Saturday, January 30, 2010

Things That Don't Suck: Salinger's Death

Unless you've been living in an isolated cabin in New Hampshire, you'll have heard the news by now: J.D. Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye, is no longer among the living. Like thousands of writers across several generations, I think of Salinger as one of my major influences, not so much for Catcher, but for his short stories and novellas dealing with the brilliant but troubled Glass family. (I used to read “Seymour, an Introduction” every year around Christmas as a cure for the wintertime blues.) In the four books he published in his lifetime (Catcher was his only novel) he demonstrated nearly perfect control of the English language; to borrow a phrase of his, his stories were “prose home movies,” precisely rendered portraits of movement and dialogue in which everything is in exactly the right place. “Omit needless words,” Bill Strunk advises us in Elements of Style, and Salinger shows us what that looks like.

But Salinger departs this world under rather odd conditions. He's not David Foster Wallace, dying at the peak of what should have been a long career, or Kurt Vonnegut, passing away after decades of critical and commercial success, or John Kennedy O'Toole, killing himself before his brilliance could be recognized. By all accounts, Salinger kept writing during his years of self-imposed isolation while at the same time refusing to let anyone publish or even see his manuscripts—now that he's dead, at least some of this work will see the light of day. Although a lot of his fans are in mourning right now, there's a lot of silver lining in this cloud: he lived to the extremely ripe age of 91, and now we'll finally get to see what he was working on this whole time.

It should be noted, too, that while the guy certainly had no obligation to publish books and suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous publicity for the sake of a bunch of people he had never met, there was a nasty edge to his desire for “privacy.” Last year a Swedish author wrote a “sequel” to Catcher in the Rye that featured Holden Caufield and Salinger as characters; the book was banned in the US after Salinger cried copyright infringement. The book's publication wouldn't have affected Salinger's life in any way, yet he decided to fuck over a first-time novelist because apparently Salinger's characters and ideas are like precious jewels that he has to lock up in a cabinet and never let anyone touch. Years earlier a writer decided to write a sequel to George Orwell's Animal Farm, which was published as a “parody” over the objections of Orwell's estate, and guess what? It's a worthwhile novel that didn't diminish the value of the relevancy of the original in any way. (That might not be the case with the Catcher sequel, but still, it was awfully petty for Salinger to bring the suit.)

Then there's the case of “Hapworth 16, 1924,” the last of his stories to appear in published form. If you have a copy of the June 19, 1965 issue of The New Yorker, you can read it, but thanks to Salinger's obstructionism, it never got anthologized or reprinted. It was nearly published by a small press until the Editor-in-Chief made the mistake of talking about it to a newspaper, which made Salinger very angry and he pulled out of a deal that could have helped a struggling press a great deal. There's the right to privacy, then there's screwing over people who just wanted to pay tribute to your work.

When I read Salinger, I don't give much thought to the man himself or his life, and that's probably the way he wanted it. He was a celebrity author who hated fame and never appeared to care about any of his fans, except the young women who he invited to live with him. I don't think I liked Salinger, the guy, at all. I just liked his sentences, and those, thankfully, aren't dying any time soon.
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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Why Democracy Sucks

People make terrible choices all the time. We purchase expensive things we can't afford, we drink too much and expose our genitals to a roomful of people, we eat General Tso's Chicken, we tape-record conversations in which we discuss breaking the law, even when we're the President of the United States—the list goes on. The real problem comes when we have to make really important decisions, like whether to go to war or what sort of health coverage the government should fund. You could try to find the smartest or most even-tempered person in the world to make those choices for you, but of course you then have to choose who the smartest or most even-tempered person is, which is another tough choice.

The solution we have come up with is called “Democracy.” The basic idea is we make the really important decisions together, by voting. People who like Democracy are operating under the assumption that large groups make better decisions, on average, than individuals—or, at least, decisions made by large groups are more “fair” than decisions that would be made by a dictator or a series of dice rolls.

If you're one of those people who believes in Democracy, I've got two words for you: Allen Iverson.

For those of you who aren't aware. Allen Iverson—or AI if you're in a hurry—is one of the best basketball players of his generation. He carried a not-very-good 76ers team to the Finals on his elaborately tattooed back, he scored so many points people ragged on him for not passing more, and he's a nine-time All-Star. The problem is he's about to become a ten-time All-Star.

