Monday, July 26, 2010

Immune Me, Please

One of the best things about America is that absolutely anybody - and I mean anybody - can run for office. Including this dude. Hot Air posted a video of this guy's promo clip which sounds like someone fed a TelePrompTer word salad. But the website is even more awesome, for gems like:
Using the Civil Right Act of 1966 for the first time in history to find out two things:

1. why Democracy invaded the U.S. State on July 16 1866

2stop Constitutional Right violations in our state at all cost I will tell you all this
I would like to update the monitory car insurance to match the federal insurance act where they say if you do not know the name and address of the person who will get the check when you pay you money to your agent it is gaming and we can not gamble in Tenn, right now we are gaming

There's only one thing to say after reading this website... God bless America.

Wait For It... Wait For It...

I've been in Arkansas for the weekend, so I've been in kind of a news bubble. Instead of doing the work to find out what's actually going on, I figured I'd just barf up some stuff on Shirley Sherrod and call it a post.

I'm of two minds about this whole thing. Part of me wants to blame this whole thing on Breitbart and his fact-free smear on a low-level USDA employee, but that feels strangely insufficient. Because I also feel like this whole incident is mainly the fault of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and the Obama administration lackeys who took Breitbart at his word and fired her.

And you know what? The more I think about it, the less I blame Breitbart. After all, why should we blame him? Because he's a sensationalist with an agenda? I hate to tell you this, you innocent reader you, but that's part of a proud journalistic tradition going back to Pulitzer and Hearst. And it's continued today not just by Breitbart but by Olbermann and O'Reilly, Hannity and Maddow. Should we blame him because he got the facts wrong? Well, even the best journalists do that - 30 years of faithful news reporting didn't prevent Dan Rather from botching a report on George W. Bush's national guard service. Viewed in isolation, this incident is little different from that one from a journalistic perspective.

So what's the problem with Breitbart? Two things, both related:

1) He's really, really, really bad at his job.

2) Decision-makers and news consumers give him far more trust than he deserves.

See, I have no problem with journalism that has an agenda. That's frequently the best kind of reporting, because it's not constrained by some imagined duty to be "even-handed." But dammit, if you're gonna be a sensationalist with an agenda, at least get your facts straight! Breitbart is now 0 for 2 on his big stories. The ACORN videos he posted have been demonstrated to be falsified by everyone from the GAO to the CA attorney general's office, and the Sherrod video was demonstrated - within hours - to be edited to give a false impression. The thing is, a talented agenda journalist would never have stooped to that level. There were plenty of skeletons in ACORN's closet that begged to be excavated, especially regarding their inner financial dealings. You didn't need the frat party pimps-'n'-hoes routine to do a good hatchet job on them. And if you're trying to make the point that the NAACP hates white people, there's gotta be a better way to do it than to smear a low-level functionary, right?

That's what differentiates Breitbart from the people I listed earlier. They at least understand how to present existing facts in such a way that it tells the story the journalist wants to tell. Breitbart's so damn lazy that he just makes up his own facts. Which leads me to the really dangerous part, which is #2.

Folks, Breitbart is what he is. He's not going to change. So why should anyone give him more credit than they give other sources? In this Sherrod incident, the point isn't that Breitbart falsely edited a video. He's gonna do that. The point is that otherwise respectable journalists fell all over themselves reporting this story, and otherwise respectable leaders fell all over themselves reacting to it, without bothering to consider the source of the story and giving it the double-checking it deserves. Fortunately for us, some enterprising journalists remembered the ACORN debacle and stopped the story before it got too out of hand, but by then the damage was done.

Which is why the biggest blame has to fall on the NAACP and Vilsack for their reactions to this whole thing. Expecting Breitbart to be honest and competent is foolish. Expecting Fox News to not run with something that makes liberals look bad is also foolish. That's why the best thing to do when faced with a story as sensational as the Sherrod story is to wait on it. Withhold judgment until the story has played itself out. Had the NAACP waited twelve hours to make its statement, this whole thing wouldn't have happened.

