Who Matters?Posted: May 11, 2023 Filed under: Culture, Musings, Politics, society, Uncategorized | Tags: Amazon, America, culture, cyberpunk, entertainment, Peripheral, politics, sci-fi, science fiction, society, William Gibson Leave a comment
(Disclaimer: The following post has spoilers for the first season of The Peripheral on Amazon Prime. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it. You have been warned.)
I recently binge-watched the entirety of the first (and so far only) season of The Peripheral on Amazon Prime (note to Amazon: get on that next season, ya’ll have a bad habit of dragging your feet). I have a complicated relationship with cyberpunk in general and William Gibson in particular. When cyberpunk is done well, I love it, and when it is done less than I despise it. The same can be said for Gibson’s work. His better novels I am a rabid fan of (and that isn’t limited to his cyberpunk work; Pattern Recognition remains one of my favorite novels), but his lesser works leave me completely cold. In both cases I think it is a matter of knowing what heights they are capable of makes me demand nothing less. Fortunately, in this case they delivered, and truth be told The Peripheral goes beyond cyberpunk (although it does incorporate many cyberpunk elements and themes) and covers elements of several sci-fi genres.
One of the key themes that particularly stood out for me in the show was the question of who matters in society. This was brought into stark relief when Flynn Fisher (Chloë Grace Moretz) states to her “employers” in an alternate future timeline (like I said, it gets into broader sci-fi elements pretty quick), “I’m trying to think of you guys as real.” While this is the most obvious moment, it is far from the starkest divide, as the power differentials between various groups make up much of the drama in the show, and while they are mostly drawn with a broad brush and a heavy hand (yay science fiction), they still serve to illuminate the broader concept.
The most obvious divisions of course are in the future society between the major power players: the Research Institute (the intelligentsia), the Klept (the rich and powerful), and the Metropolitan Police (the government). The rest of the people in this future society are either servants of one of these groups or simply outcasts.
There are other, less obvious (although still not exactly subtle) divisions to be found in the show as well. The specific choice of a small town, rural setting for the 2032 “stub” timeline versus the metropolitan London of the “main” 2100 timeline dovetails nicely with the plot point of choosing groups of rural friends as soldiers for the haptic devices (an obvious allusion to the over-representation of rural Americans in the military), which then lends itself to the obvious division between veterans and civilians. There’s also the divide between disabled veterans and able-bodied civilians to explore.
It’s very easy to tell who the good guys are: just like in real life, pick the people you agree with, and there you go, you know who the good guys are. Because really, there’s no other way to tell. Everyone has an agenda, everyone does morally and ethically questionable things (to say the least), and everyone has a justification for their actions that essentially amounts to “I did what I had to do”. So like I said, just like real life.
It’s become fashionable to loudly proclaim “everyone gets a voice,” while sotto voce saying, “as long as we don’t have to listen to them.” For some groups it has become even more fashionable to simply say, “You are too vulgar, too violent; you shouldn’t be allowed to speak at all.” To those who insist that everyone deserves and must get an equal voice, here’s a short list of groups that I want you to look at and seriously tell me you want all of them to have an equal say:
- Flat Earthers
- 9-11 Truthers
- Disabled people
- Elderly people
Does everyone on the list get an equal say? If not, why not? Was it the same 20 years ago? 50? 100? Why is it different now? (And if the best answer you can give me is “because society is fairer” you get an A for optimism and an F for naivete.) Having a good rationale for not letting part of your population participate when you claim to be a free and just society is putting a band-aid on a gaping wound. Understanding the likely outcome when people feel they are not being heard, their needs are not being addressed, and they are being forced to participate in a society that is taking from them without giving in return is the first step to rectifying the situation. Because the hard truth is that, long-term, most groups are not going to just sit back and be grateful for what they are given. So what do you do then?
And that is a problem that can come from any direction. Look again at that list. I’m not asking you to like or agree with anyone on that list. I’m not asking you to condone or tolerate anyone on that list. I’m asking you to acknowledge that every one of those groups exists, that they have a point of view, one might even say an agenda, and every single one of them is capable of morally and ethically questionable things (to say the least). And I guarantee you, when they do them, they will have a justification for their actions that essentially amounts to “I did what I had to do”. Just like on The Peripheral. The question is, how will you know who the good guys are?