For you non sports fans out there, the All-Star game is an annual tradition where the twenty best basketball players in the world get together and play basketball. It's a fairly non-competitive game and there's not a lot of defense being played, but it's fun to watch, if you like that sort of thing. Now, AI is averaging 14 points and four assists a game, which is better than you or I would do, but for a professional basketball player, those stats are the equivalent of almost but not quite passing health care reform. It's not like it's AI's fault that he's not as good as he used to be—he's 35 years old, young for a President but old for a basketball player, and he even flirted with retiring this year.

So why is he going to be an All-Star this year? Because All-Star starters are elected by fans, and while some fans watch a lot of NBA games and really pay attention to who the best players are this year, other fans vote for players that they like, whether or not those players are actually good, or even just for names that they recognize. That's how Tracy McGrady almost became an All-Star despite spending only 47 more minutes on an NBA court than I did this season. And an All-Star game with Tracy McGrady and AI involved would not be a game featuring the best basketball players in the world.

David Stern, the NBA commissioner, is no fan of Democracy and wants to “tweak” the All-Star voting process, much as Mussolini “tweaked” the Italian government. Stern knows that a lot of NBA fans are basically idiots, because what other word is there for people who would rather watch AI than Rajon Rondo because AI is more famous? Rondo will be an All-Star, but no thanks to Democracy.

I'm not saying we should elect a dictator or anything, but let's stop going around talking about how great and important Democracy is, and for God's sake let's stop trying to “import” it to places like Afghanistan. Democracy picks the wrong All-Stars, Democracy elects Presidents who shouldn't be Presidents, and Democratically-elected officials have done awful, awful things. The most you can say about Democracy is that the government moves so slowly and incompetently that it hardly ever makes things worse.
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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

7 Reasons 2010 Is Going to Suck

#1: The midterm elections are coming, which isn't really a problem unless you care about the Democrats, who are going to lose the “supermajority” they failed to do anything with. I'm more worried about the weeks and months after the midterms, when Fox News will gloat and gloat about how America is a “Conservative country” and how these elections were “a referendum on the failed leftist policies of Barack Obama.” (I'm almost positive this exact phrase will be said by a pundit at least once.) The media will keep reporting on Obama's plummeting approval rating, which will cause Obama's approval to plummet, which will generate more reporting on his plummeting approval rating, and so on until the general cable-news consensus is that an inanimate carbon rod could beat him in 2012. Every Republican you know is about to become a gigantic prick. Fortunately, I live in New York City, so I don't know any Republicans.

#2 Drugs will continue to be illegal, except for alcohol, tobacco, and caffiene, and the latter two substances aren't fun at all, so they shouldn't count.

#3 The Winter Olympics are coming. Unless you are competing in the games, or are one of those preteen girls who is really into figure skating, there is no reason to care about the Winter Olympics. Yet we are expected to tune into NBC (which stands for the Network Buttfucking Conan) and watch the representative of our nation attempt to skate in a circle faster than the representatives of the hated Other Nations. There will also be occasional profiles of athletes who have Overcome the Odds, like the figure skater who became successful and famous despite being mistaken for a homosexual all the time. If the United States does poorly, Barack Obama will be blamed.

#4 John Edwards, in all likelihood, has a bigger cock than you. When you make love to your girlfriend/boyfriend/ployamorous partners in the coming year, how can you be sure he/she/they aren't thinking about John Edwards?

#5 One year passing means you are one year closer to death.

#6 At some point during this year, it will be the one year of Michael Jackson's death, which we'll have to hear about how great he was all over again. Jackson is on his way to becoming the next Elvis, a figure who is mourned and venerated way, way more than he deserves.

#7 Finally, if you don't have health insurance, you aren't going to get any next year either. So don't get sick, or next year is really going to suck.
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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Why The Tonight Show Sucks

The entertainment media has been in a flurry lately, as you know if you're one of those people who follows celebrity news as a substitute for authentic human contact: The Tonight Show is getting a new host again, or more accurately it's getting an old host again, or even more accurately, Jay Leno is returning to his old host because Jay Leno is a parasite.

