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The fundamental flaw of neoliberalism

I tweeted about this Fast Co. piece briefly when I first read it a couple of weeks ago, but I wanted to insert it into the record more formally in the wake of the mishegas at the University of Virginia.

The article mostly discusses how success often requires shifting among a variety of strategies, and how even suboptimal ones can generate progress. But when it turns its attention to the political process, it (inadvertently) gets at the heart of why the “run government like a business” trope is utterly empty.

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Why the urge to align with the good guys persists, even when the good guys don’t

May 25, 2012 1 comment

Alyssa Rosenberg has a characteristically thoughtful post on the trend of TV shows which return to the clear designations of good guys and bad guys. It’s got me thinking about how some of my favorite characters who fit this bill actively serve as anti-anti-heroes within their own morally grey universes.

Sometimes we need the stark simplicity of white hats and black hats—if only to remind us of the first principles on each side, the values that continue to give “good” and “evil” meaning and set the boundaries inside which the grey areas exist. Just as we instinctively search our stories for the people to root for, sometimes, so too do those stories’ inhabitants.

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Why you’d rather be killed by a Mayan prophecy than a French psychopath

August 20, 2011 1 comment

In the latest installment of  The New Cult Canon (a feature you should be reading regularly at The A.V. Club), Scott Tobias examines the grisly French horror film Inside, and questions how viewers gauge what is “too far” when it comes to representations of violence and death in movies. He notes how often people are repelled by the visceral depiction of individual deaths in horror films, but shrug off the far greater lethality implicit in end-of-the-world blockbusters from the Michael Bay or Roald Emmerich mold. Writes Scott:

As a rule, I’m reluctant to draw any hard lines on what horrors are beyond representation, because I recognize how subjective that can be. For example, I find the trailer for 2012 far sicker in its bloodless apocalypse fetishization than anything I’ve ever seen in “torture porn” genre, but clearly that opinion isn’t shared by the legions who gave a pass to the former while routinely turning up their noses at the latter.

Which is completely logical, when you stop and think about it for half a minute. The combined body count of the Saw franchise is but a minute fraction of the death toll claimed in just one sequence of Independence Day, a lighthearted popcorn flick better remembered for Bill Pullman’s bad-ass quasi-Patton moment than for gleefully positing the obliteration of dozens of major cities—and, along with them, tens of millions of human lives. It brings to mind the infamous quip attributed to Josef Stalin: “One death is a tragedy. One million deaths is a statistic.”

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Categories: Commentary, Film, Pop Culture

Nostalgia: It’s not just for Boomers anymore!

Every now and then, the New York Times likes to check in on the mystifying attitudes of These Kids Today. Case in point, this piece from Tuesday in which the Old Gray Lady reports on Nickelodeon’s (stupendously awesome) plan to revive a handful of beloved early ‘90s programs – including Clarissa Explains It AllAll That, and Doug – in a late-night bloc on its Teen Nick channel.

It’s clear, if baffling, that the headline – “The Good Old Days of 20 Years Ago” – is shooting for ironic juxtaposition. To the Times‘ brass and much of its target demo, anything that post-dates the Pentagon Papers probably seems like last Tuesday. When he declares, “That’s right: classics from the 1990s,” writer Brian Stelter (a member of the generation Nick is targeting) probably anticipates plenty of readers harrumphing incredulously into their Sankas.

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Categories: Commentary, Pop Culture, TV

Self-Interest ≠ Selfishness; A Brief Response to HBR

The current issue of Harvard Business Review features a somewhat frustrating piece by Yochai Benkler called “The Unselfish Gene.” It’s quite engaging in places, particularly when discussing some of the research regarding how context shapes people’s motivations, and in the resulting prescriptions for restructuring business environments to promote collaborative behavior. Unfortunately, the arguments are weakened by two fairly key misinterpretations central to his thesis.

