Mister Clam vs. the Poisonous Internet

mister-clam

I’ve been struggling recently with the fact that, as part of this newest crop of writers, I am likely to spend much of the rest of my life on the internet. It’s good, no doubt that I can help transmit ideas from person to person without destroying any trees, and it’s also good that anyone who likes can read whatever I’ve written without paying a thing. As hard as this makes it for me to ever become an alcoholic with an expensive taste in Scotch, I think what’s good for the reader is probably good for the writer as well.

What’s difficult is that moving from my bed to my chair and onto the internet is like moving from the clean air of a forest to the interior of a 19th century smokestack. It’s poisonous. I’ve been trying to curate a good Facebook feed — one where the thoughts of thoughtful friends appear and the thoughts of myopic ones don’t, where news from the margins can make its way past the meaningless talking points of the center, and where the humor isn’t too cynical or mean — and now, 10 years into my time on this social media site, I think I’ve realized that it just can’t be done. This is not a tool for thoughtfulness. This is not a tool that will keep me centered and calm.

It became particularly painful over this last week, as I watched from my easy chair, as my entire society slipped back into an easy rage over a common tragedy. What’s more common in America than the shooting of innocent (black) people? What’s more common than racism? And is there anything more preventable? We know how to limit gun violence. And we know how to move forward on race.

But nah. We’ll focus on the flag. Let’s make this about the ugly symbol of racism rather than the racism itself. Let’s make it about the easiest, most polarizing aspect of the debate instead of about the pain and of living in a society where you must see your neighbors murdered and know that it’s because of a culture and a system that you yourself are a part of. It will allow everyone to feel justified, indignant, and better about themselves, if no different. Political change in America is most appreciated when it’s cosmetic.

I don’t much like the fact that this is what I’ll be writing on for the remainder of my life. I don’t much like that I’ll undoubtedly be tasked with contributing to the internet’s cyclical outrage and it’s nihilistic clickbait if I want to feed myself and my family for the next several decades. I’d like to hope that it will change, I’d like to hope that I’ll get better at blocking out everything that’s toxic about the online environment, but I don’t want to count on that. Unlike gun violence and racism, I don’t have any ideas on how a toxic media environment can be fixed.

My hope is that I can be a part of the antidote rather than a part of the poison, but I’m not sure how I’m supposed to do that. The other day, feeling fried and tired of the internet, I got out of my chair and walked to the beach. As I approached the boardwalk, I passed a mother and daughter who were leaving for the day. The daughter, no older than 6, ran up to me holding a clamshell and, while moving the sides of the clamshell like a puppet, shouted, “HEY THERE, I’M MISTER CLAM! NOM NOM NOM!” and then ran off giggling.

I can’t think of a deeper meaning or a metaphor for Mister Clam, and I don’t know how this relates to racial politics in America, but I do know that when I left my darkened, toxic workplace and walked to the beach to meet Mister Clam, I felt a little better. So I’m bringing Mister Clam back onto the internet with me. He has plenty of opinions on the Confederate flag, climate change, and the GOP pool for 2016, but whenever he starts talking, it just sounds like “NOM NOM NOM” to me.

Featured photo by Lew Holzman

The world doesn’t need any more American heroes

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If you ever need to start a morning like a fucking champ, start it by listening to Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out For a Hero.”

“Mm,” you’ll softly moan, “Yeah. I’m gonna wreck those spreadsheets today.”

There’s something about the concept of heroes that gets people amped up. Calling someone a hero is basically the best compliment you can give them before calling them a “god” or telling them they have a “cool dick.”

Which is why I got so pissed off while reading the book American Sniper and hearing that people thought of Chris Kyle as a “hero”: in the book, he calls Iraqis “savages” whom he “could give a flying fuck about,” he jokes about desecrating a corpse, and he jokes about looting video games from a young kid’s apartment, even though in separate interviews he bragged about going to Hurricane Katrina and murdering 30 looters (which, it turns out, was probably a lie). “This guy is a hero?” I thought, “He sounds like a violent psychopath.” But America generally disagrees: Chris Kyle is an American Hero.