What Do I Owe YouPosted: April 20, 2023 Filed under: society | Tags: kindness, obligation, politeness, respect, society Leave a comment
There is an idea that has gained a lot of traction in recent years that you do not owe anyone sex, attention, or even your time. Before anyone gets the wrong idea, let me say I am very much in support of this idea. Philosophically I have long held the notion that you don’t owe anything to anyone, outside of very limited and specific situations (such as contractual obligations*). This might sound pretentious, but I believe your presence is a gift, which you are free to share or withhold from anyone at any time you please. (Bear in mind that, like any gift, anyone is free to decline it, although one hopes they would do so gently). It is actually quite refreshing to me to see the rest of the world finally catching up to me in that regard, at least somewhat (there does still seem to be a bit of gender bias in this regard, although which way that bias goes seems to depend on who you ask, so for now let’s just say we have some more work to do).
I have noticed a peculiar knock-on effect from this generalized freeing from social obligation that is somewhat troubling, if for no other reason than it seems as if society is regressing even as I personally am advancing. At the risk of being indulgent, I’ll admit to some personal flaws; when I was younger, I didn’t see any value in politeness. It seemed a waste of time and energy, and honestly, I didn’t value others enough to indulge in it (and to be fair, I’m still a misanthrope). As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to understand that politeness is a social lubricant. Simply put, it makes others more tolerable, and it makes you more tolerable to others.
Kindness and respect are similar in that regard. We don’t give them because they are owed; we give them because they make the world a better place to live in. They make society more functional, easier to manage on a daily basis. And not to put too fine a point on it, but you get what you give. It took me far too long to learn that particular lesson, but I learned it all too well. If you want kindness, respect, or even basic politeness in your life, you need to give it first. There’s no guarantee it will be returned, but this is an investment worth making, because it costs nothing and yields so much. It really is the ultimate low risk, high reward choice.
* One such situation that some might assume would apply would be in the case of the law, such as with Social Contract Theory. Now I’m going to admit upfront that I am at best an armchair philosopher and a schoolyard political scientist, so take my opinion for what it’s worth when I say: poppycock. When it comes to the law, there is no obligation to anyone other than yourself, and the only obligation you have is to know the local laws and customs (as well as how rigorously they are enforced) well enough to make an informed decision about how closely you will follow them.
This should of course always be informed by your own personal sense of morality and ethics. As has often been said, “just because something is legal does not make it moral, and just because something is immoral does not make it illegal”. Also bear in mind that a sense of righteousness is no shield against the long arm of the law. Stand by your convictions if you must but be prepared to pay the price. Note the part about “an informed decision”.
The Perfect DrugPosted: April 17, 2023 Filed under: Musings, society | Tags: America, conversation, society 1 Comment
For reasons that would seem silly to some, boring to others, and frankly weird and nonsensical to most, I was recently thinking about what my “drug of choice” might be. I realize for the most pedestrian of people the answer is a simple “caffeine” with a handwave and a shrug, as if to imply that somehow their addiction is thing of no matter or importance. (Fun test: go three days without caffeine. See if you can still handwave it away. See if you can still shrug past the blinding headache. But I digress.)
For myself, the answer is a bit more complex. While I have been trying with some success to stay away from nicotine, I can’t pretend it doesn’t still have a certain allure. As Cole Porter wrote, “Mere alcohol doesn’t thrill me at all,” although I’m not a complete teetotaler. I get a certain thrill out of really good food, although I’ve been accused of being a picky eater, which might be why I so enjoy food that I actually like. I seem to recall enjoying marijuana quite a bit, although it’s been so long, I have to trust my memory on that one until the Federales finally legalize it (and I have no great hopes of that being anytime soon). Speaking of things I vaguely remember having a fondness for, there’s the fairer sex. While they haven’t been made illegal (yet), you couldn’t prove it by my dating life. Still, there’s one thing that I think tops all of these and is rarer still: good conversation.
