Why You Care About Oberyn Martell And Not Lorna Wing

(Note: Spoilers Ahead for Game of Thrones fans)

Don’t feel entirely guilty for not knowing who Lorna Wing was. Wing, who was 85, was the founder of the National Autistic Society and the inventor of the term “Asperger’s Syndrome” (not, as many are mistaken, Hans Asperger). Having an autistic daughter herself, she devoted her life to understanding the disorder, popularizing the notion that autism exists as a spectrum instead of as a finite point. Her 1981 paper Asperger Syndrome: A Clinical Account, remains one of the most thorough analyses of ASD, setting what would be the diagnostic establishment for autism. While her accomplishments are of innumerable benefits to society, especially families dealing with autism, Wing was obscure as a public figure, netting no magazine covers or Top Trending status.

She passed away on Friday, June 6. Five days prior, millions of American households watched Oberyn Martell have his life struck from him in dramatic fashion. Martell, Prince to the Dornish throne, was struck down in a duel with Ser Gregor Clegane. Often known as “The Red Viper”, Martell was simultaneously championing the supposedly-regicidal Tyrion Lannister whilst also seeking vengeance for the plunder and murder of his younger sister, Elia, when Clegane confessed to the murder while crushing Oberyn’s skull.

The difference between the Prince of Dorne and the founder of the National Autistic Society is pretty clear; one is a very fictional person from a very fictional world, and one is a hero of medicine and psychology. One was curated by the deliciously-twisted mind of George R. R. Martin, and the other was born, had children, then died.

Yet asking why millions mourned Martell and not Wing is also an obvious question: they didn’t know Wing. Despite having the advantage of actually existing, Lorna Wing did not have a chance of being nearly as famous as Martell. We watched (or read of) Martell’s whoring, his dalliances, his eight bastard daughters. We watched him fight for a character, Tyrion, whom we’ve known far longer and cared for even more, as well as in the defense of the honor of his sister. Protecting two innocents in a literal trial-by-combat, watching him die in such brutal and shocking fashion had an emotional toll.

Game of Thrones and the A Song of Ice and Fire novels are the perfect venue to learn how we connect with and mourn for fictional characters. Martin, the author of the fantasy series, kills characters with such flippancy and frequency the mantra “All Men Must Die” (or “valar morghulis” if you’re privy to your High Valyrian) might as well be the official slogan. You can mourn every character death (including the direwolves) at digital graveyards. The  coffers of Youtube are full of “reaction videos” wherein we see people crying real tears for fake people.

And Game of Thrones is different from similarly passionate shows like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos. Walter White existed in our reality. He was a guy who drove an Aztec with a missing hubcap and worried about his medical debt. Danaerys Targaryen doesn’t exist in anything like our reality. Arya Stark doesn’t know what a middle school is, but there we are, rooting for this 12-year-old to murder.

So where do our feelings toward fictional characters blend with our feelings toward real humans? We say we mourned Oberyn Martell more than Lorna Wing because we knew Martell more. How do we “know” a fictional character?

Sociologists and Malcolm Gladwell-types will be familiar with Dunbar’s number. Based on research he did in the early 1990s, anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed the theory that human’s are limited by their brain capacity in how many social connections they can usefully make. Studying how social connections are processed in the “orbitomedial prefrontal cortex” of the brain, Dunbar concluded the “mean group size” of any average human is 148.

What that means is the average person can only make and maintain 148 social connections, be they friends, family, co-workers, teachers, or your dentist. Sure, you can certainly know of more people (as your Facebook friend list may tell you), but in total the average limit of people you can truly know is set at 148.

In fact, Dunbar has updated his research in this area to include the world of social networks, wherein it’s not so odd to have well over 500 “friends”. He found what most of us already knew: Your friend count is pointless vanity. In fact, since the average adult Facebook user has over 300 friends, over half of your connections on Facebook are pointless.

Does this neurological limitation extend to how we feel about fictional characters? It’s hard to say. In a Cornell study from 2012 on the social networks of mythological characters, two researchers built a theory for determining whether a storyline about characters was based on real events or not (simply by analyzing how the characters interact and whether it mirrors how real human connections behave). So while there is validity in relating how humans interact to how fictional beings interact, it’s difficult to say what happens between the two worlds.

In her book apty titled Why Do We Care About Literary Characters?, Brit-lit scholar Blakey Vermuele posits that we might actually learn more about fictional characters than we do the people around us. Because of the narrative focus of certain books, we get a front-row seat to another person’s psyche when we read a novel; something you may never get from your 148. This is also why reading fiction can make you more empathetic.

When a personal connection is driven into you by an author’s sheer force of will, it’s emulating how you would feel if these characters were real. But does emulation equal reality when it comes to your prefrontal cortex? Does the social part of your brain prepare you for human relation with figments of someone else’s imagination, or does it merely think books are training for the real deal?

The core part that’s missing, of course, is that Oberyn Martell never knew you. Because you only know of Oberyn Martell or Lorna Wing or whoever the next big celebrity death is from a viewpoint of consumption, it is not a social function. While they can change you, you can never change fictional characters. It’s this void that fan-fiction aims to fill. Even in the most interactive video games, there is very little a player can do to change the intents and attitudes of the characters around him (should probably say that I’ve never played Heavy Rain but my understanding is you can effect events and not characters). So even when we become a character in the storyline, we’re still short from it becoming a social experience–the necessary requirement for that prefrontal cortex activity that would drive you towards your 148 limit.

