Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Down With Psychiatry

I have to admit that I don’t always use my subscription to The New Yorker to full effect, but sometimes an article appears in the pages of a new issue that lets me know with its subtitle that it is something I have to read and give my fullest attention.  Yesterday’s issue contains such an article.  The piece by Rachel Aviv is called God Knows Where I Am, and beneath that title on the table of contents, it reads “A patient rejects her diagnosis.”  That is a meaningful subject to me, because everywhere I look, I see people not only accepting psychological diagnoses, but accepting them unquestioningly, and courting them as if by sworn duty.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Ladies' Night

A friend of mine made the very poor decision to go see The Hangover II yesterday. She later pointed out to me that apart from her brother and two other young men, the entire audience was female, the vast majority of them adolescents. That got me wondering over what the reason for that demographic appeal would be, and as I considered the point I recalled watching the DVD special features accompanying a season of the FX series Rescue Me. In an interview, one of the show creators relayed that a number of female fans of the show said that they watched it primarily for the sake of the all-male firehouse discussions that take place regularly, because they thought this would give them some earnest insight into what men talked about when women weren't around, and consequently how they thought.

I wonder if a similar impulse could be at play in the minds of young women who decide to attend a showing of a film that follows three men after a night of wild debauchery and forfeited inhibitions. In particular, this case would be an audience of teenaged girls on the cusp of adulthood watching a movie about adult males, ostensibly stripped to their most basic characterization.

I'm not saying that I believe this is why my friend observed the audience demographics that she did. I haven't considered the matter very closely, and I don't know whether her experience was anomalous or not. What I am prepared to say, though, is that if these were the factors at play, it is a terribly foolish idea in the minds of women to think of media like this as representing male experience or male thought, or as presenting characters that should be thought of as true men of the first order. It's entertainment, and generally low-brow entertainment, and its insight does not extend farther than that. Thinking that base humor speaks to an understanding of the male psyche depends upon already being committed to the notion that the male psyche is first and foremost a subject of base humor.

If there are women who really do watch gross-out comedy and other things of that class as a way of better understanding men, I hope that a failure to gain in that understanding brings these women to a breaking point whereby they realize that what that tendency of theirs should really teach them is a better understanding of themselves.

But as I said, I don't know if this impulse driving feminine media consumption is actually commonplace. Does anyone else have a better explanation for why young women would be attracted in large groups to films like The Hangover?

Friday, May 27, 2011

Sign of the Times

Apparently, there is a hot new trend among large law firms, to create a separate career track for newly hired attorneys whereby they do the same work as others, but are paid less than half the salary, usually bringing in somewhere between fifty and sixty-five thousand dollars annually. Could there be any clearer warning about the rapidly advancing death of the American middle class? If you graduated from law school ten years ago and secured employment at a high-level firm, you stood to easily make six figures. If you’re just graduating now, you absorb a greater debt burden, but your earning potential is drastically reduced as a matter of policy.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Just Ignore the Roof Over Her Head

Despite clocking in at over two thousand words, this post is going to be shorter than it should be. It is, however, also longer than it should be in the sense that it shouldn’t exist at all. Not where I am posting it. You see, I’ve been trying to build a personal brand for myself and run a successful copywriting business, and I have honestly taken up the advice of the douche-bag real estate agent in American Beauty: “In order to be successful, you must project an image of success at all times.” I use this blog to advertise myself to prospective clients, and so I try to keep it free of mentions of my economic hardship, or any personally negative feelings that aren’t expressly directed at current events or social trends. (I should probably also aspire to keep it free of usage of phrases like “douche-bag.")

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Chip, Anyone?

There’s been a good deal of attention given to a positive, uplifting news story about a Chihuahua that was reunited with its original owners after five years of separation. I came across it a couple days ago with a link to the below video. I like to think it’s not just me, so I’ll assert that many people my age think of Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey when they hear a story like this. There are actually real life cases that parallel that film, but in this instance, the truth is significantly less interesting.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Getting Off

In one of the lighter pieces posted over the weekend at Salon, Matt Zoller Seitz writes about bad films, and describes Sex and the City 2 as "wealth porn." I think that could prove to be a very valuable phrase, if used widely, and I am frankly upset that I hadn't thought of it on my own yet.

I have long described many modern so-called horror films as being better identified as part of the "torture porn" genre, and I am hopeful that a tasteful viewing audience will start to catch onto the distinction and recognize that horror doesn't need to driven solely by gore and shock value. As a horror fan myself, I think it does a disservice to the genre to let the likes of the Saw sequels and Hostel, which are much more prominent, but have a very particular appeal, define horror. I like the term "torture porn" because it makes clear what the focus of the film is, whereas horror, on my conception, might not aim for disgust in its presentation, but rather atmosphere, and may possess a story that strive to shock, to startle, to amplify an audience's fears by logically presenting the threat of a subject, or to instill the subtle, creeping atmosphere of dread or nightmare.