Now I know what some of you may be thinking: “It’s not that hard to find a conversation.” And you would be right, it’s not. It’s also not that hard to get a meal at McDonald’s, but I wouldn’t call it fine dining. To be my drug of choice, a conversation needs to do what any good drug should do: it needs to be fun, enjoyable, and at its best, mind-expanding. I don’t expect every experience to hit all three points, but at least two out of three on a regular basis. And finding a good conversationalist who can do that, let alone keeping them as a partner, is becoming harder than finding a good chef, a good hook-up, or a good shag.
Part of the problem, I think, is the background radiation of negativity in the world today. People are just tuned to be unpleasant, and they carry it with them into every situation. That makes it much harder to have a good conversation. Add on top of that the inherent tribalism of… well, everything. Politics, gender, sexuality, sports, Alliance vs. Empire… there’s no end to the possible divisions. Rather than see them as jumping off points for deeper discussion and understanding, we see them as ramparts to be defended and immediate points of attack. The quest for ideological purity means that no space is safe, and the desire for ideological warfare makes every conversation a minefield.
Or maybe I’m just asking for too much. Maybe I should just sit back and try another glass of champagne.
The Thin Line Between Bad Taste and OutragePosted: May 16, 2019 Filed under: Culture, society | Tags: Anne Frank, bad taste, Harvard Lampoon, Holocaust, outrage, society Leave a comment
It has gone from truism to trite to say we live in a culture of outrage, but that doesn’t make it any less of a fact. It seems it is no longer possible to simply offend or commit a faux pas, everything that is done is an OUTRAGE, grist for the social media mill, driving one end or the other of the political spectrum into a frenzy. The latest example of this comes from the Harvard Lampoon of all places.
Now before I go any further I have to, of course, deny in the strongest terms that I am making any attempt to defend their bad decisions. What they did was in very poor taste. It was crude, and quite frankly not even funny. Should they apologize? Yes. Did they apologize? Yes. Case closed? Not by a long shot.
According to the Washington Post (my perennial source for outrage culture), Harvard sophomore Jenny Baker had the following to say about the Lampoon cartoon that started the controversy:
“Holocaust jokes? Never okay,” she began. “Sexualizing a young girl’s body? Never okay,” she continued.
“Sexualizing ANNE FRANK and saying it is a shame she was ruthlessly murdered because of her religion because she would have been hot? So unbelievably not okay,” she emphasized.
Baker delivered a recommendation to the staff of the Lampoon: “try to find other ways to be funny rather than sexualizing and trivializing the murder of a young girl and an entire population of people.”
She concluded, “This is trash.”
Now, having done more than a little humor writing myself, I’m going to offer a gentle rejoinder and say that Ms. Baker doesn’t know what the fuck she’s talking about. Holocaust jokes? Better be funny, but they can be okay. Sexualizing a young girl’s body? Better be damn funny, but it can be okay. Sexualizing ANNE FRANK and saying it is a shame she was ruthlessly murdered because of her religion because she would have been hot? Holy shit that better be the funniest fucking thing I ever read, but you CAN get away with it if it’s good enough, especially if you are using your humor to make a larger point. A couple things we can agree on are that (a) they really should try to find other ways to be funny, because man did they miss the mark on this one, and (b) this is trash.
Lest you think I am merely engaging in some sort of knee-jerk libertarian defense of free speech, let me share some real-life experiences from my own college days. These are from a couple decades ago, back when people were at least slightly less prone to take everything so immediately personal and there was no such thing as the internet. I was working on an independent college paper, which meant we could do whatever we wanted, and we pushed a few boundaries. I’m proud of a lot of the work I did there, and we had a lot of fun. At least twice I can think of our papers were burned in effigy at Take Back the Night rallies because of what we had printed, and I’m still proud of what we published in those issues.
And then there was what I still think of as the incident.
