30 June 2012

Smokey the Bear Sutra

It will lead you to enlightenment.


Bearing in his right paw the Shovel that digs to the truth beneath appearances; cuts the roots of useless attachments, and flings damp sand on the fires of greed and war;

His left paw in the mudra of Comradely Display — indicating that all creatures have the full right to live to their limits and that of deer, rabbits, chipmunks, snakes, dandelions, and lizards all grow in the realm of the Dharma;



26 June 2012

Thomas Friedman

Occasionally I encounter someone who has become enamored of the insights of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. So I have to hunt up links to try to shake some sense into those folks. No more: I'm collecting criticisms of Mr Friedman here.

Let's start with Atrois calling him Wanker of the Decade:

The state of the world is what it is in large part because people in positions of great power think this absurd buffoon of man is a Very Serious Person. This hasn't actually been the Eschaton Decade, it's been the Tom Friedman Decade. And the next one probably will be too.

Seriously, read that and follow the links before you finish reading this post, because it provides a good overview of what's wrong with Friedman. I'll lift just one thing from it, this stunning video clip of Friedman talking to Charlie Rose and cooly advocating war crimes with smug bravado. Watch it, seriously.

That alone should make him outside the realm of civilized discourse, rather than one of the most influential pundits in America.

Matt Taibbi's famous takedown of Friedman's mixed metaphors from the Buffalo Beast, The Word Is Hack, talking about the book The World Is Flat:

Man flies on planes, observes the wonders of capitalism; says we're not in Kansas anymore. (He actually says we're not in Kansas anymore). That's the whole plot right there. If the underlying message is all that interests you, read no further, because that's all there is.

But it's impossible to divorce The World is Flat from its rhetorical approach. It's not for nothing that Thomas Friedman is called “the most important columnist in America today.” That it's Friedman's own colleague at the New York Times (Walter Russell Mead) calling him this, on the back of Friedman's own book, is immaterial. Friedman is an important American. He is the perfect symbol of our culture of emboldened stupidity.

At least mocking Friedman's bizarre mixed-metaphor style can be very funny, even if the content of his ideas is far from funny.

Taibbi has a longer followup article inspired by Friedman's later Hot, Flat, and Crowded, and Belén Fernández at Geurnica picks up the theme in even greater detail in Errata:

Friedman’s writing is characterized by a reduction of complex international phenomena to simplistic rhetoric and theorems that rarely withstand the test of reality. His vacuous but much-publicized “First Law of Petropolitics”—which Friedman devises by plotting a handful of historical incidents on a napkin and which states that the price of oil is inversely related to the pace of freedom—does not even withstand the test of the very Freedom House reports that Friedman invokes as evidence in support of the alleged law. The tendency toward rampant reductionism has become such a Friedman trademark that one finds oneself wondering whether he is not intentionally parodying himself when he introduces “A Theory of Everything” to explain anti-American sentiment in the world and states his hope “that people will write in with comments or catcalls so I can continue to refine [the theory], turn it into a quick book and pay my daughter’s college tuition.”

Alex Pareene imitates Friedman's voice in a howlingly funny article “about” Thomas Friedman.

As I wrote down what he said to use it in my column, it struck me that the world is changing. The world used to be flat. Now, everyone I talk to, everywhere I go, tells me something is bending the world into a new shape. This 4G, 401(k) world is getting rounded. That scares a lot of people. But it doesn’t scare Thomas Friedman. Because while some old media dinosaurs are going extinct thanks to the asteroid of globalization and the giant dust plume of hyperconnectivity, Friedman is a cockroach. A cockroach made of stone. A cockroach made of stone that lives in The Cloud.

In his piece A New Ayn Rand for A Dark Digital Future, Richard RJ Eskow implies that Friedman's peculiar style is part of how his technique works, because once that one can decode what Friedman is saying, to discover that he is really saying something ... something horrifying.

