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Topical Runoff

Just what it sounds like. Should be updated more often than it is.

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Your Nation's Birthday, and Other Political Diversions

 

Here comes the grump train, complete with buzzkill dining car!

But the first, the glass half-full positive people: Oh what's the harm in celebrating an arbitrary date of political documents being signed that have since being superseded by other signed political documents? Why can't you just enjoy some flag-waving, fireworks shooting, and an onslaught of companies proudly boasting their own patriotism so you'll buy more of their products and services? What can be more [insert the name of your country here] than that?

Well, because a country is more complicated than a flag, a slogan, a symbol, and whatever products these things are printed, plastered on, and shot into the sky. Without healthy participation in the voting process and strong government transparency, a nation can quickly become nothing more than some flags and fireworks.

A stable, successful country has boring, complicated machinery under its hood. There are extensive fail safes and oversights between the different branches of government to make sure each one doesn't abuse its power or become ineffective. To provide necessary services to the citizens, there are very large and heavily staffed departments that operate on strict budgets and deadlines to make sure people have safe water, safe streets, safe medical procedures, and safe internet access.

Protesting against (or praising) politicians for a wealth of very good reasons is a keystone to free and democratic nation, but if you don't have the other stones (to continue to use a metaphor we've all just rushed past without thinking) that could be considered bureaucracy, the entire bridge collapses.

What is a country, if not the rules and regulations that apply those living within a specific set of geographic boundaries? A cold and bland description, sure, but that's where you have to start, and - if you go in reverse to strip everything glossy away - is what you're left with.

These laws and statutes beget respect and trust that is meant to extend far beyond an individual's own community and daily routine. It's easy to take for granted that for much of human history - even within former empires and ancient civilizations - most individuals had a small social circle and rather strictly proscribed role for their community. Modern democracy is generally, acknowledged as the form of governance that grants the individual the most amount of freedom, and if that's not something that should be celebrated annually, then I don't know what is.

It just so happens that Canada turns 150 on July 1st.

If you slept through history class and forgot what year that was, don't worry, everything from beers to banks to bakeries will remind you at every opportunity. It was also recently pride weekend, but I don't think that comes as any surprise, either, as vodka companies and Target have been plastering rainbows on bottles and t-shirts all month. And that's something that should give us all pause.

The rights and freedoms granted to us through the creation of our democracies, and the rights and freedoms granted to the LGBTQ community (finally, after so much suffering and hard work) are clearly things worth celebrating, but the appropriation of the symbols that represent these events by corporations who are simply trying to push even more products upon us should ring more than hollow. Putting a price tag on symbols diminishes their power and importance, but beyond that, it gives corporations the opportunity to make the argument that they morally support these issues. But corporations are amoral. Corporations are not people. Corporations are business entities who sole purpose of existence is to provide a product or service that will maximize shareholder profit. They should be held up with suspicion and regulation, not alongside the sacrifices and hard work that actual people have made. And there's not much wiggle room for this. If you give a corporation a yard, they'll take a mile and then try to sell it back to you with a 30% markup.

But it easy to forget this, considering how pervasive corporations have become, with their own symbols and logos rivaling the ones meant to represent ideas and movements, not simply product. And the blurring of these two is extremely dangerous. A political idea or a political movement should never be for sale.

There's always been big money in nostalgia, and since the baby boomers are the only generation that is actually still clutching to that middle class/disposable income status, pushing anything in the 'look how far we've come' vein feels like marketing gold.

And 'feels' is the key. That's the right plucking of the purse strings. Be proud of your nation on its birthday because it hasn't keeled over and died just yet (in this case, the day when a bunch of white men who, after following the footsteps of other white men who coldly expropriated native lands, signed some papers in Charlottetown saying they won't rely on the Brits for every single legislative decision).

And we like to think this is a more important birthday because this time around we have a nice, clean number. One hundred and fifty. Not like those ratty old eighty sevens and one hundred thirty threes. Ordered, efficient, simple. We're supposed to prefer things like this! It's worth celebrating! This number represents the successfulness of our country! Let it co-exist among with other representations, like a flag, some food, a tall mountain or an old building.

But a country isn't that simple. A country shouldn't be that simple.

Parades don't get sick people the health care they need or the impoverished the assistance they need. A national anthem doesn't explain the trade agreements with neighbouring states that will (ideally) strengthen the economies of all involved nations for years to come.

Now patriotism is meant to be shorthand for all the political qualities that have made your country successful. If a nation's was a brain (a similarly complicated device), then patriotism is the endorphins. The ultimate 'feeling good about stuff' that can't possibly exist until basic functions work smoothly most of the time. But a brain can't operate on endorphins alone, just like a nation can't run on bravado very long until it runs into the ground.

Patriotism didn't win the Second World War. The massive industrial effort did.

The former just made the latter easier because a massive marketing campaign from politicians and celebrities alike pitched the hell out of buying war bonds and saving/donating everything from scrap metal to bacon grease. And when America came out so unquestionably on top in 1945 (having absolutely more of everything, with very little of their country damaged when compared to other major powers), it made complete sense that this sense of superiority would continue, that what was being done for/to the world in its name was good and right and justice and will certainly succeed. Until it doesn’t.

Patriotism is a tool, and like any tool, it can be very useful, but also lead to abuse.

Patriotism sells, and anything simple, straightforward and positive sells, especially when it's marketed as a miracle cure for whatever is currently ailing you or your country.

Patriotism used to represent/symbolize important ideals that were the foundations and proud accomplishments of a nation. But now patriotism represents itself, and when it gets that hollow and malleable, it becomes an easy symbol to insert into an advertisement to deliver that endorphin hit that will make it more likely for you to buy that product or to agree with whatever position is being pushed.

Patriotism discourages deep reflection and complex discourse. Patriotism puts feeling ahead of numbers. Patriotism rewrites history and truncates the past.

It's bad enough when ideas like freedom, democracy and truth (and its accompanying symbols) are pushed in front of dubious government actions like military intervention or policy that only benefits a small segment of the populace, but it becomes even more odious when these concepts are used for financial gain.

In years past these symbols were held in higher regard. A suit 'made' of your country's flag would be considered extremely disrespectful (in addition to being a poor fashion choice). Now it's just fodder for late night comedians and fashion show judges.

How we got to the point where your ATM is wishing you a happy Independence Day is a strange one. It's a reminder how pervasive marketing has become, how throughout the 20th century it 'accidentally' competed with other institutions as a delivery system for specific types of information (government, media, arts and entertainment), and how in the 21st century it has essentially superseded the others. Criticism levied against this has been constant, from 'The Hidden Persuaders' to McLuhan to Chomsky. All noting to some degree that the constant conflation (even if initially inadvertent) of messages in one block can create unintended consequences for people's cultural experience. A news program followed by a series of commercials, followed by a scripted drama on TV or radio. Print ads for jewellery stores besides stories of war atrocities in a newspaper. And now as we take in the entire world through our phones, the accuracy and honesty of everything we read comes into question. Are we being informed, sold something, or about to be hacked by clicking on the wrong link and downloading a virus? What is an accurate depiction of our world today, and what is...ugh...fake news?

Political advertising has always been a mix of high-minded ideals and the absolute lowest form of mud-slinging, but the President of the United States is a walking, talking attack ad full of vindictive lies and half-truths. The powerful figurehead of a nation is a former game show host who in the past shilled for McDonald's and Domino's Pizza. Donald Trump is a commercial come to life. How we go back to when politics was not complete spin is a mystery. Forget throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We're dumping our entire sense of self into a dirty river.

It is in this environment that the nostalgia angle becomes so appealing. Memories for a past time when things were better and simple are always selective (we focus on the good and fun and forget the bad and lousy), and that means it's so much easier for marketers and public relations groups to capitalize upon. This mix of history, patriotism and nostalgia means that a nation's birthday is always an easy advertising target. It's driven into all our minds that our own country is good, right, and deserves all it gets (which is what marketing in general tells us every moment of every day), so why not shell out for a domestic flight because there's an ad on your Facebook feed pushing anniversary ticket deals?

There are a lot of pressing issues facing the planet and the socioeconomic order today (oof, what a phrase), and anniversary advertising is not exactly one of them. There's certainly some truth in the offhand shrug of 'just ignore it', because that's what a vast majority of people do when it comes to advertising. Most of it leaves our short term memory seconds after it arrives. But it is a factor in changing people's minds and behaviour (in terms of both spending and voting), because otherwise advertisers wouldn't spend billions upon billions of dollars on it every year.

When it comes to selling tires, trucks, or even Tylenol, we've come to accept that the truth about these goods and services will be warped, blurred, and sent through a wood chipper, all to increase the chances of you taking out your wallet (physical or digital). And perhaps it's a touch of wistful nostalgia on our own part that we would hope that something considerably more important - namely, your country - would be separated from that. Not in any legal sense, of course, since banning advertising related to political events would quickly veer into censorship, but just out of a sort of common sense and respect (another bout of wistful nostalgia, really). Nothing should be so important that it can’t be mocked or criticized, but the flip side of this means that nothing is sacred. When it comes to the good ol' Internet, the difference on a newspaper website between a news story and advertisement is nicknamed the separation of church and state, but it certainly feels like a bishop has been writing the headlines these days.

 


Archive

Breath of the Wild and a Glimpse of the Future

Nobody Will Like the Next President. This is a Huge Problem for Democracy

Not Caring About the Mossack-Fonseca (Panama) Papers

Soylent: Life Imitating Art. Unfortunately

Last Tango in Paris: Climate Change Talks 2015

Move On Up: Migrant Crisis

the inevitable sociocultural hierarchy of the internet

That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore

Gender Considerations

Fixing Food: Avoiding the Perfect Storm

The Dangers of Political Nostalgia

2014 Review

Money for Art, Art for Money

Building a Responsible Person

Class War Discussion Fare

2012: It Happened

Imperial Perspectives: Star Wars and 9/11

Stifling Summer Politics

Occupy the Boredom of Complexity

Christmas is Dead; Long Live Christmas:

Leave Chewie Alone: A Look at the Tinkering of One's Work Post-Release

Means to Offend: Schindler’s List and Tracy Morgan

Mindless Movie Categorizing

Christopher Nolan: 90% brilliance, 10% sleight of hand 

North Korea: The Only Batshit Crazy Country Left

The Death of Teh Web: Yeah, probably, but so what?

I Protest Your Protest

Searching for [a] Banksy

2009: Well... What Did You Expect?

And Just Who Might You Be?

Fight Club Redux

Michael Jackson versus Robert McNamara

Guaranteed Ways to Have a Bad Trip on Hallucinogens

Hell versus Shit

The Internet is Making Me Hate Democracy

2008 Year in Review: Clusterfuck Commentary for a Clusterfuck Year

A Pothead's Guide to Children's Television

Burn After Reading / Burn the Mythologized Narrative Prepared by the Media After Reading

Shut the fuck up pollsters! Admit you don't know anything!

George Carlin (1937-2008)

Diary Extracts from History's Greatest Bastards

The Secret History of St. Patrick's Day

Top Seven Movie Loopholes

Christmas in Iraq, in Washington, and In Rainbows

A conversation between two abandonedstation employees that may or may not have happened

The End of Harry Potter

Virginia Tech Shooting: Two thoughts

Kurt Vonnegut Eulogy

Assshole-nauts

Archive 2006 (on a whole separate page, too!)

 

Breath of the Wild and a Glimpse of the Future

 

Oh my gods.

The new Zelda game (Breath of the Wild) for Switch, Nintendo's new console (and thankfully, their previous and underrated console as well, the Wii U) is so good it's almost certainly bad for everything else in your life. Work, relationships, friendships, other hobbies, grooming, and eating are all important, but not as important as climbing over that next ridge to reach that orange-hued temple you saw from one of the towers days and days ago but was sidetracked to fight those monsters on the main trail just past the Rito stables, where an old man asked you to help him find some goron spice, which you can only get in the city of its namesake, which sits on the side of a billowing volcano.

If you wanted to design a game that took all the best elements from action-adventure games, puzzle games, role playing games, simulation games, social network games and, first person shooters, you're too late, Breath of the Wild already did it.

If you get tired off slashing monsters to pieces with a three-pronged silver boomerang, you can buy a house and furnish it. Or find all these kids who don't want to attend choir practice. Or climb mountain after mountain to find treasure and mini-puzzles to collect korok seeds (which you collect and give to the giant dancing- never mind. The more you describe games like this, the more they sound like a medieval mushroom trip). Or just level the fuck up and up and up and then crush every enemy in your path. This was the immersion that No Man's Sky offered (where the galaxy is your oyster), but with joy and a sense of mission.

In this case, you're tasked with - wait for it - saving a kingdom that's in the grip of an evil force. Once again, it's the blending of ever-improving gaming and advancing technology with the oldest and most familiar story tropes (ahem, The Legend of Zelda epitomizes the fisher king narrative perfectly. The destroyed land, the hero who must save it by quests which prove their strength and worthiness. If you want a TS Eliot nod, there's a whole region in the game named 'The Wasteland', and boy howdy does it live up to its name. To truncate the temporal influence, the entire Zelda game series (19 titles and counting) owes a fine debt to Miyazaki's 1984 anime classic, Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind, which involves the titular hero bringing life to dying lands, poisoned from the misuse of old but advanced technology (and yes, to archetype it up, Nausicaa is named after the Greek mythological character that gave aid to Odysseus as he shipwrecked on Scheria)). Saving and rescuing seen in every sort of game, from Mario to Doom to Myst to Angry Birds.

Breath of the Wild successfully incorporates the challenges of open world gaming, which can have difficulty balancing the boredom that is reality with the excitement that is expected in video games, which exist to alleviate the boredom of reality. You can climb the Hebra mountains forever (although prepare sensibly for the cold), but you won't be that far away from a shrine, a spear-wielding bokoblin, or a panoramic landscape that takes your breath away and makes you forget it's just an arrangement of pixels on the screen.

Prior to this, open world games had to have some pretty sweet plums to make the travelling and waiting worth it, and Grand Theft Auto made headlines outside the gaming world for celebrating terrible/terribly fun activities in a Los Angeles substitute. It was fun, but it wasn't joyous (although riding a motorcycle onto a moving train got close). Breath of the Wild's look and feel certainly is. The mythical world of Hyrule has never felt more realistic and majestic, and being able to interact with everything inside it makes the experience that much more emotionally resonating.

Games are getting better, bigger, more immersive, accessible to players at any skill level, and even the traditional notions of what skill level can accomplish are changing. For most of video games' history, it would the noobs who would play the storyline and not much else, whereas the hardcore gamers could explore the ever-expanding virtual world at their leisure, completing side quests for swag and respect. Now, in open-world games, finishing the story has become slightly more optional. It's not the only way to have barrels of fun. In fact, at one point the game's main goal may get ridiculously difficult for 'weekend gamers', and they might be happy enough wandering around, discovering new places, fighting easier enemies and completing other tasks.

Games are rushing past 'time-wasters' and 'hobbies', quickly becoming 'lifestyles'. If the outside world is just bad news (what with the under-employment, climate change, President Trump, and too many goddamn superhero movies), why not spend hours in an epic fantasyland where you can't permanently die?

[Ah, diversions! The typically labelled bane of the politicization of the masses. If only all these sheeple would put down their iPhones and eighteen button controllers and actually find out about what's happening in the world, then we could finally start to fix all these problems. Which is completely unreasonable. That's not how humans behave. Laziness and leisure is part of our physical/psychological makeup. Having an outlet for these things is supremely beneficial, otherwise you end up doing important things lazily...like deciding who to vote for. Besides, video games offer the opportunity to educate people as well as entertain them. Even first person shooters can teach basic team building skills. Changing people is hard. Changing the tools people use to interact with the world around them is...less hard]

This newfound respect was hard earned. Ignored by many people in the culture industry as a toy for kids, the kids that played video games incessantly grew up and ended up elevating their quality to at least merit a seat at the children's table. Roger Ebert decried video games as not being worthy to enter the same pantheon of art, alongside music, film, and literature. While 'worthiness' is a term that can always be up for debate (certainly the first film strips and moving pictures were thought to be nothing more than passing fads and novelties, and gave little indication that years later the industry would offer up 'Battleship Potempkin' and 'Citizen Kane').

But in the sense that one's engagement in video games is different than when compared to other forms of art, Ebert is correct. Even more abstract works of art that requires the spectator to press a button, move a rock, or even add their own personal brushstroke to a canvas don't require the same level of attentive engagement that even an early arcade game like Frogger doe.

Discovering the rules of the reality of the piece in question is essential for all art. For a painting or movie, if you don't understand, you might just be confused. In a video game, you might end up dead. You have to press this button here to elicit this reaction, and the better you get at pressing this button at just the right time, the more options available to you. The background might be colourful eight-bit blocks, or an ultra-realistic sky.

Video covers the art, and game covers the engagement.

Maybe the real question should be, 'how do you review video games'?

For most of it's history, video games have been light of the qualities that writers gravity towards (story, symbolism, subtly, originality, social commentary) and heavy on repetitive, button pressing fun that can't afford to bore or confuse you for very long lest you stop feeding quarters or turn it off.

'Fun'.

It's not exactly antithetical to art, but it's not very often than the greatest works in literature, music, painting/sculpture and film are also described as 'fun'. Hamlet, Citizen Kane, Guernica, and Beethoven's Fifth don't do 'fun'.

Fun is supposed to be childish and fleeting, and not something you were expected to wallow over and in for hours and days at a time, or feel profound hope or sorrow over. Which, y'know, is something you can actually write about.

Pity the poor reviewer who needs to figure out how to puke out five hundreds words for something that's just fun (this reviewer included, who is, as you read this, quite aware that they are deconstructing video game reviews in the middle of a video game review, partially in order to extend the word count).

Even if the reviewer enjoyed the game, the sentence 'I had a great time jumping on wave after wave of goombas and koopas' is just fourteen words. Stretching that out to acceptable article length is not easy.

Video games' interactivity demands a new set of skills for the reviewer. Fortunately and sensibly, one of the basic skills is being really, really into video games (this is hardly surprising. Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael were really, really into movies, hence our trust that they knew what they were talking about when they reviewed a new film). But reviewing 'gameplay'? The ease of switching from one weapon to another by holding your thumb down for the right of amount of time? Suddenly it's like your talking about a car, or a cordless drill.

Putting into words the happiness and relief the player feels when they finally defeat the half dozen heavily armed soldiers at an elevated mountain fort is hard for a reviewer to put into words. They aren't watching the protagonist doing this, they are the protagonist doing this. Suddenly it's not a review, but an account of event that 'actually' occurred. The reviewer becomes an autobiographer, even if they are reviewing an event that hundreds of thousands of other players have also done, in a near identical fashion. When you defeat an enemy or solve a puzzle in a unique and ingenious way, is that a form of performance art?

It's not so much that the stories have always come second, but that the story has to be written around what the player is going to do most of the time, which is fighting and running, typically (and hey, let's roll a smirking glass to the acknowledgement that video games depict some of the most physically demanding and deadly actions a person would ever undertake, and it's being piloted by someone sitting on the edge of a couch, sometimes barely moving anything more than their fingers)

'Formulaic stories written around fighting and running'? Sounds like the glut of superhero movies that have overrun box offices for the last decade. Which is apropos, since any film reviewer worth their salt has decried the rise and focus of these cookie-cutter childlike blockbusters at the expense of more thought-provoking and original fare.

It's as if movies are dumbing down quickly and video games are getting smarter and more detailed, which means they are on the way to meet in a sort of middle ground. And video games will have the ultimate edge because of vicariousness.

Living through the actions of the other, which will become even easier as Virtual Reality begins to seep into the monoculture. Ten year old kids with the strength of an entire platoon of soldiers, or - quite simply - Batman. Going back or forward thousands of years in time, zipping across the galaxy to trade some radioactive material or save a planet, racing in the Monte Carlo Grand Prix. As graphics and gameplay become more realistic, this immersion in a new environment will imitate the real world to a much greater degree.

And Zelda has always been on the edge of video games' potential.

Rockstar Games CEO Dan Houser said that practically all 3D gaming owes a massive debt to Zelda's Ocarina of Time and Super Mario 64. Breath of the Wild is set to have that sort of influence on future games (the narrative flow is stellar, the voice acting is top-notch, the ease of switching tools and weapons, the amount of choice you have to doeverything). They will be games that will go beyond the idea of a hobby or past time. Creating and exploring virtual/digital realities are on the cusp of being a job, not just something to do after work to kill time before moving on to something else.

For a long time the challenge was finding something to always bring people back after finishing the game, and one of the first features for this in the modern gaming world (once beating the high score was essentially consigned to only phone booth size arcade (and arcane) games) was the online multiplayer. Thank Doom (and ID Software) for that.

Which created its own little debate about the future of socialization. How much different is it playing video games with some across the globe instead of sitting beside you on the couch? Sure, you can hog all the chips, but we have to admit that 'hanging out' is going to go through a severe change of definition once that term is used casually to describe shooting the shit in a game lobby.

Regardless of how seriously we engage in these games, one thing is for certain: They are going to grow larger than even developers can imagine. No Man's Sky created a universe that had more planets than the developers knew about (it's a procedurally generated open universe, so in a sense the game 'built' itself).

This was part of the game's initial appeal. You and all the other players would explores this uncharted universe and catalogue and research all these unknown planets, with the info being placed in a big encyclopedia, and earning in-game currency while doing so (it's only a matter of time before some created a game called Everything, which - conveniently - they have. And like No Man's Sky, algorithms, not people, created its content).

Which is another factor. Money. Video games are a massive business, and the more people spend time with/in them, the more interested business will be to take advantage of this time. Perhaps in-game currency becomes exchangeable between games (although not necessarily 1=1. A rupee in a Zelda is almost certainly harder earned than the hundreds of thousands of points quickly awarded to you in Angry Birds), which becomes exchangeable for real-world currency. A bridging of the virtual and the real. After all, time is money. Where you spend one determines where you will spend in the other.

This sort of 'outside the box, inside the console' thinking will be essential in the years to come. Automation and robotics will replace up to forty percent of jobs that currently exist across the globe, so huge segments of the population will have a lot of time on their hands. Why not fill them with tasks in the virtual world, which could be a good way to earn some side spending money?

Ridiculous?

Perhaps we just haven't reached that level of technological familiarity with games and virtual spaces just yet. Think how absolutely bizarre the size and scope of the music industry in the 1990s would seem to someone at the beginning of the 20th century. The amount of money and jobs (from A&R men to touring  crew to, yes, critics) dependent on people listening to music on small discs that were read by lasers.

Consider how big professional sport has grown over the last few decades and how many people are directly or tangentially employed with that.

Why not video games?

We have e-sports (and even e-sports scandals!), e-life won't be far behind.

And as far as first steps into this new world of technological immersion, Breath of the Wild is absolutely perfect. Now please excuse us, there's a shrine hidden behind that rock wall which we have to quickly blow up to access.

 


 

2016 Review

 

Beyoncé made two big statements of the year: one intended, the other accidental.

The first debuted at the Super Bowl, effortlessly unseating Coldplay as the main chunk of halftime entertainment. And Ms. Knowles - in her wise-beyond-her-years way - is aware that it can't be just a song to excite the modern era. Audio-visual almost always defeats just audio.

'Formation' is a good track, and does a great job of being a protest song without being a cloyingly cliche protest song, but its presentation - in the premiere 'middle of football' performance, the accompanying music video, and during her concerts - is what transformed into it a cultural event and lightning rod of controversy. It was no ‘Fuck Tha Police’, but that’s because 2016 was already ‘Fuck, The Police’.

'Formation' suggested an ordered reaction, which is perfect, because 2016 was full of chaotic actions. The plan is playing a strong defense just before mounting a similarly strong offense. If 'Formation' was written in reaction to a miserable 2015, with Knowles attempting to infuse a bit of energy and inspiration into the listener, then she also happened to have penned (along with co-writers Brown, Frost, Hogan, and Williams) a song that summed up the chaos and confusion of 2016.

With headline after headline of bad news, 'Formation' became a circling of wagons, keeping what you knew and trusted in and everything else out (a circle that you might have thought was growing smaller by the day). A celebration of yourself and your power when everything else seemed to crumble. The economy was good if you were rich, the shootings didn't stop, and neither did the terrorist attacks.

The mass shootings (whether by the police or citizens with guns and anger) indicate a myriad of troubles in Western democracy, with the institutions of law enforcement failing to address in any sensible way not only systemic racism but also the rising and widening pockets of poverty that cover not only America but many other countries where the middle class is sliding into poverty and the already impoverished are sliding into a sort of dead zone.

The terror attacks are troubling on an entirely different level, in the sense that the goal of those willing to commit terrorist acts aren’t to win any sort of land or power, but a spot in the afterlife, since they believe suicide bombings (or shootings, or driving trucks through crowds) is a sure-fire way to heaven. And despondency, poverty, and social alienation are what drive people to believe in this worldview. If you don't have something to live for, you’ll find something to die for.

'Formation' can two meanings. Organization, planning, order, advancing an idea, moving forward. But it can also suggest falling into a narrowness: identifying with one candidate, party, worldview, clique or mixtape, and decrying anything different as the 'other', and not being worthy of discussion. Polarization, building walls instead of bridges. Protecting yourself at the expense of...what?

And before this article gets any more depressing about the state of world affairs, let's move on to note that Beyond also dropped Lemonade, a very good album which came as/with an accompanying music video/not-short-not-full-length-film/whatever you call 'em these days. Named after her grandmother's basic mantra about what to do when dealt a bad hand.

Making said lemonade out of lemons.

Sounds a bit like the only way to put 2016 into perspective.

Lots of lemons, yes, but to keep our heads up and our thoughts positive, let's grab that knife, blender, and bag of sugar and make a refreshing, much needed glass of citrus-based juice.

How we react to the challenges placed in our path or beaten into us near senselessly is a better measure of our abilities than a simple walk through an unencumbered near straight line in average space-time. Oh, we would obviously prefer the later. Everyone naturally tumbles into the path of least resistance. The temptation to keep our heads down, our eyes shut and our tongues silent is particularly great when the problems seem to pile up one after the other. Maybe if we don't look at it, the rash will go away by itself. It's NIMBY's cousin, LEEHI (Let Everyone Else Hand It).

Are we showing our partisan hand too obviously by believing that Trump will be a disaster for the world at large (while at the same time we cross all twenty fingers and toes at once for this not to happen, that please, please, please can he somehow shock us and make America and the world…wait for it…great again)? If this is the main bushel of lemons, then the solace is that the populist message - that life is getting worse for the average citizen, and we need to do something about it - swings across the political spectrum. This is not about agreeing on the problem. It's about agreeing on the solution. The Sanders campaign shows that there is a viable left-leaning movement in the United States that the neither party can continue to ignore, especially when one considers that the political centre of America is shrinking like Arctic sea ice.

Populism is in, and Trump’s tone-deafness in his political appointments and his - shudder - constant tweeting of his barely-baked policies will only strengthen the ever growing disenfranchised (including the millions that voted for him with genuine hope that he would improve their lives). People on opposite sides of the political spectrum when it comes to social issues will hold hands and march together against corporations, mega banks, and bait-and-switch trade deals.

Despite initial reports (including here) listing a litany of reasons why Clinton lost (emails, low energy, illness rumours, too beltway, more emails, hollow scandals, poor electioneering strategy), further research shows that Trump connected with voters who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, including 20% of white working class voters that describe themselves as liberals. The difference was 'jobs' in quotation marks. Not only wishing to have a steady paycheque, but all the literal and proverbial trappings that go along with it (pride, happiness, comfort, a positive attitude towards the future). This is why people who work in the fossil fuel industry are more likely to be skeptical about climate change: it's their damn meal ticket, and the last thing want to believe is that their job is helping making the world worse.

Unemployment may be low, but many of these jobs are in the 'underemployment' industry, like working part time in a retail position, or becoming an Uber driver/delivery-person. 40% of jobs that exist today will disappear in a generation, replaced by computers and automation. It will be the true Second Industrial Revolution.

And like the first one, the wealth of the very few who got very rich off of these sweeping changes to a more digital form of everything (from financial instruments to a killer app that does the work of a dozen accountants) will have to confront the reality that they have the ability (and many will say a responsibility) to improve the lives of billions if they are just willing to part with some of their damn money and power (the top 1% of the 1% have an estimated $22 trillion holed up in offshore, secret bank accounts).

Because - and here's that sip of lemonade - the moment is closing in when people are going to realize that a lot of the divisions that seemed to frame so many debates in old and new media are convenient distractions to the blandly obvious truth about the have and have-nots. The current crop of ultra-nationalists and right-wingers talk a big game (just like immigrant-hugging lefties), but if they don't deliver, then everyone will see them for what they really are: power hungry opportunists.

With technology rushing ahead at breakneck speed, openness and transparency is barreling forward, ruining some people's plans and policies and creating great opportunity for others. Any short term problems regarding questions about access to information will be outweighed by long term gain. Knowledge is power and access to that is something politicians and security officials have always wanted to keep private, but that's a fight against gravity. Information is pouring out of everything, and while many people will rather get their Mario Run on, the data is just there, waiting for them, when they finally want to see what's going on. If a large enough group of people take action, then this action doesn't have to require huge amounts of energy or sacrifice. The numbers of participants will make the difference.

The net neutrality protests of 2014 are good examples of what it looks like when people and sections of big industry (in this case, digital companies like Google and Amazon, who understand that a fair playing field in cyberspace helped create much of their success) work together towards a greater good.

Speaking of which, global investments in green energy are on the rise which is great news in the long term for developing environmentally-friendly technologies, as well as the short term, as it continues to make coal a prohibitively expensive fuel source (at least outside of China), and really puts the hurt on the awful, awful oil sands.

This needs to be applied to the more nebulous and abstract world of financial instruments, before another Great Recession crashes into us. Definitely not as easy to mobilize for as worker's rights and climate change, but the decisions made on Wall Street directly affect how well almost any big proposal or plan will be implemented (if it's implemented at all). Being able to push for change here (especially with Trump coming into power) still feels like sucking on a lemon.

But maybe the greatest glass is that fewer people than ever before are dying in wars and violent conflicts than any time in the last several decades. And it might not seem that way, with the continuing horrors in Syria (even as the war is finally winding down) and Yemen (which has continually been underreported in the Western press). The earth is in a good state to have many changes made upon it, but we can easily make it seem like it's teetering on edge between utopia and dystopia, both of which are supremely overhyped.

The problem here is perception. The problem here is sifting through an overwhelming amount of information being dumped all over without much fact-checking or filter. What we believe to be true, and when we act on the information that we want to be the accurate framing of the situation. Good news that’s fake, bad news that’s fake, good news that’s real, bad news that’s real. It all comes in the same medium (which, as McLuhan noted, is the message), so it’s difficult to pick apart the shit from the gold. And we don’t spend much time trying to do that. As we quickly cherry-pick our entertainment (listening to half a song to decide if we like an entire album, or the first five minutes of the first episode or a TV show), we spend even less time considering the sources of what we call news.

What do we truly know about the world outside our routine? Western leaders remind us that terrorism is not an existential threat to our democracy and way of life, except for the Western leaders who tell us that it certainly is a threat to everything we hold dear. We complain about corporations but don’t think for a minute of doing any sort of personal boycott. If you need proof that marketing works, look no further than the statistic which shows that more people in America today believe that climate change isn't real than twenty years ago. The twelve months that made up 2016 was full of screaming headlines that inevitably made so many of us numb towards the events that will almost certainly shape our world for years to come. If it 'feels' like anger and isolation won, then it time turn that negativity into something positive ('lemons into lemonade' theme reminder). And the more we connect with others, the better chance we have at making the right difference.

But what do we want? Is there anything universal we can all hold onto and agree upon?

To not know the horrors of war.

To escape the soul-grinding bonds of poverty.

To avoid the easy pratfalls of social isolation.

To make the next generation have a better life that our own.

When the masses begin to agree, that's when the people in the halls of power will begin to listen. And if contacting your local politician isn't cutting it, find who is pulling their strings and withdraw support of whatever company or industry is propping them up. That's the work required.

That's what can be done. That's available to us. Typically these yearly reviews have that lousy stream of cynicism babbling through it, with crossed-fingers at the end hoping that we'll do better in 2013, 2014, 2015, etc. And since 2016 'felt' particularly awful, we're going for a different  tactic.

We hope but not blindly. We sigh but we don’t close out eyes. We grit our teeth but offer a handshake instead of a fist. We worry but we do not despair.

Why? Because as a recent Nobel Prize winner once said, "don't speak too soon for the wheel's still in spin."

Raise a glass of lemonade to that.

 

 

 

Music of the year

Big Three, in Alphabetical Order

 

Danny Brown - Atrocity Exhibition

Has gotten only more prescient and necessary by the day. The bangers saddling up next to the more, moody introspective tracks in a perfect presentation. If 2016 was like falling down stairs, then this was the soundtrack to drown out your cries and pleas for help. Brown seems only half certain of himself half the time, and for the other 50% he's king of the world.  'When It Rain' is the paranoid rave up we need right now.

Hooded Fang - Venus on Edge

Concentrated mania. Tweaked riffs over soothing vocal melodies. Bright and bubbly and boiling over. It's buzzing with too much sunshine. If all this seems like gibberish to you, then that means you haven't heard the album yet, because it's all those things. Most importantly, it's got a shitload of energy. Rock has been so thoroughly obliterated and dissected over the last several years (it's what jazz became in the late sixties and beyond, multi-genred and supported by fewer and fewer people), that even the presence of a guitar is not the go-to definition. But if it's got energy - aka, if it 'rocks' - then it's in.

Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool

Yeah, these guys are still pretty good. Tenderness is not a popular word to drizzle upon the Oxford Five's music, but Desert Island Disc, Glass Eyes, Present Tense and True Love Waits are so far away from Paranoid Android and Idioteque, it reminds you yet again this is the only band of the last twenty five that not only sought out left turns, but nailed each one (although the freakout of 'Ful Stop' shows they still got balls, along with their bigger hearts).

 

Very Honourable Mentions

Bowie - going out on a high note.

Kanye - breaking down on a high note.

Frank Ocean - returning on a high note.

2814 - chillaxing on a high note.

Babyfather - an abstract sonic painting of 2016 on a high note.

Knowles the Older > Knowles the Younger - sisterly competition on a higher note.

Angel Olson - wondering about life and love on a high note.

 

(and it seems that Run the Jewels dropped the album of 2017 for Christmas, official release in January)

 

 

Sources

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/23/upshot/how-the-obama-coalition-crumbled-leaving-an-opening-for-trump.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=first-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0

 

http://deadspin.com/how-to-save-the-world-1790496499

 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/11/19/baristas-of-the-world-unite-why-college-grads-may-be-stuck-at-starbucks-even-longer-than-they-thought/?utm_term=.7cf3b7748a6d

 

 

 

http://www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2016/12/23/14062168/history-global-conditions-charts-life-span-poverty

 

 


 

Nobody Will Like the Next President. This is a huge problem for democracy.

 

Most people aren't voting for the next president, they're voting against who they definitely don't want as the next president.

This is an awful situation for a floundering democracy to be in.

Distrust, disapproval and disappointment at Congress at an all time high, and more and more people are realizing that this inactivity and incompetence goes beyond who is in the Oval Office.

 It's easy to note the lack of awareness disturbingly large segments of the population can have regarding certain aspects of the political process (who is your congressperson, name at least one Supreme Court Justice, what are the three branches of government), but a great majority of citizens believe that politicians addresses the needs of wealthy and corporate interests before the needs of their fellow countrymen and women.

Which is of course the case. The politicians and wealthy will freely admit to the reality of an unhealthily close relationship. From this to gerrymandering, from inefficient federal programs and service to bribery scandals, from filibustering to a broken election cycle, it's no wonder that people completely tune out of the political process. Or pay attention half-assed, or only vote because one of two choices (only two!) is decidedly worse.

It's a malaise that only gets worse as we go on. What happens when the President doesn't matter? What happens when the political spectrum (if you want to call blue and red a spectrum) in the House of Representatives and the Senate doesn't matter? What happens when the number of red states and blue states are as relevant as the score of an exhibition football game, especially when every party's colour is green except for the Green Party (and they'll turn too, if they ever become politically viable).

At least you had hopes for Obama. Too high, admittedly, so you were bound to be let down. And not just liberals. Even hardcore conservatives - who thought he'd take away all the guns, institute martial/Sharia law, and have everyone work in government labour camps until it was time to face the death panels - have to be disappointed with how bland Barry turned out. Hillary has shown herself to be an excellent states-person with the right amount of experience, patience, and firm decision-making. All of which makes her sound a bit dull, which is reinforced whenever she gives a speech, as she doesn't have the most energetic persona behind the podium (and by writing this, once again we are falling into the trap of seemingly equating the importance of this negative quality with her positive qualities. Which is not the intention. But calling for a nuanced view of these candidates' positions and personalities (with the former being more important than the latter) has mostly gone unheard of in this election (and many pervious elections, going back several decades now)). 

The coverage given to politics is extremely simplified by dominant media organizations (whose chief goal is profit, which is determined by advertising fees, which are determined by ratings, which means there is a cycle of people preferring simplified, like-minded positions, which produces higher ratings, which results in even more simplified, like-minded positions). This is at a time when the legislative process has become even more complicated, thanks largely in part to corporate interests writing actual law for the politicians.

Consequently, elections have become, as Chomsky notes, public relations contests. And in 2016, we've been witnessing the most disappointing and disastrous campaign of recent memory, and we'd be foolish to think that all involved will suddenly wise up the day after. The effects will linger, and they will almost certainly be negative.

With Trump making a pivot not towards the political middle but rather the town garbage dump, Clinton's victory looks all but assured. But even as the democrats hope to make in-roads in traditionally conservative states because of Trump's ballot stink, Clinton's win won't likely be a landslide, and that means the victory won't bring the necessary momentum to vote in new Democratic representatives and Senators to turn either chambers.

Consequently, she will be a Democratic president working with a Republican congress, who will quickly and conveniently forget how poorly the embodiment of its policies fared in its presidential candidate. It's great that Clinton's a centre-left policy wonk, but it will come to naught if the same Washington gridlock continues after her inauguration. And there's no reason to think/expect that will change. The current system benefits the wealthy, who pour billions of dollars into campaign donations (to politicians and their superPACs), and this helps ensure that the gridlock (and therefore no foundational changes) remains in place.

If Clinton really is the continuation of Obama, then you can expect the same non-legislating Congress that has been the hallmark of the previous six years. That's two years (at the bare minimum, until the 2018 elections) of Republicans blocking any sort of liberal legislation and Clinton vetoing any sort of conservative legislation.

The groundswell of support that will certainly be around Hillary Clinton for her historic win the weeks after her victory - and again, weeks after her inauguration - will be short-lived, because the heavy expectation of the new president to fix the still-many problems in America simply cannot happen quickly. And since many people who voted for Hillary did out of some sort of compromise - because Sanders wasn't a viable candidate during the primaries (and then wasn't on the ballot in the fall), or because the other choice was a wholly distasteful real estate mogul - the levels of cynicism and mistrust towards her won't dissipate, either. And the accusation that she's a Washington insider who cozies up to the wealthy corporates is an easy one to levy and make stick because everyone in DC is that way. But Hillary and Bill have become the archetypes of this, and that is going to be at the forefront of her presidency every time anyone even loosely associated with her is accused of anything even slightly unseemly. Or if legislation or programs she championed falls apart and doesn't work. Which is not fair, of course, but boy, is 'not fair' not going to be a plausible defense over the next four years. There is always the toll of negative perception and continuing political apathy when it appears that the government is not working for the people, and for all her talent and ability, Hillary Clinton needs a functioning congress to change this viewpoint and remind people of this egalitarian power of democracy.

And then there's that Donald Trump guy.

It felt like a joke when he announced his candidacy last summer, it felt like an amusing car crash to rubberneck at when he was leading the polls, it got to be a eye-popping wake-up call to the political establishment when he won victory after victory during the primaries, it was a depressing slog through the summer, and it's been a flaming, radioactive death march since the first debate.

It's as if Donald Trump believes that the American Dream and democracy is dead (he said the former during the primaries, and the latter seems to be his closing argument), and is running in the style that he knows will become the future for all candidates trying for higher office: Idiocracy-style. A celebrity reality show, where the only thing that keeps you alive until the next week is to be memorable and never look like you're losing (even if you are). Tact, truth, and sensibility be damned.

In the last few elections, it was noted that candidates who had very little chance of winning (your Huckabees, your Carsons) could at least get a good bit of PR out of their attempt, which can maybe be turned into speaking fees, books, or even a TV show.

Trump did this in reverse, and was able to break through because he already was the perception of wealth since the 1980s (even if it was half Daddy assisted and half bullshit), and a showman who understood the importance of the eternally flashing red light on the camera or phone.

He had the celebrity-ish name recognition and actually did sound different than the hollow, conservative Washington suits that he was running against. And in this election cycle, that was enough. In a country where practically everyone agrees that Congress is broken, of course there were enough people that would carry a 'say anything' demagogue to their party's convention. Even while conservative beltway insiders have been decrying Trump for well over a year. The non-elected Republican establishment seemed shocked that there were this many right-fringers in their base. It's a segment where George F. Will is practically liberal, even Rush seems a little mainstream, and Alex Jones apparently has lots of interesting ideas worth considering.

And Trump will play and say anything - currently in the direction of the demographic listed above - to win (which in too many ways seems to represent corporate America perfectly). What does he really think? Who knows? Is he an amoral businessman pretending to be a bigot? What is the link between being a rude, boorish and generally obnoxious human being, and how they conduct their business? It's the frequent concern of how one's personal and private life relates to their profession and public conduct.

It's also how politics has been covered by the mainstream media for years now. Of course there are the occasional questions of policy (and typically it relates to how they are going to pay for it, since a balanced budget is a laughable concept these days), but for the most part the entire election slog is to beat back scandals and missteps and he said/she said/they said/maybe nobody said anecdotes, without breaking under the pressure and screaming at the Anderson Cooper/Megan Kelly hybrid to just shut the fuck up about that, it doesn't fucking matter anymore, how is that even an important question.

Trump is by no means the first powerful person to realize that appearing to be successful is easier than actual being successful. In terms of politics, you can go back to the Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960, when people thought Kennedy looked good and won the debate on TV, while people who listened on radio thought that Nixon came out on top (fairly important additional anecdote: Nixon was critical about how he had to wear makeup and appear affable on television and said to aides that he hoped he wouldn't have to deal with it more often in the future. An aide told him that television was the future, and that if you don't embrace it, you will almost certainly lose in the future. So Nixon embraced TV ('Sock it to me?') and became president. That aide who talked back? Roger Ailes).

Fifty six years and countless information overloads later, the Republican presidential nominee is tweeting people to check out a former beauty pageant contestant's (non-existent) sex tape. And while that and his own very real 'grab 'em by the pussy' tape is pretty much the height of sleaze, Trump has said much more alarming things about democracy itself. He's frequently called for Hillary to be put in jail. For what, it's not exactly clear, as she's been exonerated from every criminal investigation that has been opened up against her (some led by conservative politicians and lawyers). So perhaps you can chalk it up to offering up another cheap cheer for the crowd when he's on the stump. The words themselves don't matter to him when he's speaking, they only matter so much as they're getting traction, getting attention. He's not thinking how his supporters are processing this, let alone the viewers who see this as a snippet later on the news (or their newsfeed).

All he cares about is winning. And since it looks like he won't, the one position he has now wholly embraced is that the election is rigged and will be stolen not only from him, but from the tens of millions of enthusiastic Trump supporters (what's most galling is Trump repeatedly asserting without a single shred of proof).

It cannot be stressed at how absolutely terrible this for democracy. And criticism for this is thankfully coming from across the political spectrum. Can you make the argument that both the positions of the president and Congress exist and operate independent of the will and wisdom of the American electorate? Yes, you can certainly suggest with credible evidence that the actions on every even year on the second Tuesday in November is more window dressing than genuine change, but voting is not the only way to create change in your country. Contacting your congressperson, raising awareness through social media, protests, donating to causes, volunteering, canvassing, all these things are available to you.

But they're only available in a state that offers rights to its citizens and operates upon democratic principles (or at least tries very, very hard to). And so it's horrifying that Trump has doubled down with accusations that democracy itself is being torn to pieces (regardless of whether he honestly believes it or not. It gets cheers from the crowd, the media's reporting on it, by his own narcissistic standards, it's a success). He won't question the election results if he wins, he'll keep everyone in suspense about how he feels about its legitimacy. Stay tuned to watch his 'victory' speech to see if the American political is still standing.

Trump supporters still hover around 40% of eligible voters. Hillary is leading in nation polls by 6% (Just 6%! She's beating a man who brags about sexually assaulting women by just 6%!). That's around sixty million people who will be outright dismissive (and hostile at worst, as some fringers have called for an outright revolution if she wins) of Clinton throughout her entire presidency. There were plenty of conservatives who loathed Obama, but at least there wasn't any hateful rhetoric about the election being illegitimate or stolen.

People becoming cynical and dismissive about politics is bad enough, but when millions are actively pushing against the system because they believe it's rigged (just because the loser of the election said it was), that's when the situation becomes an actual crisis. Political commentators are agog and offering up exhausted shrugs because no one knows what's going to happen on or after Election Day, and that's the most terrifying part. And perhaps this worrying perspective is once again the media trying to whip up fervour and concern (which equals bigger ratings), but how seriously do you take people who say it's time for an armed revolution if Trump loses, and that they're going to monitor polling places for non-existent voter fraud?

How do you track and predict when cooler heads, common sense, and civil society will prevail? The only hopeful silver lining to all of this is that maybe the many people who are critical of Trump's attitudes and behaviour and hollow policies, will come to be critical of the attitudes and policies of the group Trump happens to represent: the extremely wealthy. And not even the one percent, but the one percent of the one percent. The tax dodging (or tax code re-writing), tone-deaf, venture capitalist, pass-the-buck, multi-millionaires whose amoral belief that it's every man for themselves and how you get rich is irrelevant, as long as you become 'hyuge'.

If this sounds like class warfare, then it's largely in part due to the war that has been waged against the lower and middle classes by the wealthy for over three decades now. Climbing the ladder to success shouldn’t require you to push hundreds of thousands of other people off it. The 'finally good news for everybody else' - the rise of minimum wage in some states, the better employment numbers across America - comes along after the richest citizens got the first and deep dibs in the post-Great Recession punch-bowl. It's not even proof that trickle-down economics works, Minimum wages rise while prices for so many basic necessities rise even higher, completely cancelling out the income boost. Food prices, housing/rent, health care premiums, and this doesn't even begin to address the fact that job security has practically evaporated. Much of the employment gains are in the always temporary service economy.

This is what the 2016 presidential election should be about. Important and substantive discussions about how the middle class is slipping backwards and the overclass is escaping into the stratosphere. Another Clinton pointed out back in 1992 that 'it's the economy, stupid', and as the world has only become more interconnected since then, every political conversation has to have some element of financial policy within it. Railing against corporations are as old as the industrial revolution (back then it was protesting miserly factory owners), and with every massive merger that cuts jobs and quality to make room for more board room bonuses, it's another reminder that the greatest power the masses have IS their mass.

That should be an inspiring acknowledgement. Excitement is not necessary for your elected officials, but enthusiasm is nothing to scoff it. Once people start doing that, many other challenges become much easier to address, and we can take the first steps to solving them. It doesn't take much talk of 'positive mental attitude' to sound like a hack motivational speaker, but if there's ever a time when America could use a cheering up, it's in these last few days before...whatever comes next.

 

 

 

 

Notes

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/12/upshot/actually-many-inner-cities-are-doing-great.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=a-lede-package-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=1


 

 

Not Caring About the Mossack Fonseca (Panama) Papers

Damn, that's so easy. Not caring.

Not caring because zzzzzz.

Not caring because reading the nuts and bolts about shuffling money around and filling out papers to create a shell corporation or a 'charity' organization that donates the money back to you or allows for absolutely anything to count as an expense is the opposite of riveting. Running afoul of trade sanctions and exchange laws just doesn't have that headline-grabbing/tweet able 'holy shit!' type-umph.

Ratings and page views don't lie. The story about the leak of how a couple thousand super wealthy and powerful people hide their money in off-shore accounts that are popular in countries like Panama and the Cayman Islands made a brief blip on news programs and websites and papers across the world in April, then everyone moved back to focussing on shit Donald Trump says.

And it's not a matter of someone else behind the curtain killing the story. There doesn't need to be a conspiracy between the wealthy elites and the media, keeping the story off the news networks and burying it far from the front page.

A lot of people just don't care. A lot of people will certainly roll their eyes and say 'what else is new?'. Which is terrifying in and of itself, because it means way too many people think that society can't change for the better. It means that it's tacitly agreed that letting one's country fall further into debt and its citizens into poverty because a few of the richest people don't want to pay their fair share of taxes is an acceptable situation. Or one that's just going to happen anyway, so why bother hearing about it?

Cynicism was a chief cultural characteristic of generation X, but even that was more about one's own life. Now it's grown to how many people feel about the world at large.

And if this many people don't care, if this many people aren't contacting their MP or congressman, aren't marching in the streets, aren't setting up grassroots organizations to try and move their own money around to stop supporting these large corporations and their owners as much as possible, does that mean that we're all passively accepting that this is the way the world works now?

Well mostly yes and kind of no.

Most people don't care (which is horrifying), and the few that do care a whole lot (which is reassuring, as keeping this story alive and kicking is the one chance at getting very real and necessary change out of it).

So who's to blame? The already wealthy, for bending and (re)writing rules so they can become even wealthier at the expense of the state, or the rest of us, for not paying attention as the bending and re(writing) of these rules happened?

This is the classic quandary of democracy, really. Are citizens expected to be constantly vigilant against forces that attempt to usurp power for their own means, (which typically involves the passage of convoluted tax laws through congress/parliament) or is it acceptable that people vote and put total faith that the politicians they elected into power will always act in the best interest of their representatives and shouldn't have to pay attention after they submit their ballot?

And the answer is both, of course. A little from column A, a little from column B. Wherever there is power, that's where the credit and blame can lie. The change over the last three decades is the greater concentration of power among those that own some of the largest corporations who exert unheard of influence over the daily economic conditions that govern our civilization. And these corporations - along with those that own and invest in them - use tax havens in small, foreign countries (or tax havens in certain zones within their own countries, like the state of Delaware and the 'city' of London) to store their wealth that would have otherwise been given to the government to pay for all the services and infrastructure that a country needs to run properly. Avoiding inheritance taxes, raising for foreign funds in an offshore account because your country doesn't allow it, buying foreign property through fake companies, driving up housing prices on the other side of the world (phantom neighbourhoods from London to Vancouver).

Booooring. Where the excitement and intrigue? Are they at least flying this money to the Caribbean in several steel suitcases in the dead of night on private planes being tailed by IRS jets until they reach international airspace?

Nope. They are paying accountants and lawyers to do a shitload of paperwork (or spreadsheet and PDF work, really) and the money gets shuffled around electronically in the blink of an eye. Some ones and zeroes disappear from a quarterly earnings report and a bridge project gets cancelled, several libraries close, and a hospital has to cut back on nurses on staff.

Still dull. You could be directly affected by any of those reductions in government spending and try desperately to get people to understand the large scale ramifications of people trying to cheat the system, but it still wouldn't register among the masses.

Which is insanely frustrating, because this is really should be big news. The biggest news. It should be discussed heavily throughout the presidential election, should have been covered during the entire 'Brexit' campaign, the economic slowdown in China, the corruption scandals in Brazil, and the ongoing problems with setting up legitimate democracies across Africa. When there are trillions of dollars hidden, it's a global crisis.

But that's not even the craziest bit. Sure it's bad enough that the 1% are starving their governments, but the Mossack-Fonseca Papers should be big news because so much of the data reveals that barely any of these activities are illegal (which the firm stressed as soon as the papers were released).

Creating fake corporations that don't do anything, that exist just to hide money in the otherwise pointless bank accounts is allowed by almost all the countries that had wealthy individuals use the Mossack-Fonseca law firm to set up these companies. That's the convenient, and oft-repeated line by the firm and the people who have used their services. But just because something is legal doesn't mean it should be allowed. Especially when one considers the only reason it is legal is because a bunch of rich people paid politicians a bunch of money to write loopholes into the tax code. Backdoor oligarchy is a great way to kill front door democracy. These loopholes shouldn't be allowed.

And, granted, 'shouldn't' isn't a very strong word. It comes with the image of a doting parent's wagging finger. You can feel the Wall Streets roll their eyes at this notion of babysitting

Because suddenly it's an ethical/moral dilemma, and that can be tossed aside right quick because you rationalize ignoring one of those. Only breaking a law can get you thrown in jail (or really, in this case, pay a big fine and probably not admit any wrongdoing).

The dilemma isn't:

Should you pay your taxes?

Because that's a pretty cut and dry 'yes' for a vast segment of the population, with the only holdouts being hardcore libertarians whose preferred economic theory was even outdated in all of the last century.

Instead the dilemma becomes:

Should you pay your fair share of taxes?

Which allows for even more wiggle room. How much 'fair share' is to you means you can essentially decided how much the government 'deserves' to take from you, and anything else you do with your money is your own damn business. So if you can squirrel a bunch of it in an offshore account that the government was just going to take and waste anyways (in your view), why not do that?

It's not like there's any sort of denial or excuse someone who used these services can offer up. An internal Mossack-Fonseca memo summed it up quite well in one sentence:

"Ninety-five percent of our work coincidentally consists of selling vehicles to avoid taxes."

And just to add a dollop of true illegality that might raise an eyebrow or two, Mossack-Fonseca had no problem doing business with the sanction-laden countries of Syria, North Korea and Russia.

But if the extent of the countries and wealthy people involved aren't enough to get people protesting in the streets (with the exception of Iceland, where almost 10% of the entire country showed up in front of the parliament buildings and the prime minister ultimately resigned), then actual criminal activities of a financial nature isn't going to be the tipping point, either.

Forty years on, Watergate is still the defining political event of modern America.

The beginning of a convoluted shadow government. It's failure - as first attempts usually are failures - begat a spidery web of backdoor power that the corporate world consumed whole.   And Watergate failed because Mark Felt told Woodward and Bernstein three words: 'Follow the money'. Which is a good inscription as any for the gravestone of empires throughout history.

Follow the money, because it's disappeared from the coffers of governments and the bank accounts of the vast majority of the world's populace.

The money needed to circle through civilization to keep it running (the way blood must continually pump through the veins/arteries for the body to continue functioning) is getting stopped up and clogged in a series of offshore accounts, and it's causing - to continue our body metaphor - a terrible aneurysm that will continue to weaken the world for many years to come.

This needs to be talked about.

What has to be kept in mind the whole time is that you need to be an extremely wealthy and/or powerful individual to afford these services. These are the one percent of the one percent. This is 'royalty under another name' type of wealth. And they can make hollow case after case about unfettered capitalism and government waste and bureaucratic inefficiency.

But free-market capitalism/neo-liberalism has been the dominant economic policy (or at least a continued push towards its purest, unregulated forms) for most of the world for over thirty years now. And the debt incurred by governments as they still attempt to provide basics services for their people is owned by these giant banks and wealthy globalized citizens (citizens that may have citizenship in one country, but live in another most of the time, and barely pay any tax in either). Their expensive buying habits and owning of corporations do not create the 'trickle down' effect that they believe is their contribution to helping the masses. And as the small group gets more powerful, government and people get less powerful.

This is why the middle class is crumbling into a permanent underclass.

This is why there's no manufacturing industry in the West anymore.

This is why the tech industry can treat people like replaceable computer code.

This is why there are cuts in everything from social services to mental health programs.

This is why the city of Detroit's gone bankrupt.

This is why driving a car for a company that calls you an independent contractor so it can treat you terribly is a typical job choice now. The freelance everything economy.

This is why there is high rates of stress, addiction, isolation and anger.

This is why people turn to extreme views, desperately looking for answer as to why life is able to be so good for others and never to them. And these answers could be political, religious radicalism, or outright crime.

There are huge societal consequences when a small cabal of people squirrel away an astonishingly large amount of money that was meant to spent elsewhere.

Orwell said that 'rich people are just poor people with money'. The Mossack-Fonseca Papers are a reminder at the worst possible time that the wealthy can live by a different set of rules than the rest of us. It is the alienation of the rich to the rest and the rest to the rich. People's views are moving towards the untenable, impossible extremes on either side. The hyper-capitalist belief that it's their money rightfully earned and they should have no obligation to 'share the wealth' with freeloaders, and the hyper-socialist belief that money and financial divisions should be abolished completely because of the chaos and suffering it causes.

Both are more philosophical than practical, but they look more appealing when it seems like any sort of compromise or change from the current system is not possible. And compromise should be possible. There should be an appeal to fiscal sensibility and a sustainable economy.

But it doesn't seem to be making much traction. Once again, this is not a shocking revelation. Even the lack of anger isn't a surprise. It's all disappointing and depressing. It's a hard thing to get motivated for, because even results will take years to reveal themselves (the increased tax revenue will finally help lower deficits, fund health and social programs, create much needed infrastructure projects).

If there's no mobilization of many, it will continue to be a world run by the very few.

This is why the world is going the way it is (a slow crawl towards worse and worse. Even in the countries that have made great economic leaps from poverty to working class (China and India come to mind), recently the greatest strides have been a small cabal of already wealthy and powerful becoming even richer).

This attitude is why the world is going the way it is. Hobsbawm describe the twentieth century as the age of extremes, but so far the 21st century is doing a hell of a job at taking that title, and we're not even two decades in.

 

 


 

Soylent: Life Imitating Art. Unfortunately.

 

You'd think it was a joke. Or a winking, ironic consumable art piece based on a ridiculous bit of pop culture, meant to be social commentary about our future.

But no, it's made with good intentions.

You know, the paver for the road to hell.

Soylent is a meal replacement, all the calories and nutrients required to have the energy to get through your day. It was designed by a computer engineer who wanted to cut down on the amount of time he spent eating. It was meant for very busy people, who might want to replace one meal a day (or two) with a simple two minute process of mixing of powder and water, and drinking it over the next half hour while not leaving your workstation.

Fine, let the geeks and gamers drink down whatever they gotta drink down to do whatever they gotta do.

And that could be the end of it.

But it probably isn't.

Soylent will go beyond a niche market and slowly unfold (in part through competitors once their business model is aped) across the planet over the next decade. It will save hundreds of millions of lives from the brink of starvation, while also become a key symbol in the death of materialism and the crippling dearth of basic resources.

That's a lot of praise and blame to put on a bag full of powder.

But its simplicity is deceiving. Like a lot of things with good intentions. Hell, the Internet is really just two computers talking to each other, and it's made the world better, worse, easier, more complicated, wealthier, poorer, inspiring, and endlessly depressing. Every afternoon.

Soylent will be the same soon enough. Just like the Internet was first popular among a bunch of computer programmers who set up newsgroups to talk about things they liked (The Simpsons was an early forum), Soylent has the same audience. And it will expand beyond this initial core group because it's cheap and it's fast. And those two things are insanely attractive to the world right now, since the pesky 99% of us seem to have no money and no time. If fluctuating oil prices can be a key player in sending the global economy into an unpredictable tailspin, it's only going to be worse when the same thing happens to food. Mentally budgeting at the supermarket, desperately going for only what's on sale, and still realizing you aren't going to have enough in your bank account.

Soylent can step in to ease the panic and pain, but it's clearly not being presented to us this way at the moment. Right now, it's still just cool and hip, something to try for a week; like yoga, axe throwing, and making your own compost.

The product's website does a very good job at making it all seem smooth, sleek, pristine, efficient, futuristic.  Packaging, too. A tall thin jug that feels aerodynamic. A tiny steel scooper. The minimalist bags with just the nutritional information printed. The instructions are brief because using Soylent is stupidly straightforward. Plus stickers (because, y'know, art-branding corporate synergy, man).

And it's a success story. At least it's a very bland and prosaic series of events that can be spun into a success story. It's the most funded food-related crowdfunding project of all time! Venture capitalists are throwing eight-figure investments at it. If other people think it's important and good, then by (xanthan) gum you should, too.

Presentation isn't everything, but it's a lot of things. Especially in the coming years when this sort of food (right now it's classified by Wikipedia as 'meal replacement beverage', but certainly that will go through the PR-wringer) is going to become a necessary choice for many millions of people.

At this moment, Soylent all feels like a easy thing to try that will maybe give you an extra thirty minutes to an hour during the day by not having to cook and eat and clean up (you can already see the commercials. Whatever time-saving a new type of electrostatic broom or a one-click shopping website offered you, it will pale in comparison to the 'just add water and sip' angle).

So far all the promises are coming true, with the website and easy ordering (and easy paying) and delivery to your door making it all seem like the future is here today.

Then you open up the bag with scissors and part of the powder puffs up and makes flour-like streaks and stains on the counter. It also hangs in the air just briefly, dancing in the sun or artificial light.

A blender is recommended, but a stirring stick will suffice (although you'll have a bit of dried chunks floating inside the glass). It looks like a vanilla-chocolate milkshake combination, but even that's too much of a suspension of disbelief. Anything which promotes healthy...er...drinking can't be that tasty.

Now at this point you look at the glass in front of you and you check the time and realize that yes, it's today, which is technically the future but not in the same way as before, and what you're about to grab onto is beige sludge in a cup. And the streaks of the powder-water inside the cool thin jug are really hurting the cool factor.

Your stomach is rumbling. This has been promised to rectify the situation. On your marks, get set, go.

You drink it down and it's not nothing but not by much. It's close to nothing, and in some sense that's impressive. It’s five hundred calories, thirty five percent of your recommended daily intake of fat, and twenty five to thirty percent of your recommended daily intake of twenty three nutrients which can be effortlessly drank down while you pop pigs or crunch numbers or fold laundry or run on the elliptical or repair a socket, etc.

Lumpy, even after the blender? Sure.

A smoothie for robots? It's a fair cop.

But what does it taste like?

Very watered down peanut butter at best. And at worst it's chalky water that you have to get off your teeth and gums with your tongue.

You'll never forget it's not powder because it quickly sticks to everything. Enough water and it will dissolve without issue, but not enough and it makes for a sticky fleck on a glass or counter that needs more water to wash off.

Make sure you immediately soak anything that housed Soylent in water. It will make the eventual cleaning of them that much easier (even if it's going in the dishwasher). Much of this product reminds you of the frustration of dryness. When there's no water involved, it's dust. And when water leaves it hardens as annoying streaks and smudges. Only with H20 is it free to live up to its potential (it’s like an early reminder of how valuable water will become in the near future).  

And to sum up taste-wise: It's not great, and it's not terrible.

Sounds like the future.

Maybe you'll add half a can of Coke to it just for sweetness (and to show that you've learned nothing).

It doesn't fill you up immediately. In no way, shape or form do you feel like you've had a big meal and are stuffed after finishing a single or double serving of Soylent. You're stomach will immediately start breaking down the nutrients, so it won't be rumbling, but there's certainly a psychological aspect of eating that has to be reconditioned. Plus a lot of the sludge sinks to the bottom of the glass, which means those last few mouthfuls are heavy on the clumps indeed.

It will take some getting used to.

Sounds like the future.

That's Soylent.

And then there's Soylent Green, a cheesy, not-good-but-not-terrible, 70s sci-fi dystopia flick starring Charlton Heston, where the title is a bland foodstuff fed to the impoverished and overpopulated citizens of the planet. Only the few wealthy elite can afford to eat actual food and not in live in cramped, sky-high apartment blocks. These elites own the few massive corporations that essentially oversee all aspects of life on earth (this is movie, by the way), including the food for the masses, which is Soylent.

And it's also (sigh...spoiler alert) made out of old people (Or anybody, really. But because of overpopulation and its stress on resources, people - old people especially - are encouraged to commit suicide at euthanasia centres). Just a reminder, this is just a movie full of cardboard Heston acting. He's a cop who's investigating the suspicious death of a wealthy businessman, who lived in enviable luxury and was involved in large corporate conspiracies meant to be hidden from the populace. Again, not real. A movie.

