The lack of Black Friday violence demonstrates that Americans love to wait on line

A woman pepper sprays her fellow shoppers to get close to the XBox she wants to buy.

A robber shoots a shopper in the parking lot of a mall.

A cop bloodies the face of a senior citizen who was trying to take advantage of the swarm of people to shoplift something.

What are we to make of these three unrelated violent incidents during the celebration of our newest national holiday, Black Friday? My conclusion: not very much.

An estimated 152 million people packed stores and parking lots during a one-day spree of crawling in traffic, hunting for parking, waiting on lines and pushing at counters, all a few hours or a day after an orgy of overeating and overdrinking.   Besides feeling overhung or dyspeptic, many Black Friday shoppers must also feel the emotional crush of the economic contraction:  lots have families in which one or more adults are unemployed or underemployed. A large number are living in houses worth less than the loan they have taken on it.  People are angry, worried, frustrated.

And all that the media could find were three incidents?  That sounds like an hour’s worth of violence in a small city on an average Wednesday evening.

The small amount of Black Friday violence reported in the national media suggests that security is working, the petty thieves are taking a holiday and people are pretty docile. Sure, they like to push and shove, and maybe surreptitiously give someone a little secret jab to the back or squeeze the breast of a stranger.  And sure it’s great to buy something at one of the lowest prices it’s going to be during the year, and greater still to be one of the “happy few,” or even the last one to get the hottest gadget or doodad in the store.

But I can’t help but wonder if, for many Americans, standing in line is the real pleasure of Black Friday.  We may complain about waiting for a physician or a dentist, but when it comes to entertainment, standing in line is as much a part of the experience as the blockbuster movie, the Disney or amusement park ride, the new Harry Potter book or tickets to that hot group that make people cue up like lemmings waiting to try blind cliff-diving.

And make no mistake about it, Black Friday is a form of entertainment, the form of entertainment that Americans seem to love most: engaging in a commercial transaction to purchase a good or service likely to fill an emotional need.

The history of American holiday celebration really reduces to the story of American businesses and mass media attaching two actions to every holiday: eating and buying stuff.

It’s been more than a century since we first commercialized Christmas.  In that time, we have created holidays that require us to make purchases, such as Mother’s and Father’s Day, and secularized minor religious holidays by reducing them to buying and eating; witness St. Valentine’s Day and All Hallows’ Eve (AKA Halloween).

For decades, Thanksgiving seemed to be immune to commercialization.  Yes, the holiday structures itself around a meal, but the basics of that meal comprise the traditional rituals of the celebration, and so have remained relatively unchanged for centuries: The food part of Thanksgiving– turkey, stuffing, potatoes, pumpkin pie—kept buying gifts out of the holiday celebration.

The recent emphasis on Black Friday in the mass media has finally changed all that.  The news of stores offering Black Friday specials before and on Thanksgiving extends the media coverage and advertising about our national shopping day.  Black Friday now surrounds Thanksgiving with commercialism and subtly changes the mix of holiday stories in the news media. More stories in the news media are about shopping and fewer about people helping other people participate in the ritual of turkey eating.

Encircling Thanksgiving with Black Friday also links the two more closely. Thanksgiving was long an oasis of quiet private celebration in the long season of riotous consumption that starts with Halloween commercials in early October and continues unabated into the flood of sales, gift card purchases and gift returns of early January. Thanksgiving has been diminished into that big meal we eat before we engage in competitive shopping in late November.

There is very little that 152 million people do together in any country.  Only 111 million watched the Super Bowl worldwide.  About 129 million cast votes for either President Obama or John McCain in 2008.  Imagine if 152 million showed up for one day at Occupy encampments all over the country?!

Thus, Black Friday has entered the pantheon of major American holidays.  Perhaps we can call it the first post-modern holiday, because unlike other holidays, for which the reason for celebration is a pretext for shopping, shopping is both the pretext for and the manifestation of the holiday.  Christmas is about shopping to give presents to your loved one.  Halloween is about shopping to buy the tools of celebration—candy, decorations and costumes. Black Friday is shopping for the joy of shopping. One characteristic of post-modern art is that it is often about the process of making art.  In the same way, Black Friday is about the process of celebration.

The next step in the deconstruction of Thanksgiving will surely be a spate of stories in the news media about charitable activity to help people participate in Black Friday. I can see it now: stories about teen groups that help seniors shop or wait in line for them outside Walmarts.  Toy drives culminate not under the Christmas tree at the local Y in December, but in a party for poor kids in a mall the day after Thanksgiving. Merchants start to brag that a small part of every Black Friday purchase will go to prevent breast cancer.  Target will announce a special program to make it easier for the disabled to participate in Black Friday festivities.