I was the Humor Editor for the paper at the time, which I say only to establish that everything that happened was my responsibility. I made the choices, and I had the authority. I was looking for content for my section, and a new guy volunteered to write a three panel comic for me. Sure, he had a shaved head and looked kind of scraggly, but I had known more than a few cool skinhead punks down in Richmond, so I decided to roll with it. I was also very high on my First Amendment horse at the time.
Long story short, the comic turned out to be about what you would expect. Not so blatant that I couldn’t pretend a certain amount of ignorance or at least try to hide from it at first, but shortly after it ran I had to admit to myself I had run a Nazi skinhead comic in my section. And yeah, I got more than a little hate mail for it, which I freely admit I deserve. I owned it, and still do. I made a bad call, and the reasons why don’t matter. I apologized, we ran a retraction, and while I have moved on I have never forgotten it.
So why do I bring it up now? Because the other material, the stuff that got my work burned on campus, I am proud of. I stand by it today. Because it had a point, and a purpose, and I was saying something with it. And yes, if I thought I could make a larger point with a Holocaust joke, and I thought the joke was funny enough, I would go for it and I would be all in. It would have to be a damn good point and a fucking hilarious joke, and honestly I don’t know if I’m that funny. But it would be worth it. And I’d have Anne Frank in my sights.
And I wouldn’t apologize either.
Deck the MallsPosted: November 20, 2014 Filed under: Culture, Humor, Satire | Tags: America, Black Friday, Christmas, comedy, commercialism, culture, Fa-la-la-la-la, humor, shopping, society, Thanksgiving 4 Comments
In the past I’ve railed against the Christmas excess, particularly the consumeristic aspects of it, starting well before Thanksgiving (and even before my beloved Halloween). Seeing as how this year some stores (all of them) are opening on Thanksgiving for their “Black Friday” sales, I’m giving up.
That’s right; I’m throwing in the towel. You win. I even wrote a little song for you heartless bastards, just to show I care. Enjoy.
Stores are open, let’s get hopping.
Screw the family, let’s go shopping.
Out into the hurly burly,
Fa-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la
Black Friday is starting early!
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la, la-la
Save the turkey and the stuffing.
Human contact we’re rebuffing.
We’ll be loyal Christmas elves
Fa-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la
All those gifts won’t buy themselves!
Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la, la-la
Fast away Thanksgiving passes.
Lines move like frozen molasses.
Looking for that coat of leather
Fa-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la
Instead of being all together.
DisclaimersPosted: November 12, 2014 Filed under: Humor, Satire | Tags: comedy, disclaimer, humor, side effects, society 2 Comments
In accordance with Federal law, we are including the following disclaimers regarding the use of My Not So Humble Opinion.
Use as directed. Caution: contents may be hot. Do not insert rectally.
The use of MNSHO may lead to any or all of the following: headaches, upper respiratory tract infection, stuffy nose, sore throat, joint pain, abdominal pain, cough, nausea, diarrhea, fever, yeast infections in women and men, blood in the urine or stool, voting libertarian, pneumonia, and inflammation of the stomach or intestines.
It is not clear whether these mild or serious problems were caused by MNSHO or occurred after use of MNSHO by chance.
Other possible side effects include tenderness, redness, itching, lumps, bruises, muscle aches or temporary limitation of arm movement, running for Congress, fatigue, heavy drinking, change in urine color, hallucinations, night terrors, compulsive behavior, and serious allergic reaction.
There is no evidence that MNSHO causes long-term health problems.
Further possible side effects include: fussiness, tiredness or poor appetite, vomiting, cynicism, seizure (jerking or staring), non-stop crying for 3 hours or more, long-term seizures, coma or lowered consciousness, lack of self-preservation instinct, permanent brain damage, brief fainting spells, not voting, hoarseness, sore, red or itchy eyes, cough, chills, mild rash, and swelling of glands in the cheeks or neck.
Independent civilian committees have not found MNSHO to be a factor in unexplained illnesses among Gulf War veterans.
Please do not taunt MNSHO.
