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May 7, 2007

Filed under: politics»issues»economy

Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, by Benjamin Barber

Awful. What an awful, awful book. It's obtuse, condescending, and redundant. Barber should be ashamed of himself.

The basic argument behind Consumed is that markets have spun out of control, and at this point have begun to shape the culture itself by creating false "needs" for which more products can be sold. In doing so, says Barber, the market both seeks to "empower" children into good little consumers, but also hopes to retard the emotional growth of adults in order to keep them impressionable and easy to manipulate.

Now, I am always up for a good critique of market capitalism. But Barber's stiff, ultradeclarative prose rubs the wrong way, not to mention his inability to define what this "infantilization" actually means in anything more than the most vague or hysterical terms:

Beyond pop culture, the infantilist ethos also dominates: dogmatic judgments of black and white in politics and religion come to displace the nuanced complexities of adult morality, while the marks of perpetual childishness are grafted onto adults who indulge in puerility without pleasure, and indolence without innocence. Hence, the new consumer penchant for age without dignity, dress without formality, sex without reproduction, work without discipline, play without spontaneity, acquisition without purpose, certainty without doubt, life without responsibility, and narcissism into old age and unto death without a hint of wisdom or humility.

Peanut butter without jelly! Rock without rhythm! Color without texture! One might as well declaim any of those three as any of Barber's ranting, or for any amount of evidence that he provides to back up his points. Most of it is anecdotal, and most of it in support of what seem to be a curmudgeonly set of dislikes: Barber apparently doesn't much care for birth control, video games, or most of Hollywood's output. He blames David Hume, of all people, for unleashing hedonism on the world. For someone who claims to be concerned about children, he doesn't seem to like the young very much. In one bizarre passage, he even takes potshots at the childless as being childish, of all things.

Even grown-ups who avoid having children or interacting with them seem animated by childish desires. A paradoxical example of the infantilist ethos in action in the marketplace is the movement for "childfree" environments that bar kids from grown-up settings in order to allow adults to "be themselves" and hence to be free. But to be free from what? "Free from brats," ardent advocats say. Actually, free to be brats, it would seem--to conduct themselves without the usual grown-up concerns for and responsibilities toward children, hence to be just like children.

Damned if you do, and all that. The book's ability to claim support for its thesis despite all common sense to the contrary is practically Freudian in its magnitude--but perhaps a better comparison is to Tom Friedman, whose market philosophy Barber may abhor but whose writing bears a similar tendency for the pedantic and sloganeering (the word "puerile" is massively overused, ironically, as though Barber is a precocious five-year-old who recently learned it).

But of course, there's no chance that he could fill 350 pages with statistics about how many people search for "Britney Spears" online. So the book devotes a chapter to the mythical "precapitalists" that paved the way for monopolists like Bill Gates or John Rockefeller, then spends the best part of 200 pages rehashing better anti-globalization works like Naomi Klein's No Logo. The themes of infantilization largely disappear from this part of the book, since Barber can't find an easy way to bring them back in.

The entire book is exhaustively footnoted--but then, so is Ann Coulter's trash. Just because something has a citation, it doesn't mean that it was well-researched, and in this case it may mean the opposite. I think it's more than a little ridiculous to claim that John Perry Barlow or William Gibson had anything to do with the rise of Bill Gates, for example, and the footnote on World of Warcraft is clearly referring to another game entirely. That kind of geeky, pop-culture error would feel less striking if it didn't make up a significant part of Barber's argument against pop culture.

And at the end, what are the solutions to this problem that we are assured will soon destroy our perfect capitalism? Why, such bold steps as: ...a boycott. Or "cultural creolization," what most of us probably term cross-pollinization. Even better, let's form "global citizenry." After so much ado, such weaksauce solutions and bargain-basement utopianism are worse than nothing. It's insulting. There's an attempt to appeal to the plight of the developing country--but since Barber argues in another part of the book that the poor have been excluded from this entire system of manufactured desire, it's unconvincing at best.

It's a shame that the argument is so mangled and the results so scattershot, since there's a valid critique to be made of global free market boosterism. Every now and then, Barber stumbles over an interesting point, but he's mostly just casting about. Reform needs to start somewhere, but it's certainly not going to start here.