In short, I predict that Black Friday will take on some of the aspects of Thanksgiving as it continues to supplant turkey day as our most important harvest festival.

Since god-given talent and IQ give some people an edge, why reward them so much for winning?

I’m still catching up with the Sunday newspapers.  I want to recommend “Sorry, Strivers: Talent Matters” by David Z. Hambrich and Elizabeth J. Meinz, both professors of psychology, that appeared in the “Sunday Review” section of the New York Times.

Hambrich and Meinz dismantle the myth that time on task can make anyone a success, and in particular the silly idea that an IQ of 120 is enough to ensure anyone can go to the top of their fields if only he or she work hard enough. Just like a basketball player of average height and speed for high school teams has no chance against the size, speed and dexterity of Shaquille O’Neil, at any given level of endeavor, the one with the photographic memory has an enormous edge on the average Joe of middling intelligence.

What does that mean to our reward system, which lately pays outsized amounts to the winners and miniscule amounts to all the other players?  Think only of the business game in which most employees have lost ground to inflation over the past 30 years, while the winners—the executives and owners—take home lots of cash.

Many of those winners are the talented and the high IQ: gifted athletes, entertainers, writers and high-end knowledge workers like lawyers, surgeons and senior executives.   Do they (do we?) deserve the enormous sums of money they rake in?

Hambrick and Meinz have established for us that hard work can only take you so far.  Those geniuses that go the farthest may or may not work hard. They’re at the pinnacle because of something they had when they were born. They can cultivate, apply or fine tune their natural abilities, but never can they create their ability. It was given to them, so I don’t care if we call it “god-given talent.” You have it or you don’t. And if you have it, succeeding in what you do best is easy as pie.

Don’t forget that success must manifest itself within a social context. Once upon a time, we rewarded people with superior marksmanship and strong arms. Now we reward people who can add numbers quickly and use words to communicate clearly.  Having the right talent for the current age is worth a lot to many of those who currently make a lot of money. Sadly, Willie Mays might have been a field slave if he had been born 100 years earlier.

If a large and perhaps the most important part of your success had nothing to do with anything you did, why should you reap unlimited benefit?

Now in the United States we let there be a free market, which means we let the winners take all, or most, of the stakes. We then use tax policy (or until Bush II, we used to use tax policy) to make sure that no one gets an unfair share, making people pay an ever greater percentage of additional income in federal income taxes. On the level of ethics, what we’re saying is that the more money you make, the greater likelihood that the reason you made it had to do with something out of your control, such as inherent talent or high IQ. Thus the less of your money you get to keep and the more of it goes to fund government services to the entire community.

The one exception we make to this idea is the tax for Social Security and Medicare, for which everyone pays the same percent of their wages. In fact, there is a cap on the amount of wages for which the Social Security tax applies, but there is also a cap on the amount you can collect each month in benefits.

Every Republican candidate except the honorable Jon Huntsman has called for some kind of a flat tax. The flat taxers are really saying that no matter how much a person makes, it’s entirely resulting from his or her time and efforts solely, with nothing caused by other factors, such as the circumstances of the time, god-given talent, family wealth and connections, the support of society or plain old luck.

That’s why outside of Huntsman, every Republican candidate, from Newt to Mitt to the Pizza King, will be disastrous for this country. All will pursue a flat tax, which will lead to the wealthy paying even a smaller share of the tax burden, which in turn will lead to a greater erosion in government services and a larger tax burden for the poor and middle class.

On social issues such as abortion, gay marriage and birth control, the Republicans represent about a third of the country. But on economic issues, however, they represent the top one percent, and no one else.

When will media stop trying to sell us on a car- and mall-dependent suburban life?

It’s really hilarious how often it is that some organization or another comes up with a study that concludes that the best place to live or raise a family is a distant suburb in which all there is to do is visit the chain stores in the mall, take drugs and get into trouble.  A suburb, where the cultural highlights of the year are the church choir Easter concert and whatever is playing at the Cineplex on Black Friday, where children under the age of 16 are prisoners of drivers and those over 16 are helping to clog up the roadways. A suburb, each of which may have a little ethnic diversity, but all of which will be regimentally uniform in economic background and life goals of the inhabitants.

The latest to create a bunch of pseudo criteria for quality of life and then declare that suburbs meet them better than cities do is In a survey that Yahoo! and other portals have blasted out to us over the past few days like a pro-communist song over the loudspeakers in the meeting hall of a Chinese village, names the top five places to raise a family. 

