Thursday, June 30, 2011

Serious Children's Media

In a New Yorker article on the inner workings of Pixar, I read some details on the visual development of the upcoming movie, Brave, and with that in mind I was excited to see that a teaser trailer has been released for it.

Watching this, I can hear the voice of my good friend, with whom I went to see Rango a few months ago, asking “How is this a kid’s movie?” It is a striking preview, and it is striking in a way that isn’t typical of what we expect in child-oriented films. After the shooting star sparkles over the Disney castle and the Pixar lamp turns to face us before its bright white background, every image in the one-minute trailer is dark and heavily atmospheric. When the child protagonist, Merida, is revealed, her skillfully rendered expressions are neither joyful nor unassuming, but full of both fear and purposive intensity. These are not the features we generally expect from an animated film, the intended audience of which is children.

After watching Rango, I discussed the ways in which children’s films were being artfully crafted to appeal to both children and adults in roughly equally measure. In light of this preview, I’m ready to reevaluate that assertion. I think the actual trend is decidedly better than that. Filmmakers are not merely growing their ability to introduce children to grown-up themes and situations, they’re actually changing the way in which we as a society engage children in media.

There is an awful book from the early 90s called The Celestine Prophecy that’s considered foundational to the New Age movement. It is an awful book made up of some excellent, if disjoint ideas, one of which is that children will demonstrate more maturity if you talk to them like they’re regular people. This is something I’ve been advocating for a long time. Since I was a child, in fact. I remember being a child fairly well, and I know that I didn’t appreciate being talked down to. I was a child who took uncharacteristic and perhaps excessive pride in maturity, and I sometimes tended to thumb my nose at things that were normal interests for children of my generation. Still, I don’t think my mental capacity was any different from that of my peers, and at the time I didn’t think there was much for which I was “too young.” I still think I was right. There were a lot of things that I didn’t understand because I hadn’t been exposed to much, but that didn’t mean that I couldn’t engage with more adult media, and take it as an opportunity to learn something.

I think it could be very good for our children if we moved away from the notion of separate genres of adult and child entertainment. Maintenance of that distinction could mean depriving children of meaningful themes and emotional experience. The fact that something has a particular target audience should not mean that that audience is cut off from content that might hold more significance for another demographic. Leveling content somewhat so that it holds appeal for a broader population is a fine way of fostering inter-cultural and inter-generational learning.

I expect that Brave will put some overprotective parents ill at ease, but that the children of the rest will have an opportunity to have a cinematic experience that goes well beyond pure enjoyment, allowing them an early introduction to the more earnest appreciation of film that they might develop later, or that they might already have developed by secretly watching movies for which they are “too young.” Obviously, there are films about which that’s actually true, but too often the impulse to protect our youth translates to an impulse to coddle them, and coddling could threaten to stunt their emotional and intellectual development. I am pleased to see that some of the makers of our children’s entertainment are reliably tacking against that impulse, and I hope that it truly implies changing social trends, whereby the effort at bringing up our children need not preclude our respecting their minds.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Lesser Value of Fiction

Laura Miller recently wrote a piece in response to the author Phillip Roth stating that he has stopped reading fiction. Miller points out that other authors have said the same in previous years, among them William Gibson, Cormac McCarthy, and Will Self. She offers an interesting assessment of the motivations that might lay behind this, albeit an incomplete one. To my mind, the most significant observation was this comparison of nonfiction and fiction, and of how the reader interacts with them:

“As champions of nonfiction often point out, whatever the literary shortcomings of any given work of nonfiction, at the very least you come away from it having learned something about the world. Fiction, however, doesn't offer instruction or information; it offers an experience. And for that experience to occur, the reader has to deliver him- or herself up to the book.”

Not being a literary critic myself, I can’t write competently about what might be people’s general motivations for reading one thing as opposed to another, or about the observed merits of various genres and different types of authors. I can only speak to my personal assessment of the value of different kinds of writing, a perspective that comes less from my observations of what I read than from my observations of what I write.

As my financial situation has gotten increasingly dire, and my job prospects have proven themselves to be nil, my ambition to write has never waned very much. However, it swiftly became apparent to me that if I intended to make any money off of my passion, I would probably have to focus more on writing fiction than I had before. Indeed, it seemed to me that if I wanted to keep my passion alive at all, I’d need to focus on fiction, because a hopeless outlook on my own life sapped me of the motivation to do otherwise.

This reorganization of my priorities was a definite problem, though, because I began trying to write fiction knowing that my heart wasn’t in it. Although it’s more accurate to say that my heart’s not in the writing of realistic fiction. I do, however, have a special interest in speculative fiction, and I can write it with conviction and aplomb much the same way that I can write editorial content and, when I have the inspiration for it, creative non-fiction. But I have never really seen enough value in literary realism to pour my creativity into it. My feeling is that if I am going to write something that’s grounded in my imagination, it ought to be something that is beyond the limits of ordinary experience – something that allows people to understand their world and themselves by bringing their mundane understanding to bear on fantastic worlds and experiences unlike our own. And if I’m going to write something realistic, why not write something that is actually real?