In the flick, Soylent Green was allegedly 'plankton based', but it's revealed (through Heston's roommate's research friends) that since the oceans are dying, it can no longer produced enough plankton for this to be true. Heston finds out that it's made of human remains, fights off thugs, and runs through the streets screaming the truth as the film ends.

So why name your product after a hideous dystopic wafer in an almost forgettable 70s sci-fi movie (it's Edward G. Robinson's last role, and if we need to add some more contemporary links, police dispense of rioters using over the top paramilitary vehicles, namely giant dump trucks)? Soylent's creator Rob Rhinehart didn't. He named it after the same product in the novel titled, 'Make Room! Make Room!', which the movie Soylent Green based off of. In the book, 'Soylent' is the term coined by combining the two allegedly main ingredients of the foodstuff, soya and lentils. Real-life Soylent is primarily rice protein, with soy lecithin much further down on the list of ingredients (which includes such mouth-waterers as oat flour, cellulose, modified food starch, and xanthan gum).

So it's low art which consumed high(er) art, a meme of which was absentmindedly vacuumed up by a computer engineer who didn't want to spend time eating and transformed into a slowly expanding corporate blob of something that is providing a low-cost, nutrient-forward drink to keep billions of people alive exactly when they can't afford anything else. Which is/was the premise of the book/movie from which the name was taken in the first place.

It's life imitating art imitating art imitating life. Good thing they didn't make Soylent to be constructed out of human feces in the film, because that would be a much too literal full circle.

And all this is more than a quirky coincidence or amusing anecdote, because we need Soylent.

We need it bad.

It's gotten to the point where we can stop talking about the inevitable effects of climate change and overpopulation and overconsumption that is on the horizon because we're already there.

We are running out of food.

That's one of those sobering sentences that still packs quite a lot of power. Kind of hits you right in the stomach (unlike some meal replacement drinks you might think of).

While migration due to war and conflict are headline grabbing, migration due to lack of basic necessities is also occurring across the globe and it numbers in the millions.

In the West we are extremely lucky that these effects are being felt only in the form of rising food prices. Compared to other places across the planet, 'starvation' is not a pressing concern. That's not to say that people are wholly ignorant of the situation. The push to 'go local' is a wonderful attempt, but it cannot be done on a large enough and affordable scale. There's not enough farms in the areas close to large cities in the West to feed everyone, regardless if they could afford to eat the fruits, vegetables, meats, grain and diary products that these agricultural havens produce.

We have to rely on food grown and raised at an extremely cheap price across the globe, which is ultimately frozen (most of the time) and shipped here, which is where most of the price in the grocery store goes (not to mention the burning fuel on a ship or plane which contributes to the effects of climate change which makes it harder to grown said crops and farm animals on the necessary scale).

And this where Soylent comes in. People will make the 'choice' to replace one of their traditional meals with a non-traditional meal replacement because this is the option that they can financially afford.

It's real because it's not a miracle cure that comes out of nowhere. Soylent is made

via 'using all of the Buffalo' approach. Where the food is ground and ground and ground until flavour is a dream and there's enough folate and vitamin K for everybody.

But overnight? Of course not.

First it'll be replacing snacks, then one of your daily meals (breakfast probably), because hey, you can save time and money early in the day, right? So you can get to your overworked and underpaid job that much faster, right?

Soon real food will be for special occasions. Steak is for holidays, weddings. A tiny birthday cake that is the sole property of the birthday boy or girl.

Sounds terrible. Sounds bleak. But don't worry, it's just a movie.

For now.


 

Last Tango in Paris: Climate Change Talks 2015

 

Oh boy.

Are you ready to watch the fate of billions of people be put on the line in the form of middle-aged men argue about how much they can slow down the blind, amoral stomp of process? Are you interested in how these politicians will have to simultaneously kiss the asses the vast majority of the planet who know that climate change is going to have devastating effects on our way of life, and the few massive energy companies that got their career balls in a vice and also power our way of life?

What can a rich politician do, except pretend to take a stand, in that sleepy Paris town, theres just no place for the future of man

The appearance of success is a much-cherished plan B in the world of politics if plan A (actual success) is unlikely/impossible.

The big (but not exactly good) news for the United States is that they're no longer the biggest producer of CO2 on the planet (that would be China). That doesn't exactly take the pressure off, but it does remind everyone of the changing balance of power. Not that America's a lame duck country, but lame duck Obama wants to go out on a high note, even if Congress has no interest in passing anything regarding an energy/environment bill. So the President offers up a carbon capture plan that looks promising, and if the Republicans kill it, he can point his finger and say he tried.

At the summit China and India will flex their ever-growing economic muscles and make the not entirely unreasonable argument that the West had a good one hundred fifty years to industrialize before finding their conscience, so why do they only get a few decade to burn all their coal? And it's tempting to make the argument that these nations should take up the challenge to lead the creation and introduction of emerging green technologies to truly differentiate themselves from the West.

But that's obviously not how the world works. The world economy, more specifically. You can't shut down your power plants over several years until you already have a dependable energy infrastructure to replace them. And that would cost billions of billions of dollars that even already developed countries won't even consider.

Take Canada for example.

Under the recently ousted Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the resource-rich nation doubled down on the oil sands and said that they wouldn't take no for an answer when it came to building the Keystone pipeline (which would allow exports to the United States to increase dramatically). But then one of those pesky election thingies happened, and Conservative Harper was defeated by the Liberal Justin Trudeau, who's probably thanking his lucky stars that Obama was the one that kyboshed the Keystone pipeline so he could have no opinion on the matter.

Now Trudeau ran on a 'more money for green energy' ticket, but he knows too much of his countrys economic well-being is still tied up in oil (even at $45 a barrel), so even though a majority of his citizens (and especially those that elected him) want to see a much more proactive stance on climate change, hes really going to be Americas wingman here. No crazy policy pronouncements, a step up from the last guy, let's cross our fingers and throw some money at the problem rather than telling energy companies to hurry up and shut it down.

Meanwhile, the EU just sits and waits for America to catch up, acknowledging ruefully that it was always a bit easier for them to clean up their act, what with a smaller geographic region to deal with, and much more powerful government regulatory bodies.

Which is about the time when it has to be reminded that pollution doesn't acknowledge borders, and that we ultimately share the same big, body of water, regardless of who is poisoning it more. And you know institutions are really scrambling for any sort of good news when Ontario's energy crown corporation Hydro One proudly proclaims they (finally) got rid of coal-burning plants in 2014.

The Copenhagen Summit of 2009 resulted in an accord brought forth by the United States, China, India, South Africa, and Brazil which was voted whether to be taken note of(as opposed to being adopted), and not passed unanimously by all the participating countries.

At least the bar is set nice and low for Paris 2015.

But as the old adage goes, that just makes it easier for attendees to trip over it.

That's not to say that the big players aren't trying to avoid the same pointless drivel they drooled out in Denmark six years earlier. In fact, because these big summits are typically just the PR icing on the decision cake, phone calls, emails, and face-to-face meetings have already begun amongst the teams behind the leaders, trying to get on the same page now so they don't have to yell or sulk or get caught with their pants down in the French capital.

But that's part of the problem. Essentially everything boils down to window dressing, and when you can't agree on anything substantial, you really look like an ass trying to make the drapes seem perfect when the house is falling down.

Prominent climate change research scientist James Hansen recently penned a scathing letter concerning the initial goals of the conference, accusing Obama of, "selling our children, and theirs, down the river."

It’s kind of refreshing to hear an eminent scholar describe a proposal being put forth by the White House as, unadulterated 100% pure bullshit.” (underline is his)

For a second, then you realize that what's bullshit is supposed to be the centrepiece agreement between the US and China regarding carbon capture and storage (which involves retrofitting coal plants and oil refineries so that the carbon is not spewed into the atmosphere but captured and stored deep in the ground). But because it's a proposal and not a law (no surprise: carbon capture and storage is expensive), neither of them has to do anything. It's confronting harsh truths with wishful thinking.

These truths have not come out of nowhere.

The lofty, stated goal for the last big climate talks over the twenty five years (Rio de Janeiro in 1992, Kyoto in 1997, Copenhagen in 2009) has been to keep the planet's increase in temperature through the twenty first century at 2 degree celsius. But even if all the agreements made for the talks in Paris were adhered to, the more likely increase is going to be a little over 6 degrees celsius. So success is already failure, but to polish the turd, we're reminded that if nothing is agreed upon over the next two weeks, and it's 'business as usual' polluting for the foreseeable future, then the increase would be over 8 degrees.

'Business as Usual' is taking on a well-deserved negative connotation in environmental circles. Another good one is, follow the money, which Deep Throat told Woodward and Bernstein all those years ago. And things havent changed.

The centralization and narrowing of corporate power means that too big to failalso suggests that it’s too big to do many, many other tasks that could benefit society in general.

And even when a task is a pressing as climate change/pollution, even if the spirit is somehow willing, the liquidity is typically weak.

Whatever increases costs is vilified, whatever might affect the bottom line and the annual returns to the investors is dead on arrival, whatever statistics explain the threat is ignored or muzzled.

Even when science can put a price tag on the dangers of pollution (and how it will affect us in the years to come), it seen as a more nebulous figure than how much the costs of instituting plans and projects to correct the dangers. Which makes it less likely to be taken seriously by people who live and die by quarterly projections.

Emission standards are seen as nothing more than an inconvenience to the corporate world. Something to push against, and failing that work around.

Volkswagen spent millions of dollars essentially rigging their cars to perform differently during emissions tests than during regular driving.

This duplicity enabled Volkswagen to receive subsidies and tax breaks in the United States related to meeting clean energy standards. 'Greenwashing' is promoting your product or service as environmentally friendly when it isn't. Real 1984 type stuff. And popular enough to have a wikipedia article on it.

It's a great way to appeal to the many people who do want to do the right thing (as long it doesn't completely overhaul their lifestyle or routine, and buying something they think is better for the environment at the same store they would shop at anyway falls into that category), without having to actually do anything about it.

It's the new 'free trade' or 'organic' label.

Another terrible symptom of a corporate-focused society. This is how you increase profits, and if you get caught lying about what your product does or how it's made, the fine is a slap on the wrist, which means there's no real incentive to stop.

No one is going to jail for these (apparently not) crimes. If you are a big enough company, selling a product that does the opposite of what it promises is not against the law.

And if causing astronomical levels of pollution is nice and legal, certainly spreading misinformation about how it’s caused and who causes it is acceptable as well.

If you're an eager young go getter in the world of public relations and are willing to swallow your pride, ethics, and concern for the future, there's no better business than the field of climate change denial.

Legitimatize a non-existent debate. Easily win five minute on-air arguments with nebbish scientists. Flashy adds with smiling oil workers saying how they know that many people are worried about the future (and say no more about it).

And it works. More people today in the United States harbour doubts about the claims scientists make about climate change than twenty and forty years ago.

James Hansen knows this. He made landmark testimony in front of Congress in 1988 about the dangers of greenhouse gases. Hansen questions who Obama is getting his information from, but he has been around long enough to know that you don't kick the leader of the free world in the shins without offering him a band aid.

Hansen proposes a 'carbon fee' (he's also been around long enough to know not to call it a tax), that is designed to be much easier for the corporate world to adopt (once again, he's been around long enough to know who got a shitload of power regarding this issue) than further government regulation or Cap & Trade.

So far this has been about politicians and corporations, the latter of whom bankroll the election campaigns of the former so much that one can't accomplish much in government without them.

Yes, but what can I do, is the refrain from the masses, none of whom own an energy company or have a seat in the halls of power.

There is a disconnect between science that improves my life immediatelyand science that tells me that I have to make concessions and sacrifices for the future. This is true even of people who wholeheartedly acknowledge the existent of climate change and say they want to do something about it.

So…the easiest and most effective way that millions of people across the globe can help curb the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere starting tomorrowis carpooling.

A vast majority of people who drive to work across cities (or from suburbs into downtown areas) are sitting alone in their vehicles.

Even going moderately out of your way to pick up a co-worker who lives perhaps fifteen to twenty minutes away can, over time, make a huge difference not only in the amount of exhaust being barfed into the air, but also save both of you money (if your co-worker chips in a bit on gas). And it can increase even more if you added more people in the back seat. A couple phone calls or texts are all it takes to set this up. In fact, the other passengers can even get a jump on work by spending most of the drive on their phones, tablets or laptops, which they would not be able to do if they were driving themselves. And theres no matter of the possible awkwardness of driving or sitting with strangers. And with fewer cars on the road, everyone will be getting to work faster, and the streets and highways will be safer. The positives of carpooling are absolutely amazing, especially considering the ease of instituting the practice.

Yet we dont do this.

Theres nary a peep about it in lunchrooms or elevators. Theres hasnt been much of a promotional push for it by any environmental or green energy groups. None of the institutions that would love to see fewer cars on the road (police and emergency personnel, insurance companies, city councillors who would love to not have to spend so much money on highway maintenance) have put up billboards or internet banners.

It’s not a matter of getting rid of cars, but just using them with a bit more restraint and common sense. Oil is going to be part of the world’s energy plan for a decades to come no matter what. We just have to use (a lot) less of it. Even Hansen acknowledges that it's thanks to the burning of fossil fuels (both oil and coal) that helped raise the standard of living in the West, and it's damn hypocritical of us to demand China to stop doing the same, when it's playing such a larger role in raising their living standards as well.

Salvaging is never an inspiring concept (and certainly not considered a noble profession), but it is an extremely essential one, especially when we're talking about the condition of our planet (and our only planet, might I add).

That the oceans will continue to warm, that the airs will be filled with more CO2 and methane, that sea levels will rise, that the animals living in the water and on land will struggle to adapt, none of these things are up for debate. All we can hope for in Paris is to lay the seeds to slow the pace of the inevitable changes coming to our planet.

 

 

Sources

 

http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/2015/20151127_Isolation.pdf


 

 

Move On Up: Migrant Crisis

 

This shit gets hard so fast.

It's so easy to say 'everyone is legal', and on a globe that is so interdependent and interconnected it's even easy to make the case that because of the massive influence the developed world has on the developing world (for now, we'll just go with these broad terms, while quickly acknowledging just how over-simplistic and demeaning they are), everyone should be allowed to travel and reside almost anywhere. If the United States and Europe (along with China, as another major economic player) are setting crop futures prices that affect the economies of Brazil, South Africa and Malaysia, that means they are directly affecting the livelihoods and living standards of the people in those countries. When you go to your grocery store and buy Granny Smith apples grown in South Africa, you are entering into a economic partnership with that country. You are affecting people's lives on the other side of the globe (as they are yours). But that happens on such a massive and frequent scale (it can apply to your iphone, your pants, your cutlery, your bicycle) that we don't think much about it at all.

Saying 'everyone is legal' is a wonderfully humanitarian and moralistic position of welcoming everyone as family, as identifying everyone as equals, and really should be a starting ethos if we want to achieve greater peace and harmony in this world.

And certainly affluent regions of the world that love to trumpet their freedoms and abilities to assist less prosperous and more volatile regions should do much more to welcome people from these regions who are fleeing war, famine, and persecution. Especially because of the tendency to find that these affluent regions play vital roles in shaping the politics and economies of these less prosperous regions. There's been plenty of reasons for the West going into Africa or the Middle East over the last several centuries, and only a small handful of them have been wholly altruistic.

So it can also be argued that the West should actually be 'forced' (although by what sort of agency or organization remains to be seen, since the UN has been pretty toothless this century) to do everything it can to address the current migrant crisis in Europe, since it played such a large role in its emergence (coveted resources and geopolitical strategy are the clear ones, but some scientists have also connected climate change to the horrible situation in Syria).

The examples above of economic exchange involve countries that do not currently have such violent instability that tens of thousands are fleeing from them. But the countries that are being focussed on during this terrible situation do have important and complicated relationships with the United States, Canada and Europe.

The West buys oil from the region, and with that money countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Yemen, and Iraq buy weapons manufactured in the West to 'put down' violent rebellions in their respective countries, which ultimately make safety and stability all the more unlikely and the flight of terrified and desperate citizens more likely.

Syria has been a mid-sized Western ally for years (and another seller of petroleum), and consequently the response to al-Assad crushing his opponents (and inflaming a rebellion) during the Arab Spring has been done with relative restraint.

To atone for the 'sins' (probably the more modern term would be 'business interests') of British-American involvement in the Middle East (going back to the height of the British Empire, into the 1970s and 1980s when America increased its presence there after the formation of OPEC and the oil crisis, right up through to today, with its own myriad of challenges), it seems like they should take the lead in opening their doors to many thousands of migrants and refugees (it would also make for an effective PR campaign against ISIS).  Germany (the third largest weapons exporter to the region) is spearheading the campaign by stating it can take up to half a million migrants this year. Other European countries, after intense public pressure both among their own citizens and around the world, are also now agreeing to take at markedly increased number of migrants before the end of the year.

Not surprisingly, there is plenty of blowback from these decisions, ranging from stupidly bigoted to frustratingly practical. Frequently the people in the countries receiving this influx of people forget (or don't know) the history of migration, where these two opposing reactions to waves of new citizens have always been present.

Having to leave where you are and going somewhere else is old. Really old.

And it was rarely welcomed by all the people who were living in 'somewhere else' at the time. The immigration boom of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in America is now seen as inspiring chapter of the American Dream, but during this period the 'already heres' persistently vilified every new wave of immigrant with the same complaints and prejudices, regardless of where they were from (they were lazy, uneducated, had too many children they couldn't care for, couldn't speak the language, had bizarre customs, adhered to a different religion, etc.). This didn't matter if it was the Irish in the nineteenth century, the Italians in the early twentieth, or the much greater milieu of people from around the world in the latter half of the twentieth. New, unfamiliar groups of people are frequently isolated and treated unfairly in any new neighbourhood or region. And while its essential that we continue to rectify this hostile and harmful close-mindedness, there are signs that the same thing is happening during the migrant crisis that is occurring across in Europe in various forms. Railway chaos in Hungary and the in Chunnel. Police throwing food into large fenced in areas of people like they were animals. Poor conditions in refugee camps, with people caught in legal limbo between the nation they left and wherever their boat ended up (and considering how many people die trying to cross seas and borders, even a refugee camp is - at first - a step up from any of the likely alternatives). At least the closing of the unattended borders in Western Europe that have been open for decades now has more to do with simple organizational and bureaucratic tallying than anything that can be seen as a symbolic 'circling of the wagons'. One of the coveted qualities of the continent is its 'social safety net', which ensures some of the highest standards of living in the world. But migrants cannot get proper assistance if they don't have any identification (and when you leave a war-torn area, sometimes you have little more than the shirt on your back), and simply having an official record of people entering these countries makes it easier to help them.

Our hearts going out to the father of Alan Kurdi is an important first step, and politicians (finally) acting is an inspiring sign, but the next several steps are the more decisive and difficult ones.

Finding the resources necessary to properly provide basic assistance to hundreds of thousands of people so that over several years they can better acclimatize themselves to their adopted country is not easy.

From a practical (and admittedly cold) standpoint, almost every Western and G8 nation are cash strapped and have enough internal problems with budgets and infrastructure that this new additional project (albeit inspiring and central to our concepts of being charitable and responsible) means those of us already here must make/expect practical sacrifices in the near future to afford it.

Talking about having the money to support the influx of migrants turned citizens seems cold and insensitive, but that is the measure of ability for our bureaucracy to do the activities we deem important. Do you give the tired, huddled masses your best, your leftovers, something in the middle? And how do we address this issue without considering how well we're doing taking care of the poor and downtrodden who are already in our respective countries? When institutions and governments must pick and choose who to help (or who to help first) it is almost a foregone conclusion that their own citizens are the initial recipients of any sort of support (whether it be in the form of improved infrastructure, social assistance or any other service or program). It seems absurd that suddenly we demand our fellow citizens who are suffering from similar situations of homelessness and poverty to suddenly make do with even less.

There is not enough Western standards of living to go around, even for people who risk death to make it to the West (hell, there's not enough of WSoL for people born in the West). Even when the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak.

While living in run-down apartments in impoverished neighbourhoods in large cities in Europe and North America can be considered improvements over remaining in dangerous, war torn nations of the Middle East and Africa, that has to be just another step in the story, not the end if it.

This does illustrate the size of this problem, however. There are enough issues with the concept of wealth redistribution in affluent countries (namely, that the richer are getting richer, the middle class is shrinking, and the lower class is growing) that when confronted with unexpected but essential actions (I feel like I'm being euphemistically cautious by never using the overt and straightforward term, 'spending money on migrants’), governments need to start considering policies that for quite a long time were considered politically unfeasible

Do we ask wealthier citizens to suddenly pony up? Do we not ask and simply pass legislation that raises their taxes? Do we do the same to corporations, and end their tax breaks?

On the NGO-charitable front, do we open the doors to our houses that might have a spare bedroom to a mother and daughter who have recently lost the other half of their family as they crossed the Mediterranean? Kickstarter campaigns for orphaned children? There are programs in place to help the set amount of immigrants and refugees that a developed nations accepts each year, do we volunteer our time and donate money through there?

All of these suggestions have their benefits (even if simply 'writing to your congressperson or MP'), but one thing that should also be talked about with great fervour in this matter is huge increases in foreign aid to these war torn nations. And obviously military spending is not considered 'aid' in this instance. Money for food, shelter, clothing (the very basic necessities), along with simple but essential infrastructure can a long way in ensuring that there does not have to be a migrant crisis in the first place. If the West cannot welcome the displaced millions over last several years, then it certainly must improve the living conditions from where these displaced millions came.

Which is of course another long term, expensive undertaking by the West (and arguably being done currently in a middling, barely effective fashion).

Many of the nations that are having migrants leave in droves have a lack of any sort of security/stability. At one point in the not too distant past, a lot of these places had those two essential qualities, but at the 'cost' of their country being run by a corrupt, brutal and power-hungry dictator (Gaddafi in Libya, al-Assad in Syria, Hussein in Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan). And when these leaders were disposed or made ineffective, the propped up Western-supported governments that came after floundered under cronyism, ineffectiveness, and led to violent clashes, ethnic cleansing, and war. Nature abhors a vacuum, and civilization abhors a power vacuum. It will be filled with death and chaos, and ISIS is only to happy to display.

The challenge for the West - and certainly there are many on its plate - with regards to the migrant crisis is sustainability and vigilance. To provide basic necessities to the people fleeing war and death when they arrive, while at the same time providing resources so that there is a functioning society for these people if they choose to return home when the violence ends. Even displaying great and far-reaching acts of charity and generosity, both in public and private spheres, Western nations cannot fully 'look after' and assist these waves of migrants ad infinitum, nor should that ever be the goal.

Our ability to do this - and in addition, rise above petty and wrongheaded assumptions about any person or group seeking refuge in a new country - would be so much more beneficial to society as a whole than simply agreeing that we should do something, which is always the easiest thing to do. The danger is that we start to believe the matter is solved when it disappears from the headlines or news feeds. Signing an online petition or offering a donation of five dollars has to be the start, not the end. If our hearts truly were moved at the sight of a drowned three year old on the shores of Greece, then we owe it to him (and to ourselves) to see these policies enacted and carried out until there are demonstrative rises in living standards in the countries which these thousands of people are fleeing.

We may not be able to send the West itself to these areas of the world, but we can at least show them what we claim our values to be.

 

Notes

http://m.democracynow.org/stories/15489

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/climate-change-key-in-syrian-conflict--and-it-will-trigger-more-war-in-future-10081163.html

 

 

 


 

the inevitable sociocultural hierarchy of the internet

 

Democracy is a fragile thing.

No wait, I can come up with a better start. And while this isn't a facebook post (which can't be deleted)(oh, and meanwhile a tweet can, although anything remotely interesting or spar(k)-worthy is usually saved as jpeg. or .png file by users for posterity), I'll keep it up there as a reminder of my opening stumble, my beginning mistake. And sometime between and now and when the sun expands and swallows the earth in five billion years, it will be used against me or the AI version of me in the cyber-court of public opinion.

That I can't hack it right out of the gate, cant find the right word when I need to, can't take the heat, am a technophobe, indifferent, hate democracy, endlessly cynical, and addicted to pronouns.

Regardless

Community is a fragile thing.

(better)

When everyone can participate, everyone's got to work their ass off to keep the quality up. When cracks begin to show and aren't patched up quickly, the rate of deterioration increases. And ultimately there comes a point of no return, where whatever you had has been nefariously switched, twisted and turned into something that is a disgusting pale shadow-echo of what used to be.

But this isn't (another) piece decrying the dangerous stalling of democratic principles in Western nations.

Instead, let's talk about youtube! And twitter! And facebook!

The town squares of the 21st century, with millions of people passing through and having a chat, an idea, a product or service to sell, or a bigoted screed (fancy word. How  about 'screech' instead?).

But it's not a town square. It's better and worse. Like everything else it gets its digital fingers on (statistics, music, pornography), the internet pries, pushes and explodes things into the extremes.

And like all unwieldy, complicated things, there's advantages and disadvantages. Your cyberspace town square can include people from all the ends of the earth, enjoying and chatting about common interests in real time, co-workers in different time zones each with access to the same info so they can all band together and solve problems quicker than before. You can plan your vacation in the Philippines down to the hour, and you can find out the number of the new pizza place down the street.

And some of this stuff has become so commonplace that it comes off as eye-rollingly boring when you read it. Even though most of it was unheard of twenty years ago. It's a monumental achievement of human ability. Not only the development of computer technology, but the infrastructure required to keep the internet up and running. Everything from orbiting satellites to thousands of miles of underground cables and millions of employees at all sorts of tech companies making sure the code in all these tiny machines work near perfectly almost all of the time.

Just so you can [insert terrible and cliched time wasting activity that the internet is primarily know for]. And thanks to smart phones (although I'm pretty sure we can just call them phones now), it's so much easier to dive in and lose yourself. When you had a computer at home, various factors like work-related software, slower connections, and other people using it, would keep you from spending hours upon hours quickly jetting back and forth from facebook, twitter, youtube, angry birds, candy crush, buzzfeed, xhamster (don't pretend like you don't know), reddit, etc. until the end of time.

And this is not an anti-internet screed (you're reading this on a website, after all). It's just a frustrated acknowledgement that - wait for it - complicated things are complicated. And complicated things need a lot of consideration and maintenance for them to work properly.

And how do we define properly here? Because its not just the technical functioning that we think about.

Once the codes works more or less perfectly (think how infrequently the internet crashes (not the connection, but the actual data being transmitted and presented)considering how much time you spend on it), are we judging the internet based on how we use it? By our noblest intentions and activities? By our lowest common denominator base-level desires and reactions?

After all, from a sociological experiment perspective, the one thing we've learned beyond a doubt in the early twenty first century is that it's a lot easier to be an asshole when you can effortlessly reduce the person you're being an asshole towards into a username or irrelevant avatar of a dog or kid's cartoon.

Technology can dehumanize as quickly as it can bring people together (and for every bad story that fall under the umbrella of the former, I firmly believe there are thousands of stories that involve the latter, and that we just take it for granted now).

So what do we do when both things happen?

Once against the responsibility falls on everyone's shoulders.

We didn't break the internet, but it looks a lot like modern civilization, and that comments hovers uncomfortably between insult and compliment.

You occasionally see what wonderful things we are capable of if we are proactive and informed (and what seemed amazing fifteen years ago - emailing many people across the globe, watching a video - is so blandly mundane). Raising money for niche and headline causes (a single cancer patients wish, an earthquake on the other side of the planet), learning the same thing in African and Japanese classrooms, giving support and advice to friends and strangers, sharing whatever you created and maybe becoming successful thanks to it.

But what frequently gets attention is the opposite. Teenagers who kill themselves because of what a group of fellow high school students say and do on facebook. People getting pilloried for thoughtless tweets, and then the people who do the attacking get (cyber)attacked themselves (very French Revolution, actually).

And my goodness it's important that we do address pressing issues like cyberbullying, harassment, fraud, and stalking and attempt to stamp it out. When such heinous acts and/or results 'go viral', it almost comes in the form of a groundswell of support for the victim (laws passed in the name of deceased, thousands of dollars (or a party) donated to the embarrassed/harassed).

But the challenge is to become proactive, not stuck being reactive.

It's as if we'll always be playing catch up.

But that makes sense. We aren't as simple and dependable as the technology we design.

The device you hold in your hand is hundreds of times more powerful than the machines that took up a shitload of counter space less than twenty years ago.

Moore's law has been consistent for the last fifty years (how microchip power and performance will double every two years), but we haven't kept up.

What does this technology allow us to be/become?

(other than unemployed, which always happens when something is invented and popularized that can be applied to work. See: the plow, the printing press, the steam engine, the assembly line, etc.)

Gladwell's Tipping Point investigates the process and speed of ideas and products becoming popular. The right people with the right initiative pushing the right product/service at the right time. The internet was for the computer-savvy, then for the computer-fad folk, then the computer-intrigued and finally for absolutely everyone. As computers got more powerful, so too did the technology required to make the internet that much more useful, dependable, and exciting.

It was sci-fi come to life. William Gibson deserves a royalty for every down and uploaded loaded megabyte. And even though it was for the sake of making an interesting narrative in Neuromancer (a film version is stuck in development hell, and maybe it should be stuck there so everyone can do that old school thing and y'know, read), he saw pretty quick the dark and lonely side of an massively interconnected computer system.

The dream of easy open access for every person on planet also comes with the nightmare of easy open access for every person on the planet. Not everyones going to treat a free gift with the same amount of respect. To paraphrase legendary concert promoter Bill Graham: "if it's free people will piss on the floor."

It - and that's a really open pronoun - has to have some value otherwise it will be taken for granted and treated accordingly. To paraphrase legendary comedian Louis CK about the guy upset when the internet on planes was introduced and then stop working: "how quickly the world owes him for something he just found out existed five minutes ago."

And it's not that we should have a sense of delight and wonder every time we check our phones. But a modicum of respect would be nice, as well as the awareness that posting something in cyberspace isn't the same thing as saying it aloud to your friends in your kitchen or break room. A free, democratic society is never going to arrest you for your asshole tweet, but that won't protect you from the court of public opinion (or from the risk of losing your job if your company now sees your pariah-like status in cyberspace as a liability).

Perhaps there's a tipping point for our reactions and overreactions that we haven't yet hit. Where even if it's your real name in your twitter handle, what you say in the endless forest of ones and zeros doesn't hold the same level of personal accountability as everything else (of course, it all gets jumbled up in social media when people use their social media accounts for messages both work related and anger venting).

So far, we still have kinks to iron out when it comes to figuring out who we are and how we express ourselves online.

But it's important that we do so, because the internet is going to play a dominant role in civilization's future, and like democracy, if we don't give it our full attention and effort, this unique network/institution/opportunity/gift can be permanently spoiled and/or disfigured.

And we should acknowledge that, again like democracy, the internet was created with less benevolent intentions than we see now. Democracy was originally permitted only for the wealthiest 1% of America in the late eighteenth century (you had to be landowning white male to vote). The internet was originally developed so US Department of Defence computers could speak to each other and launch missiles and rain mushroom clouds around the world (mainly on Soviet Russia) at the advent of World War III. The smoothest road to hell is paved with only the very best intentions (wikipedia 'fair trade', for example).

What a sprawling and multifaceted thing can become over time will be an interesting research assignment on one hand, and a sobering look at human nature on the other.

Things people would never say face to face comes out effortlessly when you're only replying to a username below a video of motorcycle fails (sure, it's better than using your connection to other computers to blow up the planet, but that's a low bar).

We hear critics of this behaviour say that we are becoming crueller and insensitive as we invest more and more of our time in our smartphones, tablets and (coming very soon) smart-watches.

It is said that our ability to sympathize and emphasize with people will begin to break down and become the rarity, not the norm.

[this is the 'get off my lawn' argument, as it's been applied to all new technologies and trends that have been vociferously taken up by the youth. Past culprits: television, rock and roll, jazz, dancing, novels, minor chords, literacy]

On the other hand (playing devil's advocate?), perhaps by being obnoxious human beings online we're getting frustrations and stress out that might have been acted out in more harmful ways.

[this is a poor argument in the (unfortunately) many cases of trolling/bullying on the internet that has unquestionably had 'real world' influences, including suicide, murder, assaults, harassment, and firings]

It's a sinking feeling. It's something we all can complain about on our own facebook/twitter/instagram accounts to friends, who agree that this freshest example of insensitivity is proof of humanity's ability to evolve, to have a shred of respect for each other, etc.

So what's the solution?

Wait, that's not right.

What's a solution?

Better.

See, there are solutions that have their own problems inherent to them. And like democracy being usurped by those willing to pay (heavily) to play in the halls of power through large campaign donations and lobbyists, the internet is now being, toll-boothed, cut up and cordoned off by a wealthy cabal of companies and interests.

This is not a shock. This is the usual fate of institutions and ideas. A rising, a falling, and then rebirth of something slightly different from the ashes. Culture especially. A popular style, musical genre, or even neighbourhood is first known only to a small number of people. Then it breaks through into a wider audience, hangers on arrive in droves, the initial essence of what made it popular is diluted, the initial creators bail or decry its alteration, it gets less popular, and is soon is mocked, derided and forgotten. And then the next new style, musical genre or neighbourhood is found.

It's the circle of post-industrial life.

Although obviously the internet is much bigger and more essential to contemporary human civilization than hipster fashion, punk, or the East Village. And how it changes has a greater effect on us all than a bunch of stores closing or record label employees getting laid off.

The internet is currently gestating into it's next phase of more barriers, almost all of which are divided by what you're willing to pay. Which comes with some simple solutions and a lot of complex problems.

The hardware has always been a capitalist enterprise. The more money you spend on your phone, cable line or modem's power, the faster upload and download speed at your fingertips. Outside of that rather large blindspot, the internet was trumpeted as being an equal and level playing field. Anyone could build a website. Anyone can talk to anyone else (remember texting....on your desktop computer?). Copyright wasn't too big of an issue at first because it took so much memory to digitize and upload/download a sound or photo or any other hunk of information that was owned by someone else.

It was as if so many people were amazed that it even worked there was barely any time or energy to be petty or angry when you arrived in cyberspace (instead your negative emotions were focussed on the goddamn 14.4 modem not connecting to American Online, even though no one else was on the phone).

Then computers/modems got faster, files could be compressed, the internet bubble burst, Google, Napster, facebook, youtube, twitter, torrenting, etc.

How's that for a summation of the last twenty years of the most important technological advance since nuclear power (debatable?)?

Now, in 2015, with almost everyone almost constantly connected, it's rarely acknowledged that a lot of our initial options for how we access the internet, what we access, and what we can access have narrowed.

The full embrace of phones and tablets as the main forms of access to cyberspace means that apps and closed software are becoming the norm, replacing websites and open software (the hallmark of your desktop and laptop computers, with their prompts and dialogue boxes).

Your facebook or tumblr page has more rigid guidelines and design limitations than any sort of web-building software.

And we should note here that the battle for net neutrality won't be over until it's finally won by the cable providers, who want to 'offer'/'charge' certain websites and online services premium fees for 'ideally' faster service. A two-tier system that leaves start up and less established ones in the dust. The already powerful will become more powerful.

Even where everything form of entertainment is supposedly free, money still talks.

A classic example is Tinder (yes, something three years old can be 'classic', in our hyper-accelerated world), which was intentionally introduced to the Silicon Valley/Hollywood upper crust to give it a bit of cache and curiosity, it's fuckbook-like interface spilling down to the plebs below in the coming months and years. And now that it's part of the culture - for better and for worse - they can now introduce premium subscription services to the site, with those paying a bit more getting a higher level swipe-and-meet-and-fuck experience.

From news to games to porn, there's more options, power-ups and exclusive hi-def footage if you're willing to pay. When the rabble start to get particularly ornery with what everyone can have because its free, those who can afford it slowly slip out of the room and into the brand new, VIP patio (mark my words, facebook will ultimately add a facebook plus, where people can pay to have ads removed from their news feed).

Easy for some people, not an option for others.

[here is the obligatory reminder that the widening gap between the rich and everyone else (aka, the shrinking of the middle class) creates not only a have and have-nots divide in terms of bank account size (and all the sociocultural opportunities attached to it), but a psychological one as well, where one begins to think these tiers are inherent and unchangeable]

It's pretty much the divide between who pays for HBO, and who steals HBO content or waits for the DVDs to rent from the library (remember libraries? Can you believe all the stuff there is free?).

Barriers are inevitable, and while the internet broke the last of the physical ones (take that, titanium, stone, and chain-link), it took a very short period of time before digital ones replaced them.

The pay wall. And if you don't have the cash (or won't cough it up), they'll take your information for a quick hit, for a first time tour behind the gates.

The gate meant to keep out the trolls, the bitter, the scammers, the thin-skinned defensive, the easily offended, the consistently ignorant, the conveniently ignorant, the dim and burnt out bulbs.

The venue always changes (it's all ones and zeroes now) but that process remains. The lifespan off the newest killer app is rapidly approaching that of the average fruit fly. Now the true showing of power and prowess is how deftly one can hop from one to the other. Our need for endless novelty (recent proof: the early February interest of Katy Perry's Left Shark. Remember? Way back then? Good times).

But out fleeting interests and brief bursts of anger, sympathy and excitement can wreak havoc on anyone caught in its wake.  Jon Ronson's new book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed, is an account of the very worst examples of the internet ruining people's lives. Where tweets or facebook statuses of varying degrees of insult and ignorance sparks a flurry of anger and vindictiveness that costs people their dignity and sometimes their careers.

It's actually become possible to inadvertently profit from these flare-ups. Just follow the step-by-step process:

-Make a controversial opinion known, either on the internet or through the antiquated medium known as television.

-Twitter and facebook users send an overwhelming amount of angry tweets and comments (including good ol' death threats and bigotry).

-People who agree with original your controversial opinion support them in a much more stronger and traditional fashion (financial support, public protests and marches) than simply typing a message (or signing a digital petition) on a phone.

The recent example of this is the owner of an Indiana pizza place who said on local TV news that she supported the state's controversial bill that makes it possible for business to discriminate against gays and lesbians. LGBT-supportive people across the internet protested from the comfort of their homes, suggesting boycotts, arson, and murder as a way to deal with this person and their business. And in response to this a kickstarter campaign started by people who supported the pizza place employee raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for them.

Instant connection and response make oversteering a new normal. Something that people and PR firms now have to take into account. The celebrities, politicians, and average citizens who have been burned by sharing their opinions/jokes/comments/whatever on the internet were the first victims/lessons. And like a lot of new inventions, it's still clear we have difficulty with the learning curve. Now everyone can be known for only a slice of their personality or ability, good or bad.

If some random person's tweet somehow goes viral, that's all that person is (and probably ever will be) in the eyes of the internet.

Popularity in cyberspace is akin to a grease fire. I mentioned Land Shark, but hey, remember 'What Colour is the Dress'? How about Mathew McConaughey in Interstellar reacting to the second Star Wars: The Force Awakens teaser trailer?

Two days worth of 'fame', sometimes for a silly idea instead of a person's idiocy (and that's probably preferred).

A strange twenty second cut of a popular movie we can all laugh or roll our eyes at (the closest we have to egalitarianism now?) on youtube, the shopping mall of the internet. After all, everyone's there (youtube comments might just be the barnacles at the bottom of the barrel), there's a lot of material of dubious quality, and even the good stuff might have some ethical issues (youtube founders agreed early on that they would take a laissez-faire attitude towards removing copyrighted material that was uploaded by a random users).

4chan is the mysterious Eyes Wide Shut orgy, that's more fun and less shocking/deadly than everyone thinks it is.  I've always seen rotten.com and it's extensions (like dailyrotten, the library and the nndb) as the early pioneers of the 4chan attitude. Described itself as 'the soft white underbelly of the net eviscerated for all the world to see', at least there's plenty of properly spelled words and paragraph, which is more than you can say about a lot more popular places around cyberspace.

It hasn't been updated in quite awhile, but it's there, like a statue that will never gather a single grain of dust. It's not that 'nothing is forgotten' on the internet. It's more like, 'nothing valuable is forgotten' on the internet (and of course, valuable is relative. A page detailing your bankruptcy has value to certain people and certain situations. A page detailing your love of 1970s glam band Sparks has value, but certainly not the same kind as the previous example).

But there are so many ones and zeroes that truly have practically no value at all, and while they don't actually disappear, they sink very, very far down.

The deep web, the dark internet. This mass of information is like the lower 90% of the universal hard drive iceberg. As this data sinks further and further down, it will only become useful to historians many years from now. Finding old computers and getting them in serviceable condition to glean what information they have contained within will turn programmers and engineers in archaeologists.

Forgotten. Maybe that's when, where, and how we'll all be equal again.

 

 

 

NOTES

 

http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/inside-tinders-hookup-factory-20141027?page=3

 

http://www.menshealth.com/sex-women/who-buys-porn


 

That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore

 

Smiths song.

Cold out. Bleak January. The icy wind stings and stretches out in a biting embrace.

Dead men on the other side of the planet. In the same sort of profession. Typing stuff, doodling. Notoriety can catch a gaggle of writers off-guard (although in certain cases, it's a half-secret goal). But everyone can weather angry letters/email/tweets/psychic-missives (tba), advertisers jumping ship, subscriptions cancelled, lawsuits, public protests, even government investigations.

It's hard to weather a barrage of bullets breaking up your morning meeting unless you're in kevlar.

Now satirists have to dress like they're about to patrol in Kabul (or Ferguson, Missouri). Stand-ups are packing heat onstage, emptying a whole clip on a heckler. Talk show hosts behind bullet proof glass. To get into clubs and shows requires level five security clearance. It will just be military personnel and intelligence officials at Louis CK shows now (fortunately he has some killer bits on collateral damage).

[I/we didn't think we would be writing another (ahem) 'humour' column so quickly]

You can't reason with people who not only don't have a sense of humour, but also don't have a sense that people can hold different opinions than their own. A myopic, selfish view of the world around them. And even that's certainly allowed in a free society. You can gnash your teeth and shake your fist and wish the staff of Charles Hebdo were dead. You'd be a petty asshole, but there's plenty of those in a free society. But you can't pick up a gun and shoot the office up.

You can't kill them.

You're throwing away your pulpit, your explanation, your relevance when you start shrieking with your gun because you didn't like some guy's cartoons.  

'Radical' and 'Extreme' are the proper words to describe these men (and the woman who was the supportive girlfriend of one of them, who fled to Syria right after the attacks, which is a bit like going from the frying pan into a really shitty frying pan that keeps on exploding). They fall outside of what Jon Stewart recently called, 'Team Civilization'. If they were caught alive we would charge and punish them in a civilized way (because we are better than them), but their arguments would fall on deaf ears because of how they chose to argue. Not with reason, not even with personal beliefs, but with the barrel of a gun.

Satire and mockery is not big among fascists of any type, religious or secular. And it doesn't matter if the fascist is in a fascist country or in one that protects the freedom of individuals. Their 'level of offence' goes through the roof when almost anyone else would react to a book, movie, or cartoon with a shrug (if they don't care) or a sigh and shake of the head (even if they do).

And that's the sensible reaction because Charlie Hebdo isn't a government institution or a pulpit. Its not serious. It exists outside of serious. It comments on serious with barely a shred of it.

'Make fun of' makes all the difference, but 'taking the piss' can piss off a lot of people.

Coming at it from an angle, a wink, a sly nod, a between-the-lines reminder that so much of our concerns are part of a house of cards. Not that the comedian/satirist is a cynic who thinks it's all for nothing because we're all going to end up dead, but that an intense and serious orthodoxy/'five year plan' is no answer, either. Humour prevents a society from oversteering. Frequently it will safely do the oversteering for society, to show how ridiculous it could become (or already is).

Today censorship in the West is almost completely corporate-imposed, with books, TV episodes, tweets, and almost any other form of culture being altered before or hastily withdrawn after release due to public pressure by the company owning it, because of fear of a possible loss in profits. Incidents involving the government actually stepping in to ban the dissemination of any sort of written, visual, or audio material usually involve hate/racist speech (unless the material can be proven to be satire, that is, a mockery of racist attitudes, which is how Charles Hebdo was never fined, arrested, or shutdown by the French government, despite protests and fire bombings by those who hated what they wrote and drew).

So while it's reassuring that Western governments are taking one of the basic democratic rights as seriously as it should be taken, it's sadly revealing of how much more power corporations have in this globalized world, as they - and their profits - are the guardians as to what is and isn't acceptable.

[But that's a hideously mundane topic for another day. A 'read the small print type of news story, where whatever the corporation objects to is buried, ignored, suppressed, or released with no fanfare. The corporations work with a 21st century mindset in this case: Destroying something creates too much attention. But that's part of the point of terrorist acts on a French satirical paper. Not only to avenge the perceived insult to Islam, but to prevent it from happening again, and to prove - in their eyes - that they are noble followers of their creed.]

It's the fractured and appalling act of sacrificing yourself for your beliefs by risking your own life to kill the enemy. A gesture that is held high in almost any society, until one considers who is seen as the enemy. US and Allied soldiers killing ISIS soldiers (or militants, if you want to use a term meant to not equate the two) is acceptable. Al-Qaeda soldiers (or fighters or terrorists if you want to use the more common term) shooting up a newspaper is not. US drones blowing up a camp or convoy in Yemen that may or may not involve terrorist activity (the definition of an 'al Qaeda soldier' by the US military when it comes to drone strikes is 'any adult male') is a much more terrifying grey area.

Meanwhile, for the non-weaponized citizen, fighting for freedom of speech requires constant vigilance. Millions of people in the streets of Paris (and certainly it must be noted around the world as well) marching in support of Charles Hebdo is inspiring, but real tests of a nation's embrace of free speech traditionally come after. A few days ago the French government arrested and charged Muslim comedian Dieudonne with hate speech and supporting terrorism after he sent out tweets supporting the two brothers who carried out the shooting.

Considering what's happened in France plus the recent shootings in Belgium, it seems safe to say that most Western European nations are going to try to walk that fine line between cracking down on anything remotely suspicious in its Islamic communities and ensuring that basic rights are preserved (and by 'walk that fine line', I mean do the former and occasionally remember the latter). It's the Old World version of the Patriot Act. Softer on the militaristic 'murica rhetoric and trumpeting how they are going to keep liberalism alive, even though the results are the same. A hollow, outdated, uncertain promise of a war on extremism through a toothless military and a poison-fanged domestic police force that looks like the military.

And if France is already punishing 'free speech', they've become hypocrites while the bodies are still warm. This is the kind of idiocy that Charles Hebdo should jump on with gusto. Satire is meant to mock those in power, and god's always been an easy and obvious target. But religion in the early twenty-first century is an odd position (Hebdo editor Stephane 'Charb' Charbonnier said he wanted to make Islam as banal as Catholicism). Religious attendance and adherence is plummeting across the Western and Eastern world (secularism is on the rise in India), so the act of good ol' blasphemy doesn't carry the same punishments that it used to. Islam is at a particularly difficult crossroads, with the entire Middle Eastern region in a state of flux or authoritarian crush, which are the two conditions in which extremism of any sort (although in this case, taking the guise of religious fundamentalism) is able to flourish. Which is tragic for the vast majority of Muslims want to live in peace and stability (and it seems ridiculous that this even has to be pointed out, because of course they do. But when an 'us versus them' mindset is so strong, you have to keep repeating that this is a false dichotomy, grouping all members of one religion as thinking the same about everything).

At the same time, Islam is a marginalized religion in all Western countries, with adherents never topping more than 10% of the population. A minority for generations to come, always treated like the suspicious 'other', which only makes being embraced by the larger community that much more difficult. Technology, however, permits a constant connection with more radicalized branches of the religion throughout the Middle Eastern countries, as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan (even as many governments in these countries try to stamp out extremists themselves). For certain alienated youth in French suburbs, people in Peshawar could easily be your neighbours.

But to focus on this attack being a strictly religious reaction or to say that Islam is a more violent religion than Christianity or Judaism or Hinduism - is inaccurate. Every holy book has passages that can justify killing heathens or sinners in the name of faith. It's not religious reaction, it's a reaction to the threat (or a perceived threat) to the established order. It just so happens that religion has lost the most in the last one hundred years, and in the last several decades, Islam in particular.

Western ideals (some of which include being much more tolerant with different faiths because the West had gotten exhausted from fighting over faith for centuries past) are being shoehorned into politically destabilized regions with traditions that have outlasted all sorts of governments, isms, and dynasties.

Blowback is a particularly cold term, but you can't globalize/modernize regions like the Middle East and Central Asia without terrible and tragic problems that we've seen played out both in those areas and around the world.

And of course the problem is simply not Islam versus the West. What an insulting and unhelpful reductionism. A more useful reductionism that we can plug in various parties and institutions is simply the Powerful versus the Powerless. In 2014, satirist Bassem Youssef's comedy news program, Al-Bermaneg (nicknamed, 'Egypt's Daily Show), was taken off the air by Egyptian authorities, because the people in charge thought he was insulting to the leaders of the country. 'They' were offended, 'they' were worried, 'they saw it as a loss of face/power.

And the solution is exhausting. Democratizing power is a difficult process that takes a long time to properly introduce and Herculean effort to keep from running off the rails. With social mobility and enfranchisement bringing communities, countries, and everyone together, it's inevitable that the amount of terrible tragedies like the Hebdo shooting or the continued massacre in Nigeria will lessen.

Bloodthirsty goons can claim that they are acting in the name of an ideology but the root of 'ideology' is 'idea', and as soon as a better one can be offered and proven workable, then the terrible ones will die off (it's evolution, baby).

If there is a 'they' here, it's people who will lose because all they have to offer is obedience under pain of death. No one lasts very long on either end of a gun. Shooting a room full of comedy writers is just an attempt to terrorize. Simple as that. Let's not elevate the beliefs of the murderers and denigrate an entire religion by saying there was actually an 'idea' behind these terrible acts.

Preventing the (religious, political, etc.) radicalization of certain segments of the citizenry requires time, money, and an absence of a 'mission accomplished' banner. It's not a battle, and it's not fought. It's a slow replacement of values that preyed on despair and focused on very narrow beliefs that come to a singular and violent conclusion. Instead what should be ushered in is the idea of being a proud and true follower of your religion as well as a responsible and upstanding citizen. To serve god and man. That's the goal. And of course it's up for debate whether we've even achieved (or should achieve) this in the West, with plenty of practicing Christians alarmed the continued secularization of society. But this debate is done peacefully, blandly, with no violence to speak of, and that says volumes about its societal worth.

It is done peacefully.

And that should never be taken for granted.

We need to leave archaic notions like settling differences of faith and culture with violence in the dust. There always will be plenty of terrible reasons to spill blood, but fewer and fewer people should be doing so in the name of god.

The Charles Hebdo shooting can become a noble line in the sand if sensible and well-meaning people from across the political and religious spectrum come together and refuse to make this a cut and dry issue that raises the flames of hate in the name of any sort of trumped up phobia. And whether putting Mohammed on the cover of the newest issue is bold or insulting or crazy, if a debate over it can happen without violence, then the whole damn world is winning. If you can acknowledge that they are not being serious, that a slight to one's sensitivity is a shrug to another, then that's a huge leap forward, too. Because if you don't find humour in a country, you won't find freedom there, either.

 

 

 

Notes

 

http://www.newstatesman.com/world-affairs/2015/01/slavoj-i-ek-charlie-hebdo-massacre-are-worst-really-full-passionate-intensity


 

Gender Considerations

 

NOTE: I am a male. That puts me in a position where I can sympathize but not empathize with the challenges that women go through everyday. I write this from a position of advantages that I haven't had to give much thought to. Where I would not perceive inequality as constant concern because it's not happening to me. But certainly such conditions exist, and the more that these are talked about and brought to light, the more frustrating and disappointing it is that it still occurs.

 

It has been a bad year for equality. There have been constant reminders that we live in a hostile at worst and indifferent at best patriarchal society. News ranging from pay discrepancy to heinous allegations against powerful men (from drugging and rape to harassment in the halls of power) tell us that many of the advances trumpeted by Western society regarding equality is window dressing.

The elephant in the room is that we must push for equality while acknowledging that in very basic ways that men and women are not biologically equal. Sometimes within our society, in our attempt to create what is fair and moral, we end up fighting against our biological inclinations (gender roles, sensory input that fashions categorizing and stereotyping, our own survival at the expense of others). Our slow-but-ever-changing biology has served us well in the evolution from bacteria to insect to fish to dinosaur to rat to monkey to man. It has done much for us – in fact, it is us – but we are certainly not satisfied with its perceived limitations and – certainly more so in the last hundred years than the past – we are attempting to correct certain qualities. It’s a fight that we have deemed worthwhile, but it is quite a bizarre and difficult one.

Equality for women is an important goal for all of human civilization, but it requires us to think of ourselves less like animals and more as malleable intellectual constructs.

Sexual equality is the exception, not the norm in nature. There are typically very static and unchanging roles for the male and female, many of which exemplify the type of basic sexism that has been denigrated by much of humanity throughout the twentieth century. Men hunt and women raise the children. Men are the strong, women are the weak.

Several female mammals essentially sacrifice their life for their offspring, starving themselves for the sake of their brood (polar bears, whales, octopi).

Rams fight to be the alpha male, the benefit of which is a harem of women.

Male chameleons (or is it iguanas) forcibly rape females in the desert.

Even in lion prides, when female hunt, it is the males that eat the kill first.

These situations range from honourable to unfair to horrifying, at least by the standards we humans have applied to what is good and bad, permitted and prohibited, in the community we have created.

The pursuit of equality of the sexes is one of the greatest things to have come out of the twentieth century – and I hope it continues unabated through the twenty first  - but it might require a radical rethinking (or restructuring) of our biology for true equality to be attained.

And the question immediately concurrent to this observation is to what extent do we let physiological differences affect our behaviour and our perceptions of the world around us?

A root cause of gender inequality is due to insurmountable physiological differences. To be glib: 'Men are, on average, physically bigger than women'.

An unremarkable observation that, for much of human history, has been a constant catalyst, as physical force was the measure of power and ability. Might made right, and not only between men and women, but between any sort of conflict, from neighbours fighting to wars between nations. The larger and more powerful were the victors, with morals, intelligence, or any other sort of criteria be damned.

The belief that because women were not as strong as men physically they were not as strong intellectually pervaded disappointingly far into the twentieth century. Even as intelligence tests have repeatedly shown that the difference between men and women in terms of IQ is non-existent.

That for millennia an entire half of the population in all societies across the globe was simply dismissed as being intellectually inferior because of their gender is mind-boggling today. But that we think so little of such antiquated and harmful notions is all for naught if we continue to do such an ineffective job at continuing to address gender inequality not just in the workplace, but in our homes and neighbourhoods as well.

On a global level, we are slowly moving away from these practically ancient perspectives. While globalization has a huge list of terrible faults, perhaps the only good thing about judging a person's worth by their bank account is that we stop judging them on a host of other qualities (it doesn't matter your sex, race, culture, religion, sexual orientation, etc.). Obviously certain regions of the world are further along than others in this process of truly treating women as equal.

The assumption is that when it comes to blue collar jobs, the fact that it is more likely a man doing the physical labour the job demands, that it would be beneficial to have someone who is familiar with said labour all throughout the corporate ladder. The truth to this is highly dubious, as it is based heavily on social gender constructions that are entrenched in part because those with power (predominantly men) don't want to risk changing this system, and also because it's so much easier to keep the status quo (even if the spirit is willing by both sexes to fix this, the sociopolitical flesh is weak).

While it has been a long time coming, the great equalizer for work has been technological innovation. Machinery that can be operated by men and women with identical results have done wonders for bringing woman in to the workplace and nowhere has this been seen more than in the white collar world.

[And it's here where it unfortunately has to be mentioned that seemingly simple concepts such as 'respect' are not as commonplace as we like to think they are in our workplace environments. Like so many massive and multifaceted issues facing our society today, gender equality has to be fought both in the halls of power and around our own cubicles, cash registers, machinery, and books. Finding a situation or social setting that everyone is 100% comfortable in may not always be possible, but it should be an environment where a discussion over what is and is not working is always welcome and proactive] 

If the 'blue collar' remains elusive (and it will be shrinking in many economies, as technology continues to advance and permit machines to do more and more of the heavy lifting), then women must place a larger role in the emerging 'no collar' jobs. Emerging high tech companies are staffed predominantly by men but its fast pace and ability to adapt to changing trends means it's an industry that can be capitalized upon by all. The 'male computer nerd' is no longer a heavily mocked persona, but there does remain a barrier for the 'female computer nerd' to find a place in the industry.

(in other 'two steps back' news: A recent Barbie storybook had the titular character have a sudden desire to become a computer engineer. So she called two male friends of hers to show he how).

Casual visibility - that is, where the staffing a woman is not a cause for congratulations because it is sadly a rarity, but because the company needed to fill a position and the most suitable applicant happened to be a woman - is the goal. Writing code for a game or any sort of software doesn't exactly come off like a role of pioneer, and that's exactly the point.

But to complicate the problem further, the position of women in contemporary society is not just based on what we ideally want the conditions to be in the workplace, but how gender equality is handled in our culture, as the context and care of how such important issues are handled is integral to how it is received.

In the earlier part of the year, a depiction of what could easily be construed as rape in the HBO series Game of Thrones sparked an internet debate.

(part of the conversation - perhaps a generously docile term for how communication is done on the internet - revolved around the fact that the scene in the book the TV series is based on made it clear that the sex between the two characters were consensual) about the depiction of rape in popular culture and the possible effects such depictions could have on how society itself views rape.

While obviously not the most positive sort of the story to spark a debate about women's rights, the fact that it was entirely staged made it a much preferable catalyst to the shocking and disturbing allegations that have emerged about powerful men in the entertainment industry harassing, drugging, abusing and raping women.

The term 'rape culture' is used to describe an attitude that a state, community, or region has towards the despicable act. It can range from approving it to turning a blind eye towards it to... what? Showing it in art and culture meant to entertain? To educate, to spurn others to join the cause to combat rape culture? Is a Law and Order or CSI episode where the law is hunting down a rapist whose victims tearfully recount their ordeal an acceptable storyline, or is it an exploitation of sorts to the real-life victims of rape and sexual assault? What if a film or TV show graphically depicts a rape scene, like The Accused, Irreversible, or Game of Thrones? It should be argued that the content and context of the story must be able to properly situate such a heinous act for audiences. Certainly we would be more understanding (though still certainly uncomfortable and angry) if the obvious villain of the work committed rape. Evil people do evil things. In more morally ambiguous stories (which Game of Thrones certainly falls under), it can be much more shocking and repugnant when a character who has some form of a moral code to him (or her) do such a thing (which is why it should be noted that while Jamie Lannister has previously defended the honour of women, his rape of his sister (who he has had consensual sex with in the past) comes off as particularly appalling (he has also pushed a seven year old kid out of a very tall window. And all these 'asides' show the importance of context when debating the place of sexual abuse in art and culture).

Rape and sexual assault are two of the most horrific crimes there are. Long dormant accounts of celebrity sexual harassment and abuse of women have brought this topic back to the media forefront. And while there is no correlation between the depiction of rape and abuse in arts and culture with any sort of rise in criminal activity involving those two acts (sex crimes in the West have fallen for decades), there is legitimate concern that film and television can negatively affect the much needed dialogue we need to have regarding 'rape culture'.        

But the defeat of 'rape culture' is only the most obvious battle that must be won to truly reach a level of possible equality between men and women. The unfounded and insulting assumptions that come with physical disparity - that women are mentally, emotionally and socially weaker - results in intimidation, indifference, ostracization, dismissal of ability, and mental, emotional, and physical abuse. These terribly erroneous prejudices cost everything from economic growth to respect to life itself.

It can be blamed on our basest instincts, archaic beliefs that have been so pervasive in every aspect of civilization. So much so that every form of social institution from governance to religion found a way to marginalize and belittle the role of women in society.

Because these institutions remain (and because altering their innerworkings are never a quick process), all necessary changes for gender equality will unfortunately take decades to get even remotely close to what we could call success. Deeply rooted cultural beliefs change at a much, much slower pace than technological developments.

Traditional gender roles are rooted in biological differences between men and women. And while we as a society can decide as a whole how we are going to treat these differences (physical size determines the ability to perform certain tasks, reproductive duties), it is extremely hard to unconditionally accept equality when these differences are so central to them (or any species).

Despite great advances in the Western world - the right to vote in the early twentieth century, the feminist movement of sixties and seventies which pushed for greater independence and expanded roles in the workplace - women still earn less than men, and only a fraction of high ranking and powerful positions in business and government are filled by women.

Besides simply a slow crawl of continued advancement and awareness, one of the most important conditions required to end this terrible perception/behaviour is to foster a more egalitarian society in every other facet as well. Without question, economic inequality creates huge societal divisions in terms of social mobility, employment opportunity, access to legal and financial services, cultural experience, and quality of life in general. And women are affected by this disproportionality much more than men. The psychological effects of financial security cannot be understated, either, as a positive mental outlook is a positive feedback loop. You are in a better position to help others achieve your goals when you have already done so yourself. And the fewer people living around the poverty line is the best scenario for improving equality in all its desired forms. If we lose a strong middle class, we will lose all the gains made by a strong middle class, specifically the advances in women's an civil rights. It was in the wake of the incredible economic improvements in the west of the fifties that laid the groundwork for changes on the institutional level for these extremely important reforms in the sixties and seventies.

(I flog this topic like it's a dead horse, but only because it's the one issue that permeates practically every other aspect of modern society. What can be accomplished - either as an individual or a group or an institution - is based on the levels of power of all those involved)

There is much work to be done from economic perspective if we want to make gains in terms of gender equality. All in all, it’s extremely complicated problem, and the first steps is always a psychological one. What do we lose when we conquer our biological inclinations/behaviours/tendencies/beliefs? According to Michael Lewis, “the more we suppress our instincts and assumptions of what we think we know, the better we perform.”

It’s high time we do this when it comes to truly seeing women as equals in the 21st century.

 

 

Notes

 

Lewis, Michael. “The King of Human Error”, Vanity Fair Dec 2011.


 

Fixing Food: Avoiding the Perfect Storm

 

The Perfect Storm is a term that recently has been taken from its original, literal meaning (several storm fronts coming together) to one describing a clusterfuck situation where a series of interconnected institutions and enterprises all go through a period of great crisis (some of which could have been avoided by proper planning ahead of time) around the same time and affect each other, making the whole debacle that much worse.

These sorts of manmade perfect storms can range from the 2008 financial crisis (the reverberation of which are still being felt today, six years later) to the collapse of governments in already unstable nations (we are apparently in the long Winter Months of the Arab Spring). In most instances, there were many warning signs of instability and looming disaster that went unacknowledged, making the whole situation that much more frustrating. These 'perfect storms' could have been avoided, or at least their terrible effects could have been mitigated. And while these effects can range from massive layoffs to massive  loss of life, there is always the attempt to improve, to get support from other nations and institutions to rehabilitate and hopefully rectify the crisis. And that's humanity's negatives and positives in a nutshell. We'll dig ourselves into a hole together, then try to climb out of it together.

But we've never had to do this yet when the problem is food. That is, food shortages on a global scale. Which is more real than most people think. And this can be seen by the fact that there have been several food riots across the globe in the last few years, ranging from places like sub-Saharan Africa to Bangladesh.

The concern for this cannot be understated. In terms of resources we need to survive, food is first, energy is second (and a close second, but only because so much of our energy is used to grow, prepare, and transport food) (also, food is human energy, so maybe if we ironed out the semantics, we'd say that all that matters is energy).

In the West it's practically unthinkable. It really only occurs in post-apocalyptic films.

Running out of food.

It's one of the few events that make war seem manageable. Until we start fighting over food, which is a marrying of two terrible and desperate situations. So perhaps we should consider rolling up our sleeves and avoiding it.

What does famine look like in the early 21st century? It looks more like malnutrition, first of all.

