Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Sucky Supreme Court, Via the NYT

I don’t often agree with conservatives about the issues, but I have to admit their debating tactics are pretty awesome. One of their go-to moves is to accuse liberals of doing exactly what they (conservatives) are trying to do and act outraged about it. For instance, conservatives are fond of yelling about the liberal bias in the mainstream media, and one might think they had a problem with biases in media generally, but ha ha! They want media to be biased, as their embrace of talk radio and Fox News demonstrates. Similarly, they’ve been moaning and bitching about the “activist judges” who legalized abortion and other such nonsense, but after three decades in which a Republican was in the oval office (and thus appointing judges) two-thirds of the time, judges are more activist than ever—the difference is they’re conservative activist judges, so the conservatives like them. This is like baseball fans who say they hate Barry Bonds because he took steroids, then defend their own team’s players who took steroids because “they were just trying to be competitive and win ball games.”

In fact, one of the most “activist” decisions in recent years was the case of Citizens United v. the United States, which overturned numerous campaign finance laws and essentially said that corporations counted as people for the purpose of “free speech” and should be allowed to spend as much money as they want “speaking” on behalf of one candidate or the other. But conservatives didn’t denounce it because it was their kind of activism. (If you did denounce the verdict and you’re conservative, awesome, but by and large, your team did not.)

Obviously, no decision is completely ideologically neutral, but the as the Times article linked to says,

If the Roberts court continues on the course suggested by its first five years, it is likely to allow a greater role for religion in public life, to permit more participation by unions and corporations in elections and to elaborate further on the scope of the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms. Abortion rights are likely to be curtailed, as are affirmative action and protections for people accused of crimes.

I’d argue that the favoring of churches, unions, and corporations over pregnant women and accused criminals is activism, and not particularly Christian, but I don’t want to get into that here. Smarter people than I can discuss the Supreme Court. What’s worth noting is that the mainstream conservative movement favors advancing its policies by any means necessary (duh), and doesn’t care whether the courts or the media is neutral. In fact, they want those institutions to lean towards the right—which is why they’re constantly accusing both Supreme Court justices and journalists in general of being “liberal.” It’s a little intellectually dishonest, but as Lee Atwater said, “Intellectual honesty is for homo college professors and pigfuckers who don’t win elections and get to appoint justices.”

Court Under Roberts Most Conservative In Decades (NYT) Read more!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Why the Census Sucks

I wrote a blog entry for Vice yesterday about working for the Census in the same area of Brooklyn where two managers notoriously falsified over 4,000 people’s personal information in order to meet their deadline, and I thought I’d add a few points that I couldn’t fit in that limited space:

1. Obviously, if you’re going to have a representative democracy that awards seats in Congress based on population, you need to count the people who live in your democracy. Equally obviously, this is impossible. The US could probably count all the voters in the country more or less accurately, but the Census tries to count everyone from newborn infants to illegal immigrants in 50 states and thousands of large towns and cities. Thanks to pockets of people who want to hide from the government for various reasons, urban areas are probably always going to be undercounted, and that’s far from the only problem. People could lie on their Census forms without anyone catching them, Census Enumerators and low-level managers can lie as long as they’re smart about it, an office clerk could hit the wrong key and misenter some data…it’s simply impossibly improbable that there the number the Census comes out with is right. The only reason the Census exists is so the government can claim that it made a good faith effort to count everyone. The managers who falsified data aren’t in trouble because they screwed up the count; they’re in trouble because they undermine the fictitious notion of an “accurate” Census.

2. But just because the Census is doomed doesn’t mean it can’t do a better job than it does. For starters, they could set up a website where you can send your information to the government electronically—in fact, it’s ridiculous that they didn’t do it this time around. They could mail everyone the standard Census form along with a user ID and password to log into a secure site where they could fill out the form without having to go to a mailbox, and there’s no way the response rate wouldn’t rise. (Can you imagine the anti-government, gun-toting types’ reaction to a website where the government asked you personal information?)

