Meta-Commentary

Ament

Posted in work by Adrian Arroyo on July 30, 2012

Legislators use amendments to court aments within the chamber as well as without.

(David Foster Wallace circled words in his dictionary. I’m using each of them in a sentence, moving alphabetically from “Ablative Absolute” to “witenagemot.”)

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Alpestrine

Posted in work by Adrian Arroyo on July 24, 2012

Accustomed to a form of alpestrine commentary that sees smoke but no fire, we’re now content to ignore the particularities of our situation and speculate on the particulates.

(David Foster Wallace circled words in his dictionary. I’m using each of them in a sentence, moving alphabetically from “Ablative Absolute” to “witenagemot.”)

Knights

Posted in culture, politics by Adrian Arroyo on July 24, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises references Frank Miller’s books, but where Miller saw an antihero struggling to balance conflicting duties and institutions, Nolan offers us a righteous patrician concerned with little beyond his own moral, mental, and material endowments–a caped crusader in place of a dark knight. From the outset, the plot ignores any ambiguity that adheres to Batman or his actions; Christopher Nolan helpfully sorts the supporting cast into those who “get” Batman, and those who don’t, and a few not-so-subtle cues let the audience know that the former are heroes and the latter either villains or collaborators.

The result is a humorless movie with an authoritarian streak a mile wide, and the way Nolan treats Commissioner Gordon is the clearest illustration of that tendency. Gordon, friendly moustache and everyman face aside, has been involved in a multi-year coverup surrounding the death of Harvey Dent, which resulted in the incarceration of thousands. We are given to know that these miscreants are–of course!–undoubtedly guilty and deserving of their punishment. It’s in light of this consideration that, in one of the early scenes, Gordon folds away his tearful confession in the name of law and order. By the time the plot engages with Gordon’s deception, the battle lines have been drawn and the revelation falls on deaf ears.

Nolan takes a similar approach to Foley, Alfred and Miranda. Foley is cast as a fool and a coward because he takes Gordon at his word about what happened between Dent and Batman, then later refuses to fall in with the man who fed him a diet of lies that endangered his life and family. An otherwise affecting scene between Bruce and Alfred is marred by the fact that Wayne is objecting to a form of emotional vigilanteism whose violent mirror image he embraces wholeheartedlty while wearing the cape and cowl. The message is clear: the methods don’t matter if you’re protecting a city, but they do if you’re protecting a heart. Finally, a discussion between Miranda and Bruce Wayne about the relationship between man and technology is robbed of its meaning when Nolan turns first the device in question and then Miranda herself into dei ex machinis.

What we’re left with is a movie in which the heroes are endowed with secret knowledge that allows them to flout the norms and processes of modern life, in which everyone who disagrees with or restrains them does so out of ignorance, villainy, or a soft heart, and in which the great mass of humanity is reduced to a howling mob whose only feature of note is their willingness to believe the lies told by their leaders, whether they be public servants or revolutionary madmen. As such, The Dark Knight Rises is neither conservative nor liberal; it’s a clash of exalted wills against the backdrop of various mindless or incompetent collectivities. To call it anything but anti-democratic reveals more about the author than the movie.

Hangover: Entrenchment

Posted in culture, media by Adrian Arroyo on July 23, 2012
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Narcissism

Posted in culture, media, politics by Adrian Arroyo on July 21, 2012

Steve Almond, on why “Liberals Are Ruining America,

Imagine, if you will, the domino effect that would ensue if liberals and moderates simply tuned out the demagogues. Yes, they would still be able to manipulate their legions into endorsing cruel and self-defeating policies. But their voices would be sealed within the echo chamber of extremism and sealed off from the majority of Americans who honestly just want our common problems solved. They would be marginalized in the same way as activists who rant about racial purity or anarchy.

I can imagine that, but that’s all I can do; it’s a fable, and a dangerous one at that.

Political entertainment and political engagement aren’t opposite ends of the see-saw. Consuming more of the former doesn’t crowd out the latter. Contrary to his entire thesis, the kind of low-level engagement Almond laments tends to result in “real” action later on. People don’t engage in a thoughtful survey of current political trends and then decide to go volunteer for a campaign. They feel passionately about something, then take a small action, then a larger one. That’s why campaigns solicit $5 donations as well as $5,000 ones. It’s why Rush Limbaugh is an influential member of the Republican Party.

There’s a vein of narcissism underlying that argument, and it allows Almond to conclude that real problem with “liberalism” is its relationship to right wing chatter. The cycle of outrage and obsession that afflicts Almond during drivetime becomes “the tragic flaw of the modern liberal,” endowing his entertainment choices with a bizarre world-historical importance that’s both undeserved and unproven. Even if you buy what Almond’s selling, it’s still a suffocating definition of liberalism, one that scants both politics and policy by turning the frivolous choices of one man into a disease that plagues an entire ideology.

The same sort of self-regard animates “the Newsroom,” and it’s just as worthless in the NYT as it is on TV. Boiled down, it’s the blithe assumption that everyone is like you, except that they’ve made different (read: terrible) choices and that if they’d just do what you tell them to do the walls of Jericho would come tumbling down. Apparently, this rather anti-democratic sentiment is the key to saving Democrats, liberalism, and democracy itself.

It’s not Rush, baby, it’s you.

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Hangover: Furious

Posted in culture by Adrian Arroyo on July 2, 2012
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Intangibles

Posted in culture, media, politics, sports by Adrian Arroyo on June 26, 2012

Sally Quinn wrote a much-panned essay about the “End of Power” in Washington D.C., which John Chait summed up as follows:

Once Washington was a happy place where a girl and her mother could be groped simultaneously in good fun by a white supremacist. Sadly, it has all been ruined by Kim Kardashian and Ezra Klein.

