NY Times tells us the 75 things from 2011 that it wants us to talk about and remember

The New York Times “Thursday Styles” section today published its list of the 75 things that New Yorkers talked about in 2011, one of the silliest and yet most ideologically tinged of the seemingly infinitude of annual lists published in the news media the last two weeks of the year.

Let’s start with the premise of the article: 75 things New Yorkers talked about. Two questions immediately arise: 1) Which New Yorkers? and 2) How do we know these are the things they talked about?  Neither question is adequately answered in the paragraphs leading to the list.  The writer, Stuart Emmrich, no doubt expressing the consensus of the Style page staff, makes the assumption that we know who he means and that, of course, what else would they be talking about?  It’s the typical attempt by the news media, and especially style, society, celebrity and new product writers, to assume a consensus that really expresses what the writer thinks are the views of a cultural elite, e.g., A-listers, people who hang out at certain bars and restaurants or executives frequenting charity balls and cocktail parties.

The article really lists what the Times Style section wants its readers to talk about—or remember—from the past year.

I broke the list down by topic.  The results offer further proof that the Times is neither the intellectual beacon its friends believe it to be, nor the liberal propaganda machine that its foes accuse it of being.

Times 75 Things New Yorkers Talked About in 2011





Mass Entertainment


Hard News








Cultural Issues


High Culture





The list looks more like the front page of Yahoo! or the contents of the New York Daily News without the crime stories.  The list starts to make sense if we forget that the article is supposed to be about what New Yorkers discussed over the past year and instead focus on the fact that it’s a fashion page article (“style” is a modern, more-encompassing term for “fashion.”)  While there are only 5 fashion stories, fashion news often focuses on what celebrities and mass entertainment figures are wearing and doing.  These topics (except for when it involves fashion) account for 57% of all topics on the list.  But still, the celebrity and mass entertainment topics are not about what TV, movie and pop music entertainers and celebrities are wearing (I filed those topics under fashion), but about other aspects of celebrity.  Unlike the myth of the New York Times as serious and high-minded, the actual publication often carries stories about celebrity culture and trivial nonsense stories such as this list.

The topics include the usual suspects: Kate Middleton, Lady Gaga, Chaz Bono, Alexander McQueen, Tim Tebow and Ryan Gosling as featured celebs; the Republican debates, Steve Job’s death and the deaths of Bin laden and Qadaffi as news.  But beneath the superficiality, the article quietly advocates a right-leaning politics.  Here are some cleverly presented right-wing messages in the details:

  • Subtle denigration of known progressive newscaster Keith Olbermann, saying that once he left MSNBC he was “never heard of again.”
  • Trivialization of the Occupy Wall Street movement by stating that all it ever did was make famous a phrase, “the other 99%,”  and an obscure park.
  • Of the five stories on politics, four have to do with the race for the Republican nomination for president; the only Democratic topic about which New Yorkers evidently spoke during the year was the booing of Michelle Obama and Jill Biden by NASCAR fans.

Now for perhaps the most appalling omission on the list: the Japanese tsunami and the resulting serious leak of radiation at the Fukushima nuclear electrical-generating facility.  Does anyone really think that the Fukushima nuke-out, which dominated the news for weeks, was so little talked about that it could not crack a list of 75 subjects?

What could be the ideological imperative behind deciding not to include Fukushima on this list, which purportedly reports what New Yorkers discussed, not what fashion and entertainment topics they discussed? Some thoughts, and in giving them, I am not asserting that the writer and editor consciously worked these ideas out, but rather that these ideas are embedded into their thought processes as unquestioned premises.

The style section is really about buying products and services that express the style of the buyers, their social class and their aspirations/fears.  Only the most addicted shopaholic would feel like buying anything after talking about the silent poison of radiation.  The best thing for a style section article to do, always, is to keep it light and ironic.

The death of Steve Jobs was also tragic, but at least Steve stands for technological consumerism.  Technology consumerism was also the topic of the one technology story I found: the two-day wait for a new iPad 2. Perhaps I could have just as easily listed that story under cultural issues, but wherever it goes, it made the list and Fukushima did not.  In what alternative universe did news-savvy New Yorkers talk more about a new smart phone than about a major nuclear disaster caused by yet another extreme weather disaster? Only in a universe in which technology always provides us with great new products to buy.

So with “keep it happy” and “technology is always great” screens before their eyes, the Times Style section staff might have never even thought of Fukushima when brainstorming about the chatter at restaurant tables and cocktail parties over the past year. And if they did think of it, I imagine someone quickly squelched the suggestion as not “bright” enough.

Of course, if the Times really wanted to keep it real, the following topics would have topped the list of what New Yorkers discussed over the past 12 months:

  • Their children
  • Personal finance issues
  • Their jobs, careers and co-workers
  • Other family members
  • Local weather
  • Extreme weather around the world
  • Local crime news
  • The long jobless recession, which many will recognize under its more familiar name, “the jobless recovery.”

