Sunday, February 27, 2011

Arsenal Blues

I am that odd sort of American who actually thinks about football as soccer, and the U.S. version as American football. Having long been a Jets fan, disappointment has been a central feature of my longer relationship with the American version of the sport. And while the Yankees certainly give me moments of glory, the Knicks have also been the heartbreak kids on numerous occasions. Yet my true love for the past several years has really been Arsenal, a perennial disappointment for the six long years since their last trophy. There have lost finals, missed opportunities and suffered through a complete collapse at the end of last season that cost us a chance at the second most important trophy -- a league title. I thought that would all end today, as they came in big favorites to finally win some medal in the final of the Carling Cup against Birmingham. And yet we once again found a way to lose, this time with a heartbreaking mistake by our young Polish goalie Szczesny at the stroke of full time. I'm not sure anyone who reads this blog cares about the beautiful game, but one of the things that makes it beautiful is the potential for an upset on the grandest of stages. That is exactly what happened, as Arsenal seemed severely limited without stars Fabergas and Wolcott. Bendtner. Nasri and the upstart Wilshire certainly provided some opportunities, but the Fagergas sub Rosicky continued to fail in finishing some good opportunities. The thrill of a victory against the best team in the world Barcelona less than two weeks ago is now overshadowed by the agony of a defeat that again showed a team not living up to the moment, or it's potential. In the mid-2000s I became a huge fan as they won several trophies with a spectacular team led by the inimitable Frenchman Thierry Henry. Now they seem poised to follow in the footsteps of the Jets, and find ways to lose games and tournaments they should or could win. I suppose I can only hope for a miracle in the return leg to the city that brought me to the game in the first place (Barcelona) ... or take respite in the fact that, as a New Yorker, I might just revel a bit in the minor and major tragedies I have come to expect.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The "New Classic" Man

The rube in the big city has long been a Hollywood staple , from Mr. Smith Goes to Town to Mr. Deeds to The Hudsucker Proxy. The protagonist in these films generally becomes a hero as he unearths the decadence, elitism and corruption of the urban denizens that serve as his straw men and shows that honor, honesty and, of course, innocence are central features of the American male. With the birth of the 80s and the new American character, these characters fell into the background, replaced by the savvy, greedy but ultimately redeemed protagonists who broke through the morally corrupt world and found success and happiness in the process. With Cedar Rapids, we return to this well-worn theme, though this time the "big" city is Cedar Falls and the hero is an insurance salesman who has never flown, never stayed in a hotel and who dates his old high school teacher.

Time Lippe (played by Ed Helms of The Office and Hangover fame) is an honest man thrust into the rather dimmed spotlight of an insurance conference, after being forced to replace the company's darling salesman turned deviant, who dies with a belt around his throat and his pants at his ankles. He packs up his suitcase and heads to Cedar Falls where a hooker Bree (Ally Shawkar), a promiscuous wife and mother Joan (Anne Heche), a Black nerdy insurance man named Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whilock, Jr.) and an obnoxious lout (Dean Ziegler played by John C. Reilly -- who seems to have taken a break from quality acting), all show him the way out of his staid existence. He first wins a riveting Scavenger Hunt with Joan, parties with the gang, sleeps with Joan, parties with Bree, pays for the prestigious two diamond award upon which his company and his job depend and then comes clean and undercuts the selling of his company. Redeemed, though alone, in the end, we are led to believe that he has grown as a result of his foray into the medium-sized, Midwest city and is now a better, more mature man who has succeeded in business and life.

The film works on a few levels, but is less funny than it is soft-spoken in its approach and many of the jokes revolve around our credulity toward the innocence and stupidity of the characters, including nods to the old staples of homophobia (in a shower scene with the pious (though we later learn corrupt) president of the insurer's association) and a good ole salacious drug party scene that culminates in a fight before the star-crossed lovers Tim and Bree decide against consummating their new love as she offers up her bum for his sexual pleasure. The film, like most of what Hollywood does today, is derivative, but that is not necessarily a reason not to see it -- as the bankruptcy of ideas certainly did little to undermine the incredibly entertaining and uproarious Hangover. Instead my real critique of the film, which is still entertaining in its modest goals, is its celebration of innocence and simplicity as goals to which men should aspire. While the art house and alternative films tend to revel in our collective hypocrisy, disillusionment and even, sometimes brilliance, mainstream Hollywood films tend to celebrate the opposite. From Adam Sandler films to frat boy flicks to action movies and the cop/robber caper, stupidity is put forth as a funny, and really admirable, American male trait.