I also like the term "torture porn" because it's disdainful to the specific sub-category of horror that I think of as pandering to the lowest common denominator. Despite changing attitudes, "porn" is still a pejorative word, and attaching it to anything serves to suggest an exploitative impulse, and an utter lack of nuance. Individual instances of torture porn may have other merits to them, but in general, I think people watch such films as ways of indulging their most base impulses without reflection, whether that means putting themselves in the role of the victim, or imagining themselves experiencing a pain they could never really experience, or just participating in anything that's seen as pushing the envelope and abutting with polite society. Giving it a more specific name than "horror" helps to bring all of this out into the open, and hopefully prompts a bit of the reflection that is otherwise conspicuously lacking.

"Wealth porn" is a phrase that can aspire to the same effect on a different class of media, and one that is vastly more commonplace these days. Between Sex and the City, celebrity gossip, and the plethora of reality shows that focus their lenses on the obscenely rich, there is a almost ubiquitous impulse among consumers of American media to watch other people enjoying, taking for granted, and wasting the benefits of a privileged existence. It is absolutely right to call it wealth porn, because it shares so much of its appeal with actual pornography, in that it is an escapist fantasy in which other real people are surrogates for your own would-be participation. You can't have wild anonymous sex with the buxom, blonde co-ed who stops by to help you study for your exam, and you can't spend four hundred dollars on dinner for two and then spend the next day hanging out in all the most posh martini bars. So you watch someone else doing it, and you satisfy yourself by forgetting for a little while that you're overweight and lonely, and your gas bill is past due.

Branding is enormously effective in generating breaking points. By terming something - correctly - as porn, we can potentially prompt a handful of people who would tend to have a bit of shame about participating in actual voyeurism to look with a more critical eye on what gives them satisfaction and realize, as they should have realized long ago, that it is an empty sort of satisfaction, completely reliant upon the glorified presentation of something that simply shouldn't be. So let's call everyone who films a "real housewife" or their ilk a wealth pornographer, and understand that by being asked to swallow it as if it's just any other form of entertainment, we're being screwed in a way we ought not accept.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Stick to the Character Limit

In advance of the current issue, The Atlantic Monthly has changed its Letters to the Editor section. Comments are now printed in a more broadly conceived section called "The Conversation," which, as James Bennet explains in the Editor's Note for May, "is an attempt to more fully express the widening range of reaction to our work." That is to say that there is a much greater diversity of media through which one might comment on a piece of journalism, and The Atlantic now prints traditional letters to the editor alongside blog comments, poll results from TheAtlantic.com, and so on.

By and large, I find this to be an admirable way of extending the dialogue that might grow out of the writing in the magazine without giving short shrift to anyone who tries to express their insight in what is arbitrarily identified as the wrong place. That said, I think there are wrong places - media that ought not be included, and I was appalled to see that among the meaningful and articulate commentary, one tweet had been transcribed and printed in the pages of an esteemed, historic magazine. It read: "I love the 'Letters to the Editor' part of The Atlantic where they let the writers respond. SO MUCH GLORIOUS CATTINESS."

Perhaps this is appreciably amusing, and perhaps it comments on the nature of the discourse that tended to fill the newly renamed section. But anything that's one hundred forty characters at an established maximum is severely limited in how amusing it can be, and debilitatingly limited in how insightful or poignant it can be. The main impression that I get from the above tweet is that it seems like it's just somebody's off-the-cuff, knee jerk commentary. It seems like something that somebody might have simply said aloud to a friend while reading the magazine, not a series of thoughts that somebody took the time to formulate and carefully express. The latter is the only thing that deserves to be put into print.

But of course, my reaction to the tweet printed in "The Conversation" is my reaction to every tweet I'm likely to run across. They all strike me as just being part of somebody's unfiltered and unrefined stream of consciousness, because of course that is what they all are. That is specifically what Twitter is an outlet for, and it has no more place in "The Conversation" than a word from somebody who is simply passing through the room has in an actual ongoing conversation.

The tweet printed in The Atlantic is a perfect example of that. The word "love" is used in it in such a way as to actually denote almost complete detachment. Neither is it used sarcastically nor does it indicate genuine affection, of the sort that would make one want to give something back to the object of it. It is "love" in a sense that is almost unique to the internet, and no doubt endemic on Twitter, in that it is expressed in pleasure at simply letting something happen while you stand as an anonymous observe to it, neither contributing to nor mitigating its persistence.

More than that, anything that uses the word "glorious" in such a casual, colloquial, and borderline meaningless way should not be taken seriously. Is "glorious" really the best word that could have been used here? Does the cattiness the tweeter refers to actually confer something triumphal, something magnificent? Or would it be better to simply call it something like "pleasant"? I won't pretend to never use words like "glorious" in such exaggerative, overly-emphatic contexts when speaking to friends, but I would never write like that. And that is just the problem. The Atlantic is a magazine. It is a piece of literature. It is not idle talk, and there should be a distinction between the two.

