Once again, whites losing ground economically prefer the candidate whose party is responsible

You wouldn’t ask a fox to guard a henhouse. Nor would you ask a known thief to serve as treasurer for a charity. And you certainly wouldn’t have a child molester chaperone a two-week Cub Scout camping trip.

And yet the part of the white middle class that is free-falling towards poverty wants to put a former vulture capitalist in charge of the nation’s economy.

A Washington Post­-ABC poll released earlier this week found that white voters who are struggling financially or experiencing job loss believe that Mitt Romney will do more to advance their economic interests than President Obama will, by a landslide margin of 58% for Romney to 32% for Obama.

It’s just crazy to think that so many more people would trust Romney over any Democrat with their future economic well-being. Say what you will about President Obama’s economic track record as president, Mitt Romney has for decades displayed an enormous disregard for the economic interests of anyone but the super wealthy.

It starts with his profession, investment banker who specialized in buying companies, squeezing costs—often through layoffs—and taking enormous profits.  Bain Capital was never meant to be a job or a wealth creator, but rather a wealth transfer agent that would transfer the value of companies into its bank account.  Sometimes the companies Bain bought and sold thrived and often they went under. Didn’t matter.  Romney and his associates got theirs.

While Romney claims that while he was governor Massachusetts was a job creation machine, the Democrats have released reliable figures that show that Massachusetts was 47th in job creation during Mitt’s years in office, while state debt grew.  That sounds like a Republican, from Reagan to Bush II: slow job growth (or in Bush II’s case, job losses) with an increase in debt.

Now let’s take a look at Romney’s economic ideas:

  • He wants to reduce taxes even more than the current low tax regime that has people with high incomes paying the lowest rates of at least the last 70 years. When rich people don’t pay taxes, they spend some of the extra money, but some gets hidden from the economy in investments that don’t produce jobs. But when the government gets the money, it either spends it or gives it to someone who is going to spend it. Spending money creates demand for goods and services which creates more jobs. Create enough jobs and the demand for labor grows and wages increase.  In a profound way, lowering taxes on the wealthy, as Bush II did, activates a transfer of wealth from middle class and poor people to the wealthy.
  • He wants to make it harder for unions to organize, which means that there will be fewer good paying jobs around, since unionization tends to increase the wages not both of the unionized workers and of other employees at the same company and in the same industry.
  • Romney wants to cut spending on programs that help the middle class and near poor and are making things bearable for the white middle class that has lost jobs. Unemployment, food stamps, health care—you name it, if it’s money that’s going directly to people, Romney doesn’t like it., except of course when it’s tax cuts giving more money to his fellow country-clubbers.

Whites who are struggling—or if you prefer, whites without a college education—have been voting against their economic best interests since the time of Nixon.  Nixon’s brilliant strategist Kevin Phillips developed what was called “The Southern Strategy.” (Phillips has since recanted and spent the rest of his career doing penance for developing this inherently racist and divisive approach to grabbing power by writing a series of books criticizing Republican economic policies).

The objective of the strategy was to pry southern states from the Democratic column by taking stands against busing to achieve integration, affirmative action and other steps to give African-Americans equal rights. The strategy also had Republicans making accusations that the government under Democrats gave away money and jobs to the undeserving (code for minorities).   That message resonated with whites who felt that giving minorities (and women) greater access to the workplace threatened their jobs and who were beginning to lose ground economically as the United States pursued policies that favored its multi-national corporations and banks over maintenance of a strong domestic manufacturing capability.  It was classic “divide and conquer” in which the ruling elite divided the middle class against itself.

Reagan refined the Southern Strategy by adding the white knight of the private sector and unrestrained free enterprise who would save the American people from the wasteful giveaways of the federal government. The coded language defined the undeserving who ended up with “our hard earned money” as minorities, thus playing on old racist myths while strengthening them.

After some 40 years of this brainwashing, it’s no wonder that a large part of the population resents the government and doesn’t realize that the so-called “undeserving” getting government benefits are for the most part very much like themselves—white, uneducated and either poor or struggling.  I can understand their frustration (but not the racism) and I also understand that a lack of education often denies them not just the training to succeed in a technologically driven economy, but also the tools to analyze in depth the absurd claims of right wing politicians.  It doesn’t help matters that there is a large right wing media feeding nonsense to the public and a mainstream media that looks to the right to define the issues on the political agenda.

The result is this grotesque situation in which the oppressed throw their support to a man who symbolizes the oppressors and their techniques of oppression.    

Teen magazine manufactures new holiday dedicated to shopping

Anyone with doubts that the primary way in which Americans commemorate and celebrate is to shop should see all the proof they need in the announcement that Teen Vogue magazine is organizing its own private holiday dedicated to shopping called Back-to-School Saturday on this coming August 11.

