Saturday, April 30, 2011

Modest Heroics

I have long had a great deal of respect for David Letterman. Now I've just seen a clip from his Thursday show that reinforces that sentiment. Letterman had "Dr." Phil on as a guest, and the two of them discussed Donald Trump behavior on the not-yet-an-official-campaign trail. Letterman criticized Trump with what I think is perfectly appropriate language, calling his questions about President Obama's academic performance and birthplace suggestive of racism. And he provided his commentary with Letterman's characteristic modesty and seeming impartiality. When he does step into the realm of personal commentary, I always find that he gives the impression that it is based not on ideological commitments but rather a basic commitment to use his public prominence to good effect when he sees something as plainly right or wrong.

But what I find particularly laudable in this case is not the uninhibited criticism itself, but what comes at the end of this clip.

It's a rather simple comment: "I'm not sure if we want him back on the show under those circumstances." Yet, this is precisely the move that so many other figures in the media are very pointedly not making. It's a very simple ethic at play for Letterman and seemingly for nobody else. When people are engaged in outlandish and reprehensible behavior, you shouldn't provide them with a further outlet for that behavior. But the impulse in the broader media seems to be verbalize, uphold, and legitimize the opinions of the least rational, reputable, or scrupulous amongst us. I'd recommend an early post at this blog for more on why that's a problem:

Legitimation as Bias

When the entire media is so terrible, it's very nice to see a couple of figures therein who show a bit of integrity and common sense. In this climate, such modest steps as saying race-baiters aren't welcome can seem downright heroic. My kudos to David Letterman for continuing to rise above his peers.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Now Let's All Be Ballerinas!

Are we done with this royal wedding thing now?

Actually, it is perhaps a bit hypocritical of me to derisively ask that, considering that I'm certain to be checking on the story in the morning in order to see what the ratings were for the coverage of the event. But personally, the only thing I find interesting about this is the public's interest in it. So I'm paying some attention to it until it goes away, in hopes that it does so swiftly.

That's not to say that I don't understand the appeal. These are profoundly difficult times for many of us, and something so romantic and lavish as a royal wedding provides a marvelous fantasy and an opportunity to live vicariously through princes and princesses for a day. I understand it, but I disapprove. I don't begrudge anyone an appeal to escapism, but this sort of cultural voyeurism inhibits breaking points.

We have two main options when something like this is positioned to dominate the media - aside from ignoring it. We can imagine what it would be like to be there, and make believe until reality melts away for a little while, or we can recognize that we could never be there, that this is put forward as a point of stark contrast with our actual, down in-the-dirt lives, and that these are real people we're watching, for whom this kind of excess is commonplace. The former point of view is comfortable; it helps us to coast through an ordinary day on dreams of a different, regal life, but ultimately we do have to come back to a fuller awareness of where we actually stand.

The second option is cynical and seemingly self-defeating, and I prefer it hands down. It robs us of an opportunity to take second-hand pleasure from a rare, beautiful occasion, but at least it doesn't give us over to further delusions. It gives us a better sense of reality, a clearer vision of how what is painfully familiar looks when set against the dazzlingly vibrant backdrop of an alternative that is inaccessible to anyone who isn't born into it. And anything that makes us see more clearly also lets us better identify what is worth pursuing and what is worth rebelling against.

You have to be willing to put aside small joys sometimes, in favor of always keeping in mind the truth of what is going on and how it affects you. That is how we reach a breaking point.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Recommended Reading

I think we may actually be reaching a breaking point in our views about higher education. I've been seeing more and more people actually acknowledging the fact that there is something profoundly wrong with the current system. So tonight I am going to let someone else do the talking for me. Robert Brockway wrote a terrific column at today, and while I have one or two minor points of contention with his focus, it is extremely heartening to see other people who, in my estimation, "get it." I'll be writing more on this topic in the near future. I think it is genuinely important, but I've been demoralized in the past by the sense that I was the only one expressing any outrage. Though I may have failed to strike up the chorus in the past, I'm more than happy to join it now. But just to get started, please, read this:

The Question You're Not Asking: Should You Go To College?

What's New?

I am pleased to say that I had no idea that a new singing talent contest launched tonight on NBC. I just happened to hear an audio ad for it earlier this evening announcing the premiere of the network’s “new – and different! – …show.” That’s the way it was read. The announcer delivered the line so that you could actually hear the dashes separating – and emphasizing! – “different.”

I think it’s laughable that the ad agency that wrote that line didn’t realize that making a special effort to distinguish yourself from an alternative belies your sincerity about how different you actually are. In fairness, giving a certain description to your brand doesn’t actually mean the description is false, but pushing to be identified a certain way is a sure sign that you’re insecure about it, if not downright dishonest.

