Monday, November 16, 2009

Unfriend Joins the Lexicon

Drumroll please . . . the word of the year, according to The New Oxford Dictionary, is unfriend: Defriend was the word that I have been using, but I will bow to the protectors of the English Language. To unfriend is an interesting new dynamic in the world today. No breakup at a coffee shop, no avoiding calls for months, no need to confront the ex-friend with a final salvo. Instead we simply click a button and then confirm the end of a relationship. And who says technology is impersonal?

Friday, November 13, 2009

NFL/NCAA: No Fun for Anyone!

A few weeks ago, a series of penalties in a big college football game helped to decide the outcome (as I don't really care about college football, I can't really remember which game it was). God forbid 18 to 22 year old men actually celebrate a late touchdown that could win them a game! Now the NFL shows they have the sense of humor of a Tibetan monk (actually, I think Tibetan monks are actually much funnier). They have fined Bengal Chad Ochocinco for trying to bribe an official . . . with $1: The penalty?

"According to a league spokesman, Ray Anderson, the league's executive vice president of football operations, fined Ochocinco for violating a rule that "prohibits use of abusive, threatening or insulting language or gestures toward game officials. He was also in violation of Rule 12, Section 3, Article 1 (f) of the Playing Rules which prohibits possession or use of extraneous objects that are not part of the uniform during the game on the field or sideline . . . The NFL also cited Ochocinco using the word "bribe" in his postgame comments to reporters."

Well thank god in this difficult time of major unemployment, international instability, people losing their homes and terrorist plots the NFL is protecting us from a laugh. What would we do without them?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Gossip Girl Talent Just Too Big to Contain on TV Screen Alone

Remember when bands struggled through years of poverty and degradation to get a shot at success. Thankfully we have all but eliminated this route to fame for at least one group . . . the already famous. One actor after another has taken a shot at traversing the musical big time (Keanu Reeves, Bruce Willis, Scarlett Johansson, Tony Danza, John Travolta, Peter Gallagher, Don Johnson, Barbara Streisand, Steven Seagal, Robert Downey Jr., Minnie Driver, Eddie Murphy, Jamie Foxx, Milla Jovovich, Zooey Dashanel, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Jason Schwartzman, Kris Kristofferson, etc., etc., etc.). Are they any good? A few are, but can we admit most are slightly better than the American Idol first round cuts.

In case you haven't got enough of these career-benders, actor-cum-pop stars, the siren from Gossip Girls Leighton Meester has joined the list: Who exactly has the poor taste to put this crap out, you ask? The same sort of people that gave us the Backdoor Boys, 'N Sync, Miley Cyrus, and just about anything you hear on the radio these days.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Healthcare Reform or Conservative Revanchism?

The healthcare debate has, in many ways, taken on a relatively surreal tone in the past few months (Obama as a socialist, fascist Hitler-like figure, the healthcare reform somehow leading to a tragedy worse than the Holocaust, the bill allowing the government to decide when people live and die, etc.), but it seems as if the Catholic Church has taken the debate to a new level of inanity. So healthcare reform was supposed to be a movement forward to insure those who are uninsured, to cut costs and to reign in the excesses of hospitals, insurers, pharmaceutical companies and others involved in the “industry.” To progressives, it was offered as a way to free people and improve our quality of life. That was until “progressive” Nancy Pelosi decided to heed the warning of Catholic bishops and include a provision that disallows coverage for abortions. Even worse, it prohibits any health plan that seeks federal subsidies from offering abortion coverage. Huh? Last time I checked, abortion was legal in America. So if they can’t win the battle in the courts, or in the ballot box, use a backhanded deal in Congress to undermine a women’s right to chose.

