Monday, June 28, 2010

Making Monday Worse: the Failure of Americans, Englishmen, and the Washington Post

Another week has arrived, and with it come a host of reasons to stay in bed with the lights off, quietly weeping. For US soccer fans, there was the 2-1 overtime loss to Ghana, which came days after maybe the most exciting goal in team history. Just when we were flapping our mouths about how this is going to be our year, how we could get to the semi-finals with wins over Ghana and Uruguay, we got dissected like a frog in an 8th-grade biology class by the Ghanaians, who played the kind of beautifully precise, technically perfect soccer in the first half that Americans have never been able to pull off for more than a minute at a time. Yeah, we—and by “we” I mean, “those 11-odd guys I have no relationship with whatsoever”—played better in the second half, but all of those missed chances will be haunting the dreams of soccer fans for four years, while non-fans like Glenn Beck and Rick Reilly mock us for caring about a sissy sport.

It could be worse—we could be English. At least we Americans can take some pride in finishing first in our group and nearly advancing to the quarter-finals. The English, on the other hand, really, really cared about the World Cup, thought their team was good enough to make a deep run, and ended up barely escaping the group stage before getting dismantled by historical rivals Germany. It's a bad sign when your fans are recapping the games and conclude by saying, “Americans will never completely understand how crap it is, most of the time, to be English. We might have cute accents and be good at cocktail parties. But we are mostly losers.”

Of course, at least the English can have cocktail parties and have a soccer team, unlike, say, Haiti, where their refugee tents would be unsuitable to host cocktail parties even if they weren't collapsing due to the wind and the rain. Everyone wants to build more permanent shelters that actually have walls and a ceiling, but the land ownership issues are “complex,” so little is getting done.

Speaking of institutional incompetence, the Washington Post has been in the news lately, this time for firing Dave Weigel, a liberal-leaning blogger who was reporting on the conservative movement. He lost his job because of some comments he made on a mass emailing list about wishing Matt Drudge would light himself on fire and Rush Limbaugh would die—which, of course, reinforced the belief among conservatives that the Post is just a bunch of sneering liberals who hate anyone to the right of Ralph Nader. Some, like Tyler Cowen, bemoaned the total lack of privacy that media figures have nowadays, while others blamed the Post for not defining what Weigel's job was supposed to be—was he supposed to offer a conservative point of view, or act as a kind of anthropologist studying the strange ways of the “Paultards,” as Weigel called them? The Post's own ombudsman noted, “His departure...raises questions about whether The Post has adequately defined the role of bloggers like Weigel. Are they neutral reporters or ideologues?”

Another question might be, are those the only two options? Couldn't a reporter who has a different point of view than the subjects he's covering make some interesting observations as long as that reporter makes his biases clear and makes an effort to withhold judgement? Clearly, the man for the job wasn't Weigel, but I'd rather see liberals reporting on conservatives, and vice versa, than Tea Partiers covering themselves. The notion of “objective” reporting is thankfully pretty much dead, but journalists who disagree with their subjects (but are willing to hear them out) can offer an interesting perspective. Unfortunately, most of the criticism of Weigel boiled down to “He's a liberal! He can't write about conservatives!”

Then there are the times when journalists just need to call a spade a spade, or in this case call a hate-filled rally a hate-filled rally: some Brooklynites recently decided to protest a mosque because, basically, they didn't like Muslims. The protestors didn't even feel the need to hide their anti-Islam sentiment behind coded language the way most racists do. “If they build a mosque there, I'm going to bomb the mosque,” said one protestor. All we can hope for is that like many Americans, that man is not only filled with hate, but also lazy.

You know who isn't lazy? Government officials in Afghanistan, at least when they have to protect one another from corruption charges. That's what those liberals at the Washington Post say in the latest article about corruption in Afghanistan, just another in a long string of pieces indicting the guys that the US is supporting with aid money and military support. It's becoming increasingly clear that, just as we're not particularly good soccer players, Americans don't make good neo-colonial overlords. It might be time to take a page from England's playbook: forget ruling the world and work on our cocktail-party charm. Read more!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Why Americans Talking About the World Cup Suck, Part 2: Hipster Conservative Edition

I imagine American right-wingers have a tough time dealing with the World Cup. On the one hand, it gives them a way to express nationalist sentiments and chant “USA! USA!” as much as they want. On the other hand, soccer seems somehow...liberal, if it makes any sense to attribute a political leaning to an entire sports. Soccer is more beloved by the world at large than America, it is played by guys who are mostly too small to play football or basketball, and it is decidedly collectivist in nature—one star player can't win a game by himself. Worst of all, the US isn't a soccer superpower, so unlike Olympic basketball, or swimming, or war, Americans can't expect to win at it. If you root for the US in the World Cup, you're going to have to admit defeat at the hands of a superior foe at some point, not a prospect that conservatives would enjoy.