First the criteria, which might serve as a good guide if actually understood what they mean:  “We evaluated educational factors (such as school scores, the number of public and private schools, and colleges), economic factors (including median family income, expenses, job growth, and unemployment), crime, amenities (such as child day-care centers, zoos, aquariums, museums, theaters, recreation centers, green space), air quality, and ethnic diversity. School performance, expenditures, and income were given the most weight.” biases the study from the start by only focusing on places with populations between 1,000 and 50,000 people, and median family income within 20 percent of the state median.  So New York, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Boston and any place big enough for a vibrant urban life is eliminated right from the start. In fact, the closest cities to four out of five of the winners are all on the small side, with relatively few of the amenities of urban life. The underlying assumption is that the best place to raise a family must be in a small community.

The article about the study claims that the researchers looked only at cities in which the crime index was less than 10% above the national average. But I don’t imagine that crime played all that big a role in the final decision, since the number one city turned out to be Blacksburg, Virginia,  home of one of the worst mass murder in American history, the killing of 32 students on the Virginia Tech campus less than five years ago. In fact, it’s a bit creepy to read that Blacksburg finishes on top in a study of the best places to raise a family.

The study gave no points for mass transit, probably because there is no real mass transit in any of the more than 4,000 small municipalities that qualified for consideration. And although the survey criteria include ethnic diversity, museums and theatre, I don’t think the authors really took a close look at these factors, seeing that only one of the five is situated near anyplace with decent theatre and museums or any kind of ethnic diversity to speak of.

The winners, with name of closest large city in parentheses):

  1. Blacksburg, VA (40 miles from Roanoke)
  2. Arlington, NE (35 miles from Omaha)
  3. Morton Grove, IL (15 miles from Chicago)
  4. St. Henry, OH (60 miles from Dayton)
  5. Spring Arbor, MI (8 miles from Jackson)

Living in any of these “five best places to raise a child” would have bored my son to tears—and his parents as well. In all five of them, all I see is a relatively constrained and unimaginative childhood, devoid of regular opportunities to expand horizons.

I’m wondering if was really trying to figure out what were the worst upscale places to raise a child.

Thumbs up to Naomi Klein’s six strategies for addressing climate change; thumbs down to tax-hating Republicans

Everyone should read “Capitalism vs. the Climate,” Naomi Klein’s fine article on a wide range of climate change issues in the November 28 issue of The Nation. 

First Klein presents a lively history of how the right wing has reduced the percentage of Americans believing in man-made climate change from 71% to 44% in a mere four years, pointing out that virtually all of this historic shift away from science has come among card-carrying Republicans. 

In the next part of this very long article, Klein admits that the right wing is correct to fear the changes that we must make to halt climate change and deal with its ill effects.  The rightwing values the free market above all else, even above the well being of others, and to address climate change we will of necessity have to impose government solutions on society and the free markets, the result of which will be a redistribution of wealth from the wealthy downward to the middle class and poor. I have made this connection between fixing the environment and government intervention on a number of occasions for more than two years, and I’m delighted to see that Klein and others agree with me.

Klein offers six strategies which government must pursue to address climate change, and again, OpEdge has proposed all of these strategies over the past few years:

  1. Reviving and reinventing the public sphere.  Klein wants to reverse the 30-year trend towards privatizing government functions. To quote Klein, “Climate change is a collective problem, and it demands collective action.”
  2. Remembering how to plan. Klein calls for world, regional, state and local governments to develop environmental plans that are realistic and effective.
  3. Reining in corporations. Amen, sister!
  4. Relocalizing production. Transporting goods long distances raises their environmental cost. Relocalization, which simply is buying locally-produced goods, will not only cut fuel costs, over time it will diversify local economies everywhere, making them inherently stronger.
  5. Ending the cult of shopping: As I frequently point out, Americans consume too many resources.
  6. Taxing the rich and filthy. Often, they’re the same people, as with the case of Koch brothers and other executives and owners of large companies that pollute the environment.

Klein’s last strategy—to tax the wealthy—reminds me that I haven’t commented yet about the slow-mo train wreck called the Congressional Debt Reduction Special Committee. Despite rumors of deals earlier in the week, as of this writing the committee is still deadlocked with no solution in sight and the deadline before a solution is enforced on the country is Wednesday at midnight.   

The main impediment to a deal, as usual, is the obstinacy of Republicans who, like spoiled five-year-olds who can’t get their way, refuse to admit that it’s mathematically impossible to reduce our debt without raising taxes on the wealthy. 