So the next time Breitbart says something, we should all just take a deep breath, digest the whole thing, search for context, and keep an eye out for double-checking to come in from the other side - or do it ourselves, if we have the resources. And really, the same should go for any news reports, whether they're from an incompetent like Breitbart, a respected agenda journalist like Maddow or O'Reilly, or a mainstream source like the Washington Post. (Did we learn nothing from the "Gee Dead" incident, people?)

Good journalism starts a conversation. And who makes a decision on an issue when the conversation on it is just starting?

Couldn't find the Blues Traveler song I wanted to post, so here's an awesome live version of my favorite song of theirs.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Mixed Bag on Free Speech

A federal appeals court for the New York-based Second Circuit ruled that the FCC's fleeting expletive rules are unconstitutional and should be struck down. Any time the FCC takes it on the chin, I celebrate, and so I love this decision. In the words of Bono, it's fucking brilliant. What's weird, though, is that the Supreme Court upheld those very same rules in a case decided just a year ago. I don't know whether the Second Circuit has the ability to challenge the Supreme Court so soon after the latter's decision, but that's highly unusual, right? The explanation I can think of is that the Supremes upheld the FCC's right to censor expletives but that the Second Circuit found that the specific way in which they were doing so was unconstitutional. I'll be looking forward to seeing how this all ends, though considering the free-speech inclination of this Court I'm not optimistic.

Speaking of things I'm not optimistic about, there's a huge danger to free speech percolating in the federal courts: The feds are trying Buttman. (Thanks to Jacob for the link.) Buttman is an extraordinarily successful pornographer whose oeuvre apparently includes milk enemas. (I'll take Amanda Hess' word for that one.) Now while I do think Buttman - real name John Stagliano - should face a lifetime in prison for improper wasting of delicious, delicious chocolate milk, the decision to put him - or anyone, for that matter - on trial for obscenity is extremely worrisome.

Let's pause for a second while we read Martin Sheen making my argument for me because I can't find the damn video:
John Van Dyke: If our children can buy pornography on any street corner for five dollars, isn't that too high a price to pay for free speech?
President Josiah Bartlet: No.
John Van Dyke: Really?
President Josiah Bartlet: On the other hand, I think that five dollars is too high a price to pay for pornography.
Folks, when the First Amendment says "no law," it damn well means it. No "oh but maybe it'll offend my delicate sensibilities" exceptions allowed. And no "think of the children!" exceptions either. FCC chair Julius Genachowski opines in that first link:
We’re reviewing the court’s decision in light of our commitment to protect children, empower parents, and uphold the First Amendment.
First thing. If you think kids are going to be sheltered from expletives by the FCC, you're a fucking idiot. My two-year-old doesn't watch TV outside of the Backyardigans and some sporting events, and she'll still learn to cuss. You know why? Because she's around me half the time, and occasionally, Daddy has to put something together while she watches, and that leads to some expletives that are frequently more than fleeting. You think giving Bono a fine for dropping an F-bomb is gonna stop your kids from swearing? Fuck no. Guess what? Even if you're Mr./Ms. Perfect Daddy or Mommy who never swears, your kid's gonna have friends and they're gonna be able to swear. Chances are your kid will know four cuss words before they even know who Bono is.

Second, it's not a big deal. What do you think happens when a kid learns a cuss word? An angel's wings shrivel up? Part of her soul dies? Fuck that. I fail to see what the big deal around cuss words is. A kid who yells "fuck" because he stubbed his toe isn't hurting anyone. And a kid can be plenty hurtful while speaking the Queen's perfect English - just ask anyone who went through elementary and middle school. You want to protect kids? Teach them not to be bullying assholes.

Third, if obscenity in porn is "damaging" to kids, I have to ask... exactly how are kids getting a hold of explicit pornography anyway? Do you just leave your Buttman videos on the goddamn coffee table? Oh, sorry honey, I thought I was showing you "Thomas and the Really Brave Engine" but instead you're watching "Anal Angels 18: Junk in the Trunk." My bad. It really doesn't seem like it's that hard to keep from showing your kids porn, and by the time they're old enough to take the initiative to find porn themselves it's probably not so "damaging" or whatever, now is it? It's not the government's fucking job to raise your kids. It's yours. Hide your porn stash, turn the TV off anything you find objectionable, and buy one of those channel blockers if you must. For example, I don't let my kid watch "The 700 Club," because fuck that shit. That's obscenity right there. But you can choose your own path. If you don't want your kid exposed to awards shows where THERE MIGHT BE CUSSING, don't let your kid watch them. Don't try to take it away from those of us mature adults who are perfectly capable of enjoying (or not enjoying) porn and cussing for what it is.