When Miller writes that fiction offers an experience rather than information or instruction, she makes a meaningful point, but she implies that non-fiction, by contrast, doesn’t offer experience. And that is not strictly true. Creative nonfiction can very poignantly present both elements to the reader, providing clear, confirmable information, but putting it into the context of vividly described experiences that surround that base of knowledge. One of the most trite pieces of advice given to aspiring writers, often by people who do not write, is “write what you know.” Trite though it may be, that advice does strike me as sound and perhaps obvious. If you don’t know what you’re writing about, you’re just making things up and risking information. As an adolescent, my aspirations to become a better writer entailed not rigorously exercising my imagination, but increasing the range of things that I knew. In what might be an ironic testament to my lack of imagination, my life since then has been much more isolated and monotonous than I ever thought possible, and I am tragically unwilling to write about China or Iowa because I have never been to either, or about logging or yachting because I have neither done nor witnessed those things. It may be hideously limiting and self-defeating, but as far as I’m concerned, I have no business writing about things that I haven’t seen first-hand but theoretically could.

I make no judgments about what other people write, but my personal standards do extend into what I read and how I appreciate the things that I read. I have encountered some moving, powerful fictional stories, but I often come away from them with a certain conflicted feeling that I do not have when I read speculative fiction, creative nonfiction, or straightforward nonfiction. I read a splendidly written story in a recent New Yorker about a woman’s experience of becoming homeless. It was a good story, it spoke to me, and it seemed distinctly plausible. But that last point distracted me at some point as I was reading it. There is something about reading a story that seems real but isn’t that can be somewhat disturbing to me. Here I was vicariously experiencing somebody’s misfortune and misery, striving to empathize with it and learn from it, and it wasn’t real. Yet at the same time, thousands of real people were experiencing the same basic experiences, and the opportunity was there for the author to write about something real with the same vividness and narrative strength, through which to present even more meaningful themes – more meaningful because they would have been real.

I think the same impulse explains my tendency to remain disinterested in contemporary novels, always focusing instead on brushing up on the classics. Such books might be fabrications of perfectly ordinary events, but at least they describe a time and place that I cannot experience for myself. But when the stories come from my world, from early twenty-first century America, I am not much driven to read them. I would much rather go out into that world and bear witness to the true stories being crafted within it, with all their literary quality. And if I can ever get out of the circumstance of just barely eking out a living in Buffalo, NY, those are the stories that I, as a writer, want to tell.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Agree With Us and the Calls Will Stop

After yesterday, will have to change its card that reads, “This gay pride month, lets dream of a day when New York and California are as progressive as Iowa and Maine.” I am thrilled to see that my home state has, at long last, joined the right side of history and civil rights. This is an inspiring watershed moment, and it is made more satisfying for me personally by the thought that it may signify the end of a long series of aggravating robocalls I’ve been received.

Over the past few weeks, there have been a number of times at which the phone in my home office rang, and before I am able to complete the word “hello” a recorded voice announces that it is the National Organization for Marriage calling with a brief survey. “Are you registered to vote in New York State?” it asks. And having been confused by the abruptness and lack of instruction the first time or two, I paused awkwardly before tentatively speaking the word “yes” into the receiver. “Do you agree,” the recording then continues, “that only marriage between one man and one woman should be legal in New York State?” Again I paused at first, this time wondering why the tone of the recorded voice seemed so cavalier, so evidently expectant of an affirmative response. Had they gotten my number confused with that of some archconservative they were trying to rally? I thought this to myself as I answered no.

“Thank you for your time and views,” said the robot, followed by silence. Generally, I expect a serious survey to consist of more than one opinion question, so it took me a long moment after the first call to realize that the machine was then no longer speaking to me. It didn’t even have the courtesy to say goodbye. It must have been quite disappointed with my response.

The day after the first call, I got another, which was absolutely identical. I shrugged, imagining that some hiccup in their system must have caused the auto-dialer to fail to recognize that my number had already been called. I answered the two questions the same as I had before, but more quickly, and hung up feeling perhaps ignobly gratified by the fact that my answer had counted twice. After three or four more repetitions of the same call, however, I began to wonder whether this was being done by design. Was the National Organization for Marriage perhaps only counting the yes votes, and giving the others unlimited chances to change their minds? Did they think that by bothering me repeatedly, and seeing to it that the machine typically called at least twice on a given day, they would wear me down and get me to answer yes just in the hope that the calls would stop thereafter, or that the survey would continue and give me a chance to speak to someone, and complain?

Perhaps I’m being silly and conspiratorial. It may well be that they were just using an extremely poorly designed system. But if they were trying to prompt a reversal, they had quite the opposite effect. My no vote became louder, firmer, and angrier each time. I considered trying to register my recorded response as “absolutely not, you callous, homophobic bastard,” or something along those lines.

I’m not the only one who experienced this ridiculous repetition, and it’s fun to think that it is a deliberate stratagem on the part of the National Organization for Marriage, because it would be indicative of both their stunningly narrow worldview and their desperation in the face of the increasing momentum of social change. I imagine a person assigned to review the recordings each morning playing back the denials of their position and reacting with disbelief that the weight of popular opinion is so firmly against them. “This must be a mistake,” I hear him saying each time he hears my voice or another speaking the word “no.” “He doesn’t sound gay. He must have misunderstood the question. Call him back.” Or else I imagine him deleting the record of numerous denials of their viewpoint, eagerly tallying up the statements of agreement, whether genuine or false, and starting the process over again in the morning, hoping that soon it will add up to an adequately manipulated show of agreement so as to justify their assertion that they are the ones being repressed, to indicate that the tyranny of an outspoken minority makes appropriate Bishop Joseph Mattera’s statement: “We look at it like we’re the victims.”