As the National Priorities project computes, the value of the Bush II tax cuts to the wealthiest 5% of the population is more than one trillion dollars and counting, with more than $715 billion going to the top 1%. Judging from recent surveys, the public’s positive reaction to the Occupy movement and stories in the mass media, more and more people are coming to realize that one of the two main reasons for our current fiscal crisis is that these temporary tax cuts were passed 10 years ago (the other reason being that we waged expensive and useless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). If we just let these temporary tax cuts expire, we would go a long way towards solving the debt crisis.  

I also like the idea of reducing the maximum value of mortgage deduction. I’m not sure why the federal government ever got into the business of subsidizing the housing market in the first place. Guaranteeing viable loans I can understand; giving a tax break to every home owner seems inflationary. All it does is fuel increases in prices, as people can afford to buy more expensive homes with the tax break. Curtailing the deduction will hurt everyone with a mortgage, but the entire country will benefit as the additional taxes raised can be deployed to create real jobs and/or pay down the deficit.

Now the idea of ending the corporate deduction of health care benefits that I’ve also heard is bad, bad, bad. It would drive many if not most employers out of the business of providing healthcare insurance to their employees. Like it or not, our current system of healthcare insurance relies heavily on private coverage by employers. As of today, we don’t have anything to replace it except a still infant market for private individual insurance policies and government-paid insurance for the poor and elderly. Until we have more viable alternatives to employer-sponsored healthcare, we need to keep the deduction in the tax codes.

But I’ve drifted lazily into wishful thinking and indolent day-dreaming.  I’m just wasting my time and yours, since it’s nothing more than a pipe dream to consider any of these tax increases given the ostrich-like ability of Republicans to stick their heads in the sand and ignore the necessity of raising taxes on the wealthy.

When they start going after Franco Harris for supporting his father figure, Joe-Pa, it’s called a witch hunt

Franco Harris has become collateral damage in the Penn State child sex abuse scandal.

Franco is best known for making one of the four or five greatest plays in professional football history, catching a ball that evidently bounced off the helmets and bodies of other players and then running for a game winning touchdown as time expired in the very first play-off game of the Pittsburgh Steelers team that went on to capture four Super Bowl titles in six years.

All Franco did was say that Joe Paterno, his former coach, didn’t do anything wrong and did not deserve to be fired.  He showed support for the man who selected him for athletic greatness in high school and then showed him how to be both the Hall of Fame player and the community leader that Franco became after leaving Penn State for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Would you fire a son for saying that his dad was innocent?

Anyone who doubts that Joe Paterno has been a father figure for Franco Harris for forty some odd years probably has never spent even a minute in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

But first a race track fired Franco as spokesperson and then the Mayor of the City of Pittsburgh, the notoriously callow and mediocre Luke Ravenstahl, forced Franco to resign as president of Pittsburgh Promise, a local public-private partnership which guarantees college money for anyone graduating from Pittsburgh Public Schools who is admitted to a college in Pennsylvania.

I don’t agree with Franco that Joe Paterno should not have been fired.  Coach had a serious lapse of ethical judgment in not following up more aggressively after he passed on the allegations of sexual abuse to his superiors.  There was no excuse for it.  Over time, I believe that most people will remember Joe Paterno for running a model college  football program that graduated its players and prepared them for the real world of life after football.  But for now, Penn State and we as a community of people have to do what we have to do, which is make sure that everyone understands that protecting our children from sexual predators is more important than a football team. Joe had to go.

But I can’t find fault with anyone for providing moral support for Joe Paterno, while making clear that they are against child abuse.  I’m excluding, of course, those who select violence or the destruction of property as their means of expressing support.  These hoodlums should spend a few days in jail and make restitution.

But punish Franco Harris for supporting his coach?

Let the guy continue to serve on boards, help non-profit organizations raise money and actively sell important ideas about health, education and safety to the community, while making a little money serving as a respected corporate spokesperson.

The only good coming out of L’Affaire Franco is that now we know what a witch hunt looks like.

Obama shows what unifies U.S. foreign policy since Truman: be a military power first and foremost

During the 2008 elections, when many people, including myself, heard Obama’s view on foreign policy, we focused on his vow to end the war in Iraq and dismantle the Guantanamo prisoner camp, a symbol of our inhumanity to other humans. We did not hear him speak of going to war in Afghanistan, or if we heard it, we thought it would be a quick surgical strike against a few terrorists.

We remembered his courageous stand against the Iraqi war in 2003 and that memory was reinforced when he won the Nobel Prize, a move that I’m guessing the prize committee is now regretting. I’m sure regretting that I supported that decision, though I did point out at the time that he won the award for not being George Bush the Younger.

