Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Christmas: a great time to take leave of your senses

Usually I just watch all of this from a distance with equal parts mild amusement and cynicism and alarm. And you have to admit it really is amusing and perplexing and troubling all at the same time:

On the one hand you have the people who buy into the advertising and media hype and drive themselves to distraction and serious debt by buying and buying and buying more shit in order to prove to everyone that they love them and are good enough. They'll physically assault another parent to get that last zhu zhu pet or tickle me Elmo or whatever, or have a major episode of road rage in the mall parking lot, because they have so thoroughly internalized the consumer messages embedded in our culture.

On the other hand you have wingnut groups that boycott the Gap for failing to explicitly use the word Christmas in their ads, only to end the boycott and claim victory mere weeks later when a new Gap holiday ad, no doubt filmed in July, airs which does use the word. Cuz just saying the word Christmas makes you a fine upstanding Christian organization, apparently.

Meanwhile Bill O'Reilly rants about the "war on Christmas" (we have a war on everything else, so why not? this is America - we like wars) and claims that everyone who uses the phrase Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas must "loathe the baby Jesus." This just sort of makes me giggle. Two words, Bill-o: false dilemma. I don't believe that the baby Jesus had any particular supernatural powers or properties, and I certainly don't worship him, but I don't loathe him either. In fact, I generally like babies, and feel a lot of compassion for those who are born into tough economic and social circumstances. If I could, I would snuggle them all, ensure that they have warm clothes and a safe place to sleep, and contribute to their college funds. And this generalized fondness for babies of all types extends to historical babies too. I suspect most people feel this way. It's simply not the case that we either have to view the baby Jesus as the lord and savior of the universe and thus insist on using non-inclusive language during the holidays OR we despise Jesus and everything he stands for and wish to destroy Christmas altogether. So... sorry Bill - you picked a particularly bad - and transparent - false dilemma this time.

And then there's the CHRIST-mas tree. Which is profoundly amusing and puzzling to me. First of all, just look at it. Damn.
But more importantly, this seems so deeply contradictory to me. All of this hype seems deeply contradictory. Let's deconstruct it for a minute. Christmas, as we should all know, is a hybrid holiday composed of pagan traditions that were adapted by church leaders and blended with the story of the birth of Christ in order to broaden the appeal of Christianity. And then all of this was appropriated by The Capitalist Machine in order to become a giant profit-mill. But I digress. Just having a Christmas tree at all is totally rooted in pagan history, not to mention most of the other icons that accompany Christmas in our culture. So if you seriously want to reclaim "Christmas" you need to divorce it from all the pagan traditions with which it's been contaminated. In fact, Christmas shouldn't even be in December, although I can't really remember when it should be. As I recall, the idea that Christ was born on December 25th has more to do with the winter solstice than with historical documentation. I suppose we would know for sure if we looked up the census records of ancient Rome.

Then there's the name. If you come from a fairly anti-Catholic protestant church like the one I grew up in, you should feel a bit of discomfort over the name: Christ-mass. In fact, many of the older people in the church of my childhood felt uncomfortable at the very presence of a Christmas tree in the church, since they felt that it was a secular icon that detracted from the only icon which should be allowed in the sanctuary - a plain wooden cross. It seems to me like they were a bit more authentic than those who are running around screaming about whether we use the phrase Merry Christmas or not. On the other hand, I don't know how sincere/informed/power-hungry they truly are in their heart-of-hearts, so this is something I should probably reserve judgment about. However, my point remains that if you really care about the authenticity of your religion, just getting a CHRIST-mas tree or forcing people to say Merry Christmas is barely scratching the surface, and seems petty and trifling.

Still, I do have something in common with some of these folks. I know - it's shocking. Many of these type scream and fuss about the wording or the images in our public holiday displays while continuing to buy lavish gifts for their kids and, as far as I can tell, give little of their time or money to worthy causes that would truly spread love and joy to the masses. However, some of them really do target the materialism and commercialization of the season rather than petty wording issues, and work to limit their consumption and improve the conditions of the world's poor. And that is something I can get on board with. The thing is, these are the ones who aren't very vocal or visible in the media hype. These are the ones who are quietly working in prison ministries and homeless shelters and raising money to dig wells and build schools and orphanages all year long. They give much of their surplus money to these causes while giving only modest or homemade gifts to friends and family. But the thing is, they're usually too busy working in the trenches and too modest to run their mouths off like the Bill O'Reillys of the world. And I would suspect they're a tiny minority. But I know they exist, because I've known people like this, and I respect them. They at least put their money where their mouth is.

