Category Archives: Culture

On the suspension of disbelief

Without it, no narrative in any medium of any will carry color. Every viewer or reader determines the limits of that suspension, but it’s always there. Even when reading historical accounts or watching documentaries, I see the need for it.

I tend to be a generally skeptical guy, but I’m not the type to deconstruct what I know to be fiction. This is why I enjoy watching well-written procedural dramas on TV like House, The Closer and Criminal Minds. I also enjoy watching SciFi shows, not because I take in each and every unbelievable circumstance, but because they are, ultimately, plot points.

There is a subset of viewers and readers who actually find pleasure in breaking down a narrative into its most unbelievable elements. I am not one of them.

Time, change, and initiative

Take any dynamic—or relationship—between two people, or two groups of people. Now, give this dynamic enough time for both parties to discover a fair and relatively full disclosure of each other. I have come to the conclusion that whatever the consquences of that dynamic—good or bad, triumphant or tragic, whatever they may be—after a certain point in time, both parties are responsible for those consequences.

Take note, I did not say “deserve;” at worst, “beget” would be my harshest assessment.

It may seem cruel or unfair for me to say that the battered wife of so many years is responsible for the bruises on her body or the insanity that she may descend into, but at one point in her life this person has come to the realization that nothing will change in her partner and that the choice—the opportunity to choose—has come and will be made. Even if that choice was to stay in that relationship. What happens to her next is a result of her choice to stay. The animal with whom she has chosen to stay also has had the opportunity to make the choice.

It is a cold, hard calculus that applies to almost any situation in life and taking the initiative to make a change in any relationship is a responsibility of either person.

When the mouth becomes mirror to the soul

I followed a link from Radley Balko to a WaPo article about DADT that featured the ravings of one Elaine Donnelly. (Her written testimony to the House is available on the website, in PDF, along with others.) Quite frankly Elaine Donnelly is batshit crazy by today’s standards and Republicans and Democrats seemed glad to give her a big enough shovel to dig a hole for herself.

Well, and good. Radley has raised the issue of the need for linguists. Alva’s testimony is one anecdote on the cultural shifts that many of our soldiers are fine with. Elaine Donnelly and her ilk aren’t just the type of bigots who just hate gays. They’re the kind who think that our armed services personel aren’t mature enough to accept that gays serve alongside them. Elaine Donnelly and her ilk are well-rounded bigots in more ways than one, and quite honestly, the best way to deal with them is to let give them audience. The more noise they make, the more foolish they make themselves.

Passion demands company

I haven’t been up at 3AM since the last time I decided to get drunk, which was around May of this year. I know I wouldn’t stay up for Greg Gutfield’s Red Eye on Fox News, but I’ve read through his archives often. His piece on running stood out to me tonight. He hates runners “because they talk about running. Incessantly. It’s like they falsely believe their obsession is also ours, so immersed in their own compulsion that they have no idea what they have become: bloated vehicles for nonsensical ravings spewing poop in every direction. (Running is Bad For Your Health, 2008-06-24)”

Why, the same thing can be said about: political junkies, gym nuts, hypermilers, salespersons, WOW players, sports fans, foodies, liberals, conservatives, conspiracy theorists, greenies, hippies, vegans, meat-eaters, photographers, models, writers… You know, I could go on. But the point here is the Gutfield touches on a typical aspect of human interaction: people who are passionate about something will talk about it. Perhaps the unintended consequence of this is that sometimes, we fail to ask the listening party (who at a certain point has become the party that is feigning interest) what they are interested in. In an effort to seek out validation, or conversation, the passionate tend to alienate. Then they gravitate towards each other, which makes them prime pickings for hobbyists on “the outside.”

I’ve been guilty of railing on and on about something that I know might not interest the person I’m talking to. People I’ve listened to have done the same. But when a true conversation actually happens, it’s one of those moments that leave us feeling like a part of the greater portion of humanity outside of what we are passionate about.

The bygone era of a beautiful word

It’s become conventional wisdom that the power of words lay in the parties that define them: some words have become taboo; some have lost meaning and others have gained new definitions. It’s a curious thing, this aspect of linguistics. If words are the symbols for concepts, and language is the gestalt of the concepts a population holds in its mind, then I have to say that sometimes I mourn for a the mind of the group that cannot learn to call a spade a spade.

