Sunday, February 19, 2006

How much more fun could it be.

Dick Cheney shot a friend of his while out quail hunting the other day. Now this is the kind of news we need more of. No nuance. No subtlety. Just the simple joy of seeing a real asshole look like a moron in public. And yes, it was the kind of stupid mistake that could have happened to anyone, and not a metaphor for any great truth about the administration - we don't need metaphor to critique them properly. But it was pretty funny.

My theory is that this was an elaborate attempt to act out some kind of Elmer Fudd fetish on Cheney's part. First there's the bit where he shoots his friend. Then, the white house press secretary decides, "Let's be vewy, vewy quiet." Sure. Maybe no one will notice that the president shot a guy. That seems reasonable. Yeah.

Duck Season! Lawyer Season!


Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Aristocrats

And now for something completely different....

If you haven't seen The Aristocrats, do. Or rather, do so if you are not easily horrified. The movie is gross, obscene, grotesque and vile in many ways. It contains descriptions of acts that go beyond horrible. And it is immensely funny. I really do hate movies. But I loved this one.

I loved it because it is a perfect piece of art, as perfect as the Chaucer's gloriously obscene Miller's Tale, or Rabelais. In fact, watching the movie for the first time was a little like reading "The Miller's Tale" was for me in high school. I was so overjoyed to realize that it was not the subject that mattered, but the execution, that the ordinary things of human life, gross and funny as they are, can be transformed into art - and funny art at that.

For those of you who have not seen it, it simply consists of comedian after comedian telling a truly vile joke, and meditating on its significance. Some of the performances are sublime - and the sublime performances are often the ones by people you wouldn't expect to be good. Billy the Mime proves that Mime can be very funny indeed. Gilbert Gottfried, who I've never liked, proves himself to have nerves of steel and inestimable comic timing. Bob Saggett, who I was barely aware of, tops them all.

The movie illustrates the distinction, also, between great standup and great comic acting. Most of the really wonderful comic actors can't deliver the joke to save their lives - Eric Idle, for example, literally can't get the words out. And whether intentionally or not, it also seems to illustrate that comedy is still, in many ways, segregated. This is a joke that originated in the white Jewish culture of vaudeville, and the film has only two black comedians telling the joke. Whoopie Goldberg does an admirable job, perhaps in part because of her gender, but Chris Rock is less memorable. One could only wish that Richard Pryor (who died so soon after its release) had taken a stab at the joke, both as a joke and to place race and the culture of comedy in its particular context.

I'm not sure I've ever laughed harder at a movie, and in part, I think the laughter is because there is an odd poignance to the whole thing, a poignance that the movie is aware of but does not belabor (and recognize how intensely rare that last is - that a film should ever fail to belabor an emotion) - because the joke simply isn't that good. What is funny is the imagination involved, and the energy required to keep the joke in the air like so many juggling balls. There's a nostalgia for old vaudeville culture, and for actors long gone (Martin Mull, for example, tells the joke exactly as Groucho Marx might have - the only pity is that he's still Martin Mull while doing it). But the poignance, buried inside the layers of orifices and fluids, is the determination to be funny, to create funny, out of such thin cloth.

Go see it. The world needs funny.


The dismal science and its dismal results

It is no accident that economists begin their study of history at precisely the moment that the world discovered fossil fuels and began a century and a half of unprecedented expansion. And because economists begin their history there (everything else is pre-modern, and thus irrelevant), they have bought into Fukuyama's notion that we are at "the end of history." They believe fundamentally that growth capitalism has proven itself to be always and forever the way. And because of *that,* there are no economists in power in America who believe anything else.

I think it is easy not to realize how shocking that last fact is. But in no other academic field are the theoretical and intellectual boundaries so narrow and limited by a set of assumptions that the holders dare not question. Economists, because of the necessity of telling American politicians what they want to hear, have traded their scholarly integrity for power. Instead of allowing the ideas to lead them to the results, they have assumed a result, and spend their time debating the details. This is not only foolish, it is bad scholarship - bad by the standards of the science they'd like to claim they belong to, but bad even in my own, unscientific discipline. Because if the evidence cannot take you where it is going, if you presuppose your results, you have failed to be a scholar. We all make assumptions - but scholarship assumes a true freedom of inquiry, where others, with different assumptions, will critique one's premises. That does not exist meaningfully in American economics - tenure, book contracts, money, institute fellowships - these don't go to anyone who does not buy the party line.

There are critiques coming from outside, from Europe and south America, where the commitment to free markets is also more freely questioned. But I fear it may be too late for American economics. As a new leader takes over the Fed, we'll see where the economy is headed, and whether it can withstand rising interest rates alongside rising energy prices and the popping of the housing bubble. But the true problem may be that no American questions the concept that we have to keep growing, keep getting bigger, keep making and having more. But outside, in the rest of the world, people are questioning that. The rising socialist governments of South America, for example, are at least using a rhetoric of prioritizing the general welfare of its people, improving the status of everyone, rather than allowing the rich to profit as they may. Whether they can do it or not is another question. But at least they are asking the right questions - asking, for example, whether their resources should serve the world economy or their own, and asking whether it is more important to have a large middle class, or for everyone to have food. And everyone recognizes that those are choices - that the myth, so firmly held here, that everyone can have everything, is just that - a myth.

In this nation of immigrants, the rhetoric has always been that we want our children to have more than we did. But for those of us in the middle class, we are thinking about this wrong. What can we give them that we didn't have? A tv in every room? More, more expensive cars? Bigger houses than the enormous ones we already have? We can already see the moral consequences of trying to give more to those who already have inestimable wealth - greed, obesity, lack of appreciation, lack of principle. But we might be able to give our children something immeasurably greater - we might be able to give them something that we who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s had - something that they are in danger of losing. That is, greenspace, undeveloped land, places with reasonably clean air. Enough food. Shelter. Time to play. Warm clothes. Love. But even that is in danger because of the eternal capitalist rhetoric of more, more, more.


Wednesday, February 01, 2006

NAIS - a really bad idea

The government's latest desire is to be able to track every farm animal in America by microchipping them, down to the backyard chicken owner. This is a really, really bad idea. And it is going to exacerbate peak oil issues.

The cost of having your animals registered and microchipped is going to be a big deterrent for those who raise meat only for themselves, or sell on a very small scale. Most people who raise a few chickens for their dinner and for sale barely break even on the deal - we do it because it gets us better, safer food than other methods, and, if we're lucky, it might make a tiny profit.

Well, kiss your profit goodbye - it will be eaten by vet bills (my chickens don't ordinarily need vets, but NAIS will require I use them to microchip each bird), fines (if, G-d forbid, you don't tag that lamb fast enough) and fees.

This is not an issue for large scale producers, who are already required to keep these records - this is a stab at backyard producers, many of whom are going to go out of business. So your food is going to come from further away, and cost more.

Moreover, this is a lousy idea for another reason - after surpassing the national debt ceiling, we're going to be creating another enormous, stupid, inefficient administrative entity?

And most of all, it is going to be hard enough, in times to come, to convince people that they need to put a few chickens in their backyard. How do we do it now?

Write your congresspeople. Tell them No on NAIS