The National Organization for Marriage may not have put as much forethought into their campaign as I am imagining. They may not have conceived of the robocalls as harassment, and the constant repetition may have been little more than a technical flaw. But whether by design or not, it paints a fair picture of the inability of conservative evangelicals and regressive traditionalists to process other points of view. And whether they pestered me by design or purely by accident, I am hopeful that now that gay marriage is legal in New York State, these calls will come to an end. I am less hopeful about the end of the bigotry and ignorance underlying them.

Friday, June 24, 2011

I Don't Gotta Cut Loose...

I saw the trailer for the remake of Footloose yesterday. It looks truly awful, and not just in comparison with the 1984 Kevin Bacon classic, which, I must confess, I loved as a pre-teen boy. Judging by the trailer, this new version just has all the earmarks of an objectively bad movie. It’s hard to justify an overall impression of that sort. The first minute or so of the trailer is full of melodrama, a lot of uncomfortably close camera work, and disorienting fluctuations in lighting. It looks simultaneously like a completely formulaic teen comedy, and a completely formulaic teen dance movie, which apparently is a genre unto itself now. However, if you didn’t notice any of these things on your first viewing of the trailer, you probably won’t sense them much more clearly after I’ve pointed them out.

But it’s that dance movie formula, which becomes particularly evident at the 1:20 mark, which gives me something distinct and analyzable to criticize. It shows a scene that presumably takes place somewhere in the middle of the movie, wherein a rather absurd number of teenagers are dancing in a large parking lot, and not merely shuffling and swaying, but showcasing rigorous choreography and acrobatics. So apparently, in this modern update of the town of Bomont, dancing by young people is outlawed, but all young people residing in the town are trained dancers, and they all still dance in spite of the law. Got that?

But then that looks even more ridiculous when you rewind to the first seconds of the trailer, and see a bunch of kids dancing at the party that led to the deaths that set the stage for the dancing ban. In that case, they all appear to be dancing by simply jumping in place – that is, dancing the way normal teenagers do. So in light of the apparent weird discrepancy, Bomont is actually a place where a few kids died in a car crash, the town outlawed dancing, but teenagers continued to dance for the three years of the ban, and got really, really good at it. Sensible plotline.

And that’s just it really. The final moments of the trailer also feature the female lead being pushed out of the way of a speeding train and a school bus exploding with two characters leaping into the air in the foreground. I get the impression that they’ve done about all they can to strip the film of any pretense of believability. The original was not a science fiction film; it required a fairly modest suspension of disbelief, and all of the events plausibly could have happened in the real world. The new version apparently sees no value in making a realistic drama inside of which the viewing audience can easily see itself.

This plays into the post that I made recently about analysis versus escapism, and may well say something about changing approaches to filmmaking and film viewing. When I watched the 1984 film and was not yet an adolescent myself, I cast myself into imagining what it would be like to be in the setting of the film. Bomont was not like any place that I was likely to live, but reactionary social pressures are real in every time and place, and with that as the antagonist, Kevin Bacon’s character was something to admire. I could watch him leaping across the screen and fighting his rival for the girl’s affections and think that if I kept up my martial arts training, then I too would be able to perform his feats of strength and agility. (I haven’t quite lived up to those ideals, admittedly.) I could watch him speaking before the town council and think that his conviction in the face of overwhelming opposition was something I should emulate as I grew up. But it was possible to identify with that character, because when the music kicked it, it wasn’t a stage play with three dozen hand-picked extras all with four years of modern dance and seven of jazz-tap, it was just a physically fit, outgoing guy dancing in the company of his friends. Not so with today’s version, or with any of a number of movies just like it.

I imagine that any child or adolescent who watches this sort of movie nowadays must be either so seriously deluded that he thinks that with a little work he can be talented enough, cool enough, and good-looking enough to join in with the crowd depicted on the screen, or so personally detached from the entertainment that he’s only interested in the spectacle, consciously recognizing no themes of personal significance underlying it.

When I heard about the remake of Footloose in the first place, I wondered, why on Earth does this need to be remade at all? What relevance has it really lost in the two-and-a-half decades since the original was made? Now that I’ve seen the trailer, I wonder, why on Earth was it remade like this? But on the other hand, it has at least answered part of my original questions. Apparently, the relevance that has been lost is the very presence of any relevance at all in the original.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Cigarettes: The Most Illegal Legal Substance!

I heard a radio interview yesterday in which vivid descriptions were given of the new warning labels that will be required of all cigarette packages in the United States as of September 2012. This entire government anti-smoking campaign is beginning to look truly absurd to me. The FDA has described these images of diseased lungs, dying cancer patients, and the like as “the most significant advancement in communicating the dangers of smoking.” Is that really what this is? Is that even a reasonable goal at this point? I mean, do we really expect anyone, anywhere to pick up a pack of cigarettes, look at the graphic image declaring that “cigarettes cause stroke and heart disease,” and then exclaim, “I didn’t know that!”? Perhaps I am giving my fellow citizens too much credit, but I don’t think anyone is that ignorant.

I can’t help but think of the climax of the film “Thank You For Smoking,” in which Aaron Eckhart’s character, a tobacco lobbyist, is asked point blank by a Congressional panel whether he thinks cigarettes are dangerous and he stuns everyone by plainly answering “yes.” He proceeds to rhetorically ask whether anyone in the room isn’t sure whether cigarettes are dangerous, and makes his pro-tobacco argument on the basis of freedom of choice even when we know something is bad for us.