The idea of Back-to-School Saturday is to fill the malls with teens and parents looking for sales bargains on clothes and school supplies.  Besides giving Americans another excuse to shop for bargains, it also gets us thinking about school as an opportunity to consume, as opposed to an opportunity to learn career and life skills, gain job certification or explore how to be a thinking and independent member of a free and diverse society,

By organizing Back-to-School Saturday, Vogue Teen (whose function is akin to a training bra for the full assault consumerism of its “big sister” Vogue) has taken the latest step in the evolution of the buying as celebration ideology:

  1. We center traditional holidays such as Christmas around shopping.
  2. We create new holidays like Mother’s Day as a pretext for shopping.
  3. We see the emergence of unofficial grass roots holidays dedicated to shopping such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
  4. Now we are creating holidays which have as their rationale nothing more than shopping.

Interestingly enough, Back-to-School Saturday also represents a tour de force of contemporary advertising promotions.  So far, the magazine’s ad reps have gotten major retailers like Staples, H&M, American Eagle Outfitters and Guess to offer sales, samples and coupons for the August 11 celebration; participating manufacturers include Proctor & Gamble.  Even non-readers of Teen Vogue will undoubtedly see a lot about the proposed new shopping holiday. All consumers visiting malls will see the signs and the news media will certainly give feature coverage to the day for at least one day.

But will it work, which means will it not only draw lots of people to malls on August 11, but also lead to increased sales of all back-to-school related items?

The marketing executives of the participating companies seem to think it will. The New York Times article about the big day quoted a chief executive of a retail chain as saying that consumers are “increasingly interested in event-based shopping.” 

That may be so, but to a large degree, sales on event days merely cannibalize sales that would occur on other days.  The premise appears to be that Americans are stupid enough to buy more—to overspend their budget—at these events.  I don’t think that premise is valid, and don’t think the corporations promoting this new holiday believe in it either. But coming early in the season, the sales represent cash into the businesses sooner, which means that they can pay their bills sooner and borrow less money.  So even if the new day leads to no more sales, retailers might still consider it a success.

There is also the image-building part of Back-to-School Saturday. The holiday reminds us that the school term is starting, and reinforces the idea that like all holidays, challenges, private celebrations and life passages, the most appropriate way to react is to buy something. The Back-to-School Saturday holiday thus turn the late summer rite of passage into a reason to buy for anyone in America who hasn’t already gotten the message that returning to school means buying new clothes, school supplies, computers and maybe a special incentive to motivate the kids, and even a special treat for mom or dad after suffering a houseful of kids during the day for the entire summer.  Instilling the buy mentality into teenage girls is particularly important because all studies show that even in the 21st century they will grow up to control most of American non-business spending.

So even if Back-to-School Saturday doesn’t lead to increased sales in the months of August and September, it will help in making certain that there are no competitors in the marketplace of ideas for the ideology of consumerism.

Now joining the Un-History channel is Non-Animal Planet with its feature on mermaids

We’re used to the History Channel running pseudo-historical and non-historical shows. And the only thing it seems you can discover on the Discovery channel nowadays are fantasies and fiction.

Et tu, Animal Planet?

This past weekend, the cable channel built around accurate, if sometimes overly cloying or dramatic images and narratives about animals, took the plunge into pretend truth. It ran what it called a speculative documentary about the possibility that mermaids and mermen once existed, and in fact were hominid-tending apes that returned to the sea during a period of massive coastal flooding.

Mermaids: The Body Found unfolds as the typical documentary that most people associate with facts and factual presentations.  Think of Ken Burns, Fog of War and The Sorrow and the Pity.  For that matter, think of almost all of Animal Planet’s programming.  The film has all the techniques of the documentary. Excerpts from newscasts. Shaking video from amateurs. Expert interviews. Except it’s all fake: fake anchors, fake amateurs, fake experts.

As Ed Stockly of the Los Angeles Times pointed out, most fake documentaries are satires which use a variety of devices to wink “just fooling” to the audience. Stockly mentions several examples like Zelig and Spinal Tap, to which I want to add Luis Buñuel’s 1933 masterpiece of satire, Las Hurdes (Land Without Bread.). FYI, some of the most often employed “winking” techniques include exaggeration, patently absurd statements, music with comic tones, or putting words into the mouths of obvious fools.

But Mermaids: The Body Found never winks. In interviews the filmmaker, Charlie Foley, has preferred to play it coy, with statements about “some interesting questions on whether mermaids might be plausible.”

I would like to be gentle with both Animal Planet and the film itself. After all, speculation about mermaids, unicorns and other fictional beasts is harmless fun. In theory, a fiction that unrolls like a documentary has no moral flaw in it, that is, as long as everyone knows it’s a fiction, a piece of speculation with no basis in reality.

