Friday, October 31, 2008

De Facto, or, Holy Crap: I Totally Forgot About Cheney

For a long time people have talked about how Cheney has been the "real," "secret" president, but (1) I've tended to treat it as little more than justifiable slander or exaggeration, and (2) it hasn't been entirely clear to me why that's a terrible thing as opposed to, like, a sketchy thing.  Well, (1) as I learned when I went back to teach at my old school, all rumors are always true,* and (2) this alone—and it is not alone—should be enough to conclude the terrible–sketchy debate: Cheney's people assert that "the vice presidency is a unique office that is neither a part of the executive branch nor a part of the legislative branch"—i.e., checks & balances do not apply.

I was reminded of all this by a great (but scary) article by David Bromwich in The New York Review of Books (Nov. 20, 2008).  Speaking of crypto-Fascism's contempt for parliamentary, representative government—"Cheney plainly rebels against the idea that conventional lawmakers, whose only power lies in their numbers, could ever check or by law prevent the actions of a leader vested with great power."  Now, The New York Review may be respectable, but it's also pretty liberal,** so can we trust what Bromwich asserts about Cheney's philosophy?  Fortunately, the article uses Cheney himself as the ultimate primary source: in May 1989, as Bush père's secretary of defense, Cheney referred to the "inviolable powers inherent in the presidential office" and referred to Congress, by contrast, as "535 individual, separately elected politicians, each of whom seeks to claim credit and avoid blame.'"  Not only is this discomfitingly resonant with Eco's description of "ur-Fascism," but isn't it pretty shockingly un-American?  Maybe it was just my wacky Commie education, but I seem to remember learning that the different branches of government were set up and separated from each other specifically so as to avoid, like, tyranny? and stuff?  This sort of arbitrary creation of a new, above-the-law branch of government doesn't seem exactly... respectful? of, you know... the Constitution?

"Cheney's ruling passion appears to be a love of presidential power.  Go under the surface a little and this reveals itself as...a quality of the will that seems accidentally tied to an office, a country, or a given system of political arrangements... there is nothing particularly American about Cheney's idea of government, just as there is nothing particularly constitutional about his view of the law; and no more broadly characterizing adjective, such as 'Christian,' will cover his ideas of right and wrong."  One thing that has me so excited about the Democratic Party's evident success in reclaiming patriotism, the American flag, the word "America," etc., is not just that it disables one of the GOP's most devastating political weapons, but also that it corrects a grave intellectual, philosophical, and ethical wrong.  The patriotism that Sarah Palin invokes when she speaks of a "real" and a "fake" America has nothing to do with America (just as, uncoincidentally, the religious ethics of an American Christian who treats the Bible as literal truth but cherry-picks the relevant passages*** has little to do with Christianity): the moral axiom is that we, as opposed to you, are good and "real" and right.  Polls indicate that McCain supporters and Obama supporters alike believe that the candidate they don't like might destroy America; I'm going to go ahead and say that the Obama supporters' fears are more valid because, although of course what we're really looking at is two opposing ideas of America, the McCain-will-destroy-America viewpoint is all about the Constitution (i.e., about the American ethos), whereas the Obama-will-destroy-America view seems pretty clearly to be about the fact that Obama is black and the fantasy that he is Muslim (i.e., about an American ethnicity).  In an analogous case, the outrageous absurdity of the "War on Christmas" mentality is clear in the fact that Christmas itself is not in danger (cannot possibly be, in a democracy with such an enormous Christian majority), and what is really going on is that some religious people are projecting onto less religious people what they themselves would surely like to do to them: in other words, the fear that Christians will soon be silenced is based on the fact that the people afraid of this are very unhappy that non-Christians are not silenced...and the silencing of a minority, unlike the silencing of a majority, is and always will be a very real danger—a danger protected against by precisely the kind of Constitutional provisions that Cheney et al seem so willing to bulldoze or (even more shocking) to reject out of hand.

Bromwich's article links Cheney to an amazing range of GOP nastiness stretching all the way back to old Richard Nixon (who Cheney thought "should not have resigned").  Forget Valerie Plame and Halliburton.  It's safe to say that Cheney was more behind the Iraq lies than Bush was—indeed, the "Bush Doctrine" of preemptive war is a misnomer, given that "Cheney took considerable pride in the prescription...that the US should 'act against' emerging threats 'before they are fully formed'" fully 25 years ago.  Cheney also:
  1. opposed FISA (that thing that's supposed to keep our government from spying on us) from the very beginning;
  2. classified documents having to do with "CIA kidnappings, assassination plots, and illegal domestic spying" because that was none of our business;
  3. "sought and obtained the resignation of William Colby as director of the CIA for too readily cooperating with the Church Committee" (which was formed in response to Watergate and led to FISA);
  4. "advised George H.W. Bush not to seek approval from Congress for the first Gulf War";
  5. argued that Iran–Contra was justified and that (in Bromwich's words, not Cheney's) "Even though Congress had made a law expressly forbidding those actions, the fault lay with Congress for having meddled in affairs that belonged by right to the president";
  6. "plucked out of obscurity and brought back to government" John Poindexter, "still under a shadow from having been charged with various crimes in the Iran-contra [sic] prosecutions," who "became the projector of Total Information Awareness—a War on Terror idea rejected by Congress, which would have encouraged Americans to spy on their neighbors"; and
  7. "was the master architect" behind "extreme interrogations that included the drowning torture; renditions to 'black sites' where prisoners are tortured by the police of states known for their brutality; and the creation of a class of stateless persons-without-rights, 'enemy combatants,' to reside at Guantánamo without protection from American laws or any other laws."

