Sunday, April 25, 2010

Why the Arizona Immigration Law Sucks

Arizona just passed its famous anti-illegal immigrant law, and while the law has been criticized for being a vicious, racist law that turns all cops into the immigration police, at least it solves the problem of illegal immigration in Arizona once and for all.

Ha ha! That's a joke, although not a funny one, because while the new law requires illegal aliens who break any laws to be deported and imposes harsher penalties on businesses who hire immigrants, nothing in the law is going to magically remove the visa-less Mexicans from within Arizona's borders. It's going to make illegals even more afraid of the police and other government agencies, it's going to make some legal immigrants nervous if they leave their house without identification, but mostly the law got passed so the politicians who passed it could get reelected.

Arizona is probably the most conservative state in the US, which makes it one of the most right-wing places in the western world. Republicans have dominated both houses of the legislature for decades, and the state has produced politicians like Barry Goldwater, Evan Meacham (the governor who did away with Martin Luther King Day and was later impeached), and Sherriff Joe, who is so stereotypically cruel to the inmates he oversees it seems like he stepped out of an early Coen brothers movie. Compared to those guys, John McCain looks like Nancy Pelosi, which might be why he's losing his primary. Arizona is, in other words, exactly the kind of place where a subtextually racist old school law-and-order measure would be popular among voters. Whether or not it gets overturned in a federal court or actually becomes a deterrent for illegal immigrants isn't totally beside the point for the members of the Arizona Legislature. Good policy or not, they get to go home with a sticker that says “tough on immigration,” and that's what counts. You have to admit, the Arizona Republicans know what their base likes—less Mexicans.

The usual argument for “tough on immigration” laws like this goes something along the lines of: “My grandfather immigrated to this country, but he did so legally and Hispanics should have to do the same. They should wait their turn, and be happy we allow any immigrants into this country at all!” That sounds good, but it completely ignores the reality of Mexico. With the drug war turning into an actual war in the cities and the devastation of rural areas by free-trade policies that force corn farmers to compete with subsidized US corn farms*, it's perfectly reasonable for Mexicans to want to cross the border by any means necessary. Anyone's grandfather would do the same. The Arizona law is aimed at making life worse for illegal aliens, but no matter how much of a police state Arizona becomes, it will still be a lot better than some parts of Mexico. After all, the worst thing the cops can do to an illegal immigrant is send him back.

*For a fairly thorough, though dryly-worded, overview of this subject, check this out.
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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Things That Don't Suck: Martin Luther King, the Extremist

I probably don't need to convince you that Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated 42 years ago this month, was a good person. We take a whole day off in honor of his birthday. We teach our kids about the “I Have a Dream” speech and the march on Washington. There's a street named after him in nearly every major American city. We know that he wanted us to judge people not on the color of their skin, but by the content of their character, and we can all pretty much agree that that was a good thing to say. A poll from last year showed that 86 percent of Americans had a “favorable” opinion of King, a number that seems shocking low—who are the 14 percent of people who don't like MLK?

There's a movement to build a monument to King in Washington DC, which is something that we might have thought to do a while ago—with all the memorials to wars and fallen soldiers and founding fathers who were also slave owners, there isn't a single monument that references segregation. Just as importantly, maybe the monument will encourage people to find out more about the man. We're not in danger of forgetting about MLK, but there has been a sort of smoothing out of his beliefs in the popular imagination. When people think about King, what comes to mind is sort of a warm, soft glow of brotherhood, a suffusion of hopeful idealism. Worse than that, as time goes on, some of us may start thinking about him as someone who opposed segregation in the South, winning that battle but dying in the process.

