Bruce Springsteen, "Murder, Incorporated"

>> Saturday, March 31, 2012

This was on my mind--actually, it was on my mind after I wrote yesterday's post. While Springsteen borrowed the refrain and title from organized crime, that's obviously not what the song's about; Springsteen's singing about the toxic effect of guns on American culture.

This is one of the things that needs to be said: the homicide of Trayvon Martin isn't just about race, though I don't think there's any credible way of saying it isn't about race, too; it's also about guns. It's hard, though it isn't impossible, to come up with a thought experiment where Trayvon Martin is a white kid who draws George Zimmerman's attention and suspicion. (Let us pretend, for the purposes of this mental experiment, that we don't know if Zimmerman used a racial epithet during his 911 call, or that he even said "goons".) What is impossible, I think, is constructing an imaginary alternate universe where Zimmerman gets out of his truck and follows Martin unarmed. Perhaps it's barely more possible to write a fictional scenario where Zimmerman gets out of his truck armed with a hand-to-hand weapon (a knife, a bat), perhaps an improvised one (a tire iron, a box cutter).

Zimmerman didn't get out of his truck and follow Trayvon Martin around because he was black (that's only, probably, what drew Zimmerman's attention to Trayvon); he got out and followed Martin around because he had a gun. Because he felt safe. Empowered. Able to take on some kid.

And am I saying we should ban handguns or firearms generally? Well, no. I guess not. For one thing, I don't like the idea of mucking with the Bill Of Rights, even if I think the Second Amendment is a foolish, antiquated and obsolete relic of a poorly-thought-out Eighteenth Century national defense regime. And I know responsible gun owners who use firearms for sport, and I don't know that I have a problem with that; and there are still a few Americans who use firearms to put meat in their freezers for those tight winters, and I definitely don't have a problem with that.

What I do have a problem with is people who think they need a gun for self-defense. Because I'm not sure they're really prepared to kill someone, even someone breaking into their homes. I know, they all say they're ready and a lot of them would ask me what I'd do if my home and loved ones were endangered by an intruder, as if appealing to my fear and weakness should bypass and trump my reason and common sense, not to mention some small experience dealing with the legal aftermath of acts of violence (justified and unjustified, and more than a few involving various kinds of guns). Also because I think having that gun "for self-defense" breeds overconfidence and haste, especially outside the home; maybe if my only defense is a club or knife, I'll think about what I'm doing before I jump to an irrevocable conclusion. Oh, and there's the third "because": because there's an irreversibility when the trigger is pulled and physics and chemistry take over and run their irrevocable course.

Something I find myself thinking about is how Joe Zamudio almost killed a hero. The story, you may remember this, is that when a mentally disturbed man showed up at a Tuscon, Arizona meet-and-greet to attempt to murder Representative Gabrielle Giffords, and he killed six people (including a little girl and a Federal judge who died tried to shield another victim) and injured thirteen more (including Rep. Giffords), Zamudio heard shots outside the drug store where he was shopping. And Zamudio had a legal concealed weapon and ran outside to confront whatever was going on, his hand on his weapon, and he saw a man holding a gun.

And what Zamudio didn't know at that moment was that the man with the gun had just wrested it from the actual assailant, you see. And Zamudio was, the story goes, filled with confidence when he ran out of the store--he had his gun, right? But thank the Fates he hesitated when he actually came upon the scene of violence, he hesitated and he didn't shoot the guy who was one of the other rescuers on the scene.

An indescribably awful scene could have been made so much worse, you know.

I think George Zimmerman had that same kind of confidence getting out of his truck even after the 911 dispatcher told him he didn't need to do that. Zimmerman had his gun, right? He was safe. Nevermind that common sense is that he would have been even safer inside his truck, a combination shelter, means of escape and (yes) deadly weapon (truck versus pedestrian: bet on the truck). Zimmerman had chrome-plated confidence and he could stop a crime he didn't really know was happening and he could protect himself from someone he didn't really know was dangerous (he just assumed). And I'm not even sure it matters all that much whether Trayvon Martin confronted the scary white man stalking him with a pistol or Zimmerman just saw a suspicious youth in a hoodie and pulled the trigger (deliberately? accidentally? maliciously? fearfully?). Whatever happened, George Zimmerman didn't hesitate.

Not when he should have. Not at any point he could have.


An open letter to Geraldo Rivera

>> Friday, March 30, 2012

I apologize to anyone offended by what one prominent black conservative called my "very practical and potentially life-saving campaign urging black and Hispanic parents not to let their children go around wearing hoodies".
-Geraldo Rivera, as quoted by M.J. Lee,
"Geraldo Rivera apologizes for 'hoodie' comment",
Politico, March 27th, 2012.

Dear Mr. Rivera,

Having read the excerpts of your obviously heartfelt apology as quoted at the website Politico, I was moved to tender an apology of my own. Having read of your comments that the homicide of a teenage boy, Trayvon Martin, under circumstances that are still under investigation, may have been caused by Mr. Martin's decision to wear a hoodie for a walk down to a convenience store to purchase some Skittles and iced tea, I found myself thinking some uncharitable thoughts in your direction.

This was petty of me. It was not so much that I was "offended" by your "very practical and potentially life-saving campaign" so much as I was stunned and amused by what I perceived to be a depth of idiocy and cluelessness on display from a mostly irrelevant pop-culture figure who managed to insert himself back into the national spotlight at a time of tragedy by saying something that I believe I may have characterized to friends as "batshit insane". But the magnanimity of your apology to those who may have been offended, if they were offended, by your comments, which were not intended to offend but were in fact intended to save the lives of other Black and Hispanic males who might find themselves approached by and then shot for their sartorial choices by gun-toting faux-Neighborhood Watch "captains" ignoring the explicit advice of 911 dispatchers, has appealed to me and shown me the error of my ways.

Therefore, Mr. Rivera, I humbly extend my apology to you.

I am deeply, truly, profoundly sorry that you are a complete git. I regret that you are an idiot and an asshole, and I cannot begin to express my complete remorse over what a twit you are. When I think back upon the significant accomplishments of your career, such as the time you discovered nothing in Al Capone's vault or all the white trash brawls you hosted on your shitty daytime television show, my heart swells up with grief over what a ridiculous, pathetic, self-aggrandizing, narcissistic, bottom-feeding, scum-sucking, noxious, prat you really are. I cannot begin to tally up the sombre and sober sadness I feel contemplating what it must be like to have devoted one's entire adult life to contributing an apparently bottomless deficit to American culture, a vast deep well of suck that has left the world somehow more impoverished than it would have been if you'd drunkenly stumbled into a streetlight when you were in college and knocked yourself into an irreversible vegetative state incurring fifty years of noncollectable medical bills to be written off by the county hospital forced to maintain you on a feeding tube by an injunction granted to a meddling two-bit Republican state legislator mere weeks before his arrest on morals charges involving an underage minor, two chickens and a bottle of Boone's Farm.

I am so, so, soooo sorry. And I really mean it. Really, really, really. Cross my heart and everything.

It is possible that in an uncharitable, small-minded, mean-spirited, cruel moment I might have wondered what, exactly, you think a young man might wear to a neighborhood convenience store if he doesn't want to be shot and killed by an apparent paranoiac wannabe cop with 911 on speed dial. It seems to me that if you're going to critique what a young man wears to the store on a Sunday afternoon, implicit in that criticism is knowing what the young man might wear instead. (I have to suspect the answer might be something white, buttoned to the hypodermis by collagen, but that's a difficult recommendation as I'm not sure Old Navy carries anything that color or quite as form fitting.) After all, if I tell a young man of any ethnic persuasion or background who is meeting me in my office that he might consider not wearing that Scarface t-shirt to his upcoming courtdate for drug possession, I'm also sure to suggest that he might wear a suit if he happens to have one, or (understanding that my clients are, by definition, indigent, and may not be able to afford a suit) at least maybe a dress shirt (tie if he has it); to dress however he might dress for church or a job interview if he's able. This is something I feel comfortable with because I have some idea about what our culture, etiquette, tradition and even official written rules say people ought to wear to court--there are, in fact, "right" ways and "wrong" ways to dress for court. It seems to me that this is very easily distinguishable, however, from advice on how to dress when you're just chilling on the weekend, when you're just hanging out and decide to get a snack and some fresh air and some phone time with your girlfriend.

(If you're going down to the store, it's still February and it still feels a little chilly in spite of what the thermometer on the porch is saying. You might want to wear a hoodie.)

I regret and humbly apologize, Mr. Rivera, for the fact that you are such a fucking dumbass that this whole point obviously never crossed the extremely short breadth of your mind.

You do acknowledge that you managed to "have obscured the main point that someone shot and killed an unarmed teenager". Well. Actually, not so much. I actually rather doubt that particular point was obscure to anybody with enough functional brain cells to have a Bridge game betwixt themselves. I'm sorry. I think I actually managed to almost accidentally give you any credit at all, and if I inadvertently gave you a second's hope that you're not a loathsome fucktard, I sincerely regret the misunderstanding and completely retract any statement that may have implied you were anything more than a dry dog turd inextricably smooshed into the treads of America's Chuck Taylors.