A guy who knew a ton about heroes was mythologist Joseph Campbell, who wrote the book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Campbell explained how most “heroes” followed the same basic path, and were actually just different manifestations of the human experience. All humans can connect with them because they go through exaggerated versions of the trials we go through every single day.

Of course, different societies will ask different attributes of their heroes. A modern hero like Harry Potter will be kind and forgiving and opposed to racism, while a slightly older hero, like Frodo Baggins, will be fighting on behalf of the natural world against an anti-nature, industrialized enemy (seriously: watch those movies again with that frame in mind. Mordor basically just looks like Detroit, while the Shire is a lush English countryside). They can also belong to specific nationalities. Here’s an exchange from Campbell’s interview with Bill Moyers from the book The Power of Myth.

MOYERS: It has been said that a leader is someone who discerned the inevitable and got in front of it. Napoleon was a leader, but he wasn’t a hero in the sense that what he accomplished was grand for humanity’s sake. It was for France, the glory of France.

CAMPBELL: Then he is a French hero, is he not? This is the problem for today. Is the hero of a given state or people what we need today, when the whole planet should be our field of concern? Napoleon is the nineteenth-century counterpart of Hitler in the twentieth. Napoleon’s ravaging of Europe was horrific.

MOYERS: So you could be a local god and fail the test on a larger cosmic level?

CAMPBELL: Yes. Or you could be a local god, but for the people whom that local god conquered, you could be the enemy. Whether you call someone a hero or a monster is all relative to where the focus of your consciousness may be.

In this way, Seth Rogen was totally right about American Sniper:

The concept of hero is not culture-specific: any culture can proclaim anyone a hero. Some people think of terrorists as heroes. Some think of Hitler as a hero. Some think of Donald Trump as a hero.

Chris Kyle is a hero. But he’s an American hero. And in a global age, American heroes are no longer sufficient. Petty nationalism is no longer useful to us: nation states are merely the best form of political organization we have right now. But our problems are global: the climate, extreme global poverty, religious extremism, growing global inequality, public health, cyberwarfare, state-on-state violence, human rights abuses. None of these problems can be dealt with within the borders of a single country. So a valid global hero should be someone that doesn’t just fight for a single nation, but who fights for humanity and the planet as a whole.

Otherwise, they’re just another member of the pantheon of irrelevant heroes. Otherwise, they’re not fighting for anything important.

Featured Photo by Jeepers Media

Don’t be a dick: The Great Story Wars

Domino Day

Joseph Campbell, the famous mythologist, said that there was really just one story that repeated itself throughout mythology. He called it the “monomyth.” I personally would have gone for “megamyth,” but hey, maybe a life in academia makes you allergic to good-old-fashioned hyperbole.

Anyway, Campbell described the basic structure of the monomyth as this:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

You’ve already probably recognized one of the incarnations of this story: it’s the basis of dozens of religions (Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed and their respective times in the desert, Buddha and his return from enlightenment, etc.), pretty much every great 20th century epic (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, etc.), and, you know, kinda every story ever.

Campbell believed that the reason we kept writing this story is because it is a fundamental human experience to struggle, overcome, and learn, but that we needed to explain it within the cloak of our own culture. Which is why every culture has their own iteration of this story. The culture uses the story to push its own morals: Star Wars is about the war between democracy and totalitarianism, while Lord of the Rings has a nature vs. industrialization theme. Harry Potter, at its most basic, is an anti-racist story. Islam focuses heavily on justice and society as a whole, while Christianity and Buddhism have a more individualistic focus.