 

 

 

When The Symphony Stops

This week, I wrote an article for The Daily Dot about the fantastic Spike Jonze film Her and it’s subtle commentary on what futurists call “the Singularity”, that point when humans, through advancements in artificial intelligence, will use technology to surpass the earthly bonds which limit our potential.

It admittedly sounds like a lot of New-Agey nonsense, but the idea that we can, at some point likely in this century, download our consciousness onto a hard drive is quickly gaining traction. None other than Google itself has invested heavily in the idea.

What this would look like from a UI–as opposed to AI–perspective is troubling. If Ray Kurzwell is right, and we’ll have this ability by 2045, I may likely live to see this technology at an age that I would most need it. What the technology would gift us is a chance to design and choose our own afterlife of sorts, while still being able to communicate with the outside world in a digital manner. It would even allow us to expand the limitations of our consciousness, enabling us to accomplish mental and intelligence goals far outside what we can perceive in our current puny human state.

However, if we can not only simulate consciousness in a digital sphere but actually replicate an already existing consciousness, does this not disprove the existence of the soul?

Let me explain. Most religion is based on the idea that our consciousness is not a material attribute but a spiritual one. Unless you’re prone to believing we can transmit spiritual essence onto non-living physical objects (like a hard drive), then what would be left behind when we switch off the brain and compute the electric synapses of our consciousness onto a hard drive?

The answer, I suspect, would be not much. If you drain the brain of the electrical movements which keep not only our memories but also those inherent activities that allow us to function as biological entities, we’ve left a dead body for a vibrant one.

The other option is we only transmit those things in our conscious mind, leaving behind the subconscious actions, which also raises interesting questions for repressed memories or subconscious-conscious activity, like the hidden secrets which cause mental illness. Would depression travel with me onto the computer?

But back to the soul. I, philosophically, am what is called a “Materialist”, one who believes there are no abstract concepts in the Universe and the things we call love and hate and envy and gratitude are only the firing of synapses, a projection of the continually mysterious functions of the brain.

The best way I’ve heard this said comes from an anonymous post on a forum since lost to time: “Asking what happens to the soul when the brain stops working is like asking what happens to the music when the symphony stops playing.”

Yet even that metaphor, in the context of the Singularity, is amiss. If I record the symphony, I cannot re-arrange the brass and the woodwinds into brand new music entirely. Consciousness allows us to alter who we are and digital consciousness would extend that ability possibly into infinity.

But the digital space we’d be living in would have a design, the UI I mentioned earlier. What do you want to do for eternity? You can always change your mind. You can meditate, learn, play, fuck, do whatever you want, really.

But who’s on the outside of this system? Who do you trust enough to hold the small, black box that contains you?

Which raises even more troubling questions. Could this not open the door to punishments Caligula could only have dreamt of?

In 2011, three Somali pirates murdered four American civilians aboard the shipping vessel Quest. Captured and tried in the United States, the three young men were sentenced to “21 life sentences, 19 consecutive life sentences, two concurrent life sentences, and 30 years consecutive.” This nature of sentencing practice is typically used to be sure that the defendants in question never achieve parole, having to prove to a parole board over 40 times every 25 years they are capable of existing in society. Assuming they get parole, that puts their release date at over 1000 years from now. The only escape from their imprisonment is death.

But what of the digital sphere, where death is theoretically avoidable? Could we not trap these three gentlemen’s conscious minds into digital dungeons, possibly even slowing down their perception of time to the point that they serve 1000 years in a dungeon in an afternoon?

Consider the philandering husband who entrusts his hard drive to his estranged wife. Could she not enact the most severe of revenge fantasies?

Consider the Westboro Baptist Church. Could they not devise a realistic portrayal of Dante’s Inferno for those they consider the most vile of sinners? Entrapping possibly even strangers in horrific pain and agony for eternity?

What this technology, for now a hypothetical, would do is not just disprove the existence of the soul but finally adhere to the conscious mind all the ethereal qualities of a soul. We could finally invent the afterlife we have seen for ourselves since the dawn of the conscious mind. For so much of human history, we have wondered at ourselves and assumed a greater being must have endowed us with such ability and insight over the beasts of the field and the birds of the sky. If only we knew we are the gods we’ve been waiting for.

A Message To DC Journalists: Shut Up And Write

Honestly, just shut up.

You are journalists who not only chose your career path but chose to go to DC to cover politics. You worked very hard on deadline after deadline and have been rewarded by getting a beat that involves cocktails and parties and long, boring hours filing reports in crowded booths. You are at minimal risk of being kidnapped or shot. Hazmat suits are not part of your wardrobe. You are not Richard Engel. You are not even Anderson Cooper.

Not to say that your life must be at risk for your work to have value. DC journalists play–or at least should play–an important role in covering policy, and I’d even give credit to personality pieces for helping the average person understand the interpersonal politics at play in otherwise wonkish debates like the budget.

