Person or Brand?

2 07 2013

brandingI just read this article about Paula Deen. (Also this, which seems like a more measured and responsible take on the whole controversy than I am capable of.) I don’t have much to say about the Deen story–I’ve never been a fan and I don’t mourn the loss of her career. What really jumped out at me in the first article was the bit about Food Network Star, which, much like American Idol, Shark Tank, and a host of other shows, offers contestants the chance to be “a big star who makes a lot of money and is successfully transformed into a brand.”

This is the Faustian bargain being pushed throughout our consumerist, media-heavy culture. Stop being a person, start being a brand. This is why I have no patience for any of the manufactured stars of reality tv competitions. Brands are artificial, hence inherently false. Brands are calculated to make lots of money.

Maybe I’m overly sensitive, but every time the word “brand” is used for a concept larger than an actual logo, my skin crawls. All of us independent artists are supposed to make brands of ourselves, which to me seems like the opposite of making authentic art. Franchised fictional properties are brands, not characters. News outlets work harder to brand themselves then to report the news. Even our political parties are now brands. How are we supposed to ever have a real discussion about anything when everyone is busy targeting demographics?

The Supreme Court has ruled that corporations are people. Before long they’ll probably rule that brands are people too. We’ll have brands electing brands, an entirely brand-driven economy, with the few remaining people toiling in the service of brands. At least there will be plenty of sugary soda.

Fed Up With The Guns

13 12 2012

My reaction to the recent shooting in Clackamas Town Center (about 13 miles from where I live) was first shock, then sadness, then exhaustion. I’m worn out by the frequency of mass shootings, and the same fruitless arguments that happen after each one. But the more I try to put my thoughts in order about this whole thing, the more I’m overcome by anger. I realize my anger is counterproductive so I’ll do my best to keep it under control, but honestly, the fact that people get gunned down in public with automatic weapons is outrageous.

After the shooting in the movie theater in Aurora (about 20 miles from where I grew up) the consensus among my Facebook friends was don’t make it political, let’s just let everyone heal. But that only makes sense from one side of the argument. If you feel,as I do, that mass shootings are a direct result of the  over-accessibility of guns, then every shooting is political. And there will be no healing until we address the issue in a meaningful way. And if you’re offended by someone bringing up gun regulations in the wake of tragic murder, I invite you to closely examine your reasoning and ask yourself if you feel at all responsible.

I do. It’s irrational, but I feel responsible. That’s why I get so angry. I feel like I’m not doing enough to stop it. There’s not much I can do, but I can at least speak my mind, which I haven’t very much, because everyone hides behind the tragedy and claims it’s too soon to “get political.” Hence, this post.

So here’s my view: automatic and semi-automatic weapons should be banned outside the military, period.

Following are the arguments I’m aware of against my view, and my refutations. Spoiler alert: they all break down when weighed against the dead, the shattered families, and the traumatized survivors resulting from mass shootings.

  • It’s a slippery slope. If we ban assault rifles, next we’ll be banning all firearms. Okay, no one can say with certainty what legislation will or will not pass through congress in the future. But it’s quite a leap to go from assault weapons to handguns and hunting rifles. Sure it’s a risk, but it’s a very small risk when weighed against the dead, the shattered families, and the traumatized survivors resulting from mass shootings. I suggest the NRA alter its mission. Instead of pushing for more guns in more places forever and ever, they should adopt a position of reasonable limits and bend their considerable power to preventing the slippery slope scenario from happening.
  • It won’t solve the problem. No, gun regulations will not end murder or cure mental illness. That’s no reason not to mitigate the problem as best we can. If a crazy person has a handgun instead of an assault rifle, there will be less of the dead, the shattered families, and the traumatized survivors resulting from mass shootings. The less the better.
  • Guns make us safer. If only everyone carried a gun, the crazies would get gunned down the minute they started shooting. Oh my god, where to begin with this one. Let’s leave aside the fact that it’s an infantile wild-west fantasy. An armed populace will no more end murder or cure mental illness than gun regulations will. Personally, I do not want to live in a society where gun battles break out in public places. If that appeals to you, there are plenty of places in the world you can go to find it. I prefer the mostly peaceful, marginally civilized society that generations of our ancestors have suffered and died to create for us. Anyway, just because someone owns a gun does not mean they will take the time to learn to use it skillfully. Or have good judgement when assessing threats. The “arm everyone” scenario is just a recipe for more hails of bullets, more dead, more shattered families, more traumatized survivors resulting from mass shootings.
  • Without high-powered weapons we are vulnerable to tyranny. This is the argument of survivalist militias, preparing for the day that government forces kick down our doors to do…something. Take away our freedom. Take away the guns that are needed to stop them taking the guns. If this is your argument, we’ve got nothing to say to each other. I know I’ll never change your mind. But here it is anyway; the government doesn’t want your guns. They don’t care about your guns. Tyranny in the modern world is not military, it is economic. You should be more worried about the bank foreclosing on your compound. Do you plan to hold them off with guns? There’s no way that ends with you staying in your home. You should worry about your stagnating wages, or being shut out of the marketplace if you’re self-employed. Taxes? That’s the least of economic tyranny. If you really want to meet your oppressor on equal footing, sell your arsenal and go get a degree in finance.

