Instapun*** Archive Listing

Archive Listing
October 19, 2005 - October 12, 2005

Sunday, July 18, 2004

UPDATE. Chastened by the July 15 entry in InstaPunk, some teenage girls have decided to fight back against the fashion requirement to dress like hookers. The CBS Early Show reports on the phenomenon here. Be sure to watch the video feature accessed via a button in the upper left corner of the screen. No word yet on whether a similar movement has been started by teenagers who feel it's time to learn something in school besides sexual techniques.

Chirac Shocked

French president Jacques Chirac ( left) and Gallic hope Thomas Voeckler

C'EST LA GUERRE.. President Jacques Chirac reacted angrily today to the weekend's events in the Tour de France. The Associated Press reported:

Lance Armstrong cleared his path to a record sixth straight Tour de France crown, overpowering rivals to win the 13th stage Saturday. His two-day display of dominant mountain riding has all but decided cycling's showcase event even before it veers into the Alps next week.

Only Italian Ivan Basso managed to stay with the five-time champion on the devastating ascent to the Plateau de Beille, the last of seven climbs on a sun-baked, 127.7-mile trek through the Pyrenees.

As Armstrong and Basso rode through cheering crowds along the steep, snaking road, other riders scattered down the mountain, their hopes of dethroning the 32-year-old Texan evaporating with the sweat off their brows.

Jan Ullrich, considered Armstrong's toughest rival, conceded defeat after the steep 9.9-mile climb mined with hairpin turns.

I have rarely pushed myself so hard," said Ullrich, the 1997 Tour champ and five-time runner-up. "But after seven mountains and more than 200 kilometers under conditions that should really be ideal for me, I must admit: Lance appears to be unbeatable this year."

Ullrich has finished second to Armstrong three times.

French champion Thomas Voeckler held onto the overall lead and the prized yellow jersey — barely. In Friday and Saturday's stages in the Pyrenees, Armstrong trimmed Voeckler's lead from more than nine minutes to just 22 seconds.

Asked to comment, President Chirac blasted what he called "typical American aggression and Texas bullying tactics" and called upon the U.N. and the European Union to pass sanctions against the "imperialist aspirations" of U.S. bicyclists.

Particularly galling to Chirac and the French government was the AP's recital of the impending humiliation of French champion Thomas Voeckler, who wears the yellow shirt of Tour leadership and contemporary French valor:

Voeckler dropped away on the last, brutal climb to the Plateau de Beille, but he was able to keep his overall lead. It probably won't last long.

"I hung onto this jersey with my guts," he said.

Armstrong, who had set out Saturday with the aim of taking back the yellow jersey he so covets, was impressed. He said his team kept telling him through his radio that Voeckler was being left far behind — only to reverse course and say he was still hanging in.

"It's incredible," Armstrong said. "This guy has real panache.

"He deserves to have that jersey for another day or however long until he loses it."

But lose it he will. Armstrong is no doubt planning to take it from him when the Tour passes nearer Vichy on the way to Paris. Panache the French indubitably have, but it is no more deeply ingrained in the national character than the talent, and propensity, for surrender. Let us all hope that Chirac's current spite will melt into the usual acceptance of defeat and its accompanying dismissive shrug. Otherwise, many future votes in the U.N. Security Council may be tainted by Gallic spite.

Ah well. C'est la guerre. GO LANCE!

Saturday, July 17, 2004



Nasty, awful, hurtful bumper stickers

NOT NICE. It's probably no secret that we don't support Kerry for president around here, but we were still horrified to discover that the Republicans really are as mean as the Democrats have been saying they are. There's a website called where they sell these and many other equally offensive products they call "auto adornments." We would ask all of you to not go there and patronize these cruelty mongers, even though their prices are quite reasonable (as low as $3.49!) and they seem to have an efficient payment (PayPal/echeck/Visa/Mastercard/Amex/Discover) and shipping system in place. And don't be swayed by the fact that these bumper stickers are made of UV- and weather-resistant vinyl and are easily removable. Don't be tempted by the discounts that are available on as few as five items. Just think about how unhappy it would make Democrats to see these kinds of unpleasant sentiments on your car and you'll know what to do. Thank you.

Friday, July 16, 2004

Faking Whoopi

THE MAWRITE SHOW. So Whoopi Goldberg has managed to command center stage once again and play the aggrieved victim of Republican censorship. Getting fired from her million-dollar contract with Slim-Fast has to be worth more than a million dollars in free publicity to a woman who has just had her TV series cancelled. Now she becomes a martyr for having to endure the consequences of comparing the president of the United States to female genitalia. The controversy -- for as long as it lasts -- will swirl around the issue of whether a marketing decision by a business enterprise constitutes abridgment of Whoopi's freedom of speech. But I would suggest that this is a phony issue which obscures some genuinely puzzling questions about the behavior and values of so-called progressive women. (Progressive is the word they prefer to liberal or leftist, isn't it?) The subject and tenor of her joke are both highly relevant to any number of culture issues that matter more than her treatment at the hands of Slim-Fast.

I'll dispose of the freedom of speech nonsense first. Slim-Fast is not preventing Whoopi from speaking her mind. There is nothing in the Constitution that protects a speaker from public or private opprobrium when she chooses to make provocative remarks. The guarantee is that she is permitted to speak, not that she must be uniformly admired by everyone for having done so.

Much is made of the fact that she is a black woman, as if this were somehow the catalyst for Republican outrage at her joke. This would seem to smuggle it into the arena of civil rights or feminism. I'll leave the civil rights (i.e., racial) ramifications to others, though I expect no rational discourse on this aspect of it in a political environment that regards it as admissible for Julian Bond to insult the presidency far more viciously than Whoopi has done. I'm much more interested in the feminist perspective. How might feminists view Whoopi's decision to insult the president by comparing him to female genitalia? And how far would they go to defend her right to do this?

A brave Canadian gentleman named Neil Boyd has just a written a book decrying the excesses of hardline feminism as it is practiced in the heart of its power base, the academic institutions. It is called Big Sister: How Extreme Feminism Has Betrayed the Fight for Sexual Equality, and it describes events from Boyd's own experience as a pro-feminist academic who tried to arbitrate gender issues at a Canadian university.

It all began when Boyd was appointed chairman of the harassment tribunal at Simon Fraser University. He seemed like the perfect choice. A professor of criminology, a lawyer and a one-time parole officer, Boyd was also a committed feminist. Or so he thought. But he soon found himself embroiled in a case in which a female student had lied about being raped. It got worse. An innocent man was fired without due process; the university refused to back down when he was exonerated, and the women's studies department rallied around the supposed victim. Boyd started to wonder: What had happened to the feminism of his youth?