Rocky is a hero not only for beating the Black man (Apollo, in case the message is lost) who was "stealing" jobs from the working class White American male in the 70s, but embodied our love affair with the lovable dolt, the hapless loser, the incurious beast who could become rich through no fault of his own or even, under the right circumstances, President. The days of the mook might be on the decline, but we still have plenty of Homer Simpsons, Tom Greens, Jackasses, Sandlers and Coaches to keep us laughing, and teach our teenagers what cool is all about. This is backed by advertisers who love to celebrate this credulous dupe, often informed now by preteen children who send him on the path toward enlightenment; which itself seems odd given that they have none of the "experience" that we hold so dear. We can think of the daughter in Definitely Maybe, the sister in (500) Days of Summer or the teenager in the recent remake of True Grit. All seem to have wisdom well beyond their years, while the adults that surround them act like the youth of yore, still innocent, easily manipulated, unempathetic, immature and unable to really navigate the world around them without the women and children they rely on to survive. The irony here is that we celebrate the innocence of youth across the consumer culture at the same time we tell those same kids to hurry and grow up before those stupid adults they shouldn't respect destroy the universe. One hopes that at least they learn this valuable lesson and ignore the call toward stupidity and indifference that seem to reign supreme today.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The More Things Change ...

In a post-Tuscon world ... little appears to have changed. In a Town Hall meeting in Georgia a few days ago, a participant stood up and asked "Who is going to shoot President Obama?" (Salon Article) The crowd responded with laughter and then Tea Party representative Paul Braun, one of the most conservative members of the house, said the following: "The thing is, I know there’s a lot of frustration with this president. We're going to have an election next year. Hopefully, we'll elect somebody that’s going to be a conservative, limited-government president that will take a smaller, who will sign a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare." So while not outright inciting violence, he did little to temper the storm. And this isn't the first time Braun has been involved in controversy. In November 2008 he warned that Obama might try to install a Nazi or Marxist dictatorship in the country. This comes on the heals of the Texas decision to insist that colleges and universities allow students and professors to carry concealed handguns, a wonderful choice unless we consider that a low grade, an off-color comment or simply a student who is hungover and was just broken up with the night before might decide to take out his or her ire on the professor or fellow students. And their was the Wisconsin ADA who advocated using live ammunition against the protesters trying to protect the rights of public workers in the state, and decided that instead of an apology he would hold steadfast to his belief they are unAmerican troublemakers that deserve injury death for having the gaul to challenge the fiat of the Koch brothers governor elect (who, by the way, didn't even graduate from college).

The country has moved from a fringe of radicals to radicality in the mainstream and it bodes poorly for the future of the country and our democracy. Even after bellicose rhetoric led to tragedy, their is little attempt to temper the incendiary nature of discourse in American politics today. Rather than reasoned, informed debates about the key issues of our times, we simply demonize the enemy and call for violent contestation. Instead of debating the relative strengths and weaknesses of a particular perspective or bill, there is an absolutism that leaves no room for compromise. In the place of objective research and fact checking, we have a media that invokes a he said/she said style of reporting that refuses not only to take a position, but to challenge outright lies. And instead of tolerance and ecumenity, we have a model of mutual hatred that cuts off the ability to debate. Why is it that those who claim to represent and love the country the most seem intent on destroying it?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Man vs. Machine

Two events yesterday brought into acute focus the man/machine debate; at least for me. The first, reported widely, was the victory by IBM supercomputer Watson over the two greatest Jeopardy champions of all times, Ken Jennings (who won 74 straight times) and Brad Rutter (who won over $3 million in prize money): Montreal Gazette. The computer was created over a six-year period for the sole purpose of answering questions (or really answers) in the particular format that jeopardy uses. And it worked -- as it essentially slaughtered the two geniuses of trivia by a whopping $77,147 to $24,000 and $21,600 respectively. Jennings added a footnote to his Final Jeopardy response in day two -- "I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords." Maybe he's not far off, as we continue to make computers with artificial intelligence that seems to either match or exceed that of humans. Why IBM would spend the money and time to create a machine focused solely on winning a trivia contest is itself a worthy question – but it just seems to be the next step in the robots that will someday probably take over our lives.

