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Archives for Books and Ideas

Santa’s Little Enablers

Dec
25
2007

From both the political right and the left, this is the time of year that people moan that we’ve lost our way. We need to get back to our roots, they say, back to the “true” meaning of Christmas. According to one academic, a renowned expert on the holiday, if you insist on finding an essential purpose to the celebration – the one going back centuries – it can be identified. But it’s not what you think.

Whether it’s Bill O’Reilly and John GibsononFox News discussing the “war” on Christmas as an assault on traditional values or the new documentary What Would Jesus Buy? which profiles Reverend Billy and The Church of Stop Shopping as they protest the commercialization of Christmas, materialism and the overextension of personal credit, conservatives and progressives, religious and secular forces, all insist we’ve lost our way. They say that we’ve gotten away from how Christmas used to be celebrated.

Professor Stephen Nissenbaum, the author of the Pulitzer-Prize nominated book The Battle For Christmas calls the notion that there’s an ultimate meaning to this season “Christmas essentialism.”


The Battle
for Christmas

Nissenbaum notes that our current notion of Yuletide is of fairly recent vintage. Western culture seems to have had some sort of Christmastime festivities going back centuries. The Winter Solstice has long been a time for celebration. If you’re a farmer, by December, the agricultural cycle has ended. The working aspects of the farm have closed down. The beer and wine is ready for consumption. The weather becomes cool enough to slaughter animals, but it’s before the deep freeze of winter. It’s time to kick back and have a party.

As the feudal system developed, new traditions emerged, such as wassailing, where less fortunate peasants would go to the lord’s house, begging for food and drink. This was a big thing at Christmas, eating and drinking to excess. Christmas, like Halloween and Mardi Gras, was a time of what sociologists refer to as “ritualized social inversion.” This roughly translates into a socially-sanctioned time to go nuts and break the rules.

As the 19th Century began, cities grew in size and industrial capitalism increased in influence. The wealthy began to physically withdraw from the lower classes, setting up communities like Boston’s famous Beacon Hill. The Christmas celebration became a time to stay in the house with your family and celebrate. Christmas also played an important role in commercializing the American economy, as people made luxury purchases and gave gifts to family members.

Nissenbaum marks our modern version of Christmas as beginning around 1823 with the publication of Clement Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (more popularly known as “The Night Before Christmas”). By the late 1820s, he notes that images of Santa Claus – a clearly prosperous, fat, generous old man meant to embody the spirit of the season – appear in advertising.

Today, spending (and overspending) during Christmas has become a part of our popular culture, as news outlets cover Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and the beginning of the holiday shopping season, with breathless anticipation. How will the economy do? Will consumers do their part and go out and spend?

But even the notion of consumers’ responsibility to go out and buy is not new. The Panic of 1837 lead to a five-year depression in America. Nissenbaum found two newspaper editorials that argued in 1840 that people ought to go out and spend during the holidays in order to cure the economy – shades of President George Bush’s exhortations to do the same after 9/11.

But perhaps you remain unconvinced by economic history and sociological references. In your mind, Christmas represents one thing: the birth of Jesus Christ. But it wasn’t until the 4th Century that December 25th was designated as the date of the Nativity. In fact, it’s fairly clear just from Biblical text that this is incorrect, since shepherds would be watching their flocks at night during the spring. Some current scholarship also suggests that it didn’t happen in Bethlehem.

In a conversation with me, Professor Nissenbaum said that if one wants to find an essential meaning, then that meaning is “consumption.” Before 1800, that meant eating and drinking, often to excess. After 1800, it became shopping, often to excess.

I am not in favor of gluttony, whether physical or financial. I’m as stressed and stretched during the holidays as most people. I love the notion of a time to think of our friends and family and wish goodwill towards others. But history tells me that there’s never been a time when it was picture perfect and pristine. The consumerism, materialism and mix of sin and sanctimony are, for better and for worse, for richer and poorer, our tradition. And we seem to be keeping it up rather nicely.

Posted by P.J. Rodriguez at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Do Writers Still Matter?

Dec
12
2007

There are many ways of examining the Writer’s Guild strike as it heads into its second month. You could examine some of the business issues – do the studios have any credibility in claiming that new media holds no profit for the foreseeable future? Or you could look at the power of American labor and ask if the idea of an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work still means anything in the global economy. Or you could take the flippant approach and assume that the writers are simply another overpaid sector of the entertainment industry asking for even more money.

But there’s a theme bubbling under the surface here, a belief that the impact of professional writers in today’s media environment has been lessened. The suggestion is that much of today’s entertainment either isn’t written at all or is nothing more than the re-writing of old ideas – shows and movies from Hollywood’s glory days – and thus not a truly creative product. There’s also that buried assumption that these so-called “writers” are already paid so much that it’s simply selfish to ask for more.

