Saturday, August 29, 2015

Killing for attention

Arthur Chu links narcissism and privilege in his Salon piece "Celebrity killer culture: When grandiosity, privilege and entitlement turn attention-seeking into violence".

It makes a disturbing amount of sense to me. I've long accepted the cliched observation that sensationally destructive acts are "a cry for attention", but Chu makes a compelling case that a lot of our most notorious murderers are linked by a much more specific characteristic.

[There is a psychological] trait that’s part of some mental illness diagnoses (like bipolar disorder) and some personality disorder diagnoses (like narcissistic personality disorder) but that I’d argue goes beyond either one. It’s called grandiosity — the idea that you, personally, are the center of the universe, that people ought to be paying attention to you, that you’re entitled to take up space in other people’s lives and their denying you that space is an injustice.

Grandiosity is joined at the hip with privilege. It festers among the subset of our culture that’s taught to take up space, to assert themselves, to make themselves important.

[link in the original text]

I'm skeptical of quickie psychosocial analyses in mass-culture publications like Salon, but this one rings true. It makes sense not just of Dylann Roof and the Columbine killers, but of a host of other white and Asian "public-spectacle" killers as well as Vester Lee Flanagan, the ex-TV reporter who murdered his former colleagues live on TV.

Chu also implicitly suggests that as long as we keep mindlessly showering attention on such killings, we're going to see more of them. Maybe we can minimize the destruction if we instead suggest that a spectacular suicide (that doesn't involve homicide) is even more attention-getting. At the least, such a development would complete our society's transformation into the uncomfortable dystopia portrayed in Paddy Chayefsky's Network.

Or maybe we can change our culture so that a subset of men is no longer taught that the rest of the world must make way for them.

Hmm. Why do I think it would be easier to convince them to commit suicide?

Thursday, August 27, 2015

No, really: fire Kim Davis

It strains credulity that someone can baldly and unapologetically refuse to do a job while insisting that she deserves to keep it, but such is the sorry spectacle that Rowan County (Kentucky) clerk Kim Davis presents.

Even after being ordered by both a federal judge and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to issue marriage licenses to everyone, including same-sex couples, Davis continues her work stoppage.

Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis has refused to issue any marriage licenses, citing her Christian faith and constitutional right to religious freedom, since the landmark [U.S. Supreme Court's Obergefell] decision in June.
Davis' attorney Mat Staver says she should be accommodated.
“The court of appeals did not provide any religious accommodation rights to individuals, which makes little sense because at the end of the day it’s individuals that are carrying out the acts of the office,” Staver said. “They don’t lose their individual constitutional rights just because they are employed in a public office.”
An "accommodation" lets somebody do the job in spite of difficulties. Davis is asking not to do her job. Staver's argument is a bad joke.

Worse, her refusal to do her job is keeping her office from doing its job of issuing marriage licenses. Because no licenses are being issued, the county government effectively has adopted her religion's strictures. And the First Amendment does not permit that.

Assuming Davis loses in the courts, Kentucky needs to oust her from her job. Apparently, that won't be easy.

Davis has said she will not resign. She can only be removed from office if the state legislature impeaches her, which is unlikely. If she continues to defy a federal court order, a judge could hold her in contempt and order hefty fines or jail time.
Fines and jail time would be appropriate for her intransigence, but what Rowan County needs is not a jailed county clerk, but a county clerk who will do the job. Somebody else has to be installed. If the state legislature won't impeach her, her county's citizens should sue her (and perhaps the state legislature, too) for nonperformance.

Kim Davis refuses either to do her job or to let her job be done. How does she dare claim she deserves to keep it?

She is a shameful example of arrogance fueled by religious zeal. I said it before, and I'll say it again.

