Tuesday, October 27, 2009

An Open Letter to Mark Sanford About Why his Newsweek Column About Ayn Rand Sucked

Dear Mr. Sanford,

First of all, can I call you Mark? Is that what your friends call you? What's “Mark” in Spanish? (They speak Spanish in Argentina, right?) I'm just going to call you Mark because since we're both writers, it's like we're work buddies. Granted, all I have is this nearly anonymous blog where I attack Ayn Rand, and you publish your glowing remarks about Rand in Newsweek whenever you want, but that doesn't mean we can't still be friends. I've been making it my mission lately to deliver some constructive criticism to celebrity columnists—like African children cry out to Bono, poorly conceived essays cry out to me—and you could use a little bit of help, Mark.

First of all, you pussied out. When I saw that you had written about Atlas Shrugged, I said, “Hell yeah! This is where my pal Marky Mark whips out the big guns of Objectivism and says to the public, 'I had a passionate, extremely sexually satisfying relationship with a beautiful South American woman because I am a free, rational human being who is not beholden to anyone's happiness but my own, and I take and fuck whatever I want!'” That would be in line with Rand's principals, after all. But instead of standing up to the media parasites in the name of John Galt, you didn't even allude to your affair, despite the uncanny resemblance to some events in Rand's masterwork. Hank Rearden, as you remember, was trapped and manipulated by evil bureaucrats until he refused to be shamed by their oppressive moral system. Letting your wife blame gays for your passionate, rationalistic love affair was not exactly taking out a page from Rand's book.

But hey, I know you've got it tough. You're running for President in three years, and you'll have to run against Sarah Palin, which is like boing Mike Tyson in his prime—as aggressive as a pit bull with rabies, crazy like a three-legged fox, and fully capable of biting your ear off just to spite you. So you've got to start position yourself as the well-informed fiscal conservative, and praising Rand, along with you're attempt to refuse federal stimulus money, could be a step in the right direction. (I mean, it's not like you can run a morals-based campaign, right?)

So you need to watch what you say so it can't be turned back against you—that's fine. But say something, Mark. In the middle of the column, you throw this line out:
"When the economy took a nosedive a year ago—a series of events that arguably began when the government-sponsored corporations Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac went broke--many Americans, myself included, watched in disbelief as members of Congress placed blame on everyone and everything but government."

What's my problem with this? For one thing, you use the word “arguably,” which usually means, “I have no way to prove this, but I think...” For another, Fannie and Freddie were casualties of the mortgage crisis, which I won't get too far into, but the trading and overvaluation of securities backed by bad mortgages was really not Congress's fault. It's hard, even with hindsight, to find a way to blame this mess on overregulation.

But what really annoys me is that if you wanted to criticize government from Rand's perspective, it would have been pretty easy. Here's what you could have written: “The financial crisis was caused by incompetent men making bad choices because they assumed the government would bail them out. They begged the government for money based not upon their ability, but their need, and the government replied by rewarding their poor choices and giving them trillions of dollars. Failure should be rewarded by failure, not a feather bed of bureaucratic largesse. Executives—the true leaders of this country—shouldn't seek governmental aid, government should be seeking aid from the executives. And if we whine about executive compensation, it's only because we can't reach that level of success ourselves.”

That would have required criticizing specific, real-world examples and taking unpopular stances, which of course you don't want to do, as a savvy politician. If everyone decides, four years from now, that the bailout was a good thing, you don't want to expose yourself by attacking it now. And it would be a little hypocritical of you to denounce government aid when your state gets $1.38 in federal aid for every dollar it gives to the feds in taxes. Also, that might have caused people to remember that South Carolina recently failed to get some free money from the stimulus package that would have gone towards the 11.5 percent of your state that is unemployed. I mean, there's standing on your own as an Objectivist, and then there's just screwing up and not taking free money. (I forget, did you take responsibility for that snafu?)

I worry that for someone who just wrote an article on Rand, you don't remember all that much about her philosophy. You conclude that your only major disagreement with Rand, who you supposedly admire, is that humans are “fallen,” and therefore need “limited government” to “thwart man's more selfish instincts.” I mean, besides being frustratingly vague, this is practically the opposite of what Rand believed. She rejected the idea of original sin that you reference, and called selfishness a virtue. By praising Rand and then ignoring a good portion of her opinions, I wonder if you are insulting her a little bit more than I was when I called her lazy and mean. It's sort of like if you called yourself a follower of Jesus Christ--who was pretty clear while preaching compassion and nonviolence--and then going out and killing a bunch of people. But who would be that openly hypocritical? Certainly not you, M-Dog. Have fun in Argentina!

Atlas Hugged: Why Mark Sanford Likes Ayn Rand (Newsweek)
Read more!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Things That Don't Suck: Halloween

American schoolchildren are taught that the Pilgrims—those noble, buckle-hatted fathers of the country—fled England to seek “religious freedom.” This makes them sound like unfairly persecuted free-thinkers who were opposed to religious dogma. It's more accurate to say that after being persecuted by the dominant religion in England, they went across the ocean to establish their own, equally dogmatic religion and be the persecutors instead of the persecutees for once. After all, once they got to America the Pilgrims set about banishing anyone who didn't agree with them (including those who actually preached freedom of religion), and burned witches whenever it wasn't Sunday—that day being set aside exclusively for prayer. A good day for a pilgrim involved several hours of prayer, several more hours of back-breaking labor, a short break to taunt the sinner placed in the stocks at the center of town, more labor, more prayer, and finally falling asleep on a hard bed while admonishing oneself for sinfully sexual thoughts. These were not fun-loving people, and for the most part, neither are modern Americans.

As a country, we're like that painfully high-strung, hard-working student we all knew in high school—the girl whose every project was an extraordinarily serious undertaking, the tie-wearing Christian passing out pamphlets outside of school in order to save the souls of the world. Americans work endless hours at our jobs; we go out jogging and count calories so we can live forever; we play the lottery because hey, you never know when God will reward you; we create professional sports leagues and treat them as seriously as church; we treat church as seriously as work; we are shocked, shocked, every time a public figure cheats on his spouse; and we invade other countries so we can export all of these virtues. Just as the serious students are too busy building dioramas to go to the keggers, Americans' virtuous schedules don't leave much room for fun.