Essentially a potentially huge progressive victory will all but outlaw abortion in America. Women can supposedly buy supplemental coverage for abortion, but isn’t that a stigmatized solution to the problem that will give many women (and particularly young girls) pause? Can the young even get coverage for abortion, given that they are on their parents plan? What of poor women, who might not be able to afford the additional coverage? And how can a rider like that be legal, given the reality (again) that ABORTION IS LEGAL IN AMERICA. Whatever your position on the matter, it is hypocrisy to allow that people should be free to do what they want as long as they don’t do what you don’t want them to. Why are we allowing the government to step in and take control of women’s bodies? And does this make the bill a progressive, or conservative, triumph if it does eventually pass in the Senate? Even with a huge victory in the election a year ago, the Democrats again show that they have the backbone of jellyfish.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Teabaggers Go Trolling

I’m going to let the words of the Teabaggers largely speak for themselves this week: Just for a little context, they continue their attacks on Obama and healthcare reform as some sort of Nazi plan to destroy America. And when Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel questions them, they become Holocaust deniers, Anti-semites and, surprise, surprise, make all Jews culpable for Bernie Madoff. How have these fringe lunatics gotten so much press? Oh yeah, it's the conservative revolution that's been so in fashion since the day after the election ...

Sunday, November 08, 2009

The Next Better Thing

I have always been interested in the ways that culture influences our beliefs, values and attitudes. I am particularly interested in the influence of media and overarching economic beliefs on how we act. When I was in Los Angeles, I noticed the way single people interacted. It seemed as if everyone was looking for the next better thing. And because of that a sex culture had developed where men had to put very little effort into “getting laid” and girls, at least the ones I knew, begrudgingly accepted this arrangement. I returned to New York four years later and found a similar dynamic at play. Single and even married people seem to be constantly looking for an upgrade or supersizing of whomever they happen to be with. Not only men, but increasingly the women I meet. They will tell me they are finally in love with a great guy and then ten minutes later be hitting on me or one of my friends. I have friends who date two or more people at a time, and know many more that are cheating on their significant others as often as they try a new restaurant in the city (a veritable New York pastime). The question is why? While we are single, it makes sense to go on a lot of dates and meet a lot of different people. But what of giving a relationship a real shot? I know far too many good people in the city that are single or casually dating but looking for something more. It is hard to find, and so they settle into the single life ala NYC – a few dates, random sex, or relationships thaOr t fade into nothingness as one or the other moves on before really giving the person a chance. And then there are the guys who are completely comfortable being single and have no interest in any sort of commitment. They move from one girl to the next, treating sex as a hunt. While there is nothing implicitly wrong with this, it creates a culture in which no one really trusts anyone else. And many women embrace the lifestyle choice as well.

So what could the source of this dynamic be? Could it have anything to do with the neoliberal penchant to treat greed and self-interest as the most worthy goals? Could it be the way in which advertisers seek to commodify everything from family to love? Could it have anything to do with the American predilection to think that there are always simple solutions to complex problems? Or what of a culture that wants to hide from deep emotional commitment of any kind (often through pharmaceutical drugs that numb us to the world around us and any pain)? Or could it be Hollywood and the way it feeds us one happy ending after another, without sufficient barriers along the way? Could it be the way they venerate the man who never quite grows up until he finds the right women who transforms him into a honorable family many? Or the obsession with infidelity in film? Or maybe even Sex and the City, Gossip Girls, One Tree Hill and all the other shows that celebrate female emancipation through jumping from one bed to the next. This is not a jeremiad discussing the downfall of western morality or even a call for monogamy. It’s just to ask the question of why I know so many people who want real relationships, commitment and love but have such a hard time finding it. These are genuine, good and honest people who get caught in the sexual realpolitik of New York City. I have always believed that love is the answer . . . it’s too bad so many people settle for less. I know many will call me a hopeless romantic, or someone who has fallen prey to the oldest human mythology, or just a fool who doesn’t see the world for what it really is. Even if that is true, I will continue to embrace love as the only truly worthy thing in this flawed world.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

GDP and Quality of Life

A report out yesterday showed the unemployment rate above 10% and the unemployment and underemployment number at over 17% ( This is a very troubling number and relates to the absurd notion of a “jobless recovery.” Is it really a recovery when people continue to lose jobs or remain un- or underemployed? Is it a real recovery when people continue to lose their homes or remain mired in major debt? Is it a real recovery when the quality of life continues to decline, as social services and education receive huge cuts in funding? Who in fact is benefiting from this so-called “recovery?”

