Saturday, January 29, 2011

Start Snitchin'?

In many ways, I think my grade school experience was rather normative, though in one curious respect it was a bit of a Bizarro-world. Tattling was not stigmatized. Rather, it was considered a legitimate action that would be taken against you should you violate a taboo. The degree to which one should fear being tattled on was rather arbitrary and capricious. Personal injury or property damage were often guaranteed to result in a report to authorities, but victimless offenses (e.g. use of profanity, academic fraud) could easily result in a swift appeal to justice. (It should be noted that the word "tattling" was rarely used. We referred to the process as "telling.") And curiously, there was never a sense of recrimination for "telling." The ability to "tell" was an inalienable right, and we wouldn't dream of questioning somebody else's ability to exercise this right. One morning on the bus a fellow classmate bopped me on the head with his bookbag, leaving a visible bump (to be fair, it was in retaliation for me throwing his stocking cap). Not only was it a foregone conclusion that I would "tell" the teacher, but several of my classmates urged that I also tell a volunteer parent who was visiting that day, just for good measure. I of course fulfilled my duty, and the assailant was properly chastised, and the next day we were all back to normal.

Only occasionally would I get a glimpse into another world where "telling" was somehow forbidden. Once my mom told me about an incident from her grade school days in which a fellow classmate had broken her glasses. When I asked her what kind of punishment was meted out to this classmate, I was dumbfounded when she told me that the teachers didn't know about it. "Why didn't you tell?" I inquired. My mom, perhaps consciously trying to avoid instilling a "Stop Snitchin'" mentality into me, never did give me a satisfactory answer.

Finally in Middle School I was assimilated into the larger cultural norm, and I became aware of the importance of maintaining a code of silence, one that not just schoolteachers but law enforcement officials have traditionally had to battle. In some respects, it is not difficult to see how such a tacit conspiracy should arise. Particularly in a population in which most members could at various points face some kind of punishment, it is in the interests of the majority to establish a climate where the threat of punishment for any and all is reduced. Also, when there is a perception of power inbalance, the population that is at the bottom of the hierarchy may have sympathy (however misplaced) with others in their cohort who are struggling with those above them (this would explain the embrace of the "Stop Snitchin'" movement in urban areas).

But viewing the situation objectively, is it better for a society to have a culture of silence or a culture of information? I think that in order to answer the question, one needs to first determine if the existing power structures can be trusted with information. Obviously, in the Eastern Bloc when the kinds of networks that arose led to every neighborhood housing spies in its midst, a culture of information was deleterious. But there is also a long list of positive changes that have been enacted as a result of whisteblowers knowing when it was the right time to sing out.

So perhaps a key reason that my elementary school culture defied the national norm is that the teachers and administrators succeeded in creating a climate where their arbitration was viewed as trustworthy, where there was no shame in viewing them as credible distributors of justice. And I think this may have been a key factor in American military operations in recent years--encouraging collaboration from native populations is easier when those populations trust you to justly make use of what they tell you.

But while an appearance of fairness and propriety might go a long way in reversing entrenched rules against the sharing of information, I think there is another factor at work that could succeed in chipping away at this practice. The taboo against airing dirty laundry in public is being eroded. Discretion is not as valued as it once was, but neither is personal privacy. In a world where people seem increasingly willing to go on-line and openly share both their own flaws and the flaws of those close to them, why would they hesitate to share the flaws of others who aren't that close to them? And in a world where private grievances and judgments can quickly become public (see: NFL players on Twitter), why would we be surprised when grievances and judgments are reported to authorities?

Some may lament this turn away from silence and resistance, but most would agree that a world where less crimes are committed and less malfeasance is practiced is a better world. And if one is sufficiently deterred from committing such acts in the first place because of an increased threat of being identified as a malefactor, might that be regarded as societal progress? Was my elementary school just a bit ahead of its time?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Wine, Fast Food, Rusty Cars, and Progress

Conventional wisdom (which I can glean from reading hundreds of standardized test essays) is that the world is in a state of perpetual decline. Things are always getting worse. "Nowadays" families don't function as well as they did in the past, morals are worse than ever before, violence and crime are always increasing, and the economy is freefalling.