I’ve always found it a curiosity when words fall out of convention in exchange of phrases. The concept of “political correctness” is a tad broad for me to discuss now—although Bill Whittle’s Responsibility would be a nice essay that tackles it. Gone are the days when the words “janitor,” “secretary,” or “stewardess,” (or “steward”) were treated as clear words that symbolized the concepts behind those occupations. But knocking on terms like “sanitation engineer,” “office manager,” and “flight attendant” is not truly my aim. It is merely to demonstrate a point in time and culture when people decide to redefine words and how certain concepts are, conversely, redefined by the words that symbolize them.

Today what I mourn for the most is the word “elite.” Yes, I know its etymology is French. But that word used to stand for excellence. It used to be a symbol of prestige, an adjective that described great achievers.

In today’s landscape of political discourse “elite” has become a symbol of derogation. It has become a boogeyman to use in populist pandering. Senator Obama’s horrible remarks have been labeled as “elitist” by Senators McCain and Clinton. I pity the word, though, yes, it’s been used to describe the snooty snobs who loom above us long before this election cycle.

“Elite” as a word has lost its beauty, and this is the moment where I mourn its passing.

Reference added at 4:16 EDT: (Rand Simberg: In Defense Of Elitism.)

Just a quick rant

One of the things that I find disadvantageous to doing my morning cardio at the gym is that I am faced with at least three big-screen TVs blaring out the goddamned news. Sure they have FM transmitters, so I at least don’t have to listen to them, but they have closed captioning and I can’t exactly run on a treadmill for twenty minutes with my eyes closed.

A few articles stood out to me today. First is the story of Colt Haugen: a waiter at Ruby Tuesday in Colorado who prevented a woman from having a drink spiked by her blind date. Second is the feature on Utah students taking advantage of their state’s concealed carry laws. And third, is the short feature on CNN of the youngest superdelegate, Jason Rae of Wisconsin.

I’m not sure of myself on this one—whether it’s apples and oranges—but WHY exactly is this 21-year old even in the news? Seriously? Other than being the youngest member of a subgroup of the Democrats that can either enforce or subvert everything they stand for in the election process? I suppose this crazy primary process in which Hillary and Obama have placed themselves will beget its own share of column-inch fillers and non-celebrities.

I’m also pretty glad for Haugen’s press time and the amount of attention this has gotten, but I’ve also realized something in my late twenties: real heroes shirk from celebrity status. In fact, few even care about the massive media attention that something like this would bring. I lament, however, over why this is even a case of heroism these days. Haugen himself has told the news that he is no hero, and while I admire his actions, I also agree with him. He’s not so much a hero but a human being, one with enough compassion and sense of humanity that he has the good sense of preventing someone from taking a drug that they didn’t consent to.

I also have a problem with anyone who thinks that the only source of protection in a criminal situation is the arrival of the police. I have a friend who wants to be a police officer. I, too, have some plans in the back burner that lean towards criminal justice (as to whether I want to be a police officer or a prosecutor is more a matter of logistics and practicality more than anything else). But one thing he, I, and a few other friends agree on is that the police aren’t superheroes that can swoop in at the moment of a crime. I have always maintained that people need to be responsible for their self-defense; what bothers me is that so many people don’t even think that they are.

I suppose the editors at the Colorado Springs Gazette say it best about self-defense, and Haugen’s case:

Incredible. Save yourself and let the crime proceed. When you can, notify police. They will arrive within eight minutes on average, if traffic is good. Forget the fact that Colorado Springs hero Jeanne Assam saved a crowd at New Life Church from a rampage shooter, by getting involved as a selfless hero.

During saner times, Assam’s picture would have graced the covers of Time and Newsweek, under the banner headline: “Hero.” Instead, her story was initially downplayed. When she started talking about God, it became a footnote. When it was learned that the killer turned a gun on himself — after Assam stopped him with multiple hits — it was mostly reported that the shooter took his own life. Period. Assam’s heroism was brushed aside. The suicidal maniac, not Assam, became the front-page news.

Likewise, most press accounts of the poisoned drink didn’t mention hero Haugen. We read about Psaty — in all his past political and criminal glory — and an unnamed waiter, who, oh by the way, foiled the crime.

The mass media is a business, and yes, profits will be on their minds when they select stories and what to focus on. But sometimes one would just wish for just a little bit of humanity out of these writers. Y’know?