So when the World Cup started, I figured that the talk radio gang would basically ignore the tournament unless we lost, at which point they would blame Obama. Actually, around the time the futbol matches were beginning on the pitches, Glenn Beck went on a tirade (tirade being his default speaking mode; when he goes to the grocery store he goes on tirades about double-bagging his eggs) about how Obama's policies were the “World Cup of policies” or something, in that Americans didn't like either, but both were being “shoved down our throat,” a phrase Beck picked up at the Conservative Commentator Subtly Homoerotic Implication Workshop. Other conservatives with mouths also mocked soccer, including some guys on convicted felon G. Gordon Liddy's talk show, who noted that the left was pushing soccer in schools (I guess because there are soccer teams?) and that originally, soccer was played using a human head as a ball in South America. Running through all of this discourse was the notion that soccer is being forced upon people who don't care for it and will never want to watch it. It's unclear who, exactly, is pushing soccer—ESPN? Illegal aliens? The Communists—but these conservatives aren't buying the notion that soccer is worth paying attention to.

If these guys haven't been watching the World Cup because they resent it being rammed suggestively down their pink throats, they've been missing out, as anyone who was sitting at a bar at roughly 11 am Eastern Time can tell you. That's when Landon Donovan's goal saved the US team from the brink of elimination and opened up the possibility of us making a deep run this year (we have to beat Ghana, then the winner of Uruguay-South Korea to get into the semifinals. Knock on wood). Even if you didn't understand the complexities of soccer you could appreciate a last-minute, game-winning score that gets the team into the playoffs. And even if you're a casual soccer fan like me you've been able to find plenty of exciting moments, even in games that soccer haters would sneer at--Algeria's 0-0 tie with England, for instance, was a very exciting game despite the score. I hope G. Gordon Liddy watches the next US match—and not just because if he's watching the game he won't be able to break into hotels. It'd be a genuine shame if he missed out on something good just because some people he doesn't agree with like it too.

Beck and company remind me of hipsters. Not in the plaid-shirt way, thank god, but in the way they are concerned with not just the things that they enjoy, but with the things that other people enjoy and expect them to enjoy. You might remember the backlash against Vampire Weekend because the music blogs loved them too much, proving that if hipsters hate one thing more than jocks it's being told what they should consider cool. If you first heard about Vampire Weekend from Pitchfork, your knee-jerk reaction might not have had anything to do with the music; it might have gone something like, “Oh, another fucking hipster band? (makes international symbol for “wanking” with right hand) I ain't buying that shit.”

I suspect conservatives went through the same thought process with soccer, and that's the shitty thing about the “culture wars” that are supposedly being waged on cable news channels: aspects of life that really have nothing to do with politics get politicized. Why is soccer-bashing a conservative talking point? What could possibly be the—sorry for the pun—goal of hating soccer? I guess some may honestly just dislike the World Cup for non-political reasons (Beck doesn't like sports at all), but shit—if you want to convince someone that watching televised athletic competitions of any kind is worthwhile, that clip above might be a good place to start. In fact, let's see it again:

If you don't like watching that you either aren't American, have a pathological fear of people not using their hands, or you have really indoctrinated yourself into hating anything that liberals would like. Sports can be political, like when this happened, but this isn't about politics. The World Cup has nothing to do with liberals or conservatives—I feel stupid pointing something so obvious, but some people would apparently disagree. Fucking hipster conservatives. Go supervise the writing of your ghostwritten best-selling thriller novels, why don't you? The rest of us will be watching stuff like this:

COMING UP NEXT WEEK: I read Glenn Beck's novel and liveblog it! Don't miss out!
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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Why Americans Talking About the World Cup Suck, Part 1