Even our holidays aren't fun. The big celebrations on our calendar are always celebrations in the service of a higher ideal. July 4th is all about patriotism, Easter is all about religion, Thanksgiving is about family, the Super Bowl is about football, and Christmas is about religion, charity, and materialism (not always in that order). Besides New Years, just about the last true, pure, Bacchanalian party we have left is Halloween.

In a culture that has a strong tradition of ancestor and spirit-worship, Halloween might be a sombre holiday. (The South American equivalent is a more serious deal.) In America, thankfully, we don't give a shit about the ancestors and have turned what might have been a somber day into a day to dress up and break the rules.

Both parts of that equation are important. Breaking the rules is obviously the main ingredient in having fun, and people of all ages get to break the rules imposed on them every October 31. Smaller children get to go to strangers' houses and eat more candy than is normally allowed, older children get to throw eggs at things, throw toilet paper at other things, and generally act like hoodlums (this is not officially sanctioned, which makes it more transgressive and exciting), and older people get to dress scandalously, drink large quantities, and hook up with one another. Dressing up allows us to hide behind our costumes, to say, “Hey, I may not normally act like this, but tonight I'm Spiderman/Michael Jackson/a Sexy Witch!” The Romans had Saturnalia as a festival where social norms were broken, Americans have Halloween.

And thank God we have Halloween! For one night, nothing really matters. We step outside of the normal state of things and manufacture a public spectacle. Everyone is parading up and down the street in bizarre clothing, everyone is drunk—some on candy, some on alcohol—strangers look like friends, friends look like strangers, everyone is wandering about excitedly behind their masks, and for once it's obvious we're wearing them. Were we to link this festival to some larger religious or political undertaking, the modern-day Pilgrims would be threatening to take it over—the same way they are constantly threatening to turn Christmas into an austere celebration of Jesus and July 4th into an austere celebration of the Revolutionary War. Halloween is nonsensical. We don't serve any higher principles by trick-or-treating or partying, and with those high principles fallen away, we can actually have some good old fashioned hedonistic fun.

The Pilgrims would have disapproved of every aspect of Halloween. But they would be awful, awful people to hang out with. You know who is fun to hang out with? Almost anyone you meet on Halloween. So this Saturday eat candy, egg houses, chug whiskey, and yell at the moon. Let's forget, for one night, that this country was founded by people who were so boring, even the English didn't like them.
Read more!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Why Canned Music Sucks

One of the oddest, least remarked-upon features of contemporary civilization is that we are almost always listening to music. In our cars, on the bus, in elevators, while we sit inside coffee shops, restaurants, and bars, while we shop for groceries, while we try on clothes in changing rooms, while we stand around at clubs waiting for the band to come on and play, even while we sit in front of our computers and read or write blog entries--we are listening to music. People make out to sexy music, fall asleep to soothing music, and get high to every kind of music imaginable. I would say that we are listening to music from birth until death, but this would leave out the practice of playing classical music to foster a child's development while it's still in the womb. This is an exclusively twentieth-century phenomenon. Before the advent of recorded music--when you had to track down a guitar player in order to listen to “Stairway To Heaven”--listening to musical instruments was a luxury. Now, it's practically a requirement. Thanks to the proliferation of music in public places, we've reached a brave new era of human history, where groups of people are routinely forced to listen to music that none of them have requested, and many of them don't enjoy.

Take Starbucks, for instance, where I used to work serving coffee and overpriced sandwiches. As any Starbucks-frequenter knows, there is always non-offensive, non-challenging, easily ignorable pop music being piped in through the store's sound system. This is mandated by company policy. Some executive decided that it would make people more comfortable if extremely bland songs were played all the time—at the very least, it would drown out the customers' objections that their skinny vanilla lattes didn't taste skinny enough—and now it is impossible to turn the music off. On a couple occasions, customers who were having business meetings or reading books asked the employees to turn the music off, but our hands were tied—if we had been able to smash the speakers that the schmaltzy cover of “Blackbird” was coming from, we would have.

The problem with canned music that you hear in Starbucks, or in your local diner or bookstore or supermarket, is that no one really hates it. It's all too middle-of-the-road to inspire any strong emotion whatsoever, that's the point of the song selections. No one is offended, everyone ignores it, and we hardly ever bother to ask who is enjoying it. If we did ask, the answer would most likely be “no one”--or if someone was actually enjoying the songs, it would be in a passive, kind of enjoyment. “Oh, this is okay, I guess,” is about the best thing anyone has ever said of a canned song.

We've created a soundtrack to our lives, in the worst possible sense. There's always something else going on, and we never devote our full attention to the notes. It's background, the sonic equivalent of wallpaper. We are training ourselves, essentially, to ignore music.

This is awful. Music should not be ignored, it shouldn't be ignorable. Music should grab you by the ear and force you to listen to it—music is art, after all, or at least it should be. But when it's pumped into every public space, music isn't art. It's just like silence, just a little noisier.

Silence would actually be a fairly radical alternative at this point. Imagine if your local bar or restaurant turned off the stereo. All you'd hear would be the clink of glasses, the sipping of drinks, the sound from suddenly-audible conversations. No one would have to yell across the table to be heard and the waiters wouldn't be shouting the specials over a Hold Steady song in the background. And if music came on after this period of silence, people might listen to it, instead of just hearing it.
Read more!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

An Open Letter to Bill Donohue About why his Column Sucked.

Dear Mr. Donohue,

I hope you don't feel I'm being too forward in writing this letter. I don't really know who you are, but I wrote a missive to Bono earlier this week, and that put me in a letter-writing mood I guess. And I couldn't help but notice your column in the Washington Post, under the “On Faith” heading. Is that where they ask people to write essays and automatically accept them “on faith” no matter how sloppy they are? Or what's the deal with that? Anyway, you said a lot of provocative things in your essay—you sure don't like gay people!--but your writing was a little sloppy, I thought. And I have this degree in Writing that isn't doing me any good, and nothing but time on my hands, so I thought I'd give you a few pointers in case you get asked to write another column:

1. Start off with a good hook. Your first sentence begins with the line, “There are many ways cultural nihilists are busy trying to sabotage America these days,” which is a little heavy and disorienting. Define your terms! Who are these cultural nihilists? Are they the gays? Are you talking about musical theater? (I don't like that stuff either.) A better way to start off would be pointing to a specific example of “cultural nihilism” and then use that example to get to the point of the essay. Speaking of which...