The opposite sex

I wouldn’t so much call myself a misogynist as I would describe myself someone who appreciates and celebrates maleness. Now and again I would come across articles about the way things have changed for men and boys in this country and it does fill me with a mild sadness. A little over four years ago Kim Du Toit wrote a landmark article in the blogosphere entitled The Pussification Of The Western Male, which caused such a stir among the writers of the time that the ensuing flame war was practically a cosmic event.

And still today, in less polemic terms, articles now and again would crop up lamenting the sad state of the young men in our country. In The Problem With Boys, Marty Nemko channels Jake Tyler Brigance with an opening laundry list of social problems that he later on reveals as those plaguing boys today.

And our schools continue to get ever more feminized. Competition, one of boys’ favorite motivators, has largely been excised in favor of “cooperative learning,” (which, in the real world, usually means that the bright do the dull’s work.) Stories of heroism and bravery are replaced with tomes about relationships and female heroes. Recess is increasingly being replaced by yet another round of phonics. Girls are told they can accomplish anything while boys are taught that masculinity is an anti-social trait that must be extinguished. It’s no surprise that the number of boys who said they didn’t like school rose 71 percent between 1980 and 2001. [...]

Ironically, educated parents often do particularly badly by boys. The college curriculum and the media consumed by the intelligentsia stresses the accomplishments of women and the evils of men. So, these parents too often feel justified in emasculating, squeezing the maleness out of boys: aggressiveness, competition, physicality, dislike of long seatwork. Of course, I’m not advocating that parents allow Junior to become a savage, but the above qualities, channeled wisely, can be the stuff of which greatness is made. We can refine but rarely remold so we must honor males’ ways of being, just as we’ve been urged now for decades to honor females’.

The article is full of the many things that I and many others have observed over the years. Growing up in the Eighties I was at quite a turning point in the way cultures raised young men. As a youth I was quite a sickly wimp, which, in the zero-sum game that whatever deity one may believe plays with our fates, was made up for by my immense mental capability. And, quite apparently, my inability to exhibit false modesty.

One of the things that I have always paid attention to is the way the sexes interact. It always amazes me how different men and women relate to each other, but moreso, the beauty of the way they are different, and complementary. Articles like the ones cited above cause me to lament because the way with which these differences are not treated as something good, or at the very least something different. Rather, it is treated as a negative.

I suppose I don’t understand why men are treated like an evil in a world where both sexes are still quite important in forming most fulfilling relationships. Most of my friends are men, many of whom have girlfriends. The best girlfriends I have ever met are the ones who know when to step back and let a man be himself and when to use her power as a complementary force. The worst girlfriends are the ones who take everything good about their man and try to change him into this idealized version that they think they want. ‘Nuff said.

Second class faithful?

Just something strange that has bothered me for a couple of days now: are there any religions out there that treat converts as second-class citizens? I know Roman Catholic converts would be barred from receiving communion until they have received proper catechism on the nature of the sacrament, but even that is not lasting. If you’re a Muslim, would you ban a convert from Mecca? If you’re Catholic would you ban a convert from visiting Saint Peter’s? What if you’re Jewish; would you prevent a convert to your faith from performing certain pilgrimages or rites?

I ask this because tiered and gradual introduction into certain privileges in a religion over time are one thing, it’s another to indelibly mark a convert as forever “less” than one born into that faith.

I wonder about this because this would not be something we can even accept in this country were it a matter of civil rights. If an attempt at a law were to be made declaring legal immigrants—naturalized citizens at that—to have fewer rights than those born in this country you know hell would be raised.

Just a thought keeping me up tonight, is all.

This thing called kitsch

I spend a lot of time reading on random topics on Wikipedia just for shits and giggles. When I’m burning a DVD of data, or when I am running all sorts of other things in the background, I just like to read. While I have plenty of books I find it difficult to switch from screen to printed page. It involves more eye strain that I first thought. In any event, I should really be furling a lot more of what I read just for quick retrieval.