Granted, Sally Quinn is to politics as Murray Chass is to sportswriting, but she’s not alone. When Elliott Suthers says geeks are ruining politics, he’s just recycling Jason Whitlock’s argument about sports from 2011; there’s no shortage of articulate professionals mourning the decline of the intangible in their profession. Quinn’s requiem for the D.C. dinner party is different only in that American politics depends on norms and traditions in a way that the Great American Pastime does not.

The metaphor is seductive. In baseball as in politics, our affiliations are deeply felt though largely the product of location and upbringing. Common to both are the endless public pieties and back room deals, the demand for prediction over analysis, speculation about the farm team, and the retroactive imposition of grand narratives on unrelated events. To many folks, both of them seem rather boring.

But in baseball the lines of accountability are easier to draw and the border between rule and tradition better defined. Players don’t get tossed for talking to the pitcher about his no-hitter while it’s in progress. Tongues will wag, but the game will go on. When Chuck Knoblauch hits Keith Olbermann’s mom with an errant throw, nobody blames Tino Martinez. Not so for the United States Senate, which relies on shared norms in order to function. By embracing the filibuster as a one-size-fits-all tool of obstruction, the Republican Senate Caucus not only wounded those norms, they damaged the institution’s ability to carry out even the most routine functions. And with the same ineffable logic that’s often used to defend Pitcher Wins, these failures were laid on the White House lawn.

The fracturing of these Senatorial understandings isn’t due to a lack of well-attended parties at the Bradlee residence, but in recounting the long twilight of her own importance Quinn manages to brush up against something serious: nobody has any real idea what to replace them with. The result isn’t the end of power, but it may well be the end of governance.

Hangover: Loss

Posted in culture by Adrian Arroyo on June 25, 2012
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Eighty-Six

Posted in sports by Adrian Arroyo on June 19, 2012

The Celtics are out. The Bruins are done. The Patriots lost to the Giants–again!–and the Red Sox languish in last place.

Boston fans may not enjoy this heartbreak, but they do seem comfortable with it. From column to barstool to webpage the arrogance of victory has given way to a kind of learned helplessness: “as bad as it is, it ain’t ’86.” In truth, that arrogance was always an uncomfortable fit for a city accustomed to near misses. The pink hats and popped collars hanging on Boylston Street after a Red Sox win were strangers to a fanbase that had spent decades waiting for everything these newcomers considered their due. And the Yastrzemskis-in-Abercrombie aped the underdog pose along with everything else, to the annoyance of salty oldtimers and Yankees fans alike.

Underdog status is imitated, manufactured and coveted because it’s the closest thing professional sports has to moral appeal. 2008 and 2012 were for Giants fans what 2004 and 2007 were for Sox fans. Against the “Evil Empire” or the mechanical perfection of Brady and Belichick, the score became a symbol. The victors could indulge the belief that there was some justice expressed by the outcome, reflecting the triumph of can-do spirit over imbalances in either talent or money. That prepackaged narrative–peddled to those ignorant of the scouting, preparation, merchandising and marketing that created it–allowed the stepsisters their own Cinderella story.

But in the absence of such mass-market mythmaking, fans in both cities turn to artisanal production. In New York, we debate whether someone is a “True Yankee,” whether Eli is Elite, whether the Mets will ever get it together. In Boston, they watch and rewatch Welker’s missed grab, bemoan the bullpen, and thank God that Lackey’s out for the season. Win or lose, right or wrong, we still find our way back to the familiar and the comfortable. In the Bronx, the Yankees reel off 9 straight and fans say “it could be better.” At Fenway the Sox hover around .500 and they say, “at least it ain’t ’86.”

Prometheus

Posted in culture by Adrian Arroyo on June 13, 2012

The nickel version: Prometheus is awful in a thematically consistent way. The screenplay manages to avoid the worst excesses of contradiction-as-profundity (“What is Jerusalem worth? Nothing… everything!”) so often found in Ridley Scott’s recent movies and Michael Fassbender turns in a Holmworthy performance as the franchise-mandated android. But the movie has Damon Lindelof’s fingerprints all over it and–much like Lost–it elevates semiotics above storytelling.

[SPOILER ALERT]

That’s a shame, because the movie could’ve told the same story without the mystical mumbo-jumbo. Fundamentally, the Prometheus mission is an interstellar boondoggle funded by a trillionaire developer who’s afraid of death and staffed by bunch of incompetents.

See, for example, the way Charlize Theron prefaces her briefing with “those of you that I’ve hired personally…” as if she subcontracted most of the HR demands for a dangerous multi-year endeavor to some kind of temp agency. Even within their relevant specialties, the staff seem to be bottom-of-the-barrel types. The archaeologists ride their ATVs around ancient ruins, and everyone remotely scientific behaves as if they’ve never heard of biosafety levels. The geologist–a hard-bitten man with tattoos and custom mapping robots–turns coward immediately and gets lost along with a biologist whose encounter with a lifeform that looks and acts like a king cobra ends with him cooing at it until it kills him. It’s genuinely unclear whether Captain Janek (Idris Elba) leaves them to their deaths because he’s got ulterior motives or simply can’t be bothered to stay on the bridge when he could be in bed with Theron.

Topless Robot has the full rundown of crew incompetence.

Scott intends Prometheus as a parable about humanity’s destructive selfishness contrasted against the benevolence of White Space Jesus: we make of others what we make of ourselves. But we could get the same lesson from a story about a dying corporate titan who uses a team of incompetent scientists, a ship captain who can’t administer or fly his ship, and an existentially confused android to enable his search for immortality, endangering the welfare of the entire human race in the process. Stripping out the mystical windowdressing would’ve made the movie less confusing, and kept it closer to both the franchise and the current moment.

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