Consider this passage from Friedman's column:

In a world where, as I've argued, average is over — the skills required for any good job keep rising — a lot of people who might not be able to acquire those skills can still earn a good living now by building their own branded reputations, whether it is to rent their kids' rooms, their cars or their power tools.

This paragraph reads like a Zen koan pieced together from cast-away fragments of motivational sales speeches. We're left to infer the meaning of its more obscure phrases from their context, the same way World War II codebreakers cracked particularly difficult passages in enemy telexes. So let's try to tease out its meaning ....

“Average is over” is connected to job skills. Friedman apparently means that you can't get a good job anymore if your skill level is only average. Why didn't he just say so?

What are the implications of a world in which you must be above average to get “any good job”?

This post was inspired by another Belén Fernández piece, at Jacobin, talking about Friedman's philosophical incoherence in Tom Friedman's War on Humanity:

Thomas Friedman, three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times, once offered the following insight into his modus operandi: “I often begin writing columns by interviewing myself.”

Some might see this as an unsurprising revelation in light of Edward Said’s appraisal: “It’s as if … what scholars, poets, historians, fighters, and statesmen have done is not as important or as central as what Friedman himself thinks.”

According to Friedman, the purpose of the auto-interviews is merely to analyze his feelings on certain issues. Given that his feelings tend to undergo drastic inter- and sometimes intra-columnar modifications, one potentially convenient byproduct of such an approach to journalism is the impression that Friedman interviews many more people than he actually does.

A Friedman Unit is a measure of time equal to six months used in the lefty blogosphere, after Friedman's repeated assertions about the war in Iraq that “the next six months will be crucial”.

We have a big problem. The dominant view among the in crowd in Washington is that the next 6 months is a critical time in Iraq. As it has always been. They're all Tom Friedman now.
All candidates need to lay the foundation for what they're going to say a year from now (“two Friedmans” in the newly established Friedman time scale) when Iraq is as bad or worse of a clusterfuck as it is now (Yes, yes, I hope to be wrong but it sadly hasn't happened yet).

It is vital to understand that the muddled thinking, hack “journalism”, and endless shilling for the interests of “the 1%” — that is to say, the stratospherically wealthy aristocrats in the top 0.01% of American wealth and income who own the US and run the world — is because he is one of them, as David Sirota points out:

Let's be clear — I'm a capitalist, so I have no problem with people doing well or living well, even Tom Friedman. That said, this does potentially explain an ENORMOUS amount about Friedman's perspective. Far from the objective, regular-guy interpreter of globalization that the D.C. media portrays him to be, Friedman is a member of the elite of the economic elite on the planet Earth. In fact, he's married into such a giant fortune, it's probably more relevant to refer to him as Billionaire Scion Tom Friedman than columnist Tom Friedman, both because that's more descriptive of what he represents, and more important for readers of his work to know so that they know a bit about where he's coming from.

Marc Levy also considers the implications of that:

I’ve rolled my eyes uncountable times after reading Friedman’s columns, but never caught on to why they’re so overwhelmingly misguided. Despite my acknowledgment that I was a willing participant in my own deception, that doesn’t mean I feel any less deceived. Or angry.
Friedman does not write as one of us. He is, in fact, one of them — a member of one of the 100 richest families in the country, according to Washingtonian Magazine, one of those who are not hurt by war or globalism and thus cannot honestly discuss it from the level of one who is.

Spread the word: Friedman doesn’t write nonsense; he writes propaganda.

Hopefully all this makes clear why the lefty blogosphere occasionally reminds of his enormous house and refers to him derisively as the Moustache of Undertanding.

Update: Want more takedowns of Friedman's writing? Jillian C. York has assembled a definitive collection.

Here are some of my favorites:

The lefty Driftglass blog regularly features vigorous fiskings of Friedman's commentary. Frankly, I find that Driftglass sometimes lets the snark get away with him, but given Friedman's writing this is a nigh-unavoidable hazard. Tommy Can You Hear Me is a choice example.

Another friend offers a helpful meme from Pejman Yousefzadeh.