But shut up. Shut up about DC being a corrupt playground for the rich. Shut up about your existential crises over going to too many parties and screwing too many girls. Shut up about your constant, self-driven guilt over giving more coverage to Barack Obama’s selfie than poverty or war or, y’know, stuff that might actually affect people. You are not F. Scott Fitgerald in NYC or Hemingway in Paris. You are Max Tucker at a titty bar. Shut up.

You are spoiled. You are pampered not by the standards of truckers and lumberjacks, but by the standards of journalists. You are surrounded by news all the time and yet whine about it. You are staff writers at some of the biggest-budgeted publications on Earth. Most of you can get published anywhere short of National Geographic. Sure, maybe you remember your hard-scrabble days of chasing leads and sending out clips. But guess what? You escaped the Gravity-esque life of grabbing at any damn thing and hoping someone will pay you for it. You are given actual money–actual, liveable money–for your thoughts on whether Santa is white or not. Shut up shut up shut up.

I love you guys. I do. I love John Stanton’s gruff sincerity. I love Dave Weigel’s self-aware sneer. I love Zeke Miller’s attention to detail and The Hill’s policy-centric approach. I even love Politico for its self-endowed lack of seriousness, the campus zine of DC. It’s fun and informative; good and good for me!

But shut up. Now that DC has been belly-up for roughly half a decade, now you decide to make an attempt at a conscience? Now you feel the need to navel-gaze and make a change? Go right ahead and take Sam Youngman’s advice and drop your Twitter and avoid the bars and the parties like a real goddamn bama. It will change so much nothing. It will not touch any single human being in any meaningful way. It will not make the news better and it sure as hell won’t make the government better.

You’re being brats. You just now feel like a generation ascendant, a real gumshoe attache to the grand tradition of getting drunk with lobbyists. You are no where near as important as you seem to think and it’s all your own damn fault. You descend into the lunacy of fake controversies. You trust people in charge to tell you what you want. You trade favors for access, fluffy and humanizing reporting of slugs so the average person can feel everything’s alright, Ted Cruz’s father fought Castro, everything’s alright.

I know you’d probably like to think your buddies up the I-95 corridor made journalism the sad sack of shit it is today, but no. You’re equally responsible, if not more. You’re the reason we live in a constant election atmosphere, one filled with hyperbole and filth. You’re the reason Donald Trump could go on TV and make his face apparent. You’re the reason Paula Deen became a national crisis. You’re the reason George Zimmerman is a national hero/villain. You expanded the arguments of “This Town” (which you say with such damn pomp) into the daily lives of millions who just want to find out if they’re paycheck will be smaller or larger next year. You sensationalize rubbish, abuse tragedies, and bleed out the very optimism that could save a generation from ever becoming you.

So please, please, please. For the love of all truth and hope, for the sake of not “This Town” but “Your Town”, shut up. Stop complaining that a city you make is too horrendous for you. Quit your bitching and do your damn job.

A Book, Sex Scandals, Dopamine, and Narratives

Believe it or not, I think it would be good for my writing if I began a collection of essays to become a book. I have trouble writing for extended periods of time because I usually feel that the fewer words I need to express an idea the better. The other complication of this is that I am not a policymaker, a known intellectual, on TV, or funny. Usually, the good essayists are one of those four things. David Rakoff was never that funny, but he was to some people. As is Sarah Vowell, David Sedaris, Chuck Klosterman. I struggle with this because I rarely have to fight to make people laugh in person. I’m an excellent conversationalist and terrible humorist.

The other detail to consider is what the hell I’d write about. I’ve often thought I’ve lived a life that could blow Running With Scissors into an oblivion, but again, it’s hard to sit and think of how to make your father’s death or your mother’s alcoholism or your own substance abuse into a compelling narrative.There is certainly a market that will voluntarily subject themselves to horror stories of the modern world, Angela’s Ashes of the digital age. But I’ve never been certain that’s the kind of story I want to tell. I’ve written some awfully depressing things for Thought Catalog, some real tearbait, and I didn’t have to lie or exaggerate to do it.

Then there is the problem of Milton Hershey School. I could tell some stories based on conjecture and rumor, but I would have to represent them as such.

For example, I knew a kid named Eric who, whilst in the 8th grade, raped a 6th-grade girl on campus. He was made to disappear, presumably back home with the vital ideal that he can rape with impunity (allegedly). There was a student home called Moldavia where two brothers were not only fucking each other but raping some of the smaller boys in the home (allegedly). Then there was this very real, non-rumor story about the son of a substitute housemother who raped and/or molested at least five girls while his mother worked for the school (whilst also owning over 700 images of child porn). Once more, MHS paid over $3 million in settlements to the families.of the girls and boys affected by another child of a houseparent who was likely using kids at MHS to produce child porn (note that, yes, that link looks shady but it links to a now-nonexistent philly.com story). And all of this was occuring while I was there, between 2002 and 2007, so obviously some fucked-up level shit was going on that could make a few good essays.

I realize exactly how crass that sounds, but when writing about my life I’m monetizing terrible things that happened to me as well. Not Sandusky-level terrible things, but utter neglect, social services, homeless shelters, and a general level of chaos unfit for any child. So how much should I focus on, for instance, my mother’s drinking habit? Do I have an adequate number of anecdotes about her tumbling around or getting sick? Do I want to adapt it to a CW format or simply write straight out how she would often forget to get us dressed and to school? And what thematic sense does the awful condition of our infested home have?