One thing that I came across today was the concept of kitsch, which seems to be pervasive wherever one wants to find it. The reason I say that is because I think that in today’s “art-inundated” world there is a yearning for the unique and the truly different. That yearning seems so pervasive among those who wish to be highbrow—or those who already are—that their tastes in art are so esoteric as to defy the aesthetic. Then again, I digress into a few other themes, primarily the grauitously grotesque (see: Piss Christ) and bombastic irony (see: Ecce Homo). Nevertheless, I have observed that esoterica for the sake of uniqueness is almost a direct effect of an aversion to anything kitschy. I personally think that the line between the kitschy and the popular has been blurred by the very same “connoiseurs” of high art that have marginalized themselves into appreciating “art” like the ones I mentioned above.

As if kitsch itself has no value; which it does. It fulfills a need for something pretty but impersonal—to fill up cheap motel rooms and pretentious coffee shops—and in some cases, even humorous. It also serves as a “grey noise” in which we can be comfortable with, when really good art is hard to find and the “high art” pieces that fill galleries simply alienate us. So go ahead, if you really like Thomas Kincade stuff, don’t be afraid to admit you like it. There are more of you than you think.

It takes a village…

Anyone who knows me personally knows that I value my autonomy and independence almost to a fault. Considering my living situation, I am lucky by many standards. We live in an extended family setup and we all help each other at home, logistically if not financially. I, for one, am going to driving school in July. In the meantime my mobility is dependent on the availability of my family. It is this world view of personal liberty that acts as a lens to almost anything that I discuss in matters of politics and culture.

I have lamented earlier about a culture of irresponsibility having taken root in our country. It is with no big surprise that more and more regulatory kooks are showing up in the media with the greatest intentions of protecting Americans from themselves.

One of the things that I wish I would learn to understand one day is the psychological profile that leads to that kind of mentality. Edward Hudgins wrote about the Center for Science in the Public Interest setting its sights on Starbucks (link found from Claire):

Critics charge that many Starbucks products are high in calories and high in fat, especially those tasty trans-fats that are really bad for us. So what? Starbucks offers everyone a choice. If you don’t like the venti vanilla caramel macchiato with extra whip, don’t order it. In any case, Starbucks lists on its website and in brochures in its stores the nutritional information about its products.

But that’s not enough for the self-appointed health police. They’re trying to shame Starbucks into putting all of that information on menu boards in their cafes which, aside from being redundant, would make those menus, crowded with numbers, look to most people as confusing as the big board at the stock exchange. In any case, come on people, we all know whipped cream and cakes are fattening! Starbucks’ upscale clientele is certainly educated enough to figure that out.

Critics also want Starbucks to “voluntarily” cut down on the fat stuff in their fare. Normally, boring biddies can natter at us all they want and we’re free to take their advice or tell them to take a hike. But that’s not what the Center for Science in the Public Interest wants. They and their kind are bent on stopping us from being unhealthy — by their definition — no matter what.

“Paternalist prudes” they may be, but beyond the usual warnings about them and their ilk telling us what to eat, I would like to know what the general populace’s contribution is to the creation and growth of groups like these.

What kind of cultural and psychological factors synergize to bring about the general disdain and cynicism from all these self-appointed illuminati? Maybe the answer is a far, far simpler one: were they to leave the general populace alone, these crusaders would actually have to start looking for real jobs, I suppose.

Sexy

Michele Catalano has a question for us guys, about “sexy:”

So what I’m really wondering here – guys, this is for you – is this: What is sexy? And I mean physically, so don’t cop out and give me that “a woman with a brain is sooo sexy” line. Do you honestly like a woman who looks like she hasn’t eaten since the last time the Mets won the world series? Is a woman whose protruding rib cage could conceivably pierce you during sex hot? Would you prefer a woman with a D cup and few pounds on her or an A cup with a child’s waistline? Would you date a woman who is over a size 7? Over a size ten? Do you hold yourself to the same standards of physical perfection that you do the women you choose to date/pick up/marry?

Short answer? Sexy isn’t a “physical thing” at all.

“Sexy” isn’t just a matter of being beautiful in either the classical or nouveau sense; it’s more a measure of what is, quite frankly, arousing. There are some beautiful women who just seem untouchable, like lofty statues (Elle McPherson and Claudia Schiffer come to mind). There are those who seem sterile, like Liv Tyler (one could argue that she’s not beautiful, again, eye of beholder thing, etc etc).

“Sexy” is definitely beyond what is simply visible. “Sexy” comes from one’s attitude towards life, towards one’s appearance. People can be sexy on the sheer confidence with which they carry themselves, and the kind of presence that they have over those who see them.