Certain other side effects are rare but possible: deafness, temporary low platelet count which can cause a bleeding disorder, surliness, rapid weight gain, drowsiness, confusion, dry mouth, amnesia, seeing through time and folding space, difficulty maintaining an erection, irritableness, and death.
Because these problems occur so rarely, we can’t be sure whether they are caused by MNSHO or not.
If you have an erection that lasts more than four hours, get medical help right away. This has nothing to do with MNSHO, that’s just some serious shit.
Please do not use MNSHO if you are pregnant, thinking about becoming pregnant, are capable of becoming pregnant, are in the process of becoming pregnant, or may someday be in the vicinity of someone who may be pregnant. Do not use MNSHO while breast-feeding. Do not breast-feed. Do not take MNSHO with grapefruit, because only evil people like grapefruit. MNSHO should not be administered to minors or anyone who has at any point been a minor.
Please use MNSHO responsibly.
The Misery ContestPosted: January 14, 2014 Filed under: Musings | Tags: advice, etiquette, society 2 Comments
Have you ever noticed how misery has become a contest? It seems like no matter where you go, every time you try to tell a tale of woe, someone else has their own tale to tell, and of course it tops yours. Have a rash? They have a burn. Have a cut? They lost a limb. Got dumped? They got divorced and lost the house in the bargain. There’s always something.
I’m not sure if this is supposed to be commiseration or one-upmanship, but either way I’d like to say “you’re doing it wrong.” Commiseration should be something simple, serious, and heartfelt. An acknowledgement of our common humanity, perhaps coupled with words of comfort. “Dude, that sucks. I’m really sorry to hear that.”
While I would prefer not to encourage one-upmanship (I consider it a distasteful habit, like picking your nose in public or voting), if one is going to engage in it should be done properly as well. Save it for when people are discussing something of value, like a house, a car, or a job. The only proper application of such one-upmanship is when someone is being a particular douchebag, for example talking about their new house, car, and job all at once. In such cases a limited amount of one-upmanship can actually be a public service if applied immediately and without mercy.
In order to curb this outbreak of “misery contestants”, I would like to share an idea my wife and I came up with some years ago. It’s a simple little thing that can be done by anyone but, I think, might just help. Just carry around a roll of nickels with you wherever you go. Whenever someone starts in with the misery contest, hear them out. Let them get it all out there. If you’re feeling particularly pernicious, you can even egg them on a little. When they’re done, simply hand them a nickel and say, “Wow, you’re right. Your life is way worse than mine. Here, have a nickel.” Then walk away.
This simple gesture of faux sincerity and honest scorn will hopefully be the antidote to their sincere display of faux commiseration and honest self-aggrandizement.
Escape from ModernityPosted: October 28, 2013 Filed under: Culture | Tags: culture, entertainment, movies, pop culture, society 2 Comments
Recently I was listening to the radio (okay, I was in the car and I happened to have the radio on) and I heard an interview with director Randy Moore about his new satire Escape from Tomorrow. It was the first I had heard of the film, which is not terribly surprising since I’ve never really been a film festival kind of guy, but I think I may end up seeing this one. It’s not that I have anything personal against the Big Mouse, it’s just that I think he made an important point in this article:
“Branding is so much a part of our culture, and it’s everywhere. And (Disney) is everywhere. They’re so ubiquitous, you can’t get away from them even if you tried… To not be able to comment or critique or parody that (ubiquity), I just think it’s morally unacceptable.”
However, in the interview I heard he also made another point that, while I think it’s important, makes me feel he missed the mark somewhat by targeting Disney specifically. He said (and I can’t seem to find the interview online, so forgive me for paraphrasing) that the theme of the film is that you can’t be happy all the time. I think that’s an excellent point, especially in an age and culture where we have lost sight of the idea of contentment and we are constantly being sold happiness in its stead. I believe Dennis Leary put it best in his stand-up routine No Cure for Cancer:
“Happiness comes in small doses folks. It’s a cigarette butt, or a chocolate chip cookie or a five second orgasm. You come, you smoke the butt, you eat the cookie, you go to sleep, wake up and go back to fucking work the next morning, THAT’S IT! End of fucking list!”
