Tag Archives: America

The Forgotten Assassinations

13 Apr

For those of us Americans that did not pay close attention in junior high school Social Studies class–me, for example–many of our nineteenth-century presidents kind of run together in a pudgy, high-collared blur. We all know Abraham Lincoln, we know about Andrew Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant and anyone else featured on our money, but the remaining guys are often considered as an aristocratic whole, a bunch of faceless members from the Monopoly man’s extended family. You don’t often hear people praising Franklin Pierce, or Rutherford Hayes, or even Andrew Johnson–vice president to Abe Lincoln, for crying out loud. But no grade school student ever has to make a construction paper report about him. What could they say? “Andrew Johnson was the sucker tasked with filling a vacancy left by the revered and beloved Abraham Lincoln, and did a piss-poor job of it.” I’d give the kid an A.

So it is with James A. Garfield, our twentieth president, and William McKinley, our twenty-fifth president, about whom I once knew exactly this:

James A. Garfield was a bearded president who was shot by some schizophrenic guy and died in office.

William McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist, leaving Vice President Teddy Roosevelt in charge.

For some reason, I was glad to leave it at that. There exist, and I have read, dozens of books about the presidencies and assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. These two and their fatal termini have been analyzed and dissected by scholars and armchair historians, archivists and conspiracy theorists from all over the world. And yet, the lives and deaths of James Garfield and William McKinley seem to be regarded as minor events in America’s history. After reading a couple of books about these guys, I have to wonder why. What strikes me is not how unique or different they were, but how eerily similar their presidential terms and circumstances seemed next to the more popular presidents who met violent ends while in office.

In Garfield’s case, perhaps it isn’t because he met his end at a handgun’s report, but because he died on a sweat- and pus-soaked mattress, months after being shot. Technically speaking, it was not the bullet fired from madman Charles Guiteau’s gun that killed him, but sepsis. Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard does a fantastic job dovetailing the lives of Guiteau, Garfield, his attending surgeon Dr. Willard Bliss and even inventor Alexander Graham Bell into an enjoyable narrative set against one of my favorite periods: America after the Civil War. Echoing the assassination of JFK, Charles Guiteau was a lone gunman, also off his rocker in having the erroneous, unfounded belief that he was a political insider owed something from Garfield. He plugged the president in the middle of the day in plain sight at a train station, but that would be a pleasant beginning compared to the rest Garfield’s ordeal. His convalescence dragged on for months as doctor after doctor stuck their grubby fingers in his bullet wound, at a time when washing your hands seemed a spurious luxury though everything was covered in a fine layer of horse manure. I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between Garfield’s literally being prodded with the metaphorical prodding of Lincoln and JFK, albeit postmortem. Garfield, like JFK and Lincoln, was also a reformer, his intention was to reform the Republican party from patronage to a system based on merit. Seems like a small cause in today’s times, but remember that he was challenging the status quo during Reconstruction against rival U.S. Grant, hero of the Civil War (except to the South.)

The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century by Scott Miller is a very different book than Destiny of the Republic, yet many of the same uncanny similarities between Lincoln, Garfield, and Kennedy persist. McKinley was president at a time of robber barons and magnates, of Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, when the disparity between the wealthy and the working poor was tremendously palpable. Men, women and children worked ten hour days, six days a week, under stifling, dangerous conditions for twenty-five cents every pay day. Meanwhile, McKinley’s policies favored unrestricted trade and further boons for business owners. Enter Leon Czogolz, another lonely man, entranced by a budding anarchist movement heralded largely by Emma Goldman. After hearing one of her stirring lectures, Czogolz determines to make a spectacle by killing McKinley, though his connection to anarchism and, indeed, the working class is tenuous at best. Unlike Garfield, McKinley expires within ten days of being shot. The President and the Assassin is an engaging book, but it provides a bit too much detail about McKinley’s rise to power for those who actually only wanted to read about the president and his assassin. Additionally, it jumps backwards and forwards in time which can be a little confusing. It’s all important stuff, however, to describe the conditions that eventually allowed Czogolz to get within range of McKinley and shoot him.