April 19, 2007

Filed under: politics»issues»defense

Well, that sounds promising

Website Editor and Writer needed for counter-terrorist website focusing on Islamic terrorism and extremism in the United States, Europe and the Middle East. Office is located in Washington DC. Candidate must be able to write under pressure and deadlines, write unsigned editorials and op-eds, edit articles and testimonies. Knowledge of Islamic terror groups and their front organizations in the US a plus. Competitive plus salary. Experience on daily newspaper or wire service an additional plus.

Seems perfectly reasonable and aboveboard to me. Let me just dig out my copy of Islamic Terror Organizations and their Front Groups: The ACLU, Hillary Clinton, and Hollywood before I fill out my application.

I don't know what I find more appalling, the sheer paranoia dripping from every word or the fact that it will probably be a raving success.

February 22, 2007

Filed under: politics»wingnuts»fox_news

After-Dinner Shrieking

Joel Surnow is not just the sociopathically torture-happy producer of 24. This Sunday, the right-wing Daily Show that he spearheaded aired on Fox News, thus completing an infinite loop of irony for the rest of us, particularly those who have always suspected that Fox News was itself a right-wing Daily Show. Sadly, the complete show doesn't seem to be online, so if you "forgot" to watch it, you'll just have to settle for clips. You can find the two that were leaked out ahead of time, as well as a pretty insightful take on it, at John Rogers' Kung Fu Monkey. The whole post is brilliant, but my favorite part is where Rogers presents his theory of why humor works:

On a deeper level, this is about how you cannot make humor, you find humor. And you find humor in truth. As Tyrone pointed out to me later in the conversation, often Stewart does nothing but play the tape of a politician's actual words, and then do a reaction. A joke only works -- although every comic has a theory on this -- if there's some underlying bit of truth to it. Either truth unrecognized before now, eliciting surprised laughter in response, or recognized and appreciated, the so-called "sympathy laugh." (see Simpson, Homer: "It's funny because it's true!" which in context is damn near a three-level meta-joke.) This is why jokes about Bush not being bright work -- because we've all heard him speak, and he does not come across as a bright man. This is why jokes about Bill Clinton being a horndog work -- because Billy-boy's a horndog. You could not do a joke about Bush being, say, an adulterer, even if that were your "talking point." It just wouldn't work, because it doesn't ring true.

This, by the way, is the underpinning of the situation comedy, or nearly all scripted comedy: an ordinary person is put in a ridiculous situation, and his truthful response is amusing; or a ridiculous person is put in an ordinary situation and his truthful response is amusing.

Keep that in mind if you were to watch, for example, another leaked segment from the 1/2 Hour News Hour--that link, for those who are not masochists or who can't watch streaming video at work, is a parody "promotional ad" in which the ACLU sues on behalf of pregnant cocaine addicts. Have there been any pregnant cocaine addicts in the news lately? Not that I'm aware of. Is the ACLU well-known for defending either cocaine addicts or pregnant women, much less both? Again, that doesn't seem to be the case to me. Perhaps a better question is, are pregnant cocaine addicts actually funny? And the answer is no, not really. Even if the spot actually came out and mentioned "crack mothers," which (with all of its accompanying connotations) is almost certainly what they hope to evoke, that's not really a funny idea. It's just kind of sad. Tying it to the ACLU is simply bizarre--wouldn't NARAL have been the appropriate choice?

But you know, we could sit around and write better jokes for these guys all day (and, should I still be job hunting by the end of June, that might be the last resort). We could also simply take away the lesson that conservatives aren't funny, but as Dan notes that's just too easy. What I find fascinating is that the show is so aggressively unfunny, and I don't think that's necessarily a conservative fault. There are funny conservatives, somewhere. More importantly, I disagree somewhat when John Rogers says that you cannot "make" humor. You can't make really good humor, but you can certainly fake mediocrity better than the 1/2 Hour News Hour does. I know, because I spent two years on a college forensics team.