But that's not all!  Call now, and you'll get a vice-president whose very vice-presidence is creepy and scary and worthy of discussion on Halloween!  "It is symptomatic that in the Ford administration, when Cheney served as White House chief of staff"—yes, Cheney has been in charge forever—"he declined a generous offer of cabinet status: higher visibility, he believed, would only diminish his actual potency."  The evil beauty of Cheney's position is that he gets to run the country, more or less, and not be held responsible: "The fact that Bush's answers are so inadequate, from a defect of mental sharpness and retentiveness ans well as dissimulation, kills the appetite for further questions.  But the fact that the questions have, in a formal sense, been asked and answered lets the vice-president off the hook...  The man who held decisive authority in the White House during the Bush years has so far remained unaccountable for the aggrandizement and abuse of executive power; for the imposition of repressive laws whose contents were barely known by the legislature that passed them; for the instigation of domestic spying without disclosure or oversight; for the dissemination of false evidence to take the country into war; for the design and conduct of what the constitutional framers would have called an imperium in imperio, a government within the government."

People tend to think simplistically, and part of Cheney's power is that that power is tough to grasp in very simple terms, so it's worth holding off 4–5 days during which the name of Bush should be invoked (as in this video, 5:40–6:06 in particular) as often as humanly possible... but after Election Day, I think it might be worthwhile to shift blame to where blame is most due: forget Bush—jail Cheney.****

Happy Halloween!

* I am joking, mostly.
** A Republican family friend (and college buddy of George W. Bush) once cracked me up by saying, when my father recommended the Review to this guy's left-leaning son, "Why don't you just skip that step and go straight to Pravda?"
*** E.g., choosing not to stone disobedient children to death (Deut. 21:18–21), to pick an example more or less at random.
**** Step 1: Obama for President!

some stupid bullshit

I had a dorky response to this sign: since the word pests in this context (pesticide, which I believe is a 20th-century neologism) almost invariably refers to members of the kingdom Animalia, it's sort of funny to have "ANIMAL FOOD" and "PESTICIDE" right next to each other—particularly given that the way we poison the animals we don't like is usually by disguising the poison as... animal food?

(click to enlarge)

Speaking of animals that need to be poisoned...  Ads for the lottery often strike me as particularly unscrupulous (that very popular "Hey, you never know!" campaign is kind of like an ad for cigarettes that goes, "Not everyone who smokes gets cancer!").  This one is half typically despicable in that it suggests that this particular raffle is somehow a smart bet, but half refreshingly candid in that it (inadvertently, I should think) suggests that participating in the lottery is the kind of thing you'd do after taking advice from a turkey.

Yes, more HSBC.  I'm too tired of it to give it a post of its own, and this picture came out really poorly because of all the reflection—but let's just note that here the different values making the world a richer place are: (1) pharmaceuticals are a good way to prevent disease, (2) pharmaceuticals are a good way to cure disease, and (3) pharmaceuticals are a good way to... escape your problems and become a drug addict?  Thank you, HSBC.  I'm glad to know that substance abusers are also welcome to give you their money.  You're equal-opportunity fleecers.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

grammarsluts Q'n'F'n'A: anything further, Father?

Q.  What is the difference between farther and further?
A.  Both are comparatives of far, but farther refers to literal distance and further to metaphorical distance.  E.g., "If you find yourself at the CVS, you've gone too far, and you should turn around and head in the other direction instead of going any farther," but "If you find yourself knocking over a CVS for oxycontin, you've gone too far, and you should seek professional help instead of going any further."

Q.  So should I say that we'll figure something out "a little farther down the road" or "a little further down the road"?
A.  OK, sometimes it gets a little complicated.  A funny question has arisen: is your use of the word far literal in the metaphor?—by which I mean: although the distance down the road is metaphorical, are the length of the road and your progress along it (being parts of the metaphor) literal in context?*
    Think of an epic simile: if I say that the effect of adrenaline in my body was comparable to the way "a shark, sensing blood in the water, begins to swim faster, its fin slicing through the water" (or some shit), then the swimming and the slicing are parts of the metaphor but not metaphors in themselves—indeed, they probably don't have a 1:1 correspondence to anything in "the real world" (the metaphor's tenor) but rather are, rather, within the context of the metaphor itself, quite literal.  To put it another way, one would not say "a metaphorical bird in the metaphorical hand is worth two in the metaphorical bush," for roughly the same reason that it would be foolish to interrupt a discussion of Hamlet to object that, no, Polonius isn't killed by Hamlet, but rather the fictional character Polonius is "killed" by the fictional character Hamlet, fictionally—which not only goes but in fact goes much better without saying.  A parable might be more to the point: in the parable of the talents, it would be incorrect to say that that one servant buries a metaphorical talent: the talent surely is a metaphor, but then so are the man and his choice to bury the talent, and to focus on one aspect as metaphorical is like mixing metaphors, not just unnecessary but confusing and almost certainly confused.
    So it seems to me that you should say "a little farther down the road": even though it's a metaphor, you're talking about literal distance in the context of that metaphor.  One does not go metaphorically down a literal road, and in the context of the metaphor (which is rather like the "reality" of a fictional world), the road is real.  We can of course imagine metaphors within metaphors within parables within fictional tales...but then, sadly, our head a splode.