We see the same occurrences, again and again: a lone gunman of dubious sanity shoots a president calling for political and social reform. This leaves a vacuum that is filled to moderate capability by the vice president, sometimes bettering the legacy of his predecessor. If anything, the four presidential assassinations–two remembered, two forgotten–teach us that we should pick our presidential candidates based not only on their integrity, but on the integrity of their potential posthumous successors. No one likes to think about it, but the availability and easy use of guns can change our political fortunes overnight. Imagine if George H.W. Bush had been assassinated in office and Dan Quayle became president! Only a few synaptic misfires and a functioning trigger finger separated that thought from reality.

Must Have Been a White Guy Who Started All That

25 Mar

As the weather gets warmer with trepidation in the northeast, my thoughts turn to baseball. I grew up in Flushing, Queens, home of the New York Mets. When I was very young, I thought the Mets were the only baseball team in existence, their opponents merely random contestants who happened to organize enough to get uniforms together. On rare occasions when I would see someone wearing a Yankees cap in my neighborhood, I assumed the “NY” logo was a rip off of the Mets’ serifed logo. I could see the annual Fourth of July fireworks display at Shea Stadium from my bedroom window. However, despite the fact that I was surrounded by the Mets and even owned my own mesh-back Mets cap with a foam rubber front, when I was very little, I didn’t give a fuck about baseball.

Sports weren’t really watched in my house. My dad and brother liked professional wrestling (though my dad was always clear to note that it was “entertainment” and not an actual “sport”) and my brother watched football starting around 1987 when the Washington Redskins won the Super Bowl (as a result, he was a lifelong Redskins fan). However, my brother didn’t watch football regularly and I suspect he didn’t know all the rules. Sports in my house were mainly relegated to my NES, where I would put a clinic on motherfuckers in Double Dribble and Nintendo Ice Hockey. I did make an attempt to be a fair-weather fan of the Rangers when they won the Stanley Cup in the early 1990s, but it was a half-hearted attempt, at best. I don’t think there’s many things more lame than a half-hearted fair-weather fan.

I didn’t really get into baseball until I moved away from my neighborhood of origin into then uncharted areas of Queens. I wanted everyone to know that I was from Flushing, no fooling around, and wearing the logo of the baseball team which claimed that town as its home was my birthright. Around this time, in 1998 or so, the Mets were a pretty good team and would contend against the Yankees for the first time in post-season play for the 2000 World Series (Mets got destroyed, four games to one). Oddly, my need to identify as being from Flushing spurred on my love of baseball, not the other way around. In my typical fashion, I voraciously consumed every scrap of information I could about the sport, until I became an overbearing stats-quoter in hardly any time at all.

Of course, one of the things I like best about baseball is its rich history. I’m a few pages away from being done with Josh Gibson: A Life in the Negro Leagues by William Brashler, and it’s a pretty solid book. That the historical record of the Negro Leagues is less than substantial is a crying shame: there’s a dearth of statistics, and therefore literature about these teams, and a lot of misinformation is touted as fact in order to spice up the legends of this time period. There can be no doubt that many black baseball players could have contended well in the white-only Leagues, however the way some of these narratives of the Negro Leagues tell it, games consisted of spindly black player after spindly black player stepping up to the plate with a bat in one hand and a bottle of beer in the other, slapping walk off, five-hundred foot home runs without looking at the ball and lazily strolling around the bases while dancing soft shoe for the fans. And of course, the black pitcher would throw 100 mph heat unflinchingly for eleven straight innings without any signs of tiring. And the outfield caught every fly ball, except for home runs, of which there were three to a player.

William Brashler helps dispel many of these ridiculous myths, having spoken to Negro Leagues legend “Cool Papa” Bell when researching his popular 1972 novel, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings. Brashler is able to shed light on some erroneous claims, but the substantiated hits that remain are still staggering. The author also potentially corrects a long-held misconception about Josh Gibson: later in his career, when Jackie Robinson was signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers and ended segregation in baseball, Josh was a heavy drinker, prone to dementia and violent outbursts. The romantic, bittersweet reason has always been that Gibson was depressed over missing his chance to play in the Major Leagues and let himself go to pot, but Brashler shows that Josh’s decline began before Robinson was signed to the Dodgers. It is even implied that he may have had a brain tumor.