2. Have a clear reason for writing the essay, or a “thesis.” It sounds like your thesis is, “These people are really bad,” which is a little unfocused. You should limit yourself to a smaller topic so you can be more precise. Like the thesis of this essay is, “Bill Donohue made a lot of formal mistakes in his essay that are unrelated to the content.” This allows me to focus on particulars and not make vague generalities. Speaking of which...

3. Avoid vague generalities. You attack artists for mocking Christianity, saying, “From scatological artistic exhibitions to the latest obscene installation, the charlatans have succeeded in politicizing the arts.” But you should really bring up some examples. Are you talking about Piss Christ? That was made over 20 years ago. You might not be up on much contemporary art—you don't even live in New York City like I do—but if you are going to make sweeping statements, you might want to give us the impression that you know what you are talking about. And who are these outrageous people politicizing such a neutral field as “the arts?” Is it the gays again? Specific examples would help.

4. Oh, and you should write with transitions. See the two “speaking of which” lines I included at the end of the first two items on my list? Those are “transitions.” They allow the reader to move from idea to idea easily, and allow us to follow your reasoning. It's a basic technique that most Freshman Comp courses teach. (By the way, did you go to college? It sounds like you don't like education in this country very much! Is it because there are so many gays in the colleges?) Here you have a lot of paragraphs that are only connected by the idea that you don't like any of the people you are talking about. That may work for some comic writers like Jack Handy or Stephen Wright, but since you probably weren't trying to be funny, it doesn't really work.

5. Don't misrepresent facts. Whoops, there's no transition between the last two paragraphs, but this is a numbered list, so that's excusable. Anyway, you say some things in your essay that should have maybe been more carefully considered. I don't want to be all nitpicky, but you say “Catholics were once the mainstay of the Democratic Party; now the gay activists are in charge.” It turns out the 2004 Democratic Presidential nominee was Catholic and so is the Vice President, and the gays just protested in Washington, which is sort of the opposite of what you said. Oopsy! And you mention that Lee Bass's $20 million gift to Yale was returned because Yale hates “western civilization,” but the Yale student newspaper says it was because Bass wanted to hand-pick professors for the courses his money would have funded. (By the way, Yale's art school is really important in the art world. Are they the ones responsible for introducing politics into art?)

6. Conclude with a clear plan of action for the reader to follow. This is the traditional way to end a persuasive essay, and you sort of do this. Here's your last paragraph:

The culture war is up for grabs. The good news is that religious conservatives continue to breed like rabbits, while secular saboteurs have shut down: they're too busy walking their dogs, going to bathhouses and aborting their kids. Time, it seems, is on the side of the angels.

I'm a little confused by this, quite frankly. Do you not walk your dog? And while you have a clear message for conservatives (“Start fucking, right now”), I'm not sure what I should do, since I don't consider myself a religious conservative. I should not have kids? That seems extreme. Or are you saying that the world is a better place if I don't reproduce? That also seems really mean-spirited. Or, I know, maybe you mean that all the people you don't like are gay, and so can't have children in a biological sense, which would mean no more gays, right? Anyway, you don't need to worry about me reproducing just yet. I use condoms, which should make you, the head of the Catholic League, very happy.
Read more!

Monday, October 19, 2009

An Open Letter to Bono About Why his Editorial Might Have Sucked

Dear Bono,

I saw that you got an essay published in the New York Times Opinion Section. Good for you! Hundreds of people, thousands of them, submit manuscripts to that dead tree establishment, yet your essay somehow made it to the page, and a huge number of people got subjected to your opinions on "Rebranding America." They even ran your photo! The Times doesn't usually do that for guest columnists. I bet the lights at the photo shoot were pretty bright. Is that why you were wearing sunglasses?

I have to confess, after those 1435 words the Times gave you, I wasn't exactly sure what your point was. You started off talking about the Nobel Prize, then started talking about how foreign aid could stabilize those developing nations that have a tendency to hate America, then you got really patriotic and compared America to a singer. (you're a singer, so you're like America!) You are actually Irish, so I guess gushing about America doesn't count as "patriotic," exactly. Still, you must like America, since Americans bought a lot of your albums when you were still making music. I never bought any of your albums because I'm too young, but my mom did, I think.

Anyway, I reread your piece because although it rambled a little bit, it was in the Times so it must have been important. I figured out what you wanted to say, I think: you believe that Barack Obama deserved the Nobel Peace Prize because he makes other countries like America a lot more and this is good for the world. You made a few odd turns, like when you quoted Obama's speech to the UN in which in promised to fight poverty, then said those words meant something "if they signal action." If I was your editor, I'd probably ask you to cut that, since it isn't clear whether those words will signal action or not. Also, you said Obama "created jobs," which is open for debate. But I loved your self-deprecating tone, like when you said you couldn't speak for your entire band, which reminded us you were a famous singer, if we didn't get it from the sunglasses, your one-word byline, and the first sentence, where you mention you won a Golden Globe. (Was I supposed to remember the event you were talking about?)

By the way, do you think the Times published you just because you were famous? Would it bother you if they did? I know I would hate the idea that my work wasn't accepted on its own merits, but because of my celebrity in an unrelated field. I might even have asked the paper to not publish it under my stage name, so as to create some distance between my celebrity and my contributions to the political debate.

But who am I to offer advice to a person who is so famous his name isn't really a name? It must be hard being that famous. If you have a hobby, like painting or music or essay writing, no one will tell you that your paintings or songs or op-ed pieces are boring, which sucks. Maybe if Billy Bob Thornton's band had to suffer through obscurity before making it big, they would have developed an interesting sound or written songs that weren't outrageously bad. Maybe if the Times held your writing up to their normal standards of concision and clarity, you could have written a good 600-word piece instead of a meandering 1500-word one. I guess we'll never know.

You're not the only one who gets the celebrity treatment from publications. The New Yorker published a short story by Dave "Famous Writer" Eggers that amounted to a prose trailer for Where the Wild Things Are; Alec Baldwin has a regular column at the Huffington Post that gives him a platform for all of his unoriginal musings. Hey, maybe HuffPo would give you a blog if you asked! Or do you work for them already?

