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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

3 Tea Party Poopers

The last year and a half’s worth of politics has marked the first time in my life where anything political actually frightens me. I spent the preceding 35 or so years as a happily-registered Republican, watching the ebb and flow of the peaceful transfer of power as the parties battled out their ideological opposition in a manner which only seemed to affect me in an attenuated and muted way. After all, there was so much government between me and the White House, Congress, et al., that by the time any change, upheaval, discontent, etc., made its way to me, it had been watered down to the point of banal irrelevance. In fact, I can’t think of a single bit of government reform that affected my life in any significant way. But in our now outsized-everything world, the otherwise predictable backlash that should have followed the wholesale change of a new party taking over two branches of the government has been replaced by a movement so profoundly mindless and outspoken that I finally get where Thoreau was coming from. So while I’m busy booking a trip to Concord, Mass., I present 3 reasons that the “Tea Party” should make us all very, very afraid:
  1. Falling For You. As any regular reader of mine knows, I’m not the biggest fan of old sayings. There are, however, a few precious gems amidst a sea of mostly useless cliches that do warrant a permanent spot in the public consciousness. And “if you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything” is right up there in the top spots. The “tea party” is, at its core, a party of discontent - which only has a clear message/direction if you ask one of them at a time. There hasn’t been a more disparate collection of malcontents since Turkish prison, the Island of Misfit Toys and Britney Spears’ exes. Seriously, this “party” is comprised of everyone from people who believe the President was born in Africa to people who think the core idea in health care reform is to create “death panels” bent on exterminating anyone over age 65. When asked to define its party’s “planks” in mid-2009 via the “Contract from America”, tea party members submitted over one thousand ideas. I don’t think I’ve had a thousand political opinions total - in my life, let alone having that many currently. Seriously, I’ve seen more coherent direction in a mosh pit. Which is, come to think of it, a perfect metaphor for the intellectual focus of this group.

  2. The Dumb Leading The Blind. There haven’t been this many idiots in charge of something since your Prom Committee, and the only thing they could screw up was decorations and punch flavor. I’d rather give a teenager the keys to my car than these clowns the keys to the national government. The “champions” of this cause celebrate simplicity like a badge of honor, and preach the abject fear of anything that can’t be explained without the use of multi-syllable words. It’s as though “Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” got its own political party. Seriously, if you truly believe that we can build a society based on finger-painting, reciting the alphabet and trying really hard not to eat paste - you almost deserve to get shot by some flag-waving militia captain firing his assault rifle into a crowd of people because he thinks he’s seen a Mexican trying to take his factory job. Listen, government is complicated. Economics, especially on a national scale, are even more complicated. The fact that you don’t get what’s going on in Washington D.C., (a) does not mean that it’s a plot to eradicate you (and those with similarly double-digit-ish IQs) from the planet, (b) is not a reason to elect someone with a simpler explanation (because that just means they don’t get it either) and (c) is a fantastic reason to use the world’s greatest collection of easily referenced information for something besides nut-shot videos, midget porn and Facebook. Spotting the idiot in the tea party leadership is like looking for the single guy at a Star Trek convention.

  3. The Cult of Extremity. Like any good cult, the “tea party” lures even the most marginally disillusioned observer in with promises of commiseration and an end to the helplessness inspired by watching the evening news (Damn you, Brian Williams!). You then begin to agree that the government bailout of banks doesn’t seem to be working (though you wouldn’t know macroeconomic principles if they walked up and slapped you) and before you know it, you’re calling for the President to be deported to Kenya and for Arizona cops to have the right to shoot anyone who looks even the least bit “brown” in middle of the street. The “tea party” is like the Spinal Tap of political dissent - better to be loud than be any good. The unofficial front-man of this merry band of idiots, Sarah Palin, has made casual extremity its own fashion statement. She dresses up like Jackie Kennedy, flashes that maternal smile with those sensible but stylish glasses and then confidently declares that she’d make her daughter to have a rape baby, that the President is secretly trying to kill you, and that we’d all be much better off carrying automatic weapons. All the while, the Tea Party Channel (i.e. Fox News) is so slanted that it ought to have runaway truck ramps, and is making millions selling ugly ideas with beautiful people. Bottom line: stupid isn’t the natural enemy of intellect, extreme is.
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The battle lines drawn by these so-called “patriots” simply don’t exist. The Republican party is no more the party of idiots than the Democratic party is the party of intellectuals. The fact of the matter is that both of the parties are rife with fools, pandering and misinformation. And while I’m no more enamored with the current administration than anyone else (despite having voted that direction) I’m certainly not ready to abandon my otherwise reliable good sense and start carrying around hand-written signs and shouting with the NASCAR set. Hyperbole certainly has it’s place in commentary (political and otherwise), but I’ve seen more Nazi references on Fox News in the last year than I have in all of the history classes I’ve ever taken, combined. The “tea party” isn’t scary because it threatens the current administration, it’s scary because it threatens our long-standing tradition of not letting the mentally feeblest amongst us be in charge. Besides, the only people who should be at tea parties are British, 6, or stuffed.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

