Friday, June 25, 2004

Eugenides on the multicultural novel.

Couldn't agree more. I dream of writing a novel one day that has nothing to do with foot-binding, learning to use chopsticks, or Chinese railroad workers in the 1890s. Fuck Amy Tan and all her wanna-bes.

But I imagine that the prevalence of multicultural novels is really the product of a readership yearning to read this stuff (and likely the publishing industry feeding this tendency), and certainly not for lack of minority writers aiming to write about expansive, non-ghettoized subjects.

Burning Bush at Fahrenheit 9/11

I have all kinds of things to say about Fahrenheit 9/11. In fact, I've already got a Fahrenheit 9/11/Control Room contrast and compare piece in my head ready to go. But when I read this review by David Edelstein, I found myself nodding in agreement, as if Edelstein sat next to me and transcribed my thoughts exactly as I watched Moore's agitprop. So why expend energy, right? Post the link and be done with it.

Only problem? I have yet to see the damn movie.

F9/11 is unprecendented. A major movie with a wide release that basically rips a major party presidential candidate to shreds in the heat of election season. And never has a movie been made to which I can almost perfectly predict my own reaction before having seen it.

The reaction to Moore's movie thus far has been all over the map. The wingers, predictably, have their panties all up in a bunch. But Moore's equally reviled by a certain segment of liberals -- call them smarter-than-thou liberals. For this set, Moore's schlubby persona, dishonest argumentative techniques, shaky reasoning, smug populism, and all around bad manners activate a certain kind of liberal self-loathing. In a word, Moore's distasteful -- he's a prole bombthrower feeding propoganda to the masses. We know better, and don't you dare associate us with him, because this dude frequents Burger King. And he probably smells bad.

It's fascinating to watch Moore get devoured by some on the elitist camp, while the rank-and-file lefty activists are cheering him on. This divergent reaction to Moore reflects an interesting split among the left that have not been widely discussed. More than "moderate" vs. "progressive", liberals can been as being divided between fundamentalists and relativists, between an activist left for whom progressive values are a righteous and certain cause, and the intellectual left, for whom progressive values above all mean an opening one's mind to differing points of view and coming to independent conclusions (I'll call them "multi-viewpointists").

Having been exposed to the activist set via lefty blogs, activists seem to view the relativist liberals -- mainstream Democrats, Bill Clinton, much of the media -- as wimps who sold out the cause. One recurring criticism is "SCLM" (so-called liberal media) wimping out on calling out Bush and obsessed with "balance" in news stories, even when it's clear that the conservatives are wrong. The correctives to the right-wing propoganda machine, aided and abetted by the SCLM, are Air America and Michael Moore.

There's something to that criticism, but I'm not sure having the media divided into opposite wingnut camps is the answer. Right now all sides have held their fire due to the unifying hostility to Bush, but I don't expect this uneasy truce to hold after Kerry's win.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Zarqawi not al Qaeda?

Now we learn that Zarqawi, the most dangerous man in Iraq, may be a rival of bin Laden trying to create a competing terrorist network. The man suspected to be behind the beheadings, Zarqawi's currently hiding out in Fallujah or so we believe. Bombs are being dropped to flush him out, but thus far, the accuracy rate is the same as that of the "Saddam Killer" missles (that we now learn killed a whole lot of civilians instead).

Who the fuck cares...

about the Scott Petersen trial? Seriously.

We have a war still raging, a highly charged presidential election, the breakup of the Lakers, the Olympics, the Clinton memoir, some terrific baseball being played[1], summer blockbusters showing at the multiplexes,[2] etc.

I turn on CNN and we've got talking heads dissecting the latest developments in the Scott Petersen case. There were over 100 people killed by insurgents in Iraq yesterday. A guy got beheaded on video. Bill Clinton's book was just released. And the attention of the nation is supposed to focus on some random dude who went psycho? What is the appeal of this story? What the fuck is wrong with the media, and what the fuck is wrong with this country?

Bring back Bennifer! At least then we might see paparazzi upskirt shots of J.Lo in a thong.

[1] Went to my first game of the year, Yankees v. Dodgers. It was electrifying to be at Dodger Stadium when Gagne walks in to the tune of 50,000 fans screaming and his own superGagne logo flashing on the giant teletrons. Time stood still just before the reigning NL Cy Young winner reared back and blew away the reigning AL MVP with 98 mph heat. After A-Rod swung and missed, the usually laid-back Dodger crowd exploded. A great moment; terrific game.