Supposedly, the conflict between Leno and Conan is a battle as timeless and important as the battle between Mordor and Minas Tirith. On one hand you have a big-chinned doofus custom made for Middle America, who tells jokes everyone can understand and enjoys the simpler pleasures in life, like having hundreds of breathtakingly expensive cars. On the other hand, you have this weird, tall, red-headed dork, who has a strange, jerky energy to him and does “edgy” things, like having a bear masturbate on his show. If you are a mouth-breathing tea-partier who buys tacky Jesus paintings, you like Leno. If you are a smarter-than-thou, pot-smoking, humanities-degree-holding 20-something who knows who Amy Poehler is and cares about the decline of The Simpsons, you like Conan, but you probably didn't watch his show all that much, which is why he got canned.

Which brings up the central problem with the media brouhaha over The Tonight Show—like baseball, we're supposed to care about network talk shows because of its history (blah blah Johnny Carson David Letterman blah blah), but also like baseball, if you sit down and actually watch it you'll discover that it's pretty fucking dull unless you're on mushrooms.

Here's how talk shows go: the host comes out (applause) and stands in front of a curtain and tells jokes about current events and weird news stories, some of which are funny. Then he goes down and sits at his desk while a band plays some generic riffs (why is he sitting down? Is he tired? Why couldn't he tell jokes at his desk?). Then he performs a “desk piece,” where he pulls out some semi-humorous props and displays like a more dignified Carrot Top, or they do a “remote,” a pre-taped segment where the host or someone else goes to a farm or a donut factory or a boxing gym and learns how to ride a horse or kickbox while cracking wise.

Then the whole purpose of the show: celebrity interviews! Sometimes, the celebrity will be a comedian, in which case he'll run through his material while the host nods, laughs, and goes, “That's hilarious!” once in a while. If the celebrity isn't a comedian, he'll tell a personal anecdote or talk about working with (insert name here). If the guest is a woman, there might be some mild flirting. All of this, of course, is in the name of promoting the movie/book/comedy album that the guest is putting out. Occasionally, things get weird, but this doesn't happen often enough to be a reason to tune in. At the end, sometimes there's a musical guest who plays a song, usually a middle-of-the-road rock or pop number that sort of reminds everyone who's still awake of Counting Crows.

It's not a bad format, and it's probably a fine way to promote movies that are bankrolled by the same companies that own the talk shows. But from a 21st century viewer's perspective, it leaves a lot to be desired. When Carson was doing it, there weren't many options—if you were watching TV at 11:30 pm, you were pretty much watching Tonight. Now you can watch whatever you want whenever you want, thanks to the internet and Netflix, so it's not a surprise that Conan's ratings weren't very good. What's surprising is that millions of people are still watching Conan and Leno run through the same thirty-year-old format night after night after night.

If you're one of those people who really likes Conan and was sorry to see him treated so badly by NBC (although they might be giving him 40 million dollars for his trouble, so maybe “badly” isn't the word), be honest: do you give a shit about The Tonight Show, beyond wishing bad things would happen to Leno? There are many, many comedy shows more interesting than Tonight out there, and just because we're supposed to care about late night talk shows doesn't mean we should.
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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Why the Word "Random" Sucks

One of my weirder, more archaic beliefs is that the meanings of words matter. With the proliferation of nonverbal media—film, television, Youtube and the Twitterization of the news (check out Ashton's Kutcher's response to a friend's death)--it often appears that we're heading towards a post-literate society, or we're already there. If a picture is worth a thousand words, and we're at a point where every phone can record video, aren't words so devalued now that they're worthless, like pennies? Can't an emoticon express emotion just as well as a full sentence?

Well, duhhhhh, no, of course not. Just look at the recent controversy surrounding waterboarding—the question was not whether simulating the feeling of drowning was wrong, but whether it counted as “torture,” which made the debate as semantic and obscure as a couple of children arguing over what counted as “base” in a game of hide-and-seek. We live in a world of images, but rely on words to define and interpret that world—if we're using different words to describe the same thing, we're living in two separate worlds.

This is the long way of introducing one particular word that my generation insists on misusing, sometimes even using it to describe things that are the exact opposite of its definition. Call me a nit-picker, call me old-fashioned, call me mildly autistic, but I'd rather never hear this word again than have it misused one more time.