Delicately put, 800 million people around the globe do not have enough to eat (roughly 11% of the planet's population). 47 million of them are in the richest country on earth (which is still America, although clearly that wealth is extremely concentrated, otherwise 14% of them wouldn't be classified as suffering from malnutrition).

But even with those numbers, mass starvation and deadly famine occur only in extreme cases. Mainly where war and military conflict destroys entire towns and village forcing the citizens to flee with nothing except what they can carry. In addition, flood and drought can ruin years' worth of crops in regions of the world that have little to no infrastructure to deal with such problems. And while aid from other nations - through foreign assistance, the UN, or NGOs - can help alleviate these problems in the most basic fashion - namely, sending food to replace what they lost or were unable to grow - it is a band aid solution at best. And it's one that becomes untenable when rising food prices across the globe make it harder for wealthier nations to spare anything for the poorer ones.

Once again it's a matter of haves and have-nots, and despite economic/class inequality in all nations, the have nations must take on the added responsibility of sharing the wealth for the benefit of all.

First off, despite the dour number of people needing proper food, there's still too many of us eating too well.

Rising populations and rising economic statuses (in China and India mainly, the two most populous nations) mean we are burning through the food we already have quicker than ever before. Part of being wealthier in these emerging nations is simply being able to afford a greater variety of food. The West suddenly asking India, China and other 'Asian tiger' nations to tighten their belts without making large scale sacrifice themselves will not get much support (this is one of the same problems stifling any sort of global climate change policy).

It's a complicated issue and we as a civilization don't do well with complicated issues. It only makes matters worse that the food crisis is forever linked with climate change, because climate change is affecting harvests the world over. Too much rain and not enough of it in areas dependent on the 'goldilocks' amount means crops are ruined for another season, and this affects California as well as the Sudan. In California, the domino effect to combat the drought means higher water prices for farmers and non-farmers alike, which means driving food prices up immediately and going through water reserves even quicker than planned, while in the Sudan people 'simply' starve.

The advantage, though, is if climate change is addressed ('ha!' and 'sigh'), the policies put in place to slow and reverse the trends would also help alleviate the worst of the food crisis. This does not look like it would be happening any time soon. Any sort of 'spring into action'-like policy for climate change would require major cities like New York to suddenly be five feet underwater, at which point the damage has already been done.

That's not to say all hope is lost for the food crisis. To solve a problem that incorporates a little bit of everything, you need a solution that does the same.

Food Resource Management (FRM) is a big enough issue that to tackle it

requires changing policies on the macro level and changing attitudes of the micro level.

D.I.Y. has to go hand in hand with conglomerate restructuring and regulation. So what can you do? If there can be one commandment to help the whole damn world out, it would be this:

Eat less meat.

You don't have to excise beef, pork, or poultry from your diet completely, but the benefits of cutting down drastically the amount of cooked animal flesh you're stuffing down your gullet are huge. For one, everyone is eating more meat than is necessary for the health of your body. Of course there are benefits from eating meat, but you start to suffer from drawbacks if you eat too much, including an increased risk of diabetes and heart-related disease.

And even before the fillet makes it your plate, raising animals that are destined for the slaughterhouse takes up an incredible amount of energy. Feeding an ever increasing amount of animals means there's less food for us, even if what's eating our food is destined to end up in our stomaches. In the United States, 56 million acres of crops are grown to feed livestock, while 4 million acres are grown to feed people. When we feed 20,000 kilocalories of corn to cow, we get 2,000 calories of meat out of it.

As more of the world eats meat, more jungles and forests are cut down to create grazing land (and cutting down trees means there will be more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere - trees breathe it in - which means the world gets hotter and the weather more volatile which means it's harder to grow more crops, for human and animal consumption alike. These are examples of that 'perfect storm' mentioned earlier).

And as an odious cherry on top, cows fart methane, a greenhouse gas far worse than carbon dioxide.

So yes, to sound like a treehugger (as if embracing a plant that makes our lives possible is a bad thing), skip the steak most of the time and get a salad.

Eat healthier. Eat local.

The slightly more expensive cost of buying fruits, vegetables, grains, and the occasional meat grown within a three hour drive of your home in the short term will help nullify and reduce the long term costs of transporting, processing and marketing of food that's typically done on an industrialized scale (those three factors count for 80% of the price of food in the US).

Buy based on what's available seasonally. If you're buying cucumbers in February from a different country or continent, try and imagine how much gas it cost getting here.

And of course 'slipping' at the grocery store from time to time is going to happen, but make sure it's just that. An occasional thing. Instead of Ben and Jerry's being your treat, make it any sort of product that travelled more than two thousand kilometres to get to you.

Victory gardens were a major part of home-front war efforts in the first half of the nineteen forties. Designed to help feed your own household so crops from large farms could be sent to the troops, they succeeded in having regular citizens safely participate in defeating the axis powers. Believing youre making a difference is a big part in actually making a difference.

The challenge is to make the connection between FRM across the globe and national security/domestic stability at home.

21st Century Victory Gardens are fighting for something both more abstract and more straightforward than ultimate victory on the battlefield: More food.

If these suggestions are handed down from the upper echelons of government - Michelle Obama had suggested victory gardens for health and environmental benefits - there will be a sizeable rebuttal from certain sectors and groups regarding the effects of the Nanny State (at best) or fascist dictatorship imposing its iron-fisted will on the people (at worst).

But food, it should acknowledged, is a big part of what created civilization, communities, and countries in the first place. Early humans hunting in packs help develop language, crude forms of cooking occurred quite soon after we learned how to make and control fire, and it was thank to focussing on growing crops that turned us from nomadic tribesmen to village builders.

Food was the force that created a state of any sort, whether you see it as a nanny state, a libertarian free for all, or anything in between. But a lack of food is a force that can unravel all of this terribly quickly.

Which is why every little bit helps, and one less hamburger and one more tomato plant in the backyard is a step towards stability.

The corporate side is obviously more complicated, as it has always been regarding any sort of resource, food or otherwise.

Transactions of valuable products and services owned by companies are supposed to be regulated and monitored by the government, but clearly the divide between the two institutions have crumbled, making both of them less efficient (except when it comes to make profits).

It's not that governments are blind and deaf to the importance of food. It's just that industries have the money and clout to twist this important resource to their own advantage. Massive corporations get huge subsidies to grow certain crops and livestock in certain areas and are essentially free to process and sell them in any way they see fit, since government regulation is a toothless old lady (even in the rule-happy EU there was a recent scandal of horse meat being passed off as beef).

There is a complicated marketplace algorithm as to why some farmers - regardless of where across the globe - are paid to either not grow or grow only a certain amount of a particular crop or resource. Plus there's the matter of speculators buying and selling crops that don't yet exist (or, in some case, never will exist).

The cultivation and production food should not be a for profit enterprise. Even the profits made from the selling of food should be carefully regulated by both market forces and government regulation. Short term planning for industries with far-ranging consequences (whether it be a food, energy, or financial resource) is poor planning. It's time to regulate the food commodities market to the point where the money that can be made gaming the system is so negligible that it's not worth doing.

At the moment, most people across the globe spend no more than ten percent of their income on food. Unanticipated spikes - genuine and artificial - in food prices that can raise this level by only a few percentage point for a even a brief period of time can have devastating consequences for the country or region.

Corn is the petroleum of food. With all its guises, it is nearly impossible to avoid. And like oil, the danger is not only what it does to you and environment, but by participating in the marketplace you are supporting the corporations that produce the product, therefore strengthening their position to keep the status quo. And yes, corn is a vegetable, but it rarely stays so for long once picked. Corn is quickly turned into syrup. Ridiculously sweet, barely recognizable, certainly not healthy, glucose-fructose. It's the crack of the food world (leading to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases), and it's in almost everything in your grocery store outside of the produce and meat departments.

What's the alternative? Right now there's a left field solution: Gruel!

Well, not exactly gruel, but the name is just as silly. Soylent, a just-add-water powder that is made up of the basic minerals and nutrients required to keep you alive. Designed by Silicon Valley computer engineers who wanted to cut their eating time down, it's a meal in a glass, filling and meeting all your daily dietary needs.  Most importantly, its effects on the environment are practically negligible compared to almost anything else you'd eat.

It tastes all right, but considering the problems we're going to face in the future, 'all right' is pretty damn good.

What should be noted about Soylent is the unique view the company has of its product. It's open sourced, meaning there's no secret recipe and no copyright, meaning you can go to the trouble of making your own if you'd like (cutting down on the costs of transportation when they ship it to you). On messageboards people share their homemade recipes which differ slightly or greatly from the original.

In addition to this, Soylent creator Rob Rhinehart saw this as an opportunity to redefine food. You drink down a jug full of soylent when you need energy to get through your day. You save actual food - cooking a nice meal, or going out to a restaurant - for when you have the time for it. When you're socializing with friends. When you can devote an afternoon to a recipe that interests you. Having to plan one less meal a day by replacing it with a glass of soylent should be a welcome addition to a person's daily routine if they're frequently busy and are trying to save money. The advantages are plentiful, at a time when what Soylent is replacing is not.

So, to carry the title analogy to its end, avoiding the perfect storm requires a weather controlling machine. Food needs better PR (and it doesn't help soylent having more or less the same name as 'soylent green' the fictional 'made of people food' from the movie of the same name). Everything in the grocery store going up a dime or a quarter every season is not regular inflation. It's a reflection of huge challenges ahead. And apparently there's not even enough scientists addressing these extremely important issues.

Technological innovation (like Soylent) has to come together with personal and corporate responsibility. It wasn't really addressed here, but let's try to avoid water becoming the new oil.

Food's still too valuable to be free. But it's also too important to be expensive. There aren't many things in this world that 100% of population can agree we all need. But this is one of them.

 

NOTES

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/05/140522-food-crisis-vulnerable-weather-climate-future/

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/05/12/the-end-of-food

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/07/28/stone-soup

http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/07/25/us-usa-agriculture-inflation-idUSKBN0FU1DD20140725

http://www.bnn.ca/News/2014/7/19/Meat-sweats-Why-Canadas-food-infrastructure-is-buckling-as-prices-surge.aspx

http://www.worldwatch.org/node/549

 


 

Now and Then and Then Again: The Dangers of Political Nostalgia

 

What you think you remember is always changing.

This is a problem, since that's a large part in how you base your decisions. And while personal considerations like how you feel about music, food, and the backyard you had when you were five don't have great ramifications on your community and world as a whole, your feelings about what politics, family, classes, and crime were like in the past can have huge effects when you act upon them today.

Nostalgia for the good old days can be a very powerful thing, beyond reunion tours and forlornly driving through your old neighbourhood and seeing all the new interlopers living in yours and your friends' childhood homes.

How we imagined the world to be at one point has a great effect on how we try to shape it for the present and the future. Especially the future, which is based on a hazy projection of what we know about today and what we want tomorrow (and beyond) to become.

We either hope for the best, or worry about the worst. We're three steps away from a utopia or a dystopia, depending not only on who you talk to, but whether they got up on the right side of the bed in the morning. Same goes for recollecting the past. It is an unpredictable aspect of human psychology that can have devastating real-life consequences.

And while we've internalized this thought process to some degree and are aware of its existence, we can't helping falling into its convenient trappings every generation. It's Nietzsche's eternal recurrence. The people stay the same as the world changes around them.

The young hate the old for being judgmental and crotchety, and blame them for screwing everything up, since the old are primarily in charge. The old hate the young for being judgmental and naive, and have no faith in their ability to lead, thinking that they'll screw up everything even more.

As it was, as it every shall be.

This seems to be the 'going attitude' towards civilization during prolonged periods of little to moderate social upheaval (here we would classify the civil and equal rights movements of the sixties as moderate level of upheaval, compared to war and/or the removal of democratic mechanisms as a high level). It's almost a luxury when changes which occur over several decades only affect socioeconomic status of citizens, compared to anything else that could happen.

That's not to say we should accept the changes that have happened to the West in the last three decades. Looking at them in the proper context is necessary for enacting policies that can reverse the erosion of the middle class. And doing so by appealing to bland and dull statistics rather than any sort of emotional motivator. The latter may be more effective in the short term, but it requires reductionism in the cerebral argument. Emotional appeals - even with the best intentions - are rooted in nostalgic views of the past and future. And while this has been a key part of political rhetoric since the dawn of civilization, what has changed in the last three decades or so is the role that money has played in shaping political strategy.

But blame is beside the point. Blame is nostalgia to a t. Blame results in mocking statements about the baby boomers like this:

"I know we said, 'hope I die, before I get old', but since we didn't, we're going to push for another round of deregulation and layoffs to fatten our bottom line."

This is a utterly massive generalization, conflating the death of already shaky sixties ethos of peace, love and community with the increased corporate deregulation beginning in the eighties. While the 1980s was the time when the baby boomers entered their mid-to-late thirties and began to take the reigns of large institutions and companies, it is unfair to characterize all of them of completely turning their backs on Johnson's Great Society in favour of increased profit earnings at any cost. Its too complicated of a problem.

Meanwhile, the youth are to be judged with a shaking head and a sigh. They are to be stereotyped by the margins. The millennials (and within them, the hipsters), generation x (and within them, the yuppies), the baby boomers (and within them, the hippies). The people ten to twenty years older than each of them always knew they were up to no good, having it easier than them and never being as respectful as they were.

Sure.

Not every baby boomer (people born between 1946 and 1962) in the sixties was the stereotypical hippie, which supposedly meant they all wore beads, had long hair, dressed in psychedelic threads, listened to rock and roll, smoked pot, were dyed in the wool leftists, argued bitterly with their parents, declared god dead and spirituality alive, and protested in the streets when they weren't lying around in a park or commune.

Most people had these maybe a third of these qualities while growing up in the sixties. Now some people definitely had all these qualities, giving birth to the stereotype that can easily and unfairly represent the period through the media (both then and years past, when looking back on the time in an even more reductionist, bullet-pointed manner). And some people had none of these qualities, a mirror image of the stereotype. And these two small fractions of people can be seen as the extreme balances of the bell curve, with a great majority of the people in the middle.

The same goes for today.  It's too easy to deign the term hipster on a massive segment of the population, namely the millennials. Plaid shirts, glasses, fixed gear bikes, expensive coffee, an addiction to smart phones, an artistic endeavour on the side of intermittent employment, and a penchant for owning obscure vinyl record collection.

We make these categorizations because it's easy to do. Life is the process of constantly organizing whatever our sensory inputs absorb from the world around us. And we take shortcuts whenever possible (and sometimes it's our brain biological make-up that takes these shortcuts, although we should leave the mind-brain dichotomy for another day). Repetition is the most straightforward way to build a reservoir of knowledge. Routine tasks.  The less immediate information of something were experiencing in the present, the more we rely on our memories of the same (or similar) experience in the past. But one's past gets murkier the longer one lives. Certainly a handful of memories will always stand out clear as day, but a great many of them will fade, blur with different moments (or closely related anecdotes from others), or simply be strengthened with what the person recalling the memory wanted to happen. This a natural human fallacy, and it's one that we can only work around, not stamp out.

And this could be something as innocuous as remembering which of your friends caught  the fish that had a key in its stomach.

History on the more epic and important level gets conflated even easier. The farther back in time an event was, the fewer and fewer words and sentences devoted to it. And as unsettling as intentional revisionist history can be (that is, knowingly fabricating the details of an event to achieve a certain goal), recalling an event in what you think is an accurate way - when it, in fact, is not - is much more disconcerting. Lying to oneself and knowing it is bad enough, but lying to oneself and think it gospel is horrifying. That means the actual truth is lost forever.

The events of the sixties are being blurred (not wholly by intention) by those that grew up in them. The baby boomers didn't pass the Civil Rights Act. Their 'unhip, square' parents did. The 'baby boom' began in 1946 and the law was passed in 1964. That means, unless there were some fresh, eager eighteen year olds in congress (there weren't), the same generation that grew up in the Great Depression, fought in World War II, and epitomized the American nuclear family (and all its good and bad labels) passed the Civil Rights Act. This was the 'Greatest Generation', as they began to be called decades after the fact. And just so we aren't getting ahead of ourselves, they still treated women like second class citizens and homosexuality as if it was a mental disorder. Skeleton in the closet isn't the point. That's what happened in the past at this time.

When boomers reflect on the 'good old days' of their youth, they neglect to acknowledge that it was through the efforts of the generation before them to ensure that these 'good old days' would actually exist. The generation before them lived through the Great Depression, and there was a palpable sense - from those in power to those abandoning their farms in Oklahoma - of 'we can't let this happen again'. Decades later, that minorities would have to fight so hard for the right to vote in the 1950s and 1960s seems unthinkable (including risking their lives) now. There was certainly a strong, racist and bigoted opposition to the idea, but in the history books, beyond some KKK members and the odd southern governor, there seems to be only a vague feeling that some people were still pushing for segregation. Society has focussed on the positive and downplayed the negative, which comes at the expense of the truth. Civil rights became something to fight for instead of an injustice to fight against. Gay right in the last ten to fifteen years has gone/is going through the same process (thankfully with less violence). The lunatic accusations against gay marriage are highlighted as proof of opposition, with the turning opinion tide of the silent majority existing mainly in the distant background. Suddenly it seems like everyone had no problem with gay rights. As if the West was saying, 'no idea what all the fuss was about the eighties and nineties, really'.

Meanwhile, social conservatives never fail to ascribe the civil, feminist, and gay rights movements of the fifties through the seventies and eighties as the time when the West mainly America slipped into a haze of moral relativism and godless decadence. Since the rise of Ronald Reagan, candidates aiming for the highest political positions (on both sides of the aisle) in the land have appealed to the basest base by lamenting how far weve fallen and how its time to take back the country, and turn it back into the powerhouse it was when they were young.

But this period of time never existed. Crime was higher in the nineteen fifties, there was a constant threat of nuclear war, and a majority of citizens barely had a say in their own destinies, as it mostly shaped by forces beyond their control.

Whats not talked about is some of the aspects that did make the fifties and sixties such a successful period for the West: Strong government regulation, a healthy percentage of union jobs, and high tax rates on the wealthy, meant that there was a strong foundation for lower and middle class families to thrive (social programs were there to assist them with health, education, and infrastructure), that there was a smaller gap between the rich and poor in an economic and social sense (which meant there was a greater chance on the former assisting (or even at least considering) the latter), and that corruption - while obviously present - was kept in check.

How we remember the past is dependent on the point we're trying to make at the time. We can minimize the ugly truth that racism and sexism was (and still is, but thankfully to a lesser extent) accepted as just part of society up until about fifty years ago. Picking and choosing certain parts of the past to bolster our own contemporary position is done at the future's peril.

Frequently this is done just to feel better about ourselves, or to give evidence that our actions today are good and just because they were (supposedly) good and just in the past. America went to the moon, 'not because it was easy but because it was hard'. The Apollo missions were proof of the nation's ingenuity, dedication, and power. And after they landed on the moon six times, the NASA budget was slashed and the shuttle and space program limped along for decades.

If the space program was just something else that the West had to beat the Soviets at (as Neil DeGrasse Tyson has opined), the same can be said of the support for Johnson's Great Society. When it became clear in the 1980s that USSR was falling apart and Gorbachev introduced glasnost, America and many of its Western allies began introducing economic policies that began to hack away at the middle class foundation of the state. And even this period of deregulation is seen wistfully today, as Reagan/Thatcher/Mulroney are portrayed as business-friendly, strong-on-defence leaders who at least compromised to some degree with their political opponents.

Today we claim that politics is more divided than ever, we complained about concentrated wealth and power, and we lament the power of the internet, how people cant think in anything more than 140 characters, need constant stimulation of the silliest things, and cant spell worth a damn. But on average people read more than they ever have in human history. We do better on intelligence tests than we did fifty years ago. The problems the world faces are numerous (climate change, resource management, inequality), but there is the advantage that there is the possibility of a global united front for some of these issues that never existed in the past.

And it begs the question: When was the golden age? When did it all work? Western history is taught with contradictory periods of greatness. The late eighteenth century, when American and French people rose up against their royal masters, the creation of a modern democracy, and all men are created equal'. But in the US only 1% of the population could vote at this time, and ten years of French democracy gave them the terror, followed by Napoleon.

It was during the rise of the industrial revolution, when the world truly became (at least in Western eyes) 'modern'. While a middle class did emerge (which existed in a prototypical form for previous centuries as the merchant class, which fell between the serfs and the nobility), the industrialists quickly consolidated their power and became - as far as the general public was concerned - robber barons. Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Morgan were held in both esteem and resentment. Their respective companies became so powerful that they were broken up by the American government. This partitioning occurred during a very violent labour relations period (early twentieth century) in the Untied States (another underrepresented and misremembered series of events that also had a large role in creating the 1950s middle class boom, as it laid the groundwork for union jobs).

But these advances were localize mainly in North America and Europe. Progress/Betterment has occurred at a glacial pace when we take a global perspective. In fact, the lamentations of wealth accumulation in the West by the upper 1% must be tempered with fact that across the globe hundreds of millions of people are climbing out of poverty, namely in China and India (while the richest 1% in those countries are also making out like government approved, corporate-owning bandits).

Placing your personal history over public history is a never-ending, always-in-progress effort of making tenuous connections to the past from the present, sometimes attempting to link up certain changes in your own life with larger events or periods of time that everyone is familiar with.

What Pearl Harbor, or the JFK assassination was to previous generations, 9/11 is that moment where it is easier to make a case that everything changed, a marker of sorts, especially when one considers its rippling effects shattered the post-Cold War peace of the 90s.

Politically, the post-coital afterglow of the end of the Cold War ended on September 11th. So in that respect, what can you say about the nineties? Certainly there were military conflicts across the world, several genocides, and level of instability, but as far as the West was concerned if you didnt look at the implosion of Yugoslavia it was a wonderful time to exist. Even times of greater economic growth and economic equality like the 1940s to the 1970s had the baggage of social inequalities only slowly being eradicated, plus, the threat of the Cold War itself going Hot.

Nineties postmodern malaise doesnt sound like a particularly positive or exciting archetype for the triumph of Western Capitalist Culture. Uncertainty underwrites the postmodernist position: How do we know what we know? Nostalgia is a dangerous pillar we balance our past, present, and future upon. Where our human limitations of memory recall and decision making collide. An ever-increasing dependence on scientific research in all fields from economic to geographic data has been excising problematic, subjective aspects of the policy forming process, but report recommendations have to make their way through special interests, favours-for-favours politicians, a vaguely interested media, and a mostly dismissive public. And every one of these collections of people have their own series of warping memories and future desires on the issue this report is addressing. Their reactions will alter accordingly: Its about damn time, its a liberal/conservative smear job, itll cost us billions, itll never get the votes.

Even trying to be as diplomatic and general as possible can’t stop the past from being used as a heaven or hell or something in between: It's bad but it's been worse and if we all don't 'roll up our sleeves' it'll get worse.

So it goes.

 

 


 

Year in Review: 2014

 

This not just in: Lousiness continues in 2013, unless you were one of the many millions climbing out of poverty in certain heavily populated pockets of Asia, and boy is it easy to forget about them if you aren't one of them.

Just because the global marketplace has touched/molested almost everyone on the planet doesn't mean we're all connected in the benign way that commercials for cell phones, shipping companies, and computer behemoths make it out to be. The West can buy cheap stuff buy the truckload from the East, but that doesn't mean we see then as anything but a method to bring down the price of jeans, watering cans, blenders, etc. Communism is certainly a ridiculous pipe dream, but Marx certainly hit the nail on the head with his views on alienation (when workers become nothing more than cogs in a massive machine of pumping out goods across the globe, they're seen less and less as human).

And the above is more of a reminder that it's carried on like this for quite a while now, not that it's particularly applicable to 2013. No, this year is more about running to stand still and failing just a bit by most accounts. Forget big things like a comprehensive green energy plan that the largest countries can agree on and actually put into practice (in reality, it's going to be a comprehensive green energy plan that the largest energy companies can agree will still make them billions when put into practice but first let's ride this petroleum thing as far as it can go). Or a way to reign in commodities speculators or still lumbering and amoral financial institutions.

Instead the US unveiled a not-exactly-universal health care plan that exploded in the vacuum of cyberspace, Canada still pretended that the oil sands weren't terrible, Stalin Jr. threw Russia's weight around, its a lousy time to be twenty something in Western Europe, and a lousy time to be any age in Eastern Europe, especially the Ukraine. Meanwhile there's protests, marches, and riots across the globe, covered with only a mild interest by the international media (for a number of reasons: cutbacks in the newsroom and foreign offices/correspondents, with profits down high ratings are required and complicated international news (anything but a natural disaster or full government toppling) doesn't garner those, and the need to keep their own government contacts content which might require a squashing of stories about the crimes of a government-supported regime across the ocean).

Then there's Syria, which was a fiasco in every way but one. At least Assad will crush the rebellion with conventional weapons from now on; is that the turd Kerry is supposed to be polishing? As much as the matter is between a rock and a hard place - no one in the West wants to get boiled down in a middle eastern conflict again, even though Assad's a murderous tyrant - this result leaves a bad taste in everyone's mouth, and a lot more innocent civilians killed (and even the rebels are guilty of human rights violations, which means either side one backs, there a war crimes court being prepared).

Certainly the American public didn't want to go to war (hey! Look, the system works! Once the military industrial complex is a bloated, bankrupt mess, then the public's position on foreign policy is considered!). And it's only through phone and internet polls that these political pulses are felt. Lord knows no one sat shiva in front of the Washington Monument for Syria.

So what do you do if people don't care? Or if too few people care? Is the act of people tuning out to Wall Street 'crimes' (quotations, since they can just pay off the government in the form of fines for their transgressions that cripple the economic health of millions) when they're reported on the news democracy in action? That if the masses are not participating in this issue, they are passively accepting what is happening?

I put a lot of these observations as questions. In part because I don't know the answers to them. Why don't I? Because it's complicated. Polls indicate that a majority of people believe corporations have too much power, put profits ahead of the good of society, and that their government first caters to these corporations and their investors, and the citizens come second. But beyond answering these questions via phone or internet survey, nothing much is really done about these issues as far as populism is concerned.

Is the material too complicated? Are people just too busy with their own lives, whether it be work or leisure? Is the media (almost all of it corporate-owned and therefore has a rather large conflict of interest when reporting on the wrongdoings of itself and its brethren) trying too hard to give the public what they want in terms of stories and content, rather than what they need?

It's a maddeningly rich tapestry, where all of these factors are part of the problem. In other words, figuring how to get people politically is complicated as well. Solving large scale problems (complicated) requires large scale organization (complicated) to create a working policy (complicated) that must be put into practice and adhered toby huge swaths of the population (complicated).

Maybe it's amazing the health care website works as well as it does now. Our expectation for everything working perfectly all the time is horribly unreasonable, to the point where someone without power for three days after an early winter ice storm in a city of millions says it's like living in a war torn country (a front page story in the Toronto Star a few days ago). Apparently restoring power to hundreds of thousand of people is supposed to be as simple as turning on a light.

Simplicity seems to be on the outs for the time being. (it'll come back in the long run.big picture, we're dealing with wheels here).  With Nelson Mandela's passing, we were reminded of fighting for a very simple form of freedom: The right to be treated equally, regardless of the colour of your skin (which can also - and should be - applied to your gender, your sexuality, your religion). And while this is still a continuous struggle in various forms across the globe against racism and intolerance (with Russia taking a step backward), the headway made in the last five decades is inspiring.

But now it (surprise!) gets complicated. We are now fighting to be treated equally, regardless of the size of your bank account. And as inequality grows, this is becoming much harder. Despite what Obama's soaring rhetoric claims, there's always been two Americas (and two Canadas, two Chinas, two United Kingdoms, two Germanys, two Russias, etc.). Where there is concentrated power/capital, there is going to be a different set of laws and standards for the people that wield such power/capital.

And with corporate world snuggling up even tighter with the government (and even some people involved in the lower echelons of either institution are as out of the loop as the rest of us), this complex network of folks can ruin economies and pay a nominal fine, build factories around the world for cheap and exploit the local populace without fear of reprisal, and spy on anyone in the world without warrant and claim it's done for our security/freedom (with America requesting/suggesting/lightly demanding that other nations set up secondary spy posts, we can at least be assured that we live in an international police state).

After all:

"If the highest officials in government can break the law without fearing punishment or even any repercussions at all, secret powers become tremendously dangerous."

That's an Eddie-baby quote. Edward Snowden isn't man of the year by any means, because the actions of men (and women) are taking more of a backseat to interests and agencies and corporations.

Suddenly exposing a nation's crimes (or at least constitutional pissing) is hero-worthy, as opposed to just 'the responsible thing to do'. Certainly risking jail time (and perhaps even death, if it might have been classified as treason) shows a huge level of sacrifice on his part, but it's rather maddening that this isn't considered straightforward whistleblowing. I won't say that Snowden is defending freedom or democracy, but he's certainly exposing attacks upon it. 'Secret' courts should be all you need to hear to grasp how undemocratic these types of NSA programs are. A set of laws and statutes that only a few people already with startling amount of power have any access to? And done in the name of security? We might not exactly be the road to fascism, but it certainly seems like powerful institutions are assiduously studying maps on how to get there. Even within the 'non-secret' courts, there are double standards for crimes committed by corporations/the wealthy and crimes committed by everyone else.

Combatting inequality wasn't really on the docket in 2013, but tallying up the reasons why sharing the wealth is beneficial and hoarding it is not was in full swing. Sweatshops crumble and kill scores in Bangladesh and the government barely lifts a finger, the poor are pushed off the land they owned after the devastating typhoon in the Philippines, the sequestration cuts in the United States slash money for food stamps and other social programs.

Then there's the bankruptcy of Detroit, a story which got a quick mention in the news and then sunk like a stone, which is a bit like Detroit itself. How bad is it in Michigan's largest city? Ninety minutes for a 911 response. At stake in the judge's ruling about how a city can go into Chapter 11 is the continuing payment of the city workers' pensions. The city might be excused from factoring that into their restructuring, which puts out the hundreds of thousands of retired municipal workers out to pasture. Other cities in similar financial straits are watching to see how this resolves itself. How can a city - or a state - operate in such a scenario? Privatization? In 2014 it might be 'Detroit, presented by Ford' (Infinite Jest reference). Similar problems are happening across what is traditionally called the Western World (we typically throw in Australia/New Zealand and Japan). We're all running out of money, and even raising taxes on the now richer than ever corporations won't cover all the bills (although we should really do that, really). Kicking the can down the road is the quaint metaphor, so I imagine a cheque that looks like a bottle of beer. Ultimately it won't bounce, it'll shatter into a hundred pieces.

Maybe we'll look back on this time (not necessarily the year 2013 on the nose) as the good ol' days. Or maybe we'll look back on it as a period when unenlightened and greedy fools were in somehow in charge. But looking right back over our shoulder, as December comes to a close, 2013 was another 'depressing but could be worse' set of 365 days.

Unless you were one of the tens of millions of people who climbed out of poverty in the always still developing world...

We hope that this year was a good enough one for you and your friends and family. Here's to good goddamn luck in 2014.

 

To end on a slightly cheerier note...culture!

-the long awaited fourth season of Arrested Development was kind of a bust

-holding should have been called in the endzone on that final drive in the Super Bowl

-Red Wedding

-Thomas Pynchon released another pretty good book

-more price records set for art at auctions (people still buy paintings? Can't you just torrent that stuff?)

-a word on film: Yes, yes, there were plenty well-made, well-acted, just plain dazzling films this year (12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Her, Gravity), but one that sticks out is Shane Carruth's sometimes romantic drama, sometimes memory-destroying, souls-placed-in-pigs mystery flick, Upstream Color. It's weird and unpredictable, which always makes for a much more exciting cinema experience, but that's not the only reason it's tops. It's shot beautifully, and the relationship between Carruth (who co-stars, as well as writes, direct, produces, etc.) and Amy Seimetz has some of the most genuine and affecting moments I've ever seen. It's genre-defying because so much is left unexplained, left with dots unconnected, that you are on the edge of your seat trying to piece it together. And if that's not a great aesthetic experience, I don't know what is.

 

Top Music (in alphabetical order, by artist, to prevent an assumption of a numerical order)

 

Boards of Canada, Tomorrow's Harvest - totally worth the eight year wait. And while there's been a flood of all sort of ambient-electronica-what-have-you come out from the margins since the last time this Scottish duo gave us an album, it would do well to remember that you should always accept no substitutes. BoC are still tops. The sounds are cold but never frigid. Edgy but never manic. Sombre yet still playful. Tomorrow's Harvest is able to balance all these sounds, atmospheres and emotions for a wholly captivating listen.

 

Deafheaven, Sunbather - a beautiful, crushing, towering monster. It helps to imagine the screaming vocals playing the role of an instrument rather than a way of presenting lyrics, expressing raw emotion and power instead of giving descriptions of such ideas. And while having to offer up this caveat may seem like a fault or detriment to the album, it's not meant to be taken as such. This record is the fist-pumper of the year. Metal's never seemed like the type of music that could soar, but these songs grow wings and head for the skies, which seems bizarre when you consider it's made up of pummelling drums and riffs upon shredding riffs.

 

Kanye West, Yeezus - we've written about Yeezus elsewhere, and it's still head and shoulders above anything else that was released this year by an artist that your parents are at least vaguely familiar with. Even if it goes down as his worst selling album, West made a challenging and fucked up personal and occasionally political record (by mainstream standards at least) that was full of weird samples, sirens, and industrial drums. The other artists on this list hang out in the margins and underground (to varying degrees), but when Kanye puts out an album like this, it's challenging, experimental, and the sort of stuff that you can picture a couple dozen teenagers who got it because of 'Power' or 'Gold Digger' having their minds blown and their world changed. And that's what great art can do.

 

Run the Jewels, self-titled - Sometimes collaborations don't work out. This one does, spectacularly. El-P and Killer Mike team up and drop multisyllabic bombs over high energy, crushing beats. If Yeezus is introspective with future sounds, then Run the Jewels is old school hip hop, done with a 4.0 grade point average. It's hard to sound tough, smart, and fun at the same time, but these two guys nail it. Anyone who can make the line, 'do dope, fuck hope', a catchy chorus is going to get mad props on a website like this.

 

Sing Leaf, Watery Moon - for the music contained within, I don't think there's a better description than the album title. Sing Leaf's first long player is a gorgeous mix of folk, ambient, and just the right dash of rock. It's cottage music. It's staring at the lone tree in your front yard as cars slowly drive by at one AM music. A harmonious, symbiotic mix of traditional instruments and computer, the fragile vocals dance in and around guitars and synth swirls, all lushly produced. It's a perfect sounding record, and that's never enough if the songs aren't up to par, but 'High John' and 'I Got Your Number' are among the year's best.

 

 


 

Money For Art, Art For Money

 

With the cratering of the music industry (due mainly - but not exclusively - to piracy), and the movie and film industries stumbling along (due to the same), I wondered not too long ago if we were about to enter a period where art and culture was going to be created by artists through patronage. That is, a strange return to the renaissance era, when art, music and theatre was mainly created for the wealthy, since they were the ones that paid for it by taking the artists under their financial wing, with bits and pieces of the culture dribbling down to the poor masses.

Some hedge manager with $100,000 to waste and a penchant for unadorned indie rock would pay Vampire Weekend's studio and distribution fees. The end.

Hell, the kids of Oracle founder Larry Ellyson have been doing this in Hollywood for years. Steve Jobs helped get Pixar off the ground back in the eighties because, hey, computers!

And it was only going to become a larger role of funding as this decade progressed, since the wealth of the West has slowly - over the last thirty years - seeped back up into the pockets of the already rich (and now quite richer). The new Borgias would still want plays, paintings, and symphonies, and toss off a hundred large there and a quarter mill here to get it done.

Well I'm more wrong than right at this point.

Apparently the artists aren't trying to hit up the 1%. Thanks to websites like Kickstarter, they're gunning for the bank accounts of the 99%. Amanda Palmer surprised everyone (including herself) by raising a cool million to record a new album. Zach Braff asked for a couple million to help pay for a movie he wanted to make. And now Spike Lee is doing the same for a movie he promises will have sex and violence.

Of course, it should be mentioned that you don't just get your name in the liner notes or on that long list of thank you's at the end of the movie credits you never watch.

Hopefully you'll at least be given a free movie ticket for the film you helped produce (or a vinyl of the album you helped pay for the recording of). And hey, if you pony up the big bucks, you can hang out with Zach Braff and ask him about working with Natalie Portman. You can get shoes that Spike Lee wore while watching the Knicks lose. You can spend an afternoon with an uber-creative computer programmer (who, let's be honest, are going to become the auteurs of 21st century entertainment. What a knowledge of cinematography was for film directors, knowledge of programming will now be for video game directors) at the game company offices and be given the opportunity drive the in-game tank wherever you want, even over the menu screen.

Subsidizing video games and apps (both killer and merely threatening) is overall the most successful of crowd sourcing endeavours (occupying seven of the top ten spots on Kickstarters 'highest funds raised' list), but typically the examples that get the most media attention at the time of their unveiling involve already rich creative (or semi-creative) people asking for people (who are almost overwhelmingly not rich) to pony up for projects executives in their respective industries do not want to finance. This list includes Dan Harmon, Bret Easton Ellis, Colin Hanks, Whoopi Goldberg, and John Kricfalusi.

 

And so the immediate criticism of this is that being having celebrities competing for money, Kickstarter and other crowd sourcing websites doesn't necessarily help up and coming artists, since the people who can raise a sizeable amount of money that could actually underwrite these projects already have some level of name recognition or a devoted fanbase. And the defense against this is: Well it doesnt hurt to try, no matter how well known you are.

One thing that's going to change is the frequency of cultural epochs coming out of left field. Blockbuster films and albums by platinum selling celebrity/music acts will still be rolled out with promotional force of the D-Day landings, but niche culture is gong to thrive in quantity while remaining niche. While Amanda Palmer raised $1.2 million, if each person gave only $10 (and many gave more than that), translating that into album sales would only equal to about 120,000 units sold. Barely a gold record by RIAA standards.

In other words, the rise of the mp3/file-sharing and kickstarter sites prevent anything from becoming a Nevermind of the 00s (the last paradigm shift from the underground). Nirvana's second album was a tiny investment for DGC that reaped them massive profits, so many other record companies followed suit, signing and promoting anything from Seattle or that sounded remotely grunge-like.

And when this happens there is a sort of self-generating hype machine, where the mainstream media calls attention to it, critics foam at the mouth, more fans tune in, which brings more money, so the record companies just keep pushing the product/style/swag. Soon it gets beyond the music and becomes its own cultural movement (the 'generation x' label, in early 1992 the New York Times published a 'grunge lexicon' article, out of grunge came 'heroin chic'/secondhand clothes fashion).

But the bottom line was that there was money to be made out of all of this, which is why grunge was 'the last big thing', and Cobain/Nirvana/Nevermind was the flagship.

Certainly there have been great albums from the 00s to today (Kid A, Funeral, Is This It, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Madvillainy, Kanye's School trilogy, They Were Wrong So We Drowned), but none of them came close to the impact that Nevermind had. And a large part of the reason it made such an impact was because to the mainstream media selling more units means a watershed moment is occurring (and be somewhat gauged). A pivotal grunge moment according to rock critics was Nevermind dethroning Jackson's Dangerous from the top of the billboard charts, which really just meant more people were buying one over the other.

This kind of symbolism of achievement and cultural change is gone, because people don't have to buy music anymore (meaning the profit motive for huge corporations that can reach the masses is near-dead), and with much of the culture surrounding music fragmenting, there won't be anything that captures the zeitgeist and spawns an entire sub-industry like Nevermind did. After all, the biggest selling album of the 00s was 1, the Beatles' greatest hits album.

An important caveat regarding the last sentence: People don't have to buy music, but they still do, but can now be much, much more selective about where and when they plunk down their hard earned dough. While the musical tip jar has existed as long as music has, it entered the digital age when Radiohead offered a 'pay what you want' setup for their 2007 album, In Rainbows (and once again, it should be noted that this got plenty of mainstream press, thanks in part to Radiohead being a well known band from the 1990s, as opposed to one just starting out).

Kickstarter is really just another tip jar, albeit one you toss some coin into long before the piece of product is ready. Is it helpful to artists and creative folk just starting out? Yes, but even more so than before (when a DGC-like record company can help a Nirvana-like band break through), niche will stay niche.

Which is a situation that is playing out in other medium as well. The communal experience that television fostered (despite us being confined to our homes to experience it together) splintered first through the vast array of channels that cable allowed for, and then through DVR, where you suddenly had the power to decide when to watch something. With the possible exception of the Super Bowl - where watching it live is practically a necessity to experience it properly - time matters not. And as the capabilities of your smart phone continue to expand, your location will also matter less. All of which adds up to the lowering of the chances of seeing the same thing that everyone else is watching. You might come to it weeks, months or even years down the road after a friend recommended it.

Which means traditional marketing is becoming less effective, which means there is less money available as well, which in turn affects the awareness (and funding) of new creative endeavours large and small.

And speaking of money, the elephant in the room, of course, is that for once the greed of movie/music/tv/entertainment executives pales in comparison to the cost of piracy.

Don't get me wrong, the previous system disproportionally rewarded executives, CEOs, and investors when compared to the many people actually involved in creating the music or movie, but everyone got a slice of the pie. And in the capitalist spirit of things, if your albums sold in the millions or you topped the box office, you could perhaps get an ever bigger slice when your contract negotiation came up.

But all of that's gone now. The uneven, corrupt system that did a half-assed job at taking care of a lot of people (from everyone who worked on the production of the music, to the creation of music videos, to the music press, to music stores, to the entourage, etc.) is gone, and it's been replaced by barely any system at all. And the squeeze hits everyone but the executives and CEOs first.

So the result is that the creative people have to take on the role of the CEO and executives:

Gladhanding.

Now the writer/director is a producer, playing the role of someone who has to sweet talk, amuse and placate possible investors (who can be fans, someone with twenty bucks in their paypal account to blow, or a hedge fund manager who wants a tax dodge).

Just another hat, and perhaps not one worn with the deftness that film school or a basic interest/obsession with making films can train for.

Arts collectives/foundations/groups/clusters that already exist will streamline their fundraising systems to align as harmoniously as possible with their fans and followers internet spending habits.

If they grow big enough and get enough mainstream attention (which once again favours previously established organizations and artists), their funding might even be attached to the services that people inevitably pay for, through their always increasing internet/cable bill.

Still optional of course, and you could choose to not fund these projects (and consequently have to pay a premium if you wish to view them after they've been produced and are now available).

Suddenly the option is much less voluntary and generous. You're no longer seeking the art out as an ardent fan or curious web surfer. Now you're confronted with a 'click yes or no' on your billing plan.

And that's the new normal, but it still might be a couple years away.

Currently, it would be a stroke of luck that a twenty five year old with a trust fund happens to like your strange internet cartoon.

But instead of what it was in the renaissance, where the wealthy bankrolled almost all the arts projects (with the wealthy church also taking part) while the lower class had just enough to survive (and the middle class only just emerging as a force), now people regardless of their income are confronted with a basic, slightly irritating question:

What is art worth?

Answer: Whatever you can afford, which is why it's...

The Rise of Niche Culture

 

Niche in this context means a more selective form of supporting the culture you find engaging. In the past you simply turned on the TV or radio and let it wash over you.

The internet has been a great leveler for many forms of culture and the exchange of information (good thing, too, as the collapse of the middle class means there are fewer people that can afford to become connoisseurs any other way).

Illegal downloading - first of music, but now also of television and film (with PDF files of books bringing up the rear) - has become so commonplace that media corporations have thrown up their hands and decided to make a truce with the world instead of trying to sue it.

Music will be free.

TV and Movies will be dirt cheap (or exist mostly via a Netflix-like subscription service) but if they have anything resembling a sizeable budget they will resemble one long ad with a familiar narrative and explosions. Other than that, all bets are off. The plethora of animated cartoons on Adult Swim, the comparative success of Comedy Bang-Bang and like-minded 'underground' humour shows, even the infrequent (but dazzling and inexpensive) work of Shane Carruth are examples that great art (and great fun) can survive with audiences in the hundreds of thousands instead of the millions.

Not that egalitarianism will unquestionable rule the day. Vinyl and art-house cinema will become a past time with a more pronounced price tag. Fine art will probably be the least changed, as it has traditionally been a hobby for those with second homes.

But for those with the purse strings and those with less money to play around with, the positive aspect in all this is that you can wear your investments as a badge of honour.

Like-minded artists have banded together and sang for the supper for centuries. The internet, like it has done for many other aspects of society, hasn't revolutionized this process as much as it's accelerated it.

And one of the first things that happen when technology makes things faster is make the previous way of doing whatever obsolete, upending plenty of economic dependencies in the process.

There will be grand, expensive exceptions (the $300 million movie, the omnipresent song of the year released by a celebrity/musician), but for the most part niche markets will have a bilateral relationship between creators and audience.

A couple hundred or thousand people pony up ten or twenty bucks to have the creator screw on his or her thinking cap and release the results into the great wide world.

Will it all be good? No. Will there still be meetings where people concerned with the bottom line will give notes? Certainly.

But at least we can all make business cards with the words 'producer' on them.

 

 


Building a Responsible Person

 

You cant breed genius. Or above average. Or even average. Statistically speaking, though, average is what youre going to come up with when you the happy couple push out your offspring (granted, the lady will do most of the heavy work), but the randomness of social conditions upon the individual are such that raising a mentally and physically healthy human being is more a matter of odds than a guarantee.

And its with that acknowledgement of trying to raise children properly that we hopefully can all understand and appreciate the importance of playing the role of a responsible citizen in our society. To be aware of the conditions and challenges facing the micro and macro institutions that govern our communities, and to act upon these challenges when necessary. A responsible citizen plays a continually active role, and in a democratic state this ranges from participating in elections to keeping well informed on the latest developments in almost every field of human achievement and interaction that could affect them (from economic policies to war).

This is the ideal, anyway. In a representative democracy, citizens outsource many of these activities to politicians (who are voted into office via free, fair, and transparent elections...at least that's the ideal). So instead citizens are to keep up with the actions and policies of their elected overlords, and ensure that these people-with-power consistently reflect their interests.

And this is where freedom can complicate matters. Are citizens free to not pay attention to the actions of their government, or to be under or misinformed of them? Does allowing this freedom corrupt the workings of a society in such a way that basic rights or interests are trod upon?

Because it needs to be stated that not all people have the time, interest, and understanding to play the role of what is expected from a responsible citizen.

And this is beyond class and culture. This is the much more basic acknowledgement that we are not all created equal.

Some people are going to thirst for knowledge and pursue it in such a way that it doesnt matter if theyre growing up in poverty. Theyll climb up and out and make the world a better place, although without question this process will be greatly assisted if someone within the education or social support system notices this ability and help foster it.

And on the other end of the scale, you can be born with the proverbial silver spoon and not contribute anything. You can go to the private schools, get the primo tutors, slide your way into the ivy league thanks to a family connection, and still be a indifferent, uninterested, pile of consumerist culture and nothing else.

The waste comes in when the guy or gal in example one is taking orders in a diner or busting up concrete, and the guy or gal in example two is running a business of some sort into the ground, given to them as gift.

But this isn't meant to be a piece focusing on talent and ability.

Responsibility is completing tasks that you are expected to complete. In many ways it is the basis for simple human interaction, and therefore human civilization.

It can be extremely complicated.

Beyond our jobs, which allow us to eat, be clothed, sleep under a roof, and buy everything from pulled pork sandwiches to plane tickets to Paris, our responsibility to modern society is a challenging one to understand, and there are signs that we might not be up to snuff.

I am basing this on the belief that the manifestation of being a responsible citizen of human civilization is to assist to the best of your ability in its continuation. I'm even willing to turn a blind eye to the notion of progress, which suggests that things should always get better and better. At this point, I think we can all settle for 'keeping things from getting worse'.

But we're failing in that respect in confronting many large-scale, inevitably devastating challenges that are facing our society today. There are a plethora of them - worldwide economic recession, climate change, food shortages, energy policy, nuclear arms control, human rights crimes - and both the basic points and details of these concerns are well documented.

I'm interested in whether each one of us has the ability to assume the responsibility required to make tiny changes to our own lives - and therefore, our society - to at least attempt to fix these problems.

First off, what evidence do we even accept to agree that this concern in question is a pressing problem that deserves our immediate attention? How do we communicate to people who are indifferent, suspicious, or even hostile to our arguments?

And that question sadly places part of the solution in the hands of the public relations industry, which now plays a greater role in presenting and shaping policy for the masses than ever before.

It is also through the public relations and marketing industries that we are presented with our 'roles' in contemporary society. From a wide swath of mediums - the dying print, the fading television, the ever-encompassing digital world - we are told that choice in our consumption habits is the greatest proof of a healthy and free society (despite many statistics and studies criticizing this). With entertainment and leisure at the forefront and news and political issues pushed to the margins, the participation of the average citizen in the latter realm is greatly diminished. Small groups of concentrated capital are able to have greater influence in the halls of power. The same groups which own the mediums which deliver messages of whatever they wish to the populace. One of the more overarching missives to the masses over the last several years is the belief that the government is becoming more of an overbearing meddler than the organizational structure that makes sure society runs smoothly.

It's not so much that people are being duped, but that we are only as effective as our experience allows us to be. And even with the vast information repository that is the internet, the natural inclination is to keep ourselves focused on the narrow and familiar.

So this is what needs to be changed. A re-examination of the role of government in our society seems like it would be a natural reaction by many if they grasped the devastating current relationship between politicians and concentrated capital. But short of that. a greater understanding of how our personal decisions - especially economic ones - affect company profits, employee wages, and social programs across the world is an excellent start. Acting smarter in this respect will make us smarter (not much of difference, really). The tools we need are cooped up inside our heads, perhaps spending too much time being wasted on a new app or netflix (not that wasting our intellectual potential is a byproduct of modern culture. Some sort of simple entertainment has always kept us from working or thinking as hard as we could).

Even if the government does attempt to feebly represent the whims of the people, then the solution for, say, energy conservation cannot just be a matter of being instructed or ordered by the so-called nanny state to use a compost bin or reduced your energy usage by lights that automatically turn off when you leave the room.

We have to agree that it's the right thing to do, and on a much more local (family, neighbourly) level. For ourselves in the short term, and for our children (and children's children) in the long term. But agreement is in short supply when understanding is (and sometimes even when there is a plethora of understanding). Consensus will rarely reach one hundred percent, but how do we make it so that enough people are on the same page when the discussion - in all its formal and informal guises - begins?

Humanize the institution of science and learning? Try to educate the masses? Whats the common ground? Who decides what is essential for everyone to know, and how do you make sure they do? Because without everyone on the same page, were going to get rifts of misunderstanding that will lead to an unevenness of policy (meant to be based on what everyone believes is to be best for the majority in a democracy), which can lead to many forms of inequality.

One of the problems with institutions is that they are, by nature, institutionalized, and dont offer much flexibility when it comes to accepting the new, the unorthodox and the beneficial, choosing instead to focus on the old, the orthodox and compromised possible.

At the same time, institutions (social, political, financial, educational, cultural) are necessary because they're still the best way to provide basic foundations of society. Putting trust in these institutions is the smart thing to do, but smart also has to include maintenance of these institutions. Anything with power that's left to its own devices will ultimately get corrupted, and it's the responsibility of the populace to prevent this from happening.

Even in a free society, there is a necessary level of responsibility impressed upon each citizen to protect the precepts and laws of the free society. That is, there is an infringement on some of your rights in order for the majority of your rights to be properly upheld. Examples of this can range from having to not assault people at random to having insurance when driving a car.

Disconcertingly, this level of responsibility is not extended to the most basic act of representative democracy. One is not forced to take part in elections. On one hand, the right not to participate can be seen as an act of just how free a society is. On the other, it means that the policies can be shaped without being fully representative of all the people in the state. And this affects both the people who participated in elections because they want their voice heard, and the people who did not participate for whatever reason they had (from not caring to protesting what they believe are flaws with representative democracy). The effects of this situation can create a vicious circle, where, when people who are indifferent to wielding their political power (via voting) passively surrender it to those who may have the means to consolidate power for their own ends (corporate and special interests who bend the ears of politicians). Watching this bureaucratic corruption and cronyism happen in government dissuades even more people from participating in elections, accelerating the speed at which power is accumulated by smaller and smaller niches.

At the same time, forcing people to take part in elections - ideally in order to prevent the above from happening - is no solution at all. Making people step into a voting both doesnt necessarily mean they know what the issues are. Why should the misinformed/under-informed be allowed to vote? Isnt not knowing what youre voting for/against the basest perversion of democracy, even worse than not voting at all? So the solution then is the idea to prevent misinformation, but that comes with the problem is how you draw the line at what makes someone misinformed. Do they have to name their political representative? The fiscal policy of the party they support? A brief history of the country? Names of the newspaper(s) they read? And who judges this? Really, you cant filter out the people labeled as 'misinformed' because as you do your standards rise and even among those that pass the ones one that just barely passed become the new exclusions. So the attempt for perfection slowly weeds out everyone except the idea of perfection of whichever person got the job of deciding whos in and whos out.

Informed decisions, though, are necessary for the vast challenges that confront a globalized, Western-style economic system. An overhaul of energy and financial policies - to put it rather bluntly - is needed, but it is not wanted. It is not wanted enough by the many, whose power comes from their literal numerical strength (who must act as a cohesive unit of concentrated capital to have influence in economic policies), and it is not wanted at all by the few, whose power comes from abstract numerical strength (who can act easier as a cohesive unit due to their size and similar views).

So what do people want unequivocally?

People want something for nothing, more play for less work, and the freedom to shrug off responsibility whenever it gets too heavy. If given the option, people will take the easy road for short-term gains than the hard road for long-term gains.

That is what we want, but its not what we need.

The individual can make a convincing argument that they shouldnt save for tomorrow or act in a certain way in preparation for the future because its possible that they might not be here for tomorrow. This awareness of ones own mortality is manifested in such superficial actions as spending money on luxuries and leaving budget balancing - whether at the kitchen table or on the floor of the house/senate/parliament - for another day.

This individualism is a hallmark of the industrial and post-industrial periods in the West, but for much of the mid twentieth century it was coupled with a level of bureaucratic restraint that today many free-market supporters would see as overregulation at best and socialism at worst. During this period, the financial industry was dependable, dull, and heavily regulated (this was due to correcting the wild speculation and irresponsible investing and trading that led to the Great Depression).

Acceleration of technological developments were reflected most strongly in the communications industry, but it beget a perspective that everything is better when what people wanted was delivered to them faster, from being able to talk to someone on the other side of the world, to doing business with a company across the country as if they were right beside you, to sharing your opinion with everyone earth instantaneously via any sort of social media platform.

Short term gains quickly became much more attractive if the inevitable risk of such efforts could be offset, and this could be seen in all aspects of an Western-style economy being freed from regulation and expanding into other regions of the globe. Wall Street could gamble with Main Street's money and lose it with minimal impact to their own profits (seen through scandals ranging from Savings and Loan to the various bubbles to the 2008 Crash). Wal-Mart could offer immediate savings by undercutting their competitors and forcing cheap labour to become an essential engine to its success. By participating in either of these endeavours - people were making a choice with which they were indifferent or ignorant to the consequences.

The trouble with choice is that people choosing a particular option at stage A can affect many other people at stage B. For a long time, these effects were local, because trade and politics were local. Buying eggs from the farmer next door meant the supply chain was simple and uncomplicated. Today, the manufacturing and use of a pencil takes place over several continents. It is a testament to technological innovation and the power what millions of people working together can achieve. It is also a fine example of how we have never been more disconnected from the creation of most of the materials we consume. Fish raised in farms in the South Pacific are sold in European supermarkets. Every smartphone, tablet, and laptop have at least one component built in high tech sweatshops in China. Nike still means Michael Jordan instead of eight year old Malaysian children sewing the shoes.

The choices people have in their average lives are limited on a macroeconomic scale, but quite wide on a microeconomic one. You have little say in how the gasoline you purchase is procured, refined, transported and sold (and no real alternative at all if you want a vehicle that runs on another type of energy). An individual has little sway in shaping the laws that a corporation must obey to ensure its actions are in the publics interest.

But there is a wealth of choices for the vehicles you can drive to buy gas, dozens of flavours of chips, candy, and cereal, and news organizations both on television and online that can fit into your prevailing worldview. Reinforcement is easier than being confronted with and considering contrasting viewpoints.

Which brings us back to responsibility. If being informed and active voters is no longer the bastion for political agency in the 21st century, then we must replace it with the power we do retain: Purchasing Power.

Being more aware of the greater ramifications of one's economic choices is a responsible activity that should be championed apolitically. We can longer be aware solely of what it costs us when we buy something. We have to be aware of what it costs everyone else.

Practical changes can help mitigate some challenges.

An expansion of the sticker price, just as there are nutritional information labels on jars and wrappers of food. In the wake of terrible sweatshop disasters in Bangladesh, certainly more oversight and transparency by the stores that ultimately sell products made in developing nations should be enforced, if these corporations are not up to do so willingly ('self regulation' in a free market system is oxymoronic when it gets in the way of profits). There should be more encouragement for locally manufactured products, much like how so many people have embraced locally manufactured foods. And no one should stand for corporations hiding profits in offshore tax havens, which is utterly deplorable since it involves making money from citizens but then avoids the act of recycling a share of that money back into the economy (via government spending of the tax money), harming the state as a whole (and forcing the government to borrow money to pay for essential services).

We have to be smarter about our actions now, and that goes hand in hand with a greater sense of responsibility. But that is a procedure that we must choose as individuals. It shouldn't require mandating weekly education seminars or quizzes before ballots. It doesn't necessitate a massive overhaul of the majority of citizens' common sense worldview (this, as some might say, is the rub. Some citizens' worldviews might be challenged and changed, which immediately creates the always troubling accusation that there is partisan and specific agendas at work, perpetuating the us vs. them scenario). Reforms to tax codes and fundraising/lobbying guidelines and improving the effectiveness of regulatory bodies is not going to bring the Western economy to its knees. And what might look like a step down in terms of corporate profits will be offset by an even slightly more powerful and efficient bureaucracy that can better cater to the needs of the people. A stronger infrastructure that does not exist for the profits of a small group of investors is in a better position to rehabilitate the quickly decaying Western middle class.

What needs to be stressed is that this has to be long term project, and monitored by all citizens throughout its implementation. If there is one viewpoint that does need to be changed without question, it's the abandonment of the short term, high reward high risk method of conducting international business.

If a few thousand people with power can do so much damage, think of what a few million people with power could do to fix it. It's matter of getting all our ducks lined in a row, which means, for starters, simply talking to other people about these issues. Long term planning is apolitical, and is the best interests of the banker and the Wal-Mart greeter. Responsibility, then, comes in the form of delayed gratification, sacrificing one's own wants and needs for the present moment for wants and needs at a later date that might benefit more people even further down the road. With the challenges we face today and in the upcoming years and decades, the changes in our own actions must only be slight to make a positive impact, as long as our attempt to bring them to fruition is clear and assiduously maintained.

 


 

Class War Discussion Fare

[note on the title: 'Class Warfare' is one of those misnomers that should be avoided at all costs, as using it to describe the act of discussing inequality is a damning insult to those who sacrifice their lives in actual war]

 

Globalization has made class discussion more complicated.

The tenets have not changed (a strong, robust middle class is central to a functioning democratic state), but the amount of players have expanded, as have the networks and the relationships between corporations and governments.

Labour and trade laws in one country can create massive social and financial upheavals in a dozen others.

Two different scenarios are unfolding across the globe. In the West, inequality is growing, with the wealthiest citizens making more money than ever before while the middle class shrinks and the amount of people slipping into the lower class designation increases rapidly. In southeastern Asia, where much of what is manufactured is sent to Europe and North America, a middle class is emerging, but their gains are dwarfed by the achievements of the upper classes. In China this typically means government officials, as most Chinese billionaires are members of the communist party. Despite some advancements, there are still hundreds of millions of people living in poverty in China, India, Malaysia, and Indonesia, many of whom work in slave-like factory conditions to build toys or sew clothes for a few dollars a day.

Living in poverty in the West is still very different from living in poverty in other regions. Even our inequality is unequal.

On a global scale, one of the great challenges is to create a basic charter of human rights that is actually enforceable (and which is precisely the problem with the United Nations' document of the same name). When a country that has freedom of speech and the right to public and private assembly does business with a country that does not, is there immediately a conflict of interest? Are the citizens of the rights-laden nation tacitly approving the actions of a nation that they, if subjected to the same laws, would find abhorrent?

In discussion of such matters, very powerful and flowery rhetoric can be deployed. Talk of freedom can quickly be replaced by mere symbols of freedom, as if a waving flag or latin motto can somehow equate the actual act of speaking one's mind without fear of reprisal. Thus, it is important to remember that inalienable rights are illusory. If they truly were inalienable they couldnt be taken away. Society will agree that its a good idea and will try to extend such rights to each and every citizen, but our own human frailty betrays us, on both personal and public levels. Governments can suspend basic rights when they deem it necessary to protect the nation. As for justice, juries will make mistakes and lawyers will look for loopholes, and justice will be denied (accused enemy combatants will not be given their day in court, innocent people will be put in prison or even killed by the state). Self-interest will cloud the truth in the media and suddenly certain groups of people will know more than others, creating serious gulfs of (mis)information. Concentrated power means inequality not only when it comes to wealth, but rights as well, with the upper classes being given more (short jail times, better access to legal aid) and the rest of society receiving less.

All these things we consider rights will soon be considered privileges that the average citizen receives on occasion, not as a constant.

This is the challenge of post-industrial societies (regions typically labelled the West, along with Japan and Australasia): To acknowledge that the current economic slowdown is a new normal (unless you are in the upper classes, who have recovered quickly and now make more money than ever before), and that certain rights will have to be altered, if not suspended outright, to keep society functioning in some recognizable form. Where is this seen? Corporate rights have expanded (or at the very least, corporate law is barely enforced), union rights/power have shrunk, executive power in military decisions are unchecked (whether under a more liberal or conservative administration), and under the guise of 'national security', citizens are more likely to arrested or investigated if they participate in a protest or become critical of the government.

It's as if the potential for freedom and its philosophical discussion is more valuable than the inevitable practical messiness of freedom itself.

When the grass is always greener perspective (if I was in a different situation, it would be better and I would do this…’) is applied to some of the most basic elements of human understanding it's disconcerting that theres little difference between how we feel about freedom and, say, grass itself. There is always the feeling that you are missing something, that the problems that dog society can be  solved if only [insert any partisan political position here].

Because in the West, once you have freedom, what next? Cradle-to-grave social safety nets? And if you get that, what next? Protecting these privileges? Is that something to devote ones life to? Maintain the status quo?

Everyone wants what they don't (or cant) have. Whether it's success you're after, or freedom itself. Thats the purest manifestation of freedom, and the pursuit is, in many ways, more important, more character defining, than the catch. A person who struggles to gain freedom in repressive countries enjoys it more than a person in an already free country, who have never gone without.

Here it will be acknowledged the flippancy with which I am comparing such mental blind spots with very real dangers like death squads, military police, and gross abuses of power that can occur in countries where human rights are cruelly ignored.

While we may be reluctant to admit it, human fallibility plays a greater role in our daily global affairs than human idealism, the latter of which is where much of our philosophical foundations come from.

The belief that 'all men are created equal' is grossly inadequate. Certainly all men (and women, as we should update the phrase) deserve equal treatment under the law, but to say that all people have the same faculties, abilities and opportunities when born is ridiculous.

And because people are unequal, that there will be inequality in society is a given. In the system we have now, someone has to be given more power and more responsibility to oversee the functioning of society (certainly there are echoes of Hobbes' Leviathan here). Inequality is inevitable in a free market system, and the regulating bodies of the state are meant to prevent inequality from growing so large that society no longer runs smoothly. This means ensuring the lower classes are provided for with basic services (such as health care, infrastructure, financial assistance, social programs), and that the upper classes/wealthy/elite provide the funds for these services through taxation. This is not a particularly revelatory arrangement, but heated debates occur in many different Western nations over how much the upper classes should give and how much the lower classes should receive. As the upper classes have more resources at their disposal, in many instances it is their voice that carries the most weight.