So I just took a break, retweeted a tweet (this one), looked at a Buzzfeed article (this one), and am going to stop being so cynical. So, yeah. Essay book. What I really want to do is combine these personal worlds with the sorts of things I do for The Daily Dot. I don’t mind Personal Woe Is Me Ben, but I would prefer to be Tech Pundit Ben. I like Tech Pundit Ben. He’s informed and has all the links in the right places and is certain about what he says and is rarely accused of being egotistical or brash. I often find myself contradicting previous ideals I’ve sworn up-and-down are real because, in conversation, I attach myself to not what I think is right but what I find most fascinating. My discussion and writing are far less concerned in hitting upon a truth and far more concerned about locating narratives.

I’m currently reading The Black Swan, a fantastic book about recognizing preconceptions and how they hurt us in preparing–or even identifying–the unexpected. Nassim Nicholad Taleb leans rather heavily on narratives, saying they are of little worth and often lead us to misdirect our attention away from key or contradictory facts and conclusions. This is true: I get exasperated watching MSM wrestle a story into a narrative, often with misleading connections and, at worse, false accusations. Fox News is particularly good at this, and little of the political game around it actually matters.

So why do I like locating these narratives? Why do I enjoy finding patterns where, at least some of the time, there is none. I’ve written articles about dogs on Reddit and how they relate to overall maturity of my generation and their lack of need for things like family and responsibility. I have a fucking problem.

Turns out, as The Black Swan reports (as does NewScientist), the University Hospital of Zurich has found that people with high levels of dopamine place more importance on coincidences. The difference between a coincidence and one-thing-leading-to-another is insane. Most trials rely on this distinction, be they burglars or warlords. It speaks to causality, an important factor when attempting to find narratives within the real world. I forget where, but I once read that the difference between a fact and a story is “the king died” and “the king died of grief.” Adding cause to an event is the birth of the story.

The idea that our ability to identify or even appreciate narratives is attached to dopamine levels has some rather far-reaching implications. Higher dopamine levels are also consistent with depression, drug addiction, ADHD, and psychotic disorders like schizophrenia. Many of these symptoms rely on constructing and believing in narratives about ourselves; if I go out tonight I just won’t have any fun because I’m not liked by anyone says the depressive. I deserve this cigarette because I work hard says the smoker. These are not just major assumptions but even falsifications which enforce a narrative our brain finds pleasing. Hell, since a drug like marijuana increases the level of dopamine your brain creates, it could possibly even explain why potheads are prone to seeing patterns while high they may not while sober, such as syncing up The Wizard of Oz and Dark Side of the Moon. That example attaches meaning to otherwise disconnected events (Dorothy looking around when David Gilmour sings “look around”). But then again, I have no empirical evidence to back up this statement, only circumstantial conjecture.

So when I say something like “Twitter redesigned their website to have a more subtle (and therefore more successful) IPO than Facebook by impressing advertisers”, I am assuming THOUSANDS of single events. Yet I hold other mediums fully responsible for this same mistake. Then again, my writing is (usually) ensconced with the big, ugly word “Opinion”. And it is “Opinion” (though I prefer “Analysis”). The difference between opinion and fact is what you know and what you assume.

I assume Jack Dorsey okay’d the redesign’s aspects to make ads more visible and even more enticing, and did so a week before the IPO to show off his yet-to-be-profitable website as potentially more profitable, something Facebook never felt the need to do until after their IPO, simply because Facebook was already profitable. That is as much a guess as saying “my mother ran away from home because her parents were strict.” I have no actual idea if these are true and no facts or experiences to enforce them, other than facts which seem to imply it. Viola; the beginnings of a narrative.

The Protester Becomes The Protested

Back in 2004, a common image dragged out by both the DNC and the RNC was of John Kerry testifying against the Vietnam War before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the same body he spoke to today in favor of “limited strikes” against Syria by the US. He was undoubtedly a protester at that 1971 hearing, a signed member of Vietnam Veterans Against The War with a hero’s record and demeanor.

Today, as he and Secretary Chuck Hagel asked the Senate to please pretty please let them bomb Syria, irony became the overarching theme. Oh, Secretary Kerry promises there’s proof of WMDs? And that the war won’t last long? The man who ran against Bush on the exact opposite platform less than a decade ago is now promising me this?

However, things became a great deal more odd when a Code Pink protester very predictably interrupted the hearings. While so common as to be nonevent, Kerry’s response to the protester caught my attention:

“The first time iI testified before this committee when I was 27 years old, I had feelings very similar to that protester, and I would just say that is exactly why it is so important we are all here, having this debate, talking about these things before the country. And that the Congress itself will act representing the American people. And I think we all can respect those who have a different point of view, and we do.”

Responding to the protester is the classiest way out for any politician. Witness the difference between Obama responding to a heckler in his crowd–even going so far as to validate their concerns–and Mitt Romney staring steely-eyed as he talks over the protester with his scripted speech.

There are two schools of thought on responding to hecklers as a politician. You can attempt to march on with your speech or your testimony with little to no deference to the meager shouts, or you can stop and give a brief response to the protester, perhaps even dropping some praise for First Amendment rights.