It depresses me every time I see things like twitter further validated in traditional media. Does no one else perceive the absurdity of hearing a news presenter say "You can tweet at us," or of seeing a 134 year-old magazine print a comment IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS? Does no one else think that this sort of thing robs us of self-respect as a society? It seems to me that it is all an effort at inclusiveness in building a dialogue, but that fact, as I see it, is that including the largest number of voices possible tends to reduce the number of actual ideas being shared. We shouldn't strive to make room for the words of people who haven't really thought things through.

But everywhere I look, we seem to go on reducing the level of discourse, and I am left to wonder: Will there ever be such a volume of pablum in the media that we reach a breaking point that changes and compartmentalizes the ways in which we communicate, or will this go on indefinitely, until the entire conversation is presented in one-sentence increments, with every third comment being LOL or WTF?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

Has everyone repented of their sins and settled their affairs with God and Man? This is the day the world ends, or so says Harold Camping. I had heard about his apocalyptic pronouncement some time ago, but it was only yesterday that I learned just how oddly specific his end times scenario is. I'd naturally assumed that the Rapture would be universal, and that whatever global calamity brought all unrepentant sinners to their knees, it would happen at once, so that no one got first dibs and no one got shoved to the back of the line on the Day of Judgment. Apparently I was wrong about that.

According to Camping, six o'clock isn't what time it will be in his part of the world when the whole Earth shakes and Jesus reveals himself to all mankind and rends the dead of all nations from their peaceful rest. Instead, six o'clock is the time that it needs to be for that to happen in every time zone. Armageddon is going to work its way around the world, East to West starting at the international date line. Those lucky bastards in Tonga will get the tribulation out of the way early on. We in the United States will be left to tremble in anticipation as the eschaton draws closer, and Harold Camping, broadcasting out of California, will be one of the last people left un-raptured on the Earth.

Unless anybody decides to just go party in Samoa until the whole thing is almost over, then take a leisurely boat ride into Sunday morning, on an Ocean that no doubt will have turned to blood by then.

Honestly, if the End of the World is time-and-place-specific, doesn't that mean that with a little advance notice, like some senile nut whipping people into an absurd frenzy of millenialism, a person could simply dodge the entire event and opt not to show up for the final judgment? An airbus can make it three-fifths of the way around the damn equator in less than eighteen hours. Conceivably, couldn't a person leave Europe in the early afternoon and stay ahead of six PM for the entire day? Failing that, a simple expedition to sail around the arctic circle should allow a person to stay out of harm's way with a substantially lesser investment of time. Even if the wrath of God comes as a giant, Die Another Day-style solar death ray, it won't be that difficult to outrun if it can't move past wherever it's currently mid-evening. And even if everybody decides to just sit tight and wait for Christ to stop by their neck of the woods, what about people on the International Space Station? It's never six o'clock PM for them.

It boggles my mind that neither Harold Camping nor his small handful of very devoted followers considered any of these questions before starting on a media tour. Camping emphasizes that he has over fifty years of study of the Bible to lend him credibility, but how, in five decades, could he have not considered the glaring logical flaws in his prediction? This story is a profound testament to the power of blind faith. The idea that a person can believe something so strongly that no question enters his mind, even when those questions are damning and obvious, is fascinating, and it is frightening.

Faith of this kind softens the mind in a way that cushions it completely against breaking points. One of the greatest breaking points that a person can reach is the confrontation of difficult inquiry, which compels you to acknowledge that you don't know as much as you think you do. Your best means of making progress as a person is by challenging yourself, and that means analysis, it means inquiry. It means doubt.

I doubt that Harold Camping is anything but an evangelical loon, but if I'm wrong, we should already know it by the time you read this. If I am and anyone's looking for me, you can find me in the Pacific Ocean.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

How Many Rs in That?

Those who were alive in the nineties probably recall a public service ad campaign called “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” Those were called the three Rs, and they were very familiar to me in my childhood. There were three clear environmental responsibilities that we all had as we grew into civic-minded young adults. I’m twenty-five now, and lately I’ve been wondering, what happened to those? What became of our easily shared cultural understanding of the concept of waste hierarchy?

Although today we are collectively aware of the seriousness of issues such as climate change, energy conservation, and ecological disaster, and although we may earnestly support policy initiatives that serve these topics, we seem to have actually regressed over the years in our ability to make substantive and individual lifestyle changes for the good of the environment.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Film Comment: Dracula (1979)

Last night, I had the pleasure, for the first time, of watching the 1979 version of Dracula, with Frank Langella in the title role, and Laurence Olivier as Van Helsing. I was quite taken with the stylistic presentation, as well as with the performance of the cast, particularly Langella’s sympathetic portrayal of the Count.

