Pleasin’ for the Season: The New York Times Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

It’s Christmas Eve already, and most of us ordinary salt-of-the-earth working people have been much too busy to find gifts for everyone on our list.  Fortunately, there’s hope:  The New York Times has spent the whole year alerting us to the best deals, steals and must-have items, so with the help of this curated guide, you’re sure to find something for everyone.  Just have your personal assistant print out this list, circle the items you think your loved ones will enjoy, and have your personal assistant run them over to those people’s houses by Christmas morning.  Enjoy spreading holiday cheer! (Read the 2011 gift guide here). Continue reading “Pleasin’ for the Season: The New York Times Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide”

Programming Note

Hello to all my new readers from Balloon Juice and elsewhere!  Now that my long absence from the ‘net is over, and I have fully purged all my feelings about David Brooks’s back catalogue, I will be writing lots of fresh posts about everything that’s new and annoying in my daily paper.

Also, remember the IHateNYT illustrator?  He hasn’t disappeared, but has been struggling with computer issues in several months(!).   Maybe the computer offending will be fixed soon?  Expect more great illustrations at an unknown date and time… probably just days, weeks or months from now… perhaps when you least expect it!

In the meantime, I’m curious to know what you, the reader, would like to read more about.  The Vows section?  Travel?  Real Estate (somebody told me this was a great section to read; could never quite bring myself to do it)?  Thomas Friedman?  Ross Douthat?  Dippin’ Dots as the latest trendy dessert?  The impending hipness of the Finger Lakes region?  The Ombudsman?  Or just some more crap about sexting? Let me know in the comments, on the Facebook page, or on the new Twitter feed!

Why Does the New York Times Hate Fun?

The New York Times has a strange idea of fun.  They seem eager to give me, the reader, tips on enjoyable things to do with my free time.  But the activities suggested aren’t always so relevant to my interests.  I could become an influential industry bigwig, then spend years befriending club promoters and buying $1000 “bottle service” to earn myself a permanent spot on the guest list at a trendy night club.  I could go to an exhibition of designer nightstands featuring such artists as Sting.  (“I liked the idea to let men conjure up their story for the nightstand. It’s almost role reversal,” says the curator.) Or stop in at a racist country club to sample a delicacy called a “frozen tomato” that consists of “essentially tomato ice cream (except, instead of cream, it’s got cream cheese, cottage cheese and mayonnaise), served in a round scoop on a lettuce leaf with a dollop of more mayonnaise on top).”  I could collect Victorian taxidermy, or knit Brobdignagian cozies for public statuary.

Still, for every bizarre activity that they praise, there is another relatively harmless pastime they disparage.  Why?  Maybe it’s too lowbrow.  Maybe it’s because the fans of said pastime are presumed to be illiterate proles who don’t understand the consequences of their actions.  Or maybe it’s for the opposite reason — the pastime is question has gotten too popular with the hip, trend-chasing urbanites whom the writers fondly imagine comprise their core readership.  There must be something dangerous about it.  But what?  In a selection of recent articles, we’ll explore how Times scribes find fear in the benign.

Continue reading “Why Does the New York Times Hate Fun?”

The Missing Fifth (of David Brooks’s Brain): David Brooks Is an Idiot, Part I

“About 2,310 results for ‘I respect David Brooks'”

“About 7,360 results for ‘David Brooks is an idiot'”

— Google.com

David Brooks is an idiot.  His writing is terrible, and his “ideas” (insofar as he has any) are horrible.  But analyzing the badness of David Brooks is a tricky proposition.  There are three reasons why.  First, because it’s been done before.  Unlike such previous targets of my blog as Pamela Paul, Neil Ganzlinger and Philip Galanes whose writings are simply ignored by most readers with normal-range cognitive abilities, Brooks is often actively denounced by serious thinkers.  His work, while no more thoughtful, logical or well-informed than that of the average Styles-section celebrity profile hack, nonetheless draws many times more commentary and debate simply because it appears in the Opinion section.  However copious his lies, evasions and self-serving half-truths, political bloggers debunk them as soon as they appear.

Despite his cushy spot on the back page of the “A” section, David Brooks isn’t just interested in slamming Obama’s foreign policy and defending the Bush tax cuts.  Brooks is just as eager to torment his readers with vague, knee-jerk reactions to movies, technology, sexuality, fashion trends, and philosophy.  Indeed, that’s the second reason why the Brooks oeuvre is so hard to take.  It encapsulates everything that’s bad about bad NYT writing:  Pop-culture references that don’t make sense, high-culture references deployed to no purpose, sexism disguised as high-mindedness, fear of sexambivalent fascination with technology, unthinking science worship, and ignorance of history, all encased in a veneer of moderation and likeableness

But some people must like his forays into film review and cultural satire.  And indeed, some people do — just look at his Facebook page or the sales figures for his dumbass booksThe veneer of likeableness is working.  In fact, that’s the third reason that Brooks is so difficult to write about.  The reasons why he’s horrible are indistinguishable from the reasons why he’s admired and praised.  He’s the go-to conservative for liberals who want to feel open-minded, the guy they can “respect” for his apparent intelligence and moderation

What he offers are the same talking points most other conservatives spout (cutting taxes for the wealthy, cutting social programs for the poor, old-fashioned family values because the new ones make you feel kinda weird).  But he wants you to think he came to these conclusions all by himself, through pure logic.  So:  Every column considers the liberal point of view, then reluctantly concludes that it’s wrong (and laughably soft-headed) yet again.  Every column contains watered-down criticisms of the Republican party, thus showing that he’s willing to criticize the Republicans, even though they’re on the right side of every major issue.  Every column contains allusions to important-sounding authors and philosophical concepts, which grant an air of learning to his Limbaugh-isms and demonstrates that anyone who disagrees with him just doesn’t understand federalism/the Enlightenment/cognitive science/whatever.  Most importantly, Brooks doesn’t come right out and say anything that would grate upon the ear of the affluent Beltway insiders who read Brooks’ column and attend Brooks’s cocktail parties.  So his points are garbled, vague, and written in a kind of pundit-ese that prevents Brooks from offending subscribers and from making a coherent point alike.

The Times, the Atlantic, and (alas) even the New Yorker may be fooled by this sort of thing, but I’m not.  I can see through him.  Below, I’ll go through a recent Brooks piece and translate it into regular human words.