3. Another thing the Census needs to fix is the system they use to train Enumerators. When I trained in Brooklyn, I received exactly the same materials and instructions as Enumerators in Cowtip, Montana, which is insane. Enumerators in cities have to deal with a much different set of problems than the people in smaller towns—for instance, we had to try to get into buildings where the buzzers were broken or no one would let us in. I personally had to continually correct the forms I was given because the listed number of units in a building had no relation to reality. And the requirement that we visit boarded-up or burned out units three times before asking the winos sitting on their stoops if the building was vacant was ignored by everyone because it made no sense to begin with. Privatizing the Census makes no sense for a lot of reasons, but a private company wouldn’t make the mistake of treaties large cities and small towns exactly the same.

4. Despite all this, I recommend a Census job to anyone lucky enough to be unemployed in 2020. It pays well, and there’s a joy in working an insignificant job in a large, poorly managed organization. Or as the late Harvey Pekar once said, “I gotta good gig, man. It’s steady an’ I can fuck off a lot. I’d recommend that every young man look inta th’ possibility of getting a flunky government job.”

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Monday, July 19, 2010

Why Censoring Rap Music Sucks

I’m sharing the above music video with you not because Janelle Monae is one of the coolest people alive, or because the song is extraordinarily catchy, but because of Big Boi’s verse—or more specifically, the censoring of Big Boi’s verse. The line in question goes: “You gotta keep your balance or you’ll fall into the gap/It’s a challenge but I manage cause I’m cautious with the s----.”

Before I downloaded Ms. Monae’s whole album, I assumed that the censored line was “shit,” but that was stupid in hindsight, since “shit” doesn’t rhyme with “gap” and surely an experienced MC like Big Boi wouldn’t screw up like that. The word deemed inappropriate by the FCC and radio stations is actually “strap,” defined by my dictionary as “a strip of leather, cloth, or other flexible material, often with a buckle, used to fasten, secure, or carry something or to hold on to something.” Huh? What’s objectionable about that?

My first thought was Big Boi was referring to the practice of “tying off” with a belt before shooting up some heroin, but Big Boi has never rapped about using heroin before, to my knowledge, and I doubt he would advise his listeners to be “cautious” with it—more likely he would tell people not to use heroin at all. Some quick checking on Urban Dictionary revealed that “strap” actually means “gun,” an evolution of the old usage of “I’m strapped,” or “fully strapped.” So the censorship equation is strap=gun=bad=bleeped out.

This is the fundamental problem with censorship, or at least censorship as it relates to music, especially rap—it’s not just “curse words” that get cut, it’s words that touch on a host of different topics, from drugs to crime to sex, even when the message behind the lyrics is fundamentally positive. Like in Big Boi’s case, he’s not telling people, “Go out and shoot a bunch of people with your gun,” he’s saying, “I’m awesome, and furthermore, I exercise caution when I have a firearm in my possession.” He’s preaching gun control and restraint, but I didn’t even know that thanks to the short-sighted censoring of his verse.

More fundamentally, the censoring of words in rap songs doesn’t just wipe out words like “fuck” and “shit” and “bitch” that are defined by most people as “offensive” (although it’s hard to imagine the person who is still legitimately offended by these words). The censors have decreed that rapping about violence and drugs is out-of-bounds, even if the message of the song isn’t pro-violence or pro-drug. This is more than defended the tender ears of our children, this is an insidious plot to control the discourse of pop music—that’s maybe an exaggeration, but not by much.