I think that does well to describe the situation we’re facing. The public has been thoroughly informed about the dangers of smoking. I don’t think anyone is left with doubt about the harm it can do. The question we’re left with is just whether people have the freedom to choose to smoke in spite of that. The answer very well may be no. That’s the answer when it comes to any of a multitude of illicit drugs. Thus far, though, tobacco has been a legal substance, which people are free to consume and the government is free to tax. These ongoing efforts at “public education” push the conflict into the realm of absurdity because the duty for public education has already been fulfilled, and the rest is just an attempt at discouraging certain legal behaviors.

Certainly, it can be argued that an appropriate role of government is to promote the public welfare by advocating some lifestyles and outlawing others. Public awareness campaigns like the food pyramid, now just the dinner plate, are examples of the former. Making drugs and prostitution illegal are examples of the other side of that government function. But anything that falls in between, I think, is an attempt at controlling behavior, and something unbecoming of a free society. After we’ve decided that something is damaging to the general well-being, there comes a time when the government has to make a decision about whether to make it illegal or to simply let people have their vice, health and longevity be damned. To do anything else is to make the potentially dangerous claim that there is a role to be found for the government in attempting to control private behavior even when that behavior is not illegal and its consequences are understood.

New York State and particularly New York City are way ahead with this mentality. New York City has just banned smoking in public parks, pushing cigarettes still farther towards a status of being made illegal through a series of decrees about their use without the item actually being legislatively outlawed. The city, state, and federal governments may feel very good about themselves for measures like this, but the fact is that if they feel so strongly that, for their own good, no one should be smoking, by allowing the production and consumption of cigarettes to remain a legal activity, they are not doing all they can to discourage it, and they are thus complicit in the ill effects wrought on those not reached by shocking visual warning labels.

Meanwhile, the government continues to collect taxes on cigarette sales, making their role in the tobacco conflict severely duplicitous. When your campaign against something you deem awful is comprised of a series of half-measures, that is questionable, but when you’re actually profiting off of the evil you preach against, it’s time to seriously reevaluate your morals. New York State has even gone so far as to violate Native American treaties in order to begin collecting taxes on cigarette sales on reservation lands. To my mind, that sends the message that while the use of cigarettes by private individuals is unconscionable, they are not so bad as to be restricted by the government, and in fact they are not so bad that it’s not worth violating other ethical principles for the sake of securing their revenue.

This is the moral and logical tangle that results when an establishment tries with all its might to avoid breaking points. That breaking point might sway society to either side of this issue, prompting government to reconcile to the fact that some people are just going to smoke no matter what, or else to decide that it can no longer be accepted at all, and that it is time for cigarettes to go the way of cocaine and other drugs. But to go on trying to play both sides serves no one and only encourages some dark trends in government.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Buffalo Loves a Parade

This past weekend marked the annual celebration of the street off which I live. It’s an odd festival for my part of Buffalo to organize and observe every year, considering that there’s really nothing of interest on Amherst Street. Oh, it’s an up-and-coming neighborhood, by Buffalonian standards, but by no means does it have enough to warrant its own parade. There’s a large Catholic church, a couple of bars, a florist, a pair of tiny, private galleries, and the sausage shop in which I used to work. It’s really only the last of these that gives the entire event the sense of being an event at all. My former employer set up space for bands in the parking lot, and grilled sausage for attendees. The rest of the neighborhood offered a collection of garage sales.

I hope my description makes it clear that June 18th was not exactly Mardi Gras in the Blackrock neighborhood of Buffalo. And yet the crowd that assembled to watch a parade of high school students, church staff, and supermarket employees was tremendous. When something is happening in Buffalo, however mundane, everybody from miles all around goes there to see what it’s like when the streets aren’t desolate save for the homeless and the criminal.

I made certain to make an appearance at the sausage shop. I enjoyed the last set of music, talked with my old coworkers and their friends, and even enjoyed some vegetables, which the proprietor saw sufficient demand for in the presence of me and one other vegetarian. Chatting with and increasingly drunk acquaintance of my old employer, I found myself being pulled into a would-be debate about the merits of the city in which we live. It came up out of nowhere, and vanished conveniently when the conversation was interrupted, but it was enough to constitute a new addition to my constantly growing list of examples of the delusion of local residents.

I had overheard the two men standing near me talking about the gravitational power of this town. One talked about having lived in Florida for ten years before finding himself pulled back into living in Buffalo, at which point I interjected that he should count himself lucky that he got away for that long, considering that I had less than five years free from its clutches, and that ignores the summers I spent back here. The other fellow somehow took each of our stories as a jumping-off point for a familiar assertion about how great a community this is to live in. But his explanation seemed confusingly contradictory at a glance.

He explained that he was a psychologist, and that he had been poised to take a position at a respected institution in the Hudson River valley. He spoke of the job that he almost had in the most enviable terms, and it was clear that it would have been an excellent career move for anyone in his profession, as well as a means to easily support his family and an opportunity to live somewhere truly picturesque. But, he went on, his mother was then diagnosed with Parkinson’s and he had to return here with his wife and child to be near family. He went so far as to say that the first couple of years were hellish, in that they all felt weighed down by their obligations, which had interrupted a life that was moving upward.

“But what are you going to do?” he said. “You learn to deal with things the way they are, and you make the best of it.” And then, in what was to me a baffling leap, he added, “And Buffalo is really wonderful when you stop and look at it. But you have to really stop and look at it…”

It was at that point that someone else drew his attention and the conversation fell off, but not before I had just begun to respond. “I’m with you up until that last part,” I had started to say, and I noticed a quizzical expression cross his face before he turned to look elsewhere. Apparently, then, he was not about to immediately grasp the source of my opposition to his idea that looking closely at the negative circumstances you’ve been compelled to accept somehow makes them objectively better.