The Missing Fifth” concerns a crisis affecting America’s job market and causing untold suffering to thousands — of business owners!  They can’t find anyone to work at their companies, because  the government keeps giving everyone free money to stay home in bed.  That’s the basic idea of this piece, but let’s take a look at the details.

“In 1910, Henry Van Dyke wrote a book called ‘The Spirit of America,’ which opened with this sentence:  ‘The Spirit of America is best known in Europe by one of its qualities — energy.'”  Who’s Henry Van Dyke?  Is he an important figure in intellectual history, and on what did he base his conclusions?   Why should we listen to NO TIME FOR THAT NOW!   David Brooks has read a book, it’s from the past and written by a person who, based on his name, is a white dude.  It’s probably a classic of the Western canon.  You probably can’t even read!  While David Brooks was reading a book, you were out getting jailhouse tattoos, listening to Insane Clown Posse, drinking Four Loko, huffing ether from a jar, pissing on the lawn, shooting at a lawnmower with an assault rifle, and recklessly conflating “democracy” with “republicanism” in your understanding of America’s founding institutions.  David Brooks knows that about you.  That’s the sort of person you are, if you disagree with him.

Okay, I just looked up The Spirit of America.  The quote Brooks cites doesn’t appear until page 113, the opening of Chapter 4.  Maybe when Brooks said the book “opens” with that sentence, he meant that one of the middle parts of the book opens with that sentence.  I know when I read a book, I like to skip right to Chapter 4, where the meat is.  The first three chapters are usually just filler anyway.  (He totally didn’t read the book.)

“This has always been true.”  Your method of proving something has always been true is to just tell us it “has always been true”?  You shouldn’t be writing for the New York Times, you should be getting a C Minus on your first freshman English paper.   Anyway, the argument here is: One writer says Americans are energetic; because that was considered true one hundred years ago, its has always been true; because it was considered true, it must be true; because it’s true, it’s the right way for things to be.  That seems like an awfully tenuous intellectual edifice to build, based on one quote from a book nobody’s ever read.

“Americans have always been known for their manic dynamism.”  We have?  I thought we had always been known for our passionate, sensual natures, love of wine, high fashion and existentialism, and penchant for debating philosophy.  No wait, that’s the French.  Hang on a second… haven’t we always been known known for our huge wigs, flamboyant attire, transgressive, gender-bending personae, and double-entendre-laden public performances?  No,  that’s drag queens.  Well, fuck!  I wish you got to pick your country’s ultimate unchanging essence, instead of just being stuck with one.  “Manic dynamism” doesn’t even sound cute.  We sound like a bunch of methheads at a Marketing Strategy Optimization seminar.

“Energy has always been the country’s saving feature. ”  Fuck, again.  I though our saving features were democracy and the Bill of Rights and shit.  Now I find out it’s people’s willingness to stand up, walk around, and perform actions — any actions at all?  I’m moving to Jamaica.

“Thus, Americans should be especially alert to signs that the country is becoming less vital and industrious.”  Even if you accept the freakishly deformed syllogism with which Brooks opened, that doesn’t make any sense.  If we started out more vital and industrious, shouldn’t we need to be less alert to declining levels of vitality?  We could lose, like, 78 percent of our industriousness, and we’d still be better off than Greece or Italy.  They’re the ones who should be “especially alert”!  Ba-zang!

“In 1954, about 96 percent of American men between the ages of 25 and 54 worked. Today that number is around 80 percent. One-fifth of all men in their prime working ages are not getting up and going to work.”  They went from “manic dynamism” to not even getting up?  They sound bipolar.  Maybe in they’re just in a depressive phase right now.   The good news is, they’re going to feel great when they swing back the other way in 55 years.   All staying up until 4 in the morning, scrubbing their apartment with a toothbrush, going on $5000 Ebay shopping sprees, drunk-texting their resume to all their LinkedIn contacts, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure just for the hell of it.  Forget about a “missing fifth,” it’s going to be more like a missing gallon of vodka!  The U.S. economy is going to be off the chain!

But Brooks isn’t concerned with these men’s mental health problems.  He’s also not concerned with other reasons for not having a job, such as being a full-time dad or not being able to find a job.  No, he’s got his eye on a different reason for slacking off: disabilities.  “The number of Americans on the permanent disability rolls, meanwhile, has steadily increased. Ten years ago, 5 million Americans collected a federal disability benefit. Now 8.2 million do.  That costs taxpayers $115 billion a year, or about $1,500 per household.”  Brooks The American taxpayer is being forced to give his money away to a bunch of layabouts whose legs, arms or spines aren’t appropriatedly dynamic.

“Part of the problem has to do with human capital. More American men lack the emotional and professional skills they would need to contribute.”  “Emotional skills?”  Are we hiring them to talk about their feelings?  If we were hiring men based on their emotional skills, a hundred percent of them would be unemployed — amirite, ladies?!  JUST KIDDING.

“There are probably more idle men now than at any time since the Great Depression, and this time the problem is mostly structural, not cyclical.”  “Structural, not cyclical” means the jobs they used to do welding cars or building railroads or whatever have disappeared.  The “cycle” (recession) isn’t to blame, so everyone should shut up about fruity liberal stuff like stimulating the economy and creating jobs.  It sounds counterintuitive if you say it like that, though.  That’s why Brooks has fancied it up with the phrase “structural, not cyclical,” which sounds like a classical epigram or something.  It’s like the “If the gloves don’t fit, you must acquit” of trickle-down economics.

“Sectors like government, health care and leisure have been growing, generating jobs for college grads. Sectors like manufacturing, agriculture and energy have… not been generating more jobs.”  Hey wait a minute, why are we talking about job skills and college degrees, when this article started out pinning the blame on disabled people?  I don’t think David Brooks knows what a disability is.  David Brooks thinks “disabled” means the head businessman of big company calls you up and says “Hello, sir, I’d like to offer you a prestigious job,” and you’re like “I’m sorry, I’m ‘not able’ to come in to work, because I’m too tired to get out of bed, plus I don’t have a college degree!”  And that’s how you get on disability!  No wonder he’s sick of giving them money!