The other event was the long anticipated first leg of the Champions League tie between Arsenal and Barcelona. Pitting two of the best football teams in the world against one another, the game lived up to its billing, with Arsenal coming back from a goal down to win 2-1 in stunning fashion; beating what is clearly the best team in the world, if not of all times. How does this relate to the battle between man and machine? I believe football (aka soccer) shows the limits of the machine. On the pitch, it is the creativity and split second decision-making of the players that moves the game from the mundane to the sublime. And it is hard to see a computer ever giving us that sort of visceral experience. In fact, I have never had a transcendental experience related to technology, except maybe a film (which of course always includes human actors, human directors, human editors, human producers, etc.). The machine may be able to process information more rapidly, act more rationally, solve more complex problems and make our lives easier, but it is our interaction with other humans and our creative spirit that makes life worth living. And so the neo-Luddite in me was left a little confused by the fact I watched such sublime human accomplishment through the very technology I am now maligning.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

When a Lie is Not a Lie

Anderson Cooper has been getting lambasted by the media for days now, for the unforgivable sin of, gasp, calling a lie a lie. The lies, told by ousted President Mubarak, apparently should have been reported without the modifier of their truthfulness, at least according to the new standards of journalism -- where reporting what people say is their only job. Howard Kurtz of CNN, James Rainey of the LA Times and Chris Dickey all believe that the call to objectivity disallows the ability of a respected journalist to actually differentiate between fact and fiction. It is this sort of absurd call to "objectivity" that is at the heart of the problem with journalism today. Where once journalist sought to follow in the hallowed footsteps of Edward R. Murrow or Woodward and Bernstein, unearthing the truth from behind the shrouds of power, now the media tends to serve those very interests while holding steadfast to some absurd call to a higher duty. Luckily we still have journalists on the margins like Olbermann, Stewart and Moyers, willing to call a lie a lie -- but until the mainstream media begins to restore their integrity by actually serving as the fourth estate, the line between truth and fiction will continue to blur. Global Warming? Well, some guy in a coffee shop in Iowa said it's a lie and I guess it's the responsibility of venerated newsmen to report that as if it were an incontrovertible truth. Where have you gone Cassandra of Troy?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Social Network (2010)

I finally got around to seeing The Social Network last night and have to say that while it was a good movie, it wasn't anything earth shattering to me. The film was not particularly compelling from a visual perspective, the narrative structure was average and the acting was good but not great. In fact, it appears that the endless hype surrounding the picture had more to do with its covering of the topic on everyone's mind than the film itself. Certainly Facebook has become an almost nonpareil social phenomenon, starting in a dorm room at Harvard and expanding to being the most popular website on the planet. Some people spend hours on the site a day and now have a tacit control over their networks that once seemed impossible. The site is wonderful for communicating the mundane details of our lives to others, for reading the mundane details of others lives, for organizing parties, political action and online campaigns, for launching businesses (as a few of my friends have), for catching cheating partners and, really, for wasting time alone as if we were wasting it with others. It is clearly addictive, though I have found that addiction has waned to the point where I can go days without even surfing through the news of my "friends" lives. In any case, getting back to the movie, I wonder what the point of the film was. Are we to take away the point that Zuckerman just isn't that nice a guy? That he is our Revenge of the Nerds doppelganger for the new millenium? That he is redeemed in the end, because we all love facebook and he is the youngest billionaire in history? Or is this a tragic tale of a deeply-scarred asshole who is still in love with the girl who ditched him in college? There is, of course, a lot more going on in the film, and it certainly touches on the uber-competitive, backstabbing, success-at-any-cost world in which we live today -- and I imagine that was one of the themes the adept screenwriter Sorkin was attempting to elicit. And a further theme could be the ways that even technology meant to bring us together tends to alienate us from others and to treat them in instrumental (really inhumane ways). Yet one wonders how the film was received by viewers enamored with Facebook? Is Zuckerberg the anti-hero turned hero we learn to adore? Is he a cautionary tale on how success and money can't really erase the scars of social-exclusion? Or is he just a brilliant genius who should be forgiven for his shortcomings -- including screwing friends and enemies alike? In the end, I believe the film highlights the changing nature of social interaction in America today and the ways we have learned to embrace the new world order without really recognizing either its costs or ramifications for our collective future. But it was fun to watch ...