So now when I contemplate my disappointment with President Obama for his latest militarism, I have to remind myself that he never said he was against war. I just assumed it.

I’m of course referring to the announcement that the United States is basing 2,500 Marines in Australia. Every news story about yesterday’s announcement mentioned that it was a message to China.

Barack Obama follows the same foreign policy that emerged among the American elite after World War II: to dominate the world by being the biggest and baddest bully on the block with the newest and most expensive toys. Even during the relatively peaceful Clinton years when we reduced military spending and enjoyed the prosperity that ensued, we projected military force from time to time.

In the context of this tradition of war as the primary tool of foreign policy, Obama is doing a great job, especially recently. Besides pursuing the Afghanistan war, here are some of the violent acts our president has ordered these past few months, some of which are against international and U.S. law:

  • The legal capture of the country’s most important enemy, but then he marred this victory through allowing, condoning or ordering the illegal assassination of the fiend.
  • The use of drone fighter planes to kill people in eight countries with whose government we have no official dispute without the permission of the official permission of the governments of those countries.
  • The illegal assassination of a U.S. citizen instead of capturing and bringing him back home for a trial.
  • Military support to the winning side of the Libyan overthrow of Qaddafi, an act that even a pacifist such as I am has trouble criticizing.

These acts of violence are all small flourishes, so in this sense, Obama continues in the less virulent Clintonian strain of militarism. There just seem to be so many of them.

It would take a less clever set of leaders than the current crew running China to be taken in by such a meager move as posting 2,500 marines in a country whose capital is 5,604 miles from theirs. I think they realize that this kind of small move characterizes a bluffer more than a bully, but neither matters: bluffers fold and bullies back down.

The Chinese are playing the economic game and the alternative energy game and kicking our asses in both. One of the reasons that the Chinese have money to spend developing solar energy and cornering the market on rare metals is that they have a small military budget. With more than triple our population, they spend a fifth of what we do on defense. We project our power by killing people or threatening to do so. The Chinese are projecting their power by making, buying and selling things better.

At the end of the day, I believe that the Chinese strategy has the advantage over ours in a global economy run by sophisticated technology and threatened by both resource overuse and resource shortages.

Congress prefers to help processed food industry than to help children improve their nutrition.

There was more in the news today than Republican candidates’ self-destruction by means of mouth opening and the idle speculation on what will happen to the Occupy movement now that local governments across the country have decided to clear the parks instead of waiting for the snow.

Buried in the back pages is the news that Congress has halted efforts of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to improve the nutritional quality of school lunches by refusing to fund the changes. 

The USDA had proposed to take a few small steps to make school lunches—and by implication the children who eat them—healthier: Limit the use of potatoes, halve the amount of sodium, provide more whole grains, raise the amount of tomato paste considered a serving of vegetables. This last proposal would have made it impossible to count the tomato paste on a slice or two of pizza as a vegetable.

The USDA plans were based on 2009 recommendations by the Institute of Medicine. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said they were necessary to reduce childhood obesity and future health care costs. 

There can be no doubt that childhood obesity and unhealthy eating are both a health and an economic problem. At last count, about 17% of children (and 34% of adults) are considered to be obese. Obesity has been linked to a large number of debilitating ailments, including heart disease, diabetes and (probably) some kinds of cancer.  The more people who have these diseases, the higher the cost of healthcare for everyone. Eating more fruits and vegetables helps to lower the amount of calories people consume, because they are full of fiber and water. Fruits and vegetables also contain nutrients like anti-oxidants that have been shown to help lower cholesterol and fight cancer.

Improving the nutrition of school lunches will help make healthier children in two ways: 1) They’ll eat more nutritious food; 2) They’ll see the lessons they learn about nutrition and health in their classes applied in the real world.

Why did Congress decide to ignore this grave heath challenge?

We all know the answer: The pressure of large companies. To quote the New York Times:Food companies including ConAgra, Coca-Cola, Del Monte Foods and makers of frozen pizza like Schwan argued that the proposed rules would raise the cost of meals and require food that many children would throw away.” 

Saying that many children would throw away the lunches is just silly. Children have always thrown away or traded all or parts of their lunches. And children have always frowned at trying new foods or foods prepared in an unfamiliar way, then tried them and liked (or tolerated) them.