I really liked one point you made in your column--Americans do want to be loved by the world. We see ourselves as the "good guys," the shining light of the world, and we want everyone else to see us that way too. Just like a lot of celebrities don't want to be known for their good looks or pop songs or sunglasses, but their serious musings. But instead of actually becoming virtuous, America invades the countries that don't like us--and instead of actually developing startling, interesting views and writing extremely well, these celebrities trade on their fame and publications cynically publish celebrity work to boost circulation.

But hey, I don't want to be too critical. You do a lot of charity work, which is a good way to spend all of that money you have. And you should keep writing. Maybe someday the Times will publish you without sunglasses.
Read more!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Why the Lottery Sucks

It's generally assumed that most people value money and want to have as much of it as possible. They'll pick up a quarter or a dime off the sidewalk, they'll buy in bulk to save a few bucks, they won't throw their money into a hole for no reason. Yet, perplexingly, a great many of them play the lottery.

Statistically speaking, no one ever wins the lottery. As with any game where players bet against a "house," the players are all at a significant disadvantage. Casinos are not built to give people money; state lotteries are established because the state needs money and can get it through a rigged game of chance easier than it can through straightforward taxes. (When the mob had lotteries, it was called "numbers running" and was illegal.) And the lottery is definitely rigged against the players, make no mistake.

Let's take the multi-state Mega Millions lottery for example, which you can play for a dollar. Your chance of winning the jackpot is roughly 1 in 176 million. To win $250,000, your chances are 1 in 4 million. These are not good odds. You are literally more likely to be hit be lightning than win the lottery, by several orders of magnitude. It's much more likely that a meteor will hit Earth than it is that you will win the lottery. It's more likely that meaningful health care reform will be passed in our lifetime. It's more likely that a rich uncle you never knew you had will be killed by a simultaneous meteor/lightning strike and leave you his fortune. You are not going to win the lottery.

Yes, some people do hit the jackpot every now and then. This doesn't mean that it was a good idea for them to play. This somewhat bizarre line of reason comes from a concept in gambling theory called Estimated Value, or EV, which evaluates decisions based on the cumulative impact of making the same decision hundreds or thousands of times. Good decisions have "positive EV" and bad ones are said to have "negative EV."

For instance, driving to work at 5 miles above the speed limit a positive EV--you'll get to work faster with no serious risk to yourself or others. But driving 50 miles above the speed limit has a negative EV, even if doing it once got you to work even faster, because sooner or later you'll cause an accident or get pulled over. (Actually, considering the damage cars do to the environment, driving a car at all probably has negative EV, but that's another post.) Minting pennies, for the United States, has a negative EV. The important thing is that EV is evaluated independently of outcome. If you get drunk and have unprotected sex with a stranger and nothing bad comes of it, that doesn't mean you made good decisions that night. Similarly, just because you won the lottery, it doesn't mean it was a good idea, EV-wise, to play.

In George Orwell's 1984 the government lottery is a way to keep the lower classes distracted from the day-to-day misery that is their lives and to keep them dreaming of riches they could win. I don't think the Mega Millions is that consciously manipulative, but there's no denying it's played mainly by poorer people and does tend to market itself as a fantasy. ("Dare to Dream" was one recent slogan.) People don't calculate odds when they play the lottery--what they're really buying is the chance to believe that a heaven on Earth is theirs if they get really, really lucky. It's a religion without the inconvenience of a God who commands you to do things.

But that sounds like a fairly lousy religion to me. If you think of the lottery the way people want you to think of the lottery--as a dream, as the idea that blind luck will lift you out of your life and make you rich, which will make you happy--then you're going to lose money. If you think of the lottery in terms of the money you lose every year by playing, it seems less appetizing. Playing the Mega Millions every chance you get (twice a week) costs you about $100 dollars a year. For a hundred bucks, you could buy some books or movies and let them pull you out of your life for a little while. Or you could have a wildly extravagant dinner, or buy some really good weed and smoke it all at once. Or you could take that money, go to your nearest Indian casino, find a roulette wheel, and bet it all on a random number. That way, at least you'd be getting better odds.
Read more!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Painting Shows Us Why the Far Right Sucks

What can you say about an oil painting of Jesus Christ holding the Constitution out to a child in the middle of a pan-patriotic orgy?

You probably don't want to say anything, at first. As with any great work of art, you'll want to study it carefully for its many nuances--what could this painting possibly mean? Fortunately, the artist anticipated some confusion over such an abstract piece and put up a website explaining all the symbolism, something that Picasso or Dali never had the decency to do.

Understandably, this ultra-conservative master worked has been mocked by liberal blogs, who never shoot for difficult targets when there's a ridiculously easy one dangling in front of them. (Some Christians even hate it.) And sure, it's hilarious, even by the high standard of internet memes, but if it's real and not an amazingly well-executed parody, it's also a pretty good illustration of how unhinged the Religious Right's rhetoric has gotten.

Now, I don't hate Republicans (at least, not more than Democrats), and I have no problem with Libertarians unless they talk about how great Atlas Shrugged is. Heck, even Christians are alright in my book as long as they don't start speaking in tongues and prophesying when I'm in the room. But I can't stand people who use dishonest arguments and there are a few elements of this painting that point to the non-factual, discourse-polluting way Christian Conservatives treat the Constitution.

#1: The painting's title, "One Nation Under God."
Conservatives are fond of saying the nation was founded "under God," usually as a preamble to a rambling assault against public schools, the courts, or Keith Olbermann. The Founding Fathers were Christian, the argument goes, so the Constitution must have been Christian. This ignores the utter absence of the word "God" in the Constitution as well as the grounding of the Founders' philosophy in the Enlightenment and John Locke in particular--the Enlightenment, for those of you who don't remember, was the intellectual movement in Europe against faith and towards reason. Maybe the thing that makes me the maddest about this painting's website is the description of John Locke: “It is not important that he was not a Christian. God often uses good men to fulfill his purposes.”

No, it is important Locke was not a Christian, just like it's important that the words "Under God" weren't added to the Pledge of Allegiance until 1954. Christians claiming Payne and the Founding Fathers as their own is like me saying Thomas Aquinas was a Christian. I'm not claiming that Aquinas' Christianity "isn't important" because he was a great philosopher, and snidely saying, "Often, even Christians are reasoanble."