That’s in theory. In the real world, the film minimizes the disclaimer almost out of existence. Moreover, the very fact that the documentary appears on Animal Planet gives it the air of truth.  Run the same show on the comedy channel between reruns of Harold & Kumar and Cheech & Chong and you could get a lot of laughs. Run it on Animal Planet and you are putting a lot of nonsense into the heads of a lot of viewers, many of whom are under age.

For the most part, the news media has accepted the documentary not as describing truth, but as describing a possibility for which evidence may exist; for example, see “Mermaids are real! At least that’s what Mermaids: The Body Found wants us to think,” “’Mermaids: The Body Found’ Explores The Possibility Of Real Life Mermaidsand “’Mermaids: The Body Found’ stirs speculation that the sea creatures are real.”

In this readiness to open a debate on the past existence of mermaids we find the most negative impact of Animal Planet running this fiction. We are living in an age in which lies parade as truth. How many pseudo-scientific documentaries and books are out there purporting to prove that the world is not getting warmer or that intelligent design ignited the universe and guides it through its evolution? How many politicians claim that raising taxes slows economic growth or that Social Security is in dire straits, even as study after study demonstrates otherwise?  Sending forth yet another fiction parading as truth makes it all the harder for people to learn how to ascertain truth.

With as many as 8.7 million species of animals on Earth, you would think that Animal Planet would have enough topics for many decades to come and wouldn’t have to resort to anti-scientific, anti-rational bunkum.

Is the mainstream moving left or just reacting to right-wingers behaving badly?

The mainstream seems to be taking a hard look at some of the more radical ideas of the right wing. Over the past week or so, we have seen a number of signs that the mainstream is beginning to push back against the constant bullying by the right-wing on such issues as women’s reproductive rights, tax policy, global warming and gun control:

  • The latest Economist reports that the Heartland Institute, a think tank that promotes skepticism about global warming, lost an estimated $825,000 in contributions after it posted a billboard in which Unabomber Ted Kaczynski says ”I still believe in global warming. Do you?,” which followed revelation that it had been planning on sending teaching materials denouncing global warming to American primary schools.  That sent PepsiCo, BB&T Bank, Eli Lily and other donors out the doors.
  • Today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that 15 Pennsylvania state legislators have cut ties with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), joining hundreds of legislators nationwide and such large corporations as The Coca Cola Company, PepsiCo, McDonald’s Corp. and software giant Intuit.
  • Over the weekend, Washington Post reported that an increasing number of Republicans running for Congress are declining to sign the Norquist pledge not to raise taxes. Of the 25 candidates this year promoted by the National Republican Congressional Committee as “Young Guns” and “Contenders” at least a third are saying they won’t sign the pledge.
  • A few weeks back, when one of the wealthiest men in the world, Joe Ricketts, agreed to finance a scurrilous series of ads against President Obama built on the fact that he went to a church whose pastor made a number of outrageous statements, the outrage in the mainstream was immediate and thunderous.

With the exception of the repudiation of the tax pledge, these repudiations of the right all come after particularly obnoxious events: Ricketts really did want to go beyond the pale. ALEC is still suffering from its support of “Stand Your Ground” laws. The Heartland Institute has crossed the truth line often enough to begin to embarrass the more mainstream of its corporate masters. Add to these, Rush Limbaugh’s awful remarks, which led to him losing massive numbers of national and local sponsors, and the dipping of the Komen Foundation into the waters of the extreme right by temporarily defunding Planned Parenthood. (I can see why Republican candidates are starting to inch away from the no-tax pledge.  No matter who wins the presidential election, it is likely that part of the legislative deals after the election will be tax hikes.)

Because most of these instances of mainstreamers coming to their senses come as a reaction to truly obnoxious events, there is no telling if these are signs of a sea change in American politics, a movement by the mainstream back towards the progressivism of 1930-1976.  We do see the limits of the right-wing finally, but those limits have less to do with what is being advocated as it does with how it is advocated.  Call someone a slut and you’re going to lose your sponsors. Tell outright lies to children, and even purveyors of consumer illusions will desert you.

Latest Parade Magazine begs question: has eating replaced buying stuff as the way to celebrate in America

Most of us have heard of twice baked potatoes and those who frequent Chinese restaurants often see twice cooked pork on the menu.  And home brewers sometime pride themselves on their twice fermented beer.

But today’s Parade Magazine one-ups all double-cooking by presenting a menu of delights that has been homogenized not once, not twice, but three times.  Let’s call it thrice-homogenized cuisine.

The basic starting ingredient in Parade’s recipe is Memorial Day.

In the past, Parade has often had special articles, sections and whole issues dedicated to Memorial Day. Today there was not a trace of the holiday, originally meant to honor the members of the United States armed forces who fell while fighting in the Civil War and long ago expanded to include American soldiers who died in any war (which thankfully leaves out the immoral traitors of the Confederacy who fought for slavery and against their own country).

What Parade did feature for its Memorial Day issue, on both its cover and the main story covering 3.33 of the 12 pages that did not have full-page ads, was an article about 12 foods they called “All-American classics.”