See, one event in forensics (competitive speech, not dead people) is called After-Dinner Speaking. It's supposed to be the humorous category, although that is tempered by the requirement that the speech should also have some sort of point and structure--this isn't stand-up, in other words. It's the kind of skill that might come in handy if you're asked to give a funny introduction for a business retreat, or some other equally awkward situation. Impress your boss without looking like an idiot, in other words. When you take a step back from forensics in general, you begin to find that those are the skills it develops most.

I wasn't very good at After-Dinner Speaking, personally. I think part of this is that I am neither a tremendously funny person, nor a tremendously serious person which is equally funny in the right context. But I managed to qualify for the national tournament in ADS both years on the team, because it turns out that you can actually manufacture jokes using a few basic formulas. For example, there's the List of Three: recite a trio of examples for any given point, where the first two items support your point and the third either undermines, subverts, or exaggerates it. So I might say that the 1/2 Hour News Hour is produced by Joel Surnow, Manny Coto, and a particularly bright howler monkey (you can hear him on the show's fake laugh track). Likewise, there are a number of stock joke constructions from ADS speeches like the Off-the-Wall Pop Culture Reference, the Non-Sequitur, and the Embarrassing Self-Deprecation. They're not going to get you a gig at the Improv, but they're good enough to liven up a presentation on your business case.

What all of these strategies have in common is that they're surprising, which I think is actually the root of humor. We find things to be funny when they snap us out of what we anticipated would happen. Maybe that means that they get us to look at the world a little differently, as with observational comics. At the lowest level, slapstick is funny because it combines everyday activities with overly-dramatic clumsiness and violence. It can even work in reverse: the punchline of "The Aristocrats" is funny because it's so utterly banal compared to the rest of the joke.

I get what Rogers is saying when he says that comedy is truth, but I feel like what he's really saying is "good comedy is truth." Mediocre comedy is just the unexpected. And that's what I find so sad about the clips of the 1/2 Hour Comedy Hour: they're not surprising at all, unless you count their lack of self-awareness (seriously, Rush Limbaugh mocking someone else for their medical treatment?). There's just nothing there that's even shocking, much less subversive. Calling Barack Obama "gassy" isn't a punchline. It's just an insult, and not a very creative one. I'm not offended because the show is racist and conservative. I'm offended because it's lazy. And I'm particularly offended because it isn't actually offensive, or unexpected, or challenging, except in the most mild and pandering ways. If it could manage any of those, I still wouldn't like it--but it might be funny.

February 15, 2007

Filed under: politics»activism

Authoritarianism: A Field Guide

Bob Altemeyer, the scholar whose work was heavily referenced in John Dean's Conservatives without Conscience, has put his book The Authoritarians online in .PDF format here. I found Dean's book to be a little troubling in its reliance on Altemeyer's work, while at the same time I found his description of authoritarianism to be convincing and thought-provoking. It's nice now to be able to go to the source, as it were.

February 11, 2007

Filed under: politics»issues»education

What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

I was going to do a review at some point of Michael Berube's What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts? But then I left it in the floor of my car, and the dog threw up all over it. So I'm not really keen on flipping through it to marshal my thoughts right now.

But it's good. Incredibly well-written, subtle, and evocative of my best college classes. It's not even really a partisan book--almost more of a primer on anti-foundationalist literary theory, which serves as an introduction to the "liberal arts criticism" perspective. That sounds horrifying, I know, but while Berube may claim that he's only an average professor, he handles this material with a deftness that's really something to see. I think it's probably one of the best non-fiction books I've read in a long time, and I recommend it highly.

Apparently I don't think it's good enough to brave dog vomit for a decent review. But to be fair, there are very few things for which I would confront the contents of Wallace's stomach. There's no shame in that.

January 10, 2007

Filed under: politics»activism

Tribal Wisdom

In a post about the so-called angry left, Digby linked to the worst book a political consultant will ever write, Applebee's America. Although the website is unclear on whether the book will come with poorly-crafted imitations of the TGI Fridays menu, it does have a quiz that's not going to sell any copies. How inaccurate is it? It says I'm a Republican.

But how could it fail to capture political genius with questions like these?

At a picnic with friends, you open a cooler full of soft drinks and reach for the:

* Dr. Pepper
* Sprite or Pepsi

"Well, I would have had the Dr. Pepper, but that's the official drink of those pinko liberals!"