Friday, February 11, 2011

On Language: Conservative Framing

In this blog, I often talk about conservative framing. One of their brilliant strategies was to relabel what had become expected government services as "entitlements" (see David Brook's op ed today). Should we really think of social security, a system we all pay in to, as an "entitlement?" Given the fact that the economy has been kept afloat primarily by deficit spending at the individual and governmental level, and thus "negative savings," for years -- isn't social security our only bastion from returning to the pre-Great Depression situation of most elderly people being poor? Regarding, Medicare and Medicaid, most countries in the developed world have much larger socialized medicine programs -- should we just ignore the elderly and poor, and allow them to drop dead in the streets, just upping the number of street cleaners we hire?  And unless I'm stuck in a dream, didn't we just pass a watered down healthcare bill that attempts to deal with the skyrocketing costs to famililes and businesses (and the even larger strain to come)? It is clear that the current level of deficit spending is unsustainable, but why does the discussion never go to the obvious -- raising taxes for those at the top who have benefited the most from the new world order? Given the success of Republicans in making "taxes" as bad a word as "liberal," I guess the answer is evident.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Tea Party Congressman: Good for Absolutely (Something), Say it Again

Well, the Tea Party might be more than just a bunch of right-wing radical conspiracy theorists and racists after all. New Tea Party GOP congressman have shown their mettle in a fight over renewal of the Patriot Act, causing the bill to fail in the House of Representatives: LA Times Article. Like many leading Democrats and those who support civil liberties, they believe the bill oversteps the power of the government to watch and intervene in our lives. As Democratic Representative John Conyers of Michigan put it, the act is "one of the worst laws this body has ever passed."

Unfortunately, in another signal that Obama is moving further and further to the center (which is really the right of a few decades ago), the administration supports renewal of the bill through 2013. Along with his concession on extending Bush's tax cuts, the continued war in Afghanistan, the turn to fighting the deficit over creating jobs, the inability to pass a substantive financial reform bill, a continuation and expansion of the failed educational policies of his predecessor and little forward progress on addressing global warming, it is now clear that hope and change meant little more than more of the same. One wonders if there is a space for a true progressive in America anymore?

The Crazy Times We Live In

A series of stories today show how crazy the country has gotten, and how crisis appears to bring out even more nut cases than America has always cultivated (including, of course, one of our most recognizable media personalities -- the truly loony Glenn Beck):

A freshman Tennessee lawmaker credits her success on Hooters: New York Times

The Colorado GOP Chairman will not seek reelection to a third term, because he is "tired of the nuts" and fighting with "those who are obsessed with seeing conspiracies around every corner: The Denver Post

Tax revenue has fallen under Obama (to rates not seen since the 50s), partially because of the huge tax cuts instituted by Bush and Obama's recent concession to continue them into the future. So are conservative happy? Of course not. "America's tax system is clearly broken," said former Bush economic adviser Donald Marron. "It fails at its most basic task, which, lest we forget, is raising enough money to pay for the federal government." AP

According to a recent survey of 900 biology teachers, only 28% teach evolution according to the National Research Council recommendations, and many continue to teach creationism (even though it's unconstitutional): New York Times

Monday, February 07, 2011

Who's Serving Your Burrito?