Unless we did a survey, there’s no telling who’s list is closer to reality: mine or The Times.


Why do media wait till a Republican candidate is on a roll to bring out the dirt?

Almost overnight Ron Paul began to rise in the Iowa polls. And it seems as if it were only a day later that we discovered that he lent his name to some odious assertions and cuckoo beliefs.

Do you see a pattern here? Bachmann gets popular; Bachmann’s husband is outed. Cain gets popular. Women whom he probably sexually harassed and his mistress suddenly speak up. Everyone thought they knew all of Newt’s skeletons, but as soon as he got popular yet a new one popped out, his dealings with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Every time a new Romney challenger appears on the horizon, the media find something. Perry is the only one not to have a new scandal revealed. He plummeted the old fashioned way, from a series of self-inflicted wounds.

Why do you suppose the news media wait for the candidates to ascend? My theory is that the reporters don’t know about these scandals until someone comes to them. No one comes to them with dirt on a candidate until he or she gets big.  Now if it were a Bush running for President, I would say that the Bush machine was behind it, since spreading dirt about opponents is consistent with the history of Bush campaign’s tactics (see Kitty Kelley’s The Family, for example). I infer nothing from the fact that Romney is the candidate preferred by the Bushes.   

There’s a double shock in the scandal surrounding Ron Paul.  The first shock is learning that Paul lent his name to ugly rants against African-Americans, Jews, the state of Israel and gays. Articles with his name on them criticized the U.S. holiday bearing Martin Luther King’s name as “Hate Whitey Day” and said that AIDS sufferers “enjoy the attention and pity that comes with being sick.” The image that most have of Paul’s views is that he is an  economic free market extremist and a libertarian, a rational if sometimes ill-informed thinker. Racism, anti-Semitism and even homophobia are all inimical to Paul’s rationalism. It’s shocking to see him linked to these irrational views.

The second shock is one of style. Ron Paul looks like such a kindly old man, a grandfather who always has a gentle word of advice. The imagination and most casting directors select off-balanced, crazed, intense, obsessive or somewhat out-of-control loonies to espouse these ugly views. 

It’s much harder to forgive Paul his former ties to racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia than to forgive the other Republican candidates their flaws. We always knew that Romney and Gingrich were non-ideological power-grabbers, so new revelations can’t possibly shock us anymore. If Bachmann, Santorum, Perry and Cain believe nonsense and advocate false ideas, at least their wrong-headedness is traditional, theologically based and shared by a large part of the population. Don’t get me wrong: I have more forgiveness in my heart for the religiously based candidate but that does not make these candidates any more appealing than Paul, Romney or Gingrich.

And then there’s Jon Huntsman. The only thing for which we need to forgive him  is for thinking that there was room in the current Republican Party for reasonable views based on science and pragmatism.

It’s a sorry lot. Many are saying that President Obama will roll to victory against any of these candidates. That’s a dangerous way for anyone to think whose interests lie with the poorest 99% of the population.  

Instead, we should be thinking: No matter who wins the Republican nomination, we must keep driving Obama further left, but make sure we are registered to vote and go to the polls on Election Day.

I want to close with a quick note about the great stuff in the latest issue of Jewish Currents, which just arrived in the mail box yesterday. The lead editorial connects corporate greed to idolatry and there is a great article about Israel’s “tent revolution” social justice protest movement. A new column carries extensive interviews with activists from around the country. The art and literature is tasty, as usual.  Check it out for a progressive view on Jewish issues and a Jewish view on progressive issues.

Old Xmas movie shows which ideological imperatives have changed and which remain the same

Last night I flipped on Turner Classic Movies for a half hour after returning from participating in a revered Christmas Eve and Christmas tradition among American Jews—having Chinese food with family and friends.  I caught the last 20 minutes of the original (and thankfully uncolorized) 1947 version of Miracle on 34th Street, in which a trial is held to determine whether a Macy’s Santa Claus is the real thing.

A lot happens in the last 20 minutes of the movie: the case is heard; the judge declares that the jolly and benevolent old man is the real Santa Claus; Santa’s lawyer, played by the forgettable John Payne, gets together with his love interest, the unforgettable Maureen O’Hara; and Maureen’s daughter, played by a 9-year-old Natalie Wood, gets her Christmas wish.

In those 20 minutes the writer and director made a number of decisions on details to move the plot along that also subtly advocate three of the most important ideological principles of the time.  What’s so striking is that one of these principles has in subsequent years been turned on its ear, while the other two persist and have become even more central to mass entertainment and the mainstream news media.