But at its core, it’s all the same basic story dressed up for different times and places. Which makes ideological debates infinitely more frustrating: everyone is arguing over differing details of the same story. All of the world’s religious wars are basically just a variation on the argument over whether Star Wars or Lord of the Rings is better.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t have these stories. But different stories are relevant at different times and in different places. Stories are just tools that help us understand our current situation. Consider, for example, a monomyth story that deals with privacy in the digital age (this story exists in at least one form, by the way, in Cory Doctorow’s book, Little Brother). That story would be incredibly interesting to a modern American, but it would be completely boring to a Papuan living in a remote jungle, or an Darfuri village with zero televisions. A resident of Darfur, however, might find a lot of comfort in a story that focuses on the battle between farmers and nomadic herders. So Darfuri residents would probably totally understand the American western movie, Shane, which is about the wars between farmers and herders. But Brave New World or Little Brother would probably not resonate with them.

This is frustrating, yes, but the current political divide in America follows the same pattern. This isn’t a war between left and right: it’s a war between city and countryside. Take, for example, the gun issue in the United States. As a resident of almost exclusively cities, I favor gun control laws. The fewer guns on the street, the better. But people in the countryside have a reasonable argument for owning guns: a) hunting is actually an option for them, and b) their local police station is probably more than 5 minutes away at any given moment, and their neighbors may be too far off to hear them if they scream for help. So they may want some means to protect themselves.

Neither side is wrong in what they want, they’re just living in totally different situations, so they have different stories.

The Great Story Wars are eternal and unchanging. The only way to gain any perspective on them is to figure out what your perspective is. You see from where you stand. If you don’t know where you’re standing, you can’t possibly begin to understand what you’re seeing.

Featured Photo: Andreas

Don’t be a Dick: All the poors enter CBS’s thunderdome, none leave

Okay, if you have any faith in humanity, it is not in your best interest to read this article. It’s better for all of us that you remain a kind fool and keep treating people with dignity and respect, and not in the way they deserve to be treated. The reason why?

The Briefcase.

If you haven’t heard of The Briefcase, it’s CBS’s new reality TV show. It is not, sadly, the same as Gold Case, the show that Kenneth pitched in 30 Rock.

The premise is that a poor family is given a briefcase full of $101,000. They are then given a choice of whether to keep it or give it to another, presumably needier poor family. They are given heart-wrenching details about the other family, and then are forced to decide. The catch (because toying with the lives of the poor isn’t really enough of a catch) is that the other family also got a briefcase, so if they choose to give the other family all the money and the other family doesn’t choose the same for them, well, then I guess they can go fuck themselves.

Here’s the worst fucking thing I’ve ever watched, a.k.a. the trailer for the show.

Here are some other fun facts! Les Moonves, the President of CBS, got paid $54 million last year! Which is the equivalent of $147,945.21 per day!

One imagines that this pitch came about when Moonves and his executives were sitting in their office, snorting a Tony Montana-sized pile of cocaine, and forcing underlings to fight to the death using a broken pool cue a la the Joker in The Dark Knight.

But let’s consider for a second what this really is: this is the start of a pretty amazing dystopia. This is how Mad Max: Fury Road begins. And we all want to live in a world where Imperator Furiosa is a real thing, right?

Seriously, how fucking great was this movie?

Seriously, how fucking great was this movie?

At the end of the day, we can’t get to a world of sand and chrome and Gladiatorial battles to the death without breaking the hearts of a few poors who desperately want to feed their children. If you want to make an omelette, after all, you’ve got to emotionally manipulate a few eggs into killing themselves over a frying pan. And if our omelette is going to be as awesome as the rust-tinged hellscape, we might as well just lean in and enjoy this show.

Les Moonves

Les Moonves

The next logical step, of course, will be to have the poors fight to the death while armed only with a spoon in the Thunderdome, which will then be followed by some sort of weird oil war, which will then lead us to the awesomeness that is Fury Road.

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We’re riding to Valhalla. Thank you, CBS.