As I've said before, Rick Reilly is probably a nice guy. A sports columnist that full of warm-hearted cliches about sportsmanship and the joys of competition has got to be a decent human being, or at least a rough approximation of a decent human being. But Reilly suffers from a disease that many writers, actors, cartoonists, and other creative types become afflicted with late in their careers—call it the Success Syndrome. When they finally become widely recognized and praised for their work, they lose a little bit of that hunger that made them worthy of recognition in the first place, and they have less of an incentive to break new ground. Some artists, the ones who are motivated entirely by an internal drive, overcome the Success Syndrome and explore new ground—think of the Flaming Lips, for instance. Others seem to get lazy. Watching Jack Nicholson chew apart the scenery in The Departed, or Al Pacino yell his way through any of the nonsensically-plotted thrillers he's starred in, you forget that both of them were some of the best actors of their generation. And if you listen to that recently re-released album Exile on Main Street, you'll be shocked that the Rolling Stones were a great rock band who wrote and recorded great songs before they became victims of the Success Syndrome.

Maybe that's a bullshit theory, but it's the only way to explain Rick Reilly's latest column, which reads as if the author went on a three day crack binge, stole a car, wound up in an Oklahoma City bar where he annoyed the other patrons with overwrought speeches about John Wooden and the “right way” to put on socks, got thrown out of the bar, charged a motel room to his ESPN expense account, and wrote the column in a speed-driven deadline panic while drinking cheap whiskey and watching Spanish-language recaps of the World Cup games before falling asleep with his head in the lap of an underage prostitute. Now, I'm not saying that's exactly what Reilly did—he's probably a good family man blah blah blah—but given the sloppiness and borderline incoherence of the column, it's a distinct possibility.

The basic thrust of the piece is that Reilly has some problems with the World Cup, and has chosen a list of ten of them to comment on. It's sort of like that “Top 10” thing David Letterman does, which incidentally started out as a way for Letterman and his writers to make fun of hackneyed list-based humor. Three of Reilly's ten complaints are actually the same one: he doesn't like the vuvuzelas, which are horns that the World Cup crowds have been blowing continuously during matches—I guess the joke is that Reilly really, really hates the vuvuzelas and can't stop thinking about them, and also can't mute his television.

Reilly's other points are a little less sensical. He thinks the things that players on the bench wear are ugly, he thinks the goalie gloves are ugly, he thinks the World Cup trophy itself is ugly. “It looks like something you'd use to prop open your Tuff Shed door during spring cleaning,” Reilly said, using some drug slang I didn't fully understand. He calls the refs pussies for handing out yellow cards, noting that a card wouldn't stop Rasheed Wallace from punching Carmelo Anthony, which was even more confusing than the Tuff Shed line. They don't hand out yellow cards in the NBA, but they have technical fouls, which are exactly the same thing. Is Reilly complaining about the physical properties of the cards themselves?

Things get more mysterious still as Reilly bitches about how you never know how many minutes exactly are left in a match because of stoppage time. He claims this confuses the players, which sort of seems unlikely. He complains about drawn matches, saying, “All these ties are about as exciting as a Jonas Brothers roundtable on sex.” I would actually be very interested to hear the Jonas Brothers' opinions on sex, but then again I thought that the 1-1 tie between the US and England was a really exciting game.

Of course, there's always the possibility that Reilly was joking. There are a lot of sentences that are supposed to be jokes, I'm pretty sure. He keeps talking about “Ace Young,” who I guess is a widely known singer--maybe Reilly's kid or underaged prostitute is a fan of his? The stuff about vuvuzelas was definitely meant to be a joke. I bet the idea for the entire column originated when Reilly was staring at his bloodshot, dilated pupils in the mirror and repeating “vuvuzela” to himself and realized it was a funny word. Maybe the resemblance to “vulva” made him laugh. Maybe he wrote a whole bunch of jokes about the vulvas of the European players had because they're a bunch of queer trannies who play a sport where nobody won or lost ever and they didn't physically attack the refs, but those bits got cut by his editors at ESPN.

More likely, this wasn't edited at all and Reilly only wrote it because he felt obligated to write about the biggest sporting event in the world. He had no knowledge whatsoever of soccer, however--despite being a professional sports columnist—and watched maybe one game before writing some stream-of-consciousness one-liners that he didn't even bother connecting to one another with transitions. So what if it isn't funny or analytical or anything at all, really, other than a nice example of anti-soccer attitudes held by Americans? Reilly's a famous sports columnist who gets paid enough money to buy all the uncut heroin he wants—he can afford to do work that would embarrass any self-respecting amateur blogger.