All they’ve done by writing that promo is call attention directly to the fact that everybody suspects this to be something of an unoriginal idea. And indeed it is unoriginal. Painfully unoriginal. Even putting aside American Idol, haven’t we seen enough television talent competitions yet? And more to the point, is the notion of originality even still present in the entertainment machine?

Something is seriously wrong when the people whose job it is to promote the same old trash aren’t even putting effort into distinguishing the brand they’re supposed to be marketing beyond simply saying “this has a different name – buy it!” I’m not sure whether this means that they’re aware of their own disingenuity and think of the audience as sufficiently easily manipulated that saying “it’s different” is enough to get them to tune in, or that they’re so committed to the modus operandi of putting new spins on horribly played out ideas that they don’t even recognize that there was ever an original way of creating content.

Depending on which it is, the breaking point needs to come either from consumers taking a broad look at their lack of original choices and ceasing to tune into the new version of the same crap, or from some portion of the entertainment industry having the gall to say, “Hey, we value our creativity, and we believe that if we take a chance on something genuinely good, rather than just established, the public will pay attention to it.” But if it comes of the latter, I worry about whether we would prove them right or wrong.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Lower Outlooks

The S&P's decision to lower it's outlook on U.S. debt is being variously described as a "threat," a "wake-up call," and a "warning shot across our bows." Perhaps without intending to, all of these phrasings suggest an element of power and deliberate manipulation on the part of the S&P. And what I find fascinating, and fairly shocking, is that no such well-intentioned warning was deemed necessary for private banking institutions when, no long ago, the S&P revised their rating methodology to include the assumption that banks will always be bailed out by the government.

I think the tension between those two judgments ought to be given a great deal of attention. Isn't there something seriously wrong when private investment banks can be considered essentially immune to default, but national treasuries cannot? Placing these two pronouncements by the S&P in context with each other, can there be any doubt as to where the greater share of the power in this country resides? Who's in charge when it is explicitly assumed that the government will bail out financial institutions, while it is accepted that the government must stand or fall on its own, with no expectation of the financial sector to float it the cash to keep running?

I'm looking for one of two breaking points from this. Either we fully acknowledge the injustices of the economic imbalance of which this is a part, and move to change the structure of a system that demands that governments take a back seat to financial systems, or we sit back and watch as a decreased rating for the government undermines the bailout assumption and drags down the ratings of the banks until both institutions are fractured and depleted.

Those are just the breaking points, though. The more likely outcome, as always, is the preservation of the status quo, which in this case means that the government will agree to raise its debt ceiling again, and Congress will ram through some dubious budget compromise to capitulate to the "threat" that has been issued by the S&P, which is, apparently, powerful enough to easily push around the entire federal government.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Tag, You're Art

There's some interesting news from the art world this week. Apparently the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art has just opened the first exhibition of graffiti art at a major museum.

Naturally, this has sparked a certain measure of controversy, with some people viewing it as glorification of petty vandalism. But I think that's nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction from people who haven't given graffiti a fair and objective hearing as an art form.

As with much art and most media, there is tons upon tons of terrible, hack-quality graffiti. But anybody who's seen the works of some of the really accomplished graffiti artists and who is able to divorce his judgment of artistic merit from his personal pique at bad experiences with private property being tagged cannot possibly deny good graffiti's status as art.

It generally angers me when I see the tags that show up all around Buffalo. On one level, it's irritating to observe wanton disregard for other people's property, but that concern is secondary to my annoyance at the absolutely awful quality of the tags that most culprits cover the city with. If you're going to tag something, it ought to be public property, but more than that, if you're going to tag anything at all that's publicly observable, it ought to contribute a positive aesthetic to the landscape.

I've always said that I wish there were public officials whose job it was to not just wash clean every instance of graffiti from public buildings and underpasses, as happens on a regular basis, but rather to judge the aesthetic quality of everything slated for destruction and to only get rid of what lowers the standards for how we engage with our surroundings. It doesn't seem fair to place every tag and every unsolicited mural in the same terrifically broad category. Some of it has the potential to actually improve the artist's neighborhood, or to express something of public interest, and to sandblast everything that's drawn in spray paint all at once doesn't just discourage graffiti, it discourages the improvement of outsider art.

This museum exhibition is a definite step in the direction of what I've been advocating. It separates the artistically meritorious works from the childish scrawls, because the old impulse to just call graffiti graffiti and wash your hands of all of it is simply untenable when you've seen what some of the true artists can do.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Fact-Free Ideology

There was some highly recommended reading from Steve Kornacki at Salon today:
When Rush bet $2 million that Clinton would ruin the economy.