 

Don’t Be A Dick: A pacifist’s guide to “They died for our freedom”

Memorial Day always causes a bit of a predicament for me. I have a number of friends and acquaintances who have spent time in the military and who have even gone to war. And I don’t want to be disrespectful towards them. But I also have trouble hearing the phrase, “These soldiers died for our freedom,” and letting it roll off my back. This is because I happen to be a pacifist.

A pacifist, I have been told, is a ridiculous thing to be. War is a part of life, and hey, remember Hitler? Hitler is a good reason for war. Hitler was bad. Are you saying we should’ve let Hitler continue being Hitler? Yeah, I didn’t think so. Pacifism over.

But this misses the point. Pacifism is aspirational. It’s saying, sure, there was war, but must there be war? And is war as useful as we say it is? Asking questions like this can make certain universally accepted credos really hard to swallow. Like:

“They died for our freedom.”

“They died for our freedom” sounds really nice. It’s almost a Messianic sentence, suggesting that the men and woman who died died for a reason (and so few of us get to die for a reason), and that we benefitted from it directly. And it may, in some cases, be true. But there are a few problems with it.

1. If the war was unnecessary, then “They died for our freedom” can’t be a true statement.

You can get most Americans to admit the Vietnam War was a mistake. Even Robert McNamara, who oversaw the escalation of the war, eventually said it was a mistake. If nothing was gained from a war, then “They died for our freedom” is not true in an objective sense. We did not gain any freedoms from the Vietnam War, so the deaths of soldiers did not deliver any freedom to us.

2. Do “friendly fire” deaths count equally?

Were all friendly fire deaths necessary to win the war? For that matter, any other manner of accidental deaths — car crashes, equipment malfunctions, death by disease, death by starvation — all of these deaths can happen in war. Were these deaths necessary for our freedoms? Should we qualify which deaths protected our freedoms more?

3. Are these soldiers more valuable to us dead?

There’s a field of study called “counterfactuals,” where academics will try to predict what would have happened historically if something major had not happened. It’s more or less an impossible futile task, but it still raises interesting questions: what if Hitler had died in World War I? What if Native Americans had had immunity to smallpox when the Europeans arrived instead of the other way around? What if Khrushchev hadn’t backed down during the Cuban Missile Crisis? Et cetera.

We have to ask: What if they’d lived? These soldiers that died in our wars, wouldn’t they have been even better assets to our society had they lived? Isn’t it possible that it’s better to live for freedoms than to die for them? When you’re alive, after all, you’re around to create and to build and to protect. Death doesn’t offer any of that. You could make the argument that the death was necessary for our freedoms, but you would have to ask: isn’t there more potential in a life than in a death?

4. Freedom isn’t that simple.

The things that we consider “freedoms” in our modern society are things that we created by building and strengthening systems and institutions of government. Yes, a safe space to build these institutions is essential for them to be able to exist, and at times military force is necessary to protect that space. But that safe space is often obtained and negotiated as much through diplomacy as it is through violence.

There’s nothing sexy about saying “Bureaucrats refused to be bribed for our freedoms,” but it’s just as true as saying “Soldiers died for our freedoms.” And freedom can be obtained peacefully (see Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.).

5. It’s actually super creepy to think of soldiers as sacrificial lambs.

Is freedom some ancient god that requires blood sacrifice for appeasement? Or is it way more complex than that? While it’s nice to think of soldiers as Messianic figures who made a really noble sacrifice for our country, it’s also inherently creepy to expect it from them. The fact that we paint all soldier deaths en masse as a blood sacrifice for our country is an almost tribal idea that we should probably have rejected by now.

6. You don’t know what every soldier is fighting for.

I have no doubt that soldiers fight for extremely noble, patriotic reasons. Some may fight because they feel indebted to their country, and some may fight because they are really idealistic, but others may be fighting for more practical reasons. Maybe the military was the best route out of poverty. Maybe they needed the discipline of the military to shape their lives up. Maybe they were violent sociopaths or racists looking for an excuse to kill people. All of these types of people exist in the military, and all soldiers fight for very different or personal reasons. To claim simply, “They died for our freedoms” is to write off their personal story and their humanity in favor of a small, mythologized view of them.