James Livingston at Politics and Letters offers a comment on Friedman's use of cliché, Cliche Run Aground, which offers a sharp take on how it forecloses on debate, analysis, and thought.

Glenn Greenwald indicts all of us with his scathing description of Friedman's intellectual incoherency:

If I had to pick just a single fact that most powerfully reflects the nature of America’s political and media class in order to explain the cause of the nation’s imperial decline, it would be that, in those classes, Tom Friedman is the country’s most influential and most decorated “foreign policy expert.”

Greenwald also gives us a couple of good links on Friedman. He has some sharp words from Alexander Cockburn:

Friedman is so marinated in self-regard that he doesn’t even know when he’s being stupid. “While the defining measurement of the Cold War was weight–particularly the throw-weight of missiles–the defining measurement of the globalization system is speed.” Sounds good in a corporate roundtable, means nothing. The man just isn’t that smart, beyond the dubious ability to make money out of press releases praising the New Globalism and American power.

And Greenwald also points us to Current Events Inquiry which has a horrifying sampler of quotes from Friedman aptly called The Sociopathy of Thomas L. Friedman showing that that moment in the Charlie Rose interview is far from an aberration.

Salon uses his presence on the New York Times' editorial page as cause to call out the Times for hackery.

Yes, Friedman used the exact same vague generalization to start two consecutive paragraphs. And yes the second paragraph’s quote is obviously the source for everything Friedman wrote in the first paragraph, making the first paragraph unnecessary. And yes, Friedman thinks that would be a constructive thing to ask Hamas. “Have you considered instituting a strict standardized testing regimen in Gaza????”

Matt Taibbi returns to the well to tell us about Thomas Friedman's new state of grace and his most incoherent column ever.

Brian Mayer gives us an uncanny randomized Thomas Friedman Op-Ed Generator.

Because this is what his writing actually looks like.

Mike the Mad Biologist points to Friedman misremembering his stance on the Iraq war:

As someone who wanted us to partner with Iraqis to try to build a democracy there — in the heart of the Arab world after 9/11

Get Your War On gives us The Moustache of Greenderstanding.

On Twitter, sarah jeong gives us Thomas Friedman's Bad Trip.

On Facebook, Haroon Moghul gives us an instructive fisking of Friedman's column Freud and the Middle East. My favorite part:

Just as there is a little bit of West Bank “Jewish settler” in almost every Israeli, there is a little bit of the caliphate dream in almost every Sunni.

Friedman's in top-form in this essay — he's almost too good at being himself. Either he's mismatching categories (Friedman grew up never understanding why apples and oranges couldn't be compared), or saying nothing at all, which is often how these things go when he's at his best, which is his worst.

“Israeli” is a national identity, tied to a state that was established, in 1947-8, on someone else's land; Sunni is a sectarian denomination. There are several million Israelis. Sunni Islam is the largest religious denomination in the world, with over 1.1 billion adherents. Are we seriously comparing the two? To what ends?

If I'm reading Friedman correctly (which is really not the question we ask; usually, it's more solipsistic and exasperated: Am I the only person who is reading Friedman? Why does he exist instead of nothing? Why, God, why?), then he should be saying, “there's a little bit of West Bank Jewish settler in every *Jew*.”

Since Sunni isn't a nationality....

But he says Israeli. Not Jew. Which is either a cop-out, like it's okay to make grand, sweeping generalizations about Muslims but no one else, but surely that can't be the case, or he's making a completely different “point,” which is only a point in the way a period is a point — phentoypically.

In that case, is there a little bit of Nazi in every German? A little bit of monkey in every human? A little bit of Columbus in every American? A little bit of FOX News in every Republican? A little bit of sinner in every saint?

Which is the kind of revelation that reveals so much, we see the world no differently than we did five minutes before, except five minutes have passed and we'd not get them back, if not for Christopher Nolan's tesseract. (Humbling thought of the day: Thomas Friedman was produced by Western civilization, which Interstellar is all about trying to save.)