* Bonus question / semi-analogous concept:  Should I give the cookies to (a) whoever wants them, or (b) whomever wants them?  The answer, which surprises many educated folks, is (a), that you should give them to whoever wants them, because the object of the preposition to is not in fact who- or whomever but rather who- or whomever wants it.  In other words, whoever wants it is an object; whoever itself is a subject.

Lost in Translation, by Robo-Coppola

The following is excerpted from a screenplay I wrote in 2004.  People told me I was wasting my time writing it: "No one will ever buy or produce a screenplay called Jesus Christ: King of the Mole People," they said.  Well, I ignored them, and guess what?  It's four years later, and we are this close to electing a black president!  So who's crazy now??

N.B.: Ideally "voice of dog" would be H. Jon Benjamin.


A group of SCIENTISTS stands near a cage with a DOG in it.  The dog is rather excited, jumping around and BARKING intermittently.  The scientists are all looking at a small device that looks something like a remote control or possibly an electric shaver.  [Gen.] Mifflin is with them, talking to one of the scientists, SCIENTIST 1, who appears to be in charge.

MIFFLIN   I want to see it work now.
SCIENTIST 1   Sir, we haven't quite ironed out—
MIFFLIN   Did you hear me?
SCIENTIST 1   Yessir.

The head scientist nods to another scientist, SCIENTIST 2, who takes the device over to the cage.

SCIENTIST 1   Well, sir, as you know, this device should interpret the dog's bark, using a very sophisticated—
MIFFLIN   Show me.

Scientist 2 gets into the cage with the dog.  The dog BARKS excitedly.

SCIENTIST 2   O.K., boy.  Let's see.

The scientist fiddles with the device.  The dog BARKS again.

SCIENTIST 2 (to himself)   OK...   (to everyone)   OK, it's on.   (to the dog)   All right, Spence.  Come on, Spencer.

The dog BARKS again, and this time the device speaks for him.

VOICE OF DOG   I want chowder.
SCIENTIST 1   There!

But the other scientists react with surprise.

SCIENTIST 3   "I want chowder"?

Scientist 1 realizes that this is odd.

SCIENTIST 2   Does this dog even know what chowder is?

The dog BARKS again.

VOICE OF DOG   I want chowder.
SCIENTIST 1   OK, turn it off!

The dog BARKS again.

VOICE OF DOG   I want chowder.
SCIENTIST 1   Turn it off!

Scientist 2 turns off the device.

SCIENTIST 1 (generally)   Who programmed the word "chowder" into this thing?
MIFFLIN   I'll take it.
MIFFLIN   I said I'll take it.
SCIENTIST 1   Sir, clearly there are some—
MIFFLIN   Are you going to make me say it a third time?

Brief pause.

SCIENTIST 1   No, sir.



The room is divided in half by a large transparent wall—plate glass or some kind of plexiglass with a door in it.  One half of the room is for scientists and observers; the other half is for Jesus.  Jesus sits crouched in a corner of his half of the room like a caged animal.  In the room with him is a ball and some plastic baby toys.  On the other side of the glass, another scientist, MURPHY, watches Jesus.

MURPHY (softly, through the glass)   You see me.

Murphy taps the glass.  Suddenly Mifflin bursts in with the translator device.

MIFFLIN   Murphy!

Murphy is surprised and jumps back from the glass.

MIFFLIN   What did I say about tapping?
MURPHY   Sorry, sir.

Mifflin walks past him and steps into Jesus' half of the room.  Jesus tries to retreat further into the corner of the room.  Mifflin adopts a much kindlier attitude than we've seen in him yet: he's talking to a child or a madman.

MIFFLIN   Now, now.  Don't be frightened.
JESUS   Ephphatha.
MIFFLIN   Yes, yes.

Mifflin switches on the dog translator and holds it out toward Jesus.  Jesus recoils.

MIFFLIN   There, there.  I'm not going to hurt you.  There, there.

Jesus now eyes the device with curiosity.


Mifflin steps closer to Jesus with it.

MIFFLIN   Now, talk to me.

Jesus gets much more comfortable and even approaches Mifflin.  Mifflin stiffens a little but stands his ground.  On the other side of the glass, Murphy cautiously reaches for a gun.  Jesus leans toward the dog translator.

MIFFLIN   Say something.  Say something to me.

Jesus sniffs at the device.

MIFFLIN   No, no.  Speak.  Speak!

Jesus looks at him suspiciously.  Mifflin is running out of patience.

MIFFLIN   Speak, I said.  Teach me something, God damn it!
JESUS   Ephphatha!
VOICE OF DOG   I don't like you.

Mifflin's eyes widen with excitement.

MIFFLIN   A-ha!  A-ha!

Mifflin looks at the device and then pushes it toward Jesus again.

JESUS   Ephphatha!
VOICE OF DOG   Stay away from me.
MIFFLIN (thrilled)   A-ha!  Now say something else.

Jesus tilts his head.

MIFFLIN Something else, say something else!  Go on!

Jesus seems to be calming down and becoming a little more trusting.

MIFFLIN   Go on.  Go on, say something.  It's OK.
JESUS   Ephphatha.
VOICE OF DOG   I want chowder.

Mifflin frowns.

MIFFLIN   What?  No.  Again.
JESUS   Ephphatha.
VOICE OF DOG   I want chowder.
MIFFLIN (furious)   No!

Jesus is startled and grows angry.

