Sep 29

Yes we can, and no she can’t.

Posted by A Writer


This isn't a political blog, but political issues will sometimes intersect with the interests of what I talk about here…and given the stakes of the U.S. presidential election this year, those issues are magnified big-time.  This election has attracted far more interest than normal for all sorts of reasons–trying to overcome the eight year disaster which is the George Bush legacy, the financial crisis, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the first African-American presidential candidate ever nominated for a major party in the U.S., and of course the first female candidate nominated for president.

Er–oh.  Yes.  Of course Sarah Palin is actually the first female candidate nominated for VP by the Republican party.  My mistake…but in my defense, it's a pretty common one.  Since Palin's nomination last month, based on media coverage and the breathless enthusiasm of conservative pundits ("she's just so REAL!!!!11!!!") you'd think she was the Republican standard-bearer, with poor old John McCain bringing up the rear.  And this is kind of the root of my concern–her nomination, which says so much more about the state of one part of American politics and, down the road, the state of American education as well.  Why is it such a big deal?

Because this person is by far the least qualified VP candidate on a ticket in the last century…perhaps beyond (though Schuyler Colfax had his own problems, of course!).  And because her boss is 72 years old, with a history of malignant skin cancer.  That's why.  And perhaps, even more importantly, because both facts–and this isn't hyperbole, kids–are being utterly buried by the McCain campaign as fast as it can shovel the dirt, as well as some other rather smelly stuff I won't describe in detail here.  The pick is a cynical lie, and a transparent one at that.

In the interests of full disclosure: I'm clearly left of center on the political front, though I'm nothing close to a lockstep Democrat.  Though I have my own concerns about Barack Obama, it was fairly clear to me as the primary went on that he was quickly learning from his mistakes, was potentially inspirational both symbolically and otherwise, and was a refreshing change (i.e. neither astonishingly stupid nor smugly arrogant like a certain "Decider" I could think of) from the norm, and thus I was happy to vote for him.  And quite aside from my disagreements with McCain on a whole host of issues (really, why is one's inability to keep a Navy plane in the air a qualification for the highest level of public service?), his destructive and incredibly disingenuous campaign had pretty much turned me off as it was.

And then he nominated Sarah Palin, and (for me) all hell broke loose.

Now there are all sorts of things I could say about the transparent pandering of the pick.  There are all sorts of things I could bring up about the Republican party, which has spent much of the last hundred years fighting to undercut rights for all distinct groups including women, suddenly discovering the horrors of sexism (how dare they ask Sarah a question!  Deference, please.).  And don't get me started about the obsession with assuaging the religious right.  But for me, what this truly comes down to is this:

She's just not that bright.

Once the true believers have gotten over the gasps of horror and shocked exclamations of dismay, please let me explain.  I'm not talking about simple intelligence–the ability to understand a casual witticism, the capability of drawing logical conclusions from available evidence (though I'm not sure about the whole dinosaurs and people thing, but let that pass), the skill of forming coherent sentences.  Palin's obviously no fool; she wouldn't have ended up governor, with a pitifully thin list of accomplishments that would make Dan Quayle laugh, if she were.  She's obviously got political sense and savvy–and besides, anyone who can vaguely juggle five kids and a major public service job has got to have something upstairs.  No, I'm referring to something far more insidious: a lack of interest in the world outside.  She's just not very intellectually curious, or even vaguely intrigued, in things outside her very limited expertise.  How else do you explain not getting a passport until last year–when she was already in her mid-forties, and (as both she and her handlers continue to inexplicably cite, as if they're not in on the joke everyone else makes of this) living next to Russia?  How else do you explain a total inability to understand basic economics–or what the relationship between the credit markets and the consumer is?  How else do you explain a lack of knowledge of her own running mate's economical reformer credentials (well, okay, that's partly because he doesn't have any, but at least she could get on the same page with what he claims he's done, right?)?

Is it the five colleges thing?