You bastard.

Whew! I can see why you apologized, Mr. Rivera--I really feel better now that I've cleared my conscience of that!

R. Eric VanNewkirk
Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets


You know you don't even have the best porn 'stache in modern American pseudojournalism, right? Thomas Friedman has you completely outstached, and he's almost twice as smart as you are.


Bruce Springsteen, "For You"

>> Thursday, March 29, 2012

I've been reading the news items and blog entries about the three days of oral arguments at the Supreme Court earlier this week over the Affordable Care Act with the mix of avoidance and focus you might give to a serious car wreck pulled off onto the side of the Interstate with traffic blocked miles in both directions and ambulances, fire trucks and highway patrol cars surrounding. It's impossible not to look but no point in looking, either, and if you saw something it probably wouldn't be anything you'd want to see.

The Affordable Care Act is doomed, five-four down party lines; no, it isn't, it's saved six-three by a Court trying to dodge political questions they regret taking up in the first place. No, it's just the individual mandate going down, except they can't sever it so it's all going down, no, they've discovered they didn't really have jurisdiction in the first place.

This is the thing: I don't think the questions these jurists ask at oral argument are necessarily signposts or signifiers of anything at all. It may have been the case that once upon a time this theatrical exercise in jurisprudence really was what it's disguised as, that once upon the time these characters in their robes went in with open, empty minds and asked questions they didn't know the answers to and debated like legal academics, like Talmudic scholars or Greek philosophers. Could be. That was before my time, so I guess I don't know. Seems to me these days what you have is Justices going in and asking questions they know the answers to, or, worse yet, that they don't actually care about the answers to; trying variously to appear genuinely open-minded or to just score points for their team. I've heard too many anecdotes from lawyers in state or federal appellate courts (and even the SCOTUS itself) who thought they did really well until they got a copy of the actual opinion; for that matter, it's happened to me, myself, at the non-appellate level, where I've argued in front of a judge and thought I was making a good showing until I abruptly found myself having lost the war despite victory in every single battle.

This happens.

I have no idea what these people are going to do in June. I find myself oddly apathetic in a desensitized way: it isn't like I can do anything about the outcome. Nor does it help that while I've come to terms with Obamacare (or: "How I learned to stop worrying and love the Affordable Insurance Exchange"), it isn't like this was the healthcare law I wanted; hell, I was critical of the damn thing while it was still on the anvil. Should I be upset if the individual mandate gets knocked out? I have no idea.

At some point, one of the needles finds its mark and the universe fills you with Novocaine.

I understand yesterday's arguments were particularly baffling. An attorney was up in front of the Court arguing that offering somebody money is a form of blackmail. "Sure," to paraphrase the gist, "states could refuse Federal funds, but goddamn it's a lot of money." This is concerning the expansion of Medicare, a program in which the Federal government has been giving money with strings attached since 1965, much like the Federal government--our Federal government--redistributes revenue with strings attached for the purposes of building highways and setting up computer databases of convicted criminals and whatnot, and has for decades and decades, those strings having been laid out and tied by the Senators and Representatives--our Senators and Representatives, representing the fifty states--we elected to make those kinds of decisions. I thought this was taken for granted, but apparently when our government said you could only have money for this and that if you used it for this and that, apparently that was a form of rape, that was trauma. State legislatures and state governors wept as they pulled their torn clothes tightly across their shame and grabbed up the fistfuls of soiled bills flung at them. This could be the stupidest notion to be brought back into the public discourse but for the fact Justice Scalia suggested maybe hospitals ought to be able to turn away people who can't pay after all and laws mandating care could be a bad idea. I guess it's consistent: his people also want doctors and pharmacists to be able to turn away people even if they can pay if what they want to pay for is a moral hazard, and they want employers and insurance companies to be able to decline to pay for healthcare they don't agree with. It's only callous and stupid and cruel if you make the mistake of caring, otherwise, you know, it's nothing much, it's nothing at all, really.

Sometimes it's like I don't recognize this place anymore.

The most depressing and debilitating part is where you start wishing ill on others. You start thinking some of these people ought to win just so you can say "I told you so" later. You hope they end up in emergency rooms or their children need reproductive health services; that their houses burn down because Congress decided to just cancel Medicare and with that explosive hole in the budget the state couldn't provide any services anymore, and there weren't any firetrucks or the firetrucks got stuck in potholes or a traffic jam created by a wreck that nobody was there to clear. Which is miserable when the whole reason you wanted healthcare reform in the first place was so nothing bad would happen to anybody ever again; well, at least you could prevent or mitigate a few bad things, right, for some people, and maybe that could be enough if you squinted at it and admitted you can only do the best you can do.

It would be nice if everything were alright at least the one time.


Pilote Tout en Haut du Monde

>> Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Via io9, a gorgeous animated short pitch for Pilote Tout en Haut du Monde (Longway North), which director Rémi Chayé hopes to have out as a feature by 2014. That's too long to wait. Gorgeous, gorgeous stuff, and I hope I get a chance to see it on the big screen someday.


Arcade Fire, "Abraham's Daughter"

>> Tuesday, March 27, 2012

No, no, no--I'm not jumping on The Hunger Games bandwagon. Maybe I ought to be--my Dad worked on it when they filmed much of it in my home state, and I've adored Jennifer Lawrence since Winter's Bone (a phenomenally good movie and if you haven't see it, rectify that mistake as soon as you can). Plus I hear it's a pretty good movie and that the books are supposedly very well written in a pulpy, pop-lit way (unlike what I hear about a certain hit franchise about twinkly nosferatua): from what I hear, the series may be wittingly or unwittingly derivative of Battle Royale, The Long Walk et al., but Suzanne Collins apparently knows how to structure a thing so it tightly hums and drags the reader in with the relentlessness of a riptide. So I've heard, anyway. (I might need to find the time to read those things even if I don't get around to the movie.)

But I was driving into work the other day, and "Abraham's Daughter" came on the radio--and speaking of artists who know how to write in their medium even when the work may be wittingly or unwittingly reminiscent of something. The opening of "Abraham's Daughter" much reminded me of the beginning of Pink Floyd's "Obscured By Clouds" (from the soundtrack of the same name, for Barbet Schroeder's La vallée), what with the feedback drone and square beat, though the two tunes quickly go completely different places ("Obscured" to a spacey, guitar-driven instrumental; "Daughter" to an eerie, sing-song chant from Régine Chassagne pierced by those high acoustic guitar notes). It may or may not be a conscious influence; it doesn't matter, I'm not really trying to get at anything more than how awesome I think both tracks are and that I think Arcade Fire knocked another one out of the park.

The entire Hunger Games soundtrack looks like a helluva album, actually. Arcade Fire, The Decemberists, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Neko Case, Glen Hansard, etc.--I remember when a soundtrack would consist of a bunch of b-sides and leavings and still have trouble getting my head around the fact that movies actually seem to be trying to put out good records these days and artists like the exposure so it's win-win-win for the movie, the musician and the audience. (The bloody Twilight soundtracks have featured Thom Yorke, Paramore, Iron & Wine, BRMC, Metric, Cee-Lo, Noisettes, The Joy Formidable and The Black Keys--good grief. No, I haven't picked up any of them, but now I'm thinking another advantage of digital downloads may prove to be it keeps your record shelf from making you look like you might be a twelve-year-old girl.)

Anyway, click the video, take a listen, it's pretty cool, don't'cha think?


Quote of the day--yes, and stop your bitching edition

>> Monday, March 26, 2012

It is also difficult for the court to conceive that somehow lost on these plaintiffs is the fact that a goodly number of law school graduates toil (perhaps part-time) in drudgery or have less than hugely successful careers.
-Justice Melvin L. Schweitzer, quoted by Martha Neil,
"Judge Nixes $225M Suit By College Grads Claiming They Were Misled By NY Law School Job Stats,
ABA Journal, March 21st, 2012

Exactly. I don't know if you've heard about all the unemployed recent law grads who are out there trying to sue their alma maters for misrepresentation because, they say, the law schools exaggerated postgraduate employment prospects and now these folks are all in debt (not dischargeable in bankruptcy, by the by) and can't find the lucrative law jobs they're all supposedly entitled to in a jobs market in which, it turns out in reality, big law firms are firing staff and (by-the-way non-lucrative) public sector jobs are mostly frozen. Anyway, so yeah, all these disgruntled law grads are suing and bless Justice Schweitzer for throwing one of these whiny lawsuits out on its ass.