The cost argument is profoundly obnoxious. The USDA proposal would have added 14 cents to the average cost of each lunch meal. 14 lousy pennies. The total cost over 5 years for these improvements is $6.8 billion, which computes to about $9.28 in additional taxes per year per federal individual and corporate tax filer (although we have to keep in mind that the additional amount might be paid in state taxes, so it might be slightly less or more). If Congress decided to fund these improvements by raising taxes only for individuals and families making $200,000 per year or more, it would increase the taxes of these upper middle class and rich people by about $309 per year. Congress could also cut one quarter of one percent from the Defense Department budget to fund healthier school lunches. In other words, in the grand scheme of things, the cost increase proposed by the USDA was trivial. 

No, the major corporations that lobbied against the proposed new rules for school lunches do not care about either costs or waste. And they evidently don’t care about the future of our children. They care about one thing and one thing only: keeping the money rolling in.

That Congress should succumb to their pressure shows once again that our elected officials care more about the interests of a narrow group of corporations and wealthy individuals than about the rest of the country. And it truly is befuddling: It’s not as if the proposed changes would have taken money from food producers, merely shifted it from those producing some kinds of foods to those producing other kinds of food.

Congress is always making (and has always made) decisions that favor one industrial sector over another. Congress routinely prefers the interests of oil companies to those of companies involved in solar, wind and other alternative energy.  It routinely favors automobile manufacturers over mass transit equipment manufacturers. And over the past 30 years, its tax policies have consistently favored the wealthiest Americans over everyone else. In each case, different policies would have had a negligible effect on the economy, merely shifting money from the hands of corporations whose products, services and actions were having a pernicious effect on the country to those whose products, services and actions could help to make us healthier, address global warming, clean the environment or lead to the more equitable distribution of wealth we see in Japan, Canada and most of Europe.

The “Big Bang” you hear from your TV is the trivialization and disparagement of intellectuals

Now that “The Big Bang Theory” has moved ahead of “Two and a Half Men” into second place among non-football related television shows, I think it’s time to critique what may be the most ideologically-driven entertainment on TV today.

In its premise, its characters, its jokes and its plot lines, “The Big Bang Theory” constantly promotes some of the most pernicious aspects of American consumerism. Masquerading as entertainment, it serves up a stew of propaganda, much of it either false or dangerous to the well-being of the country. But these pieces of propaganda do support the ideological imperative to think less and consume more.

For those who haven’t heard of “The Big Bang Theory,” here’s a quick synopsis: It is a situation comedy about four single male scientists and engineers, all in their late 20’s or early 30’s, who are socially maladroit, unable to pick up on the social cues of others and immature in their interests and predilections. In the parlance of American mythology, these guys are “nerds.”

I usually do an hour’s worth of channel surfing every night at about 9:00 pm and have the TV on when I exercise in the late afternoons, so I’ve been seeing bits and pieces of the show (and maybe five full shows) in reruns on cable stations.  The propaganda barrage I’ve seen is as relentless as a speech by the mayor of a large Soviet city would have been in the 1930’s.

Here are the main ideological points behind “Big Bang,” all of which have made the OpEdge list of the mass media’s major ideological principles:

The characterization of intellectuals, academics and smart people as unsexy, unpopular, bad athletes, unstylish and socially inept.

This old saw is offensively wrong, but it continues to predominate in the mass media, which wants us to believe that those who are very smart or academic are not attractive to the opposite sex.

But the idea that smart people are unsexy and socially backwards does not stand up to the least bit of scrutiny.  While most of us knew very smart kids in high school who were socially backward, we also knew lots of average or less-than-average kids who were also weird or anti-social.  Most kids at all levels grow out of this awkward stage, yet only the intelligent have the “nerd” label stick to them for life. But here’s what else changes as teenagers grow into adults: Those with college educations start to make more money than those without, and those with advanced degrees make the most of all. Ability to contribute to the family’s finances is a major factor that both men and women consider in a mate.  So in fact, once education has been completed, the more educated have an advantage in the mating game.

The “Big Bang” theory drills the anti-intellectual, anti-education ideology into its details: for example, the only one of the four “nerd protagonists” who makes something, as opposed to sitting around all day thinking and engaging in scientific experiments, is also the only one without a PhD.  The hidden message: the more you learn, the less active you are in “the real world.”

The infantalization of adults.

Outside of work and the search for mates, the four “nerd protagonists” spend most of their air time talking about or doing things related to continuing childhood pursuits such as comic books, juvenile science fiction movies and old video games. Here they are, established in their careers and living on their own (with the exception of one), and they obsess over the joys and hobbies of their years before college. I have yet to see a bookshelf in any “Big Bang” set, nor see an open book; they’re all too busy with their video games and comic books! Beyond the jobs, they are immature teens.

One of the major trends since the baby boomers reached adulthood, one spurred by Disney and other mass media, is that more and more adults are enjoying the entertainments of their childhood instead of graduating to mature activities.