World Cup Buzz Kill [ESPN]
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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Why The NBA Finals are like Porn

Note: This blog has taken a short vacation and normal programming will resume shortly. Meanwhile, here is a breakdown of the NBA Finals, because I haven't written about them yet:

Pretty much anyone can play basketball, and pretty much anyone can have sex. You need a certain amount of physical development and experience to do either with any ability, but all you need to play basketball or have sex are a ball and a hoop or some functioning genitalia, respectively. In both fields, there's a pretty sharp divide between the amateurs and professionals―I could show you videos of myself shooting free throws or jacking off, but no one wants to see that, let alone pay me for it. But there is a select group of talented individuals who have honed their craft to the point where millions of people want to watch them do professionally what most people only do for fun, namely: fucking each other or putting a ball through a hoop. I've been watching these professionals quite a lot over the past few weeks, both at my neighborhood sports bar surrounded by rabid Boston Celtics fans and in my apartment when my roommates are gone, and I've begun to notice a substantial amount of overlap between the NBA Finals and hardcore pornography:

Firstly, both feature performers who have an immense amount of raw physical talent. Pau Gasol is able move his body and handle the ball in ways few 7-footers can, and Peter North has a gigantic cock, although maybe Gasol has a gigantic cock too. Ordinary-sized people with ordinary-sized cocks simply can't do the things Gasol and North can―we have to admit that we aren't going to be world-famous porn stars or make First Team All-NBA. All we can do is watch them do their thing in awe and masturbate.

But it's not just about freakish physical attributes. Ray Allen is fairly tall, sure, but he doesn't have the kind of athleticism that, say, Rajon Rondo does―Allen's gift to basketball is his jump shot, which is a thing of beauty that is clearly the product of long, long hours of practice and honing. Similarly, that anonymous German woman I saw on YouPorn last night didn't have the best body in the world, but she was able to get an extraordinarily large penis all the way into her mouth without gagging or tearing up. I can only imagine that this took a lot of practice as well. She and Allen both know that if you want to be the best, you better get in your reps.

There's an advantage not just in practicing, but in real experience on the court or in front of the camera. We saw that in Game 3 of the Finals, when Derek Fisher, supposedly too old and washed up to play at a high level anymore, closed out a tough road win with 11 fourth-quarter points. You can also see that when you watch the later films of porn legends like Jenna Jameson or Ron Jeremy. Like Fisher, they've clearly got a lot of miles on their bodies, but they have what it takes to come through in the clutch.

But it's not about the individual performers. Exhibitions like dunk contests and solo webcams shows can be impressive, but to my mind they're just that―exhibitions. It's impressive that Dwight Howard can jump that high, just as it's impressive that that woman can work that dildo that far up her ass. But I want to see Howard dunk in a game, and I want to see that ass interact with a live human cock. The beauty in basketball and porn is that they're ultimately examples of what we can accomplish when we work together, whether that means a perfectly executed possession in Phil Jackson's triangle offense or a really well-filmed amateur threesome. I really like threesomes.

Finally, no matter how much of the NBA Finals I watch and no matter how many porn sites I surf through, I'm not going to see LeBron James. Even though that would be awesome.

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Monday, June 7, 2010

Why White People in My Neighborhood Suck

My intention was to never divulge any kind of personal information on this blog, but for this topic I need to mention some personal details: I'm white, I don't have very much money in the bank, and I live in the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Bed Stuy, for those of you who don't know, is a historically black, historically fairly poor and crime-ridden neighborhood. Do the Right Thing was filmed here, and so was Dave Chapelle's Block Party. Mos Def and Talib Kweli grew up around here, as did the Notorious B.I.G., who may have rapped in the basement of my building back when it doubled as a kind of makeshift club (Biggie also reportedly sold crack a few blocks away). There's a mural of Ol' Dirty Bastard's driver's license on a wall outside a liquor store near my building, and there's other murals scattered through the neighborhood that memorialize lesser-known folks who died early thanks to guns and drugs.

I'm not trying to brag about how “hood” my 'hood is—and it certainly has gotten safer in the past few years—but there's some areas of Bed Stuy that are, undeniably, pretty rough. There are a few corners where crack merchants hang out, a bunch of project towers, and countless fried chicken franchises, liquor stores, and bodegas where you can buy beer without an ID any time of the day or night. Bed Stuy's also home to a huge amount of diversity. Within the radius of a few blocks you can find Jamaicans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Mexicans, Africans (I mean African Africans, not “African Americans”), American-born blacks, Orthodox Jews, robe-wearing Muslims, Christians who attend hole-in-the-wall storefront churches with names like “The Congregation of the Journeyers of the Holy Spirit,” and even a few white folks, like me.