Let’s start with the big ideological reversal which resides in the reason that the judge declares the old man to be the real Santa Claus.  It’s because the U.S. Post Office decides to send to him all the mail it has been holding for Santa Claus. The lead-up to this denouement consists of a five-minute interchange between Payne, the prosecutor and the judge in which they attempt to top each other in praising the post office—it’s efficient, accurate and virtuous, just like the rest of the government.

It was 1947, and the United States had just won a war and was in an era in which government was expanding its influence in the economy and guiding a redistribution of wealth that led to the golden age of 1950-1980 in which we became a nation of primarily middle class and well-to-do households. People liked government and mass entertainment wanted us to like government.  I imagine that if Miracle on 34th Street were remade today, the post office might still perform its role in moving the plot along, but it wouldn’t be praised to the skies. It’s also likely that the producer would put the name of the delivery service up for bid resulting in a private company like Fed Ex delivering the Santa letters in the remake; or that they might come as emails that Google sent along.

Like many holiday-themed movies and books, Miracle on 34th Street has several plot lines that twist together.  One of the twists is typically the Christmas gift wish of a child.  It’s a bee-bee gun in A Christmas Story.  It’s a train set in the film-by-numbers A Holiday Affair star-studded with Robert Mitchum, Janet Leigh and Wendell Corey (as another lawyer). The boy in Glenn Beck’s children’s book product titled A Christmas Sweater wants a bike.  The plot device of focusing on a gift that is a selfish present for a child turns the spirit of Christmas into non-spiritual consumerism.  For these children, the holiday reduces to getting, and getting means buying, which the movie families typically are too poor to do.

The miracle at the end (or occasionally in the middle) of the movie always involves the child getting the material possession, which means someone bought something.  Christmas was the first holiday to become a commemoration of shopping and consumerism.  In 1947 in Miracle on 34th Street, we see consumerism as the ideological imperative behind Christmas, and we certainly see it today.  Nothing has changed.

The third ideological imperative I identified in the last part of the movies comes inside the gift that the girl wants.  It’s not a bike, bee-bee gun or train set.  It’s a house in the suburbs where a car is a necessity.

A house…in the suburbs…where a car is a necessity.

It’s the big American dream after World War II, subsidized by the government, recommended by the news media of the time and furnished by the real estate, car, retail and appliance manufacturing companies that dominated ad spending.  Flee the diverse city for the safe and homogenized suburbs in which all social interaction revolved around cars and malls filled with national chain stores and restaurants. 1947 was near the beginning of the post-war American dream that has turned into a nightmare, especially for the environment and those dependent on dwindling natural resources, which means all of us.

Yet preferring the suburbs to cities remains one of the most important ideological tenets imbuing today’s more ubiquitous mass media, as I have discussed on numerous occasions in OpEdge.     

Love or hate of government may be a matter of political fashion, but central to both the American post-War and 21st century ideologies is consumerism.  That the preferred place to live, the suburbs, features consuming as its biggest virtue makes perfect sense. And it certainly makes sense that this ideology will manifest itself in the details of holiday entertainments. The Christmas entertainments more spiritual in nature, like It Happened on Fifth Avenue— also released in 1947and a delightful variation on My Man Godfrey—tend to be less popular and less replayed on television.

I would like to close with a “Merry Christmas” to all my Christian friends and readers.



Mainstream media make anti-union ideology an accepted premise in many stories

This past week I have encountered more proof that anti-unionism is now part of the arsenal of ideological assumptions that the mass media makes on our behalf. I saw two examples of an anti-union subtext in articles by two writers whose work I generally admire: James Surowieki, who writes The New Yorker’s “Financial Page, and Len Boselovic, a business writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Now I’m not saying that either of these writers consciously tried to deliver carefully hidden slams to unions, only that slamming unions is so accepted now, that it has become second nature to do so in mainstream news stories.

First Surowieki:  In a thoroughly disgraceful article titled “Living by Default” in the latest New Yorker, Surowieki joins the line of economic reporters advocating that people whose houses are worth less than their mortgage should walk away, even if they can afford to pay the monthly tab.  As so many of these articles do, Surowieki begins by talking about the advantages of bankruptcy to a business, in this case, American Airlines: “Declaring bankruptcy will trim American’s debt load and allow it to break its union contracts, so that it can slim down and cut costs.” Note that he assumes that it is an admirable thing to break union contracts.  It’s not that he advocates breaking union contracts; he just assumes that it’s a great thing to do and assumes that the reader agrees with him.

Boselevic’s anti-union subtext is subtler.  Here is the beginning of an article about a think tank report on public pensions that was the lead in the Sunday, December 18 business section of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “Nothing elevates the blood pressure of taxpayers like dipping into their pockets to make good on pension promises made to government employees by the very local and state government officials they voted into office.”