Liberals who lionize him tend to forget that he was, most importantly, a Christian, and that his Christian beliefs informed his activism; Republicans who praise him (sometimes, one suspects, to prove that they aren't racist) tend to forget that he was decidedly a liberal; and we all tend to forget that while he lived, King was an extremely divisive figure who wasn't as popular as he is now. A lot of us (especially white liberals) imagine that we would be participating in sit-ins and marches, that we would be “freedom riders” and stand up to the racist southern sheriffs and their dogs, but not many people made that difficult choice at the time. King might have been an idealist, he might have believed in nonviolence, but we should remember that he was willing to go to jail for his ideals, he was willing to have dogs sicced on him and rocks thrown at him for his cause, and to follow him and do what he did was a hard road to travel.

We should remember, too, that he was committed to fighting all kinds of injustice, not just segregation in the South. The “I Have a Dream Speech” gets attention every January, but what about the speech where he denounced the Vietnam war and refered to the Vietcong as “brothers?” What about his campaign to fight poverty in Chicago, for which he moved into a tenement slum and where he found some of the most vicious, violent racism he ever encountered? What about the last cause he was involved in, the garbage workers' strike in Memphis? To reduce MLK's life to a campaign against Jim Crow is an unfair reduction and worse than that, it implies that the problems he fought are a thing of the past. What would King say about the recent anti-Mexican anti-immigrant bill in Arizona? What would he say about the exploitation of third-world workers, or the Guantanamo detainees? The planned MLK memorial depicts an unsmiling King gazing off into the distance, and this seems about right.

Teaching kids about King's life and work is important, but let's not stop at “all men are brothers.” Let's use King's life to teach that, among other things:
-Authority figures, even and especially the police, the church, and America itself can be wrong.
-“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.”
-Sometimes it's possible to change an unjust status quo, sometimes it isn't, but it's your responsibility to change things.
-"The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be."
-Dreams are good to have, but you don't get things done by dreaming.

(To learn more about the MLK memorial and to donate to it's construction, go here.)
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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Why the Double Down Sucks

You've undoubtedly heard of KFC's new “sandwich,” the Double Down. It seems like every yahoo with a web site, from the New York Times to to something called, has written a review tearing apart the latest food innovation from the corporate conglomerate that markets food-like products under the Colonel Sanders brand. Criticizing the Double Down has become a cottage industry whose origins stretch back to 2009, when the Double Down was released in limited markets. I imagine sales at KFC have been on the rise just from the number of bloggers and other rubberneckers ordering one for irony's sake.

Not that I can criticize too much. I, too, went down to my local KFC—for the first time ever—just to order and consume a Double Down, as part of a group of novelty-food enthusiasts. After my post in praise of sandwiches (which mentioned the Double Down), I felt like it was my duty to taste what very well could be the future of sandwiches.

If you haven't heard on another website, or if that picture is unclear, the Double Down consists of bacon, cheese, and an anonymous sauce slapped disinterestedly between two fried chicken breasts. It's basically a product of the Tracy Jordan Meat Machine—meat is the new bread! As should be obvious, this is not a great piece of culinary art. The cheese on mine was mostly flavorless and not melted. The bacon added very little to the sandwich and was probably pumped so full of artificial chemicals it wouldn't have counted as pork for kosher purposes. The chicken wasn't so bad, if a little on the dry side, and the sauce—probably the best part of the experience—was basically thousand island dressing. The whole thing was extraordinarily salty and strangely, not as filling as I thought it would be. In short, it sucked.

But of course it sucked—this is KFC we're talking about. This is the company that gets routinely protested by animal rights groups and mocked by portly standup comedians. The real Colonel Sanders once called the food KFC serves “sludge,” and the company got sued because its food was so unhealthy. So KFC introduced an unhealthy sandwich that doesn't taste all that great. In other news, the sky is blue, rain is wet, and the Catholic Church doesn't know how to handle the large number of pedophiles and repressed homosexuals in its priesthood. Whoop-de-doo.