Josh Gibson is a pretty well-written book that isn’t given to a lot of hyperbole and speculation. It’s also not incredibly stats-heavy like a lot of baseball books. However, it’s not such a rollicking read that casual fans of baseball, or people interested in the time period of segregation and Jim Crow laws should pick it up. It’s a baseball book, not a social study of the politics behind racism. I mean, if you’re reading a book about the Negro Leagues, then it should be inferred that you understand the systemic reasons behind why such a league existed in the first place. If you’ve never heard of Josh Gibson, the Negro Leagues, or the game of baseball, or if you can’t read, then this book is not for you.

I Romanticize the Shit Out of the 1939 New York World’s Fair

17 Mar

Growing up in Eastern Queens, seeing the towers of the New York State pavilion from the 1964 World’s Fair rise above the Grand Central Parkway like twin homes from the Jetsons cartoon, I had an inkling that something a little weird had happened here, before I showed up. The decommissioned rockets standing proudly outside the psychedelic edifice of the New York Hall of Science, the ice skating rink housed in a building that might have looked more at home in ancient Rome, all of these strange relics that implied something had happened right in Flushing Meadows Park. Something important. And because I am just that kind of asshole who can’t let nagging questions go unanswered, I eventually found out that New York City had hosted not one, but two World’s Fairs a couple of miles from my house! And most of the relics I was familiar with were from the shittier one that my parents’ generation recalls so fondly!

It’s not really, well, fair of me to venerate the 1939 World’s Fair over the 1964 World’s Fair, considering I wasn’t alive to attend either. At the same time, I am afforded a vantage point where I can compare the two events, as if that needs doing, and in the end it’s my personal decision. My appreciation for these auspicious occasions does not affect their respective facts. However, I’m not alone in elevating the 1939 World’s Fair to a legendary, untouchable status, and it’s not difficult to see why. The ’39 fair was built on a garbage dump that was converted to park land in three years; the ’64 fair simply built on the grounds that were already established. The ’39 fair happened at the end of the Great Depression and the beginning of World War II; the ’64 fair seems to have precipitated years of protest and civil unrest. Trinkets surviving from the 1939 World’s Fair are mainly of silver and porcelain; surviving junk from the ’64 fair is almost all plastic crap.

Twilight at the World of Tomorrow by James Mauro is another brick in an ethereal monument to the grandeur of the 1939 World’s Fair, and Mauro pays homage without having to compare it to 1964 at all. There’s little in the way of new information in this title, but if you were thinking you’d like to read some kind of comprehensive narrative about the ’39 fair, well you need look no further. It’s reasonably well-written, and I could tell that the author really enjoyed writing about some of the famous New York characters that populate the story behind the story of the fair. James Mauro takes a rather worldly point of view, contrasting the fair with bubbling political events abroad. The problem is that you never know how he means to contrast the two occurrences: is the fair a microcosm of European political tensions and war, or a beacon of peace and democracy that is the reverse of fascist oppression happening in the other hemisphere? The point is never made clear. Perhaps the World’s Fair can be both, or neither, or whatever you’d like it to be when viewed through the petroleum jelly-smeared lens of retrospect.

My gripe with Twilight at the World of Tomorrow is that it so desperately wants to be Devil in the White City, which is a brilliant book about the Chicago Exposition of 1893. It wants to be that book, but it’s not, and in trying to be that other book (and match its success, naturally), Twilight at the World of Tomorrow sells itself short. Devil in the White City is, loosely, about ambitious men who are able to capitalize during the last decade of the nineteenth century as the Industrial Revolution took hold. The 1939 New York World’s Fair also occupied a sliver of history which somehow illuminated and magnified the preceding and following events. However, Mauro seems keeps projecting a kind of naivete on the masses that attend the Fair, one that doesn’t seem to apply to a generation that would go on to fight in World War II. For all of his romanticizing of the fair, Mauro’s story is more about the aristocratic men who created and operated the World’s Fair, not the faceless rubes and yokels that paid admittance.