First note that it’s a completely inaccurate statement, at least if we are to believe every study that has polled U.S. voters on tax issues over the past six months.  These studies all find that about two thirds of us want the wealthy to pay more in taxes. The only study of attitudes toward public pensions I have found was of Californians, 40% of whom were pissed off by public pensions.   In most circles 67 beats 40 in a landslide. My conclusion is that nothing elevates the blood pressure of most tax payers as much as contemplating how little millionaires now pay compared to 10 and 35 years ago.

But behind the inaccurate hyperbole, why do I perceive an anti-union bias in the article?  As I have written before, the current media campaign against public pensions is an extension of the war against unions started by Ronald Reagan because most government workers with pensions are in unions.  Bemoaning public pensions internalizes anti-unionism.  That the article plugs “public pensions” into the blank of a standard rhetorical device, i.e., “nothing boils the blood as much as ____” turns it into a throwaway line, like a quick one-line joke in a crime drama. Such throwaways are one of the many ways that writers communicate ideology without stating it overtly.  In this case, the ideology is anti-unionism.

Speaking of hidden messages, ABC news did a great job earlier this week of gently reminding the American people that they should care more about lowering taxes than creating jobs or helping the unemployed, hungry and poor.  At the end of ABC’s long analysis Thursday of the temporary House Republican blockage of a temporary extension of the payroll tax cut, ABC is the latest media outlet or pundit to quote what the Wall Street Journal recently wrote: Republicans have also achieved the small miracle of letting Mr. Obama position himself as an election-year tax cutter…” ABC and The Journal spin the corner into which the House Republicans have painted themselves  in right wing terms.  These media could have said that Obama is winning the job creation debate, or that he’s winning the 99% versus 1% debate.  But both media defined Obama’s win in terms of the ideological premise that lowering taxes is always good.

One hidden message that the news media never seems to take a break from beaming at us is the denigration of intellectual striving and knowledge. Yesterday a New York Times headline writer employed a tried-and-true, decades-old rhetorical device to denigrate intellectualism: “math is hard.” The “math is hard” myth is one of the corollaries of the “school isn’t fun” myth, a pillar of the American anti-intellectual ideology.  The Times story in question was an “animal research can be cute” story about pigeons having enough abstract reasoning ability to learn to count to 9.  The headline delivers the anti-intellectual message: “Stumped by Math? Ask a Pigeon for Help.” But what kind of math is the headline writer talking about?  Counting to 9. Talk about an intellectual challenge! (LOL)

I’m certain that if we would started actively looking in the top 10 or 15 national mainstream media outlets, we would find dozens of examples every week of reporters assuming an ideological imperative or placing little nuggets of ideology in the details of what they write.

FCC plan to ease media ownership rules will further limit the type of news and opinions that Americans get

The Obama Administration is once again displaying its conservative feathers as proudly as any peacock might.  The same group of pseudo-progressives who overruled distribution of Plan B birth control without an I.D. and executed an about-face to gut proposed higher pollution emission standards now plans to make another assault on freedom of speech.

Obama’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) wants to overturn its longstanding rule that limits companies from owning both a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same local market.

This rule will surely lead to greater concentration of media outlets in the hands of fewer companies. The same thing happened after the Telecommunications Act of 1996 enabled companies to own more stations. Larger companies bought smaller ones and suddenly instead of hundreds of owners of TV and radio stations across the country, there were only dozens.  We saw the impact on radio as Clear Channel and other companies owned by rightwingers gained control of the editorial policies of more and more stations.  Pretty soon the range of opinion on radio narrowed and moved extremely right. While Rush Limbaugh began making a name for himself before 1996, it was the consolidation of media ownership that led to the domination of talk radio by Rush and his clones—Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Michael Medved, ad nauseum.

The FCC is arguing that it’s absurd not to let companies own both broadcast and print properties in one market since every TV and radio station is printing on the Internet and most newspapers run video on their websites.  That argument doesn’t answer the objections to consolidation because the issue is not the distribution of news, but the sourcing of it.  With fewer collective owners, there are fewer opinions and fewer definitions of what is newsworthy.  With consolidation, the owners will tend to resemble each other even more than they do now, so that the articles and opinions will come to be similar across the various media.

Freedom of speech is useless unless there is a pulpit for every opinion.  Each owner represents one possible pulpit for a variety of notions regarding our economy, political system, distribution of wealth, cultural ideas and belief systems, but each pulpit will be available to only one of each type—one set of views on the economy and politics, one idea about wealth distribution, one set of social priorities.  We need many owners to ensure that we have many pulpits for every facet of economic, political and social interaction.  Right now, a handful of companies already control most of the TV and radio stations, newspapers, movie studios and publishing houses in the country and around the world.  The Internet does offer free access to the marketplace of ideas, but successful websites that are not affiliated with big companies draw in the hundreds of thousands, a drop in the bucket.  The pulpit is there, but the tent is small compared to The Wall Street Journal or ABC-TV news.