3 Bad Comebacks

For the most part, when something leaves the public consciousness it’s for a good reason. We Americans might not be the most discriminating consumers when we anoint something as popular, but we’re a scathingly tough crowd, and as Kip Winger rightly opined nearly two decades ago: “easy come, easy go.” Our pop culture dump is littered with things most of would rather forget, from fashion (bell bottom jeans, moon boots & Members Only jackets) to music (Vanilla Ice, disco and the Jonas Brothers); and personal grooming (mullets, mustaches and visible chest hair). But there are a scant few items that survive this cultural gauntlet, and despite the best attempts of the learned minority to prevent their resurgence, they rise from the ashes like an idiot Phoenix, bathing us all in the light of their pervasive stupidity. And because I can’t stop them, I’ll simply sit back and tell you about 3 comebacks that I wish wouldn’t:

1. Bare feet. It’s been over 1500 years since the fall of the Roman Empire, and according to my estimation that’s the last time that the majority of people were walking around in footwear which accorded visibility of their entire foot to the rest of us. But, toga parties and Halloween notwithstanding, the visible foot is making an inexplicable comeback. In deference to those folks who actually get excited by them, can’t we all agree that feet are not the sort of thing that should generally be seen? And for people who are overweight, older, or generally prone to poor hygiene, your feet should rarely be seen. And yet, more and more, I see bare twisted toes, cracked heels and nails that look more like weaponry than a skin appendage being bared for all the world to see. There was a time when if you planned on baring a part of your body, you made certain to at least observe a modicum of grooming and care to it. But, as our cultural narcissism reaches a fever pitch, it seems that folks have to decided to bare whatever is there, world be damned. There is a place for mostly bare feet, and that is at the beach/pool or at home. As a general rule, unless you’re an attractive young woman getting a regular pedicure, nobody wants to see your toes. Do us all a favor and put on some damned shoes.

2. Chest Hair and Mewelry. As a society, we’ve mostly developed a collective shame with regard to the 1970’s that has kept that entire decade of style, pop music and general behavior in cultural obscurity, save the occasional lampooning party. And with good reason. We were never collectively more apparently and completely unaware of our own ridiculousness. No matter how somber the subject or storied the director, it seems like each film documenting that regrettable decade is a study in head-shaking disbelief on just how ridiculous we were. And perhaps nothing served as a greater talisman for the period’s over-the-top masculinity and hyper-stylized bravado than the display of chest hair and gold neck jewelry. One need spend only a few moments at an event encouraging 70’s era caricatures before this trend is dutifully mocked. And yet, despite what I believed to be almost universal disdain for this fashion behavior, I have noticed it with increasingly frequency amongst the general public. In general, it is never OK for a man to wear neck jewelry outside his clothing, and unbuttoning your shirt down to your navel is not an acceptable work-around for this rule. There is an acceptable number of buttons at the top of your shirt to have unbuttoned, and that number is two. In addition, chest hair looks about as sanitary a public toilet seat. Putting a marginally valuable gold chain amidst all this horribleness does not excuse or license it in any way. Listen Starksy, seeing your golden anchor half-buried in your barely viable chest-fro is only making everyone wonder just how big of a douchebag you are. Do us a favor and button your damned shirt.

