What the f@#k, Democrats?

Debbie Wasserman Schultz

Behind the Curve – 2016 Democratic National Convention

Seriously, what the actual f@#k?

In case you’ve been trapped in some pocket dimension for the last few months, the Republican Party has nominated a racist, misogynist, thin-skinned, ignorant narcissist for president(whose name I choose not to mention here, because frankly he gets enough media attention). This man has spoken about minority groups in a way reminiscent of Hitler’s Germany. He’s insulted war veterans and disabled journalists. He’s retweeted white supremacists and expressed admiration for brutal dictators like Kim Jong-un and Saddam Hussien. He has advocated torture and other war crimes. He appears to know next to nothing about government, or indeed anything other than media manipulation. And his wealth, his sole claim to competency, was mostly inherented, not gained through business prowess. His actual business ventures are a series of bankruptcies and ethically questionable ventures so abysmal they would have landed him in the poor house if it wasn’t nearly impossible for rich people in America to become poor.

On paper, this should be the easiest election the Democratic Party has ever won. But the last polls I saw show Hillary Clinton and her opponent – let’s call him “Lumpy” – neck and neck.

Seriously: What the actual f@#k?

First of all, it takes a special kind of stupid to nominate the only person in the Democratic Party as universally despised as Lumpy. I know that Bernie was pretty radical (for America, anyway) and Martin O’Malley was about as exciting as watching a documentary about khakis, but neither of them are actively hated by half the country.

Granted, I never fully understood why people hate Hillary so much. They say she’s corrupt and a liar, which might be true, but I haven’t seen anything to convince me she’s any more corrupt than the next politician. The email scandal is often mentioned, but that always felt like a purely bureaucratic screw up to me, the definition of a “nonissue” that has been blown up for partisan reasons. Republicans wouldn’t have made a peep if it was done by one of their own. I suspect the hatred of Hillary is more based on emotion than fact.

But honestly it doesn’t matter why. What matters is that a lot of people don’t like her. Democrats had an opportunity to win over Republican voters who don’t like Lumpy, and they f@#ked it up by nominating someone they hate just as much, if not more. I know certain NeverLumpy folks who might have voted for the Democratic nominee if it was literally anyone else. But choosing Hillary has created an impression for many people that both candidates are equally bad or dishonest. A false equivalency if ever there was one, but it exists in a lot of people’s minds. And it didn’t have to.

Democrats: What. The. F@#k?

DNC Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz
DNC Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz

And then those WikiLeaks emails came out and revealed that DNC officials were actively working against the Sanders campaign. What the f@#k!? Leaving aside the dodgy ethics and blistering idiocy of doing something like that (seriously, Clinton probably would have won anyway), are they so committed to losing this election that they have to put a hit out on the only Democratic candidate in the running who’s exciting and likeable enough to jump-start the liberal base? Seriously?

You know, I supported Bernie. And I used to think that the “anti-Clinton” Bernie supporters were being ridiculous. “He lost fair and square,” I used to say, “We need to focus on stopping Lumpy.” Now what the f@#k do I say to them? How can I blame people for being f@#king furious? How can I blame people for getting fed up and pledging to stay home on election or vote for third party candidates rather than supporting this rigged system?

What the f@#k?

And how are you going to win those voters back, Hillary? With f@#king Tim Kaine? A man who’s as exciting as watching unedited raw footage from the khaki documentary? Here’s some Politics 101: Democrats tend to win when there’s a high voter turnout. There’s a high voter turnout when people are excited about the Democratic ticket (i.e., Obama in 2008). Obviously progressives aren’t thrilled about Hillary, but a running mate like Bernie or Elizabeth Warren might have smoothed things over. Gotten people excited. But who the f@#k is excited about Tim Kaine?

Bernie Sanders, From Salon.com
Bernie Sanders, From Salon.com

Hats off to Bernie, by the way, for being so mature at the Convention after the DNC emails leaked. He didn’t withdraw his support for Hillary Clinton or do anything dramatically divisive, even though many of his supporters wanted that. He stayed on message and reiterated his commitment to stopping Lumpy. Think about that: Literally the only Democrat with his eyes on the prize is actually an independent.

So good on you, Bernie.

But Democrats? Just… Just what the f@#k?