You could find some of these attitudes in stories in the media, such as the one about the “good news” of the strike: newsmagazine shows might benefit. Peter Chernin, president of News Corp., crowed about how good the strike would be for Fox, saving money on cancelled deals and unshot pilots, while allowing the network to make money on American Idol and other reality fare. A reluctantly striking writer sent an e-mail to The National Review, claiming that with “football, The Next Iron Chef, and Law and Order re-runs” who needs writers? (This attitude – ironically, from a Guild member – ignores the fact that fictional fare has long competed with sports and that the heart of the strike is precisely about residuals from repeats and new platforms.)

But while so-called “reality” shows offer competitions, game shows and human train wrecks, giving you the sense that it’s all just unspooling before the cameras, the truth is that almost nothing you see on television is presented in a raw, unedited form (And the writers employed by reality shows are not covered by the Guild, an issue which has come up in the current negotiations). Beyond the reality genre, it’s possible in the face of YouTube and other amateur online video sources to assume that craft is no longer required to create content.

But that assumption is incorrect.

Within the entertainment industry, writing is simultaneously the most and least valued aspect of the process. Since just about anybody can operate a pen or keyboard, there is often the perception that anyone can write. Whether your favorite show is a sit-com, a reality show or even a YouTube video, somebody sat down and had to figure out, “What’s going to happen this week?”

Content doesn’t happen by accident. It happens as a result of determining what kind of things will happen, who will be doing those things and what they will say as they do those things. And while it’s possible for talent and creativity to come from anywhere, online video (which is getting better all the time) has yet to produce a consistent stream of content as good as The Simpsons or Lost. While the studios may think the answer is that they can make money off of amateur online videos, saving themselves some production costs, they shouldn’t forget that the writers could also ditch the studios and head straight for the Internet.

Whether you call it content or story or anything else, it’s a skill to create it. And whether you’re J.K. Rowling or a guy with a webcam, it’s the same set of creative muscles that are flexed. The writer’s strike is about the value we place on that effort. The answer to my question ought to be that writers will always matter as long as people want to be amused and excited. We ought to acknowledge that writing is embedded throughout our daily consumption of entertainment and information, regardless of the media platform.

Once that premise is accepted, then the studios and the writers can figure out the fair compensation. But let’s not pretend the craft of writing no longer matters.

Posted by P.J. Rodriguez at 7:18 PM | Permalink

Stephen Colbert’s Truthy Reality

Nov
1
2007

Political humor has become a contact sport.

Stephen Colbert, D.F.A., a South Carolina native and host of the television program The Colbert Report (the two ending T’s are silent), has filed papers asking the state’s Democratic Party to put his name on the ballot.

It didn’t work – party officials said “no” – but it’s still a brilliant piece of political theater. Colbert, of course, is the creation of comic actor Stephen Colbert, former correspondent for The Daily Show, and a recently published author whose first book, I Am America (And So Can You!) easily climbed the best-seller lists. His group of “friends” on the popular social networking site Facebook surpassed 1 million within a few days of its debut.

America has not always proven to have the most subtle sense of humor when it comes to satire. And journalists and politicians are prone to being either disdainful or starstruck when someone like Colbert enters the arena. We’re seeing both as Colbert mounts his campaign – think he’ll ask voters to write him in? – and it’s almost as funny as the man himself.

Political wisemen Tim Russert and Larry King gave Colbert very respectful and amused receptions on their programs, with Russert playing along with the gag and treating Colbert as a serious candidate. Maureen Dowd turned her N.Y. Times column over to Colbert. In the Kansas City Star, a high school student wrote an op-ed that declared, “In a country already divided politically, the last thing we need is for the results of an important presidential election to be skewed by a late-night comedian.” MarketWatch columnist Jon Friedman called Colbert (and Jon Stewart) “failed actors” who kind of stumbled into the talk-show gimmick.


“I Am America
(And So Can You!)”

But before condemning Colbert as some sort of clown who has no business messing in the serious business of either journalism or politics, note Colbert’s explanation for abandoning his initial plan to file for inclusion on both party’s ballots. The Democratic primary has a $2,500 filing fee, while the GOP’s is $35,000. As they say, you can’t make this stuff up.

That’s what makes Colbert the perfect remedy for the age of Bush. It’s all the nuttiness you may desire, leavened with humor and humanity. For example, in a 2004 article by Ron Suskind, a Bush aide mocked “what we call the reality-based community,” declaring that “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” Colbert is famous for saying, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.”

