2011 - %3, November

Hollywood vs. the NFL

| Sat Nov. 26, 2011 6:22 PM EST

I've been trying to figure out why my interest in pro sports has waned in recent years, and today's announcement of a possible agreement between NBA owners and players to end their lockout gives me an excuse to toss out a theory. I'm not sure I even really believe this, but I'm sort of wondering if it resonates with anyone else.

The theory is about money, of course. That part probably comes as no surprise. Basically, my problem is that pro sports franchises these days are so obviously mere businesses that it's hard to convince myself I should care about them as teams anymore. From strikes to lockouts to luxury boxes to free agency to government handouts for lavish stadium projects, the P&L permeates everything.

But here's what interests me: For some reason, I don't feel this way about Hollywood even though it's gone down exactly the same route. The studios are all corporate subsidiaries these days, stars are paid astronomical amounts, production companies routinely extort subsidies from states and cities, writers and others have gone on strike repeatedly, and newspapers sometimes seem to pay more attention to weekend grosses than they do to the movies themselves.

So why is it that the corporate nature of pro sports seems so obvious and so alienating to me, but Hollywood has, somehow, managed to embrace it in a way that doesn't bother me as much?

Note that I use the word "embraced" deliberately. My sense is that I dislike pro sports because at the same time that it's all become so obviously corporate, their marketing machine is based increasingly on the pretense that everyone is just playing for the love of the game and that's how fans should engage with their product. Hollywood, conversely, seems more honestly avaricious. It's all about money, but they celebrate it instead of pretending that we should engage with their product solely as art. It's not that they don't talk about their craft. They do. But it feels like they acknowledge the business side of things more openly and more boisterously, usually with a wink toward the audience. It's all part of the game.

I dunno. Have I just been traumatized by a decade of Frank McCourt and NFL mendacity in Los Angeles? Or does this actually make any sense?

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Levitated Mass, Take 2

| Sat Nov. 26, 2011 2:08 PM EST

After my griping yesterday about the 340-ton boulder being installed above a trench in front of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Isaac Butler tweeted a challenge:

You're asking "why this work of art?" When someone takes you in good faith and tries to explain it to you, you then dismiss it. Is there any explanation of a work of art's value beyond surface pleasure that you see as valid? I find some art world discussion insular and pretentious, I feel you on that. But I'm genuinely curious as to what a valid discussion of a work of art's value (or art's value in general even) would look like to you.

This is totally a fair question. And against my better judgment, I'm even going to try to address it! First, though, some throat clearing and general defensive posturing. Here goes. (1) I don't know much about art and don't pretend to. My reactions are those of an ordinary schlub and I don't expect anyone to take me seriously. (2) The artwork in question, Levitated Mass, is privately funded, so this isn't a question of outrage over wasteful public spending. If rich people want to spend their money hauling a big rock to LACMA, that's fine. (3) None of us have seen the finished installation yet. It might well turn out to be far more powerful and evocative than we can guess based on a mere rendering.

But aside from the concept itself, I think it was LACMA's explication of the installation that really teed me off. Whether it was offered in good faith or not I don't know, but here it is:

Taken whole, Levitated Mass speaks to the expanse of art history, from ancient traditions of creating artworks from monolithic stone, to modern forms of abstract geometries and cutting-edge feats of engineering.

Even if I don't know much about art, I can still read English. This sentence makes three claims. Let's take them in order and try to decide if Levitated Mass really does speak to the expanse of art history:

  • "from ancient traditions of creating artworks from monolithic stone...." Is this historically illuminating? No, it is not. It's common knowledge among fourth graders. What's more, although ancient civilizations did indeed create artworks from huge stones, they actually created artworks. They didn't merely haul gigantic rocks around mindlessly.
  • "to modern forms of abstract geometries...." Does this say anything significant? No, it does not. It refers to the 456-foot trench the boulder is going to be placed over, but in what way is a 456-foot trench an example of "abstract geometry" in any serious or creative sense? This just perpetuates one of the great frauds of modern art: that merely drawing our attention to shapes and forms is sufficient.
  • "and cutting-edge feats of engineering." Is this true? No, it is not. There is simply no sense in which this installation is cutting-edge engineering. It is a monumental pain in the ass to transport it along city streets from Riverside to Los Angeles, but that's neither cutting edge nor a feat of engineering. The pyramids took decades to build and made a profound point about the civilization they were embedded in. This is just an expensive but fairly routine job of permitting and logistics that will take nine days to complete with modern machinery.

