Friday, December 30, 2011

Mitt Romney's Delusion of Meritocracy

I always find myself inching towards a breaking point in my patience for political double-talk when I hear someone who has benefited from extraordinary material and social advantages preaching about the evils of “entitlement society” and how they undercut the meritocracy in which we are supposedly now living. And so it is with Mitt Romney’s stump speech. Much of his campaign rhetoric has sought to paint him as the ideological opposite to an Obama presidency that advances entitlement and discourages hard work and education.

You may disagree with the effectiveness of Democratic policies, but it seems asinine to fail to acknowledge that the initiatives of people like President Obama are precisely aimed at providing opportunities for work and education to all Americans. But Mitt Romney apparently identifies these efforts as aspects of “a society where government takes from some and gives to others; tries to make everybody the same.”

Nobody who isn’t a robot strives to make everybody the same. No Democrats that I know of think that is either possible or desirable. The goal is to prevent an unfair disparity in the opportunities that are available to different kinds of people from cradle to grave. And I suppose that only a person who has never been on the bottom half of that divide, or who has forgotten what it was like, would fail to understand that.

As such a person, Romney says:

“I believe in something I'll call an opportunity society, a merit society where people, based upon their education and their hard work and their risk-taking, are able to earn rewards.”

And looking closely at those words, I see a significant indication of the inability of people like Mitt Romney to so much as perceive the effects of existent inequality. I believe that virtually everybody shares the ideal of a society in which hard work and education lead a person to success and prosperity. It just happens that those of us who have put forth earnest and constant efforts, and obtained the fullest education available to us have found the reality to be far from that ideal.

Meanwhile, people who have never wanted for anything tend to believe that they were competing on a level playing field and that their own hard work and education and risk-taking provided them with the fruits that they have enjoyed throughout life. But that phrase “risk-taking” points to the cognitive dissonance implicit in believing both that personal investment is foundational and that preexisting advantages are irrelevant.

If risk-taking is part of a trifecta of personal behaviors that define an individual’s success, it requires some rather fuzzy logic to conclude that everybody has an equal shot at earning the rewards that Romney speaks of. Taking a risk for the sake of success means gambling with resources, and if you don’t have sufficient resources to start with, the prospect of taking a material risk means either venturing less for the sake of a more modest reward or pursuing the irrational course of action by putting more on the table than you can afford to pay should the risk fail.

After all, the term “risk” presupposes the possibility of failure. That’s well and good if your father was the CEO of American Motors by the time you were seven, and you therefore have the means to cover your losses. But if you were born working class, have the support only of working class people, or of no one at all, and are starting your education, career, and all else from scratch, a risk that fails can doom your life. If you’re on the bottom, you can work harder than anyone you know, and educate yourself to the utmost, but if you’re not presented with an actual opportunity to ascend, the bottom is where you stay.

Romney evidently thinks that hard work and education are not enough, and that risk-taking is the third requirement of meritocracy, and perhaps the very thing that creates those opportunities for ascent. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” they say. Fine, but what if you have nothing to venture – nothing, that is, but your hard work and education? It seems to me that the only response to such a person’s hardship that still maintains a belief in meritocracy is to fault them for either choosing not to gamble more than they own or for gambling so much and losing.

But in point of fact, I think the actual response to such people is to avoid looking down the cracks through which they’ve fallen, and to simply pretend that they never existed.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Life, Googled

I saw a television advertisement for Google yesterday. Not for any particular service offered by Google, just for the Google brand as a whole. I find it kind of strange that a powerful company with virtually no competition for its major services would run advertisements in the popular media simply promoting its own name. But I suppose it’s aimed not at encouraging people to use Google, but at encouraging them to use Google for everything. I’m taking the fact that they’ve seen fit to run the ad as a good sign that Google does still have competition and people are not yet flocking to it for all their worldly desires.

Yet the style and content of the ad does give the impression that that’s precisely what they are promoting. It consists of a lengthy montage of web searches, e-mail messages, videos, status updates, and so forth, and clearly the main idea is that every facet of life can be served by a Google application. It’s a familiar style of advertising – one that tries to saturate the viewer with beautiful or inspiring imagery to make them desire a more intimate connection with the world being depicted on the screen. And the consumer is meant to come away from it thinking that the given brand will help them to obtain that closeness.