But who really does rise to the top, if someone must? Sometimes its people who have worked hard and provided an extremely important service for society, and sometimes its people who havent worked hard yet provided an extremely important service for society, and sometimes its people who have worked hard yet provided an extremely questionable service for society, and sometimes its people who havent worked hard and provide an extremely questionable service for society. In America (and by extension, most of Western Society) anyone can be successful; thats the problem. (this is paraphrasing a George Carlin quote regarding the presidency)

Dire inequality is the modern democratic state's biggest enemy. It attacks slowly, from within, and is lethal when it comes to destroying the social fabric that made a country great - or even functional - in the first place. Rising inequality means the breaking down of the middle class, with a few rising up to join the upper, but most sliding back down to be part of the lower/working. This is effectively creating a society that is overclass and underclass. Which is incredibly dangerous for social stability, and even if the large groups of people just scrapping by cannot effectively mobilize change in a supposedly democratic state, then they must still face the condescending 'ritual' of a few amongst their ranks being elevated to the overclass, as if having won a lottery.

Why did managing inequality work better in the middle of the twentieth century? Quite simply, for a while the people with power were much more generous (or really, forced by the state to be generous) to the people that didnt have very much of it. High tax rates on wealthy citizens and heavy regulation on the companies they owned meant that they bankrolled the betterment of everyone else. Of course, the West was busy exploiting other nations and toppling local governments for its own benefit during this time, so the shining benevolence of 1950s America should be taken quite lightly.

 

Aside I: A Blast in the Past

-you say that democracy is under attack? Well stop the fucking presses, of course it is. When was this hallowed time of milk and honey freedom? It better not be before 1964, before the Civil Rights bill was passed. Was it right after that maybe? I mean, nothing particularly inflammatory or controversial happen in the mid to late sixties, right? And its not like a president resigned over abuses of power in the mid seventies. Or that his successors turned a blind eye to genocides and coups they helped foster, heavens no. And what the fuck was Reagan doing in the name of democracy to defeat the evil empire?

-hey, instead lets go backwards. Maybe the fifties was the period for democracy. Maybe when white men ran everything and installed puppet governments anyplace in the world where there were resources they wanted.

-the further back we go, the fewer and people were allowed to participate in elections. Know why there are only fifty six signatures on the declaration of independence? Cause those guys didnt trust anyone else. George Washington was the richest man in America when he was president.

-its pretty insane that there are working class movements that seems to embrace the precepts of the founding fathers when they were the ultimate embodiment of liberal elites.

-for most of Americas history, the governments chief source of revenue was not taxing its citizens, but taxing imports (customs duties). In some ways, the passage of NAFTA was the furthest push away from the early period of American history, but then again, the US bickering with China over tariffs is probably the one thing the founding fathers would recognize if they were around today.

 

In America the 1%'s rapid swelling of power in the last three decades should be cause for great concern, and should not be confused with 'class warfare', an already insulting term for simply the discussion of wealth redistribution. It is the attitude that the people who do not succeed in reaching the overclass are somehow undeserving completely ignores how many people did reach the overclass (either through similar levels of hard work and opportunity, or simply birth). This attitude is disrespectful to one's fellow citizens, harkening back to a period of antiquity, where the nobility turned down their noses at the rabble below them. It's the birthing pangs of a middling, half-assed dystopia. It's like Saudi Arabia without sharia law, where the royal family number 25,000 strong, lives in opulence, and then there is everyone else. 

Power needs to come with clear and well-defined strings. You can accumulate power (typically measured in monetary terms), but there has to be heightened responsibility as to how you yield it, ensuring that it benefits the greater society that has allowed yes, allowed you to become powerful.

Its the problem with the elites. In an ordered meritocracy they climb their way up, and in doing so they (ideally) kick the wizened husks of the previous elites back down into the morass below. This is to keep the wheels turning. If the same elites hold onto power for too long, the wheel gets rusty, starts to squeak and slow down, and ultimately everyone suffers. Its not that much different from animals that live in groups. When the aging head of the pride or pack gets too old or dies, the younger(s) fight the patriarch or each other for supremacy. Its a French revolution every couple years among lions, rams, and wolves.

And for democracies, much of the problems can be seen in the halls of power. Incumbency rates are extremely high, with the same politicians voted in year after year, clinging to the same donors and empty procedures. With this in mind, its slightly easier to trust wealthy citizens that finance their own political campaigns than candidates that take public and 'private' funds which are mainly from corporations and wealthy people. During a debate its useful for rich guy to say, hey, my main donors are right up here on stage with me, because they are me. You know the influence theyll have on my administration, because you know my policies. My opponent, meanwhile, has gotten millions of dollars from corporations and wealthy donors who hide in the shadows when it comes to revealing what they want. Shouldnt my opponent have his donors, his influences, up here explaining themselves so you know what youre going to get if you vote for him AND them? Obviously this has nothing to do with his actual policies, which might be absolutely terrible, but there should be a level of transparency there that most politicians lack. The devil you know is much preferred to the devil you don't.

 

 

Aside II: Enter China

-the contextualizing of human suffering, from Somalia to Guangzhou to Houston: So the people in China who make your iPod in a feudal-like existence are better off than the billions of people living in absolute poverty and near starvation in Africa and parts of underdeveloped Asia. And almost everyone in the West is just so far away from that level of existence that its mind-blowing. It is very difficult to starve to death in the West. It has to practically be a conscious choice. Now thats not to say we dont have huge problems with poverty, and that its not shocking and immoral that it exists when there is so much wealth that could go around, but there is a support net strong enough to ensure people get fed and can be sheltered from the elements in order to get back on their feet. This could come in the form of government assistance, a charity organization, or simply support from family and friends, who are able to offer such care because the greater society has given them enough disposable income to do so.

-But its troubling how we put certain issues ahead of human suffering. People who are livid over the treatment of animals raised for slaughter will think nothing of buying a neat electronic gizmo that was made under near-slave labour conditions on the other side of the planet. Do they not even think about it, or just quickly write it off thinking, hey, they have a job, sure its not the best conditions, but at least theyre not being kept in dirty crowded pens and then being hacked to pieces for consumption? Should the suffering of our species in all its guises take precedent over other animals? Is suffering itself the measure by which we should decide what issue to tackle first?

-Is China's record on human rights proof that money triumphs freedom? That we believe these truths to be self-evident unless they affect our bottom line? It is the scourge of cheaper everything.

-the devils advocate that is, the argument from manufacturers states that we are improving these otherwise impoverished regions by giving them some work to do, which while poorly compensated, heavily corrupt, and empowers the state and weakens the political power of the citizenry is better than no work at all. And if the people rise up, or the government listens to the people and passes some basic workers rights legislation, do the manufacturers say well pack up and move to country that still has lax labour laws, screwing your whole country over, so quit your whining and keep sewing.

-and so it becomes clearer that the action in some respect lies in the powerful companies that decide to manufacture their products in China. If they all agreed to certain standards, they could conceivably decide to support the rights of workers overseas, or simply return the jobs to the West. Hell, just threatening to do the latter might get China to loosen some basic civil rights restrictions.

-buy American? Maybe it was as obvious as the early seventies later mentioned quite openly in the 1976 film Network that there was no America anymore. But that doesnt really mean much either, unless you create some criteria for America and weigh it against the current vales and practices of the state. Is a company American if the manufacturing sector is in China, the profits stored offshore in the Cayman islands because they dont want to pay tax on it if its brought into America, but the corporate headquarters are on the southern tip of Manhattan? I mean, can you get any more unpatriotic than that?

-people really need to start giving a shit whether their domestic company builds stuff domestically, or even has a domestic headquarters so they pay taxes domestically (this after seeing many companies with headquarters in the Netherlands for tax purposes). Not that its only the peoples fault. The companies should actually have gasp a conscience and realize the importance of staying in the community, or at the very least the state, and helping it grow.

[a note to this writer: perhaps to remind you that youre part of the problem with your wonderful Macbook. How many computers are built from start to finish in the West? Have we sold our morals by buying cheap products from countries who treat their citizens terribly? How do we justify this? And why doesnt it click that this is source of the complete collapse of Western manufacturing, that many citizens lose their jobs because even more citizens want to save money by buying a made in China product? Is this democracy in action, or just capitalism? People choosing to buy one over the other? Were we forced (by having no alternative when almost every company took this manufacturing strategy)? And if we were forced, was it forced via government legislation (letting Western companies build products in China and then ship it over, because it was cheaper than having it all built here)? Are we choking to death on our own greed and small-mindedness?]

 

The problem with democracy is that its everyones problem. Where business people see synergy, conspirators see conspiracy. And like many things, the truth is can be found in the still-boring middle; yes, the activities of major institutions and industries can be dangerous and irresponsible, but no, together they are a far cry from the perfect Big Brother machine hell bent on world domination. It's possible the couple thousand people who holds large swaths of power in charge of various corporations and government officials would love to institute this polyarchy behind a veneer of democracy, but its always going to have limited success because some of the people who are going to run it will drop the ball, and some of the people they try to force it upon will resist.

So who are we going to get to run the world? Someone is going to have make major decisions on energy use and someone else is going to have to take out the garbage, and these roles are going to have different levels of requirements, responsibilities and power. We dont want giant corporations who put their own profit (the owners, the small pool of investors) ahead of the public good. Fine. Easy to say.

The rich white men who run everything (and not very well, might I add, so forget them being the cool, knowing shadow conspirators) are terrified of risk unless it's someone else's money they're betting with. Theyre terrified that any a minute someone different from them (different age, belief system, sex, race, culture, etc.) is going to come in and take their shit, steal their power. And this fear is as old as power itself. And throughout the years this group has raised alarm bells every time they think they might lose it all and try to warn us that if the somehow lose their grip on the power they have everything will fall to pieces. And it kind of looks like we fall for it (or enough of us fall for it) because they still have a stranglehold on the decisions that shape the modern world.

And heres the next little secret: is there any reason to think that if a more diverse group of people (young! Women! Minorities!) were put in charge, that they would do anything different? If we acknowledge that power itself (along with the desire for power) is the corrupting factor and no inherent quality of the person, then why does it matter if the Fortune 500 Company CEO list looks more like a Benetton ad?

Can we get liberal enough policies to reflect our leaning left in time? The conservatives in many western nations are worried about the future of their populations that are growing more liberal over time, since it will leave them with a severely depleted voter base, resulting in less power and perhaps irrelevance, if not outright extinction. In other words, its evolutionary politics (a term that the conservatives themselves already grumble about). Adapt or die.

So they frame politic arguments at least in the US as the last ditch attempt to save their country from oppressive and destructive liberal policies, even though more and more citizens are supportive of said policies. They are fighting for their own careers/livelihoods, and try to frame it to their supporters as a fight for the whole country.

But the liberals also play the card of 'vote for us now before it's too late'. Saying they need x amount of power to reverse the destructive and dominant conservative policies that still dictate how much of the Western economy is run. Their claim is a bit more legitimate, however, as the continued decline of the middle class is proof enough that the monetary policies of free-market capitalism is benefiting chiefly the very rich at the expense of everyone else.

Its a shift that underscores the fact that people are more educated, more tolerant, more diverse, and more aware of the challenges of the global socio-economic processes that govern civilization. Even as some critics can jump on the less religious factor as a negative thing, its really just an indication that fewer people are following obstinate dogma of centuries old religions that refuse to adapt to new ways of thinking. Peoples spirituality levels are still quite strong the idea that there is some order to the universe, with no certainty that a sentient, relatable entity has to be involved its just the love this interpretation of god and his rules or go to hell type of idea theyre rejecting en masse.

The spirit of the many may be strong, but at the moment the flesh is weak. The difficulty in uniting under a single cause or banner coupled with the power of the mass media under almost complete control of the elites make for difficult roads for an inequality movement. At this point it might feel natural to quote the end of 'The Communist Manifesto' ('nothing to lose but your chains', etc.), but even that's too simple. So how about this: If you have unchecked power, its more of a challenge to restrain yourself from using it.

  

NOTES

Packer, George. ‘Upgrade or Die’. The New Yorker. March.6.2013.

(http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/comment/2013/03/technological-perfectionism-and-income-inequality.html)

 


 

2012: It Happened

I read my 2011 Review blathering (click here). I lamented the list of unresolved problems that seemed to be getting incrementally worse and worse, and suggested that we were on the cusp of major changes.

I was mostly wrong, I think.

Mainly in that we're still on the cusp. 2012 was another twelve months of dangling. Maybe history is being on the cusp for 95% of the time. 1% is the actual 'everything changes', and the remaining 4% is the bizarre sensation of reorienting ourselves and our society after the 'everything changes'.

And while we wait on this cusp, we go about our daily lives, working, sleeping, relaxing, reading a magazine while sitting on the toilet, happy enough that things aren't yet worse.

Maybe the problem is perspective. How big is your big picture? And the trouble is just that. It's your big picture, and much of it is relative to how you yourself were doing in the years past. Saying you're doing better right at this moment than the average serf four centuries ago is 'big picture', but not very helpful when assessing the few years behind or ahead.

It's easy to pick over the past and say this or that year or few years back to back to back were incredibly important and the changes that occurred within them ultimately changed everything, but while you're living through that particular period, prescience is tough gig. And in today's instantaneous media environment, failed predictions can simply be ignored or deleted from the archive.

Looking back on it, 1942 was deep in the thick of World War II. And indeed it was, but the year itself - as you lived it - was a cusp year for many. An invasion of mainland Europe by American and British forces was inevitable, but not forthcoming. The fight in North Africa went back and forth, the Pacific War hadn't yet picked up much speed at all, and Stalingrad was mired in a seemingly endless, bloody stalemate.

Assessing the present or very recent past by looking back much further. We can use this practice to make the present seem better or worse than it once was. And looking at certain regions of the world can also affect the conclusions drawn.

Hundreds of millions of people in Asia continue to climb out of poverty into a class that would be considered 'lower' by Western standards, but certainly seems to be the advent of the biggest middle class explosion since, well, the West in the first half of the twentieth century.

And The West now? The good-ish news: The European economy continued to bend but not exactly break. Less good-ish: Mass protests in Greece and Spain. Outright bad: The UK finance minister admitted the two years of austerity measures his country had put in place has not worked, and in fact made things worse.

It's frustrating for many reasons, some of them even legitimate. A multinational economic recovery plan has to factor in the countries that are a bit worse and much worse off than five years ago, and the countries that completely screwed up their line of credit and lived high on the hog for years before the bottom fell out (say, Greece). But how do you treat (punish?) those countries that shouldn't have really embraced the Euro currency in the first place without punishing everyone? It's 'too big to fail' all over again, on a much wider scale. It's the darkest side of globalization (and there are admittedly plenty of dark sides to it), where interconnectedness is suddenly a huge liability.

And how does this affect the average citizen? Fewer social programs and essential services offered by the government, who are also privatizing revenue generators like land and parking meters for a quick hit of cash to balance this year's budget. With steady employment harder to come by (underemployed is not a new buzz word, but it's certainly on of the most appropriate for 2012), personal budgets are stretched even tighter, and the idea of any long term savings is postponed again.

This is the new normal for more and more people in the West, slipping out of the manageable, comfortable middle class and into the 'one missed paycheque and everything falls like a house of cards' lower class.

What's disappointing is how this has become an easy talking point/boilerplate speech for politicians. They promise to 'fight for middle class', but ultimately nothing is done (helping the middle class means expanding social programs and essential services, but instead they're being cut). Increasing taxes on the wealthy has somehow been linked to success-hating socialism, instead of 'the way things were paid for in the twentieth century'.

Which bring us to America, which had an election this year that was stupidly close, considering one of the candidates represented the very worst economic policies of the last thirty years (just so we're on the same page, I'm referring to Romney). It was exhausting, and with very little change and basically the only hope was that things wouldn't get much worse.

There wasn't much revelatory political wonk being discussed. Just numbers that were made up (Romney) or impossible to achieve when have the Congress opposes everything you do (Obama).

At least it was easy to cover for the nation's media, which would rather show three state of the art graphics than string together three though-provoking sentences. It's frequently decried that elections have become PR campaigns, but that fits in perfectly with advertisements around the news. It's one long set piece of selling, either pills, cars, or the idea that your opponent is just a terrible human being.

This is rapidly becoming a run-of-the-mill article on complaining on the current state of things, but it's typically what you're left with when examining a year where the lulls of no real news at all were the best parts of it.

The discovery of the Higgs Boson and Felix Baumgartner jumping out of a balloon on the edge of space are possibly the only good stories that doesn't have a cynical addendum to them.

Otherwise it's power outages in India, factory fires in Pakistan, sanctions against Iran, and a line of tortoises went extinct when Lonesome George died in the Galapagos.  After a series of horrendous spree shootings, gun control legislation might finally return to America (with past statutes expiring or having been overturned in the last several years).

But that's the biggest problem in America. Not by a long shot.

While not as easy to discuss than gun control, the debt ceiling/fiscal cliff resolution (still pending as of this writing) can reshape the American economy - and therefore America (and therefore the world) - for years to come.

You can try to rephrase the problem to make it more understandable - how does a nation tighten its financial belt? - but that's still a far cry from having a workable solution. And offering up a mix of spending cuts and tax increases is only the tip of the iceberg (as European nations who had to do this whole thing a few years back could tell you), since so many people's lives are tied up in what might get cut, and very important wealthy people are resistant to having their taxes raised (making it legislatively difficult to enact).

No one lines to admit that in a democracy, 'compromise' means your position is going to be watered-down on the way to the solution. And being obstinate strokes your ego and fires up your base, but so many other people and institutions take it on the chin when nothings get done in the halls of power.

But how does this change when the status quo seems to be more or less in a coma? Where are the people clamouring for change? Of course some are there a healthy number of some are always there - but political change is a numbers game, and if you don't have the dollar signs, you need the head count. But to go all 'big picture' again, when was there this type of activism? When was the average citizen well informed and participated in politics with a level head and reasonable expectations? Even the period that I frequently lauded as America's golden age was filled with sexism, bigotry, and the belief that anything that seemed different was Unamerican (there was even a 'committee for Unamerican Activities'). The Civil Rights Movement is certainly one of the best examples of mass participation for change, but that had the benefit of a very clear message ('equal rights for all') that one agreed with, or did not.

Fiscal responsibility in the 21st century is nowhere near as simple. Can we claim that our challenges today are bigger and more unwieldy? Certainly the latter, which makes kicking the can down the alley much more appealing than dealing with the issue right then and there. So, to take the fiscal cliff, it's the same problems from summer 2011 with no long term solutions in sight.

Perhaps the West will just get used to it.

Admittedly, the current state of affairs is a pretty massive 'it'.

It's a new world where things don't get solved. They get absorbed into the ever-complicating world of fine print.

And that's a terrible form of change that has only been explored in the driest of satirical dystopias (Brazil, Idiocracy).

The end of an era is a tough thing to wrap your head around, considering we've been adding 'post to many fields of discipline and concepts (postmodern, postindustrial, postfeminism, postmillennial, poststructural) for many years. It's as if every new idea we've had for the last four decades or so involved with something ending, although it never really does. It - whatever 'it' needs to be - just keeps sputtering along.

The future seems to dance that much more beyond reach as the exhausted present drags more of the past with it into the vaguely known.

How poetic.

Truly there are small cracks in the dam of American hegemony, and with each one, the world looks to... where exactly? What does post-American (ha!) hegemony look like? Simply replaced with China? That 'meet the new boss, same as the old boss' mantra?

Beijing certainly has the numbers, but 99 problems to go along with it (bitches need not apply).

India the worlds largest democracy, it boasts has several issues as well, from rampant corruption to wayward infrastructure, and the biggest news to come out of the country recently is the mass demonstrations for social change after a shocking incident of gang rape where the victim ultimately died. Once again, the silver lining can only be that positive legislative changes could come from such horrors.

The Middle East is still about to split at the seams.

Africa suffered from continued droughts, food riots, and instability.

And to prove big problems never stop at the border - or care a whit about something like a filibuster - the climate is still changing in the predictably unpredictable fashion that is costing us all billions of dollars every year. Extreme weather means expensive repairs to infrastructure and huge insurance claims. Droughts and flash foods mean less food. For three years running, all of us on this planet have consumed more than we produced in terms of agriculture and food production. That is a huge problem that is going to catch up with us.

The longer the bough doesn't break, the more devastating the effects will be when it does. But that kind of talk ferments within the 'worst fears realized' part of the imagination.

The future won't be apocalyptic. It will just be lousy.

At worst it will look like East Africa. Or Syria. Or parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. It should be heartening that the most terrible and dangerous places on earth are not wholly written off. That's not to say the rest of the global society is doing an A+ job in fixing them (far from it), but we are trying. That we believe these places can be pulled out of the darkness. Not only for the sake of the people who live there, but for our own standards of what society should be as well.

This is an insane way to end a year in review.

I don't know if things actually have to get worse before they get better, but as this is also the time of year where you are thankful for what you have, I'm glad it hasn't gotten much worse just yet.

Watch out 2013, all seven billion of us are coming for you.

 

And on a blessedly lighter note...

 

Cultural Detritus We Enjoyed 2012

 

Music

We blathered on about the loud violent majesty of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Swans here, but the one album that sat on the top of the heap by the end of the year was Liars' Wixiw. We first wrote about it here, and it's attraction hasn't waned. A warmer but still unsettling entry from a band that continues to defy genre and location, Wixiw has soft acoustic intros and outros bookending angry post-rock anthems (Flood to Flood, Brats), and bizarro club non-hits (No.1 Against the Rush). They trade the guitars for synths but kept a sense of restless experimentation and mistrust of anything too easy. It's pretty much an impossible sound to put into words, and perhaps you need to immerse yourself in their discography to feel it, but Wixiw resists the idea of culmination of past work, and is instead another stepping stone into the unknown for Angus, Aaron, and Julian.

Also: With their album Hunting Season, Hands & Teeth proves that good pop is not dead. Metz proves with their self-titled that angry psycho rock is still kicking. And whatever the hell Death Grips does, they did it damn well on The Money Store.

 

Movies

Not that it's proof that we're sick of the present state of things, but the settings of some of the best movies of the year are decades or even centuries in the past. PT Anderson's The Master situates itself in the halcyon days of post World War II America, and both Spielberg's Lincoln and Tarantino's Django Unchained take two very different approaches to dealing with the practical and ethical problems concerning slavery in the mid-nineteenth century. Django is a violent release of unstrained righteous anger, and Lincoln merges political wonk and a personable man in a top hat who liked to tell anecdotes.

All three of these films are made by acknowledged auteurs and each are unquestionable high points in their oeuvre, although only The Master stares down convention long enough to make it beg for mercy. You don't know what's coming next, you can't see any of the strings, and neither Django and Lincoln can claim that (admittedly, you know how Lincoln ends).

Also: Even Zero Dark Thirty turns the clock back a couple years and ends with the best foreign policy news for America since the end of the Cold War. Really, no one wants to think about right now right now.

 

TV

We don't have cable and can't be arsed to download/torrent entire series. We hear the new seasons of Louie and Homeland were pretty up to snuff, though.

 


Hipsters and Hippies: The Groovy, Groovy Irony

 

So an articulate and intelligent young professor wrote an article on hipsters on the New York Times Website. Here is the link:

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/17/how-to-live-without-irony/

Complaining that the new generation of youth is particularly disenfranchised, particularly rudderless and dependent on cobbling together past cultural modes to express themselves, is something that people have been doing for centuries. Apparently it was always better in the past. A simpler time, when people reflected respectfully, talked to each other face to face, and, when confronted with society at large and its challenges both public and private turned small farm grown lemons into fresh, chemical free lemonade.

 

And from this complaint in article form comes the throngs of responses decrying Ms. Wampole's assessment (like this one). No doubt some of which will have a particularly high percentage of the basic irony molecule, snark. Because you just know that hipsters are practically staring at their watches (well, the clocks on their smartphones, unless we're at the point where cheap Seiko's are cool again), going, 'oh wow, here's an article decrying our wayward ways that we're supposed to take particularly seriously because it's written by someone of our generation. Right on time.'

But look at me! I'm being self-aware, mocking the expected reactions of the apparently homogeneous targeted group known as 'hipsters'.

No doubt about it, there are hipsters out there. Just like there were actual hippies. But today, just like in the sixties, most of the people in their twenties and thirties exhibit some form hipster behaviour without identifying themselves specifically as such (even Wampole admits to having a few qualities herself).

Just because you had long hair in the sixties didn't mean you were a hippie, just like having a well-maintained beard doesn't you're a hipster today. Or if you have a large record collection. Or quote 'The Simpsons' frequently. Or have a rather apathetic view of the world today (there's some pretty legitimate reasons for that, I think we can all agree).

As for the conceptual weapons that Wampole decries as negatively affecting this group of young people: Irony and self-awareness is old. How far back do you want to go? The rise of postmodernism in the sixties and seventies? Foucault admitting there is nothing but power relations? Monty Python interrupting their sketches because they're too silly?

How about Sartre and existentialism? Nietzsche? Velazquez's 'Las Meninas'? Descartes thinking therefore he is?

Zeroing in on postmodernism - the field of intellectual pursuit that holds there are no truths, that everything conceived and perceived is relative to the conceiver and perceiver - can certainly help Wampole's argument. Assessing the assessment you just made is an attempt to not be caught holding a concrete position. Temporary connections and relationships in a conceptual realm doesn't necessarily filter down to affect how people behave on a day to day basis, but culture that embraces the absurdity of postmodernism can certainly spread its message (and foundations of the message) to the masses.

I think there are plenty of examples of a postmodern mindset in contemporary society, from literary criticism to the diffusion of information to the lower circles of popular culture. A hipster considering how people might react to his t-shirt is not unlike the reality show contestant acting in a certain way to get the camera's (and therefore the audience's) attention.

Postmodernism embraced its own demise (critically, anyway, which means acknowledging its own faults and limitations), and like so many other symbolic sacrifices before - know your archetypes - such an act means it's destined to outlive us all.

Wampole doesn't decry irony completely (in the past it gave us 'a rhetorical outlet for unspoken societal tensions'), but now she sees us immersed in it. Too much so. We're, like, drowning in irony.

[despite being associated with the Valley Girl archetype, the usage of 'like' in the sentence above could be a great example of this kind of irony Wampole is concerned about. People almost unconsciously use a term when speaking that implies a comparison, a separation, a distance between the words used to describe the thing and the thing itself. Wampole would say that our placeholder words suggest the inability to confront situations head on]

Irony as a mental tyranny. The result of having too much of a good thing. It's Western decadence yet again. Instead of 'tune in, drop out' it's 'you know encapsulating an entire decades' worth of social change into four words is pretty shitty, right?'.

Because irony is a shield against criticism - since you are taking criticism into consideration before creating what will ultimately be criticized - we are eschewing directness and responsibility. She claims we react, rather than act (wait, are we actually going to have a what-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg here?). For Wampole, worrying about how people are going to respond to our words and actions have made us behave in an unnatural, detached way. I should go right out and say that I don't agree with this argument at all. First off, adjusting our actions based on how we'll be perceived is how people have always behaved. Only sociopaths act without thinking what people will think of them.

People always worried about whether they appear cool or not. Whether your buying zoot suits, beads, secondhand clothes, or tweed jackets. There's that constant inner reflection - am I coming off as cool? - in all these instances, it's not a new phenomenon by any means.

In the portrait of a hipster - or a person immersed in irony - that Wamploe paints, the individual is emotionally isolated and socially stunted, endlessly denying themselves a bit of sincere and honest reflection. But in reality everyone has - and have always had - some fragments of this quality within them. Perhaps there are people for whom "inwardness and narcissism hold sway", but they are the exception, not the norm. Most of the generation criticized in this article doesn't buy something just because others have it. Don't worry, Ms. Wampole, people still like stuff.

But wait, are we sure we like stuff? I mean, commercials have gotten pretty damn clever in convincing us that we need certain products. This is one of Wampole's examples of irony run amok. She decries self-aware ads. That is, an ad that acknowledges 'yeah, yeah, we're trying to sell you something here, no fooling you, you uber-smart consumer, you'. The idea being that we let our guard down, and are then suckered into pulling out our wallet. Apparently this is all Joe Isuzu's fault.

[don't get the reference? All you have to do is google it, and now you can be part of the 'club' that gets it! See how easy you can be included? Would Wampole say this access is too easy, too egalitarian? Does everyone being able to get the reference by looking it up destroy something valuable?]

It's always tempting to say that everything's been done, and that culture is just repeating itself. In this respect, there are critics beyond Wampole who believe that we are poaching too much from our past. This is in part because the past has never been closer. It's a reaction to having everything at our fingertips, thanks to the internet.

Well, not everything. Just particular things. Things that can be digitized, really. And don't get me wrong, that's a hell of a lot of stuff. Almost all forms of information and culture. (you can find a video on YouTube of a dance show from the 1980s that premiered the proto-Detroit Techno track, 'Shari Vari'). But consequently, what's dying a slow, honest death according to Wampole is:

"The art of conversation, the art of looking at people, the art of being seen, the art of being present."

The assumptions here are that most conversations in the past were of higher quality than now, that there was a golden age of socialization that has faded thanks to text messaging and hulu. This is rather ridiculous. Thanks to the internet you are more aware of what is going on around you, as you are inundated on social networking sites with messages and event notices so you know where your friends are drinking, certain bands are playing, and what x amount of people in your neighbourhood thought was cool or worth checking out this afternoon. It's your responsibility to get up off your ass and take part in the world beyond the screen in front of you (this not a new problem. It was one of the most constant criticisms of television).

The minutia of conversation evolves as how we absorb language and the information it carries evolves. If we characterize 'hipster' as a subculture (although Wampole seems to see it as a movement that could possibly permanently corrupt the youth like never before), then it should come as no surprise that it has its own lexicon. With the internet so prevalent, simple turns of phrase or tweaked words immediately become absorbed into the mainstream. A meme's rise and fall can be measured in weeks.

As a buffer from the above for the hipster crowd, speaking in pop culture (or cult culture) quotes and references is the new slang. It's an attempt by a fragmented group of people to reach out to other like minded people. Relying on less familiar pieces of cultural debris was practically inevitable. A very laissez-faire counter culture beats its own chest by quoting Arrested Development, Anchorman, or a deeper-than-usual cut from The Simpsons ('dental plan!'). They complain about Centipede Hz (meaning it's already underrated) and can't understand why the new Liars album isn't a crossover hit.

Those that respond positively to such references or remarks are engaging in a basic form of social interaction. It is known as 'shooting the shit', and it's a pretty good way of finding out of you could possibly hang out with this person in the long term.

This sounds dull and common sense, but that's because it is. Wampole is going after windmills she thinks are giants. Technology may be changing at a breakneck pace, but people change much, much slower. Setting her targets on Instagram's ability to a immediately 'age' as recently taken digital photo, Wampole notes that:

"One cannot accelerate meaningful remembrance."

Nostalgia has already been decried as a selective and constantly altering form of recollection. Why are worried that such a thing is speeding up? Once again, Wampole is seen the situation in the most negative light. A quirky way of sharing photos becomes proof that there is a spiritual malaise crippling those that use Instagram, since apparently they want what's happening right now to seem like a cherished memory from yesteryear.

Sometimes an app is just an app.

In fact, with increased documentation, we can remember such events as they actually were, keeping a more accurate perspective of our past. Although I suppose that Wampole will criticize such a thing, as destroying the romantic notions of the past.

'Ironic living' a labelled as a first world problem, one that is the luxury of 'the relatively well educated and financially secure'. Well right off the bat, she's shrinking her sample size, because today fewer young adults are financially secure in the first world than in the last three decades. And they're finding that being well educated doesn't exactly make you a shoo-in for becoming financially secure any time soon.

She might just be upset with an even smaller circle of well-to-do twenty and thirty year olds engaging in simple 'slumming'.

To give some much needed weight to the piece, Wampole includes personal anecdotes, suggesting that as a youth in the nineties and seeing environmental activism, social advances for women, and a booming economy at its peak, everyone steeled themselves for when these achievements slowed to a crawl in the early twenty first century by ultimately caring even less. That we retreated further to our ever more powerful and smaller gadgets. In fact, usage of our phones, tablets, and laptops are, slowly but surely, simply replacing television, radio, and magazines (since we use our devices to do these same activities). And it's a hard argument to make that there is a connection between the rise of irony and the decline of political activism among generation x and millennials (especially considering many of them are much more connected and mobilized, thanks in part to the technology they know like the back of their hand).

Another anecdote: She admits that she likes to give gifts that are kitschy and not exactly useful or sentimental in the long term. Wampole sees this action as 'aversion of risk'. By buying something silly, there's less of a chance that she will feel bad if the receiver is not happy with a sincere gift. While I admire her willingness to critique her own actions up in such an article, I think she's forgetting the importance of 'it's the thought that counts' (and even getting a jokey gift while thinking, 'hey, I bet Bob will get a real kick out of this' is still a sincere thought), and nostalgizing a past that I'm sure was filled with silly, hideously impermanent birthday gifts.

And sure enough, she can't 'risk' resting the article on such mundane ideas. From this she jumps into politics, wondering if a dangerous result of all this irony from a political standpoint is that in a something always fills an empty/vapid cultural landscape and that 'fundamentalists are never ironists', nor are dictators or anyone who wants to change things on a grand scale.

Wampole seems to connect a lack of sincerity on a micro level with a lack of sincerity on a macro level. That hipsters do not care about politics. Or worse, understand political situations - thanks to that 'relatively well educated' position - but don't believe that things can change for the better and so do not even try. Are there people who simply shrug and say 'everything's fucked, let's get another pint of beer from some obscure brewery in Central Pennsylvania' (hipsters are a pretty easy stereotype to nail down)? Sure, but

the numbers simply do not add up for Wampole's argument. Unless she is worried that the denizens of Williamsburg are going to be the only thing to stop the latest variations of the military-industrial complex.

Who has evaded the paralyzing grip of irony? Wampole looks to four year olds, the elderly, people with mental difficulties, and those who have suffered incredible hardships in their lives.

It's a disparate group that says what they mean and isn't overly afraid of looking foolish in the eyes of others if they can't list at least five artists on the Warp label. They also have a rather limited role of responsibility and agency in a postindustrial society. Meanwhile, the group of people that exhibit hipster-ish symptoms are the ones expected to take the reigns and deal-with-plus-fix the litany of problems that now plague America, Europe, and everywhere else.

Can people who Wampole sees as full of 'numbness, resignation and defeat' rise to the occasion? Just to be on the safe side, she offers a list of questions that hipsters can use to self diagnose. Do you really like things? Do you quote cultural references a lot? Do you feign indifference? Is your style an anti-style? How would it feel to change yourself from within?

Searing questions to be sure. A support group based on sincerity and openness, with - I suppose - the belief being that a person who doesn't live their life in quotation marks will be that much better at confronting issues like climate change, economic instability, and resource management. In some ways it sounds like a team-building exercise at work, that some employees always roll their eyes at because attending means they aren't actually doing the work they've been hired to do. I'll grant that a person's outlook can certainly affect their job performance and their social graces, but deprogramming a hipster seems like a vanity operation. As if a hipster problem requires a hipster solution.

There have been attempts to neuter these irony-ish tendencies in the past. Wampole notes that the recent 'New Sincerity' work of Wallace, Anderson, and Cat Power was the most recent antidote, but ultimately could not slay the latest beast, Deep Irony.

Sadly she does not expand of what this is, but she does end on the note that seems to suggest that she believes irony is why young people are not taking part in the political process in droves.

So Wampole ends being very disappointed in her generation and half of the generation younger than her, even though kicking the youth and young adults in the shins is nothing new. The hippies got the brunt of it in the sixties. Where unkempt hair, beads, and a lack of interest in work meant the American Dream was dead.

But like, maybe that dream was more of a nightmare, anyway, man.

The threat was bullshit because the stereotype was unrepresentative of the general public. Most young people in the sixties didn't tune in and drop out. They watched the riots on television and still liked The Beatles as their music became all the more mature and experimental without having to take acid.

The world didn't end. The seventies were the big come down, but that storm was weathered (maybe that's where we are now, the bottoming out of the nineties, about to crawl back up to...what, though?).

So maybe, just maybe, irony is a symptom of the decline of the current incarnation of Western Civilization. But in terms of its importance compared to the actual mechanisms of its decline - economic policies that favour the very few, an outdated energy policy, a dearth of resources, both natural and manmade - it's on par with giving your friend a silly gift for their birthday.

This is not to say Wampole can't vent her annoyance of the foibles of her generation. I'm also upset that people walk while texting, their eyes glued to the tiny screen instead of whatever's in front of them (like myself). But those are rude, myopic people, and such a group is older than smartphones. They are also the minority.

This article looks beyond the artistic works being created today and the challenges of the up and coming generations and takes shots at the people who engage with both. And in some ways that's the easiest shot to take. To pigeonhole millions of people into a narrow stereotype that involves not caring the same way people used to care.

You don't like the cultural landscape? Then you paint something new.

You see something wrong in the world? Write, protest, take action.

But if you're mired in deep irony, only a complete personality overhaul can help you.

It's a diagnosis that might upset hipsters worldwide. But Ms. Wampole doesn't have to worry about that. Her article was published in the New York Times, so she's already mainstream and off their radars.


 

Imperial Perspectives: Star Wars and 9/11

(note: Certainly this article will be seen by some as insensitive and/or offensive, so if comparing a still extremely recent terrorist act that killed thousands of innocent people with a series of films that co-stars a stuffy english robot is not your thing, I advise you stop reading now)

(second note: For many of these analogies to work, you have to be familiar not only  with the exciting and fun Original Trilogy of Star Wars (1977's A New Hope, 1980's Empire Strikes Back, and 1983's Return of the Jedi), but the more recent trio of films (1999's The Phantom Menace, 2002's Attack of the Clones, and 2005's Revenge of the Sith), which everyone pretty much agrees are mediocre at best and terrible at worst)

 

It's a dark time for the American Empire...

How's that for a nice jumble of real and fantasy, good and evil in the opening crawl?

George Lucas's Star Wars films (which can be considered a hexalogy or two trilogies) take place a long time ago and far away, but certain aspects of the film can definitely hit close to home. Initially the connections were between the first film's contents and the many storytelling mythologies it poached/paid homage to. The fisher king narrative of a young hero's quest to save his homeland. The damsel in distress. The wise old mentor that teaches the young hero. Clowns (in robot form) to lighten the mood from time to time. Historian Joseph Campbell made a point of praising Star Wars for introducing these millennia-old narratives to a new generation (although truth be told, they're pretty much ingrained through many other forms of media, from fairy tales to reality television).

On the face of it, the politics of Star Wars and its morals are pretty black and white (to the point where the two biggest villains in the series - Darth Vader and The Emperor - wear black all the time). The big bad Empire is crushing freedom left and right across the galaxy, and it's up to a scrappy bunch of rebels to overthrow them and restore peace and justice for all. Now in any well run propaganda machine, these rebels would be portrayed as terrorists, and each of their violent acts that they see as a 'blow against tyranny' would be portrayed as evil and cowardly by the government they are attacking. But are the many citizens who don't take up arms against the Empire buying it? This is a question that really doesn't get answered in Star Wars, and is instead considered in stoner nerd movies like Clerks and columns like this one.

In Star Wars we never see the people living harshly under the Empire's vile boot. They don't seem to be considered by the Rebel Alliance at all. Only military targets are in the freedom fighters' sights, and the few times we see average folk who don't seem to have a dog in the fight between good and evil, they're growing dirt on farm, drinking in a bar, or walking around a city in the sky paid for by its mining industry. Early on in A New Hope, even Luke Skywalker admits that - while not liking the Empire - he's not going to off on an adventure trying to attack them when there's work to be done for his Uncle (his Uncle being murdered by Imperial troops is a useful catalyst to change that opinion).

But overall, if it's supposed to be 1984 with droids, it's not very convincing. In fact, through the first half of the film, the only reason you'd think the Empire is so damn evil is that it would do practically anything to destroy the rebels/terrorists (which sounds like the foreign policy of most nations today).

At least that's until they blow up a whole damn planet as a form of interrogation against Princess Leia (her home world of Alderaan). Now call me old fashioned, but I think Grand Moff Tarkin overplayed his hand here (it's got to be a tough spin for the Empire-controlled media machine to justify the destruction of a planet), even if it does forever brand the Empire as 'the bad guys'. Notably, Tarkin dies when the Death Star is blown up, and the two men that didn't really have anything to do with destruction of Alderaan are now portrayed as the worst men in the galaxy, even though neither of them do anything nearly as terrible (compared to killing millions of people in one stroke, Vader killing Obi-Wan (who really sacrificed himself anyway) is a distant second).

Was Alderaan a legitimate military target if only parts of it had rebel sympathies? (*cough*Afghanistan*cough*) Well, the rebel's retaliation certainly was, as they blew up the battle station that blew up the planet. Certainly the history books from a long time ago and far away would portray this as a sort of tit-for-tat revenge, even if blowing up the Death Star was the rebels' plan all along.

And history and how it's portrayed ends up playing a huge role in the next two films, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Luke angrily confronts the now dead but alive in spirit Obi Wan, telling him, 'you said Darth Vader killed my father'. His mostly-ex-mentor tries to worm his way out of the above statement by saying that the dark side of Anakin Skywalker overcame and destroyed his good side, meaning that it was true, 'from a certain point of view'. 'A certain point of view?' Luke Skywalker asks incredulously.

In the black and white world of Star Wars, Luke being pissed off is pretty legitimate. He was taken for a ride by his mentor, not knowing the truth about his family tree throughout much of his training, only finding out that (not at all a spoiler alert) Darth Vader is his father in the worst way possible (his friends were tortured, he gets his ass beaten, and is then told the truth, followed by 'join the dark side or die' threat).

In our own more complicated world, however, where realpolitik is practically the only politic, fudging an essential truth to get someone to do you a massive favour is considered having excellent bargaining skills. If someone attacks you it's terrorism, and if you drop a bomb on someone else it's let freedom ring.

If your worldview is that America is either the greatest nation on earth or a damn fine nation on earth that occasionally makes mistakes, then 9/11 was a bizarre mix of the dangers of bureaucratic inefficiency and the proof of the danger of trusting the wrong people. The disaster, then, in the Star Wars timeline, is what happened around the end of the Prequel Trilogy. Just as America's security and intelligence services dropped the ball that day (and if you wanted to add to the finger pointing, a president who didn't take notice of the 'bin laden determined to act US' memos), and the nation got double-crossed by a man they really shouldn't have trusted (bin Laden worked with the CIA in the 1980s in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan), in Revenge of the Sith, the Galactic Senate of the fading Old Republic is hampered by petty infighting and an inability to keep many of the distant planets under its wing in line (and doesn't see the separatist groups make a play for power), and trusts a person they really shouldn't (a powerful and charismatic senator that ends up being a Sith lord that makes himself Emperor).

This means that in the years after 9/11 - just like the gap from Sith to Hope - America was trying to get its act together to once again become a shining beacon of light in the world for freedom and democracy. Now it can easily be argued that they did a terrible job at all this (going after the evil-doers half-assed, and then attacking an unrelated evil-doer), all while restricting the freedoms of its citizens (via the Patriot Act), but hey, big corrections take a lot of time.

The good-ish news is that, just as it took time for the rebellion to gain steam in Star Wars (A New Hope picks up eighteen years after the end of The Revenge of the Sith), the hope would be that eventually America will get its act together, blow up the Death Star, suffer some setbacks (that would be Empire), but then ultimately triumph and dance with the Ewoks on Endor (or whatever the equivalent is here. Models in Miami Beach?). Now how you want to insert certain actually events of the last eleven years is up to you. Is 'blowing up the death star' catching Hussein, killing bin Laden, or voting in Obama? Are 'some setbacks' Iraq, Katrina, the financial crisis, and voting in Obama? That there can be such divisiveness in today's political climate to what can be considered good and bad is a stark contrast to the good and bad in the myths we use to allay our fears and be entertained/comforted (in fact, it is probably the main reason we seek them: a nice break from the massive confusion of actual and far reaching problems).

Certainly it's a great tale of Luke Skywalker and friends/America, but that people have two wildly divergent ideas of what the United States' ultimate defeat of the Evil Empire will look like - one side seeing a free-market-Christian-values hybrid overturning Obamacare, the other seeing a tax hike for the wealthy and a curtailing of corporate power - it's likely that some people will never see the fight as ever really ending, even if the economy recovers (or maybe that's the only vague nebulous victory we can hope for: a lowering of the unemployment rate).

So that's the pro-America (and to a larger extent, pro-Western) perspective of Star Wars and 9/11. Now we can get a bit more creative.

If you want to get onto the 9/11 conspiracy train, then you're in luck. Conspiracies - like myths - take excitement and simplicity over well researched facts, embracing certain ones that support their ideas, and ignoring the many that don't. Just as a Star Wars film doesn't paint a detailed perspective of life in the Republic or Galactic Empire (focusing on obvious heroes and villains), a conspiracy film gives you a very narrow view of a very complicated situation.

But hey, that makes it easy to align these two tales up. If you believe that 9/11 was an inside job, then Bush/Cheney/PNAC/Bilderberg are the Siths and the military-industrial complex are the separatists that support them (including Count Dooku). This group of people have been conspiring to take over the galaxy (earth) by blaming terrible acts of violence (9/11) on the Jedi (ascetics in caves in the Middle East) and that the only way to make sure they're all dead and that freedom can reign is by giving all the power (the Patriot Act, permission to go to war, locking up any dissenters) to the Emperor and his robotic right hand man, Darth Vader (I'm not sure which one would be Bush and which would be Cheney. but put glasses on Tarkin and he looks a bit like Rumsfeld).

So if that - once again - is how the Prequel Trilogy ended, that means we're currently at the time where the Evil Empire rules all, and that a small group of rebels are trying to bring justice back to the galaxy (the beginning of the Original Trilogy). Now I'm not sure if the '9/11 truthers' consider themselves as these rebels by producing conspiracy films and protesting, or whether there's just a series of events they see as attempts to foil this Empire (perhaps Occupy Wall Street?), but I'm pretty sure they see Obama as a 'meet the new boss, same as the old boss' type leader. Maybe in the eyes of the conspiracy theorist, you actually have to blow up something to get the rebel ball rolling. Which hopefully they never do, as - and let's be clear here - life's not a movie, and if we look at how actual rebellions typically fare, most fail under a hail of bloodshed, and those that succeed have years of bloodshed to look forward to. Maybe that's why these movies have blasters and lightsabers that seem to cauterize wounds immediately so there's never any blood on screen. When you get right down to it, there's a hell of a lot of killing by both sides in the name of freedom.

Which in some ways is a decent segue into the final perspective of 9/11 and Star Wars. If you believe America (and the West) is the great satan, then it works pretty well, too. The Original Trilogy links up with your struggle quite handily.  Al Qaeda makes for a easy rebel force. Bringing down the twin towers via ingenious and carefully manipulated holes in America's unsuspecting security apparatus is pretty much the plan for blowing up the Death Star at the end of A New Hope.

The Empire Strikes Back is full of your setbacks trying to defend yourself against a nation (or Empire) bent on destroying you. The defeat at Hoth can be the West coming to get you in Afghanistan, and Vader nearly breaking Luke into pieces can be the defeat of your head guy Osama.

Fortunately for you, The Return of the Jedi - where the rebels finally win, thanks in part to the Empire doing something as ridiculously stupid as rebuilding the same failed Death Star with similar security problems and defects - is a chapter that is still being written. America is not doing too well economically, its politics is corrupt and inefficient, its army is exhausted after fighting two wars with very little to show for it except a pair of barely stable, not-exactly-friendly nations that they are still pouring money into.

It's almost too good to be true. Your massive enemy that no one thought you could defeat is teetering on the brink. All you need is one more big strike and it will collapse, and then you can party on Endor all through the night. Although in your particular case, maybe the women would have to have a special, cordoned off area for them.

And therein lies the problem, of course. You're a small group of violent political extremists with religious beliefs sewn into everything you do. Now in the Star Wars universe, it's certainly glossed over that this is essentially what the rebels are. A disenfranchised group of militants fighting against a giant system that most people have eventually accepted (and the oft refrained good luck line, 'may the force be with you', can be considered 'amen' or 'allah akbar', although I'd chalk up the character name of 'Admiral Akbar' up to some innocuous wordplay). When you bring the Empire (America)  down, suddenly you've got the galaxy (earth, or at least Afghanistan) expecting some sort of organization from you, and all you've done is live in caves and train for the next battle (and if we go back to American conspiracy theorists with a penchant for guns, not much different if you're part of fringe militias in the States).

What do you do when you're in charge? (whether were talking about the galaxy or America or Afghanistan) Pretty much consolidate power as quickly as possible via uneasy alliances and make concessions left and right that make some of your followers question your allegiance to the more purer tenants that got everyone involved in the first place. As the sci-fi writer Phillip K. Dick noted, 'to fight the empire is to become infected by its madness'.

But perhaps this repetition of 'freedom here, freedom gone, freedom returns' is inevitable, both in the far reaches of space myths and on earth, which might not be so different when you take a closer look at each. After all, the entire Star Wars story got started in The Phantom Menace with a bunch of rich guys not wanting to pay their taxes.

 

Postscript: Only when typing the title in the beginning did I realize how awful a name 'Attack of the Clones' is for a movie. Wow, that's bad)

 

 


 

Stifling Summer Politics

 

It wouldn’t be so bad if…

And it’s hard to finish that sentence.

If what?

Thank goodness for slow collapses. A much as we acclimatized ourselves to the rapid pace of the 21st century in terms of the transmission of information both valuable and useless, we probably couldn’t really handle anything more than our wi-fi changing on a dime.

There are so many problems with the global financial system that the effects of them on the average person are typically lost in monumental and sometimes meaningless-sounding statistics relating to debts and deficits of nations and financial institutions. Even hearing about rising prices for essential commodities like food, gas, heating, and other utilities can sound like it’s a problem that can be solved by a pencil pusher in some government office holding an eraser. The cause and effect from a farm on the other side of the planet to a grocery or energy bill can get unwieldy very quickly.

With the crisis so interdependent, it’s a tempting challenge to unify as many of the factors and agents as possible and attempt to make some sort of hazy conclusion as to what the steps forward might be.

And there are hazards in this, as making connections and categories is actually a form of reductionism, parsing the unlike from the like, drawing a line via dates, location, and even philosophical mindsets, for what to include and discount in the overall assessment.

A great number of books have been written about the financial crisis, and considering we don’t seem to be even remotely out of the woods yet, there will be a great many more to come that will probably shed great heaping amounts of hindsight onto this period that seems to be full of quite a bit of smoke and the constant threat of sparks that can easily catch fire in this upcoming angry, politically charged summer.

There’s that word.

Perhaps that could be the term to use in the opening sentence above that trailed off.

‘It wouldn’t be so bad if…politics…wasn’t the method that has to be used to solve this problem’.

A lamentation, then, for the inefficiency of government organizations in handling this crisis. And lest you think I support the two extreme alternatives – corporate involvement and anarchy – I say fie to both of them, the first for being even greedier and corrupt than government, and the latter more toothlessly idealistic and hopelessly archaic.

It’s aggravating that government can be the tool to solve these problems, but instead politics gets in the way.

Problem that requires years of sustained and carefully monitored regulation are in the hands of political departments that are held hostage to a democratic process which has become so toxically partisan that no one really knows when a program will start, stop, have its budget cut to shreds, or be absorbed by a larger department whose goals run counter to it.

It’s a unhappy paradox that we need a very large bureaucracy to fix the glaring problems with our very large bureaucracy (‘are you part of the problem or part of the solution? ‘It depends on what day it is’).

This summer is going to be an exhausting one. Take the economy that’s still in a ditch which seems to be filling with water, then combine it with the fallout from recent elections in France and Russia, and the lead up to elections in places like Greece, America, and Mexico.

Greece is voting and it’s made out to seem like the fate of the European economy is hanging in the balance. And that might not be too far off the mark. Regardless of whether the plan is austerity or stimulus, most of the people in and with power agree that letting Greece default on it’s many loans and dump the Euro as its currency is not an option.

A lot of people across the continent will suddenly lose a lot of money if Greece crawls back the drachma, unleashing a very ugly and dangerous domino effect, much like the financial crisis that plagued the US throughout 2008.

It just happens to be a country this time, not Bear Sterns or Lehman Brothers.

And just like the consequences extend far beyond Greece’s borders, so too does the blame. Now certainly the Greeks deserve the brunt (especially those that had almost any sort of access to power, since as soon as you have that you pretty much loot the coffers as much as possible), but the world economy is so interdependent that quite a few people made a lot by exploiting the Greek economy. During the process to adopt the Euro as its currency, Goldman Sachs (in)famously doctored the country’s books to make it seem like its finances were much more robust and reliable than they actually were.

So yeah, when one gets right down to it, there was a pretty clear-cut bit of fraud (still a crime, in some places) on behalf of the country. Or the country’s government, if we are to be more specific. But is that the same thing? In a democracy the elected officials represent the people. The people are in charge and are responsible. But what if the people don’t know what their representatives are doing? Are citizens expected to look over their congressperson or MP’s shoulder the entire time? Are we back to having trust issues?

At least in Greece you can ask these questions. Putin won again in Russia and it’s gotten to the point where the victor is crushing talk of voter fraud with a half-assed public defense and a full-assed police offense. Sadly, mass arrests of protesters seem to be a marked improvement over the previous policy of actively assassinating democracy advocates and journalists who tried to expose the corruption and brutality of the regime.

So compared to this, China is getting close to becoming a utopia, where house arrest and bogus tax evasion charges are now common punishments against dissidents.

What is the responsibility of other nations when it’s clear that democracy is being stifled in some of the most influential and powerful nations on earth?

The answer is that it’s complicated, since China can control the media and jail critics because of their global manufacturing and purchasing power, and Russia can support Syria pretty much unequivocally while the rest of the world decries the country’s slaughtering of its own citizens because Europe still imports most of its oil and gas from Putin’s pocket.

Speaking of which, the current ‘heinous massacring of your own people’ is taking place in Syria (George Clooney getting arrested in a DC protest over Darfur barely made headlines in March), and there doesn’t seem to be much the rest of the world can do about it without making it worse. A peacekeeping force going into Syria is going to break the country into pieces. The risk of creating another Iraq or Afghanistan (albeit smaller) is too fresh in the rest of the world’s mind. That’s a recipe for dead soldiers, dead citizens, and further holes in defense budgets that are typically filled with cuts to domestic social programs, further crippling the economic recovery of the middle class (and therefore the respective nation).

It’s only mildly better further down the coast (and we’re not even going to bother with Israel and Palestine).

In Egypt the judiciary couldn’t wait for actual elections, and simply tossed the bums out. The Islamist bums, to be more specific. And this results in even more power being relegated to the generals and to the tattered remains of the Mubarak regime, members of which, the Mubarak-chosen judiciary said, could now run in the next round of elections.

Which is good news of sorts for the West (Mubarak had always been a pal), but the West doesn’t live in Egypt, and the citizens there shouldn’t be forced to have a leader that even appears to be slipped into the government by the previous regime.

The tragedy of Egypt is that the only organized opposition to Mubarak and the military was the Muslim Brotherhood. All the more secular and democracy-minded groups were subject to infighting, disagreements over policy, and the lack of a strong and effective leader to unite them under a single banner.

But is that in itself almost a good thing? Should we recognize real democracy in these small splinter groups with specific political goals? With the alternative apparently – if we look to America – party A versus party B with little to no overlap in between that causes utter gridlock instead of watered down but still crawling compromise, it’s best you take what you can get, even if it’s temporary coalitions that only last for three or votes before falling apart.

Suddenly the idea of a single party having a majority strikes terror in the hearts of everyone else in the country who didn’t support them. And that shouldn’t be the case if they were democratically elected, but said party is sensibly expected to govern in a democratic fashion.

Although in Canada – and regarding the notion above – Prime Minister Harper continues to take legislative strategy cues from George W. Bush’s administration and offers up the new budget in the House of Commons that is so sprawling it includes non-budget related legislation, such as intelligence gathering oversights. The budget also goes out of its way to not detail where the spending cuts will fall, angering those that rightfully expect greater transparency in such matters, such as the Parliamentary Budget Officer (!). In addition, the government is silencing and cutting funding to Environment Canada (not some political action committee, but the actual federal department responsible for researching and protecting the environment) because of non-partisan reports that point out just how damn dangerous the oil sands truly are. After all, considering that for a second risks disappointing the nation’s major customer and number one fan to the south.

Speaking of America…

The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza explains the bad news facing the country no matter who wins in November:

“Reelected Presidents often enjoy a brief respite after their second campaign. The new Congress isn’t sworn in until January, and the interregnum is used to hire new members of the Administration and plot out a fifth-year agenda. But the aftermath of the 2012 election will be unlike any other transition in memory. Election Day is November 6th. Fifty-five days later, on New Year’s Eve, the size and the scope of the federal government are scheduled to be radically altered. Federal tax rates for every income group will shoot up to levels not seen since 2001. Payroll taxes for employees will jump by two percentage points. Unemployment benefits for some three million Americans will be cut off. The Pentagon will start the new year with a fifty-five-billion-dollar budget cut. The budget allocated to everything from the F.B.I. to the Park Service to meat inspections will be slashed by the same amount. Soon after, federal payments to doctors who treat patients using Medicare, the federal health program for the elderly, will be slashed by about a third.”

It’s all about the benjamins, but people don’t even know the half of it.

There’s your bank account and then there’s the money ‘you’ owe as a citizen, who has apparently spent trillions and trillions more than ‘you’ have.

That there is a mental gulf here – trillions of dollars you never see or have direct power over is very easy to remain in the abstract – is no surprise. In fact, because it’s spent by elected representatives who barely glance at binders full of zeroes, it’s that much easier to fold your arms in the direction of Washington and say, ‘you made this mess, you clean it up’.

But that doesn’t solve the problem. Taking the above approach is not much different than the obstinate members of congress who refuse to bend from their impossible positions (‘no tax increases ever!’ or ‘no military cuts ever!’) and so nothing actually gets done at all, making everything that much worse. It’s gotten to the point that no one will actually agree to kick the can down the road.

Will the elections in November finally break the stalemate? Well Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi pretty much nails the 2012 presidential election in one paragraph:

“In other words, Obama versus Bush [through McCain] actually felt like a clash of ideological opposites. But Obama and Romney feels like a contest between two calculating centrists, fighting for the right to serve as figurehead atop a bloated state apparatus that will operate according to the same demented imperial logic irrespective of who wins the White House. George Bush's reign highlighted the enormous power of the individual president to drive policy, which made the elections involving him compelling contests; Obama's first term has highlighted the timeless power of the intractable bureaucracy underneath the president, which is kind of a bummer, when you think about it.”

That the election is a referendum on Obama’s first term is not wrong, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good basis for how one should vote. If Romney’s platform appears to be no better, why would you vote for him?

Strangely enough, it can almost be explained via the notion that the appearance of solving a problem is in itself a success on some level. If most of what Obama tried to do stalled, it looks bad on many levels, including that he’s ineffective as a leader, who apparently can’t get enough politicians to support his policies.

And the same might happen to Romney, although he has the advantage that by holding centre-right policies (well, pretty darn ‘right’, actually) these would be more likely to pass in the house and senate because these legislative bodies also lean centre-right (well, pretty darn ‘right’, actually). Even if most of the country leans centre-left, and would be more likely to benefit from centre-left policies that Obama – not Romney – espouses.

But sadly, the importance of the appearance of success is unmistakable. It’s easier to spin a successful vote that benefits the corporations and the wealthy (‘it will help the economy, and therefore everyone in the country’) than one that fails to pass that would have helped millions of unemployed people (‘well, we tried…’).

What’s happened? Has the concentrated money and power of special interests and corporations simply outplayed and outlasted the diffused money and power of the many?

Fortunately, elections still matter. But it really is the fighting over scraps. Legislation that can benefit the greater public at the expense of the wealthy few is consistently shot down. Legislation that can improve energy and environmental policy (helping present and future generations) but eats into the profits of large energy companies is stifled.

The remaining (and shrinking) tax revenue that doesn’t immediately go to defense or social security is fought over by politicians and states tooth and nail. To pay for outrageous pensions for government employees, cities and counties have had to invest in the riskiest stocks and investments, only to find themselves penniless when these bets – not much different than a roulette wheel – go belly up.

So if you’re looking to cool off this summer, tough luck, the city pool’s closed.

This wouldn’t be so aggravating if it didn’t seem like, for a good chunk of time in the not too distant past, that all this worked much, much better than it is now.

But there are countless arguments as to how to get back to that time, and whether going back is even more painful and difficult that going forward with gritted teeth and no sense of direction.

It’s that Macbeth quote all over again:

 “I am in blood
, Stepp'd in so far, that, should I wade no more, 
Returning were as tedious as go o'er.”

This can almost define politics for the early twenty first century.

No brand new beginnings, only a slight, barely perceptible tweaking of the old, regardless of whether it was successful or not.

Apparently familiarity is more valuable than innovation in the Western world, unless we’re talking about smart phones.

Good luck to everyone this summer. Wear sunscreen.

 

Sources

Lizza, Ryan. http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/06/18/120618fa_fact_lizza?currentPage=all

 

Taibbi, Matt. http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/blogs/taibblog/is-this-the-most-boring-election-ever-20120507#ixzz1uFaZpfdG


 

Occupy The Boredom of Complexity

The complicated systems that run the world today are boring. That does not bode well for the great many of us.

When someone complains that some of the explanations of important scientific discoveries or convoluted legal jargon that shapes a state’s laws are boring or too complex, the reaction can be, ‘of course they’re boring. The path to understanding – and therefore controlling – powerful ideas is boring, doesn’t matter if it’s physics, contractual fine print, or economic theories. To master these extremely important disciplines that govern how the world operates today, you gotta get a cup of coffee, crack your neck and knuckles, open the textbook or PDF file and force yourself to fucking care about yawn-inducing facts and figures. If you can’t hack it, hey thanks for playing, here’s your parting gift: an okay career that at best stops around middle management. It’s a natural way of thinning the herd. Obviously it helps if you have a steely-eyed determination or an actual passion for such details, but those are barely shortcuts. It really is just a shit load of work that many people don’t want to or cannot do. It’s not totally fair – certainly human fallibility means many instances of ‘favours for favours’ and deserving friends helping out friends who are not so deserving – but it is meritocracy-based for the most part, which is a huge change from how most of civilization has worked in the past.’

The problem with this is that it still screws over a lot of people, especially when we rightly hold egalitarianism as a wondrous trait in postindustrial western society. And what exactly is ‘postindustrial western society’? And what’s its relation to everything else on the planet? Well, the answer is complicated. And kind of boring. Even the obvious stuff that come in platitudes and affects each one of us – corporations have an uncomfortably large say in how the economic factors of the earth are run – can receive little more than a ‘cool story, bro’ from the masses (whoever they are…).

Even more troubling is when certain circles try to gloss over the boring parts of complexity and just mash everything up into an interdependent conspiracy-filled flow chart. For too many people, you don’t have to know Milton Friedman’s theories on the free market. You just have to know that he advised these presidents, who belong to this think tank and invest in this company, which means 9/11 was planned by…

Believing that near-supermen run the world from skyscrapers, chateaus and secret meetings with powerful sounding names (the Bilderberg Group, the Council of Foreign Relations, the World Economic Forum) is much more exciting than finding out that these guys are all trying to boost up quarterly earnings in any way possible (whilst glossing over the mechanics behind risky financial instruments that mathematicians and physicists have number-massaged into existence), live in fear of a populist uprising, and get jealous when another CEO gets an award or limited edition lamborghini. Simpler on the brain, too. You don’t have to understand how the minute details of their agendas work. You just have to know they’re there and resent them.