His musings led him to a couple of strong convictions that resulted in his book. His key points are easily summarized:

"My opposition," Boyd explains, "is to a poisonous strain of feminism, a concoction of regressive policies only masquerading as belonging to a vanguard of progressive thought or action. The people behind these policies oppose free expression and due process and favour solving complex problems through an inflexible imposition of punishment by the state."

They are, he writes elsewhere, "a cadre of radical extremists who are spouting bogus science and silencing their critics with a combination of illogical mantras and vicious tirades." Even worse, in their prudery and intolerance, they have made common cause with "the evangelicals who want paintings and sculptures of naked women or men removed from the workplace and from all forms of advertising."

Boyd gives four examples where radical feminists have gone too far: They are intolerant of all pornography; they have defined sexual harassment in ways that are too vague and that ultimately infantilize women; they are apt to define any male sexual advance as rape; and they exaggerate the extent to which women are the victims of domestic violence.

This doesn't look good for Whoopi. It would certainly seem that the hardline feminist prudery would not sanction Whoopi's anatomical references. Nor, if they disapproved her speech, would they be likely to defend it. None of us is supposed to notice or mention the fact that women's bodies differ from men's in any way, and in the new etiquette, we are being urged to conduct all our social interactions as if there were no such thing as physical bodies, attractive or otherwise, or clothing, attractive or otherwise.

But does anyone seriously expect that the feminists won't leap to Whoopi's defense? Of course they will. Because the feminist mentality is capable of maintaining exactly opposite convictions without recognizing any contradiction. Thus, we have feminists who simultaneously espouse the absurd sexual harrassment standards Boyd cites while cheering the quasi-pornographic career of Madonna and the jailbait tartiness that has made Britney Spears a superstar. Her particular brand of sex-based success is called 'girlpower.' The bottom line is that women are permitted to flaunt themselves as nakedly (pun intended) as they will, whereas men are not supposed to read their behavior or dress as an invitation to initiate sexual contact.

This is a ridiculous double standard which can be summed up by a conversation I reported elsewhere. A female acquaintance of mine -- an academic feminist -- was inveighing against pornography, but in passing she allowed that erotica was okay. I asked her to define the difference between the two. She hemmed and hawed for a while and finally conceded that erotica is what women find exciting and pornography is what men find exciting. Even when she realized the import of her definition, she had no problem with it and argued for its validity.

Whatever women decide is decent to do or say about sexual matters, even sexual anatomy, in public is acceptable. The best proof of this is the self-celebrating theatrical phenomenon-cum-holiday entitled The Vagina Monologues. If you haven't heard of it, here is a brief description:

The structure of the piece is pretty simple: [Playwright] Ensler describes the project, which was to interview a large and diverse sample of women about their vaginas—how they feel about them, what they call them, etc.—and present a selection of the results as a series of monologues, sort of on the model of Anna Deavere Smith’s recreated interviews in Fires in the Mirror and other pieces, linked by material about how each interview was collected. Ensler doesn’t adhere rigidly to that structure, but that’s the basic device. There are no props or sets, though there’s a nice lighting design that helps dramatize the material.

Does it get explicit? Yes.

...The next two bits—after a Hallmark Card moment quoting a wise-child six-year-old, which actually evoked an “Awww” from behind me—are definitely open to criticism. The first is the “cunt” riff. Much of this is a kind of rhapsody on the word itself, taking it one phoneme at a time and lingering ecstatically over each as the full word is built up. Then comes a comic turn on the reactions women can still get by saying “cunt” in public. Then comes a recommendation to “reclaim” it, not only as a synonym for “vagina,” but as a metonym for “woman”....

For those who haven't been following this kind of theater, do not delude yourselves that this is an off-off-Broadway experiiment. It has become an institution. Every year since 1998, there has been an event called V-Day:

The Vagina Monologues initiated V-Day, a global annual event that raises funds and promotes awareness to stop violence against women. The first V-Day was held on Valentine's Day 1998 in New York, featuring a gala performance of The Vagina Monologues with celebrated artists including Winona Ryder, Glenn Close, Whoopi Goldberg, Susan Sarandon, Lily Tomlin, Calista Flockhart, Rosie Perez and Marisa Tomei. The second V-Day was held in London in 1999, and featured Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet, Melanie Griffith and Gillian Anderson. V-Day 2000 was celebrated in Los Angeles, Santa Fe and Aspen, and on over 150 college campuses throughout the country. V-Day 2001 was celebrated on over 300 college campuses and at Madison Square Garden.

In The Vagina Monologues, Ensler gives voice to a chorus of lusty, outrageous, poignant, brave, highly original and thoroughly human stories. Based on interviews with a diverse group of women, the play brazenly explores the humor, power, pain, wisdom, outrage, mystery, and excitement hidden in vaginas. Having seen The Vagina Monologues, no one - woman or man - will ever look at the world the same way again.

Is anyone starting to see a new problem here, a new contradiction for the feminists to blink away? To understand it, we'll have to look a little deeper into the career of Whoopi Goldberg. Her bio is mostly missing from movie websites, but tells us the following about her background:

Whoopi Goldberg was born in New York City in 1955, as Caryn Elaine Johnson. She was born in Chelsea, in New York City. She worked in a funeral parlor, and as a bricklayer, while taking small parts on Broadway. She moved to California and worked with improv groups, including Spontaneous Combustion, and developed her skills as a stand up comedienne

It was while she was in San Francisco that the author of the first piece about The Vagina Monologues above, John Burke, saw her perform a bit he believed to be a kind of anticipation of Ensler's play:

I saw Whoopi Goldberg at Valencia Rose (here in San Francisco), about 1984—just before her career took off—do a hilarious silent bit in which she tried to perform a pelvic self-exam, perched on a folding chair and using a flashlight, a speculum, and the outside rear-view mirror from (I think) a 1967 Pontiac.

Elsewhere, we find confirmation that Whoopi was not just a casual one-time performer in the play. Part of it was apparently written for her:

Then there is The Angry Vagina (a monologue originally written for Whoopi Goldberg), a hilariously raging riff about a world that seems to prize women's discomfort, from gynecological exams to... [if you must, read the rest here]

She also has a continuing relationship with Eve Ensler, sharing the same honors with her at "The Center":

NEW YORK — On Saturday, October 25, 2003, nearly 800 women are expected to fill the scenic banquet room at New York’s Pier Sixty, Chelsea Piers, to enjoy dinner with actress Whoopi Goldberg (The Color Purple, Ghost, Boys on the Side and the new NBC television sitcom, Whoopi ) and playwright Eve Ensler (The Vagina Monologues, Necessary Targets), honorees of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center’s sixth annual Women’s Event.