#2: Farmers, "Truly the backbone of America," versus the evil lawyers.
That thing about farmers is a direct quote from the painting's website, and it's the type of thing right-wing politicians have been saying for a long time now. Meanwhile, the painting's "lawyer" character is over by Satan, counting his hundred-dollar bills, which he probably plans to spend on sodomy and abortions. From the painting, you'd think that the Constitution came into being spontaneously as a gift from Jesus to the "patriotic" Americans like farmers and small business owners. Actually, the opposite is true: the Founding Fathers, all lionized in this painting, were almost all lawyers, which helped make the Constitution the finely-crafted document it is. Lawyers, not farmers, are the backbone of this country.

What were the farmers doing while the lawyers created one of the most important texts in world history? They were rebelling against the government in protest against taxes and the court, while claiming that they were acting in the spirit of the revolution. One of the reasons all the rich lawyers decided to radically change the government was the current government couldn't stop the farmers from rebelling. And if those Libertarian "tea party" folks went back in time, you can guarantee that they'd be on the side of the farmers, not the Constitution--after all the Constitution represented the greatest expansion of

#3: The idea that the Constitution was divinely inspired.
The best thing about the Constitution is that unlike the BIble, the Koran, or Bill O'Reilly's memoirs, it doesn't claim to be a holy document. The Founding Fathers were smart and Enlightenment-bred enough to know that they were fallible, and included a mechanism that would allow future generations to alter their laws. If we create intelligent robots, for instance, but don't want those robots to have the same rights as humans, we can add a bit to all of the Amendments that says "...except for robots." Or if we decide that Jesus wrote the Constitution, we can put a statement at the end of the whole thing that states, "Oh, by the way, we couldn't have written this without Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior."

But two-thirds of the states and both houses of Congress have not added that piece to the Constitution, so it wasn't handed down from God. Actually, the USA was one of the first countries to claim it wasn't founded by God, which is pretty awesome. I'm proud of my country that was founded by men. Retconning the story of America so it includes Jesus, ignoring Locke's (and other's) non-Christian beliefs, pretending that the Founding Fathers were not lawyers and politicians but some kind of angelic spirits and that the Constitution is an inviolable, holy document--that shit is not okay, and is counter-factual. If you want to believe in small government, fine. If you want to believe in Jesus, fine. Just don't pretend the two things have to do with one another in any way, and don't pretend that the Founding Fathers would automatically be on the side of your anti-federalist, anti-empiricist crusade. And please, for Christ's sake, leave the painting to the liberals.
Read more!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Why the (New) Simpsons Sucks

I'm part of a generation that literally grew up with The Simpsons. The longest-running, most successful and most influential sitcom of all time has lasted 21 seasons, and I'm 22, so while I have some memories that don't involve The Simpsons directly, I have no memory of a time when you couldn't turn on the TV nearly every night of the week and see America's favorite four-fingered yellow family. And as I've become larger and hairier with time, The Simpsons has changed as well: it's started to suck.

I know, I know: “The Simpsons used to be cool, now it's lame,” is a pretty well-worn cliche. There's even a backlash against the older-episodes-are-better viewpoint, as evidenced by this sarcastic comment on the messageboard for this review:
"...and all the episodes older than that are, by definition, better than any newer episode, even when they're actually worse. That's just the way it works. If you try to evaulate them by their actual content instead of their age, you're misenjoying the show."
Okay, so let's evaluate some episodes by their content and figure out how things have changed in Springfield. We'll look at the latest episode, “The Great Wife Hope” and the episode it most resembles from Simpsons history, season two's “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge.” (You can watch it at this site, if you don't have all the episodes memorized.)

Two Disclaimers are needed here: first, humor is subjective, everyone has their own tastes, blah blah blah. Second, comparing season two Simpsons to season 21 Simpsons is totally unfair, like comparing 1989 Michael Jordan to 2002 Jordan. One was young and hungry and angry, and the other was just taking some well-deserved victory laps. But that doesn't mean we should let the old gimp off the hook.

“Itchy & Scratchy & Marge,” a classic episode, starts when the kids are watching Itchy & Scratchy. Maggie emulates the gory cartoon by hitting Homer in the head with a mallet, so Marge decides something must be done: she protests Itchy & Scratchy. Thanks to some grassroots wacko-mom support, she forces the studio to make non-violent cartoons, which are so (hilariously) boring that the kids of Springfield turn off their TVs and go outside. Everything is wonderful until Michelangelo's “David,” exposed penis and all, comes to town on a tour and Marge's former wacko-mom allies protest the statue. Marge thinks David is a work of art and should be seen by everyone, and when she's asked how she can be for one form of expression and not another, she realizes the contradictions in her position and everything goes back to normal (cartoons are violent again).

“The Great Wife Hope” begins with a contemporary twist: all the men of Springfield are watching Mixed Martial Arts (topical!). Bart emulates MMA by fighting in the schoolyard, so Marge decides something must be done: she protests at the MMA arena. Then she decides to go into the arena to scold the MMA enthusiasts and gets challenged to a fight by the MMA league owner—if she beats him, he'll close his league. She trains hard but is going to lose anyway, thanks to owner-guy's underhanded tricks, when Bart jumps into the ring and the owner-guy prepares to punch him. Marge's maternal instinct kicks in and she kicks in the face of the owner-guy, who presumably has to close the arena now (that wasn't brought up again), so everything goes back to normal.

One episode isn't inherently “funnier” than the other, but the season two episode is definitely more complex. The meat of the episode—and most of the good jokes—come after Marge wins her crusade to make Itchy & Scratchy kid-safe and boring. There's pointed criticism of the cartoon-censorship people in the episode too: what would a “non-violent” cartoon look like? Would the world really improve without cartoon violence? And how can you be against the First Amendment in some cases but not in others? And there's Marge at the end of the episode, who has learned her lesson (“One person can make a difference, but probably shouldn't”), but is still unhappy about cartoon violence.

What lessons were learned in “The Great Wife Hope?” What was satirized? If you want to ascribe a message to the episode, you might come up with, “Women are opposed to violence in general and can't fight, but will become incredibly fierce when their children are threatened.” I'd rather say there wasn't an intended message, just a plot that allowed for some riffs on MMA fighting and Marge's tendency to disapprove of everything.