Well, more than “a few” white folks these days. From my window, I'm watching the fascinating, stop-motion process known as “gentrification.” I guess I'm a part of that process too, even though I didn't ask to be. White people looking for cheap rents—mostly ex-students and the like--have started to trickle in to Bed Stuy, mostly around the edges, and as if it's all part of some master plan the organic food stores and fancy coffee shops have come in with them. You can see sociological trends happen in real time, which is exciting and depressing at the same time. In the past year, a new coffee and wine bar opened up three blocks away, a brunch-serving “gastropub” appeared just down the road, and the building next to mine was transformed from a vacant house into a classy condominium, that people (white people) actually bought. There are other condos in Bed Stuy now too, even some in fancy new glass buildings that look like they've been transplanted from SoHo.

This is part of the urban life cycle, right? The poor, struggling students and artists move to a neighborhood—usually a neighborhood that has a lot of ethnic minorities and poor people in it—because they like cheap rent. Then some businesses that cater to those artists and students open, like new bars and restaurants, and then more white people who like bars and restaurants and feel that the slight scent of urban decay adds “authenticity” or whatever move in, and then rents go up and buildings get renovated or torn down and rebuilt and some people probably protest or whatever but it doesn't make a difference, and before you know it there's a Whole Foods in the Bowery. And the poor people, including the next generation of poor students and artists, find somewhere else to live.

I'm guilty of being part of this, because I enjoy some of the services gentrification provides, like good coffee places that have wi-fi, bars that have fancy beers that taste like fruit and chocolate on tap, and attractive young white women walking around during the summer months. But what I don't like about gentrification—and why I wish all of the white people would just stop pouring into Bed Stuy, can be contained in this anecdote:

I'm getting on the G subway line to go to work, and I need a new Metrocard. So I wait in line behind a few people waiting to use the machine, which, as is so often the case at the Bedford-Nostrand stop, isn't working—this time, it's not taking credit cards. The young, earnest-looking white woman (she looked like an sophomore at NYU) who was dutifully feeding her card to the machine, eventually figured this out and turned to the young woman behind her and asked if there was an ATM nearby. Of course, this being Bed Stuy, every corner bodega has an ATM in it, and there's a bodega on nearly every corner. After being told to go to the bodega right next to the station, the young white woman paused and said, “Yeah, but uh, is it legit?”

I'll stop here to note an important, often overlooked facet of gentrification: the first wave of poor white people who move in (including me) don't want the neighborhood to change, even though their arrival is the first step in a process that will change the neighborhood beyond recognition. I like living in Bed Stuy and not so I can impress people with my “realness.”

First of all, I like the cheap rent. I like buying cheap beer at (sometimes non-legit) bodegas that are open late and always friendly. I like the little kids hanging out on their stoops at one in the morning, and I like the teenagers who roll blunts on the steps of my building after buying weed from my neighbor. I like saying hello to the friendly homeless guys who might be crackheads, and I like walking down Franklin Avenue when the elderly, welfare-dependent drunks are sitting in the sun and hollering at each other across the street. On Sundays, I like looking out my window and watching the old ladies in insane hats navigate the church steps with their canes and walkers. I even like walking past the derelict hulks of vacant brownstones, or at least I prefer those to the newer, glass-and-steel structures going up lately. I don't need a Whole Foods, or even a Trader Joes, and I definitely don't need any more “hip” bars designed to cater to gentrifiers. If these things come in and the neighborhood gets “whiter” and my rent goes up, I'll probably move. If my rent goes up too much, I'll be forced to.

So, to the girl who's looking for a “legit” ATM: get the fuck out of Bed Stuy and get your parents to find you a place in Park Slope or Williamsburg or Brooklyn Heights. You probably shop at Fresh Direct rather than supporting the local shops, you're probably scared of your own neighbors, and you'd probably spend your time at the Starbucks that your kind will inevitably bring. I'd rather live next to a drug dealer than you, because at least a drug dealer is a part of the community in a way you clearly don't want to be. People like you give white people in black neighborhoods a bad name.
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