I have two pieces of commentary to bring to bear on Google’s application of this advertising style. One observation is general to the commercial, and one is specific to a brief part of it that I find objectionable.

My general criticism is that the advertisement as a whole falls flat in its effort to inspire me with a barrage of imagery, drawn from disparate corners of human experience. It’s a type of content that I’ve considered effective elsewhere, for instance in the 2008-9 Discovery Channel “I Love the World” campaign. There’s a straightforward reason why I consider the Google ad to fail where that one succeeded. Google’s montage presents every scene as being two steps removed, rather than just one.

The images included in its montage are fairly familiar, on the whole. They are simply of people talking, or of significant but commonplace daily events like a child’s first bike ride. These things are perfectly accessible without a technological medium, and yet when I see them on the television screen, it is perfectly clear that they are being channeled through something external to both me and the person being depicted. Where the visual is of a Google+ chat session or the like, I find myself looking at a screen upon a screen, and that leaves me quite far from the reality of another person’s life. And where the scene is not affixed to a separate little box, it is a poor quality image, shaking as someone films the event on a handheld video camera.

The Discovery Channel ad was similar in basic intent to the Google ad, in that it was offering a mode of access to other events, experiences, and parts of the world through an intermediary, whether television media or computers. But two things differentiated the Discovery Channel visuals: They were professionally produced and they depicted experiences that were clearly remote and uncommon. Thus, I enjoyed crisp, almost lifelike views of African tribal ceremonies, and skydiving, and undersea exploration, and I got the impression that the Discovery Channel was capable of bringing me closer to things that I could not easily or quickly access on my own.

By contrast, the Google ad reminds me that the use of some of their services might actually put additional barriers between me and the people or circumstances I wish to access. And if what I’m trying to access is just people roughly like me and experiences similar to those that I’ve had, I can step out my front door and gain access to something of the same kind without Google’s help. And personally, I think I would be better off doing so in many cases. As so often happens, I worry that I’m practically alone in that thinking. I worry that most Americans have eschewed any breaking point on this subject, and that they think it’s actually preferable to use a technological middle man for everything they used to do for themselves.

That brings me to my particular gripe with the scenes depicted in the Google ad. At one point it shows someone Googling the phrase, “How to be a better dad.” Have we really come to a point where we think that even that is the sort of question that Google can resolve for us. I know some people think that widespread access to the internet means it’s no longer necessary to memorize any factual information whatsoever. Are we now at the point that retaining ethereal information, standards of personal behavior, and methods of character development are also considered obsolete?

There are some things that you don’t Google. I don’t care how sophisticated their algorithm becomes; no information that can be posted to the web takes the place of experience, practice, and acquired wisdom. Anyone who would Google the phrase “How to be a better dad” has no business being a dad. After all, he seems to be under the shockingly erroneous impression that effective parenthood is easy, and that the problem of child-rearing can be resolved with the click of a mouse, as opposed to, say, rigorous study and earnest commitment.

It troubles me to think that Google is encouraging people to lean on their brand to resolve fundamental human questions for them. Just so that I can beat them to the punch, I would like to recommend against Googling the following phrases, in case their next ad suggests that a web search will provide the answer to any of them:

“How to live my life.”

“How to believe in the one true faith.”

“Why do bad things happen to good people?”

“Should I commit suicide?”

“Do I have a soul?”

“What is justice, Polemarchus?”

If at any time you have Googled one or more of these phrases, go outside and talk to somebody.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Batavia, NY: Old-Lady-Punching Capital of the World

I would like to see a breaking point in our perception of suburban and rural crime. This is one of those things that I realize I’ve been observing all my life, but that I only notice the real significance of once I encounter an example of it that cannot be glossed over. Then I hope my personal breaking point precipitates a more general one.

