Monthly Archives: December 2011

Yes We Can’t: Why Should We Believe Anything Presidential Candidates Say?

Last week in Seattle, I randomly came across a copy of The Best American Essays 1989 in a used bookstore. It’s mostly (great) memoirs and Me Decade ruminations on class, race and economics, but there’s an interesting piece by Joan Didion on the 1988 election, which most people remember solely for the image of Michael Dukakis popping, snapping turtle-like, out of a tank.

Among those who travelled regularly with the campaigns, it was taken for granted that these ‘events’ they were covering, and on which they were in fact filing, were not merely meaningless but deliberately so: occasions on which film could be shot and no mistakes made (‘They hope he won’t make any big mistakes,’ the NBC correspondent covering George Bush kept saying the evening of the September 25 debate at Wake Forest University, and, an hour and a half later, ‘He didn’t make any big mistakes’), events designed only to provide settings for those unpaid television spots which in this case were appearing, even as we spoke, on the local news in California’s three major media markets.

‘On the fishing trip, there was no way for television crews to get videotapes out,’ the LA Times noted a few weeks later in a piece about how ‘poorly designed and executed’ events had interfered with coverage of a Bush campaign ‘environmental’ swing through the Pacific Northwest. ‘At the lumber mill, Bush’s advance team arranged camera angles so poorly that in one setup only his legs could get on camera’. […]

Any campaign, then, was a set, moved at considerable expense from location to location.

This was written just before the internet came and capsized this business model, but blogs, crowd-sourcing and YouTube have, if anything, made this phenomenon worse.

Didion reports Dukakis’s main campaign themes at three California events in one day in June 1988:

‘I want to be a candidate who brings people together,’ the candidate was saying […]

‘That’s what it’s all about,’ Governor Dukakis had said, and ‘health care’ and ‘good teachers and good teaching’. […]

‘We’re going to take child support seriously in this country,’ Governor Dukakis had said, and ‘tough drug enforcement here and abroad.’
‘Tough choices,’ he had said, and ‘we’re going to make teaching a valued profession in this country.’ […]

Late that afternoon, on the bus to the San Jose airport, I had asked a reporter who had travelled through the spring with the various campaigns if the candidate’s appearances that day did not seem a little off the point. ‘Not really,’ the reporter said. ‘He covered three major markets’.

It’s hard not to be struck by the fact that Democratic presidential candidates have essentially been peddling the same messages for the last fifteen years. Dukakis, Clinton, Gore, Kerry and Obama have all repeatedly stressed unity, healthcare, environment, help for working people and programs for the middle class. The two that have made it into office, Clinton and Obama, turned immediately thereafter into die-hard centrists and conceded major campaign promises in an effort to work with Republicans, even when they had Democratic majorities in Congress.

It’s not that I’m surprised or dismayed by this. Politics is the art of the possible, right? You can’t expect to get every single thing you want from a candidate, and forging bipartisan consensus is what the US constitution was designed to cultivate.

I just don’t understand how anyone can live through more than three or four presidential elections and not emerge hopelessly cynical. Why should I believe any of the ‘unity’ and ‘hope’ nonsense Obama will be stumping in 2012? Why is it impossible for a presidential campaign to indicate to voters what a president will actually be like?

Obama was the first president I ever voted for who won, and I feel somewhat sheepish now admitting that I believed what he said in his campaign. I genuinely thought he could change, or at least improve, the system. Instead, he’s simply worked within it. I’m not going to stop voting, but I’m afraid I’m going to stop believing.

2 Comments

Filed under America, Personal, Serious

I Am a Shitty Feminist

So I’m reading this article about catcalls and how men make women feel uncomfortable with overt sexual advances:

A guy at a bar saying he wants to buy me a drink because I’m cute followed by a hand on my thigh. A business meeting where a man interrupts my discussion of the contract to inform me he thinks we would have great sex. A man standing on my lawn right outside my study window, watching me. A man standing beside me at a crowded bar, crossing his arms to hide his fingers as they reach toward me to caress my breast through my blouse.

It’s really easy to read this and sort of roll your eyes. Like, Jesus, these are just people who are demonstrating their attraction to you. Yes, they’re obviously coming on too strong and they should tone it down, but this attention is fundamentally positive. I can imagine a guy reading this and saying ‘I’d love it if a woman did that to me!’

You could compare this with gay male culture, in which explicit sexual advances are known as ‘small talk’. Getting this kind of attention from creepy old dudes is par for the Friday night course, and I never come home traumatized. Can’t these women just get over it?

This is an objectively shitty attitude and, I imagine, one of the primary factors preventing this kind of low-grade sexual harassment from being taken seriously as a kind of bullying.

When I guy thinks ‘this wouldn’t bother me,’ he’s probably envisioning himself being aggressively pursued by a (probably decent-looking) female.

I think it would be instructive for men to instead imagine of a scenario in which they are aggressively tickled by a 300-pound bald man in a prison jumpsuit. ‘What, you don’t like this?’ he would say, picking you up and slinging you over his shoulder. ‘I’m just playing.’

It’s not the harassment itself that creates the anxiety for women. It’s the implied threat of violence. This is why muscled gay men over 6’4” should make it their duty to sexually harass fratboys at least once per week. For solidarity.

10 Comments

Filed under America, Serious

Oh the Germanity

Germany doesn't have a War On Christmas like the US

so most of Berlin's historical sites get converted into Christmas Markets during the month of December.