The move-along approach does two counterproductive things. First, it denies attention to the protester. Second, it validates the protester’s concern. Every protester’s base concern is they are not being heard, and being the one in charge making the decision to ignore them on camera, you are making at least the protest, if not the content of the protest, seem to have a genuine and serious purpose.

The confrontational approach has several downsides, but also some large upsides. If you’re warm and welcoming to the dissent, you’ll likely not have much to fear. Throw in a few good words about free speech la di da and enjoy the applause. Motion to have the prompter reeled back and continue on. However, if you aren’t great at going off script or merely can’t keep your lid on tight enough, this can be a dangerous game. See Michelle Obama’s blowup at a protester at a fundraiser just last June, which made her seem weak and defensive. Or Chris Christie, who humbly believes he can embarrass his way to victory in an argument as he regularly thrashes hecklers to the side, gaining him a reputation as a blowhard (or “strong conservative” depending on your viewpoint).

Secretary Kerry has entered this arena before. Just last January, at his confirmation hearing, Code Pink greeted him with the same tactics we saw earlier today (i.e. wearing pink and shouting). Kerry gave an astonishingly similar response as he did today:

“When I first came to Washington I came here as part of a group of people who came to have their voices heard. And that is above all what [the Senate] is about. So I respect the woman who is voicing her concerns about that part of the world.”

Of course, nothing could match the Heckler To End All Hecklers, Andrew “Don’t Tase Me Bro” Meyer, who confronted then-Senator Kerry during a speech he delivered to the University of Florida in 2007. In response to the now famous incident, Kerry;s office issues the following statement:

In 37 years of public appearances, through wars, protests and highly emotional events, I have never had a dialogue end this way. I believe I could have handled the situation without interruption, but I do not know what warnings or other exchanges transpired between the young man and the police prior to his barging to the front of the line and their intervention. I asked the police to allow me to answer the question and was in the process of responding when he was taken into custody. I was not aware that a taser was used until after I left the building. I hope that neither the student nor any of the police were injured. I regret enormously that a good healthy discussion was interrupted.

One could even say this was the beginning of Kerry making a point to address protesters and congratulate them on their role in the democratic process. When you stand idly at a podium as police and campus security hold a man down and shoot electricity through his system, you can feel a bit obligated to make it up.

Lashing Back To Back Lashers

Last night, Miley Cyrus got on stage and danced with a large group of stuffed teddy bears while wearing a skin-tight skin-colored leotard that appeared to have survived a tiger fight. Her hair made her appear 12 and her ass made her appear 70. This was at the VMAs, an institution which officially stopped mattering when one brave soldier stood upon it and declared “Beyonce had the best video of all time.” Kanye West showed himself as a symbol to prove that institutional opinion towards music like the inert joke that is the VMAs was from there on irrelevant. Opinion does too matter. And Miley Cyrus woke up this morning to more opinion than she’s ever been forced see.

Following the inevitable destruction of Cyrus as an artist, person, and visual object on Twitter, Reddit, and in the heads of millions of people who officially are too old for this shit came the likewise inevitable backlash to the backlash. Chelsea Fagan for Thought Catalog decided the mocking of a pop star was sllut-shaming:

There is a point at which it goes from discussing the reasons you might not like an artist or disagree with her message, to taking a chance to swipe at every girl who has ever enjoyed herself or gone through a period of self-discovery by dressing and acting like Miley does. There is a moment when it goes from being fair, to being cruel.

People like Ms. Fagan are the same people who were shocked at the ending of The Lottery. One cannot deny that Cyrus is like many other child stars who mistook the wall between freedom and responsibility as a separation. Cyrus and many stars after and before her are being misled by cruel machines and we are the cigar-chomping audience throwing money on the table while picking out every ineffectual flaw.

However, what if there is no major lesson to learn from Miley Cyrus’ ass? What if society is not a cruel cogwheel churning out expletive after expletive towards any one sort of person? What if we are all just mean fucks?

Making fun of anything on the VMAs is pointless to start with. There is no benefit to be had other than the social. That said, I did it, too. I didn’t do it because I wish the fitting of all women for Size 2 dresses with just-so hemlines nor am I a far worse thing: apathetic. I did it because it’s fun. I did it because, yes, it’s abso-fucking-lutely harmless. I did it not just because I’ll never meet Miley Cyrus in person but because I’ll never meet someone who respects her as a person after that performance. Miley Cyrus is not a small child. She is not deranged from reality. She is at least attached to reality enough to rehearse and record and sing a damn good version of “Look What They’ve Done To My Song”. I am representing the backlash to the backlash of the Miley Cyrus backlash by condemning the sort of mentality that would excuse a 20-year-old woman from making terrible decisions.

I don’t think Miley Cyrus is a bad person nor do I think she should be blamed for poisoning the minds of her young fans (who stopped caring about her nearly 3 years ago, a third of their life). However, as an artist, she should be ready for criticism. Her form of art is pop music which, fairly or unfairly, has a certain standards: Beauty, grace, and talent. Last night in Brooklyn, Miley Cyrus displayed none of these features. In response, she was heavily criticized. In response to the criticism, people made jokes. In response to the jokes, people made criticisms against the jokers. In  response to the criticism against the jokers, we defend jokes.