“These men will find it hard to attract spouses.”  Men only “attract spouses” by being rich and powerful.  David Brooks must have learned that by reading his half-assed book that he based on a bunch of half-assed evo-psych articles.  More on that in my next post.  Anyway, I think if these guys are really having difficulty attracting “spouses,” they should be like “baby, my disability may be costing your household $1500 a year, but I’ve got manic dynamism in my pants!  My tool is at its prime working age!  Wanna help me find my missing fifteen inches?  We’re all vital and industrious when you turn out the lights!”

“It can’t be addressed through the sort of short-term Keynesian stimulus some on the left are still fantasizing about.  It can’t be solved by simply reducing the size of government, as some on the right imagine.”  This sentence shows that Brooks is fair and balanced, because he says one bad thing about the Republicans for every bad thing he says about the Democrats.  But he always uses a worse verb or adjective for the Democrats.  Like, they’re always “navel-gazing” or “hand-wringing” or being “pedantic” or “elitist” or, in this case, “fantasizing.”  Yeah, I really wish the left would stop “fantasizing” about stimulating the economy, what a bunch of escapists.  Why can’t they see that this job shortage isn’t cyclical, like a menstrual cycle?  The economy is nothing like a menstrual cycle!  It’s “systematic,” like a manly pair of testicles!  Or something.

More about “reinvigorating the missing fifth.”  “If this were a smart country, we’d be having a debate about how to shift money from programs that provide comfort and toward programs that spark reinvigoration.”  This means David Brooks wants to take away people’s unemployment and disability benefits, and give them a case of Five-Hour Energy.  Problem solved!

“Discretionary spending, which might be used to instigate dynamism, is declining.”  It might be used to instigate dynamism?!?!  Here I’ve been pissing away all my discretionary income on exacerbating ebullience.  Of course, the liberals probably want to spend it on optimizing amelioration, those hippies.

“Health care spending, which mostly provides comfort to those beyond working years, is expanding.”  This is the second time he’s mentioned “comfort.”  I think “comfort” means food, shelter and medical care.  Fuckin’ disabled people, unemployed people and (apparently now) retirees!  Always wanting to be coddled with the basic necessities of human survival!  “Ya know, when I get down in the dumps, the one thing that cheers me up is putting on my sweats, sitting down in front of House reruns, maintaining sufficient caloric intake to sustain life, and not going blind from macular degeneration!”

“Democrats have gone into demagogic overdrive calling premium support ideas “privatization” or “the end of Medicare.”   “Demagogic” means means it’s not fair that one of the Democrats’ policies is popular, and they’re talking about it.  Also, they didn’t make up obfuscatory new jargon to describe it.  For instance, “premium support ideas” isn’t demagogic, because no one could figure out what it means in a million years.  “Overdrive” means bitching about something one tenth as much as Republican politicians bitch about abortion, gay people, or the Ten Commandments. Anyway, when I think of “demagogic overdrive,” I think of like, ancient Athens, and politicians goading people into starting wars with Sparta and putting people to death and stuff.  “Privatization” might be the most abstract concept about which the masses have ever been whipped into a frenzy.

Brooks goes on about “reinvigorating the missing fifth.”   He asks, “should we be using our resources in the manner of a nation in decline or one still committed to stoking the energy of its people and continuing its rise?”   That means if we give money to losers, we’res loser too.  But if we spend money on nebulous concepts, our great nation David Brooks’s penis will rise, because abstraction gives him a boner.

Let’s be honest:  I don’t care what Brooks proposes to do about this vaguely-defined, ever-shifting network of problems.  No one does.  The function of a Brooks editorial is to sound erudite and intellectually valid, without alarming anyone the way the fruits of actual erudition might do.  It’s a branding exercise.  Its purpose is to sell the idea of Brooks as a balanced, moderate conservative.  Like most branding efforts, it is vapid.  Nothing in a Brooks column will ever be really new, but nothing will ever be down-to-earth and commonsensical, either.    Brooks may be employed — indeed, overemployed, with jobs at the Times, Weekly Standard, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, and more — but his lack of interest in real people and reliance on high-flown abstractions means that he’s the one who lacks dynamism, energy and vitality.

In part II of my Brooks series, the top 10 worst David Brooks columns!  And coming up soon, why do Manohla Dargis’s sentences read like they were badly translated from Old Norse?

Help Wanted

When I started writing this blog back in January, I thought I had world enough and time to heap obloquy and opprobrium on any writer at my leisure.  It would be years, I imagined, before my words of scorn had any effect on the New York Times mediascape, if they ever did.  Now I found out how wrong I was.  The new editor of the Magazine, Hugo Lindgren, is making a bunch of changes and cutting three of its most hateable features: Virginia Heffernan’s “The Medium,” Randy Cohen’s “The Ethicist,” and Deborah Solomon’s “Questions For.”   Truly, this Hugo Lindgren is doing God’s work.  But I can’t help feeling sad.  “Time is a violent torrent; no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by, and another takes its place, before this too will be swept away” (Marcus Aurelius). Man’s days are as grass, our little life is rounded with a sleep, and also you don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone.

I never meant for this to happen — I just wanted these authors to take more pride in their work.    Nonetheless, it is their fate to be crushed to earth and languish in humiliating obscurity, taking jobs as public radio personalities and writing bestselling philosophical treatises about iPhones.   But if I can’t stop them from leaving, I can help them in other ways.  In fact, I intend to help everyone.  I do so below, by identifying these three writers’ main strengths and weaknesses, then suggesting other employment for which they might be more suited, and who should get their jobs.

Heffernan’s latest piece is called “Online Medical Advice Can Be a Prescription for Fear.”  It’s in the typical “article about a website” format, and explains why MayoClinic.com is a better source of medical information than WebMD.  You can probably guess some of the reasons yourself — for example, the Mayo Clinic is a famous medical clinic — but in case you cannot, she spends 800 words telling you.

“Because of the way WebMD frames health information commercially, using the meretricious voice of a pharmaceutical rep, I now recommend that anyone except advertising executives whose job entails monitoring product placement actually block WebMD.”

Good news:  You just got medical advice from a Harvard doctor!  Bad news: … the doctorate is in English Literature.  This is just like the time my gynecologist started lecturing me about the essentialism inherent in the Western philosophical paradigm.  “I always recommend that my patients reject the phallogocentric epistemology of the West’s Aristotelean intellectual lineage and embrace more pluralistic ways of re-cognizing and re-presenting the embodied Self.”  “Thanks, doc, but I just need some vagina pills!”