It’s the easy route. So’s not giving a shit one way or another and taking a ‘just the vote the bums out’ approach to elections. The hard work – the constant vigilance that true democracy requires – is learning what the people ‘in charge’ have learned.

Which really gets in the way of living your actual life. Anything we all can’t do we have experts for. From the plumber that fixes your sink, to the accountant that does your taxes, to the congressional aide that writes the bill with a lobbyist leaning closely over his or her shoulder.

What’s frustrating is that while more information than ever before is available thanks to the internet, it doesn’t necessarily result in more people accessing, considering, and acting upon said pertinent information. And that’s an uncomfortable fact. When given the opportunity to access this knowledge – which is, despite the cliché, certainly power – many people don’t take it. It almost reinforces a hierarchical (elitist?) notion of human society. Those who will, do. Those who won’t, don’t.

Chomksy said that the proof that Americanw could retain highly detailed, technical knowledge can be seen in the obsession with sports statistics and strategies (sometimes the wildcat is more counter-intuitive than the two slit experiment). Not one to miss an opportunity, it wasn’t long before the news media covered political campaigns like sports events, where winning strategies and the perception of victory took precedent over already thin policy discussion. Oops. Not that we can quickly blame the media (that would be too…easy). When given the opportunity between a sensational news channel and a less-sensationalist news channel, most people take the former.

So we all have our limits. We accept that we can’t know everything, but then what should we know? What is our responsibility to our present and future society to understand and base important decisions upon? Elected officials typically focus on test scores of children as the barometer for the state’s level of intelligence and understanding, while thoughtlessly lauding the average citizen for knowing the hows and whats of the nation. This is dangerous (of course, an elected official calling his or her constituents a bunch of dolts is a danger to their re-election hopes). The people you want to make sure are the most knowledgeable are the ones casting the votes. The problem is that knowledge itself has become unwieldy, with niches blossoming into sub-niches. And even a bullet pointed list would reach into the thousands. And it’s complicated by the suggestion that what does it mean to really ‘know’? That you remember reading how something works? That you can recall it and explain it to someone else? Is this still a skill, when google and Wikipedia are in your back pocket? Our ability to access any sort of information instantaneously - through the wonders of technology, developed faithfully by science - is partly responsible for a dwindling attention span, but the dirty little secret might be that most of us are just not equipped to handle boatloads of desert dry facts and figures that quickly spirals off into its own lexicon.

In a complex world, understanding how important issues interact with each other is just as important as understanding how the issues function on their own. And while many of them are problems we’ve had to deal with for centuries, the world has changed so fast in becoming one massive interdependent community that solutions that could have worked a century ago are now hideously obsolete. Science has grown like, well, if you know anything about cosmic inflation, like cosmic inflation. About one hundred and fifty years ago, you could be a scientist, and dabble in all things that this discipline included, although of course you would have a focus (say, electricity). Now, atomic physicists and molecular physicists don't share the same department. Explanations in science for why things are the way they are has taken so many winding – yet sound – paths in recent decades hit as made it hard to encompass physics, chemistry, biology, and psychology into one cohesive, interlocking whole. The idea of any system is interesting to non-doctorate holder in the way the story about how Einstein discovered the theory of relativity is interesting (patent clerk surprises everyone). It better have a glossy, superficial narrative heavy on the human element of overcoming obstacles. Relativity – that is, the idea that existence is experienced uniquely by everyone – is built into the fabric of the universe. Time is relative, and matter is constantly in a non-rest state, vibrating between unlikely-but-infinite possibilities. We have the uncertainty principle, practically an oxymoronic phrase if there ever was one. And while people can understand this on the level of word meaning, and perhaps make a philosophical construct and ramifications, the mechanics behind many of these ideas – which is, in fact, quantum mechanics – are so convoluted that even proponents of such theories admit to being baffled at some of their own discoveries. Stephen Hawking was told that for every equation he added to A Brief History of Time, it would cut book sales in half. Consequently, he only included one, the one that everyone knows, but does not necessarily understand (e=mc2).

It doesn’t get any easier when the power of money is brought more forcefully into a system. Even when explaining derivatives and credit default swaps, newscasters found themselves retreating to analogies, which implicitly suggests that ideas are too complex for the average viewer. These are math equations that destroy economies and are meant to overwhelm people with supposed inarguable numbers logic. And in the end, these things were being used to prop up rotten human decisions. But it’s hard to apply a sense of focused outrage to these ideas of perilous leverage and bad accounting (much more went to the sizes of their undeserving bonuses, a much more obvious thing to understand). White collar crime is staring at numbers on a spreadsheet. Blue collar crime is the exciting opening to another episode of Law and Order or COPS.

Humans are naturally curious, but many of us are able to put a deadline on our curiosity, as other aspects of our lives get in the way, from eating, sleeping, working, socializing, and the travel of varying lengths between these activities. Concentration on ideas that become larger and more complicated cannot compete with short disposable blasts of ‘curiosity nuggets’ like gossip, sports, and whatever’s new on the internet. How to change the arcane rules of governance that favour the few – or simply reading a three hundred bill about to be voted on – is an episode that cannot necessarily be accomplished in one sitting and requires a great deal of planning and research before getting down to business.

Deferring to the experts seems to the sensible course of action, but it's also throwing one’s hands up at ever trying to understand entire disciplines and fields of knowledge. And of greater concern, it still leaves us vulnerable to the careful tweaking of the presentation of the information (not necessarily the information itself) by intervening parties that could use public support for their own ends. Which can lead to catastrophic problems of misinformation, certainly some of which is happening now (and has happened in different ways since civilization began). Believing one understands when they really don't is much more dangerous than not understanding at all. Or what if only a fraction of the population or of a specific group or movement understands the basics of an important, pressing issue? Does that give them more of a say in how to move forward? Are they still ultimately expected to bring their decisions to a wider non-expert vote? All of the Occupy Wall Street protesters knew that the top 1% have been getting richer, but not many of them could explain the dangers of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Financial Modernization Act of 1999. Being under-informed in situations like that can harm the movement’s reputation and its own ability to make decisions.

These issues are long and winding, and even large-scale victories or achievements are only temporary, with future debates and discussions inevitably down the road. Democracy requires round-the-clock supervision. Meanwhile, sports games end. Highlight reels end. You’ll be done television in an hour. You can read gossip for five seconds, do something else, and then come back to another juicy tidbit, not having to remember anything that came before. It’s throwaway information in tiny fragments, which makes it easier on the most basic level to deal with.

Can you appeal to one's sense of duty? That there are things more important than ‘interesting’? Does mandating an hour of statewide education classes every day reek of proto-totalitarianism? You could try for duty, but it would have to be voluntary. One has to choose to be a well-educated citizen. The Catch-22 (of sorts) for democracy is that you are free to not protect it at all. The end result is that there can be an actual reversal of what ‘matters’. Part of the interest in sports and certain aspects of culture is that they do not matter in the same way politics, economics, and war matter. That football, music, and television are diversions from personal– work, family – and public realities. Oddly enough, many people claim the opposite: that it’s these cultural touchstones that affect and inspire them, and it’s politics and the economy which doesn’t matter (because they feel they can’t do anything about it). It can be considered a fleeing of responsibility or an acknowledgment of the entrenchment the larger system finds itself stuck in. And this dismissal can be done so quickly and effortlessly but still count as a political ‘opinion’, as if it could be a reasonable position for a person to take in a participatory democracy. We’re hardwired to do ‘easy’, and only begrudgingly accept ‘hard’. And those that can do ‘hard’ with more focus and finesse are the ones that have a better chance of succeeding in this world of complexity. Not that this ability means they’re going to be particularly moral or charitable when it comes to how they’ll wield their ‘power’, it just means they’ll have a better chance of wielding it in the first place. Don’t think that’s fair, or are afraid it might lead to huge problems? Better go get yourself a coffee and started reading up on Locke, Keynes, Zinn, and Fukuyama…

 


Christmas is Dead, Long Live Christmas

 

It’s Christmas time. The malls are packed, the traffic’s slow, and alcohol – that wonderful social lubricant – is making inevitable get togethers that much more bearable.

Oh, and most of the Western world believes that the half-god saviour to all humankind was born on December 25th, roughly around zero BC. Just thought we should be clear on that.

Despite no reprieve from the global financial crisis, the holiday season and the gift giving it inspires are alive and kicking. Out materialist, consumer culture can squeeze blood from any stone, as long as marketing has an enough of a lead-in time to convince us it’s actually a diamond.

Like all good free market structures (well, maybe good isn’t the right word), materialism cares not a whit for your social background or religious affiliation. While a noble progression in human civilization in one sense, it does demand the one thing that divides the world into the haves and have-nots: cash.

Yet while this constant drive for more is especially acute during the Christmas season – and should probably spur on a rather intense dialogue over its present and future merits – the debate that typically comes up this time of year is the place Baby Jesus has in this increasingly holy-less holiday in an increasingly holy-less world.

An x percentage of people who recognize that there is a decline in the adherence to Christian doctrine typically see this time of year as when this concern should be screamed most vociferously. After all, as they see it, it’s their holiday the rest of us are snatching from them and rebranding as feasting and presents, even if most of the people still claim to believe in a personal god.

But the drive to ‘Keep the Christ in Christmas’ is not the responsibility of the sellers and shoppers, but of the genuine religious folk who feel the celebration of their messiah is being usurped by the latest ‘[something] me Elmo’ and the iPad 2. Your chosen house of worship and living room should really be all you need when it comes to giving glory to god. If you’re going to make a public display of it in a democratic state, you’re suddenly putting it in the hands of the ever-swaying majority, whose tastes might not dovetail so easily with yours, and can change over time.

Christians tend to turn to history and tradition as the backbone for their arguments, but it rings rather hollow considering there’s no reason to believe at all that the events of Christ’s birth actually occurred in the month of December (which on Roman calendars, was the tenth month). The gospels don’t give any dates, it wasn’t adopted until the fourth century, and it didn’t get its name until the eleventh. It was a relatively minor celebratory event in the early days of the church, paling in comparison with Easter.

But pre-Christian celebrations around the end of December, ah, those were quite popular with those troublesome pagans (which most of the world was in the early centuries of the church). Even if they all didn’t have a concept such as December, they did have the sun, and something very special happens around the same time in yearly cycles. It is the Winter Solstice, and it’s nothing to scoff at. We’ve been looking to the heavens for so long for guidance, it was only a matter of time before people made some basic observations that the three to four days of which is now December 21st to December 24th was when the sun was at it’s lowest point all year. But then it begins to rise, and stay in the sky a bit more each day afterwards. For the Romans this was good news. That’s always been the silver lining of December 21st. Sure it’s the first day of winter, but it’s also the date that days begin to get longer.

The celebration was the return of the sun, and such meaning was not lost on the Christians trying to convert the many revelers of this day. Assimilate! Your return of this sun can now be the annual celebration of the entry of god’s son into the world. Synergy is not just for late twentieth century business philosophy.

Oh, and the fundamentalist pilgrims that landed in the American colonies initially banned the celebration of Christmas, going so far as to fine people that did.

But just ‘cause it’s been pinched from the pagans and you’ve turned a blind eye to historical contradictions to your argument doesn’t mean you can’t stress the religious importance that Christmas means to you, or to a society where a majority of the citizens claim to be Christian.

If you want the holiday to be a solemn acknowledgement of the Virgin Mary giving birth to Jesus Christ in a stable manger in Bethlehem, so be it. Buy nothing, worship ardently, judge not yet ye be judged, and yours is the kingdom of heaven.

But why on earth would you expect Wal-Mart to approach this momentous event with the same level of humility and reverence? How could they? It goes against their own most basic and highly important values: Whatever the customer wants at rock bottom prices. And for millions of people there is no problem with this. They can live with believing in Jesus Christ and still max out their credit card in the electronics and toy sections. Should we be concerned that there doesn’t seem to be even a slight hint of cognitive dissonance in celebrating the entry of the godhead into our world while loading up on wrapping paper, bottles of Bailey’s and Best Buy gift certificates? The collision of the symbols of ultimate permanence and ultimate disposability are going to rub some people the wrong way, but if most can thoughtlessly do this balancing act, what is the harm? Does one dare imply that this makes god angry?

And if you have a Jesus fish on your car it makes sense that you’d be disappointed that someone might say ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas’, but what exactly does a Christmas Tree or egg nog have to do with the messiah?

If you believe that Christ is really the reason for this holiday, why load up on anything else? Why dilute this divine miracle and gift with too painfully human gifts? Maybe it makes sense that our poor aping of the actions of God and the wise men are typically measured in dollar-form, but if that disappoints you, by all means, do not take part and keep your soul and/or conscience clean.

And it’s the same thing with the issue of Christian symbols or terms on government property. People are getting upset that in some instances at City Hall a ‘Christmas’ Tree is a now a ‘Holiday’ Tree, but that’s one of the qualities of the modern democratic state: as Christmas has moved away from a Christian-only celebration, it’s adopted to incorporate a wider berth of citizens, which is the point of democracy itself: participation. And if you’re still upset, remember that you’re to love your god more than your country. The qualities of the earthly kingdom got nothing on the heavenly one. And if you follow Christ’s beatitudes, your possible ‘suffering’ because of all this government rebranding, is actually a fast pass to salvation.

There are two sides to Christmas. You can try to have 70% god/30% Santa, but you can’t kick up a fuss when many people just want those percentages flipped, or one dumped completely.

Christmas became secularized as the societies that celebrated it became secularized. We took the parts that were enjoyable to all – the food, the gift giving, the social gatherings, the music – and carefully marginalized the more dogmatic aspects of the religious celebrations (although angels and nativity scenes are still found on window ledges and in front yards). It’s not the only religious holiday this has happened to. Look at Easter, whose ‘mascot’ is not Christ suffering for our sins but a mystical rabbit that gives chocolate eggs to children. At least Santa Claus is based on the actions of a saint. He was Saint Nicholas until Coca-Cola got a hold of him in the early twentieth-century.

So in some ways this alleged ‘war on Christmas’ is really a ‘war against modernity’ (man, it’s pathetic the way we’ve abused the term ‘war’, belittling it by applying to the complaining about how people celebrate holidays). The changes to the foundations of society have occurred so swiftly in the last century that the only things that unify us as people are crass and superficial commercialism. The stable family unit, the stable accepted form of worship, the stable accepted hierarchy of people, all of this has fallen by the wayside, creating lumpy and confusing egalitarianism. And in many cases this is wonderful (the emancipation not only of minorities across the globe, but of women, homosexuals, and other cultural groups long-maligned), but it’s been hell trying to get everyone organized and on the same page once again to make big ideas and projects work. Even if the idyllic time when Christmas was celebrated properly by god-fearing Christians was not exactly real, certainly there is something disconcerting to be said when corporations are exploiting the holiday and its built in goodwill to sell everything under and behind the sun for a tidy profit. When you can buy nativity scenes that cost thousands of dollars, even an atheist should shake their head sadly (it’s almost something evangelical Christians and anti-globalization/corporate protesters have in common).

In other words, absolutely everyone has a right to be annoyed or disappointed at what Christmas has become, but only because it has become so many things to so many people. To use a tired and overused term, it’s become post-modernized. It’s a religious holiday, a cultural holiday, a religious holiday stolen by PC-thugs, a cultural holiday stolen by the corporations. And on the most functional level for the millions of people around the world who are involved in the retail and manufacturing industry, it’s practically their meal ticket for the year.

On top of that, never doubt the importance of practical positivity. Many North Americans and Europeans celebrate this last week of the year regardless of their religious leanings just to bolster their spirits before the two and half months of cold shitty weather comes in with full force.

It also happens to end the calendar year, so it’s a time of reflecting and celebrating of the year that’s past (also a ‘relatively’ new development. The year change – as going from December 31, 2011 to January 1, 2012 – used to take place in the spring), and looking forward to the upcoming new twelve months. It’s a period of transition and change, even if in the most basic sense it’s just a movement of a number in an arbitrary date in our counting of time.

As the numbers change, so do we, as do our customs, and just as people wish it was still 1659 or 1956 (and whatever traditions we might have had then), you can’t really go backwards. You can just go forward and adjust the best you can, with goods friends and family to help you along the way.

So to one and all, Merry Christmas, whatever the hell that means.

 


Leave Chewie Alone! A Look at the Tinkering of one’s work post-release

When is art completed?

The most popular and seemingly sensible answer is when the artist finally premieres it. And that once it’s out there in public its gestation period is over, it’s set it stone, it is what it is, end of story. The bits of the curious public make up their minds, and a star is born, killed, or tossed back into the heap of irrelevance.

But it’s not that simple.

As artists and writers emerged in the Renaissance as talented individuals, as auteurs (to use an anachronistic term) given almost complete freedom in their work, their benefactors and the public gave them plenty of rope, albeit begrudgingly. As Johnson notes in his tome, Art: A New History:

“Art history is often presented as though artists are in the grip of irresistible forces, spirits of the age, trends, periods, Mannerism, Baroque, Rococo, etc., and create their works under compulsion. Nothing could be further from reality. The truth is, art is all, or mostly, a matter of self-confidence, which comes from the acquisition of reliable skills, and a major artist always possesses it. It allows him to follow his daemon, to the degree he wishes, consistent as always of course with making a living, and a self-confident artist can usually do that.” (Johnson, pg.415)

‘Self confident’ could be both a great overstatement and understatement. An artist unsatisfied with his or her work after the fact could be the sign of a raging ego (‘it’s brilliant already, yes, but I’ve just had a flash of inspiration that can make it better’) or a nonexistent one (‘it’s not good enough, let me just fix it up over the next week or two, please’).

Yet even then there were grumblings over delays and the sudden request or demand for a wealthy buyer to return their purchase for ‘touch ups’. While Dutch artist Frans Hals would finish other painters’ portraits (or have them touch up his own), Giorgione would change his own compositions frequently (notably La Tempesta), and masters like Michelangelo and da Vinci left many commissioned works unfinished or abandoned due to constant toying. It was tolerated because of appreciation for the artist’s talent, but because this relationship existed in the typical economy of monies-in-exchange-for-goods-and-services, the customer was not simply a passive receiver. For his or her investment, it was expected that the artist would meet their requirements and deadlines. To burn your patrons – or even simply treat them badly – is a guaranteed way to find yourself ostracized from the community that your livelihood depends on.

On the other side of this perspective, some pieces are meant to be open ended, with audience reaction a key part of the feedback loop for the artist. This can range from simple commentary at one phase or another towards completion, or actually participating in the creation of the work by picking up a brush or assembling the pieces of the work a noel fashion. Cage’s 4’33 – with the noises of the theatre filling the void of the piano not being played – cannot exist without an audience. The Gates – installed by Christo and Jeanne-Claude in New York’s Central Park in February 2005 – practically demanded that people encounter them in their daily affairs going through the massive park.

To further this, the argument can be made that the art or cultural work in question is never truly finished, as it actually exists as a relationship between the creator and witness. If the meaning of a work can evolve over time, as different generations can ascribe their own interpretations to it, why should the content itself remain static? This can be seen in some Dadaist philosophies (Hugo Ball: "For us, art is not an end in itself ... but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in.”), or how New Order remixes its own music years after initial release.

In twentieth century popular culture, though, the relationship is typically unilateral, at least until the ratings, box office receipts, or sales reports come in. In the desire to keep the audience, an artist – with a certain amount of pressure from the financers – can find themselves pressured to tailor their works-in-progress to whatever is successful at the moment. After the success of Star Wars in 1977, it was ‘add space’. After Nirvana, it was ‘find shaggy loud guitar bands’. In the last decade, it has been ‘add vampires and/or zombies’.

It only gets more complicated when the art in question is popular in such a way that there several hierarchies of fandom to describe just how much the millions of people like, love, or are obsessed with it.

Such appreciation can make an artist rich, and free them from any constraints that producers, editors, or executives might impose upon them. The problem comes when one acknowledges that altering released popular art and culture is a rarity, and that when the artist or creator does decide to make changes, he or she risks the ire of the community that has embraced the original piece.

With this, we now move to George Lucas, and his incessant toying with his creation, the Star Wars Sextology (or would dual trilogy be more appropriate? The term ‘Original Trilogy’ is used by the fan community to describe the three films released between 1977 and 1983).

The entire saga is being released on Blu-Ray DVD (re-re-released?), and with it come big and small changes to the original three films that, now revealed, have upset the large fan community whose hearts and minds are fused to the initial versions.

Thing is, it’s been quite a ride since 1980 for Star Wars fans, who have had to get used to a lot of sudden changes. The second film – The Empire Strike Back – was labeled ‘Episode V’ in its iconic opening crawl, and the first film – released as ‘Star Wars’ in 1977 – was re-titled ‘A New Hope’ and christened ‘Episode IV’.

But these were superficial changes. It wasn’t until 1997, when the original trilogy was re-released in theatres (to introduce a new generation to Star Wars, and build up hype for the three prequels – Episodes I, II, and III – that would be coming out starting in 1999), that parts of these films were changed. Deleted scenes were added in, with computer-generated graphics. Backgrounds were made more detailed, also thanks to high-tech wizardry.

Lucas at this time was extolling the virtues of the power of digital computer images and video, that he could create alien worlds and battle sequences with greater ease, detail, and complexity with a hard drive rather than miniatures, models, and camera tricks.

And he was right. He could.

But should he?

As noted above, a lot of people like Star Wars (understatement). A lot of these people have proven their affinity with their wallets, with many spending hundreds, thousands, and tens of thousands of dollars on merchandise, collectibles, and limited editions. Star Wars fan fiction – which is exactly what it sounds like – became such a big underground industry that Lucas authorized dozens of books written by others to expand the universe much further than the six official films (and the Clone Wars animated miniseries). It is no longer a cottage industry. It’s big business, but like all businesses, it can’t afford to ignore the concerns of its customers. The Star Wars fan community has invested plenty of time and money in their little big world, and whether Lucas likes to admit it or not, had some sort of seat at the table when it came to his tinkering with the past. And they could walk away at any time. Not unlike the wealthy Venetian merchant who got Caravaggio to paint his wife’s portrait and still had the right to bitch and complain if he thought the painter didn’t capture her eyes. It doesn’t mean Caravaggio had to go and change it, but the merchant might not use the guy to paint his kids or horse in the future.

So the question is also, who owns this particular form of mass art?

It’s certainly not public domain. All those little circled c’s and tiny tm’s are there for a reason. Millions may revel in the world of Star Wars, but it’s Lucas who has the law on his side. But that doesn’t he should avoid walking the boards lightly. While obviously unofficial ‘investors’ in Lucasfilm, changing the stuff of people’s nostalgia should be done with surgical like quality, and with a compassionate ear.

Or, if that’s not your thing, you could just tell everyone it’ll look better. Maybe now that the Ewoks’ eyes blink, you’ll bury those nagging doubts about a teddy bear army defeating several platoons of Stormtroopers.

In his defense, Lucas was by no means the first person of artistic stature of recent times to do this. In fact, early on, much more innocent changes were met with similarly harsh criticism.

In the 1980s Stanley Kubrick made slight alterations to the sound quality of Dr. Strangelove and was labeled as an obsessive, forever toying with his films and never satisfied. For Kubrick it fed into the public’s persona of him as an American expat recluse perfectionist. Requiring one hundred takes of Tom Cruise walking into a room for Eyes Wide Shut didn’t help his reputation, but that film felt the wrath of high-minded cinephiles when it was announced digital figures would be added to obscure sexually explicit images during the orgy scenes. Kubrick had just passed away, having handed in the final cut to Warner Bros., who announced that the director was okay with these new changes. A handful doubted this, but certainly not enough to protest to get the decision overturned. Maybe if there had been a line of HAL 9000 action figures a bigger deal would have been made.

By the time Stephen King was wrapping up his three decade old magnum opus – the seven part Dark Tower series – he was dissatisfied enough with the first novel – The Gunslinger – that he rewrote sections (humanizing the protagonist, altering characters, removing certain cultural references) and re-released it, claiming the original was the work of a ‘young, inexperienced writer’ and that the changes would make it more consistent to the overall story. Few fans grumbled, but the lack of having an original still available seemed to be a rather concerted effort to rewrite a history that was much beloved in the first place. The positive feedback from the first novel helped spur King to keep going. Why mess with success?

And if the work of Stephen King is a bit too ‘plebeian’ for your tastes (although I suppose that puts it right on par with Star Wars), let us not forget there are well over a dozen different editions of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Joyce scholar Jack Dalton claims that the first edition is the most accurate, and yet still has two thousand textual errors. An ensuing ‘Han shoot first’ type-debate took centre stage in various literary publications between the various factions that believed the corrected text (published in 1984, sixty two years after the original) was Joyce’s original intention, and those that felt if Joyce wanted it to be different, he had nineteen years between the first publication and the time he scheduled his own Irish wake.

George Lucas’ friend Steven Spielberg altered a re-mastered edition of E.T., digitally replacing the authorities’ guns with walkie-talkies (spoofed on South Park by showing what it would be like if the same change was made to Saving Private Ryan) and removing the childish insult, ‘penis breath’, but saw the light and atoned for his sins at a recent public appearance, saying it was like, “robbing the people of their memories of the movie”. To tumultuous applause, he announced he wasn’t going to make any further changes to any future editions to his films.

In terms of absorbing hostile receptions to changing beloved pieces of art and culture, Kubrick (in the case of Eyes Wide Shut) and Joyce have the bulletproof defense of being dead.

In the Spielberg and Lucas cases, the alterations comes on the heels of some sort of new edition of the work or a new type of hardware that will play the – in these cases – film. So some cynics can certainly argue that it can simply be a matter of marketing, where making these changes can help sell a product the fans already own, as it’s the ‘extra little something’ that they don’t yet have.

Even if they don’t really want it.

Because for Lucas it doesn’t seem to be part of a simple marketing campaign. He gets the brunt of the criticism for making changes to well-loved work because he seems unapologetic and determined to continue making them.

His defense is that he is making them better, but it feels like the only way this is true is purely in the visual sense. HD and Blu-Ray give the picture an incredible clarity and sharpness, which allows one to appreciate the rich visual details of these films, and it does a great job at merging the original and added digital special effects from the 1997 editions.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Adding CG to backgrounds is one thing, but replacing an original character – human or puppet – with a computer graphic is another matter entirely.

It’s not that it suddenly looks wrong, or even that it looks different. It’s that it looks unreal, because, in many ways, it is. Yoda is a fictional character, but the puppet used in Empire, Jedi, and The Phantom Menace is real, voiced and operated in part by Frank Oz. It is brought to life like any other character in the story and acts alongside Luke Skywalker, played by Mark Hamil. What we are looking at on screen he is looking at on set. There is physicality to the interaction between the two that disappears when there is an overreliance on computer-generated images. Why would you suddenly create a sense of disembodiment in the audience by replacing the puppet with pixels?

The excuse that these films can now look like you initially wanted them to appear (and with scenes you can finally film properly now that you have the technology) ring quite hollow. If you only grudgingly accepted the technical limits of special effects of the late seventies (even though in Lucas’ case by making Star Wars he practically reinvented the special effects industry), you seem to be tacitly admitting that it would have been better to wait and make the films decades down the road when computers could better serve your dreams. That you compromised initially, and the films were in some way a disappointment (which many, many people would digress).

But that’s my personal opinion, and Lucas can add or alter whatever he wants in his films. I don’t go in for the ‘these are treasures from my childhood and he is destroying them’ argument. So while it is frequently overblown, the only gripe I have with making changes is if it weakens the movie or art in question.  And suddenly we enter the realm of subjectivity, tempered strongly by some very forceful opinions of people who liked the art ‘just the way it was’.

It’s just that if the scenes you add are redundant – Han arguing with a CG Jabba in Mos Eisley in A New Hope, the extended dance sequence in Jabba’s liar in Jedi – why are you bothering with it at all?

Even worse is when it breaks up narrative consistency, and while a sci-fi fantasy space opera isn’t a stickler for realism, that’s no excuse for ignoring established and accepted continuities. Lucas confusingly does this in newer editions of Return of the Jedi by having the youthful spirit of Anakin Skywalker stand alongside the wizened spirits of Obi Wan and Yoda at the end of the film. In the original it was a middle-aged man, the same who recently died in his son Luke’s arms on the Death Star, which reinforced the idea that when a Jedi died and became a spirit, he (or she) appear as they do at the time of their death (Obi Wan was progenitor of this trait). Instead he now appears as he did at the end of Revenge of the Sith (the third episode and sixth film), just before becoming ‘more man than machine’, with younger actor Hayden Christensen playing him. And while it can be argued as that was the time that Anakin Skywalker ‘died’ and became Darth Vader, it ignores the redemption of the man that occurs at the climax of Return of the Jedi. Was saving his son the act of a man becoming Anakin Skywalker once again, or was it Darth Vader just killing his boss?

Speaking of that bit…

If you are hitting the viewer over the head with a ‘noooo!’ at the climax of the original trilogy when Vader turns, you seem to be suggesting that it wasn’t good enough originally when it was done in silence. What changed? Was there really a sense of confusion of what was going on? Who is this for? Children? How dumb do you think they are?

It was easy to accept the CG changes made in the last fourteen years or so, but that’s because the special effects weren’t the main reason people loved Star Wars. Sure that was a real cool part of the film, but it was mainly a well-told action story with good acting, the occasional subtle moment making these broad character clichés seem human. The dawning look on Obi Wan’s face when he realizes ‘that’s no moon’, an obvious hand puppet dispensing brilliant Zen aphorisms, ‘I love you’ ‘I know’, and Vader’s silent decision to throw the emperor down an elevator shaft (an absolutely perfectly done example of cinematic subtly with immense and grandiose repercussions).

For a world of sci-fi, which requires a lot of expositional information for the audience that doesn’t live in a galaxy far, far away, Star Wars did a great job at ‘show don’t tell’. I have no idea why Lucas is sabotaging one of his own trump cards.

After all, to use a great line from another famous trilogy, ‘when you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk’.

Right Han?

 

Sources

Johnson, Paul. Art: A New History. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003.


 

Means to Offend: Schindler’s List and Tracy Morgan

 

Shock and horror comes in all sort of flavours, and they have to be properly tweaked, dulled, or shaped to be presentable to us in an artistic form. While the order of importance of the following traits can vary depending on one’s personal inclinations, it is generally agreed that the arts should entertain, educate, and illuminate (or at least attempt to, save for the canon of Michael Bay).

Dealing with horrible subjects – or subjects in a horrible way – can send these three qualities into a tizzy, depending on how the artist(s) approach the material.

Since art is a form of representation (that is, not real) liberties can be taken that cannot in real life (yes, yes this is all quite basic, but a lot of arguments against the acceptance of certain artistic works seem to forget this simple fact). People can be safely killed on stage, in front of a camera, or on paper. If the artistic work is based on fact in some way, representations of people can be safely killed.

As murder is the most egregious of crimes in human civilization, it has been the subject of art for a very long time.  A tragedy – usually referred to when something horrible happens – was originally a term for a type of play where something horrible happens, typically to the protagonist. The Greek play Oedipus Rex loads up on terrible, shocking topics that are still frowned up today: murder, incest, eye gouging. It is an epic tale of pride, ignorance, lust, free will, and the abusive power of the state, with one of the most shocking and depressing endings in the history of narrative tradition.

And on the other end of the scale there’s Naked Gun, where a man explodes in an apartment hallway because our hero sticks a flowing firehouse down his throat. Later he appears to be sexually assaulting the Queen of England. The sequel begins with him accidentally beating up the First Lady.

So our appreciation for the depiction of death, sex, and folly has plenty of room to play around in. Here are takes on two extremes:

 

Schindler’s List: Abject Horror with Credits

Schindler’s List is an anomaly not only Spielberg’s canon, but essentially modern mainstream filmmaking in general.

During his interview with James Lipton on Inside the Actor’s Studio (not necessarily my favourite program, as the guest(s) is/are typically not the most interesting (Jennifer Lopez? The cast of Will & Grace?) but when they have a great director (who can share great stories about their craft) or comedians (‘cause they’re just, y’know, funny) I’ll actually watch), Spielberg noted that there were none of his cinematographic ‘toys’ involved in the film’s production, and Lipton opined that, ‘the Spielberg style was almost invisible in this film…this is a film where it just seems to be happening’.

Which kind of hits the nail right on the head, making it in some ways difficult to analyze as a work of art.

Coming out 48 years after the end of World War II and consequently the Holocaust, the memory of the event was – and still is – one of the vivid, shocking, and complicated in modern history (yes, the memory, as it could range from shocking first hand accounts to outright dismissal). We each bring our understanding of the genocide to the film, although, as Spielberg notes, most of our images were in the form of printed anecdotes, black and white photographs, or brief newsreel footage. Schindler’s List fills in these gaps by making these memories come to life. Chilling, inhuman snapshots now have a distinctive and authoritative before and after.

It is the most shocking docudrama in the world. Its scenes of life in the Krakow ghetto and Auschwitz are effective on a visceral level. Dialogue becomes sparse because none is required. We know what happens, and while that in many cases can lessen the surprise or effectiveness of the storytelling, because of what happens – not a pleasing, or even fair resolution – we can only continue to watch with shock and shame. The film’s true ‘end’, with actual holocaust survivors placing stones – a symbol of respect – on Schindler’s grave, drives the point home that we are to remember this event, that we should learn from it and do whatever power we have from prevent it from happening again. An extremely noble yet unfeasible goal, considering that since both the end of the second world war and the release of the film, genocides have sadly continued, taking the lives of millions of innocent people.

So what to make of the hopeful aspect of the film that gave it its name? Oskar Schindler saved the lives of six hundred Jewish people by having them work in his factory, and while not the most noble man in the world, can easily be cited as a beacon of light  in a time when all around was horrifyingly dark. And to create a definitive hero, there needs to be a definitive villain, and so we are given Amon Goeth, a brutal Nazi soldier charged with running Auschwitz, although when your enemies are Nazis, you’ll never have a problem with presenting any and all as cold and depraved.

Which is fine for a film. Actually, perfect for a film where good and evil truly is as black and white as the print. But making it so simple is almost cheapening the magnitude and historical context of the event itself. Traditional storytelling narratives in Schindler’s List fall flat because what they are being injected into – the systematic slaughtering of ten million Jews and other people the Nazi’s deemed as ‘undesirable’ – is beyond traditional storytelling narrative, certainly in respect to what is expected by a film funded by a major American film company and one of the most successful directors of the previous two decades (another decision of note, then, is the speaking of English – catering the film to American audiences – rather than the accurate Polish and German, but Spielberg felt that including subtitles would distract viewers from the visuals).

Claude Lanzmann, director of the nine hour holocaust documentary, Shoah called it a ‘kitschy melodrama’, but of course that what these parts are going to feel like when contrasted with images of unspeakable cruelty and the killing of millions.

This is what the art is expected to do, sometimes more awkwardly than some would like. By importing a holocaust documentary into a film about hope and humanity within such a shocking event the art can be better absorbed by millions who may not have been prepared or willing to learn about such periods of history.

Is it a ‘dumbing down’ of the holocaust? Well it’s certainly not nine hours of authentic interviews with survivors. It features a trio of movie stars from the UK and Ireland. Spielberg claimed to have directed the film for a salary of $0, claiming it would otherwise feel like ‘blood money’, but certainly some people made plenty off its nearly three hundred million dollar profit.

Does this make it in inauthentic? A fraud? An insult to the memory of the holocaust itself? A missed opportunity? I would argue that it’s none of these things, that it is simply art and the people who are looking to find a perfect representation of the horrors of the holocaust are never going to find it and that they will have to satisfy themselves with such reflections and fragments that are slave to their own artistic form, such as Schindler’s List. Shoah is a historical document. Spielberg’s film is a tale within the same history that Lanzmann’s documentary explores. If the goal of art is to educate, entertain, and illuminate, then something must be said for the success of being able to reach as many people as possible, especially for such an important and tragic event like the holocaust. Lanzmann’s films may be more faithful – really by nature of it being a straight up documentary – but it’s better known by scholars than by the general public.

But that does not necessarily end the debate over the presentation of the film. Despite its historical ties and public familiarity, it remains a film that – due to its graphic nudity, violence, and disturbing images – is still debated for its level of appropriateness. When it was first shown unedited on network television in 1997, it was criticized by then Oklahoma congressman Tom Coburn, who took aim at its violence, profanity, and nudity. Figuratively punched in the face by everyone who knew better than to attack this film, Coburn quickly backed away from his comments (the same debate came up when Saving Private Ryan was about to be aired, violence and profanity in tact). It’s also an unofficial but popular choice for high school history classes, as it can be both educational and inspiring at the same time. It exists in that liminal space where its topic means infinite exceptions that most films could never warrant when it comes to being allowed into the classroom (a teacher friend of mind laments that in a recent film version of Merchant of Venice, thanks to exposed breasts in the background of the scene where Shylock gives his famous soliloquy, she cannot show it in class).

Because the matter of ‘The Final Solution’ is so sobering and serious, it evades the typical criteria of what is offensive because the entire matter is offensive and despicable. It’s so horrible that it’s an insult to treat it with kid gloves. Spielberg didn’t pull any punches, but he did add a story, which was a step back from the abyss, which seemed to have perturbed certain critics, from Lanzmann to Terry Gilliam. But then how should the holocaust be studied? By no means should one consider Schindler’s List the final say on the event, but nor should one consider Lanzmann’s take – even if it considerably more accurate – as the ultimate perspective, either. Spielberg’s film – with its hints of soothing narrative familiarity – could be seen as a gateway instrument to a greater understanding to the holocaust and life in Nazi Germany as a whole.

So in its attempt to be both historical document and inspirational tale, the film seems almost schizophrenic, but mesmerizingly and stunningly so. Schindler’s List is a scattered film, but that is probably inevitable when trying to retell these parts of history that effortlessly combined bureaucratic-like efficiency and mass murder. Of course the theme of hope is laboured. But it’s important that it’s there.

 

Who’s Laughing Now? Tracy Morgan and the State of Jokes in the Early 21st Century

And now we go to the other side of the issue. If the previous section looks at when seriousness succeeds, then part deals with when laughs fail.

Part of my background is Scottish, and my Dad was once given a book of Scottish jokes, which is where I learned a lot of Jewish jokes. See, a stereotype for Jewish people is that they love money, and a stereotype for Scottish people is that they are incredibly cheap, which is apparently close enough for jokes regarding the former to be only slightly tweaked to apply to the latter. Case in point:

Q: How does a Scotsman/Jew cure sea sickness?

A: Lean over the side of the boat with a penny in their mouth.

I didn’t say they were good jokes…

But such stereotypes by now are so ridiculous that the only people that take them seriously are racist/conspiratorial-morons. This of course does not mean they are not capable of offending (for obvious reasons, people can certainly react negatively when they find out how you can fit twenty thousand Jewish people in a Volkswagen Beetle). The trick for the art of comedy then, just as Spielberg attempted to educate and illuminate in Schindler’s List for the art of drama, is to properly align entertainment, education, and illumination, and not have it blow up in your face.

TV star and comedian Tracy Morgan recently apologized for an anti-gay rant he made in the middle of a standup comedy show in Nashville (http://www.avclub.com/articles/updated-tracy-morgan-under-fire-for-homophobic-ran,57385/). Already I’m complicating the issues by making it sound like he stepped out of his standup comedian persona and addressed the audience with a serious, from-the-heart complaint, which is not true, as the rant was certainly part of his comedic routine. If you read the text, anything remotely resembling a joke is pretty hard to find within that screed, but – and this isn’t defending Morgan for this material – his style of standup is such that divesting the words from the contextual delivery does a great disservice to the material and how it is presented. Morgan speaks in a rather silly, faux-idiot voice, so in some respects when talking about possibly offensive ideas the joke is meant to be on him, and that makes it funny. Of course, you have to be careful with possibly offensive ideas, otherwise it’ll sound like, well, what you read up there.

Context is everything and within the context is the form. In his own standup comedy specials, Louis CK has used gay and racial slurs, said he would consider fucking a dead child, and that it might be okay to rape Jews. Why is CK never called upon to apologize or faced with walkouts? Because the way he treats these ideas do not come off as inherently offensive or abhorrent, and the audience finds it okay to laugh. In the recent HBO documentary, Talking Funny, Jerry Seinfeld equates CK's ability to do this as, 'jumping over six laser beams'. 
Handled badly, offensive jokes come as a simply offensive. 
A month or two later, an Onion AV Club (the ‘serious’ culture section of the newspaper) article by Steve Hayden concerned what genuinely offends him (http://www.avclub.com/articles/what-is-morally-offlimits-in-pop-culture,57054/), and he cited a bit from a Larry the Cable Guy film – Witless Protection – where Larry interrogates an Arab, which was full of the most base and ridiculous stereotypes. Hayden found the scene appallingly written, denigrating towards two cultures, with no redeeming value (obscenity is typically defined as that last one). Now I'm positive that the producers of that film did not intend to be offensive with that scene, but because it was a poorly made film, it was handled badly, and came off simply as offensive. Tracy Morgan's comic persona tried to make a detestable idea – violently hating homosexuals – funny, and the laser beams got him. Should he have apologized for saying such things, which he quickly did at great length? Well it would sound pretty lousy if he just said that he was sorry his joke didn't work, even if that was the true problem.

And with a spat of criticisms coming upon the usage of the term gay and gay jokes – in addition to serious and important campaigns to make coming out easier and more acceptable (itgetsbetter.com) – it seems time to discuss what the future might mean for jokes of all sorts that take aim at a particular group or person.

To get started, here’s my favourite gay joke:

Two gay guys are in their apartment, and they’re bored out of their minds. The first says, “Hey, let’s play hide and seek. I’ll hide, and if you find me, I’ll give you a blowjob.” The second says, “that sounds great, but what if I can’t find you?” The first replies, “I’ll be behind the piano.”

Is this an offensive joke?

First off, what’s the funny kernel of truth here, if anything? That gay men like to have sex? Well, geez, I think we can be a lot more accurate by saying that there are many jokes were the basic ideas is that men – straight or gay – like to have sex (popular punch line: “You’ll only be able to use one of them at a time”).

Furthermore, it’s not focusing on one supposed characteristic of homosexuality. It focuses on the actual definition of homosexuality – sex between two men (or two women) – rather than any unfair and alienating stereotypes (based typically around effeminate traits for gay men, and masculine traits for lesbians).

And it’s slightly odd as this is the only group where such a blanket activity definition is possible (although there are certainly variations on the activity itself).  There are no ‘Jewish’, ‘Black, ‘WASP’, or ‘French’ way of acting. There are unalienable facts that define those groups (skin colour, place or lineage of birth), but any activities attributed to them en masse are based on stereotypes.

Does this mean a gay joke about stereotypes of homosexuality - how they speak or having a love of showtunes -  should be considered more offensive than one that’s are about oral sex?

It’s a weird question, certainly, and there is still the taboo of discussing sexual acts – whether straight or gay – that means it can always trigger a negative reaction in some people, sometimes no matter how deft the teller – whether professional comedian or co-worker – is. There are very few guides or rules for comedy – hell, breaking the rules is considered an excellent way at branching out and creating new forms – but if one goes basic enough, there are pearls of wisdom to gleaned.

You can only mock the less powerful if you also portray yourself in some sort of less powerful way. Not necessarily in the exact same way – meaning that only people of a particular culture can make jokes at that culture’s expense – but in a way that shows that you are by no means superior. Part of Louis CK’s success in making jokes about various races or groups is that he stresses how he himself is fat, pathetic, on the verge of a nervous breakdown and chronically dissatisfied with his existence (“my life is shit”).

Tracy Morgan’s standup persona is that of a man-child, saying the first thing that comes into his head with a just-farted-in-church grin plastered on his face. Watching him on a talk show, you might wonder if he was drunk or on drugs. Is that an excuse for being able to say whatever he wants onstage at a theatre since it’s a comedy show and not a pulpit or podium?

Well, yes and no. Earlier this year comedian Gilbert Gottfried got fired as the voice of the Aflac duck after he tweeted several jokes about the Japanese earthquake days after it occurred (the insurance company does big business in Japan). Once again, context is everything, and sometimes a smidgen of tact or self-depreciation can go along way in smoothing out such jarring wisecracks. It’s one of the unintended drawbacks to the internet. Now it’s possible to experience certain things – in this case, jokes – completely stripped off their original context (where they would typically be told in a comedy club where people are primed and ready for laughter, with a more open mind that when they read about the jokes the next morning at work).

Tracy Morgan tried to make fun of gay people in the same way he talks about Michael Jackson or superheroes and it didn’t work. But if there’s one thing – beyond talent and professionalism – that allows for such attempts at humour to occur with scathing condemnations, it’s the passage of time. At one point explaining what an Irishman’s idea of a seven course meal was – a six-pack of beer and a potato – could be considered offensive. Today a poster of the Hindenburg disaster with the caption ‘oh shit!’ can be viewed at with a chuckle. This doesn’t mean that is always okay to make fun of certain groups or every (including recent) plane or blimp crashes, but neither of those ‘jokes’ would be taken in the same way in the late thirties.

Now obviously certain things take longer to be accepted than others – although it should be noted that the Nazis and their policies were successfully lampooned as early as 1968, with The Producers – but history is always recontextualizing itself, and in the future even events like the holocaust will be remembered with a different level of solemn and brooding humanity that we currently offer it

This doesn’t mean though that when gay people are firmly embraced by civilized people across the globe as equals in every way you can successfully joke about stabbing your gay son without fear of retribution. The rules might be loosened over time, but they are not necessarily removed.

The handling of offensive or shocking ideas – whether for serious or silly purposes – need a careful steady hand, and sometimes even that won’t stem the tide of criticism. Both extremes – Spielberg and Louis CK on one hand, Witless Protection and Tracy Morgan on the other – need to exist for the line of what is accepted and isn’t to be assessed and investigated, with the merits of the art itself at the centre. The debate of how such ideas are handled – whether within the world of film criticism or the instant-reaction-plus-press-releases of the internet – are signs that not only while such a debate never end, but that it is a healthy facet of a functioning free society.


 

Mindless Movie Categorizing

(editors note: Since the last update was a 22,000 word essay on the destabilization of contemporary political discourse, we’re lightening the mood with some lists concerning that supreme cultural distraction of the twentieth century: the feature film)

(this is the obligatory spoiler alert)

 

TEN AMAZING MOVIE SCENES (in chronological order)

-Two Grouchos and a broken mirror (Duck Soup)

By offering up an over-the-top plot (Groucho’s the president of a country! Chico and Harpo are spies!), the Marx brothers tie up and flog slapstick and satire, but in the infamous mirror scene, only the former is tackled. Trying to steal some war plans,

Harop dresses up as Groucho in a pajamas and cap, only to run into the real Groucho on the other side of a recently broken mirror. Sensing something awry, Groucho tests his ‘reflection’ with a series of absurd gags that Harpo matches to a t. In a movie filled with some of the most joyous diversions from its crazy plot, the mirror scene is rarely equaled for its timing and originality (and proof that Groucho didn’t need to open his mouth to be damn hilarious).

 

-Kane clapping alone (Citizen Kane)

Another movie filled to the brim with great scenes, but grounded in sobering drama rather than playful absurdity. Kane pushes his second wife into an opera career she doesn’t have the ability for, and, at the end of opening night for a show he bankrolled, while the audience applauds out of politeness he stands up and continues clapping long after everyone has stopped. Rather than inspiring, it quickly becomes painfully awkward (for both audiences). In a film that chronicles the inflexible drive for success, this scene shows how even his love for someone can succumb to ambition. The frozen face on Welles as he (overly) praises his wife is filled with enough conviction to bend the laws of space and time. But it isn’t enough to sway the masses. It’s a man fighting against the will of the people. And losing.

 

-Harry Lime and Holly Martins on the Ferris Wheel (The Third Man)

In Welles’ other classic role, as the devious and charming bootlegger Harry Lime, he starts off dead. Sure it’s great when Joseph Cotton spots him in the middle of the night in a doorway as the light from a nearby building briefly resurrects him, but it’s the scene the next day as the two men square off in an empty ferris wheel carriage in a Viennese fairground. And what do they do? They talk plot. They threaten each other subtly. Lime gets philosophical and thinks about people as dots. Martins needles him with their mutual love interest. Lime considers pushing Martins out the open door at the wheel’s top.

It’s a great moment of two old friends playing personal relationships and politics, and ends with such a frequently regurgitated but amazing quote that we won’t bother repeating it here.

 

-The President and Prime Minister’s phone call (Dr. Strangelove)

Peter Sellers is given three roles in Kubrick’s war satire classic, although when he plays the concerned but nebbish president on the phone with the Russian prime minister, he has to, in many ways, perform this unseen and unheard fourth as well. By turns humiliated, hurt, and exhausted, we imagine a blustering and emotional Soviet on the other end, while laughing the whole time. Despite the threat of nuclear war hovering over the entire film, even the determined President Muffley – who earlier came across as rather steely and stern towards Scott’s General Turgidson – cannot resist arguing over who’s more sorry over the entire mess and describing the actions of the officer who initiated the attack as going, “you know…a little funny in the head”.

 

-“Open the Pod Bay Doors, Hal”/’Daisy’ (2001)

(two Welles appearances, followed by two Kubricks? Maybe a narrow net, but a good one)

Sure it’s all fun and games in the war room, but out in space it’s deadly serious, especially if the Hal 9000 computer believes astronaut Dave Bowman is jeopardizing their all too important mission to Jupiter.

Words are sparse throughout the film, and when they are used here, they are so direct and to the point it would almost be farce if not for the reality of the two characters involved. Hal has killed all the other astronauts, and Bowman is trying to return to the ship with the retrieved body of one of them. It’s the one moment in the film where good and evil is blatantly obvious, but with the villain being a supercomputer, we don’t get gloating or explanation of any nefarious plan. Hal is holding all the cards, and a pleasantly monotone voice replies to Bowman’s above request simply with, “I’m sorry Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that”, informs that any further conversation would be useless, and so essentially hangs up.

It’s the silence before and after this brief bit of dialogue that shows the starkness of the situation for Bowman. Deep space is a death trap for humanity – his capsule is holding onto a corpse, after all – and it appears that our technology has gotten the better of us. And it won’t happen with maniacal laughter, but with an emotionless reminder that we are rather irrelevant to the situation at hand.

Of course, when Bowman gets back in and begins to deactivate his adversary by removing its hard drive with a screwdriver – perhaps the computer equivalent of ripping out someone’s guts – our hearts begin to break as Hal loses his mind and slowly sings ‘Daisy’ as he shuts down.

Dying homicidal robots aren’t the most sympathetic characters, so it’s a true showing of Kubrick’s strength to go from one extreme to the other in just five minutes.

 

-Alvy and Annie in line to see a film (Annie Hall)

It’s hard to make waiting to buy tickets interesting, so Woody Allen tosses in the thing we hate the most about it (the person behind you yelling opinions in your ear) with gleeful and impossible revenge (shutting down his argument by bringing in media theorist Marshall McLuhan from out of nowhere, who calls him a fool). In between we get a great fleshing out of our two leads, miserable motormouth Alvy Singer and the delightful la-dee-dah Annie Hall. In fast paced, reference dropping banter (Regarding the couple behind him: “Probably met by answering an ad in the New York Review of Books: ‘Thirtyish academic wishes to meet woman who's interested in Mozart, James Joyce and sodomy’.”), we fall in love Alvy’s sense of humour and Annie in totality. A run-of-the-mill couples argument is turned into an obscure Henry James novel.

The modern romantic comedy – and the challenge of trying to balance a believable relationship with genuinely humourous moments – was born in Annie Hall (with this scene in particular), but nothing has come since this film’s 1977 release that compares.

 

-Willard gets his assignment over lunch (Apocalypse Now)

Another dialogue scene? What about the attack on the Vietnamese village with ‘Rise of the Valkyries’? What about the end, featuring ‘The End’? Well, that’s all pay off. Don’t get me wrong, it’s sweet, sweet payoff, but the payoff means nothing if we’re not invested in it from the beginning.

We hear the point of the movie speak almost two hours before we see him. Upper echelon army men play Willard (Martin Sheen) recordings of Marlon Brando’s Colonel Walter Kurtz ruminating on snails, assassinations, and the true meaning of the world bullshit, and then ask him to “terminate the colonel’s command” (said nervously by Harrison Ford, in a role with none of the swagger he’s become known for).  And while the one dude that looks mysterious and only says one thing has been a stock character for a long time, it never gets better than the guy here who looks to Willard and says, “terminate…with extreme prejudice.”

The whole thing is an audition for Willard, who lies and agrees when he’s expected to, but has no idea what he’s getting into. The military brass want to neutralize a difficult situation, but he just wants a job.

Oops.

 

-Saburo gives his father shade (Ran)

King Lear gets the samurai treatment in Kurosawa’s last epic film. Showing replaces telling in many cases, so to prove that Cordelia-equivalent Saburo loves his aging father Hidetora, as the near-senile patriarch falls asleep in the middle of a field, he cuts off some leaves and braches from a nearby tree and sticks them into the ground nearby to give the old man some respite from the hot sun. Saburo expects no gratitude from this, as duty is meant to be its own reward (a duty that includes telling his father an unpleasant truth will result in his banishment).

It’s a brief scene, both amusing and affecting, and because we know of the horrors to come thanks to Lear’s legend, it’s a moment worth embracing to show how love can manifest itself in what is essentially a film exploring distrust and warfare.

 

-Jules talks to, yells at, then shoots, and finally kills Brett (Pulp Fiction)

“What ain’t no country I’ve heard of! Do they speak English in what?”

So says Jules Winfield, played perfectly by Samuel L. Jackson, to some helpless dweeb named Brett who was eating a Big Kahuna Burger (“the cornerstone of any nutritious breakfast”) and somehow screwing over Jules’ boss. Jackson’s performance – in a film filled with brilliant ones – moves from mocking glee to unrestrained anger so naturally that you forget only moments earlier, before entering the apartment he tell his partner, “come on, let’s get into character”. It’s all a put on, and it’s terrifying what happens when Jules gets down to business. The Bible’s never sounded so cool.

 

-Batman/Joker interrogation (The Dark Knight)

Good and Evil were pretty straightforward when it came to Dave and Hal in 2001. And at first glance, it’s the same here, too. Batman represents order, Joker represents disorder. Like Lime and Martins in The Third Man, it’s another bit of excellent talk talk (with the Joker’s words becoming prophetic as the movie goes on), but quickly moves onto the meat of the matter: where’s the missing DA? (and to raise the stakes, his and Wayne’s crush, Rachel Dawes)

When Batman gets medieval on his nemesis’ ass (although it really is Bruce Wayne screaming “where are they?!”), we’re enthralled at how we want Batman to pummel the fucker while at the same time enjoying watching the Joker resist.

It’s physical versus cerebral, and since brains beats brawn (“you have nothing to threaten me with, nothing to do…with all your strength”), the Joker wins and wins and wins, and because he’s so riveting, so outside of rules, we don’t mind. We just want more.

 

(too much talky-talk in the above list? Fine, here’s the antithesis…)

 

Top three movie fight scenes:

Three – Skywalker vs. Vader, Empire Strikes Back (we swear, we’re not nerds. This is actually a good fucking movie. Lay off!)

Sometimes it’s hard to excise individual movie scenes from the larger cultural impact that the film – or series of films, in this case – has had on modern pop culture. In this case, it’s become so big that the parodies of it are bigger than the original (proof: most people get the line wrong. It’s not ‘Luke, I am your father’, but simply, ‘No, I am your father’). Chuck Klosterman notes that this movie’s bleak ending was pretty much the zeitgeist for the then-adolescent generation x’s eventual outlook on life.

But without reading too much into it, try and think back to the first time you saw The Empire Strikes Back and looked forward to its expected climax, with Luke Skywalker coming to Bespin and saving the day like last time (and getting revenge for Darth taking down Obi-Wan in the first film).

Oops.

Dividing the epic fight into three sections, Luke barely wins the first round, gets his ass pummeled in the next two (Vader cheats like a true asshole, at one point telepathically throwing objects at Skywalker), gets his hand cut off, and is finally told by the big man that he’s his son, and Luke, after realizing it’s true, tries to commit suicide. Luke leaves the fight with nothing but his soul.

Heavy shit for a sci-fi film. Hell, heavy shit for Shakespeare. But it works perfectly with Lucas’ vision of these epic characters, the nuanced directing of Irvin Kershner, and the acting of Mark Hamill and the combined skills of Jones and Prowse. It should be noted, then, that the rematch in Return of the Jedi was one of the few good things about that film.

 

Two – McClane vs. Vreski, Die Hard

No, not the first Vreski brother that breaks his neck stumbling down a flight of stairs while tussling with McClane early on. Rather, his older brother Karl – now full of revenge – and one angry New York cop with glass in his feet have one hell of a scrap in a giant utility room on a rather exciting Christmas Eve. Guns, chains, kung-fu, you-think-it’s-over-but-it’s not, this one has it all. And these guys go the whole hog in making it seem as brutal as possible. It’s one thing to lose yourself in a role, but Willis comes off not so much heroic as psychotic when he lays waste to Karl while screaming: “You shoulda heard your brother squeal while I broke his fuckin’ neck!”

 

One – Daesu vs. Hoods, Old Boy

One dude + hammer + about a dozen jerks + one continuous shot = awesome

 

(And finally…)

 

6 Types of Bad Exposition Scenes in Film

Exposition is just a fancy word for “what the hell was going on before you came in”. Sometimes you can’t always ‘show’, and must resort to good old fashioned ‘tell’. But it’s not necessarily easy.

6. The Nuts and Bolts

Terminator 2 – The T800 tells us our future

We get the basics of how lousy robots end up being in the original Terminator, but hearing the year by year destruction of our species from a nearly unkillable android with Austrian accent is particularly depressing. No flair for language, not even a sniffle. It’s as if Schwarzenegger is reading a grocery list. He could have at least tossed in the odd ‘Hasta La Vista, Baby’ that John Connor just taught him.

5. The Anti-Exposition

No Country For Old Men – The Hotel Room

Sure T.M.I. has entered into the cultural lexicon because were too lazy to actual say, ‘too much information’, but having N.I.A.A. (‘no information at all’) is much worse. We expect a final showdown between Llewlyn Moss and Churgth, who have been going at each other over a satchel of money the former stole from a drug trade gone wrong.

Instead Sheriff Tommy Lee Jones comes in and kind of looks over the mess – with Churgth most likely lurking in the shadows – and some offhand remarks are all we’re given when it comes to what went wrong and why our hero is in a body bag. Sure we get it, but we don’t really understand (and our catharsis isn’t even satiated when Churgth goes and visits Moss’ wife? Is she still alive? What the fuck happened?).

4. The Nick of Time News Report

Close Encounters of a Third Kind – Roy gets a helping hand

In some ways this film was chosen arbitrarily. Close Encounters usually keeps us guessing the whole way through, not really showing its hand too obviously as moves to its climax. It does cross the line once, though, in a way that has become so clichéd it can’t really be used without the audience rolling their eyes. Just when the hero is stuck, he or she flicks on the television, and lo and behold a news anchor is reporting on just the thing that the character is looking for, and will go into detailed specifics of where, why, and when. Not only that, but they always tune in around the beginning of the report so they don’t miss anything.

3. The Source Material Handicap

Every Single Moment of Dune

At least most of the movies on this list are, on some level, good. Dune can’t really claim that. An adaptation of Frank Herbert’s dense novel of the same title, it doesn’t just take place in a distant, sci-fi universe, it takes place in a distant sci-fi universe with a trade conflict between various galactic factions and an extended royal family in disarray. Plus a mineral on a desert planet that gives people strange powers, a creepy adult in a child’s body, and – just for the hell of it – giant worms.

It’s hard enough to make heads or tails of this in a 500 page novel, but turning it into a 2 ½ hour film is practically impossible, which is why every line each character utters has to explain what they did years ago, what they’re doing right now, and what they will do next. Imagine stuff like aquarium alien scene (which is the first video you'll find in this link to a very good overview of this and many other problems with the film: WTF Case File #170: Dune | DVD | My Year Of Flops | The A.V. Club) over and over again.

And Sting is in it. Which really kills the mood, since whenever he talks all you can really think about is the ‘Roxanne’ drinking game.

2. The Gloating Supervillain

Matrix Reloaded – The Architect’s Speech

It’s the big moment in your big sequel. Your audience has sat through some pretty cool fight scenes and a pretty awful speech/rave in the bowels of the future earth. Now Neo steps through the special shining door into… a Best Buy TV department with a dickish philosophy professor sitting in a leftover prop from 2001, who proceeds to explain that there’s a conspiracy behind the conspiracy, Neo’s number seven instead of ‘one’, this has all happened before, and people are so stupid they can’t even handle paradise. To make it worse – being a robot/computer program – he loads up this alternate history with ‘ergo’, ‘vis-à-vis’, and ‘[techno-babble]’. Neo listens and listens, and then makes jarring conclusions when the audience is still two revelations behind.

As if this wasn’t enough, the Wachowski brothers – who apparently realized this was killing the momentum of their film – intercut this pivotal scene with Neo’s love interest Trinity getting her ass handed to her by an Agent. An attempt to liven things up which actually makes this essential blah-blah-blahing even harder to follow, as you forget whatever the hell the Architect said while watching Carrie-Anne Moss tumble through an office in S&M gear.

It’s a supervillain giving their triumphant speech, but the audience doesn’t follow it clearly, which means it doesn’t really blow our socks off and we don’t really know the long-term ramifications when Neo makes his decision (other than he wants more Trinity tail).

Why did Matrix Revolutions suck so much? It all started here…

1. The Cop Out

Star Wars – The Opening Crawl

Hollywood, 1976

Film Executive: So… because of stuff that happened years ago, these robots and aliens are trying to blow up the big grey circle thing?

George Lucas: Well, the Wookie is helping a smuggler rescue the rebel leader-

Film Executive: What the hell’s a Wookie? And the black guy with the gas mask. He’s the terrorist leader?

George Lucas: No, he’s working for the evil empire. But the terrorists aren’t really terrorists, they’re good rebels-

Film Executive: Didn’t the big grey thing blow that planet up? That place with all the sand?

George Lucas: Fuck it. I’ll just begin the thing with a couple paragraphs explaining everything.


 

Christopher Nolan: 90% brilliance, 10% sleight of hand 

Taking this article’s title into consideration, it can be said that The Prestige, director Christopher Nolan’s fifth feature film, reveals the most about the auteur’s technique and vision.  Ironic perhaps, as the film itself is a story about two rival magicians who go to increasingly dangerous and deadly lengths to top one another in late Victorian era London, while keeping their methods as secret as possible.

In The Prestige, wise old Michael Caine gives us philosophical musings on the importance of utilizing what is concealed and revealed, shown and hidden, believed and dismissed in the world of illusions. These types of balance are difficult to perfect and perform on stage in front of an audience, but are equally challenging for a modern film director, as their hard work is also placed in front of hundreds of paying customers waiting to be taken to a world where rules are bent and mystery reigns.

Christopher Nolan’s career up to this point spans twelve years and seven films, a mindboggling pace in the world of contemporary Hollywood cinema, especially considering the quality and popularity of his output.  Like Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale in The Prestige, he is a consummate professional showman, with his primary trick being fooling us into believing we are seeing something we’ve never seen before. Setting up scenes and entire narratives that frequently defy any level of plausibility but still seem inherently logical. Building a labyrinth of philosophical concepts that seem profound but really do not go deeper than a skimming of the surface of the issue. In his review of Nolan’s latest film, Inception, New York Times critic A.O. Scott notes that the film offers up many questions regarding the nature of reality and how both the conscious and unconscious mind can alter dreams, but – like the teasing final shot of the film – they are left mostly unresolved.

Additionally, Nolan’s most popular film, 2008’s The Dark Knight, finds Batman battling the Joker on ideological grounds, the former representing the limits of law and order, the latter pushing the belief that anarchy and chaos is at the heart of man and civilization. Despite the obvious philosophical and psychological binaries that could be addressed, such as Nietzsche’s Apollonian and Dionysian desires and Freud’s id vs. ego, Nolan doesn’t seem to offer a conclusion other than, “it’s complicated”, instead focusing on Batman fighting off dogs and (almost) throwing the Joker off a building.