You've won the jackpot on a game show and have a choice between two kinds of vehicles. You select the:

* Audi
* Saab

...is this one of those "lesser of two evils" dilemmas?

You're headed out to buy some groceries. You are most likely to visit:

* A superstore like Wal-Mart or large supermarket such as Kroger
* Whole Foods or similar organic grocer

Ah yes, large supermarkets pitted against organic grocers. We are back on firmer ground now.

You're at a cocktail party, and the only choices are gin, bourbon, scotch and vodka. Which liquor do you choose?

* Bourbon or Scotch
* Gin or vodka

This is the first of two alcohol-related questions. Maybe the authors think you have to be drunk to participate in American politics. They might be right.

If we opened your refrigerator, it is more likely that we would find which brand of bottled water:

* Ozarka or local brand
* Evian or Dannon

I was torn on this one, actually. My neo-hippie impulses wanted to support local water merchants, while my East Coast elitism found Evian irresistable.

You're at happy hour and there is a special on domestic beer. Which do you choose?

* Coors
* Bud

You know, I don't even drink, and even I know that those are both crappy choices.

Which special event would you be more inclined to attend?

* Monster Truck Show
* Pro Wrestling Match

...no, seriously. I can't even answer that. In the spirit of bipartisanship, I'll write in option C, "An opera about homosexuals."

If we checked your Internet history, it would more likely show that you had visited:

* An auction site, like eBay
* A dating site, like Match.com

Of course! Because only thrifty conservatives buy used crap online, while liberals use dating sites to pursue their many sex partners and procure abortions!

I suppose that if books about the differences between Americans are selling, you could do worse than to replace the "red state/blue state" dichotomy with something a bit less (what's the word? ah, yes) false. I'm partial to the urban/rural divide myself, but this "tribes" thing isn't bad. Or at least it would be, if they weren't just new names for Republicans and Democrats. Because I didn't really need a book to figure that one out.

January 5, 2007

Filed under: politics»issues»education

Alexandria's Just Down the Road, Actually

Wheat writes:

Calling anyone in Fairfax with a library card
Thursday, 1.4.2007
An amusing editorial about a new initiative of the Fairfax County Public Library system to do away with any books that don't get checked out regularly, classics included.

I tell you. Take a few weeks off the news and the net in general and the world reveals itself as the strange place it really is. I'm feeling the strong desire to stick my nose back in a book and pretend I don't notice.

I respond, in comments:

Speaking as someone with a Fairfax library card, it doesn't bother me much.

As someone pointed out, the point of a library is the democratization of the written word, so that people who can't afford to spend $12-$25 on a new book can still read and keep up with the cultural zeitgeist. Miller claims that book chains bombard customers with "inexpensive choices" including mp3 audiobooks, which are words spoken by someone who has never known the financial crunch where a $7 paperback--much less a trade or a hardback, whether it be pulp or fine literature. I spend $10-$50 on books every week nowadays, but at one point I had to scratch for change in order to afford reading material. It's not a cheap habit. If someone wants to read the classics, there are several used bookstores around Fairfax Co. where they can pick up a copy for a buck fifty, or Amazon will sell used books at about that price.

John J. Miller is the same guy who wrote the "top 50 conservative rock songs" that was roundly ridiculed a few months back. In that light, I'm particularly drawn to where he writes: "There's a fine line between an institution that aims to edify the public and one that merely uses tax dollars to subsidize the recreational habits of bookworms." (emphasis mine) In other words, Miller feels like he (and conservative pundits like him) stand at the bulwark of determining where good and bad culture lie--particularly when it comes to those who can't afford books on a regular basis. How dare those layabouts read a "Mitch Albom tearjerker" or "whatever fickle taste" they might have, instead of dedicating themselves to the manly prose of Hemingway?

Maybe it's my librarian father rubbing off on me, but I think we (and by we, I particularly mean the culture warriors at Opinion Journal) should be less concerned about what people are reading, and more encouraging toward the development of a reading habit in the first place. ...and, sweet mother of mercy, this probably should have been a blog post and not a comment.