My dictionary definition for “random” is, “made, done, happening, or chosen without method or conscious decision.” As defined, it's a pretty limited word, useful mainly in probability and statistics. After all, almost everything in the world is the result of a method or a conscious decision, even the latter half of Marlon Brando's career and the lyrics to “Purple Rain.”

But somehow people my age and younger have decided that “random” actually means, “entertainingly quirky, or containing obscure pop culture references,” as in:

“I love Family Guy because it's so random!”

Lolz!1!! This video so random!”

“My friend Lola wears these awesome hats and yesterday she was going around with a big Spongebob doll. How random is that?”

No. No. No, no, no. Family Guy is not random. Neither are any of the Adult Swim shows—they just have strange characters and nonsensical plots that don't resolve. In fact, jokes are extremely nonrandom by definition: there's a setup and a carefully orchestrated punchline—or in Family Guy's case, a reference to a show or a movie that's older than most of FG's audience. Anything made by a person is not random, even comments left on an internet messageboard. Please, please stop using the word.

This is a small problem of one specific word, but it's indicative of a larger problem: “random” is just one of many words that now mean absolutely nothing. What idea is expressed when something is called “random,” or when a minor celebrity is called a “star,” or when a public figure retires to “spend more time with his family?” None at all. These are non-words that describe nothing, leave no impression on the mind, and can be written or said without any effect whatsoever. George Orwell, currently spinning in his grave for all sorts of reasons, would have called this “duckspeak”; to see examples of it, tune to a random cable news channel or branch of ESPN. Phrases and arguments come out fully formed and are recorded without anyone on the show paying attention. No one fact-checks, no one quibbles over the truthfulness or accuracy of someone else's statements—they regurgitate standardized arguments at each other and go home happy to have been on television. People only reacted to Rudy Giuliani's recent bald-faced lie because it was impossible not to notice it.

We need to stop this habit. In an era of too many images and words, we need to start watching what we say, in the most literal way. We need to make sure we are expressing ideas when we talk and write, not just moving our mouths or our keyboards. Our language is not random. Let's keep it that way.
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Thursday, January 7, 2010

Why Avatar Sucks

James Cameron's latest film, the many-long-years-in-the-making Avatar, has currently grossed 1.1 billion dollars worldwide, which is more than the entire GDP of Burundi. It cost about as much as the Panama Canal, but its finances are so complex we'll likely never know exactly how much money it took to make, market, and distribute the film. To paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi: “That's not a movie, that's a space station.”

When discussing a movie that cost so much money to make, it's absurd to deconstruct it for themes and meaning the way you might a work of literature or art. (Though some people have given it the old colege try.) Avatar was created to make money, and by that standard it has succeeded beyond the wildest, wettest dreams of the studio executives. It looks pretty, the story and characters are made of 100 percent recycled materials, and it never asks the audience any hard questions. That's a recipe for box-office success, and if you ignore the disturbingly arousing alien sex scene, you'll probably enjoy it, unless you're Armand White.

Here's a plot recap: Marine goes to exotic alien world to work for Evil Corporation. Marine joins a program that allows humans to pilot alien bodies around. Marine spies on aliens, who turn out to be warm-hearted, nature-loving. Marine—surprise!--falls in love with an alien woman (commence disturbingly arousing sex scene) and discovers Nature Is Good. Marine leads battle against Evil Corporation. This takes a hundred and sixty minutes. If you stripped Avatar of its eyeball-bursting special effects, you'd be left with a longer version of FernGully.

But that's not why Avatar sucks—nothing's wrong with FernGully, after all. The reason Avatar sucks is tied to a phenomenon common to Hollywood films, something I'll call The Karate Movie Paradox

The name comes from a standard scene in a lot of movies about karate or another fighting technique: the Wise Old Man training the hero in the ways of Kicking Ass says, in his wise old way, “But you must never use these things I have taught you for anything other than self-defense. Violence is never the answer, young one.” (Check out The Karate Kid or Ong Bak for direct examples of this.)

That's a fine philosophy for the Wise Old Man to teach his students. The paradox is that the movies that contain this philosophy are violence delivery systems, paper-thin plots built around long action setpieces. Yoda may teach Luke to avoid conflict, but we want to see some fucking lightsaber duels and spaceship collisions.