Even has discovered a link between the two of them in its own online marketing efforts.

All of this demonstrates pretty conclusively that Whoopi Goldberg has a lot invested in the subject of vaginas -- one might even say in the politics of vaginas. Why, then, would she say in a political forum, in reference to the president, that "bush should stay where it belongs"? In this context, "where it belongs" is generally understood to mean "out of sight, out of mind." This from the same woman who is practically the patron saint of a work that contains:

...a recommendation to “reclaim” [the C-Word], not only as a synonym for “vagina,” but as a metonym for “woman”...

If we're permitted to translate, this means that in her choice of language, Whoopi was actually comparing President Bush to "woman." At this point she's in a hopeless situation. Either she has just libeled her own sex, or she has delivered a fake insult or no insult at all to the hated Republican president. What could she have been thinking? What can all the big league feminists be thinking now?

Well, maybe she wasn't, and they aren't. That's the only way around this metaset of contradictions. It's the way they usually take.

If the Republicans were on their toes at all, they'd thank Whoopi for the honor she did the president by comparing him to this most important metonym in the universe. How could anyone take objection to that?

Thursday, July 15, 2004


The Box

Can you recognize the Box?

THE KIDS. The National Endowment for the Arts has issued a report that documents a continuing and accelerating decline in literary reading in all parts of the American population. Literary reading is defined as novels, plays, and poetry, although in the report's statistics a juvenile romance novel counts the same as Moby Dick. And to qualify as a literary reader, all you have to do is read one book in the course of a year. Here's the worst news:

The steepest decline -- and the one that the report notes with most alarm -- has occurred among young adults. In 1982, respondents ages 18 to 34 were the group most likely to report the recreational reading of literature. Over the intervening decades, they have become the group least likely to do so (except for some segments of the population over 65).

The change has been particularly striking among those ages 18 to 24. The report says that, over the past two decades, the share of the adult population engaged in literary reading declined by 18 points, from 56.9 percent in 1982 to 43 percent in 2002. But for the 18-to-24 cohort, the drop has been faster, sinking from 59.8 percent to 42.8 percent, a decline of 28 percent.

"Reading at Risk" states that the trends among young readers (or, perhaps, nonreaders) suggest that "unless some effective solution is found, literary culture, and literacy in general, will continue to worsen."

"Indeed, at the current rate of loss," it says, "literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in half a century."

The statistics aren't surprising, but they are stark. Close to 60 percent of the 18 to 24 crowd don't read even one book -- not a mystery, not a thriller, nada -- in a year.

Maybe they're tired out from all the schoolwork they've done to become so proficient at math and science. Since 1995, an organization called Trends in International Mathematics and Science Studies (TIMMS) has been monitoring and testing the proficiency of high school seniors in these subjects worldwide. The latest full study was conducted in 1998, when today's 24 year olds would have been taking the test. How did they do?

One of the more ominous findings in the latest study is that even the American students taking advanced courses could not measure up to students from other nations. In math, they ranked 15th out of 16 nations. In physics, U.S. seniors ranked dead last.

In general math and science, American seniors ranked near the bottom among 21 nations.

Japan and China, usually the gold-medal performers in past studies of younger grades, did not participate in the seniors' round of the multiyear study.

Instead, U.S. seniors were outgunned in basic math by Sweden, Switzerland and Germany, among others; creamed in science by Canada; and overpowered in physics by the very country that is supposed to be looking to the United States for scientific expertise, Russia.

Only 11 percent of U.S. seniors understood, for example, one of the most basic concepts of energy conservation: that the amount of light energy produced by a lamp is less than the amount of electrical energy used to power the lamp in the first place.

Of course, math and science aren't as interesting as some other subjects. You can be hopeless with a calculator and still have quite a powerful interest in, say, history. Or maybe it's better not to say history because the picture doesn't look good there, either. Apparently we haven't been teaching this subject to kids for quite a long time now, if these citations by the National History Day program are true:

  • A 2000 Gallup Youth Survey shows that only 4 in 10 teenagers know that 1492 was the year that Columbus discovered America.

  • The 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress reported that only 17 percent of fourth graders, 14 percent of eighth graders, and 11 percent of twelfth graders were judged to be “proficient” in their knowledge of history. Over one-third of fourth and eighth graders failed to reach the “basic” level and more than half of the twelfth graders surveyed could not even achieve a “basic” understanding of the history of their own Nation.

  • The 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress reported that only 27 percent of America’s students knew what the U.S. Constitution was.

  • A 2000 study done by American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that nearly 80 percent of graduating college seniors from the nation’s top 55 college and universities failed when asked questions from a basic high school history exam.

To be fair, there are many great academic minds who are working to eliminate this problem, For example, an education professor named Sam Wineburg wrote an article explaining that "American students have always performed dismally on history tests designed to gauge factual knowledge." A few more articles like his, and we should all be able to breathe easier. But our mission is to figure out what it is that young Americans are doing that leaves them no time or inclination for reading, and obviously history isn't it.

Maybe it's all the great quality family time we Americans enjoy, especially at the dinner hour when all kinds of fascinating topics can be chewed over with the rib roast. Except that's not happening either, according to a 2002 article in the Christian Science Monitor:

Thirty percent fewer families come together for dinner today than did 20 years ago, and fewer than 15 percent of today's American families eat supper regularly (five to seven times per week).

It's no wonder; families are tugged in dozens of directions these days. Even the most conscientious parents sometimes load kids into the car during dinner hour with a juice box and pizza slice in hand - or allow their teens to skip supper night after night.

But a recent survey by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) might make parents think twice.

According to the survey, teenagers are particularly vulnerable to skipped suppers. CASA found, for example, that teens from families who eat dinner together were less likely to use illegal drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes than teenagers who rarely eat dinner with parents.

Aha. Drugs. That must be it. That's where the time goes. Only -- according to the experts -- it isn't where the time goes. Drug use trends for the younger generation are headed downward. A December 2003 announcement by the Department of Health & Human Services was full of good news:

HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson and John P. Walters, Director of National Drug Control Policy, today released results of the 2003 Monitoring the Future survey, showing an 11 percent decline in drug use by 8th, 10th, and 12th grade students over the past two years. The finding translates into 400,000 fewer teen drug users over two years... Current use (past 30 days) of any illicit drug between 2001 and 2003 among students declined 11 percent, from 19.4 percent to 17.3 percent. Similar declines were seen for past year use (11%, from 31.8% to 28.3%) and lifetime use (9%, from 41.0% to 37.4%).

