Saturday, April 21, 2007

American Exceptionalism

From Google to 9/11 to the iPod to the UN to YouTube to school shootings, big things happen in this country that just don't happen elsewhere. Despite much anti-Americanism talked about in other countries' cultures, countless aspects of our culture are imitated around the globe. Despite this, there remains many things that separate us from other countries, differences that seem to be incapable of explanation, and thus attributable to American Exceptionalism.

I'd like to talk about one of those differences, but on a lighter note, since it's Saturday, so I will talk about soccer. This is the national past time of almost the entire world except for America. To the rest of the world it's referred to as football. From the start America wanted nothing to do with this game, so much so that we invented our own sport and called it football, even though there's only like one player per team that gets to ever touch the ball with his feet in that sport.

Soccer has been on the rise in the US due to the recent achievements of the US national team at the last two world cups. It should get another boost this summer when one of soccer's most famous players, David Beckham, makes the move from Real Madrid to the US, where he will play for the LA Galaxy (this is a team in the US professional soccer league, which is called Major League Soccer (The MLS) if I have lost you).

Now since Beckham is the best-marketed player in the world a lot of Americans probably think he is the world's best player. Of course, everyone knows he is a good player (some would disagree but let's be fair), but not the best (no would would disagree with this except maybe Posh Spice). So if we're not getting the best player in our league, we might as well know about who some of the best players are, if for no other reason than that watching them is extremely entertaining.

So this post is to provide you with a look at one of the truly best players in the world today (if you already know about this then it's a chance to look again). Last Wednesday in northeastern Spain a goal was scored that people will be talking about for a long time. This goal was scored by Lionel Messi, of FC Barcelona. Hear his name. Take a good look. This could be the day. Anyway, I'm not a sports commentator so I think I've done introduced it enough. See for yourself.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Is McCain like Imus? If not, what's the difference?

We all know from my post two posts ago that I respect John McCain.

However I can't help but being reminded of the whole Imus thing when I read about McCain's recent comments that have been in the news lately.

Speaking to veterans in South Carolina, McCain was asked "whether he believes the U.S. should send Iran "'an airmail message to Tehran.'"

McCain responded:

"That old, eh, that old Beach Boys song, 'Bomb Iran,'" McCain joked and then added: "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb ... anyway, ah ..." The audience responded with laughter.

Okay, I realize this is a joke, or if not, it was at least intended as a joke. But Imus and Kramer both intended to make jokes before they made the comments that offended the nation. Plus, those guys are comedians. This guy wants to be President. The leader of all Americans. The leader of the free world, so the saying goes. Seems like at the time he was only interested in being the leader of some South Carolina veterans. Here was McCain's response to people who questioned whether his comments were inappropriate:

"Please, I was talking to some of my old veterans friends," he told reporters. "My response is, Lighten up and get a life."

Talking to some of your old veterans friends? Please yourself. You don't have to be the presidential candidate to know that everything they say to an audience (and some things you say in private) can and will be repeated to the whole country. What does it matter who he was talking to? Would he say the same thing to a bunch of Americans in the northeastern US? To a bunch of Americans of middle-eastern descent? They can vote too, of course, but maybe he's not interested in their votes.

Then comes the icing on the offensive cake:

When reporters asked if the joke was insensitive, McCain said: "Insensitive to what? The Iranians?"

Now this is probably taken out of context, but I am quoting from the Washington Post, so blame them if you want, or blame the Drudge Report and then have Matt Drudge blame the Post. Regardless of the context, the words imply that there is no reason to care about Iranians. They're not people like Americans are people. So we know from Imus that it's wrong to insult African Americans in a joke broadcast throughout the nation, but it's okay to insult/joke about killing Iranians? This "America and Americans are the only thing that matters" -- and not just in terms of our policies, but in terms of who deserves our respect when we talk about them -- attitude is nothing new, as it has characterized Bush's entire presidency. But now we are seeing it from someone else, who I originally thought was much better than Bush, and now I am taking a lot less comfort in the fact that Bush's term is coming to a close.

Regardless of our policy views, when are we going to learn to respect each other?