We can expand this idea to include movies about evil corporations that are bankrolled by corporations, movies that extol the virtue of a native culture while casting non-natives in key roles (I'm looking at you, Braveheart), and so on. The short definition of the Karate Movie Paradox: Hollywood films have themes and messages that are directly contradicted by the reality of the movies themselves.

Avatar is supposed to be all about preserving nature, respecting animals, and honoring the Earth (or whatever planet you happen to be on). But there is pratically no nature at all on the screen—everything is state-of-the-art CGI effects. The characters keep repeating bromides about saving the trees they love from big, bad profiteering technocrats while surrounded by trees that are the products of real-life profiteering technocrats. The nature that is being saved in the movie is fantastic: glowing leaves, six-legged horses, plants that retract suddenly when touched. Some features, like the cliffs that float in the air, are startingly beautiful, if we're allowed to say that about a combination of computer-generated polygons.

The problem is nature on Earth isn't quite so fantastic. Trees don't glow, we don't ride dragons, and the people who want to build strip-mines and pollute aren't cartoonishly evil. Conservation in reality doesn't involve shooting arrows at mechanized infantry. It means driving less or not at all, drilling for less oil, recycling, eating less meat, and maybe going to the movies less. Protecting the nature that we actually live with, as opposed to the one manufactured by computeres, is boring, difficult and important, which are three words that simply aren't in the Hollywood dictionary.

Conservatives have attacked the movie for being “environmentalist propaganda,” but the movie's pro-Green/pro-pagan sympathies are only skin deep. If anything, it sets back environmentalism, portraying Greens as weird hippies who spout bullshit about the sacred communion between all life instead of rational people who say, “Hey guys, let's make sure the seas don't engulf Manhattan in the next 20 years.” Avatar's brand of environmentalism is misty-eyed, soft-hearted, and totally unrelated to the world we live in—in the end, it's as forgettable as Mr. Miyagi's preaching of nonviolence.

Which is good for the picture's bottom line. A genuinely environmentalist movie might force people to examine their lives, and might even make them feel bad about themselves. You don't earn 1.3 billion dollars at the box office by telling people what's wrong with them. With Avatar, everyone leaves the theater and piles into their SUVs thinking that they are good people, that they would be on the side of the peace-loving aliens, not the evil corporate soldiers. Talk about escapism.
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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Man, That Sucked: The Past Ten Years In Sports

The best movie about sports I saw during the last ten years was Big Fan, a blackly comic character study starring comedian Patton Oswalt. Oswalt plays a shy, sad sack of a man whose life revolves around the New York Giants and one player in particular, a linebacker whose poster dominates Oswalt's room in his mother's basement. One night Oswalt has a disasterous run-in with the linebacker that reveals the player is a cruel, uncaring, violent brute. The meat of the movie is Oswalt moping around, questioning his faith in the almighty Giants. His hero is an asshole. How can he continue to care about a team that obviously doesn't care about him back?

The tens of millions of sports fans in this country now find themselves in the same situation as Oswalt's character. Professional and big-time college sports used to be a kind of sanctuary, odd as that may sound to the non-fan. The outside world is complicated, and rendered in shades of gray. The person you love leaves you, the US government kills people in the name of saving lives, a politician you respect goes to jail for embezelling campaign funds, you get fired from a job you never liked in the first place. But your team remains your team. You might paint your face for games and scream your lungs out in a freezing stadium, or you might just catch an occasional game on TV and check the box score over your morning coffee, but either way it's something in your life that stays constant, uncomplicated. You aren't asked to make hard moral choices or examine yourself. You can hate Kobe Bryant, but that's okay because you don't actually hate him, you just like to root against him. I've always subscribed to the theory that so many men become sports fans because it gives them a way to express their emotions, which society otherwise encourages them to bottle up—crying is sissy, unless your team wins the Super Bowl. Or, looking at it another way: getting angry at the front page over young men dying in a worthless war would compel us to do something before more lives are lost; getting angry at the refs over a few blown calls is safe because we know it means nothing in the larger world.