I am rather familiar with the 1992 Dracula film by Francis Ford Coppola, as I first saw it when I was about eight, and now, having seen another version that predates my very life, it does not escape my attention how much the Dracula of my childhood owes to this one. Aspects of the atmosphere and certain shots like the creepy image of Dracula crawling down a wall are reflected from one into the other. And more significantly, the romantic emphasis is present in both, and with it the impulse to humanize the character.

I noticed the interesting choice made in the screenplay for the Langella film, deviating slightly from a well-known line from the iconic 1931 version, which was in turn taken from the book. The original Dracula listens to the baying of wolves and comments, “The children of the night: What music they make!” But in 1979 he says instead, “what sad music they make,” and this prompts a few moments of dialogue during which the humanized vampire expresses melancholy at being unable to walk in the daylight. The scene deftly suggests a Dracula who is an outcast and a tragic character, and more than that, it gives voice to the contrasting impulses and experiences of human existence that are vitally important to understanding the vampire mythos.

It is extremely interesting to me to observe how much art and media has evolved in its treatment of the archetypes that our culture has created and let develop for periods of decades or centuries. The first impulse, I think, is always to give the most simplistic, one-dimensional reading to these things, and so Dracula has traditionally been interpreted as something that is purely and simply evil and threatening, and on that reading, subtext is not a major concern.

The same impulse to simplicity persists today, in the vampire mythos and in all shared folklore. In the case of stories with their genesis vaguely placed in the Dracula story, however, the impulse works towards the exact opposite side of the character, making the archetype exciting and attractive, and forgetting the rest. But the best vampire will always have an element of both: the sexual and the deadly, the thrilling and the terrifying. I think the 1979 version gets the balance of elements almost spot on.

Not all treatments of the character or those of his kind are so thoughtful, however. I daresay very few are. And we’ve had well over a hundred years of Dracula during which to refine the way we perceive him, and centuries more with the folklore on which he is based. I usually thumb my nose at remakes, but there’s something remarkable about culturally shared intellectual property like this story. Part of what’s remarkable about it is that it may take dozens of reinventions of a character or storyline to help us effectively draw out the meaning behind them, and to prompt good dialogue about metaphor and interpretation.

Or, put in a much more derisive way, we really might be so dumb as a culture that it takes us years to turn our interpretative eye toward character development, and many more years of phasing between emphasizing and ignoring it before we reach an intellectual breaking point and recognize that such a thing really is important to the story, no matter how it is otherwise being presented.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Sense of Place

There was a nice slideshow on Salon yesterday, naming some of the most beautiful and distinctive bookstores in the world, which, the author said, would “make you rethink your Kindle.”

I don’t think the average Kindle owner thought about it in the first place. I get the impression that the e-book reader phenomenon is driven primarily by an unmitigated and all but universal fervor for technology. If it’s identified as new and innovative, it seems as though people will stand in line to get one, even if they never considered whether they wanted it or needed it.

But the higher tech option is not always the best option, and I wish I could push American society to the breaking point of realizing that fact once and for all. Sometimes the traditional alternative provides an appeal that is different from the appeal of modernity, but one that is still distinct and meaningful. The Salon piece suggests one such appeal that should be obvious, but that I think is often overlooked even by the defenders of analog: the beauty of actually buying something from a physical space.

I’m not at all a shopper, but when I do wish to acquire something, nothing pleases me more than holding it in my hands before it is really mine to possess. I love to flip through copious stacks of records and find the ones that most appeal to me, and I love to leaf through physically real books, to be able to pick things up at random and hold them side-by-side.

If there’s one thing that technology cannot satisfyingly replace, I would say that thing may be the thrill of discovery. I honestly can't understand why this doesn’t occur to other people. Convenience is not always an improvement. There is a point at which convenience steals away the features that made an activity what it was. And in the case of books, tactile sensation and dog-earing pages and marginalia all aside, part of the experience of literature – indeed, of virtually anything – is its physicality, the sense that there is a place where the literate gather, a shared visual representation of the enormity of what the intellectually curious are vainly striving to grasp.

Sometimes, as the Salon slideshow points out to us, that physical space may be a repurposed cathedral or theater, a site standing as a lovely monument in some distant place, or hidden somewhere inside the daily experiences of our landscape. Sometimes, bookstores are really beautiful. And to my mind, losing bookstores, or record stores, or any of the other places that lend a sense of community, sacrifice, and engagement to our acts of acquisition is bad enough if those places are banal. It is worse when the experience that’s lost is not only meaningful and affective, but powerfully unique.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

They Enter the Ring, Then Decide to Fight

Some of the big political news this weekend has been that Mike Huckabee has decided against running for the Republican nomination for the presidency. In my view, the main significance of that announcement is that it is yet another clear demonstration of the absolute absurdity of modern political campaigns. You see, I was under the impression that he was already running. The election is, after all, only a frigging year and a half away. Apparently, on the timescale of American politics, that means we’re getting awfully close, and that it’s time to get everything organized, all the resources apportioned, all the players on the field.