You see, it seemed to me that his exposition on what had brought him back to Buffalo, what his life might have been moving towards otherwise, and what it was like for the first years after he returned, all should have led inextricably to some sort of appropriately negative commentary about the place in which he now lived. But with his last handful of comments, it was as though he was actually describing his own process of self-delusion and then deliberately ignoring it.

“You learn to deal with things the way they are…” Yes, of course you do. That is a necessary skill. But what it always seems to me that proud Buffalonians and other convenient optimists don’t understand is that continuing to live within the confines of your circumstances is not mutually exclusive with accepting their reality. The simple fact that one lives in Buffalo, or Cleveland, or Detroit, or just in poverty, or in a war zone, or any other unfortunate surroundings does not mean that one ought to see those places or those situations as good unto themselves. In fact, doing so is harmful. Emphasizing the positive only prompts us to forget not only that our lives could be better, but also that everything around us can be better. If we believe all is well, it strips us of the motivation to make things better, and though it’s comforting, it’s also wrong.

I will not accept this perspective, no matter how ubiquitous it proves to be. Buffalo isn’t an ideal home because it has parades on ordinary streets; it’s awful because it’s parades need only turn the corner to find themselves marching past the rows of crumbling homes that everyone ignores while they try to have a good time any way they can.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Analysis vs. Escapism

Almost exactly three years on from its original release date, I’ve finally gotten around to seeing Wall-E. It has still be quite low on my Netflix queue, but a friend of mine had it lent to her, and she offered that we watch it together. I knew to expect an excellent, critically acclaimed film, and I knew to expect a post-apocalyptic setting. My friend, however, was apparently completely free of any expectations. By the end of it, she was crying almost openly. The word “almost” is important there, because when the credits began to roll, she conspicuously avoided looking in my direction and said, “That was a stupid movie.”

I struggled to try to get her to elaborate. It was extraordinarily well animated, it was touching, it had moments of terrific suspense, and highly relevant themes. But when I asked her just what it was she didn’t like about it, the best response I was able to get from her was a synopsis of some of the plot points, which she gave while dabbing her eyes with a crumpled napkin.

The friendship that she and I share is of an odd sort. We have a scant few points of profound similarity, and apart from that we have virtually nothing in common. She is also not forthcoming with opinions or explanations of her beliefs or feelings, so gathering a better understanding of her takes a substantial bit of labor. One of the things that has long puzzled me about her is her taste in movies. That is, there seems to be no coherent pattern to what she chooses to watch and what she reports that she enjoys. She scoffs at some of the suggestions that I offer, but then speaks highly of films in the same genre, with similar styles or themes. She pretends not to like a particular class of film, but then eagerly embraces an individual film that is perfectly representative of it.

Eventually, after working to understand why she indicated that she didn’t like Wall-E in spite of clearly having been affected by it, I came to the conclusion that our distinct viewing habits were not exactly indicative of different tastes in film. Rather, they speak to differences in the very way that each of us consumes media. She felt shocked an uncomfortable after watching Wall-E because when viewing an animated film, she doesn’t expect an emotional rollercoaster or an overall challenge to the lifestyles of modern society. She only expects to be entertained.

I believe that that’s exactly the way that it is with her and virtually every move that she chooses to watch. She finds a film’s trailer appealing because it looks like the feature will be entertaining, and that it will provide good, non-threatening escapism. I have never been that way. I have never found appeal in pure escapism. Everything I watch, read, or listen to, I do so because I expect to get something out of it, something that speaks to the human conditions, or issues facing modern man, or at least the contemporary cultural aesthetic. Even if I find myself consuming a piece of media idly, I do not then merely let it wash over me. My mind’s tendency toward analysis never remains switched off for long, as so I’m eager to find emotional or intellectual content in even the simplest, most casual things, like television commercials.

It is always difficult to fully comprehend the notion that other people think differently than you do, and it is an essentially foreign concept to me that some people consume media as little more than a distraction. When I am challenged to think about it, however, I wonder whether fans of pop culture are more likely to do just that than they are to take my approach to the enjoyment of media. For me, real enjoyment only comes from the belief that something I am doing, whether actively or passively, is contributing to who I am as a person, what I understand, and how I think. Am I correct to surmise that this is something of a cultural divide within the population, and if so, am I in the minority of it? Am I an anomaly, and is there anything damning or self-injurious about over-thinking as I do, and striving to see that none of the themes of a work of art escape my attention, even if it’s a children’s movie?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Educational Recession

David Sirota had a piece on Salon yesterday, in which he claimed that two distinct camps seem to be emerging in the debate over future education policy. And Sirota firmly sides with one of these camps. The side that he privileges and takes to be uniquely supported by research data claims, in his words,
"that larger social ills such as poverty, joblessness, economic despair and lack of health coverage negatively affect educational achievement, and that until those problems are addressed, schools will never be able to produce the results we want."
Those on the other side, Sirota says, "want to radically change (read: charterize and/or privatize) public education under the premise that the primary problems are bad/lazy teachers and 'unaccountable' school administrators."

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

For Only....

I was cleaning up my apartment a little today, and I came across an old advertisement that I had received in the mail from Heifer International. Having ever in your life subscribed to a newspaper or expressed interest in a political cause seems to mark you as someone who probably has disposable income, so I have gotten a number of donation requests from charitable organizations. Virtually all of them strike me as worthwhile causes, and it upsets me each time that I simply do not have the money to donate to them. But Heifer International stood out very prominently among them.