Bottom line: people are dead. Families are shattered. Lives are ruined. Ended lives, ruined lives. These trump all of your principled arguments about the 2nd amendment. If you’ve got something to say about guns that doesn’t directly, concretely reduce the numbers of dead, shattered, and traumatized, I don’t want to hear it.

Update 12/14: The day after I wrote this, the shooting in Newtown CT happened. I cannot even process the multiplying sadness, outrage, exhaustion and disbelief. I’ve got nothing more to say, but I refer you to this article that offers some hard numbers and expresses the problem with the “don’t politicize” cry much better.

Magic is Real, in the Past

17 10 2012

I recently listened to an old episode of Radiolab about memory. I was struck by the capricious nature of memory as described in the program. Remembering something, they say, is not like playing back a tape. It is actually a a reconstruction of the event being remembered.

This is a weird concept, especially in the digital age, when we take for granted the capacity to record and play back any visible or audible event with perfect accuracy. We expect our memories to work the same way. Even when memory is suspect (we’ve all forgotten things, or remembered things differently than someone else) we can compensate by externalizing memories. We can look at old photographs, read old journals, re-watch movies, and virtually re-live past experiences.

But what did memory mean to cultures with no photography, and no mass literacy? How does a society conceive of the past when all their histories are maintained by oral tradition and abstract art?

As any art historian will tell you, pre-modern artists were not too dumb to paint in a lifelike way; they just weren’t interested in doing so. One might say they understood the folly of Pygmalion (which my drawing teacher Joseph Mann was fond of citing). The map is not the territory. A work of art is a representation, not the thing it represents. So if a culture doesn’t care about lifelike recordings, what is their understanding of the past?

I’m speaking in wooly generalities here, but it’s a blog post, not a dissertation. Ancient cultures had a wide array of myths and legends– magical tales. Today we intuitively understand the universe to be predictable. It can be dumbfounding, sure, but it works according to rules that can be understood through study and exploration. It’s hard for us to imagine someone truly believing in magic. But if we had no records to go on apart from stories that had been passed down for generations, stories that had been imperfectly copied from one teller to the next, stories that inevitably alter, perhaps growing ever more colorful and outlandish…wouldn’t those stories seem as real as our photographs? Even if we’re aware that the stories change over time (again, ancient people were not idiots), they are our best tool for understanding the universe. And if our best tool is fluid and abstract, we might sense that it reflects a fluidity in the universe. Unlike a photograph, which reflects concrete, predictable reality.

Or–this is even better (and it’s really where the Radiolab thing comes in). Suppose you live in this world with only fluid, mythic histories, and you have an outlandish experience, like, say, being struck by lightning. And every time you recall that experience, you recreate it slightly differently, until it becomes an encounter with a monster or a spirit. That memory is just as real and reliable as the weight of a rock in your hand at the present moment. And then, you hear a story from someone else about magic elves. Why wouldn’t you believe it?

Magic cannot happen in the present, but it can happen in the past. For ancient peoples, magic was constantly going on in the past, as evidenced by both personal and ancestral memory. Boom! All ancient mythical stories are now true. You’re welcome.

Waters vs Nugent

25 05 2012

I mentioned last time that I went to see Roger Waters perform The Wall, and that during Mother they had an animated CCTV camera looming over the stage, and it crystallized the connection between the personal and political in the performance. It also threw me into a tailspin, because the image of a goverment camera playing the role of overprotective mother made me think “nanny state,” a term which is generally used to denigrate social programs like welfare, medicaid, and public education.

Oh no, I thought. Is Roger Waters a libertarian wacko like Ted Nugent? Is he saying that the gummint needs to butt out and let everyone live their own lives? It kind of makes sense; all these monstrous meddlers are attacking Pink and forcing him behind his wall, and if they’d just leave him alone he’d be okay, right?