Fire her!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Matt Taibbi nails our Trumpian sickness

Back in the immediate aftermath of a couple of violent jackasses beating down a homeless Latino man in Boston and invoking the Donald's name as they were arrested, Matt Taibbi penned a piece entitled, "Donald Trump Just Stopped Being Funny".
Trump is probably too dumb to realize it, or maybe he isn't, but he doesn't need to win anything to become the most dangerous person in America. He can do plenty of damage just by encouraging people to be as uninhibited in their stupidity as he is.
And he summed up with about as chilling, yet insightful, an observation as any I've seen lately:
America has been trending stupid for a long time. Now the stupid wants out of its cage, and Trump is urging it on. There are a lot of ways this can go wrong, no matter who wins in 2016.
Indeed, "the stupid wants out of its cage".

The same insistent simplemindedness that animates fundamentalism, the same overriding desire to reduce the world to white and black, good and evil, friend and foe, informs not just the support for Trump, but Trump's own buffoonish attitude toward just about everything. The world isn't complex, he insists, it's just that we don't have smart people (like him) running things.

I grew out of believing in political saviors a long time ago. It astonishes me that such a brazenly obvious snake-oil salesman as Trump found an audience, but his followers do not strike me as the clearest or deepest of thinkers. If a cruel fate makes The Donald our forty-fifth president, they're going to be very, very angry when he can't deliver.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Jeb middle-fingers Asian Americans

Jeb Bush tried to clarify what he meant by his criticism of what he called "anchor babies" a few days ago. Per Time:
Jeb Bush struggled Monday to explain his position on birthright citizenship, suggesting that his use of the term “anchor babies” was directed not at Hispanics but rather at Asians.

“What I was talking about was the specific case of fraud being committed,” Bush told reporters during an immigration-focused press conference in McAllen, Tex. “Frankly it’s more related to Asian people [who are] coming into our country, having children, and… taking advantage of a noble concept, which is birthright citizenship.”

Now, if you parse only the words, Jeb's words themselves aren't (unduly) offensive. Who's going to defend the idea of scurrilous foreigners entering the U.S. just long enough literally to drop a baby and to file the paperwork proving the circumstances of the birth?

But of course, you cannot parse only the words. You have to parse the circumstances in which those words are uttered. In this case, the circumstance of interest is the racially-charged atmosphere the GOP has created with its rhetoric. GOP candidates and far-right conservatives have criticized the #BlackLivesMatter movement as another cry of "victimization" from blacks; they've pandered to their base with racist fearmongering against Hispanics in the guise of "immigration reform". It's not a great surprise that Bush, increasingly desperate to garner some attention for his candidacy and some traction with the far-right base that dominates the GOP's primaries, has now gone after the other major subgroup That Doesn't Look Like Us.

There are more charitable ways of interpreting his remarks. For one thing, he may well be right that there is a substantial number of foreign-born Asians who travel to the U.S. expressly for the purpose of gaining a literal toehold on American citizenship for their children. For another, Bush may genuinely feel Hispanics are being railroaded by his conservative brethren, and he may have tried to redirect some of the nativist fury at "others" away from Hispanics.

But in the current, charged atmosphere in which the likes of Trump are demonizing non-whites, simply saying that he meant Asians rather than Hispanics invites the nativist, borderline racist GOP base to target Asians and Asian Americans rather than (or in addition to) Hispanics.

Did he mean to stoke anti-Asian sentiment? Well, look at it this way: he used to govern Florida, a state with a sizable non-white population. If he habitually blundered into minefields of ethnicity with catastrophic results, I doubt he would have secured two terms as governor. He didn't blunder into this remark. He didn't accidentally drag Asians and Asian Americans into the nativist GOP base's lashing-out against non-whites.

From a purely numerical standpoint, Asian Americans don't matter in national politics: there just aren't enough of them. But as a matter of optics, to use the currently popular term, substituting "Asians" for "Hispanics" simply gives the sizable pool of covert and overt racists in the GOP's fold an additional set of targets. Or rather, since these racists already loathed non-whites, Bush gave them rhetorical cover.

