September 28, 2006

This one’s optimistic

Filed under: Funny Stuff — tomemos @ 1:13 pm

Seen on the Irvine campus:

So a disheveled man with wild eyes goes into a signmaker’s store. “Is my ‘The World Ends Today’ sign ready yet?” he asks.

“Sorry,” says the guy behind the counter. “Can you come back tomorrow?”

“Nah, I’m going out of town,” says the customer. “I’ll have to pick it up next week.”


September 26, 2006

It was all on the cover of Newsweek

Filed under: Laws and Sausages, The Old Dirty War — tomemos @ 1:52 am

Requiring little comment:

Newsweek around the world.

September 19, 2006

You never slow down, you’ll never grow old

Filed under: Blogs Themselves — tomemos @ 2:00 am

It seems like only yesterday I was linking to The World’s Forgotten Boy, a blog by a grad school friend of mine. Looking at my archive, I see it was three months ago. In any event, he’s moving to WordPress and coming out of the computer lab (wait, I can do better—coming out of the server closet?); he’s writing under his own name, Joseph Kugelmass, and the blog is called The Kugelmass Episodes. Time was you could read through his entries with a feeling of perfect solitude, reading entries, unadorned by comments, on a black screen. Of course, that was before he had told more than five people about it; now, the thing is going gangbusters, and I’m proud to have been there on the ground floor, or at least the mezzanine.

I’m going on about Joe’s blog because it’s changed the way I’ve thought about my own: I see myself doing more in the way of analytical musings and less reporting on what’s generally up in my life. The autobiographical well can run dry very frequently, but for a grad student thinking and opinionation never go out of style, and, impressed with the insight and discussion on view on Kugelmass Lane, I’ve been trying the impromptu essay on for size. It’s early yet, and I don’t expect that I’m abandoning autobiography completely, but basically like how it’s going so far.

September 16, 2006

They say compassion is a virtue, but I don’t have the time

Filed under: Blogs Themselves, Laws and Sausages, The Old Dirty War — tomemos @ 11:06 am

One thing I’ve added to this blog that wasn’t on the Raptor one is a links section for the political blogs I go to. I added them because I visit them regularly, because some of them are really interesting to read, and because I think the netroots movement is an important one that has the potential to revitalize the progressive movemnt. Funnily, though, I’ve added these just as I’ve started to recognize some doubts about left-wing blogging that have recently come to a head.

The big controversy in the lefty blogs a couple weeks ago was the ABC dramatization on the years leading up to 9/11. The controversy was that the show suggested that hesitation and incompetence in the Clinton administration helped Osama bin Laden escape capture, leading him to plan the most infamous terrorist attack in history. The blogs’ position, predictably, was that this was another case of the media being hijacked by right-wing ideology, and bloggers got people to call and deluge with petitions ABC, Disney, and just about anyone who supported or was insufficiently scathing about the show. Somehow, I just couldn’t get particularly worked up about it, so the week was essentially a break from political blogs. I agree that the show was bad news, but something like 25 entries in three days at Daily Kos seems a little excessive when you’re talking about television. (Yes, I did write an entry on Veronica Mars last week; why do you ask?) After all, if we’re going to ridicule the right-wingers who got the Reagan biopic taken off CBS, we may not want to attack this sort of thing with all guns blazing.

But mainly, the lefty-blog outrage over this television event was a contrast to last July, when most of these same blogs were utterly silent about the Israel-Hezbollah war. At that time, I started to wonder why no one was discussing it, and as if on cue Kos posted an article, “Why I won’t write about Israel/Palestine/Lebanon Fighting”, which explained a lot, perhaps more than he meant it to. The relevant excerpt:

It’s clear that in the Middle East, no one is sick of the fighting. They have centuries of grudges to resolve, and will continue fighting until they can get over them. And considering that they obviously have no interest in “getting over them”, we’re stuck with a war that will not end in any forseable future. It doesn’t matter what we bloggers say. It doesn’t matter what the President of the United States says. Or the United Nations. Or the usual bloviating gasbag pundits.

When two sides are this dead-set on killing each other, very little can get in the way.