Beneath the front cover, the pamphlet announced that a gift of five hundred dollars could buy a heifer for a third-world family. With compelling copywriting, it explained that one dairy cow could produce as much as four gallons of milk per day – enough for an entire family to drink and share with its neighbors and still have enough to sell. It continued to point out that by producing calves for other families, one cow could be instrumental in moving the whole of a community out of poverty. These extremely bold and shockingly plausible claims made me feel more shame about my persistent lack of financial security than I had ever felt before.

Five hundred dollars is no small sum of money, but it is very definitely an amount that is available at the end of the month for those people we generally conceive of as the default American citizen. The median household income in the United States in 2009 was over 50,000 dollars. I’m sure that to some people that does not seem like a tremendous amount of money, but I’m equally sure that some people have no idea how spoiled they can be. Considering that people around me routinely support themselves with annual incomes well under 20,000 dollars a year, there is no doubt that more than doubling that should leave a great deal of money left over, if only the household didn’t strive to consequently extend its standard of living well beyond what is prudent.

The awareness of what five hundred dollars could do for a third-world family, or even for a working-class American family, painfully reminds me that we collectively have the means at our fingertips to solve the problems that are surrounding us every day. Five hundred dollars is presently a huge sum to me, but apparently I am atypical of the American experience. Why, then, does that typical American not hold himself to a higher social standard? Am I deluding myself when I think that I would sooner buy a heifer for each of a hundred families than buy a house when I already have a rented roof over my head? Or does all of this just suggest that the wrong people are well-off?

Is there any way to bring people to a breaking point in their view of financial entitlement, short of standing them face-to-face with a malnourished family and asking them if they’d still rather hold onto that five hundred dollars for their next home theater upgrade? And would even that not sway some people?

We have the means to solve these problems. It’s in our hands. It’s in our hands, but we’re clutching it tight for ourselves, instead of putting it to good use.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

What the Right Question is Really Worth

[Be aware: this is a long post. If you click "Read More," it means, in this case, about six thousand words.]

Last Monday, Tell Me More ran a story titled “What a College Major is Really Worth.” The piece discussed a new report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, and consisted of an interview with one of the authors of the study, Anthony P. Carnevale. Before hearing from him, however, the host, Michel Martin, began the segment by pointing out that during this graduation season, some are “questioning the real value of attending college.” Now, I think that’s an excellent question to ask, but I honestly don’t understand where Martin is coming from in asserting that it is by any means a common question, at least among the segment of the population that is not made up of recent college graduates. Aside from myself and others like me, I don’t see anyone asking that question. Certainly not current high school or college students, or any educators.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Learn to Be Better at the Job You Don't Have

I will be posting a much more in-depth commentary on a related topic later on, but I've just heard about some news related to labor policy, which I'd like to address first. President Obama announced today that a new initiative in "winning the future" will be to invest in providing college students with training for manufacturing jobs. That spurs me to ask one question as loudly and vociferously as possible: Why college students?

If we believe that manufacturing jobs will help to turn the recession around, what benefit is to be gained from drawing candidates for those new jobs from among a pool of college-educated workers? Doesn't that background specifically make them differently qualified? Having formal education in the fields of physics or mechanical engineering might help you to better understand the processes and machinery involved in making industrial or consumer goods, but I don't see how it helps you to actually do a better job of working on the line, assembling those products, and running that machinery. Neither do I see how saddling future manufacturing laborers with student loan debt will help to ease their financial burden once those jobs come to contribute to an economic recovery.

Frankly, even if the government's investment was channeled into trade schools rather than community colleges, how does that actually help? This constant, unquestioned emphasis on both job training and college education relies on what is to me an obviously false premise: that the problems facing nine to twenty percent of American workers today is not a lack of available jobs, but a lack of qualifications among the labor force. The government seems to believe, against evidence and common sense, that increasing training and education will cause jobs befitting those qualifications to appear out of the ether.

Why does labor policy consistently place the burden of future recovery on the worker rather than the industry, those who are struggling rather than those who merely have reduced profit margins, the individual rather than the economy as a whole?

The Department of Labor recently reported that manufacturing jobs were cut in May. In light of that, on what is the government basing the assertion that increased manufacturing will spur the economy in coming months and years? What are they doing to make that happen, other than telling people "Get ready - we promise this is what you're going to be doing after you graduate"?

Manufacturing jobs, if I'm not mistaken, tend to be blue collar labor. And like much blue collar labor, and indeed like many jobs in sales and office work and other traditionally white collar positions, the ability to do the job effectively relies largely on on-the-job training. No degree program can teach you the exact skill set you'll need for a specific job, and unless in-depth background knowledge is essential for a particular career path, acquiring a degree is often just a waste of time and money.

But again, Obama and the government as a whole seem to think the reason there are so few manufacturing jobs is not that the industries are failing in the U.S. or outsourcing their labor to cheap foreign workers, but because employers are sitting in their offices, pouting that nobody in America has the training to do the jobs that they'd so desperately like to fill. But what I think is that if those jobs existed in greater numbers, and if there were incentives for employers to keep them in the United States, manufacturers would hire whomever demonstrated the overall competence and trainability to be able to perform the needed tasks.

As a matter of fact, that seems obvious to me. But I don't see labor policy ever developing to reflect that. I think we'll go on delaying people's entry into the labor market by pushing them through higher levels of education while waiting either for the economy to turn around on its own or for a greater collapse to drive us to a breaking point.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Good Plan?