Justin Peters' review of a Friedman book makes some sharp comments about the notorious prose and then looks at the heart of Friedman's project:

But too often in Thank You for Being Late, as is Friedman’s wont, distillation becomes oversimplication. “Monterrey has tens of thousands of poor living in shantytowns. They’ve been there for decades,” he writes at one point. Wow, sounds tragic. But don’t worry, friends: “What is new, though, is that it now also has a critical mass of young, confident innovators trying to solve Mexico’s problems, by leveraging technology and globalization.” This is a man who has won Pulitzer Prizes for his foreign correspondence; a man who dearly wants you to know how many countries he has visited. He cannot actually believe that Mexican poverty will be fixed by an app.

Or maybe he does? Friedman takes a lot of things at face value. He spends 100 pages furiously stanning for polarizing companies such as Uber and Airbnb. He earnestly recounts his conversation with a “business visualization” expert: “When we first talked on the phone, he illustrated our conversation real-time on a shared digital whiteboard. I was awed.” He raves about “smart” appliances with the wide-eyed optimism of a man who perhaps has never used one.

25 June 2012


A friend on Facebook just pointed me to the terrific post The Art of No at CaptainAwkward.com, talking about manners and ethics while dating. I cannot recommend this post highly enough.

But I have an itch because my friend pointed to it by way of a post on the Tumblr blog Gallery of Dangerous Women which just excerpted this segment:

Women are socialized to make men feel good. We’re socialized to “let you down easy.” We’re not socialized to say a clear and direct “no.” We’re socialized to speak in hints and boost egos and let people save face. People who don’t respect the social contract (rapists, predators, assholes, pickup artists) are good at taking advantage of this.

“No” is something we have to learn. “No” is something we have to earn. In fact, I’d argue that the ability to just say “no” to something, without further comment, apology, explanation, guilt, or thinking about it is one of the great rites of passage in growing up, and when you start saying it and saying it regularly the world often pushes back. And calls you names.

Now that alone is a rich and important point. It's one component in the great tangled mass of cultural screwed-upped-ness that feminists like me refer to as rape culture. A lot of men just don't know about it at all, and even those who do have a hard time seeing all of the implications in women's experience. We need to see to that.

Indeed, I'm a fella who read a bunch of feminist theory as a teenager and committed to it seriously and almost three decades later I have to admit that I still labor to truly appreciate the implications. I can tell you from that experience that it is very difficult for even attentive and conscientious men to figure out how to operate ethically and effectively in the face of our failure to make clear consent a part of our culture. I can also tell you from that experience that most women — including most feminist women — don't realize how tricky this situation is for men. The beauty of that The Art of No post is that it focuses, as we should, on the risks and problems which this presents for women but also takes seriously the challenge that men face at the same time and provides some sophisticated answers for how men should navigate these waters.

So check it out before you even get to the rest of my post. I also recommend spending some time with that link above to Shakespeare's Sister talking about rape culture because the first order of business is to look at how this affects women before I get all What About Teh Menz ... indeed I think that the point I want to make about men's perspective on this only makes sense if you take rape culture seriously.

That said, let me invoke the slogan no means no in the context of women are not socialized to say a clear and direct “no” and pointedly observe that a certain ... friction ... exists between those two.

Let me step that up another couple of notches. Here's comedian Louis CK.

(Update: In the time since I originally wrote this, Louis CK's gawdawful behaviors around consent have come to light, which adds a complicating dimension to relying heavily on a quote from him. But it should be clear why I think his commentary is still relevant.)

Watch that video if you possibly can; getting CK's delivery is important. But for convenience, I have transcribed it:

I don't know how I ever got laid, really, ’cause I was awful at it. I still am. I never understood. Like, there's guys that just have this confidence, and they can like go out with a girl, know when to lean in and kiss her and shit. I just — I couldn't, I would just go “CaN i FuCk YoU?” Like, I'd just blurt it out.