The answer, of course, is those at the top of the income ladder. Everyone else suffers and a future filled with debt and little fundamental change in policy bodes well for the rest of us. What is one cause of this differential between GDP (the indicator of economic health) and quality of life? GDP became a popular indicator around the time of the Great Depression and has been one of the sole indicators focused on since the late 70s. Forget unemployment, inflation is the key economic measure of monetarists and their neoliberal supporters. Forget growing income gaps along the lines of class, gender and race – per capita income is the key. Forget growing populations in our prisons (predominalty youth of color), our middle class is safer – even as the media focuses on crime and terrorism. Forget purchasing power, the real issue is productivity and profitability. Forget most Americans, as long as the super rich are living opulent lives and safe from the results of their own risky behavior. And in case anyone wants to ask these questions, we have the lunatic wing, made up predominantly of working class Americans fighting against their own interests and futures (tea bagging anyone)?

GDP fails because it fails to measure too much that is going on in the economy that defines our quality of life. What about income disparity? What about quality of education? What about happiness and economic security? What about massive depression and legal and illegal drug abuse? What of the contribution of women and educators to the future of the country? What about pollution and serious looming ecological danger? What about the health of the population and the growing percentage of our income many pay each year for services and insurance? What about massive obesity and the dumbing down of America? All of the less tangible, non-profitable activities are excluded from the measure, and yet it defines our collective future.

Reinventing the Wheel?

For years I have been listening to people warn me against “reinventing the wheel.” It makes sense and though I cringe every time I hear it (I have a natural aversion to laziness in language; and the anti-intellectualism it hints at), I never considered the burgeoning crisis it might invoke. Recently I have become troubled that this common cliché might in fact be causing immeasurable harm to humanity. What if a better wheel is out there, but has been left undiscovered because of the demoralizing message spread so far and wide. Is the wheel we have been using for thousands of year really so great? Is there a better design out there waiting to push us forward into an unimaginable future? Probably not, but I really hate that phrase.

On a related note is the pervasive “thinking outside the box.” I have long believed that anyone that uses this phrase is in fact stuck inside a box from which it would take them several years to emerge – given the constricted logic and language available to them. Thinking outside the proverbial box is indicative of the instrumental rationality that forever keeps us inside the prison house (or box) of language and business mentality that in fact makes the world fully enclosed with that box.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The Land of the Free . . . For Some

The results of the same sex marriage ban in Maine are somewhat disheartening to those attempting to end one of the last forms of government sanctioned segregation in America: The result, the 31st victory for the anti-gay marriage gang in a state in the U.S., highlights the paradox that is American politics. Our idea of freedom has always been set against the limits on freedoms of others. This started with slavery and the lack of legal or economic equality women had in the newly born nation. Years later, after all the civil rights battles, most Americans now believe (at some level) that all should have equal protection under the law and an equal opportunity to succeed. All that is, except gays and lesbians. Really the discourse on freedom in America appears to be: you are free to do what you want unless my morality or religion says you shouldn't have the freedom to do that or it offends me.

The hypocrisy in this position relates to a number of inconsistencies in the views of the general public today. The government, many believe, is implicitly corrupt and handing them too much power over the economy will lead to our collective downfall. While many of the same people hold increasingly negative views of corporations, they still feel “free” markets and reduced taxation and regulation make America a better place. The same people who fight vehemently against abortion (in the most radical cases, killing the doctors who perform the procedure) believe equally as vehemently in the death penalty. While the paradox here can be resolved by their differentiating between innocent victims (unborn fetuses) and convicted criminals, the larger issue of whether we should trust the government with the ultimate power – to end a life, seems to be ignored by those on the right. This is also the case with a number of other issues, like the power we give to the president, accountability for some and not others, military action oversees, tough mandatory crime laws and the like.