In the short term all of the above trends are cyclical, but in the long term view of history there is no doubt that such cynicism is misappropriated. There is no doubt that the world has been progressing, that given a choice as to when to be born, the best bet would be to request to be born right here and now. According to this highly entertaining British guy, the last 200 years have seen tremendous gains in life expectancy and wealth:

So why aren't we celebrating and patting ourselves on the back? Or at least acknowledging that things aren't always going backwards? Perhaps we delude ourselves in the same way we delude ourselves about wine--out of necessity.

A few years back Freakonomics economist Steve Leavitt wrote a column about wine tasting. He argued that there is sufficient data to show that the cost of wine has no correlation to how good it tastes. (This argument was updated and extended in a podcast last month for those who are skeptical that a $15 bottle of wine, stripped of it's label, tastes just as good as a $150 bottle).

In that podcast, something Leavitt said about food stuck with me. "It's a wonderful, wonderful gift to like cheap food...if you are just by chance born loving cheap food, then you can eat everything that you love." He cites KFC, burgers, and chipotle as among his favorite fare. I can completely identify with this quote. I'll be content with pretty much anything set in front of me, no matter the cost. But what if everyone was like me?

If everyone had the same spending habits that I did, the world would be a radically different place. A few years back I drove a rusty 1991 Ford Taurus (which has since been replaced by a non-rusty 1991 Ford Taurus). While walking to my car with a friend one day, a teen-ager on a bike rode by and mocked my car. As we were driving away, my friend was more anguished by my behavior than I was: "Why did he have to make fun of your car?" he lamented. After all, in a game of chicken my car could easily take down his bike (not to mention that I could cover a lot more ground at less exertion than he could, rust or not). But while it's easy enough to dismiss this young person as a punk kid, I think his mockery was motivated by a realization, probably unconsciously, that I represented a threat to his lifestyle. If everybody was content to drive around rusty old cars, the car market would absolutely collapse, sending ripples through the rest of the economy. Likewise, if it was ever truly acknowledged that cheap wine was just as good as expensive wine, it wouldn't be long before all wines would be cheap, and paradoxically, I would suspect that it would be at this point that cheap wines would really start tasting like they were cheap.

And if we every truly acknowledged that society was an a continuous upswing, we would lose all motivation to keep it that way. We need self-delusion. So everybody needs to walk around in a state of misconception or progress will cease and regression will begin. Only a few elite among us are allowed to see things as they are--and these elites can perhaps be recognized by their willingness to view fast food as a delicacy, cheap wine as luxurious, and rusty cars as an acceptable means of transportation.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Jared Lee Loughner, Politics, and Philosophy

More than four years ago, I made a prediction about "the next big American assassination." I'm not sure that the attempted assassination of Representative Gabrielle Giffords falls into the category I was considering (since she was not known nationally before the incident), but I think it's worth revisiting my prediction, which I would qualify as partially correct. My thesis was that in the West, where entertainment is pondered more than ideology, where the passionate defense of ideology is often considered aberrant (i.e. "weird"), and where power is thought to reside moreso in a cultural zeitgeist than with specific agents, the next assassin would be somebody attempting to seek fame rather than someone attempting to exert an ideological agenda.

That said, last spring I explored the concept of the death threat, and came to the conclusion that those who threaten violence care greatly about ideology, though they are not going to actually act. Or, as I said at the time: "I'm going to kill you" is code for "I have very strong feelings about something you said or did, but I do not have the language to accurately or eloquently convey the depth of my feeling, and even if I could express my thoughts in a worthwhile manner, I have a deep-seated insecurity about my power to affect my external environment, so I will exact what small measure of control I can and attempt to terrorize your psyche." It's worth noting that in a climate last spring where Giffords put out a statement condemning death threats received by an Arizona colleague, she never received one from Jared Lee Loughner. But in a twist of extreme irony, one of his victims was arrested at a Town Hall meeting for making a death threat against a Tea Party member. In short, I'm convinced that the people who make death threats and the people who attempt to kill other people are two distinct classes of individuals--and the ones in the latter camp are not all that interested in legislative agendas.