The long suffering newspaper, as a recent Pew study showed, is the whole game, since newspapers originate 50% of all news, and a much higher percentage if we discount celebrity and local crime news and focus on political, economic, social trend and breaking news.  As newspapers decline, they are covering less news and presenting fewer opinions, so less news and fewer opinions are getting out to people. 

It may be that the FCC is thinking that revenues from TV will enable companies to keep the newspaper viable, something that seems less and less possible under current operating assumptions.  But isn’t it just as likely that television advertising and programming departments could begin to dictate the terms of coverage in newspapers, leading to a rapid debasement of content.

If the Obama Administration and the FCC really want to help newspapers survive, a better approach might be to put a limit on the number of media properties one company can own.  Make the large media conglomerates divest for the good of the country, like federal law and regulation once made oil conglomerates divest for the good of the country. The more companies there are controlling the media, the freer we will be as a people and as a society, and the less possible it will be for one group to steer the country in the wrong direction by controlling the news and opinion.  Each of these smaller media companies after divestiture might be more fragile, but the industry itself would be stronger and more diverse.

Greater government support for the news operations of local public broadcasting stations would also help to create a freer marketplace of ideas.

Finally, government could subsidize newspapers that report original news and are making the transition to the Internet model, perhaps with a tax on Internet news aggregators such as Yahoo! and Google News that make so many stories of local and national newspapers available to the public free of charge.

I urge all readers to go to the FCC website and make a comment. Tell the Obama Administration that you do not want it to concentrate media ownership further.  Instead, ask the Obama Administration to develop new laws and regulations that will break up the big media companies and diversify ownership.

In class war, House Republicans must think they’re the 300 Spartans dying politically so wealth inequality can survive

House Republicans persist in stonewalling an agreement to extend and expand the temporary cut in Social Security and Medicare taxes (AKA payroll taxes). After holding the U.S. economy hostage time and again to maintain temporary tax cuts for the wealthy and paying for them by gutting programs for everyone else, the Republicans are now opposing a little more help for the other 99%.

This move should convince any doubters that there is a class war going on in the United States, and it’s being waged by the wealthy against the middle class and poor. The foot soldiers are conservative pundits and politicians, primarily Republicans. The House Republicans, led by the nose by its Tea Party wing, remind me of the small Greek army led by Spartans that held the Persian Army at the ancient Battle of Thermopylae, recently fictionalized as the movie 300.

The analogy to the Spartans, who sacrificed their lives for the greater cause (Sparta was a proto-fascist state), fits like a glove: The Republicans are taking heat for stonewalling the continuation of this tax cut. Virtually all reputable economists agree that consumers have spent almost all of the extra money in their pockets from the payroll tax cut. This temporary tax cut has thus served as a boost to the struggling economy. Take that boost away, and we will slip back into recession and the Republicans will be blamed. The House Republicans know that they’re putting their jobs and political lives on the line, but I imagine they are “just following orders:” like good soldiers always do.

The reluctance of Republicans in general to extend this tax cut unless we pay for it with cuts in benefits to other poor or middle class people demonstrates clearly that class war is the appropriate term to describe not only the current Republican agenda, but the agenda of conservatives for the past 30 years.

One of the most powerful tools of warfare has always been to cut off the enemy’s supply lines. Information and facts are perhaps the most vital supplies in this violent class war (unless you consider it nonviolent to cause deaths from inadequate medical care or children going to bed hungry).  Speaker of the House John Boehner tried to cut that valuable resource the other day when he had someone from his office order C-SPAN to stop videotaping the live battle on the House Floor after he and other Republicans walked out of the chamber. At the time, Maryland Democratic Representative Stenny Hoyer was lambasting the House Republicans for walking away from their responsibility to the unemployed, the middle class, the poor and those on Medicare.

This obnoxious censorship demonstrates that the Republicans are willing to do anything to preserve and exacerbate the current inequality of wealth in this country.

The war analogy illuminates many conservative actions over the past three decades, and especially since the ascendancy of Bush II:

  • Pulling C-SPAN’s plug was a minor skirmish, but Republicans have been trying to reduce supplies of another precious resource—votes—for the past few years by proposing bills in virtually all states to make it harder both to register to vote and to vote.
  • Warfare often shows a complete disregard for innocent bystanders, and who can be more innocent than the millions of children who have seen funds cut for public schools, early childhood education and children’s healthcare?
  • Victors in war claim booty, and the booty in the case of the 30-year war against the middle class and poor is increased corporate profits from gutted regulations and government contracts that privatize traditional government services such as data processing, schools, prisons and military support services, replacing good-paying government jobs with low-paying private sector jobs.
  • What else is the constant denigration of unions and unionized public workers than guerilla warfare? Taking pot shots at unions, impeding their ability to organize and feeding the public a steady stream of anti-union cant can all be compared to the attack-and-run strategies of guerilla warfare. And just as Viet Cong guerilla war divided the U.S. ruling elite and just as American guerilla war divided British ruling elite, so the right wing has managed to divide the middle class against itself with its constant sniping at unions.