The largest of the several cover headlines gives a hint to how Parade’s editors cooked up the notion of an issue essentially dedicated to American food classics.  The headline reads: CELEBRATE SUMMER FOODS!

The jump from Memorial Day to American food classics “Celebrate Summer Foods” is a simple matter of homogenizing three times. Each homogenization involves the reduction of a complex experience to a single attribute shared with other experiences:

  1. Memorial Day is homogenized until it becomes not a holiday to honor fallen soldiers, but the beginning of summer.
  2. Summer activities homogenize into eating summer foods.
  3. Summer foods homogenize into American food classics.

Thus, Memorial Day serves as the unspoken rationale for an article that tells us the origin of and one great place to buy 12 food products that all originate in the United States.

Parade arranges its menu of American classics into four categories, as follows:

  • Crispy: Corn dogs, fried clams, granola, cob salad (iceberg lettuce topped with lots meat, eggs and a creamy dressing)
  • Creamy: Ice cream cones, California dip (dry soup mix stirred into sour cream), whoopee pie (two circles of chocolate cake with vanilla cream in between)
  • Chewy: Hamburgers, chili dogs, saltwater taffy
  • Cheesy: Muffulettas (New Orleans cold cut sandwich), chimichangas (deep fried fritters).

As usual, Parade scraps any pretense of healthy eating from the start. The only real vegetables are the crudities you bathe with dip and use to line the iceberg lettuce. The only real fruit is the dried stuff you mix into the high-calorie granola.  Parade could have provided balance and supported the movement for better nutrition by substituting many healthier American dishes such as fruit or sweet potato pie, green bean casserole, collard greens, baked beans, clam chowder and pot roast with root vegetables.  I have saved for its own sentence the quintessentially healthy American dish, one that other than hamburgers and hotdogs symbolizes Memorial Day/summer picnics: corn on the cob!

Parade is probably the most widely-read publication in the United States by virtue of being a freebee found among the coupon offers and advertising circulars of most Sunday newspapers.  The Parade website has no reference to Memorial Day except for an article by Martha Stewart on her favorite Memorial Day recipes and another giving 20 recipes for a Memorial Day cookout. Looks to me that as far as Parade is concerned, all its readers want for Memorial Day is a good home-cooked meal.

Since beginning OpEdge almost three years ago, I have written often about the commoditization of all emotions and human interactions in contemporary America. To express anything, we buy.

I’m wondering now if food consumption—eating something—has replaced the economic consumption represented by buying something as the central way to express oneself, at least in groups.  Today’s Parade made me realize that we now reduce Memorial Day to a barbecue; that’s pretty much what July 4 is, too. My Mother’s Day blog built a case that the primary means to celebrate Mother’s Day is to bring her breakfast in bed (with a nice restaurant meal a close second). We’ve always had Thanksgiving and the candy elements of Valentine’s Day and Halloween.  A few years back, the news media reported on the trend of every childhood activity, even a simple practice, to be accompanied by a snack.  Do we see reality reflected in situation comedies, in which a lot more of the action takes place over food nowadays? Compare “Big Bang Theory” and “2.5 Men” to “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons” (or even to “Seinfeld” and its dependence on a local restaurant booth as a regular set.)  In the contemporary sit coms I cited, the actors spend much more time chowing down than in older sit coms.

At the end of the day Parade’s triple homogenization is based on the double consumption of raising food to the primary expression of celebration: you have to buy it to eat it, which means you are consuming twice, once as an economic entity and once as a celebrator.

What Facebook does in first few trading days is meaningless. Media coverage is a form of celebritiosis

The major business news story this morning was the fact that Facebook fell four points or a little over 11% in its second day of trading.  It led the business pages of The New York Times and Yahoo!, Google and National Public Radio’s business news.  Here in western Pennsylvania, the political cartoonist Rob Rogers shows two kids doing their homework and their father shouting, “Why aren’t you on Facebook?…I bet your future on that stock.”

All of this posturing and conjecturing about a complete non-event is a sure sign that the business media are suffering from celebritiosis, the disease that makes sufferers read gossip columnists, go to expensive restaurants in New York or Los Angeles looking for celebrities, and use the same brand of shampoo as their favorite athlete.

Here is the pattern that the prices of virtually all initial public offerings (IPO) of hot concept and techy companies follow:

  1. The day the stock opens it either goes higher, stays the same or declines.
  2. The stock goes down significantly in the three to five days immediately following the first day.
  3. Sometimes the stock starts to climb, sometimes it stays the same, sometimes it drops more, but…
  4. Within a time period of the first 3 to 6 weeks, the stock drifts down significantly. The reason I think this precipitous early decline occurs is that people who want to buy an IPO the first day have another form of celebritiosis, and so pay up for the stock.