Bush could dig himself out of his hole, but it would take a lot of further clarifications and explanations, none of which will make him a more viable candidate in the eyes of GOP primary voters. So, like many who have insulted Asian Americans in the past (hello, Rush), he won't bother — and he likely won't pay a political price, either.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Time to fire Kim Davis

That Kentucky court clerk who has refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, Kim Davis, is still at it, even after a federal judge's court order. The judge stayed his order while she appeals, but even if he hadn't she probably still would have defied him.
"This is not something I decided because of this decision that came down," Davis testified in federal court last month. "It was thought-out and, you know, I sought God on it."
I'm sure she did. The thing is, this country kind of runs on the principle that government and God are separate. Davis doesn't seem to have thought about how she'd feel if, to borrow the far right's current bugaboo, a devout Shiite made decisions on what laws to enforce based on her reading of the Koran. This is blindingly obvious to me, and probably to you, but not, it seems, to Davis.

Anyway, Davis is entitled to believe what she likes, but she isn't entitled to a job. I wrote about her several weeks ago. I even addressed her directly (because I'm sure she reads this blog):

Since you can't bring [yourself] to follow the law, you have forfeited the right to hold your job. The rest of us would respect you more if you'd simply quit.
Yeah, so much for that hope. She's not going to quit. She needs to be fired.

Don't believe securefamily.org

I've seen a couple of ads recently lamenting new government regulations that supposedly would make it impossible for middle-class workers to afford investment guidance. The ads direct people to contact their Congressional representatives, referencing securefamily.org for more information.

These ads were so frustratingly vague and oblique that I checked out the site for myself. It turns out the group "is a partnership of America’s financial advisors, life insurance agents, and life insurance companies". Specifically:

The Secure Family Coalition includes the American Council of Life Insurers (ACLI), Association for Advanced Life Underwriting (AALU), GAMA International, Insured Retirement Institute (IRI), National Association for Fixed Annuities (NAFA), National Association of Independent Life Brokerage Agencies (NAILBA), and National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors (NAIFA).
So what's got their panties in a bunch?

Here's the quick answer according to a PDF of the group's talking points.

On April 20, 2015, the Department of Labor (DOL) released a significant, detailed new proposal to change the definition of fiduciary under ERISA. The new rule broadly defines a fiduciary to include persons who make recommendations to individuals or plan sponsors regarding investments, annuities and other insurance contracts, and rollovers and distributions.
What does this actually mean?

What the insurers aren't telling you is that the Labor Department's proposed new rule addresses a significant shortcoming in the regulations governing financial advisors. At present, not everyone who's legally allowed to give you investment advice is required to put your interests first. Some of them are allowed to steer you toward investments that enrich them even if those investments aren't the best ones for you. The Labor Department wants to tighten up the rules so the people you expect to look after your best interests are legally required to do so. Per a letter from the "Committee for the Fiduciary Standard":

After years of thoughtful analysis and consultation with all stakeholders, the Department of Labor has drafted a comprehensive proposal that closes loopholes in the definition of investment advice so that anyone who provides individualized investment recommendations to retirement savers -- whether they are saving through a traditional or defined contribution pension plan, such as a 401(k), or an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) -- would be required to provide best interest advice to their clients. Importantly, the proposed rule would eliminate outdated requirements that advice must be ‘regular’ or serve as the ‘primary basis’ for an investor’s decision, before the best interest standard applies. In a significant improvement over the 2010 proposal, it covers advice about recommendations to roll money out of a pension or 401(k) plan and into an IRA. This is the most important financial decision many people will ever make, with a potential to seriously affect their standard of living in retirement, and is a special area of concern given extremely troubling practices identified in a GAO report.
Now, I have to note that the so-called Committee is itself "a group of investment professionals and fiduciary experts" — not exactly a set of disinterested observers. However, the insurers' argument is a notably weak one. Who are these people who won't be able to offer you their low-cost investment advice if the Labor Department's proposed rule goes into effect? The people who aren't required to put your best interests first.

Is it worth getting advice from people who aren't legally required to look out for you?