But of course, when one attempts to kill a politician, it seems logical to assume that the motivation is political. If the assailant were looking to just instigate random violence, why wait until a congresswoman shows up at a supermarket to start shooting? So in the immediate wake of the shootings, and to some extent even now, the national dialogue has been about discourse and civility. And this hysteria has reminded me some of the immediate aftermath of the Columbine shootings, where the "right vs. left" dynamic echoed the "jocks vs. outcasts" dichotomy posited by pundits at the time, where "incivility" instead of "bullying" was tagged as a cause of violence, Tea Party members take on the role that "goths" played back then, and Marilyn Manson is reborn as Sarah Palin (perhaps the first time these two individuals have been cast in the same light).

But what we should have learned from Columbine is that almost everything we thought we knew about that incident, as reported in the immediate aftermath, was wrong. We've likewise received information about Jared Lee Loughner over the last week that at the very least complicates initial reports. Like Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho, he left a bit of an electronic footprint. And many of his former friends and acquaintances have come forth with accounts and anecdotes that perhaps give insight into his mindset.

Much has been made of his reading list (his Myspace list of "favorite books")--published accounts usually mention Marx and Hitler, while others notice a disproportionate number of dystopian novels. Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center observed "an anti-government thread runs through all those works." Andrew Sullivan argues that "paranoia" is a common theme in his reading list.

But I haven't seen much made of the presence of Lewis Carroll's two Alice in Wonderland books on his list. Consider the question that he posed to Giffords at a past town hall meeting that allegedly set him on his path to violence when he received an answer that was not to his satisfaction: "What is government if words have no meaning?" Then consider what Humpty Dumpty said to Alice:

'I don't know what you mean by "glory",' Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. 'Of course you don't — till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'
'But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice objected.
'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'
'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'
'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master — that's all.'

This would seem to fit with Loughner's alleged belief that government was controlling language, and through language, controlling reality. Although Loughner's belief system has (rightly) been characterized as bizarre, the central tenants that language creates reality and that reality is subjective are both accepted aspects of poststructralism, the dominant philosophy in academia today.
And though Loughner's many syllogisms aren't exactly logical, given these premises, it's not too outlandish to assume that one would seek to create their own version of reality-- as Loughner seems to suggest he does in stating "I'm a sleepwalker--who turns off the alarm clock."

But why target a politician? Why not just exist blissfully in one's own reality? Perhaps because even in the mind of a psychotic, there is something unsettling about being told that words do have meaning, that there is a government, and that one must conform to someone else's idea of order and reality. Furthermore, according to Mother Jones, one of Loughner's former friends offered an interesting insight into his possible motivation:

Tierney has been trying to figure out why Loughner did what he allegedly did. "More chaos, maybe," he says. "I think the reason he did it was mainly to just promote chaos. He wanted the media to freak out about this whole thing. He wanted exactly what's happening. He wants all of that." Tierney thinks that Loughner's mindset was like the Joker in the most recent Batman movie: "He f---- things up to f--- s--- up, there's no rhyme or reason, he wants to watch the world burn. He probably wanted to take everyone out of their monotonous lives: 'Another Saturday, going to go get groceries'—to take people out of these norms that he thought society had trapped us in."

So if this is at all true (and it is worth pointing out here that this is all speculation), it would seem that my prediction was mostly correct--that Loughner was looking for fame ("he wanted the media to freak out"), and though he was ideologically driven, his ideology was far from mainstream political discourse---even as it was uncomfortably close to mainstream philosophical discourse.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Can You Tell the Names Without a Program?

I realize that I have written at least in part about the NFL two weeks in a row, and I steadfastly want my blog to have a diversity of content, but I couldn't help but be inspired to write about NFL Commisioner Roger Goodell's missive to the American public. Despite being an avid sports fan, I've never been too bothered by work stoppages. The first I can remember was the 1987 NFL strike, and I had a blast rooting for the Packers scab team. Guys like Alan Risher, Jim Bob Morris, and Max Zendajas actually made my favorite team more competitive than the "A" team was. When the baseball strike came in August 1994, the Brewers were already out of the pennant race, so no harm done. The NBA lockout of 1998-99 simply cut down on the most irrelevant regular season in sports, and since I have never watched an NHL regular season game start to finish, I barely noticed when they cancelled a season.