It also might be an exaggeration to call the censoring of rap music racist, but (white) pop has been relentlessly concerned with sex, drugs, and violence for decades, and no one stepped in to tell the Rolling Stones that “Under My Thumb” was misogynistic (it’s nastier than anything Snoop Dogg ever said) or the Beatles that “Happiness is a Warm Gun” was unsuitable to be played on the radio due to its title. How can “Cocaine” be released by Eric Clapton as a single, yet when Big Boi mentions buying weed on “Bombs Over Baghdad,” the lyrics are censored to: “shoulda bought an o---- but you copped a d—“? Is the difference lyrical context, the standards of the times, or the skin color of the musician? What are the standards for censoring music beyond the bleeping of “the seven dirty words?”

Or to put it another way, how would the FCC choose to censor the Police B-Side, “Once Upon a Daydeam?” It’s one of the most brutal songs I’ve heard from a mainstream artist, yet there’s no profanity in it. But if Big Boi can’t say he’s cautious with the strap, can Sting sing about unborn babies being killed?

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Sunday, July 4, 2010

400 Pages of Suck: A Running Diary of Glenn Beck's Novel, Which I Actually Read

Like a car accident, Glenn Beck fascinates me. He’s one of those rare political figures that doesn’t seem to want to be elected (not that he ever could be), doesn’t seem to want to debate policy in any sort of intellectual, wonkish sense, doesn’t care about building a viable movement (the Tea Party is nothing if not unviable), and doesn’t dream of being a lobbyist or a cabinet member or a diplomat (so far as I know). He’s a pure orator—or demagogue, if you don’t agree with him. He is to television what Rush Limbaugh, or further back, Father Coughlin, was to radio: someone who can manipulate the medium without special effects of any kind, and whose appeal is obscure to anyone who doesn’t share his politics. His style of argument is to basically never state any facts or opinions—he hints at dark, leftist conspiracies, he makes vague references to the Nazis, and, famously, he cries on camera. He’s either stark raving mad, the prototype of the next generation of pundit, or most likely, both. So when I heard he had written a novel (or at least overseen the production of a novel) I had to read it. It took me four and a half hours, and here’s how it went:

6:00 PM, Page 20: After a prologue in which a guy named “Eli Churchill” hints at a giant conspiracy involving Donald Rumsfeld, 11 nuclear weapons, and 2.3 trillion “missing” dollars, then gets shot in the head by a mysterious assassin, this is the first sentence of Chapter One: "Most people think about age and experience in terms of years, but it’s really only moments that define us." Deep, man. We are introduced to Noah Gardner, who has “all the credentials for a killer eHarmony profile” and gets laid constantly, as long as he keeps “the bar for an evening’s companionship at only medium-high.” However, "Noah had begun to realize something about that medium high bar: it takes two to tango.” From context, I known this is supposed to mean that he’s ready for a serious relationship, but I keep staring at that line and I’m pretty sure it’s a mixed metaphor, if you even want to count it as a metaphor.

6:09 PM, Page 25: Only a few sentences after we’re informed Noah is looking for a serious relationship, his vaguely described soulmate appears! She has an “aloof and effortless hotness,” and defies “a traditional chick-at-a-glance inventory.” It’s like the words are forming a picture in my mind!

6:14 PM, Page 30: Noah’s soulmate turns out to be a member of the “Founder’s Keepers,” which sounds a lot like the Tea Party. She doesn’t fall for what we’re told is Noah’s charm, and then tells him a punny joke about the Biblical Noah, who has “herd” everything. Ha ha! For some reason, this witty banter renders our Noah speechless. Anyway, he’s going to meet her at a Founder’s Keepers/Tea Party meeting later.

6:22, Page 38: We meet Noah’s father, who doesn’t believe in God or the dollar. I’m guessing he’ll be a bad guy. Also, he’s in advertising. He talks in phrases like, "I’ll show you the path to a whole new world in which everything you want is laid out before you, ripe for the bountiful harvest.”

6:29, Page 45: Big Bad Dad notes that Social Security “was the boldest Ponzi scheme in history” and forecasts worldwide economic devastation. It’s sort of like what’s happened in real life in the past few years, but a lot simpler. Oh, and it turns out this guy is the guy who came up with the idea of selling bottled water. He’s definitely evil. He speaks vaguely of an evil-sounding conspiracy.