No, actually, it makes no sense at all. The whole point of The Wall is that we don’t do well all by ourselves. I guess it’s one more testament to the power of the performance that for a moment I was prepared to take all the fascist/xenophobic satire literally, and afraid that I was already in the belly of the beast. As I try to recapture those thoughts now, they seem ridiculous. I guess I was more absorbed in the show than I thought.

Anyway, it got me looking, as I often do, for some overarching, anchoring principle to identify right and wrong. I figured out in high school that there is no such thing, life is too complex for a single anchoring principle that holds up in all cases, but I keep looking for one anyway.

I’ve been trying for a long time to understand the meaning of left and right in politics. Now I’m just about ready to give up on the whole left/right terminology. Probably because on top of the traditional lack of adherence to the spectrum in America, our whole political discourse has become a joke. What used to be right-wing fringe is now mainstream, and what used to be centrist is now tarred as fringe-left radicalism. So, under the gaze of The Wall’s animated nanny-state-cam, I went looking for an underlying motivation that could identify Waters as an ally.

What I found was compassion. So this is my new overarching principle. Compassion vs self-interest, or to put it in simpler, more new-agey terms, love vs hate. (I prefer to put in terms of Green Lantern’s emotional spectrum, which comes with a cool insignia.) Compassion leads one to consider the well-being of others, to treat those who are different as deserving of respect and happiness, and to act accordingly. Focusing only on one’s own well-being…well, to borrow a metaphor, it puts you behind a wall and worms eat your brain.

So, to bring this post around to some kind of point, in future I will attempt to ignore party allegiance and evaluate acts and policies based on whether they spring from compassion or selfishness. If you are someone who acts only for your own self-interest, you’re not my enemy exactly, but I hope you’ll get some counseling.

Movies Made to Satisfy Expectations

19 01 2012

We rented Cowboys & Aliens. My experience was much the same as with many Hollywood blockbusters: the first act is quite good, suggesting interesting characters and unique situations to come. In the second act, everything quickly devolves into familiar clichés. By the third act I don’t care anymore. Cowboys & Aliens followed this pattern with a vengeance, weaving tired stereotypes in with the familiar clichés and piling on the unearned dramatic payoffs in the final scenes. This movie was not made to challenge or surprise, but to go exactly where the viewer expects it to go. I guess people like that. It’s certainly a good formula for making money. But, no one will remember this movie in five years. The memorable movies are always the ones with surprises.

If you’ve been following my blog, you know I’ve been thinking about the disproportionate effect a small number of billionaires has on our politics. This movie got me thinking, could the same be said of big-time producers and our culture? A handful of names crop up over and over in producer credits; Brian Grazer, Jerry Bruckheimer, Steven Spielberg, etc. Could there be a tiny cabal of producers who constantly give us the same movie, dressed up with different actors and sets?Are they restricting us to a diet of easy, familiar stories, when we could be consuming inspired, challenging surprises?

Well, not really. I looked at the top grossing movies of 2011, and didn’t find any big prevalence of my producer cabal. Most of the movies have half a dozen producers I’ve never heard of. If I was a diligent researcher I would look at top earning movies of the past 10-20 years, and track producers, directors, and studio executives, but I prefer to guess based on my initial shoddy search. My guess is, there are too many people involved in making movies to assign all the influence to the top dozen recurring names.

Anyway, there’s a big difference between politics and movies. Surprising, challenging movies get made all the time. Quality movies are out there for anyone inclined to do a little searching. (For sci-fi fans, I suggest Primer, Ink, Monsters, and Attack the Block, to start with.) They don’t tend to get big-studio funding or mainstream promotion, and maybe that’s wrong, but they also aren’t made to appeal to the lowest common denominator, which seems to be the focus of the big studio mechanisms. Anyway the big studios will only become less relevant as digital streaming continues to shrink their profit margins, and the technology of movie making becomes cheaper and more accessible.

So, a moviegoer can always go look for a better movie. Politics don’t work that way. We all have to live by the same laws of the land. We don’t all agree on what those laws should be, but no one gets to pick and choose which ones apply to their own life. So in a free, civil society, we negotiate and compromise. Unfortunately the bad billionaires are busy distorting those laws in their favor.

I can hear David Koch right now: “If you don’t like it, move to France!” No David, you’re the one who should move away if you can’t abide the little people having any influence.

Slow Critic on Tintin

8 01 2012

Spielberg, Jackson, and Wright, I recant my previous statement. You guys absolutely get it.

I still would have preferred Tintin in 2D animation. (In fact if someone were to make a whole movie in the style of the opening credits I would be ecstatic.) However, the 3D characters felt entirely true to Herge’s books, porous skins and all. Any movie based on a book or comic has to be different than the source material in order to work as a movie, and when it comes to the characters, Tintin is different in all the right ways. While far fleshier than their pen-and-ink origins, they are totally convincing translations into near-real life. The designs and voices are spot-on, as are the choices, tactics, and reactions of Tintin, Haddock, and Snowy.