Let’s compare the end of the first day of trading to a low point 3-6 weeks later for some prominent recent IPOs:

Stock Opening Date & Close Date & First Big Low
Groupon 11/4/11: $26.11 11/28/11: $15.24
LinkedIn 5/19/11: $94 7/20/11: $63.71
Angie’s List 11/17/11: $16.26 11/30/11: $11.56
Zynga 12/6/11: $9.50 1/9/12: $8.00

But there’s a fifth stage called everything after that in which some of the stocks do great and some fade into oblivion. Check out what happened to these four stocks and you’ll see that this early showing predicts nothing.

In other words, what a stock does in its first day doesn’t matter. It’s going to go down within weeks after it starts trading, after which anything can happen.

Thus, after one day of trading, all we can say about Facebook is that so far it’s behaving like every other stock and that means that the stock is probably going to lose a good part of its value in the short run, like every other IPO does.

And none of that is any news.

Let’s face it. Facebook, like Apple (and Microsoft years ago), has become a celebrity company, the business version of Cher, Justin Bieber  or Snooki.  There is no doubt about it: celebrity culture has invaded the business sections of our mainstream media. The business media also extensively covered Zuckerberg’s marriage.  It makes perfect sense that the Gossip and Celebrity sections of the newspaper cover the marriage of a young and glamorous billionaire. But the front page of the business section ? And a follow story on the pre-nup the next day?

One function of celebrity news is to distract us from real news, and we couldn’t find a better example than the Facebook IPO. Media focus on whether Facebook’s stock price would have a hot run over a short and meaningless time frame crowded out coverage of what’s happening to the Facebook IPO money: it’s making a lot of people rich, which is different from providing capital for expansion and job creation.  Some of the money will be invested in the business, but a good chunk of it just pays off Zuckerberg and his early investors and employees.

But that’s not where the money stream ends.  For making Zuckerberg and his associates enormously wealthy, those who buy the stock will only have to pay 15% capital gains tax on any money they make when they sell the stock, and if they lose money they get a tax deduction.  Moreover, the people who buy the stock from its first owners contribute nothing to either Facebook or its founders; yet they get the same tax break as the first purchaser of every share of public stock. Why do they get these tax breaks when no real jobs are created, certainly none by the second and third buyers of the stock?

But the media never gets into these issues because it focuses on the triviality of the IPO’s stock price.

The bogus stock price story not only squeezes out coverage of more interesting aspects of the IPO and Facebook’s financials, it also squeezes out other, more important stories.  Neither NPR nor The Times in the national hard copy edition covered the announcement that text book publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy. (The Times did have an article online on May 21.)  The bankruptcy was never a feature business story for either Yahoo! or Google news the dozen or so times I checked after the Chapter 11 announcement came out. The reason I found out about it was because I read it in a small paragraph in the round-up column of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

It’s an interesting story because it’s a pre-packaged Chapter 11, meaning that before the filing, the publisher cut a deal with the creditors (the ones to whom the publisher owes money), who will get total ownership of the company in return for agreeing not to get paid for $3.1 billion they are owed.  Creditors go for this kind of refinancing as the only way to get their money back: if it keeps operating, Houghton Mifflin has a chance to make enough money to repay the new owners. If it went out of business, everyone would lose.

The $100 billion IPO of Facebook deserved the extensive coverage it got, but the second day coverage of Facebook’s stock price following an ordinary pattern was less important than a text book behemoth handing itself over to the banks and bondholders to whom it owes billions of dollars.  Zuckerberg’s marriage—that nonsense deserved zero coverage in the business pages.

OpEdge author admits he’s wrong: comic books can be an art form for adults

One of my favorite scenes in movies is at the very beginning of Chinatown, when Jack Nicholson says to a cuckolded husband, “When you’re right, you’re right.” I’ve seen the movie at least 10 times and every time I want to yell at the screen, “and when you’re wrong, you’re wrong.”

And now I say it to myself: “When you’re wrong, you’re wrong.”

I was wrong to say that comic books are inherently juvenile in Thursday’s OpEdge post about the social significance of Marvel’s The Avengers.  What convinced me was the rain of cogent criticisms on Twitter from a lot of people—way more than when I advocated gay marriage or suggested we raise taxes on the wealthy. Thanks for comments from Frédéric Ascensio, Ty Pergande, Glenn J. Smith, Roy Ward and others for helping me see the light. I should also point out that more tweeters complimented my post than disagreed with it, but those who disagreed were convincing.

It was an elitist attitude, based on ignorance. When I say ignorance, I mean to say that I don’t know if the art form of the comic book can produce a work of art for adults because I have never bothered to look at comic books since I was about 13.

Rather than try to explain away for foolish notion, I would rather just write exactly what I say at my office all the time: I would rather get it right than be right. And it’s not right—accurate—to say that inherent constraints relegate any art form to juvenilia.