6:38: Page 56: Chapter 4 consisted entirely of Noah calling some high-ranking financial people’s assistants at the request of his father. Remember, this is a “thriller.”

6:43, Page 61: The ad agency the Gardners work at is responsible for every successful ad campaign of the past 50 years, from selling t-shirts of Che and Mao to “clueless rock stars” to selling the lottery to the guileless public to helping every president get elected, except for Jimmy Carter and Nixon, who was too cheap. (That’s an odd admission, since Nixon’s campaign was one of the greatest accomplishments in advertising history, but whatever.)

7:00, Page 87: The Tea Party meeting in this book is “…a total cross section, a mix of everyone—three-piece suits rubbing elbows with T-shirts and sweat pants, yuppies chatting with hippies, black and white, young and old, a cowboy hat here, a six-hundred-dollar haircut there.” So clearly, we’re in an alternate reality. Also, I come across this gem of a line, as Molly gazes at Noah: "It must have been only a second or two, but it felt so much longer than any other mere moment he could remember."

7:03, Page 89: Despite the open nature of this gathering of patriots, the characters that we’ve met so far have Southern or Appalachian accents. Are there any gay people at this gathering, I wonder?

7:07, Page 96: Noah is a “human lie detector” and picks out an “infiltrator” at the meeting (which is packed, by the way). I thought this was an open, accepting crowd. Chapter 10 looks like it’s going to be straight exposition, delivered through the mouth of a speaker at the meeting.

7:15, Page 110: Yup, the speaker told us all about how bad corruption, the New Deal, lobbyists, and the IRS were. The crowd was rapt with attention at a boilerplate speech that included advice like, “Instead of bin Laden, give them Gandhi” and the somewhat vague rhetorical question, "Who loves America more, those who want to restore it, or those who want to transform it?”

7:23, Page 120: More speeches. The government has a secret plot to round up all the right-wingers and third-party members into camps. There’s a muddle of left- and right-wing issues, then Noah is goaded into getting in front of everyone, where he quotes George Carlin and The Beatles. These chapters are an accurate description of most meetings of fringe political groups (except for the packed house); they really are very boring.

7:29, Page 129: The meeting is predictably broken up by black-clad cops. This is less boring than the speeches because anything would be, but it’s delivered in workmanlike prose: "As the black truncheon swung down Noah reached up and caught the uniformed man by the wrist, stopping him cold with an unexpectedly steely grip toned over years with his personal trainer at the Madison Square Club.” Good of them to mention where Noah works out. I’m sure that’s important.

7:42, Page 138: Noah is under arrest. The cops are boring and generic. This is how a lawyer is described: "he always looked as though he’d just stepped out of the ‘Awesome Lawyers’ issue of Gentlemen’s Quarterly."

7:48, Page 152: They get out of jail in a few pages, although I couldn’t tell you exactly what happened. Some cops admitted infiltrating the meeting and causing trouble, I think. That’s glossed over though, so we can get to the part where Molly apologizes to Noah for misjudging him. I’m bored. Can we get a sex scene?

7:52, Page 158: No. More speeches. Noah spouts off on the hideous history of Public Relations. He sounds like the young liberal journalism teacher I had in high school, but more boring.

7:55, Page 170: Eliot Spitzer makes a cameo. Noah has a fancy apartment. He reads a books before going to bed, but realizes "No arrangement of ink on a page could possibly hold a candle to the twists his actual day had taken." Good of Beck to tell us how awesome that preceding sequence was.

8:01, Page 180: A character clearly modeled after Beck himself (a celebrity who has a shady, drug-ridden past, and is now a YouTube sensation) is approached by an FBI agent. This is supposed to be a “thriller,” but except for the brief appearance of the riot squad, every single scene in 180 pages has been people talking.