I remember one night, I was with a girl, I was like twenty years old, I was already doing standup, and I did a show in Washington DC. And after the show one of the waitresses came back to my hotel. She was really cute. We were making out, in my hotel, and she's into it, she's like humping me. So I start to put my hand up her shirt and she stops me. I'm like, hmnn, okay. So then we're making out more, and I start to put my hand on her ass, and she stops me. So after a while she went home. Nothing happened.

And then the next night I saw her at the club and she goes, “Hey, what happened last night?”

I was like, “What?”

She goes, “How come we didn't have sex?”

I was like, “Because you didn't want to.”

She's like, “Yes I did! I was really into it.”

I was like, “W-why did you keep stopping me?”

And she goes, “Because I wanted you to just go for it.”

I was like, “What does that mean?”

She says, “I'm kind of weird. I get turned on when a guy just gets frustrated and just holds me down and fucks me. Like, that's a big turn-on for me.”

I was like, “Well, you should have told me, I would have happily done that for you.”

And she says, “No! It has to feel real, and dangerous.”

Like, “What, are you out of your fucking mind? You think I'm just going to rape you on the off chance that hopefully you're into that shit?”

That piece makes me laugh and gives me the Cold Spooky every time I watch it. There's a lot going on in it.

If you're not familiar with CK I should underline that he affects a kind of Dopey Middle-Aged White Guy persona, but his cultural politics are not-so-secretly smart and sharply observed. His act commonly looks squarely at homophobia, and one of his bits on White privilege is justly famous. (Update: There's a good argument that his work is often deliberately feminist.) His TV series Louie is also one of the smartest, gutsiest things ever put on broadcast television. All of which is to not just plug CK, whom I do love, but to underline that this bit about a scary, funny sex and dating misadventure is deliberately constructed.

I say “constructed”, but I don't mean to imply that it didn't happen. I feel certain that it happened to CK pretty much the way he describes. I have that conviction because while his story provides an especially vivid example, practically all straight men have had encounters like that.

Encounters. Plural. Listen to the men laughing in the background as CK does his routine. They're not laughing because it's absurd; they're laughing because it's familiar.

Women send men mixed messages. A big part of it is the coercive socialization that the quote from Captain Awkward above talks about, but it isn't the only thing. Look at the way Louis CK plays the voice of the woman in his story: his responsible and necessary refusal to dance with her broken expectations about consent is confusing to her. She finds it surprising and mysterious and — most disconcerting of all — frustrating.

When my friend pointed to that CaptainAwkward.com quote above, I told her (having not yet discovered the rest of the post it came from):

At the same time, coercion culture — like women trained to send mixed signals — makes it difficult for men to figure out responsible behavior. The resulting confusions further reïnforce the patterns of the patriarchy.

And she replied:

Yes. So opt out.

Hell yes. I hope it goes without saying that Louis CK did the right thing for himself, for the young lady, and for the world.

But at the same time, one does not simply walk out of the patriarchy.

When I was a young fella I lived an opt-out ethic explicitly and deliberately. Recall that I alluded to reading a lot of feminist theory as a teenager? Being young and naïve, it did not occur to me that other people were not thinking about things in the terms I was, informed by that, approaching consent as deliberately as I did. This helped make dating and sex even more awkward and confusing than they already are when one is young. And one day a young feminist with whom I discussed these things took me to task, saying, “So you have decided that when women have an exchange with you, they should be able to discern that you're operating from a different ethic and using different communication patterns than the whole world they're accustomed to? Isn't that a lot to ask?” Because like Louis CK, by trying to date women in a way that took clear consent seriously, I was confusing and surprising and mystifying and frustrating the women I was interacting with. I had to find better solutions.

Not easy. I wish I'd had CaptainAwkward.com back then.

My friend is right, men must opt out, because opting in is the patriarchy and rape culture and I hope that I don't have to explain to anyone reading this why that merits deliberate and vigorous resistance. But let's notice that, per Louis CK's example, opting out means fellas opting out of the embraces of willing women. His example also shows that those women are generally Not A Good Idea To Get Mixed Up With anyway, but there are moments in a young fella's life when that is confusing and cold comfort and can have one asking if you have the whole thing wrong. Which is not to say Poor Men Not Getting Laid but to say that the world does not give men good feedback.