Most troubling, however, may be the very notion of freedom. Individuals should be free to do what they want, as long as they don’t do what I don’t want them too. Corporations should be free to do what they want, unless I recognize that their actions are hurting me. Taxes should be low, but I want the same services I’ve always had (and more when I need them). The idea of freedom has always been complex, but in America it is a symbol without a clear associated content. Too many uber-patriotic folks on the right seem to think freedom only exists in the economic realm, while too much social and political freedom undermine the real America. This paradox remains at the heart of conservative discourse today (and at times on the left as well, as for example decrying censorship and then trying to block visitors to campuses that disagree with their perspective). It appears to relate to the complex relationship between American democracy and religion, where religion is beyond the scope of democratic negotiation – but should inflect our national morality.

So we continue to talk about the Land of the Free, while we limit the freedom of too many Americans. How can America honestly believe that homosexuality is a bigger threat to democracy than the unethical, and often illegal, behavior of big corporations? Only through a determined, inexorable myopia can these contradictory beliefs exist in the same head. It was like watching Fox last night, where the loss of a conservative Republican congressional candidate in upstate New York (where Republicans have held power for over 100 years) can be spun into a victory because “the other candidate would have lost by even more.” It is only in the eternal loop of circular reasoning and victimhood that the right can continue to dominate the political landscape after suffering a devastating defeat a mere year ago. Of course, now we will ignore the reality of the two races they won this year and pretend that Obama is in big trouble because he couldn’t wash away the corruption and unpopularity of Corzine or single-handedly save a lackluster run for governor by Democrat Deeds.

At least CNN ( made a few points worthy of repeating: 1) Since 1989, the gubernatorial races have always gone to the party that lost the presidency and 2) A majority of voters in both states said their choice was not based on the performance of Obama. Fox and Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, on the other hand, ignored the polls and stated “Voters say no to Obama policies” -- Who cares about the truth – we live but for the freedom to spin . . .

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Terminate the Terminator Franchise

Terminator Salvation, the fourth installation in the Terminator series, is a major disappointing, putting the latest Star Trek triumph into even higher esteem. Here the talented, but often morose, Christian Bale takes on the role of John Connor -- the last hope for humanity against Skynet and its complex, insidious army of Terminators. The film, like so much blockbuster fare these days, suffers from too much attention to pyrotechics, pornographic violence and, often senseless and overly long action sequences. It also suffers from a an increasingly common trend in action and superhero films today -- an overly somber tone that ignores the old humor and light-heartedness that once dominated the genres. Instead we are thrown into a dystopian, technophobic world where machines roam the planet attempting to kill off the last humans left after the Skynet induced apocalypse. Clear innuendos to 911 juxtapose with the sort of mystical future, past these films so often invoke (think Mad Max, Matrix when not in the Matrix, etc.). John Connor and the resistance have discovered a new technology that could destroy Skynet and end the war for good. But in a time travel paradox that is hard to fully embrace, he must first save his own father, who was sent from the future to impregnate his mother (Sarah Connor), in the first film. A new character emerges here, Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) to complicate matters further though, a killer from the past whose body and brain have been integrated into a cynbernetic machine, though he appears to maintain those aspects of humanity the film attempts to juxtapose with the machines. He becomes an ally to the humans, but in a somewhat predicable turnabout, is thrown into a moral quandary that tests his allegiance. Arnold makes a camio as well, in a culminating scene that would be suspenseful but for the necessary denouments of films like this. The action scenes are often bracing, the cinematography striking and the ability of director "McG," aka Joseph McGinty Nichol of Charlies Angels "fame," to develop drama and surprise through the camera work, is impressive. But where did the plot go, dude? Where are the truly compelling characters? Why do I care? I found all these questions difficult to answer. In the end, the film was too long, too boring and too overwrought in its attempt toward profundity.