Don't be fooled by securefamily.org. Its members aren't concerned about you. They're concerned about their profits — or rather, being able to profit off of you.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Sam Elliott's career resurgence

I love Sam Elliott's voice, so it's nice to hear that he's "having a moment", in the words of Cara Buckley's piece in the New York Times.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Stop freaking out about Trump

Isn't it obvious he's trolling us?

Trump's in it for his ego. He wouldn't know what to do with the Presidency if it dropped into his lap. These two reasons explain why he says something offensive and/or appallingly ignorant every twenty-four hours without fail: it simultaneously keeps him in the spotlight while ensuring he will never, ever gain the GOP nomination. (He won't run as a third-party candidate, either.)

A few earnest pundits insist that Trump's consistent strength in the polls means he represents a lot of people out there. We can't ignore those people, these pundits insist.

Why not?

Come on. Indulging those people would be like indulging a four-year-old's demand for matches. We don't do that. We aren't going to let Trump's fans have their way, either.

It's summer. Enjoy the sun. Have a cold drink. And don't feed trolls.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Brian Unger on The Daily Show

I watched Jon Stewart's final Daily Show as it aired on the West Coast. Then, as often happens when I get lost in a big moment, something that touches me deeply, I went online to see what other people were thinking. As often happens when I do that, I wound up disappointed by, first, the sameness of so many pieces, and second, how far I diverged in my assessment from what many others thought.

For me, the high point of the episode was the opening bit. Seeing former correspondent after former correspondent make his or her way into camera range was catnip to this sentimental fool, and I freely admit, I teared up a few times. That said, it wasn't perfect. I wish Aasif Mandvi and John Hodgman had gotten more to do. (This is of a piece with my feeling that they were woefully underused during their tenures on the show.) John Oliver's egg-sandwich bit fell flat except for the punchline. But Stephen Colbert, thankfully, delivered a pitch-perfect performance in both the scripted and unscripted parts. The rest of the episode, frankly, I could have missed, especially since I'm neither a Goodfellas nor a Springsteen fan.

Most of the people who like Stewart and who have an established platform, like the Huffington Post, on which to write, loved the whole thing from beginning to end. That's fine (lots of Goodfellas and Springsteen fans out there and more power to them), but the adulation given to the "bullshit" monologue is undeserved. The monologue pretty much summed up what Stewart has been railing against almost from the day he started, but for that very reason, it was superfluous and too damned long. We all know what bullshit is: we didn't need a taxonomy.

In retrospect, I wonder if Stewart felt he needed to say all that because he knows Trevor Noah will be moving away from calling out cable news, and Fox News in particular, for hypocrisy and outright lying. It would then be up to the rest of us, including himself, to follow his closing admonition: "If you smell something, say something", because The Daily Show with Trevor Noah wouldn't be doing that any more.

In what has been the only truly interesting piece on the subject that I've found, Brian Unger described the first incarnation of The Daily Show and explained why a new direction post-Jon Stewart is needed.

In 2015, when so few people actually watch live TV on broadcast or cable, raging at cable news can feel like kicking a dead horse.

John Oliver and Bill Maher have demonstrated this transcendence. Their shows rarely, if ever, include outrageous clips from cable news and are less ripped-from-the-headlines. They cover a spectrum of stories from less mainstream sources, most of them unrelated to media, and closer to a topic or issue itself. And so Trevor Noah and his producers, too, will have to evolve The Daily Show. They’ll have to wrap their satirical arms around an even vaster flood of news and information, most of it untelevised, on the Web, social media, and beyond.

Unger is a smart guy: his whole piece is filled with insights like this. Read it.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The far right's closed meme-system

Jon Stewart's penultimate Daily Show episode started with a self-deprecating look back at how little difference his tenure on the show has made. It was a swipe at left-leaning media's (bad and annoying) habit in recent years of turning the previous night's bits into clickbait by creating ridiculously hyperbolic headlines.

Some of the issues the show has tackled obviously were not going to be solved by any TV show or pundit (ISIS, for example). On the other hand, there was Fox News, one of the audience's, and apparently one of the writing staff's, favorite targets. It's terribly discouraging for progressives to face the reality that for all Stewart's needling, Fox News is at least as strong today in terms of total viewership, audience share, and profit as it was when Stewart started hosting.