To be clear, I'll repeat that the first order of business is to look at how this stuff affects women and to attend to that. But since there are a lot of good voices talking about that, allow me this post to make a plea to my sisters in feminism, who often forget or don't know: that full post at CaptainAwkward.com talks about how respecting women's consent is genuinely tricky for men to do in the context of a coercive, sexist society.

In light of that, “so opt out” is not answer enough. Part of the conversation has to be to ask, yes, what about teh menz? and to expect that the answers are neither simple nor easy to figure out.

Update: Looking at this again, I realize that I didn't sufficiently emphasize an important point. The Art of No is terrific in large part because it exemplifies the kind of feminist discourse I'm advocating here. It makes the sexist injustices that women experience primary, while recognizing that an understanding of men's experience is also integral to addressing those injustices, and offers realistic practices for both women and men to use in responding to the challenges they present. Part of the frustration which motivates this post is noticing that the quote about women's socialization was separated from the rest and circulated well enough to reach me; while that quote makes its point well, in the context of feminist discourse it's something that has been said many times before, and thus to my point is in a certain sense the least interesting part of the post.

Update: Niki Whiting over on Google+ has an instructive comment.

one of the reasons girls/women don't speak up for what the want/don't want is that to know what we want sexually is usually equated with being a slut. If I say ‘I like it like This and like That’ then our experience as female is often being slut shamed, whether explicitly or implicitly. Hell, even just saying ‘No, I don't like that’ or even just ‘Yes, please’ can be taken as too much sexual agency.

Indeed. Women are subject to vigorous gender policing which punishes clear communication about sex. Men too, in very different ways, though it's important for men to remember that the stakes for women are much higher.


24 June 2012

Growing a Language

The talk “Growing a Language” by Guy Steele says a good thing that you may want to know about programming languages. Even if you do not know about programming languages, you may find it says a good thing about all languages, and says it in a smart way.

One can watch it or read it on the web.

Stick with it for a bit and all will be clear. Once you know the trick, you can skip to near the end if you do not care about programming languages. It has a good end.


This week I have felt a vague sense of guilt that I planned my weekend such that I won't attend the San Francisco Pride parade today. As I have alluded to before, despite the serious critiques one could have of it, the event performs a vital function, and part of that means that heterosexual fellas like me need to represent. Part of the point of Pride, of taking the form of a parade, is having the community as a whole participate and show the simple but profound support of just showing up. That sentiment has a certain lefty-intellectual flavor, but I am a lefty intellectual, so there you have it.

Part of my Pride Failure this year was that last night, rather than toasting to the liberation of my GLBTQ brothers and sisters and less-tidily-gendered-siblings, I raised glasses of champagne in the company of friends with coïncident birthdays, Happily Birthdaying ourselves. A friend and I decided to walk back from that party to catch a late BART train.

The streets were alive with Pride revelers, most of them displaying one variety or another of Fabulousness. Inspired by this, my friend and I talked a bit about the magick of dressing and grooming as a gift to both the world and one's self. Then my friend — who has spent years running continuation schools, the place where kids go when they get expelled from high school — noticed a note in all the Fabulousness which I had only half-recognized until she named it. We had drag queens and drag kings and drag indefinably-regals, whole sleuths of bears and otters, graceful butch-femme lesbian couples, the campy and the elegant, the loud and the quiet, on and on in gorgeous variation. And as we walked down Market Street, our company became more and more composed of people bound for the BART station as we were, on their way home from the heart of the Castro or festivities elsewhere in the City. The note that my friend spotted as we proceeded was a whole other kind of fabulous: Ghetto Fabulous.

This crowd was young and drunk and happy and un-bourgeios, many but not all people of color, many but not all evidently heterosexual (though it was pleasantly hard to say for sure). I am way too White and bourgeois to describe Ghetto Fabulousness without sounding hopelessly square and risking lodging my foot firmly in my mouth, but I am able to recognize it ... and my friend, who encounters it every day in her work, has become a connoisseur of its charms and so of course recognized it before I did.

