat the former star of something called Trailer Fabulous?

At least he didn't have to move to Bushwick, like poor Joe Tandle. As the Times relates, Joe was so hammered by the economic downturn, he decided to buy an apartment instead of renting one. He paid half a million dollars for a 1,900-square-foot pad that he can't even afford to fill with leather couches. He made a brave face for the article, saying he didn't really want rich “hipster friends or whatever” and mentioned that “sometimes you want to have a ridiculous 150 people and a world-class D.J. in your basement,” but you could read between the lines. The man was crying inside.

How can a Manhattan bachelor date a successful model or actress in these conditions? How will they have enough self-confidence to seduce beautiful women from Finland when they are only paying $1,000 a month in rent? The best they can hope for now, these poor huddled masses, is going home with a moderately attractive bassist from a punk band.

America needs its Manhattanite bachelors to be living impossibly lavish lifestyles. Remember the 80s, when Reagan was in charge and bond traders could have bathmats made from hundred dollar bills? Or the late 90s, when technogeeks could sip brands of alcohol so expensive that normal people had never heard of them? Those were the glory days of our nation. Now we're mired in an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, our nation is torn apart by the prospect of health care paid for by the government, and bachelors in Manhattan are forced to cram themselves two at a time into ten-room apartments that they were previously able to afford by themselves. That's only five rooms apiece!

Look at that picture at the top of the post. Does that young, attractive, gainfully employed white man in a scarf look happy? Yes? Well, he's not as happy as he could be! Truly, his demographic has been “one of the hardest hit” by the recession, as the newspaper says.

Articles like this are why people respect the New York Times even in this age—they aren't afraid to run articles about a tiny segment of the population and describe “trends” that exist only in their newsroom. If they tell you a few people moving to less expensive apartments is news, it's news, motherfucker! You wonder sometimes, “Isn't the Times Real Estate section pretty much lifestyle porn for anyone who isn't extremely rich? And don't the people who can relate to articles like this one get the Wall Street Journal anyway?”

No, of course not. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to go look for a job. And while I struggle to pay rent the next couple months, I'll have one thing to console me—at least I'm not a wealthy bachelor.

The Decline and Fall of the Bachelor Pad (NYT)
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Friday, November 6, 2009

Why Election Coverage Sucks, Vol. 1

The World Series ended this week, with the New York Yankees defeating the Philadelphia Phillies four games to two. The Yankees are officially the best baseball team in America. There is no way that the Phillies, or any other baseball team, can claim that they somehow won, or benefitted at all, from the World Series. That's the beautiful unambiguity of sports--when the game ends, it ends. A winner is declared, a loser is left to accept the fact of the loss, and we all go home.

Elections may sometimes be covered like horse races, but politics are not so wonderfully clear-cut. Several elections were held this week, and the three major ones--Governors' races in Virginia and New Jersey, a messy Congressional race in New York's 23rd District--have been analyzed again and again for meaning, for national significance. The worst offender is NY-23--after the Conservative Republican lost, this headline appeared on Politico: "Conservatives on NY-23: We Didn't Lose." Such behavior would shame even Phillies fans, but in the world of 24-hour news networks and political blogs, losers claiming they didn't lose is as common as videos of angry white people at rallies.

If you don't live in New Jersey, Virginia, or NY-23 (which has less than 700,000 residents), there was almost no reason to care about these races. But all those new outlets devoted to the coverage of politics have to pay attention to every election, and the only way to make local races compelling to people with no interest whatsoever in them was to turn the elections into microcosms of the nationwide elections 12 months away.

So the Governors' races became "referendums on Obama," who isn't up for election for three more years. The NY-23 race went from something that no one cared about to a "battle for the soul of the Republican party." This gave the blogs something to chew on, and allowed the cable news networks to provide 24 hours of programming a day without resorting to showing YouTube videos of adorable kittens napping.

Now, after the election, the importance of these isolated local races is being emphasized again. Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, the only black person in America to vote for John McCain, crowed over the "national implications" of the elections his party won. He ignored NY-23, where the candidate his party nominated ended up withdrawing from the race and endorsing the Democrat, who won the elections thanks to Republican blunders, and he ignored the fact that a diseased goat with mob ties could have beaten Jersey incumbent Chris Conzine, who oversaw a big increase in the state's deficit and unemployment rate.

Democrats, meanwhile, are fretting over the midterm elections. What lessons can be learned from the 2009 elections? Is the country coming out against Obama's policies? Should they de-emphasize health care? Is the country swinging back toward the right already? Were the "surge voters" who came out in support of Obama in 2008 a one-time phenomenon? How will Afghanistan affect all of this?

Baseball has ended, but fans can thankfully turn to football and basketball for their sports fix. I say "thankfully," because without these other sports, ESPN would have nothing to do but obsess over batting averages and off-season trades and contracts. The political news machine doesn't have another sport to move on to, so we can expect commentary and arguments over the relative relevance of NY-23 and the resounding GOP victory in Virginia for the rest of the year, before we head out on the campaign trail for the 2010 midterms, at which point the media will whip itself into an orgiastic frenzy of liveblogging and last-second polling, and then the midterms will be over, and we'll be treated to another round of, "What do these results really mean?"