The danger in infantilization is that it degrades the mature thought process, in a sense, keeping people from thinking like adults. Childhood entertainments are simpler; often there are only “good guys” and “bad guys,” with none of the nuances and ambiguity of characters and situations one finds in adult movies or novels, or in life itself. To contrast extremes, pulling at a joy stick takes a much lower level of sophistication than listening to Beethoven.

The other problem with infantilization is that it keeps people self-centered, as children are before socialization. Much of the work of psychologists and psychiatrists not involved with writing prescriptions for pills has to do with pushing people to confront the unhealthy or anti-productive patterns of childhood.  From Pixar and Disney to computer games for adults, infantilization reinforces these childhood and childish patterns.

Life is lived through consumption.

Like in most TV shows, desires, emotions, relationships and celebrations are typically manifested in “Big Bang” by buying something.

Even in plot details, the show depends upon myths and misperceptions.  For example, at an academic conference, the short Howard (the one without the PhD) meets the old boyfriend of his girlfriend.  The former lover is extremely tall and an African-American.  During the remainder of the show, Howard obsesses because he is certain that he has a smaller sexual organ which provides less pleasure to his girlfriend than the former lover’s did.

The show thus promotes two false myths at one time—that men of African decent have bigger sex organs and that women prefer bigger ones. Studies show, of course, that there is no difference in average penis size between races, and that while penis size matters to some women, a majority of women don’t care, or only care if all other things are equal; there are a lot of those “other things” though, including attraction, time of month, appropriateness as a father, tenderness, technique and endurance. Men obsess much more about size than women do, and that’s the point. The objective of promulgating the size myth to men is similar to pushing the myth of beauty to women—to keep them insecure. Like the immature, the insecure are more likely to believe the ads and other propaganda that tells us that buying something is the way to feel, and be, better.

There is, however, one saving grace to “The Big Bang” theory, and that is the character of Sheldon, brilliantly rendered by Jim Parsons. Sheldon is the one with the photographic memory, thought processes that are more computer-like than human and the rigidity of nature that is constantly setting rules about small and large matters. I think that Sheldon is the most original character on TV since Jaleen White created Steve Erkel and energized “Family Matters,” an otherwise dreary 90’s sit-com. Like Jack Nicholson, Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin or Johnny Depp, it’s hard not to keep one’s eyes on Parsons when he is on screen.

While I reject the ideology that formed the Sheldon character, I nevertheless thoroughly enjoy Sheldon/Parsons’ monologues, responses and takes, all delivered with truly impressive acting technique. When someone reaches a pinnacle of artistic expression, we don’t forgive and forget their obnoxious beliefs, but we do put them to the side when considering their work. We do it with racists like T.S. Eliot, Ferdinand Celine (French novelist) and Buster Keaton, and we do it with supporters of totalitarian aristocracies like Leni Riefenstahl, Moliere and Aristophanes. It’s too bad that to see Parsons create his character, we also have to watch the rest of this dreadful sit-com.

One of history’s great puzzles: what did people ever see in Ronald Reagan and the politics of selfishness?

The United States suddenly changed directions in economic policy about 1980 and in doing so transformed itself from a country that had a fair distribution of wealth to one in which the lion’s share of wealth now goes to a very small number of people.

The sea change affected everything. Our basic ideology changed almost overnight from looking to government to solve problems to distrusting government, from liking government intervention in the economy to preferring a deregulated free market with no government regulation. The “new Frontier” credo of asking “not what your country can do for you” withered, replaced by the politics of selfishness, that absurd notion that if everyone seeks his or her own selfish good, the overall community will prosper.  Seeking the good of the self served as moral justification for lower taxes and the resultant hording of wealth by the ultra-wealthy.

Although historians, such as Judith Stein in Pivotal Decade, have detected the first inkling of the new way in the mid and late 70’s, the election of Ronald Reagan serves as the symbolic turning point, the watershed moment when America became a harsher, less generous, more selfish country.

What made Reagan and Reaganism so attractive? I’ve been thinking about that question a lot lately, given the current political environment in which I see Reagan’s disciples preventing the United States from addressing our severe economic contraction. I’ve read a lot of books on the 70’s and the post-war era over the past few years. I also have my memories of living my 20’s during that decade, although as it turns out, because I did not have a driver’s license until 1979 and did not own a car until 1981, I missed the central traumas of the decade, the two energy crises.