She describes a more ambiguous state of affairs in “The iPhone Condom Debate,” about a controversy over whether to put plastic protectors on iPhone screens.  It seems these protective surfaces can be bought from a company, and will shield your screen from scratches.  The topic gives her ample scope to project her technology fetish onto her fellow iPhone users.

It turns out people on Mac message boards are hotly divided about this subject.  “They frame the conversation as one about screen clarity and sensitivity — seemingly empirical subjects fit for message-board dissection. But things get emotional fast…. What they want from their smartphones and tablets is pretty intense. If they didn’t use the word ‘condom’ so much, I wouldn’t have said this, but — what people want from their Apple devices seems to be copulation. Or at the very least life partnership.”  Lady, I gotta tell ya, message board debates always get “emotional.”  If that’s the standard you go by, people on political message boards must want to fuck John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi, Al Gore, wind turbines, solar panels, organic arugula, assault rifles, confederate flags, birth certificates, and fetuses that were aborted using your tax dollars.  People would be literally teabagging Rand Paul and sticking their dicks in the hole in the ozone layer.  Which of course they aren’t.  Or are they? Also, isn’t Virginia Heffernan the one who’s always raving about TV viewers’ “illicit desires” and people wanting their entertainment “inside them“?

“But if careering around the Web doing symptom searches is your bag (and, come on, we’ve all been there), there’s still MayoClinic.com.”  New pet peeve:  Writers who exhort the reader to “come on, just admit it, you’ve done it too.”  Every time some writer tells me to “just admit” things, it’s always in reference to some stupid nonsense I haven’t done and wouldn’t ever want to, like reading my boyfriend’s e-mail or forgetting to vote.  Either that or (as here) it’s something completely normal and bland.  I don’t actually feel sheepish about Googling medical symptoms online!  I’m not going to make a doctor’s appointment every time I feel a funny twinge!  Stop trying to build rapport with me by telling me I’ve “been there”!  You don’t know where I’ve been!

Heffernan’s ideal new job: Reviewing high-tech sex toys and 3D porn.
Who should replace her: Message board commenters.

The New York Magazine reporter who announced Randy Cohen’s departure called his column “funny and insightful.”  I’ve expressed doubts about his insight before.  In the most recent “Ethicist,” an unemployed person writes in to say he has been offered a job setting up outsourcing operations for a company, but thinks it would be wrong to take it.  Cohen thinks it’s okay:  “It is not unethical for an ambitious young person in, say, Mumbai to land a job that might otherwise go to an ambitious young person in, say, Seattle, and there is no opprobrium in your helping him or her land it. Americans do not enjoy moral precedence over Indians. Some people feel we have a greater ethical duty to those closest to us — our neighbors — but in an era of global trade and travel, that is a recipe for tribalism and its attendant ills.”

Thank you for your exciting multicultural perspective on how Indians are people, too.  Cohen isn’t buying into those essentialist phallogocentric ideologies!  Fight the power, my brother!  If I may be so bold as to opine, though, I think the reason people object to outsourcing is not so much that it gives jobs to spunky, tenacious Indians, as that corporations terminate decently paying jobs with vacation days and benefits, and replace them with jobs that pay 12-year-olds 30 cents an hour to operate machines all day in a big room full of sweaty people — “sweatshops,” if you will.

So Cohen isn’t always “insightful,” but is he “funny”?  I always had a hard time telling what his jokes were supposed to be, but I think I’ve sussed it out now.  In last week’s column, somebody writes in saying they changed the locks on their house because they suspected their ex-maid of stealing their Oxycontin.  He discusses the situation quite reasonably for a few paragraphs, then seems to panic and go all to pieces because the column doesn’t have any jokes in it.  The result is this:  “As to your changing the locks and cutting down all the trees in your yard so you’d have a clear field of fire if she returned with a zombie army to wreak a terrible vengeance — is that it? — there you might have overreacted.”

Zombies are a form of supernatural creature featured in many popular horror films and internet memes.   Changing the locks so a person who stole your stuff doesn’t get into your house is an overreaction because… it’s probably not, actually? Drawing a parallel between an extreme situation and a mundane reality is a common tactic used to create humor.  It’s referred to as “overlapping but incompatible frames of reference” by scientific theorist Tom Veach.  I see the “incompatible” part, but I don’t see the “overlapping.”  Plus, how come I have to keep invoking all these philosophers and mathematicians and economists and literary theorists to explain a few articles, anyway?  People read this magazine over the breakfast table! It’s supposed to be easy to understand!  Be lucid, please!

Cohen’s wacky zombie reference isn’t an isolated incident, but part of an overarching trend in his writing.  In the outsourcing column, he writes that “your taking this job is not akin to sneaking into a local I.T. firm and squirting Krazy Glue into its door locks.”  The word “Krazy” sounds crazy, and thus funny.  In a discussion of tipping, he asks “why should that diner owner’s profits rise if, instead of a side of bacon, you order a side of diamonds?”  (Jan. 14.)  Diamonds are so expensive that you can only order them in the finest restaurants, establishments that would be unlikely to offer a “side of bacon” on their menus.  An co-worker’s IRS mixup will cause government officials to “notice that she is simultaneously working in another state, suggesting either fraud or the ability to travel at hyperspeed, which, if the latter, could be the technological breakthrough America needs to be a country of robust innovation (not like that ridiculous Segway).” (January 7).  Segways are an undignified mode of transportation, which shows that America is going down the tubes.  “To avoid [unpaid debts from loved ones], custom urges us not to do business with family or lend money to friends or, for other reasons, lend money to a cat. How can a cat repay you? It’s a cat!” (December 30).  He explained that one himself.  I could keep going — and in fact I kind of want to, because it’s relaxing — but I won’t.

But perusing Cohen’s work reveals patterns that run much deeper.  Every column features two letters.  Of the two, Cohen deems one to be wacky, because it involves rich people, or middle class people’s jobs.  He judges the other one to be serious and important, because it’s about Nazi atrocities or strippers.  Naturally, only the first kind gets embellished with a joke.  That means one joke per column.  Cohen has been writing this column for ten years… at a rate of about 50 columns per year, that would mean he has written ~500 jokes in his tenure at the Timesand they’re all exactly the same.  Cohen may tax the reader’s knowledge of philosophy, psychology, cognition and intellectual history, but he at least doesn’t strain my math skills.