 

Coming up:

  • Movie: From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) – Monday, September 5
  • Game: Portal (Valve Corporation, 2007) – Monday, September 12
  • Documentary: Sky Line (2015) – Monday, September 19
  • Book: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (Douglas Adams, 1980) – Monday, September 26
  • Wild Card! – Monday, October 31

The problem with the tour guide plot

American Gods (Neil Gaiman, 2001)

Behind the Curve – American Gods (Neil Gaiman, 2001)

This article is going to end up sounding a bit negative, so let me start off by saying that I really liked American Gods. It’s an interesting and imaginative journey with a lot of deep insight into American culture and American attitudes towards the intangible. I’d say the insight is especially impressive considering that Gaiman is a Brit, but on reflection maybe that’s his advantage. Maybe it takes an outsider’s perspective to depict the diverse flavors of American culture so precisely.

But with America being so huge and diverse, a novel with the ambition of depicting so much of it will necessitate a plot that jumps around from place to place. That by itself wouldn’t be a problem if the story flowed together more naturally, but it kind of doesn’t. We can feel Gaiman contriving excuses to take his characters from one place to another, seemingly at random.

Its what I call a “tour guide plot.” A plot wherein the story is less concerned with producing a satisfying narrative than it is with ushering us along to spectacle after spectacle. And that’s when American Gods loses me a bit. I don’t always have a firm grasp on why our main character, Shadow, needs to be dragged across the country.

Thor, 2011
Thor, 2011

Shadow is being employed as a sort of errand boy by a god named Wednesday (essentially Odin). Wednesday is rallying the older, traditional gods to do battle with the younger gods who rule over things like television and the internet and who have become more aggressive in recent years. So that’s the framework for most of the story and the justification for why Wednesday and Shadow are travelling around the country; to recruit other gods. But the plot moves a painfully slow speed, dragging it’s solitary mystery across the length of the entire book.

And Shadow’s contribution to the enterprise is extremely minimal. Half the time one wonders why Wednesday bothers to fetch him from the small Wisconsin town where Shadow is hiding. During their meetings, Shadow usually just sits in the corner, observing the interesting mythical characters act out their scenes. Shadow adds very little, and for most of the book he barely understands the things happening around him.

There are hints to Shadow being an important player, but all the gods are very vague about how and why. It’s only at the very end of the book when big decisions are made that I feel like Shadow is an active participant in the plot rather than a passive observer.

Other times I get the impression that Shadow is only there to act as audience surrogate to a series of otherwise disconnected characters and situations with which Gaiman has populated his fantastical world. This impression is bolstered by the little asides peppered throughout the novel involving characters with no connection to the larger plot. These assorted elements are all very interesting and well written, mind, but at the end of the day it doesn’t feel like a cohesive story.

American Gods Trailer, 2016
American Gods Trailer, 2016

Luckily none of this is a huge problem. In creative mediums it’s okay to get rid of something crucial, like cohesiveness, as long as there’s a solid reason that works in the story’s favor. And I think that a lot of the issues in American Gods serve a grander purpose. The jumping around is schizophrenic, but it helps to create the impression of an enormous other world that’s connected in ways humans don’t quite comprehend. Shadow comes across as hopelessly ineffectual and confused when interacting with gods, but I think that’s the feeling Gaiman wanted to convey. Shadow is a tiny, insignificant creature catching blinding glimpses of a world beyond his understanding. It would only hurt the book if the audience had a better grasp of the situation and how everything fits together. Still, I wish Shadow had felt more necessary during the bulk of the story.

 

Coming up:

  • Wild Card! – Monday, August 29
  • Movie: From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) – Monday, September 5
  • Game: Portal (Valve Corporation, 2007) – Monday, September 12
  • Documentary: Sky Line (2015) – Monday, September 19
  • Book: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (Douglas Adams, 1980) – Monday, September 26

 

Attracting honesty with honey

(Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies, 2015

Behind the Curve – (Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies (2015)

As you’ve no doubt noticed, everybody lies at one point or another. Just about everyone will bend the rules if they perceive it as socially acceptable. But one of the more interesting points made in (Dis)Honesty is regarding when people are honest. In one of the studies, participants were asked to recite as many of the Ten Commandments as they could remember before taking a test that they could easily cheat. Although few could name all the commandments, this exercise dramatically reduced cheating in comparison to the control group, regardless of the individual participants’ religious beliefs or lack thereof. Simply reminding people of a moral code, whether or not they follow it, caused them to be more honest.

(Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies, 2015
(Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies, 2015

Think about that. Reminding people of honesty makes them more honest. The documentary even included practical example of this. A British government agency was able to dramatically improve the voluntary response among taxpayers by adding one simple sentence to collection letters that said something to the effect of “a majority of British taxpayers pay on time.” This simple reinforcement of positive social behavior saved the agency a lot of money.

It seems there’s some truth to the old adage that you catch more flies with honey, and I wish American policymakers understood that. Have you ever been on food stamps? I have, and I can tell you that Michigan’s DHS is very short on honey. In addition to being generally understaffed, uncommunicative and disorganized, every letter from that organization reeks of accusation and condescension. I talked with a benefit recipient who needed to send certain additional paperwork to DHS. The first she heard of it was in a letter they sent that threatened to shut off her benefits. She was understandably frightened and stressed out by this letter and was probably less productive in the week that she got it. When someone is already struggling to get by, scaring the hell out of them doesn’t get them back on their feet.

But this attitude, in one form or another, is extremely prevalent in American politics, especially when it comes to issues relating to low income individuals. The idea seems to be that people are inherently devious and will take advantage of the system when given half a chance. Especially on the conservative side, the prevailing wisdom is that benefits like food stamps actively discourage people from trying to be self sufficient.

(Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies, 2015
(Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies, 2015

I disagree. I think that most people will respond to generosity with honesty. I’m not saying that all people are honest. There are always going to be those who abuse the system. But the attitudes held by leaders about those they govern tend to be self-fulfilling. If you treat people as potential cheaters and scammers, then more will cheat. Maybe because you made it sound socially normal. Maybe just to spite you. On the other hand, if you treat people with trust and respect, I think they’ll repay you in kind.

 

Coming up:

  • Book: American Gods (Neil Gaiman, 2001) – Monday, August 22
  • Wild Card! – Monday, August 29
  • Movie: From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) – Monday, September 5
  • Game: Portal (Valve Corporation, 2007) – Monday, September 12
  • Documentary: Sky Line (2015) – Monday, September 19

Star Wars is dumb

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, 2003

Behind the Curve – Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (BioWare, 2003)

Growing up in the 90s I was too late to be part of the initial Star Wars craze, but I grew up loving it nonetheless. I remember taping the movies on our VCR whenever they were playing on TV. These were the original films, mind. None of that special edition crap. I remember running around the house with a paper towel tube making lightsaber noises. I remember grunting at cup across the table, trying to move it with the force.

I even loved The Phantom Menace when it came out. In fact, I loved all the prequel movies. I was still a kid at the time, and as such I was blissfully unaware of the fan backlash. Even now that I recognize the flaws in the prequels, I still look at them through nostalgia-tinted glasses.

But my interest has waned in recent years. Lately I’ve been wonder whether I’m a Star Wars fan at all. This is oddly timed, since Star Wars is currently better than it has been for years. The Force Awakens will definitely be remembered as one of the high points in the franchise, combining the wonder and excitement of the original movies with the improved technology and choreography we saw in the prequels.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens, 2015
Star Wars: The Force Awakens, 2015

In addition, I personally consider Kylo Ren to be one of the best Star Wars villains. Sure he’s a whiny brat like Anakin in the prequels, but that makes sense for a dark side Force user. Their power is supposed to come from intense emotions, and Ren really embodies that unchecked rage. Other dark side users like Darth Vader, Darth Sidious and Count Dooku always seemed way too calm and in-control to me. Basically they were slightly meaner Jedis.

So Star Wars has made an amazing comeback and is now better than it ever was. So why is it still losing me? Well, I suspect it’s because I’m just now realizing something about the franchise: It’s really dumb.