“Sexy” is very difficult to quantify or even to articulate. Indeed, there are really thin women who I find sexy (Lara Flynn Boyle, let the gasping begin, I know) and there are Rubenesque women who definitely are. When we consider lists of who are sexy and who are not, it’s easy to see that such lists are as diverse and disparate as there are people. While there are standards of beauty (symmetrical face, a “healthy” constitution, healthy skin, etc), “sexy” is definitely a personal standard that I cannot describe.

It would be easier for me to be asked who I find sexy than for me to describe the shopping list that makes someone sexy.

Hurt yer feelings much?

SFGate: USA Gymnastics asks Abercrombie & Fitch to stop selling T-shirt:

Abercrombie & Fitch’s latest T-shirt is getting poor marks from USA Gymnastics.

USA Gymnastics president Bob Colarossi is asking the clothing retailer to stop selling a T-shirt that has the slogan “L is for Loser” next to a picture of a gymnast on the still rings. The sport’s governing body also asked members to boycott the store until the T-shirt is pulled.

“No individual, regardless of race, gender, age, intelligence or athletic ability, can or should be deemed a loser,” Colarossi wrote in a letter to Michael Jeffries, chief executive officer of Abercrombie & Fitch.

“Athletics as a whole, and gymnastics in particular, provides a great foundation in physical fitness and offers skills for a lifetime,” Colarossi wrote. “… USA Gymnastics feels that A&F has promoted this latest product in hopes of generating public outcry, attention, and media exposure for their brand.”

The benefits of athletics are beyond reproach, no doubt, and the message on the shirt is quite nasty, but to say that “no individual… should be deemed a loser,” cutting through the BS of whatever empirical but irrelevant factors Colarossi added, perhaps for added heartstrings tugging, is quite the opposite to the spirit of atheletic competition in the first place.

Unless of course, you’re in a town called Perfect, where everyone wins and, where Walgreens comes closest. Shyeah, right.

Quotes everywhere!

Jess takes note of some signs he’s come across. One uses scare quotes needlessly:

Better still, a gas station near my house has a handwritten sign on each of the pumps readying, “Sorry, ‘no checks’” – with the phrase “no checks” surrounded by quotation marks. Is the employee who drew up the sign quoting the manager who originally established the no-checks policy or do the quotation marks imply some kind of sarcasm?

Jess: Signage

Improperly used scare quotes are can be funny. In the local mall, a store that sells hermit crabs performs the same misstep: So, you want a “hermit crab?” Well, what would be a [scare quote] hermit crab [scare quote] be, as opposed to a hermit crab without the SQs? Perhaps it would be the type that didn’t need to switch shells as it grew? Because if it were, I would get the one adorned with a Confederate-flag–painted shell. I’m sure that’s going to cause a stir or two.

More bugs!

Michele has a post on the upcoming cicada swarm:

They were loud, annoying and crunchy. Yes, crunchy. Everywhere you stepped, the cicadas crunched underfoot. We couldn’t go barefoot that summer. We couldn’t even eat outside. These things would just randomly drop dead and fall out of trees.

So we spent a few weeks crushing and dissecting cicadas. If my memory serves me well, they had a yellowish, lumpy inside. For some reason, that’s a childhood image that has stuck with me for all these years. Stomping on a bug and watching the yellow fluid that looked kind of like pastina run out of the dead insect. One less noisemaker! One less thing to step on!

Michele Catalano: one cicada, two cicada, three cicada, FIRE!

Michele may not be a crush goddess, but this year seems to be shaping up like a good one for crush fetishists all right. Cicada crush party anyone?

Ad report: Ban what?

I don’t usually go into Worldnet Daily doomcrier mode for a reason. Usually I don’t like a squealing lunatic howling about perceived threats, and as a regular reader of Worldnet I will say that they do have a knack for hyperbole. So when I do engage this luxury I consider it to be a rare treat.

There is something so wrong with the following statement: Ban hate.

Now, think for a second. Take a few deep breaths before you start jumping at me for promoting bigotry. If you think that that is why there is something wrong with that statement, you can go huff and puff and walk away. Don’t let the door hit you on the ass on your way out.