A key part of the appeal of the character is that the audience is invited into the process – and not just by casting their election-day votes. “Stephen Colbert” is a very arrogant character, very demagogic and messianic, and it’s a lot of fun for the audience to join in on the process of feeding his outsized ego and delusions of power. For example, Colbert introduced the concept of “wikiality” and encouraged his viewers to edit an entry on African elephants; so many did so, that Wikipedia had to lock the page down. He encouraged his viewers to vote online to name a Hungarian bridge after him, and handily won the contest. My sense is that his candidacy is not a serious effort, or that he is not (at this time) an actual symbol of voter dissatisfaction. But it doesn’t matter. His campaign – even the idea – is hilarious.

The brilliance of Stephen Colbert is not just how well he parodies conservative commentators – because he’s not just tweaking the FOX News crowd, but also such crusading CNN anchors as Anderson Cooper and Lou Dobbs – but because he provides an antidote to our times. There’s much that is bad in the daily news and you can either find the humor or wallow in despair. I know where I prefer to go: straight to the Good Book (in this case, Colbert’s).

If a Harp Seal needs money that badly, it should do what I do. I hold a little fundraiser every day. It’s called Going to Work… And don’t give me “Harp seals can’t survive in an office habitat,” because that excuse doesn’t hold water any more, thank you very much, Americans with Disabilities Act.

This is the other key difference between the actual pundits and the fake one: wit, a wit that comes from actual caring and insight. In a 2006 interview with TV critic Tim Goodman, Colbert, the actor, described his character as living a “completely unexamined life,” which means that “he can indict himself with what he says and constantly say things that prove the falsity of his beliefs without knowing it.” In a 2005 interview with Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross, Colbert said that the key to his satire is simple: “If you maintain your humanity, if you don’t think like a joke is more important than being humane, like not talking about tragedy or not questioning someone’s dearly held beliefs religiously, if you can keep in mind a certain level of humanity, then that’s a good guide to what you can or cannot talk about.” Think conservative commentator Ann Coulter knew of this principle when she said of outspoken 9/11 widows: “I’ve never seen people enjoying their husbands’ deaths so much”? Probably not.

But while Stephen Colbert provides solace for liberals, I would be a little worried about him if I were a conservative – and not because of the South Carolina primary. I would be concerned that a fake conservative TV pundit could say such crazy things and sound so much like the real pundits that people would start to blur the difference. One last bit from Colbert’s book provokes the question: Is this really satire?

As gay people are increasingly integrated into society and accepted as friends and coworkers, there is a new threat looming on the horizon.
The threat that we will forget to feel threatened by them.
On this final battlefield, the greatest casualty of all may be our anger.

So I, for one, am delighted by the whole thing. Just imagine if Colbert actually got enough votes to become a spoiler – someone who could draw away from a front-runner. If that happens, Colbert will have made a very important point: A vote for his bombastic, insensitive, over-the-top moronic egotist is a entertaining way for voters to say “none of the above,” rather than simply staying at home and not voting at all.

Would his critics be able to handle the truthiness of that reality?

Posted by P.J. Rodriguez at 4:18 PM | Permalink

Ah, $weet No$talgia; Your Memorie$ For $ale

Aug
26
2007

What is the value of a guitar unless it is to be played? What is the worth of a comic book unless it is to be read? The art world has long struggled with the question of the true financial value of artworks but these days, as baby boomers look back at their youth, rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia and comic books are caught up in a debate about pricing, one fueled by the energy of nostalgia.

Two stories from the L.A. Times this past week illustrate how the items of their – and our – youth have soared in value. One article describes how much collectors are paying for vintage Gibson Les Paul Standard “Burst” guitars, with prices as high as $500,000. A decorative ring for one guitar model, a piece that is essentially a washer, can be found on eBay for as much as $1,200. In Sarasota, Fla., one company can permanently seal a comic book in a plastic box, ensuring its pristine condition by rendering it untouchable by human hands.

The question of the true value of any object – whether a Van Gogh painting or The Amazing Spider-Man #1 – will always be subjective. But you’d like to think there was some sort of correlation between the inherent quality of the piece in question and its financial worth. In an age when you can purchase a high-end handmade guitar for three thousand dollars – one that plays as well or better than a vintage Gibson – it’s clear that the current value of the Gibson lies more in its nostalgic worth.

It’s no coincidence that guitars and comic books happen to be the prized targets of baby boomers. This generation not only built up the kind of disposable income you’d need to pay these kinds of prices, they seem to be the first generation that has attempted to recapture its youth with such vigor.

But the notion of popular culture as commodity – to be bought and sold on the market, to be preserved as something with appreciable value – sends a chill down my spine. It goes against everything pop culture is supposed to revel in: The temporary, the faddish, the all-out fun. What really offends me about these trends is that they seem to have nothing to do with the original intent of the valued object. You loved that Lost in Space lunch-box as a kid, but you used it as a lunch-box. As an adult, you track down a mint condition model of that same beloved lunch-box, paying a huge markup, and then stick it on a shelf.