JESUS   Ephphatha!
VOICE OF DOG   I want chowder.
MIFFLIN   No!  No no no no no no no!
MURPHY   Sir...!

Suddenly Jesus pounces, throwing himself on Mifflin like a wild animal.  Mifflin goes down with Jesus all over him; from Murphy's side of the room, we lose sight of them.  Mifflin SCREAMS AND SCREAMS.

VOICE OF DOG (translating the screams)   I'm frightened.  I'm frightened.

. . . Exciting, eh?  NOW GIMME ALL YOUR MONEY.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

We are having a special this week on proton charging and storage of the beast...

Ghostbusters is one of my favorite movies—even though my friend Kent Jones at Film Comment blames it for "the various 'winning' formulae that have been afflicting American cinema since [its] runaway success" (e.g., "whizzing music-saturated action, heavy character typing, pop cultural droppings, and junior high scenarios of lessons learned and difficulties overcome through perfunctory chases or 'really good talks'"), and even though someone recently pointed out to me that it's basically a Reagan-era fantasy (the heroes are small-business owners persecuted by the eggheads at the university; the main bad guys include a pagan architect and the EPA).  Maybe I just like it because I saw it when I was 6 years old (in a drive-in theater—we had to drive out of the movie during the "terror dog" scene because I got too scared, and I remember watching Rick Moranis pound on the windows of the Tavern on the Green through the rear windshield of our Datsun station wagon), but really I think it's just one of those movies that transcends itself, and some damned good comedy.

But so there's that scene when they catch the Focused Nonterminal Repeating Phantasm (Class 5 Full-Roaming Vapor)* and the hotel manager (in one of my [many] favorite lines) tries to get out of paying:

When I was teaching The Great Gatsby, my students wanted to know how much Gatsby's house cost in current dollars, and one of them (the students, not the dollars) actually found an "Inflation Calculator"—at, appropriately enough—that gave or at least claimed to give an answer.**  So, adjusting for inflation, how much did it cost in 1984 to have the Ghostbusters rid your hotel of pesky ghosts?  $9,857.76.  (I had no idea it would be so much; I won't pay it.)

Ten thousand in one night ain't bad.  Of course they've got to split it three and then later four ways (although, I don't know, you think Winston Zeddmore's really an equal partner?***), but the montage following their success in the hotel suggests that they keep very busy.  They must have a sliding scale, though, right?  I mean, are they billing that guy in Chinatown ten thousand 2007 dollars?  Or is he paying them in duck?  Assuming that (a) $5,000 (1984) is the high end and that the average is more like, I don't know, $3,000?—and that (b) they're catching a ghost about once a day (which is probably conservative), these motherfuckers must be pulling in about a quarter million 1984 dollars a year each (assuming/hoping the black guy isn't getting screwed), or about 500,000 in 2007 dollars.  Of course, they've got to pay back the mortgage on the house Ray's parents left him (he was born there)****—but to paraphrase Max Fischer, they started a hit business, so they're not sweating it, either.

On the other hand, isn't the defeat of Gozer, which is such good news for the plot of the movie, in fact terrible news for the company?  Pecker—excuse me, Peck—accuses the Ghostbusters of generating fake ghosts, but he may be righter than we give him credit for: the Ghostbusters' incentive to actually rid the City of ghosts is extraordinarily low.  Janine says it earlier when the roof blows off their firehouse, but it might be truer still of their marshmallowy victory: "It's a sign, all right: going out of business."

* Real nasty one, too.  (No one born before 1981 should ever refer to that thing as "Slimer."  That's the rule.)
** If Wikipedia's right that the main action of the novel takes place in 1922 (I am too lazy to check: that's exactly the kind of detail I'm least good at remembering), then Gatsby's house, which "rented for twelve or fifteen thousand a season" [emphasis on the rented if you're trying to analyze the shit], would go for something like $170,000 in the 2007 summer season.
*** He does have one of the best lines and one of the worst lines in the entire movie.  Best: "I have seen shit that would turn you white!" (said to a white guy).  Worst: "I love this town!" (nonsense).
**** OK, I and my parents before me have always been renters, so I've got to admit that I am shamefully ignorant when it comes to mortgages.  When Egon says, "For your information, the interest rate alone for the first five years comes to $95,000,"a what does that even mean?  Is that a good thing or a bad thing?  ("You never studied.")
a 187 thousand in 2007 dollars.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

it's a wonder I can think at all

(click to enlarge)

Is it me, or is referencing the "can't take it with you" aphorism* maybe not a good idea in an ad asking you not to litter?  I'm not a litterer, but this ad makes me think, "Oh, right, I forgot that when you die none of this shit matters anymore.  Who cares where my gum wrapper goes?"**  Of course the original sense of "You can't take it with you" hinges on the understanding that the pronoun it refers to material wealth, as specifically opposed to spiritual wealth, so I suppose you could say that reminding us to focus on our good deeds is worthwhile...  But, I don't know, I still think the ad's a failure.  I'm left feeling that I don't really want a used styrofoam cup with me in Heaven; I'd kind of rather leave it on the subway car.

(click to enlarge)

This ad's happy defacement has been updated.  Now he's got a mustache.

(click to enlarge)

This is a store on Broadway, near Houston.  I love the sign.  You'd like to think they're joking or at least that there's some degree of irony in it, but probably not, right?  Fantastic, meaning wonderful, extraordinary, extravagant; "from the Middle English fantastik, imagined...from Late Latin phantasticus, imaginary, from Greek phantastikos, able to create mental images, from phantazesthai, to appear"; from an Indo–European root meaning to shine, by way of "to bring to light" and "to be brought to light," i.e., to appear.
     The lower level has shower curtains and towels.  