While I’d recommend Erik Larsen’s book to just about anyone, I’d only recommend Twilight at the World of Tomorrow to people for whom this topic is remotely within their sphere of interest: fans of New York City history, people interested in the American Jewish reaction to Adolph Hitler, or (as is my case) folks who romanticize the shit out of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. I admit that fantasizing about a defunct, overblown carnival is a little strange, but I’ve been hooked ever since I first glimpsed those Jetsons homes so many years ago. I was even mildly annoyed when they were used as part of the central plot to the movie Men in Black.

Never Forget the Thing You Never Knew

15 Mar

Newsflash: an ass-kicking earthquake and tsunami has rocked Japan, killing thousands and leaving many times more that number injured and homeless. Like most people with working sensory organs, I’ve been following this tragedy in the news and on YouTube, and the information and images that I’ve seen have been staggering. There’s one thing, however, surrounding this natural disaster which has incensed me to the point of annoyed laughter: Americans posting facebook status updates claiming that this earthquake is just desserts for Pearl Harbor.

You remember Pearl Harbor, right? That was the attack on a U.S. military base in Honolulu, Hawaii which ostensibly brought America into World War II. It was a tremendous disaster, claiming almost twelve hundred American lives. It also happened seventy fucking years ago. I don’t think it’s a reach to say that anyone still living that can recall this event probably isn’t posting status updates on facebook. Since you’re so keen on World War II history, be sure to read up on how FDR knew in advance about the Pearl Harbor attack but let it happen to justify our entrance into World War II, and be sure to check out Farewell to Manzanar for a slightly different take on our Most Justified War.

There are so many ludicrous levels to unearth in the stupid statements of facebook racists, it’s tough to know where to begin. The implied divine right of America is just one retarded facet. But the real point is that there already was vengeance for Pearl Harbor in the form of two fucking atomic bombs which eliminated Shintoism and ushered in Godzilla. We essentially crippled a culture and forced them to Westernize in order to stay relevant. Think about that next time you flip on your Sony blu ray player and watch a little Ju-on. Ask not for whom the grudge tolls: it tolls for thee!

Folks, I Don’t Think We’re Going to Make It

15 Mar

I’ve been waiting for something more official, for some authority figure to declare the painfully obvious. It doesn’t look like that’s going to happen, so I guess I’ll be the bad guy: we’re not going to make it. Us. The human race. If the goal of existence is to extend it infinitely, then we, as a species, will fall well short of that goal. We lose. Sorry if that comes as a shock to anyone, but facts are facts. There are five seconds left in the fourth quarter, we’re twenty points behind and fumbling the football in the wrong end zone. And we’re wearing paper bags over our heads. And our hands and feet have been cut off.

I’m not the only nihilist, you know. There have been plenty of naysayers predicting imminent doom for as long as our collective mind can recall. I’m starting to think that these pessimists were right the whole time. Sure, our extinction might not be imminent like a bowel movement after Burger King, but taken in scale with the span of the universe, human existence will be over before you know it. It will be the global warming what done it; maybe it will be the rising sea levels, maybe it will be some Mega Fucking Flu that is transmittable through eye contact. But when all is said and done, we will be able to look back and see that global warming and our rampant excesses were our own undoing. Or, we would be able to look back, if we weren’t all dead.

I wish I wasn’t the bearer of bad news. I know a lot of you have been doing your parts to try and reverse this trend towards oblivion, and I’m personally very proud of you. Would that I could give each of you a gold star, I’d gladly affix it to your death certificates with a dollop of my own saliva. Unfortunately, that isn’t feasible, and besides I don’t think the foil side of gold stars are biodegradable. It doesn’t matter, even if you compost your compost and eat produce grown within a square mile of your kitchen, it’s too late. It’s been too late for a while. Sure, a lot of your earth-saving measures aren’t reasonable or affordable for the average lower-middle class family to adopt, but that didn’t stop you from asserting them. Even as your house collapses, you’re still trying to get the picture frames straight. It’s commendable, really. A little naive, but still commendable.