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Pop culture is ready for its next favorite psychopath

This month’s GQ excerpts an essay from Jon Ronson’s new book The Psychopath Test, which examines the frightening likelihood that the subtly yet undeniably insane are prevalent in every area of society – especially in the upper echelons of power. Reading the piece – an intriguing mini-profile of a notorious corporate executive, “Chainsaw” Al Dunlop – motivated me to revisit two related texts that I’ve loved (though one of which I have
only the faintest memories of).

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A (partial) defense of History Channel

 

The announcement that History Channel will air a 10-hour scripted series based on the Bible, just a few months after very publicly rejecting a miniseries about the Kennedy family on the grounds of historically inaccuracy, is raising some eyebrows. James Poniewozik of Time.com, astute as ever, sums up the case well.

 

As a committed agnostic, I’m sympathetic to the argument that the Bible shouldn’t be regarded as a work of history in the sense that it accurately relates real world events which occurred in the past. Few but the most devout fundamentalists would argue otherwise.

But it’s absolutely a work of history in another sense. It’s a cultural artifact of rare significance spanning continents and millennia, on par with the Odyssey or Arthurian legend. It’s an ineffable, protean amalgam of historical truths, parables, cultural prisms, and good old-fashioned storytelling flair.

 

This makes it an altogether different case than that of The Kennedys, which sought to dramatize factual events – recorded, verified, remembered by plenty of people who lived through them first hand. Taking creative liberties with that sort of dictionary-definition history clearly runs afoul of History Channel’s nominal brand identity. I don’t think dramatizing the Bible falls under the same standard, and I similarly don’t think anyone would bat an eye if History announced it was producing a scripted tale of, for instance, Arthur’s exploits in Camelot.

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Categories: Commentary, History, Pop Culture, TV

Anti-Superman screeds are wrong – but not because Superman’s fictional

The hysterical kerfuffle over the latest issue of Action Comics, in which Superman renounces his American citizenship, has predictably inspired a huge amount of jingoistic blathering. And of course there have been plenty of calm, well-reasoned rebuttals from people who actually understand the point of the story and who aren’t, y’know, morons.

But one counter-argument I’ve heard around the Twittersphere – partly in jest, partly not – basically amounts to, “Calm down, Superman’s not real.” There are many valid reasons to reject the anti-Superman screeds, but this isn’t one of them. If you believe that fiction has a serious role to play in demonstrating and shaping societal values, then it’s perfectly reasonable to be angered by a work of fiction that seems to spit in the face of the values you cherish – or worse, one you once regarded as sharing your values which suddenly seems to upend or reject them.

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Half-baked thoughts: Are we repeating the mistakes of the Jazz Age?

Because people (and especially journalists) innately seek points of reference from the past in order to understand the present, the administration of Barack Obama has naturally drawn plenty of comparisons to former presidents and eras. Are we living through a revival of FDR’s New Deal, or the pessimism of the Carter years? Is the president an heir to Bill Clinton’s frequently base-infuriating triangulation, or Ronald Reagan’s knack for using an ideological facade to govern from a position of compromise? Or is he, y’know, Mecha-StalinHitler?

One comparison I haven’t heard often is with the era of Woodrow Wilson and his Republican successors (Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover). I’ve been reading William E. Leuchtenburg’s “The Perils of Prosperity, 1914-32” recently, and keep finding myself startled at how relevant the descriptions of the 1910s and ’20s feel to today. The parallels I’m seeing are not so much between Wilson and Obama (though a few of those, some more superficial than others, certainly exist) as they are between the political and social climates of the respective eras.

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Belated reflection on a scene from Cairo

February 17, 2011 Leave a comment

 

I’ve always been a sucker for a good team-up. I have this innate aversion to the human tendency to divide and categorize ourselves, like among like; the flip side of that is a soft spot for seeing those divisions transcended. Whether in real life (e.g., the “Christmas Truce” in the early months of World War I) or in fiction (like the countless iterations of the X-Men joining forces with Magneto’s brotherhood), a story of rivals making common cause, however fleetingly, always strikes a chord with me. The power of these moments lies the paradox: noble unity made possible because ignoble divisions exist in the first place.

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Categories: Commentary, History