Besides admitting that comic books can be an adult art form, I will also admit that comic book super heroes can have complex emotions and find themselves in emotionally, ethically and intellectually complicated situations.  Again, Robert Downey Jr. could fill the character of Dick in a first grade primer with luminous complexities.

Having done a double mea culpa, I want to take on the idea of superheroes.  Some would, and maybe have, compared Superman, Ironman and the other comic book übermenschen and übermädchen to Greek or Norse gods and goddesses.  There is some truth in the comparison, but let’s keep in mind that the ancient “superheroes” were originally believed to be supernatural beings who often represented forces of nature and formed the basis of legitimate religions. It was only after the religions were discredited that the stories devolved from religious history to myth.

In ancient Greek and Roman literature, the gods often serve as plot motivators or rationales for action or the results of actions. Gods make it rain and goddesses protect the harvest. They also interfere in wars, voyages and domestic relations.

None of the comic book super heroes are gods, and with the exception of the alien Supers, all of them are humans who have special super powers.  They are not acted upon, they do the acting and the story always revolves around them.

Young children, especially boys, often role play at saving the world or defeating a foe as soldiers, athletes and superheroes, but rarely do they play as those they believe are actual gods such as Christ or Allah. Children role play fantasies of power based on stories in which humans exercise human and/or superhuman powers to defeat foes.

The comic book superheroes represent a kind of wish fulfillment, a will to power as it were, a desire to be more powerful than one is.  We don’t see this expression of man’s will to power in literature about the ancient gods, who mostly ignore or toy with humans. These ancient gods represent man’s confrontation with the forces of nature.

Regardless of the level of sophistication of the narrative or characters in a work of art, humans evoke ancient gods to explain how and why things happen. They evoke comic book superheroes to engage in fantasies of power. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether either of these motives is more associated with either childhood or adulthood.

Today we view ancient myths primarily through the lenses of great artists, be it Homer, Sophocles or Wagner. By contrast, we view comic book superheroes through the collective lenses of all comic books, TV shows and movies, because history has not had a chance to winnow out the masterpieces from the commercial chaff.  It will only be a few hundred years from now when we’ll know which comic book hero works of art will survive, but those that do will surely appeal to adults as well as children.

For the most part, history has not been kind to commercial works of art, which is art written on commission for propaganda or to sell an idea or product.  For one thing, commercial art tends to be less innovative and less risky both creatively and in its message; history tends to prefer the innovator and the innovative.  While there are examples of commercial art such as Virgil’s Aeneid or the Psalms advancing in the pantheon of great works, typically commercial art proves to be as evanescent as forsythia in early spring. That doesn’t speak well for the future of The Avengers or any superhero movie, since the primary motivation of the controllers of the creative process for all these movies seems to be to create merchandising opportunities for branded tee-shirts, coffee mugs, pillows, board games, posters, tote bags, key chains, lunch boxes, costumes, computer games, screen savers, ring tones, pens, stationery, action figures, packaged food products, books and musicals based on the movie

Movies from comic books are one more sign of the infantilization of American adults

My generation read comic books growing up: Superman, Batman and their various ancillary Supers and Bats. Green Lantern and Green Hornet, Archie and Jughead. And then most of us stopped at about 12 or 13, and moved on to other literature.

In those days, any movie based on a comic book was a Sunday serial or a cheaply made B movie, or a TV show made especially for children. Even Batman with Adam West was for children, although like Rocky and Bullwinkle, Mad Magazine and now The Simpsons, adults could also enjoy its tongue-in-cheek satire.  Again, at about 13 or so, we stopped watching the movies and TV shows based on comic books.

Or most of us did.  Some of us, especially men, stayed in the juvenile world of comic book heroes.

That was the baby boom generation. More kids from the next generation kept their comic book habits into adulthood.  And even more from Generations X and Y.

Something else happened, too, in the late 70s (okay, it was 1976!), about the time the country took a turn from its commitment to economic equality to the harsh social Darwinism that now rules.  Star Wars showed the new Hollywood of the late 70s and 80s the possibilities of presenting what was formerly low budget B material as first run high gloss features. The new Hollywood also quickly learned the value of sequels and of both appealing to and cultivating the growing market for adult versions of juvenilia such as science fiction. Disney had already introduced the concepts of branding and merchandising. The recognition that comic books were the mother lode came quickly to Hollywood. Superman started it in 1978, followed by Batman movie franchises, and now the recent run of Marvel comic book hero films.

My son, a PhD student in structural engineering at Stanford, asked me to review Marvel’s The Avengers, which is well on its way to becoming the most financially successful film in the 120 some-odd years of the cinema. I told him I’d take a pass.  It’s not my kind of movie, and as a social critic, I consider its very existence res ipsa loquitur, which is Latin for “a thing that speaks for itself.” The thing, in the case of The Avengers is the infantilization of American adults, which means that instead of graduating to adult-level entertainments, many adults today keep their childhood pleasures such as comic books and video games.  The ultimate mass market symbol of adult infantilization are the scientists in The Big Bang Theory, who live for comic books and video games and never crack a book open, volunteer, go to the theatre, or serve on the board of an organization.