But now that the Packers are good, I've got to admit that the prospect of losing part or all of a season next fall doesn't sit well with me. It's got me searching for alternatives. I know that in lieu of work stoppages, sometimes unions elect to take "job actions," such as when teachers refuse to do any work outside of their regular contract day. But given that the threat to football is from management and not the union, is there anything that owners could do short of a lockout that would have any impact whatsoever on players' willingness to make concessions?

Actually, owners may not be fully cognizant of the tremendous power they wield over players ability to capitalize on their fame. The player's association has a licensing arm, but ultimately it is the teams' P.R. and media relations staff that disseminate the information that makes players famous, and the league that chooses to put faces in commercials. But I'm guessing that there is nothing in the collective bargaining agreement that mandates that players be identified. What if the league kept the identities of their employees secret?

At first, such a notion sounds absurd. Who wouldn't recognize Tom Brady or Peyton Manning when they drop back to pass? But if you take names off of the back of jerseys, mandate that broadcast partners refer to players by uniform number rather than name, refrain from releasing individual statistics or recognizing records, and stop all marketing related to individual players, what would the net effect be? Hidden behind their helmets, the vast majority of NFL players already toil in some degree of anonymity. Make anonymity the ethos of the league, and would things actually be that different? Fantasy players would initially object, but would drafting jersey numbers really pose that much of a problem for their hobby? Independent journalists would undoubtedly publish leaked rosters, but if there was a cultural shift away from emphasizing names, would people make attempts to reference them while watching games?

Off field behavior of athletes is already considered by many to be problematic, as young people are given dubious role models to look up to. But if the player is reduced to a number, their behavior outside the lines is suddenly completely and wholly irrelevant to the public at large. And there would be no possibility of a Brett Favre circus ever again. One nameless Green Bay quarterback would succeed another, with no need for fans to reassess loyalties.

Chuck Klosterman writes that "The reason the NFL is so dominant is because the NFL is basically Marxist." It's certainly odd to posit that management is on the side of the great champion of workers of the world. Klosterman is referring to the way that NFL owners have historically played nice with each other, sharing their revenues as a means to drive up total revenue for everybody. Undoubtedly, the current attempt by the NFL owners to renegotiate the way that revenue is shared between management and workers is anything but Marxist. But if owners removed identities from their workers, wouldn't that ironically serve to institute the great Marxist ideal of egalitarianism? Football has always been referred to as the ultimate team sport--how much more so if it would become so much about the team that the individual wholly and completely ceased to matter?

And that of course is why such an idea would never work. As much as we pay lip service to the notion that football is all about team, at its core we still care about the people on the team. Every game is actually a mass of simultaneous games--the "big game" is the one that we objectively measure on the scoreboard, but there are dozens of smaller games going on within this larger contest, games that are more subjective in how they are evaluated, more about ego and personal accomplishment than team successes, and games where the winners' rewards are enumerated on paychecks rather than trophies. Occasionally, such games even spill out of the stadium and seep into boardrooms and offices. And when they do, the fans are the ones that lose.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

On the Wussification of America

Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell managed to get some attention for himself this week. Whereas most people who want a soapbox have to resort to hoping that someone somewhere may pick up on their Twitter posts, savvy politicians realize that even if a situation is beyond their scope of influence, they can still get the mass media to pay attention to them. And Rendell was especially savvy because he realized that he could plug into ESPN's news cycle, guaranteeing a continental-sized soapbox.

When the NFL and the Philadelphia Eagles made the decision to postpone Sunday night's game, it set Rendell off into rhetorical overdrive. He managed to invoke the two most overused, overwrought, and oversimplistic arguments you hear. The first is what I call the "up hills both ways to school argument." One would think that this is a tactic exclusive to old folks, but speaking as someone who has read a lot of standardized test essays written by young people, this cliched thinking is endemic to all generations. The basic idea is that in the good old days people worked harder, dealt with harsher conditions, and were more able to respond to adversity. There is usually a nationalistic component to such an argument, with the popular sentiment that "America is losing its greatness." Give Rendell credit for at least taking this tired idea and imbuing it with some flourish, including the use of anaphora:

“This country was born on risk,” Rendell said. “We grew into the greatest nation in the world because we were bold; we had courage; we had a sense of adventure; we had a willingness to go forward and get things done. It seems like we lost that pioneer spirit that made this a special place.”

