Archive for October, 2010


Meta post

I think that posting about my own posts is poor form and that I should stay in “blog” character, which means just giving my opinions as if everyone cared (which is wrong).

So I’m going to break character (last time I did this was a year ago here) and say that I am consistently baffled by what people like to read from this blog. People apparently really liked my top gun and knocked up posts, and I can understand that, I thought they would be fun. But every time I try to spin a unique argument about politics or philosophy, no one reads it. I’m not complaining, people can read what they want, but sometimes I think I’ve gone and given a little 400 word nugget about some issue, and then it just gets passed over.

On the other hand, this post gets almost no attention, but then this one is my all time high scoring post.

Also, people love my book reviews apparently, but I can’t get people to look at any of music section posts to save my life. Especially this one, which I was so proud of.

Also, the last time I wrote a meta post, I noted this, but still I’ll say it again, my runner up all time most popular post is still this one I believe. Go figure.



Big Moves Behind the Scenes

I have been unaware that things were moving so rapidly against the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Policy in the Military. A judge in California ruled that the policy was unconstitutional and earlier this year, another judge ordered that a gay air force member be reinstated after being discharged for violating DADT.

There are a bunch of interesting and bizarre subtleties to how things are going regarding this issue. The bottom line is that this little DADT squabble proves that I am right once again about everything. I’ll explain below.

First, the lawsuit that eventually resulted in a current injunction against ENFORCEMENT of DADT (the current ruling does not force the wholesale abandonment of the policy) was brought by the log cabin republicans. I was expecting the ACLU or some other very liberal group, but instead we have republicans who are, I’m guessing, very concerned with national security and the excellence of the armed forces. It also think is a smart strategic move for the legal community to let the LCR bring this suit because the policy is supposedly a republican darling. Having republicans bringing the suit is just a way of really demonstrating that this policy has to go.

Even stranger though is that in September, Obama (well technically, the DOJ) asked the court NOT TO enforce its ruling. Huh? I thought Obama was all for getting rid of DADT, it was certainly one his campaign promises. The answer to the seeming paradox is that the DOJ asked for time to fashion a non-judicial solution, meaning that congress would probably have to become involved.

I find this very curious, because of the possible interpretations. My first inclination is to think this is a very stupid move on the part of the Obama team. What’s the strategy in having Obama jump in front of judicial ruling in a case involving republicans? He is exposing himself to backlash from anti-gay groups when he could have just let the whole thing wind down in the obscurity of the courts, which could divert blame from him. As I already said, its even better because REPUBLICANS brought this lawsuit.

Then I thought more about it. Maybe Obama wants to fashion a legislative solution because this is in keeping with his post-partisan philosophy. Ok, maybe, and if that’s the case, that it kind of a gracious and noble move. It gives all the major stakeholders a chance to iron something comprehensive out and adds democratic legitimacy to what would have been judicial fiat (something that has gotten a bad rap in recent times what with accusations of “activist courts” out there.)

Then I thought, more cynically of a third interpretation (beyond Obama being dumb or noble) which is that he wants to use this as an opportunity to humiliate or attack republicans who support the policy. I mean anyone who supports the policy is pretty stupid, but I think it would be unwise for Obama to introduce this topic just to bludgeon opponents with the fact that most Americans believe gays should serve openly in the military (78% from one poll I saw), and that the court has already rule the policy unconstitutional.

Anyway, I honestly don’t know which of these three interpretations is best. Is Obama, stupid, noble, or cynical? Not sure.

Lastly, I’m also pretty interested by the fact that there seems to be no coverage of both the drama leading up to the recent court rulings and also these latest wrinkles in the rulings themselves. My media-hating suspicion is that the issue defies the normal narrative of republican=anti-gay and liberals=pro-gay too much to be a useful news story. There are just too much nuances and the media machine prefers, above all else, to keep nuance out of things; people just don’t have time for it anymore (if they ever did).

(Side note: what are all the ivy league colleges going to do now that they can’t pretend to be keeping recruiters off of campuses due to DADT?)


The power of Knocked Up

I’ve been saving this post for a long time, but no longer — I’m going to try to defend one of my most controversial pop culture beliefs, which is that Knocked Up is one of the best movies of the past six to seven years (possibly longer, but I just don’t know that much about movies). People seemed to like my Top Gun post in which I tried to defend the tarred reputation of that nostalgia-inducing male-fest. I want to do the same for Apatow’s 2007 comedy.

The arguments against this movie are numerous and vociferous. For one thing, you have people who are sympathetic to my celebration of knocked up, but they say something like “knocked up? why not 40 year old virgin or superbad?” And then there are more radical criticisms, like this absolutely wonderful article by film critic David Denby (read this fantastic response, which is similar in the end to my argument / approach).The more radical variety of argument does not say that knocked up is simply second rate, but says that is philosophically pernicious and a misguided reflection of the state of our dating world.