So even though I also despise the commercialization and consumerism and stress and chaos of the Christmas season (see, I used the word, yay for me!), I'm not ready to dismiss it altogether either. Instead, I hope my kids get the sense that it's a time to be aware of how privileged we are, and to try to be generous to those who aren't so privileged, and to bake cookies and make gifts for people and send cute pics and thoughtful cards to friends and family who are far away, and spend time sledding/snowshoeing/whatever-noncommercial-nonstressful-thing-you-like-to-do with people we love. Cuz, as the Grinch realized in his epiphanal moment: Christmas doesn't come from a store. And while I don't know what the original "Spirit of the Season" is or was (and no amount of cheesy made-for-TV Christmas movies will help me figure this out), I do know that if I was the dictator of the universe, that's what it would be all about. So Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, y'all.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Personal Identity in a Consumer Culture, Part III: Appropriation

Usually when I talk critically about advertising I focus on the ways in which advertisers seek to convince you that their product is a necessity if you wish to be a certain kind of person. This goes way beyond just crafting an image for yourself. We've gotten past that to the point where you can really BE a certain kind of person just by owning the right stuff. But this discussion often neglects another way that advertisers play the identity card. Appropriating some icon or word or idea that has deep cultural significance for the target demographic is at the top of the list of Sleazy Things Advertisers Do, in my book. Tapping into the emotional or ideological significance of some powerful concept just to peddle your shit is about as low as it gets. Here are some examples:

Peace Love the Gap (or One of These Things is not like the Others)

Joey Ramone, who has a lot in common with Jesus as it turns out, wears Doc Martens

Pepsi, Obama, whatever. It's all about the Hope.

Che, who wears Converse on his neck like all good revolutionaries

But I'm not sure what to think of this one. It certainly is an example of blatant co-opting of cultural (religious) iconography. But there are a couple of significant differences. For one thing, this example is meant to serve a political rather than economic goal. And the political goal is a worthy one in and of itself. It's true that political representation and funding for social services are allotted based on the census, so getting underrepresented populations to participate in the census is a respectable cause. And it may also be true (as the creator of this ad campaign says) that religion is the best way to reach this demographic. But it's still an appropriation of something with great cultural significance for political purposes. And that doesn't sit well with me. I'm interested to hear your take on this.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Video of the Day

Flight of the Conchords...'nuff said.

Have a great weekend y'all.

On the edge of the fray

Lately I've been sort of blog-weary and have avoided some of the things going on in the news and in the blogosphere. But it's basically impossible to remain silent about this nonsense, so here we go.

Yesterday Ronald Gold published this article on Bilerico that can't really be described as anything other than hateful toward trans people. In it he basically dismisses the lived experience of transgendered and transsexual people, and suggests that they're just girls who want to play with boy toys and boys who want to play with girl toys. More or less. Many insightful and powerful things have been said in response, both in the comments on that post and in other places. Here are a few that I would recommend:
Jillian Weiss
Questioning Transphobia

The thing is, Gold's view - or a slight variation of it - is incredibly common. Teaching classes that cover gender issues can be a sobering experience in this regard. I don't have any official statistics, but I'm sure a substantial chunk of the American public has this kind of view on the transgender and transsexual experience. And this is puzzling to me, given the reality of living as a trans person in our culture. For one thing, think about all that goes into transitioning: the social pressure and judgment and ostracism and potential for losing relationships and jobs and social acceptance. It's preposterous to think of anyone putting themselves through this flippantly or based on some simple urge to dress a certain way.

Secondly, look at the stats that characterize the trans experience. Depression and suicide are prevalent in the trans community. And why wouldn't they be? This is a normal response to being pressured to live in a box that doesn't fit. This is a normal response to facing the daily disapproval of peers and loved ones, to being viewed as less-than, deviant, dangerous, perverted. I've always thought that the rates of depression and suicidal thoughts among a demographic tell you a lot about how we value that group, what kind of treatment they receive, and how they've been taught to view themselves. If it were as simple as Gold suggests, it would be something that trans individuals could just let go of and move on with their lives - an irritation that they could nevertheless live with. But even a casual observer who knows little of the political and cultural framework can see that this is most definitely not the case. If nothing else, these deep and lasting issues belie Gold's words in an obvious and straightforward way.

Unfortunately, I don't think this is about making sense, or choosing the most plausible view. It's more about political agendas and historical tensions and theoretical clashes. The tragedy is that what's at stake is the lives of real people, and for some reason, realizing that seems to be impossible for someone like Gold.