Put very simply, it refers to recent conservative remarks that taxing the wealthy in times of economic difficultly makes recover virtually impossible, and sets those claims against identical commentary from the early nineties, when the Clinton administration was making just such a tax increase. Kornacki quotes Rush Limbaugh in 1993 as saying: “Tax rate increases slow down economic activity. It is not a theory. It's not an opinion. It is fact. It is true.” Limbaugh went on to predict that if any tax increase went forward, the economy would worsen, with a higher deficit, lower employment, and higher inflation. Well, the Clinton plan did go forward, and none of Limbaugh’s predictions came true, as anyone who lived through the Clinton administration should remember.

Yet, amazingly, Limbaugh and the entire conservative establishment continues to repeat the same talking point to this day: that tax increases of any kind hurt the economy. Taxing the wealthiest two percent is now “the Obama way,” and according to Limbaugh, “The Obama way has been tried… But it doesn’t work.”

This is the nature of entrenched ideology. It does not bend to reality. I find it hard to believe that these kinds of people actually believe the things that they identify as indisputable facts. If they do, it is an heroic kind of personal delusion, to be able to say something, watch your claims be conclusively proved false, and then say those things again, over and over for years.

No matter what the issue, and no matter what the ideology, this kind of rhetoric should never appear in serious public discourse. If you don’t want to give up your personal wealth, fine, stand up and say that that’s your position. But can’t we all have enough self-respect to not invent facts to support false claims that help us get our way?

Then again, it’s pretty hard to get your way if you have to say to ninety-eight percent of the population: “Yes, my money could help you to get through these difficult times, but I just don’t wanna part with any of it.” Acknowledging that taxing the wealthy actually is effective, but arguing against it anyway would probably prove rather self-defeating, so those who stand to lose a measure of what they can afford to lose must instead resort to lies and willful ignorance of the clear lessons of history. The truth just doesn’t support their interests, and that’s all there is to it.

So I’m looking for either of two breaking points: for conservatives to stand up for their greed and actively resist giving up their fair share, or for the rest of us to stand up for truth and make it plainly and commonly known when they are lying.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Don't Look Now, Because You're Completely Blind

This editorial stunningly took its place at the very top of the environmental news on Google yesterday. It is that lovely sort of commentary that infuriates me with every single paragraph of opinionated bullshit and abject disregard for reason. I can’t even write a satisfying general rebuttal to the entire piece, so I’ll quote it and go point by point.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

But Balance is Hard!

I was rather pleased with President Obama’s speech about the budget. What he laid out seemed to be exactly what he claimed it to be, and exactly what constitutes the only reasonable response to our current budget problems: a balanced approach. Yet there is a hefty proportion of the population that does not seem to recognize the need for balance, or the simple ethics of sharing the burden. And I think that fact is underscored by some of the introductory language of the speech that the president seemed to think necessary to include.

I am eager to see a breaking point in the volume of basic civic engagement and common sense whereby it will never again be necessary for a public figure to begin a speech such as this with an explanation of the very purpose of government and the social programs that it runs. Obama pointed out the listening audience that most people really hate government spending in the abstract, but love the things it pays for. I thought that was kind of a cleverly amusing comment, despite its obviousness and the frustration that comes of thinking that it shouldn’t, but does, have to be explained to people.

Why is the public filled with people who are not self-reflective enough to realize that that’s essentially the way they think? There must be many such people, because it’s only by virtue of their soft support that a proposal to simply hack health care and other important spending out of the budget can gain any traction.

Obama’s opening remarks also contained something of a soft reminder that the individual problems that government pays for, such as unemployment and getting old, might in fact happen to you at some point. This, too, is apparently something that people do not understand when they decry as “wasteful” the kind of spending that keeps people alive.

It is tragic that these considerations would be anything less than obvious to anyone, and all those people whose conservative ideologies reside in a basic failure to reflect on the nature of human life and human society need to be actively pushed towards a breaking point. We shouldn’t need to remind them of these things in policy speeches, and they do need reminding, it should come before that, and often. There are too many people in this country who have never been asked to confront certain kinds of human misery first hand. I’d like to see all the soft supporters of proposals like representative Ryan’s placed face-to-face with an ailing elderly person, a laid-off worker, or a financially struggling college student and see if they can look them in the eye and still say that refusing to alleviate their suffering is okay as long as it provides the nation with a quick fix.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Superimposed Image

I’m feeling drawn towards slightly superficial topics tonight. For someone who strives to be highly cerebral and to actually eschew superficiality, I have a strange fascination with fashion and beauty. I can justify some of that as philosophically grounded, because I think aesthetics is a truly intriguing subject on inquiry. But part of it has to do with the fact that I met a girl some years ago who was highly interested in fashion, mostly as an extension of her interest in art, and she single-handedly robbed me of much of my derision. Now it’s just another part of culture that I take pleasure in analyzing and picking apart.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Not Always Black, but Always White

The front page of the Sunday edition of the Buffalo News prominently read “Minorities – the New Majority.” Now make no mistake, I don’t make a habit of reading that terrible little newspaper; I just happened across it on this occasion. I don’t read it precisely because it doesn’t take much more than one of their headlines to launch me into a diatribe about their thoughtless reporting, bias, or simple bad journalism. Speaking of which…

It’s not at all unusual for the Buffalo News to run a headline like the above, apparently without anyone on staff raising an objection about the obvious contradiction they’d placed top-center on the first page. But what’s altogether more frustrating than that is that exactly that same oxymoronic reference to “minorities” seems commonplace in the media in general, and in much of public discourse.