Why can’t we turn this ship around and steer clear of the rushing waterfall that will carry us to our collective doom? I suppose, in broad theory, we can. We’d have to really pull together, eschew our creature comforts and life-extending technologies. The entire world could unite and decide that this isn’t the final chapter of the human race, instead it is the beginning of a new leap in our conscious evolution. But that isn’t going to happen. You can’t get two people to agree on where to go for lunch, how will they agree to stop driving, completely and immediately? It’s not going to happen, and so we, as a species, will become extinct. It’s not so bad. Just a few million years, and your bones can become the fossil fuel for another doomed species.

Here’s How We Know that Television Writers Have Zero Fucking Integrity

7 Mar

It can certainly be said that I watch too much television. I’m an old hat at watching too much television, having put in four- and five-hour days of watching TV before I was in junior high school. You’ll never find me extolling television’s many virtues: truth be told, it has very few. However, when you want to be passively entertained, and you don’t mind being subtly mocked by the very thing that’s entertaining you, television is your best bet. Advanced television viewers can suffuse themselves in the hyper-irony of MTV reality programming, but most of us will have to do with the idiot box’s written offerings.

How I Met Your Mother on CBS is about one and a half notches better than your average moronic sitcom. The only thing that sets it apart from other programs, except for more recently-debuted shows which are ripping it off, is that we already know how the series ends: the main character meets the woman of his dreams and marries her. How I Met Your Mother is actually told in retrospect, a narrator relating the events which led up to meeting the mother of his children to his children. It’s a reasonably clever premise, one which demands continuity and therefore regular viewing. Often an episode will employ storytelling devices you don’t see too much of in prime time. Plus, Neil Patrick Harris is a very capable, funny actor: I dare say the show would be unwatchable without him.

So we’ve been going on for however many millions of seasons already, each episode getting closer and closer to the Mystery Woman that is the lead character’s future (or present?) wife. There have been hints throughout the series, points where the future married couple have brushed past each other at a party or whatever, but from the vantage point of the viewer, we haven’t met this woman yet. I assumed that, for the sake of keeping continuity and an overall story arc that wouldn’t just peter out and diminish the entire series, it was all coming to a preordained conclusion, hopefully sometime before I start collecting Medicaid. I mean, these television writers, they’re artists too, right? They got into the business because they had a bunch of great ideas to share with the public, they wouldn’t want to belittle their own talents by beating this thin premise into a dead horse? Right?

Wrong. I’ve just found out that How I Met Your Mother has been extended to the 2012-2013 season. What this means up front is that we’ve got at least another year and a half before we meet this invisible, fertile dream woman. But the implication is that the writers of this show have not devised a cohesive, finite storyline, but just a stupid premise, a lazy storytelling device which can be extended or shortened at will. This shouldn’t be a big surprise, but it’s sort of disheartening. The show isn’t How I Met Your Mother, it’s How I Milked Your Studio. It’s not the story of these characters, but the story of how the writers and producers can buy their fourth summer homes.

Most people reading this probably wonder why I am assailing a show like How I Met Your Mother in the first place. It doesn’t profess to be high art, it’s a diversion, a fictional story that impacts nothing real unless we allow it to. But I know that it isn’t like this everywhere. The best example I can think of is to compare the BBC and US versions of The Office. The BBC version is two seasons long and only becomes redundant by the end of the second season. The US version on NBC has been running for-fucking-ever and is painful to watch these days. We could demand more, and not even a lot more, just a little more. How about instead of pitching unending premises, people start pitching tight story lines? Three’s Company put the sitcom premise shit to bed thirty years ago.

Big Bang Theory Isn’t That Fucking Good

7 Mar

I’ve been watching seasons of the CBS sitcom Big Bang Theory on DVD recently. It’s a decent sitcom with a serviceable premise: four genius-level nerds with differing and severe social disorders cope with life in Los Angeles, city of beautiful people. Plus, a hot chick lives across the hall from two of them which adds to the stammering merriment. It’s pretty satisfying in the way I feel that most television should be: each episode is fairly well encapsulated and the situation resets to its default by the time each half hour is up. In the current season I’m watching, season three, the main character begins dating the blond woman from across the hall, but this is no more a progression in the story as it is fodder for several more ludicrous premises.