And finally, which would you rather have your kid learn?

1) Adults say some funny sounding words and do some really freaky disgusting stuff naked.

2) Words written on a page 220 years ago are utterly meaningless.

Think about your priorities, people. I'm okay with my daughter accidentally learning 1) as long as she never, ever, thinks 2) is okay.

Yeah, I said it. A kid learning about weird sex isn't a big deal. Proper parenting can put that into context for kids. Chances are if you talk openly and honestly about what they've seen accidentally then they'll be okay - just don't overreact. A kid learning that the right to free speech can be violated at will, however, is a tragedy. And by prosecuting pornographers and punishing swearers on TV, that's exactly what we're teaching them. Munroe's Law applies here - consenting adults selling videos of their weird sex to other consenting adults isn't a danger to society. Kids accidentally seeing those videos isn't a danger to our society. Rendering the Constitution meaningless because we find the actions of other consenting adults "icky" and because we need to Protect Our Children? That's fuckin' danger.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Your Daily Timesuck

This site is a good way to procrastinate for a little while. It theoretically analyzes your writing to see what famous author you write like, but I think it just spits out random names. My last few posts got Dan Brown (really? I suck that much?), Chuck Palahniuk, James Fenimore Cooper, Douglas Adams (seriously the highlight of my day), Stephen King, P.G. Wodehouse, H.P. Lovecraft, and Kurt Vonnegut.

I had some fun feeding this thing actual quotes from authors. Adams came back as Adams, but Palahniuk consistently came back as King, and Asimov came back as Jane Austen.

Culture wars and "forced liberation"

So. The Burqopocalypse is upon us in France. Their lower house, the National Assembly, passed a sweeping ban on Muslim face veils by the absurd margin of 335 to 1. Considering how rarely 335 French people ever agree on anything, I'd say this shows how popular the ban on such clothing is in France.

And not just in France either; Egyptian Mona Eltahawy loves the idea:
I support banning the burqa because I believe it equates piety with the disappearance of women. The closer you are to God, the less I see of you -- and I find that idea extremely dangerous. It comes from an ideology that basically wants to hide women away. What really strikes me is that a lot of people say that they support a woman's right to choose to wear a burqa because it's her natural right. But I often tell them that what they're doing is supporting an ideology that does not believe in a woman's right to do anything. We're talking about women who cannot travel alone, cannot drive, cannot even go into a hospital without a man with them. And yet there is basically one right that we are fighting for these women to have, and that is the right to cover their faces.
But this law is only incidentally a positive blow for women's rights. It's really a more sinister campaign against Muslims and for "French values," as Eltahawy herself admits:
But what really disturbs me about the European context is that the ban is driven almost solely by xenophobic right wingers who I know very well don't give a toss about women's rights. What they're doing is they're hijacking an issue that they know is very emotive and very easy to sell to Europeans who are scared about immigration, Europeans who are scared about the economy, Europeans who don't understand people who look and sound different than them.
First, let's be honest about the burqa. It's a misogynistic tradition that is only tangentially related to Islam. The Qur'an's dress code says nothing about forcing women to cover themselves head to toe - hell, the traditional headscarf (hijab) isn't even required by the Qur'an! The burqa is an imposition of the unsavory heavily woman-hating aspects of Arab culture and not of Islam itself. Which brings us to culture, the real reason for the burqa ban, as voiced by the parliamentary report that led to it:
"The wearing of the full veil is a challenge to our republic. This is unacceptable," the report on Tuesday said. "We must condemn this excess."
The law is not about women's rights per se - it's about defining what is and is not "French." Living your life in a certain approved way is important to the health of the republic. And here you see a couple of things: first, why this CNN article reports that majorities in Western Europe favor a burqa ban while two-thirds of Americans do not, and second, the similarities Eurosnobs have with right-wing Americans.