8:07, Page 187: Looks like the Beck character is going to be used as an informant to trick violent right-wing militia members. We’re told he’s “charming” and there’s “quite a bit more to this young fellow than initially met the eye.” Let’s hope so.

8:11, Page 196: The two soulmates kiss! "With everything to see and hear around them there at the very crossroads of the world, soaring billboards, scrolling news crawlers, bright digital Jumbotrons that lined the tall buildings and blotted out the whole evening sky, it all disappeared to its rightful insignificance, flat as a postcard." Sentences like that make me long for the ham-fisted speeches.

8:18, Page 215: Well, I got my wish. Noah and Molly discover the conspiracy that was obviously going on. The secret conspiracy includes taking away gun rights and giving convicts the right to vote. Weren’t the good guys ranting about the prison system some pages ago? The concept of the “Overton Window” is explained: people don’t accept radical change all at once. Talk about self-evident truths.

8:24, Page 233: We visit the home of one of the radicals. In a bit of business stolen directly from Fahrenheit 451, the Founders’ Keepers memorize books written by the founders.

8:46, Page 264: This is an example how events are related in the book: the FBI agent goes undercover and meets some violent militia folks, the scene is described in detail, and then we flash forward in the next chapter and are told about the most interesting parts of the meeting (the militia folks might be suspicious, there’s an extra militia member who wasn’t present) only after the fact. Why can’t we have a complete scene? Would that be too exciting?

9:00, Page 293: It’s becoming obvious that the conspiracy is engineering a fake terrorist attack by a right-wing militia to allow them to put all the Tea Partiers in concentration camps. Noah’s Big Bad Dad is giving a sub-1984 speech to explain why he needs to take over the world. Seriously, that’s his plan: world domination.

9:04, Page 301: We’re now in Part Three. I didn’t notice when we crossed from Part One to Part Two. Noah throws up because his father is so evil, and Noah’s "skin was as pale as a Newark Bay oyster.” That’s my favorite line so far.

9:09, Page 313: We meet a woman who was never mentioned before, but is apparently Noah’s best friend. Luckily for the plot, she’s a doctor who informs him one of the good-guy revolutionaries was poisoned, and hints at a conspiracy. Every character is constantly hinting at a conspiracy, even if he’s just feeding his cat.

9:15, Page 327: Holy shit! Beck and his co-authors clearly realized that things were getting boring, so this happens: Molly pretends to be Natalie Portman so the protagonists can sneak through airport security, but the security guard is a Star Wars geek (Noah knows this from his “Luke Skywalker blow-cut”). Being a Star Wars geek, the guard loves the prequels and knows everything about Natalie Portman. Then Molly quotes the scene from New Hope where Obi-Wan says, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for,” and they get through undetected. Oh, then Noah and Molly do the “I love you,” “I know” bit that Han and Leia do in Empire Strikes Back.

9:23, Page 333: Glenn Beck is a Star Wars nerd. And people wonder why he fascinates me.

9:29, Page 346: After quoting several 18th-century American thinkers (Beck isn’t even bothering with speeches at this point, the omniscient narrator is just telling us what to think), the book summarizes a Samuel Adams quote this way: "Put up or shut up, in other words; go hard or go home. Freedom is the rare exception, he was saying, not the rule, and if you want it you’ve got to do your part to keep it." Oh, now I get it. I’m a Tea Partier now, Beck has convinced me.

9:33, Page 349: I can’t take it anymore. "Way off to the driver’s side, maybe three hundred yards distant, Danny saw what looked like the only man-made thing for miles around. Whatever it was, it wasn’t much." FUCKING TELL US WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE, YOU WRITTEN-BY-COMMITTEE PIECE OF HORSESHIT “THRILLLER!”