I just encountered a story that, as luck would have it, comes from my general area and happened on Christmas Eve, as well. It seems that in a Wal-Mart in Batavia, NY a seventy year old cashier named Grace Suozzi asked to see a receipt from twenty-six year old Jacquetta Simmons for purchases she had made in the electronics department. Simmons, amidst much shouting, refused to produce the receipt, though she did indeed have one. Suozzi stepped towards her as she moved towards the exit, and Simmons punched the old lady in the face.

Shocking story, right? Now, tell me this: Would it be less shocking if it happened in New York City? How about if it was specifically the Bronx? Detroit? Please comment if you answered yes to any of those questions; I would really like to hear your explanation.

Personally, I say no. No it would not have been any less shocking if it had occurred elsewhere. Situation the event in the middle of a war zone, and punching an unarmed seventy year-old woman in the face is still quite reprehensible. No matter where the attacker lives, I’d be pretty amazed to witness somebody demonstrating such an abject lack of conscience, restraint, and considering the presence of many, many witnesses, an interest in self-preservation.

However, the coverage of the story by ABC affiliate WHAM-TV suggests otherwise. It’s not the deplorable viciousness of the act that’s surprising, it’s the fact that a deplorably vicious act would occur in Genesee County, and a town of just over 16,000 people. After describing what occurred, the reporter explains, “The news of what happened spread throughout Batavia through word of mouth and Facebook.”

From there, she turns to testimonials from two representatives of the Batavia community, starting with Dawn Williams, the owner of a local salon, who says: “It’s hard to believe that it happened in Batavia. I mean it’s something you see that happens in the city or the big cities, but not here.”

Given the careful distinction between “the city” and “the big cities,” I immediately recognized that, why, in the first place, she must be talking about me! I live in Buffalo, which I gather is “the city” as far as Western New York is concerned. And yet, I can’t seem to recall having ever seen anyone punch an elderly person in the face. Much less have I heard of such a thing happening repeatedly, as is implied by describing it as something “that happens.”

The other Batavia resident that was interviewed for the story, Clifford Shultz, was initially more measured with his commentary. For a fleeting moment, it seemed like he was going to comment just on his shock at what happened, regardless of where: “I mean on Christmas Eve, a twenty-six year-old lady punching a seventy year old woman, I mean, that’s kind of, you know, shocking that something like that would happen.” He paused there, and then added, with great emphasis, “around here.”

D’oh. Almost had it there, Clifford. The correct answer was, it’s kind of, you know, shocking that something like that would happen… anywhere on the planet. You see, punching an elderly person is kind of an exceptionally bad criminal act, based purely on what it is, not where it occurred. I don’t care if you live in Shanghai, Buffalo, Batavia, or Centralia; if you fracture an old woman’s face, the jaws of onlookers will drop, and then they will surround your car to prevent you from leaving before the police arrive. That’s what happened in this case, and maybe that’s what makes the story unique to Batavia. In other areas, the attacker and her male companion might just have been beaten unconscious. But I’m pretty confident that respect for our elders is a sufficiently ingrained ethic throughout Western civilization that nobody who did such a thing would walk away without incident to herself.

Ms. Williams and Mr. Shultz, your living in Batavia is completely irrelevant to this story. Commentary about different patterns of criminal activity in urban and remote areas has no place here. This is a unique story about someone punching an old woman, and sorry folks, it happened in your town. Yet I’m more generous than Ms. Williams, as I’m not going to take that as grounds for generalizing old-woman-punching as a Batavia activity. I don’t think Batavians go around doing that sort of thing for sport; I just think something awful happened in their Wal-Mart on Christmas Eve.

Giving Mr. Shultz the benefit of the doubt for his commentary, I would not be a bit surprised, based on the abrupt way he added his last two words, if he had been coached by the reporter to make an issue of the town’s identity. And it would be all that much less surprising because we’ve all seen this sort of thing before. Most times there is a crime in a small town or suburb, the media emphasis goes to how anomalous it is for something bad to happen in what is usually a quiet community. Well, yeah. Lower population + less poverty = lower crime rates. But still, surprise, surprise: human beings are capable of terrible things. Moving house doesn’t really change that.