First of all, the universe doesn’t make sense. The stories take place many hundreds and thousands of years from one another, but technology never changes. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic supposedly takes place many millennia before the movies, but all the technology is virtually identical. Same lightsabers, same blasters, same ships. The main character even gets a ship that looks exactly like the Millennium Falcon. It’s clearly just there for fan service, but it raises some questions. If this model of ship has been around for thousands of years, why isn’t it more common? Especially if it’s still the “fastest ship in the sector” after all that time. It’s like if the fastest car today looked like a model T. And you’d think more people would get that kind of ship it they’re so fast, but they only ever seems to be piloted by Star Wars protagonists.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, 2003
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, 2003

Even if technology does evolve, it’s in stupid ways. Although I like The Force Awakens, the New Order’s Starkiller Base is unquestionably one of the dumbest, most ham-fisted attempts to raise the stakes I’ve ever seen in a franchise. What’s scarier than a Deathstar? A giant Deathstar!

But I think I reserve most of my ire for the whole light side, dark side dichotomy. When you have a conflict between two groups and one of the leaders literally calls himself “dark lord,” you have officially blasted any chance of forging a complex narrative out the airlock. You might as well be writing an episode of Super Friends.

To be fair, there have been some attempts to muddy the line between light side and dark side in side stories. KOTOR includes the only example I’ve seen of a neutrally-aligned force user. But most of the Star Wars universe is just good guys being noble and bad guys being evil and positively no self-awareness. I mean, the New Order has fricken Nazi banners for God’s sake. Are you kidding me? I know that calling the bad guys “stormtroopers” was never subtle, but this is a whole new level.

So in conclusion, I’m no longer a Star Wars fan. I’m just a guy who will watch every Star Wars movie the day it comes out.

 

Coming up:

  • Documentary: (Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies (2015) – Monday, August 15
  • Book: American Gods (Neil Gaiman, 2001) – Monday, August 22
  • Wild Card! – Monday, August 29
  • Movie: From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) – Monday, September 5
  • Game: Portal (Valve Corporation, 2007) – Monday, September 12

Home-brewed, artisan schlock

The Usual Suspects, 1995

Behind the Curve – The Usual Suspects

I consider myself something of a beer connoisseur. Every time I’m in a new city, my first instinct is to hop on Google Maps and see if there are any microbreweries. It’s not an altogether healthy hobby, with beer being so fattening, but I love it. I love the hoppy IPAs. I love the smooth, coffee porters. I even love experimental beers made with weird stuff like cucumbers or jalapeños.

I understand why a lot of people drink the cheaper standards, like Bud and Miller. If all you want to do is get drunk then why not go for the cheapest option? But I make a point of avoiding those cheap beers because they are, quite simply, lesser products. It’s definitely an acquired taste, but microbrews are vastly superior and I feel like I’m getting more out of the experience. And if I’m going to be drinking something unhealthy, I’d rather drink the finest unhealthy beer available.

The Usual Suspects, 1995
The Usual Suspects, 1995

The same logic can be applied to entertainment. Of the millions of narrative pieces available across all mediums, I’d estimate that maybe one percent of them could be called “art.” The rest are just entertainment. Which is fine. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment. In fact, there are times when all you want is entertainment. Times when you’re tired and don’t want to be intellectually challenged. You just want to be amused.

I occasionally find myself in that mood, and suddenly all I want is a bit of mindless schlock. But not all schlock is created equal. Just like beer, you have an upper tier and a lower tier. The lower tier is easy to spot. Formulaic shows and movies like Law & Order or the newer Star Trek movies will hold your attention, but I find them rather forgettable. When I watch them it feels like I’m simply killing time between now and the grave.

The upper tier of schlock can be harder to spot, but it’s worth searching out. Something amazing happens when a good filmmaker throws away “artistic” pretentiousness and resolves to just make a really good action movie. You get the watchablility of schlock without feeling like you’re wasting time. It’s still not exactly challenging, but you’re gleaming some net benefit by watching.

The Usual Suspects, 1995
The Usual Suspects, 1995

You get movies like The Usual Suspects and Guardians of the Galaxy, films that brim with charm and originality despite simple characters and plots that are fairly trite and predictable. These are the schlock films that people continue to think about. Films that we keep re-watching and quoting years down the road. Often they end up having more impact on a person’s life than the actually artistic films.

 

Coming up:

  • Game: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (BioWare, 2003) – Monday, August 8
  • Documentary: (Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies (2015) – Monday, August 15
  • Book: American Gods (Neil Gaiman, 2001) – Monday, August 22
  • Wild Card! – Monday, August 29
  • Movie: From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) – Monday, September 5