[2] Someone e-mailed me asking whether I have any interest in Hollywood movies at all, pointing to the dearth of summer blockbusters on my Grades for Movies 2004 list as evidence of total arthouse devotion. Dude, I put on my pants on one leg at a time like every other bozo. And I munch on over-buttered popcorn like the rest of you clowns.
So yeah, I'm definitely checking out Bronzed Muscle Men in the Time of Troy and Henry Porter and the Prisoners of Abu Ghraib. And I still may catch Dodgeball, Dreck 2, and Terminally Eh. So get off my back, will you? It's still sore from pulling my tractor.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Chin a Ding Ding

Check out this device, which gets my vote as the ugliest sex toy ever made. At least you can call this guy a fuckface with impunity.

And does anyone really want to get eaten out by a guy who looks like frickin' orc?

Generalists in Bubbleland

The lead in TNR's thinkpiece: "Jeopardy is one of the most subversive shows on television." The article goes on to argue that the trivia buff, the type of person Jeopardy celebrates, runs exactly counter to people featured in shows like Survivor and The O.C., which glamorize capitalistic values like entrepreneurism, consumption, and interpersonal savvy. Jeopardy is the anti-Apprentice: Trump's show extols the virtue of Patrick Bateman. Jeopardy lionizes Cliff Clavin, the patron saint of trivia.

As we learn in the article, Jeopardy contestants who make it past the initial screening stages are often painfully shy and introverted. That's no surprise. It takes a pretty solitary lifestyle to accumulate such wideranging encyclopedic knowledge. Unlike most Americans, these knowledge-seekers don't learn so they can use that knowledge in their careers or their daily lives; they're the dysfunctional bookworms that nobody remembers from high school.

But I found the article's conclusion to be a little pat. Brian Monotopli, the author of the piece, wants to pit useless knowledge (knowledge for its own sake) against utilitarianism (knowledge only as use value). That's an important dichotomy, but, by focusing on TV, he exaggerates the irrelevance of trivia in American society. Trivia, if you'll notice, dominates the websites and web communities.

But let's turn first to an issue near and dear to my heart: the demise of the generalist. Just last week I had a long discussion with my friend Angie on the ineffectiveness of general education requirements in college. At the UCs anyway, you can satisfy GE requirements by taking such specialized lower division classes as African-American Film, the Biology of AIDS, French History from 1789-1848, etc. Presumably, the idea is that a student learns who Charlemagne is and how the golgi apparatus functions in high school. While I ran across a number of erudite minds in college, I encountered many more who had just ocean-sized voids in subjects I consider basic knowledge.

Now, as a working adult, specialization is ever more prevalent. Those obsessed with their work become good at it, but they know little else. Europeans (and liberal elitists like me) often bemoan the ignorance of the American voting public. "If they only knew about Bush's lies/incompetence/stupidity on ________" is a typical mantra. But widespread ignorance of public affairs is a consequence of our largely strong, sweat-driven economy. Besides bloggers and other such idlers, Americans work harder and more productively than anyone else. The value placed on work separates us from the lazy Europeans. The typical American auto mechanic is probably more knowledgeable than the typical European one about transmissions; but he's also likely much less likely to have a handle on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Then there's the proliferation of trivia specialists. The internet has created an army of niche obsessives. The hardcore political bloggers can tell you what Bush's latest poll numbers are in West Virginia. The movie nerds can describe Henry Hathaway's directorial style. The gearheads can tell you where to get the parts you need to rebuild your 1962 GTO. Baseball statheads fight over whether Mark Bellhorn's value is best represented by the runs-created metric or OPS.

In an era of ever-greater divisions and segmentation, the "communities" formed by niche obsessives is yet another. I belong to a couple of these niche communities. For good and ill, my involvement with my movie nerd discussion group has led to profound changes in my lifestyle. The internet has allowed for folks with common interests to commiserate across time zones, which is cool. But it leads to ever more compulsive moviewatching habits. You start watching more movies to keep up, going to see marginal films by favored directors like Michael Haneke's Time of the Wolf or staying home to watch some obscure Andre de Toth movie on TCM so you can stay with the buzz or come up with respectable top ten lists.

"Knowledge communities" allow us to stop having dialogue with others and just live in our own little bubble. I don't speak about politics with the Fox News-watching attorney across the hall. Instead, I'll rant about Bush with my uniformly liberal friends or post something on The Daily Kos. More and more, we live in a beehive in which every group huddles in their own little echo chamber.