(click to enlarge)

This is from an episode of Sealab 2021.  I love that parents are warned that the film advertised includes "situations": as a subtle jab at movie previews, it's just too true.  Two things I noticed recently in previews: (1) movies are sometimes identified as including, along with, say, "adult situations," "strong themes," which I think is a funny thing to warn people about (clearly a euphemism, but I'm not actually even sure for what),*** and (2) I swear that the MPAA warning before that ridiculous Star Wars cartoon that came out this summer dutifully warned the audience that the following preview was going to include smoking.

This picture I didn't take: it was in the Times, associated with an article about some music festival I won't name.  Anyway, it made me a little mad because I had just recently noticed that the same "Life is beautiful" graffiti had gone up in the last few days on this wall [the second of the two pictures] on Houston Street, and it's clear now that it isn't "real" graffiti but rather an advertisement—which rubs me the wrong way just as many commercials do.  What am I saying?  This means it is a commercial. 

(click to enlarge)

I hate it when corporations decide that it's really cool to reference the election in a super-super-nonpartisan way, like, "Who are you going to vote for?  It doesn't really matter, it's totally reasonable to support either candidate: this election has meaning and significance only as an expression of your personal style!"  Bullshit.  It's a bit like those fucking HSBC ads, but all the more maddening because they're about something so important.  As David Sedaris recently said (by far my favorite thing he's written that I've read), undecided voters are like airplane travelers who, when presented with the choice between the chicken and "the platter of shit with bits of broken glass in it," have to think about it, and ask the stewardess "how the chicken is cooked."  (I.e., they're fucking idiots.)  Anyway, the Gap would like us to think that the blanks are meaningful.  So I like that somebody's filled them in.

(click to enlarge)

This is a more complete view of the thing I—can one say excerpted?—the other day.

* Is that the right word, aphorism?
** Roughly the same attitude held, as I understand it, by fundamentalist Christians who scoff at environmentalism.
*** It's funny that previews warn you about "language," too (oh, no, this movie has language in it?), but that at least is at this point an established synecdoche.  Or, wait...reverse synecdoche?  Calling something by the name of the whole of which it is a part.  "Language!"

Sunday, October 26, 2008

resistance is futile

I like these ads.  I think they're funny.  They make me laugh.  I try to remind myself that I'm being played like a, like a, like a 1989 Game Boy, and that one layer behind the absurdist comedy is something deeply cynical and arguably even worse than the ads I hate (q.v.)—because basically what's going on is that they've just figured out how to market to me: "Pretend it's not an ad, act all nihilistic and wacky, and this jackass is just going to completely forget that he's being pandered to and manipulated!"  I'm dumber than a 1950s conformo-consumer swayed by a fake doctor on TV.

Anyway, here they are, a few of them.  Behold my downfall:

The first time I saw this one, I was not amused till 37 seconds in (and particularly the last 5 seconds).  Now I find the whole thing hilarious.  I like when he calls him "Steven."  I'm an idiot.

The shorter version of this one is better: leaves out 0:13–0:36, I think, so it goes straight from "Is it awesome?" to the phone ringing.  The long version kind of overplays its hand...?  I just saw what I was typing and vomited into my own mouth.

Um . . . all right, we can do that!

This is the first one I ever a movie theater.  I hate movie-theater ads.  The last 8 seconds won me over forever, and now I am a kind of subhuman drone.

Except that...wait a minute!  I don't buy Skittles.  I've never bought Skittles!


style soldier survivor

Another one of those damned HSBC ads:

These threebies don't really make sense to begin with (A vs. B works a lot better), but it's increasingly clear that HSBC's ad people have completely lost track of their original idea—and that's just embarrassing (hateful though the original, lost idea may have been).  So, like, the "Different values" here that "make the world a richer place" are: (a) bald heads are a fashion choice, (b) bald heads are patriotic, and (c) bald heads are for people undergoing chemotherapy?*  (Or people in concentration camps?)  Do those really count as different values?

Or is the idea that since soldiers and cancer patients often have bald heads, it's frivolous and insulting for a person to shave her head for æsthetic which case really what you've got is a twofer posing as a threebie?  (Think of three pictures of Barack Obama, labeled "Hope," "Bullshit," and "Marxist.")  I've got to say I doubt it: clearly HSBC doesn't want to ruffle any feathers.  My guess is they realized that even presenting both sides of a disagreement gets people mad—for example, the old-style ad pitting pharmaceuticals against homeopathic herbs must have infuriated folks on both sides of that particular argument because both subscribers to modern medicine and, you know, hippies and witch doctors or whatever** were bound to be like, "What, you're telling me this is a matter of opinion??"  (Think of a Jesus vs. Darwin ad labeled "Truth," "Bullshit," "Bullshit," "Truth.")

At this point HSBC should give up, drop the different-values bullshit, and say, "HSBC: Whatever You Believe, We Just Hope You Like Us."

* This doesn't even take into account the parallelism problem.
** Wonder what Short Round thinks about this one, huh?  Am I right?  Guys? –ed.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

the uptown kids are all right

Spotted on Madison Avenue between East 72nd and 73rd Streets:


Gossip Girl

Friday, October 24, 2008


"If I were a dictator, which I always aspire to be..." -John McCain

This is a long one, so you may want to get some snacks.