We already had a debate for the would-be Republican candidates. Huckabee was there. How can a person decide not to run after they’ve already voluntarily appeared on television as one of a group of candidates for the position? Either Huckabee is really behind the eight ball in determining what his aspirations are, or Fox News was ridiculously premature in bringing us a presidential debate in May of the year before that in which the election is to be held.

Huckabee seemingly doesn’t want to have to take his focus away from the attention he’s able to bring to the issues from his current post at Fox News. I guess he thinks that his job is to be a commentator, not a campaigner. It would be nice if outlets like Fox considered their jobs to be the provision of news, rather than of an outlet for political campaigns. Presumably, there’s a lot that can be done by the government in the space of a year and a half. And presumably, in a democracy, public pressure, with its genesis in a free and active media, has a substantial role to play in that. I imagine we would stand to make a lot more progress if we were collectively focused on what currently is happening in our own country, rather than whom we might put into or keep in power sometime in the future.

Let’s be clear also about our assessment of Huckabee’s decision that his heart is not in a run for the presidency. Surely, in addition to not wanting to give up his sway with the public, he doesn’t want to give up that nice income he’s earning from the television gig. That’s perfectly understandable, although one does wonder how sincere a person’s drive towards public service is if it can be derailed by the threat of reduced income. Still, even if he was genuinely uncertain about whether his loyalties lay with money or with his vision for public policy, it would have been highly admirable if he had arrived at a decision before he started playing both sides of that issue.

So I’m looking for either of two breaking points, here. Can we push the media to start focusing on the here-and-now of political legislation and machination, rather than pouring so much of itself into the more attention grabbing, less substantive detour that is the circus of constant campaigning? Or else, will the politicians who wish to enter that circus in the first place please do so either earnestly and for the right reasons, or not at all?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Hot Analysis

My friend Lisa, despite being female, receives a trial subscription to Maxim, which she never signed up for and can’t cancel, so she tends to just hand them off to me when she gets each issue. I accept them gladly, but I don’t really read them, because this particular magazine doesn’t generally seem to contain words. I took a definite interest, though, in the one that she got yesterday, because it was the issue containing the Maxim Hot 100, “the definitive list of the most beautiful women in the world.” I was dubious of the self-aggrandizing subtitle, but intrigued to know what the mainstream standard of attractiveness is, and how I would feel about it. It provides me with another great opportunity to be overly-analytical about something that most men would simply look at and not give a second thought.

The vast, vast majority of the entries on the seemingly excessively long list were names, faces, and bodies that were not at all familiar to me. I think I am entirely too divorced from pop culture. But I don’t think that reconnecting with it would put me on the same page as the editors and readers of maxim, into whose presumably base characters I try to gain some insight by evaluating the mode of presentation of a list of a hundred beautiful women. Among the names that I do recognize is Kim Kardashian, who comes in at number thirty-five, and any list that includes in its top half somebody whose shallow character is so clearly reflected in her shallow features is bound to meet with some criticism from me.

But generally speaking, what puts me ill at ease with the list is not the women who have been chosen for it, but the ways in which they have been photographed and otherwise displayed to the readers, if I may so loosely use that term to describe the people who regularly buy Maxim. That is what really speaks loudly of the impulse to objectification and the lack of self-awareness, and it gives us a top-ten that includes Anne Hathaway looking like a corpse, Cameron Diaz made to look as though her legs make up fully two-thirds of her body, and Mila Kunis arranged in such a disheveled position as to reach way over the top in amplifying her sexuality, and consequently making her look like a crack addict.

But obviously the greater share of analysis needs to be reserved for number one, and it doesn’t take too much reflection for me to arrive at a set of conclusions as to what the image says about the publishers and the consumers. Their number one slot goes to Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, and the accompanying photograph is decidedly unappealing to me, on account of three identifiable factors. I stress again that this is not a judgment of the appearance of the actress herself, only a judgment about the particular photograph chosen to represent her.

Firstly, despite clearly defined cleavage, her overall appearance suggests that she could be jailbait. Exactly how that comes across I cannot quite tell; it is just a general impression I get from her facial features and expression, and from her posture, which has her extremities kept close, but held in a loose way that to me could be indicative of naïvite, a lack of assertion, and if I may go so far, victimization. It is an appearance probably befitting the appetites of a stereotypically heterosexual man, with the sort of aggressive, unthinking sexual drive that Maxim seems to consider its bread and butter.

Also befitting those appetites is another evident feature of the picture. To phrase this indelicately, she looks mentally handicapped. Her eyes are extremely narrowed, and her lips unnaturally parted, her overall expression entirely vacant. The basic impression, at least beyond the simple observation, “she’s hot,” is that she looks as though she must be either very dumb, or highly inebriated. And I suppose that your average jock would find great appeal in that, because it also means submissiveness, and the kind of girl who is easily bedded, easily deceived, and again, easily victimized or objectified.