Don't completely mistake me: a lot of the law schools do not have clean hands in this. What's been happening of late is that there are a whole bunch of non-traditional, privately-owned, for-profit law schools opening up. They have no commonwealth responsibility like the state schools and they have no traditional sense of public obligation like the historic private schools (e.g. Harvard, Duke); for most of these for-profits, the basic interest is jamming in as many applicants as have cash (usually borrowed) to pay. A traditional law school might arbitrarily cut off its applications out of a sense that there are too many graduates entering the market, or might make it clear that they are giving applicants a legal education to do whatever they want with (if anything), emphatically not a guarantee of any particular kind of employment (though they'll certainly help with that). Hell, a lot of traditional law schools will make it clear up front and early that they aren't even teaching you how to be a lawyer at all, they're going to teach you "how to think like a lawyer", whatever that really means.

But if the for-profit and lower-tier law schools are basically running a scam, that doesn't mean they owe damages to these recent law graduates who were all-too-eager to buy their lottery tickets when they thought there really was a jackpot to be claimed. I cannot conceive of going to law school, any kind of law school, and thinking I'm entitled to anything other than the education and piece of sheepskin I'm paying for. I know, easy for me to say: I have a legal job already and got into the trade before the market was so saturated with all these grads--so what? I have one of those non-lucrative public sector jobs, I'm happy the state hasn't laid me off though I may grumble about how damn long it's been since I saw a raise. If I hadn't been hired back when I passed the Bar, I would have hung out a shingle or done something else.

Which is something else, by the way, that makes me irritable about the arrogance and self-entitlement of these whining post-grads: out of all the professional and postgraduate degrees out there, the law degree is one that leaves you singularly self-sufficient. That is, it's half the ticket into (for better or worse) a restricted and regulated trade, the other half of the ticket being the Bar license, and once you have both pieces, there's nothing in the state you're living in that can keep you from going down to the courthouse to sign up to be on the conflicts/court-appointed list; from taking out a small business loan to pay for a sign and a secretary until the retainers start coming in; from just sitting on the courthouse steps in your best suit waiting for someone to walk up to you and say, "Hey, you a lawyer? I need someone t' handle a speedin' ticket for me." It may not be easy, it may not be lucrative, it may not be what you thought you wanted to do when you signed up for really the world's oldest profession (if you put any stock in the Bible's account of things and believe the snake in the Garden Of Eden was Satan, we note that it's universally accepted The Devil is a lawyer and was hard at work soliciting clients from the first minute Eve strayed beneath his perch; more scientific thinkers may ponder on how primitive and egalitarian Stone Age hunts must have been before Mokh and Ugh stumbled upon the mutton-for-nothing angle of holding spear-makers accountable for products liability when a poorly-whittled haft snapped off in a sabre-toothed tiger giving Grubbl-One-Arm-Half-Leg né Grubbl-Slayer-Of-Terrible-Beasts his new title). But it's, as that lamp used to say on The Flintstones, a living.

Dear whining recent law grads: you're supposedly smarter than the average bear, supposedly worldlier and cleverer; you had to go to college and pass a test to go to law school, then you had to pass another test to show you belonged in the profession. You're credentialed. Surely you're smart enough, then, to know the universe doesn't owe you your first choice in professions, and it's possible you read one of those many cases while you were a student or during your Bar Review course in which the major holding was "life sucks and then you die" even if it wasn't quite so bluntly worded. Get over yourselves. Maybe you were cheated by an unscrupulous law school--fine, if I had my way, they most likely never would have accepted you as a student in the first place, as there's too many of us and possibly your alma mater had a conflict-of-interest and shouldn't have been accredited to begin with. There you go. But you now have a piece of paper that says you've studied law, and if you can't find a job that takes note of that... well, it's a shit economy, you've got me there. Maybe you ought to have factored that into your long-term planning when you were filling out the paperwork.

We don't always get what we want. (But somebody told me, if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.)


Duran Duran, "The Chauffeur"

>> Sunday, March 25, 2012

Yeah, I don't care who gives Duran Duran shit and how much; I actually kind of get why they get some of it--they certainly ladled on plenty of cheese through their career, sometimes charmingly and awesomely and sometimes just the sort that makes you feel gassy and guilty. Whatever. "The Chauffeur" was and is a fucking awesome song and I don't care who knows it.


Radiohead, "The Daily Mail"

>> Saturday, March 24, 2012

I expect to be out of the blog this weekend. Have fun, kiddies, and hope you're having a lovely early-spring weekend.


Quote of the day--up close and impersonated edition

>> Friday, March 23, 2012

[Andrew Breitbart protégé Jason] Mattera: By dodging taxes on royalties are you raiding the poverty programs you purport to champion?

Bono [impersonator Pavel "Bonodouble" Sfera]: No.

Mattera: No? Don’t you want governments to be generous with other people’s money and not yours?

Bono: I don't have control over that…

Mattera: How do you not have control over that? It's your company. Are you not in charge of your own company?

Bono: It's not my company.

Mattera: You have no say in what U2 does?

Bono: Not particularly.

Mattera: You don't? You don't have a say in what U2 does?

Bono: No.
-as quoted by Erik Wemple,
"Jason Mattera interviews someone — is it Bono?",
Washington Post, March 21st, 2012

Oh gods. This is good. This is such good stuff. If you hadn't heard, an Andrew Breitbart protégé posted video and played back audio on Sean Hannity's radio show of a "gotcha" interview about U2's tax status, only to pull it when it turned out he was talking to a Bono impersonator. It's worth reading the entire piece at WaPo and all of Chez Pazienza's post in the link at the link in the previous sentence; evidently the fact that "Bono" couldn't get into a party being held for Jimmy Iovine, the head of U2's record label, wasn't a sufficient red flag, nor did Mattera seem to think it the least bit odd the guy he cornered didn't have an Irish accent.

The members of U2 have been criticized for sheltering taxes on their royalties in the past. I'm not a hundred percent sure if pressing for liberal causes while prudently running your business as allowed by law is necessarily hypocrisy; I don't know that it's how I would do things, true (though I'm not saying I wouldn't), but it's the kind of criticism that implicitly relies on the myth that believing government exists to help and protect the little guy requires you to live in a tarpaper shack making your own shoes out of treebark, while having any kind of success requires you to take sides with the plutocrats and Jag-driving libertarians (switching sides if you ever find yourself on the wrong one). I dunno: I've never considered "champagne socialist" (or it's less-colorful, less-clever American equivalent, "limousine liberal") to be a particularly diminishing or devastating epithet; whatever power it's supposed to have as a curse is falsely premised in the notion that liberals (and socialists) believe in taxation for taxation's sake, as opposed to merely believing in adequately funding government to exercise a wide range of service and regulatory roles. I'm really more than happy for taxes to be as low as they can be without compromising what I consider proper functions of government and don't see much point in government collecting more than it really needs for daily functioning with a little padding for emergencies and that's it.

I also don't see why you can't worry about your fellow man and still want a little something nice for yourself.

But I'm not really up for defending U2; members of the band have been involved in some real dick moves as far as I'm concerned, and I have to admit it doesn't help that their music has mostly bored me since Pop (which, I'll admit, is a record I kinda liked and certainly didn't hate as much as everyone else seemed to). Maybe they are hypocrites and assholes: Jason Mattera is still a fucking moron for (a) not realizing he was interviewing a Bono impersonator while he was doing it and (b) not figuring it out after he was done with the interview and had a chance to check himself before he went live with it.

And possibly (c), maybe Mattera should have tried the Mike Daisey defense: "Well, the bigger story is still true even if I am totally full of shit." Okay, maybe not--it doesn't seem to be working out all that well for Daisey, but at least Daisey's chutzpah after getting busted for inventing much of his story about working conditions at Foxconn has had a few people admiring the size of his balls, a few of them even going so far as to say that while they're not necessarily condoning going on stage and making a bunch of crap up, Daisey's claim that he's a "monologuist" with artistic license who is conveying bigger, capital-T Truths as opposed to your ordinary, run-of-the-mill, self-aggrandizing bullshit artist has enough merit to be worth discussing in an open-minded yet still vaguely-disapproving sort of way. Isn't the fact that U2's use of tax shelters is somehow arguably inconsistent with their bleeding-heart-ness what this is really all about at the end of the day, and Jason Mattera's basic indifference to truth and accuracy when making this vital point just a sideshow?

I'm willing to discuss this very point with Mattera, by phone, using the best Irish accent I can do; I like to flatter myself that I used to do a not-terrible, sort-of-recognizable impression of Bono's "Silver And Gold" monologue. Mattera, if you happen to read this and you're interested: give me a couple of days to rehearse, work on the accent, etc., and maybe prepare a lot of questions that I can respond to with, "Am I buggin' ya? I didn't mean to buggya." and comments about things done in a hotel room in New York City (e.g. "This 1040EZ was filled out in a hotel room in New York City, roundabout the time a friend of ours, Little Steven..."). My Bono isn't as good as Alec Baldwin's, but I'll give you my best shot (seriously, if you ever saw that old SNL episode, Baldwin does a Bono that's shit-your-pants hysterical). I'd offer to do it on video, but I'm taller and fatter than His Prescriptiongogglesness, so unless you shoot it Rattle And Hum style in black-and-white with me completely backlit by a stage spot... well, I still don't think it'll work, but I'm game. Do you have a cowboy hat I can borrow?