We Americans, by and large, view our country less as a culture and more as a collection of high-minded ideals - free speech, freedom of religion, equality before the law, etc. The only people who talk about "culture" as a requirement to be American are right-wing windbags who prattle on about what it means to be a "real American," and how that usually involves not living like a liberal. This is because American culture is far from static - we've been spending 230 years being influenced by everyone from the native Americans and the English colonists to the Irish and Italians to the Mexicans and Indians. We eat eggs and sausage for breakfast, tacos for lunch, and chicken tikka masala for dinner and think absolutely nothing of it. By contrast, Western Europe has a lot narrower range of influences and is thus a lot more culturally homogeneous. (So what's interesting is that our right-wing culture warriors have more in common with Western Europeans than they'd care to admit - you listen to Sarkozy or any other French politician talk about the burqa ban, and you could just as easily be listening to Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, or Mitt Romney.)

And that, in a nutshell, is why I prefer America to its European allies and would even if I hadn't been born here. In America, our natural inclination is to provide everyone with the freedom to define their own lives, to accept or reject elements of our culture on their own terms. Instead of forcing women to drop the burqa, which smacks of the cultural imperialism of a colonial power exerted upon foreigners at home, we present a burqa-free life as an option to be accepted or rejected on an individual basis. The liberation that comes from dumping misogyny on your own terms is more difficult to reach, yes, but far more valuable than the forced liberation the French offer.

Forced liberation is, after all, a paradox, one that will be seen in Muslim immigrants' minds as more forced and less liberation. The French, by attempting to enforce "culture," have managed to make equality seem like oppression, while simply allowing women to wear the burqa if they choose but confronting them with options would make equality seem like an appealing, liberating choice (to the women, at least). And that's the tragedy of the European model... and the beauty of the American one.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


I'll post on the French Burqopocalypse tomorrow once I've had time to digest it. But for now, the Wall Street Journal wants you to know that your favorite Mexican-inspired dips MIGHT BE OUT TO KILL YOU DEAD:
Hot or mild, the salsa and guacamole Americans love to order in restaurants may be packing an unexpected kick, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The dishes were blamed for one in 25 identified outbreaks of food poisoning at restaurants between 1998 and 2008—more than twice the rate of the previous decade, the CDC said. Often, the outbreaks were traced to raw hot peppers, tomatoes and cilantro—common ingredients in salsa and guacamole.

Uncooked foods, such as salsa and guacamole, are risky because there is no heat to wipe out bad bacteria, says Lisa McBeth, who supervises food safety for the Qdoba Mexican Grill chain, based in Wheat Ridge, Colo.
Nothing like a little scare journalism to liven up a slow July news day, eh?

So how long do you think it'll take before some dumbshit elected official reads this article and decides he/she has to Do Something, and proposes a stupid law? I'm thinking that it'll either a) require that all salsa and guacamole be pasteurized, which really doesn't make any sense but that never stopped someone who wanted to Do Something before; b) require all salsa and guac be spiked with penicillin; c) outlaw the free salsa given out at Mexican restaurants because THEY'RE FEEDING YOU POISON; or d) outlaw Mexican food altogether (though I hear Arizona's trying that one for completely different reasons). I'm setting the over/under at three weeks.

And oh yeah. Funny how salsa and guac get called out for being uncooked foods but good ol' American salads don't. Just sayin'.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Read The Damn First Amendment, Fool

It honestly surprises me how ham-handed some people in positions of power can be with regard to Constitutional rights, especially the First Amendment, and especially in schools. The First Amendment, for all its bluntness, comes with a healthy dollop of nuance when it comes to religion. The state may not support religion, but it may not prevent others from freely exercising theirs. When people are told that, say, teachers can't support religion while they're teaching, they take that as meaning that no one can express religious belief in a classroom, ever. That, of course, is wrong - free exercise and no establishment are a both/and proposition. You can't honor one and not honor the other if you want to remain on the Constitution's good side.

So it is with this case from Plano, TX. A teacher decided that she had to prevent her kids from distributing Jesus literature in her classroom and is getting sued for it. The case is right now on a mundane legality - is the teacher subject to qualified immunity for her actions? - but it's a fairly straightforward Constitutional case. Most of us who care about the First Amendment can see that an elementary school student has the right to free exercise and free speech when it comes to her religion.