We can only hope that the House Republican’s reenactment of the Battle of Thermopylae has the same effect that the original battle did: Although the Greek army held off the Persians for a few days, the Persians overran much of Greece and captured Athens, that ancient democracy for rich white men. Let’s hope the Republicans lose both the battle and the war, although I wouldn’t compare America’s other 99% to the Persians. No, after 30 years of unmitigated class warfare, we’re more like shell-shocked victims of massive bombing.

Vocal opposition to preparations for sea-level rise on Virginia coast is end game for anti-science ideology

Goya’s masterful etching, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,” has haunted western culture since it first appeared as part of Los Caprichos in 1797. Goya brings to life the idea that reason can produce monsters with his usual light but precise touch that seems always able to depict both figures and their motives. At the time, the thought that reason can produce monsters was prevalent, especially among conservatives, as many saw the Napoleonic wars as the monster created by 18th century rationality. It’s an idea that has also occurred to many people when contemplating nuclear weaponry.

But all too often, it is unreason that produces the monsters, which has happened in Virginia’s middle peninsula region. 

Organized residents there are shouting down planners, engineers and government officials at meetings of the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission. Their angry-mob demagoguery is in opposition to preparations that the district wants to make to respond to an almost certain rise in the sea level over the next few decades.  The rise in sea level will result from global warming and therein we find the principle objection raised by the opponents: They don’t believe that global warming is taking place, and therefore believe that the costly and inconvenient infrastructure modifications and other changes are a waste.

In other words, these true believers in anti-science intend to write their own obituaries or those of their children and grandchildren by ignoring what science is telling them they have to do to prevent massive flooding.

Here we see the gloomy, self-destructive end game of the campaign to discredit the facts of global warming, financed over the past few years by a handful of industrialists who would make less money if we imposed environmental regulations and pursued alternative energy with the zeal of China. That campaign has built on the anti-intellectual rhetoric that has dominated mass media for decades and the campaign against the theory of evolution that the religious right has waged with greater and lesser intensity for a century or more. 

Every depiction of smart kids as nerds, every article glorifying the rare successful person who did not get his/her college degree, every off-hand remark that math is hard, every “Animal House” portrayal of higher education, every list of birthdays or deaths containing only celebrities, every questioning of scientific truth in the news media—this constant decades–long accumulation of ideologically tinged detail in our news and entertainment has built the base for the benighted citizens of middle peninsula Virginia to not just doubt the experts but get angry enough to coalesce into an unruly and uncivil bunch.

A reason always stands behind the unreason of these irrationalities: The funders of global warming deniers make and keep more money when we do nothing about this man-made problem. Religions lose power when people accept the truth of evolutionary science.  People with money gain influence and status when the world respects money instead of knowledge.

I’m not saying that there is a decades old conspiracy. I do think however that there is a tendency for people with power and money to act as if they believe that the ideas that keep them in power are accurate, no matter how many times and in how many ways they have been disproved.

But this constant sowing of anti-intellectualism and anti-science is reaping an ignorant population. At a time in which all but the very wealthy are suffering economically and our elected officials prefer spewing out inaccuracies and inflammatory labels to governing, what has happened in Virginia is predictable. People are angry, but instead of lashing out at those who have created an unfair tax system that starves the public of the resources needed to confront global warming, the people believe the charlatans and lash out at those government officials who want to help them avoid the monstrous nightmare of losing their property and possessions to flooding.

Many electronic games are leading to the infantilization of American adults, but not all of them

A number of times over the past few years I have made derogatory references to video or electronic games, always as substantiation of my theory that our mass culture encourages adults to hold onto childish entertainments and habits.

But I was only partially right about computer games.  As it turns out, only certain types of computer games are implicated in the infantilization of Americans.  To have blamed all computer games was an error on my part.

What started me thinking more about video games was a thorough but unexciting section on the current state of the electronic games industry in a recent issue of the Economist.  Consumers now spend more on electronic games than books, records, or any other type of entertainment except movies.  The Economist article categorized games in several ways: type of device on which they’re played; broad topic of game; demographic of players.