And finally, the very clear presentation of a strong jaw-line and wide-spaced eyes amplifies features that, in this photograph, look very masculine. I think that that, too, was an unconscious factor in the Maxim staff’s decision to install that girl, and that photograph of her, at number one, because I think it provides an outlet for repressed homoeroticism in your typical insecure, intellectually limited, sex-obsessed man. It may seem like I strive a little too strongly to set myself apart from that group by making this all a point of public record, but really, I see a lot more on that page than a hot chick.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Other Views on the Below

I continued to follow the Buffalo rebranding story after my comment last night, and I'm pleased to see that many others are recognizing it as terrible, if for somewhat different reasons. There is an excellent tearing-down of it at WNY Media. The article is very thorough and well-thought out, despite not addressing the major issue that I expressed about it in my post yesterday.

The WNY Media piece also brings up a small meme that spread over Twitter in response to the press release, using the hash tag buffslogan to suggest satirical alternative brands for the city. Scrolling through those posts turns up a handful of real winners, like:

“Buffalo: Your city’s unemployment is low because of our people.”

“Buffalo: Come see what the rest of the country is laughing at.”

“The city that never wakes.”

“Buffalo: You come for the wings. You leave shortly afterwards!”

“You’re always fifteen minutes from being fifteen minutes further away from here.”

“Buffalo: Coming soon.”

“Buffalo: We’re here, fuck it.”

And there’s definitely something to be said for this contribution: “But seriously, Buffalo, no one cares what your slogan is. They just want to not be sad as a result of their visit.”

The satirical treatment of this topic also came in the form of a sendup of the video that came out alongside the unveiling of the brand. The video at that link makes some very amusing comments, but ultimately I feel that it gets away from itself as it goes on. Still, it’s really nice to see anyone doing satire about Buffalo, because laughter really is a wonderful way to address problems.

I remember that when I had just discovered Mike Polk’s absolutely brilliant Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Videos, I searched for Buffalo on Youtube, wondering if anyone had attempted similar satire of this similarly crumbling rust belt town. What I found instead was several doting tribute videos, many of them emphasizing Buffalo’s sports fandom as an admirable feature of the city’s very character, and as something that proved it to be a great place to live. But it has long been my feeling that sports fanaticism is a direct side-effect of living in a faded, downtrodden place. Knowing that there isn’t much else to be proud of or to hope for, you channel all of your hope and positive spirit into the performance of sports teams. But that’s just another form of self-delusion.

Apparently a couple of radio personalities on Buffalo’s sports talk station WGR devoted a sizable portion of their air time this morning to the discussion of the video that Visit Buffalo Niagara had released, which they derided for its failure to mention either the Bills or the Sabres. Now, granted these are sports talk guys, so as a rule, that is all they think about, but still this is a truly asinine complaint. As terrible as the For Real campaign is, that’s the one place where it’s got it right. Buffalo needs to put focus on different things – things that don’t strike us with the knee-jerk reaction of stadium excitement – in order to broaden its appeal beyond the reach of people who actually live here. Nobody’s going to travel to Buffalo, NY to see an NFL or NHL game. They can do that at home or in a city with more to offer besides.

Tragically, though, Buffalo is the sort of place where some very vocal people, though complaining about something that has certainly earned criticism, will attack it from exactly the wrong angle. The WGR personalities, and no doubt many other locals, look at a very bad piece of creative marketing, and decide that what’s wrong with it is that it is too high-brow, too distant from the familiar. The last thing we need is to keep on channeling our energy through the same useless outlets.

Buffalonians need to come to a breaking point in their understanding of what they’re up against, but some of them have much farther to go than others. Despite all of my criticisms, I’ll say this for Visit Buffalo Niagara: at least they’re actually trying something new. They just fucked it up, that’s all.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Change, Where Needed Least

The local tourism board has unveiled a new brand identity for the city in which I begrudgingly hang my hat. In my frank and honest, opinion, it is a stunningly awful, sorely misguided attempt at marketing a severely damaged city. The slogan that apparently emerged not from a journal kept by a marketing director on a bender, but from several brainstorming sessions comprised of a variety of advertising professionals was “Buffalo. For Real.”

First of all, this is a terrific example of the danger of mistaking something for simplicity when in fact it’s over-simplification. There is an absolutely unsophisticated connotation to a brand of this sort, one that could only have been bested by settling instead upon “Buffalo. For Really Reals.” The phrase “for real” is not only grammatically flawed, it conveys no information. It functions, at best, as an interjection, and in the long run, perhaps I will be one of the people to get the most mileage out of this brand, in that it will be a nice alternate for the word “fuck.”