November 9, 2006

Filed under: politics»issues»economy

What We Learn When We Learn Economics

Mark Thoma at Economist's View recommends (with good reason) this article (warning: PDF) on the unspoken biases of undergraduate economics. Christopher Hayes, the author, notes that the concepts of free markets and market efficiency remain unchallenged in basic economic classes, while complications like externalities and irrational behavior--you know, the considerations of real people--are reserved for the advanced and graduate-level students.

This explains a lot of extreme free-trade rhetoric from amateur pundits. It also undermines the charge of left-wing indoctrination centered on universities.

November 6, 2006

Filed under: politics»issues»philanthropy

Anger is a Gift

My friend Madmunk at Philanthropica returned to writing about a month ago. Today, on Election Day, this post struck me (although Madmunk is writing about nonprofits and philanthropies, and not about political action):

Professionalism has its place. Humor and whimsy, I suppose, have their places, too, but so do our passions, so does our anger. And yet we continue to speak this suffocatingly reasonable vocabulary of effectiveness and accountability, this stilted professional jargon of leverage and targets and benchmarks. Do you people ever get angry?

October 20, 2006

Filed under: politics»activism

And Ponies for Everyone

Chris P, an old friend in a new suit, asked in comments what I thought of Robert Greene's strategy for electoral success in the upcoming election. But really, why go half measures? Why only comment on the grand, pretentious strategizing of others, when I could offer my own grand, pretentious strategy?

So here goes: with the upcoming congressional election admittedly looking like even hysterical gay-bashing can't rescue a pedophile-protecting Republican majority, there's still a chance that Democrats will maintain their current sad-sack status. My solution is as follows:

Move farther to the left.

Seriously. And hear me out on this, because I can already feel the comments of "we're too far left already" even before it's posted. Obviously, I would want the Democratic party to become more liberal even in a perfect world, because I'm a radical myself. But frankly, I think the reason that most people believe that Democrats are at an extreme is because they've been told that's the case. The Republican strategists have made a point of painting us as commies and godless babykillers anyway. I don't see why we shouldn't get as much out of it as possible.

Besides, despite the fact that they call us extremists, the Democratic party line is really pretty tame. If we're extremists, then where's my universal health care? Where's my government regulation of private industry? My pro-environment energy policy? My aggressive withdrawal from Iraq? If we're going to be castigated simply for being liberals, then let's not screw around. Besides, most of America supports a lot of these proposals, if someone would just try to advocate them without undue knee-knocking and quivering.

When you hear supposed "independents" like Lewis Black joke about politics, a common line is "Remember when we had an opposition party?" That's the second advantage of really taking up a real liberal agenda: it gives us an actual spine. Forget the idea that extremism is driving people away: Republicans have run on increasingly extreme political positions for the last 12 years. The answer to that extremism is not to meet it halfway--how do you meet someone halfway on torture or gay marriage anyway? We're only going to brutally sacrifice our values if we flip heads? Give me a break. Show Americans that Democrats actually stand for something, and the independents will whine and complain--but eventually, they're going to vote for the people they were going to elect anyway, and the base will be reenergized. Again, we've seen this work on the other side.

Speaking of the other side, there's the argument that Democrats should compromise to lure people away. Rabinowitz puts paid to that argument, and I tend to agree: you're not going to pull people away from the Republican party by becoming Diet Republicans, because they've already got a party filling that role. Why would they vote for Diet R when the original formula is still there, and still so fanatically delicious?

Not to mention the part of the Republican base that liberals continually imagine they could seduce: the Christian Right. I love this idea in a sick way, because it presumes rationality. But the Christian Right is not rational--indeed, by choosing a fundamentalist, anti-science faith, they are explicitly irrational and proud of it. They will also never vote for a Democrat, because they're convinced that Jesus wasn't about the poor as much as he was about keeping women pregnant and killing fags. We can't win them, and we can't compromise with them. All we can do is fight them.

This is a country that's split and polarized, and I'm not going to argue that. Eventually, it does need to be dragged back together. But I don't want our goal to be unity under a racist, homophobic, Christian compromise. We might get there eventually, but until that day is unavoidable I don't see any advantages to caving. I see a lot of advantages to a radical agenda and then (possibly) meeting in the middle from there.

Future - Present - Past