I understand that all professions have their own language. Not everything that professionals write is pitched toward laymen, and there's no reason it should be. Still, an enormous signature installation in front of a major public art museum ought to be explicable to more than a tiny minority of art aficionados. That sentence was LACMA's attempt to make Levitated Mass comprehensible to ordinary people, but it's just gobbledygook, the kind of artspeak that curators engage in when they have nothing real to say. It makes no sense on its own terms and certainly does nothing to help its subject create an emotional connection with its audience.

I don't expect to understand the nuances of great art without putting in some study. Honest. But installations like this are the kind of thing that's divorced the art world from the vast majority of modern-day audiences. Maybe, in the end, it will be awe-inspiring solely by virtue of its size. 340 tons is a big rock, after all. But why bother? There are already lots of awesomely big things in the world, and in the 21st century it's not really very profound to haul an awesomely big thing from one place to another. Artists and curators owe us more than that. They owe us art — something purposefully crafted to show what the human mind is capable of — and when they talk to us about their art, they owe us language that's neither insular nor pretentious. I don't really understand why that seems to be so much to ask for.

Faking Rape on the Tube

| Sat Nov. 26, 2011 12:38 PM EST

Amanda Marcotte wrote a piece a couple of days ago called "8 Obnoxious Cliches about Men, Women and Sex in Otherwise Good TV Shows." One of her items is about an episode of the teen sleuth show Veronica Mars in which campus feminists at Hearst college fake a rape in order to provoke a scandal that will damage the fraternity system:

A word to every television writer who thinks it’s clever to write a plot where a woman “cries rape,” is instantly believed, and turns out to be a liar: you’re not clever. That may be the stupidest cliché ever on television. To watch TV, you’d think all rape victims are instantly believed and comforted, and that the vast majority of them are lying. In reality, the percentage of rape reports that are false is 2-8 percent, in line with false reports of other crimes.

I don't watch enough TV to have any idea about this, but it got me curious, especially considering the vast number of crime shows on the tube. So tell me, commenters, is this true? Are rape victims on TV routinely depicted as liars who, for one reason or another, have made a fake accusation? How common is this trope? Inquiring minds want to know.

Al Qaeda Is Dead, Long Live Al Qaeda

| Sat Nov. 26, 2011 11:30 AM EST

A few days ago I linked to a Washington Post story suggesting that the original Al Qaeda network was all but dead. It was late at night when I posted about it, so I didn't bother musing on the legal implications of this, but Robert Chesney picks up the ball and suggests that it matters. Sure, he says, the guys in Yemen might call themselves Al Qaeda, but the post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force doesn't care:

The AUMF, famously, encompasses at least the original al Qaeda network and those who harbor it. Whether it applies as well to entities like AQAP is a much-debated question, raising difficult issues regarding both how one defines the organizational boundaries as al Qaeda and whether the AUMF should be read to include, implicitly, authority to use force as well against organizations that can be described as the functional equivalent to co-belligerents (and, if so, what the criteria are for defining that set). With the potential demise of the “core” al Qaeda leadership, these questions will become still more difficult....I expect that this will become an increasingly significant set of issues in the years ahead.

In theory, this sounds right. In practice, we launched a drone war against AQAP in Yemen and no one blinked. Ditto for a military operation against Libya, which had nothing even arguably to do with al-Qaeda. In that case, Congress roused itself from its torpor just enough to growl slightly, but then fell immediately back into a coma. Legalities aside, virtually no one in Congress seems much interested in deciding whether the AUMF has had its day and should no longer be considered an all-purpose excuse for military action in any country that shares a majority religion with Afghanistan.

But they should.