I mean, what do you care, anyway, whether I'm Bono or just say I'm Bono? It's the story, right? You'll show 'em, Mattera. You'll show 'em all.


Déjàdvertising vu

>> Thursday, March 22, 2012

I'm not sure if I understand advertising. I mean, yes, I understand advertising as well as the next guy, I just don't know if I grok that it actually works, y'know? I tend to spend a lot of time ignoring it, but (having said that) I have no idea how much the stuff that's slipped across my eyeballs over the last four decades actually has embedded itself in my unconsciousness with me unaware of its mischievous (perhaps pernicious) presence.

Do I occasionally stop at McDonald's because I'm kind of a sucker for a greasy mashed cryptomeat patty, a box of deep-flash-fried potato fragments and a big cup of corn syrup and carbonated water; or do I sometimes feel the urge because I can still recite bits and pieces of that playground jingle McDonald's used back in the late '70s (or was it early '80s?)--you know, that sing-song recitation of the menu, "Big Mac/Fillet O'Fish/Quarter Pounder/French Fries/Icy Coke/Thick Shake/Sundaes/and Apple Pies"? Can I really say that my decision to pull in and grab a shake somewhere is the product of my own impulses or something that was set in motion by a passing billboard? Etc.

Even if we're just talking about "brand awareness", that's really a lousy substitute for actual research into a product and a lot of comparison shopping. Did I go with this particular brand in the supermarket because it was a better bargain or just because I'd heard of it before?

These kinds of questions bubble up and oppress me especially when I run into or read about an ad campaign that seems really, really dumb. Like, for instance, Microsoft's "The Browser You Loved To Hate" campaign, which I read about the other day in a Slate blurb by Matthew Yglesias. I don't know what to make of this. At all.

I mean, on the one hand, I guess there's something to recognizing that your product already has a lot of brand recognition--as something that utterly sucks balls and shouldn't be used for anything, ever. (Or for just one thing: downloading Firefox, Chrome or Opera.)

On the other hand, this isn't actually the first time Microsoft has tried a "No, really, Internet Explorer doesn't suck as hard anymore"-themed marketing campaign. I think they've done more-or-less this same exact thing (or a variation of it) with every major IE release starting with Internet Explorer 7; and before that, Internet Explorer hadn't really even been marketed at all, the acme of that being IE 5 (which was part of the subject of the DOJ's antitrust suit against Microsoft).

I think maybe that's the biggest problem with what they're doing here: I can sort of imagine a "give us a second chance" ad campaign working for somebody who's never had a second chance, but it's hard to imagine that such an ad campaign could have any kind of effectiveness when it's reminiscent of the last couple of times someone asked for another opportunity. At this point, indeed, word-of-mouth from trusted sources isn't even enough: I've had friends tell me that Internet Explorer 8 is really pretty good, actually, and they may be right about that but I don't actually care that much; I heard the same thing about IE 7 and IE 8, and the damn bloatware did nothing but piss me off, and Firefox does what I need it to and I'm used to it. Internet Explorer 9 could be the best software ever and the fact I've been burned before leaves me unwilling to even try Microsoft's plea to just use IE 9 on one or two social networking sites--not even considering that IE is pre-installed on my Windows machine and I may be having the update pushed to me in the near future so I don't have to do anything except click the notification balloon telling me Windows has found updates to get the program on my system. (Here's how tarnished IE's rep is with me: if I decided I was through with Firefox, I'd go to more trouble to install Chrome or Opera before I returned to a piece of software that's already installed on my computer, a clicked icon away.)

What would it take to get me to use Internet Explorer again? If you've stopped, too, what would get you back into the fold? Is it enough that they try to be witty? That they insist that you don't have to worry about being fooled again, they really mean it this time? (Microsoft's collective hand to God: the football will still be there when you try to kick it, Charlie Brown.)


"FCU: Fact Checkers Unit "

>> Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Via David Haglund at Slate, a 2007 short that definitely seems relevant in light of The Lifespan Of A Fact and the recent Daisey/This American Life kerfuffle (not to mention a recurring subject around here lately).

Naturally, it seems to me that an author getting it right in the first place would be preferable to a couple of guys breaking into Bill Murray's home (which, by the way, I thought was in Beverly Hills en route to Pacific Playland, but whatever).

While I'm here, and in case you missed me mentioning it on Twitter, the Los Angeles Review Of Books has a pair of excellent, thoughtful pieces by Ander Monson and Lee Gutkind about creative nonfiction and the responsibilities of writers to their readers and the truth/Truth, both of which are worth reading if you have the time and interest.


Helium, "Superball"

>> Tuesday, March 20, 2012

I don't know, I thought I was inspired enough by an item in Gawker to riff on helium, as in element number two, and how weird it is that we've spent the past century extracting this rare and limited terrestrial resource just so we can give it to small children as a disposable party favor and/or inhale it so we talk funny.

It interests me, and I think it's an interesting story, but I got about three paragraphs into a draft and realized I didn't necessarily have anything interesting to say about the story. I don't know if you've ever done that. You're thinking, "Oh, here's all these neat ideas and this interesting intersection of history and science... huh... that's all?

So instead, there's a video by Helium, the band. Which obviously isn't where I started, but it's something.

Helium, the gas, is interesting stuff. Nobody even knew it existed at all until a couple of years after the American Civil War, and even then all they knew about it was that it could be found in the Sun. Just before the turn of the Twentieth Century, somebody figured out you could find limited amounts of it on Earth embedded in natural gas and trapped in some radioactive ores; see, what happens is that helium, being an inert, low-density gas, zips right out of the Earth's atmosphere in a free gaseous state and hightails it for the infinite unknown reaches--the only thing lighter is hydrogen, but hydrogen typically has an incomplete electron shell, or (in layman's terms) is an atomic gold-digger that hitches itself to bigger, wealthier atoms all the time--oxygen, carbon, just about anything else. The only reason there's any helium to be found on Earth at all is that sometimes a decaying radioactive element will spit out an alpha particle--two protons and two neutrons, i.e. a helium nucleus and the helium nucleus then ends up getting trapped and not being able to fulfill its destiny until it's extracted and used to temporarily fill a Mylar envelope with Lordy, Lordy, Look Who Just Turned Forty stamped on one side; the balloon leaks and the helium goes, "Whee, whee, I'm freeeeee!" as it zips off to join all the helium that's out there in outer space, where there's tons of the stuff.

Helium, the band, recorded a couple of albums in the nineties and then broke up. The lead singer, Mary Timony, went solo and bounced around a bit before recently joining Wild Flag with a couple of Sleater-Kinney refugees. This is interesting to, but not really nearly as much as helium gas unless you're really into Indie Pop (to be fair, if you're into Indie Pop more than you're into physics, you can totally turn that sentence around if you want.) Helium was loud and strange with a definite garagey aesthetic to a lot of the recordings, which often sound like they were recorded in somebody's trailer (in a good way, though).

Just after the turn of the Twentieth Century, some Americans were the ones who discovered helium (the gas) reserves trapped in natural gas. The significance of this was that the United States had almost a monopoly on helium for much of the century.

This was something I first learned because I was obsessed with the Hindenburg disaster for a number of years when I was a kid. That's a common obsession, I know. But airships are pretty awesome, right? And you have to wonder why they never caught on, plus there's the whole mystery Rorschach thing about the disaster: because we don't know exactly why it blew up (okay, smartass, we know it was all the hydrogen inside it... and possibly the rocket fuel; I mean what started the fire, not why it burned so fast), we can all project whatever we want onto it. Paranoia and conspiracies your thing? Sure, could have been a bomb planted by a saboteur. Big on the symbolism of God/Nature knocking Man's hubris down a couple of pegs? You probably like the static electricity version. Sick sense of humor? Maybe you're picturing the guy who didn't pay any attention to the "No Smoking" signs. Spec Fic buff? Damn those occult-obsessed Nazis and their cthulhoid relics smuggled in the luggage compartment!

Anyway, people always wonder why the stupid Nazis didn't use helium if they were so smart, not realizing the Zeppelin Company designed the Hindenburg for helium but by the time construction was finished, the Nazis had taken over and while there was still trade between Germany and the United States, relations were strained and the U.S.--near-monopoly on helium, remember?--had decided helium was a strategic resource and we didn't need to be selling it to a bunch of stinking Nazis. (I mean, what if they used it to bomb England again? Wouldn't we feel stupid?) Anyway, that's why the Hindenburg floated on hydrogen, which is reactive with everything (boom!), instead of helium, which typically reacts with nothing.

(Also, I feel obligated to point out that while the Nazis slapped swastikas all over the Hindenburg, the chairman of the Zeppelin Company, Hugo Eckener, wasn't a Nazi and was, indeed, a dissident who mostly evaded arrest by being too well-known and too well-connected for the Nazis to just disappear. Indeed, the Hindenburg was named after one of Eckener's best-placed patron-protectors of the 1930s, and the naming was something of a "fuck you" to the Nazis, who unsuccessfully lobbied to have the giant flaming gasbag named after Adolf Hitler (in retrospect, more aptly).)