On such occasions, pop culture icons seemed more valued for what they represent, than for the actual physical object. In grammar, there’s a type of figure of speech called a metonymy. It’s sometimes referred to as “the container for the thing contained,” such as when you say “I drank a bottle of soda,” meaning that you drank the liquid, not the glass bottle itself. In similar fashion, there are times when a lunch-box or guitar or comic book seems more valued for all the hopes, dreams and romantic notions – rosy memories of when we were all young and comfort was a boloney sandwich and a Ring-Ding – that are locked within it. We pay for the container, but what we really pay for is the intangible thing contained within: A memory of a time when things were easier, perhaps, when we – or they – were more optimistic because our lives were in front of us, not behind.

You have to feel sorry for the artists and craftsman who create these objects. We may have our own notions of what the work means, but for its creator, a guitar or a comic book is a product of both imagination and skill. And it was created for a specific purpose. Famed comic book writer/artist Frank Miller (Sin City, 300) has suggested that that perhaps he could just sell comic books with covers and blank pages within.

If you’re not going to value the art and writing of a comic book by reading it – or value the craftsmanship of a guitar by playing it – than you might as well buy stocks. They make for dry reading, but they’re a more sensible investment.

Posted by P.J. Rodriguez at 4:58 PM | Permalink

Land of the Free, Home of the Brave

Aug
19
2007

All through America’s history, there has been ongoing conflict about the limits of freedom and liberty. This country was built on the idea of being free to do what one wants, but at the same time there have always been those who feel that it is possible to go too far, that sometimes enough is enough. A new satirical mystery from famed comic book writer Warren Ellis illustrates the 21st century version of this ongoing debate.

In Ellis’ debut novel Crooked Little Vein, private eye Michael McGill is hired by the president’s heroin-addicted chief of staff to find the secret backup version of the U.S. Constitution, written by the Founding Fathers for future generations to use in an emergency. According to the plot, in the ’50s a bound version of that document vanished after Vice President Richard Nixon traded it for the favors of a Chinese woman living on a houseboat in San Francisco Bay, and it has been wandering ever since, traveling from collector to collector. The authorities are very disturbed by how perversion has become mainstream and they need that alternate version of the Constitution, which turns out to have magical powers, to make America a beautiful place again.

McGill heads off on the book’s trail, which leads him across America and into some of the weirdest places imaginable. The story gives author Ellis the opportunity to document a series of far-out activities, some of which are true and some of which are exaggerations, but you will probably have difficulty guessing which are which. Examples includes devotees of Godzilla bukkake (trust me, if you don’t know, you don’t wanna know), eel porn and testicular saline infusion fetishists. Even if you’re a First Amendment absolutionist and believe in no boundaries on behavior, the buffet of bizarreness offered up in Ellis’ book will test your limits.



Crooked Little Vein

America has been moving in this direction for quite a while. Once upon a time, you might only see a tattoo on a sailor or a Maori tribesman; now you see them on suburban Moms at the local mall. You used to have to go to some seedy shop to get pornography and now you can order it on your television. The Internet has opened the floodgates; just about any kind of deviant behavior you can think of (and some you haven’t ever imagined) can be found online. And you don’t have to be that squeamish to find some of this material off-putting.

But what’s to be done? Is an "anything goes" attitude healthy for our society? If we draw lines, where do we do so and who gets to draw them? After all, if we’re going to outlaw images of sexual deviance, does any portrait of sexuality count as deviant? In the end, Ellis suggests that it’s better to opt for openness and access than to try to put the genie back in the bottle. While the Internet allows unfettered access to some dark parts of our human psyche, it’s important to remember that all it really does is allow access to information. You choose where to go. Some us will go to some dark places, while others will use that access to spread some light.

Keep in mind that some of the most outspoken proponents of fighting back the swill of liberalism turn out to have skeletons in their own closets (Pastor Ted Haggard and former Speaker of the House Bob Livingston spring to mind). The United States is an ongoing experiment in freedom and liberty, with new challenges always appearing to test us. While some might like to propose that there is a perfect state for our nation – one that existed in some golden moment of the past and to which we need to return – I would instead propose that we need to be very wary of drawing lines. Our country was founded on a fight for liberty and against the tyranny of a monarchy. Today’s fight is against a different tyranny: the myth of the beauty of the Good Old Days.

Editor’s Note:Spot-on’s Mike Spinney has had some comments on personal liberty and democracy. His most recent post is here.

Posted by P.J. Rodriguez at 12:06 PM | Permalink

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