This last decade was the decade of the larger world suddenly invading the sports section. Or maybe we just started looking at sports more critically, which destroyed our illusion that professional sports is a realm of pure and noble competitors. Whatever happened, it's almost shocking to look back on the scandals surrounding sports the past ten years. A sport-by-sport breakdown:

Baseball: Do we need to go over the steroid scandal again? So many words have already been written about this, but the basics: it turns out that nearly every important player in the past 15 years was taking steroids, which were not tested for because the people running Major League Baseball were idiots. This matters because more than other sports, baseball relies on its history and its numerical records as selling points: Ruth! Mays! Mantle! Rose! 61! 56! 4,256! 755! So the steroid users, especially guys like Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds, who artificially bosted their home run totals, were not just cheating against their current competition, they were cheating against history. And lying about it. Understandably, the revealation that these men—who, in the naive 1950s world of sports, were supposed to be role models—were liers, drug users, and cheaters all at once was not good for the popularity of the sport. If you believe that performance-enhancing drugs invalidate the performance—that is, you can't say you've “beaten” the campaign mode of Starcraft if you've used cheat codes—then the last ten years of baseball basically didn't count. That's bad.

Basketball: Here's what's bad: referees might have been straight-up fixing games in the NBA. Basketball junkies have always been conspiracy-minded, from the “frozen envelope theory” (look it up if you haven't heard it, it's insane) to the idea that the time Michael Jordan took off from basketball to try professional baseball was actually a secret suspension handed down by Commissioner David Stern. So when a referee who was caught bettting on games and later claimed the NBA fixed games to get more “marketable” teams into the Finals. That might not be true, but just the idea of it is horrible enough—what's at stake is the fundamental concept behind the NBA itelf: these are supposedly fair games that are decided on the court. As if that's not enough, this is also the decade that the league has had to deal with it's “image problem,” i.e., NBA players are young tattooed black men the average white middle-class NBA fan would cross the street to avoid. See: the 2004 brawl at the Palace, the recent guns-in-the-locker-room incident, or any of the many shootings that involve NBA players. The league is so desperate to fight the “image problem” they instituted a dress code, just like a crime-ridden high school. But maybe they should make sure their games are decided on the court first.

Football: And here we are at the most morally questionable sport in America, which is saying something. I like watching the NFL, don't get me wrong. But it's becoming increasingly clear that anyone who plays the sport risks brain damage, and if you are an NFL lineman for more than a few years, it's not even a risk—you will get brain damage. If you're an NFL fan, here's the quandry: the sport that entertains you, that you love watching, causes life-altering brain injuries. Routinely. Can you continue to watch, like a Roman at the blood-soaked Coliseum? Does it make a difference whether the players know the risks? Has the NFL been hiding evidence of brain injuries from the public on purpose? What is it costing the young men on the field to entertain you?

These are the kinds of questions we go to sports to avoid. Yet if we're thinking, self-critical sports fans, we have to answer these questions. Previous generations were protected from the ugliness behind sports by a media that never told them that Mickey Mantle was an alcoholic and Jim Brown beat women. Our media tells us everything, or at least as much as it can, and so we know, or should know by now, just how ugly the business of professional sports can be. And I haven't even touched on college sports in this post.

But here's the real problem: I love sports. There's still something beautiful in an alley-oop dunk, an 80-yard pass spiraling into a receiver's arms, a home run that travels 450 feet, steroid-aided or not. I'm going to watch the Super Bowl and try not to think about all the brain injuries. I'll watch the NBA and hope it isn't just the WWE with baskets at either end. When I watch a game, I try to believe that sports are still that sacred, seperate world that they're supposed to be, despite all rational evidence to the contrary—I imagine that's how Catholics go to mass these days. Because I still care about sports. I'm just not sure they care

(The image, by the way, is the difference between a normal brain and the brain of a career NFL player.)
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Sunday, January 3, 2010

Man, That Sucked: The Past Ten Years

The measurement of time, of course, is a human invention. It's only an accident that there are 60 seconds to a minute, 24 hours to a day, and so on; I've yet to find someone who can explain Daylight Savings Time in a way that makes sense. So obviously, “looking back on the decade,” as so many publications and websites have been doing, is just a way to fill space during a slow news month. Why not look back on the decade 1995-2005? Why not look back at the last 13 years and claim that it's a “thircade"? We like big round numbers—witness those celebrations when a baseball player slugs his 500th steroid-assisted home run—and 2010 seems big and round enough for us to celebrate in some way. Culture magazines are choosing to celebrate by releasing arbitrary list of the “best of the decade.” The worst list I've come across—possibly the worst list of the decade—is Rolling Stone's 100 Best Albums of the Decade, which asserts, among other things, that Bob Dylan came out with two of the top 11 albums of the past ten years, that U2's All That You Can't Leave Behind is somehow preferable to OutKast's Stankonia, and that Coldplay released better albums than The Hold Steady. I had never heard anyone say any of those things before, but then, I don't hang out with the aging 60s rockers who are Rolling Stone's only audience.