I know, as far as my American readers (which are in majority) are concerned, that Ban is yet another deodorant, with yet another terrible ad campaign. But I think that there is something disturbing about the surreptitious message in these ads. Why not ban speech while we’re at it? No, I won’t devote myself to a daily dose of Howard Stern commentary (which, by the way, Jeffy, is getting booooooring).

If you’re not aware of what I’m talking about, let me elucidate a little bit. There are about two or three commercials in this campaign. In it are hip twentysomethings in different situations: someone skateboarding with the statement “Ban [something] plastered on his ass, a bunch of “runway models” with “ban [something]” on their shirts, and if I recall correctly, a girl with a toy gun, the ones that have a banner message on them, that says “ban hate.”

I know that it’s a play on the brand name. But the message disturbs me because banning “hate speech” leaves our freedoms at the mercy of those who have the powers of definition. Of course hate speech is destable. But who gets to decide what is hateful? I hope there is a comforting answer in someone’s magic bag of tricks, because whoever gets that power has the power to silence someone in the wink of an eye.

It isn’t exactly the message that these (possibly) third-year advertising majors were probably thinking when they conceived of the ad campaign. I’ll chalk up some good faith that they aren’t cultural operatives from some country hard pressed on undermining our freedoms every day. Because if I did then I could probably work for Worldnet. Er, just kidding. But nevertheless, no matter how hip, no matter how trendy-looking the advertisement is, it just leaves me with a sick feeling. Come to think of it, television ads reach more people than blogs in general — or perhaps combined — do.

Industrial Billlink thanks to Dean Esmay — has a more eloquent discussion on this very issue. A toung-in-cheek graf:

This means foremost recognizing the condition of the speaker, and the circumstances of the speech, before a hate speech prosecution may commence. To put it in terms even an oppressor can understand, members of non-privileged groups cannot hate by definition, they can only react to others’ hatred of them. Thus, they are incapable of hate crimes and incapable of hate speech. So prosecution of hate speech and hate crimes will be limited to privileged groups only.

The whole thing is lovely. And it does not discuss it with deodorant advertisement in mind.

Gates dismisses rumors of world takeover bid

(2004-04-04) — Bill Gates has indicated in an announcement today that Microsoft is not out to buy the world. “Rumors of a bid to buy the Planet Earth are untrue,” said the Microsoft CEO. “We’re not going to be involved in it because we’re very focused on software.”

Speculation of a world takeover bid has been brewing since the early nineties, but has spiked recently following rumors of a trial bid to aid Comcast corporation in taking over Disney. Further along the interview, Gates indicated that “rumors of my megalomania are overplayed. Ours is not an evil corporation, and we value National Sovereignty in the global community.”

“We are not out to buy the world,” Gates insisted. However, he did make clear that the citizens of the planet will have to wear an “Approved By Microsoft” badge before viewing digital media distributed by Disney, which will soon be owned by Comcast, 7.4% of which is owned by Microsoft Corp.

“I repeat, rumors of a world takeover bid have been greatly exaggerated.”

[This satire inspired by the quick fingers of Mog.]

Blasé

Today I had my first experience with an “audio tour” in a museum, the kind where everyone has an audio player for a “personal” guided tour through the exhibits on display.

The experience totally kills not only conversation, but human contact of any kind. Because my friend and I pressed the button at different times, the “curator” isn’t saying things to each of us at the same time. Coupled with the feeling that I was listening to public radio with six Tylenol PMs in me, I found that listening to the guided tour itself was increasingly boring. By the eighth “stop,” out of twenty two, I took my headphones off and just walked around reading the captions on the exhibits. That was way better, and at least my friend and I were going, “look!” in hushed tones.

It would have been an amusing sight: imagine five people staring at the same thing, silently, while listening to the same voice. It was completely a one-way conversation for most of the viewers. My friend and I couldn’t bear to continue that way.

The exhibit itself was amazing, covering ancient Egypt all the way through the Greco-Roman period when the character of Egypt changed forever thanks to Roman occupation.

Take note that in the mild (think 30s, 20s) winter weather of Baltimore, we were on our feet for the most part. From the gallery it was a mile to the Inner Harbor for dinner, and another two miles to the host’s house for coffee and chitchat with his other friends.

That, dear friends, is my reminder that I had a physical form: the cold outside, and the warmth of black coffee enjoyed in the company of good friends.