Reagan’s economic nostrums had been around for decades, serving as the rightwing’s alternatives to Roosevelt’s New Deal. All the principles of Reaganism were kept alive by the John Birch Society and a few conservative think tanks during the liberal post-World War II era.  It’s amazing to think that the 50’s Republican President Dwight Eisenhower was to the left of today’s Democratic President Barack Obama on economic matters. What a dark time that was for the right.

Why then did the right’s darling Ronald Reagan suddenly seize power in 1980?

A 20th century nation is far too complex to make a sea change for one reason.  I have identified three distinct causes that can help to explain why Americans embraced Reagan and the politics of selfishness in 1980:

  1. As Michael J. Graetz details in The End of Energy, the need to address inflation and two energy crises turned all the U.S. presidents of the 1970’s into scolding nags. Jimmy Carter is famous for turning off the country by blaming its malaise on the people themselves, but Nixon and Ford, too, asked Americans to make sacrifices that they didn’t want to make. By contrast, Reagan was optimistically touting a “brand new day in America,” a rose-colored vision of infinite growth without limits or any inconvenience to anyone. I think after 10 years of being told about the limits of growth, people were ready for the smile and the easy answer.
  2. Corporate America was facing a large increase in the cost of fuel, and was now willing to listen to the anti-union and free trade proposals that the right had broadcast for years. The idea, which Judith Stein details in Pivotal Decade but never comes out and expresses explicitly, is that to offset the increase in energy costs corporations wanted to lower labor costs. Thus the attraction to Reagan’s assault on unions.
  3. Racism, pure and simple. The right had attacked government programs that redistributed wealth for years, including relentless ranting by rural state legislators against the granting of huge sums of moneys by state legislatures to make a public university education exceedingly inexpensive. But once significant numbers of African-Americans began to take advantage of these programs, the attacks gained traction among a larger populace, especially in the South and the suburbs. Suddenly large numbers of voters listened to Reagan’s blather that all government solutions are bad.

In other words, when presented with choices, people chose to be selfish. 

Rather than submit to changes in their wasteful life of consumption, consumers chose to believe Reagan’s lie that they could consume endlessly. And soon their vehicles became larger and their houses more over-laden with gadgets than ever before.

Rather than cut profits, the corporations decided to take back from the workers.  And soon those take-backs felt so good, the execs decided they wanted to keep taking more and more.

Rather than see people they despised or feared get a good education and other basic benefits, many preferred to see those benefits end.  And soon, an ungenerous spirit descended upon the land.

Progressive Populist and Jewish Currents great cures for mainstream media blues, and now they carry OpEdge

You may notice a few new links on the OpEdge home page this week: They link to the websites of two well-respected national publications, The Progressive Populist and Jewish Currents. Progressive Populist has started running all the OpEdge blog posts at its website, while Jewish Currents is running the occasional post its editor thinks is of particular interest to his readers.  I can hardly express how pleased I am to be associated with these publications, both of which are leading the progressive charge in the news media.

Progressive Populist is a biweekly that tends to reprint news reports, opinion columns, blog posts and political cartoons by progressives and liberals that appear first in other venues.  It carries regular columns by such left-wing stalwarts as Jim Hightower, Amy Goodman, Jesse Jackson, Alexander Cockburn and Ariana Huffington, among others. 

The November 1 issue of Progressive Populist exemplifies how the publication can serve as a great cure for the mainstream media blues.  It has 9 stories about Occupy Wall Street, all sympathetic to the protesters.  Other articles in this issue analyze water policies, the proposed gas pipeline from Canada to Texas, campaign finance, the presidential race, farm policy and GE ending its pension plan for employees, all written from the liberal or progressive perspective.

Another antidote to the mainstream news media is Jewish Currents, a progressive Jewish bimonthly magazine that carries on the insurgent tradition of the Jewish left through independent journalism, political commentary and a “countercultural” approach to Jewish arts and literature. Jewish Currents stands out among Jewish publications in its commitment to diversity and democracy in Jewish life and the independence of its political voice.  While we see many Jewish publications veering rightward, Jewish Currents continues to be an outspoken progressive and secular voice in the Jewish community.

Its 16-page arts section, “JCultcha & Funny Pages” is also very cool.  JCultcha showcases contemporary well-known and underground Jewish artists and poets — including my poetry. Subscribers also receive a daily dose of Jewish history with the publication’s “JewDayo” email posts.

I urge all OpEdge readers to subscribe to or contribute to Progressive Populist, and all with an interest in Jewish matters to subscribe or contribute to Jewish Currents.  (And while they don’t carry OpEdge, I can’t forget to recommend Nation and The New York Review of Books as well). Take a break from the free market propaganda and trivialization of issues found in the mainstream news media!