Only 36 people died when the Hindenburg blew up. Sorry if it sounds callous, but it isn't like Titanic, that other iconic 20th Century disaster, in which more than 1,500 people died. Or any number of air crashes since the Hindenburg burned, most of which are sadly forgettable and blur together in the brain. Three dozen people is a lot, but it wouldn't shock me if there'd been a freeway pile-up at some point that killed more people. What makes the Hindenburg so indelible, and this is kind of depressing in a way, is that it was such a spectacular disaster, the kind of thing you'd never forget a picture of if it killed one person or if it killed a thousand. (And yet, weirdly: if nobody had died, I don't think it would be as fixed, no more permanent a mental image than any number of test rockets disgorging fire on a launchpad. Odd?)

As far as I know, no one who ever unsuccessfully tried to book Helium (the band) for a gig ever burst into flames over New Jersey. Seems unlikely, though not impossible.


Quote of the day--quoted for truth edition

>> Monday, March 19, 2012

When artists of nonfiction, whether in radio or in print, shade the truth while refusing to call their work fiction, they are trading on the frisson, the immediacy, that audiences feel when something powerful is also true. Thus the impulse to call something memoir when it’s not memoir, or to collapse time and rearrange events for effect (like George Orwell in "The Road to Wigan Pier"). There’s a way to train audiences to love the mostly-true, the improved-but-still-basically-factual. We need to learn how to love this hybrid, because as Mike Daisey shows, it’s the next great art form. But we need to be honest about what it is. Our love must be true, not purchased with lies.
-Mark Oppenheimer, "Mike Daisey and the
inconvenient truth"
, Salon, March 19th, 2012.

It's like there's something in the zeitgeist right now: weren't we just talking about this last week?

If you missed it, This American Life decided last week to devote an hour to retracting a story they ran from Mike Daisey, a storyteller who does a one-man stage show built around an exposé of working conditions at the Chinese plant where Apple's products are made, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. I haven't listened to the TAL piece yet, but mean to do so this week after also listening to the Daisey performance they decided to retract.

The gist of it as I understand it now is that Daisey in fact went to China, in fact did an investigation of the Foxconn where components for the iPad and iPhone are made, in fact spoke to workers there--but then, for his show, decided to exaggerate incidents, fold time and space to put stories together, created a kind of complicated stew of true and not-at-all true. Apparently what really makes an ugly hash out of everything is that while Daisey describes some things that didn't happen, those things are also (possibly) things that sort of happened. If that makes sense. This is, mind you, based on third-hand assessments of the kerfuffle--I might listen to the TAL retraction and decide it's even worse than that.

Anyway, if you were interested in what I had to say about Hollandsworth last week or the discussion that ensued (with some wonderful comments and insights from Warner, timb111, Nathan, John, and a mysterious anonymous poster on Wednesday--thanks, all!), I recommend Oppenheimer's Daisey piece at Salon. He hits a lot of notes I wish I'd hit last week, and I think he sums up a lot of what folks were saying in the comments. It's a good piece.


Romeo Void, "Never Say Never"

>> Sunday, March 18, 2012

That came on the radio the other day while I was driving home. I think I'd forgotten just how much I love that chunky guitar riff and those pinging harmonics.

The 1980s were good for guitar. Early '80s, I mean, the New Wave and postpunk stuff where guitar players in some bands were refusing to play all those traditional blues-based solos that had come to define rock. Don't get me wrong: Dave Gilmour is still my favorite guitar player of all time, and ninety percent of the time he's gone for the blues-rock riffs (though occasionally there's the experimental stuff you'll hear on tracks like "Echoes" and "Dogs" and the opening riff on "Run Like Hell").

But as much as I love that classic playing, there was just something so liberating and wonderfully antiguitar in the '80s riffs that guys like Johnny Marr and Peter Buck and Daniel Ash et al. were doing. Chunky power chords and harmonics and dampened strings, stuff that often sounded like what you really weren't supposed to be doing with a guitar.

Peter Woods' guitar on "Never Say Never": sounds like somebody having sex on grandma's bed. Could be "somebody" is Benjamin Bossi getting crazy with the sax while Debora Iyall sneers the lyrics. I'm not trying to suggest anything (I have no idea; to be honest, I had to look up who the hell was in Romeo Void to write this, I'm not an alt-music encyclopedia however much I pine to be), just trying to get at what's so awesome about that whiny spring guitar sound and everything that's layered over it. God, it's good stuff.


U2, "A Sort Of Homecoming"

>> Saturday, March 17, 2012

I just don't really pay a lot of attention to when St. Patrick's Day occurs. I dunno why. I like Ireland, I like the color green, I like beer. Whatever. Anyway, this year it caught my attention. I was aware of it for some reason. It occurred to me I could take notice here at the blog, use it as an excuse for popping up something great from what used to be Ireland's greatest rock band. (I don't know who Ireland's greatest rock band is anymore, it's just... I sort of feel bad writing this: it just seems unlikely it's still U2 anymore. I can't remember the last time they seemed relevant and so long since they could excite me.)

"A Sort Of Homecoming" is a gorgeous song, earnest and poignant in a way that's completely the opposite of maudlin. That's a neat trick, actually. It might be that Bono's howling sincerity is set off against Clayton and Mullen pounding away like the most awesome clock in the world while The Edge floats over everything shimmering like a ghost.

My memory says The Unforgettable Fire wasn't too well received when it came out. "Pride" did well for itself, obviously. But it wasn't like there were a string of hits following it off the record, which was often kind of chill and weird. If The Edge's guitarwork on Fire shimmered like a ghost, Unforgettable Fire was sort of a haunted house set off in an empty field somewhere. But out of the band's whole catalogue, it's maybe the record that gets better every passing year more than any other, even better than The Joshua Tree. I'm not trying to take anything away from Joshua Tree, which I think has aged well. There's just something haunting (that word again) about Fire, an old and weary record made by a bunch of kids trying to pay homage, actually, to a young country (look at that track list: "Pride (In The Name Of Love)"--a song about Martin Luther King and Jesus; "4th Of July"; "Indian Summer Sky"; "Elvis Presley And America"; "MLK"--another Dr. King song; and yet there you have the broken corpse of an Irish castle on the front cover). Joshua Tree would feature a song called "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" that, ironically enough, would be kind of a lie: Joshua Tree sort of brought U2 everything they'd been looking for as a band, and it can be surprisingly unsatisfying to finally get what you thought you wanted (ergo, Achtung Baby); Unforgettable Fire, though, really was all about looking and not quite finding, having your fingertips on the edge of something you couldn't quite remember having lost but knowing it was there only a moment ago.

Happy St. Paddy's Day.


Quote of the day--"we don't need no education, we don't need no thought control" edition

>> Friday, March 16, 2012

...I am unconvinced when Rachel Goldberg, a secular home-schooling mother from Charlotte, North Carolina, echoes what I hear from home-schooling parents of every stripe on the subject of government oversight. "I don't think there should be any regulation of home schooling," she says. "I'm not a libertarian or a conspiracy theorist, but I am fiercely protective of my kids and my choices about how to raise them. It's none of the government's business how I teach them. Just as I wouldn't want the state to require me to submit menu plans and quarterly nutritional assessments (even though I believe nutrition is vitally important), I don’t want the state to require curricula plans, portfolios, etc."
-Kristin Rawls, "Home-schooled and illiterate",
Salon/AlterNet, March 15th, 2012


So, here's the thing: as I've tried to point out before, one of the things about being a democratic republic is we are the government. We vote for people to represent us, our representatives (depending on which branch of government we voted them into) vote for laws and/or implement them, etc. It isn't us and them, it's us and us, and while the reality is undeniably complicated by the graft and corruption in the system and by the way in which various structural inadequacies have been amplified by money and custom without any kind of regular housecleaning, the bottom-line-in-principle is if we don't like what "government" is doing, we can always kick the bums out of office. (And replace them with fresh, new, exciting bums! Sorry; I didn't want you to think my cynicism was losing its edge.)

I mention this because it goes to the heart of how Ms. Goldberg (a local, too, I'm disappointed to notice) is pretty goddamn dangerous. And how she's wrong. I mean, it's the same exact thing: she's wrong and she's dangerously wrong.

See, let's go back to what she's saying: she doesn't think "government" needs to be telling her how to raise her kids. Fair enough, up to a point. Only up to a point. Because, see, her children, assuming she doesn't leave the country to raise them somewhere else they never return from, are ultimately going to be voters, participating in our representative democracy. They are ultimately going to be part of the collective effort we all make to govern ourselves. I'm a little embarrassed to state the obvious here, but if we're going to govern ourselves, it's in everybody's best interest if we all know what we're doing, right? Or, to quote somebody misattributing Thomas Jefferson, "An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people." This is the original reason we have compulsory public education in the first place; I'd love to say it's mostly motivated by a laudable progressive or Enlightenment goal of simply trying to make everybody smarter because smart equals good, but the truth is that western democracies have emphasized education primarily out of a common self-interest in producing electorates that won't collectively shit the nest.