I’m not saying the film isn’t well made. It has the brilliant-but-always-seems-to-be-slumming Robert Downey, Jr., which means that whenever he’s on screen, there is at least something interesting to watch and listen to. And it looks as if he may have issued one of Hollywood’s lasting lines.  Fine movies sometimes produce great lines such as “I could have been a contender,” but they are more likely to produce great images, like the girl waving to Marcello at the end of La Dolce Vita or Jack Nicholson playing classical music at a piano on the back of a moving truck in Five Easy Pieces. But it seems as if many of the most remembered movie lines are from schlocky movies such as Schwarzenegger’s “I’ll be back” and “Hasta la vista, baby” or Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry saying “Do you feel lucky today punk?” and “Make my day,” which our Actor President Ronald Reagan resurrected when hard-balling Congress about taxes.

The magic line for Downey is in every ad for The Avengers that I have seen, and despite not watching that much TV, I have seen a slew of ads for the movie.  A bad guy says “We have an army,” to which Downey replies with an arrogant insouciance, “We have a Hulk.”

Great line that may prove to be timeless.

But it reminds me of what my father once said about a sappy middlebrow costume drama starring the A list of British actors at the time in which a churchman stands sanctimoniously defies a King on religious grounds. My father’s words, sanitized here: “If you take a piece of crap and you polish it, you have a polished piece of crap.”

By starting with commercialization and going to ritual, Mother’s Day reverses pattern of most American holidays

Mother’s Day dominates the news media today. Every newspaper has a Mother’s Day story on the front cover and every television and radio news show is running a Mother’s Day feature. The New York Times Book Review starts reviews of two books about mothers on its front cover. The Wall Street Journal weekend edition touts men as the new mothers because they are doing more of the household chores and child-rearing nowadays; of course the Journal plays the old “better but not good” game, as surveys reveal that men are doing more but not coming near a 50-50 split with their working wives.

My epiphany about Mother’s Day came reading the colored funny pages in the Sunday local newspaper, which for me is The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. There are 24 comics in all, but two are puzzles for kids and two are narrative series, leaving 20 comics that have a relative freedom of choice in topic.

Of these 20, 10 had a Mother’s Day joke. That’s 50 % of all the possible comic strips, which suggests how engrained Mother’s Day is in the American consciousness.  Of course, it helps that the holiday takes place on one day that is always the day the Sunday comics appear.

But here’s what caught my eye: 5 of the comics, or 25% of all the comic strips of the day had a joke about the same topic: bringing mother breakfast in bed. The five strips include For Better or Worse, FoxTrot, Mother Goose & Grimm, The Born Loser and Dennis the Menace. The common theme to the joke is the ineptness of the rest of the family to cook the morning meal, except for FoxTrot in which the joke is the competition between two of the children. Family or fatherly ineptness also ruled Blondie, in which the family has to ask Blondie what to do to celebrate (answer: restaurant) and Drabble in which the dad gives a card he hasn’t even read.

Ineptness of father is a staple of American comedy since 50’s situation comedies. Moreover, mother as the glue of the family is a central part of American mythology since Victorian times and part of the glorification of the stay-at-home mom, who, BTW, is nowadays primarily wealthy or near-wealthy.

But let’s look beyond the structure of the jokes to their common subject:  bringing mother breakfast in bed. Not a purchase, but a ritualized personal act of devotion and caring.

Remember that Mother’s Day started as a retailer’s holiday, a holiday fabricated by marketing departments to increase sales of flowers, stationery, perfume and other products and services.

But when people think of what to do for their mother on Mother’s Day, they think most often of breakfast in bed, at least in the mythology of comics.  And Yahoo! seems to agree: In the survey today on its home page, making breakfast in bed comes in third place out of the three choices to the question, “What is the best Mother’s Day gift?” But the other two choices are “Homemade gift from child” and “Saying I love you.” In other words, taking mom out for a great meal, buying flowers or getting her another bauble or bottle of scented liquid doesn’t even enter into the equation. (And note that a homemade gift only applies when children are 12 or under.)

Thus a holiday whose primary ideal means of celebration started as shopping has developed into one whose primary ideal means of celebration is ritual, in this case the ritual of breakfast in bed.

This shift goes against the trend in the celebration of traditional holidays in the United States. Most holidays started in old world or long-ago rituals and then declined into debauched celebrations of consumption in which the buying of material goods and services serves as the primary means of expression.  We know about Christmas, so consider All Saints’ Day, which used to be a day of church going and charitable offerings, but today is celebrated on its eve by getting dressed up in scary or funny costumes and going door to door asking for candy and other treats. As a quick look at the mass media each December proves with crushing certainty, the idea that these holidays are about buying dominates both the celebration and the buzz about the celebration by mass culture.