But let's move from the Viagra-popping generation to the Adderall-popping generation, which is my generation, and the generation that had the misfortune to grow up during this decade, whatever we decided to call it—the Oughts? The Zeros? A Series of Unfortunate Events? Whatever we decide to call this collection of 3,653 days, one day in particular will stand out for everyone, especially everyone who was under the age of 20 when it happened.

I was 14 in 2001, and riding the bus to my high school in Seattle when I heard that some planes had flown into some buidings in New York. At first, the information was confused—what happened? A bomb? A plane, like a little propeller plane? Was the whole thing a joke? It was seven in the morning and New York was thousands of miles away. The gym teacher told us that we could see the counselor if we wanted to talk about the tragedy, our feelings, whatever, and I guess some students probably knew people in New York, or even in the Towers, and some others probably had enough teenaged angst and psychic damage without worrying about planes crashing into fucking office buildings, but I pretty much went about my day as usual, just glad that we were gossiping about the new, devastating news instead of playing dodgeball or discussing Great Expectations. It was like hearing about a windstorm on Venus that had killed millions of aliens—tragic, sure, but also impossibly distant.

In my book, 9/11 was the real start to this lump of time we're calling a “decade,” and the end would probably be the inauguration of Barack Obama. The Bush Years, in other words, and some ugly years they were to grow up in. Right off the bat, we learned that people, mostly bearded men in caves, wanted to kill us for no reason, and were willing to blow themselves up for their cause. This wasn't the 60s or the 70s, where if you got disillusioned with Amerika you could join the other team and become a hard-core Communist/Anarchist. You had to say, okay, our government may be run by evil shitheads who steal elections and lie to us and might be tapping our phones, but Osama Bin Laden is even worse. This wasn't the 90s, either, when you could join the stream of slackers and cynics who could hide in the shelter of a kind of commercialized nihilism—not caring isn't an option when men kill themselves in order to kill others, and the world is growing dangerously warmer and the oceans are rising to engulf us all, and apparently the global economy is basically a collective illusion too complex for us to understand. For someone my age, 9/11 represents an imperative, a command that's a hell of a lot more effective than any adult's rules or anti-drug ad: Evil exists in this world. Fight it.

Our response, maybe, was to elect Obama, in the first presidential election someone my age could vote in. He understood that we needed to fight evil, and unlike Bush or John McCain or any other old white man, he didn't look evil himself. This generation came through the last ten years of bad news with our idealism not only intact, but buffered. The world was so shitty, so obviously, transparently unfair, that we had to change it, and we could, because America could improve, it didn't have to be this lumbering, world-despised giant, we didn't have to have all these problems in the schools and in the cities and all these horrible, lying assholes in power—yes, we fucking can, motherfuckers.

That would be an inspiring narrative, if it didn't have this last year as an epilogue. Obama's certainly a better president than Bush, but Guantanamo is still open, and we're sending more troops to Afghanistan. And those old white guys, the enemies of pretty much everyone, got more money from that financial bailout that was such a complicated disaster. All our idealism and energy and rage went towards electing a moderate president, and a host of moderate-to-conservative Democrats in Congress who, as swing voters, get whatever they want. It could be worse, but if our generation has all this idealism that I think it does, we need to do better, to set our sights higher than just making sure that we don't elect people who think torture is okay. It's no easy task to fight evil, it turns out, but if we look back at the last 10 years, we know we need to do something, even if all we're doing is pointing out how much everything sucks these days.

I'll start: Rolling Stone, Coldplay has some good songs, but they're pretty interchangable with every other popular Britpop band of the past 20 years. The Hold Steady released three excellent albums that you really should care about if you care about rock music. Your magazine is a dinosaur that exists solely to make 60-year-olds feel hip. You suck.

Happy New Year, everybody!
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