Saturday, September 24, 2011

Taking a Bite Out of Crime

I've come to realize that my 19-month-old son bears an affinity for anthropomorphic bipedal characters. He visibly recognizes Milwaukee Brewers mascot Bernie Brewer and Sesame Street's Elmo. Just today he thrilled to a live mall appearance by Curious George. And when needing him to get a couple minutes of downtime while watching him, I have exploited this by finding Youtube videos that mesmerize him, such as the trailers for this fall's Muppets movie. Recently, while racking my brains for characters that he might enjoy seeing, I somehow alighted on McGruff the Crime Dog. I realized that although I know I have definitely seen live McGruff mascots through the years, most of his television appearances (and therefore Youtube videos) were of an animated McGruff. Still, even though it wasn't quite what I was looking for, I couldn't help but click on one particular video, one that I think I saw every day for a stretch circa 1987, but hadn't subsequently seen in well over 20 years.

The video is a fairly typical 1980s anti-drug PSA, McGruff co-starring with a one-hit wonder of the day who delivered a sixty second ditty about the importance of saying "no." You couldn't watch children's TV for more than 10 minutes in the 1980s without seeing an anti-drug message, and they aren't all that uncommon today, either. But there is one line in the song that stuck out upon my recent listen, one that my childhood brain didn't question at all, but one that now fascinates me: "If you know a user even part of the time/tell 'em to stop/take a bite out of crime." Obviously, the last part directly references McGruff's famous slogan, but I still don't think it would be used today.

There are numerous reasons why young people are urged today to intervene and attempt to influence their peers not to experiment with drugs, but helping to decrease crime is not even on the list. While individual criminal acts are often the subject of public propaganda campaigns, the general sentiment that crime in the abstract must be curtailed is not something that resonates the way it used to.

One can see further evidence of this in the superhero genre. We are undoubtedly in a golden age of superhero films, with several now being released every year. But it is interesting to consider how today's superhero films differ from the original golden age of heroes. When Superman and Batman first appeared in comic book form in the late 1930s (and Superman's radio show took off in popularity a couple years after that), the primary antagonists for the heroes were street criminals, gangsters, mobsters, robbers, and thugs. Superman is considered the first superhero, and his first appearance in a comic book was basically a series of confrontations with the above. Later, superheroes would branch out and fight Nazis, monsters, and aliens, and eventually supervillains.

But even when superheroes would finally transition to the silver screen, an emphasis on superheroes stopping street crime and common criminals remained. The 1978 Superman movie saw a protracted sequence where the Man of Steel halted robberies and apprehended bad guys on the night of his public debut. Even when he was stopping nuclear missiles, his primary antagonist, Lex Luthor, was billing himself as "the greatest criminal mastermind the world has ever known." Batman's origin is famously connected to random street crime, but his 1989 film took that origin to another level by breaking with previous versions and making the psychotic Joker the antagonist in the Wayne murders. Although the updated 2008 film version starts with the Joker's bank heist, this film would later make clear that his pursuit of criminal activity is only a means to his real goal of psychological and philosophical warfare with society. And other contemporary superhero films rarely portray heroes stopping non-superpowered criminals. (In fact, many recent superhero films show heroes called upon to stop threats of their own making; Green Lantern and Iron Man come to mind in particular).

Part of the reason for this evolution could be attributed to narrative convenience--it's easier to tell compelling stories about heroes when they are facing threats more equal to themselves. But I'm convinced that part of the explanation is also sociological; people in this generation don't fear crime as much as they used to. Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel's dad was a merchant who died after an armed robbery (how the death actually occurred is disputed; the most likely account is that he had a heart attack brought about by the stress of the robbery). And for the initial generation of consumers of superhero stories, the threat of violent crime was real. It was a time when gangsters and mobsters were celebrities. And the 1980s was also a time when the "War on Crime" was a tremendous concern. There was a real fear that the crack epidemic and gang warfare in urban areas would lead to a large scale societal breakdown. But now that crime statistics have bottomed out and we have seen a dramatic decrease in violent crime, we no longer hear regular exhortations to "take a bite out of crime." McGruff would have never been born in today's climate. But we've got so many anthropomorphic bipedal characters that we probably wouldn't even miss him.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Why Office Laborers Love Football

George Will once wrote about football: "It combines two of the worst things about American lives. It is violence punctuated by committee meetings." But perhaps you could make a case that it is these two things that also account for its popular success. The popularity of violence as entertainment in our society is self-evident, but maybe the appeal of committee meetings as entertainment needs some explanation.

