Why media matter

Last week I was in two hotels in Italy.  Every morning, the lobby had the usual newspapers for guests.  I don’t mean a stack of USA Today; I mean five newspapers, all with national circulation (and not even including the Corriere, darn it); maybe we can not count Berlusconi’s Il Giornale.  I don’t mean five tabloid-sized placemats such as all our newspapers have shrunk to, I mean five newspapers of about fifty pages each, perhaps a third ads, the size of what we used to think a newspaper was, like the NYT when it was eight columns wide and needed special folding skills to read standing up in the subway.  If I take out the stack of ad inserts from a Sunday Chronicle, it’s about the size of one of these dailies.

Granted, the Italians keep electing Berlusconi, so news is no guarantee of political maturity or judgment.  But not having it is a guarantee of Big Trouble, and we’re certainly having less and less, in print and otherwise.  Here’s an example of trouble:

Half of California voters want the state’s $20 billion budget deficit solved entirely or mostly with spending cuts not tax increases, even after lawmakers deeply cut state services to solve nearly $60 billion in deficits last year, according to a Field Poll to be released today.

“If it were up to voters, they would cut the budget and what they want to cut is waste, fraud and abuse,” DiCamillo said, adding that it “may be a pipe dream” to think those types of cuts could add up to $20 billion.

May be a pipe dream? Perhaps have a lack of understanding? This degree of total  cluelessness about an enormous unfolding catastrophe has many authors – indeed, that his citizens are in this state of ignorance at the end of his term is probably the most complete and damning condemnation of Arnold Schwarzenegger – but the wasting away of news provision, and the habit of consuming it, are surely high on the list.

European newspapers have a different business model from ours (and Italian TV is more completely in Berlusconi’s toxic grasp than print media), and getting more different.  I fear that Sarkozy’s latest idea is pushing a string, but at least the national government understands how important this problem is.   I am near despair about the prospects for California’s escape from its death spiral, for many reasons, but the Field Poll coupled with the continued shrinkage of American news content through all channels is definitely the cherry on top of my bitterfruit sundae today.

Where are the grownups? Are they coming back?

I hate even to link to this, because it’s so embarrassing, just a national shanda. But there it is: the president of the University of California willingly trivialized by Deborah Solomon when his press is uniformly terrible and he (and we) are teetering on a cliff.

I hate even to link to this, because it’s so embarrassing, just a national shanda. But there it is: the president of the University of California  willingly trivialized by Deborah Solomon when his press is uniformly terrible and he (and we) are teetering on a cliff.

It’s not like Solomon snuck up on him: her whole schtick is to diminish interviewees with deeply silly, smirking, ignorant questions and then edit the responses to sound flip. Reasonable people sit still for something like that when they’ve just achieved something big, not when their reputation and institution are hanging by a thread and all trends are down. Does Yudof just have a completely tin ear? Rod Blagojevich would do some insouciant thing like this.  I want to think our president has better judgment than Rod Blagojevich.
Maybe someone set him up; is the UCOP flack office harboring vengeful malcontents, or is it some sort of remedial PR training program?   Are any grownups watching these people? Should we expect to see Yudof eviscerated by Letterman next, or …or…Heaven help us, don’t let Tina Fey smell this blood in the water.

William Shatner, 21st Century Buddha

Shatner is more popular than ever because he no longer takes himself so seriously.

William Shatner’s hilarious send-up of Sarah Palin’s resignation speech is making the rounds, and deservedly so. It’s an instant classic, but it’s also quite touching.

For years after Star Trek ended, Shatner spent a good bit of time trying to persuade the public that he was a great actor. Perhaps the greatest and most pathetic example of this was “The Transformed Man,” a spoken word album that probably set the record for unintentional self-parody: many of the tracks had Shatner doing Shakespeare. The harder he tried, the more laughable he became.

And then, some time in the early 90’s, he decided to play along with the game. I first noticed it during those ads for priceline.com. Shatner’s job in those ads was to make fun of William Shatner. And it worked — brilliantly. After a few years, priceline tried to move to a new ad campaign but it couldn’t because everyone loved old Bill so much. So he came back, and parodied himself by pretending that his replacement would be Leonard Nimoy. He did much the same thing with cameo appearances on Saturday Night Live. His character in the first Miss Congeniality was pretty much the same thing, as well as Denny Crane.

That’s what is so great about the Shatner Palin send-up. He is also parodying himself, and genuinely seems to be enjoying it. He’s at peace with himself. Captain Kirk has beamed down to Planet Nirvana.

The Country is Going to the Dogs

Sir Jonathan Sacks pens an empty Jeremiad about moral decline in Britain.