This sort of thing is what shows the conservative "they're trying to take God out of our schools" talking point to be a bald-faced lie. The Establishment Clause does not require the scrubbing of mentions of religion from all public places - in fact, the Free Exercise Clause guarantees that such a scrubbing will not occur. So next time someone whines about "taking God out of the public sphere," please direct them to the Constitution immediately.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

The Daily D'Oh

Like many of you, dear readers, I watch The Daily Show regularly (or used to, before going to bed at 11:30 every night meant sleep deprivation at the hands of a two-year-old who insists on getting up at 6 AM). And so, like many of you, I had a somewhat knee-jerk reaction when I heard about Jezebel's Irin Carmon (who, come to think of it, made an appearance in another recent blog post of mine, so congratulations Ms. Carmon, you're now important enough to appear on this blog read by, like, six people) accusing The Daily Show of sexism.

"Hey, that's not right," I thought. "The Daily Show is liberal. They're the good, tolerant, love-everyone people who make fun of sexists. They're not sexists themselves, right? That's impossible."

Then I bothered to, you know, read the damn article. And it's not just one possibly disgruntled employee - Carmon exhaustively catalogs complaints by numerous people who left the show, enough to conclusively demonstrate that there's probably a pattern going on here. Among the accusations: they hire predominately male correspondents and writers, their environment isn't really woman friendly, and so on. The article cites the hiring of the decidedly mediocre Olivia Munn over several presumably funnier women (whom Matt criticized in a recent comment) as proof that the producers weren't interested in hiring funny women, just in hiring women who look good catering to men.

The women who do work there - 40% of the total staff, actually - weren't necessarily impressed, and so offered this rebuke. Furthermore, Carmon cites longtime correspondent and noted female Samantha Bee as saying her gender has been "no impediment." Women aren't systematically kept down - the show hires completely on merit.

So who's right? Let's start with Carmon's quote of Madeleine Smithberg, the co-creator of the show who had a falling-out with Stewart in 2003:
"I don't think Jon is sexist," she says. "I don't think that there is a double standard at the Daily Show. I do think that by the time it gets to the Daily Show it's already been through the horrible sexist double standard of the universe. You're not hiring someone right out of school. By the time they get to the candidates of the Daily Show, the herd has been thinned by the larger societal forces." Of the greater talent pool of comedians, she said, "All that's left are white men and Aziz Ansari."

"The planet is sexist," Smithberg adds. "At least in comedy we don't have genital mutilation. That we know of."
So maybe The Daily Show does believe that it hires on merit. I find this highly likely, in fact. The entertainment industry is oddly dominated by people who think that entertainment has to cater almost exclusively to men. Take a gander at this amazing article by former screenwriter Jennifer Kesler about why two women aren't allowed to talk to each other in a movie unless it's about a man. (Think about it. Find me some movies that pass this test. I'll wait.) That whole site is dedicated to the sexism of Hollywood and the entertainment industry, so a little other reading there and you'll begin to understand the environment in which The Daily Show operates.

Amanda Hess has a great take on this controversy that chalks this whole controversy up to ignorance. Stewart and the rest of The Daily Show's producers operate unaware of the larger forces of sexism that drive their hiring practices. They honestly believe that they're hiring the best people for the job, and that these people mostly happen to be male, not knowing that women are systematically kept out of the running by the way the entertainment industry operates.

Since we're talking entertainment industry, let's use a tortured movie analogy to explain what's going on here:

Jon Stewart, in this case, is Neo, operating blindly within a sexist system that he, for whatever reason, can't see. He believes himself to be doing good, but doesn't know what's really going on so can't fight against it. Carmon, then, would be Morpheus, showing Stewart the harsh reality of his world and offering him the chance to change it. Of course Stewart and the rest of The Daily Show's producers, actors, and fans are going to react badly, just as Neo originally wouldn't hear of Morpheus' "you're controlled by computers" bullshit. But eventually, just as Neo had to choose between remaining part of the system or trying to change it (in pill form), Stewart and his fans will have to choose between continuing to operate as if institutional sexism didn't exist and understanding that reality and going out of our way to change it.