I would wholeheartedly agree that we have lost some of our pioneer spirit. But that is hardly a bad thing, given we have no land left to pioneer. And so there is a grain of truth in Rendell's further claim that the game represents a "wussification of America." But is that a bad thing? Anybody who ever played the computer game Oregon Trail knows that it was darn near impossible to make it to Oregon with your entire traveling party intact. Somebody would invariably die of dysentery or snakebite or starvation. Now that we've settled Oregon, do we still need to have the same "pioneer spirit" that left so many people dead?

In the 19th Century, one of the reasons that large families were so common was that it was accepted that there was a good probability that one or two children in a family would die. As a new parent, the prospect of losing a child is something that I simply can't fathom. The fact that so many families were able to go on in the face of this does speak to a firmness of psyche that perhaps doesn't need to be invoked today. So should we celebrate that it isn't as often required, or try to compensate by playing football games in blizzards?

One of the common phrases that I hear older people make in regard to the less permissive and more tightly regulated world that we live in now is that "it's a wonder we ever survived." They take a look at a world where seatbelts are required, where food and drink is marked with nutrition labels, where tobacco products carry warning labels and the ability to smoke in public is severely limited, where children aren't allowed to play in the street unsupervised (or talk to strangers), where parents are told to lay babies on their backs without putting anything else in the crib, where lifeguards are always on duty, and yes, where events are cancelled because of bad weather, and they come to the conclusion that because they survived without these safety measures in place, the safety measures are at best superfluous and at worst detrimental. But the logic is flawed. Not everybody did make it. Before these measures were taken, people (and often the most vulnerable among us) died unnecessary deaths. Not that this doesn't happen anymore, but as Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, the director-general of the World Health Organization, wrote (with some anaphora of her own) in 2002:

The result is that, in many ways, the world is a safer place today. Safer from what were once deadly or incurable diseases. Safer from daily hazards of waterborne and food-related illnesses. Safer from dangerous consumer goods, from accidents at home, at work or in hospital.

So we may be wusses, but at least we are living wusses. Yet Gov. Rendell has a response to the counter-argument that we've reached a comfortable plateau where unreasonable risks are not necessary. He invokes the classic "Yellow Peril":

“If this was in China, do you think the Chinese would have called off the game? People would have been marching down to the stadium, they would have walked and they would have been doing calculus on the way down.”

This argument often follows the "up hills both ways to school" rhetoric. America was once great, and if we don't get back to the way things used to be, we will be passed up by the Chinese (or by Korea or India). But what China are we talking about? Are we talking about the China that is fabricated by eager imaginations in order to pose a threat to our national identity and spur us on to political expediencies? Or are we talking about the China that saw devastating earthquake destruction a couple of years ago because buildings were not up to code and government corruption? So yes, maybe the Chinese would have played that game, but I don't think that's indicative that they are a superior economic power that we need to emulate.

But fortunately, it doesn't appear that Rendell's criticisms have caused the actual decision makers to second-guess themselves. Apparently, Joe Banner, the Eagles president, has heard from a lot of people who don't have motorcades to get them to the game. From the Philadelphia News:

"It's been heartwarming," said Banner, who characterized calls and e-mails to the Eagles as massively, overwhelmingly thankful. "I'm not sure I've done anything that's been appreciated this much in my 16 years here. Banner said he remained solidly convinced the league did the right thing. He said many fans had called who would not have been able to get to the game, and would have spent their ticket money for nothing. Banner said he had heard reports of problems with area mass transit late Sunday night, when fans would have been traveling home; he said many people had thanked the team for not putting them in that position.

Let's hope that those with the power to influence public health and safety will continue to make wise decisions in the upcoming year, and not bow to criticism from those who manipulate the media for their own ends.