In the Oct. 27 New Yorker, Steve Coll writes, "McCain is right in detecting signs of growing class resentment; some of the angry are turning up at McCain–Palin rallies, where the mood has been not so much socialist as national-socialist."  I'm frequently surprised by how few people know what National Socialism is: in German it's NationalsozialismusNazi, for short.1  It's interesting that Coll left the N and the S uncapitalized; there are all sorts of reasons why he might do this, and I recently concluded that I am incapable of reading people's minds, but I can't help but think that he left it all in lowercase so that fewer people (maybe only educated people?) would notice the reference.

And why might someone want to bury the reference?

Because you're not allowed to say that a politician is a fascist, no matter what—even if he is.  This, I think, is based on a basic confusion about what fascism is.  Two reminders:
  1. Fascism is not synonymous with anti-Semitism.  The indignant defense "You're accusing me of genocide, now?" makes no more sense in this context than it would if the accusation were merely that you had broken the law.  The Holocaust is the Nazis' greatest crime, but it is not the essence of fascism itself.
  2. A fascist is not a demon, but rather a human being—a leader or a follower who subscribes to a particular political philosophy.  Yes, it is a terrible and arguably evil political philosophy, insofar as any philosophy is evil—not to mention crazy, sadomasochistic, disturbed and disturbing—but if our understanding of fascism goes no further than that it's evil, then we have absolutely no defense against neo-fascist politicians because we cannot identify them unless they actually wear swastikas on their arms and talk about ethnic cleansing.  I'm no historian, but I'm pretty sure Hitler did not self-identify, when campaigning, as "evil."  This, by the way, is part of the reason why people are sometimes surprised to learn what Nazi was short for: it's like, "They weren't called the Anti-Semitic Megalomaniacal Inhuman Monster Party?"
Umberto Eco wrote an article in The New York Review of Books (Jun. 22, 1995) called "Ur-Fascism," in which he attempted to explain what fascism actually is...the problem being that, as Lewis Lapham laid it out in an Oct. 2005 Harper's "Notebook,"2 fascism comprises an "assortment of fantastic and often contradictory notions—Nazi paganism, Franco's National Catholicism, Mussolini's corporatism, etc."  So what's the common ground?  What makes fascism fascism?  Here are a few of the key shared features, according to Eco.

[By the way, I said I'd talk about why Sarah Palin is not just infuriating but terrifying.  Here it is.]

  • Fascism implies "the rejection of modernism... The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity.  In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism."
  • "Distrust of the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Ur-Fascism, from Goering's alleged statement ('When I hear talk of culture I reach for my gun') to the frequent use of such expressions as 'degenerate intellectuals,' 'eggheads,' 'effete snobs,' 'universities are nests of reds.'"
  • "For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason."
  • "Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference.  The first appeal of a fascist...movement is an appeal against the intruders."
  • "...obsession with a plot, possibly an international one.  The followers must feel besieged.  The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia.  But the plot must also come from the inside: Jews are usually the best target because they have the advantage of being at the same time inside and outside."  [Muslims work well in today's America.]
  • "The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth...of their enemies."  [This one has seriusly backfired for McCain, which is part of the reason why he's losing.]
  • "...pacifism is trafficking with the enemy.  It is bad because life is permanent warfare."
  • "...a selective populism, a qualitative populism...individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will.  Since no large quantity of human beings have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter...  Wherever a politician casts doubt on the legitimacy of a parliament because it no longer represents the Voice of the People, we can smell Ur-Fascism."

I was thinking of including a link to an article or a video for every single one of these, but is it even necessary?3

Let's focus just on one moment from the VP debate.  Sarah Palin says, "I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you [Sen. Biden] want to hear, but I'm going to talk straight to the American people."  Of course the pretense, at least, of a televised debate, is that you are talking to the American people by answering questions.  Right?  The moderator is there to ask you questions with the assumption that your answers will be important for Americans to hear; your opponent is there to challenge your position so that you can clarify it—again, for the benefit of Americans.  What Palin did in the debate was to say, effectively, that only she speaks for America, only she gets to define America (e.g, which America is "real" and which is "fake"4), only she is America.  Sarah Palin answers to America, not to the polls of public opinion or to the people's elected representatives—o-or ethics laws!

You can even see it in "Country First": the campaign slogan is an abbreviation of "Country First, Party Second," which of course (since the McCain–Palin ticket is solidly Republican, even more so than McCain himself was a year ago) is really just a response to the fact that Americans currently prefer Democrats to Republicans and want to vote Bush's party out.  So when they say "Country First," they're obviously not actually saying "Forget G.O.P. Politics" (except, of course, in a "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain" kind of a way); they're saying "Choose America, not the Democrats," which of course means "America = the G.O.P.," which, given that (again) America currently prefers the Democratic positions on the major issues, means "The G.O.P. Knows What You Want Better Than You Do" or, more to the point, "If You Disagree with Us, You Are an Enemy of America."

So is the Republican ticket set on the extermination of the Jews?  Absolutely not. But are the politics of McCain (and particularly Palin) scary? problematic? reminiscent of, or even identifiable with, some of what makes fascism fascism?  Afraid so.  Emphasis on afraid.

[If McCain gets to appoint a Supreme Court Justice like Roberts, Alito, Scalia, or Thomas,] the Constitution will be under the severest siege in its history. There can be no higher stakes.