3. Celebrity Righteousness. There was a time when show business seemed to those outside of it as squeakily clean as the stories that came out of it. The public wanted to believe in the nearly puritanical Cleavers, the sanitized kids of Bayside High and the lovable scamps of Taxi. Hollywood had a vested interest in having us believe that the world behind the curtain was identical to the world in front of it, and so they did. But as the media grew alongside our prurient interest in the celebrities that populated this stylized world, the curtain was slowly drawn back and the shine has since come off of the showbiz machine. Entire news organizations have been built around exposing the dirty underbelly of the life with unlimited resources and limited (if any) restrictions that these creatures live, and in 2010, we hardly flinch at the mention of parties in club VIP rooms with mountains of cocaine, gaggles of prostitutes and debauchery so profoundly perverse that Caligula might blush. We’ve become accustomed to short-lived romances, baseless tirades and entitled petulance at even the slightest of inconveniences. And yet, Hollywood is once again trying to sell us it’s new generation of singers, actors and models as the righteous few; rejecting the hedonism of modern day celebrity and embracing a time honored morality. Young pop stars proclaim abstention while hosting teenage groupies backstage, teen actors speak of refrain and then invite twenty-something extras back to their luxury trailers, and the latest magazine cover-models eschew underage consumption and are then glimpsed at hotspot nightclubs through velvet ropes and dark curtains in cloistered back rooms. Listen, you may have the tween crowd and Twilight moms convinced that nothing’s going on in these dark corners except pleasant conversation and Bible study, but I’m not buying. You show me a teenager with limitless funds and minimal consequences, and I’ll show you someone hosting a drunken donkey show and doing lines of coke off a midget.

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As a sports fan, I love a good comeback. The indomitable will not to be defeated overcoming long or impossible odds may be one of the best things about sports and is surely one of the reasons we choose to watch in the first place. What’s more, as a dedicated economics geek, I can surely appreciate the cyclical nature of things - bringing what was weak back to strength, and turning buyer’s markets into seller’s markets. Best of all, I do so love when thing that go around, come around. But with all that being said, not all returns are welcome, not all reunions happy, and not all resurrections miraculous. As Danny Boyle has taught us, some dead things are better left dead. I don’t ever want to peg my jeans, wear multiple Swatch watches or slow dance to Yaz ... again. (Okay, I might want to slow dance to Yaz again) But the bottom line is that just as we were taught long ago, those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Or, if you prefer a more modern approach, if you’re ever wondering about whether you should “bring something back to the old skool”, remember there’s a reason that it’s "old skool" in the first place, and don’t.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

3 Summer Holidays

We're officially in the "dog days" of summer, having just finished up the 4th of July, and now embarking on the longest gap we endure between major holidays (the next is Labor Day - September 6) all year. As a nation, we love our holidays - taking time from our ever-increasingly busy lives to celebrate our past, revel in our present and toast our future (all of which usually involve some amount of public intoxication and overeating). Which is why it has always perplexed me that during our most celebrated season - the proverbial American summertime - we have the fewest holidays of any season. The big three day weekends and our beloved Independence Day notwithstanding, the summer really could use a few more celebrations - especially during those white hot days of July and August where the U.S. power grid get more stressed than a fat kid before gym class and most days are spent waiting for the sun to go down so the outside temperature is once again capable of sustaining human life. So in the interests of the public good, here are 3 new holiday suggestions for the late summer:

1. Appropriately Sized Swimwear Day - To be celebrated every year on the third Saturday in July. Every A.S.S. day we celebrate those brave men and women who go against the grain of fashion magazines, reality television, and the sales girls' advice at Pac Sun by wearing swimwear appropriate to their body size, type, shape, etc. We would each honor their valor by donning a swimsuit that covers a percentage of our body exactly equal to our latest body fat measurements. Local clothiers will offer free BMI measurements, and swimwear discounted proportionally with the size (i.e. small = 10% off, XXXL = 75% off, etc.). Just think, for one day a year you can go to your local beach, pool, or water park without fear of having your retinas scarred by a 350 lb man in board shorts, a 60 year old European man in Speedo, or a woman who can't reliably spot her toes wearing a thong bikini. Wouldn't it be nice to see someone with 33% body fat cover up the middle third of their body? Or even nicer to celebrate A.S.S. day by not having to see any that you don't want to?