Now, this is very unhelpful. It’s almost an encyclopedia of unhelpfulness, and it’s difficult to know where to begin. It’s arrogant and condescending, basically to the point of racism (“oh, you know those Semites—they love getting blown up!”), assuming that since factions on both side are committed to violence, the entire populace is “dead-set on killing each other.” In Europe, that kind of thinking is why American travelers put Canadian flags on their backpags: everyone figures that of course all Americans support the war. The post is fatalistic—if it doesn’t matter what anyone does or says to avert or quell the violence, then efforts at negotiations aren’t even worth the cost of the plane tickets, and we should just save our interest and help for nations that aren’t having problems. And it is extremely simplistic. The violence in the Middle East is not just a bunch of people who are mad at each other; there are many concrete local and international issues that contribute to the animosity and violence, and these can be addressed in other ways than simply waiting for all the violent ones to kill each other. (Did the people of Northern Ireland stop killing each other because they got bored?) This reductionism (is there a noun form of “simplistic”?) is the post’s most damning problem, because it does the very opposite of what commentary and analysis are supposed to do: make complicated issues more comprehensible through the use of insight and reason. All this is is an argument for ignorant pessimism.

And the reason this post has stuck with me so long is that, reading it, I belatedly realized how simplistic and closed-minded the political blogs I read are. Certainly no one else I read was quite as crass as Kos about the issue, which fits my profile of him; while I think Kos is sometimes a good writer, he shares with George Bush a defiant pride in his own ignorance (he once titled an entry, “Who is Garrison Keillor, and why is he such an asshole?”). Nonetheless, it is true that left-wing bloggers by and large did not touch Lebanon. Atrios never said anything about it that I remember. The catalyst of Kos’s entry is Kevin Drum’s explanation of why he won’t discuss the matter, in which he gives mostly the same reasons (albeit more diplomatically) that Kos does. (Billmon is a notable exception to this; he blogged about the war daily, usually very well.)

I’d love to believe in an innate difference between left-wing and right-wing blogs, but I have to conclude that, whether they’re on the left or the right, political bloggers want simple narratives. Kos’s aggressive reductionism in describing the Middle East betrays his real reason for not writing about it: it’s way too complicated for his purposes. Neither party in the US, and (as far as I can tell) no faction in the Middle East, has a workable solution in mind, and all of the sides in the conflict have plenty of blood on their hands. These bloggers want something with a clear partisan hero and a clear partisan villain: bad dumb bad Disney/ABC attacking good Bill Clinton. This is what they do best, and my favorite writing in left-wing blogs has generally been about the war in Iraq or Hurricane Katrina: disasters that were demonstrably caused by Republican action or inaction (with a healthy amount of Democratic inaction in the former case). By that standard, where’s the percentage in writing about violence in the Middle East, a loaded issue with no clear good guy, no clear solution, and a tendency to make everyone mad?

(Right-wing bloggers wrote plenty about Israel and Lebanon, because for them and their readers it was a clear-cut case of good and evil with a simple solution: shoot ’em all and let God sort ’em out. In fact, the only thing I remember seeing Sadly, No! say about the crisis was that the right-wing commentary was insane.)

This love for simple narratives is why, to varying degrees, both left- and right-wing blogs love to speak with contempt about the “MSM.” The mainstream media does indeed have its share of problems; mostly, though, it is committed to balance and objectivity. Certainly that commitment is problematic in its own way, since there are different kinds of “balance,” and objectivity should mean more than simply “quote the RNC Chair, then quote the DNC Chair”—but the principle of objectivity is important, and I’m afraid that the desire to hear only one’s own political viewpoint betrays an impatience with, or a fear of, critical thinking. Progressives are amazed at the characterization of the media as “liberal,” and rightly so…but few will admit that though the media isn’t liberal, they dearly wish it were.

So then what are those links doing there? Well, I do see value in political blogs, and even, to a degree, in their uncompromising positions on political issues. In fact, plenty of political issues do have a good guy and a bad guy; I believe that those who support gay marriage and legal abortion are 100% right and their opponents are 100% wrong. With evolution or global warming, it’s something like 105%. These battles need to be fought as if they were battles, and left-wing blogs are valuable for overcoming the sort of subjectivist self-doubt that plagues progressives all the time and conservatives not at all. As you can see, I’m not immune to partisan simplicity myself, but I would hope that I recognize when such simplicity is unproductive. Dogma is problematic enough when it’s associated with issues like God, morality, the Revolution, and so on. When dogma is just attached to the battle of parties, as if they were sports teams—the New York Donkeys versus the Mississippi Elephants—it becomes a silly waste of time, without losing its dangerous power to close off critical thinking.