In typical Spielberg fashion, the action set pieces ramp up and up and finally go too far. Massive, wanton property destruction without consequences doesn’t fit in Tintin’s universe. But while the movie maintains a human scale, it works. The numerous easter eggs for fans of the comics were fun.

Unfortunately, Marcie found it tedious. That may be further testament to the movie staying true to its roots, which are aimed at young boys after all. But it suggests the movie won’t have a lot of appeal beyond kids and dudes, which is too bad.

When I was a kid, the magic of Tintin came from exploring our world with him. The first time I got on a plane to another country, I felt like I was living a Tintin adventure. Even when he visited fictional nations, the stories always spoke to real cultures and environments, and the richness of experience available in real life. It’s hard to see animated movies playing that role, when so many live-action movies transport audiences to exotic scenes. Still, I find myself eagerly awaiting the next Tintin movie.

5 Reasons Why My Suburb Doesn’t Suck

13 10 2011

Yes, Tigard is on the hopelessly uncool west side of Portland. No, we don’t have the bike-friendly streets, the quirky cafés, the walkable communities of the east side. And the only thing resembling an art supply store south of Highway 10 is Michael’s. Marcie and I have lived here for eleven years (!!), and we’ve always said we wanted to move across the river, but now– blasphemy of blasphemies– I like it here! I know my east Portland therapist friends will put it down to cognitive dissonance, but I say it’s for these reasons. Which really are all one reason (spoilers): Tigard invests in itself.

1. The Library

When we first moved to town, Tigard had an eminently serviceable library, but it was old and inhospitable. In 2002, Tigard voters passed a bond to expand it. Two years later, the new building opened on the other side of Hall blvd, and it is an absolute gem. There are plenty of books, but that’s not strictly a characteristic of the Tigard library, because it essentially shares a collection with the whole county. Request a book online, and they will pull it from wherever it lives to your home library. It’s hard to pinpoint just what makes this library great; there are luxurious reading rooms, community rooms hosting events all the time, a large bank of computers for public use, acres of surrounding greenspace, a café in the lobby…but more than that, the whole place is just hugely inviting. I always believed in the idea of libraries, but I never went out of my way to patronize them before living in Tigard. If I could I would hang out there every day.

2. The Skate Park

I’m not a skater, I don’t know any skaters, but I’m happy to live in a city that sees fit to build a complex of ramps and bowls for skaters right in front of city hall. Kids and teens may not pay attention to bond measures, but they are bright enough to pick up on the attitudes expressed by a community’s actions. If that attitude is apathetic self-interest, guess what? You get bored, apathetic, self-interested kids. Besides, who wants to grow up in a place where there’s nothing to do? A skate park is a small thing, but it can do worlds of good.

3. The Wes

One of the best things about Portland is the Max, the mass transit light rail. It doesn’t measure up to, say, the Paris Metro, but by American standards it’s a pretty great system. It is expanding to more regions of the Portland metro area, but the process is slow. Tigard sits far south of the main Max line, and we won’t get a connecting line for 10 years or more. But all is not lost! The regular train tracks run north-south, right through downtown Tigard. In 2009, a heavy rail commuter train– the Wes– started sharing the tracks with freight trains. It runs from Wilsonville in the south to the Max line in Beaverton. It only runs during rush hour on weekdays, but it means we are connected to the Max system without having to go through years and years of costly planning and construction. The implementation of the Wes was met with howls of derision from all the usual suspects, but it immediately filled up with commuters and has increased ridership by 14% since 2009. Take note, haters; the Wes works!

4. Downtown Tigard

In it’s current state, Downtown Tigard does kind of suck. Our little stretch of Main Street is unfortunately not much fun to walk down. Still, the area has a lot going for it; several fabulous restaurants, a nice post office, the transit center with Wes and abundant bus service, my dentist which I bike to, a new off-leash dog park, and nearby trails. And, there is a plan in place to build on these assets and turn Main Street into “a vibrant, active urban village.”  The downside is, it will take 30 years. But it’s a gradual process, meaning little improvements show up over time. I doubt if we will still live here in 30 years, but if we do, we will surely be found wandering up and down Main Street on a regular basis.

5. Fanno Creek Trail

A permanent greenspace runs behind our house and through the neighborhood. Part of it features a bike and foot path where I get to walk the dog every day. This may be the thing I miss most when (if) we move away.



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