So I’m pretty okay with Big Bang Theory. However, I find it unbelievable that it’s the highest-rated sitcom on Thursday nights and one of the highest-rated comedies on television, period. Thursday night, my patient readers and millions of television watchers will recall, is when NBC runs three hours of comedy programming, at least an hour of which is worthwhile. And the kicker is that one of the more worthwhile shows, Community, goes up against Big Bang Theory head-to-head each week, and loses.

If you’ve never seen either show, well you’ve probably stopped reading this essay by now. But if you’ve seen both shows, then you might be as befuddled as I. Using my New York myopia, I can see how Big Bang Theory might be more palatable to middle America than Community, but the former blows the latter away in ratings every week, practically quadruple the number of viewers. And part of me (the same New York myopia, just a different facet) feels like Big Bang Theory wouldn’t sit will with the Bible Belt and fundamentalist America. I mean, the show’s theme song describes the creation of the universe through the big bang theory and goes on to detail evolution. The main characters are physicists trying to determine the behaviors of subatomic particles. And there was even one episode where the most autistic character decried Christmas as a pointless sham. I don’t think that would fly in Kentucky.

Seems to me that the real culprit here is the Nielsen ratings system, a technique developed by Arthur Nielsen in the 1920s to establish demographic groups, then applied to radio in the 1930s, and finally to television in the 1950s. Even armchair statisticians would be thoroughly impressed with Nielsen’s model, which extrapolates the entire nation’s television viewing habits from a small sample. There’s only one flaw with the Neilsen ratings system, and that is the system doesn’t really work.

I think it worked many decades ago when the sampling was much lower. To have a television in 1950 was a big deal, they were expensive and often entire families and groups of neighbors huddled around them to watch the flickering screen. There were only three broadcast networks which ran during daylight hours; programming was limited. Now, most homes with televisions have two or three in them. The kids have their own, the parents have one in the living room, one in the bedroom. Often, people could be watching PBS downstairs and American Idol upstairs. So the notion of “household viewing” doesn’t apply as much any more. It didn’t even apply when I was a kid and would be watching Growing Pains in my room while my parents watched Some Boring Foreign Movie downstairs, and my grandmother would watch Dynasty or Some Shit on the first floor.

But the main problem with the Nielsen ratings system is the stupidly small size of the absolutely not random sampling of the populace by which they make their determinations. There are twenty-five thousand households participating in the Nielsen system–all of them by choice, all of them aware that they are contributing to these ratings–and that only constitutes 0.02% of the total households in America. So 0.02% of the television watchers in America determine which show is most popular, and therefore which show can charge the most for advertising. I don’t give a shit what anyone says, Community is far and away a better show than Big Bang Theory, though some manufacturers might not bode well the idea of advertising during a prime-time television show where the main character wears hair gel. And so these companies might have a vested interest in perpetuating the outmoded Nielsen technique.

Or maybe not. It may not be a great conspiracy, merely a bumbling, shitty system that we’re saddled with, even though the technology exists today that can determine viewers’ habits to a much more specific degree. Our own cable and digital satellite companies know more about America’s viewing habits than the Nielsen ratings system, for crap’s sake. It seems unfair that a relatively witty and creative show like Community must be relegated to obscurity, and probably an early cancellation, because this one statistics company has turned its sights on a lot of hardcore Big Bang Theory fans instead of taking a better sample. However, the fact that we’re using this antiquated system does give me some hope that perhaps people aren’t as entranced by American Idol as the numbers purport. Now I’m really kidding myself.

Act Like You Know

2 Mar

Americans’ right to convene and protest is one of the more interesting clauses guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. The idea seems counter intuitive to running a successful enterprise. Imagine you worked for a company which allowed insubordination and encouraged disagreements, that company would probably cease to exist in short order. And yet the United States of America is founded on the principle that protesting and free speech insures an active and cognizant populace, and for some weird reason our forefathers deemed an informed citizenry to be a dutiful one, despite all historical evidence to the contrary.