Fareed Zakaria gave a fairly interesting interview to The Daily Show the other night. But through all the discussion of America's position in the international economy, and the growing challenges faced by the American worker, and the lack of coherent labor policy, and comparisons to German attitudes toward government, it was the joke shared between Zakaria and John Stewart that stuck out in my mind.

After Zakaria made reference to Silicon Valley being built in part by generous education policy and the influence of Lockheed Martin, Stewart broke in humorously, and this dialogue ensued:

Stewart: So you’re saying the key is education and war. If we can just keep starting world wars, and then keep doubling back down on GI bills, we could really have this thing worked out.

Zakaria: World wars are actually really useful; the small wars don’t help much. And then you’ve got to destroy the other competitors. See, that was the great thing about World War II: you flatten all of the other competitors, you’re left on top. Hey, this is the Stewart-Zakaria plan.

Stewart: I don’t know why no one’s running on that platform. American: We’ll flatten you… and then we’ll sell you what you need to rebuild.

Honestly, I hope that phrase gains traction - the Stewart-Zakaria plan. It is an excellent concept to have been raised by a popular humorist and a popular news personality who understands humor, because it has tremendous potential as satire.

Zakaria was joking around when he said what he did, but he was also telling the honest truth. The humor is just in the indelicate presentation. Few knowledgeable people would question the capital-forming effects of major wars, or the potential for buying, selling, trade, and construction that grows out of the years following them. But at the same time, no rational person would ever advocate for periodic war as an economic policy, no matter how effective it may be. Isn't there some tension between those two observations?

I expect that the economic potential of war is something that most people simply do not think much about. But it's worth thinking about. It says something about the very prominent dark side of our economic system. The viability of the Stewart-Zakaria plan is something that we need to either come to terms with or oppose. We need to decide whether we are content living within circumstances that prominently reward war, and if we are not, we need to consider what elements of the modern world are responsible for that situation. If we are not content with it, we need to be aware of that fact, aware of the dark side of the world economic system, and let that constant awareness drive us towards the breaking point that makes necessary the construction of another alternative.

Are you in favor of the Stewart-Zakaria plan? Would you tacitly welcome endless cycling of war if it meant taking turns with endless cycling of education and economic opportunities as well? In a sense, perhaps that is exactly what we have. Perhaps our economy is just a series of flourishing summers followed by bleak winters, with the only changing being a blurring of the sometimes stark lines between them. Are you content with that, or do you believe that another way of living is possible?

Sunday, June 5, 2011

How Many Syndromes Do You Have

I wrote a recent post recapping an article about mental illness and using it as a basis for expressing some of my general criticisms of psychiatry. The fact that Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me discussed the recent identification of "Hotness Delusion Syndrome" on this weekend's show brings back into focus one of my points of contention with the field.

The details behind HDS are that more men over the age of forty are single than women of that age, and therefore such men are pursued much more vigorously. The imbalance leads men in that stage of life to drastically overestimate their own attractiveness. I refuse to believe that I'm being unfair in saying that that could not possibly be rightly called a syndrome. If the failure to thoroughly and objectively analyze the consequences of statistical deviations is a syndrome, then the majority of all Americans must be very seriously afflicted.

I am completely in favor of endeavoring to explain all manner of human behaviors. It is good to know the circumstances and causes underlying people's judgments, beliefs, and actions, in order to help us to compensate for mitigating factors and to improve ourselves both personally and socially. The notion of diagnosis carries a different connotation, however. It is more excuse than explanation, and it diminishes the sense of agency in a person's actions, while still locating the problem almost exclusively in the mind of the individual.

And there is an ongoing impulse to provide virtually every bit of human activity with this kind of assessment. It leads, in my view, to absurd diagnoses of silly conditions, where it would be much more helpful to simply say, "You should work on this personality characteristic or that skewed perspective. It is not helpful to try to disembed these features from the person carrying them, and define them unto themselves. For when we do, we end up with things like Alexithymia - difficulty in understanding or expressing your emotions - which, surely, every last human being must have in some measure.

I understand that it is a matter of degree, and that some people experience serious psychological harm and social consequences of characteristics that are, on their surface, innocuous. That does not make it any more sensible to define those characteristics as syndromes and disorders. Saying that a diagnoses of Hotness Delusion Syndrome is absurd in all cases is no worse than saying it is wrong to apply it to some people who experience the same symptoms in a lesser degree. The dividing line for things like this could be nothing other than arbitrary.

The challenge here is that I must, and willingly do extend that analysis to more widely recognized conditions like bipolar disorder. When I think of what bipolar signifies at its absolutely most basic level of description, I think "A series of highs and lows? Isn't that just life?" And I think it is unfair that one person who experiences mild fluctuations of that sort might be denied a diagnosis, while someone else with very slightly more extreme or less ordered phases might be ascribed the title that provides him with both the stigma and the convenient explanatory function of a disorder.

Again, I understand that extreme bipolar disorder can be menacing to a person's well-being, and that therapy may be genuinely helpful in some instances, and medication in others. My own preferences, were I to be faced with a diagnoses of this sort, are defined, but irrelevant. I leave that decision as a matter of personal opinion in all cases. Severe interventions may be extremely helpful in some cases, but what I believe is never helpful is compartmentalizing a person's psyche and thus failing to treat them as a complete person.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Ad Libs

I heard an absurd radio advertisement today. "Manure," it began, "It's not a pretty word, but that's what some fertilizers are made of." Good start, that. It's not indicative of a very rigorously thought-out ad campaign that the first volley of attack on the competition is that a word associated with them simply doesn't have a euphonious sound. The announcer went on to talk down about manure-based fertilizers for a few seconds, but what really caught my ear was the effort at selling the product being advertised. The copy proudly pointed out that apart from its being "high energy," the alternative to manure is preferable because it is organic.