A Psychological Test for Your Mind, Your Head, and Your Brain

This test about how we process information is kind of interesting.
See if you can accurately count the number of passes!!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Repeal the Second Amendment from the Debate on Guns

First off, I know we already had a gun debate on this blog, and I am not necessarily looking for another one. Instead, I want to comment on the way we go about the gun debate, particularly the way it is discussed by, you guessed it, our politicians and our media. I will also say that I hope that if another debate arises, that it can be as clean and respectful as our previous one, as we acknowledge that in the end we all want what's best for our country.

Once again I will emphasize that I am not really interested in talking about guns, but rather I am interested in the way that politicians and the media talk about them, and whether it can be done in a more productive way. And now to dissentate.

I think the gun debate is too focused on the Second Amendment - literally, on the fact that it exists - as opposed to being focused on guns. While there are valid arguments for gun rights, most people who believe in them would rather just remind us that we have the Second Amendment. I would even say that people who continuously mention the Second Amendment are hiding behind it, and for no reason, since there are, I think, valid substantive arguments about gun rights.

Take John McCain for example. Now I think McCain is a smart guy and I can only hope to eventually provide a fraction of the service to my country that he has provided. But what about this quote about the VA Tech shooting:

"We have to look at what happened here, but it doesn’t change my views on the Second Amendment, except to make sure that these kinds of weapons don’t fall into the hands of bad people."

These are the words of a guy who is so focused on mentioning the Second Amendment that he doesn't even care what the rest of the sentence is as long as it includes the words "Second Amendment." I mean, look at the sentence, it makes no sense! Taken literally, it means that the shooting changed his views on the Second Amendment, unless I misunderstand the word except. What changed? Now he thinks that weapons shouldn't fall into the hands of bad people. This is a new belief for him. Now he couldn't have possibly meant that, but I think the quote does seem to illustrate my argument that all of this talk about the Second Amendment is taking the focus off of the substance and actually looking at the facts about guns in our society.

McCain continues:

"I do believe in the constitutional right that everyone has, in the Second Amendment to the Constitution, to carry a weapon."

This is just a kind of fancy way of saying "I believe that the Constitution exists, and a part of that Constitution is something called the Second Amendment, which I also believe, exists." I believe that too, but I don't think it says anything helpful to the debate.

We need to get the focus off of the Second Amendment and start talking about the facts about our country's current state of affairs. This is the only way to determine a sensible middle ground between outlawing all guns and making guns as easy to buy as cigarettes. The Second Amendment prohibits the former solution (at least for the Federal Government), and common sense prohibits the latter. But the Second Amendment doesn't really provide us with any further answers or guidance. Thus it is up to us to look at our experiences, and to respectfully debate based on what we have seen happen in our country over the last decade or so, and what are the best policies to keep us as free and safe (two goals that are often at odds with each other) as possible.

Although I am not optimistic for reasons to do with the current style of political and journalistic discourse, I hope we can leave the Second Amendment in its rightful place, and start talking about the substantive issues.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

I-Bituary: Thoughts on Imus, the Media, and American Society & Culture

The Imus Story, 04/04/07 - 04/16-07

Like everyone else I am deeply saddened by last Monday's tragic events, and my heart goes out to those affected. That said, I would like to continue with my somewhat but not completely relevant theme of thinking about the American media and its interplay with our discourse, our politics, and our culture. I mean no disrespect towards Monday's events and I hope not to portray any in what I am about to write.

Maybe, the proper media response to a national (or, maybe even international, becuase this was top news in lots of international newspapers) tragedy, is to drop everything that was being focused on immediately before, and to focus on the crisis. Undoubtedly, things like this make us reflect on the relative insignificance of other things in our lives, as well as various national issues. Allowing ourselves to get upset or stressed out by something, whether a routine part of our daily lives or even a national political issue, we are, the next day, humbled by events such as these. Whether personally or socially, events such as these shake us from our prior state of routine and complacency and force us to reconsider certain things. Personally, or socially, they can make us think of the important things that we have that we take for granted, they can make us consider the important things we don't have that we lose sight of, or they can make us think about the unimportant things that we were stressing about and realize that we were blowing them out of proportion.

Because the dust has perhaps not yet settled regarding Monday's events, and because it perhaps has regarding Imus, I would now like to consider the Imus story, perhaps from a fresh perspective.