Today, we have people who consider themselves “professional activists.” I have met some of these people. It’s impossible for me to stifle a chuckle at the idea of a “professional” activist, considering they don’t earn any money protesting, but I suppose it’s their ability to think outside the box of normal, accepted definition that makes them revolutionaries and me a brainwashed plebe. In any case, a professional activist is someone who makes it their business to attend and foment protests. The protests could be about anything, really, but they will usually conform to an activist's general political bent. Meaning you'll probably see the same professional activists at an anti-war rally as you would at a gun control rally.

It makes me think of the lines from Rebel Without a Cause: “‘What are you rebelling against?’ ‘What do you got?'” The point of a protest, I believe, is that it should shake things up a little, put average people on alert and the oppressors on notice with swollen ranks of concerned citizens. A protest should not, I think, include some shirtless dude impressing teenage chicks with Devil Sticks and some girl in multicolored dreadlocks screaming inaudibly into a megaphone. The statement being made here is, “what we think doesn’t matter because we’re completely unemployable.” Professional activism has turned protesting into a commonplace thing, a meet-and-greet where people can clap each other on their tattooed backs and assert how much they’re changing the status quo, while mainstream society stays totally unaware of their existence.

There’s a game we play every four years here in America, it’s called the National Conventions. It all begins when either of our two relevant political parties announces which city they intend to hold their bacchanalian bash, where they’ll determine who will represent their platform in the campaign for President. Immediately, both the police of that city and professional activists nationwide begin to mobilize: the former to allocate more funds in order to hire more cops and buy more riot gear, and the latter plan to show up and cheese off the pigs with slogans and armpit funk. Once the event arrives, the cops allow the protesters some time to rant and rave, but when the Port-O-Potties start overflowing, police line up with their see-through shields and batons and push the crowd away. The protesters act indignant at their treatment (though many will be glad to have been arrested, making their professional status official), the police have justified their budgetary needs, everything goes on as normal. We get to do it all again at the other party’s national convention, then everyone has to wait for four years for the fun to start all over again.

And that’s the state of a lot of protesting, in my mind. A lot of self-serving, unwashed weirdos who want the whole world to know how angry they are. More of a tantrum, really. I don’t think this is what the framers of the Constitution had in mind, that people would protest anything and everything just because they could. These endless mini-protests, retarded mid-day marches by bored theater troupes and vitriol because the progressive bill passed by Congress just wasn’t progressive enough, they undermine the entire process. If you catch yourself attending more than two protest rallies per year that are about wildly different subjects, then you should probably evaluate your effectiveness. Some of that time protesting life’s unfairness could be spent, you know, working at a fucking job. I suspect that the definitions of both “fairness” and “professional” will change after such an experience.

Mothers, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Assholes

28 Feb

I am of an age that many of my friends and peers have children. I am high-minded, I don’t hold it against them or judge them for their handicap. Likely they were motivated by fear or guilt to have kids, so really they’re the victim in all of this. And yet no court in the land would sentence a baby to prison for holding adults hostage with their incessant needs. That’s the modern justice system for you.

When I think back to my childhood, which essentially happened during the Reagan administration, I remember feeling like I was the Most Important Person in the Universe. I think that my generation was the first one to be wantonly targeted by marketing departments of various corporations. Not that children weren’t catered to before, but in my time Sesame Street relented after a decade of not licensing their puppets to toy manufacturers. No cartoon or kids’ show existed that did not have a full line of products supporting it. Ewoks were inserted into Return of the Jedi at the last minute simply for franchise opportunities. It seems like my generation was the first to be seen as having a nearly limitless purchasing power.

Still, my childhood did not center around childish things. I liked Transformers a lot, I certainly played with plenty of Fisher Price toys. However, my mother also felt it was important that I see the original King Kong when I was six. She rented Fritz the Cat for me when I was thirteen, a character I was familiar with having seen Robert Crumb comics of my father’s when I was eight years old. I watched Inspector Gadget and Heathcliff and Friends as a kid, but I was also very into The Young Ones and Soap. I feel that as important as it was to my parents that I feel safe and educationally stimulated, they were also concerned that I didn’t grow up to be lame.