“You live in Buffalo? That sucks.”

“For real.”

And that’s the real (for real) crux of the problem. My very first reaction to this was to observe that the people in charge of promoting Buffalo and dressing up its numerous, deep-seeded flaws had decided upon a brand identity that encourages people confronted with it to think about the things least worth emphasizing for the sake of tourism.

You know what I think of when I think of Buffalo, for real? I think of crumbling buildings scattered throughout the cityscape. I think of debilitating poverty hanging over many of its residents from cradle to grave. I think of the sixth greatest level of segregation in the United States. I think of population decline, unemployment, poor infrastructure, appallingly corrupt politicians, and vacant retail space in the city’s only commercially viable areas. I think of the death of the American city.

Somehow the video that Visit Buffalo Niagara released to coincide with this new found brand identity manages to begin by trying to speak to the exact opposite, portraying Buffalo as unique and distinctive, in contrast to the “sameness of the interstate.” It also encourages the poisonous notion that there is somehow a real America and a fake America, and that the roughshod, poorly positioned people and places are somehow more genuine than people with an urban identity or a measure of social mobility.

There’s something ironic about the fact that Buffalo tourism wants to emphasize the reality not just of this town but of an ostensibly overlooked national character, because actually acknowledging the ignored reality would entail clearly recognizing all those terrible things I mentioned above. Acknowledging the ignored reality would be in stark contrast to the broader goals and worldview of Visit Buffalo Niagara and all those who narrow their vision to focus upon the tenuous handful of nice things this place has going for it and claim therefore that Buffalo is really a great town.

“For real” doesn’t really work as a brand identity, because the impulse to attach a cheerful, positive brand to a place like this relies upon a great deal of delusion. And that sort of delusion is evident throughout the tourism video.

"Now, some might say time has left our town behind," the narrator says near the halfway point of his excruciating four minute monologue. "Prosperity has moved on, our moment passed. And no one would argue that we haven't had our share of hard knocks. Yet, despite the odds, we're still here."

Despite the odds, we're still here? Much like the slogan itself, this means nothing. Are we to believe that the odds were once in favor of the city of Buffalo being wiped completely off the map? We're still here, sure, because despite the best efforts of population trends, not everybody can leave all at once. But those of us who have both the will and the means to escape have done so, and we will continue to do so unless something fairly dramatic happens - something far more impactful than a whole lot of optimism about a new brand identity. Yes, we're still here, but what isn't here is much that makes Buffalo worth living in, or even visiting. For real.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Best of Traits

I've mentioned Cracked.com on this blog once before. I've been reading it regularly in recent months, because I like to have some of the information I acquire couched in humor. The funny thing is that if I cut all entertainment out of my life, I would still seek out information in equal measure, but I would find the act of gratifying my curiosity to be something of a tedious slog to try to keep up with the demands of my brain for an undefined purpose.

And that strange observation ties directly into the topic of a recent Cracked article: 5 Unexpected Downsides of High Intelligence. Now, I don't know how intelligent I am. I often feel that my intellect has been diminishing steadily since adolescence. But at the same time, I know that I have demonstrated a tendency to underestimate my competence at learning new tasks and succeeding at carrying them out. So I like to think that the Dunning-Kruger effect influences my own assessment of my intelligence, as well. But then, even allowing myself to entertain the idea that I might be smart throws me into an entirely different series of personal guilt trips about the threat of arrogance. I'd like to believe that there's an upside to all of this neurotic over-analysis.

I think, however, that virtually everyone with intelligence enough to read an information-based humor website tends to take observations about negative traits associated with intelligence as comforting suggestions that they might be able to allot themselves a small measure of praise for above average cognitive ability as a way of alleviating their worries about bad habits and unhappiness.

Regardless of the particulars, and regardless of who gets to include themselves in that category, it does seem to clearly be the case that intelligent people have a lot of problems. The above article makes mention of a greater degree of emotional instability, dishonesty, self-destructive behavior, a higher incidence of depression, and, significantly, a lesser likelihood of reproducing. It makes me sad to think of these various correlations, but it's not because of the effects on individuals, and not because I think the observations may apply to me.

What upsets me is the sense that these tendencies make intelligence seem unappealing and evolutionarily disadvantageous. It upsets me to think that there is a definite gulf between intelligence, which I believe is an objectively good feature in any given human being, and a multitude of other features that are desirable and useful. But - and again, I may be privileging one side of the topic - I think intelligence is perhaps the single most worthwhile attribute a person could hope to have. It's not fair that it should require such a terrific sacrifice in the way of happiness and health. And it doesn't have to. It seems to me that intelligence, by its very nature, should allow its possessors to learn how to overcome its negative side-effects.