The media’s addition of special significance to crimes that occur in small towns is not just irrelevant; it’s manipulative, biased, and downright illogical. It establishes a narrative whereby every crime that’s committed in a small town is just an exception to the usual peacefulness of the place, while every crime that’s committed in a city confirms to presumption of urban violence.

However, though I don’t have specific statistics to bring to bear on this, I’m rather certain that there’s about as many people in cities not committing crimes as there are in small towns. It seems to me that if violent crime is an anomaly, it is an anomaly to the human race, not to certain subsections of it. And if it is a general rule, it is a general rule for the same.

To think of the situation otherwise, as we so often do, is to perpetuate false distinctions among people according to some ephemeral concept of regional identity or town pride, while in reality the relevant distinctions among people are circumstantial, and though they are difficult to pin down, they are concrete. That’s the sort of thing that can be clarified with facts rather than divisive spin. And the former is supposed to be the purview of journalism, even though it rarely is.

The Meaning of Boxing Day

Yesterday was Boxing Day. Virtually no Americans know the meaning or origin of that holiday, but it is so strongly associated with returning Christmas gifts that many people actually assume that it refers to placing merchandise back into boxes and taking them back to the stores. Worse still, retailers seem to be playing on that association so actively that in coming years I won’t be surprised if Boxing Day is actually recognized throughout the United States as the gift return holiday.

To my knowledge, Kohls was the worst offender, having scheduled a 5 AM opening for December 26th. Other big box stores weren’t far off with their early openings and special promotions. There is a nascent trend towards turning the day after Christmas into a new Black Friday. All of the commentary I’ve already written here about how consumerism detracts from the enjoyment of non-shopping traditions applies tenfold to Christmas over how it applied to Thanksgiving.

My heart goes out to anyone who typically celebrates Christmas but has to work on that day. So it made me sad to see that each of the Wilson Farms stores and Tim Horton’s in my area were open throughout the holiday, and were awfully well-populated. It’s an unsympathetic employer who makes his employees work on what is supposed to be a cultural holiday on which most Americans gather together, relax, and celebrate the closing year. Even if they come from a distinct culture, I think at least that one day of rest ought to be a near-universal perk of working in America.

Added to the number of people who had to actually push coins across a retail counter on Christmas Day, I’m certain that early-morning promotions as major stores meant that overnight crews were required to setup that night, which presumably shortened of otherwise impeded some people’s gatherings with their friends and families. As consumers, making a shopping holiday of Boxing Day does a disservice to others who had, or would have, celebrated Christmas the day before.

But my concern is really for everyone, whether the new consumerist push obligated them to sacrifice a bit of Christmas or not. I find it appalling that returning gifts after Christmas is now assumed to be part of the holiday season. Personally, I’ve never unwrapped a package, looked at its contents, and thought to myself, “Gee, I can’t wait to returning this for something of roughly equal value that I actual like!” I’ve never said, “I hope you kept the receipt.” Generally, when I receive a Christmas gift, I say thank you, and I mean it, and if it’s an article of clothing that doesn’t fit, I or the giver exchange it for the same item in the proper size. That’s why the things that we open on Christmas morning are gifts: We didn’t choose them for ourselves; we don’t cherry-pick them; they represent not just our own base desires, but a material expression of how our loved-ones perceive us.

And even if our self-perception and the perception of others don’t align, accepting a gift is a great way to discover new things, and to learn to enjoy what you might not have chosen for yourself. This year, my mother gave me a very generous gift and before I opened it she commented that I might not think I need it. And indeed I don’t. I’m still young enough and fortuitous enough to stand the cold of my apartment without need of an electric heater. My mother intimated that I could take it back if I tried it and found that it didn’t suit me, but I made it clear to her that I would not be doing that, and I acknowledged that it was something I never would have purchased for myself, but that I would use now that I owned it. And despite not being something I’d coveted, it does suit me on some level, as the fake-fire display adds to the aesthetic of my home, and after all, I do need heat, even if I don’t acknowledge it to myself.

