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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Monday, November 2, 2009

Why the New Jersey Turnpike Sucks

I've heard from some friends and acquaintances that parts of New Jersey are beautiful. Most of these people are from Jersey, so their opinions are somewhat suspect, but I assume that there are areas in the Garden State that have at least some natural beauty. I have little firsthand knowledge to draw on here. The only times I have been in New Jersey I've either been in Atlantic City―coast to coast, card rooms all look the same―or traveling, usually by bus, on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Before I moved out East, I always pictured the “New Jersey Turnpike” as an industrial wasteland, with smokestacks steaming under a heavily-polluted sky. Pipes and overpasses and underpasses crisscrossed one another in my head's version of the turnpike, with trucks towing immense tanks of chemicals from factory to factory. Basically, the New Jersey of my imagination was the real world from the Matrix. This vision would be a lot more interesting to drive through than the real thing.

The Turnpike isn't devoid of nature. There are shrubs and grass and small- to medium-sized trees between the multi-laned highways, and you can spot patches of forests from your car window. Animals―birds, small rodents, the occasional deer--must live somewhere in these places. I've never seen any; they've probably learned that going anywhere near the roads makes them targets for the world's most dangerous animal, the Tri-State driver. If you squint, or if your brain has been corroded by psychotropic drugs, you can imagine what the land must have been like before the freeway, cars, or Christopher Columbus: gently rolling hills, occasional streams lined by cattails, forests that turn picturesque shades of red and orange during autumn―if not for the Turnpike, you could see that section of Jersey being a tourist attraction, the sort of thing that nature-starved Manhattanites would drive for hours to see.

Then again, without the Turnpike, Manhattan wouldn't exist. We need some way to transport a whole lot of goods and people between several major metropolitan areas and the places that supply them with food―it wasn't like we decided all of a sudden to tear apart the landscape and install concrete instead of grass. But the Turnpike is still hideously ugly, ugly in the way usually only airports are ugly. It's not a destination for anyone, only a means of getting from one place to the other. There's never any effort to do anything with the empty, grass-and-asphalt landscape because we don't want to stay there long enough to do anything to improve the area.

There is nothing on the Turnpike except cars. There are no people not in cars, there are very few visible towns, there are no signs of humanity except for what humans have built and, occasionally, the graffiti that humans have scrawled on things other humans have built. Even the billboards are about cars--car insurance, car dealer ahead, sell your car for cash. Sometimes, you will see a building in the middle of all these cars. Sometimes, it isn't even a car dealership. These are usually malls, casinos, discount liquor stores--in any case, there will always be a parking lot stretched out in front of the building, inviting cars to come and stay.

The Turnpike sucks because it is an example of what happens when we don't build cities and don't care how the land looks, what happens when an area is allowed to be built on with no plan in mind. It represents what aesthetic develops when there is no thought given to aesthetics at all. Above all, it demonstrates that America, vast and complex creature that it is, has some bits in it that are amazingly boring and should be driven through as fast as possible. Fortunately, thanks to the highways that have ruined the landscape, it's possible to drive extremely fast when you are in New Jersey.
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