I admit to knowing very little about Hanukkah, and I suspect that most of what I do know is the same sugar-coated, commercialized variety as the things I know about a lot of other holidays. So this article by David Brooks struck me as really interesting and thoughtful. I don't doubt that others have different perspectives on this piece of history and the resulting cultural practices that emerged from it. But I also think the urge to dig under the layers that have accumulated over the years to attempt to really understand the political and religious implications is a productive one. So, Happy Hanukkah. Here's to trying to understand history in order to avoid making those same old mistakes over and over again.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

We're supposed to be shocked by this

Fast-food standards for meat top those for school lunches

This kind of news story makes me want to get back onto my rant about class warfare.

Remember back when the Obamas had just moved to Washington, and the media was reporting on the school they had chosen for their kids? For several nights in a row, that school's lunch menu was featured on the news. Of course, it didn't contain any of this kind of meat. It was all organic, free of hydrogenated oils and high fructose corn syrup, delicious and inviting. And kids whose parents are nutrition geeks (like me) don't eat this kind of meat either, because we send healthy food in their lunches and don't let them eat the school cafeteria food. But that's also based on the reality that we can afford to buy healthy food and have time to make lunches in the morning. For those who don't? The lunch (and sometimes breakfast) served at school is often billed as "the only healthy meal these kids might get all day." This is certainly the way it was viewed at the alternative school when I taught there. When I heard people say this I would think to myself "what do you mean by 'healthy'?"

And that's where it's hard to draw the line and choose your battles. It's true that the food provided by government programs will prevent you from starving. But that's about all you can say for it. And you know this isn't going to change anytime soon, because the people who are on the receiving end of this kind of treatment are the very people who have no voice, are less likely to be educated on nutrition, and often have much bigger problems to deal with than this. And that's how class warfare works, and what perpetuates the cycle.

More on class warfare:
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
and This

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Personal Identity in a Consumer Culture, Part II

"Oh baby, thanks for protecting me with this giant diamond from this scary, scary storm that made me spin around and make my hair all twirly. Now I'll give you some pussy in exchange..."

or something like that.

Bake Some Love. Cause love is the kind of thing that can be baked and fed to your family.

Nestle ad courtesy of commenter VG.

Personal Identity in a Consumer Culture, Part I

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Lies We Tell Our Kids, part IV

There's a new poster that looks sorta like this hanging on a bulletin board in the hallway at my kid's daycare.

I hate shit like this. I remember hating shit like this as a kid. I don't want people telling my kid stuff like this, although I know it's inevitable. I also don't want to be that parent who raises hell about every little thing.

The thing is, I don't really think this is a little thing. I think this kind of message, taken together with all the other little lies found in motivational materials for kids, sends a clear message to kids that adults are full of crap. And if there's anything I want to succeed at, it's having an honest and close relationship with my kid. I want her to be able to talk to me about anything, and to trust me and believe what I say. And feeding them shit like this from the very beginning seems like the last thing you should do to accomplish this.

Of course, that doesn't mean that I think we should be soul-crushingly honest and cynical and discourage them from exploring their world and taking on their own projects and being creative and searching for their own passions. And I also think that we have to be age-appropriate and be careful to discuss things with them when they're ready. But that doesn't mean we should outright lie to them when they're young. I just don't think we should tell them that somehow everything will magically fall into their laps if they just think positively enough or work hard enough or are pretty/smart/witty/popular enough. Because life just isn't like that, and the more honest adults are with you about the things they've learned and the mistakes they've made and the realities they've encountered in their lives the better off you'll be. And if nothing else, at least you'll have one person in your life who's consistently honest with you, and doesn't just tell you what they think you want to hear. There's gotta be some value in that.

Part One
Part Two
Part Three


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Personal Identity in a Consumer Culture


You Are What You _________ (Own/Drive/Wear/Etc)

As the Christmas season approaches I'm basically turning into a grumpy old codger. Things that usually just irritate me are downright pissing me off. Things like jewelry ads and gendered toys and the talking heads yammering on ad nauseum about retail sales and "black Friday" (which isn't now and never was the biggest sales day of the year, I'm here to tell you). Next thing you know I'll be yelling at the neighborhood kids from my creakity rocking chair on the front porch. But since it's too cold to sit on the front porch grumbling and shaking my fist at the world, I’ve decided to begin a series of posts that illustrate, on their own and with no additional commentary needed, what’s wrong with our consumer culture. Enjoy.

I Am Jeep.

Life. Well Spent.

Everyone will worship you.

World AIDS Day