September 6, 2006

A long time ago, we used to be friends

Filed under: Film and Video — tomemos @ 1:43 pm

I’m writing from a library in Lake Havasu City, in Mohave County, Arizona.  Me and my friend Glenn are staying at his grandparents’ timeshare out here and having a decent time.  It’s hot out here, of course (the helpful tip from the hotel is that we only go outside during the coolest part of the day, “between 4 am and 7 am”), and we find ourselves with a fair amount of downtime.  We read, we have some games, and he’s been showing me episodes of this show Veronica Mars, about a teenage sleuth in California.  It’s basically entertaining, to laugh with and occasionally at, but I came across one episode that bothered me.  In fact, it had me up late into the night scratching this entry on our complimentary notepad, and now I reproduce it for you.

Of course, part of me is apprehensive about writing a great deal about a TV episode; I hate it when people talk my ear off about TV episodes in real life, so subjecting people to that in prose is questionable.  (Also, this entry contains some heavy stuff, stuff heavy enough to possibly be inappropriate in a discussion about TV; I don’t know.)  But I’ve decided that one habit I’m going to have to get into in order to make this blog work is to just go ahead and blog about something when I feel like I have a lot to say about it, and to worry about whether it’s readable later.  Until I have no readers left, then I’ll try something else.

So.  The episode was called “One Angry Veronica,” and as you can imagine it was a riff on the movie Twelve Angry Men: Veronica has to serve jury duty, and while at first it seems like an open-and-shut case, it turns out that one juror (not Veronica, initially) sees problems with it and gradually convinces the other jurors to change their votes.  The catch here is that, whereas in Twelve Angry Men the case looked like a clear conviction but becomes an acquittal, here the case looks like a clear acquittal but ends up being conviction.  Okay, Tom, what’s the big problem?

First of all, you have the plot holes.  Now, Veronica Mars is not the most watertight show out there–Veronica’s best friend is a star high school basketball player who can’t be much taller than 5’7″–but even by that standard this stuff is insulting: Veronica’s father clandestinely gives her evidence that detracts from the defendants’ case, but as a private investigator and former sheriff, wouldn’t he have found it more convenient just to go straight to the DA, before the trial ended?  And what kind of budget does the prosecution have, that they can’t afford a web search to find out that the star defense witness not only is not who he claims to be, he’s actually a star college athlete and one-time NFL recruit who hasn’t even changed his name?

But that’s just shallow pedantry.  The deeper pedantry is this: the episode wants to be just a clever inversion of Twelve Angry Men, but there is a vital difference.  In TAM, the movement was from guilty to innocent; the prosecution’s case, which looks airtight, is found to have enough inconsistencies to fail the standard of reasonable doubt, so the accused must go free.  In the Veronica Mars episode, the jury turns an extremely poorly-made case against the defendants–one that apparently makes no attempt to challenge the defendants’ case–into conviction, simply by poking holes in the defendants’ case.  In other words: defendants claim A; A is logically impossible; therefore, defendants are guilty.  “Process of elimination,” Veronica says smugly when explaining to the holdout juror (a bad bad evil man who we’ll get to later) why she’s voting to convict.  The process of deciding guilt or innocence is reduced to a matter of deduction, of choosing the most likely explanation.  To be sure, this is the form of Twelve Angry Men as well…but in that movie the jurors are searching for reasonable doubt, whereas in “One Angry Veronica” the concept is not even mentioned.

The reason we have a standard of reasonable doubt–and the reason I’m writing however-many words about a TV episode you haven’t seen–is to prevent our natural suspicion of the accused from influencing our judgment.  Prosecutors, and the writers of this TV episode, overcome that by encouraging…more suspicion.  They play on our prejudices to make us want the accused to be guilty.  Were we an all-white jury in 1950’s Alabama–or Simi Valley last week–they’d play on our fears of black men raping our women.  Instead, we’re a hip 16-24-year-old television audience, so the writers make the defendants well-off white young men accused of beating a Mexican-American prostitute.  Sons of privilege about to get away with victimizing a lower-class woman of color?  Man, what a bumper sticker that would make.