Wall Street darling and favorite of the commodified pseudo-ethnic chain movement Chipotle Mexican Grill is apparently in trouble as its hip and ecofriendly image abuts against a growing probe over the number of "illegal" workers they employ: The situation highlights the great paradox of one aspect of globalization -- the growing migration of peoples across national borders, and particularly to the Global North. On one side, it fits the neoliberal discourse of opening the world markets up to free trade and movement of capital and people. It helps supply cheap labor to industries that need it within the borders of their home country: for example, the agricultural, meatpacking and fast food industries here. And it provides opportunities for those suffering in the Global South (remember when we liked the melting pot metaphor?). On the other hand, it is true that in some cases these workers take jobs away from Americans -- for example in trade industries like construction (though it's worth noting that many fields dominated by "irregular" migrants are ones that white Americans would rarely if ever take -- for example migrant farming, child care, landscaping -- or that were once done by teenagers). It is also true that politically two intertwining realities help immigration become a wedge issue -- particularly in times of crisis. The first is the challenge to "national identity" that is brought on by immigrants that don't look or act like we do. Not only Americans, but populations across the globe fear for the loss of their home culture over time. A second issue is the perception that the immigrants from the Global south are perverting or corrupting our culture, based predominantly on stereotypes and long-standing biases that only seem to disappear if enough members of that group gain middle class or elite status. In any case, the paradox of opening or closing the borders really relates to our identity more than direct economic issues, and it is here where I fear it will stay as the proportion of the population of Latino/as continues to grow.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Revolution Will Be Televised

A few years ago, a documentary came out called The Revolution Will Not Be Televised ( about the coup d'etat attempt in Venezuela. The irony, of course, was that the film was in fact televising the revolution that almost was -- as the attempt to unseat Chavez ultimately failed. I think what is fascinating about what is happening in Egypt and Tunisia and how it seems to be planting the seeds of change in Sudan, Yemen, Jordan and other countries across the region, is its viral nature. The media and technology are not only capturing images and scenes that bring the revolutionary spirit across the globe, but framing and deconstructing it as it happens -- spreading the message of democracy and the power of the people to the far reaches of the planet. This forces not only leaders like Obama to react, but people all around the world to take a position on issues far beyond the scope of their daily lives, much as Marshall McLuhan argued television would do (and arguably did during the civil rights movement and Vietnam War). The military learned this lesson after Vietnam and has controlled framing of the two subsequent wars with Orwellian precision. Yet the power to control the images available and the framing of those images has been severely circumscribed by media savvy revolutionaries, gonzo-journalists and the Internet and its still largely unregulated space.

The power of the image to speak to us, even when heavily mediated, is profound. And even in repressive regimes, it appears that images of others struggling to unseat dictatorial power has the viral effect of infecting those around them with that same spirit. Thomas Paine once noted his surprise at the fact that people had so rarely used their ultimate power -- their number and the ability to revolt against tyranny -- to change the status quo. As we watch these revolutions in the MENA countries unfold, one wonders if the media is changing the dynamics of social upheaval forever more ...

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Democracy on the Mind

The new year has started with a surge of populist democratic movements across the globe. In Tunisia, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was pushed out of power after a month-long popular uprising against corruption, lack of jobs and a clampdown on civil liberties: In Egypt, continued protests seem on the verge of ousting President Mubarak's 30-year dictatorial, repressive reign ( as the army refuses to shoot at Egyptian citizens and Nobel Laureate ElBaradie set to step in and institute democratic reforms.And anti-government protests in Sudan seem on the verge of reaping the desired secession of the South: Even in the U.S., a protest emerged against the billionaire Koch brothers and their largely secret work on behalf of the Tea Party and other conservative movements:,0,3791885.story.

After the institution of austerity programs in the U.K., the anti-labor push in Germany and the huge mid-term victories for conservatives in the U.S., there was certainly concern that neoliberalism was to survive and flourish at the tail end of the financial crisis. But these movements and continued unrest among populations in the core nations certainly challenge the notion that the status quo will be restored without challenge. The power of democracy has always been its tendency to extend beyond the contours of its birth. Today populations across the globe seem poised to demand a more just and democratic future that reflects their interests and challenges the position of entrenched power.