Cohen’s ideal new job: “Punching down” movie scripts that Hollywood producers deemed too comedic.
Who should replace him: An ethics expert.  Or some rando with a B.A. who writes criticism for the Times, because that’s who they already picked.

“No one is more terrible at talking to people than Deborah Solomon,” writes one blogger of the author of “Questions For.”  Among her claims to fame are are having been written up by the ombudsman for misleading editing, and a bizarre incident involving a botched live interview with Steve Martin.  But despite what might seem like unpredictable gaffes, her most noteworthy feature is consistency.  Amoeba-like, she has a predictable response to every stimulus:  When conducting an interview, zing the interviewee.  Every printed exchange features her asking a few regular serious questions, a few fun, bubbly gossip questions, and a few skeptical “gotcha” questions.  It doesn’t matter who she’s interviewing — Nelson Mandela, John Waters or an Enron executive, her tone and technique don’t waver.

Her most recent piece is about Eugene Jarecki, a director who has made a new documentary about Ronald Reagan.  In the interview, he identifies himself as a moderate Republican who finds today’s right wing too extreme, and shares some thoughts about Reagan’s attempts at personal myth-making.  Solomon concludes the chat with this: “Why are you wearing a cowboy hat in this photograph?  You’re a bit of a myth builder yourself.”  Fortunately for Jarecki, he has a plausible defense for this allegation:  Someone gave it to him.  Congratulations, though:  You just zinged a documentarian for wearing a hat.

Perhaps Solomon desires to show she’s not dazzled by fame.  Perhaps she believes that only conflict and extreme awkwardness are entertaining.  Whatever the reason, the zings keep coming. Henry Louis Gates, a professor of African American studies, produced a TV show where they did genetic tests to reveal prominent Americans’ ancestry.  Solomon asks him: “Why is it meaningful? We all share DNA and are related to one another if you look back far enough in time.”  Well damn, that’s a good point.  I used to think DNA sequencing and the human genetic legacy were interesting subjects, but now I’m not sure…  this article is raising so many questions for me…  congratulations, you just zinged a race studies scholar for studying racial diversity.

She interviews philosopher Daniel Dennet, who wrote a book claiming that evolution and biological processes can explain people’s propensity to believe in religion.  She asks him: “But what’s the point of that? Wouldn’t it be more worthwhile to spend your time and research money looking for a cure for AIDS?” Dude, I don’t think this guy is qualified to do AIDS research.  For one thing, he doesn’t have a medical degree.  Curing AIDS isn’t like starting a punk band; you can’t just do it in your basement on the weekend.  {Phone rings in run-down studio apartment.}  “So dude, I was thinking we should get together this weekend and work on some AIDS research.  No big deal, just try out some ideas, see if anything comes together.  Yeah, I wrote this really sweet hypothesis last night, I want to hear what you think of it.  I’ve been thinking it’d be cool to get the old research team going again, maybe go on Craigslist and find some experimental subjects.”  A FEW WEEKS LATER, ON CRAIGSLIST:  “Alternative/low-fi pathology research team seeking healthy HIV-positive adults for long-term clinical therapy trial.  Looking for someone with cool taste in research modalities.  Our influences include Louis Pasteur,  Robert Koch, the Human Genome Project, CCR5 Receptor Antagonists, HIV Protease Inhibitor, Alexander Fleming, Oliver Sacks, Jonas Salk, The Mayo Clinic, International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, Hippocrates.  We are a couple of laid-back biomedical science bros, but looking for someone with a strong work ethic who would be available to meet up for comparison trials at least once a week.  No compensation, but we’ll split grant money evenly when we start getting gigs.  If interested, holler back with a list of your favorite antiretroviral therapies. No needle drug users.  420 okay.”

Anyway, congratulations, Deborah Solomon:  You just zinged a philosopher for writing about philosophy stuff.

In her worldview, all people, whether artist, statesman, or rogue, take on the same status: colorful but unscrupulous characters who are likely to pull a fast one on her, and the American public, if not kept in check.  Her relentless suspicion doesn’t mean interviewees don’t sometimes get the last laugh, as you’ll see in her chat with Das Racist.

Solomon: Rap is a black art form that originated in the Bronx, so why, as two Wesleyan graduates who met in college, would you think you could rap?
Himanshu Suri: Would you prefer your rappers to be uneducated? Victor Vazquez: And would we even be on the page of this publication if we had not gone to Wesleyan?

Solomon’s ideal job: Warden in a jail
Who should replace her: Someone who has a positive attitude and likes being around people.  I think most Americans have this on their resumes, so almost anyone could do it!

New York Times writers and editors, I hope this has been helpful.  In my next post, we’ll discuss career options for some of our currently employed NYT favorites, because it never hurts to have a backup plan.

Happiness the Sunday Styles Way: A “Hard Look” at the Way We Live Now

The New York Times has much to offer that is not worthy of hatred.  Within the US, International, Local and Business sections, there is a wealth of informative coverage of the world around us — “news,” if you will.  Why, then, do we return again and again to the Styles section, again and again to be disappointed?  What is the true purpose of the Styles section?  What is it doing next to all those other sections, and why can’t we just throw it away?  Well, I’ll tell you why.  The Styles section (and the Magazine, and T the fashion magazine) is far from extraneous.  These sections have news to transmit, albeit more ineffable and subjective than that which you’ll find in the “A” section.  The tidings they bring are about our lives, here in the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century:  How are mores and manners shifting? how are we changing? how is technology changing us? and how we should feel about it all?  These sections help us make sense of it.  Their subject is (hip, urban, upper-middle-class) humanity itself.  They may be vapid, but they are dear to our hearts.

But what answers do the Styles section and the Magazine really give?  Below, I analyze a selection of pieces from this Sunday.  I will extract the conclusion or “moral” each piece offers, and we’ll see if any patterns emerge.

We’ll start with Randy Cohen’s latestRandy Cohen writes a column called “The Ethicist,” in which he advises readers on morally significant decisions.  His qualifications to do this are that he has a B.A. in music and is an “Emmy-winning humorist,” although I suppose he’d be just as ineffectual if he had a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard.  There’s something reassuring about his lack of credentials, though.  If you don’t like Cohen’s ethico-philosophical worldview, you can feel free to ignore it, because he’s just some guy.