9:36, Page 354: "Upon their arrival Kearns had made a bit of small talk with each member of the group, and soon all agreed it was time to do the deal they’d come to do." WHY EVEN INCLUDE THIS LINE? WHAT THE FUCK DOES IT TELL US? DO TERRORISTS WHO ARE ABOUT TO DETONATE A NUCLEAR WEAPON REALLY HAVE “SMALL TALK?”

9:50, Page 372: I’m done critiquing the prose. It’s too exhausting. The character who is clearly supposed to be Beck just told the FBI agent what’s going on: the government is setting it up so it appears the Tea Party launched a nuclear attack on Las Vegas. They bravely kill themselves to detonate the bomb in the middle of the desert. That was mildly thrilling. Even Beck can’t make a nuclear bomb boring.

9:55, Page 378: Noah is captured and tortured—waterboarded—for a page. This lasts about as long as an earlier sequence in which he is nervous about getting on a hammock with Molly. Ah, this ends when his father shows up. I wonder if we’ll get some more speeches?

10:01, Page 383: Yes, more speeches. Like Ayn Rand, Glenn Beck likes his characters to state their philosophy of life every chance they get, then sets up opportunities for them to do so. “The ends do justify the means,” says Big Bad Dad, before revealing himself to be the head of the Trilateral Commission or some shit: "Now, we openly take the reins. Now, we’ll give the people the government they’ve shown themselves to deserve." Some Saturday morning cartoons have more complicated villains.

10:10, Page 388: Noah is now going to be tortured by some electrical current, in a bit stolen completely from Atlas Shrugged. The prose refuses to rise to the climatic occasion: "They’d refashioned his bonds in a manner that would still restrain him, but with less likelihood of causing him to injure himself in the course of the coming ordeal."

10:15, Page 393: Noah quotes some poetry, so his father…lets him live? I don’t even understand what is happening anymore. I think Noah just realized he could pretend to be on his dad’s side and not get tortured anymore. That’s our climax, by the way—our protagonist lies his way out of getting tortured.

10:25, Page 400: We’re in the Epilogue now. Now I know how marathon runners feel on the 26th mile. I just realized that the scene in the Prologue, where a guy who knows stuff gets shot, never comes back into play. The evil conspiracy has taken over even though the nuclear weapon didn’t kill thousands of people like the bad guys planned. Noah is a PR guy for the new totalitarian government of his father—sort of exactly like Winston Smith in 1984. But he gets contacted by a member of the resistance, and we end on a positive note: “The fight starts tomorrow.” Do I smell a sequel? The Overton Door, perhaps?
The rest of the book consists of endnotes explaining what parts of what the characters said were factual This includes, interestingly enough, explanations as to why some of the crazier stuff the Glenn Beck character said was wrong. "It is our responsibility to look at everything with a skeptical eye, and also to be aware that many will try to twist reality to serve their own agenda or reinforce their worldview,” Beck says, and few reasonable people would disagree.

The endnotes are by far the best and most interesting part of the book. The Overton Window is not only the worst-titled thriller in history, it’s also probably the most boring. The plot boils down to “Evil powerful people commit an act of terrorism and frame someone for it, allowing them to cease power in the confusion,” which, come to think of it, sounds a lot like the plot of the Star Wars prequels. To hide the thinness of the plot, there’s a bunch of bits casually stolen from better books, endless speeches that quote the Founding Fathers, especially Thomas Paine, and that ridiculous business involving Natalie Portman. Most of the characters are forgettable, but that doesn’t matter since they generally just disappear once no more is required of them by the story. It’s not a formulaic novel, since the formula for political thrillers involves more plot twists and action sequences. I imagine there’s some comparisons to be made between it and Star Wars, at least the Luke-Darth Vader/Noah-Noah’s Dad relationship, but I’m too tired to think about it. There are some political ideas in this book too, but they’re mostly of the bland, “freedom is good” sort, except for a strong anti-gun control stance. Jesus, what an awful book. Why did I read this? Life is short. Only read good books.
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