The survey indicated that alcohol use is also declining modestly, although no percentages were offered of usage levels or changes. It's probably safe to assume there's still quite a bit of drinking going on, and cynics might point out that 17 percent of youngsters engaged in illicit drug use of any kind isn't a cause for celebration even if the overall trends seem favorable. At least some of the time spent not reading is likely being allocated to partying.

Where are we? There don't seem to be any intellectual pursuits to speak of in the younger crowd. No reading, no math or scientific interests, no historical curiosity, no long family talks by the fireplace. There is time required, of course, for work or school. Where else does the time go?

One big part of the answer is participating in the pop culture. This involves shopping, watching TV, surfing the Internet, and listening to music. Here's a hodgepodge of statistics cited by Media Scope:

  • Teenage boys spend about $84 a week, girls $83; boys spend more of their own money each week than do girls while girls spend more of their parents' money than do guys.
  • Teens spend more than 90% of their earnings, or about $67 a week, on merchandise, health and beauty aids, and entertainment.
  • Each year, teenage girls spend over $4 billion on cosmetics.
  • 35% of teens are interested in getting a credit card; 32% of teens already have personal credit cards; 9% of teens have access to their parent's credit card.
  • The average American spends 9.2 hours each day using consumer media.
  • More households report having video game equipment (62%), than having a subscription to a daily newspaper (50%). Of those U.S. homes with children, 70% own video game systems
  • 18% of teenagers 13-17 read "often," 50% read "sometimes" and 32% "never" read.
  • American children who have home video games play with them about 90 minutes a day.
  • Teenagers spend an average of 2.5 weekday hours on a home computer
  • 66% of U.S. children have a television set in their bedrooms.
  • Children spend about 28 hours per week watching television. Over the course of a year, this is twice as much time as they spend in school.
  • Teenage boys spend nearly twice as much time watching MTV as reading for pleasure.
  • 2.5% of 12- to 17-year-olds watch network news.
  • Teens ages 12-20 make up 16% of the population, but purchase 26% of movie tickets.
  • 63% of kids ages 9-17 say that seeing the latest movies is important.
  • 54% of kids view a movie on a VCR three or more days a week and 47% see a movie in a theater at least once a month.
  • American teenagers listen to an estimated 10,500 hours of rock music between the 7th and 12th grades-- just 500 fewer hours than they spend in school over twelve years.
  • 80% of 12- to 14-year-olds and 75% of 9- to 12- year-olds watch music videos.
Given these little nuggets of information, it's hardly a shock that when some masochist compared kids' knowledge of pop culture with, well, anything, pop culture won. In a 1998 survey sponsored by the National Constitution Center, it was established that more American teenagers:
  • can name three of the Three Stooges than can name the three branches of government (59% to 41%)
  • know the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air than know the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (94.7% to 2.2%)
  • know which city has the zip code "90210" than the city in which the US Constitution was written (75% to 25%), and
  • know the star of the motion picture "Titanic" than know the Vice President of the United States (90% to 74%).
These would be the same folks who are now setting records for not reading as young adults. What do we know about them for sure? They're spending machines. They're pop culture junkies. They have probably spent more time listening to pop music than engaging in anything that could reasonably be called conversation, and they don't have much of a clue about where the advanced civilization they live in came from. For them, it's all just there. But they're very good at shopping, playing video games, watching TV, and -- one more thing -- sex.

Back in the late 1990s, Media Scope reported:
  • Nationwide, nearly half (48.4%) of high school students have had sexual intercourse at least once.
  • Only 13% of 13-to 15-year-olds have had sex, as compared to 38% of 16-to 17- year-olds.
  • By senior year of high school, two-thirds of students have had intercourse.
  • 7.2% of all students initiated sexual intercourse before 13 years of age. 21.7% percent of black adolescents lost their virginity before age 13, as did 4% of whites and 7.7% of Latinos.
  • Almost one million teenagers become pregnant every year; more than half of these pregnancies are carried to term.
  • 2% of teenagers say abortion or pregnancy is the biggest problem facing teens.
A more recent report (2001) shows that these levels of sexual activity are increasing:

One in twelve children is no longer a virgin by his or her thirteenth birthday, and 21 percent of ninth-graders have slept with four or more partners.... By the time kids turn fifteen, according to research from the National Center for Health Statistics, one third of girls have had sex (compared with less than 5 percent in 1970), as have 45 percent of boys (up from 20 percent in 1972). But even those kids who remain virgins aren't necessarily innocent. In a recent survey by Seventeen magazine, 55 percent of teens, aged thirteen to nineteen, admitted to engaging in oral sex. Half of them felt it wasn't as big a deal as intercourse

Innocent is hardly a word that can be used at all with respect to this group. The National Coalition of Parents, Children & Families {NCPCF) has accumulated the following sourced statistics:
  • Three million of the visitors to adult web sites in September 2000 were age 17 or younger
  • Sex is the number 1 topic searched on the internet
  • “For the 20-year-old kid, porn stars have kind of replaced what models used to represent.”
  • 39 million homes receive the adult channels in scrambled form, while the number of children with potential exposure to such images is about 29 million
  • 21 percent of teens say they have looked at something on the Internet that they wouldn’t want their parents to know
  • A survey of 600 households conducted by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children found that 20% of parents do not know any of their children’s Internet passwords, instant messaging nicknames or email addresses.
  • Only 5% of parents recognized the acronym POS (parent over shoulder) and only 1% could identify WTGP (want to go private?), both of which are used frequently by teens when instant messaging
  • Median age for the first use of pornography: boys: 11-13 girls: 12-14
  • An estimated 18% of girls who are 15 years old will have a baby before age 20
  • In grades 7-12, 23.4% of first sexual relationships are one-night stands
  • 33 percent of guys and 23% of girls feel some or a lot of pressure to have sex
  • Women ages 20-24 obtain 32% of all abortions
  • 82 percent of teens did not use birth control pills during last sexual intercourse
  • Approximately 19 million new cases of STDs occurred in 2000, of which 9.1 million (48%) were among young people ages 15-24
  • 78 percent of new cases of genital herpes were caused by a virus found chiefly in the mouths of 16-21 year olds
  • 65 percent of all sexually transmitted infections contracted by Americans in one single year will occur in people under age 24
That last statistic comes from our happy group of nonreaders. Where did they get all these salacious ideas in the first place?
  • 75 percent of prime time television in the 1999-2000 season included sexual content
  • 23 percent of couples in scenes with intercourse appeared to be ages 18-24.
  • Movies have an 87% likelihood of presenting sexual material
  • The average American adolescent will view nearly 14,000 sexual references per year.
But the extraordinarily precocious sexual activity we see in the younger generation is not strictly the result of TV and movie depictions of sex. Corporate hucksters -- principally advertisers and retailers -- have also worked hard to awaken the sexual identity of children at younger and younger ages for the purpose of selling them more products. Here's the lede of a recent story at

June 12 — Sexy thong underwear. Brassieres festooned with rhinestones. Breast enhancement pills. Products targeted at young, body-conscious women? Try teenage — and even pre-teen — girls.