I remember Cohen best for the column in which he asserted that “nobody should attend strip clubs, those purveyors of sexism as entertainment. Strip shows are to gender what minstrel shows are to race.”  That’s a nice analogy, because think about it.  Minstrel shows were a form of traveling variety show enjoyed by multiracial audiences in the 1800’s and early years of the 1910’s.  They gave many talented black musicians, actors and comedians a chance to succeed as professional artists, yet also forced them to perform degrading caricatures of blackness for the benefit of their white spectators.  If everyone had boycotted minstrel shows, these black artists would have been able to… go back to cotton sharecropping!  Thus bringing about an end to racism.  Similarly, boycotting strip clubs would help the women’s movement by putting a bunch of single moms out of work.  Why am I comparing these two things, again?

Don’t get me wrong, I think Cohen should following his personal moral compass on this issue.  As a feminist, I would never want to go to a strip club with Randy Cohen.

This week Cohen is at it again with the milquetoast-y pronouncements.  Someone writes in saying they don’t spank their kids, but have been asked by friends to spank their kids “when they are playing at our house and misbehave.”  Cohen says they don’t have to:

Many parents are militant in defense of their putative right to discipline their children as they see fit: with a sound thrashing. But conversely, your friends may not impose their Neanderthal parenting practices on you…. When you [tell them] that, you probably ought not mention that spanking is banned or restricted in 22 countries. Such facts will only irritate them. (And you should avoid the word ‘Neanderthal.’) Parents can be so prickly. Here in America, most people believe it is a fine thing to beat children, as long as you employ the accepted euphemism, ‘spanking,’ and are the child’s parent. (A similar justification was once applied to spousal abuse.)

Actually, I kind of love that Randy Cohen exists.  It is a rare writer who can make a person like me — someone who goes to graduate school, drinks Starbucks Via and gets one hundred e-mails a day from MoveOn.com — feel like a flag-waving mama grizzly Hell’s Angel rebel.  Don’t tell me not to spank my kids, you pantywaist!  I’m not gonna let some Liberal fascist feminazi communist Canadian Al Gore-hugger tell me how to raise my kids!  I almost can’t wait to have kids, just so I can start spanking them (moderately) (in cases of extraordinary disobedience).  Don’t Tread on Me!  Live free or die tryin’!  You’ll pry this imaginary gun out of my cold, dead hands!  I’ll put a boot up your ass, it’s the American way!

Moral: Don’t spank kids, don’t go to strip clubs.

Up next, “Out and About:  Cruising the Caribbean.”  This piece argues that “cruise ship food doesn’t have to be bad.”  “Qsine’s approach is high tech and high concept. The menu, with a lineup of small bites — or food to be shared — is presented on an iPad, through which each diner scrolls to select his favorites….  For dessert, the options are presented in a Rubik’s cube-like puzzle. Shift the boxes around and reveal ‘The Cupcake Affair,’ four cakes with do-it-yourself sauces and garnishes.”

Moral: The next time you’re planning a luxury cruise, hold out for one with gourmet meals.

TV Right-Sizes 3D” by Virginia Heffernan. “In deciding whether to buy one of the new, ludicrously cool 3-D TVs — some of which won’t even require special glasses — ask yourself a serious question: Do you like your entertainment in front of you, inside your body or all around you?”  Um… are you sure that’s really what you meant to ask me?  That’s a very very… intimate topic!  A penetrating question, if you will!  I’ll take the second one.

Moral: Buy a 3D TV immediately, unless you’d rather just fuck.

Social Q’s.  Someone writes in to Galanes complaining that their daughter (apparently of high school age) is dressing “trampy.”  He responds: “We don’t want your little girl mistaken for a hooker as she waits for the school bus. Horns of a dilemma, right?”  Anyone who would mistake a student waiting at the bus stop for a “hooker” is probably not a reliable arbiter of youth fashion, anyway.  Galanes suggests a way for the parent get perspective on the situation: “Drive over to your daughter’s school and take a hard look at what the other girls are wearing.”  Yes.  There is no more welcome sight on the high school campus than an adult cruising around the parking lot, taking a “hard look” at the female students.  You might want to take the family van, in case a couple of those girls needs a ride!  Teenage girls can be shy, so don’t hesitate to ask.  Some of them might need painkillers for their menstrual cramps, so try yelling “WANT SOME DRUGS?” at them to get their attention.  Let me know how this goes.

As for the daughter in questions, “set reasonable limits: blouses three inches above the nipple line.”  Nipple “line”?  It’s a circle, Galanes, a circle!  I knew none of these guys had ever seen a naked woman.  “And save those mini minis and four-inch heels for 11th Avenue, not home room.”  Is anyone else creeped out by all these references to someone’s “little girl” becoming a prostitute?  Galanes is not an “edgy” humorist; he cannot transition easily from anodyne gags about old sitcoms to statutory-rape jokes.  Also, the vast majority of women you see wearing skimpy or revealing clothing are not prostitutes.  Galanes must be a barrel of fun at cocktail parties, though.  “Pardon me, madam, that’s a lovely pair of boots!  Didn’t I see you wearing them earlier on the corner of 28th and Lexington?”

“”Keep her safe, but let her express herself, too.”  “Safe”?  From what, nipple-line frostbite?  Oh wait, I get it… from rapists, against whom the only impregnable defense is modest clothing.  No man would be so beastly as to victimize a woman with the mouth-watering three inches above her nipples covered up.

Moral for girls: Don’t dress trampy, or bad men will rape you.  Moral for parents: Go to the high school and check out all the trampy chicks!

What ‘Modern Family’ Says About Modern Families,” Bruce Fiedler.  “In his 1964 book ‘Understanding Media,’ Marshall McLuhan helped define the modern age with his phrase, ‘The medium is the message.’  Were he here nearly 50 years later, the critic would hardly be surprised to discover that in the most talked-about sitcom of the moment, the medium has become the punch line.”

Moral: You should watch Modern Family because it holds a mirror up to your techno-savvy, upper-middle-class lifestyle.  Also, Bruce Fiedler is an intellectual.