What we can learn–if anything–from the Miley Cyrus debacle and response is the constant culture of chatter we have established within the online world. By writing this post (and many before it) I realize I am contributing to it. It is neither misogynist nor innocent of sexism. It is just mean. That is why people like Ms. Fagan and myself have entered it. Chelsea Fagan has listicle after listicle available on Thought Catalog where she criticizes, in no particular order, mothers of unruly children, people who feel no need to visit Paris, people in a relationship, this loving couple, and people who tell you you’ve lost weight. The difference between what the Internet did last night and what Chelsea Fagan does several times a week is the Internet had the indecency to refer to the world-famous superstar by her name. If we had written, in Fagan’s style, “Don’t You Hate It When Someone Overestimates Their Self-Worth, Talent, and Beauty in Front of Millions”, I imagine we could be resolved of her scorn.

“I Don’t Know What To Say About This”

With the news that Bradley–now Chelsea–Manning would be identifying as a woman and suing the Army to pay for her hormone treatments, the news media officially gave up. “It was a long fight,” said a Will McAvoy wannabe to a newsroom not full of drama, cigarette smoke, or nearly as clean desks, “but the news is over. Pack it in, gentleman, and don’t forget the Fleischmann’s.”

The Manning gender change story is a lot of things, but mostly it’s a curveball sent towards a news media who were rather certain they could wrap up the story about her trial and prison abuse–a story they barely covered as it is. At most, somewhere in a supply closet lies the opening line to her obituary: “Bradley Chelsea Manning, controversial leaker of thousands of military documents…”

But overall, the media has been confused at best and ham-handedly offensive at worst. The New York Times dragged out the ridiculous, transparently frustrated headline “Manning Says Is Female and Wants to Live as a Woman”, later changing it to “Manning Says He Is Female And Wants To Live As A Woman”, adding the male pronoun to probably fix the awkwardness and only making it worse. The 24-hour cable networks were even more infuriating on the topic, having confronted an issue they really want to have an opinion on but, in the name of good taste, cannot. My favorite to watch squirm was Nicolle Wallace, guest hosting on Morning Joe, The program itself periodically mentioned the news with general shrugs and mental waywardness. The perpetual motion bullshit machine had come to a stunning halt.

One should certainly be happy for Ms. Manning, and she certainly sounds elated in her letter, read live on Today. “Given the way that I feel,” she wrote, “and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I hope that you will support me in this transition.” This certainly doesn’t read like someone beginning a 35 year prison sentence. Of course, in the same day, she also published a likely-unread (if not unreceived) letter asking for a pardon from the President. Considering this is the same President who detained David Miranda and is shaking his fists at Edward Snowden from Sarah Palin’s house, it’s a safe bet Manning will serve until at least his first parole board, convening in 2022.

The media however, should probably let this one go. There is no punditry left to put on Manning’s gender change. She was Bradley, she is now Chelsea. You can go back to ignoring Manning, something with which you’ve become well acquainted.

In Which I Talk About A Book Everyone Stopped Talking About 12 Years Ago

I was probably wrong to read Freedom before reading The Corrections. The latter is tightly structured, wound gloriously around a topic that is both subtly strewn throughout the book’s content and plastered in loud, bold white letters on the cover. The Corrections, however, is a hot, jumbled mess. It is chaotically emotional and a scattering of relations, locations, and medications (both self-prescribed and not). Reading it often feels like trying to understand the curse words in A Clockwork Orange, as if you’re missing some legend to the code.

This is not to say it is a bad book. In fact, I found myself absolutely rapt for Franzen’s machinations of the character’s internal processes, particularly the Parkinsons patient and patriarch Alfred Lambert. Alfred is angry, alone, and not quite well, experiencing life in short bursts with an awareness encompassing less than four feet outside his own head. He finds himself first lacking in physical ability, fumbling with hors d’oeuvres and mustard stains, but quickly descends into manic, hallucinatory anxiety attacks, driven to piling adult diapers up to block off a rather mocking, id-driven turd.

Or his wife Enid, an old lady without goals other than normalcy. Her drastic need for even the most awkward of middle class comforts is pushing her towards hating everyone around her who does not feel the same way, including, to an extent, her own children.

Or her oldest son, Gary, a stock analyst and father of three, warding off big-d Depression with alcohol, determination, warring against his wife, and the sheer, interminable force of denial.

Or his younger brother Chip, an estranged and sexually-depraved academic with a screenplay burning a whole in the pocket of his leather pants, who finds himself lying to investors in the name of Lithuania.

Or his younger sister Denise, a bi-curious upscale chef and too-young divorcee sleeping with both her boss and her boss’s wife.

And this is the major accomplishment of The Corrections. You begin to not just feel for these characters as individuals but, as Enid does, for the family as a unit. The book covers acres of pre-9/11 themes, including the rise of mental health and digital culture seeming to lower the curtain on the manufacturing world known all too well by Boomers and, to a lesser extent, GenXers. It is very much an exegesis of the extravagant late 1990’s, a time when America had become so used to prosperity, with no better economic comparison than the early 1960’s. And while The Corrections now reads like a period piece–a past mise-en-scene surrounded by a harsh analysis–it is inherently a domestic novel. Sure, Chip gets chased out of Lithuania with his pants around his ankles by gun-toting warlords posing as cops, and Alfred flashbacks to a simpler time when he raped his pregnant wife, and Denise does what Denise does, and Gary has violent fantasies about his own wife, and Enid survives a cruise by getting high–but it’s a family story.