Like it or not, modern American culture is permeated with sex: from the steamy billboards foresting Times Square to the proliferation of "porn studies" on college campuses; from pop song lyrics to R-rated movies to the wild popularity of Internet porn sites.

One major retailer went so far with its sexually based marketing as to be accused of selling pornography:

A case in point is the recent brouhaha over Abercrombie & Fitch's peddling of sexually suggestive thong underwear to young girls.

The rear-less underwear, decorated with pictures of cherries and catchphrases like "kiss me," "wink wink" and "eye candy," sparked an outcry from conservative groups when it hit store shelves earlier this year.

Bill Johnson, president of the Michigan-based, family advocacy group American Decency Association, which is boycotting the retailer, calls the underwear "pornographic" and says they would fit a child as young as seven.

But seven isn't much younger than the age at which some parents take their kids to see supposedly wholesome performers like Janet Jackson and Britney Spears, who have become role models (NSFW) to little girls who want to know how they should dress, speak, and behave. The boys have role models too: foul-mouthed rappers who shout doggerel about pimps, ho's, guns, and violence. And this is no passing fad. Rap has been with us so long that graying veterans like Snoop Dogg have become acceptable as advertising icons and television hosts. Snoop Dogg was asked to host Saturday Night Live even though one of his sideline businesses makes what many people would call pornographic movies.

Now: does anyone want to wonder why the Internet is knee deep in child pornography? (It is impossible to do a search for information about pre-teen sexual activity without turning up more invitations to predophile sites than sources of research data, as I learned in preparing this entry.) And does anyone dare to ask who is making the pornography? Why, it's our kids. Many if not most of the webcam girls are college students, working their way through school: set up a live sex website and put your marketing major to good use. In just the past year the University of Indiana has played host to a porn producer who used IU students in a sex film shot on campus, Penn State University has sponsored an event called Cuntfest, hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of college girls on spring break have contributed amateur performances to dozens of video products (NSFW) featuring nudity and sexual antics, and dozens of college "humor" websites propagate pornographic materials (NSFW) that couldn't exist without willing (or at least susceptible) participants.

What have we prepared these youngsters to be? Porn performers and porn purveyors. If the rundown of their attainments enumerated above can be read like a resume, what else would you hire the kids of today to do? We began by considering the distressing phenomenon that literature is dying through inattention. Kids who won't read literature are certainly never going to write it. Their interest, to the extent that they have any, lies in the exact opposite direction. Because pornography in its many forms is the exact opposite of real art. Its purpose is not to elevate, illuminate, and inspire, but to drive from the mind all thought that does not pertain to sex. What other kind of thought have we equipped these children to entertain? And who will we have to blame when they leave their great monument behind -- a multimedia mountain of prurient crap that will finally bury the literature we never taught them to read or appreciate.

Do you have the nerve to look inside the box and see what is being created there? Our beloved American kids are destined to be porn stars. Aren't you proud of what so much emphasis on self-esteem and self-actualization has wrought. I know I am.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004


PRIORITIES. It's all well and good to talk about war and peace and politics when nothing serious is happening, but there are moments when it's time to put away childish things and deal in matters of true import. Just such a moment has arrived now. New photographs have become available that reveal a horrifying truth: Britney Spears has thick ankles. Who could have guessed the dreadful irony of such an eventuality? Certainly, the CIA gave us no hint. It's possible that stock markets will crash, a wave of post-traumatic shock syndrome will sweep through the female pre-teens of the nation, and life as we know it will cease to exist. No wonder she went over the edge a few months ago and savagely seduced her childhood sweetheart. This is the ultimate catastrophe for a country already ravaged by several hundreds of combat deaths and the humiliation of the humiliation of terrorists in our custody. What next? Madonna photographed without makeup? It's a sad day indeed that has arrived on our shores. Our archetypal siren not only has feet of clay; she has legs of piano and a sturdy peasant lower body that is bound to get us laughed at by those who are awaiting the divinely slim virgins of Allah -- the fleets of seraphs who will be surrendering their virginity to holy hijackers and saintly suicide bombers. What base fools we must look for adoring this coarse farm wench as a goddess. The shame of it all.

Britney Baldwin Steinway

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

The Honorary Punk Award

Orson Scott Card.

PUNK'D. There's a freelance science fiction writer from North Carolina we'd like to recognize with the Honorary Punk Award. We don't give it out often. It goes only to those who write pieces that need no elaboration or injections of attitude to make their point. What we do in such cases is simply reprint the the entire article, with no more than a brief acknowledgment of one or two ways that they have earned our admiration. Mr. Card has achieved this by driving home his point about media bias in a single proof construct -- his Rumsfeld-Clinton example -- which no reasonable person could deny. This is an astonishingly rare feat. Here is his essay entire. It's called "High Bias.":

When Fox News Channel was founded by Rupert Murdoch, the consensus was that no startup all-news cable channel could possibly compete with CNN, and if any startup had a chance, it was MSNBC, which had the combined clout of NBC's esteemed news division and Microsoft, which in those days was believed to own the future.

Now, almost a decade later, Fox News Channel has left both CNN and MSNBC in the dust. There's no guarantee that this is permanent, of course. But it certainly has the left in a panic. They hated it that American conservatism had any voice at all, back when it was confined to a few radio talk shows--remember how everybody wanted to blame Rush Limbaugh and other conservative talk-radio hosts for the Oklahoma City bombing?

Now, though, to have Fox News Channel be the source for the largest portion of America's TV news junkies just sticks in their craw. How could such a thing happen? Scott Collins, author of "Crazy Like a Fox: The Inside Story of How Fox News Beat CNN," thinks he has the answer.

It's not what Fox claims--that the American news media have a pronounced and painful liberal bias, so that huge numbers of Americans had given up on TV news, only to return in droves when Fox News offered them a balanced, trustworthy source of information. No, it's that a large number of Americans believed that the news was biased. How they got this idea is that they were . . . hmmm . . . idiots? But no matter. Mr. Collins repeatedly states that the perception is what mattered, and by homing in on the audience dumb enough to think the media was biased, Fox News won the ratings race (but not, of course, the race for quality news coverage).