Amidst the fervent effort to greenwash products, have we actually forgotten what the term "organic" means? What could the livestock possibly be eating to make their excrement anything other than organic? It is stupefying to think that advertising agencies may actually expect consumers to leap at the sound of appealing language without thinking for two seconds about the meaning behind it. Worse still is the thought that they may be right. That suggests that the job of modern advertisers must be wonderfully easy. Either that or the industry is seriously lacking in truly effective, genuine creativity.

In many cases, advertisement seems to consist of little more than a professional game of mad libs:

[Competitor or general class of product] doesn't want you to know that it's [scary sounding but innocuous adjective]. But [our product] is better because it is/has [familiar but meaningless buzzword].

I hope for a breaking point on both sides. Consumers need to be more discerning, so as to not be taken in by the most obvious, unoriginal branding, which is rooted in nothing more than an attempt to repeat and bastardize the simplest terminology of current social awareness. But not everybody is that simple-minded, and this sort of advertising can only have a rather limited effect. Just painting something with the bland colors of glaringly obvious trends does not sell a product on its actual merits. For the sake of their products and for the sake of basic self-respect, advertisers need to hold themselves to a higher standard than this.

Friday, June 3, 2011

End of the World Finances

It's been reported that that highly visible and extremely active atheist group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to the California attorney general asking him to launch a probe into Harold Camping's Family Stations Inc., alleging fraud and deceit. FFRF is suggesting that Camping and his organization did not even belief their May 21st doomsday prediction, and simply used it as a way to bilk gullible Christians out of large sums of money.

I must say, my initial reaction was to think that FFRF, in a style that is not atypical of them, was overreaching. I mean, sure, Camping is an idiot, and sure his assertion that the Rapture was on a fixed deadline may have done serious harm to some people's lives, but it seemed to me that FFRF was operating based on a typical false premise, unfairly reducing religion to the notions of greed among the leaders and fear among the flock.

There may have been fear tied up with people's faith, and Camping may have incidentally benefited from it, but that doesn't mean that he specifically designed to amplify and exploit those fears in order to make money. If so many people believed the pronouncement, why should be suppose that the person who made it didn't have just the same kind of faith?

I did think all of these things as I was reading the article, until I got to the part where it quotes Camping's response to the requests from some followers that he give back the savings that they spent to help him spread his message.

"Why would we return it? We're not out of business. We still have to go another five months. ... Maybe by Oct. 21 we'll only have $10 left."

Holy crap. That really does make me wonder whether the man actually believes in anything. With a quotation like that, at eighty-nine years old, has he just decided that he plain doesn't give a damn what he does or what anyone thinks of him at the end? It's hard not to suppose that he doesn't even believe he'll have to account for anything once he's left the world and all his poor followers have been left behind.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


I’ve just read about the fashion model Andrej Pejic, a fascinating story of glamorous androgyny.  Pejic’s particularly notable claim to fame is now having been ranked number ninety-eight on FHM’s list of the 100 Sexist Women in the World, in spite of being a man.  I already commented on last month’s Maxim Hot 100 list, and called attention to the masculine features of their number one pick.  But in that case, I used the observation to make fun of meatheads and their repressed homosexuality.  The case of Andrej Pejic and FHM, however, speaks to something deeper.  After all, since Pejic is identifiably male, the readers who voted him in had to be conscious of the impulses driving their decision.  Either significant numbers of FHM readers believe that the shape of a model’s genitalia does not affect the attractiveness of his or her feminine features, or they voted Pejic in as a joke of some sort, or else a bunch of frat boys genuinely didn’t know the gender of the person they were looking at and have spent the entire time since the release of the magazine trembling in horror and confusion.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


There was an article posted to yesterday, that I think is important reading. Naturally, I would think that, because it recalls a post I made to this blog in February. The Cracked author, Mark Hill, however, puts me to shame in that his piece, in that site's fashion, makes a very systematic presentation of his points, drawing on extensive research.

But regardless of exactly how the topic is presented, it is good just to see anyone questioning the asinine media narrative about the socially transformative power of new media. It is good to see anyone making an effort to take Twitter, Facebook, and Western egos down a notch or two. It is disheartening when I can go many weeks without seeing anyone take a rational view on subjects like this, and so it is downright inspiring when someone finally does. There is a conflict present here between a logical assessment of surrounding circumstances and self-aggrandizing, delusional optimism about our own effectiveness in global developments. And of course, eschewing reason in favor of the comforting belief that our mundane activities are inspiring populations and toppling governments only serves to retard our motivation to do more, to put activity behind our activism, and to do a bit of self-sacrifice for the good of others. Why bother if your conspicuous consumption of technology is doing the work for you? Well it isn't, as I pointed out in February, and as The New Yorker pointed out before that, and as Mark Hill very astutely pointed out yesterday.

Will more rational people contribute to this discussion in time? I am earnestly hopeful that prominent writers and commentators will work to tear down this foolhardy conviction that our impersonal, overly casual social activities are good enough to start revolutions. Raising questions about that assumption in the minds of the broader population could constitute a crucial breaking point. We need desperately to break in favor of a clearer understanding of what gives real value to human activity. As it is, this absurd, poorly thought out narrative is making us lazy and self-righteous, and that is a truly poisonous combination.