Not as you would expect the Bishop of Barchester, but the usually lucid British Orthodox Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks (London Times, June 26):

..what has gone wrong in society as a whole? I believe we have lost our traditional sense of morality…

When it comes to personal behaviour we have now come to believe that there is no right and wrong. Instead, there are choices. The market facilitates those choices. The State handles the consequences, picking up the pieces when they go wrong. …

Concepts like duty, obligation, responsibility and honour have come to seem antiquated and irrelevant. Emotions like guilt, shame, contrition and remorse have been deleted from our vocabulary, for are we not all entitled to self-esteem? The still, small voice of conscience is rarely heard these days. Conscience has been outsourced, delegated away. So, in place of an inner code, we have regulatory authorities.

Is there any actual evidence to justify this stylish wailing? The scandal over expenses in the British House of Commons concerned an institution with exactly 646 members. The financial meltdown was engineered by a handful of clever, greedy idiots in a handful of banks and brokerages. AIG for instance had 116,000 employees in 2008; but the main damage was done by its London derivatives unit, with 377, and the majority of these must have been mere executants not principals. The same surely holds for Lehman Brothers, Citigroup, RBS and Northern Rock. So why isn’t the narrative: a gang of greedy fat cats trash the casino again, rather than: it’s everybody’s fault, woe is me?

Sacks’ claim that “we have now come to believe that there is no right and wrong”, that most people have lost a moral frame of reference, is absurd.

Continue reading “The Country is Going to the Dogs”

14-carat coffin

Michael Jackson was buried today in a gaudy, 14-carat gold casket. I cannot imagine a better metaphor for the empty rewards that celebrity brought him.

My television shows the obligatory helicopter shots of a sea of distraught mourners, juxtaposed with thrilling images of Michael Jackson moon-walking and performing. My email includes equally obligatory missives detailing the sexual abuses Jackson apparently perpetrated on pre-pubescent boys, some of them beset with life-threatening illnesses. A Congressman went on TV to call him a “pervert.” My friend remains angry with Jackson for cutting a brutally anti-Semitic record.

Michael Jackson did some repugnant things. Yet it’s hard to be angry with someone who was so seriously and obviously amiss for nearly 30 years. His wealth and celebrity allowed him to escape the immediate consequences of his behavior. It also allowed him to drive right over the cliff with whatever illness and pain disfigured him inside and out.

For all Michael Jackson’s wonderful talent, his life was a tragic freak show—bookended by the creepy exploitation of a talented child and the equally creepy exploitation of a talented but troubled child-man. He was buried today in a gaudy, 14-carat gold coffin. I cannot imagine a better metaphor for the empty rewards celebrity ultimately brought him.

Annals of sexist oppression

III. Garments …

C. Modern era…

4. Pockets (denial of)

In the middle of a long thread on a writers’ list-serv, provoked by my post on fashion models, it occurred to me that one of the unrecognized ways women are kept dependent and threatened is simply denying them pockets. This is more important than one might think, right up there with hobbling them with high heels and way more effective than an upper-body-strength advantage.

Consider that a man has at least five pockets in a jacket, four more in his pants, and probably one in his shirt. Coat/parka? two to four more. Even in shorts and a tee, he has four, and a belt strong enough to hang stuff on. Why does this matter? Well, think what autonomous adults do, almost tautologically: they admit themselves to secure locations with keys, show identification, write on paper, start a car, read (think glasses), spend money with cash and credit cards, check mail and talk on their cellphones.

I can do any of those grownup things instantly, almost all with one hand, while walking, and neither miss a step nor look away from my surroundings for a second. With the jacket, I have pockets to spare for an iPod, papers, a candy bar, and even a book. A woman, however, dressed for business in slacks or a skirt and a jacket, or even wearing loose-fitting casual clothes, will have no usable pockets and has to carry a handbag. It takes both her hands and several therbligs to accomplish any adult task, never mind looking and groping inside the bag for the appropriate tool.

The handbag itself is disempowering; it’s prey to a thief just walking on the street unless clutched (there’s one hand occupied), and for sure hanging on a chair in a cafe, while a man only has to worry about a skilled pickpocket or a strongarm mugger. I never have to think to pick up my pockets and bring them with me after doing business at a counter or sitting at my desk.

Furthermore, that handbag has keys and identification together, so the thief (or finder) gets the address the keys go with, and maybe even the car license plate number. Losing a wallet is a nuisance; losing a handbag is a catastrophe and scary. At a formal event, you can’t carry a large enough one to hold anything, so you’re absolutely dependent on an escort just to get home. Care to dance? your clutch is on the table out of sight, but my stuff is safe in my pockets. No pockets is a perfect storm of dependency, insecurity, and risk.