I can choose the red pill, but I have no power over this kind of stuff and so it wouldn't do a damn bit of good. Let's hope Stewart does the same.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

The Security State in Action

It's really a sad state of affairs when I hear that there's a bomb scare on I-40 and immediately know, without hearing anything else, that it's fake, and that probably something fell off a car somewhere and people freaked the fuck out. Of course, I was right. Cynicism pays, people.

Oh, apparently a deputy shot himself in the arm responding to the foam thingy too. I don't know why I'm laughing at this. I just am.

On Soccer and Attractive People

Anyone who follows straight female soccer fans on Twitter has seen at least a few tweets about the hotness/notness of several of the players. (Cristiano Ronaldo, Landon Donovan, and, oddly, Yoann Gourcuff seem to be the ones most mentioned among my tweeps.) I, personally, like it - I'm not used to seeing men drooled over in the same way we straight men drool over women. It's a refreshing step towards equality. But the question still arises: is this:

different from this:

(That's Brandi Chastain, for those of you who don't remember the '99 Women's World Cup at which she scored the winning PK in the shootout final against China.)

My thought is no, of course not. But Irin at Jezebel explains why there's some doubt:
In our current universe, men do not have trouble being taken seriously based on their looks or perceived sexiness, nor is their worth in society primarily judged by them. Our drooling over Benny Feilhaber isn't just a drop in the bucket — it also won't contribute to the overall oppression of men, soccer playing or otherwise. They will not be told their primary value is based on whether women want to fuck them. They will not be paid less on the dollar or subject to violence in representation or acts. They will not be treated like meat or chattel. Period.
(Benny Feilhaber? Really?)

Good points, all, and I understand that women are judged based on their looks at a far higher rate than are men (although men are also judged on their height and amount of hair loss). And I'll accept that women's sports are taken less seriously than men's - I've had to remind several fellow soccer fans that the Women's World Cup is next year, and that we have a shot at winning. But do those of us who pay attention to women's athletics really have trouble taking female athletes seriously? And can we really be worried that straight male fans of the sport are objectifying the athletes?

Irin goes on to discuss the reasons why she enjoys ogling male soccer players, and among them is this rather telling one:
4) They're having fun doing what they love.

This needs little explanation. No sexyface, no corpse-like poses, just spontaneous shirt-shedding and teammate grabbing.
We can go farther and say this - she recognizes that these men have value beyond their appearance. They're talented soccer players who are known for doing something besides putting on a show for women. And so when they do put on a show, as they do on the Vanity Fair cover I posted earlier, the world recognizes that they're soccer players who also happen to be hot. I'd point out that the same should be said for Chastain, a talented defender who also just happens to be hot. And that's the same way I and my fellow US women's team fans look at the women who play on that team. Sure, Hope Solo's hot, but what matters is that she keeps the ball from going in the net. (And that she doesn't talk smack about Brianna Scurry. Let's keep the USWNT a no-jackass zone please.) These women enjoy playing soccer, they're good at it, and yes, many of them look very, very good doing so. So what's the problem with me enjoying their looks as well as their talent?

The worry, I suppose, is that men would dismiss a female athlete who they don't find attractive. I'm not sure I agree. I'm not particularly attracted to Abby Wambach, but damn, can she find the back of the net. She's a gifted goal scorer and that's what matters. (And considering the problems our men's team has with strikers, this is no small issue. I honestly wonder who's going to step up and score goals if Wambach has to be out. Can I trust Heather O'Reilly? Or Lauren Cheney? Wait, I'm getting sidetracked.)

I understand that the assumption is always going to be that a man who comments on a woman's attractiveness is dismissive of other aspects of her personality. This tends to not be true of my group of friends, but I also recognize that most women have experienced this sort of disparagement before. So I don't begrudge women the right to make that assumption. Hell, if I were in their shoes I'd make the same assumption, no doubt. But is that going to stop me from talking about how hot Cat Whitehill is? No. I know that I respect her as a defender (for both the USWNT and the Washington Freedom) and I'll just have to hope that my female friends will trust me when I say that I do.