I'm not saying that's worked as planned.

If the primary purpose of education in a democratic republic is to create intelligent and informed voters (with all the things we usually talk about--like career opportunities, self-improvement, the inherent good of knowledge, etc.--being not-entirely-incidental side benefits), then you bet your life I'm interested in what your kids are learning. Damn straight. I don't want them voting for something stupid, or (to be more generally accurate) voting for somebody stupid. Actually, you know, I even have to backtrack here to add that I'm talking about representative elections when in reality a lot of these future voters will be voting for other things, too: they'll be voting for municipal bonds; they might end up in a referendum state; they could be called for jury service and asked to vote on a question of civil liability or criminal guilt; etc. Anyway, they're going to be voting and I'd like them to know one or two or ten thousand things before they start using that franchise they're automatically going to age into when they turn eighteen.

And who am I? I'm the government. Just like you. See what I did there? When someone like Ms. Goldberg says it isn't the government's business what her kids learn, it sounds nice and it appeals to a sentiment we all feel about wanting to be left alone, but she's essentially wrong. It isn't my business what her kids know, think, or believe--until they step into a voting booth and we attend the annual civic ritual of inflicting our opinions upon each other, whereupon I'd really like to trust that her kids' opinions are reasonably well-informed and have some toehold on reality.

I don't much care if she homeschools her kids or sends them to a private school--not in principle, anyway. If she's imparting her kids with enough history and science to know what, how and why things have happened; enough math to demonstrate an ability to think logically and symbolically; enough literature, music, and art to be invested in our common culture; and enough language to be able to communicate all of the above: well, good. They don't have to like any of these subjects (I cannot tell you how much I generally hate math), they don't need to be able to recite Shakespeare by heart, they don't have to be experts in any or all of those things, and they absolutely don't have to agree with me about anything. They just need to be informed and reasonable, and one way to get to that point is for everybody to consent that there are some kinds of standards that kids have to at least be exposed to.

This is our business. We implement it through our government, which is composed of ourselves.

Go ahead and read the rest of the Rawls article, by the way, if you're in the mood for a real-life horror story; most of the article is focused on religious home-schoolers (unlike Ms. Goldberg, whose political and religious beliefs are never quite specified), and they're more than a little terrifying. Not because they're religious, but because they're deplorably archaic in how their religious beliefs frame and set everything: the Quiverfull people raise their girls to be semi-literate housewives and their boys to be Puritan farmers. One almost wishes they could be given a time machine back to one of their preferred eras, though I confess I'm being heartless when I say that, since my thoughts run less to their happiness than to the prevalence of tuberculosis, cholera, etc. Lives tended to be, to borrow from a familiar line, nastier, more brutal and short before we had all this nice science and a secular government willing to take citizens' money and turn it into roads and sewer systems and easements for public/private partnerships to put regulated power and communications lines through. These days, if you do somehow get cholera in the developed world, you just pick up the telephone machine and they drive the ambulance machine right up to your house to take you back up the paved road to the hospital. Eighteenth Century America, not so much--but hey, on the upside: nobody told you how to raise the kids who survived childbirth and their first five years on Earth!

Good times.


Quote of the day--they go around recruiting people, you know, edition

>> Thursday, March 15, 2012

It's a familiar conservative refrain, and a familiar origin story, because nothing propels you toward the modern GOP's welcoming counterfactual bosom like finding your mediocrity disdained by institutions relying on historicity, evidence and peer review. Conservatives know why conservatives test badly: The tests are rigged commie bullshit. Conservatives know how conservatives are smart: They agree with other conservatives. There's even a publishing structure for this.
-mobutu & Gen. Ze'evi,
"Andrew Breitbart: Big Deal, Big Coronary, Big Corpse",
Gawker, March 6th, 2012

No, I'm not going back to kick Andrew Breitbart's body a few more times; I had enough of that last week. Rather, it's that I finally got around to reading Gawker's Breitbart obituary (I don't normally read Gawker, but I do follow their speculative fiction sister, io9, and sometimes a headline at the bottom of a page will lead me over to one of the other relations), and that line leapt out at me. It's something I've been thinking about a bit lately, perhaps because of Rick Santorum's recent upwelling of anti-intellectual blather.

It's not an uncommon conversion narrative or whine, you know: "In college I came into contact with the liberal academic establishment of liberal, left-wing college professors unwilling to accept any challenge of their fringe orthodoxy, and I immediately knew something was wrong with the so-called 'intellectual elite'." Seems like you hear this coming from somebody on the right all the time, and I have to admit it always spins me around a little.

Two reasons for that, actually. The first is that while I'd certainly grant there's a liberal bias in academic institutions for a whole variety of reasons, few of which have anything to do with "orthodoxy", the majority of professors I dealt with in my undergraduate work and in law school were more than happy to have their views challenged in classrooms or assigned work. If nothing else, challenges allowed them to show off a little, though I think the majority of professors also simply enjoyed the intellectual give-and-take--that was the kind of thing that got them interested in academe in the first place, and was most likely the kind of thing they fantasized about when they thought about getting into a teaching career: heady intellectual discourses and exchanges of ideas, not the drudgery of grading papers or suffering through faculty politics. What these professors had much less patience for were stupid challenges. Ill-informed objections, recitations of long-debunked claims and arguments, demonstrations of unfamiliarity with or incomprehension of assigned reading, regurgitation of old canards and talking points--these kinds of things got as much time as they deserved. Stand up and make a reasoned and informed critique of the prof's pet theory, on the other hand, and you frequently became something of a favorite (especially if you appeared to be one of the few students in the class actively giving a fuck about the subject).

Of course, academics are a varied bunch, and there are assholes and idiots in faculty lounges as much as anywhere else, and now and again you'd come across some dickhead who didn't like being confronted regardless. But here we get to the second reason I don't get the usual conservative plaint jeered at in the Gawker quote: it was usually pretty easy to game those profs until you finished the semester (assuming it was too late to drop the class or switch to an audit), and then do your best to avoid them unless you just had to take them again for your prereqs or degree or whatever. Grind your teeth, don't say anything, cram the materials and get a perfunctorily satisfactory grade on the midterm and final; toss the ball and take an easy, lazy swing with your bat. Sure, you were wasting your time and money, which might be irritating, but there's an old adage that comes to mind: "Suck it up." I mean, seriously, you have a shit teacher in a course, do what you have to do to pass it and get a couple of books about the subject from the library or something.

The real point in all of that was that, contrary to what some conservatives think, the university (and post-graduate) experience--at least at a liberal arts institution--is never really about telling you what to think. Good professors want you to push back. Lousy professors can't be helped, but it isn't like you can't regurgitate whatever a crap professor wants to hear so you can take your B and get out of Dodge, is it? I guess some people possessing a foolish and self-spiting sense of pride might be too good to fake their way through a course, but I don't see it as being particularly different from not telling your bosses what you really think of them, seeing as how preferring honesty may go hand-in-hand with a preference for living on a park bench and washing your hair in a public restroom sink, y'know?

It's not like they're going to crawl into your brain and say, "Waitaminnit, you haven't adopted neo-Marxian-critical-postmodern-classical-transdeconstruction!" and then point their fingers and scream at you like podpeople in the 1978 Invasion Of The Body Snatchers remake or anything.

And, jeez, people, I dunno: maybe understanding neo-Marxian-critical-postmodern-classical-transdeconstruction or whatever the academic fad of the day is wouldn't be a bad thing even if you think it's a steaming pile of shit. Because, (a) even steaming piles of shit have their uses and (b) even if that's not the case, you'll nevertheless be a far more capable opponent of neo-Marxian-critical-postmodern-classical-transdeconstruction if you can explain why neo-Marxian-critical-postmodern-classical-transdeconstruction is a steaming pile of shit. (Specifically, it's because no neo-Marxian-critical-postmodern-classical-transdeconstructist has ever adequately rebutted Heigelsteinowitz's critique of Hoffennormerhoff's Fallacy. In case you were wondering.)

All of this has also been on my mind ever since--heaven help me, we're back to Breitbart, dammit--that Obama college video Breitbart's people unveiled last week, the one Breitbart had been promising was explosive and controversial and eye-opening and other hyperbole; you know, the one that turned out to show Obama, a Harvard law student at the time, introducing an African-American professor, Derrick Bell, at a quiet but seemingly well-attended rally during Bell's attempt to get Harvard to hire more minority professors. This being no big deal to anyone who'd wonder why the African-American editor of the law review (a pretty big status position in a law school student body) wouldn't be on hand to ask students to listen to a speech by an African-American law professor and esteemed civil rights litigator known for mentoring African-American students; and even less of a big deal considering that Obama's speech consisted of (a) a flattering joke about Bell of the sort you might hear at an annual awards dinner followed by (b) a request that those assembled "open your hearts" to the professor, i.e. listen with an open mind, followed by (c) a hug, which I guess Rick Santorum or someone like that might object to two dudes hugging on the off-chance it leads to marriage and next thing you know the White House is being repainted to look fahb-yu-lusss and America's armed forces are forced to wear assless chaps into battle again for the first time since 1843. No, but really: it wasn't like Barack Obama was wearing a beret and goading a crowd of screaming radicals to burn down the ROTC building; it honestly would have been more shocking if Breitbart's scandalous college video had shown the future President shotgunning Jäger during pledge week.