The price of the item might have done me better directed elsewhere, or even just kept by my mother, who is financially little better off than I am. But what ever happened to the old cliché, “It’s the thought that counts”? Perhaps we retain that sentiment as an ethic for the giver, but we don’t seem to ever apply it to the receiver. The thought behind each gift has value beyond money, and returning the item is often as good as returning the thought, sending the message, “You thought wrong.”

This is one of those instances in which the etiquette that we learned as children is thrown out the window as we age. Aren’t kids expected to say thank you even to the gifts that they don’t like? Then don’t their parents explain that they need only wear the ugly sweater when the aunt who gave it comes around next year? Are things like that social obligations that we just grow out of over time? Or do we just conveniently forget them after years of building up our material desires?

The four, six, eight and more weeks before Christmas are devoted to mutually gratifying those desires. With Boxing Day now devoted to consumption as well, how many more days need to be added to this shopping spree before the American affection for consumerism reaches a breaking point and starts to cede ground back to the spirit of giving, gratitude, and togetherness?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Entertainment Without Experience

I still rent movies in the form of physical DVDs, because I like to feel personally engaged with the media that I consume. When I decide to watch a film, I settle myself in front of the television, usually with dinner on my coffee table. As it is now winter, a movie usually means swaddling myself in a blanket and seeing that a pot of hot tea is near at hand. Food and drink are my only distractions, and far from being genuinely distracting, they usually enhance my enjoyment of two hours or so of closely watching a film. I am perhaps too obsessed with small rituals, but many of my activities do require suitable circumstances, and I am rather proud of that fact. It makes me feel as if I am getting the fullest sense of fulfillment from whatever I am doing, even if it is something as banal as watching a television screen alone in a dim room.

Some of the DVDs that I rent begin playback with a commercial for “Blu-Ray with digital copy,” and thus give me what I think is a glimpse of the exact opposite of valuing direct engagement with activities and their settings. Digital copy is a service that allows you to download a copy of a Blu-Ray disc you’ve purchased to your laptop, smart phone, or other electronic device, because apparently there is significant demand for high-definition entertainment on the go. The demand does not actually surprise me, but I thought such demand was already fulfilled by a product called everything that exists in the real world.

The commercial for Digital Copy includes a housewife addressing the audience and explaining that her family loves movies, but they just aren’t always home to enjoy them. Since she speaks directly to me through the fourth wall, I think it’s pretty unfair that I can’t talk back to her, because I have questions. If your family isn’t home to watch movies, it’s probably because they’re out doing other things, right? Why, then, would they perceive any need for electronic entertainment? Do you want to be able to keep up with the Kardashians when there’s a lull in your child’s recital and she’s not actually on stage? Is a basketball game not exciting enough if you can’t squeeze in a couple scenes from Die Hard between periods? If you’re not always home to watch movies, just wait. Movies are specifically for when you are at home.

If you think those aren’t the sort of circumstances to which the woman was referring, you haven’t seen the commercial, because one of the examples that it actually depicts of Digital Copy in use is a boy sitting on a bench outside at a basketball court, dressed in athletic wear, watching a movie while two other boys play basketball behind him. This scene is offered essentially without comment, and it frightens me to think that that might mean that other people are not baffled by it, as I am. I look at it and I see a product being advertised by showing something fun happening off in the background, where the product is specifically not being used.

The best possible explanation I can give for such a scene is that the advertisers are trying to convey that the solitary boy has something to do while he waits for one of his friends to rotate out of the game. But that’s hardly better than suggesting that the kid just watch a movie instead of participating in the other activity in the first place. Our participation in the world around us requires more than just phasing in when action is required of us. In the case of a basketball game, what about cheering on your teammates? It’s not irrelevant that there are other people on the court, and it’s easy to imagine that they may be offended to see that you need to delve into fantasy while they’re in the game. What about watching your opponents to gain some insight into their technique, strengths, and weaknesses? What about just enjoying the game itself as a form of entertainment? If you can’t be bothered to do any of that, and would rather load up a movie while you’re just waiting your turn, I can’t draw any conclusion except that you’re no more than half-invested in the activity in the first place, and probably shouldn’t be bothering with it at all

Still, at least in the basketball scenario the interaction between people is secondary. The same cannot be said about raising one’s child, which is a major part of the commercial. The ad returns to a mother’s narration, and she explains about how digital copy allows her to get more accomplished while she entertains her child. As an illustration of this, we see her grocery shopping while her small child sits in the back of the shopping cart staring at a handheld gaming device or some such. I can’t help but bristle at the woman indicating that she believes her job as a mother is to entertain her child, rather than to invest herself in raising it.