I want to deal with both of these arguments with my response here, which is that knocked up is much smarter than its nearby Apatow rivals and in fact insightful in the way it views our culture.

Regarding the first, Knocked Up succeeds masterfully at being smarter than 40 year old virgin and superbad. In fact, I don’t think anyone will disagree that it’s smarter than superbad. Don’t get me wrong, I liked McLovin and his cop buddies, but the whole first 15 minutes of that movie is Jonah Hill talking about porn sites and laying down some pretty crude shock humor. In fact, the whole movie really moves in that direction. 40 year old virgin is more subtle, but it still I think trades mainly on the bombastic crudity of the guys that Steve Carell works with at the electronics store. Besides, one of the best parts of that movie was the back and forth between Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd doing “you know how I know you’re gay.” Knocked Up is just more of their dialogue. Some other cleverer parts of Knocked Up include the joke about “butt-fuckingham palace” and babe ruth’s gay brother “gay-be ruth.”

But as Denby says in his article, there seems to be something second rate about the cultural picture on offer by knocked up. He compares the history of screwball and romantic comedies and notes that men and women were cast as equals of each other, and the women were smart and sassy and could give as good as they got. The men were men and not screwballs and the women had real emotional depth. As Denby sees it, our culture is becoming infantilized as the beautiful Katherine Heigl is dumbed down (not that she’s supposed to be dumb in Knocked Up, she’s successful, but she isn’t contributing to the laughs really at all), and the man, Seth Rogen, well he is supposed to be the flake and the failure who matures over the course of the movie. He has to “grow up” to keep the girl. He has to read the baby books.

These are very good points, and Denby, being the film critic, has ammunition for his position out the wazoo, but still, I think he’s wrong to try to place Knocked Up in the same tradition as “The Philadelphia Story” “Midnight” and “Easy Living.” It’s not that Knocked Up fails to live up the tradition, its that the tradition that is guiding comedy has changed.

But before getting to that, I think it important to note that the message of Knocked Up is pretty emancipatory. As I said, the female is successful and smart (just not funny) and there is also the element of counter-culture freedom. Heigl’s mom recommends that she get rid of the baby, presumably for her high society reasons, and Heigl refuses that move. Later, Rogen embarrasses her in front of her high class friends by spilling the beans about the baby, but though she is at first angry and embarrassed she is taken in by Rogen’s blithe ignorance of such norms and in fact it is what keeps them together. This theme is continued and repeated throughout the movie, in both of the passive aggressive authority figures that the couple encounters. Heigl encounters the studio exec who in the end wants to be friends, but at first only lets out snippy little criticisms of Heigl’s figure and professional abilities. There is also the asian doctor who wants to do things his way and very undiplomatically makes that known. Rogen steps in at this point to force the doctor to see reason regarding the “birth plan.”

Of course though, the core of the movie is that Rogen is slowly lured away from a carefree life with his buddies into marriage and commitment, and this is where Denby’s criticisms really hit home, because women are portrayed as kill joys and bitches (Debby, Rudd’s wife). Men have more fun with their buddies and only grow up in response to the possibility of living with a beautiful woman. What to say about this?

My defense here is the movie is much more subtle about what’s going on between men and women then what first appears. When Debby catches Rudd playing fantasy baseball, she says its “worse than cheating” but in there subsequent resolution, they realize that they each have common interests and that maybe Rudd’s escapism isn’t necessary: that male and female do really having things to do together. Later at the birthday party, they are working in synch and the love between them is evident. The ambivalence here is not about women and men but about marriage, a salient culture category that I personally think is going the way of the dinosaurs. What is marriage without a little good old fashion pressure, preferably religious. When marriages becomes like cars, to be bought or sold at will, then they can’t perform their special role of forcing people to get over themselves. Marriages becomes the routinzation of boredom for immature people. Without its social teeth, it can’t get people to grow up.

So, Knocked Up relentlessly calls into question this twilighting social institution and wonders how it can be set right or reinvigorated. The answer it gives is the redeeming message of the movie, which is hope and OPENNESS to the unknown or unplanned, or socially unsanctioned. Growth now occurs as a result of transgressing social norms, just as marriages used to be held up through a kind of implicit social threat.

Denby is right that the man in these types of movie is kind of a loser but that’s where his maturity and success ultimately comes from, which is that he cares nothing for society’s strictures unless they serve some ultimate purpose. He gets people to chill out or simply doesn’t care if they won’t. The result is again the loosening of the tightness of the social fabric, and it’s not clear how the new relaxed world will look. Debby expresses this frustration when she gets angry at Rudd for laughing while she is trying to tell him about the sexual predators in the area. She says something like “O so it’s funny that I care about our children not getting molested.” And that’s the point, she needs to chill out. The slacker movie is a reaction to hyper active parenting and hyper active social climbing. It’s medicine is the possibility of redemption through not caring.