Anyway, everybody was bored by the whole thing except, perhaps, for the Usual Suspects who were already incensed by the President's Mohamedeanism and ongoing attempt to force everybody onto sovkhozes by forcing everybody to have private-sector health insurance (I know it's a head-scratcher as to how mandatory health insurance leads to everybody living on agrarian collectives, but trust me, the scheme is an utter doozy in its maximum cleverosity). But then some stooge of Breitbart's--don't ask me who, and I don't really care enough to go find the YouTube video that would provide his name; let's call him "Mr. Stooge"--Mr. Stooge was on the television telling someone that all this was a big honking deal, why, did you know, as a law professor, Obama had one of Derick Bell's books on critical race theory on the required reading list for his class!

The horror.

So, first of all: I had a lot of professors put things on reading lists that they loathed. I'm not saying that's what Obama was doing; I'm just saying that a reading list can be a piss-poor indicator of a professor's opinions, especially in law school, where the traditional teaching mode is a Harvard-Law-invented version of the Socratic Method; you might call it "The Socratic Method For Assholes"--the professor asks the student to say something, the student replies, the professor tells the student he's wrong and asks the student to clarify, the student flounders around a bit, the professor tells the student he's wrong and asks if there was a lot of lead paint in his childhood home, the student burbles a bit, and so on back-and-forth like that. It's about as much fun as it sounds, but the real point is to get students to "think like a lawyer", by which we attorneys mean, "pedantically pick holes in any assertion, no matter how incontrovertible it might appear to be."

To which I should add: I'm not saying the President was a dick as a law professor, or that he was more of a dick than any other law professor. The point is that law professors--good professors at any level, really--are all about challenging the students, exposing students to different kinds of ideas, including ideas the professor might not be endorsing.

Of course--and this will get us to the second thing--it's possible that the President was enamored with Professor Bell's favorite mode of critique, Critical Race Theory (CRT) in the 1990s (or maybe he still is). That would have been him and a few hundred million other legal academics, not just law professors but also PoliSci, probably a bunch of History profs, etc. (And yes, I'm exaggerating the number. A little.) CRT was a Big Fucking Deal in the day (could be it still is), and so the second thing is: it doesn't actually matter how Obama felt about CRT; he was practically obligated to offer students some kind of exposure to it, seeing as how it was one of the most important frameworks anybody in academe was using to analyze legal matters. Put another way: law students needed to learn it even if 90% of them forgot about it the day after graduation, because it was going to come up, and if 90% of the remaining 10% thought it was bollocks, they nevertheless needed to know it so they could deal with CRT arguments being made in whatever classrooms, editorial rooms, Supreme Court clerks' offices, or wherever it was they'd see CRT critiques popping up. There was a point, I'd say, where someone trying to be any kind of legal scholar without being acquainted with CRT would be a lot like someone trying to be an expert on German literature without being able to read any German; sure, you could kind of do it, resorting to translations and synopses or whatever, but, really, who would you be kidding? You'd be hamstrung and limping right there at the gate.

One of the things Breitbart's pet idiot reminded me of was an experience I had in law school in a ConLaw class being taught by Professor Jack Boger. Good man, they made him the dean a while back. Anyway, one of the cases in the textbook we were using was a United States Supreme Court case called McClesky v. Kemp, in which a defendant who had been tried for murder and sentenced to death appealed his sentencing on the basis of extensive research that tended to show a black defendant accused of murdering a white victim was far more likely to be sentenced to death than any other kind of criminal defendant accused of murder. SCOTUS heard the case, and decided that didn't offend the Constitution's guarantees against cruel and unusual punishment or guarantees of Equal Protection. Well, when we got to McClesky, Professor Boger stood up in front of the class and argued the Supreme Court got it right, that the statistics weren't persuasive, and so what if they were, and he took on any and all comers in the class who wanted to say different. I don't know that the Supreme Court defended their decision in McClesky half as well as Professor Boger defended it.

Well, we'd all wondered how he was going to handle it: everybody already knew he was the guy who'd represented McClesky on his appeal to the Supreme Court.

If you know any decent professors, it shouldn't surprise you that when some of us talked to Professor Boger outside class, his attitudes remained very different, he was as passionate about the unfairness of sentencing disparities as he'd been when he was trying to save Warren McCleskey's life. If Professor Boger had done anything wrong in class, you could argue that he may have laid it on a little thick in bending over backwards to argue the opposing side's case, that maybe he was overcompensating a little to be fair. But this is what professors do, see? They're up there to challenge students to think differently, to challenge themselves to think differently. And if Professor Boger could argue both sides of a case, the side he agreed with and that of his opponents, it isn't hypocrisy, it's having a supple mind.

I know there are people who don't get that. Some of them go to religious schools where, as far as I can tell and from the sense I get of them, a disagreeable thought is never laid across their trail to teach them cunning and the use of trailblazing equipment. Others end up at better schools but may not get anything worthwhile out of them except a piece of sheepskin, or that's the impression one gets from all the bitching they do about, basically, hearing things they don't want to hear. It's really pretty sad. They don't say anything in class, or they say something insipid and instead of learning how to put up a better fight, they figure the professor's just a tool. "I'm a great pugilist even though I just stand there and throw wild punches at the air; I keep getting my ass handed to me because the Marquess Of Queensberry is a punk. I know it's not me and my five best pals, so it must be everyone else."

I tell you, it's just sad.


Cloud Nothings, "Our Plans"

>> Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A wonderfully ferocious assault from Cloud Nothings. I like Attack On Memory, their most recent album, and it really is worth checking out. Not really a lot to add to that, really, so I'll spare you for a change.

How's kicks?


The lifespan of a falsehood

>> Tuesday, March 13, 2012

I was snookered the other day. I'm not sure how I feel about that. It was a little thing. Maybe it was a little thing. Maybe it was the tip of something, sticking out.

I should begin at a beginning. Have you heard of Longform? They aggregate longer pieces of writing you can find on the Internet; you can read them there or they have assorted ways you can save the pieces for later; there are apps for the iPad and Kindle, and they're supposed to be unveiling one for Android soon. And if you read Slate, Slate has a partnership and crosslinks Longform entries by theme--the best crime writing, the best pieces about Woody Allen, that kind of thing.

The other day they featured a set of pieces by Skip Hollandsworth. I don't know if you know his work; he writes for Texas Monthly and he's very, very good. Texas Monthly is very good; it isn't something I read very often (I don't live in Texas), but whenever I come across a Texas Monthly piece, I'm usually pleased. And Hollandsworth, like I said, I think he's very good. So I went and read all the pieces Longform and Slate were featuring.

I guess you should know, if you haven't strayed over there yet, that Hollandsworth covers the true crime beat for TM. I don't know if that's all he does, but as far as I know, that's everything I've read by him. Which means his subjects tend to be horrific or depressing or both. There's the piece he wrote about the Naval cadet and Air Force cadet who shot and killed a former high school classmate of theirs in a fit of juvenile jealousy, for instance, or the one he wrote about the high school athlete who shot his abusive dad in the head. (I don't want to just link to every piece featured in the Longform entry, but if you just read one, read "The Last Ride of Cowboy Bob", tragic and funny and the stuff Coen Brothers movies might be made from.)

And then there's "See No Evil", a piece Hollandsworth wrote about Charles Albright, who in 1991 was convicted of murdering a prostitute named Shirley Williams. It's a grisly case, the kind of thing you'd expect to find in a bad thriller, maybe in a midline X-Files episode: the singular fact of Williams' murder and the murders of two other women around the same time (Mary Lou Pratt and Susan Peterson) is that the killer stole their eyeballs: the murderer took a knife and very neatly removed them, removed them so neatly that in two of the cases the excisions weren't noticed until the bodies were inspected by the medical examiner (and in the third case, the removal was only immediately noticed because the first detectives on the scene, suspecting they had a serial killer on the loose, checked under the victim's eyelids before the body was removed for further examination).

There's been some furor over Albright's conviction. It appears the primary evidence against him was forensic analysis of hairs found on the victim, on Albright, in Albright's truck; well, hair analysis is shit. Some witnesses identified Albright, but at least one of the witnesses was--at least from Hollandsworth's version of things--a bit flaky, and that's being charitable about it; most of those in a position to witness anything, indeed, were actual bona fide crack whores. I don't know, I can't say. A jury said he was guilty of killing one of the women; it's only reasonable to suppose that whoever killed one prostitute and surgically removed her eyes killed the other two prostitutes who were killed, who had their eyes removed.