The Simpsons used to have messages, though. It was funny, but it was also as heartwarming and values-based as any sitcom this side of The Cosby Show. The characters are all good at heart, and when they screw up (they always screw up somehow), they fix their mistakes and learn from them. Living your life by the virtues The Simpsons taught in the first few seasons would mean being compassionate, loyal to your family and friends, respecting intellectual and artistic ventures, disrespecting authority and institutions, and laughing even when your life is in the sewer. You could pick a worse family to be raised by.

The Simpsons no longer teaches. Maybe all the plots that allowed the Simpsons to grow and discover things about themselves and the world have been done, and there are no more fresh ways to explore the characters' relationships, so the writers are forced to focus more on pop-culture jokes and gimicky storylines. Maybe now that the show is an institution, Matt Groening and the writing staff no longer have to prove themselves by making episodes that say something. Whatever the case, the show isn't the one I grew up with, which is too bad—not bad for me, but bad for the generation now growing up in the glow of the television. Who's going to teach them how to be good people in this cartoon world of ours? Family Guy? South Park?
Read more!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Why Atlas Shrugged Sucks

For a long time there was a gap in my literary education: I had never read a book by hardcore libertarian capitalist and right-wing heartthrob Ayn Rand. Rand's reputation as a monomaniacal, arrogant, neo-Nietzschian Fascist had scared me off, as did my confusion over how her first name is pronounced, but during a recent period of intense boredom I decided to check out her 1,000-page masterwork, Atlas Shrugged. The book is very solidly constructed, in terms of binding, and the font is quite readable, but the really impressive thing is that this hunk of a book has sold millions of copies and 200,000 in the past year alone.

That's an impressive number because for a book about capitalism, Atlas Shrugged doesn't seem very commercial—there's no humor, very little action, and hundreds of pages are devoted to outlining Rand's philosophy of “Objectivism,” which all of her heroes conveniently believe in. The plot can be outlined thusly: a group of ultra-competent industrialists who enjoy rough sex and making long, self-righteous speeches bring the United States—which is run by sniveling socialists—to its knees by refusing to share their expertise with others. The villains are all nasty, petty bureaucrats with unsatisfying sex lives, and the heroes are all superlative in at least one thing, especially superlative superlative leader-man John Galt, who is like Superman, if Superman didn't fight crime and was really good at public speaking and engineering instead of having powers.

Rand gets criticized sometimes for having unrealistic characters, and she even brings this up in a short afterword: “I trust that no one will tell me that men such as I write about don't exist. That this book has been written—and published—is proof that they do.” I'm not sure I follow that logic, but I've never seen why “realistic” characters are good in and of themselves anyway. I wasn't offended, either, by her relentless free market philosophy, and I actually started enjoying her somewhat deranged use of language after I started to regard it as high camp (see below). The reasons, in my mind, that Atlas Shrugged sucks are more basic: 1) it's lazy and 2) it's mean.

First, the laziness: Atlas Shrugged is set in an alternative universe where all the countries of the world are “people's states,” and the USA seems to have a tradition of opposing industrialists, to the extent that an early railroad tycoon in the novel has to fight in order to get a bridge across the Mississippi built. What happened in the world of the novel to change world history so drastically? I have no idea. I have no idea what year it's supposed to be set in. I think the US still has a republican political system, because a “legislature” is mentioned once or twice, and I have to assume that the Civil War occurred in this universe, although there don't seem to be any black people or any minorities in this America. The are also no children, and no animals, except for a few goats who are killed by a sound ray (this actually happens). There is no opposition political party, no tension between countries, and no churches, which is odd given the book's anti-Christian messages. Even though it was written during and after World War Two, there's no sense of engagement with all of the horrors that that era dredged up, except for the sound ray sort of resembling nuclear weapons, but not really. There is definitely no comic relief, but Rand can be forgiven for that, since she had never heard the term.

These things are not in Atlas Shrugged because they don't serve Rand's goal of describing Objectivism in the grandest, most heroic-sounding terms possible. Racism and nuclear weapons and humor and political infighting might be the things that defined America when Rand was writing (and since), but they would just confuse the message Rand has in mind, so she cuts them out. Similarly, the only way to portray industrialists as oppressed underdogs fighting The Man is to turn America into the Soviet Union, so that's what Rand does. And unlike most alternate-universe writers who spend time fleshing out and exploring the world's they create, Rand leaves her world barren of local color, so you get the impression her United States is empty wasteland with a few factories and towns scattered about, and the population of New York is about 100.

The best example of her laziness comes late in the book, when the superlatives have gathered in a valley that they've turned into a utopia because they didn't have any government bureaucrats around. John Galt has invented a motor that is powered by energy from the air (whatever) and consequently, doesn't need much oil. Fine. But then superlative oilman Wyatt Ellis shows Dagny Taggert, the heroine, his oil pump, which, he brags, produces “200 barrels a day.” What are they possibly using the oil for? These are supposed to be hardcore free market capitalists--who would buy oil when they get free energy? Most likely, Rand assumed no one would be paying attention to the details of her world, and didn't pay any attention to them herself.

But as an occasional reader of schlock science-fiction, I'm used to sloppily-planned worlds. What I'm not used to is the sheer meanness of Rand's characterization. Rand didn't believe in “determinism of any kind,” which means, essentially, that every bad thing that happens to someone is their own fault. That's the theme of an ugly passage describing a train wreck where the passengers, including young mothers and teachers, are blamed for contributing to society's problems, and therefore deserving of death. Then there's the bits where the small-town people are too lazy to take rotting vegetables out of the sun, or too stupid to give directions to a nearby factory. Because, you see, people are helpless without the superlatives! They have no direction in life without factory owners telling them what to do! Rand's lazy world-building can be excused, maybe, if you think her message is worthwhile, but portraying the masses as dumb, helpless wretches in need of guidance is pretty inexcusable—this was written after Mussolini and Hitler, remember.

Atlas Shrugged is not a “good novel” by any definition of either of those words, but I will say that it had three features I enjoyed. First, it can be used as a brick-like weapon; second, her character names are fun to say; third, her prose sometimes gets so bizarre that it achieves a sort of camp-like quality. At the risk of making a long post longer, here are some excerpts, which I hope will keep people away from the rest of the text. Enjoy!

“They knew that copper wire was a vanishing commodity more precious than gold or honor.”

“The smile of a man of the world who used it, not to cover his words, but to stress the audacity of expressing a sincere emotion.”