How powerfully consumed with our culture biases do we have to be that we never pause and think, “Wait, if they constitute a majority of the population, why are we calling them by a term that means exactly the opposite?”? It seems to me that that’s a natural question, but I’d emphasize that even if more people had the common sense to ask it, they still wouldn’t be asking the right question. A better question would be something along the lines of, “Wait a minute: why are we only calling non-white people minorities, if white people are now in the minority?”

If you think about it for a second, you realize that identifying minorities as a collective majority requires separating all of society into exactly two distinct groups: white people, and everybody else. The fact that the hasty editors of news outlets like the Buffalo News don’t bat an eye at such a move goes to show that much of media, and much of the public dialogue throughout white America identifies the default human being as white, and sets everything else in contrast to that.

There is no statistically valid reason for deciding that blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans constitute one group, termed “minorities,” while Caucasians make up a second group, which is not labeled as being in the minority even if its share of the population is substantially under fifty percent. The only reason there is for such a move is an ingrained cultural bias. It’s the sort of well-intentioned, socially liberal racism and shortsightedness that leads people who are reflective, but not self-reflective, to champion causes of social justice and equality, without ever addressing the most crucial racial and cultural problem of all – the social tendency to actually look at one kind of people differently than one looks at absolutely everybody else.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Invisible Moderation

After a week of watching Verizon struggle to reestablish consistent internet service to my home, I’m finally able to blog again, and ideally return to the nice, daily pace I’d effectively established before being abruptly cut out of the loop.

What’s caught my eye tonight, and struck me as worth commenting upon, is this clip from Real Time with Bill Maher.

I came across the video via a Breitbart post, which applauded Maher’s statement that there is one religion in the world that kills you when you disagree with them. I’m not exactly shocked by the commentary, coming from him. Maher’s less than nuanced views on the topic of religion are well established, and should come as a surprise to no one.

I’m sick of the impulse to let outspoken conservatives direct the media narrative, so I’m not interested in responding to Breitbart’s praise for Maher or for the audience that applauded his statement. Obviously, I think Maher is making a tremendous mistake when he singles out Islam as being inherently more violent that other widespread religions, but it is a more particular mistake that is made by both him and Katty Kay of BBC America in the clip when they lament the lack of moderate Muslim voices protesting the extremism that leads Maher to his incisive conclusion.

I don’t understand what the two commenters are looking for when they say that there should be more visible moderate protest to cut against the terrorist extremism that is the topic of discussion. I think they’re forgetting that essential point – that extremism is what everybody's talking about. In the clip, Andrew Sullivan does take care to point out that the violent, fundamentalist impulse exists among a small but very visible minority of the world’s Muslims. It’s easy to understand, though, that campaigns of kidnapping and murder garner a great deal of attention. By contrast, the thing that makes moderate worldviews moderate is the fact that they’re not disturbing and sensational enough to make them particularly interesting topics for the evening news.

When Maher and Kay say that there ought to be more moderates to counter the statements and actions of extremists, what exactly is it that they’re looking for? I fail to see how it is the responsibility of moderate Muslims to answer for the actions of every Muslim terrorist, or how it is even in the power of those moderates to actually obstruct and intercept terrorism. But that capability and duty seems to be exactly what Maher and Kay are asserting belong to all Muslims, and only to them.

The world has not exactly been without Christian-motivated acts of violence and even genocide. I wonder if people who bemoan the lack of moderate Muslim voices have made the same conclusions about Christians during their conflicts as they have of Muslims in the current state of global affairs. Or would they have taken the systematic attacks by the Ku Klux Klan and other white radicals against black targets during the civil rights era as evidence that America was deficient in moderate Caucasians?

It seems to me that for people like Maher and Kay to be satisfied that there is a contingent of moderate Muslims in the Middle East, they would need to first see those individuals attack and destroy extremist organizations, individuals, and infrastructure. But that doesn’t sound moderate. It sounds like a type of extremism that’s grounded in something other than Jihadist thinking. It seems to me that Maher and Kay are despairing not of the lack of Muslims who are not violent, but rather of Muslims whose violence is more palatable to them.

But it seems obvious to me that you can’t conclude that there are no moderates based on the fact that extremists still operate within the same society. The extremists are easy to see, but the moderates, no matter how numerous, are practically invisible.