How is it that the man who destroyed CNN's Crossfire with one guest appearance couldn't even dent Fox News with years of often hilarious (and accurate) hectoring?

It comes down to one often-noted characteristic of the audience for avowedly right-wing media: its absolute belief in that media's truthfulness, and its absolute lack of interest in anything that non-right-wing media says (unless it agrees with right-wing media).

Putting it another way, the Fox News audience simply doesn't give a shit what anybody else thinks about either Fox News or far-right media generally.

CNN, on the other hand, is watched by people who aren't fanatically devoted to it. They accept that CNN could be wrong, and they're receptive to the kind of criticism that Stewart leveled at Crossfire. CNN's management knows that the audience's trust can't be taken for granted. Far-right media's relationship with its audience is much stronger.

Why? Because far-right media is expertly pandering to its audience's preconceptions and biases. Far-right media is telling its audience exactly what it wants to hear.

You can extend the Fox News audience's refusal to consider criticism of right-wing media to include certain public figures, notably (and only for the moment) Donald Trump. Trump has been pilloried for weeks by non-right-wing media and comedians like Stewart for saying breathtakingly dumb, offensive and sometimes flatly untruthful things, yet his poll numbers have held steady. That's because the same people who don't give a shit what anybody else thinks about far-right media also don't give a shit what anybody else thinks about Trump. And again, that's because Trump is telling them what they want to hear. He's patting them on the back and telling them, "You're right".

Contradicting Trump, or far-right media, is tantamount to telling their audience, "You're wrong" — or, to match the tone of Jon Stewart's way of delivering this message, "You're grotesquely, ridiculously, and worst of all, knowingly and deliberately wrong".

It's unsurprising that audience doesn't want to hear it.

But oh brother, it needs to hear it.

These people are literally telling themselves a different story about the world than the rest of us, and they don't give a shit what we think or say.

This is a big, big problem. They're claiming their own facts. This was merely delicious in the 2012 election, when Fox News' Karl Rove kept dismissing the exit polls showing Obama's lead in some swing states. It ceases to be amusing, though, when these people dismiss what scientists have to say about how the world works. Refusing to look at the world as it is leads to disaster, and if the rest of us can't contain this delusional bunch they're going to take us all over any of multiple cliffs by embracing totally wrongheaded policies.

Somehow, some way, somebody has to crack the self-sustaining, closed meme-system the far right has created for itself. As long as their votes count the same as yours and mine, we can't afford their denial of reality and logic.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

I need to get past Stewart and Colbert

There's a very good case to be made that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert anesthetized us rather than accomplishing anything truly constructive.

As is depressingly often the case these days, I'm late to this particular party: Steve Almond cogently summed up this argument three years ago in "The Joke's on You" in the Baffler.

[Stewart's] criticism of the Iraq war—a series of reports under the banner Mess O’Potamia—might have done more to diffuse the antiwar movement than the phone surveillance clauses embedded in the Patriot Act. Why take to the streets when Stewart and Colbert are on the case? It’s a lot easier, and more fun, to experience the war as a passive form of entertainment than as a source of moral distress requiring citizen activism.
Almond revisited his point in a recent Salon piece, "We all got addicted to Jon Stewart". The Salon piece's teaser line: "He needed dysfunction for laughs. We needed laughs to feel better about the dysfunction. It's time we stop [sic] laughing."

Indeed, it's time we stopped laughing.

Too many of us, and I'm certainly in this camp, never asked ourselves if we should do anything about the hypocrisy and outright criminality Stewart and Colbert brought to our attention. We might never have said it out loud or even consciously thought about it, but we acted as if watching their shows was a contribution to improving the country.

I'll probably keep watching The Daily Show after Stewart leaves. I'll probably watch either The Nightly Show or Colbert on CBS, too. But maybe I'll have gotten over the feeling that just watching these guys is enough. Maybe I'll do something productive instead.