Disrespect for the dead

Ultimately, viewing soldier deaths as necessary or inevitable actually shows less of a regard for human life than viewing war deaths through a cold, unsentimental lens. By saying, “We could have done better,” we are acknowledging our mistakes in the past and are committing to preventing the same mistakes in the future. One of the best ways for us to show respect for our soldiers is to not send them into unnecessary wars where their sacrifice is unneeded.

If you want to show respect for the fallen soldiers, show it by refusing to fetishize them, and by not putting them into harms way in the future.

Featured photo: Praline3001

Don’t Be A Dick: “I’m not a dickpuncher, but…”

GUYS, SERIOUSLY. I’M NOT A BAD PERSON. I don’t go around punching dicks all the time, okay? Dickpunching is wrong, and I think that it’s good that we’re fighting our country’s long, sad history of punching people in the dick. I know a lot of people who have been punched in the dick, and I genuinely feel bad for them and I see where they’re coming from when they say we should be fighting harder as a society against penile pugilism. I get that.

All I’m saying is this: I understand why people punch dicks. I don’t approve of it, but I understand it. I understand that some people maybe kinda sorta deserve to be punched in the dick. I understand that maybe if you’re going around having a dick and just flailing it around, that maybe you’re asking for it to be punched. Maybe don’t dress in a way that shows off the fact that you have a dick if you don’t want it to get punched. Maybe — just maybe — it’s on you a little bit.

I know! I know! If I had a son and he got punched in the dick, I would be devastated. Devastated. But the reality is that my son lives in a world that is just teeming with wangsmacking weirdos. That’s a reality, guys. That’s a fact. And all the liberal do-goodery in the world isn’t going to change that fact. There will always be people out there who think it’s hilarious watching bros get cockclocked. Do I like it? No. But that’s the way it is. So I’m gonna teach my boy how to protect himself. I’m gonna show him how to dress appropriately when walking home alone at night: tight briefs and baggy shorts. Change up which thigh it’s laying against. Walk to the other side of the street when someone with their fists out of their pockets is approaching.

I’m not saying it’s his fault if it happens. But he’ll know what he could’ve done to prevent it.

And look: maybe, just maybe, it’s my right as an American, goddammit, to go online and watch videos of guys getting punched in the dick. Maybe that’s a matter of free speech, and maybe free speech is something we should value more than the feelings of the dickpunched.

And I don’t see the problem anyway, as long as I know it’s consensual and no one in the situation is in any real danger. And if it’s a cartoon? All bets are off. It’s not real life. It’s a cartoon, goddammit, I know the difference between cartoons and reality.

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Hahahaha! Right? Oh, lighten the fuck up, it was made in a different time.

No! I don’t think this stuff creates a culture where dickpunching is tacitly accepted. That’s ridiculous. You know whose fault it is if young girls watch this and grow up into pudpummeling thugs? The parents. Maybe if their mothers were at home instead of out prowling the streets with wiffle bats coated in IcyHot these girls would learn how to behave.

And as far as the military goes, I’m sorry, but that’s just the price you have to pay for a secure America. You knew the risks going into the military: it’s a culture of a lot of young, estrogen-fueld women who are amped up from the rush of battle, and they’re gonna come back and want to blow off some steam. I’m not saying it’s right that they blow of steam by punching the young male soldiers in the dick, I’m just saying, y’know, what did we really expect? I mean, have you seen a dick in uniform? Just… wow. It’s like you’re putting a goddamn speed bag in front of them and saying “don’t touch.”

Yeah. Just like that. Except the bag's a dick.

Yeah. Mmm. Just like that. Except the bag’s a dick.

Like I said: I’m not a dickpuncher. But this is just the world we live in. It’s a dickpunching world. It’s always been a dickpunching world. It’s always gonna be a dickpunching world. Nothing’s ever going to change that.