The bottom line is that Sarah Palin seems like a nice person, and that's obviously part of her appeal.  She's so real, enthusiasts gush.  And while I'm not sure how many Americans shoot moose and race snowmobiles on a regular basis, I'm sure they can identify with the concept of a hockey mom as much as a soccer mom.  So she's got some family troubles…so what?  Everyone has those, right?  She's just like me, people say.  

And that's precisely why she would make a great therapist.  Or social worker.  Or minister.  It's important for people in those professions to be able to directly identify with their clients.

The problem is that she's not doing any of those things.  She's running for Vice-President of the United States of America, one old man's heartbeat away from the Presidency, and she needs to be taken on a United Nations tour like she's the freaking president of the Chamber of Commerce.  Look, folks: I'm all for down home common sense and folk wisdom.  But this job, to be potentially the second most powerful person in the world, doesn't need someone we could meet at the local general store.  It requires the best of the best, the smartest, the most able, literally the cream of all our crop.  Now the tension between meritocracy and democracy in this country is nothing new; for centuries we've struggled to find the balance between equality for all and getting the best and brightest.  But part of that balance has been struck by our tacit understanding that we ultimately elect the best we can, not the most like us we can.  Should they understand what we're going through?  Of course–that's a necessity for good leadership, as it's always been.  But requiring our leaders not simply to understand a certain life but live it themselves is tipping the balance to mass opinion: the Wikipedia/American Idol culture, where what we think is true is more important than what's actually true.  And somehow, over the past eight years, we've gotten the idea that electing our friends and neighbors is a better idea than electing the best we can find.  But where else should we advance this theory?  Science?  Education? Medicine?  ("Sure, you say that's a goiter.  But frankly I don't agree with you, and neither does my friend here.  He says it's cancer, and he thinks we should operate right now, and he's my friend, so I'm afraid you're out of luck.  But thanks so much for your input, Doc.") 

The truth is that Sarah Palin represents the worst retreat to the feel-good generation I could imagine, all part of the race to mediocrity which upholds ignorance as a badge of honor and knowledge as a sign of dangerous, "exclusionary" elitism.  I believe that the majority of Americans are now starting to get this–McCain's collapse in the polls mostly has to do with his economic missteps, but he hasn't been helped by Palin's cringe-inducing interviews, which have started to bother even people who like the whole "hockey mom" persona–but the fact that it's taken this long to make the point is a bit disturbing.  It has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with sexism, and everything to do with elitism–the elitism which we ought to require of our leaders, the way we require it of our military generals, our doctors, scientists, and teachers.  No one likes to be made to feel stupid, or patronized.  But reveling in one's relentless average-ness isn't the answer either, and picking a running mate to appeal to that mindset in others is even worse.  Education is founded on the idea of striving for something more than what you are, of learning about the world, of bringing light to the dark places of the intellect.  For me, I want a leader just as interested in that journey as I am, not someone whose idea of foreign travel begins and ends with a snowmobile trip to Canada. 

Though I hope such a trip crosses over some Bridge to Nowhere.  It seems like such a shame to waste the image otherwise.

Sep 7

These are not the hammer.

Posted by A Writer


It took a while, but I've finally entered the Joss Whedon world.  It's actually hard to imagine that I've been out of the loop on this guy for this long; anyone who did Buffy, Angel, and Firefly (plus the Serenity bonus round…and even the screenplay for Toy Story!) has serious street cred, and Whedon's got more than most (hell, his father was a screenwriter for The Electric Company, which is cool, even if I don't really understand why that show would need a writer).  He's got a huge number of fans (Whedonistas, Whedonivas, Browncoats…and probably lots of other names, but you get the idea), a crazily impressive career, and now, to top it all off, he's got an Internet musical about a bizarro supervillain played by the former Doogie Howser.