Of course, few people watch a movie concerning masked superheroes in order to expand their epistemological opinions on the nature of justice. No matter how successful any film is in addressing such concerns, it frequently runs the risk of weakening the quality of the film itself. At the same time, certain constraints and expectations by the studio – especially for the Batman films – may limit how often and how complicated Nolan could wax philosophical, even if he wanted to. Besides, if Nolan wanted to write a logical, thought-provoking assessment on the nature of dreams and how they affect our interpretation of reality, he could have written an essay on it rather than have Joseph Gordon Levitt fight goons in a zero gravity hotel hallway.

Therein lies one of the problems of becoming a blockbuster auteur. You have a reputation of making smart films with car chases, but not too smart, and with not too many pointless explosions. Once again, another balancing act that takes a truly gifted illusionist to pull off.

So how exactly does it work? Much like both the rudimentary and complex illusions depicted in The Prestige, Nolan is able to dazzle and blindside his audience with smoke and mirrors so that we are unable to notice any gaps or flaws. Upon quick inspection, it looks like he’s holding an ordinary birdcage, that his twisting left hand means no one notices that he palmed the card in the right, and that he had just survived what should be impossible. These moments where something awry is occurring become believable in the illusionist’s hands because everything else around seems normal, logical, part of the plan.

Nolan’s films are greater than the sum of their respective parts especially because, when held up to either momentary reflection or particularly intense critical scrutiny, the parts themselves are frequently awkward, misshapen, and not suitable for proper fusing with each other. Just like any magic trick, once you spend a bit more time with it – known as ‘repeated viewings’ in film terms – you can see the forest from the trees. When watching the film for the first time in a cinema – the ideal location for a blockbuster film – dismissing certain narrative loopholes can occur with ease. The duplicating machine in The Prestige is only used for a single magic trick, the Joker’s impossibly complicated plans – orchestrating a robbery where his co-workers all kill each other in succession, detonating a bomb in a nearby henchman’s stomach with a cell phone – going off without a hitch, money solving any obstacle in Inception, all of these push the bounds of the suspension of disbelief we bring to a story. What keeps us from questioning these instances is the illusionist’s power to have other parts of the film as entertaining distractions.

Nolan gives us brilliant shrapnel of engaging story devices and filming techniques. We get an almost comprehensible plot, slightly-more-than-wooden genuine characters (or extremely well written cliché characters), a back and forth volley between exposition and action sequences, as if they are rudely squeezed together in two and half hours of painstakingly laboured over film fantasies. Just don’t forget the light sprinkling of crafty and well-placed one-liners and catchphrases that help the films create their own internal and external memes (‘You have to learn to dream bigger, darling’).

Separately, these qualities – even if executed perfectly, which is rare in any film, including Nolan’s – would not in any way guarantee a good film. Put together, though, they can help overcome their own and the other qualities’ deficiencies and offer up what appears to be a brilliant, well constructed, thought-provoking, heart-beating two hours of entertainment.

For instance, Cobb’s dense exposition on how dreams work is saved from slowing the pace of Inception down by having Ariadne – using impressive special effects – fold a Paris street on top of itself. Narratives introduced in the last thirty minutes of The Dark Knight feel like it should have being the beginning of a third installment of the series. The rapid introduction and inclusion of Two-Face works well for Nolan’s unrelenting raising of the narrative stakes, but the endings for both the Joker and this new villain are rushed and feel like afterthoughts when compared to their slow and hypnotizing ascension (when Two-Face was the heroic District Attorney Harvey Dent) throughout the film. Memento, Nolan’s first feature film and the critic’s favourite, is told backwards, and like Martin Amis’ novel which uses the same conceit as the narrative structure, Time’s Arrow, the twist ending contributes to the emotional weight of all that came before. But even Roger Ebert pointed out the main story loophole: How does a man with short-term memory loss remember that he has short-term memory loss (as the protagonist does, having to get particularly important tattoos on his body to remind himself of the important facets of his mission for revenge)? Guy Pearce’s acting skills and the backwards plot ‘gimmick’ normally can keep these questions far enough away from the filmgoer’s mind as the film plays out in front of them.

The question becomes, then, for film criticism of the blockbuster sort, is whether upon repeat viewings, when these films are more cruelly inspected and consequently dissected on the operating table, these slights of hand stand up as well as they originally did. After all, once you know the magician’s secret, the trick becomes practically worthless. Few directors have the gift of creating a film that is just as breathtaking and expansive upon a second viewing, and even fewer are able to do it more than a handful of times in their career (Kubrick is the first that comes to mind). These directors are known to be insular, obsessive, and totally immersed in the project at hand, taking a multitude of roles – director, writer, editor – in order to make sure the final product is as close to their imagination as possible.

Nolan certainly fits this mold – famously, he never uses a second unit, preferring to film every single shot himself – but his success has made him an anomaly the critics are rather uncomfortable with. Not only are his films extremely profitable, but all are Wagnerian in scope. Even if there are moments of subtlety within the films – a trait that many critics like to cite as something that is usually appreciated on repeat viewings – the overall impression is one of deafening, over-the-top climactic scenes. By asking us complex, thematically relevant questions and then hitting us with car chases and zero gravity, we inadvertently settle for muffled answers. It is as if the label ‘blockbuster’ or ‘car chase’ immediately narrows the breadth and width of the dialogue of the ensuing criticism and analysis.

The ‘smart’ action film is certainly a rare breed, but it is even harder to find such films being discussed with the fervour in critical circles that salivate over the work of, say, Lars von Trier (or if not salivate, then perhaps eviscerate, but at least there is a dialogue). If Nolan is able to sneak his way into this realm with well-made films that pay lip service to big ideas, then chalk it up as another successful trick of the master illusionist.

The difficulty then has become not necessarily the quality of contemporary films – whether they are big-budget action films or art house independent features – but how they are now approached by a world of film criticism that has become paradoxically more stratified and more egalitarian in the early twenty-first century. Sight and Sound’s Top Ten Poll that is compiled decennially by critics must now contend with the Internet Movie Database’s Top 250, which can be voted on by absolutely anyone whenever they have an inkling (in the wake of the three Lord of the Rings releases, each one made the top ten list there within a week). This gulf is nothing new, but it appears to be solidifying, so when there is a possible fence-sitter – as much of Nolan’s work can be considered – how to deal with it becomes a mystery. Is it ‘smart/clever/complex/revelatory/thought-provoking/original’ enough? What is its cultural impact? Must we wait several years to see if it has ‘changed’ film? Are we to be impressed when a character in a film that has grossed over $750,000,000 is named after a Greek mythological character, as Ariadne is in Inception? Does this sort of link to ancient myths make for a better film, or is it simply another sleight-of-hand for the more literary-minded? Does the fact that the superhero film employs the common but unrealistic theme of ‘just in the nick of time’ disqualify it from more refined analysis, even though the director of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight is able to weave his magic so deftly we barely notice the clichéd trope?

In a Christopher Nolan film the audience is immersed into the world being projected onscreen so strongly – as if it was a dream they could not wake from – that flat characters and story loopholes are pushed completely out of consideration.  From this can come two schools of thought: Nolan is either a charlatan for covering up these faults with fancy camerawork and explosions, or he is a cinematic genius because he so effortlessly covers up these faults with fancy camerawork and explosions. A talented filmmaker is able to make you forget you are watching a movie, and just like illusionists, it’s not cheating if at first glance it doesn’t look like they are.

 


North Korea: The Only Batshit Crazy Nation Left

The craziest people are the ones that don’t know they’re crazy. Typically the positions these people hold in society are not well-respected ones. If they aren’t in institutions, they usually have a menial job or are cared for by a relative. An unfortunate number of them can be found wandering around the city streets, with no particularly place to go. What they all have in common is their warped and marginalized view on reality. Paranoid, insular, delusions of grandeur, with an intense distrust of all those that try to convince them that they just might not be right about this or that.

Imagine some of these people given free reign over a country of twenty four million, and you’ve got a good handle on North Korea.

Perhaps my language may seem too harsh. After all, a more charitable assessment might be that while being insular and big on military dictatorships, the leader(s) of North Korea are not all mentally unbalanced.

And perhaps on an individual basis this is correct. That aside from some raging egos, current ruler Kim-Jong-Il and the Supreme People’s Assembly, are just a bunch of power hungry politicians that were lucky enough to have been born into the handful of wealthy families in this otherwise impoverished nation.

The thing is, as a political administration, the government of North Korea seems absolutely ridiculous. Not only the decisions it makes, but the reasons and rhetoric put forth defending the decisions. They are one of the two ‘Axis of Evil’ countries still standing, but the leaders of Iran look like Rhodes Scholars writing dissertations on early 21st century political science compared to the North Koreans.

Even if we ignore the domestic propaganda (that Kim Jong-Il can control the weather, and his father – Kim Il-Sung, the country’s first dictatorial leader – created the world), and just look at how they carry themselves, it defies all basic human logic. If something goes wrong in North Korea, it’s the rest of the world’s fault. To them, the Western world is constantly meddling, making up horrible lies about censorship, brutality, concentration camps, and medical experiments, and heaping on sanctions that insult Kim Jong-Il and make the North Korean people sad.

Most nations are known to go back and forth on issues, usually when there is a change in the ruling party. North Korea doesn’t have this luxury, and seems to take out this frustration by changing its mind repeatedly, for seemingly little reason. Even as a strategy to squeeze out a bit more aid by again promising to stop their uranium enrichment programs, the whole shtick is getting a bit tired. While most nations would sensibly play the bluff card once a generation, knowing that being an outcast in the eyes of the world is a good way to curtail foreign investment and incur trade barriers, North Korea tries this once every two years, seeing always diminishing returns in its threat to blow something up (whether intentionally or not) in their general neighbourhood.

At every step of the way, though, the country denies that it is the transgressor or is ever in the wrong. Not only do they take the perfection of the dear leader and his decisions to heart within the country, they expect the rest of the world to acknowledge it as well. So when something goes wrong… it didn’t go wrong. North Korea would deny it was stealing cookies if you came across them with their hand stuck in the jar. Frustrating if you were trying to ever negotiate, but for historians and anyone mildly interested in politics, this makes them endlessly fascinating.

People who knives aren’t the sharpest in the drawer usually have an object of affection that sometimes switches quickly to an object of intense hate and loathing. For North Korea, this role is taken up by South Korea. Bitterly divided since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the actually democratic south (North Korea’s official title is: ‘Democratic People's Republic of Korea’) has prospered, while the North has done anything but. ‘Study of contrasts’ is a tired phrase, but it’s perfect for comparing these two countries.

South Korea is a dynamic economic power, a respected global voice as Asia continues to emerge as the most powerful continent in the early twenty first century. And North Korea hates this like a crazy ex-girlfriend, going to extreme lengths to antagonize its partner below via kidnapping, sinking of ships (both military and commercial), and making such official military statements like: "the puppet authorities had better bear in mind that the advanced preemptive strike of our own style will reduce everything opposed to the nation and reunification to debris, not just setting them on fire."

This threat is not only rife with grammatical errors, but has the intellectual and emotional equivalent of a child throwing a tantrum. A child whom everyone knows can’t really back up all its big talk. And with that, the rest of the world looks to North Korea with a mix of bemusement and general concern that they might just fuck things up royally without even knowing it.

Chaos is something rarely seen in contemporary international relations. Everything is usually set in very strong stone; with incremental changes typically the only way alliances on the global stage are made. Outcomes of summits and conferences are usually known ahead of time.

History may still be made over drinks by powerful men in suits, but that’s reassuring in some small way. While it typically makes the rich richer, they’ve kept the world from becoming a fester cesspool (for now), so we’ve grown to accept the tradeoff. It’s predictable and even the powerless can take some solace in that very few things would jar them out of their daily routine. So much of human interaction can be whittled down to certain dance steps. Forget the overt comparison to mating rituals, important decisions as to our planet’s future are as coordinated and predictable as the tango.

The Cold War was the next evolutionary step after the massive international conflict that was the Second World War. It was where the threat of using the weapons at hand stood in place of actual fighting. Obviously, since that time there have been a multitude of military conflicts, but they were either proxy battles of the superpowers, or fights between nations with wildly dissimilar strengths. But these kept the world relatively stable for decades. When the Cold War ended and more of the world was absorbed into the free market (with Communist China playing an enthusiastic role), another theoretical weapon became more popular. Sanctions are economic WMD’s, destabilizing a country’s currency and trade, and limiting its access to global decisions and culture. Many countries that – at least in the eyes of West – run afoul with international laws find themselves with the proverbial scarlet letter, and are forced to humbly make do with less as they try to whip themselves back into shape, or remain on the diplomatic sidelines until there is a sea change in their government.

Into this nearly airtight superstructure steps a short little Asian dude with glasses from the mid-nineteen seventies and a Kramer haircut. When US Secretary of State Madeline Albright made a diplomatic visit in 2000, the local media noted that one of the gifts given to the ‘Dear Leader’ was a basketball signed by Michael Jordan (projecting much, Kim-Jong?). No one would give this guy and his upper half of the Korean peninsula the time of day if it wasn’t for having a trigger finger that is both itchy and positive something is about to crawl into its brain and lay eggs. Having nuclear weapons has become a dignified deterrent. Even in the case of Pakistan – the nation that many are concerned isn’t doing enough to secure its arsenal – it was done in response to India’s procurement of the bomb. A calculated move of international relations.

It’s funny watching the talking head pundits try and debate the merits and follies of North Koreas actions. ‘It’s a defensive move’ ‘It’s a ploy to ease sanctions.’ ‘They want a bigger say in Asian affairs.’

Or maybe they’re just crazy.

If other nations energetically pursue nuclear weapons and then become more reserved and somber over using them, as if they suddenly become diplomatic wallpaper, like a negotiating tool or show of power, then North Korea is like Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove, straddling the bomb while waving a cowboy hat, hooting and hollering. The way they are testing their nuclear capabilities and missiles is comparable to throwing glass bottles off the roof of your house or apartment building. In terms of their Taepodong missiles, they just kind of aim for the sea to the Southeast and take bets whether it’ll clear Japan. And then tell the world that it was just a satellite launch if it fails.

It doesn’t take long for people in power to start getting high off their own bullshit, and Kim Jong Il and his military junta have had a lot of time to breathe in the fumes. When everyone calls you ‘Dear Leader’, and you kidnap film directors and supermodels for your own amusement, the line between ‘good idea’ and ‘horrible stupid fucking idea’ doesn’t blur, but disappears completely.

When an earthquake rocked North Korea a couple years back – with no one really knowing the extent of the damage as information coming out of North Korea is either heavily censored or non-existent – international aid agencies asked the government what they needed. The reply: ‘Televisions’. That response doesn’t just take a lot of balls, it takes a lot of balls that just had a big bowl of stupid that morning.

The one thing North Korea has going for them, however, is that it’s the only game in town when it comes to such bizarre actions on the international stage. They are, for lack of a better word, entertaining. And the fact that they are entertaining in a field – international diplomacy – where that isn’t an attribute any state such should pursue makes them doubly interesting.

‘Rubbernecking’ is the term for the act of slowing down in your car and trying to get a glimpse of the carnage and twisted metal as you pass an accident, and this is the uncomfortable role North Korea currently plays in the world. It’s a real life 1984, and everyone wants a peek.

And you know, it’s kind of refreshing to have a crazy country. Don’t get me wrong, I’m appreciating it from quite a distance away. If I was as close as Japan or South Korea I would be shitting bricks. But from half a world away, watching Kim Jong-Il and his cronies is like watching a celebrity tumble into a drugs-and-alcohol tailspin. It’s a train wreck you can’t tear your eyes away from, which in many ways is an unfair comparison because life for at 95% of North Koreans is a steaming bowl of shit. Not being able to see this suffering – due to the country’s censorship – means North Korea can deny it exists – reports of famine and government cruelty come mainly from citizens who have fled the state – and for Westerners to not do anything about it. Which reinforces further the attitude that North Korea’s only problem is its weirdo leadership.

But this disconnect between how the government lives – in opulence – and how the rest of the country does is another reason why North Korea is a fascinating study. Certainly there are class and credibility gaps between the leaders and the populace in every nation, but it’s never been as stark as in North Korea. There may be poorer countries overall in Africa, but typically the power of the government is tenuous, and they don’t get much attention on the world stage. North Korea has unopposed authoritarian rule – with nary a hint of dissent – and frequently makes front page headlines, even if it is something as ordinary as Kim Jong-Il simply introducing his adult son – and likely heir – to the world.

In fact, in the last ten years we’ve gotten used to North Korea stepping over the line in so many ways that’s it become a broken record, which makes it more a target of fun than fear. From its portrayals in South Park (or, more accurately, the marionette film Team America: World Police, made by the creators of the show) to endless political cartoons. North Korea is a grab bag of problems, which allows almost anyone to mold and shape it into an easily identifiable role in their own agenda. And in this postmodern age (yes, still), we like things that are that malleable. The country makes a good and easy scapegoat for terrorism, non-democratic forms of government, and hating on the free market. North Korea has its finger in all these pies, plus an over-the-top cult of personality attitude towards its leader(s) that everyone else finds laughable.

The result is that we dismiss the nation but reluctantly fear it at the same time. When it comes to nukes, unpredictability is the biggest concern, and North Korea has been able to exploit this, because it’s never clear how much of its actions are a put-on.

If you can get over the threat of nuclear war, however (obviously harder if you live within a missile’s launch of Pyongyang), North Korea is a refreshing alternative to the usually dry world of international diplomacy. If you subscribe to certain theories or philosophies – social Darwinism, existentialism, Nietzsche’s will-to-power, realpolitik, Dadaism – the country has offered you a bevy of treasures and memorable moments in the last two or three decades. It suggests that in certain ecosystems, the strong consistently dominate the weak. It’s proof that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and what’s worse, makes you do horrible things while thinking it’s the right thing (or not caring about the right thing). It teaches you that there is no truth unless there is power behind it, and that truth is only true as long as it’s useful. If you’re a Western hiker stupid enough to cross the border and are arrested and accused of being a spy, a president will come and rescue you, and the North Korean media will call it a diplomatic visit.

It offers an aesthetic based on functionalism that is so minimalist it makes 70s era Soviet architecture a delightful array of colour and style. It’s only good if it’s useful, anything else, and it better be something praising the dear leader.

The operation of the state also offers some startling questions regarding freedom and the relevance of the individual. What is basically accepted as innate in Western democracy – free speech, freedom of movement, participation in government – is nonexistent in North Korea. In this case, does this mean anything truly inborn and essential to the human condition? Or is it possible to stamp out such lofty thoughts in certain environments?

Speaking of which, if you aren’t much for morals, North Korea is an excellent example of a state successfully squishing dissent to almost nothing. Brainwash the populace by controlling media and culture, and torture, rape, and kill anyone who asks too many questions. If you rule with a strong enough iron fist long enough, people will eventually forget that there was ever an alternative to you. If you ardently subscribe to the ethos, ‘the ends justify the means’, North Korea may be the most functioning state on the planet.

Which is crazy. Which is why so many people throw up their hands and relegate the country to the permanent back burner. Revolution doesn’t seem likely from within, and no one on earth is considering a’ regime change’. And while – sadly – many African nations share many of the hallmarks of North Korea, the location of the state makes it even more of a bizarre anomaly. South Korea is a democratic Asian success story, and China is the fastest growing economy in the world, with hundreds of millions of their citizens entering the middle class. Between the two is a country with little electricity and a self-appointed god in charge.

North Korea wants recognition for…something… and will do whatever it takes to get it, but it’s unclear if it’s part of a calculated plan for leverage or if they just think they deserve it because they’re the greatest nation on earth. And if they the rulers don’t get what they want they’ll tell their unwitting populace that they did, anyway. And no one is quite sure how much of that they themselves will believe to boot. Delusion can be found in healthy doses in any political apparatus, but it rarely gets the chance to call the shots, and usually not for more than a couple years than the populace wises up.

North Korea has avoided such pratfalls so far, and with Kim Jong-Il’s heir apparent all lined up, it doesn’t look like it will make any fatal gaffes any time soon (and even if it does happen, the citizens will pay before anyone in the government does).

The country is a pariah in the eyes of many in the West, and even the clearly more sympathetic countries – China and South Korea – tread the boards lightly, not wanting to be seen providing to much assistance or support, since it could easily blow up in their face (in South Korea’s case, maybe literally). A more open relationship with the rest of the world is always the goal diplomats say, but the country has reneged on so many issues so many times, few nations are willing to give it the time of day. If there’s supposed to be a script of world history, you can bet Kim Jong-Il works off book and didn’t do much research into his role.

Going rogue in a variety of forms has become all the rage in a time when global economic pessimism pervades over most assessments of the actions of government. But just remember, North Korea did it first and is still doing it best, and they probably don’t even know it.

 


The Death of Teh Web: Yeah, probably, but so what?

(as noted by this article from Wired magazine: http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/08/ff_webrip/all/1)

Well this can’t be too much of a shock. In a world where cultural fads, corporate empires, and government policies exist for shorter and shorter reigns, are we really surprised that something that has existed in the public consciousness for about fifteen years AND supposedly changed the world is…dead?

So say the two of the editors of Wired Magazine (one of them the top dog, Chris Anderson), the publication for tech-savvy nerds, who should not be confused for pop-culture geeks. Now, as far as eye-catching headlines go, labeling something that cannot in the truest sense die (exclusively a privilege of living organisms) as dead has become rather tiresome. Rock ‘n’ roll has ended up on the slab countless times, communism bit the dust after the Soviet Union fell, and in the weeks after September 11th, the literary device known as irony was given an obituary. So first off, please excuse the massive skepticism we all may have for such a claim. About the web, no less.

First off, there’s the annoying definition of terms that must be sorted out. Anderson and Wolf feel that the internet is alive and well, but the web is flat lining. The web being the series of interconnected text-graphic pages your browser (internet explorer, safari, firefox, etc.) accesses thanks to you typing in an address or entering words in a search engine. The internet, on the other hand, includes the web PLUS all this fancy new stuff like apps and content streaming for your smartphone or iPad. In other words, instead of typing you now push a ‘button’ on a touch screen to go somewhere in cyberspace. That’s the change. Wow. Stop the presses. The only news here is that we’ve made it that much easier for chimpanzees to reap the benefits of the internet. Typing and creating personal web pages are apparently so late twentieth century.

Not that should come as any surprise. Despite our nice big, meaty brains, people are pretty easy to figure out. ‘Whatever’s easiest’ is a pretty safe mantra for most of Western Civilization. Most people have a pretty narrow and short-term problem-solving matrix. Nobody would drive a car down the block to the grocery store if they seriously thought of how damaging such short trips were not only to the environment but also to the development of more efficient sources of energy. Little decisions made by many people add up, but frequently when one person makes these types of choices that have become so typical they’re done offhandedly, they don’t consider Kant’s categorical imperative…

This tendency has become especially apparent with the internet, where almost every kernel of information is instantaneously available at our fingertips. In terms of why people use the vast playground that is cyberspace, they want content, and the importance of form is only its user interface. Whatever device or program makes it easier for someone to check their email, read a Vanity Fair article, watch a video of a cute puppy, or masturbate a S&M Japanese gang bang, that’s what they’ll choose.

Which is why initially in the mid-to-late nineties the netscape web browser won out over America Online, Compuserve, Prodigy, and a bevy of other internet programs and services. It was easy to use and didn’t waste any of your time by forcing its own slow loading, clip art rip off, suggested content down your throat (AOL was notorious for giving a bevy of ‘what’s new’ windows on its welcome page that no one wanted to read). Of course, while netscape was good at programming, they sucked at business, and saw their cherished model swallowed up by Microsoft, who offered a decent knockoff creatively named ‘Internet Explorer’. It quickly became the most popular web browser in history. But even that program is feeling the winds of change. Its market share is down from 95% in 2002/2003 to about only 50% today.

Simplicity is always the name of the game, and typing or moving a mouse around has been deemed just more difficult enough than using a touch screen interface that the programs and technologies that use it – apps and smartphones – can be heralded as helping usher in a revolution. Anderson and Wolff lament what is lost – namely the chance for users to upload and incorporate their own content and ideas in any way they can get java or html to support them – but this is a rather naïve view of the web. The most popular webpages are created and owned by massive media corporations, or at the very least bankrolled by them. The exceptions to this are the social networking cites like myspace and facebook, but as the two Wired editors acknowledge, their closed system programming has more in common with these apps that they warn are taking over.

User-generated content was supposed to be the great emancipator, which made the web so much different and better than the television and the radio. Finally, there is no passive absorbing of information and entertainment. People could add comments to what they see, or create their own artistic works or opinion columns for all the world to view and comment upon. A wonderful positive feedback loop was to come into being. The only problem was…people. People talking, acting, or singing into what is usually a webcam isn’t particularly entertaining and usually not enlightening. As far as feedback goes, you don’t have to read the comments below many YouTube videos before losing faith in the civility and literacy of humanity. (I wrote about this earlier HERE) And as for created content in the form of personal pages, let’s be honest, most of what is found is as exciting as a random person’s myspace or facebook page (the webpage you’re reading this on notwithstanding, hopefully…). The forgotten website has become the clunker up on blocks in the front yard, but it was never exactly a Ferrari when it was brand new. When you went to a ‘personal’ webpage in 1997, it was typically a single page with a horrendously bright background, poor quality gifs – including the ‘dancing baby’ – links to things they like, and a brief bio filled with spelling errors. 

Democratizing lines of communication is a hallmark of a free society, but in practice, most people come up with some real shit ideas (check out public access television), and its problems can’t all be blamed on lack of capital. When you give something to the masses, you risk having its standards tumble to that of the lowest common denominator. So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that some of the most popular sites are gossip related (Perez Hilton, TMZ) and the most popular YouTube videos are by Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga. At the same time you can type in some different words in a search engine and end up at the Utne Reader’s site. Completely different worlds, now merely letters apart. A cultural hierarchy dissolves, for better and for worse.

When it reaches this level of cultural fragmentation – and when internet memes have the lifespan of weeks – it approaches an epistemological level of questioning. What is the cost of absorbing information in this immediate and incessant fashion, website or app? Anderson and Wolff seem to gloss over these concerns suggesting that with information being presented via closed-source systems, the chances of said information being altered or framed in a certain perspective increases.

It’s the catch-22. If everyone can have their own equal say, the game dissolves into juvenile message board infighting. If elites (whatever the hell that means anymore…powerful people in finance, industry and politics?) and corporations dictate, then everything is skewered slightly to their…let’s say...world view.

Wolff and Anderson cite this step towards a closed system, with monopolistic media conglomerates controlling access and content as one that has been seen time and time before in past technological revolutions, but they conflate format with content. The examples they cite – AT&T overseeing the spreading of the telephone, the web of railroad companies falling into always fewer and bigger hands – were mere formats, ways of transporting content (information through the phone, good and people through the trains), but not controlling the content themselves. This supposedly ‘natural capitalistic act’ of big industry wrapping its hands around the operations of the internet could have much more far reaching ramifications. An open spread of information could be a stake, although the debate can be made today that important information is being dwarfed by and lost in the more useless information.

Despite this, most people still don’t bother to take the internet seriously, except as a place to watch the occasional video of a skateboarder getting injured and check local movie listings. It’s not a revolution for them. It’s the newspaper combined with television, but faster. And to return to the car analogy from earlier, while noticing in traffic that the truck in front of you is spewing exhaust might make you momentarily consider to the effects of climate change, the internet still exists to many people in another reality of tiny microchips, screen pixels, and wireless networks. If it was truly ‘real’, they could hold it in their hands, not the phone that just grants access to this world.

So much of it doesn’t count, isn’t taken too seriously (unless your boss finds a pic of you throwing up in an alley in Acapulco on your facebook page), and is effortlessly discarded into an ever-expanding fake wilderness. But nothing ever goes away because everything lasts forever in servers across the world. An incredible amount of data that almost no one cares about. If it was any more difficult to do, people in IT would be called hoarders or packrats and instructed to let go of all the useless baggage they were sitting on.

Dismissing the power of the internet/web/whatever-the-hell-it-wants-to-now-be-called is a dangerous practice, not only because of its elephant like memory. It single-handedly killed the music industry, maimed the newspaper industry, and has ensured that we can only absorb information in bullet points (know what’s fucking insane? When you go to CNN.com and click on a headline, above the article are three sentences in a dialogue box that attempt to sum it up. In other words, they’ve supposedly saved you from reading the article even when you plan to do so, by giving you scrapes of information).

With the rise of postwar materialist culture, it has been fashionable to label each successive generation as more spoiled and superficial, picking up and tossing away each weekly novelty, high anticipation followed by crude indifference. The fact that it is typically the elder generation making the lament towards the younger pokes holes in the validity of this cynical theory, but it must be said the internet has allowed for culture to be more fluid and disposable than ever before.

With search results coming in less than a second and almost every pop culture artifact under the sun ready to re-lived and experienced with a couple keystrokes (or finger presses now), this level of instant gratification has made us believe that if the goal cannot be achieved in mere seconds it is not worth pursuing. Obviously this can be seen as far back at the increased pace of human civilization in the West since the industrial revolution, but the internet permeates all the little, pointless cracks immediately (how heavy was the world’s fattest man? Give me three seconds and I’ll find out) so much so that there is such a relentless barrage of fragmented information that we can’t process it like we need to. When discussions on global financial reform existed in the same cloud of data as the latest adventures of Snooki, we don’t treat the bigger problem with enough thoughtfulness and debate (just so we’re clear, it’s the former).

Going from web browser to smartphone won’t change the method of receiving information that much, just streamline it. In fact, the internet has made the format almost as essential as the content. Indeed, certain contemporary cultural touchstones – lets say, oh, an apple app – can only be accessed by certain formats. The iPhone has become the hippest closed system handcuffs on the market, as Wired writers Anderson and Wolff point out.

The thing that has stayed the same is that most people don’t really give a shit about this transition. Generations have gone through the newspaper, radio, television, and now the internet as being the dominant information provider. On the other side of that, they’re used to video game platforms that don’t play old stuff or a computer that doesn’t have enough memory to play the latest game. They’re used to it and they got over it by opening up their wallets with a shrug and buying whatever they have to. Who cares the most? The companies involved in developing the technology, the investors, and the tech writers who need a supposedly revolutionary article a couple times a year.

For the rest of us, the fight over the future of the internet is hideously irrelevant. The work of the nerds is tacitly appreciated, but in the end the only thing that matters is if the smartphone can handle the bandwidth of the Youtube video we’re downloading. We’ll worry about this problem of information when it’s staring us in the face, almost too late to do anything about it in time. It’s easier that way.

 


I Protest Your Protest

The G8/G20 is taking place in Toronto just around this time of year (end o’June), and with it comes the protests of (mostly) bitter and idealistic young people, who demand reforms on issues that most of the nations involved explicitly or tacitly resist. These issues – debt relief, environmentalism, military spending, poverty – cross many disciplines, policies, and political systems, and require the additional manpower of many organization with such unsettling names like the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank. Plus hundreds of massive corporations and investment groups. These are the initials and conglomerates that the masses wish to destabilize with angry signs, catchy slogans, and effigies. Not only will it not work, but there is not nearly enough power or organization – in almost every sense of the word – to replace what the protestors intend to alter or destroy.

In Pittsburgh last spring and Copenhagen last December, change was offered up in the way change has to be offered up in the early twenty-first century: in increments. For the most part, it was agreed upon that these incremental reforms – whether to environmental policy or debt relief – were good starts, and will be considered for implementation in the future. So while massive changes are endlessly ignored, incremental changes are endlessly deferred. How far we’ve come…

Not surprisingly, this doddering has created enough frustration for the left/liberal/hippie/damn-the-political-spectrum-is-becoming-obsolete contingent that more extreme positions have been taken. Instead of tweaking the policies of the G8/G20, some – as per a variety of signs I saw at the first protest this afternoon – want the organization to be torn apart altogether. Which is just ridiculous, especially considering the method they are going about to demand this deconstruction. I understand that protests make for fine PR afternoons for left leaning political action groups, and it is important to remind the world that stays at home or works that there are alternative voices to the dominant corporate one, but hooting talking points and thumbing your nose at police officers doesn’t lend much credibility to your cause, let alone your goals.

Regarding the eradication of the G8 or other groups of that sort: You cannot simply tear down organizations and institutions that play a crucial role in the interdependent global community; even in the role is an ugly, morally bankrupt one. And this coming from someone who would like nothing more than to tar and feather Paul Wolfowitz or Lloyd Blankfein. Nature abhors a vacuum, and is willing to fill said vacuum with some of the most odious, foul-smelling shit just so it doesn’t have to stare at that vast nothingness for more than a millisecond.

So tearing down a structure (like, oh, let’s say, the WTO) is not enough. And having a weak grassroots network of idealistic alternatives (carbon tax, America out of everywhere, human rights in China) or detail-less platitudes (‘justice now!’) to offer up as a replacement structure is not going to hack it.

Why doesn’t a bunch of twenty or thirty thousand protesters ‘defeat’ the summit or meeting they’re blocking traffic for? Because that’s not how change occurs in a Western, post-industrial society. Hell, protesting barely works in developing, industrial societies these days. (see Thailand) Sure you can throw out your corrupt president or dictator, but he almost certainly ran up a shitload of debts with some international banking cartels, and even if they are for some reason forgiving enough to wipe away his debts, you – the new benign leaders of said country – now need a big ass loan to get your country back on your feet. Welcome to slavery via interest payments!

Protesters (or groups like Greenpeace, or Oxfam, or Make Trade Fair) like to say that their goal is not so much to overthrow the government or make it to the actual meetings to plead their case, but to reach as many people as possible (namely, those at home watching a report on the protests on their television or computer, in hopes to see a car on fire), as that is the first step towards achieving the rewards they are seeking.

But this is also ridiculously idealistic. By this point, everyone knows the protestor’s positions. It was Richard Nixon who popularized the phrase ‘the silent majority’, which in his case was a reference to all the people he said supported the war in Vietnam in the late sixties/early seventies. (as opposed to the very loud ‘minority’ who were protesting incessantly) Nixon was – not surprisingly – full of shit, as most polls stated that most Americans – whether on the streets or the on the sofa – were against the war. But being full of shit didn’t matter. For all intensive purposes, the silent majority really did exist, as there was a large segment of the population who was against the war, but didn’t do anything about it. The pressure of the ‘minority’ marching throughout towns and cities wasn’t strong enough to end American involvement in Southeast Asia. The more vocal and visual movement couldn’t get ‘through’ to the government, couldn’t pressure elected officials to change their policies. Millions more stayed at home, despite their political opinions, and thereby tacitly accepted the war, and consequently, the conflict itself outlasted Nixon, with America staying in Vietnam until 1975. There is a considerable gap between having an opinion on an issue and doing something about it, and in 2010, doing something about it can’t just be walking down the streets and yelling for an afternoon. And by that, I do not mean violence is the answer. That leads to nothing when it comes to protesting in developed nations. If the protest is meant to show people a viable political alternative, attacking policemen or a coffee shop makes you look like a soccer hooligan, not an activist. Besides, how do you throw a rock at a piss-poor environmental policy?

To see change, there needs to be a new way of thinking of how the masses pressure not only the politicians, but the organizations that unquestionably influence the politicians. A majority of Americans, Canadians and citizens in other first-world nations want changes to global health care, the environment, and the size and power of major corporations. A large percentage of the population unequivocally believes that Washington does more to reflect and promote the ideas of the special interests than the average American.

But the amount of people who take to the streets or try to make changes to this structure are woefully small in comparison, so their voice is lost between the louder but narrower arguments between centre left and centre right politics. Or are derided and mocked as being out of touch with the ‘realities’ of modern society. This is that ‘loud but derided minority’ that existed in the 60s, so in a sense, a silent majority exists, as not actively demonstrating against something, means you are passively supporting it.

Of course, there is that thin area of change called the democratic process, and it involves elections and petitioning. Sometimes the latter means pestering your government representatives, or participating in direct-issue referendums. The truth is that only small bits of change can come from these exercises. A candidate running for office usually gets a majority of his or her support from corporate donors who expect some level of loyalty or whatever dominant, mostly-centrist political party they are representing, which doesn’t permit much line-toeing. Once elected, these politicians traditionally make the big decisions behind closed doors, allowing only political pontification to be seen in front of the television cameras. And when it comes to issues citizens themselves can vote on via referendum, they are usually akin to changes to local property taxes rates, and tweaking already-in-place amendments. Yes, gay marriage has been on referendum ballots, and yes, I think that right should be extended to all couples regardless of their sexuality, but I also believe that’s a small potatoes issue compared to financial reform and climate change. These are issues that you won’t find being placed directly into the hands of the populace, and even if they are, plenty of special interest malfeasance occurs.

Even if the above issues are not just part of politicians’ boiler plate speeches that are forgotten once they are in office, and are actually offered up to the public for their take, the role of the special interests (the political term for corporations whose quests for profits may run counter to the public’s best interest) is such that the issues are clouded with forms of media (TV commercials, print ad space, web pages) containing misinformation and propaganda scare tactics. This media/perception war has guilty parties on both sides of any issue. BP is clearly downplaying the dangers of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, while environmental groups utilize hyperbolic language in describing its long-term effects.  Of course, no one will argue that an oil spill isn’t dangerous and incredibly damaging both ecologically and financially, but the appearance of a debate in corporate-run gives legitimacy to positions that should be dismissed outright or called into question. It is difficult to believe that a politician who defends the oil industry while accepting fundraising donations from said industry might not have the public’s best interest in mind when he speaks or votes. The result of all this is a public that is not properly informed on pressing issues, which is the case in a lot of powerful countries. If ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it, ignorance of an issue is no excuse for voting a particular way over it. ‘Knowledge is power’ is a hoary phrase, but the fact that the effects of smoking was long suppressed by the tobacco industry and that clean coal is being pushed by the coal industry so no one looks at how bad ‘regular’ coal is shows that clichés stick around for a reason: They’re usually true, and power is meant to be controlled at all costs.

My proof of all this is the left’s laundry list of continued frustrations. Because there have been no reforms to the environment, banking practices and host of other issues, the corporations are still on their winning streak, even after a financial meltdown and a disastrous oil sill. And despite decades of protests and marches and sit-ins, those who are pushing for desperately needed changes regarding these issues have gained very little ground. Protesting doesn’t work, unless you count creating a sense of community as a goal. And that’s great, but it doesn’t cut down carbon emissions or weaken the military-industrial-complex.

So as long as the trains run on time and the masses can still afford fast food, there won’t be much danger to the status quo. Too few people – both in and out of power – believe large-scale change is necessary or are willing to do much about it. Life in a Western state has to get a whole lot shittier for change to come from the marching masses. While there is an erosion of the middle class occurring in America, it is slow and steady, and therefore not yet a force to be reckoned with.

Change, then, has to come from within the system itself, which initially seems both unlikely and contradictory. After all, the system is designed to keep power in the hands of few, with the players switching up every generation or so, with certain forms of window-dressing-like-change being doled out to those clamouring for it, while real reform gets stuffed in a bag filled with rocks and tossed into the river. Not necessarily because of maniacal thirsts for absolute power, but because those in charge fear that the entire system may collapse if the hierarchy is subverted. This is not a foolish concern. Most of these hierarchies are toppled in events labeled revolutions, most of which are known for violence, uncertainty, and societal disintegration for years and decades to come before the standard of living is improved. Both the French and Russian revolutions can be offered up as the problems of rising up against the old guard. Sure you might get a utopia, but the chances are more likely that you’ll get ‘The Terror’ or Joseph Stalin.

[This is one of those cynical takes on human civilization, but that doesn’t make it wrong. Instances of true democracy since the beginning of record history are few and far between. The fact that in the several millennia of our ‘enlightened’ existence one half of the human race has only been acknowledge as equal in the last few decades – and that slavery was the norm in all the past ‘great’ empires – says volumes on the amorality of the nature of power and the reluctance to see it change]

Of course, forcing history into a single narrative requires a lot of pruning and ignoring of events and successful ideas that don’t fit into the Oppressors vs. Oppressed story, even if it is the dominant one. There are exceptions – from technological egalitarianism to the current Scandinavian ‘socialist’ nations with the highest standards of living on earth – and the question becomes how these exceptions can become more commonplace, and what a society has to offer to make these instances possible.  One hopes that disaster and catastrophe doesn’t have to be the chief instigator (much of the ‘modern European socialist state’ came out of the ashes of WWII), but I can assure you, holding a sign and chanting, ‘Hey, hey, ho, ho, the G20’s got to go’, isn’t going to cut it. Think of protesting as cheerleading. Sure it’s nice to look at, but the real game is always happening somewhere else.

 


Searching for [a] Banksy

 

‘Banksy came! Banksy came!’

It’s like Christmas for the urban hipster. (although I’m not sure why I must clarify the location, as it seems dubious that a rural hipster exists) Not only that, but finally there’s a reason to stop experiencing the world through cyberspace or carefully constructed dive bars that play the new Caribou album incessantly and go outside to peruse the sides of buildings for subversive sketches of sheer irony. Sure, you could just see the pics from other intrepid outdoorsmen and women who braved the cruel elements of downtown [wherever] in early May on a hours-old facebook group, but it’s not that hard to step into the sunshine and wisps of wind to experience street art while on the actual street. And yes, while most graffiti is only worth a casual glance as you walk towards the aforementioned dive bar, this is different. This is BANKSY. This is an artist that even The New Yorker – the bible of the hipsters easing into middle age – has devoted pages to.

Insanely brief recap: Banksy is UK street artist, who primarily uses stencils to spray graffiti onto walls whose visual content mocks authority and the status quo. Sometimes soberly, but usually satirically. His style has become recognizable and appealing enough for people who like art to pay thousands of dollars for walls with his work on it, or pay tens of thousands for more his traditional forms of painting (ex: on a canvas, but with stencil and satire in tact). Brad Pitt said something complimentary about him. He has a new doc out about the making of a street art documentary called Exit Through the Gift Shop. It’s final message and authenticity is as elusive as the man’s identity, which few people know for sure.

And part of the ‘promotion’ for this movie apparently includes Banksy’s works cropping up in the North American cities that are showing the film. Nearly a dozen appeared in Park City, Utah, where the film had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Then San Francisco.

And now it’s here in my city. And when you find out about these things from friends of friends (like I did), and not by checking out digg.com or your local newspaper (although they eventually ran a story on it, ‘giving away’ three of the six supposed art locations in downtown), it feels like you’re included in a special club or cabal. If only for a moment, which is one of the hallmarks of street art itself. Not so much because it’s not meant to last, but because the chances are that it won’t. Either a pissed off shop/building owner paints over the picture of two policeman French kissing (a Banksy original), it fades in the elements, or another graffiti artist augments or paints over it. The ‘moment’ is an important concept of street art, even if the artists have no real interest in addressing the philosophical ramifications of temporality. The art has to be created quickly (since spraying graffiti is an illegal practice) and is usually absorbed by the populace walking by with only a glance or two (unlike the unmoving dozen or so glances that is afforded to work in art galleries). Subtle messages and individual artistic flourishes are the exception in the world of street art. Perhaps this is why the most famous instances of graffiti are based on repeatability. ‘Kilroy was here’ was a popular scrawl – with a rough sketch of a big nosed cartoon character peering over a wall – in the last few years of World War II, as American GI’s flooded into Western Europe. As Exit Through the Gift Shop shows, two of the most well known current artists – Space Invader and Shepherd Fairey – go to great lengths before entering into the night with easily recognizable symbols to affix onto buildings (the former gluing painted tiles inspired by the video game titled Space Invaders, the latter using a cartoon image of Andre the Giant with the words ‘OBEY’).

Branching out of this pattern of repetition is difficult, which is why Banksy has perhaps become the most identifiable graffiti artist of all time. Using stencils cuts down on the painting time and Banksy’s (clearly) natural talent for coming up with unique and original images and juxtapositions has allowed for him to escape painting the same works over and over again, while still retaining and identifiable style. It doesn’t hurt that beside his works he sprays his also iconic name/logo as well. 

With more and more of the world being papered with ad space, particularly inventive and subversive graffiti has been embraced more than ever before. Generations X and Y don’t have to read very far into Klein’s No Logo before they realize it’s a sober and accurate account of the corporate world thrusting itself into every crevice of society and culture. In many cases, graffiti itself has been appropriated by mainstream culture to advertise products and forms of entertainment.

And while Shepherd Fairey has become famous for designing Barack Obama’s HOPE poster (I suppose keeping ‘OBEY’ wouldn’t work as well), Banksy – despite having his work sold for six figures, and publishing books of his work – has remained both anonymous and relevant.

 But there’s only one artist, and many, many walls throughout the world. Being English, Bristol and London are the places with the best chances of finding his work (although he’s gotten press for ‘visiting’ LA, New York, Tokyo, and the West Bank), so when rumours fly that he has ‘blessed’ your poor little city with his presence and skill, those that dwell in these sorts of alternative art (does that really mean anything anymore?) scenes suddenly have the chance to “experience’” “something” “real”.

But is it really Banksy holding the stencil and spray can in the dead of night in my very own city? And – more importantly – does it even matter?

All those words in quotation marks in the paragraph above the questions are there for good reason. In the art world – especially the anonymous art world – the creation is subject to intense scrutiny in terms of ownership. We experience a Banksy – like we experience a Michelangelo or Monet – with the assumption that the name given is the artist who created it. With this assumption, it becomes acceptable to “experience” this particular “something” that has been labeled as genuine, or “real”. With Michelangelo, Monet, and a host of other famous artists in galleries around the world, we have history as our assurance of authenticity. Sure, that not a 100% guarantee (and many master painters had assistants who sometimes did much of the groundwork), but compared to tracking down the legitimacy of spray paint on a wall by a man-with-no-real-name, it’s much more airtight.

It isn’t that hard to imagine someone in Banksy’s close knit circle going around to some North American cities with some stencils designed by the man himself and doing a bit of spray painting on his behalf. Being shrouded in mystery and rather sardonic about his abilities and ideas on art, it’s hard to tell if Banksy would find my theory offensive, sensible, or typical of a society that doesn’t trust anything most people tell them anymore.

According to some newspapers that reported on the story of these spray paintings cropping up, Banksy’s (also) anonymous UK press agent confirmed that the man really did show up in our fair city. But what’s one more lie on the phone by someone on the artist’s payroll? How are we going to call this bluff? What can we be sure of in the wide, hazy world of street art?

If I actually try to do some real sleuthing and find it was someone working on behalf of Banksy, a close friend learned in the ways of stencils and spray, how much less impressed am I? What if I find that they were completely unauthorized, made by a copycat who has gone to great lengths to expertly imitate the master? Do these works seem weaker and less important?

In all art, there is some level of suspension of disbelief and trust that what I am seeing conforms to previous experience. If it looks like a Banksy, and someone said Banksy came ‘round, then I assume it is a Banksy and interpret it as such, giving a much more thoughtful stare and analysis of the painting than if I knew it was a fake. Our society is run on presumed authenticity, and in certain instances, punishment for being found out can be socially severe (the public chewing out of James Frey for his not-quite-true memoir A Million Little Pieces is a recent example).

But Banksy operates outside of these constraints, which makes him a more challenging and subversive figure, which allows him – despite making a fortune selling his work – to remain a counterculture hero.

Exit Through the Gift Shop addresses many of these issues in an extremely effective way, being hyperaware, critical, and lighthearted all at the same time. The artist ‘born’ within the timeline of the film – Mr. Brainwash – makes art in a style eerily similar to the work of Banksy and Shepherd Fairey (with, to some degree, their blessing) using a large crew of assistants and computer programs such as Photoshop. Is it art? Well, yes, why wouldn’t it be considered so? Is it good, brilliant, original art?

No. Or maybe the better answer is: who cares?

Once again, identity can play a major role. We know Mr. Brainwash. He is the main subject of the film. We learn his name (Thierry Guetta), his background (clothing store owner turned documentarian), his obsession (filming everything), and watch him struggle to get an art show off the ground. (after breaking his foot) Based on what we are shown we make a concrete (albeit subjective) judgment on his worth as an artist. But returning to the subject of this article, we still do not know who Banksy is. And if he has a ‘crew’ not unlike Guetta, how can they not all be grouped under the Banksy ‘banner’? Anonymity – while at first a practical necessity for a man labeled a vandal by the police – quickly invites a myriad of theoretical challenges.

That is, of course, if you really want to ask and answer them. By closely manipulating what we know of him (thanks in part to making almost every line he utters in Exit interesting, illuminating or hilarious), Banksy has his fans create an enigmatic and fascinating persona of himself. Banksy is fighting the Man creatively, has succeeded financially in a corrupt capitalistic society, and avoid the bullshit celebrity world. Why wouldn’t we want to believe that this very man has recently crouched in our fair city’s alleys at 2 in the morning with stencils and spray paint to do his ‘thing’?

Even if it’s his method of promotion for the film – his interpretation of the film junket, if you will – it doubles as a subversive act. Not any easy balance when it comes to marketing. And it is with that word alone that makes it that much easier to doubt this whole recent enterprise. If the film is hoax – which is an idea that has made its way around the internet and film buffs – then why should anyone imagine that the promotion is legitimate?

Well I bought it. And I certainly wasn’t the only one.  Word gets around so quickly, that the people who want to find a Banksy work on the side of a building (sure, sometimes they’ve been twenty feet high, but most can fit in your average two by three foot picture frame) probably won’t do it accidentally, as they’ve been following the internet rumours first. Most of us have to find out about it via the initial pioneering few (or those close to Banksy keen on getting the word out), and the best way to see what the others are doing is to go online.

Sure enough, as I checked the key downtown intersections, then down the streets from said intersections, and then the alleys nearby the intersections, I found others photographing the works, just as I planned to do (and eventually did). Someone mentioned to me that there was another work on the side of a clothing store that had already been painted over.

And herein, perhaps, lies the reason behind the reason for the film. In Exit Through the Gift Shop, a hidden, voice-masked Banksy tells us why he warmed up to this unusual Frenchman who filmed him on his nightly escapades. Observing rather practically that street art is not meant or expected to last, he said it was nice to see some level of documentation being made to keep a record of his – and other artists’ – hard and infrequently rewarding work.

It’s all you can really do as a vandal/outlaw/artist who wants to remain anonymous. A truth, a lie, a hoax, however you interpret it, the only thing you can’t deny is that it’s some cool shit on a wall for everyone to see.

For a while, anyway.

 

Not quite a real Banksy, as it is a photograph taken long before he supposedly arrived in the city It is an image from Banksy's book, Wall and Piece, scanned into a computer, printed off, and then glued to a wall. Still, it shows how popular he is. People will put up poor quality versions of his work themselves...

This might have been a Banksy. It was in one of the alleged locations of his work. It (obviously) has already been covered up by the owner of the clothing store inside. Or it was someone else's graffiti covered up. Or it's never been graffiti, and is just a bad paint job. See how art fucks with our minds?

Is it? It's hard to say. Obviously a stencil job, but that's not a guarantee. It's a bit fuzzy at points, and one of Banksy's hallmarks is how perfect and clear the lines usually are. (everyone's a critic...) With a television head, the theme is definitely Banksy, though. Might be a good chance for an imitator to make a mark while people are looking around for the real thing... but what the hell do I know?

The real McCoy. Not only are rats are a recurring theme in Banksy's work, but  by examining the detail, you can see why the one above is questioned for its authenticity. (but what the hell do I know?)

 


 

2009: Well… what did you expect?

 

Scientist/professor Barry Schwartz says the key to happiness in life is low expectations, and with that in mind I think it’s safe to say that ‘low expectations’ is the only filter in which to look at 2009 and call it tolerable.

Of course, hindsight is twenty-twenty, and it’s clear that much of the world went through a rather nasty re-learning curve of the above prescription for happiness in the last four quarters. The fact that US President (and current representative for hope in the world at large) Barack Obama was expected to change not only America but the world in a couple months can be seen in his winning of the Nobel Peace prize for not much at all. (but then, let’s not make the award seem too wonderful. After all, Kissinger has one)

Obama talked of realistic views on war in his acceptance speech, defending his country’s right to go to drop bombs on Afghanistan, with fingers crossed that it will blow up the few thousand al Qaeda and Taliban supporters, and not the millions of innocent citizens there. War is hell, but only for those who have to deal with its most basic qualities on a daily basis. For the rest of us it’s merely an occasional newspaper headline and flag draped coffin.

This is miserable news to the left wing people around the globe (read: a third of America, most of the developed world, an unspecified portion of the developing world that wishes politics in their own country can be as bland as right and left talking points). Apparently Barack Obama isn’t a political messiah, but rather only a mostly-centrist democrat who has to battle with his own political party to get middling reforms passed. And that’s if you’re looking at it from this ‘supposedly extreme’ leftist perspective. If you’re on the right of the political spectrum then the US president is a dark-skinned Stalin.

Middle ground is clearly for suckers.

Change doesn’t come easy in this fast paced modern world, as notions of speed and advancing technology are seen mainly in our fancy new cell phones. As for changes on how we live in regards to global interdependency, eh, apparently that’s not so important. Reforms for international trade, poverty and pollution are moving at snails pace. In fact the only important thing that is changing quickly is the global climate itself.

What impedes this call from the margins of the masses for change? Are you ready for the same, blasé answer you’ve heard countless times before? No? Then I’ll just keep going as if I had said it. If you need conclusive proof that the American government is run by huge corporations, you needn’t look any further than this misbegotten attempt at health care reform. Forget the details congress has been squabbling over the last several months. The whole thing was ready to become a giant turd-burger the moment the health insurance companies were promised that wouldn’t take a hit financially no matter what kind of bill passes the house and Senate. (they were assured this over lunch in July by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel himself)

It’s business as usual, with a much more effective mouthpiece (no ‘is our children learning’ cock-ups from Obama). People who defend the current ‘free world leader’ from the ever growing critical left by saying concessions and compromises – whether it be health care reconstruction or financial regulation – is the reality of modern politics are missing the point. Compromising with the established political spectrum does not excuse shitty policies that have the ability to cripple your society in years to come.

Even the administration before didn’t let the watering down of their ideals happen. They steamrolled their reforms under the banners of freedom, flag and fetus. Outside of their actual ideas, the lousiest legacy that the Bush administration has left on not only American but global governance is the constant redefining of political victory. When the facts are getting in the way of your stated goals, redefine your goals, backtrack with doublespeak, and declare new and improved victory.

This can be seen in the endless debate on climate change, because…well…fuck it. It’s not a matter of believing in it anymore, and the problems aren’t the deniers, but the governments and corporations who will acknowledge there is a problem but then go on to explain that gee golly this really isn’t the best time financially to invest in the future. What with the fake economy still dragging down the real economy and all.

As George Monbiot has noted, one of the worst things about climate change is that the people who are being immediately affected by it are some of the poorest people on earth. Those in Europe and North America can deal with extreme flooding or extreme drought. (or at least afford – via their country’s infrastructure – to live with the ramifications) People in sub-Saharan Africa cannot.

The incessant labeling of all political things as ‘victorious’ – including this pesky green monster of a problem – was seen on a worldwide scale in what was supposed to be the most important conference of the year, the Copenhagen environmental talks. (really, does anyone really pay attention to the annual G20 meetings, other than protesters who just want to pretend they’re at a Rage Against the Machine concert?) Wealthy countries immersed in corporate ties were reluctant to make the required changes to emissions and embrace green technologies, while poor nations – namely the African ones, who are feeling the brunt of the climate upheaval – begged for scraps. And the US and China butted heads in the end, and agreed on a watered down, statement of facts that called for no changes. It was framed as a step in the right direction. And if you’re a poor country that doesn’t agree with this byline, good luck at getting your hands on the money being offered to fix these problems (which isn’t nearly enough). Reactions to Copenhagen have ranged from indifference to vitriolic rage, depending on how much you care about the future.

But no matter where you sit on the climate change spectrum, what makes it a perfect encapsulation of this year as a whole is seen in the idea that the increasing disenfranchisement and antipathy towards the rulers is the only thing uniting the planet. The only ideas bringing us together are the ones concerning the possibility of splitting us apart. Everything else is fragmenting into thin strands and niches that cover the earth like a spindly, drunkenly fashioned web. A globalized society doesn’t mean you’re learning about customs and traditions on the other side of the planet, or becoming a more well-rounded and tolerant person. Sometimes it just means that the other side of the planet is where your computer’s tech support comes from. Or, in China’s case where you buy and sell absolutely everything. Globalization isn’t necessarily friendly. In most cases, it’s just business. 2009 was the great cusp, when the turning point reared its head for the first time. The next year or two will only speed up the trend of China and India supplanting America as great economic powers. But even these countries are made of disparate regions that don’t easily merge with the central doctrine the rulers of these nations like to trumpet. Tensions between fragments of society across the globe are going to be the new challenges of the next decade.

And this splintering is not only in how we live our daily lives (read: politics, economics, terrorism, etc.), but how we consume our current manifestations of fun. Culture – what once was a universal quality that could be said to reflect the state and beliefs of a society – is shattering into smaller and smaller nooks and crannies. Very rarely – maybe once a year, but I cannot think of one for 2009 – do we get a single product (movie, music, tv, book) that everyone has consumed and can recognize. Choice has exploded, as everything is being dumped onto the world at once. Via cyberspace everyone has accessed to every new song, movie, and TV show all at the same time, although no one can consume them all, meaning the persona and traits you fashion from these influences will be unique and perhaps understood by a small group of like minded people (who, thanks to the internet’s reach, could be anywhere around the globe).

The main problem, of course, is that the traditional exchange of these services/products has fallen apart – namely, paying for them – so it’s traditional form of dissemination has run into a ditch as well. We watch TV when it’s convenient to us, no longer coming together to watch a program at the same time on the same channel. The newspaper continues its fade into irrelevance, replaced by online news sites that cater exclusively to people’s individual political bents. It’s becoming impossible to follow music as a whole these days unless you’re a full-time music journalist, and thanks to an ever-hemorrhaging press industry, there’s a hell of a lot fewer of them around these days. Broad brushstrokes of consumption can be determined by a few simple questions, but after that everything gets more difficult. Who defined your 2009? Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga or Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear? These two camps could exist comfortably with no overlap at all. Finding music that crosses borders and genres can send you searching from the Top 40 to obscure folk metal bands who play in empty bars. The most hook-filled and interesting song of the year was Sufjan Steven’s You Are the Blood, which appears on a charity compilation, Dark Was the Night. Heard of it? And what does it say about you and the culture of you have or haven’t?

Maybe that’s the saddest thing about Michael Jackson’s passing. He was one of the few cultural icons left that EVERYONE knew about. It’s almost certain that Thriller will remain the best selling album of all time, as even if there is an artist that somehow reaches that level of popularity, there’s no reason why tens of millions of people will pay for their music.

Radiohead’s pay-what-you-want tip jar for 2007’s In Rainbows revealed that some people will always pay for what they consume, but at the same time others never will. The future of culture will entail some sort of quasi-patronage system, where wealthy bankers – and banker’s kids – will finance sonic and visual experiments of future artists. Us the rabble will exist in a trickle-down culture world, where we get virtual tours of mansions and recording studios to see and hear the latest work of our favourite creative people.

At least the movie industry is staying afloat, although there seems to be a wider gap than ever between the films that yield high box office returns and the ‘films that don’t suck’. The party line is that the highest grossing films this were escapist-based, which reflects our desire to forget the utter crappiness of the world around us. Okay, but that doesn’t mean these films are good, does it? That they have ‘repeat value’? Four films off the top of our heads that did 2009 a great service: The Hurt Locker, Up in the Air, Up, and Where the Wild Things Are. Films about Iraq, the airline/outsourcing industry, escaping the modern world via balloon, and the death of childhood. It looks like we are preoccupied with our current predicament. A good thing, sure, but pointless if no concrete change comes out of it.

It feels like everything is ruse. A really cheap one, too. Abstract ideas like change, hope, and reform have returned to being just that, abstracts; and if there’s a popular sport out there, you can be sure either the players are cheating with performance enhancers, or the game itself is fixed. In some ways it’s reassuring that these qualities are seen in these large communities and groups, from politicians to athletes. Similarity is our perception’s bread and butter. It makes the world easily to navigate and understand. It’s just a horrible shame that these qualities that are seemingly universal are so negative.

And tolerance for this is not too surprising. After all, these changes so far are gradual for most of the people in the world who have some semblance of power in their daily activities. (read: the developed world) Changes have come in a much more violent and disorienting and desperate form to the people who have either no power or not much at all.

So, uh, what do we do? We being the people who have a chance to vote every couple years and rant politely in semi-agreement with relatives at all the Christmas and Christmas-related gatherings at the end of every year. To mix metaphors horribly, power is a slippery maze on a seesaw. Every so often the ball is communally shared by the majority of the people, and that’s when… something happens. But that’s when everything gets hazy, because there are now millions of little groups angling for the conch.

The alternative we have sentenced ourselves to is relying on the elites, who aren’t really the elites, but just people like us ‘in charge’, which means that our responsibility for holding up a working society is shifted to them. And we have to share the blame for their ineptitude, as we are the ones who trusted them in the first place. You know that old phrase that a recent ex-president mangled, ‘Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me’? That can apply to voters, too. When our fingers get burned with inept governance, and we gripe and complain about how awful things are, how do we go back to that naïve state and get all ‘yes we can’-like? Why do we think ‘it will be different this time’? Is charming rhetoric and a chance to make history enough to blind us to the reality of our current global situation?

A knock against Obama? Sure, why not, everyone’s taking their shots, right? But the left can’t get too angry with him for increasing the troop levels in Afghanistan. It’s what he said he was going to do as he campaigned (a US presidential candidate on an explicitly peacenik platform will be attacked mercilessly for ‘not understand the reality of September 11th’). And the right has to stop being sore-losers and work with the president. But this is something that is the same in every country, whether it be Canada, France, China, the UK, or Japan. (what a thing to have in common. The inefficiency of bureaucracy) Opposing political parties sharpening their battlements for a public relations war when real problems are either taking point fodder or relegated to the sidelines.

Such empty words to describe our current state of affairs. Nothing is this simple, right? Asking people to just shake hands is naïve and idealistic. Look at the one thing that desperately needed to be addressed this year – climate change – and you’ll see the convoluted interdependency between the economy and everything else under the sun. Important issues can only be addressed if there’s some serious profit in it (and that won’t interfere with the profits of current corporations). 2009 was a year when the idea of money – and the lack of it – just wouldn’t go away. Greed, wrath, and sloth came to be seen in many forms of the majority of the headlines that dominated the last twelve months.

Only our vices were the universal qualities that defined 2009. Hopefully in 2010 the virtues will win out.


 

And Just Who Might You Be?

“I can’t wear my Harvard gown everywhere I go,” Professor Gates said. “We — all of us in the crossover generation — have multiple identities.”

-New York Times, July 27/09

 

Don’t sell the rest of us short, Professor. You don’t have to be part of the crossover generation – what Gates defines as the period in the nineteen sixties and seventies when minorities were integrated into the American education and political system – to have multiple identities. For today’s generation of youth-ish type people, it’s not only expected, but mandatory, regardless of your race, creed or culture.

Say what you will about the internet (feel free to blog your opinions to the masses), but you have to admit that it has opened up some pretty bizarre and interesting doors that wouldn’t be possible only twenty years ago. In terms of accessing information and entertainment and your friend from third grade who now lives on the other side of the world, everything is now available on this series of tubes. Including the new you, tailored to your exact specifications. Don’t like your face? Don’t show it. Or get a computer generated one, called avatars (James Cameron has a movie coming out soon about this idea of representation, so it’ll become a more common place word by next summer). Invent a fake name, an address for your non-corporeal (also known as electronic) mail, and you suddenly have enough proof of existence to say whatever you want in your little corner of cyberspace, play a ridiculous amount of online games, and watch enough pornography to make your eyes bleed. And if you don’t want these pursuits to overlap and be attributed to the same ‘person’, invent a new one. Or several.