There exists a lot of old-man hand wringing throughout the book, kids-these-days and whatnot, which now feel especially quaint with the passing of time. But the fallout of the family unit into tech-obsessed individuals is not entirely that far off. Now, Franzen never blames the technology–though he did once write an essay urging New Yorkers to ditch their cell phones and go back to smoking–but it is inherent in the novel itself. Perhaps borrowing a page from dearly departed friend David Foster Wallace, Franzen creates a new medicinal technique to cure any and all mental ills, from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s to headaches and even criminality.

Corecktall is a strap-on helmet which coalesces with a gel on your brain cells, allowing you to alter your very mental state. And yes, Corecktall is meant to be a homonym with the laxative. In fact, Franzen is rather scatologically obsessed: Alfred has haunting memories with the aforementioned anthropomorphic bowel movement (imagine a crossover of Mr. Hankey and James Cagney) and, in Freedom, a character has an emotional breakdown while retrieving a swallowed wedding ring from his own shit. This isn’t to say you’re a scatophile if you have more than one shit-centric scene in your bibliography, but the man has written two novels in a decade, and each contains an emotionally disturbed run-in with the foul stuff?

Anyway, Franzen is unique in the good-ole-days style of writing in that he never blames the technology: he blames the people. Blaming the people is not necessarily better, but it does open up one to a conversation about not the choices we make but the choices we have. Any person staring at my generation could easily call it the most arrogant or the most self-centered and pile it on with even the most innocent glance at Facebook or Instagram. But by focusing on the people and their own narcissism, Franzen reminds us that people are only of the time they are from. Even though Franzen probably despises online culture, The Corrections is a book that fully endorses the very method of defense many, including myself, use to defend Millenials from harsh attacks, namely that Boomers would have been fucking filled with modern technology. Instagram at Woodstock? Twitter at the 1968 DNC? Youtube and disco?

And that’s the core of The Corrections.  How much does the outside world, the world brought you you by the news and, later, history books, really effect a person? The answer Franzen seems to come to is massively so, presenting these characters as surviving through false delusions about their level of contentment or even just the causes of their ills. Yet it’s not like real-world events really do barge in on this novel like they do on Mad Men; Franzen is hoping to capture overall arch of the times and, although he couldn’t have known it, has created the perfect artifact of American society before 9/11.

Not to say it’s the new East of Eden (though both are Oprah Book Club entries). Franzen often goes too deep into his own world, doing what Kurt Vonnegut used to call wasting a stranger’s time. Indeed, he spends twenty pages outlying the fate of a fictional anarchist protester with little to no baring on the actual story (he’s the brother of the wife of Denise’s boss). He’d easily waste another dozen on the fictional economic fate of the very real Lithuania and its concrete trade. What the hell, Franzen? However, looking back on the book, one is easily surprised how easily it flew by. It is not a “dense” book in the sense that a speech or test is dense. While it does impart way too much information, it does so very quickly.

And, as with Freedom, it is a book about rich white people and their rich white people problems. If you didn’t know any better yet had read the 21st century canon thus far, you’d think poor people’s only problem is being poor–or maybe drugs or gangs. Y’know, the hard stuffDavid Foster Wallace certainly does a better job of this. as does Jeffrey Eugenides, but there are very few modern novels about the poor and their internal conflicts. Why is this? Does creating financially stable characters better enable an author to explore what is in their minds? Is being poor such a major character flaw that no one would care to read a book about the poor, and if they do the character must have gone through such a cry-porn manner of life, with abuse and a dead parent and natural disaster? Does Manhattan actually think the rest of the country is like Beasts of the Southern Wild?

New

Recently, a very bossy 10-year-old girl has been forcing me to read Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli. The book is the story of Stargirl Carraway (her birth name being Susan) and her quirky activities at a public high school. Stargirl is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl of the YA set, full of ukulele-playing whimsy and owner of a pet rat named Cinnamon. The story is drastically predictable for an adult audience: the male narrator becomes her love interest, he encourages her to be more normal, and they break up and she moves away. While Spinelli does litter the book with rather profound literary wit (though not as much as in the sequel Love, Stargirl), the flow is immensely familiar to anyone above the age of 15.

However, I realized throughout the book that its audience–tweens and slow-reading teens–sees it as an immensely affirming book. Spinelli himself has encouraged people to create “Stargirl Societies”, whereby young girls encourage themselves to be themselves. Not at all a bad thing and certainly more respectable than those cookie-pushing Girl Scouts, I imagine the character of Stargirl is a bit of a folk hero in such quarters.

Also recently, I took a very compliant 12-year-old boy to see Pacific Rim. While garnering mostly positive reviews (it currently holds a 72% “Fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes), Pacific Rim, like Stargirl, is an immensely predictable story. We find society overrun with kaiju monsters the size of Manhattan apartment blocks and humanity fighting them with similarly-gargantuan mechas called jaegers. While some critics have seen it as comparable to IP schlock like Transformers or Real Steel, I actually quite enjoyed it for the same reason I enjoyed Stargirl: forgetting what cliches are can open the world quite wide.