So yeah. While there’s something to be said for taking a few shots at (as Moore describes them) a “ubiquitous” company that specializes in selling happiness, I think there’s something he loses sight of: Disney is only selling what we’re buying. Yes, Disney Theme Parks™ are the Happiest Place On Earth™ (made so, I have been told by a former employee, by sucking all the happiness out of their employees, powdering it, and then sprinkling it over the park; that’s your “fairy dust”), but they don’t force anyone to go there and then whistle Zippy-Doo-Da out of their assholes a-la Clark Griswald. I think there may be more to be found in making a movie that critically examines a culture fixated on perpetual bliss, rather than the companies that strive to provide it.
Which is not to say those companies deserve to be completely let off the hook; they are a part of the culture, they help make and drive that culture, and they deserve a certain amount of grilling in the space of exploring that culture. But to single out one company for catering to the desires of people to have happiness is akin to blaming one company for Americans being obese.
Blind to Educational NeedsPosted: October 23, 2013 Filed under: Musings | Tags: college, education, higher education, society Leave a comment
For decades, the ideal of collegiate admissions has been to be “blind” to a range of criteria that (theoretically) should be irrelevant to the admissions process, and among those criteria has been the ability to pay. But as a reported by Marketplace, a recent George Washington University student paper report found that school’s admissions office was “wait-listing students based, in part, on their need for financial aid.” The report goes on to cite Joyce Smith of the National Association for College Admission Counseling as saying that more universities are also taking this approach.
So here’s the big question: is this right?
On the one hand, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that, in an economy that fetishizes college degrees and higher education has become mandatory in order to get a decent paying job, requiring students be able to pay for a degree before they enter school is dooming lower income students to a cycle of poverty. The haves will continue to have, and the have-nots will continue to not-have. On the other hand, with the rapid and continuing rise in the cost of higher education irrespective of anyone’s ability to pay (or market desire for the product being produced) resulting in crippling student loans, it’s more than a little disingenuous to suggest there is any equity to be had in admitting students to a school where they will be spending the majority of their income for decades to pay off their education. In that scenario, those who come in with the ability to pay will continue to have a decided advantage; the haves will still have, and the have-nots will simply have debt.
I would suggest the answer is not need blind admissions, but at least (as GW seems to be moving toward) “need aware” admissions, an acknowledgement that simply taking out loans will not be sufficient and that ability to pay must be taken into consideration at some point in the process. Ideally this would factor in financial aid that does not require repayment, such as scholarships and grants, so as to still allow lower-income students an opportunity to access more competitive schools. This should be paired with a discussion about what should be charged for education at schools, as well as what is and is not supported at those schools; as access to higher education becomes more elusive and more expensive this becomes more of a priority.
I also believe part of that discussion should be at least some consideration for stated major intent. Students who plan to spend a significant amount of time and money pursuing a degree that is statistically unlikely to yield a career that will allow them a decent ability to support themselves and repay any loans they needed to take out should be ranked lower. Perhaps that seems cruel, but I have seen too many students who already come out of universities without the necessary skills to succeed in business; if someone wants to spend $35,000 and up on a Master’s degree in Puppetry they may feel free to do so, but at some level we need to at least take into account the very real possibility they will not be able to get paying work at all, let alone sufficient to repay the loans they have accrued. Giving them sympathy for staging protests in the park doesn’t help; giving them some sense of market demands actually might.
Speaking of market demands, part of the problem here is the incentive structure, and I’m not just speaking of the incentive to get students to take on debt. The incentives to get students to apply just to reject them in a bid to look “selective” is ridiculous, but it’s all about gaming the system. We need a better way of ranking schools. Here’s one: perhaps we should come up with a rating system that judges schools based on the percentage of their graduates who graduate within five years, have a job within two years of graduation, and what salary they are making five years after graduation. Mix in some formula of lower-income admissions if that’s something we value, and be sure to include a percentage rating of how much of their student debt the average student admitted in the freshman class (not just graduates) has paid off within five ten years of starting at that institution.
Wonder how schools would fare then?