I'm painting Mr. Collins's book far too negatively, and I'm doing it deliberately. In fact, you can finish "Crazy Like a Fox" and think you have received a balanced story. Nowhere does Mr. Collins actually say that Fox News viewers are idiots. But Mr. Collins is a product of the liberal American news media, which are deeply offended at any accusation of bias. They don't twist the news--they inform their readers of the truth. And when they see Fox News trumpeting slogans like "we report, you decide" and "fair and balanced," they see red. They take it for granted that those slogans are true of every news outlet except Fox News.

So when Mr. Collins sets out to write a fair and balanced account of Fox News's triumph, he does not realize that his own reporting is biased, too. He scrupulously avoids demonizing the folks at Fox News.

But the bias is there. It is simply taken for granted that Fox distorts the news, that Fox is unusual for taking sides, while all of the allegations about liberal bias are refuted so that one could close this book believing that liberal bias in the vast majority of the American news media is a delusion shared only by dimwitted conservatives who don't like it that the world has passed them by--and blame the messenger.

So let's put it to the test. Is there a real leftist bias in the mainstream news?

One recent morning--the Sunday before Memorial Day--I picked up the Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times and started looking through national news coverage. You know, the stuff that is filtered through the lens of liberal bias long before it even reaches local papers, which rarely revise what they get off the wire services.

In a story on Donald Rumsfeld's remarks to the graduating class at West Point, here is the lead paragraph: "Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, making no mention of the prisoner abuse scandal that has led to calls for his ouster, told a cheering crowd of graduating cadets Saturday that they will help win the global fight against terror."

Let's see, how could there be any bias in that? Every word is true, right?

Except for this: The first thing mentioned, the lens through which we are forced to view the rest of the story, is something that did not happen and that only an idiot would expect might happen: Mr. Rumsfeld mentioning the prisoner-abuse scandal at a commencement address at West Point.

The lead, in other words, is not the graduation that is supposedly being reported, but rather Mr. Rumsfeld's failure to resign in the face of events that happened weeks ago. How is Mr. Rumsfeld's not resigning news? It's mentioned in this story only because the reporter does not want to let go of it.

This is bulldog journalism: Once you get hold of a story, you never loosen your grip until your victim dies--at least politically.

Does it happen to everybody? Or just Republicans? Well, try this fictitious opening paragraph: "Senator Hillary Clinton, making no mention of the $100,000 she once made by trading cattle futures with astonishing perfection, told a cheering crowd of activists that President Bush's globalist economic policy is hurting poor people in other countries and costing American jobs."

Nope. You've never seen it, and you never will. Because bulldog journalism only goes one way in our "unbiased" mainstream media.

The only differences between Fox News and all the other news media are (1) they admit that on some issues they take sides, and (2) they allow the conservative side to be heard--without contempt.

Fox News, for instance, made the decision after 9/11 that they would display the American flag. This has caused (and still causes) seething resentment from the rest of the news media. Why?

First, it implies that the rest of the news media aren't patriotic. Well, duh. Come on, prior to 9/11--and even after it--they prided themselves on not being patriotic and spoke of people who were self-consciously patriotic with contempt. They thought of themselves as being above national borders. You can't have it both ways, kids.

Second, it's pandering to the ignorant unwashed masses of Americans who want their news from people who are "on our side." Again, duh. When a nation is at war--which on 9/11 we finally realized that we are--we don't want to hear the news from neutral parties. We want the news to be accurate, yes--and Fox has had its share of painfully accurate scoops that nobody wanted to hear, but which we needed to know. But when a negative story comes out, we want the people telling us the news to say it with regret. And when America wins, we want our news media to tell us with excitement and happiness.

In other words, we want to hear the truth from a friend. From someone who is one of us. And if it took an Australian-born mogul, Rupert Murdoch, to give us an American national news source, so be it.

But let me go on. A story about terrorists murdering civilians and taking hostages in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, never actually uses the word terrorist. Instead, the killers are "gunmen" (in the headline), "suspected Islamic militants wearing military-style uniforms" and "attackers" (in the body of the story).

Suspected Islamic militant--this pussyfooting appellation even though later in the story we learn that an Islamic group called "Al-Quds" and signing itself "al-Qaida in the Arab Peninsula" is claiming credit for the attack. But presumably they are only "suspected" of being Islamic militants because, after all, they might turn out to be long-hidden Nazis or perhaps holdouts from the Irish Republican Army or--who knows?--maybe Timothy McVeigh's buddies from the "red states" in America.

That's what makes some Americans turn away from mainstream sources in disgust. Why in the world is there any need for the news writers to wrap themselves in impartiality when the story makes Islamic militants look bad, but when the story is about our own secretary of defense, he gets slapped around from the first paragraph on?

This "neutral" approach to a terrorist attack on Americans and other westerners working for American companies in Saudi Arabia is one reason why Fox News is triumphing. Fox makes it clear that they're on America's side, that what happens to Americans abroad is happening to "us"--in short, they feel our pain because they are part of us.

Let's go on to the coverage of Bill Cosby's remarks on the self-defeating actions of some segments of the American black community. In the Asheville Citizen-Times, it's hard to find what is newsworthy about the article at all. Mr. Cosby's remarks are reported as taking place "earlier this month," and there is no event since then to justify considering this new article as "news."

In fact, the "story" is a thinly disguised editorial, in which Associated Press writer Deepti Hajela seems to be trying to draw the controversy to a "balanced" conclusion. Mr. Cosby's most heated remarks are quoted, but fairly, and in context, and his credentials are respected. Ms. Hajela is not out to "get" him.

After summarizing Mr. Cosby's weeks-ago remarks, Ms. Hajela then gives one paragraph to Jimi Izrael's criticism of Cosby's remarks, who merely objected to Cosby's tone and privileged position. Then Ms. Hajela quotes the Rev. Conrad Tillard of Roxbury, Mass., at some length. Obviously, it was Mr. Tillard's statement that provided the trigger for this article. It's the reason that Mr. Cosby was "news" again--though Mr. Cosby gets the headline to himself because who would read an article headlined "Rev. Tillard answers Cosby"?

Mr. Tillard is first quoted as saying that "Cosby 'could absolutely have' gone even further," and though slavery and Jim Crow had hurt African-Americans, "at the end of the day, we have got to turn the tide." But then Mr. Tillard is quoted as explaining that the real danger of Mr. Cosby's remarks is that white people (i.e., racists) will "seize upon that and try to castigate the African-American community. The conservatives and liberals are far too quick to seize upon a statement and say to the rest of us, 'See, see, it's not us, it's you.' What they have not wanted to acknowledge is that there are still legacies of slavery."