Hollandsworth tells a good story. This is what I like about Hollandsworth's crime writing. "See No Evil" is a chilling little tale, and it's more-or-less (more-or-less) true, which gives it added dimensions of terror and tragedy. An eye-obsessed psychopath could be trolling the streets of your neighborhood right now; I'll admit this self-interested, almost voyeuristic horror is one of the most striking effects, more striking than the sadness of remembering that Williams, Pratt and Peterson were real people, real women, human beings who lived and breathed and had momentary triumphs and sad--ultimately fatal--disappointments and failures. Hollandsworth digs back into Albright's childhood, how he was adopted by a woman who taught him taxonomy--and how to remove the eyes of dead animals when preparing them; how he lived what many took to be a forthright life while in fact he was racking up a series of fraud and forgery charges; how he seemed a decent enough man except for the occasional lapses into rage that left friends and associates dumbstruck. And through it all, Hollandsworth informs us, is a recurring obsession with eyes, eyes, the eyes.

Hollandsworth went and visited Albright in prison, and he asked him about eyes and Albright dodged and weaved and said he didn't know a thing about them. Until, that is, at the close of an interview and the close of a piece--

He [Albright] was confident, he told me, that he would win his case on appeal. Another judge, he said, would see through the lies told at the first trial. He leaned forward in his chair and grinned optimistically. He couldn’t complain about prison life, he said. He was reading two books a week on the Civil War; he was taking notes for a book he wanted to write on the wives of Civil War generals. He was busy working as a carpenter in the prison woodworking shop, coaching the prison softball team, and writing letters to Dixie. He had just sent a request to Omni magazine for a back copy of its first issue because there was a painting on the cover that he liked. He grinned again and told terrifically funny stories about how crazy the other inmates acted. For a moment, it was hard for me to remember exactly what Charles Albright had been accused of doing.

But then I’d lock on the image of an eyeless young woman lying faceup on a neighborhood street. Why would such a kindly, lighthearted man want to cut out a prostitute’s eyes? Why was he so plagued by eyes, that potent and universal symbol, the windows to the soul? In the ancient myth, Oedipus tore out his own eyes after committing the transgression of sleeping with his mother. Did Charles Albright, a perverted Oedipus, tear out the eyes of women for committing the transgression of sleeping with men? Perhaps he removed their eyes out of some sudden need to show the world he could have been a great surgeon. Maybe he dumped that third body in front of the school to show his frustration over never having become a biology teacher. Or maybe a private demon had been lurking since his childhood, when the eyes were left off his little stuffed birds. Just as he long ago wanted to have a bagful of taxidermist’s eyes, maybe he decided to collect human eyes for himself.

"Oh, really, I have never touched an eyeball," Albright declared again, for the first time becoming indignant with me. "I truly think--and this may sound farfetched--that the boys in the forensics lab cut out those eyes. I think the police said, 'We want some sort of mutilation.'" Almost cheered by his reasoning, he returned to his psychologically impenetrable self. Whatever secrets he had would remain with him forever.

Weeks after that conversation, I remember Albright’s comment about wanting the first issue of Omni magazine. Intrigued, I went to look for it at the library. I opened a bound volume to the cover of the first issue, which was published in October 1978. There, staring out from the center of a dark page, was a solitary human eye, unmoored, as if floating in space. The eyelid slid down just to the top of the eyeball; the eyeball was lightly shaded; the eyelashes were curved like half-moons.

It was, I thought, exactly the kind of eye Charles Albright would wish he had painted.

And I felt a shiver when I read that. Who wouldn't? And of course I had to know. And I was reading this on the Internet, of course, that vast storehouse of human knowledge and porn. The great expansion of human consciousness and memory. And when I went and looked up the first issue of Omni magazine, October, 1978, this is what I found, right here, right next to this paragraph.

That's a fence, isn't it? Red taillights of a car on the left-hand margin of the page, parked. Blue on blue on black. Fiction by Asimov, Sturgeon, Goulart (not a bad collection, there). An interview with Freeman Dyson, physicist, futurist, dreamer of spheres. A couple of headlines hinting at Omni's obsession with weird or alternate--i.e. (let's be blunt) pseudo--science. But here's what I don't see: I do not see eyes. Or an eye. Or an eye unmoored and floating in space, eyelid folded upon it, eyelashes "curved like half-moons." Not unless you want to be figurative about a set of glowing taillights. Not unless that car has red, red eyes looking out at the reader, the fence.

There are Omni covers featuring eyes. There are a lot of them, too many, really, to link to or embed here. Pictures of single eyes, pairs of eyes, eyes in space, electronic eyes, cyborg eyes, alien eyes, human eyes, photographed eyes, painted eyes, eyes in an array of hues (including shades borne by no mere, ordinary eye). None of those issues are from the October of 1978, collector's issue, featuring these stories, this interview, fiction, fact, fact-like.

The idea that Charles Albright wants the first issue of Omni because he likes the eye is a good story. It just isn't, as far as I can make out, true. At all. If there's a version of the first issue with an alternate cover, it isn't to be readily found on the Internet. Not even on an Omni obsessive's fan page.

This is a minor thing, yes. But it bothers me. More than I'd like it to. Because now I am wondering how much of the piece is true. I am wondering if Charles Albright's foster mother liked taxidermy, or if he really told Hollandsworth about having a conversation with a forensic examiner about the part of the eye socket a nerve runs through. What else might have changed? I have doubts, now. It's still a good story. Oh, gods and monsters, it remains a good story. Does it matter if it's true, if it's still a good story? Do I need it to be true, or do I somehow feel cheated by the fact that maybe it isn't? I read a Stephen King story, I don't sit there miffed that he made the whole damn thing up. And Hollandsworth didn't make the whole thing up about Charles Albright--there is a Charles Albright; he just made up the part about a magazine cover.

Just that one part. Probably just the one part. Maybe just the one part.

This isn't something that I'm just thinking about out of the blue, I have to say. This--I mean the idea of what's true in a piece of nonfiction--has been on my mind because, as you may have heard, there's this new book out called The Lifespan Of A Fact that deals with this subject. I haven't read it, I probably won't, because thinking about it irritates me; okay, it interests me, yes, but it still annoys me, too. There was also a thing about it on NPR several mornings ago. This book is ostensibly a document of a sort of battle between a freelance writer who did a piece on a teenage boy who killed himself in Las Vegas, and the fact-checker The Believer assigned to the article (after it was rejected by Harper's, which seems a not-incidental thing to point out, although I'm not sure we know why Harper's turned it down). The writer, it seems, took some artistic liberties, which appears to be a euphemism for playing fast and loose with facts, making things up, compressing things, linking unconnected events, making a hash of reality in search of some kind of capital-T Truth that cannot be sufficiently conveyed by simply telling the reader what really happened in a stylistic, empathic fashion.

And this is tricky, you know. Because if I pick up a "nonfiction" book by David Sedaris, I don't necessarily assume David Sedaris is telling me the truth, capitalized or not. I assume that David Sedaris is a funny man, and (being a funny man) is prone to exaggerate. This is a long and noble tradition among raconteurs, that it's okay to be flexible for the sake of the tale. And yet that isn't really the standard--or at least not my standard: if I pick up an issue of Harper's (which, again, rejected the "artistic" Vegas suicide story) or Texas Monthly, I'm expecting not Truth or truthiness but simple, good-old-fashioned facts presented in an informative and well-written way. I'm not actually sure, when I think about it, whether there's really a rational basis for me to draw a line; maybe I ought to be gravely disappointed in David Sedaris, or perhaps I ought to be cutting Skip Hollandsworth more slack instead of feeling vaguely betrayed and even a little heartbroken.

Maybe, possibly, it's a matter of expectations. I didn't open up "See No Evil" thinking I'd be getting a yarn; I thought I was opening up a well-told accounting of terrible things happening out in Texas.

Indeed, I have to admit: one reason I justify reading these kinds of things is that I expect to be the one perhaps spinning yarns. I pretend I'm a writer, you may have noticed. I like to write awful fictions about monsters and things, even if I never seem to finish them these days. And so I read about an eye-stealing serial killer thinking, perhaps unjustifiably, that it isn't just prurience, but research: I might use that, I think, I might be able to do something with that. He steals eyes, you say? Why, that could be interesting, yes, I think it could. But then it shouldn't matter that I don't know how much of the story is true, not if it inspires me; except, then, there's also the question of whether or not Skip Hollandsworth beat me to the punch if I do decide to try something with it; he made up the part about Omni magazine, it appears, so perhaps he made up something else, something more meaningful--how neatly the victims' eyes were removed, perhaps. Or how charming Charles Albright seemed to be, for instance.

I don't know. I don't want to stand opposed to literary art. But I also can't quite accept that literary art automatically trumps--well, honesty. A publisher in the NPR story on The Lifespan Of A Fact says truth is subjective; well, sort of, sometimes, maybe. But the first cover of Omni either had an eye on the front of it or it didn't.

And it didn't. And now I don't know whether to believe anything else I've been told, either.


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