So these were not middle-aged lefty intellectual straights with windy explanations of why allies need to support a shared community space. These were cheerful bonehead straights who came to party.

I knew that we lived in a time when Christians came to Pride to apologize for the failure of Christ Love from some of their brothers and sisters in Christ. And I knew that we're cooking up some young people who lack the homophobic anxiety that was an unspoken part of the world of my youth. But I hadn't yet absorbed this, that the forgetting of that anxiety was already complete enough that — at least here in the Bay Area — we had a whole generation of straight kids so unaware of that anxiety as a possibility, without needing the huge doses of intellectualized queer theory that brought me to that place, that they would take the train to San Francisco for Pride mostly because it's a good party.

My friend whispered to me, “Look. Victory.”

I don't want to ignore the countless horrific ways in which of course the liberation which Pride symbolizes has not happened. The forces of sex and gender normativity remain powerful and their knives still cut deep. But the future is here, and queer, and we are getting used to it. The forces arrayed against that have already lost, even if they haven't stopped fighting. In my lifetime, I can expect to see Pride become as banal as St. Patrick's Day.

I am blessed to live in such times.

21 June 2012

The Wire

I keep telling people to watch the HBO series The Wire, and it occurs to me that I should have my pitch somewhere handy. Here's the short form:

The Wire is so good that it will make you embarrassed to have ever liked any other television shows. Really.

To expand on that:

The Wire is a TV show about police wiretaps like Moby Dick is a novel about whaling, like uranium-235 is an explosive material, like Elvis was a guitarist. The show's intelligence, ambition, and craftsmanship make almost everything else on TV look shabby ... and at the same time it delivers livelier entertainment than most programs that try for nothing else.

On top of all that, I submit that as an American citizen one has a responsibility to watch The Wire because it delivers such a vital examination of American institutional failure, using the devices of fiction and television to tell the story in the way that a serious book on the subject could not.

So watch it.

That said, I have some recommendations about how one should go about doing that. Though released as five seasons of a weekly series, one shouldn't think of it like series television. Each season does not just have an overall story arc; each season constitutes a thirteen hour film with arbitrary hourly breaks. Thus the story and characters don't coalesce until three or four episodes in. This means a kind of commitment much like reading a novel; one cannot read most novels in a single sitting, and since it requires a certain momentum to keep the book in your head, typically one reads a novel in a mix of long and short sittings over the course of a week or three. Similarly, I strongly recommend planning for a long viewing session to get started with The Wire, three or four hours. After that you will want to set aside time for 2-4 hour viewing sessions two or three times a week ... and by “you will want”, I mean that once the show gets its hooks into you, it will become hard to devote that little time to watching it.

I envy anyone getting to watch The Wire for the first time. But I comfort myself with the knowledge that I can watch it again, which I can attest is every bit as gratifying.

If I cannot convince you, here's Charlie Brooker:

12 June 2012

Game of Thrones

Laurie Penny's article Game of Thrones and its Good Ruler Complex at The New Statesman says some astute things about the racism in Game of Thrones, but says the wrongest thing possible about what the show and series of novels implies.

Game of Thrones is all about kings and queens, all about who gets to be in charge and how they win and retain power, by violence, by force of will or simply by accident. The essential assumption of this story is a familiar one: sovereignty and leadership are inherently good things, common workers need decent kings or queens to make them happy and prosperous, and even if a catalogue of leaders are bad, mad or murderous, if you can just find the right king, the true, wise, noble king who deserves to be on the throne, then everything will be okay.

This is a bit like saying that the message of The Wire is that we need to support good cops in putting a stop to crime. (It's not.)

Yes, the people of Thrones' fictional Westeros think exactly what Penny says. Yes, a lot of naïve readers of “genre fantasy” literature think the same thing. (Authors in the medium have called that out as a problem.) But the book and the TV series do not think that a Good Ruler can save Westeros. The feudal idea that a good ruler will save the realm is the villain of the story. Not the greedy House of Lannister. Not the White Walkers. Not the dragons. Feudalism.