2. Halle Berry Day - In celebration of the delightful Ms. Berry's birthday, August 14. If you're an American man, no matter your sexual preference, color or prurient proclivities, Halle Berry's name has crossed your lips at some point in a discussion of people you'd like to see naked. Hell, even her name is sexy - and that's actually her real name (okay well, it's her middle and last name, but c'mon, you didn't really expect her to go by "Maria" did you?). Aside from being mentioned in countless articles about having a face so symmetrical that it's "mathematically" beautiful, and skin so flawless that it's "evolutionarily" beautiful, it's still "that scene" from the otherwise forgettable Swordfish that sticks in my brain like peanut butter to the roof of my mouth. She was the female analog to Wesley Snipes in Jungle Fever and is the only face that most of the y-chromosome set can recall from the entire movie. In a nation where we celebrate beauty so regularly, it seems like we ought to celebrate at least one birthday on behalf of a transcendentally beautiful woman - who also seems to live her life relatively scandal free and hasn't succumbed to the fame-whorishness that most of her Hollywood counterparts seem to be afflicted with.

3. Hawai'i Day - August 21, in celebration of getting our 50th and probably final state admitted to the union. The U.S. getting Hawai'i is like the rest of us finally getting a summer home. Sure, it's not really practical to live in year-round, but it sure is nice for a couple months. Besides, after the uber-pragmatic move that our 49th state was, we deserved a little luxury, didn't we? And what is more American than Hawai'i? The Kingdom of Hawaii was sovereign from 1810 until 1893 when the monarchy was overthrown by resident American (and some European) businessmen. It was then an independent republic from 1894 until 1898, when it was annexed by the United States as a territory, becoming a state in 1959. A kingdom overthrown by businessmen? To be any more American, you'd have to stand in the middle of enormous apple pie while simultaneously waving a baseball bat and an American flag. And sure, we didn't really need it, but it completed the set so nicely. While Alaska gave us a place to get oil once Texas runs out, a legitimate wilderness/frontier for the "Walden" crowd to run off to when they give up on society, and enough additional land mass to move ahead of Australia and Brazil in the "size matters" contest at the UN - Hawai'i has pretty much just given us beaches that don't suck and a legitimate shot at beating the Australians in surfing contests (okay, okay, and the current President - provided you don't believe Honolulu is located in Africa). The bottom line is, if any state deserves a national holiday attached to its statehood, it's surely our last one - because you've got to love that the same process that started with Delaware ended with an island paradise in the south Pacific.

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In the end, we've really got more holidays than we know what to do with. For those of you that don't know - today is actually both Tapioca Pudding Day and Cow Appreciation Day (yes, seriously). It's just the we don't really celebrate most of them - which is perplexing, considering that Americans hardly need much of an excuse to take a day off. But in the end, it takes much more than a government declaration to make a holiday an actual holiday. What you really need is a critical mass of people who are willing to set aside the banality of their everyday lives and their well-considered maturity to dress up, over-decorate their spaces, buy tremendously unhealthy food for themselves and others, and to do it all in the name of something they hardly consider for the balance of the year (that or Hallmark to decide they can sell cards for it). Of course, before you can get that, it takes one brave soul to lead the way. And so, you can find me this Saturday, out at the pool, with swim trunks covering 14.5% of my naked behind, a month from now watching Swordfish alone in the dark, and week later wearing a grass skirt and a coconut bra. Now if I could only figure out a way to celebrate Hawai'i Day...

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

3 Great Americans

It’s that time of year again. Time to celebrate our great nation, and the men and women who made it possible, those who made it great, and those who continue to do so. Every July, we trot out caricatured portraits of our “Founding Fathers” - paying homage to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and the like. We retell stories of Betsy Ross, Paul Revere and Thomas Paine - as they’ve been told, sanitized and glamorized since time immemorial. The truth is, we have no more idea of what these people were really like than we have about what anything was like two hundred years ago. For our ability to relate and understand them and it, they may as well have been on a different planet. There are, however, great Americans much closer to here and to now; extraordinary stories that could only be possible in a land where freedom rules above all else. And so with all due respect to George, Tom, Ben and the lot, I give you three great Americans for 2010:

1. Neil Patrick Harris. Neil Patrick Harris is barely six feet tall, has the build of an adolescent Vietnamese girl and couldn’t break a hundred and seventy pounds wearing a suit of armor. He’s pale, slight, and completely gay. Oh, yeah and he’s also an icon of masculinity so profound and pervasively recognizable that two generations of men consider him a role model. As a child actor, he made childhood academic prodigy and keeping a diary (on a computer, no less) simultaneously cool - and was the most famous television doctor since Hawkeye and Pierce were wisecracking their way through the Korean War (ask your parents, they were the Ryan Seacrest and Simon Cowell of the 70’s). He is currently holding court as the seminal womanizer on TV, an amalgamation of the very worst (or best, depending on your point of view) of American men, as Barney on How I Met Your Mother. Barney dresses better, lives cooler, talks funnier and runs better game than any of us - and on our best days, we all imagine ourselves to be a little Barney. Neil also has a web-based video series entitled “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog” which is funnier and better than anything the rest of us could come up with - and it’s a musical. He is a testament to the American cool - a kind so intangible that it makes us forget just about everything else about a person, just to stop and stare.

2. Nick Lachey. Trust me, I’m as surprised to see Nick on this list as you are. I’m usually of the opinion that the vast majority of “boy band” members are being reserved a special place in hell. Not only did they single-handedly set music and masculinity back decades - they began the intellectual descent of female Americans down a slippery slope of androgenic fantasy which has culminated in a global obsession with gay-teen-vampire-porn. But that notwithstanding, Nick understands and embraces the caricature of his own existence, in an era where nearly all of us (all the way down to our toddlers) take ourselves way too seriously. He, without an ounce of trepidation, refers to himself (and insists on being referred to) using both his first and last name. And that’s not all. Nick may have supplanted the Bible's “Job” as paragon of patience. Regular exposure to Jessica Simpson on television is enough to induce severe headaches and long-term brain damage, I can only imagine what the effects would be in person. She personally and permanently redefined what it means to be vapid, unaware, and just plain stupid. And yet, there was her husband Nick; stoic and enduring - weathering an unprecedented storm of inanity in the name of love. And when he could finally take no more and left the young Ms. Simpson to fend for herself - he reminded his hairy-knuckled and single-minded brothers of two very important, very American lessons. First, that being with that girl in the magazine or on the radio probably isn’t the fantasy-land we’d like to think it would be; and second, be very careful what you wish for - because in a land of opportunity, you just might get it.

3. Billy Mitchell. In less than two weeks, Billy Mitchell will turn 45 years old. In those short four and a half decades, he turned his inheritance of marginally-successful (and vastly overstated) Florida-based restaurant chain, “Rickey's World Famous Restaurants” into a hot-sauce empire (worth tens of millions of dollars), turned his fascination with vintage arcade games into a string of world records which lead many to refer to him as the "greatest arcade-video-game player of all time", and perfected a long-feathered-hair-and-groomed-beard combo that even the BeeGees would be jealous of. He is also an unmitigated douche, and has been one since long before the term had been coined. I am hesitant, however, to name him the Godfather of Douchebaggery (as deserving as he may be), because Mr. Mitchell needs another self-aggrandizing title like Paris Hilton needs another Gucci handbag. If you haven’t seen The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, you’ve missed one of the best documentaries since An Inconvenient Truth, and the best look at midwestern America since American Beauty. It’s hard to imagine someone who has done more with less, or at least someone so tremendously unapologetic about his success. Oh yeah, and he is always seen wearing an American flag tie. If George Washington was the seminal American man of 1776, then Billy Mitchell is the same for 2010.

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I’m all for taking holidays as an occasion to celebrate our past, but we should also take the opportunity to look around the present. As horribly as we sometimes seem to live up to the great visions of the men and women who gave everything so that we might live free, there is greatness all around us if we only take a moment to look. There are no more Jeffersons, Franklins or even Washingtons - but today they’d be no more heroes than our current crop of politicians. The fact is that looking for greatness in Washington D.C. is just as futile as looking “reality” on The Hills, love on The Bachelor or talent anywhere near the Cyrus house. Great Americans are found in unlikely places, because they are, like those who preceded them a couple hundred years ago, unlikely heroes. And that’s what being American is really all about.