Ahead of time, I'll hazard a guess as to what the 2010 elections will end up meaning: they'll mean more news, more analysis, and more people yelling at one another on television until 2012, when the whole beautiful cycle will start all over again. My only hope is that by 2012, the Yankees won't be in the playoffs.
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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Why Cultural Warriors Suck

There are only two kinds of Americans, and these two groups will probably never see eye-to-eye on anything. In fact, their views are so foreign to one another, they seem to be occupying parallel universes. I'm not talking about Liberals and Conservatives, or blacks and whites, or men and women, or Mac users and PC users, or New York City and the rest of the country. No, I'm referring to the difference between the Cultural Warriors and everyone else.

What do I mean by “Cultural Warriors?” Well, the “Culture Wars” are a series of unresolvable arguments about topics such as drugs, abortion, gay rights, public displays of religion, America being a “Christian Nation” or not, gun control, and whether George W. Bush or Barack Obama is closer in spirit to Adolf Hitler. These arguments are just as pointless as the “Yankees suck/Yankees rule” debate. No one is going to be convinced by the other side's arguments, and there's never going to be a defining event that proves the rightness of one position or the other. The Culture War is a lot like the War on Terrorism and the War on Drugs in that it isn't really a war, it makes some people very rich (in this case, political pundits), and it is never going to end.

Cultural Warriors are people who have volunteered to fight the Culture Wars for one side or the other. They stay on top of the issues, they read blogs voraciously, they comment on the blogs, they protest and counter-protest whenever they can, and they never waver in their convictions.

Cultural Warriors include people like Glen Beck and Michael Moore, the portly, constantly smirking Hector and Achilles of the Culture Wars. Rush Limbaugh and Jon Stewart are well-known recreational drug users and Cultural Warriors, although Stewart sometimes lightly rips the Democrats if there's a joke in it. Sarah Palin is Xena, Cultural Warrior Princess, and Ann Coulter is a male version of Xena. Wonkette and Redstate are two of the many Culture War fortresses on the Internet. And if you think the Culture Wars are a new phenomenon, remember that Ayn Rand and Father Coughlin could out-demagogue anyone on Fox News or MSNBC with one side of their mouths.

While the two sides disagree about nearly everything, they both rely on one core belief: there are no noncombatants in this war. That is, everything is a political statement for one side or the other. There is always something outraged about, and every new outrage is a skirmish that will determine the winner. A sculpture of the Ten Commandments outside a courthouse will force judges to rule by the law of the Bible; schoolchildren singing a song praising the President is a 1984-style indoctrination. If the other side's politicians are having an affair, they're hypocritical scumbags; if our guys get caught having an affair, they're victims of character assassination by the media and the other party. These arguments are not ever resolved because they can't be resolved. Instead, we go onto the next issue, which is always just a cable news cycle away.

Cultural Warriors, thanks to their numbers and their noise, can drive the public debate and make a whole lot of money if they get their own show, but they never make policy decisions. Partly, this is because they hardly ever hold office (Palin even resigned as governor to take part in the Wars), but mostly their suggestions are not adopted because they don't make suggestions. They aren't interested in the nitty-gritty details of laws and governance, unless those details can support a point they want to make. If a fact or report disagrees with their already-resolved opinions, the find a way to cast doubt on that fact or opinion, or they simply ignore it.

The problem with this hyper-politicized viewpoint is that it is incredibly limiting. Veteran Cultural Warriors are all bile and bias, so they assume that everything in the world is biased. This makes them unsuitable scientists, because scientists have to draw conclusions from facts, not facts from conclusions, and good scientists have to be able to recognize when a hypothesis has been proven incorrect. Cultural Warriors will never produce a worthwhile work of art, because their ideology prevents them from understanding art. Everything is considered from a political standpoint, so they lose sight of aesthetics and treat everything as a form of propaganda. Conservative Christians flocked to Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ not for its virtues as a film, but because Gibson is one of them and wants to further their message, much like dyed-in-the-wool Liberals enjoy Michael Moore's movies. This is the sort of art that a Cultural Warrior produces--political in the shallowest possible sense, guaranteed to be enjoyed or hated depending on the party affiliations of the viewer, and boring to look at.

Meanwhile, a whole lot of Americans go through life without considering the political ramifications of Christmas displays in public buildings or renting movies at Blockbuster. Some people are not bothered by the biases of Fox News and MSNBC because they never watch those channels. Mind-bogglingly, some people don't even think of politics as all that important. These people are easy to ignore because they don't blog, don't appear on television, and many of them don't even bother to vote. You can criticize this sort of attitude as being apathetic or unappreciative of the rights given to us by modern democracy--then again, given the state of political debate in this country, there's something to be said for ignoring it and hoping it goes away.

For an example of Cultural Warriors fighting over Whole Foods in the most ridiculous manner possible, watch this video:
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