Friday Cat Blogging - 25 November 2011

| Fri Nov. 25, 2011 2:58 PM EST

Happy Black Friday! Or, in Inkblot's case, black-and-white Friday. Though even that might be overstating things a bit. According to the five-year-old who joined us for dinner yesterday, Inkblot is now officially "the white cat." You can see how he came to that conclusion compared to our other cat, but I'm not sure Inkblot was amused by the sudden youthful clamor that invaded the house last night.

Domino, on the other hand, is so preternaturally calm that a bouncing, running, excitable five-year-old did nothing to ruffle her fur. She's sort of amazing that way.

In any case, there's Inkblot on the left, obviously king of all he surveys. (This was pre-clamor.) On the right, Domino is striking the ever popular cat-in-a-bag pose. She looks suspicious of the camera, and with good reason. It flashed at her, something it normally doesn't do (we're fans of natural light here in the Drum household). But it was dark and her face is completely black. What are you going to do?

Republicans and the Conan Doctrine

| Fri Nov. 25, 2011 2:31 PM EST

Via Alex Massie, Dan Drezner surveys the interest of the Republican field in foreign affairs and comes away horrified:

During the 2008 US presidential election cycle, the respected journal Foreign Affairs invited the leading prsidential candidates from both parties to outline their views of world politics. All of them responded with essays that, one presumes, they at least read if did not write. This year, ahead of next year's elections, Foreign Affairs has proffered the same invitation to the leading Republican aspirants. To date, they have all refused or not responded.

The problem here is simple: the tea party attitude toward foreign policy these days is about the same as Conan's:

Mongol General: Conan! What is best in life? 

Conan: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.

Since the tea party apparently controls the GOP nomination, this is basically what every candidate has to say. No nuance will be tolerated. It's pretty tiresome. But of course, even the dumbest of them knows that you really can't say something like this in the pages of Foreign Affairs. So they're best off punting. After all, if you stray too far from the Conan Doctrine, even accidentally, you'll lose precious votes, but if you stick too close to it you'll make a fool of yourself among Beltway elites that (no matter how much they deny it) really do matter to them. It's a lose-lose proposition.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Art Is Laughing at Us, and I Laugh Back

| Fri Nov. 25, 2011 2:08 PM EST

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is getting a new addition: a 340-ton boulder that will be suspended over a 456-foot slot dug into the earth. Today, the LA Times documents the mind-boggling logistics and expense of moving this piece of commonplace granite from a quarry in Riverside to a Wilshire Boulevard trench:

If all this seems excessive, the artist's assistant, Tim Cunningham, is quick to play devil's advocate. "I've found it amusing from what I've read in the press about the expense, the naysayers. It's as viable as any other public works project," he insists. "And this is creating jobs above and beyond the aesthetic appeal — for Emmert, the riggers, the truckers, the utility guys working overtime — and the country needs jobs."

So that's where we are: art as a jobs program. LACMA itself, of course, takes the usual turgid and pretentious art museum approach toward its new baby: "Taken whole, Levitated Mass speaks to the expanse of art history, from ancient traditions of creating artworks from monolithic stone, to modern forms of abstract geometries and cutting-edge feats of engineering."

At this point, I think these guys are all just laughing at us. Apparently, we're now willing to spend $10 million to haul a rock a hundred miles, plop it down in front of a building, and pretend that we're saying something profound. I guess I'd laugh too if someone were willing to pay me that kind of money to create, say, a room filled with 340 tons of blank books. And why not? It would be every bit as meaningful.

A Voucher is a Voucher is a Voucher is a Voucher

| Fri Nov. 25, 2011 1:23 PM EST

James Pethokoukis says liberals like me need to apologize to Paul Ryan. See, the New York Times ran a piece yesterday suggesting that some Democrats think a carefully designed premium support plan might be a good way to reform Medicare:

Shorter version: Ryan’s idea of turning Medicare into a premium support system is actually a pretty mainstream idea. Former Clinton budget chief Alice Rivlin included it in her fiscal reform plan for the Bipartisan Policy Center....And as Avik Roy of Forbes notes (in a great piece), “Again, it’s not clear if Democratic supporters of reform are these think-tank types, or whether they include actual members of Congress.” Still, given the need to transform the U.S. social safety net into a rational, market-based system, any support from the left is a hopeful sign.