I have been to two such markets, for about 45 minutes each

And have firmly concluded that they are simply an excuse

for Germans to drink hot wine and shop in the dark.

I've hated the Christmas season literally as long as I can remember.

Being in a foreign country makes it slightly more bearable

since everything is interesting for a period of time before it's exasperating.

I guess if I was straight I would have less trouble seeing the purpose of this genre of human activity.

My wife could poke around the brightly lit stalls

While I stood slightly out of 'honey, look at this!' range

smoking a cigarette and thinking about whittling or whatever.

The me that exists, though, mostly made snide comments about the food looking like it should be served out of a trough to Supermax inmates.

And was shocked at how impressed I was by objectively unimpressive things like Christmas lights in festive shapes

I think two Christmas markets was enough.

I didn't buy any trinkets, drink any hot wine or eat any yuletide slop.

I just took pictures, waiting for the interesting to wear off.

2 Comments

Filed under Berlin, Personal, Pictures, Serious

An Abandoned Brewery in East Berlin

-

-

2 Comments

Filed under Berlin, Pictures

Berlin Sunrises Have Been Hella Pornographic Lately

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Random

Discrimination’s Greatest Hits

So I’m still reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. As a person who grew up in a free, liberal democracy bitching about things like unsubsidized public transport and inadequate nutrition labeling, the kind of violations Solzhenitsyn describes are utterly foreign to me.

I think the main reason I keep going ‘wait, what!’ on every page is because the treatment Russia meted out against its own people is so extreme that I didn’t even know governments could do that.

Not one citizen of the former Russian state who had ever joined a party other than the Bolshevik Party could avoid his fate. He was condemed unless, like Malsky or Vyshinsky, he succeeded in making his way across the planks of the wreck to the Bolsheviks. He might not be arrested in the first group. He might live on, depending on how dangerous he was believed to be, until 1922, 1932, or even 1937, but lists were kept; his turn would and did come; he was arrested or else politely invited to an interrogation, where he was asked just one question: Had he been a member of such and such, from then till then? […]

This was a grandiose silent game of solitaire, whose rules were totally incomprehensible to its contemporaries, and whose outlines we can appreciate only now. Someone’s far-seeing mind, someone’s neat hands, planned it all, without letting one wasted minute go by. They picked up a card which had spent three years in one pile and softly placed it on another pile. And the person who had been imprisoned in a central prison was thereby shifted into exile — and a good way off. Someone who had served out a “minus” sentence was sent into exile, too, but out of sight of the rest of the “minus” category, or else from exile to exile, and then back again into the central prison — but this time a different one. Patience, overwhelming patience, was the trait of the person playing out the solitaire.

And without any noise, without any outcry, the members of all the other parties slipped gradually out of sight, lost all connection with the places and people where they and their revolutionary activities were known, and thus — imperceptibly and mercilessly — was prepared the annihilation of those who had once raged against tyranny at student meetings and had clanked their Tsarist shackles in pride.

When Mormons or atheists or asexuals or libertarians complain that they are being discriminated against, I’m broadly sympathetic. Hey, I’m the member of a minority group that objectively enjoys lesser state protections than the majority. I feel you, bro.

But it’s good to know what real discrimination looks like. I’ll never be thrown in a labour camp or banished to fucking Vermont or whatever for the rest of my life. I’ll never be tortured until I give the names of my homosexualest friends or publicly confess to something I didn’t do. I’ll never lose my job or my house or my bank account or my children because I joined an Ayn Rand mailing list when I was 14. I’ll never have to contemplate the sheer inefficiency of barring me from ever working again because of something I once read or signed.

I’m not saying that Western liberals can’t ever claim they’ve been discriminated against because at least you still have your arms and legs, buddy. Solzhenitsyn’s book isn’t an endlessly repeating lesson in how we’re so much better than Soviet Russia. It’s a reminder that we should always be on the lookout for ways in which we’re not.

1 Comment

Filed under Books, Serious

The End of Music Genres

I’ve been really liking this song lately

Velvet Underground – ‘Pale Blue Eyes’

I feel slightly guilty about this, since I only discovered this song recently, on a mixtape by a poppy Swedish band. I was aware of the existence of the Velvet Underground, obviously, but I only took the time to listen to them when a contemporary band packaged and stamped them with its approval.

When it comes to aesthetic taste, I’m basically the bridge and tunnel crowd. The Beatles were piped in by my parents. Astral Weeks was a ‘shut up and listen to this’ imperative from a friend.  Leonard Cohen was imported by my older brother, possibly by force.

I know there are a million technologies for recommending music, but I haven’t found any that actually stick. Services like Pandora, Genius and Last.fm seem to base their algorithms on genre. If you like The White Stripes, you obviously like the Sex Pistols!

But I don’t think most people operate like this anymore. Remember when part of getting to know someone was asking them ‘what kind of music do you like?’ And they would actually have an answer! ‘I like grunge’ or some such.

I can’t imagine a more meaningless question now. With the ability to carry 3,000 songs with you on your morning jog came the ability to carry a dozen genres. No one’s iPod is exclusively pop, or hip-hop, or rock. Hell, those terms barely mean anything anymore because they’ve fractured into a million subgenres.

Anyway, alls I’m saying is that I need a music-recommending algorithm that acts like a pushy friend, rather than a helpful computer. If you like the Velvet Underground, it will say handing me a mixtape, you obviously like Korn.

2 Comments

Filed under Music, Personal