“Her stomach protruded under the gown's thin cloth, with that loose obscenity of manner which assumes all self-revelation to be ugliness and makes no effort to conceal it.”

“She saw the look of the luminous gaiety which transcends the great innocence of a man who has earned the right to be light-hearted.”

“The body, not of a chariot driver, but of a builder of airplanes.”

“His glance was now like the hands of a man hanging over an abyss, groping frantically for the slightest fissure of doubt, but slipping on the clean, polished rock of her face.”

“The art shows, where she saw the kind of drawings she had seen chalked on any pavement of her childhood slums—the novels, that purported to prove the futility of science, industry, civilization and love, using language that her father would not have used in his drunkenest moments—the magazines that propounded cowardly generalities, less clear and more stale than...” (Italics are mine, and I cut it off here because it goes on like this.)
Read more!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Why Cigarettes Suck (And Why People Smoke Them)

This isn't going to a rant against the dangers of smoking cigarettes. We all know that smoking leads to several types of cancer, heart disease, peptic ulcers, bronchitis, etc. This site, one of many, is pretty clear: " Cigarettes are filled with poison that goes into the lungs when you inhale." Duh.

Now that that's out of the way, I should add that despite the implied claims of the anti-tobacco people, cigarettes don't kill you instantly, and not everyone gets hooked from a single puff. Some smokers never become full-fledged nicotine junkies. Smoking is risky, but so are things like drinking excessively, riding mechanical bulls, doing hard drugs, having anonymous sex in seedy bathrooms, fighting in bars and in bar parking lots, firing your handgun into the air to frighten the crowd you are fighting with, stealing cars, feeling from the police, and sleeping in a bus station after ditching the car. If you have a life like that, having a few puffs is not going to be what catches up with you.

But those behaviors listed above at least have short-term benefits. Drinking makes you feel good and can act as a social lubricant, snorting concaine makes you feel really good for a really short time, stealing a car gets you a car, and so on. You may disapprove of activities like this, but at least you can see the appeal they would have for someone who genuinely doesn't care about tomorrow. The same can't be said of smoking cigarettes.

Even if you ignored the major health issues, the costs of smoking outweigh the benefits rather drastically. Smoking is expensive, cigarettes taste terrible, your teeth become stained, you start coughing all the time and lose lung capacity, you smell like old smoke, and thanks to the anti-smoking lobby's efforts to attach a social stigma to smokers, you might become less attractive to the opposite sex (at least the non-smokers). You don't even get high by smoking tobacco. And if you are using cigarettes to worship Native American deities, you're not doing it right.

Some smokers have created neurotic reasons to explain their habit ("I need something to do with my hands") or say "It's just something I do" and leave it at that, but it wasn't like these people came out of the womb tapping a pack of Marlboro Reds against their palm. Being addicted to nicotine is a reason to continue smoking, but why in Camel Joe's name would you start?

The anti-tobacco people sometimes blame ads and peer pressure for getting young people to smoke, and that was definitely true years ago, but that doesn't work anymore. Thanks to increased knowledge of the dangers of smoking (although I don't buy that no one knew smoking was bad for you before 1960), and the anti-smoking ads (which are so aggressive there's some backlash against them), there's actually peer pressure in some groups against smoking. Young people don't smoke to "fit in" anymore because smoking would make them stand out in a lot of places. And while cigarette smoking has been declining in young people since 1965, when 45 percent of Americans aged 18-24 smoked, that percentage has never dropped below 23. (This from a recent American Lung Association report.) It's pretty clear that no matter what, a minority of people are going to smoke, even if you call cigarettes Instant Death Sticks.

My theory is that people smoke cigarettes precisely because smoking is such a clearly terrible idea. "This is a poor choice that I will pay for later on," a smoker, especially a young smoker, is saying to the world. "Fuck tomorrow, I'm living for today." Smoking can be seen as a kind of signaling behavior, indicating to other young people that they're experimenting with risky behavior and aren't concerned with the morality of the larger society that publishes studies about the dangers of smoking and shows anti-smoking commercials. Or to use vernacular, they're "down for whatever."

Smoking is definitely, definitely a bad idea, which doesn't make it much different than anything else. (See the rest of this blog for details.) The defining characteristic of smoking is that it's so obviously a terrible decision that it has become a shorthand for other kinds of rebellion. In a world where people are told not to smoke, only people who don't do what they're told will smoke, or something like that.

Or it could be that smokers are just stupid and think putting a tube of burning plants in their mouths makes them look cool.
Read more!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Why Sarah Palin Sucks (And Why She Scares Me)

Sarah Palin was in the news again the other day--or rather, Sarah Palin is still in the news--because her yet-to-be-released book, Going Rogue: An American Life is already climbing the bestseller lists. It's just the latest of many successes for Palin--no matter how you feel about her, you have to admit she's on one hell of a winning streak. In 1996 she was a city councilwoman in a small Alaskan town, and 13 years later she's a former Vice-Presidential candidate, a former governor, a "new media" sensation (nearly 150,000 followers on Twitter before she stopped tweeting, more than 900,000 supporters on Facebook), a potential Presidential candidate, and now a best-selling author.

There are two conventional narratives to explain Palin's rise. The first narrative--which you believe if you're buying her book--describes Palin as a good-hearted, commonsensical, genuinely patriotic woman who understands ordinary Americans and their concerns, but because she isn't a slick-talking suit from Washington the liberal media is always trying to tear her down and make her look stupid. The second narrative is that Palin is a small-town hick who lucked out when McCain screwed up and picked her as his running mate, and now she unfortunately has a platform for her ignorant views which are meaningless ramblings at best and race-baiting Fascist rants at worst.

In both versions, Palin is basically a passive actor, an innocent who had the spotlight thrust on her. Maybe that's true, but there's a third point of view that, even though it's rarely brought up, scares the Wasilla out of me: what if Palin knows exactly what she's doing?

Take the "death panel" Facebook note that Palin wrote in August. She said, "The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s 'death panel'" and "death panels" were all of a sudden all over the news. Democrats had to stand up at town hall meetings and deny the existence of such deah panels. Let's go over that another time, because it is a frankly incredible example of driving the debate: using only a social networking site, Palin put her opponents on the defensive to such an extent that they had to promise not to kill old people and the handicapped. Now that, ladies and gentleman, is some old-fashioned politics.