Which is why this is better than just good news:


1 Actually, Nazi may be an abbreviation of the full party name, Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, but the point is that when somebody says "National Socialism," he's talking about the Nazis.
2 Which is what first directed me to Eco's article.
3 One of the reasons why I had so much trouble with the Clinton campaign (particularly once Obama started winning) had one of its weirdest and most naked expressions when Paul Begala said (and I happened to see this live on TV), "We cannot win with eggheads and African-Americans"—emphasis here on the eggheads.
4 Jon Stewart: "So, if small towns are Real America, that would make big cities, like Washington D.C. and New York City, the capitals of Fake America, like the, the epicenter of Fake America, the, the—oh, what's the word I'm looking—the Ground Zero, if you will, of Anti-America.  I bet bin Laden feels like a real asshole now, huh?  'What?!  I bombed the wrong America?!'"

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Biology 122b: FAIL

EXAM 2 — March 5, 1997

2. SEEDS AND FRUIT (20 pts total)
The seed and the ovule represent key innovations in the evolution of plants.
d. (5 pts) What "generations" are represented in a gymnosperm seed?
(1) The Artist Formerly Known as Prince and his New Power Generation
(2) the Beat generation
(3) the generation of static electricity
(4) spontaneous generation
(5) spontaneous combusti___ [trails off]

4. BODY PLANS & STRATEGIES (20 pts total)
In referring to the meristem & apical cell growth patterns, it is convenient to distinguish populations of cells as "initials" and "derivatives."
c. (10 pts) How is the body plan for the adult plant abbreviated in the plant embryo?  What are the main features of the embryo?  How are these features expanded into a mature plant by post-embryonic development?
The body plan is designed by I.M. Pei.  The embryos have built-in airbags.  They're expanded through the sweat & toil of the exploited working class.

6.  What are 3 characteristics that life cycles of all three divisions of fungi have in common?  (6 points)
All 3 divisions of fungi spend their lives striving for a common ideal that cannot possibly be achieved.  Each and every fungal child is brought up to believe that true happiness is an unalienable right and that it can & should be achieved, but there is no logical foundation for such a belief, & as the fungi grow, rather than realizing the speciousness of such expectations, they decide that (1) they themselves are worthless, or (2) the world is their bitter vengeful enemy.  That's why they eat feces.

7. Compare Fungi and Protists (bearing in mind that the Protists are a varied assortment!) with respect to: (14 points)
a. food acquisition and digestion:
Fungi eat dead or living organic material.  Protists consume only the finest Italian cuisine.
b. asexual propagation:
Fungi & protists don't have sex, but they wish they did.
c. mobility:
The American dream is a myth.


interesting ad campaign

(click to enlarge)

The writing on the left and at the bottom says, "MADE IN SWEATSHOPS," but then, so's your mama.  "EAT ME NOW!" is somehow more to the point.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Ripface Roland

I'd been thinking of taking a picture of this ad anyway because of John Roland, "Compensated spokesperson" (which I think gets more and more amazing the more you reflect upon it)... but then some helpful citizen went and...upped the ante?

(click to enlarge)


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The first ½ of this album is totally tubular!!

I ain't no fool, and I don't take what I don't want.

I'll feed you fruit that don't exist,
I'll leave graffiti where you've never been kissed,
I'll do your laundry, massage your soul,
I'll turn you over to the highway patrol.

Seems it would be simple if I could just grow up...
But I'm never as tired as when I'm waking up.*

Such a wonderful person,
But you got problems.**

* N.B.: Murphy does not rhyme up with up, I don't think.  Thank the ellipsis for that one.
** It's maybe sacrilege to slight the Eno by leaving out Side B?  What can I say, I'm an asshole.

1984's coming a little early this year

Scary commercial:

"Can you imagine getting arrested in your own home??"

Wow, what a wacky idea—that never happens in real life!  Sounds GREAT, too!

Bonus video:

[Thanks to the good folks at LP!]

notes toward a discussion of the Jews

1.  The contemporary Jew.

[From an actual correspondence with my imaginary friend "Gottlieb" in March of 2008, referencing an earlier communication.]

SHORTY   What I said was that the contemporary Jew should be no more preoccupied by the eating of pig than the contemporary American voter should be by the annexation of the Northwest territories.
     Why?  It's a question of translation, isn't it—as opposed to mere transposition(?).  For the non–English majors/teachers in the room, we might instead think of it as a question of the spirit of the law as opposed to the letter.  Reportedly, the reason why we have trouble not stuffing ourselves when we eat junk food—why once you pop you can't stop—is that we evolved in a world in which the only stuff that tasted so good was rare and nutritious (which is why it's delicious to us); we respond to candy as if it's super-fruit, and if we say to ourselves, "Got to stop eating this," millions of years of confused evolution scream, "Don't stop now!  Who knows when you'll next get to eat such nutritious food!"  In a world without candy, this response would be "right."  Today, not so much.
     If Abraham or Moses were born today, do we really believe he'd act the same way, believe the same things?  And do we imagine that these men, or tribes as the case may be, lived in much better times than we?  All value judgment aside, they are different times: we face different problems, believe—even know different things about the world.  The idea that the best way to be true to the spirit—even the history—of Judaism is to play-act at being prehistoric (give or take a few millennia) strikes me as ill considered.  The original Jews were not emulating caveman; they were engaging with their universe in a new and arguably a creative way.  If you want to be like them, do not ape their behavior or follow their rules.  Be to your world what they were to theirs.