Now to be fair, I’m not using ‘multiple identities’ in exactly the same way as Professor Gates used them. He was referring to them in physical terms, namely the parts of your identity that are unchangeable. In fact, in the rest of the above quote, Gates notes that it is his black identity that is still at the forefront of how the public sees him.

I’m going to get a bit deeper, and look at the term identity when it refers to your personality, not your physical appearance. While these two concepts doubtlessly influence each other, the personality is certainly something that can be tweaked and altered much more quickly than the colour of one’s skin.

Multiple identities used to take quite a bit of effort to get off the ground. From the standpoint of the state, one is not only enough, but it’s all you’re allowed to have. Otherwise tracking you would get rather confusing. Hence, the aspect of criminality that surrounds one’s attempts at trying to be more than one person as far as your government is concerned. Welsh hash smuggler Howard Marks lamented the difficulty of finding people to give up their passport to him and doctoring government papers (despite the setbacks, he managed to set up over forty fake identities for his profession). And you certainly can’t simply kick your feet up once you’ve escaped the confines of having only one set of official papers. Con men have to be ready to call up alternative names and histories at the snap of a finger. The same was necessary on the other side of the law, with undercover cops risking life and limb by immersing themselves in a criminal underworld (see: Brasco, Donnie).

Of course, on another level, everyone has always had at the very least two identities. It used to be you and your reputation. The former was you yourself, and the latter the part of you that people would talk about when you weren’t there. Your reputation was based on what these people remember of you when you were around. The more often these people interacted with you, the more accurate your reputation – when handled by them – would be. There would be Bob, and the milieu of people who knew Bob and thought that he was an asshole. Those were the only two social spheres Bob had to navigate between. Who he was, and who people thought he was (reputation).

But that doesn’t exist anymore. For as long as one can remember, Bob couldn’t really be anyone else other than that Bob. When Bob engaged in social interaction, people saw all of Bob, his virtues and vices, and his attempts to show one and hide the other, to varying degrees of success. And Bob’s reputation was an echo of ever-changing quality of real Bob (depending on the quality/sobriety/history of mental health found in Bob’s associates). It was a decent enough system. Not perfect, but what system is?

Today, however, Bob has a dizzying amount of choices to tailor his reputation to his exact liking. When Bob can become slayerrocks46 and never has to show his face to engage in conversation and other cyber-social situations, Bob can pick and choose what aspects of his personality he wants to show to and wants to hide from this brave new digital world.

Goodbye vices!

Or hey, hello vices!

Lying has become easier, but it’s not done for criminal enterprise or financial malfeasance here, but just for the sake of social interaction. Your best foot forward has been taken to the extreme. Imaging what you want yourself to be and then making it happen has become easier because the internet allows for such a quick fix. If you’ve becoming too ‘you’ in your words and deeds on facebook or a message board just delete your profile and start again. Accountability for the last version of you has been thrown out the window. Perhaps stored in some computer hard drive outside of Seattle or in the bowels of Silicon Valley, but the association with you can be considered long gone. No one is being dragged up into the public square and demanded to justify the comments they made under the name hotchikfrombstn.

And that’s a mixed blessing, veering wildly towards the more-bad-than-good argument, as accountability, responsibility, and a hope for proper spelling is left on the shoulder of the information superhighway. For years prior, people shaped who they were – either consciously or unconsciously – through the trials and tribulations of dealing with all sorts of people in all sort of situations. And while the internet can certainly be a place full of said people and said situations, the tough, humbling lessons could be ignored in favour of creating the same ‘new’ personality whenever the last one ran into trouble. To six thousand people on a U2 website you’re a laidback doctor from Antigua, and to a couple hundred on facebook you’re the twenty three year old, short-fused college dropout you’ve always been. Both are right until the walls start caving in and one or both facades have to go away. But instead of doing some sort of emotional stockpiling – ‘what the fuck am I doing with my life?’ – you can just dust yourself off and be a laidback doctor from, say, Bermuda now, on a different website. 

It’s not a genuine change in yourself; it’s a doctored reveal of your current state. We’re like old houses, and instead of doing the much needed foundation repair, we’re just putting wallpaper up over our cracks. Everyone knows where this analogy ends. Under a pile of rubble.

But that possibility on a grand scale seems distant and far off. There are just too many places to get lost within online. Few can remember a time when Facebook was only available to those from a list of post-secondary institutions (the secret’s in the name). The idea that it would be so exclusive boggles the mind. Somehow it has been decided that the sharing of everything – whether real or ‘real’ – is unquestionably good (for some reason I feel reality TV programming should take some level of heat for this). And beyond the general social networking sites, there’s the hundreds of thousands of message boards for every little quirk or cultural epoch under the sun, plus a little website called YouTube.

No, there’s never been a better time to be either a better or more disgusting version of yourself. And some people (ahem, ahem) take the easiest way out and don’t bother using their real name at any point. An unborn, undying ghost in the machine. No attachment to earthly delights. Their god and mother are digital switches, ones and zeros. The delete key is the only bullet to the head.

The extreme stories are the ones where people kills themselves – or each other – over what is written about them and their shadow people over the internet. The personality they built up had grown too big, exposed too much of the real person, or became more important than the person who designed and walked within it. Some people can take it. Some can’t. But that’s how everything is. (how’s that for a reductionist comment on human civilization in totality?)

The real problem can be seen in the changes to the vast majority of people for whom the gossip on the internet isn’t something to kill yourself over. A kind of superficial control bestowed upon them for their digital selves has created unrealistic expectations for the real world as well. If you can be anybody and anything on the internet, why should you be restricted when you step away from the computer and walk down the street?

Suddenly Bob doesn’t like the way he and his reputation are being handled, and decides to make some changes that – while are simple and effortless to do in the digital realm – are a wee bit disturbing otherwise. Sure you can’t change where you were born and whether you were bullied in elementary school, but you can take a bunch of pills to act like it never happened. Finally that ironic detachment to the situations around you that came so easy on the internet (because you had five minutes to fashion a witty, cool response) exists in real life. And changes aren’t limited to your personality. Plastic surgery is a popular high school graduation gift. Dieting is an obsession in the Western World, even though waistlines have been steadily grown for the past half-century. The internet – while pushing the same type of sex-obsessed ad banners and ideas the advertising media have always utilized – has reminded us how nice it is not to have to worry about needing your body… until you log off and actual look at it.

            So we have an entire generation of people socializing more than ever before in short bursts across the globe, building and shedding personality traits by the day to fit in with whatever fad sweeps the tiniest fractions of corners – popular culture will be a relic term in five years – while the physical body falls into one of two categories to match ideals of image found in cyberspace: good and bad.

Who are we? It seems like we’re moving too fast to answer that question.


 

Fight Club Redux

 

            Ten years ago this month, Fight Club was released. It was an overt criticism of commercialism and a lament for the powerlessness of the modern man. It also featured Brad Pitt pissing in people’s food and making soap out of liposuction fat. And talking penguins. And a shit load of images and ideas concerning castration. And Helena Bonham Carter smoking cigarettes so sexily you know it’s totally worth the cancer.

            Critics liked it for the most part, but the audience didn’t really materialize at the cinemas. But like many great films, Fight Club became a cult hit on DVD/video. The people who liked it, liked it a lot, and forced a lot of friends and acquaintances through drunken rants to take a chance with the film themselves. The rules of Fight Club (or should I say, the listing of the rules of Fight Club) have been parodied incessantly, giving it a shelf life as a separate meme.

            An action movie with an anarchic heart, it sits restlessly on your DVD shelf, representing either your complete lack of faith in the corporate super-culture that has overtaken the globe or your favourite Brad Pitt performance.

            And while in the last decade the world has gone through a series of political hiccups and rainstorms, it has only been in the last year or so with the economy exploding that the depressing notion of the majority of humanity as being nothing more than a financial statistic to the powers-that-be has become a constant preoccupation of many. Unrestrained greed is an easy thing to rally the minions from across the political spectrum around. Finding out that the people ‘in charge’ sat back allowed this to happen have made the proles of the world restless, seething as they hear about bank CEOs spending tens of thousands of dollars on a wastepaper basket. The ‘All singing, all dancing crap of the world’ murmur angrily in the backyards and bars. Now – thanks to the shedding of several million jobs in the last eight months – with nothing to do from nine to five.

            So what if Fight Club was released now? What kind of reverberations would it send through society? In 1999, the controversy surrounding the film was its violence (paltry compared to the torture porn of Hostel and the Saw series), but today it might cause pundits and watchdog groups to question whether it’s a call for armed resistance against the very pillars of Western economics. To throw off the shackles of a capitalistic society that inundates the masses with the demand to define themselves by their credit card purchases. It was a two and half hour threat to the status quo.

            After all, you could do a lot of crazy shit with a bit of soap and a year’s paid salary. Tracking the passage of time isn’t Fight Club’s strong suit, but it doesn’t seem to take long for the guys to stop beating each other and instead focus their anger on anarchy pranks and commercial terrorism.

            The anger that simmers throughout Fight Club has tumbled out of the celluloid and onto the streets and driveways of our modern world. While no one is blowing up the headquarters of credit card companies, public outcry has forced the American government to legislate a series of rules that curtails much of Visa and Mastercard’s power in adjusting interest, and demands much more customer friendly fine print section. Regulation is being thrust upon the financial corporations that encouraged an economy of mindless acquisition without thinking of the consequences.

            But oh, if only our sole problem was with credit and credit cards. Sadly, the world is falling apart in a way no one really understands. Several floors above Main Street, banks losing faking money are being brought to their knees and the aftershocks rumble through towns from Midwest America to mainland China, which is finally getting a taste of materialism on a much larger scale. The problem lies beyond politics. A very fiber of our being – maybe the neural synapses found in the opening credits of the film currently being debated – seems to have no problem with fucking over the very concept of evolution itself. Humans seem to be ruining everything life offers us. The house the two protagonists live in would make a fine environmental allegory for our own planet. The water and gas turn on and off intermittently, the basement is flooded, there’s trash everywhere, and from someone walking by, it would appear to be the archetypal haunted house. The yin and yang of humanity searching for meaning in a dilapidated house left to rot by the indifferent world around them. All these layers are symbolically wrapped up perfectly, but ten years after the fact it seems to have more a desperate appeal for common sense.

The Narrator’s wants drove him first to numb unfulfillment, followed closely by insanity. The unrelenting, endlessly consuming post-modern id in all its glory. But in 2009, Ed Norton’s Narrator/Jack character wouldn’t lose his belongings in a suspicious condo fire. He would be laid off and pawn it all to pay the mortgage, but then find himself booted out anyway because the whole building is being sold to a wealthy Chinese developer. And then he’d catch the swine flu.

In Fight Club, we at least had the designer products and furniture to try and instill meaning into our desolate urban/suburban lives, but now we don’t even have that. We can’t even afford the products we don’t need.

            Pitt’s character tells his followers that he knows they are all disappointed and disillusioned. That they were lied to by their televisions. These devices and magazine ads didn’t just promise that everything would be okay, but took it all a step further and promised everything would be absolutely incredible. And as Durden notes, we are now all very, very pissed off.

Random anger is the most dangerous kind, if only because it’s so susceptible to influence by Tyler Durden-types. Scapegoating becomes popular, but with only a fraction of it deserved at the proper people. Death threats to AIG executives aren’t appropriate but at least they are the right ones to blame. But in desperate times the crazies come out of the woodwork and shoot up Holocaust Museums because they think the US president is in league with a Jewish conspiracy. A spat of work (or lack of work) related shootings suggest the strength in imitation and – bizarrely – in unity. There is a wariness of how the media covers shootings and other violent events, as in some cases it’s been known to inspire copycat crimes. The news is feeding itself, inspiring horrible news stories by reporting horrible news stories.

The men who did these things worked in cubicles, factories, and publishing (the crazy old racist wrote some…er, interesting… material). Nothing that remarkable about them on first glance. Just the kinds of people that Tyler Durden assures the police chief are members of the Fight Club that the officer of the law promised to apprehend. God help the leaders if the masses ever organize under a charming anarchist. The power they have has toppled countries in the past, riot control and manipulation of the media be damned.

            But Fight Club is saved from being considered a Triumph of the Will for the 21st century because on top of being anarchic, it’s funny. Really, really funny. I mean, the world may be falling to pieces, but Bob’s bitch tits and inserting porn frames into children’s matinees is still fucking hilarious. Humanity has that odd that quirk of black humour, and it’s cropped up everywhere from 9/11 to the holocaust to the recent financial scandal (t-shirt in Palm Beach: ‘I invested with Bernie Madoff and all I got was this lousy t-shirt’). It’s a coping mechanism for when it is time to confront the truly horrible (a nice one liner: ‘other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?). Fight Club uses the comedy sugar to make sour medicine go down easier. The message: Anarchy is fun, it’s the sign of a clever mind, and as a bonus, you get to fuck Helena Bonham Carter. The only real casualty is Meatloaf’s character, Bob ‘bitch tits’ himself.

Unfortunately, the fantasies of the film don’t translate well to the real world. If only the anger we feel was being manifested in the form of prankster-ism with a weak anti-capitalist philosophy behind it. Instead it’s random shooting sprees by broken people fed up with a broken system. Change is not in the air, only desperation. A hand not stretched out asking for guidance or help, but a hand clenched in a fist. When the broken and beaten down people in society get together and start counting heads and realize they aren’t the minority, what happens to that society? Everyone in the banking world has been trying to lie low, because how do you tame a beast you’ve been robbing blind for decades?

            Blowing up the credit card companies so humankind can start again doesn’t really work, even now. Excising corporate influence from our lives is not possible, because we make up these corporations now, even passively. The corporate world is like a necessary organ outside of your body. And in this globalized super body where we all dwell, things are falling apart, but they haven’t fallen apart completely, and that’s actually a huge difference. We may be teetering on the edge of precipice, fingertips dug in tight, but even here the corporate world will tell us that they are the solution, selling us what they call levitating powder, or something like that. And right beside them will be Tyler Durden, selling a revolution that doesn’t seem very possible, either.

The question is, what is Fight Club attacking? Modern society, or humanity’s tendency to get caught up in absolutely anything, whether it be modern society or impassioned ranting against said modern society? Tyler Durden’s words seem to be illuminating and revelatory, but in the end the result is blowing shit up. He talks of reducing yourself to nothing and building yourself back up, piece by piece. Durden is Nietzsche’s uber-man with a movie star grin, but he doesn’t tell anyone what we should build ourselves up with. If civilization began with throwing pointed sticks and ends with the iPhone, what do start again with? What is the ultimate plan B? The problem with displaced anger is that throwing pointed sticks is the most obvious thing to do, and look where that got us.

Fight Club in 2009 would have made for an incredibly powerful wake up call, but it doesn’t necessarily offer a guide for the brand new day. That’s fine, after all, it still addresses important questions about society that most forms of media never would… and there’s bitch tits.

 


Michael Jackson versus Robert McNamara

 

Note: My last blurb about Michael Jackson was how his life and death meant very little to Gen Y-er like me. I was touched neither by music or his celebrity. This column is about the media fixation over Jackson’s death, especially when one compares it to the coverage of the more recent death of Robert McNamara, former Ford President of the 1950’s and the US Secretary of Defense during the 1960’s.

 

I am listening to Mariah Carey blandly belt out ‘I’ll Be There’ at the Michael Jackson Memorial at the Staples Centre – where the Lakers play basketball – and I can’t help but shed a proverbial tear for Robert McNamara.

McNamara died on July 6th, a week and a half after Mr. Jackson, but he has already been pushed out of the headlines in favour of the memorial for the pop singer that is attracting around the clock coverage by all the major networks, news or otherwise. Anyone who has ever interviewed Jackson has come back in front of the camera to explain how he changed American and world culture. Thousands are mourning in public spaces across the planet. Nelson Mandela had his letter read at the service by Smokey Robinson, praising Jackson for uniting the people of the world. Al Sharpton suggested that Michael Jackson opened the doors for white people to accept a black man as being popular figure, paving the way for one named Barack Obama.

All this for a man who sung a bunch of popular songs in the 1980s and danced with zombies.

By contrast, Robert McNamara was the President of the Ford Motor Company in the late nineteen fifties, the first person to hold that post and not have the company’s name as his last. Under his watch he dismantled costly errors like the Ford Edsel and revitalized the brand by introducing the Ford Falcon and improving the Lincoln Continental. He was best known as a safety advocate, demanding seat belt and rigorous crash-proof standards for all Ford vehicles.

Not long after this he was chosen by Kennedy to be Secretary of Defense, and it was under his seven-year watch that he oversaw the escalation of the Vietnam War. He defended his actions with the Domino theory of communist expansion. He fought the war as a businessman, creating the model of policy analysis, believing that superiority in numbers and technology would be enough to overthrow the Viet Cong.

Years later he would admit mistakes in the planning and execution of the war, whose ramifications without question dictated American foreign policy for the next several decades, and still does today to some degree. The large-scale fiasco forced America to focus on missile superiority and the clandestine undermining of supposed communist states from within to combat the Soviet Union. It demanded that American politicians and military commanders take a serious second look at their role in dictating the global superstructure. Additionally, running the Pentagon as a corporation influenced a man named Donald Rumsfeld to do the same under President Bush II.  For his difficult and demanding job, McNamara himself – essentially the bureaucratic face of the Vietnam War during the 1960s – was once assaulted on a ferry for his attempts to stem the tide of Communism, with a concerned citizen attempting to throw him overboard.

As if this were not enough, after stepping down from his position at the Pentagon, he was appointed the President of the World Bank, where he remained for thirteen years, overseeing its growth into an institution that attempted to supply the third world nations with the means to climb out poverty, including basic food and aid.

For good or ill this man had his hand in some of the most powerful public and private organizations in the world, at a time when the Cold War was at its height.

Even in his twilight years he was still part of contemporary culture, being the subject of an Oscar winning documentary – The Fog of War – and retained a post as a political and economic trustee with The California Institute of Technology.

All of this is compressed to a minute long clip not only the nightly news but on CNN as well. On the date of his death – July 6th – the vast majority of the media was focused on the upcoming Jackson memorial. The King of Pop may have meant more to the people of the globe, but unquestionably Robert McNamara had a greater effect on how these people’s lives were led.  America, Southeast Asia, and Africa are the most directly affected regions by McNamara’s actions, and because of the importance of these regions, the rest of the world felt the effects as well.

Of course, you would never guess this from watching television – or surfing the internet – in the last three or four days.

What does this say about the state of the media in the Western World? Besides McNamara, right now there is continued turmoil in Iran, ethnic tensions in Western China, US troops exiting Iraq, and an ailing economy that may not have even bottomed out yet. And even these pressing issues had to fight for space between political infidelity and President Obama’s expertise at killing flies. Of course, they covered all these hard stories very poorly – thirty-second interviews, superficial talking points – but at least they were covering the right things. Until the King of Pop died one Friday afternoon, though, at which point everything else went on to the back burner.

Jon Stewart has done more to mock the asinine, over the top, and just plain stupid coverage of Michael Jackson’s death than I ever could, but most disturbing is the amount of content itself. Hours upon hours devoted to a pop icon. A man who, yes, entertained people, but did little more than that. No one seems to want to admit that the world is bigger than the luxuries afforded to the few by living in a developed country, like buying an album or seeing a concert, which is what Jackson gave the world. While Michael Jackson rightfully has a place in music’s upper echelons, he’s not the Vietnam War, but just try telling that to CNN or Fox News. No entertainer – of any race, creed or culture – should be so obsessively pored over by the public and media like Jackson has, whether for good or ill.

The media’s ace in the hole is that they are just giving the people what they want. They study ratings, they bring in test audiences, and they try to adjust their news programming to what the majority of the citizens want to see. Apparently the wall-to-wall coverage of Jackson’s death is exactly what we want. So the real question then – and the much more damning one – is what does this say about us?

The world we live in today has been shaped much more by Robert McNamara than Michael Jackson, even if only a fraction of its citizens know the former’s name. There’s not much criteria to compare the two on directly, but even when it comes to charity, McNamara has Jackson beat. His chief legacy as President of the World Bank was that at the end of his tenure he began steps to alleviate poverty in some of the poorest nations by building schools and hospitals and encouraging wealthy nations to increase aid. Michael Jackson created many charities, but most became severely impaired and underfunded when Jackson’s own financial difficulties began in the 1990s.

But none of that is conventional wisdom, which is disappointing. Where a citizenry invests its focus and attention is no smaller matter. The success of democracy hinges on the participation of an informed populace, and it feels more so than ever that this intense focus on the death of pop star is a sure sign that we have lost our way. We choose the frivolous, disposable, and easy things over the complex and important.

Imagine what kind of world we would live in if the same amount of people who bought Thriller read Halberstam’s account of the Vietnam war, The Best and the Brightest, or simply watched the McNamara-centered documentary, The Fog of War. The public’s awareness of the costs of war and the military-industrial complex that it requires can change a nation’s policy in more ways than simply through the ballot box. But it’s simply not here in 2009.

Arguing about Michael Jackson’s legacy – whether solely his music, or his music coupled with his legal, financial and personal issues – is beside the point in so many ways. We’ve pulled up the rug from under ourselves in obsessing over the merits of celebrity. Meanwhile, the perilous and manipulative worlds of politics and finance operate all around us. Not paying attention to debates over climate change, financial reform, and humanitarian crises around the world is nothing to be proud of, and even Jackson – who stressed the importance of caring for the world’s children, albeit naively – would demand that we make the appropriate changes to our lives for the sake of future generations.

Robert McNamara may have never received the public fawning and attention like Michael Jackson, but he was one of the men-behind-the-curtain that shaped our world. Jackson merely sang and danced in it, and if we continue to have difficulty distinguishing the two and which is truly more important, then the troubles that plague our society as a whole won’t be going away any time soon.


 

Guaranteed Ways to Have a Bad Trip on Hallucinogens

Mushrooms, acid, and peyote aren’t the typical party drugs. Vilified by squares in the 1960’s as harmful chemicals that make you jump out of windows because you think you can fly, hallucinogens have gotten a pretty bad rap. They aren’t coke or ecstasy, or even the good old dependable marijuana. Those are the chemicals and herbs that widen or narrow the situation in front of you. It can intensify or deaden the feedback the senses are receiving. Psychotropic drugs are a bit deeper, a bit stranger, and include a lot more uncontrollable laughter. The changes aren’t from the outside in, but the inside out. The mind is goes a thousand miles an hour, not the world around you. It’s therapy in fungi form (mushrooms are, well, mushrooms, peyote comes from cacti, and LSD is procured from moldy wheat).

Lousy trips on the typical powder/pill drugs are a dime a dozen (just read the bio of any famous musician of the last forty years and you’ll find abuse in some form that leads to harrowing moments in cars, planes, or onstage). They’re generally about being wasted out of your mind and then having to deal with some sort of obstacle or ordeal in the outside world. Bad trips on psychotropic drugs are another matter entirely. They’re rooted where the trip is rooted. Deep within the chemical reactions that incessantly bubble inside the human brain.

Here are some guaranteed ways to have a bad trip on hallucinogens. It almost goes without saying, but avoid if possible:

 

Take them after an emotional tragedy

Hallucinogens aren’t feel-better-by-feeling-nothing drugs.  Hallucinogens get inside your head and make you explore and question random decisions you’ve made and events that have occurred since you popped out of the womb. If dead gramps, or cancer ridden Mom, or ex-girlfriend since yesterday is weighing heavily on your mind, guess what’s gonna looming large over your six to eight hour trip. (a good example of this is from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, when Duke ruminated on the possibility of seeing your dead grandmother crawl up your leg with a knife between her teeth after one has ingested LSD)

Now obviously your freak out might not be in the form of having to deal with an imagined physical manifestation of your deceased or former boots knocking bud that’s full of murderous intent. Instead, it could be a massive feeling of guilt ravaged self-loathing. Kind of like living a black hole chock full of powerful negative emotions for an hour or two. Perhaps your future suddenly appears to be a quick road to hell instead of having a quiet, understated breakfast the next morning. Or maybe you’ll just cry for awhile in the fetal position, clutching a baby blue blanket that is oh so, so, so soft, remembering that the great moments of your life are all behind you.

Of course, if you’re glad gramps, Mom, or Alice is out of the picture, in which case, all the power to you, maybe your trip will be all the better for it. The important thing to remember that despite the mind expanding, lightheaded exuberance-ness, you alone are in control, no matter how often it may feel like the exact opposite. Just as the sober human mind has a tendency to wander, it can do so under the influence of crazy plants and fungus, only it may sprint...to a rocket… and take off in that. And in this case, it may seem like being able to rein in your thoughts may be completely impossible, but it’s not. Just stare at your hand. Then flex your fingers a bit. Amazing, huh?

But a lousy mood is a lousy mood, and hallucinogens aren’t fixes, they’re resonators. If you ain’t feelin’ quite right that day, maybe you should stick to the traditional route and drown your sorrows in several belts of scotch.

 

Listen to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music or anything by Swans

Music stops being background on ‘shrooms and LSD, and it begins to fuse itself to your mind. While 90% of music can only be a good thing on these trips (Radiohead, Pink Floyd, Animal Collective), there are a handful of hellish soundscapes out there that will force you to peel of your skin and feed it to a vending machine coin slot to make the noises stop.

Lou Reed is actually a pretty awesome choice for tripping (even the uber-intense Venvet Underground album White Light/White Heat), but his record industry nose thumbing, sixty four minute Metal Machine Music is just a very dangerous thing. Nearly unlistenable when sober, it’s an ear piercing nightmare for people who just want to float away on the rippling ceiling. Unrelenting guitar squeals and endless loops of feedback for over an hour. To relate it to first example above, Metal Machine Music is the audio equivalent of an emotional tragedy. Senseless and painful with no end in sight.

And while MMM is a one time, drugged fueled ‘mock’ album (Reed himself has said that, ‘anyone who gets to side/track four is dumber than I am’), another bunch of arty New Yorkers – Swans – have managed to create an entire discography of unsettling, loud gloom. Allegedly having played so loud at sparsely attended shows that it caused audience members ears to bleed, the Swans have somehow made a wall of crackling static and slow pounding drums over wailing vocals and sound clips about addicts jacking off for drug money an extremely depressing endeavour.

Sometimes the best part about hallucinogens is that it can open up ideas and memories that you’ve never thought of or have previously forgotten, but with the wrong music, it can be like opening these things up with a rusty can opener.

 

Snort coke

You know that funny little rhyme about drinking: ‘Liquor then beer, nothing to fear, beer then liquor, never been sicker’? There isn’t one of those for combining coke with hallucinogens because doing so just isn’t funny. On rare occasions is the combination of drugs a good thing. Weed and practically everything else, for example, as weed in this case will only accentuate the main drug you’re currently on. But taking drugs that pull you in two different directions can be catastrophic, perhaps fatal (think speedballs, or sleeping pills plus a bottle of wine) Coke is a superficial social powder while mushrooms and LSD are deep spiritual mindfucks.

Even if you’re in what seems to be a good headspace for the ‘shrooms, that doesn’t mean your pulsating brain can adequately fit any more chemical stimulation.

The resulting mix (at best) is you babbling excitingly but incoherently to anyone who might accidentally catch your eye or (at worst) screaming at a hallucination with manic energy that no one can convince you doesn’t exist. You may try to attack it with a broom.

 

Be around a lot of sober (read: not on hallucinogens) people in a small area

Sartre said hell is other people, but only under the influence of psychedelic drugs can you actually feel the flames lick your brain.

While Bill Hicks claiming that taking mushrooms was like ‘squeegee-ing your third eye’, there is no discernable proof that taking these naturally grown fungi gives you any type of sixth sense. But trying tell that to the unlucky tripper who has to engage in normal conversation with people who aren’t about to collapse into a fit of uncontrollable laughter for five minutes. People talking about their day at work instead of the colour of the floor.

The awareness that for the moment these people are not on the same wavelength as you is complete telepathic, uber-ESP mindfuck. Their minds are either closed off completely, or you are absolutely positive that they are thinking the most disappointing, headshaking thoughts about you.

Psychedelic drugs are all about running with a thought to its most extreme, illogical conclusion, and sadly, in groups of people not on mushrooms, the thought that is constantly re-enforced is: ‘there is no way I can relate to any of these people right now’.

Having at least one fellow tripper trapped in a straight-laced crowd will alleviate the pressure somewhat, but deep down you still feel that crawling on the floor and giggling will still be seen as a social faux pas, which is a damn shame, because it probably would just be a whole lotta fun.

Plus you can’t spend twenty minutes in the bathroom staring at yourself in the mirror because other guests need to use it, and they’re rarely willing to share the space.

The nerve of some people…

 

Answering the Phone

Turn it off or leave it in a drawer. And if you still have on those good ol’ land lines, either unhook it before you start to trip or have other people promise to tackle you if you attempt to pick it up when it rings. It’s nothing but a ticking time bomb.

First off, you have a 99.9% chance the person on the other end of the phone is not on hallucinogenic drugs, and going back to the previous point, you now have to crawl out of the wonder bubble you’ve made for yourself and converse with real people about real issues. This is an incredible amount of focus, if only because only one of your five senses has to be attentive to the speaker. Your other four – notably, your eyes – can wander around the room while you are supposed to be listening and force you to mull over that painting of the sea at the far end of the room and then you wonder what it would be like to live on a sailboat for a couple months and whether you would try to catch fish every day or rely mostly on food brought from the shore.

And while doing this you’ve missed the last couple sentences, plus the person repeating your name and asking if you’re still there.

More important than the actual requirement of attentive back and forth conversation is the fact that the call might contain bad news. Horrible, soul crushing, life changing news. Suddenly, you aren’t taking mushrooms after an emotional tragedy, you’re high as shit while said tragedy is occurring. Panic will pounce upon you like [fat famous person] on a [unhealthy food]. And even if it’s not bad news, it still may require some effort on your part. Do you really want to have to take a message by finding a pen and paper and scrawling an illegible message about a dentist appointment confirmation on drugs? Voicemail has become universal, so use it to your advantage.

So don’t answer the phone. ‘But what if it’s an emergency’, one may ask. So what? You think you’re in any type of condition to deal with an emergency? Even if, say, a relative is dying, do you want to: a) find out about it while you’re tripping; and b) have to go to the hospital and see a bunch of family members while high?

Of course not on both counts. While it sucks balls missing an important personal event, you will have a better trip, and your great aunt won’t have spend her last remaining moments seeing you clutch onto her hospital bed as if the tile floor beneath you was turning to quicksand.

 

 


Hell versus Shit

            At first glance, it seems like you cannot compare the two. One is a location that – depending on your belief system – may not exist at all. Another is a slang term for feces of all kinds. But if you start to peel of the layers (hopefully wearing gloves), you’ll find an intense discussion of epic biological and metaphysical proportions.

            Both of those things are bad in the general sense, although there are a few pluses for each, to be sure. Yes, hell is a great impetus for people to avoid doing bad things, and people do feel better believing that evil people will be tortured forever, but with dogma being what it is, for the most part, hell is pain and suffering incarnate. Blacker than the darkest black and beyond the boundaries of time and space. Hell is bad.

            Same with shit. Shit is bad. While the droppings of some species are extremely valuable to the planet (manure, guano), and the process of depositing bodily waste is essential for almost all organisms to remain healthy, by and large, getting it on your shoe is a fucking awful experience. With the exception of a couple fetishists, no one likes to touch, smell, or eat shit. The improper disposal of shit – a huge problem in many African nations – can result in sickness and disease, leading to death.

            So shit is bad. An inconvenience at best, a killer at worst.

            But what’s ultimately worse?

            Hell is supposed to be that very thing to a t. A ‘lake of fire’ – as referenced in the Book of Revelation – is perhaps the tamest description. Most tortures seen in depictions of hell are physical. Many of these images are based on the lengthy poem by Dante, The Divine Comedy: Inferno. The poet himself is escorted on the grand tour of hell by the dead Roman poet, Virgil. He sees people being tossed in endless cyclones, trapped in flaming tombs, and whipped by demons. There are even folks there who are forever encased in… take a guess…shit!

            But certainly hell can be a bit more complex than that, right? Religions the world over – who are the certainly the biggest promoters of hell – teach that the body is the temporary home of the soul, which is immaterial and eternal. So what’s with all the focus on bodily torment in hell? Is it because that’s the easiest stuff for us physical beings to understand? As if the sales pitch for hell was, ‘hey you know how snake bites and fire suck? Imagine that happening to you forever and ever! That’s hell.’

            They seem to be ignoring emotions, which in many ways can gnaw at the very soul of a person much better than a sharp pair of demon teeth. Guilt, anguish, shame, loss, despair, these feelings could be pumped into your mind in the nasty pits below. Imagine feeling like you’ve just found out about the death of your parents – or your child – for all eternity. Flaming tombs ain’t got nothing on that shit. (although to be fair, I’ve never been burnt to a crisp for any length of time, and my parents are still alive)

            Hell is still a handy bit of caution for much of the world today. A ‘fire & brimstone’ speech remains a popular form of evangelical proselytizing. Deterrence of immoral activities via punishment (as opposed to eloquent speeches asking for good morals to rule the day) is practiced in every country in the form of the penal system (and hey, prison is a place where you can be brutally beaten and raped repeatedly for the length of your sentence, so there’s definitely some similarities between that and Hades).

            So at this point, hell has shit on the ropes. Shit is pretty straightforward. There’s not much you can add to shit to make it more repulsive, except for maybe having to pick up after your Great Dane on a hot summer’s day. And even that, if you have a baggie and are quick about it, it’s no big deal. There’s not much literature devoted to crap. Even in Africa, shit isn’t the real problem. Lack of infrastructure is the problem. If you’ve got people, you’ve got shit and you’re going to have to deal with it, end of story.

            But there are other ways to evaluate the two terms. If we consider language, the words shit and hell are interchangeable for situations that are very far away from their initial definitions. Shit in any language means bad or useless (‘that sounds like shit’). Hell can be referenced to experiences that were filled with extreme difficulty (‘moving day was hell’). Without question, however, shit is a much more versatile term. People can be ‘shitheads’, lies are ‘bullshit’, and it can make a fine adjective: ‘you’re shit out of luck’. Even if you want to use the word as an antonym, you could say that good things are ‘the shit’. Shit is good now? What the hell’s up with that?

            The problem is, if we’re going to try to be as scientific as possible for this (admittedly) ridiculous comparison, we have to address the fact the hell is nothing but hearsay. Plenty of historical documents make reference to it in its many forms and several legendary religious institutions have made it a part of their theological cornerstone, but that don’t impress 21st century scientists much. The scientific method comes up with…poop… when attempting to look for proof of hell.

            On the other hand, shit – while being easily disposed of and avoided by the developed world – definitely does exist, in which case the argument should be over and done with. I mean, hell’s never killed anyone. Hell is the metaphysical playoffs that you might never get to, while shit is a very real part of the regular season we’re all toiling in right now.

            The definitely real triumphs the possibly real, right?

            But our minds don’t necessarily work that way. Abstract thought can do a lot to a person’s perception of the world (hell, we’ve come up with the concept of hell even though no one’s ever seen it). In fact, our projections of what we want to see in our future are in many ways what makes us human. Forget limiting ourselves by just collecting enough nuts for the winter season, we create cities in our heads years before ground is broken. Look at the Space Program, relying on technology to get us to Mars that doesn’t necessarily exist yet.

            Possibility is the engine of the human mind that endless recreates civilization. But possibility is complicated. Compared to it, reality – where shit resides – is extremely easy. Shit is what it is, with very little mental extrapolation required. The immediate reactions of the five senses pretty much tell the whole story.

            But possibility is endless – for better or for worse. The future can be a technological utopia, or an apocalyptic war zone. Hollywood and the entertainment industry seem to be leaning towards the latter, but that may only be because conflict and difficulty make for much better stories than endless peace. It’s true for Dante as well, as he wrote three parts to his Divine Comedy, but everyone ignores the Purgatory and Heaven sections and focus on Inferno.

            And in that dichotomy one can also see how the concept of heaven and hell is treated in society. Sure, heaven is where everyone wants to go, but it’s gotten a lot less ruminations and pieces of art devoted to it when compared to the hellfire below. If endless possibility means keeping all options on the table, we certainly haven’t skimped on planning out in great detail the worst of the worst fates. It’s as if we’ve been preparing for the worst for a very long time, just in case it might – possibly – be true.

            So what is the verdict? Possibility is making this much more complicated, but thank god for possibility as it’s given us the society we have today. Unless everything in the end goes wrong (or…right?) and we’re correct about hell. Or perhaps finally experiencing unrealized possibility by finding out there is no hell is just about the perfect example of hell there is.

            So let’s say that for reality’s sake, shit wins, and everyone ought to be thankful for that. Now watch where you step.

 


The Internet is making me hate democracy

            Recently, social networking has become the most popular activity for people to engage in online, displacing pornography for the first time since the mid nineties.

            I’m already missing the good old days.

            Have you been on the internet recently? Of course you have. What kind of question is that? You’re on the internet right now.

            Unfortunately, a lot of other people are on the internet right now. People who aren’t necessarily there to read this essay, peruse a wikipedia article on moose diseases, comment on a friend’s picture of them taken when they were drunk, or jack off to Put It In My Ass 4. Some people are there just to be jackasses. See, now that it’s no longer all the rage to own a computer and an internet connection but mandatory, you get the dregs stumbling down the hallowed halls of cyberspace.

            I don’t mean the hackers. They were always an integral part of the information superhighway. If the nerds built and maintained the internet, it was the hackers who tore up the pavement and robbed unsuspecting, naive travelers, which forced the nerds to work harder and upgrade. No, the people I’m referring to now are the equivalent of those who drive slow, load up on bumper stickers, and drive to walmart to pick up a plastic lawn chair and sneakers with lights on them (thanks, George).

            The rabble, in other words. The latecomers. Not the party crashers, but the ones who got lost and showed up late because they forget the directions on the kitchen table.

All those people are now on the internet, clogging up bandwith just like they clogged up the fast lane.

            And they are faceless and anonymous, lurking on myspace, facebook, blogger, perezhilton, and every other lowest common denominator digital sinkhole. You can track their movements en masse via Digg, and Reddit like the slow heard of bison they are. The internet has become a crossbreed of a high school locker room and Entertainment Tonight.

            But the crown prince without question is YouTube. Where the rabble comes to play for hours on end. When you give the public free reign on creating and uploading their handiwork, this is what you get: someone gleefully lip syncing to a top forty song, or someone illegally uploading the official music video of said top forty song.

Of course, the gulf between sponsored and original content is widening. If you check out the all time most watched videos on the site, you’ll find the top dog is an atrocious little ditty by Avril Lavinge called Girlfriend, which has been viewed over 116,000,000 times. There are rumours that Lavinge fans ‘boosted’ its position by constantly reloading the page to increase the hit count. The number two – the people’s champion – is a guy doing a variety of dancing styles at some sort of comedy show, earning 114,000,000 hits. The rest are Top 40 music videos officially uploaded from the record companies, including a handful from the ex R&B couple, Rihanna and Chris Brown. And those are getting frequent viewings these days not because of the video or the music directly, but because the comments section below the video has become the forum for discussing their recent, violent breakup.

            Which leads to the inherent problem with the internet, democracy and humanity in general. Now, this claim in itself suggests that the internet is not blame for its shortcomings – humanity itself is – but my argument in this essay/rant is that it is within the bowels of the internet where this problem is so glaring and painful.

            The internet has gone from information to opinion. Objective (as objective as possible, anyway) to subjective. The comment section, the message board, and the blog, this unholy trinity has drowned out interesting discussion and debate in favour of mindless sniping, uninformed remarks, and constant miscommunication.

            But the problem isn’t that these exist – they are inherent to the imperfect system that is human experience and understanding – the problem is how fucking many of them there are.

            Every form of discourse should be included in any society, real or digital, but when an inordinate number of them are completely pointless, would a bit of quality control be too much to ask?

Some examples:

            A guy on YouTube is cutting, pasting and posting a short message that begins ‘Barack Obama is a socialist’ under as many pro-Obama videos as possible. Is that what political canvassing has been reduced to? Comment bombing videos and articles you disagree with?

            Of course, at least this message was spelt correctly and was grammatically accurate. While I quietly pray that 95% of the people who post on YouTube are drunken thirteen year olds, even that suggests that we are raising a bunch of kids who have gone beyond relying on spell check and are simply typing with their blind fists and misguided feelings. In comments for M.I.A. video ‘Paper Planes’ we get: ‘no afense mia but i have heard better lyrics from my 5 year old sister's remix in twinkle twinkle little star! ‘ and, ‘but i thought all niggers and latinos suked dick?

                                                                                                                  Should I be glad or concerned that the latter could at least spell the racial slur correctly? But then, even properly spelled comments frequently veer off topic. When I looked at the popular video, ‘Don’t Mess With Keith Richards’ (627,000 users have watched him guitar attack a guy who jumped onstage during Satisfaction in 1981), the most recent comment was simply, ‘They found no child porn on any of his computers’. Odd. Looking down at the first ten comments, you see this is a response to an earlier comment: ‘Yeah, when I think of cool, Pete comes to mind right away. Along with his comuter [sic] full of child porno.’ So the first comment was a response to Pete Townshend’s legal matter regarding him searching for child pornography while researching his autobiography. Granted, I only know this because I’m familiar with The Who. Anyone who wasn’t would have to trawl even further back to find the initial comment that mentioned Pete Townshend.

            This disjointed form of dialogue is typical on some of the most popular sites on the internet. Myspace and Facebook – while typically more genial – suffer from the same problem. So not only do people offer poorly spelled, insipid comments, they do so not being aware of the mangled dialogue that is taking place.

            Even in The Onion’s AV Club – the entertainment section of the satirical newspaper’s website – you get mindless firefights from people complaining that ‘The Deer Hunter’ wasn’t included in a recent list of 15 Gearshift Movies. There’s nothing wrong with the argument, of course, but then ‘BajingoHound’ offers this intellectual nugget: ‘Deer Hunter??!!! Give me a fucking break. Could you possibly be any more of a fucking 'tard moron.’

Is that necessary? When was the last time you discussed movies at a party and called someone a ‘fucking tard moron’? Combine indifference to presentation, near anonymity, and contextual difficulties that exacerbate the problem, and you are left with the internet, now the equivalent of watching a two dimensional rock fight by people confined to wheelchairs.

            And I don’t want to sound like the cranky old man who rags on the younger generation – mainly because I am part of this generation – but just as sure as I am that everyone deserves an opinion in a democracy, I am sure that the builders of our eleven-dimensional string universe didn’t want us all to be writers.

            Enter video blogging: for those who have nothing to say, as well as being too lazy to type. You don’t need a keyboard to mangle the English language.

            When it becomes too easy to do something, quality begins to buckle. The internet was originally heralded as a much needed improvement over television, which was a unilateral assault on the senses. Finally the world would have a medium where its citizens could engage with the material being presented to them, even create material themselves.

It was the dawning of a great new era in technological communication and human interaction.

            But then other shoe drops, and you find it’s filled with someone else’s hacked off foot. For every person that had a unique, worthwhile opinion on politics, culture, or anything else under the cyber sun, there were ten people who saw the keyboard as a glorified remote control and offered up the posit, ‘this fukking sux!’, as often as possible. Suddenly the concept of paying for culture became an option that many people opted out of. Print media and its original nemesis, television, are feeling the pinch of internet users getting whatever they want, whenever they want.

            On the internet, your words are your eternal first impression with the people who stumble across your comments. If we are to judge people they way the present themselves in a YouTube forum, not only do I have dismal hopes for the future, but I find myself wondering if every cynical thing said about the public as a whole is true. Give the masses enough rope, and they’ll hang themselves with a completely oblivious look on their faces.

            What’s scary is that these people vote. Everyone gets a vote. Not everyone is created equal. Everyone deserves equal treatment by society, but it doesn’t mean everyone has the same tastes, abilities, and feelings.

            It’s even your right to remain ignorant if you so choose. As much as it is your right to not participate in the democratic process, it is just as much your right to take part in an election you may not completely understand.

            It is also your right to not take part in the political process at all. Soon you’ll be able to not do it while surfing the internet, as voting is making a shaky but determined stab at going cyber.

            I think of these basic tenets of democracy reflected in every butchered word and unenlightened negative comment the world wide web produces. Forgive my naïve optimism, but at least ten years ago you could believe that most people were inherently civil and thoughtful; at least half the population. But the internet has pulled aside the curtain and shown that even if people are both those wonderful things, they see no reason to show that side of them in cyberspace. And it feels like saying half is much too generous. So often it feels like no one gives a rat’s ass. As if the internet is an excuse to act mediocre, when without question it’s going to be the most important communication tool in human history since the printing press (interestingly enough, one of the early criticisms of the printing press was that it was going to give everyone a chance to read or write, including many who would just abuse the privilege: ‘The pen is a virgin, the printing press is a whore’, was how one early critic put it).

            I’d always been suspicious of polls suggesting that people feel we were more polite ten or twenty years ago, that we’ve become ruder, but now I’ve got proof that they’re right. We’re either rude or we don’t give the internet as a whole the respect it deserves.

            Especially since the solution is so damn obvious: Think before you speak. Sure, everyone’s entitled to an opinion, but are we really letting the shit sink to the bottom as quickly as it should?

            Some parts of the internet need to be moderated simply because too many hairless apes got a hold of computers. And not just for racism or libel, but now mainly irrelevance and punctuation. If you’re comment makes you sound like a drunk or an illiterate jackass, it’s going to be given the same treatment it gets on the street. None. But as words yelled on the sidewalk flutter away into nothingness seconds later, the words on the internet are permanent stains of pointless stupidity. And once again, a bit of moron-speak is an important reflection of daily life, but it shouldn’t seem to define it at every turn.

            Just like in real life, you’d think ‘don’t kill’, ‘don’t lie’, ‘don’t steal’ would be pretty obvious to all as three damn fine rules for a civilized society, but we need policemen and a justice system threatening punishment to ensure these rules are followed. We can’t rely on the public as a whole to take care of this problem. Just a couple hundred (thousand?) programmers with good heads on their shoulders.

            I’m not sure if I’m advocating cyber fascism – although the title of this piece suggests I am – but just like democracy, assuming that we’re all equal and can take care of each other with little to no oversight and regulation can get us into a mess of trouble.


 

 

2008 Year in review: Clusterfuck Commentary for a Clusterfuck year – PART ONE AND TWO COMBINED

The Year in Three Quick words: Obama, Obama, Obama

The 44th President of the Whole Fucking World: A Primer

-Half black, half white, all man.

-Cool, calm, collected.

-Christian Double Agent (appears to be Muslim only to his enemies)

-Three H’s: Hawaii, Harvard, Historical Figure

-Four-cigarettes-a-day man (working towards Churchill level of perpetual cigar smoking)

-Can tell real words from made up ones (unlike other presidents we can name)

 

            Election years are long ones. Politicians die one thousand deaths. There seems to be one thousand hours of political coverage a day on CNN. And there are one thousand instances where the average citizen across the post-American empire world screams at their form of medium communication device to ‘stop fucking talking about bullshit! Just tell me their policies already! Argggggh!!!’

            Every four years the way we learn about what happens in the world decides to devote itself almost solely to the glorious democratic process that only sixty percent of America takes part in and all its minute details. Remember all those stories that had the lifespan of a mayfly? Obama and Huckabee pull off upsets in Iowa. Hillary Clinton finds her voice in New Hampshire, while McCain uses it to solidify his comeback. Rudy gambles on America’s wang. Crazy Reverend Wright. Law and Order grandpa stepped up and down in. Huckabee tries to use Chuck Norris on the campaign trail… as a selling point. Super Tuesday closes one lid and opens up a massive, horrible can of worms labeled ‘Liberal Nightmares’. Clinging to guns and religion, getting shot in Bosnia, Bill Richardson as Judas Iscariot, Bill Clinton shooting his mouth off, ‘You Betcha!’, makeup for barnyard animals, suspending the campaigns… the list goes on.

            All these stories faded away. They were breaking news on the cable networks and the people made magazine covers. But now they are withered and old. In less than a year. As far as late December 2008 is considered, there are only three American politicians: the departing Bush, the arriving Obama, and the please-just-resign-already Blagojevich. Even Sarah Palin has been relegated to Tina Fey impersonator.

            And poor John McCain was stuck holding a broken political party that hypothetically he should have been leading for the last eight years (hell, if Bush was able to ‘beat’ Gore in 2000, McCain could have throttled him). McCain glaring strength was his glaring weakness. He was a maverick, but a maverick that had to do several un-maverick things to appeal to the conservative base. You couldn’t blame him for lack of trying. At the end of August it was a pretty close race, and while some would suggest that the more we learned about his running mate sunk McCain, the truth was what Bill Clinton said in his 1992, ‘it’s the economy, stupid’.

            Oh yeah. While the presidential election sucked up TV time and newspaper space like an American Idol season with health care reform initiatives, the real story for 2008 as far as the world is concerned was that economy was more or less imaginary. Credit default swaps – also known as insurance on crack – were estimated to be worth $70 trillion non-existent dollars. No one knows for sure, as the market was completely unregulated, which was problem number one. Also, people are selfish liars. And when people are allowed to make money appear out of thin air for the purpose of financial reports, they probably will do just that.

            It’s certainly an oversimplification to reduce this economic Armageddon to a matter of human greed, but you’d be surprised how often it explains so many actions taken, whether it be complicated financial transactions for housing loans you don’t know are good or bad or setting up a $50 billion dollar pyramid scheme.  And it’s the average automaton across the planet who feels the pinch. The story of human civilization, I suppose. Perhaps the only real historical movement of note in the last ten thousand years was the emergence of the middle class. Everything else has been kings in various guises looking over the masses of proles from their mountaintop chalet and having them fight for god, land, and resources. (I apologize. This wasn’t supposed to be a call for anarchy. Or communism)

            So it’s a worldwide recession. The first in, well, not that long, really. The last one was in 2001. Of course, statistics are being flung around like worst since 1982, 1974, 1969, etc. Nothing can really compare to the depression of the thirties, where up to 25% of America was unemployed (they are currently hovering around a 7.5% rate). And all it’s gonna cost them to fix is $700 billion dollars (fun fact: the credit card debt for all Americans is currently $983 billion), even though the country’s debt is so big the trillion dollar sign in New York City has to be expanded to fit the new number: $10 trillion And the auto industry might die. Ah, well. Nothing says opportunity like crisis. As long as we have enough on our plates and heat the first world will be fine. Wait, there were food riots across the planet this year? Including Italy?

            Fortunately, for every stupid, hair pulling, apocalypse-suggesting thing that happened this year, there was always something that suggested we as a species were more than parasites with iPhones. That Obama thing. That big supercollider under Europe didn’t blow up the earth. China sucked less than ever. Uh… the new and improved iPhone? Maybe I’m reaching…

But maybe that’s what so aggravating about 2008. No forward movement. That pot of gold always still just out of reach.

            2008 is the year cyberspace won an election, but it’s also the year where money that only existed in computers went up in smoke. As soon as insanely expensive oil seemed to herald a new era of cars running on green resources, the prices plummeted and you could afford to drive three blocks away again. And just to remind us that the concern of technological alienation and confusion that started in the late nineties hadn’t gone away, Radiohead toured the world. Huzzah. In Rainbows sounded better live, even though the album was already the best of 2007. The record opened with the line, ‘how come I end up where I started? How come I ended up where I went wrong?’ Two appropriate questions for a world that just can’t seem to get ahead.

            America replaced a dumb leader with manageable problems – even I’ll admit that Iraq was and still is doing better – with a smart leader with goddamn-near impossible problems.

            Canada had an election and nothing changed. The conservative party – noted by Jon Stewart as being the American equivalent of Gay Liberals for Nader – retained it’s minority status, and the year ended with the leader Stephen Harper shirking away from the other parties ganging up on him and dissolving parliament until 2009.

            Zimbabwe also had an election where nothing changed, but we need a big fucking asterisk beside that (like: *).  Mugabe has been running his country into the ground for the years, but suddenly with the threat of being kicked out by the will of the people, he seemed to kick his not-giving-a-shit about-the-masses policy into high gear.

            And think of all the great words that can become newsworthy events just by adding the word China in front of them: China earthquake, China Tibet crackdown, China Olympic torch attacks, China tainted milk scandal, plus the China Olympics (psst! While Phelps won gold after gold, Russia invaded Georgia).

            Terrorism in Mumbai. Pakistan and Afghanistan continue their implosions. And apparently there are problems in Israel-Palestine.

            Sure innocent people dying has been a regular occurrence since we crawled out of the muck, but try asking someone who lost a loved one to these events to look at the big picture. Suddenly every citizen is expected to make that switch from doing what’s best for friends and family to what’s best for the starving millions half a world away. The world is getting bigger and smaller. Half of America did not celebrate Obama’s victory while ninety percent of the world did. Castro stepped down and his less charming brother stepped up. And somehow we have to worry about pirates again (what’s next? Viking hordes?).

            Going forward and going backward at the same time. Grinding those gears and kicking up smoke. Continents full of people, rainforests full of animals and glaciers full of ice are dying, burning and shrinking. It’s not chaos, and it’s not harmony or balance. It’s all of these things mashed together. I’m sure the Germans have a perfect word for it.

            But just as Harry Lime tells us in Reed’s The Third Man, great culture can emerge out of confusion and chaos. As economies and foreign policies are becoming more and more interdependent and sometimes paradoxical, so too are the artistic interpretations of this society.

            One of the best films of the year is a rags-to-riches love story set in India called Slumdog Millionaire, where a poor kid gets his shot on that country’s version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? What’s his goal? To impress a girl. And the film is in English, shot in Mumbai, directed by a Brit, and praised the world over. It’s not a clash of cultures and film archetypes, it’s an embrace of them.

            Even the biggest film of the year – The Dark Knight, a continuation of the re-invention of the Batman franchise – didn’t give us any easy answers. ‘You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become a villain’, was a line uttered several times in the movie and became its uneasy mantra. The movie was philosophical treatise on how to truly overcome evil, complete with car chases.

            Then there was The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a Brad Pitt vehicle where he is born as an old man and grows younger and younger through the twentieth century. There is no why. There is only dealing with the problem as best one can.

            Synecdoche, New York – Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut – made barely a ripple in the public’s consciousness, but that’s to be expected from the most challenging film of the year. Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays a theatre director that stages a play of his life in a giant warehouse so he can sort all his problems out. First he gets actors to play the people around him, but as they spend more time around him, he gets people to play those actors playing others. It snowballs from there. Forget looking at yourself in the mirror. Here you’re looking at yourself every time you move your head.

            Kids winning big money, comic book heroes turned upside down, people aging in reverse, and a film about the world as a play. This is what we get when the world outside isn’t advancing when it needs to. A state of arrested development (still a shame that show was cancelled, by the way) in some of the biggest and best films of the year. Responsibility and understanding the element of chance is not a give in, but something to be earned. And sometimes after all your hard work to attain those things you come up with nothing, which in itself is another quandary to wrestle with. What if nothing works out? What if everything we worked for in every field under the sun bites us in the ass in the end? Even if we aren’t asking ourselves these questions, the movies are.

            And in the midst of all this, Fleet Foxes’ self titled debut album comes from woods untouched by man. The music is lighter than air, and Robin Peckhold’s vocals belong somewhere between the stratosphere and the moon. Bluegrass, folk, and rock come together in a melting pot of serene hymns. You can’t picture this music being made in a world like this. Ditto the Department of Eagle’s new album, In Ear Park. Another album that feels like the closest computer or electronic device was miles away from the recording space. In our world where we have at least two electronic devices in our pockets at all times, this music is the antidote. Both of these records garnered critical acclaim but not much sales and no spins on the radio Top 40. More so than any mainstream artistic medium, music has become the most disposable. While the economy as a whole went belly up this year, the music industry has been dying a slow death for years. Illegal downloading is the main culprit, but more and more artists – both established and underground – are spurning the corporations for a more Do-It-Yourself approach. Everything big is falling apart, but it is being replaced by something smaller and more efficient. Darwin is laughing from grave. Again.

            Compared to the yawn fest that was 2007, 2008 – for better or for worse – had more highs and lows than an acceptable roller coaster metaphor. There was hope for the future when we really needed it as everything in the present seemed to lurch forward with a wheeze and then explode. But that’s big picture talking again, which is the observation we imagine people writing history books five hundred years in the future would use (ahem, if there is one). Between the lines of the handful of sentences that will be permitted for 2008, a million little worlds exploded onto the scene and quickly died. One then the other, sometimes six at a time. The speed at which these gears shift into new topical waters isn’t alarming anymore. It’s normal. The pendulum from great to garbage swings faster and faster until it’s spinning like a centrifuge.

            Accelerated culture. I can be argued that there is nothing new anymore. Only new ways of presenting old things. The two biggest TV shows are 30 Rock and Mad Men, the first is a behind-the-scenes look at a Saturday Night Live-type show and the other is drama following the misogynistic escapades of an advertising agency in the nineteen sixties. Anything that will keep the world outside at bay will do. Displacement, whether it be in our entertainment or our move to smaller houses because the ones we bought four years ago ended up too big for our bank accounts. We’re dogs chasing tails, always moving but nowhere to go.

            We don’t know what we need, let alone what we want. Unless it’s everything. We want that. We want the world at our fingertips, whether it’s videos of riots in Greece, Japanese food, cheap clothes made in Indonesia, or cell phones that call us ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’. We want cheap gas and green power and SUV’s and sleek hybrids. We want it all at same time, and the ‘we’ is growing faster and faster. Sure, only 10% of India having living standards that meet western levels, but that’s over 100 million people, bigger than any country in Europe. China is bringing more people out of poverty faster than any time in human history and all it’s costing them is their environment. The Western dream is coming true across the world at an expense we cannot afford to pay.

            Even when it comes to mindless entertainment, we want everything under the sun. Critics praised the gritty, Bourne-like James Bond reboot in 2006’s Casino Royale, but then they lamented this year’s similar Quantum of Solace for losing the gadgets and punch lines. We want happy endings in all our shows and films, and then roll our eyes and complain about the clichés when the two lovers walk off hand in hand or the disaster is averted. We wag our finger with a hint of accusation at the record companies that didn’t embrace the internet in time to save their business, and then moan that it’s too hard to find good new music.

            And this wanting everything is just the purest form of greed. The exact same thing that sunk stock markets and investment banks worldwide this fall. It’s the one thing former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan said he never took into consideration in his continued support of the deregulation of the financial system. A math whiz not acknowledging human emotions. Oh, the clichéd irony.

            So. 2008 was a staging area. We’ve either hit a sort of bottom and will begin to climb out of the cave, or this is the final gasp before the stage explodes and we tumble into the orchestra pit completely (I think the multiple metaphors in this sentence are appropriate). But maybe that’s what it’s been every year, every month, every day of our lives. Maybe the only difference is that we’ve finally opened our eyes to the reality of our precarious situation. That we understand that change has to come not only in the very big world of politics but the small world of what we need as individuals in our communities. The two aren’t just linked. They are the same thing. We’ve had a crazy jolt to bring this to the forefront of our minds and realize that it’s time for solutions. And if that’s the case, then thank god, and I deem this year a success by a slim margin.

            It’s been long, exhausting, fun, annoying, stupid, ugly, fucked up, strange, lipstick-y, lewd, Obama-y trip. I wouldn’t trade it for anything, but I sure as hell don’t want to do it again.

 

Here’s to 2009. Or else.

 


 

A Pothead’s Guide to Children’s Television

Classic

Howdy Doody

-this is a classic 1950’s variety show for children, featuring marionettes, clowns, and cowboys. It does not have a hint of malice; it treats its audience with pleasant condescension, and espouses the values of the American nuclear family with a noble Western theme. In other words, it’s just too damn creepy for the modern day, post-ironic toker. The sincerity wears thin after ten minutes, and the only acknowledgment of temporality is that it is, in fact, ‘Howdy Doody time’. Besides, the clown is clearly evil. (Maybe the show explains John Wayne Gacy)

Captain Kangaroo

-let’s get the obvious disappointment out of the way: He’s not a real Kangaroo. Love the ping pong balls bit, though.

-And the moose. When it comes to sassy puppets, we should respect the moose.

The Mickey Mouse Club

-Proof the Hitler Youth wasn’t stamped out in 1945. I don’t know if it’s the mouse ear hats or the sweaters with the kid’s names right below the neck or the adults decked out in the exact same clothes, but it feels like the first gear of an impenetrable propaganda machine. Plus, it’s common knowledge that with the exception of a handful Chip and Dale-Donald Duck clips, Disney cartoons sucked. And sucked hard.

-Checking the wikipedia article, creepy host Jimmie Dodd never got busted for anything, but he certainly played his part on the show like an overcompensating pedophile.

-In other words, the show is great as documentary of cultural totalitarianism, but no one wants to watch that after ripping a bong hit.

Looney Tunes

-dude, why’s the rabbit always dressing in drag, munching on a carrot, and French kissing the bald hunter? Is that how repressed homosexuality and crossdressing tendencies were explored in 1940’s and 50’s America? It’s like the Kinsey Report with talking animals.

-Speaking of the acme catalogue, why the hell is the Coyote still ordering all that deficient technology from the same company? And you know if he ever catches the roadrunner, the meal’s not going to be worth the effort. Still, stoners will always love the gravity segments. Dawning realizations of horror is hilarious when it’s not happening to you.

 

Retro

Sesame Street

-some of the letters and numbers shit gets predictable. Big Bird is always annoyingly upbeat, but that contrasted well with Oscar. People are insufferably kind. All of them. Maybe ‘Sesame’ is some kind of mood elevator. Interesting musical segments. Watch out for the large invisible mammoth. Highlights: Proto-Pat-Sajak TV host Guy Smiley and the only one that could kick Superman’s ass – other than Doomsday - SuperGrover.

HR Pufnstuf

-this was and still is a benchmark in high television. Ordering candy by telephone, octopus people, long nosed witches, orange spiders that look like eight legged cats and a tree named after Boris Karloff. And a wisecracking flute. The laugh track is switched on and off at random. And Pufnstuf is certainly the nicest what-the-fuck-is-that-thing I’ve ever had the pleasure of squinting at through my bleary red eyes. Wait, he’s a dragon? Get outta town. What’s with the flying saucer shaped head?

You only have to watch five minutes before it will feel like the show has been a part of you since you were born.

Scooby Doo

-pure garbage. Do I need the regurgitated stereotypes of my own high foibles thrown back at me in a green shirt and bell bottoms? And do I need to watch this figure always shamed and embarrassed by his upstanding, straight arrow nemesis Fred? And is it always some crooked businessman utilizing the fear of the paranormal to solidify his financial concerns? Mix it up a bit, writers, I’m high, not senile. And what’s with the retarded dog that can only kind of talk to Shaggy? He’s either a talking dog or he’s not. This is a cartoon. Fuck the middle ground.

Redhead’s not bad, though. Definitely an eight.

Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids

Man, that guy is fucking fat! And what’s Dr. Huxtable doing giving commentary? Isn’t there a sandwich he should be giving birth to? It’s worth watching an episode of this show on YouTube just for the 1970’s hairstyles and fashion. That Rudy sure dresses cool, but man is Fat Albert fat…

Definitely the funkiest opening theme song in the history of television.

 

Modern

Anything DisneyDucktales, TaleSpin, Chip and Dale Rescue Rangers, Goof Troop, etc.

-a dismal, bland format of action adventure with talking animals that made all the classic, reinvented cartoon characters too, too human. Plucking ‘toons from the wealth of Disney mediocrity and have them solve mysteries or try new job after new job. I preferred Chip and Dale when all they wanted was nuts. And Goofy has a son? Who fucked Goofy? What fucked Goofy? The only bright spot is one of the few original characters, Launchpad McQuack. And that’s ‘cause he’s accident-prone and crashes vehicles all the time. He’s like a NASCAR Driver you can truly depend on.