The "committee meetings" that Will is referencing in football are the huddles, the division of labor into offense, defense, and special teams, and the even further divisions into smaller units (such as linemen, linebackers, and secondary within a defense). But there is nothing about specialization itself that causes people to recoil. Most of our occupations involve a high degree of specialization. The stigma that surrounds committee meetings is the assumption that they are inefficient and nonproductive. (Another quote, this one from Milton Berle: "A committee is a group that keeps minutes and loses hours").

But what it is remarkable about the sport of football is that there is an entire committee devoted to the preservation of time. The key position in football is the quarterback, and I wouldn't be the first to compare him to a CEO. Just as every business needs a head decision maker, a football team needs one as well. And aside from pure physical differences, the factor that most separates good and bad quarterbacks (and possibly CEOs) is the ability to make good reads, quick decisions, and crisp throws without the luxury of time. But given enough time to throw the football, even a mediocre quarterback can be deadly for a defense.

And I suspect that most people in most jobs, given the luxury of a leisurely amount of time, can deliver results. But most people in most jobs would probably list lack of time as one of the biggest obstacles to their ability to do their job well. And for most of us, it is all up to us to manage our time, to deal with all of the distractions and annoyances that come our way. But the most privileged among us have a line of protection against these distractions and annoyances--in the form of administrative assistants and other staff who have the specific job of deflecting pressure from the central managers and enabling them to perform at their highest possible level.

So with the American business model represented on the gridiron, it really should be no surprise that football is America's favorite sport. Perhaps offensive linemen aren't given the recognition and glory that is given to the so-called "skill position" players, but the fact that they play a vital role and are afforded some recognition is more than not only any other sport, but any other type of entertainment may claim. Football may not be the only form of entertainment that allows spectators the opportunity to revel in violence, but it probably is the only form of entertainment where pretty much a full cross-section of American workers can see their specific roles played out on a grander scale...provided they have the time.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Most Trusted Newsfeed in America?

Amongst the more solemn reflections that come with the anniversary of 9/11, I think it is natural to also reflect on how the world is different now than it was ten years ago. One thing that struck me while watching news footage was that this was the last major news event of the Jennings/Rather/Brokaw era. Growing up in the 1980s and 90s, it would have been unfathomable that the nightly network news would ever be irrelevant. I remember the Nielson TV ratings being published in the newspaper every Wednesday--what was always listed were the top 10 primetime shows, the overall ratings comparison for each network...and the three nightly news broadcasts. Even as CNN rose in prominence with the first Gulf War, the networks were where people turned when big events occurred. And this was still true on 9/11--I remember watching ABC most of the day, as Peter Jennings did a marathon turn at the anchor desk. It would have been difficult to believe at the time that a few short years later he would be dead. I remember watching Dan Rather late into the night on election night 2000--it would have been difficult to believe that in a few short years he would be involved in a messy divorce from CBS, involving lawsuits and accusations of breaching journalistic ethics.

Actually, what happened to Dan Rather might be considered metaphoric for his era. I always had what could probably be called an irrational affection for Rather, for two reasons. First, I felt sorry for him when he got beat up by a deranged guy (this event occurred when I was fairly young; if a news anchor got beat up today by a deranged guy, I suspect my reaction to the incident would be more like Michael Stipe's reaction to the Rather incident). Second, when I was in fifth grade, we spent hours upon hours learning about the Kennedy assassination (it was the 25th anniversary). We watched a lot of seemingly ancient black-and-white CBS footage. I learned who Walter Cronkite was, and was amazed to see a young Dan Rather reporting on the scene from Dallas. From this moment on, I venerated Rather for the mere fact that he straddled the line between black-and-white and color, that he represented continuity, an important link to the past. And as I got older, even though I was presumably more critical in my thinking, this link actually became more, not less, important. So much of my world was changing. I became an adult, went to college, got married, moved to a different state, and through it all Dan Rather, the guy who reported live from Dallas when Kennedy was shot, was still hosting the nightly news.

And then the whole thing collapsed. Not only did Rather's tenure come to an end, it did so amidst scandal. Rather inherited Walter Cronkite's desk. Cronkite was the "most trusted man in America." And though none of the news anchors of my generation were widely given this appellation, I don't think it's a stretch to assert that they were generally trusted, at least for the majority of their respective careers. So not only has the "network news era" come to an end sometime in the last ten years, so has the assumption that there are voices of neutrality, that there are people in the media who will "tell it like it is," without advocating a specific political agenda.