MTV’s Naked Calculation Gone Bad,” David Carr. This article chronicles the problems MTV has caused by itself by airing the controversial show Skins.  “What if one day you went to work and there was a meeting to discuss whether the project you were working on crossed the line into child pornography? You’d probably think you had ended up in the wrong room.  [DRAMATIC PARAGRAPH BREAK.]  And you’d be right.”  Wouldn’t I actually be wrong, if I worked for MTV, and we were being accused of violating child pornography statutes, which is what this scenario is all about?  Oh, never mind.

Carr is in a moral panic about this show.  To be sure, “MTV didn’t invent ‘friends with benefits’ [or] oral sex as the new kiss.”  Man, I’d like to see a profile on the guy who invented oral sex as the new kiss.  Now that’d be a trend piece I could get behind, am I right?  LOL!  That guy is responsible for so many cold sores.  Here we are wasting time on this stupid Skins show, while a much more sinister figure lurks in the darkness of anonymity.  He’s like the huge cocaine kingpin who gets rich and hangs out on a yacht in Miami, while all the little neighborhood crack dealers get prison time.

“The self-described ‘Guidos’ and ‘Guidettes’ of ‘Jersey Shore,’ MTV’s breakout hit, have probably already set some kind of record for meaningless sex.”  Gratuitous Jersey Shore reference alert!  The “record” for meaningless sex was probably set by some gay dude on Fire Island in 1978.  Still, it’s helpful to have David Carr around, weighing in on how much “meaning” other people’s sexual experiences should have.

“MTV leaves it to real-life parents to explain that sometimes, when a car goes underwater, nobody survives and that a quick hookup with cute boy at the party may deliver a sexually transmitted disease along with a momentary thrill.”  Or… they could just use condoms?  I am not joking right now. Actually kind of mad that the paper of record is resorting to scary metaphors straight out of an abstinence-only classroom to demonize young people’s sexuality.

Moral: Don’t watch Skins; don’t have sex or you’ll die of STDs and drown in a car.

On the Street: X Factor,” Bill Cunningham. This is that weird collage of half-inch fashion pictures.  “Every era has a defining stance, and at present, it is standing with your legs crossed, like a model or a dancer en pointe.  The key to the look is the ankle boot, some with platforms and stiletto heels.”

Moral: You’re not standing right.  Go buy some Christian Louboutin ankle boots.

*************************************************************************************

Meta-moral: The lesson I take away from all this is that we live in a time of great opportunity, yet also great danger.  This era is exciting, because innovations like 3D televisions, gourmet Caribbean cruise cupcakes, and Christian Louboutin booties are available to all, except people who don’t have a combined total of $16,299.98 to spend on them.  It is terrifying, because raunchy television shows, hookup culture, unrestrained oral sex and scantily clad young women are undermining the very fabric of the society in which we live.  Yikes!  But no matter how bad things get, pseudointellectual theorizing and half-assed social commentary are here to stay.  The Styles section will never die.

Motherhood: The Most Dangerous Trend

First, some links:

The Most E-mailed New York Times Article Ever.  David Parker’s brilliant parody of NYT Trend pieces has been linked all over the internet, and may have even found its way to your computer screen!  Is 2011 the year that hating the New York Times goes viral?  If so, remember that I was here first!  I’ve been doing this since early January!

Accordingly, I have started a page for this blog on Facebook, the popular social networking website.  Please join!

News on the Glamorous High Life:  The business section reports that the bottom has quite simply fallen out of the superyacht market.  The article keeps nattering on about how yachts are “the ultimate status symbol,” but is that really the main reason people buy them?  In my town right now now, it’s 10 degrees, windy, and there’s dirty slush all over the place. I would greatly enjoy being out in the Pacific, in a hot tub on the deck of a yacht, even if it was not considered a high-status thing to do.  Even if yachts were known as “the trailer parks of the sea,” I would still go.  Say what you will about this country’s vastly wealthy ruling class, but they know how to have a good time.  I don’t know why the New York Times keeps running them down so.

We’ve been hearing a lot lately about the unmerited economic struggles and unpredictable woes of the privileged elite.  But socioeconomic trends do not restrict themselves to the buyers of yachts, designer long johns and $1500 coffee tables.  Trends reach out to touch the heart of every man and woman on this earth.  No one can escape them.  It matters not whether you’re a beleaguered superyacht seller or a bedraggled pregnant teen, someday you will come to recognize that your life is not truly your own — it is part of the vast communal striving after cultural relevance we all share.  Our births, our joys and sorrows, our deaths — all of them bob like organic corks on the great ocean of trends we can Life.  The Buddha taught in his Four Noble Truths that “life is trends; the origin of suffering is trends; understanding trends is attainable; there is a Path to the understanding of trends.”  With this knowledge can come great suffering, or great peace.

Or, for readers of Alessandra Stanley’s “And Baby Makes Reality TV,” great confusion.  Alessandra Stanley is a TV writer who has often been criticized for breaking the NY Times record for errors, although I don’t see why anyone should hold that against her; somebody’s got to be the worst.  The article is an omnibus review of reality TV shows about pregnancy (16 and Pregnant, and so on).  While it would have been challenging enough just to evaluate each of the shows and explain why they’re good or bad, Stanley doesn’t stop there (or even start there, really); she presents us with a review, a trend piece and a think piece all in one.  It purports to explain what’s going on in the world of regular women having babies.  Below, I explain the explanation.

“Motherhood, at least the way it is depicted on cable networks like MTV, TLC and even FitTV, is a menacing, grotesque fate that is mostly ill-timed…. Horror makes for easy entertainment, of course, so it’s hardly surprising that the maternity ward would be milked for bloodcurdling thrills in the way of weddings…weather…or travel.”  Yeah but like, I bet you these shows reflect anxiety about pregnancy because women really are anxious about pregnancy.  I’m no expert, but from what I understand about pregnancy, your feet swell up, you barf, your clothes don’t fit, a mean doctor tells you you can’t have any wine, and eventually a tiny little person starts hanging out in your apartment all the time, drinking from your nipples and yelling all the time.  That sort of thing is pretty menacing all by itself, without the networks needing to gin up concern about it.