The more interesting question with films like these is whether the narrative structure inflects fears of technology induced terrorism and destruction or a deeper fear that technology has destroyed our humanity. Is the film the latest incarnation of ongoing fears about technology and human destruction that go back to WWII and the cold war? Does it reflect the "culture of fear" sociologist Barry Glassner has catalogued, where our inability to control our lives from outside influences leads to constant, unabiding fear that dismantles the ability to act and intervene in the world? Or is it a deeper critique of the dehumanizing effects of technology like tv, videogames, ipods, cell phones and the like that increasingly dominate our lives and undermine those aspects of ourselves that we take as constituitive to being human? In the final scene, the machine gives Christian Bale his heart to save him, thus completing the metaphor – we must restore our humanity by dismantling the machines that now control us. (C-)

Election Results

Interesting results in the election tonight. It is clearly a good night for Republicans, but some interesting results could bode well for Democrats in the future. Virginia elected a Republican governor by a huge margin and New Jersey’s Corzine lost reelection, in a relatively close race; maybe closer than it should have been given his relative unpopularity. But the far right candidate in New York looks as if he is going to lose – offering a blow to those on the right that are attempting to take over the party. And even with a huge spending gap between Bloomberg and rival Thompson, it looks as if Bloomberg will only squeak by, even with most of the mainstream media supporting him. The key issue going forward is whether Democrats have the will to push against the tide of the conservative machine, that by most measures seems not to have popular support across the country. In fact, registered Republicans in the country are at their lowest levels in years, while many more call themselves Democrats. The swing vote is the key constituency, now measured as 44% of the electorate. If Democrats can again rally their base next year, if they can pass healthcare reform and stop the obstructionist Republicans from undermining democracy and the will of the people, I think they will be ok. If they become the weak-kneed party they have been for years, shooting themselves in the back by failing to confront Republicans, I believe there stay in power will be short. Even as we hear the poor, victimized right cry about a liberal bias in media, it is clear that the mainstream press tends to be parroting the far right as if they spoke for most of America. It is the job of Democratic spokesmen and activists to challenge this discourse, and offer a more realistic argument on why the country needs fundamental change if it wants to return to prosperity.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Movie Review: Couples Retreat

A friend dragged me to see Couples Retreat on Friday night. Even with a $70 million budget, $87 million in gross domestic sales, Vince Vahn and Jason Bateman, I didn’t expect much from the film. My low expectations were, alas, too sanguine, as I left shaking by head at how bad a movie it was. Like so much Hollywood drivel these days, the film was unfunny, overly earnest and finished with a silly, uninspired denouement that made me look back to remember if marriage was really this depressing. I will leave that thought unexamined, but I have to say that Hollywood has forgotten how to make good comedies in the past several years. Even the promising directors like Wes Anderson seem to get worse not better with age, and the mainstream ilk that now passes for romantic comedy is truly disheartening. The question is how one can spend $70 million without finding more than a half dozen real laughs? How can a decent cast go so wrong? Why do they presume that the American audiences are so daft that they accept a bad relationship suddenly gone right for no other reason than that is what we expected to begin with? The lack of chemistry between the main characters is palpable, the misuse of Vahn’s charisma borderline criminal and the general somber tone deaf to the desire of audiences continuing to be beaten down by the financial crisis.

One wonders if mainstream comedy has gone the way of action film: huge budgets, a big star or three and no plot to speak of. It’s truly depressing when not only HBO and Showtime but the big three continue to do much better writing than those in Hollywood. It appears as if the huge budgets lead execs and producers to put so much focus on marketing they forget one of the most important aspect of filmmaking – a decent script. The humor is generally base, the funny send-up of new age wisdom undermined by the poor delivery of the cast and too quick a shift to depressing treatment of the alienation of modern coupling, and the storyline so dull I have to rethink my next island vacation. It seemed at times as if the film was trying to make two films at once, and neither was developed. One was a screwball comedy on an island, which has never really been a winner. The other was our continued artistic reflection on the ways in which love fades under the force of marriage and kids. In any case, the American filmgoing population seems to have been effectively inoculated from movie reviewers in recent years. The marketing is all around a huge opening weekend, followed by a huge drop off in subsequent weeks as everyone else realizes it is yet another disaster film – though without any dystopia except for those who fall prey to wasting about two hours of their time. Maybe someday the American public will wake up and demand that Hollywood make a decent film besides in the couple of months leading up to Christmas and the Oscar voting season. Of course it seems as likely as stores closing for a Holiday rather than having blockbuster sales to make sure we don’t spend any quality time with our families . . . (D)