Actually, I didn't think the Double Down was so bad as modern fast food goes, and one of the people who ate it with me thought it was awesome. It might be unhealthy, but it's certainly edible. The only reason this is worth talking about? The price: it cost about six dollars for the sandwich alone, seven-fifty if you wanted a drink. That's the weird, alarming thing about this sandwich, not those 32 grams of fat or the 1,380 milligrams of sodium (General Tso's chicken has way more sodium) or the sheer grotesqueness of it's appearance—fast food looks bad, tastes bad, and will kill you eventually, this is known by everyone—but the idea that someone would pay the equivalent of 12 Jack in the Box tacos for it.

Food-assisted suicide is old hat in America—remember Super Size Me? or Fast Food Nation? But by creating and marketing the Double Down KFC isn't just assuming that Americans like things that are bad for them, they're assuming that people like life-threatening food so much that they'll pay dearly for the privilege of clogging their arteries. And who's to say they're wrong?

(photo by Scott Tomford)
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Monday, April 12, 2010

Why Speculative Arguments Suck (Let's All Get High)

Attention potheads: in case you haven't heard—and you might not have, I know many of you do not follow the news—weed may shortly become full-on legal in California. A lot of people, including basically everyone I know, basically think that that's totally awesome, and agree with the pro-pot advocate in the article who said, "Banning marijuana outright has been a disaster, fueling a massive, increasingly brutal underground economy, wasting billions in scarce law enforcement resources and making criminals out of countless law-abiding citizens."

I agree with that last point especially, and I've written about how the drug laws can turn teenagers into criminals before. But the main reason marijuana legalization is on the table has nothing to do with Libertarian principles or anti-drug war talking points. California, you see, is as broke as a stoner in his mom's basement and taxing weed could raise bushels of money the state could spend on things like schools and ad campaigns telling kids how bad marijuana is.

Emphasis on the “could raise money” part. The people who want pot to stay illegal aren't arguing it leads to psychosis or killing your parents or any of those Reefer Madness arguments. They say that once pot is legalized, more people will use it, and that will lead to more “drugged driving” accidents, arrests, treatment centers, etc. They claim that alcohol costs us money because the tax dollars we take in from booze don't make up for the dollars we spend policing alcohol law violations and alcohol-related crime, not to mention the strain on the health care system that drunks represent. The same thing will happen, they say, with pot.

R. Gil Kerlikowske, whose “Drug Czar” title sounds a lot cooler than it really is, made these points and more in a speech to a bunch of cops. (Gil used to be the police chief in Seattle when I lived there, which is the only thing he has in common with this guy.) The speech is pretty persuasive, especially when you're stoned and can't think all that clearly, but it's fundamentally similar to the arguments the weeders—I'm calling them that now—are making. Gil claims that legalization will have a net negative effect on the economy, the weeders claim the effect will be positive, and neither side has any idea what will actually happen.

Will legalization force dealers out of a job and into the ranks of the unemployed? Will taxes on weed mean that the black market will still do great business and still result in crime and police involvement? How much money will taxes actually bring in? Will legalization mean that large corporations get involved directly in the drug trade and force out the home-growing small businessmen who are apparently the lifeblood of our economy? Will more people smoke pot if it's legal? Will it still be cool to get high if the cops aren't after you?

We have no idea what the answers to these questions are, which is why it's important to legalize weed in California. The best argument against Prohibition was Prohibition itself—after a few years of the mob dominating a major industry and a set of laws that turned most of Americans into criminals, we decided to go back to the way it was. Maybe legalizing weed is a terrible fucking idea and everyone will be high all the time and driving their cars when they're high and committing crimes when they're high and no taxes will be collected at all because we're all fucking stoned all the fucking time. But maybe all that will happen and it'll be totally awesome. Either way, we might as well test it out on California because no one will really notice if California degenerates into a drug-fueled orgy or a post-apocalypitc wasteland or a combination of the two.