At every turn, we are shown the evils of the feudal order. The honorable suffer. The dishonorable triumph. Both the ordinary people and the nobility suffer in the endless pointless wars it engenders. Westeros is a horrible place to live. The sexist nightmare of rape, prostitution, and chattel marriage that Penny criticizes is a demonstration of how bad things are in Westeros.

And in a direct parallel to The Wire, we see smart characters try vigorously to make the systems in which they are enmeshed work. They play along, or try to game the system, or try to work against it, or try to step outside of it, and meet with failure every time.

Penny is right that Westeros is horrible, and it's madness to wait for a Good Ruler. But that's the point. Which is why I love Game of Thrones so much.

A quick note to my sex-positive readers who deplore the blanket assumption that Prostitution Is Always Bad, as well as to those Thrones fans who will point out that Shae Is Awesome: I assure you that I wholeheartedly agree with you. But I think that we can agree that prostitution in Westeros is generally pretty ugly, yes?

08 June 2012

Wish list

Want to buy me a present? Of course you do.

The ideal gift for me is cufflinks or a big scarf or a colorful pocket square; fun, decadent, modestly expensive, and something I will surely use and enjoy.

I also really need a nice pair of slippers. I've accumulated several cheap and unsatisfactory solutions to the problem, and need to really solve it.

Failing that, I love fancy office supplies; Moleskines and eccentric stencils and Leuchtturm1917 dot grid notebooks and almost all of those overpriced things in the Levenger catalogue appeal to me.

If you're feeling extravagant, there are three multivolume books I lust for: the unabridged McSweeny's edition of William Vollman's Rising Up & Rising Down, an unabridged edition of the Burton translation of The Thousand Nights and a Night, or the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica.

Or chocolate. Hard to go wrong with chocolate.

07 June 2012


I just stumbled across a Digby article from 2005 about the psychosexual underpinnings of conservative chickenhawks' enthusiasm for the Global War on Terror.

We are dealing with a group of right wing glory seekers who chose long ago to eschew putting themselves on the line in favor of tough talk and empty posturing --- the Vietnam chickenhawks and their recently hatched offspring of the new Global War On Terrorism. These are men (mostly) driven by the desire to prove their manhood but who refuse to actually test their physical courage. Neither are they able to prove their virility as they are held hostage by prudish theocrats and their own shortcomings. So they adopt the pose of warrior but never actually place themselves under fire. This is a psychologically difficult position to uphold. Bullshitting yourself is never without a cost.

And I think there is an even deeper layer to this as well and one which is vital to understanding why the right wing baby boomers and their political offspring are so pathologically irrational about dealing with terrorism.

Still instructive.

05 June 2012

Drone strikes

What Chris Bertram said. Ganked entire from Crooked Timber:

I’ve been reading some of Glenn Greenwald’s recent posts with increasing horror as he details the apparent willingness of the US drone campaign to attack events where non-combatants will certainly be present, such as funerals and to try to evade moral and legal responsibility by redefining “combatant” to include any military-age male in a strike zone. I’ve also been monitoring various liberal sites and blogs for signs of a reaction and not seeing much (please correct that impression in comments). Sites that obsess about non-combatant immunity if the people firing the rockets are from Hamas are silent. Blogs that take attitudes to historic human rights violations as a litmus-test of political acceptability, have nothing to say as a liberal American President bombs civilians on the territory of nominally friendly states. Fortunately, I’m not an American citizen, so I don’t have a moral decision to take about whether to vote for Obama or not this year. If I were, I don’t think it would be an easy decision to take. Romney is clearly remarkably close in political belief to Obama, but will be beholden to the crazy Republican right, as Obama is not. That provides people with a reason to vote for Obama. But the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner doesn’t deserve the vote of anyone who cares about human rights, even if, pragmatically they might feel they have to give it to him.

I have nothing to add.