Starting with a few ideas from one of the articles, I began to categorize games by the way they engage the player and found that I could fit every computer games into six categories (if I missed a category, dear readers, let me know), each of which is an extension of a pre-computer, pre-digital chip type of game:

  • Traditional games of intellectual skill, such as chess, Scrabble or trivia games.
  • Games of luck, such as most roulette or slot machines, or where luck plays a larger part than skill, such as poker.
  • Fitness or sports activity, such as the Wii sports games, which are extensions of bowling, golf, aerobics and other physical activities.
  • Fantasy life games, such as Alternative Life, which resemble Renaissance Faire (sic) jousting, war reenacting. Dungeons and Dragons and doll play.
  • Building games, like Sim City or Farm Life, which take ship- and airplane-model building into fantastic new worlds.
  • Joystick games, in which the primary human activity is manipulating a joy stick, mouse or keyboard; joystick games carry on the spirit of pinballs, but add characters, storylines and a whole lot of violence.

(Note that games based on other experiences will reduce to one of these six types; for example a virtual horse race or football game combines fantasy life with games of luck, with a little skill built in, much as the old Stratomatic baseball with its spinners and pie charts did.)

It goes without saying that playing any of these types of games obsessively at any age signals that the player may suffer from an emotional problem. That’s true of electronic games now, and it was true of the non-electronic versions people played years ago.

But running down this list, what I see is that by type, the electronic games that do not infantilize adults build on non-electronic ancestors that did not infantilize adults in prior epochs.  Chess, checkers, Scrabble, trivia, Sudoku and any of the dozens of their electronic variations help people to keep their brains healthy. While I might prefer using an exercise bike or hitting a couple dozen balls at a batting cage, I can see that exercise games help people and families stay healthy. And I can understand why many people enjoy building both a model ship from matchsticks and a virtual city.

On the other hand, in former times, we considered adults (males) who gambled all day or hung out playing pin balls as immature, which means, retaining the traits of childhood.  They were immature back then, and so are the millions of adults today who regularly gamble online or play Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, World of Warcraft or any other of the games that use fantasy themes to decorate what are really sophisticated joy stick games.   These games are inherently infantilizing, as opposed to the other types of electronic games which will infantilize only if pursued too many hours of the day.  As it turns out, these joystick games typically outsell all the other types of electronic games.

The categorization works well in theory, but in the real world, we also have to consider content. When we think of content as production values—realism of the motion, vividness of the colors and sophistication of the special effects—electronic games represent a stunning improvement over former versions of these game types.  But if we define content as complexity of thought process and character, discussion of issues, ambiguity of human situations, use of symbolism and realism of narrative, then we can see that all of the joy stick and many fantasy games operate on a  child’s level (even a child’s version of violence).  These games infantilize.

Reading, too, can infantilize, if the adult is reading a Harry Potter story instead of a good history book, Catch 22 or the latest Richard Powers or Don DeLillo novel.  I was wrong to blame computer games across the board for infantilization.  More precisely, then: That so many adults play electronic games of chance, joy stick computer games and fantasy games with childish qualities indicates that Americans are developing an infantilized culture, one in which we retain our childhood predilections and thought processes into adulthood. The danger resides, of course, in the fact that the immature child is more open to manipulation, control and exploitation than is a thinking adult.

Target misses the target completely with ads that turn Christmas into nothing more than a chore

The best advertising attempts to evoke an emotion in the viewer or listener and then link that emotion to the product or service for sale.  Budweiser has a series of ads meant to make you feel patriotic that it runs on July 4. McDonald’s ads for its coffee drinks are meant to make the viewer feel cool and hip. A current Viagra ad with cowboy music and a rugged looking guy in a pickup truck wants to make men feel in control and experienced.  Many food ads are based on making people feel love towards their children or families.  The current Best Buy “Game On, Santa” Christmas ad series wants people to feel victorious in a competition.

What then can we make of Target’s TV ads for this Christmas shopping session?  The ads are bright and chipper, but the only emotion they can possible evoke is the relief felt after performing an onerous task.  And that’s not what a retail business wants its shoppers thinking at Christmas.

The Target ad unrolls as a series of people completing actions associated with preparing for Christmas: stamping letters, packing gifts, adjusting a decorated tree.  There must be six or seven people in total, representing all ages and races, all completing the very last step of some action related to Christmas.  And all say the same word, triumphantly but with a serious, not a gleeful tone, “Done.” The result is that the sound track for almost the entire spot is the repetition, in different voices, of the word “done.” “Done, done, done, done, done, done,  done.”

I understand that Target is trying to communicate that its stores have everything needed to complete every Christmas holiday task, but it comes off as a tedious checklist, or maybe the tail end of a conversation between a mother and her disinterested teenage son: Did you do your homework? Done. Did you make your bed? Done. Did you fix your brother’s computer? Done. Did you call your Aunt? Done, done, done, done, done!

Target has turned all of Christmas into a chore. The ad doesn’t mention that Target helps you buy the gifts that say I love you. There are no reminders that Christmas is a time to get spiritual.  Nor is Target saying it will help you keep up with the neighbor’s lighting display.  No, Target helps you get your chores done.