The story began on April 4, 2007, when Imus made his comments. Incidentally, many people probably began that day reflecting on Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated on that day in 1968. The media began that day like it begins most days: trying to figure out what sort of coverage would attract the most viewers. Granted, there are amazing breakthroughs of intellect, egregious acts of violence, oppression and injustice, corageous and altruistic acts of people helping one another, and other awe-inspiring signs of hope and despair at all times and at all corners of our world. But, of course, it helps if they involve a celebrity.

It was a day with no completely new injustices or breakthroughs, just the same stuff that's been happening and has been happening. Now this may be the stuff that our life and culture is all about, but it doesn't spell ratings. Viewers want to see something they've never seen before, and they want it to be exicting and unthinkable, like in movies. These things don't happen too much, so when they don't happen, we go to movies. In the meantime the media informs us that Mel Gibson is racist, Brangelina adopted a child from a developing country, Dick Cheney accidentally shot his friend in the face while hunting, and Bill Gates and Bono are trying to eradicate diseases and poverty.

As I said in a previous post, it is interesting how the media discusses social issues through celebrities who, by behaving just like zillions of other people, serve as an example for aspects and developments in our society as a whole. I am not sure exactly what I think about it, because I think it is good to raise awareness of certain issues, and this seems to be one possible way to do it. But I often wonder whether it is a good way or a very bad way to do it.

We are a product of our culture, or experiences within our culture, and our reflections on those experiences. I don't know if it's part of human nature to want to know what's up with Paris Hilton and Brangelina and Imus, and cling to "sexy" news stories, or whether it's part of our capitalistic, consumer drivern culture, and is thus a self-perpetuating cycle. The cycle would go: the media know we want sexy, they give us sexy, we watch sexy, we are seduced by sexy, we want sexy, the media know we want sexy. I don't know at what point the cycle starts, but it's clear to me by observing our culture that once it starts, it spins right round baby right round.

A story about the personal life of a celebrity? Splendid!! This calls for a sexy party!

Many of us have heard Governor Schwarzenegger's comments on how to get more people behind the cause of protecting our environment and how to raise awareness and concern about climate change:

"We have to make it mainstream, we have to make it sexy, we have to make it attractive so that everyone wants to participate."

So even in politics, the fabric of our society, the strategy being touted is "sex sells." Personally I completely agree that we need to get serious about addressing the issue of climate change or global warming or whatever, but I hope that I can honestly say to myself, about that issue, and about every single other issues that I have an opinion about, I hope I can honeslty say to myself that I am not espousing certain opinions because they are sexy.

Maybe it's elitist to say that I want to feel passionate about certain things but for the right reasons, and not because they're sexy. Maybe it's elitist to say I don't want other people to agree with me on certain issues because the issues, or the positions on the issues are sexy.

Or, maybe it's elitist to say "I want everyone to agree with me on this issue, so I am going to "make" the issue sexy, because this is how I will get everyone to agree with me."

To me, this is either elitist or it is expressing a pretty low opinion about people's intelligence, and of course a high opinion of your intelligence that you can control their thoughts or actions by sexifying things. Are people not smart enough to become concerned with issues like the envirnment based on the facts and substance alone? Will they fall for your sexification?

If advertising is any indication, people apparrently respond a lot to sex, and not so much to substance. Advertisers believe this, otherwise we wouldn't see so many commercials for cars, beer, etc that just show attractive women and don't really give us any substantial information about the product.

Once again we can ask: have advertisers tapped into the foundation of human nature and found the most salient and most effective way to get us interested in what they have to sell us? Or do we respond because we grow up and operate within the context of a culture, wherein we are basically from birth inundated with people selling "sex" to us and everyone we know? Have we allowed aspects of our capitalistic and consumer-driven culture to go too far, by adopting the strategy of "whatever it takes" to sell?

In any case, we might say that "sex sells" should be a perfectly acceptable strategy for advertisers, since they should really be free to run their business and advertise their products however they want. Companies have no responsibility to us, unless we are shareholders, in which case their obligation to us is to make as much money as possible. Whether that is, or ought to be true, is of course debatable, but what really needs to be debated is whether we want more powerful and responsible aspects of our culture, our politicians and our journalists, also embracing the strategy that "sex sells," and further engraining it into our national psyche by integrating it into our news and our politics. In my opinion, it makes a profound statement about our culture when our politicians are following the example of Coors Light in doing their job.