Hmmm. Let's roll the tape on this. As conservatives surely know, the concept of premium support originated with liberal healthcare wonks, in particular with liberal healthcare wonk Henry Aaron in 1995. Why? Because conservatives had been promoting the idea of replacing Medicare with vouchers, and he wanted to propose a reform that included some of the benefits of private-sector competition without the drawbacks of most voucher plans. So what does Aaron himself think of Ryan's proposal? Here he is in April, shortly after Ryan introduced it:

People are, of course, free to redefine terms: trying to avoid tainted terms is commonplace—people are no longer ‘fired’ but are given ‘new career opportunities.’ But it is important that the affective trappings of the term ‘premium support’ not protect the harsher realities of voucher plans from the scrutiny they deserve.

The recently released plan of the House Budget Committee chair, Paul Ryan (R-WI) is illustrative. The Ryan plan would replace traditional Medicare with a voucher indexed to consumer prices....As long as any of these plans ties support to indices that are virtually certain to lag health care spending and thereby promise erosion of benefits, they are not premium support, unless the term is redefined to suit the moment.

I could swear I've written about this before, and — oh, wait, I have. I put up this post just last month. Bottom line: plenty of liberal healthcare wonks have written favorably about real premium support (though, ironically, Aaron himself is less enamored of it than he used to be), and plenty of liberal healthcare wonks have written favorably about using competition to help drive down healthcare costs. It's a key component of Obamacare, for example.

It's a free country and Paul Ryan can call his plan anything he wants. But that doesn't make it so. The fact is that liberal wonks didn't object to Ryan's plan because it included premium support, they objected to it because it's not premium support. It's a voucher with a very slow rate of growth that (a) does very little to actually rein in healthcare costs and (b) within a couple of decades would leave seniors paying enormous out-of-pocket expenses for medical care. It was that stingy rate of growth and unwillingness to tackle cost growth that turned off liberal wonks from the start. There are still plenty of us willing to support variations on genuine premium support plans that genuinely try to rein in medical costs and insure that seniors can continue to receive reasonable care at a reasonable price.

So I think I'll hold off on any apologies for now. Paul Ryan's plan was never either serious or courageous. It was a meat axe designed to get him applause from true believers and headlines as a "bold" thinker. But if he ever does get serious, I imagine he'll find plenty of support from liberals. We've been there for a while.

Romney's Liberal Media Dog Whistle

| Fri Nov. 25, 2011 12:30 PM EST

Why did Mitt Romney lie so egregiously in his recent attack ad against Barack Obama? One of Greg Sargent's readers suggests that it's basically a signaling device, assuring his supporters that he's willing to go to any lengths to win next year:

This interpretation is practically supported by what the Romney camp itself has said about the ad. Romney advisers have proudly boasted that their dishonesty “worked,” because it secured more media attention for the ad and baited the Obama team into an all-out response, creating the impression of a head-to-head media showdown between Romney and the President. It’s only a tiny leap from there to the conclusion that the Romney camp saw the dishonesty itself as a way to prove to GOP primary voters that Romney will do whatever it takes to beat Obama. And if this is the game, then the Romney camp’s unrepentance in the face of widespread media condemnation only helps, signaling that Romney is willing to employ whatever tactics are necessary to end the Obama presidency even if it means bravely taking a sustained beating from the Obama-worshipping liberal media along the way.

If this interpretation is correct (about which I'm agnostic for the moment), I think Greg gets it right. It's not so much to show that Romney is willing to take heat from Obama, it's to show that he's contemptuous of criticism from the press. If there's anything the GOP base hates more than Obama, after all, it's the liberal media. Newt Gingrich has played on this hostility pretty effectively for months, and with Gingrich rising in the polls maybe Romney decided he needed to get into the act too.