Watch a Louie-centered episode of TaleSpin, the Goof Troop episode when he becomes a fireman, and the Chip and Dale roadkill show. Then flush.

Barney & Friends

-if you’re high, the ‘I Love You’ song has a lifespan of four listens. After that, it does become suitable for interrogation.

-Barney’s gotten a bad rap. Its fun picturing him eating a kid instead of teaching the little brat the alphabet. And maybe that’s why Sesame Street deserves so much credit. Sure the preschool education bits drag the whole thing down, but in almost every show that’s come after it, the education fucking ruins the show completely.

-the triceratops is named B.J. So that’s worth a chuckle or two.

Batman: The Animated Series

-not the current version of Batman, but classic Batman, but not that sixties live action shit. It was on in the early nineties and was pretty damn dark for a kids show. There’s not much to explain. It had Batman kicking ass everyday. The difference was the production value. Great dialogue and vocal performances, Gotham had a 40’s gothic feel to it and was bathed in near perpetual darkness. And do you know who notices the production values of children’s TV programs? Potheads.

-Bonus: Luke Skywalker does the voice of the Joker. No, really.

Teletubbies

-Okay, take Barney and Friends, right? Then smoke a hash joint all to yourself. That’s how you get Teletubbies. It’s slow like molasses, but that gives you the time you need to ponder important questions like, ‘televisions in their stomachs?’, ‘only one of them is gay?’, ‘do you think they’d taste like candy? And would their colours correspond to, like, lemon, cherry, grape, and…uh…green?’

-Skip the live action sequences. It’s just filler to waste time between the Tubby-Toast and the Baby-Big-Brother-Sun.

Spongebob Squarepants

-ah, the piece de resistance. A stoner’s dream under the sea. The opening song merges clutch cargo and sea shanties. How I can watch this show without wanting to punch the hyperactive yellow protagonist in the face is a glorious mystery. The adventures range from trying to get your boating license, to getting your snail to take a bath, to trying to avoid your neighbor by stepping into an alternative reality.

This program crystallizes the great cartoon archetypes to its essence. The bubbly hero, his dumb friend, his uptight neighbor, and his crush, a squirrel in a 1950’s diving suit.

Spongebob is a gleeful child in an absurd piece of theatre that is the town of Bikini Bottom, a village that that has everything a pothead would need. A fast food joint, a cinema, an entertainment venue, jellyfish fields, and the constant threat of nuclear annihilation.

Wonder Showzen

-a delightful romp. A kids show not at all for children. If you park them in front of this, they will probably warp like a wet board. You, on the other hand, will kneel before your new god, Chauncey the yellow puppet, who in one episode witnessed God’s suicide and proceeded to eat the corpse. He also humped a box full of Mother Nature’s lady bits.


 

Burn After Reading / Burn the Mythologized Narrative Prepared by the Media After Reading

 

            Burn After Reading is an excellent film, but it’s being marketed wrong and many a film critic are buying the story hook line, and sinker. It’s not a zany comedy as the trailer and TV spots suggest. It’s stark drama with seriously narcissistic, broken people. The plot does become farcical as it spins complete out of control, and the CIA supervisor played by JK Simmons does conclude the film with genuine guffaws, but it never has a moment akin to John Goodman smashing the hood of car screaming, ‘this is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass!’

            The Coen brothers are being hammered into a media narrative where they make an intense dramatic film, then follow it up with a zany comic farce. The prime example for this is the Academy Award winning drama, Fargo, which was complimented by the ‘Shut-the-fuck-up-Donny-ness’ of The Big Lebowski. It was also done with their earlier films, with Blood Simple being followed by Raising Arizona and the satiric The Hudsucker Proxy tailing Barton Fink’s gloom.

            So based essentially on these examples, the film marketing industry and critics have already sewn the newest patch onto the Coen Brothers’ career quilt. Burn After Reading is supposed to be No Country For Old Men’s side splitting chaser.

            But it’s not. Trying to squeeze expectant comedy from Burn is like trying to get blood from a stone, which is what many mainstream critics and the marketing campaign are trying to do. This is not The Big Lebowski, but it’s not supposed to be The Big Lebowski. There’s not a heartwarming, laidback Dude-like protagonist anywhere. No hip radio-friendly soundtrack. It’s a serious film where people’s careers, relationships, and lives are falling apart. It attacks the Washington bureaucracy, internet dating, and overpriced sex machines. It’s fucked up, but it’s not ha-ha fucked up.

            In other words, it’s in every way closer to Fargo than The Big Lebowski. Seemingly easy sinister plans unravel into bodies and cover-ups. Idiots are given jobs that should have most definitely be left in the hands of professionals. While there’s no wood chipper in Burn, we get a drunken ex-CIA agent hacking a mild mannered gym owner to pieces with an axe. In his driveway. Meanwhile, the only death in Lebowski is the tame passing of lovable Donnie, who even gets a eulogy on the California coast before the credits roll.

            We were set up for this supposedly ‘Lebowski’-ish feature while still the shadow of No Country for Old Men last Christmas. Empire magazine called the film ‘gleefully ridiculous’ in December 2007. Strange, since watching the lonely Frances McDormand walk down a busy park path in search for her humorless internet date is somber, bordering on outright depressing. It is somewhat akin to the scene in Fargo where William H. Macy is being belittled by his father-in-law over the handling of some future investments by the both of them. They are both losers, trying to find contentment in a world that is too big for them to understand.

            I doubt the Coen brothers will care much about this mislabeling, as it seems that the reactions to their films from the world at large is as interesting to them as which one we think is Joel and which one is Ethan. They have, however, reach the rare status in the artistic community where their work is looked at not as independent pieces to be consumed and pored over separately, but as a whole, as if each notch in their film bedpost is part of a grand plan that is constantly refining itself as their career progresses.

            And it’s no surprise. In every type of artistic analysis and review there seems to be a need or urge to categorize and mythologize the creative arc of the creator. And while sometimes there are clearly patterns and systems deliberately followed by the artist (Picasso’s blue, rose, cubist periods, etc. comes to mind), ascribing such a rigid set of rules or steps to every artist is overreaching, ridiculous and lazy, especially when said artist is not even dead and still creating work. Certain filmmakers have been given one or two word descriptions that are expected to sum up their careers when it comes to both interpreting their newest work and writing their eventual eulogy. Martin Scorcese gives us ‘gritty, violent’ films. Spielberg tells child bedtime stories on an epic scale. Some directors have disappointed for critics for so long that their tagline is that haven’t made a good film in decades and so every film is always half-assedly compared to their past masterpieces (Coppola). Kubrick made so many films that defied easy description and were wildly different from each other that it just got to the point that he was expected to give us the unexpected. This was shortened to him just being ‘eccentric’.

Actors are pigeon holed for the roles that made them famous (action star, comedy star, porn star), and if they try to chaff against this tag, this attempt becomes part of the story of an actor ‘stepping outside of his/her comfort zone to prove their range’.

            This framing of the actor’s life emerges in every new round of press interviews and articles done by said actor to promote their upcoming project, and is gently tweaked depending on whether the project in question is a small art house film (‘…tackling a unique and challenging role…’) or a major studio blockbuster (‘…returns to familiar explosions and car chases that made them…’). This can also be applied to well known filmmakers. Spielberg successfully broke out of his ET/Indiana Jones reputation with the success of Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, so now he’s an artist who bounces back and forth between these two types of films (fun versus serious). Certainly he’s much more than that oversimplified dichotomy, but you wouldn’t know it reading anything about him today.

            These ‘stories’ permeate other forms of art and entertainment. In music especially do we get the ‘comeback’ album story. Metallica has had it applied to them twice in the last ten years. With the release of 2003’s St. Anger, the party line was that this album that would satisfy those long time fans pissed off with the bands lighter, alt-rock influenced releases Load and Reload. It’s recording also brought the band closer together, as they’d recently lost bassist Jason Newstead and spent months in group therapy (chronicled in the doc Some Kind of Monster). But the album received tepid reviews and only two songs from it were played on the ensuing world tour. So here we are, five years later, with Death Magnetic, an album being hailed as a recording that will finally satisfy the long time pissed off fans and a vast improvement over the clunky St. Anger, which suffered because of lineup changes and group therapy. A lovely revamp of history, a rewriting of the books. What was once strength is now weakness.

            The same thing has happened to Radiohead and the story of their illustrious career. Their 2003 Hail to the Thief – while still having an overall rating on metacritic.com of 88% and being praised upon it’s initial release – has now been labeled the scattershot album within the praise that was lavished upon their 2007’s ‘comeback’ record, In Rainbows.

            In both cases, the media has simply rewritten history for the sake of the present. Apparently the only thing worth praising is novelty. But it’s the ‘story’ for this time around. ‘This time’ being defined as the period the media machine generates press to promote the new material. Just like Burn After Reading, In Rainbows was offered to the press as new meat, who consumed it and shat it out in such a fashion that it sits snug within the revised history of the artist. This can be done by twisting the new material around the artist (as was done in Burn After Reading by making it The Big Lebowski 2 when it isn’t) or by twisting the artist around the new material (as was done with In Rainbows, by making it an improvement over an album that wasn’t bad).

            More so than most archetypes, the Comeback album/artist story is universal and needs very little explanation. Band makes it big, gets indulgent (either in recording newer, more challenging material that the critics/fans are less than enthusiastic about, or go through personal anguish and turmoil like break ups, meltdowns, and rehab), then returns to the formula that made them popular in the first place. Sometimes decades could go by between ‘band makes it big’ and the ‘comeback’. Or it could be two years, if we look at the obscure pop singer Britney Spears, whose head shaving, child ignoring antics have so devastated the economy that the music press had no choice but to hail her non performance appearance at the recent MTV Video Music Awards as proof that she is, for lack of better word, ‘back’.

            Speaking of Ms. Spears: Without knowing or wanting it, she has ushered in a completely new era of media manufacturing. Suddenly the work of the artist isn’t always the main story. For a selected few, it’s been overtaken by the ups and downs in the life of the artist or celebrity. Paris Hilton crystallizes this point perfectly, since while Britney did start as a recording artist, she – despite dabbling in music, TV and film – is still most famous for simply being Paris Hilton. Why have a fictional character – either in the form of a book, TV show or movie – go through a series of trials and tribulations and eventually overcome them – when you can have the same thing with a real person? Granted, even the word ‘real’ here is as appropriate as the term ‘reality TV’, but since everything in the media is about perception and appearance, why can’t this be the next step in entertainment for the masses? Why have Hollywood screenwriters pull stories out of their asses to amuse us all when we can have legitimate, authoritative journalists bundle truths and hearsay into a heartwarming tale of sin and redemption about genuine, flesh and blood people who actually have social insurance numbers? Doesn’t their success and failure hit you that much harder knowing that you breathe the same air as them? Why look at an artist’s work when you can look at them lounging by the pool of an expensive Caribbean resort?

            In closing and reiteration, this article is a protest of the increased and constantly narrowing categorization used in the assessment of work in the artistic realm. While in the world of math and sciences (whether it be economics or physics) a strong hierarchy is not only helpful but necessary, applying a similar kind of analytical structure to works in the artistic world does more harm than good. In the case of Burn After Reading, we are presented with a quandary that mimics that most basic tenet of empiricism. Because of patterns seen in the Coen brothers’ past, it is assumed the newest work falls into that pattern immediately, despite the evidence that it clearly does not.

            In the career trajectory of move stars and celebrities we see their story being tailored and trimmed as if it was not an individual’s life but a film. In a celebrity obsessed world, the actor becomes the art. And not even good art. It is a hollow, condensed-at-the-expense-of-truth, movie of the week. With a handful of career high-low bullet points, the nuances of a musician’s or group’s career can be reduced to half a page of text.

            I’m not going to end with a warning or dire prophecy that this approach to the world of music, film, and literature is going to come at the cost of the quality of said music, film and literature, because it won’t. It just sucks that we are shoving round pegs in square holes. We are forcing a form of thought (artistic expression) that ideally should be open to endless interpretation and personal reflection into two or three pre-fabricated story molds that usually have more to do with a superficial psychoanalysis of the artist than the work itself. The final irony of course is that while assessing the career of Britney Spears or commenting on the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy can be done in broad strokes and platitudes, the high quality, complex material produced by respected artists such as Coen Brothers, Radiohead is subject to that same superficial and misleading analysis.

            Wait, are we talking about plans and ideas that unravel into superficial confusion and cover-ups? Are idiots given jobs that should have most definitely been left in the hands of professionals? In this case, I can recommend a perfect movie…


 

Shut the fuck up, pollsters! Admit you don’t know anything!

You know how they say that getting there is half the fun? The vultures endlessly circling over the stumbling corpse that is the American electoral process marching towards November 4th is the exception that proves this rule.

 

            Ah, the media. The 4th estate, now an enterprise wholly owned and operated by the 2nd estate. How lovely it is to feast on the incessant tidbits of information that rolls off the table of the haves. Latest bit of ad nauseum: Apparently John McCain and Barack Obama are almost neck and neck in the polls. Bullshit. ‘But…but look at the research!’ the media sputter. Get that shit out of my face. What does that mean? ‘If today was two months into the future, which candidate would you choose right now?’ What kind of hypothetical, time traveling question is that? There’s only one poll that counts, and it’s the one on the first Tuesday of November, 2008. Everything else is nothing but wank. There are dozens of factors that all come to a froth when each citizen steps into that little booth and pulls out the curtain, and thinking that phone or internet polls can take all that into consideration on a random day in late August is absolutely ridiculous.

            ‘Yeah, we know that’, the media and pollsters reply. Really? Do you? Are you sure? Let me turn on CNN and see what’s going on. Oh, wow. I guess I’m wrong. They’re covering the Gustav hurricane. Incessantly. There’s three reporters in mall parking lots getting soaked. Oh, wait- now we’re seeing how this is affecting the Republican Convention in Minnesota. Not because of weather problems, of course, but just so it doesn’t look like the GOP is fiddling while Rome burns. Again. Also, GOP veep pick Sarah Palin is gonna be a grandmother as her seventeen year old has a bun in the oven. I can’t wait to see the poll results for questions regarding this development.

            And that’s the worst thing about this incessant need for quantifiable information: There’s not just one poll. Not just, ‘will you vote for John or Barack in November?’, but dozens of others that break down this race into strategic cutlets that must arranged and absorbed by the candidates’ handlers (yeah, they have handlers, just like dogs). Who do you trust more the economy, is experience the most important factor, is Obama an elitist? On CNN’s website, they have something called ‘the poll of polls’, which tracks the day-to-day changes in how America will apparently vote in November in polls from multiple sources. Why people were 3% more likely to be ‘unsure’ on August 21st than on the day before will have to be a question answered by American historians in 22nd century.

            ‘How well is Obama connecting to working class Midwestern voters?’ ‘What can he do to connect with them if he isn’t?’ Is not answering this question through two more months of reckless speculation really necessary? Isn’t ruminating over this query supposed to be the painfully boring drivel that the Obama campaign has to worry about in some shitty cubicle in Iowa, not the breaking news yakking points for a handful of talking heads that meet the multicultural rainbow requirements in a TV studio in Atlanta? Why not look at the issues that matter to Midwestern voters in detail, instead of asking about strategy to court them (and no, they aren’t the same thing). The best part of the report, though, is when they go get feedback from – in this case – working class Midwestern voters, asking: ‘Why won’t you vote for Barack Obama?’

            That’s when you can flush any credit we give the television news networks down the toilet. They parade five or six trailer trash archetypes before the camera that let loose on their high-school-dropout-ignorance-patched-up-with-political-rant-leftovers-from-their-preacher diatribe: ‘I believe he’s a secret Muz-lem’, ‘I’ve had enough of Husseins!’, ‘I just…don’t trust… his kind, I’m afraid.’ And it’s not so much the disappointment that are this kind of sentiments are held by many average Americans, but that the whole framing of the story reeks of the idea that one TV producer had of showing nothing but the lowest and smallest minded comments he could find. You mean to tell me that there’s not one person they could interview who disagreed with Obama’s economic policy? CNN seemed to go out of its way to ensure that blue state Americans hold the same kind of ignorant stereotypes on red states that red states have regarding blue states thanks to Fox News.

            At least it balances out, I guess…

            The mostly forgettable mid nineties film, The Paper contains the following line from the New York Sun managing editor: ‘We only have to be right for one day.’ And boy howdy, do the media today take that axiom to heart. The amount of speculation on how Obama is blowing it or how McCain is seesawing back and forth from gaining ground and looking ancient will be swept away come the results in November, just like the presidential primaries are now studied as if they are fossils (remember when Guiliani was focusing on Florida? Exactly).

            Going back to the quote, accountability has seemingly been tossed out the window in terms of covering news stories. Accurately informing the public has lost out to the battle for ratings (translation: battle for advertising revenue) as the chief goal for news programming and networks. This means that easily digested sex scandals and patriotism challenges take the place of a debate over the feasibility of universal healthcare. And while sensationalism has always been part of media coverage (the 1884 election focused more on Grover Cleveland’s ten year old affair that resulted in a bastard child than on any real issues), today it is all encompassing. Now political gossip is breaking news, not beltway small talk in a DC bar. The amount of information that is absorbed then discarded is mind boggling. Sure, the corporations that own the papers have always controlled to some degree the stories and information that go into them, but today there’s so much information poured down the public’s throat it’s hard to pick out the gold from the shit.

            So with this hazy focus of what the issues really are, nobody wins. Not the public who are trying to be informed and not the people polling the public on said information. You don’t know how 1/3 of America is going to vote, pollsters, admit it. And that’s why this election is completely up in the air. You can’t ask independents who they’ll vote for in August and expect it to stay the same for the next two and half months. That’s why they’re called independents. If they were truly swayed by one candidate now, they’d change their status to Republican or Democrat (if not on the voter registry, at least when defining themselves when taking part in a poll).

            Then again, the 24 hours news networks have to say something, right? They have a hell of a schedule to fill, so a lot of the time speculation is all you can drum up. I wonder what Ted Turner was thinking when he started up CNN back in the eighties. Did he think that WWIII was imminent and that there would definitely be a need for twenty four hour news? I mean, the only time we needed a constant streaming of information in the last twenty five years was September 11th, and you didn’t even need CNN for that as all the major networks became round-the-clock news factories, anyway.

            But CNN must be doing something right. Their ratings are higher for this election than any one previous. The only question is, are Americans buying it? Is CNN gospel? Are they deciding the outcome this possibly extremely close election thanks to their coverage of it? The executives who pay for the advertising space – and to a large degree, also own the networks the commercials run on – don’t seem to care as long as Americans buy the products that are being flogged.

            Then again, when it comes to spending money, this time of year, the average American’s budget is luaghable when compared to the money burning efforts of the presidential candidates. Combined, McCain and Obama will suck one billion dollars out of the pockets of American citizens and corporations (mostly corporations, I’m afraid) and spend it all on TV ads, hotels, pizzas, signs, and crowd control barriers.

And polls.

It’s the circle of life.

 


 

George Carlin (1937-2008)

“Haven't we had enough of this cigar-smoking shit in this country? When are these fat, arrogant, overpaid, overfed, over pampered, over privileged, overindulged business criminal asshole cocksuckers going to put out their cigars and move along to their next abomination? White, pussy businessmen sucking on a big, brown dick. That's all it is. That's all it ever was. A big, brown dick. Freud said sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Oh, yeah? Well sometimes it's a big, brown dick with a white collar business criminal asshole sucking on the wet end of it. But the news isn't all bad for me, you know the good part? Cancer of the mouth. Good, fuck 'em. It's an attractive disease, it goes good with a cell phone. So light up, suspender man, and suck that smoke deep down into your empty suit and blow it out your asshole, you fucking cocksucker!”

Carlin is dead. Long live Carlin.

            He lives on in books and youtube. He lives on in the countless comedians – the few good, the many bad – who pinched and borrowed not only his material, but his style. Carlin was the first last angry man. And he didn’t start off angry. Sometimes you have to start on the other side of the fence. Carlin entertained the buttoned down nineteen fifties Midwest husbands and wives in Vegas for most of the sixties, and grew disgusted with it. Then he went to the counterculture side and started poking holes in how we looked at and operated in the world. By the eighties he wasn’t poking holes so much as blowing wide open huge chunks of what was wrong with modern society. An accidental social critic, and certainly the only one who could open with, ‘How’s everybody doin’? Good, well fuck you!’

            But now he’s dead. His soul is on the roof, never to be retrieved. Even praying to Joe Pesci won’t get him back. So smoke one from your Toledo window box baggie, and lay back and remember why cowboys fuck sheep over the edge of the cliff (answer: so the sheep will push back). He told that joke in 1999, when he was sixty two years old. Clearly softening with age was not part of the man’s personality. But Carlin was never sick without being smart. While not every joke was deep and thought provoking (how could it be, and who would even want it?), an hour with the man onstage included ruminations that most comedians even today wouldn’t attempt. The existence of God, the environmental movement, and philosophically rationalizing the excitement of people dying by the truckload were all fair game for George.

            And now that he’s gone we get one final bit of irony that he himself would have grinned and rolled his eyes at: while every newspaper obituary mentions the 'seven words you can't say on TV' bit and the fact that Carlin was labeled obscene and controversial, they can't back their statements up with any direct quotes or examples. Hell, George Carlin won the Supreme Court case regarding the supposed profane material, but clearly there hasn’t been any real change regarding this in the mainstream media decades later. Apparently we still have to be treated like children when it comes to words. Imagine how much editing it would be take for the cigars bit above to get into a daily newspaper. It's like taking a razorblade and neutering the material.

            And much of Carlin's material dwells on these quibbles about language. What words are offensive? What ideas are offensive? And while he concurs that our reality is based on language and how we use it, he demands that there's no reason we should be stupid about it. 'They are only words', he reminds on Parental Discretion Advised, while ruminating over a plethora of racial slurs, ‘it’s the racist assholes that are using them that you gotta worry about.’ On the same disc/performance, he suggests that rape can be funny, and provides the image of Elmer Fudd raping Porky Pig as an example.

            What was great about Carlin the performer was – like all great comedians – he made you feel like you belonged to that special club of the enlightened. When he was railing against the idiots that cover the earth, it felt like he meant everyone else in the world except his audience. As if the theatre was the secret meeting place for all the people who truly understood how the world worked, and where it was safe to let our hair down and listen to our prophet. It’s how he is able to get the crowd to cheer him on when he suggests that the true problem with America is that the American public at large sucks.

Carlin’s seventies material was almost benign compared to his eighties and nineties output, but there was still great material from this earlier period. Individuals own foibles were taken to task, rather than the institutions that push society forward. Even something as ambiguous as ‘stuff’ could be deconstructed into a hilarious analysis of rampant consumerism. But after three heart attacks and twelve years of Republican rule, Carlin became the last angry man who was pissed off enough to leave every stone overturned and shat upon. No sacred cows. His charity case coloured ribbon: brown, for ‘EAT SHIT MOTHERFUCKER!’

The environment – Fuck you, we started killing the earth and now it is killing us and we deserve it.

Politics – The last time he voted was when they had the chance to kick out Nixon in '72, even though: ‘the shit they shuffle around every fours years? (farting noises) Doesn’t mean a fucking thing’. Another winning phrase that would make Franklin or Jefferson proud: ‘if you have selfish, ignorant citizens, you’re going to have selfish, ignorant leaders.’ Overall, he made rather general observations about politics, as his example of topical humour is wondering whether Dan Quayle has to fuck his ugly wife ('god help him, I wouldn't fuck her with a stolen dick!'). Carlin reminded us that America was founded on bullshit principles ("all men are created equal. Yeah right, except for Indians, niggers, and women."), and to expect anything to improve after starting off on such a hypocritical footing is delusional.

Children – They aren't special. They are like every other cross section of people: a few winners and a whole lotta losers.

Golf – an elitist, racist game that takes up too much land, all of which should be given to the homeless.

In his introduction to his first book, Brain Droppings, he tells us that while he has little hope for society in general, he finds joy in friends, family and individuals while having disdain for groups, societies or anything that could be classified as herd behaviour. Contrasting this thought with the change in his comedy styling, it was as if George Carlin died in the late nineteen sixties and watched humanity from afar with a pair of binoculars, chuckling to himself, 'what dumbasses...'  He seemed to have realized that the individual can't win in a group. And George never portrayed this as a bad thing, or something to wallow over. Instead, it's a freeing mechanism which allows the individual to watch the chaos from a distance. The goal in life is to find happiness within yourself, not through the material world that surrounds you, as all of is becoming more and more temporary every day.

George Carlin died two weeks after playing what became his final show. He went out doing what he loved, telling us what he hated with a perfect blend of truth and humour. The world has been sick for a long time, and we’ve just lost one hell of a doctor.

 

 ‘We’re all fucked. It helps to remember that.’ – George Carlin


 

 

Diary Extracts from History’s Greatest Bastards

Adolph Hitler (Nazi leader)

March.1911

Man, Vienna sucks this time of year. I’m having awful gas here. On the tram I try to just tilt my cheek instead of lifting it right off the seat, but then the pressure is greater and the sound is twice as loud. Some woman made a face, but she was totally faking it, it was all sound and no smell. It’s hard being a vegetarian in a country where bratwurst is its own food group. The only thing I have is sauerkraut, and that is just cabbage soaked in vinegar (barf!). My dream is to be minister of foodstuffs. Then I’ll show them. I’ll show them all!

I drew a picture of a clown today. He is crying because the commie Jew bastards are taking over everything.

Jan.1933

Omigod! You will NEVER believe what happened in parliament today! I was, like, sitting in my usual seat making eyes with the minister of defense, ready to make my way cool speech on the Necessitation of a Radical Government Shift in this Ideological Mediocre Faux Democratic State when guess who showed up! It was the Chancellor and boy did he have big news for me! He wanted me to be…omigod, omigod, omigod… the new Prime Minister! It was sooo cool. But I, like, kept my calm and yelled that I accepted, and now I’m prime minister of Germany! Totally bitchin’!

PS- I had my opposing political party members rounded up and shot this afternoon. They were soooo last month, and what they thought was cool was, like, completely weak.

July.1937

I think Himmler is making fun of my mustache behind my back. I swear, if he wasn’t such a good leader of the SS, I’d have him find two thugs and make them break his own glasses. And as if his mustache was such hot shit. So neither of us is Clark Gable. I’m okay with that. He’s the one with the self esteem issue not me. I’m totally fine with myself. I’m in the zone. I call it the A-pad.

Sept.1939

Usual day. Declared war on Poland. They were so bitchy about it. I was like, “you know the Danzig corridor is ours”, and they’re all like, “nu-uh!”, and I’m like “uh-huh!”. So now we’re duking it out. Oh! Oh! Gobbels told a great joke today in the war room! What are the two biggest lies in Poland? Give up? The check’s in your mouth and I promise I won’t come in the mail! Ha, ha! Hess almost spilled his stein when he heard it.

 

Jeffery Dahmer (serial rapist/killer/cannibal)

September 13, 1990

Took the cat to the vet. Doctor said the medicine for worms was $50 and it just blew me away. I said I was already trying to feed Huckle the bland, tasteless dry food that is supposed to clean his teeth (don’t even bother asking me how it works), and now I have to shell out fifty more dollars? And I mean, I love that cat. I’d do anything for him. But when you start to put a dollar amount on things it really puts things into a realistic perspective, especially when you’re pretty much living from paycheck to paycheck like me.

Looking back, I really shouldn’t have blown $150 on the fancy industrial strength locks. Their hands are so small and weak, they couldn’t open a mayonnaise jar, let alone pry apart two inches of steel. They’re drunk anyway by the time they know what’s going on.

And that’s another thing! One stumbled across the room and smashed into my coffee table! Broke the thing in two. It was my grandmother’s, for christssakes! $150 locks. I’m such a sucker.

Oh well, no sense beating myself about it now. A little overkill never hurt anybody, yuk, yuk, yuk…

 

Caligula (unhinged Roman emperor)

October, 39AD

Caligula overdid it again. Sweet ambrosia, sweeter pussy, and salty semen. At least Caligula thinks it was semen. After twelve mugs of wine everything starts to taste a bit like piss. Or maybe it was piss. Caligula’s teeth are yellow…

Caligula has a headache. Everyone needs to shut up for a minute. SHUT UP FOR A MINUTE!

Caligula needs a new statue for his horse boat.

But first, Caligula needs a horse boat.

February, 40AD

So Caligula was banging this chick. Not too shabby body, real tight in the cooch, but just as Caligula starts really going to town she started yakking to the girl next in line, and Caligula’s like, ‘bitch, do you know what Caligula’s gonna do to you if you don’t put your heart into this? Caligula’s gonna set your heart on a plate and make you eat it. Except you can’t, ‘cause you’d already be dead.’ Well, that shut her up. Then Caligula poured wine on her back and tried to lick it off, but instead fell off the table. Everyone in the senate tried to help Caligula up, but damn it, Caligula’s a big boy, Caligula can do it myself.

And later than night at the orgy, Caligula swears some tall guy gave Caligula the evil eye, so anyone taller than Caligula had their throats cut. Then we tossed the bodies in a big pile and started fucking and vomiting on top of it. That’ll sure show him.

And Caligula thinks the guy whose butt Caligula was violating righteously and seemed passed out was really dead. It’s nothing Caligula’s particularly proud of, but at least in this case he won’t be spreading any stories.

 

Plato (Greek philosopher)

402 BC

Why can’t he just shut the fuck up? Who fucking cares why sticks don’t all look the same? Oh no, someone killed a slave, what’s the ethical thing to do? How about just not kill slaves?! Pious this, the gods love that, why the fuck can’t you think like a normal fucking person for once, Soc? One day he’s gonna ask the wrong person what truth is and that person is gonna stick a knife in his chest.

I’m tired of being called a lazy bum. I’m tried of wandering from town to town and converting people to nothing at all. But Apollo be damned, I hate the thought having to be a farmer even more.

 

399 BC

He’s like a gadfly you can’t kill. Buzzing around your head, not really hurting you, but just being damn, damn annoying. And now he’s the wisest man in the world according to some Delphi oracle. You’d think he’d cash in on that somehow, but no. ‘Let’s just go talk to the people of Delium, Plato’. Whatever you say, Professor Jackass. How do you know money doesn’t buy happiness? You’ve never even had any.

I’m totally ratting this guy out next time we’re in Athens. He’s liable to get us all killed if he asks a Spartan why he bothers fighting.

 

 

Anthony Higgins (19h century British longshoreman) 

May 14, 1885

Woke up, got drunk, stumbled out of bed. Pushed the kids next door down the stairs. Slapped wife. Drowned puppies. Stole from blind man’s tin cup. Farted in church. Shat on a doorknob. Shortchanged prostitute and gave her the clap. Broke doctor’s glasses. Tore pages of out of books in library. Told policeman to get stuffed. Stuffed policeman. Loaded boxes at the dock. Broke half, stole half. Sold half the half I stole. Ate a meat pie loudly in restaurant, trip waitress on purpose. Walked to slowly down a busy street. Spooked a cartload of orphans. Broke two horses’ legs. Incited race riot in Chinatown. Threw fish guts at nobleman. Threw fish guts at penniless widow. Put penny on train tracks. Peed in the Thames river. Peed on the man beside me as I peed in Thames River. Beat up man beside me after I peed in Thames River. Put a Jew in headlock. Kicked a gypsy in the shin. Pinched the hell out of a talentless French painter and punched a hole in his paintings. Ate bangers n’ mash over a pint or six. Skipped on bill and stole a pint glass. Pretended to me a ghost in the backyard of a miserable old miser’s house. Quietly snuck back into the house late at night and slapped wife.

Good day, all in all.

 

Elizabeth Bathory (16th Hungarian countess who tortured and killed up to 600 children)

July 15, 1602

What a beautiful day! Hello sun! Hello birds! Hello world! Oh how great it is to be alive and healthy on a warm summer’s day! I took a walk through the gardens, had a delightful nibble at noon and then it was off to the dungeons to burn and mutilated the genitalia of all my lovely prizes! It’s not the nicest place, but you’d be surprised how much a bouquet of flowers in every corner is able to brighten the place up! Big smiles girls, I’m doing you the greatest of favors, removing these dirty naughty bits from you. Big smiles, ladies, you can do it! Big smiles! I said BIG SMILES! Don’t grin, let’s see those pretty teeth! YOUR TEETH ARE PRETTY SO LET’S SEE ‘EM! Don’t make me rip ‘em out so I can keep them on my table and look at them all the time! Don’t make me do it! Don’t make me- YOU MADE ME DO IT! MURDERER! LOOK WHAT YOU MADE ME DO TO YOUR HEAD! LOOK AT THAT! IT’S ON THE FLOOR NOW! NOW KATALIN HAS TO COME IN HERE AND CLEAN UP YOUR MESS! I MEAN BRAINS!

Where are the fucking birds? I want to heard goddamn birds. Can’t we lock up some sparrows in here or something?

February 4, 1607

If you don’t wash behind your ears you don’t deserve them, sweetie, and I’ll just take the pair and make a necklace out of them.

December 2, 1608

Christmas season is upon us already! Such a special time of year. The snow across the fields makes everything fresh and new. And with the chilly weather the statues in my garden just seem to crack and crumble so I’ve tossed out some of the less impressive girls into the fields at night. By morning they’re almost frozen and perfect replacements for stone.

If you can’t seem to curtsy with any soul I, nay, the world, has no use for you…

 


The Secret History of St. Patrick's Day

            St. Patrick's Day was created by a crafty Prussian businessman in the midst of a semi-religious hallucination in 1673. Two years earlier, Fredrick Blucher was exiled from his hometown of Cologne and found himself in what he believed to be Ireland (in actuality, it was France). While avoiding the cannibalistic Huguenots at every turn, Blucher befriended a similarly exiled senile Irish landowner who was deeply enamored with the Prussian’s filthy, adults only version of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales.
            With the old man dying in a not-at-all mysterious boating accident (heart attack), Blucher weaseled his way to into a portion of the will, but was only granted a small patch of land in Galway with a failing brewery at one end.
            Traveling to Ireland and finding the welcome hostile and the weather dreadful, Blucher felt the best way to capitalize was to literally string up and hang his drinking competitors. When this failed and after his bones had healed, Blucher decided it would be most fit to not punish the few with violence but the many with a forced holiday, as was the custom in his native Prussia (The second week of March was 'Work twice as hard for the half the pay!' week in Leipzig). Blucher tirelessly traveled from pub to pub, trying to convince the locals that to work on a Friday was not only a mortal sin but also a supreme waste of time, despite not speaking a word of Gaelic.
            Faced with almost certain collapse, Blucher cursed the brewery and lived in a nearby forest, surviving on fungi and domestic squirrel. One night, while tripping on mushrooms like a Terrance McKenna in torn pantaloons, Blucher heard the word of the alleged lord to not neglect his inheritance and spread as much joy through Ireland as possible. When Blucher whispered asking what kind of joy, the lord allegedly replied, 'get creative, I'm not much interested in the details.'
            Although he intended to keep his vision to himself and suffer in quiet alcoholism, the 17th century sub-pope Leopold Jarvis II came to his aid immediately, as the man had an eight sense for sensing religious hallucinations within others (his other two additional senses: throwing his voice and locating dubious financial investments).
             Plotting with Jarvis II who commanded much respect in the church thanks to his stunning rhetoric and portable petting zoo, a feast day was concocted to increase revenue at the unprofitable Irish brewery. Choosing the little known Saint Patrick as a mascot (who was always confused with every robed, bearded religious zealot with a walking stick), Blucher dreamt up a story from his asshole out.
            Basing most of St. Patrick's legend on his meddling Uncle Otto (who drove the snakes out of his garden...and unfortunately into the house, killing three family members), Blucher hid various documents and cracked statues across Ireland. Jarvis traveled tirelessly over the land, convincing elders through grand stories and the threat of donkey bites that St. Patrick was the best damn thing that happened to Ireland since deciding to hate the English with impossible ferocity. For lack of reason to doubt a man with a traveling petting zoo and already pretty soused, the Irish crawled aboard.
            The first St. Patrick's Day parade in 1673 was actually a line of overeager Irishmen wanting first dibs of the re-branded brewery's flowing ale. Six hours later, the first St. Patrick's Day drunken stumble was celebrated. Followed quickly by the first St. Patrick's Day drunken shitkicking of Seamus Hanlon. Blucher found that it was even easier to convince the Irish of this mangled form of history when they were in this drunken state. He even considered running for a government position under the slogan 'would I lie to you?', before realizing the private sector was his true calling (this change of heart was mainly due to a near-fatal beating from the sub-pope, who was suspicious that Blucher was skimming money off the top from the brewery's profits, an act which is now known in the beer industry as 'taking head').
            With the brewery becoming a major success and the story of St. Patrick spreading across the British Isles, Blucher was able to raise a toast to the luck of the Prussians, having succeeded in a country where a potato in hot water was considered a major delicacy. He would have lived to a ripe old age if Jarvis II was not right on the money about Blucher stealing a majority of the profits, as he was brutally stabbed by six of the sub-pope’s altar boys in 1675, at the age of 36. The good news was that this still gave the Prussian enough time to impregnate half of Galway, ensuring that his lineage – and brewery – would live on.
            Yet despite the best efforts by his many descendents, the Galway brewery closed for good in 1935, after noted bigot (and professed fan of beer hall-based revolutions) Marcus Blucher released the flavorless, bland spirit unfortunately titled, 'Aryan Ale' and announced that five percent of each bottle sold would go the Irish Nazi Party (headed by Marcus Blucher). His body was found in the trunk of a lorry, but then somehow never recovered. The brewery became part train yard and three quarters playground.
            In revenge for being embarrassed by the ridiculous story of being driven out of Ireland by the non-existent St. Patrick, snakes have conspired against humanity for centuries. By the year 2341, it is expected that snakes will have grown arms and legs and have large enough brains to develop massive super robots that will surely destroy humanity. The joke is on the snakes of course, as humanity will actually be obliterated in 2104 by pissed off genius apes that developed a more advanced form of the bubonic plague.


 

 

Top Seven Movie Loopholes

 

This list was difficult to assemble, as it’s rather difficult to define ‘loophole’. And sometimes a loophole isn’t really apparent and glaring until a host of movies use the exact same one.

Loopholes are devices to get around things that would usually occur in real life. And sometimes they’re just used to make the film more interesting. Movies in general exist in a state of willing disbelief from the audience, but sometimes we are shown things that are so ridiculous we have to sit up from our seats and go, ‘oh come on!’ At least we used to. Loopholes today are so common place that we just don’t question them anymore.  Loopholes can be the reason for a crazy cool car chase or a way to shorten or extend your film by ten or fifteen minutes.

Contrary to popular belief, they are not necessarily found in bad movies. Good – even great – films have loopholes; they just use them in an interesting or unique way. A good movie makes you forget you’re seeing any at all. Bad movies lift up their shirts and jiggle the loopholes right in your face. And here are seven examples of them.

7. Impossible Fireball Explosion from Die Hard 2 – Okay, to be fair I’m starting off with a popular example of the most generic of loopholes for action movies: The defiance of the laws of physics for the sake of, ‘ohhh, cool!’ In Die Hard 2, terrorists take over Washington-Dulles airport so planes can’t land, meaning they are circling the airport and quickly running out of fuel. After some low-rent attempts at overthrowing them, the terrorists punish Sen. Fred Thompson, Dennis Franz, and Bruce Willis by flying a British Airways plane – so low on gas the passengers are ‘choking on fumes’, according to the pilot – into the ground. A massive, massive fireball ensues, despite us hearing just before that there’s no gas left in the plane to ignite said fireball. Later Willis fights the head terrorist on the wing of a jet plane about to take off and gets kicked (literally) to the ground. Fortunately before that he was able to open the gas tank on the wing, letting gallons of petrol spill out and leaving a nice tidy trail of the stuff on the runway. Then he blows the plane up with his bic lighter. That’s worth a promotion, isn’t it, Lieutenant McClane? Another favorite: A scene revolving around the ever-shrinking number on a two minute timer on a bomb that takes ten minutes to play out. Come to think of it, that kind of thing was in Die Hard 2, as well! When all the terrorists threw grenades into a military plane cockpit that Willis was trapped inside (he got out thanks to the ejector seat), it took a hell of a lot longer than ten seconds to explode.

They blinded me with science.

6. Communication Breakdown from The Blair Witch Project – You gotta hand it to horror films. They’ve been able to keep pace with technology in an unfortunate way, as every single gadget humanity has developed for traveling and talking to others has a horrible knack for not working at the most inconvenient time. The car starts to break down so you stop at a spooky motel. Or the car you try to use for your escape doesn’t work at all. You free yourself from the clutches of the creepy kids in the abandoned village (or the axe murderer in the bad-part-of-town) and run to the phone booth to call the cops only to find it out of service. And now that we have cell phones, suddenly battery life and signal strength are never more tenuous and in doubt (and signal strength can be the ultimate loophole, because once the evil dude is dead, surprise! Your phone works again!).

But I chose The Blair Witch Project here because they kicked it old school. Instead of having a car or cell phone to lose or break, they had a map. Just a good, old fashioned, helpful map that can’t really ‘stop working’. And the guy threw it away in anger. Nice move, pal. You’re trying to find a witch in a giant forest. You couldn’t just kick your water bottle around when you lost your temper?

5. Why Don’t You Believe Me? from Fight Club – Ah, the wonderful world of law enforcement! Ready to protect its citizens unless said citizens are delusional fruitcakes who believe androids from the future are trying to kill them.

Nothing’s worse than for a protagonist from loophole #6 to finally get through to the authorities only to have them laugh in your face or write you off as a prank caller and hang up. Or that your story of having messianic, soap-making alter ego who plans on blowing up dozens of office buildings, is as likely as it sounds, a la Fight Club. With the cops no longer an option, our leading man/lady/talking chimp can finally go and finish off the evil killer themselves. Or who knows, maybe the cowardly friend who ran away earlier comes back and helps at the pivotal moment. You can never tell these days…

NOTE: I don’t include movies where ‘why don’t you believe me?’ isn’t just a loophole device, but the plot itself. This includes The Lady Vanishes, The Fugitive, and The Lady Vanishes for the new millennium, Flightplan. All of these films are about the protagonist trying to correct the world’s view of them from beginning to end.

4. Love in the time of Cholera. Or World War II. Or an alien invasion. From Atonement – Have you realized (hopefully before beginning the film shoot) that all you’ve got on deck is a typical romantic comedy/drama borefest? Spice it up by having it take place at a tenuous time and/or place in human history (just keep in the mind the costume budget). Suddenly there’s a smattering of things that can keep the lover’s apart! In Atonement we have lover’s pining for each other in the ever-extending shadow of the Second World War: ‘Sorry baby, I just got called up. Time to go fry some krauts.’ ‘But we were just about to say how much we love each other!’ And why stop at the chance of being blown to bits by a German tank? There are so many other things that can go wrong! Disease (Love Story), racism (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Jungle Fever), time travel (Kate & Leopold), neurotic Jewish comedians (Annie Hall), the supernatural (Bewitched), aliens (The Astronauts Wife, My Stepmother is an Alien), and, to a lesser extent, sharks (Open Water, Jaws 4). All of these situations take your typical guy-meets-girl and adds just a slight twist. And it doesn’t have to make the movies that different. Most of the movies I mentioned above are just as bad as regular romantic dramas and comedies.

NOTE: It’s not just limited to young insanely attractive people in love. Sometimes love can’t keep a family together because one of them is a robot (A.I.).

3.  'The reason I brought you here...' from The Matrix: Reloaded - Is your film getting sluggish, or is the plot too complicated? Enter the MAN. You know, the white haired guy in a smart suit with a cane and a smile you just can’t help but want to crack with your fist. If you need exposition in thirty seconds or less (or in The Matrix’s case, many more seconds with the added bonus of watered down philosophical musings), this is the guy. Maybe he’s the old police chief in the small town (‘thirty years ago, crazy ol’ Joey Jones killed six kids in that church. Some say his spirit still haunts the place today…’), or an evil government doctor (‘we trained you in 1997, erased your memory in 1999, and we had you assassinate the ruler of the Congo in 2000…’), or a kindly old ghost (‘thirty years ago I killed six kids in this church, some say I still haunt the place today…’). He gives the answers, so you can get back to car chase without thinking too much. Sometimes he gives too many answers and you end up treating your audience like five year olds, but- ooh! Impossible fireball explosion! Cool! In a lot of ways exposition is the truest sense of cheating, because it’s here where you can treat your movie like putty, condensing an hour’s worth of plot into, ‘my brother was trying to do the same thing you were, but somebody killed him and we never found out who’.

2. The lingering camera from Raiders of the Lost Ark - Look at all these people walking around in that street scene! It’s almost too much to take in. Who's the enemy agent tracking the spy? Who's the hotel employee that will tell the hero who walked into the hotel late last night? Who's the girl that's obviously going to be killed after she sleeps with Nicholas Cage? (still talking about the film here, folks) Don't worry you're pretty little head about it, audience. The camera will tell you as it’s at slow or stops on it’s pan through the bar, lobby, or airplane fuselage. Look for a striking woman, or a particularly grimy looking passenger, or – if it’s an action thriller – a person of color. To nail the point home, there will probably be that can’t-miss 'turn of the head towards the hero' move. And in Raiders of the Lost Ark, just in case you can’t pick it up through cinematography, they give the guy who stares at Indy just a bit too long an eye patch. Thanks, Mr. Spielberg. Now that I know that I can run to the concession stand for more licorice before the next fight scene.

Bonus camera crap: Just as the movie’s ending, a final pan to a scene or object… that changes the entire plot of the film! I’m looking at you, Basic Instinct

 

And finally, number one. It happens quite often in movies that, well, don’t pay attention what happened just five minutes earlier. The best example of this can be seen in one movie, and that’s what I’m going to focus on. So without further ado…

1. Contempt for Logic / Order 66 from Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith – Yeah, George Lucas has always maintained that these movies were for children, but the only kids who didn’t pick up on this glaring gulf of a narrative probably thought Jar-Jar Binks was hilarious to boot. So the Jedi Knights were fighting alongside the ordinary Republic army against the evil clones. But then the evil Senator/emperor/melty faced Palpatine decrees to the army commanders to institute ‘Order 66’, which involves many soldiers wordlessly obeying the command and killing the Jedi Knights fighting beside them, all of whom seem to be taken by complete surprise. Remember Jedi Knights? These were the Navy SEALS of the far away galaxy from a long, long time ago. You mean to tell me that mind-reading super warriors never bothered to pick up the codebook for the massive army they were fighting alongside? The Republic army, representing the Republic that the Jedi’s were sworn to defend? Everyone knew exactly what to do with Order 66. They didn’t have to look it up. It was drilled into these soldier’s heads. But the Jedi’s didn’t do anything. They barely fought back. They were each killed essentially by a handful of stormtroopers! Remember stormtroopers? The guys non-Jedi knight Han Solo slaughtered by the thousands in the first three films? Stormtroopers/republic soldiers come off so dumb in these movies you can imagine them running down the corridors reciting their orders in their head. And that also means that the Jedi’s would know what the hell is going on because they can read minds!

But instead they were swatted away like pesky flies. Yoda escaped because, hey, he’s Yoda. Sorry, coneheaded bearded dude and girl with the elephant trunks sticking out of her brain. That’s how loopholes work, I’m afraid.

Now certainly that’s not the only film guilty of shooting itself in the foot, but if you can find another that does it with such glaring stupidity and contempt for it’s audience, drop me a line.(and B-movie sci-fi like Plan 9 From Outer Space doesn’t count, I’m afraid…)

 


 

Christmas in Iraq, in Washington, and In Rainbows

 

            2007 is winding down, and the only two bits of good news to come out of the last eleven and a half months is the decreasing violence in Iraq and the new Radiohead album. And while violence in Iraq flares up after we get a report or news article on how violence is on the wane, suggesting that the war-torn country is still simmering and shaky (al qaeda seems to have adjusted to the news cycle of The New York Times), the new record from the Oxford quintet is consistently ace and is not a problem at security checkpoints, no matter how much you paid for it.

            The war in Iraq. Right now the best the Bush administration can say is, ‘See? We told you it wasn’t going to become Vietnam!’ And while that certainly looks true, and you have to be a real cynical Bush-hating asshole to say the surge hasn’t helped, this oil-rich desert nation isn’t out of the woods quite yet. They still have a government so broken and corrupt it makes the US house of representatives look good. And a year of quasi-peace isn’t going to fix the six hundred year rift between Sunnis and Shiites. And although you don’t hear this much on CNN, but somehow – even though this isn’t why they went to war – the US ‘owns’ the Iraqi oil fields. Despite that, prices for oil at an all time high. Forcing democracy on a nation seems just as successful as forcing any type of government on a nation, be fascist or totalitarian. 1% of the population strikes it rich, and the rest barely scrape out an existence.

            In Washington, the lame duck president vetoes almost everything that comes from the House of Representatives and the Senate, both of which are barely controlled by the Democratic Party. The Republicans – bitching and whining about the Democratic filibusters that blocked and slowed legislation when they were in power – have pulled out more filibusters in this one year than ever before. Nothing is happening in the most powerful nation on earth, and as the old saying goes, when America gets a cold, the whole world starts sneezing and coughing up phlegm. Everyone else becomes slaves to this inaction. And this time the economy is only one the world’s many concerns.

            We are becoming more and more aware of the real problems confronting humanity, but are seeing less and less being done about it. Pollution, dwindling natural resources, Africa continually teetering on the brink, nothing seems to be working in these early days of the 21st century. Solutions seems paltry to the biggest problems. A small reduction in CO2 emissions? Ethanol to replace gasoline? And as for internal strife in Africa, even though some of Hollywood’s biggest, least stupid stars have spoken up, the governments of the developed world have seemingly thrown up their hands in indifference and told the dark continent, ‘You’re on your own.’

            So…how do you cope with brokenness? With paralysis? With nothing working like it’s supposed to? What if you forget what ‘supposed to be’ even is? And not even in the socio-political sense of how the world works, but on a much more personal level. How do you live your day-to-day life of working, commuting, and socializing with friends as everything slowly crumbles around you?

            This is where Radiohead and In Rainbows comes in. Not for the solution to the world’s problems of course. Sending guitarist Ed O’Brien to the UN is not what I am suggesting. But as far as feeling comfortable in one’s skin in today’s world, there are few bands that can make alienation so understandable and soothing. The first song on their first seminal album The Bends acknowledges in the refrain that, ‘Everything is broken’. And singer Thom Yorke doesn’t seem the least bit disappointed. In fact, he seems to wallow in that fact with ecstasy as he croons. The music of Radiohead creates atmospheres and moods from ‘psychedelic soaring majesty’ (think Fantasia) to ‘unsettling bleak horizon’ (think Fargo), while the puzzling, cryptic lyrics of alienation and dread can be analyzed in the same fashion of Dylan’s mid sixties output (with less clever rhyming on Thom Yorke’s part, admittedly). OK Computer, the band 1997’s album that cemented their reputation as one of those most creative and original bands on the planet, married these two concepts in a mesmerizing look at a world full of cubicles, commutes, and information overloads.

            In his book Killing Yourself to Live, Chuck Klosterman proposed that the band’s 2000 album Kid A as a soundtrack of sorts to the September 11th terrorist attacks, noting that the songs are chronologically in step with the events and our reactions to that day. While focusing for the most part on the lyrics, he occasionally indicates individual musical points in the songs that can evoke these analogous moments (ie, tower two is hit when the horns start blatting in The National Anthem, the instrumental Treefingers is the moments after the towers fall, when there is nothing literally to say). That album’s closer, Motion Picture Soundtrack, ends with the line, ‘I will see you in the next life’, which with they way Thom Yorke sings it, is about as an appropriate summation for September 11th as everything else that’s been said.

            The rock press pretty went to great lengths to remind us all that the band’s 2003 project Hail to the Thief was – according to the band – NOT a political album, then proceeded to wrench some 1984-esque doublespeaks from the lyrics, anyway (not hard to do when the opening song is titled ‘2+2=5’). The band is known for its leftist leanings, performing benefits concerts for Amnesty International, a free Tibet, and climate change awareness (a particular important topic for Yorke). They have also been outspoken critics of the Bush administration’s foreign policy. Despite that, Hail to the Thief was apparently a reference to political scandal from 1888, not 2000. But then, this is Radiohead, where a song whose title is the name of disease that kills rabbits (Myxomatosis) has nothing to do with rabbits. Much like the world we live in, Radiohead gives out the easy and hard answers simultaneously.

            And now it is the end of 2007, and In Rainbows was dropped into our laps as a ‘free’ digital download only ten days after its completion was announced on October 1. Is the album directly speaking to the situation in Iraq, or in Africa, or anything making headlines today? Of course not. No more than Kid A has any relevance to the events of September 11th (especially considering that Kid A was released nearly a year before, in October 2000). But it is an album that embraces the act of watching the news with a sense of helplessness and disconnect. Much of In Rainbows deals with paralysis, either by choice or having it forced upon us. Toward the end we see questionable attempts to change, but as to whether they are for the best and will succeed, well, that’s for a future Radiohead had no interest in answering.

            The album begins with 15 Step and Thom is asking, ‘How come I end up where I started, How come I end up where I went wrong?’ Things are already looking down. ‘You used to be all right, what happened?’, is the second question posited. These two queries come to define the tensions found across the entire album. The lyrical images of being abandoned and eventually mowed down are contrasted with a Latin-favored dance beat, infectious handclaps, and children singing along. They don’t add up. The music lures you into a sense of fun and excitement, but it’s really, ’15 steps, and then a sheer drop’. In the end you aren’t going anywhere at all, expect perhaps straight down.

            The second song is Bodysnatchers, which is probably Radiohead’s heaviest guitar track since Just, off of The Bends. It’s a song about, well, body snatching. Watching yourself do something you do not want to do: ‘I do not understand, what it is I've done wrong, Full of holes check for pulse, Blink your eyes, One for yes Two for no, I have no idea what I am talking about, I am trapped in this body and can't get out.’ You are not only helpless, but you are partaking in activities that you find appalling. An out-of-body experience that shows you what the world is really full of. Thom is speaking for (or to) all those in the developed world who seem ignorant to the fact that their life of luxury is coming at the expense of the poor across the globe. You are an automaton, going through the motions that you barely comprehend, acting that way because your neighbor or co-worker was doing it first. Your supposedly insignificant actions have consequences that you can’t see. The song also contains the most politically pointed line on the record: ‘Your mouth only moves with someone’s hand up your ass’. It’s just another reminder that you are helpless puppet, the strings being pulled by those with much more political clout than you’ll ever attain.

            ‘Nude’ follows. A love song or an anti-protest song? ‘Don’t get any big ideas, they’re not going to happen’, it begins. Paralysis directly confronted. Thom sings about the protagonist never being happy, whether it is with a lover, or painting their house white (a dig at consumerism?). Anything you want to do will not succeed perfectly. Happiness is a slippery fish always changing shape just out of your grasp. You can’t nail it down, can’t catch it, and that means you’re stuck. Like 15 Step, though, the music doesn’t match this dire situation. A tender ballad with soaring strings and vocals, Thom Yorke has rarely sounded more emotional and exposed.

            The hopelessness seems to reach its full boil in Weird Fishes/Arpeggi, when the need to escape the situation at hand finally emerges: ‘why should I stay? I'd be crazy not to follow, follow where you lead.’ In this case we are being tempted by a lover or a leader to pursue one’s immediate emotions and instincts. The music swells as quickens as Thom decides that it’s ‘my chance’ and follows this person to the bottom of the sea. But it is all an illusion, the music stops on a dime, and Thom admits, ‘I get eaten by the worms and weird fishes’. Is it more methods of control? Is it ‘Bodysnatchers’ redux, where we are being manipulated by forces beyond our control, and taken to our doom?

            Beyond this is ‘All I Need’, a straightforward plead for companionship. But even here, it’s twisted to be a more sinister desire:

“You are all I need
You are all I need
I'm in the middle of your picture
Lying in the reeds

It's all wrong
It's all right
It's all wrong”

It’s Thom Yorke on settling down, and then on stopping completely. A love song about being ‘trapped in a hot car’, and ‘lying in the reeds’ (lying there for what?). The situation is going nowhere, and that’s fine. It’s beyond good and evil, as he alternately admits it’s all wrong and all right. The situation just is. He admits that ‘there are no others’. In other words, there is no real choice here. He is here for lack of anything else. This is the only road.

            Faust ARP is a two minute whirlwind of guitars and strings and quick lyrics. It’s the end of something that was once very close: ‘I love you but enough is enough’. It’s the tough decision of breaking something off. Thom pleads for action: ‘what you ought to, what you ought to, reasonable and sensible’. It’s a story of failure and attempts and ‘what you feel’ all at once. It’s hard to take in all the lyrics in one sitting, it’s an overload of words. And Thom even sympathizes with this impossible attempt: ‘You thought you had it in you but no, no’. Another song about trying and failing. This is where the turn begins. A quick foot race of song, only two minutes is a length, which kicks off the turning point that changes this album from desperation to wary but hopeful change.

            At this halfway point in the record, it’s a good time to note that a surprising change with In Rainbows is how clear Yorke’s vocals are. No longer buried in the mix or accentuated with electronics, Thom seems to make more of an effort in pronouncing the words as well. I only had to go online for guidance once. And this is all the more important with the rest of the album. The latter half of In Rainbows deals mainly with acceptance. Acceptance of flaws, and the understanding that, despite them, we must continue.

            In Reckoner, Radiohead extend their sweep of consolation and well wishes to everyone, singing, ‘Dedicated to all you, all human beings’. A song of forgiveness, the first step to personal spiritual fulfillment. ‘You are not to blame’, Thom tell us. Whose fault it is remains unanswered. Chalk it up to the great beyond. The original subtitle of the original version of this song was ‘Pulled apart by horses’, and although almost everything from the first incarnation has been jettisoned, the lyrics, ‘because we separate like ripples on a blank shore’ echo that same parting of ways, albeit more peacefully. Even the Reckoner has become less violent. And the term ‘Reckoner’ is the key. A slight biblical reference to the final judgment during the Apocalypse, but in terms of the rest of the song, it seems that we are all getting a pass to the great beyond.

            The soft ballad House of Cards is about starting over: ‘Forget about your house of cards, and I’ll deal mine’. We are being asked to change our ineffective value system, our old way of doing things, for…what? The exact same thing? Just another ‘house of cards’? Perhaps, but what is important is the change itself. Change has to happen, because in the end, ‘the infrastructure will collapse’, like it always does. Most revolutions ultimately fail, but that doesn’t mean people won’t stop starting them. The world, in whatever states it’s in, must continue. And Thom answers the idealists with a one word refrain: ‘Denial…denial…’ You can say that your solutions to the problems are iron clad, that the world can change for the better, but the fact is that history has not been kind to idealists. Which seems to be what Thom is reminding us of, although in probably one of the most soothing, romantic ways possible. It’s a love song reminding us all that you can’t be sure of anything, even the beautiful utopia you are promising to yourself and everyone else.

            The album is about the choosing to reach for the impossible after being disgusted and manipulated by the world around us. To compare it to another Radiohead recording, In Rainbows is like Street Spirit from The Bends, but ten times longer and deeper. The first half of the album is the disappointment of what is around us, and the second half is an attempt for redemption at almost any cost. But what is scary is the uncertainty of this 'beautiful world' that seems to be our goal. Can we really know it's there? Can we, ahem, catch that gold at the end of the rainbow? The penultimate song, 'Jigsaw Falling into Place' isn't full of answers: 'there really is nothing to explain', Thom sings. Beyond that closed door... is it just a dark room, or even worse, a shitty disco in Oxford? It’s a chance meeting a bar between two people that is a momentary respite from everything else around them: ‘before you run away from me, before you’re lost between the notes…come on and let it out’. The only goal here is to, ‘wish away the nightmare’. A temporary fix, harkening back to the unfulfilled moment of Nude. But the song is an up tempo rocker filled with pretty guitars, nothing resembling the feedback laden howls of Bodysnatchers, either. A clean, direct song about a final exegesis, the last night before the metamorphosis, before the change. At end the lyrics is just the title over and over. Everything is set, everything is as it should be. We see the final change ready.

            And then it’s Videotape, the goodbye with sadness but with no regrets. The only real future left after all the attempts and failures to improve one’s self in this temporal state. Now it is only the great beyond. Done with hope but without perfect clarity. And the last moments on 'In Rainbows' is all about looking back, not looking ahead. He holds his life all recorded on one simple cassette. It is, ‘one for the good old days’. All we have is uncertain, haunting piano and strange drumming. The day that this happens on, the day he makes the change from broken to 'fixed' is the greatest day he's ever seen. The destination remains unanswered, but the journey has begun. It is the change for a better future, even if it is not in this life. He has shed whatever problems and limitations that plagued him in the first half of the album. It’s all different now.
            In Rainbows is about going beyond every failure to that impossible place, right into the title itself. A positive but hopeless notion? An album about death in the end? Not necessarily. Just an album about change. And change is inevitable, no matter how static the situation seems to be. But having such an ambiguous concept of change, not good or evil, is a bitter pill to swallow. Hope comes in small doses on this album. Yorke sings on Videotape that, ‘you are my center when I spin away’, and that is about as positive as it gets. That we are not alone, if only because we are all experiencing the same thing. We are all in the same tenuous, rickety boat of not knowing what the future holds. And if we are leaving a message of ourselves on Videotape as the last song says, it means we are leaving it for someone who can understand us, and in the end, that might be all we want and all we need.

 

Happy Christmas

War is over…if you want it!

 


A conversation between two abandonedstation employees that may or may not have happened:

 

(one comes to the other and hands them a bottle of beer)

-I love Labour Day weekend.

-How can you say that? It’s the end of summer.

-Summer lasts too long. According to television commercials it begins in goddamn April.

-Well, thanks to global warming, it pretty much does begin then.

-Oh, you’re one of those people, eh?

-You mean you’re not? You don’t believe that the planet is right fucked?

-Nah, we’re fucked. The planet’ll stumble on, but everything that us people are involved in is going to hell in hand basket.

-So then you do believe that something horrible is happening.

-Well yeah, but I’m not limiting myself to thinking it just being an environmental problem. There’s war, famine, viruses, economic collapse, a whole bunch of stuff that has nothing to do with car exhaust and not recycling. To think otherwise would be small minded.

-I dunno, we’ve done pretty good so far at avoiding nuclear war and plagues and stuff like that. Society is doing okay for now in that respect.

-Yeah? Go talk to an African and ask how he’s doing.

-Look, I’m just saying that the environmental stuff is going to catch us asleep at the wheel. We keep putting off making real changes to how we live our lives and one day we’re not going to be able to breathe the air and half the world’s coastal cities will be underwater.

-Or maybe it’ll all come through the door at once. Everything will go spectacularly wrong at the same time. Floods, famine, war, and all that…

-Sounds like a 2012 conspiracy theory. All because the ancient Mayans choose an exact date for the world to end.

-Hey, don’t rag on the Mayans. Their calendars were more advanced than the Gregorian one. And they didn’t have to worry about those annoying leap years.

-So what are you going to do? Plan to have everything wrapped up in your life by December 21st, 2012?

-Wrapped up? No, I’m going to go on a crazy spending spree in the months leading up to it. I’ll live like a king and watch the world end from a five star resort in the South Pacific.

-People have been calling the end of the world for years. Pat Robertson promised everyone it was going to happen three different times in the early nineteen eighties.

-Yeah? Why the hell do people still give him money then?

-Because people are stupid. You never hear that enough from politicians-

-Mainly because they are trying to get these people to vote for them.

-Yeah, but everyone forgets. A lot of people are just goddman dumb, and swallow whatever easy answer they are given. That’s the problem with democracy. By giving everyone a voice, you give it to people who really should have had their jaws wired shut at birth.

-You sound like a fascist.

-And maybe that’s what we need. Some kind of benign fascism. Two or three nice, smart people calling the shots for the rest of us. Democracy just gives us a bloated bureaucracy