Quotation Marks

So most of this time I try to write things that are out in the public world, but this time I’m just going to try and give a flavor of a philosophical problem that’s occupying my mind.

The problem is quotation marks. How do they work? It seems ridiculous right, how could this be a philosophical problem? Its not, you know, like, deep, man.

It turns out that quotation marks and their usage is related to a huge number of the most vexing problems facing linguists right now.

So, there is a question of how language works, and it turns out to be very hard to answer. Most of the trouble starts by noticing some very fantastic things about natural languages, which is to say, languages that you could learn in school like English, German, Spanish, etc.

Natural languages are inconsistent, which is big trouble. They are so powerful that they can talk about themselves in certain ways. This ability to be self referential remarks makes english (and all natural languages) contradictory.

Take this sentence: This sentence is false. If the sentence is true, then the sentence if false, but if the sentence is false, it’s true. And it gets worse. If there is one contradiction that the language allows, then everything is provable, which invalidates the language as a useful one for proving things.

A brilliant approach to this problem was formulated by Alfred Tarski, who, the more I learn about him, is clearly one of the smartest human beings to ever live. His solution to this problem is to construct a “meta” language that can be used to talk about the “object” language (in this case english). The meta language works by providing translations of sentences of the object language, thus preventing paradoxes.

You get things like this

(1) “Snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white.

or less confusingly (2) “Snow is white” is true if and only if Der Schnee ist Weiss.

The reason (1) is confusing is because English is being used as both the metalanguage and the object language, but in (2) German is the metalanguage. Notice that the word true only appears in the metalanguage whereas the sentence from the object language is in quotes.

So we see that quotes are important because it lets language talk about itself. I can say:

Boston has many people.

but I can’t say

“Boston” has many people.

I could however, say:

“Boston” has six letters.

But I could not say

Boston has six letters.

And all of these sentences work the way they do because quotations indicate that we are using language to talk about language. When we write: Boston is full of people, what we write is true because the word “Boston” refers to a place but ” “Boston” ” does not refer to a city but rather to a word, the word “Boston.” Confusing? You betcha. I have to write a paper about this soon…


Canvassing in Boston

Just got back from collecting petitions out at Coolidge Corner in Boston. Specifically I was trying to get people to sign forms relating to McDonald’s marketing strategy which depends heavily on appealing to kids, who, as we know from walking outside for 10 minutes, are getting fat at a pretty young age.

I found this experience to be interesting on a variety of levels.

The first thing I discovered is that even foot traffic is a public resource that is competed for by individuals. I don’t want to reduce collecting signatures to an exercise in economic rationality, because it was not mainly about that, but here’s an interesting lesson: what one group can do in terms of getting people’s attention is heavily determined by what other people. So, if other non profit groups primarily ask for money, or ask for support in a rude, off-putting way, then this effects what I can do as a volunteer because people automatically assume that either a) I’m a socially defective radical or b) I want their money for something. Since neither a or b was true, I had to quickly, in the course of 15 seconds, get people to trust me and convince them that I did not want their money. By the end I even started trying “Kids are fat, I don’t want your money.” So, non-profits take heed, what you do effects what others can do using the same tactics.

There were some other interesting moments as well. Some people will just ignore you when you ask them about anything or say anything to them. Then you get some straight d-bags. I was working with someone else on this project and this kid dressed in a north face jacket and well-fit khakis with those ridiculous little man boots that you can get walks by me and complains, in a pretty whiny voice to his father that “all these people are trying to talk to me about mcdonalds.” God forbid people would speak to you.

Then there was the all time lowlight of the day. I saw this very obese man and asked him what he thought about McDonalds. He stumbled by me, but then stopped and turned around. Thinking he was interested, I told him that I wanted to try and convince McDonalds to advertise less to children, to which he responded angrily “O, I like McDonalds.” I felt bad for this guy.

Other people simply told me that “it was the parents’ responsibility” to keep kids from eating. This makes no sense to me. If I told them that I wanted to pass legislation or create some sort of government agency or task force, then maybe this retort would make sense: sometimes a problem is not so bad that it justifies such drastic societal investment. In fact, we leave many choices up to the parents that we could theoretically regulate, such as what video games the child will be able to play or what clothes the kids should wear. However, since the campaign I work with has such modest goals, such as having McDonalds take their vast sum of advertising dollars and throw them at a different demographic, this doesn’t make any sense. Pretend that I could sign a bunch of petitions that would convince kids’ TV stations exec not to program cartoons that display violence against women. Would these people be opposed to such a strategy on the grounds that parents should control what their kids watch? In other words, the goal of the campaign that I was working on did not deny that parents should be responsible for their children, but only that there are ways we can make their jobs easier by eliminating temptations.