Politics aside, there is no question that this strategy has been embraced wholeheartedly by the media. Everyone has heard the cynical saying "if it bleeds it leads" to describe how the media choses what they tell us about and when and how much.

So given these reflections, we have at least one explination of why Imus was all that the news talked about for the last two weeks, which has almost nothing to do with what Imus actually did. To make matters worse, the discussion that the media gave to the issue, and the commentary that pundits offered while weighing in on the issue, was similarly devoid of the substance of discussing the issue of what Imus actually did. By that, I mean, we basically just got people's knee-jerk political reactions to an issue that the media had decided it was going to focus on. Conservatives spoke about the good things Imus has done in his life, and the fact that he had apologized, and said that his treatment in the media was too harsh, and that his firing was excessive. Liberals emphasized his hurtful words and those words' affects on those they referred to and others who had heard them, and said that his firing was appropriate. While Democrats and Republicans alike talked past each other, refusing to even acknowledge that this was a complicated issue where both sides had valid points, everyone seemed to forget that whether he gets fired or not is none of anyone's business except his boss/bosses, who, like all other bosses, are free to fire any employee for whatever reason whatsoever, and under the law they don't even have to give a reason (this is subject to some exceptions that are irrelevant to the Imus situation). Hearing pundits and politicians talking about whether Imus should have been fired makes about as much sense as hearing Hollywood actors talking about presidential candidates - they are no more qualified or knowledgeable than the next guy, yet there they are, on the TV, giving us their opinions, day in and day out.

Now people with ordinary opinions just like ours, getting widespread media coverage of their opinions is merely another example of "sex sells." I can do all of the research and polling I want, CNN ain't gonna have me on the TV to discuss the presidential nominees or Iraq or the Second Amendment or whatever (the same goes for Matt Drudge, etc). Of course if I had starred in Good Will Hunting, Forces of Nature, Reindeer Games, Bounce, Pearl Harbor, The Sum of All Fears, Daredevil, Paycheck, and Gigli, it would be a different story.

So the point is, while Imus didn't do anything that out of the ordinary (not condoning it, just saying, racism unfortunately exists all over this country), the media -- because he is a celebrity -- seized it and didn't let it go. Now that there is a more pressing issue facing the country, we can likely expect the Imus story to get swept under the rug, and go the way of Mel Gibson, Nick Nolte, Kramer, Gary Conditt, Trent Lott, Tom DeLay and plenty of other people that were scrutinized for doing relatively ordinary things, and then the media acted like it was the end of the world for them, and now they are doing great. I mean look at Clinton, after what happened to him, the guy has been a god over the last few years.

I personally find the "sex sells" strategy in the media very concerning, especially when we look at how these stories are so efficiently utilized by the media, and then discarded as soon as either, it is still going sexy but something sexier has come along (is it better to burn out?), or, it has simply outlived its sexiness (or to fade away?). The willingness, eagerness, and ability of the media to do this again and again should at least give us pause. During that pause, we should think about where, if anywhere the conversation should go from here, and we should reflect on what we think about all this, whether we think it is good or bad for our culture, and what, if anything we can or should do about it.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Can You Imagine Fifty People a Day...Friends, They May Think It's a Movement

To build upon some of my previous posts concerning what I feel is our society's lacklustre public dialogue (the ease with which we can dismiss a candidate for the smallest of bad PR, a general gleeful indignation with which we confront those that offend (clearly, this has a special significance with the recent Imus affair)). As I have been living in South Africa for the past two months, with only 3-4 channels to scan through on my tv (one of which plays cricket at all hours, an wholly unwatchable sport), my televised intake has grown increasingly focused and honed -- to the point that I basically watch clips from Comedy Central, MSNBC, and Real Time with Bill Maher, and dip the occasional finger into the Fox News gruel (Please, Sir, can I NOT have some more). This very limited and admittedly biased exposure to television, however, has afforded me the perspective that I needed to find some of these more deleterious trends in our national discourse.