Palin's supporters claim that the media "attacks" her, and while liberal blogs and commentators certainly relish using her for target practice, she gives just as good as she gets. She's a master (mistress?) of using the Republican distrust of the "liberal" media to protect herself against criticism--any question a reporter asks, any investigation of her background can be framed as an unfair attack, because of liberal bias. When Katie Couric famously asked Palin what newspapers the potential VP read and Palin clumsily dodged the question, Palin later said her answer was "filtered" and talked about how she would get "clobbered" no matter how she answered. (Glenn Beck did the same thing recently when questioned by Couric about "white culture"). When she was bombarded with ethics complaints as governor, Palin attacked her accusers in her resignation speech. Palin knows that in politics, when you go on the defensive you can only lose. When in doubt, attack. If accused of anything, accuse the accuser of lying and make them prove their allegations--by the time they do, the news cycle will have moved on and no one will care. The media isn't Palin's enemy, it's her instrument.

At the same time, Palin is as in touch with her constituents as any politician working today. (Her constituency isn't Alaskans at this point, it's rank-and-file Conservatives everywhere.) Consider Palin's bulletproof public image. She's been involved in the following scandals:

Her (alleged) efforts to fire a state trooper for personal reasons.

Her daughter's pregnancy, engagement, and publicized break-up with the father of her kid.

Her inquiries about banning books.

Her husband's membership in a separatist movement.

Her shopping sprees while on campaign.

And I'm sure I left a few out. But no one cares about these scandals, except those who were going to hate her anyway. She's never done anything so blatantly, viscerally wrong that her career is destroyed by it. Despite everything, she's close behind MItt Romney for early Republican 2012 presidential polls. Compare that to the last losing VP candidate, John Edwards, who was also young, good-looking, a favorite of his party's base, and something of a populist. His life is falling apart on Google News and his career is over. Who's the savvier politician, Edwards or Palin?

Palin's genius--she is a genius of politics like Mike Tyson was a genius of boxing--is that she has figured out new paradigms of campaigning and media manipulation while older career politicians lag behind. Working your way up from the bottom of your political machine's ladder is no longer the best method, as Barack Obama's rise demonstrates. Now you have to look good on TV, define yourself as a product, and connect to your voters directly (Facebook and Twitter) or through highly partisan news sources (Fox News). If you are a good enough at inspiring strong emotions, you no longer need ideas or the ability to govern.

Ability to govern is Palin's weak point, clearly. She is a hell of a crowd drawer, and she's a rabble-rouser in the same sense that Picasso was a painter, but there's no evidence she can actually run a country, a state, or a town with more than 7,000 people. But she's so good at controlling the debate and the media that governance and compromise--once regarded as fundamental skills of politicians--are almost besides the point. To use a basketball metaphor as she's so fond of using, she's a shoot-first point guard: all flash, no substance, but looks good enough that she can fool people.

Like most Liberals, I think Sarah Palin sucks. But they loathe her because they think she's dumb and crazy. I fear her because my biggest fear is that she's not as dumb as she acts.
Read more!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Why General Tso's Chicken Sucks

Does that picture on the left look good? Do you see that and want to call for Chinese take-out? Are you craving a big mound of chicken smothered with anonymous brown sauce? I know, I've been there too. I've wandered into a cheap Chinese place--in my part of Brooklyn you can't avoid wandering into cheap Chinese places--and whatever chemicals I had coursing through my veins at the time told me that I needed the greasiest, least nutritious thing on the menu. And, almost unwillingly, I find myself ordering the General's Tso's Chicken.

When I say "least nutritious," I'm not kidding. This survey of Chinese food nutrition says that an average order of General Tso's chicken has 1,300 calories and a whopping 3,200 milligrams of sodium, which is more sodium than anything listed except the Chicken with Black Bean Sauce, which will kill you instantly. There are no vegetables in an order of General Tso's, except for a few lonely broccoli stalks, and the sauce is loaded with sugar. (This recipe has 3 tablespoons of sugar for a pound of chicken, but I bet some restaurants put in more.) According to this chart, there are nearly 17 grams of fat in a single cup of Tso's. This is not food that a Chinese peasant might eat before a hard day in the fields. This is not food you eat when you want to indulge yourself with a nice meal from a restaurant, or take a date out on the town. This is food you eat when you are loaded, all the decent eateries have closed, and you just need to shovel food--any food--into your mistreated body before passing out fully clothed in your squalid dorm room or apartment.

Maybe there is some General Tso's somewhere that is relatively healthy and doesn't make you feel like you've swallowed a sauce-covered football afterwards. Maybe I'm visiting the wrong kinds of Chinese restaurants and there are fancy Chinese restaurants that offers fancy General Tso's--but then again, I don't think a fancy Chinese place would serve General Tso's--then again, I'm not sure such a thing as a "fancy" Chinese restaurant exists.

Besides the question of whether an upscale Chinese place would serve it, there are two mysteries surrounding General Tso's chicken. The first is the identity of "Tso." Did he inspire fear in his enemies, or just the chickens? How did he find the time to command armies and invent the world's least nutritious sauce?* Did he die in battle or, as I suspect, of clogged arteries?

The second mystery is that Zuo Zongtang's chicken is always one of the more expensive items on the menu. This could be because the sauce is especially expensive to make, but anyone who's ever tasted it knows that's not true. The only reasonable explanation is that there is such a high demand for General Tso's people are willing to pay more for it than other dishes. We're talking about a food that is unequivocally bad for you in the long term, and in the short term, it makes you feel bloated and gross after eating it. General Tso's empire is built on people who are so concerned with immediate gratification (all that sugar and sodium does make it taste pretty good) that they toss out all other concerns.

General Tso's chicken is the siren song of the Chinese take-out menu. It lures us towards its glistening brown rocks of meat with the promise that the first few bites will be delicious, then the next few bites are tolerable, and by the end of it you are simply disgusted with yourself and will throw out the leftovers the next day. When we order it, we know how bad we're going to feel afterwards, and even if we don't have the nutrition facts in front of us, we know that this sauce is destroying our bodies. When we order General Tso's, we're saying, "fuck the future, I'm living for the brown-sauce-covered present." I don't have any data to back this up, but I'll bet that most General Tso's chicken is consumed by college students and other assorted partiers--who in addition to living for the present, are too drunk to know any better.
Read more!