Anyway, we got about 65 signatures in 2 hours. 40 of those were mine (25 for the other guy), so I got about 1 signature every 3 minutes. Considering it takes about 1 minute to rope someone in and watch as they wrote everything down, I think this was a pretty good pace. The real key though, which I did not execute well, was to rope in whole families or groups of people and then to get like 4 signatures in 2 minutes or something. This is hard because families are usually enjoying time together and so really don’t want to be hustled for signatures, even though it only takes 2 minutes.

I also wonder how many people don’t stop for the same reason a lot of people don’t vote: they honestly think that the short investment of time I’m asking for is still not justified given the EVEN SMALLER impact their signature will have in getting McDonald’s to stop marketing to kids.



Juan Williams, update

After all the poor responses to Juan Williams’ firing, I came across this considerate and worthwhile (very short) piece.

This article gives me a little hope for our wider political culture and confirms what is now hardening into my settled opinion: salon and huffpo should be shut down and all their resources transferred to the Atlantic.


Juan Williams

Again, I’m kind of late getting my arms around this story, but I think its a very interesting microcosm of many things that I constantly bring up on this blog.

Here’s the deal: Juan Williams, a political commentator, was on the O’Reilly Factor where he said these words. He was fired soon afterwards from NPR.

I don’t think his words come anywhere close to being a firing offense and I’m not even sure they are even that offensive (depends if you think he was just confessing an unavoidable prejudice or affirming the value of stereotyping). Overall, I think Williams comes off in this video as being a honest commentator saying what’s on his mind. I’ve seen him before and have found him to be considerate and controlled in his argumentation. Basically, everything a nation trying to sort out its political discourse could appreciate.

Still he was fired at the drop of a hat and even E.J. Dionne, someone who I think is EXTREMELY liberal (for the mainstream media anyway), thought this was too quick.

The weird thing is that you get all these bizarre comments from the liberal blogosphere sniping at Williams but all the while knowing and acknowledging that he didn’t do anything wrong. Take this post from Matt Yglesias (or this one from, I mean,

I didn’t call Williams “average.” Obviously being average can’t be a firing offense. I accused him of “general lameness and lack of valuable contribution to their programming” and on Twitter accused him of offering “replacement-level political commentary.” The latter was intended as a reference to baseball’s VORP concept and means that Williams is well below average.

Which is just to say that I don’t think I’ve dodged anything. Like Jon Chait I don’t like the idea of hair-trigger firings of people who step in it while making on-the-fly comments. At the same time, I’m against non-interesting non-insightful political commentary. And I’m very much against the idea, all-too-prevalent today, that certain kinds of punditry perches should be treated like tenured professorships from which people can only be let go for some kind of egregious misconduct. So while I wish this series of events hadn’t gone down in this way, I can hardly say I’ll miss Williams once he’s gone from NPR.

I have respect for Yglesias, but this comment really bothered me. First of all, he says he’s not dodging, but then he goes ahead and does exactly that, replacing a discussion of the political correctness issue with some unsupported gripes about Williams. I don’t like to get into name-calling, but I will say that the tone here comes off as very arrogant to me. Yglesias admits that he doesn’t like “hair trigger firings” but then goes on to say that he IS against “non-interesting, non-insightful” political commentary. Yglesias has never said complained about Williams before, and he follows his baseless remarks with talk about tenured commentator positions, but I don’t know what this even has to do with anything. Does he think Williams is sleeping with the editor of NPR to keep his job? I mean, he’s got a job and he’s kept it.

The other piece I cited above is, in a sense, even sillier, because it derides Williams for trying to be a moderate conservative who will listen to liberal ideas. HUH!? Why is that a bad thing?

The real lesson here I think is what I’ve said before, the culture of civility is not obeyed even by those who so adamantly and superciliously monitor the public discourse for civility. Notice this is not a reason to stop such policing. I think even hypocrites perform a valuable service when they call people out for inaccurate or offensive comments (and Yglesias has done this before, so good for him on that), but the lesson of this little mishap is that everyone, liberal and conservatives love conflict and hate reconciliation. This sort of thing angers conservatives (rightly) and does nothing to advance any idea. This is destructive discourse for the sake of slaking our basest political impulses.

It seems that the obvious thing for everyone to do would be to say simply “I disagree with Williams and/or his views in general, but he was fired mistakenly.” End of story. Instead, a lot of liberal commentators, rather than nobly acknowledging that political correctness has gone too far (in this case) take this as an opportunity to cut down what seems to be just an average pundit trying to make a living. No one gains.