On a fairly recent episode of the Daily Show, Jon Stewart interviewed Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton -- an extremely controversial figure and one of Bush's more antagonistic appointees. Bolton proposes his philosophy regarding presidential appointees, submitting that it is the duty of the president and his job to represent those (presumably solely those) who voted for him and appoint people who share his overall ideologies. Stewart returned with the example of Lincoln in reference to Lincoln's cabinet that was made up of a broad spectrum of political loyalists, many of whom disagreed with their President. So, with Stewart's more than reasonable historic example not even fully out of his mouth, Bolton quickly dismisses him, saying something to the effect of "I don't think you're right on the history there." The trend that this example...ahh, exemplifies is the envocation of historical citations, used either to dismiss the person you are debating or to silence the conversation. (Luckily, Jon has his own show and answered back the next night.)

In our current age, for those arguing on the rationally wanting side of a debate, a victory can achieved if you have managed to undermine your opponent's ability to prove their point, however honest and rational it may be (in fact, the more rational thier point the bigger your victory for not letting them make it). Do you, reader, remember the game "500"? One kid is the Thrower and shouts out a number (100, 200, 300, you get the idea) as he throws a ball into a small crowd of would-be catchers. If you were amongst this group and the ball is clearly out of your reach, your best bet is to somehow sabotage anyone elses chance of catching it. That's basically what this argumentative tactic is -- to use esoteric knowledge of history to silence you opponent or to dismiss someone else's knowledge out of hand is like pantsing the guy next to you so he won't catch the ball. A stretch? I think not.

So, here is my proposal. When someone tries to throw some irrelevant, yet oddly impressive factoid from American History your way, just smirk back and say, "Well, Tippecanoe and Fuck You, too!" And be sure to emphasis the last bit with all the gravitas of Lt. Col. Frank Slade. My theory, and I have not yet put it in practice, is that this will nullify any ground they have gained in the debate with their useless historical reference. I mean, what could they say back to that?You'll have beaten them at their own game. It's actually quite breathtaking. The rebuttle both alludes to an esoteric piece of American history (William Henry Harrison's 1840 campaign slogan) and also piques with a sort of ironic cruedity.

So, If you find yourself (in a dark alley and would like to press ahead, please turn to pg. 138) in a heated debate with Christopher Hitchens on Real Time with Bill Maher, or have inadvertently landed on a bar stool next to John Bolton and over a few too many rounds of shots enter into a political argument, don't let them garble the debate by trying to stun you with unecessary trivia. Just remember what we said, and they won't know what hit 'em.

Note: There is a definite distinction between admissible and warranted historic references for use in political discourse, this post only refers to those that are unecessary and used to spite or dismiss rather than enliven and edify.

You've Selected...Why don't you just tell me what you want me to blog about?

My relationship with this blog is much akin to my relationships with women:

I meet someone
She moves in
She goes
I meet someone
She moves in

With this blog its more like:

I think of a blog idea (I meet someone)
I put up a blog posting about it (she moves in)
Nothing happens (she goes unnoticed)

Honestly I don't know what is worse: endlessly calling up my past blogs like I was checking my e-mail, and seeing the big goose egg of zero comments, or seeing that I did get a comment only to click on it and see that it was just capetown dissentator.

I've tried to discuss hot-button issues, really I have. I blogged about racism and imus. No comments. I even blogged about Barack Obama and the presidential elections. No obamments.

Recently I have considered a posting about whether America is really as "divided" a nation as some say, and about what I think about Arnold saying that we have to make the issue of climate change "sexy," dumbing it down for some mass audience as opposed to having it explained to us by Al Gore.

But I just can't take the disappointment of bearing my soul for all of cyberspace only for cyberspace to stare back at me and give me nothing in return.

Quick: staring contest, me and cyberspace.

It wins, it always does.

So I appeal to you, whoever is reading this. Whether it be my fellow dissentators, or our readers (I have reason to believe that we have readers). Help us help ourselves.

By that I mean that I think there are good and stupid uses of blogs. Basically stupid uses are when people write things that no one cares about. But good uses are possible when people get into a real discussion about something and can learn things and hear opinions and get productive conversation that is missing in the media today. These kinds of blogs are our hope. I want to be one of these kinds of blogs.

So I invite suggestions from anyone reading this as to what in the hell you want from me. I really don't think this is too much to ask, and I think this would make things better for both of us.

On a similar note, if any of my past or future girlfriends are reading this, I make to you the same request.


I was just in Vatican City and I discovered something amazing. Apparently, the last words of Jesus from Nazareth were "come on guys, this isn't funny anymore, take me down."

(Thanks JM)