There is a constant battle in media for originality. Hollywood has largely waved the white flag in this department after a decade of feasting on comic books, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings. While Pacific Rim may very well have a forced sequel (if it can more than earn back its $250 million budget), the very idea that a standalone, original work can make Americans flock to butter-laden theaters is a rare one in the current atmosphere. The Lone Ranger is a complete disaster as is World War Z (based on the best-selling novel by Max Brooks). A new Transformers movie currently in production is not just ignoring the wave of fad-dom but also the very realities of life (give Optimus Prime lips and you’re just begging for trouble). Even Adam Sandler is doing his first sequel ever with Grown Ups 2, a truly horrific example of what directors are willing to believe Americans find funny, humorous, chuckleworthy, or even just not-nauseatingly awful.

And as blockbuster figures from the past weekend flood in, it appears the cynics have won (lost?). Despicable Me 2 takes first, Grown Ups 2 takes second, and the only original story at the movie theater came in third. Their are several outstanding reasons for this: aging GenXers looking for Happy Madison nostalgia, frustrated parents looking to quiet children for more than an hour. But why do we enjoy predictable stories? Even though Pacific Rim is an original storyline, it’s not exactly an original plot. Monsters destroy the world, man rises to the occasion, man saves the world. And the characters are rather flat; the most we get from the lead character is “I’m sad my brother died and I’m totally going to bang that Asian chick.” So what gives?

Both Stargirl and Pacific Rim lead you to places you’ve been before. Stargirl is a MPDG in a long-line of them, but probably the first one most girls will encounter. Pacific Rim is familiar to any sci-fi fan, and yet, as Bob Chipman said on Twitter, “Be nice if “Pacific Rim” made more money. But there’s some kid out there for whom its now their favorite thing ever. That’s more important.” And having seen it with a 12-year-old, Minecraft-and-Harry Potter-obsessed boy, I can confirm this is a rather unique joy to witness.

There’s a reason the “greatest” films of all time are lackluster to modern audiences. Casablanca and Gone With The Wind aren’t boring to us because they’re long-winded and lack fart jokes or explosions. They’re boring because we’ve seen these stories told over and over. Any story–especially those that gain mass popularity–is going to reflect the expectations of that culture in time, either by blowing them out or fulfilling them.

 

Southern

Recently, TV Chef and walking artery clog Paula Deen has become broiled in a scandal over revelations she very typically uses the word “nigger”. On top of that, she also wanted to plan a wedding with “niggers” in long-sleeve white shirts, what she deemed a “plantation-style wedding”. Not the best position for the host of show about Southern cooking. Paula Deen issued a possibly-drunken apology earlier today.

The Food Network’s official statement on the matter read “[Deen] was born 60 years ago when America’s South had schools that were segregated, different bathrooms, different restaurants and Americans rode in different parts of the bus. This is not today.” This brought to mind a familiar trend in apologies for racism; they’re just old! They come from a different time! Many a person (yours truly included) has laughed off a disturbingly prejudiced statement from an elderly family member before. These statements are less made to excuse the epithet itself but rather to diminish the actual danger within them. They paint the racist as old, cuddly, and mostly harmless.

But what interests me more is not Paula Deen’s age (she’s 66) but the temptuous way we as a culture attempt to enjoy Southern pride while sidestepping the historic evidence of harmful prejudice within that region of the country. The South is a very common area of entertainment for the rest of the country, from Gone With The Wind to Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. We laugh at yokeldom and Southern customs. And who among us doesn’t love cheesy grits?

But there is a trend which attempts to monitor Southern or even simply blue collar life while sidestepping the often inherent segregation within Southern culture. The South (more specifically Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, and Georgia) is home to the largest centers of black population. However, we don’t really think of Alabaman Gucci Mane or Jesse Jackson as “southern”. The word itself brings to mind a host of admittedly harmful stereotypes. But when media is produced meant to feed off of Southern culture, minorities are either misrepresented as sambos or nonexistent in total.

Of course, Southern whites can make the same claim. Any film about Alabama is more likely to focus on swamps and accents than, say, the US Space And Rock Center in Huntsville or the state’s Birmingham Museum of Art. Those are just simply more boring.

But Paula Deen’s recent revelation seems to remind us of the generational issue of racism inherent in the South. At some point, most Southerner’s grandfathers were supportive of segregation systems. Maybe some rioted at Ole Miss in 1961. Maybe a few attended George Wallace rallies. Go back a few more generations and you have a slew of Southern veterans who gave their life to defend slavery (amongst other issues).

This is not to blame the South for old sins. However, are we really shocked by Paula Deen’s wording? A sexagenarian white lady from Georgia who learned cooking to overcome her agoraphobia? Not to say every old person in Georgia is racist, but it’s not entirely shocking that a few are.

There’s plenty of Southern media which does an actual good job of avoiding racism without sweeping it under the rug. Although it takes place in Texas, I’ve always hailed King of the Hill as being incredibly accurate at describing life in a small town. Alana’s family on Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is actually quite accepting, albeit a few jabs at their gay uncle Poodle. But to be shocked that racism is still fresh in the minds of many older Southern whites is naive at best.