Right now though, all the arguments for and against legalization are speculation. And as any Seattle Mariners fan who read one of those optimistic preseason predictions that were all over the internet can tell you, sometimes speculation is horribly, horribly wrong.
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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Why Employment Sucks

An interesting one-two punch of widely-covered news stories landed on our collective eyeballs last week: first, the jobs report told us that more people have jobs now, or at least less people have no job; then, a bunch of miners died on the job. There's usually a bit of irony sprinkled on top of tragedy (Romeo & Juliet's ending is kind of funny, for instance), and the coal-black joke here is that those miners would still be alive and above ground if they were unemployed.

Not everyone's job is as bad as being a coal miner, but unless you're one of those lucky people who get money for what they love to do—and those people are fucking few and far between—you hate your job. It might not a particularly emotional hatred right now—you might have hated it at first and then settled into a semi-comfortable rut, like one of those once-passionate, now loveless marriages, only in reverse—but if I asked the majority of people on the planet if they hated their jobs, they would probably pause and say, “No, I don't hate it exactly. Parts of it are very enjoyable. I've had jobs that were a lot worse and if I stay here I can become assistant manager/senior fry cook/the guy who gets to hold the gun and order us around.” Let's face it—you hate your job, and if you don't, you probably should.

Some time ago I wrote a post about the problems with unemployment, but the reason you feel bad when you are unemployed is not that you don't have a job, it's that almost everyone else does. In Modern Capitalism, no one can literally force you to work, but if you don't work you don't have money, which means you are a failure. If you don't have a job, your parents, roommates, and the people you panhandle from will tell you to get one. If you don't have a job, society in general will conspire to make you feel like shit. “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!” the right-wingers will yell at you, while the left-wingers will try to enroll you in job training programs and reduced-price housing. If you don't have a job for a while, the government will stop sending you checks, advertisers will stop catering to your demographic, and even the bleedingest-hearted liberal will start thinking that maybe some people are lazy and don't deserve to participate in the global economy.

Everyone who tells you to get a job is cynical at best and a raving moron at worst. Jobs are the problem. Jobs rob us of our dignity and the majority of jobs destroy some small part of the planet. For every life-saving surgeon or genuinely good hearted social worker, there's two soldiers willing to fire into a crowd of civilians when ordered, or a pair of cops who just want to bust brown-colored heads. Coal miners only make the news when they die in the mines, but their jobs don't get better when the cameras leave—they're still sweating in the dark caves, prying black rock out of the ground, and contributing to an industry that is slowly filling the sky with smoke. Jobs are the problem, and if you're not part of the problem, you're part of the solution.

If I was a pragmatist, I'd advise everyone to get a job just to put sandwiches on the table and Flaming Lips records in your ears. But pragmatism is horrible and boring. Here's what you should do: if you don't like your job, quit. We probably only get one life, and thanks to “jobs” everyone spends the majority of it doing a series of unenjoyable menial tasks. Fuck that—let's all just quit. If you don't like what you're doing, you should do something else. If you, like the majority of people in the world, can't do something you find enjoyable and rewarding and keep a roof over your head at the same time, there's something wrong with the world's priorities, not your own.

Jobs mean dying in a mine, either all at once, literally, or very slowly, metaphorically. Yet most of us have them, and are glad we do. The alternative of homelessness and abject poverty is even worse. We just need to come up with better alternatives
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Friday, April 2, 2010

Why Newspaper Comic Strips Suck

I grew up in a house with a newspaper subscription, and every morning before the school bus came I'd get the plastic-wrapped Seattle PI (which is no longer in print) from the front porch and peruse it over my bowl of milk-softened cereal. I never paid much attention to the front page—except maybe on 9/12—and the sports section only got my attention during baseball season and on the Mondays after Seahawks games. The only part of the paper I read with any sort of regularity was the comics page.