If women ever demand grownup clothes, meaning clothes with pockets, we’re done for, guys. I don’t know how they put up with it, but heaven help us when they catch on.

UPDATE: Obviously these insights are not original with me. A reader points to a page apparently more than a decade old, where the pocket issue is classified as a joke. This reminds me of another oppressive tool, which is to diss reports of injustice with ridicule and condescension (though satire and humor are not out of place in serious political discourse). I don’t think this stuff is a joke.

The Akond of Detroit

The rich choice of better titles than “czar”.

The US President sometimes feels inspired to appoint delegates for coordinating interagency policy on something or other. What to call them? Agreed that the epithet “czar” is triply stupid: the Czar of all the Russias was a ruler, the Monocrat, not a deputy; his power was despotic not constitutional; and the régime failed utterly. You do need something else; and since the mandates of White House “czars” are bully pulpits not executive agencies, it has to be catchy for the press.

Never let it be said the RBC only ever snarks without offering constructive suggestions. So let’s try to be helpful. We need to look at the long and rich history of titles for offices of delegated authority.

Commissar: a bit too activist, even for social democrats.

Anglo-French feudalism gives us bailiff, sheriff, governor, and lieutenant, but they already occupy niches in US practice. But constable, seneschal, chamberlain, chancellor, warden, and jurat are free. Constable started out as a high rank. The Constable of France was the senior general of the French King. The British cabinet may include a Paymaster General and a Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster: obsolete sinecures into which real jobs can be slotted.

The Ottoman empire gives us pasha, aga, bey, cadi, dey, and vizier (originally Persian). Atabeg, another Persian title, is of Turkic origin.

Republican Rome offers ædile, censor, legate, prætor, prefect, tribune, and the late Roman Empire vicar – originally quite secular.

Mughal and princely India: Dewan, Jam, Mehtar, Nawab, Nizam, Pradhan, Raja/Rani, Thakur, and Wali. The Akhund or Akond of Swat, remembered mainly through Edward Lear’s poem, was a 19th-century Pashtun Muslim saint, not an official or ruler, so a “car akond” is cheating.

I think I would stick with commissioner for cars and drugs. Single commissioners as in baseball came before collective ones; the word doesn’t only mean “member of a commission.” But for banking we do need an Atabeg. He (the kind of person we’re looking for will probably be male) should work out of a complex of silk tents in Wyoming, which shivering suppliants must reach on foot. The bankers and, why not, derivatives traders should plead for mercy under the horsetail banners streaming in the steppe wind, close to the white pyramid of bleached skulls.

genghis-khan-murder-1.jpg

The Banking Atabeg’s deputy will be named Conan.

Where’s the outrage?

Fashion week in New York! The latest and greatest: runways! Really important now looks, garments that make irrefutable forward statements! Gossip – designers up and designers down, business bad, ars longa, deals brevis! And models! Beautiful, lithe young women, ideals for starry-eyed teens, radiating confidence, health and … wait a minute.

I thought they fixed that a couple of years ago, but no, it was just a bunch of cynical PR bullsh*t. The clothes are draped on cadaverous, sick, sunken-eyed creatures whose elbows and knees are the widest part of their limbs. I don’t mean fashionably thin, I mean pathologically skinny, sick girls; they don’t just have no body fat, they have no muscles and their bones are sticking out. Parading these creatures around on display is a freak show, not an art form, and even worse than what circuses used to have in the sideshow tent because no-one chooses to have a genetic abnormality, but these models have willingly sold their health and their self-respect (granted they’re young enough to have fairly undeveloped executive function and often poor and uneducated enough to have few choices), and the promoters and designers are pimping the spectacle out with complete and abject cynicism. At least the victims aren’t smiling.

The presenters’ motivations are clear: there’s money and reputation in an exploitative morality-free professional zone to at stake. But what kind of people, especially women (customers and journalists), will sit in an audience for this? How can you sit beside a runway watching an unbroken parade of malnutrition and illness and write about the clothes? I haven’t made a deep study of the press coverage, but I haven’t seen a story or an opinion piece pointing the finger much less raging against the spectacular, shameless misogyny of this trafficking, and the blatant backsliding; when they went all apologetic and confessional a couple of years ago, they didn’t mean a word of it.

If you wear so much as a scarf from these wretched people, you have a piece missing, undernourished someplace a lot more important than your hips; (even if you’re a moral cripple, why would you want to wear something designed by someone who evidently wants you to look like an invalid or a self-destructive psychotic?). If you drive a Mercedes in public, you deserve to get it egged at every stoplight. And if you’re a fashion ‘journalist’, you’re a phenomenon simply beyond my comprehension.