Perhaps I am romanticizing the past through my childhood perceptions. Perhaps conservative middle America has always viewed East Coast-based network news with suspicion. I do remember hearing the mantra that the media had a liberal bias, and the rise of conservative talk radio in the 1990s did much to advance this suspicion in certain quarters, while also serving to create a backlash among those in other quarters, who decried the conservative bias on the radio dial. Yet I don't think it was until the 1990s when cable news emerged that large numbers of people began to view broadcast news as inherently polemical, and view that I think bled into the perception of non-cable networks. And at a certain point network news became both marginalized (I don't think I can name the main anchors for the three networks today, and I would guess that a very low percentage of people can) and more distrusted. But I would argue that it was the former that actually helped contribute to the latter, and not vice versa. As much as we probably should be suspicious of monolithic--or, more accurately, oligarchic voices, it is probably more natural to be trusting of them. Once voices are diffused into pluralism we can start to see cracks and chinks in the veneer of the TV news desk, and the chain going back to Cronkite (or Huntley and Brinkely or Edward Murrow) is severed.

I'm not sure we fully understand the political implications of this severing, much less the psychological ones. And regarding the latter, hopefully we never fully find out. For it would probably require another tragedy on the scale of 9/11 to understand how our changed consumption of news shapes our attitudes toward mind-numbing catastrophe. I'm not sure whether it can be asserted that the reporting of Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, or Tom Brokaw was good for the country after 9/11--but I will say that in a cataclysm, I would trust them more than I would trust a scroll of text on a telephone.

Monday, September 05, 2011

On Punishment

As of this writing, the world at large does not know the whereabouts of Muammar Gaddafi. He is in hiding, officially still clinging to hopes of restoring his government in Libya, though most likely seeking to avoid punishment for his decades of misdeeds. Yet even if he somehow manages to avoid capture, I wonder if that necessarily means that he can avoid punishment. It's hard to know what goes through the mind of a megalomaniac dictator, especially one absolutely corrupted by decades of absolute power, but I have got to wonder about the psychic toll of being reviled by the civilized world. I wonder if being mocked or dismissed by the civilized world could be an even worse fate for one used to being honored and revered.

I thought about this while reading Chuck Klosterman's recent comment on the University of Miami football program. While the university faces severe NCAA sanctions because of improper benefits given to players, Klosterman wrote that he didn't want to see any punishments at all levied: "They're a corrupt program and everyone knows they're corrupt, and that's its own penalty. And college football is better when the Hurricanes are awesome." The implications of this comment are interesting to consider. One could make a comparison to recent steroid-enhanced home run records that have been set in baseball. Barry Bonds probably wouldn't have hit the most home runs in baseball history if there was no such thing as steroids. But there is and he did, and his accomplishment (like his single season record) means nothing to anybody. There is no asterisk in the record book, no official decree that his accomplishments should be weighed with caution, but society is smart enough to view his records dimly. And though we don't know precisely how Barry Bonds feels about this, it may not be a stretch to presume that when he thinks of his records he doesn't feel the warm, fuzzy emotions that his predecessors in the record books felt (his pre-1998 predecessors anyway), and he certainly can't bask in the glow of public adulation the way that they did. If the Miami football team were to somehow escape their current scandal unscathed, and they were to win a championship in the near future, the fallout may be less pronounced than that in baseball, but quite likely the lack of respect afforded the victors would result in a weird kind of hollowness for fans and members of the team alike.

Philosopher Michel Foucault wrote Discipline and Punish in 1975, in which he argued that how society enforces laws and standards has undergone a transformation in modern times. Whereas once the state attempted to make a public show of its force against those who violated its standards (through methods like drawing and quartering), now society takes a much more complex approach to keeping its perceived miscreants in check. Social pressure (and the mere threat of surveillance) makes more of an impression on behavior than attempting to make a public example of specific individuals. And in the last quarter century, technology has enabled both surveillance and public judgement to flourish. (Regarding the former, in many cases individuals effectively broadcast their own activity that there is no need for others to monitor them).

Any grade school child who has been shunned by peers, even for a brief time, knows that this can be a more effective form of torture than anything that a teacher or principal can dole out. There was significant public outcry about the Casey Anthony verdict a few months ago, with the popular perception being that she was not punished enough. If she did what she was accused of doing, this is undoubtedly so. And yet, given that she has to live with the knowledge that society has rejected her--how does that kind of psychological toll compare with the consequences of physical confinement? If Muammar Gaddafi is never found, would it still be correct to say that he has escaped punishment? If Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens never go to jail does that mean that they haven't been made into examples?

The phrase "The pen is mightier than the sword" has become a cliche. Can we soon acknowledge that there is also a force stronger than the cell?