Maybe you know what I mean by “comics page.” It's usually in the “Life and Arts” section with the horoscopes and the advice columns—20 or 30 horizontal strips (like the strips at the top of this post, which are all from today's paper) and as many one-panel strips as are required to fill the rest of the space, like this Family Circus:

Some people glance at the comics page every morning and forget about it, but I was drawn to the format in a way that seems extremely strange to me now. I bought collections of strips, I read my dad's old collections of Peanuts and Bloom County and Doonesbury (the latter two I didn't understand because I didn't know who Ronald Reagan and Oliver North were), and I followed my favorite strips like hipsters follow obscure bands—I was angry when the PI didn't carry the excellent Get Fuzzy, and I despaired at the drop in quality of The Boondocks as time went on. We all have subjects we're privately passionate about. For Eric Massa, it's the supple buttocks of his male staffers; for me it was comic strips.

The problem was, I didn't enjoy 95 percent of the comic strips I read. The strips mentioned in the previous paragraph I can read and enjoy to this day, but those are some of the best strips of the last three decades, by which I mean they were funny about a third or a half of the time and the rest of the time the artwork could make up for it. The majority of the time, newspaper comic are like the examples you can see on this page—unfunny or poorly drawn, usually both at once.

Look at Beetle Bailey or Wizard of Id. Really look at them, don't skim over them the way most people do and the way I did when I was 13. Generic jokes, the kind you can get out of a really cheesy joke book, and characters so indifferently drawn your eye just glides past them. Of course, the characters don't really matter, since they exist solely to spout the prepackaged setups and punchlines—does it matter that the wizard is a wizard? Or that Beetle Bailey takes place in the military? (Also, couldn't the wizard just heal himself with magic? And what “work” is he going to?) These strips, by any objective standard, are really, really fucking awful, unfunny things that shouldn't be reproduced anywhere, yet alone in hundreds of newspapers.

These are all “legacy strips,” franchises that had their heyday dozens of years ago and are now drawn by their creators' sons or inheritors. Sometimes they are produced by a team of writers, hard as that is to believe, and they often have surprisingly vast commercial empires—how many stuffed, suction-pawed Garfields have you seen in car windows? They are in the newspaper because they have “name recognition” and because if a newspaper tries to replace a comedic and artistic void like Hi and Lois with something preferable—like escort advertisements—a bunch of people write in to complain about the change. This brings us to the core audience for newspaper comics, who are:

1.People who read them ironically and comment on the Comics Curmudgeon.
2.Old people who read them because they've done so for years and don't care about the artistic or comedic value of comics at all.

The second category is much bigger than the first, which is why newspaper comics are so toothless these days that that adjective doesn't do them justice. They have negative teeth. They are so bad that when The Boondocks appeared, a fairly well-drawn, funny strip with definable characters and a perspective on the outside world, it counted as a revelation for me. You can actually do something with those three panels in black and white! There can be more to this art form than recycled jokes delivered from lazily sketched (in more than one sense) characters standing in undefined backgrounds!

Yeah, that's right, comic strips are an art form. Go back and read some Calvin and Hobbes or Krazy Kat if you don't think that comic strips can be art. Harvey Pekar, the creator of American Splendor—which never appeared in a newspaper—said that comics were “words and pictures; you can do anything with words and pictures!” But in the bleak reality of newspaper strips, no one bothers to do anything interesting with words and pictures. Maybe that's due to the strict deadlines, maybe the good artists are giving up on strips or moving to the web; whatever the reason, newspaper comics—still the most well-known branch of non-superhero comics—serve even less purpose than newspapers themselves. They aren't dead yet, but maybe they should be.

The horrible thing isn't that these strips are terrible. God knows there is plenty of terrible in the world today. The problem is that a kid like me, who reads the comics for some reason, will grow up and think that that is what comics are supposed to be. The form has an incredible amount of potential, and I'm lucky enough to have found some good words with pictures to read. But the way the average America—who still reads the newspaper in this day and age—experiences comics is through the comics page. That's like experiencing gun collecting by being shot. It would be nice if more people could experience comics the way that they can be experienced, but that will never happen as long as Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois dominate newspapers.

Further reading: check out David Malki's hilarious and informative “The Comic Strip Doctor,” especially this entry on Momma, maybe the worst strip ever printed.
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