The real world, however, differs slightly from the mythic world of popular culture inhabited by Yahoo! surveys and comic strip families. In that real world, candy, cards, chocolate, flowers, spa treatments and fancy restaurants still predominate.  In fact, those adults who celebrate Mother’s Day intend to spend an average of $152.52 this year. But it is promising to note that on the barren landscape of a commercialized holiday, some flowers of authentic ritual have grown.

Let’s not get too joyful over the development of breakfast in bed as a mainstay of Mother’s Day, though. In a way, bringing her breakfast in bed symbolizes the fact that the burden of food purchase and preparation still falls on mom’s back. If it didn’t, then the one day’s break from making breakfast wouldn’t be seen as such a pleasant and loving gift. One of the key images of oppressed womanhood in American mass culture has always been “being chained to the stove.” The connection between “chained to the stove” and “breakfast in bed” is direct and obvious: breakfast in bed serves as symbolic reminder of mom’s role and her oppression in many traditional (and some contemporary) households.

Virtually all religious ritual entails a symbolic subservience to the religious institution or its preferred deity. Think of taking a sacrament, saying a prayer over wine or bread, receiving a crown from the Pope, facing East for prayer. It only makes sense then that the rituals of our secular religion would also remind us of the role we have to play in that religion.

Another culture war skirmish: Dissident rightwing Catholic school baseball team won’t play team with female 2nd base

While we watch the battle of how the battle over gay marriage affects the election (a battle, of course), real life marches on.  And in Arizona, that means another manifestation of right-wing craziness.

This week, a Phoenix high school baseball team refused to play an opponent with a girl starting at 2nd base and so forfeited a shot at the state baseball championship.  Fox News reports a spokesperson for the school, Lady of Sorrows Academy, as saying “Teaching our boys to treat ladies with deference, we choose not to place them in an athletic competition where proper boundaries can only be respected with difficulty…. Our school aims to instill in our boys a profound respect for women and girls.”

Media reports described Our Lady of Sorrows as being run by traditionalist, conservative priests who do not agree with Roman Catholic Church reforms enacted by the Vatican II Council in the 1960’s and who broke from the Church in the 1980’s. Sounds like the kind of school to which Mel Gibson would send his kids.

While I feel sorry for the 15-year-old girl in an uneasy spotlight, whose only sin is to be extremely good at something, I feel sorrier still for the boys who forfeited the game.  They are learning a wrong-headed view of women’s roles in society, one that is out of step with much of society, even in ultra-conservative Arizona.

I don’t want to blame all Arizonans for the benighted opinions of one school and the boys it influences, but  sometimes it does seem as if Arizona (and Texas) is a completely different country from the one I inhabit in the northeast.  Anti-immigration laws, political vendettas against Planned Parenthood, anti-gay marriage measures, restrictive voter ID laws, extremely loose gun laws…if it’s part of the right-wing agenda, you’ll find it in Arizona.

When I think of my son’s experience playing sports with women in Pittsburgh, Boston and now Palo Alto, the contrast of his attitude to that of the Lady of Sorrows boy’s team is incredibly stark.  My son has been part of many coeducational intramural teams at Northeastern and Stanford and not once have I ever heard him use anything other than a completely unisexual language to describe the contests or teammates.  No whiff of, “she’s great for a girl.” In fact, when he bragged recently about the fact that two of his current female soccer teammates (or is it volley ball?) had played varsity in high school or college, it was as if he were talking about male teammates, except for the names. Yes we raised him to respect women, but those lessons were reinforced by the public and private high schools he attended and the general ambience growing up in a culturally diverse urban neighborhood.

Nowadays only the real players are left in baseball by high school. Actually, the big weeding out comes four or five years earlier in Little League.  A lot of 10 and 11 year olds just can’t stand the thought of a 12 year old throwing three inches away from their body without experiencing some bladder discomfort and so quit in the year or two after Intermediate (or pre-Little League) ball ends.  They go to soccer, to crew, to lacrosse, to golf, to swimming, to tennis. Only the real players and the natural athletes stick with balls and strikes. Anyone who can start at any position for any high school baseball team anywhere in the country is a very good player.

And whether it’s an African-American or a woman, not letting a good player play shows disrespect for the game.  And it shows a sorrowful disrespect for all women, not the respect that Our Lady of Sorrows says it want its young men to show towards the other sex.

I want to close with a short toot about a poetry reading I’m doing at 7:00 pm on Thursday, June 7, at the Big Idea Book Store, 4812 Liberty Avenue in the Bloomfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Other readers that evening will be two friends of mine, Mike Schneider and Joan Bauer. All the poems I’m reading will be anti-war in one way or another and you can get a taste of a few of them at the blogsite of the organizer of the event, Romella Kitchens.