Batman and Morality in an Era of Terror

It’s not like the world needs one more comment on The Dark Knight, but…here goes. Note–this post is full of spoilers. Read at your own risk.

Fundamentally, this is a movie about terrorism, but terrorism stripped of all of its ideological attachments and reduced simply down to its method, which is to use shock and fear to induce collective demoralization. The figure at the center of the movie, The Joker, has not ideology, no program—in fact, he makes clear that this is precisely what makes him so dangerous, because being directed toward a goal places limits on what one is willing to do. The Joker, on the other hand, is a force of pure chaos, of unalloyed nihilism, whose only purpose is to induce social collapse by undermining the basic civilities and edifying fictions that hold together civilization. Like Conrad’s Colonel Kurtz, he has stared into the abyss, seen that there is nothing there, and now insists that everyone see what he has seen.

The movie has, for me, two genuinely daring moments. The first comes when a boat full of prisoners is set by the Joker against a boat full of ordinary Gotham citizens. As those who have watched it know, the Joker has rigged them up (in almost perfect, non-cooperative, prisoner’s dilemma game form) so that the first boat to blow up the other will be saved, but (presumably) both will be saved if neither side pushes the button. The audience is primed for the prisoners to do the deed, and the camera lingers on a huge, frightening, muscular black man who, we are sure, is going to take the button from the cop who is holding it and blow the other boat to smithereens. He grabs it, we brace, he announced that he’s going to do what they should have done a long time ago, and then….throws it out the window, and takes his seat again on the boat. The way this scene plays with our expectations about race and criminality was, to me, just incredibly effective. What the director Christopher Nolan was saying, I think, is that, even hardened criminals know that there is a distinction between murder and wholesale slaughter. Perhaps not a lot to build a civilization on…but something.

The other really critical scene—the one to which the whole movie ultimately points—comes right near the end. The crusading DA, Harvey Dent, has been twisted physically and mentally by the tragic death of his (and Batman’s) beloved Rachel Dawes into Two Face. Where Dent once believed that justice was possible, now he has been twisted to believe that the only real force in the world is randomness, dictated by a flip of the coin. Batman knows that he, a superhero, is no substitute for the moral resuscitation of the city, and that for that to happen the forces of disorder have to be confronted “in the light,” by ordinary citizens summoning up the courage to defend civilization, and not by sub- or superhuman creatures emerging out of the dark. Batman and Gary Oldman’s incredibly effective Commissioner Gordon stand exposed by the Joker, who has shown that when pushed to the limit, even they are willing to compromise on their code. But Dent, it seemed, was willing to go to prison, to the grave, if that’s what it took—he was, they say, the best of all of them. Now that the Joker has compromised even him, what hope can there be for the citizens of Gotham to believe that true heroism—the uncorruptible man—is possible?

This, I think, is where Nolan makes his most daring move. Batman and Gordon insist that only a “noble lie”—the lie that Dent was uncorruptible—can give the citizens of Gotham, in essence, a martyr. And to make Dent the martyr requires that Batman become the villain, by accepting responsibility for his death. Batman lies for the greater good, holding up an image of Dent’s virtue that he knows to be false—and, the movie implies, impossible. Here Nolan echoes the closing of Heart of Darkness, where Marlowe, having peered into the abyss, chooses to bend to Victorian convention and lie to Kurtz’s widow rather than tell her the truth about his final words (he says that they were “your name” rather than “the horror, the horror”). The noble lie, both Nolan and Conrad seem to suggest, is necessary for civilization to survive. The difference between the Joker (and Kurtz) and Batman (and Marlowe) is that the latter judge decency more valuable than truth.

There is much in The Dark Knight that doesn’t work—I find Nolan’s unwillingness to linger over the death of Dent and Dawes a serious flaw. But in the grand scheme of things, this is a remarkable, haunting movie—oddly, perhaps the most profound rumination on morality in an era of terror yet put on the screen.

My only question is, can Nolan’s maintain this level in Batman’s Third Act?

CORRECTION: One of our ever-vigilant readers drew my attention to an element of the “game” in the two boats scenario that I somehow missed. He explains that, “I believe the Joker claimed that both bombs would go off at midnight if one didn’t go off sooner, and it didn’t seem like the passengers were relying on or expecting the Batman to stop him. So in prisoner’s dilemma terms, the payoff matrix was negative all around — both cooperate = both die; either or both defect = one dies. (Both defect would be a very unlikely outcome — they’d have to hit the detonators simultaneously.)” My bad.