The Real Story Behind Black Friday

| Fri Nov. 25, 2011 6:00 AM EST

The official explanation from the retail industry for the term "Black Friday" is that it's the day when retail profits for the year go from red to black. Are you skeptical about this? You should be. After all, the term Black ___day has, in other contexts, always signified something terrible, like a stock market crash or the start of the Blitz. Is it reasonable to think that retailers deliberately chose this phrase to indicate something good?

Not really. So let's trace its origins back in time. Here's a 1985 article from the Philadelphia Inquirer:

[Irwin] Greenberg, a 30-year veteran of the retail trade, says it is a Philadelphia expression. "It surely can't be a merchant's expression," he said. A spot check of retailers from across the country suggests that Greenberg might be on to something.

"I've never heard it before," laughed Carol Sanger, a spokeswoman for Federated Department Stores in Cincinnati…"I have no idea what it means," said Bill Dombrowski, director of media relations for Carter Hawley Hale Stores Inc. in Los Angeles…From the National Retail Merchants Association, the industry's trade association in New York, came this terse statement: "Black Friday is not an accepted term in the retail industry…"

Hmm. So as recently as 1985 it wasn't in common use nationwide. It was only in common use in Philadelphia. But why? If we go back to 1975, the New York Times informs us that it has something to do with the Army-Navy game. The gist of the story is that crowds used to pour into Philadelphia on the Friday after Thanksgiving to shop, they'd stay over to watch the game on Saturday, and then go home. It was the huge crowds that gave the day its bleak name.

If we go back yet another decade we can find a Philly reference as early as 1966. An advertisement that year in the American Philatelist from a stamp shop in Philadelphia starts out: "'Black Friday' is the name which the Philadelphia Police Department has given to the Friday following Thanksgiving Day. It is not a term of endearment to them. 'Black Friday' officially opens the Christmas shopping season in center city, and it usually brings massive traffic jams and over-crowded sidewalks as the downtown stores are mobbed from opening to closing."

And it seems to go back even further than that. After I wrote a post about all this last year, I got an email from a reader who had worked in a Philadelphia department store back in the day:

The dire warnings came from the sweet older women that took me under their wings in the arts and crafts department at John Wanamaker's department store in center city Philadelphia shortly after I was hired as temporary holiday help in October, 1971. They warned me to be prepared for the hoards of obnoxious brats and their demanding parents that would alight from the banks of elevators onto the eighth floor toy department, all racing to ride see the latest toys on their way to visit Santa. The feeling of impending doom sticks with me to this day. The experienced old ladies that had worked there for years called it "Black Friday." I'm quite sure it had nothing to do with store ledgers going from red to black.

"For years." But how many years? Ben Zimmer collects some evidence that the term was already in common use by 1961 (common enough that Philly merchants were trying to change the term to "Big Friday"), and passes along an interview with Joseph Barrett talking about his role in popularizing the expression when he worked as a reporter for the Philadelphia Bulletin:

In 1959, the old Evening Bulletin assigned me to police administration, working out of City Hall. Nathan Kleger was the police reporter who covered Center City for the Bulletin. In the early 1960s, Kleger and I put together a front-page story for Thanksgiving and we appropriated the police term "Black Friday" to describe the terrible traffic conditions. Center City merchants complained loudly to Police Commissioner Albert N. Brown that drawing attention to traffic deterred customers from coming downtown. I was worried that maybe Kleger and I had made a mistake in using such a term, so I went to Chief Inspector Albert Trimmer to get him to verify it.

So all the evidence points in one direction. The term originated in Philadelphia in the 50s or earlier and wasn't in common use in the rest of the country until decades later. And it did indeed refer to something unpleasant: the gigantic Army-Navy-post-Thanksgiving day crowds and traffic jams, which both retail workers and police officers dreaded. The retail industry originally loathed the term, and the whole "red to black" fairy tale was tacked on sometime in the 80s by an overcaffeinated flack trying to put lipstick on a pig that had gotten a little too embarrassing for America's shopkeepers.

And now everyone believes it, which is a pretty good demonstration of the power of corporate PR. But now you know the real story behind Black Friday.

UPDATE: Barrett/Kleger anecdote added via email from Ben Zimmer pointing me toward his piece on the subject at the Visual Thesaurus.