It’s another version of this year’s post-modern approach to the holidays.  The ad is not about buying something to celebrate the holiday or express the emotions you feel on the holiday to others. The ad is about helping you get through your chores.  Since your chores all have to do with buying something, the Target ad becomes an ad about shopping for the sake of shopping as opposed to shopping for a reason.

The Target ads display an important characteristic of post-modern art.  The subject of post-modern art is often the process of making art.

In the same way that post-modern art focuses on art itself, the themes of this year’s advertising and news media Christmas season seem to focus on shopping as an end to itself, and not as a means to celebrate the holiday.  The media treated Black Friday Weekend as a holiday dedicated to shopping, forgetting to mention that the shopping is in preparation for a holiday that’s a month away.  The Best Buy ad turns shopping into a competition.  Finally, the Target ad turns shopping into a chore.  In all cases, the idea of Christmas–even in its debased current version as an occasion for massive gift-giving–becomes peripheral to the main concern of shopping until dropping.

Tebow has right to pray in public and others have the right to find it obnoxious

Tim Tebow has every right to do his little public prayer at football games. His drop to one knee is protected speech under the Constitution of the United States.

And I have every right to tell the world how much I despise everything that tebowing represents to me and many others.

Let’s start with the fact that Tebow has publicly supported positions with which I disagree and for which his stand derives from his religious beliefs, for example, his opposition to a woman’s right to an abortion.

Then there’s the political context of the action. I see the Tebow knee drop as the latest action in an aggressive campaign by evangelical and ultra-Orthodox Catholic groups to Christianize our public places and public institutions. The Tebow knee drop is one small piece of this puzzle. There are many others, including the bogus claims of a secular war on Christmas, the attempt to proselytize in the Air Force, the proliferation of Christian radio and TV programming, the fight against evolution and the frequent stunts, such as the rural Florida preacher burning a Koran. The fad of tebowing on Youtube or in a non-religious public place, as opposed to the lone act of one athlete, is the most recent manifestation of the campaign to turn a secular nation into a Christian one. Of course, the religious right has received a lot of help from the mainstream news media and many pandering politicians.

But beyond Tebow’s belief system and the assault it has made on science and the concept of a secular society, is the sports part of the story. The news media, and especially the non-sports media, for the most part are giving Tebow credit for his team’s victory.

The real story is that the Denver offensive line and defense are so good that they can win despite having a bad quarterback. In most professional football games nowadays, the defenses start to break down during the fourth quarter and suddenly both offenses are able to march the ball down the field for quick scores. Everyone’s getting tired and it naturally has a larger impact on those who have to react, i.e., the defense.  It looks as if Denver’s defense doesn’t get tired, or gets less tired than other defenses. (Mr. October, Reggie Jackson, famously denied that he got better in late September and early October; he averred that he merely got less tired than other baseball players after the long grueling season.)

Behind the story of a good team dragging a bad quarterback to victory is another real story: a coach who, when faced with no good choice at quarterback, took about a week to recreate an old-timey offense that modern football strategies had made obsolete in the 1960’s and 1970’s. And behind the coaching story may be yet another story: the inherent edge in conditioning of a team used to playing in a high-altitude environment in which the body adapts to getting less oxygen per breath.

But instead of taking a look at why the Denver team is on a roll, the news media has created a celebrity who happens to be tied to the irrational. The fact that the media established and treats Tebow as a celebrity says more about the American ideology than the fact that he is Christian.

The Tebow preoccupation displays all the characteristics of celebrity culture:

  • Like the Kardashians and other reality stars, Tebow doesn’t deserve the publicity he gets.
  • Discussions of the Tebow phenomenon has driven out other sports and news reporting, just like celebrity news drives out serious economic and other reporting.
  • The celebrity, Tebow, has come to represent the issue, public faith.  In the United States, charitable causes and social trends are often advanced or retarded based on their relationship to celebrities; e.g., when Angelina Jolie gets involved in a cause, that cause suddenly becomes news. And when a wide range of publications, including Parade, Cosmopolitan, AARP, People and even The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal cover a trend, cause or nonprofit organization, they often do so through the eyes of the celebrities who have become involved.

When I see Tebow tebowing, I think of these things–his political stands, the campaign to Christianize America, the fact that he’s getting credit for the great work of others, and the pernicious influence on American life of celebrity worship.

The Tebow gesture therefore irritates me, even as I applaud his right to do it and bemoan that a Long Island high school suspended four students for being part of a group that staged an impromptu mass tebowing in a school hallway. Organized prayer before the school day is illegal and so should be the practice of allowing religious youth groups to hold meetings in public schools. I find it disgraceful that certain public school districts must be responsible for providing bus service to children going to private religious schools. But if a kid wants to drop to one knee for a second, that’s his or her right.