On another not, have you seen the video of the One Direction guy getting hit in the nuts?

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Hilarious.

Don’t Be A Dick: How to listen like a white guy

My new Monday column is going to be called “Don’t Be A Dick.” The title is pretty self-explanatory, but it’s going to focus a bit more on politics than the others.

I am a member of the fabulous white race. We have brought the world great things like smelly cheese, National Socialism, and boat shoes. And we have done pretty well for ourselves. Sure, we’ve had ethical lapses here and there, but for the most part, we tried to do right.1

But the one thing we’re not great at2 is this: we talk way too much. And it’s hard to listen when you’re never shutting the fuck up. In one sense, we can’t be blamed for this. We have such sonorous, resonant voices that it’s hard to deprive the world of a moment of hearing it. Which is why we say silly things like, “Men’s rights matter too!” or “Racism is over!” or “FREEBIRRRRRD!”

You’ll have to take our word for it, people of color: we aren’t deliberately saying absurd, cruel things. We aren’t intentionally tuning you out. We just want you to hear our beautiful voices. We would rather you suffer a million years of other, less important degradations than be deprived of the sound of Gilbert Gottfried’s voice for a single second.3

But okay. We get it. It may be time to give other people a chance to talk. Please, black people. Explain to us why it’s mildly irritating that cops disproportionately target young black men.

Whoa, hey, easy now. Let us just cut in for a second. Do you mind? DO YOU MIND? Thank you. Why do you hate cops? Don’t you realize they have a job to do and it’s super dangerous? So maybe the best thing to do is just comply to every single goddamn thing they say. Agreed? AGREED.

Okay, Native Americans. Your turn. Explain to us why you find the Redskins team name offensive.

HEY NOW! That eye roll was immature. You hear me? Immature. We named the team that to honor you, not to insult you. We named the team that with the best of intentions. And you know how they say the road to heaven is paved with good intentions? It’s a better road than that trail of tears amirite? Ah hahaha! But we kid. That whole ugly business was so far in the past that we barely remember it.

Can we all just take a moment to appreciate the timbre of my voice? Let me sing some scales for you.

DO SOL LA FA TI DO RE, DO TI LA MI DO RE DO!

Okay, women, your turn. Wait, some women are white, right? What’s their problem? Ugggghhhh that time of the month, amirite? Hahaha no, let’s not joke about that. Vaginas are terrifying. Okay, women, what’s your problem? Something about paid maternity leave and… wage gap? Well of course there’s a wage gap, you want to take 2 paid weeks off to be with your newborn! Don’t you see how goddamn crazy that is? Sorry. Sorry. Go ahead.

Hold it. Hold it right there. See? See how I did that? See how I domineered that goddamn situation with my beautiful, sexy, baritone voice? Maybe if you were that aggressive in the office you’d be better heard.

Okay… Latinos? Why are you here? What have you got to complain about taking all our jobs? Can… can I see your papers? No, it’s not profiling, I just want to check… what do you mean you left your wallet on your nightstand? Sorry, we’ll talk after you’ve wait in line like all of our ancestors did, probably.

Okay, that feels like a productive conversation. I’m happy we had this chat. You know, you really don’t get what other people are talking about until you listen and really empathize with them, you know? It’s like we can’t function in a multicultural society unless we recognize the common humanity of our neighbors. Lesson learned.

Okay, back in the kitchen, toots. You, Pedro — I said go back to your homeland. Out. Now. We’ll see you at the casino, chief. Just let us know if we can honor any more of your murdered countrymen with awesome team names. And black guys —

Hey, why is Baltimore on fire? Didn’t we solve this shit? GUYS, WHY IS BALTIMORE ON FIRE?
Featured Photo: NYC Arthur


1. I’d really appreciate it if you just fucking be cool and not fact-check me on that statement.

2. I SAID BE COOL.

3. Fun fact: Car insurance is totally unnecessary. The only reason it exists is so we could give Gottfried a bit more screen time as the Aflac duck.