When I visit my Friends Who Have Children’s houses, I wonder if I should call a psychiatrist who specializes in hoarding disorders to save these people from the mountains of bulky, plastic crap that threaten to engulf their entire homes. And these are the parents of children who can barely walk, mind you. The DVD collections, alone, wielded by some of these kids would send the most obsessive compulsive completest movie collector into a depression spiral. You’ve got six year-olds with MP3 players, ten year-olds with cellular phones. Most of this shit didn’t exist when I was a kid. I remember it was a big deal when my family got a VCR in 1982, which meant we could accrue a library of movies. The first movie I recall watching on video tape was David Lynch’s Eraserhead.

Maybe my folks were bad parents. I think that by today’s standard, they’d probably be considered negligent or whatever. They encouraged me to do the things I wanted to do, but didn’t feel the need to occupy my every second with targeted entertainment and bullshit. It’s no wonder that each generation increasingly seems to expect the world to be handed to them, because it’s being foisted on them every second of their lives up until they stop developing secondary sex characteristics. I can remember when I felt the steadying hand of focused marketing slip away, I was about twenty-five and suddenly I realized I was older than most of the actors I saw on television and artists whose music I enjoyed. It’s a bittersweet thing when you grow out of your demographic, but I suppose it’s a rite of passage, like falling off your bicycle or acquiring your two-hundredth Pokemon.

Yeah So Rapture Ready! is a Pretty Okay Book

24 Feb

I finished Daniel Radosh’s Rapture Ready! about a week ago, and even though I ruminated on it here and here, I figured I should give it a full review because, well, I said I would. Plus, it’s a reasonably worthwhile book if Evangelical Christian pop culture is something you’re interested in. Frankly, you should be interested in it and you should find the bulk of it hilarious. But I dunno, maybe you’re one of those stuck up types who can’t chuckle at a picture of Jesus on a coffee mug or something.

Radosh’s year-long excursion through the world of retail Evangelism begins at a Christian rock festival, and takes the reader to such disparate settings as the Holy Land Experience in Florida and a Christian rave in Ohio. There’s even Ultimate Christian Wrestling, an idea which is simultaneously obvious and ridiculous considering Christ’s commitment to non-violence. But then if we start dissecting that particular bit of hypocrisy, I’ll never get done with this essay. Throughout the author’s travels, we join him in a bit of snickering about the silliness of it all, but for the most part he is respectful and even-handed concerning the whole crazy circus. Even when he meets Bibleman, he doesn’t just cock his head and suspiciously say to the guy, “Bibleman? Really?” Which is precisely what I would do.

In fact, we do precious little snickering at those wacky Evangelists, and one of the problems with this book. I was surprised to learn that Daniel Radosh has written and staffed for several revered humor publications, because Rapture Ready! didn’t strike me as particularly funny at all. I mean, it wasn’t unfunny, but it certainly wasn’t a guffaw-laden romp through Christian breath mints and Jesus-loving heavy metal bands. The author successfully attempted to humanize the pop Christian world, which effectively takes the fun out of it. I don’t want to respect some kid wearing a t-shirt with a Reese’s logo that’s been changed to “Jesus,” I want to smirk and chortle and think about how much smarter I am. If I wanted to empathize with my fellow man, I’d read the fucking bible.

Still, while it was kind of a dry read, it was still reasonably enjoyable and packed with the kind of anecdotes you want to read upon picking the book up. My favorite interactions are when Radosh informs his hosts that he is Jewish, and they embrace him as part of the new born again Christian support of Israel, the subtext of which is that a Jewish state is integral to the fomenting of Armageddon. I also learned quite a bit reading this book, which I can’t knock. If Christian pop culture is interesting to you, then I’m not sure there’s another book out there to compete with this. But if you’re looking for a highly readable book which points fingers at the religious right wing component of America, well then you’ll probably have to watch Bill Maher or something.

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