So I'm looking for that as a breaking point - a time when the most intellectually astute among us stop letting our best characteristics impact us in markedly negative ways. And this goes equally for anyone whose courage leads them to reckless bravado, or whose strength leads them to over-exertion and the early breakdown of their bodies. But again, intelligence is unique in that it should contain its own safeguards against its ill-effects. And if a person cannot use his intelligence to compensate for what might destroy him or keep him at the outer edge of the gene pool, he is not using it to its full effect.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Just a Grievance...

I would just like to make public my anger at the provider of telephone and internet service at my home office. Verizon is a terrible, terrible company, which is responsible for my internet connection being inexplicably severed at the beginning of both April and May. Combine that with their awful infrastructure, the fact that every time I have a local problem I have to call a foreign country for service, lest the corporation have to pay anyone a living wage, and the fact that even their technicians are fed up with their lack of customer service, and it's quite clear that Verizon is a company not worth dealing with. In fact, that's not strong enough. If I don't see substantial improvements in my service very soon, I'll commit myself to promoting their competitors, for purely vengeful purposes. It doesn't take much to keep me from complaining about products and services, but Verizon has done virtually everything they can do to earn my rather unique ire, so kudos to them. I am at a breaking point with these people. What an atrocious business.

Now that that's out of the way, and now that I'm back online (even if with one-tenth the speeds I'm supposed to have), I'll get back to more serious blogging tomorrow.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Evil (TM)

Just as I think should be the case, much of the discussion about Osama bin Laden's death seems to be focused on the effect that it will have on Al Qaeda and international terrorism in general. Gratifying my conclusions, it appears also that the greater share of expert opinion seems to hold that this is a largely symbolic victory and that it will have little practical impact on the operations of the organization of which he was the figurehead. Given the depth at which he had gone into hiding, bin Laden was largely cut off from the outside world over the course of the last several years, and his lack of visibility, even in the shadow of attacks and plots of attacks, always suggested to me that he had long since ceased to be directly involved in the planning and execution of major terrorist operations. I, like many others, even supposed that he had already died, and that both Islamic terrorists and Western powers were keeping his image alive as a rallying point for both of their combat efforts.

While that has been clearly proved not to be the case, it rather seems as though it might as well have been true, and that a symbol was the most significant thing the man had to offer at the end. But while this appears to be essentially the view of national security experts, my sense of the media's dealing with the subject is that it is, unsurprisingly, thoroughly emphasizing the moral and ideological value of the victory, and dodging mention of that victory being symbolic, and not practical. In a very remarkable example of this duplicity, this article at MSNBC's website bears the heading "Scattered al-Qaida needs 'Miracle' to Recover," despite the fact that the actual title of the page, and thus how it shows up in a Google search, is "Analysis: Little real impact to al-Qaida."

The public assumption of bin Laden's ongoing significance to his terrorist movement, and now the public assumption of the strategic value of his death, strongly suggests the social-psychological need to put a name and a face to complex issues, even if that means simplifying them or clouding them beyond what is appropriate for proper understanding. The public doesn't merely respond to branding, it seems to rely upon it. And this rule seems to apply across cultures. Bin Laden's name and face was co-opted on both sides of this unending conflict, and it is a conflict in which both sides have multiple surfaces.

The American public seems to tend to think of the terrorists whom the U.S. is fighting as part of some single, all-encompassing organization. They think this in large part because many terrorists themselves seem to want to portray it that way. Thus there are several separate organizations that have branded themselves as al-Qaeda, such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. They all carry the same name because that name tends to be pretty evocative since 9/11, and I don't think anyone ever thought to trademark it. But that doesn't mean that these multiple organizations are linked by shared leadership, similar organization, or even identical goals. And to assume that they are for no other reason than because it allows you to to reduce the number of enemies you have to keep straight is intellectually irresponsible, and it clouds understanding of, and therefore judgment about complex international issues.

Bin Laden's death is a chance for a breaking point with regard to this impulse. I've already observed the media questioning who will take bin Laden's place at the head of the organization. Putting aside how wrong it is to simply assume that he needed replacing at his point, I hope that the reason for the inquiry is for the sake of a practical understanding of the structure and operations of a terrorist organization, and not because we are looking for another poster boy for all instances of international terrorism worldwide. We should be smart enough to maintain a better understanding of the diversity of the threats present in the world, and upright enough to stand against senseless violence and vicious ideology without need of a recognizable "face of evil" pasted on top of it.

Sunday, May 1, 2011


Osama bin Laden is dead. I'd be hard pressed to think of a more remarkable piece of news to come upon me unawares in the middle of the night. Is this an historical turning point? Do we start using this as a marker now, in the way that we'd used 9/11 before? Does it mark a substantial victory for the United States, or do we brace ourselves against attempts at retaliation? Or is it just inconsequential? That is, did bin Laden even play a serious role anymore at the end?

And on another note, I wonder how the media will handle this. I wonder if it will be given over to politics and discussed more in terms of its effect on public attitudes than its effect on the world at large?

I need some time to process this.