But bumper stickers aren’t the truth, and I’d find this one a bit more compelling if, for instance, it hadn’t transpired that those Duke lacrosse players, according to all available evidence–starting with DNA testing–are innocent.  Furthermore, not only are they innocent but they were clearly railroaded; the prosecutor stacked the lineup, implied that the players’ retaining a lawyer was evidence of guilt, and has used this case for significant political gain.  (See here for details; note that I learned about the accusation on the cover of Time, but learned about the exoneration from the end of a story in the New Yorker.)  Yet the media portrayed it as an open-and-shut case, one with Deeper Significance for the Country at Large, and plenty of us bought it.  (In fact, the best I can say about my involvement isn’t that I didn’t buy the hype–I did–but that I just didn’t get wrapped up in it.)

Now, of course, that story–daddy gets rich assailants off scott free–plays out all the time.  In Orange County there was a case that finally ended a few months ago, in which a few privileged sons were caught on film performing a hideous rape on a clearly unconscious victim, and the only defense was that she was promiscuous and wanted it to happen, and the first trial ended in a hung jury.  (Luckily the retrial produced a conviction and some decent jail time, but not before the victim had been subjected to the best harassment and defamation money can buy.)  My conclusion from this, though, is that we should try judging every case on its merits to be sure that justice is done, rather than replacing our hatred of wanton sluts with one of trust-fund rapists; to do that would be to risk ruining the lives of innocent people (conviction or not) in order to make a fairly abstract point.

As a Berkeley leftist, I should have loved that VM episode.  A group of dedicated citizens banding together to send some privileged assholes up the river?  What’s not to like? (The red meat didn’t stop there: not only was the crime one of race and class, but the holdout for an acquittal is the CEO of a big company outsourcing to India.  As things get tense, he shows his true colors and angrily bellows that he will never vote to convict two boys from fine families accused of beating a Mexican whore.)  But the fact is I’m sick of this kind of stuff; it’s been done to death, done into the ground, and I don’t think it reflects reality in any worthwhile way.  I guess you could say that I’m making that judgment from a position of privilege myself, but I don’t think that episode (or the vindictive rhetoric which it draws from, which I hear more than I’d like) is about justice so much as smugness, or “turnabout is fair play.”  We all want to believe that our opponents are hypocritical racists who will stop at nothing, and I suppose sometimes it’s true, but exulting in the demonization of those we fear really doesn’t do it for me as thought or entertainment.

September 1, 2006

All he left us was alone

Filed under: Laws and Sausages — tomemos @ 1:25 pm

With the caveat that of course anything that brings comfort to the families of soldiers is in itself beneficial, I present a harrowing symbol of the loss and pain this war is inflicting on those families: flat daddies.

Flat daddies are two-dimensional full-color cut-outs of National Guard soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. They’re provided by the National Guard (just the Maine one, as far as I can tell) to families of Guardsmen as a way to help them deal with the soldiers’ absence. The article is written in a very positive, human-interest sort of way, which I guess is the most sensitive way to do it…but to me, the whole thing is depressing, from the the picture of a smiling cut-out sitting between “his” kids in the car, to quotes like, “It’s to remind the kids that this guy and this woman [“flat mommies” are also made] is still part of your life, that this is what they look like, and this is how big they are.” I hope to God I’m never in such danger that my loved ones would need a reminder like that.

Pain and loss run through the whole article, reflected especially in the fetishistic importance these things take on. (The fact that some have been taken to the dentist and to confession is not, I assume, just a playful gag.) Imagine, too, what happens if the three-dimensional father is killed (which might have already happened). Would the cut-out become even more important to the family, as their last desperate hold on their lost husband or father? Or would it become a hateful object, a parody of their grief?

Mostly, this serves as a reminder of one of the ways in which I’m luckier than many people in this country (to say nothing of others): I miss a lot of people in my life—my fiancée, distant friends and family members—but they’re not seven thousand miles away, in immediate danger every day, and so having a flat, full-sized representation of them would be a silly overreaction rather than a vital piece of comfort. God willing, soon we’ll have a government that doesn’t put families in that situation quite so flippantly.

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