“But the growing number and lasting appeal of reality shows about fertility and babies reflect a particularly contemporary obsession. Focusing on the darker side of giving birth might seem at odds with the giddy cult of motherhood in popular culture.”  Yes.  Women have never been celebrated for motherhood or fertility before this precise historical moment.  That is why you’ll notice that in the Bible, all the women are sexy secret agents or high-powered attorneys.  Pregnancy and childbirth are kind of like fiber optics, or Yelp.

I do have a theory, though, about the mysterious paradox Stanley is adumbrating.  Perhaps the fact that women are expected to feel relentlessly “giddy” and enthusiastic about motherhood… is the very reason they want to see media depictions of darker outcomes and more ambivalent attitudes.  That is my sociological explanation of this phenomenon.  I have solved the mystery!  But we still have way more of this article to get through.

“Red-carpet reporters and tabloids stalk celebrity breeding as much as divorce or career misconduct; a ‘bump’ in Us Weekly or on TMZ refers to a pregnant starlet’s belly, not a professional roadblock.”  Why would anyone expect it to refer to a “professional roadblock”?  Surely Stanley originally wrote “…refers to a pregnant starlet’s belly, not a line of cocaine,” and her editor made her change it.  So, I’ll give her credit for that one.  That’s funny!

She starts explaining that in vitro fertilization is popular now, and the frightening baby shows somehow reflect that.  “But beneath all those balloons, baby showers and HappyBaby organic food pouches lies a lurking dread, the anxiety that comes with cheating biological destiny.”  Comes with cheating what?  Because they’re trying to treat infertility?*  That’s kind of strange, but I’ll try to make sense of it….  It’s like how people feel nervous before they go to the dentist, because they fear a hideous recompense from the gods for depriving them of their allotted toll of tooth decay and gingivitis.  You’ll never escape destiny!  Stop trying to vie with the immortals, you stupid yuppies!

And so it is with the barren women on TV.  They should take a tip from all those high-powered attorneys I read about in the Bible:  Veil yourself in shamefacedness, and betake yourself back unto your father’s abode so that your husband can find a more fecund helpmeet.  Your husband will probably hook up with the maid… he’ll build a giant superyacht and go on a booze cruise with all your fertile sisters and cousins for 40 days and 40 nights… the joke is on him, though, because he’ll never sell that yacht in this economy, even unto the seventh generation.  (Note to fact-checkersI haven’t actually read the Bible, please correct as necessary.)

*Extra bonus question:  Has Alessandra Stanley been hanging out with Ross Douthat?  Her exciting ideas about how women should stop cheating fate by avoiding “the biological realities of being female” suggests Yes!  Don’t date him girl, he’s a total player!

“Mary Shelley’s 19th-century novel ‘Frankenstein’ is often seen as a metaphor for a woman’s fear of childbirth and motherhood. Cable television cuts through the metaphor and channels deeper fears about tampering with nature.”    Here we go again with the cultural references awkwardly shoehorned into an article.  Stanley is “pulling a Heffernan” by making a high-class literary reference instead of a pop culture one, but that doesn’t make it any less random and annoying.  These writers’ compulsion to make “intellectual” references reminds me of a story my parents once told me about some friends they had in the ’70s.  It seems this couple invited my parents over to play the board game Trivial Pursuit: Genus Edition.  The couple, though, mistakenly believed the game they had bought was titled Trivial Pursuit: Genius Edition, and that their ability to play it successfully was indicative of genius.  Gratuitous literary references work in a similar way.  When you indulge in them, you are playing Trivial Pursuit: Genius Edition.  I am christening a new tag in its honor.

Anyway, Frankenstein was 1818.  In the nearly two centuries that have passed since then, there have been a number of fictional works depicting anxieties about  motherhood that Stanley could have referenced.  Here, I’ll do it for her.  “Classic films from Rosemary’s Baby to Alien have play on viewers’ fears about the more bizarre aspects of pregnancy and childbirth.  Now, cable television {something something something}”.   Not bad!  Still not brilliant, but good enough for a passable first draft.

“Multiple pregnancies, along with cosmetic surgery, are arguably among the most visible — and startling — displays of scientific daring, be it artificially enhanced mothers like the 70-year-old Indian woman who in 2008 had twins after in vitro fertilization, or the drastic surgical makeover that turned Heidi Montag of ‘The Hills’ into a horror movie of her own making — ‘The Hills Have Eyelifts.'”  Recent cultural reference alert!  This sentence is a bit difficult to parse.   It seems to suggest that Heidi Montag’s plastic surgeries are a form of “multiple pregnancy,” but that can’t be what was intended.  I think it’s at that “be it” in the middle of the sentence that things start to go wrong.  Maybe it’s a syllogism.  Heidi Montag is a woman who had freakish plastic surgery… in vitro fertilization is a procedure that is also had by women… therefore all men are Socrates in vitro fertilization is freakish.  Never mind, I get it now!

“Modern medicine has achieved more remarkable advances, but procedures like hip replacements or Dick Cheney’s mechanical heart pump aren’t as visible. There’s a pretty direct line in many people’s minds between double and triple strollers clogging the sidewalks of Park Slope, Brooklyn, and the Octomom.”  Man, people are dicks!   Guys, here’s a little exercise in compassion:  The next time you see some adorable twins in a stroller, stop thinking about Dick Cheney, Heidi Montag and Frankenstein, and just smile at them.  It’s not their fault their mother cheated destiny.

“It’s hard not to believe in a correlation between the recent decline in teenage pregnancies…and the rise in ratings for reality shows about pregnant teenagers…. No pamphlet or public service ad is more likely to encourage birth control than these MTV tableaus of maternal boredom, fatigue and loneliness.”  Of course, the decline could also be the result of decades of hard work by feminists to make birth control widely accessible and diminish the culture of fear and shame surrounding sexuality that prevents women from taking control of their own fertility.  But a TV critic thinks it’s because of TV, so that’s probably right.  At least it didn’t turn out to be because of Facebook or earbuds or something.

Stanley summarizes some of the problems faced by the characters on Teen Mom 2.  It’s all pretty simple and straightforward, and then the review ends with the following mystical zen koan: “It’s often said that it takes a village to raise a child. On cable television it takes a child to raise a child and women sometimes give birth to a village.”  What the hell is that supposed to mean? I’m just trying to figure out what TV shows to watch, not attain enlightenment, you asshole!  This is ridiculous!  Sigh. There are some things this blog will never be able to explain.