It seems to me that it’s a terrible parental attitude if you think of your child as an obstacle that you have to overcome while you go about your daily routine. I still distinctly recall working on the floor in a retail store and hearing a child screaming at the other side of the aisle. It wasn’t crying, or screaming about anything in particular, it was just making a rhythmic, piercing noise that carried throughout the building. It went on for minutes, and as the child was in my line of sight, I could see that it’s mother was standing beside the cart in which the child was sitting, and was going about her shopping while plainly ignoring the noise. At one time, society might have faulted that mother for failing to intervene with her child’s bad behavior, and teach it why what it was doing was wrong. Now it is apparently coming to be accepted that the solution to such a problem is not parenting, but technology. I wish it was better recognized that that alternative serves the parent, but never the child.

Ever since the advent of television, parents have apparently treated home entertainment as a way of ignoring their children. It’s flawed thinking that guides a parent to suppress her child’s impulse to act out with technological distractions, rather than correcting that behavior. But even if the child has no such impulse, it’s flawed thinking that guides a parent to offer distractions lest the child be bored. Your everyday interactions with your own children are perhaps more valuable than the activities into which you specifically intend to include them. There are a lot of things that kids need to learn about the adult world – the real world – as they’re growing. By instructing him to watch Finding Nemo for forty minutes while she shops for groceries, the hypothetical mother in the digital copy commercial is missing numerous important opportunities to teach her child about nutrition, about money and budgeting, about etiquette and social interaction. I would be surprised if the ascendant tendency to keep children’s attention distant from parental activities did not retard their social development over time.

But what’s retarded social development if the entire social structure is changing so as to no longer expect direct interaction? I find that with every passing year there is a larger proportion of people who are shocked, frightened, or personally offended by being spoken to by someone they don’t know personally. I see more people going out of their way to avoid eye contact with strangers on the street. I still don’t have an iPod, and remember being upset by seeing them gain prominence to such an extent that I came to naturally expect people to be walking around with their ears plugged at all times. And that doesn’t just bother me because it prevents people from hearing the voices of those who might otherwise have spoken to them. What really makes me pity the perpetually distracted is that it prevents them from hearing the entirety of the world’s day-to-day sound. To me, that remains an important part of human experience. It puts your life in context with where you are, and assures some measure of diversity of perception, beyond that which you personally seek out for entertainment.

I witnessed the ascent of the iPod and saw it as the end of natural hearing, and now with the growing access to television and film in all times and place, I feel that I’m witnessing human beings sacrificing the sense of sight, as well. Amidst this constant change, it’s very easy for me to envision current trends as leading eventually to some dystopian future, wherein human beings are constantly plugged into electronic distractions that assure productive complacence and see that nobody ever looks at the sky or listens to a bird song. Honestly, it’s gone so far in that direction that someone thinks the TV Hat is a good idea. Sure, the thing looks utterly laughable, but it also looks like something we would have laughed at as ridiculously over-the-top and implausible if we saw it as part of a depiction of the twenty-first century in a science fiction film from the eighties.

I live a painfully dull life. Few things could be more tragic to me than the thought that in the future, my insular, impoverished existence may be more experience-rich that that of most everyone else, as they’ll all be so accustomed to constantly having something to watch or listen to that they’ll never be fully present to anything they do in this enormously diverse world. The demands for constant entertainment passed the threshold of ridiculousness for me a long time ago. Will there ever come a breaking point when the rest of society agrees that the demand for distraction has outstripped the number of things there are to be distracted from? Or will we keep following the same trends until distraction itself becomes the entirety of our experience?