Yes, I'm of course speaking (as every Whedonista knows) of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, which came out a couple of months ago (I know, I know, I told you I was way behind the curve here).  It's really just your typical boy meets girl, boy loves girl but also secretly intends to take over the world, boy has to deal with arch-nemesis who also is interested in girl musical blog…which makes about as much sense in practice as it does in theory.  But for most of the show it really doesn't matter; Neil Patrick Harris is funny and appealing as Dr. Horrible, and everyone drops pop culture references, puns and jokes like they're going out of style (my favorite: the head of the League of Evil, which Dr. H desperately wants to get into, is Bad Horse. Nickname: "The Thoroughbred of Evil.").  Add in some funny inside jokes for people who have ever read a superhero comic book in their lives, and some reasonable production values (it's even got some decent music!), and you ought to have a solid satire of most of these supervillain origin stories.

Until, that is, the end.  And if you haven't seen the whole thing yet, go now and come back (I'll still be here, I promise), because I'm about to say a lot more about it (in other words, SPOILERS AHEAD).

Back?  Settled in?  Good.  Now then, how to put this…Um…


So Acts One and Two present a kind of light-hearted parody, with plenty of humor and fun…and even a mildly entertaining love story (albeit a vaguely creepy one, given Dr. H's evil tendencies).  And just when you feel you understand the mood of the show, and are ready for Act Three (again, SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!)…

…Penny dies, and Dr. H gets into the League of Evil, and the whole thing ends.  Everyone loses.  Really.  Roll credits.

I'm not sure what thing annoys me the most about this ending, so I'll just throw out my top three:

1.  It's completely incoherent.  The ending is utterly, completely and totally off from the entire tone of what preceded it.  Now I understand that Whedon is known for playing with genre conventions and winking at his audience the whole time (Buffy is pretty much entirely founded on screwing with typical horror movie tropes), and that he's never so happy as when he's killing off characters, but still–there's a difference between cleverness and tone-deafness, and this is a whole lot of the latter.  That Dr. H. goes on to get all the evil he ever wanted, but still feels vaguely angsty about the whole thing, doesn't change the complete illogic of the way the mood flips.

2.  It's pretentious.  Whedon actually claims that this work is a standard "tragedy," and therefore the ending fits within that tradition.  Uh, no.  First of all, I'm sorry, but this is called Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog for a reason, and it ain't to draw upon tropes from Euripides.  (The chief bad guy is freaking called Bad Horse, for God's sake!)  It's a light-hearted parody until we hit the last three minutes, when it takes a hard right turn into pathos for no particular reason, other than the idea that "bad stuff happens to good people" which is a. not always true and in any case hasn't been unique as an artistic concept in twenty years and b. a pretty lame message to deliver, if you've decided you need to deliver a message at all in a movie which has as one of its villains "Fake Thomas Jefferson" (no, I'm not making that up).  Second, tragedy is supposed to be transformative, cathartic.  What exactly is transformed in any of the characters?  Or the audience?  Do we feel purged from the experience of watching someone die thanks to a defective death ray?  Yeah, I don't think so either.

3.  It's at best absurdly conventional, at worst flat out sexist.  Penny is the only truly innocent one in the entire show, and as is the case with every standard horror movie, the innocent (and naive) has to die somehow.  (Of course, she does have sex before getting killed, so maybe that's the trope we're dealing with.)  Either way, the idea that Whedon, who has made a career out of creating strong female roles (though I'm a little more skeptical about how liberating Buffy really is than the Whedon fans seem to suggest), would even toy with sending the wrong message on either of these cases is mind-boggling.  And no, I don't buy that showing a single newspaper headline calling her "What's-Her-Name" is presenting some kind of deeply satirical message.  Gotta do better than that.

What it comes down to is that DHSAB is really disappointing, and it makes me seriously question if the rest of Whedon's work is as overrated as this.  I'd like to think it isn't–the Browncoats can't all be wrong, can they?–but given the worshipful treatment it's gotten everywhere, you have to wonder. And if the rest of his work demonstrates these kinds of bad decisions, I don't think I'll be wearing this anytime soon.