How is this biased? In this editorial-masquerading-as-news, Ms. Hajela is providing us with a "clincher" that tells us what we are supposed to learn from all this: that it would be a bad thing for Americans to let the racists off the hook by telling blacks that they are causing some of their own problems.

Harmless? Sure. In fact, I agree with Ms. Hajela's editorial. But it was in the news pages, and it was not news, and it was not impartial. It was shaped and designed solely to cause readers to reach a certain opinion.

Nobody was quoted as saying, "Cosby was absolutely right, it's ridiculous to keep complaining about things that are completely under our own control. We can teach our children to learn standard English and get a good education. We can teach our children not to become criminals, and can hold them responsible for their actions when they do commit crimes, instead of blaming racism."

Ultimately, both the "pro" and "con" quotes said the same thing: Mr. Cosby had a point, but he shouldn't say it openly because it gives aid and comfort to the enemy. Very PC. Don't we all feel better now?

Then there's the half-page tie-in to the movie "The Day After Tomorrow," with the headline "Could It Really Happen?" The answer, buried deep in the story, is that of course it couldn't. Geochemist Wallace Broecker, who is the most-quoted source, is paraphrased only in the final paragraph as saying "Hollywood's idea of 'abrupt' is much swifter than nature's, however. Climate shifts unfold over years and decades--not in two reels, said Broecker."

This is as vague a way of saying "What this movie actually shows is scientific nonsense" as you could possibly imagine.

The bulk of the article--especially the crucial first paragraphs and the large-type inset, which are all that most people ever read--say quite a different thing. In answer to the question "could the climate really go bonkers, just like that?" the answer in the article was "Maybe. That was the consensus among researchers at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, a leading center for climate studies."

The next paragraph includes a quote from the observatory's director, G. Michael Purdy: "This is not fantasy. It's happened before. It's well documented."

Which quote will leave the clearest impression in the readers' minds? The fact is, what Mr. Purdy was saying was "not fantasy" and has "happened before" is Manhattan being covered in ice. That was during the Ice Age. It didn't happen in one big storm. And it wasn't caused by human greenhouse-gas emissions.

Furthermore, any institution calling itself an "earth observatory" has a built-in bias. They want to wrap themselves in the much more fact-based science of astronomy, but this isn't an observatory as most of us understand it, it's a group of scientists who have gathered together specifically because they already are true believers in a certain set of viewpoints about the human impact on the environment.

And the large-type inset absolutely treats global warming as a fact (it is still only a suspicion, by rational standards) and ends with this statement, attributed to no one: "Scientists believe this is probably due to man-made 'greenhouse gases' in the atmosphere." Which scientists? Are there scientists who disagree? These matters are not even addressed.

The whole point of this article is to make sure that the people who read it take "The Day After Tomorrow" far more seriously than the film deserves. Why? Because global warming has become one of the weapons used in the political war to bring down Western civilization, and without necessarily realizing it, the left-biased news media are completely buying into that political agenda.

Keep in mind that there is no way of knowing whether human greenhouse-gas emissions are causing or preventing disaster, mostly because we don't yet understand the causes of the natural cycles that lead to ice ages and warmer interglacial periods. So at this point, there is zero scientific basis for action. There is only the quasireligious premise that any human change to nature is dangerous and bad. Therefore, if human activities produce gases that might cause a disaster, then we can't afford to wait until the connection is actually proven. We must stop emitting those gases right now.

What they don't tell you is that the only way they are proposing to stop emitting those gases is to have such a drastic change in the activities of Western civilization that it might well lead to devastating impoverishment, and probably to famine and a catastrophic drop in the human population.

But the reporters covering science in America today are so wretchedly miseducated that they don't even know what questions to ask when interviewing biased sources. And they are perfectly willing to make ridiculous statements--which would include any sentence beginning with "scientists believe."

This is the postreligious equivalent of a fundamentalist preacher starting a sentence with "The Bible says." It invokes authority without context, without understanding, and without admitting the possibility of error. (Most self-respecting fundamentalist preachers would at least tell you which book in the Bible they were quoting.)

The fact is that Mr. Broecker is an important scientist, and his model of the "conveyor belt" of warm water in the Atlantic provides a plausible explanation for how ice-age climate changes might happen and why they seem to be restricted to the northern hemisphere, at least in the most recent ice-age events.

But the article in the paper was not science or even respectable science reporting. It was designed as propaganda to convince readers that smart people all agree that global warming can cause an ice age like the one depicted in "The Day After Tomorrow," unless we make the radical changes required to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to levels that true believers claim (but cannot prove) would prevent this disaster.

If the evidence of global warming were a report of burglars operating in your neighborhood, there's enough of it to cause you to check that your doors and windows are locked--but the true believers want you to respond by boarding up your house and moving to another state.

In every case of bias I just cited, the writers would almost certainly be outraged at my accusation that they were doing anything other than reporting the facts as clearly and fairly as possible. It doesn't occur to them that they are biased because they live in a box filled with people who share exactly the same bias. But that's how we human beings create our working definition of sanity--someone who shares the same worldview as his neighbors is "sane," and those who don't are crazy.

The left-wing news media live in a tiny village of people who all think (or pretend to think) exactly alike. Therefore, to them any reporter or media outlet that rejects their premises must be insane or dishonest, and instead of seeking to refute them with actual evidence, they merely call them names and accuse them of venal motives.

The fact remains that on Fox News, and only on Fox News, we get television reportage that gives us at least two sides of every important issue. On all the other TV news outlets--and "mainstream" newspapers--we mostly get coverage that is hopelessly biased. The madmen have taken over the asylum and now, dressed in white lab coats, they pronounce the rest of the world insane.

Keep in mind that I found these egregious examples of bias in a single issue of a single newspaper, randomly chosen. I could do the same thing with any national news broadcast or with any paper in America except the occasional paper that still has a toehold on reality.

I wrote this essay for a newspaper that is also biased. The only difference--and it's all the difference in the world--is that the Rhinoceros Times admits that it's a conservative paper and reports events through conservative eyes. Likewise for this Web site.

Fox News Channel, on the other hand, claims to have only one bias--it is definitely pro-American--and it presents all the facts and every viewpoint and leaves the decision up to the viewer. Imagine if these news stories had been written from that perspective. They would be barely recognizable--and some of them would not have been written at all.