"GOTTLIEB"   That's so good.  I totally love it.  Oh, I love it.  It's my favorite.  Except the annexation of the Northwest Territories.  I don't know what you're talking about.  I think I'm going to paraphrase you.
    Have we got any other reference for this idea?  Or am I just going to cite you when I talk about it?

SHORTY  How about the payment or nonpayment of taxes to the British monarch?
    Just me, as far as I can tell.  If it's based on anything else, it's without my conscious knowledge.
    ...I mean, I read it in the Talmud.

"GOTTLIEB"  The aping, which runs contrary to "traditional" Jewish values of creativity and progress.  It's really an attack on thoughtless fundamentalism.  Challenging too because it forces one to decide which fundamental values (related to marriage, gender, violence, charity, race) are worth preserving and which are not.  But what is so brilliant is that in Judaism, it's not heretical.  Right?  This is what we do, because of what they did...

2.  I.e., the Jew is not a horseshoe crab.

The horseshoe crab is remarkable for staying pretty much exactly the same for hundreds of millions of years—445 million, sez Wikipedia.  These motherfuckers are crazy!  They're like 2,000 times older than we are; basically they're these weird semi-aquatic bugs with spiny shells that they drag along the sand, and apparently they're just perfect, as far as evolution is concerned.

I thought of them because as I was reading Harold Bloom's article on Yiddish in The New York Review of Books, I began to wonder whether any other single and distinct people has survived for quite as long in so close to the same form.  But human beings do not survive through rigidity.  The horseshoe crab's immune system reportedly responds to any kind of infection by turning the little monster's insides into jelly: very effective in protecting the community, not so helpful to the individual.  The survival of the horseshoe crab seems to have everything to do with good fortune: the damned thing just hit upon some good formula that has continued to work out great through the eons, over two galactic years—10% of the time the sun has even existed... whatever, so they're old.  But it's hard to say that the Jews have just hit on a good formula.  (Or is our focus on all the hardships misleading?  Is it the survival that really stands out?)

What are we to learn from the survival of the Jews?  Has survival itself become integral to the Jewish experience, or are it and Diaspora just something the Jewish people had to get through in order to arrive at some kind of destination?  Bloom writes, "Leo Strauss provocatively observed that American Jewry was not part of the Exile while Israeli society was... In 2008, I wonder if Strauss's contention is still disputable" (NYRB 25); I'm inclined to agree, assuming I understand...  Not to mention that I'm moved enough by Gandhi and MLK's philosophy of nonviolence that I can't help but feel that the Jews' becoming a militaristic people (in addition to betraying my understanding of what Judaism is about) also suggests retroactively that our hardships in the past were the result of weakness, that we had no moral superiority over our oppressors, that the only thing separating us from them was that they were stronger... as if the only moral lesson we could derive from the Holocaust were that Jews need to study martial arts and familiarize themselves with automatic interpretation that I know many would not find the slightest bit absurd or even problematic.

3.  A question of translation, a translation of questions.

Bloom has come up with a new translation for the ehyeh asher ehyeh that Yahweh pulls out when Moses asks him his name.  When I was 12 I learned it as "I AM THAT I AM"; Bloom never seemed satisfied by this, and I've seen him lay it out in various different ways.  In the Nov. 6, 2008, issue of The New York Review (linked to above), Bloom translates it thus: "I will be present or absent wherever and whenever I choose to be."

Elsewhere in the same article, Bloom writes, "Yiddish is the Hamlet of languages; the Prince of Denmark's play abounds with questionable enigmas and a plethora of instances of the word 'questions.'  [Benjamin] Harshav emphasizes the derivation of Yiddish questioning from Talmudic procedures and of Kafka's parallel imitation of Talmudic learning in the self-questionings of his characters.  As illustrations I would suggest: 'Why not?'  'Why ask?'  'Who asks?'  'What is the alternative?'  'What and how does it mean?'  'If that is the case, then does not a question arise?'  These all can be seen as deriving from the Talmud."

And: "The name much younger than the language itself...  Earlier the name was Yiddish–Taytsh, 'Jewish–German,' a compound that lingered in fartaytshn, 'to translate,' 'to explain.'"

[I love the connection between translate, which originally (read etymologically) means carrying or bearing something, and explain, which originally (ditto) means spreading something out, as to make it even and clear...]

Finally: "An imageless God had made humankind in His own image, and then had prohibited human emulation in image-making."  Where does that put us?


Um . . . I like bacon?

Monday, October 20, 2008


Haven't done one of these recaps for a while...beginning to think there's no real reason for 'em.  One last one, perhaps?

A look back: we explained why God is a toy for cats and why you should just own up to being an atheist; we got excited for the unrated director's cut of Sleeping Beauty; we appreciated The Colbert Report's parody of environmentally sensitive oil companies; we expressed our ignorance about the financial bailout but felt very confident about which is the cooler Beatle; we received an important message from the MTA; we were horrified by Sarah Palin, the Drudge Report, and William Kristol and read into McCain's choice of campaign songs [this is not in order, obviously]; we hated on Dentyne's new ad campaign and thought about our thick New Yawk accent; we brushed up on our French Hebrew; we thought about our friend the octopus; we solved the age-old acronym–initialism crisis and got all paranoid about paranoia; we danced with the stars around monogamy; we showed off our record collection; and we loved/hated a billboard or two.

And now . . . James Bond's penis?

From Russia with Love (1963)
[I cannot be the first person to have noticed this.]