What makes the liberal bias in the mainstream media so pernicious is that they deny that they're biased and insist that their twisted version of events is "reality," and anyone who disagrees with them is either mentally or morally suspect. In other words, they're fanatics. And, like all good fanatics, they're utterly convinced that they're in sole possession of virtue and truth.

Nothing to add. The sure sign of a punk piece. Note the insouciant confidence of Mr. Card in this excerpt: "I'm painting Mr. Collins's book far too negatively, and I'm doing it deliberately." He is bold, fearless, and provocative. He leaves nothing in his wake but a levelled landscape in which liberal blindness, pretension, arrogance, and assumption poke no higher than the shoots of clover that grow in every razed North American battlefield. So much for our rationale. What of the reward? It may seem a paltry thing. There will be no plaques, no ceremonies, no luncheons, no lucrative book contracts, no lissome literateurs eager to fraternize with greatness. There is only the punk promise: if ever Mr. Card is in trouble, trouble unto death that is, he can smile death in the face and wait serenely for his inevitable rescue by the Shuteye Train. Is that reward enough? Shammadamma.

Monday, July 12, 2004


Context II

THE NEW YORK TIMES. The Gray Lady. The paper of record. Alma mater of distinguished or, er, at least famous journalists like Punch "keep it in the family" Sulzberger, Howell "keep your mouth shut when I'm talking" Raines, and Jayson "keep the facts out of my way when I'm writing" Blair. Aerie of op-ed scintillants like Paul Krugman of the low forehead and high dudgeon, Maureen Dowd of the low IQ and high-society airs, William Safire of the low readability and high grammatical standards, and Bob Herbert of the low sense and high distortion rate. It's also the home base of critic Frank Rich, who came very close to saving the world from Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ, if only his cool objectivity about the film hadn't melted the keyboard of his Selectric before he said what he really thought. Thankfully, the equipment malfunction has now been repaired and he's just in time to tell us who should really be president, which is a very important service expected of all NYT movie reviewers. Guess who this highest of highbrow film critics thinks it should be: Spiderman!

That's right. We're taking up the cudgel for Part II of our InstaPunk focus on context. We're not as grandiloquent as yesterday's contributors, which is why it's so fortunate that we're discussing one of this week's entries in The New York Times. When the Times is involved, you don't have to define context or even mention it unless the title of the piece is "Context." The Times is the context. The major television networks don't pick what's news; they pick up the Times and read it right off the page. No wonder. The folks who write the paper of record are the best and the brightest in the business, as any one of them will tell you. That's why it must mean something when Frank Rich begins to tack in a new political direction.

For example, it seems that he's growing tired of the leadership of Michael Moore:

The Michael Moore explosion is now officially unbearable. It's not just that you can't pick up a Time Warner magazine without seeing his mug on the cover. Or turn on a TV news show without hearing another tedious debate about the accuracy of "Fahrenheit 9/11" - conducted by the same press corps that never challenged the Bush administration's souped-up case for invading Iraq. What's most ridiculous is the central question driving the whole show: Might a hit documentary swing the November election?

Frank knows it's not going to affect the election, because he's not going to allow it. He has something better to offer:
If you want to find a movie that might give a more accurate reading of the national pulse, it isn't hard to do: take a look at "Spider-Man 2," which is now on a pace to outdraw Moore's film and maybe every other movie this year - in every conceivable demographic. It may not be on the radar screen of the Washington pack busy misreading the electoral tea leaves of Moore's box-office receipts. No one is shouting about it on Fox. But with an opening five-day take of about $152 million - next to $128 million for "Shrek 2," $125 million for "The Passion of the Christ," $124 million for the last Frodo, $109 million for the last Harry Potter - "Spider-Man 2" is front-and-center for most everyone else.
It deserves to be on its merits, by the way. It's hard not to fall in love with "Spider-Man 2." It's not only better than any other movie based on a comic book - not the highest bar to reach - but also superior to all the other so-called franchise movies...

Why is Frank so taken with a blockbuster he would normally carve to ribbons? Because it suddenly reminded him of a feeling he hasn't had in quite a while..

Unlike the sunnier first "Spider-Man," which was conceived before the terrorist attacks, the new one carries the shadow of 9/11. The director, Sam Raimi, dotes on both the old (the Empire State Building in silvery mode) and the new (the Hayden Planetarium), on both the dreamily nostalgic (a fairy-book Broadway theater seemingly resurrected from an Edwardian past) and the neighborhood of freshest wounds (the canyons of Lower Manhattan). The movie is suffused with a nocturnal glow of melancholy that casts its comic-book action in an unexpectedly poignant light.

Melancholy. Poignancy. Something about 9/11. Some deep memory must be coming to the surface in Frank's great mind. But what?
In "Spider-Man 2," the writers seem determined to remind the audience that it is a civilization, not merely a crowd of extras, that is the target of attack.

Now there's a groundbreaking premise. The very foundation stones of the Times building must have trembled when Frank had this epiphany. Certainly he was shaken, because he then opened his eyes and saw, as if in a great Timesian vision, that Spiderman 2 was really this, well, this sort of really important almost, like, allegory that all of us lower folk might be able to learn from.
This is a world worth saving, but the superhero who can save it is no Superman. He's a bookish nerd racked with guilt and self-doubt. "With great power comes great responsibility" is the central tenet of his faith, passed down not from God but from his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson). He takes it seriously. Spider-Man wants to vanquish evil, but he doesn't want to be reckless about it. Like the reluctant sheriff of an old western, he fights back only when a bad guy strikes first, leaving him with no alternative. He wouldn't mind throwing off his Spider-Man identity entirely to go back to being just Peter Parker, lonely Columbia undergrad. But of course he can't. This is 2004, and there is always evil bearing down on his New York.

Do you see where he's going here? He detects something deeply meaningful and relevant to our current state of affairs. Yes, there's trouble and evil in the world. It lurks and it's powerful, so powerful that it even threatens New York (symbolized in the movie by New York -- pretty subtle, eh?), and it has to be battled, but how? What kind of person do the genius scriptwriters and Frank Rich want us to be looking for? Why, someone like the reluctant sheriff in an old western (here symbolized by a comic book superhero so that it won't be too obvious -- art, you know). This is starting to get heavy. H-E-A-V-Y. This is the point in Rich's piece where we could feel our ignorant American synapses starting to fire, raggedly at first, not unlike the engine of a rusted '47 Dodge pickup, but stronger with each new drop of wisdom from Rich's pen. Eventually, even we could see that he wants us to rethink what kind of president we should have. He should be the kind of guy who has a secret identity but isn't happy about it, who has an obsession with putting on red tights and swinging like Tarzan through the jungles of evil that beset us, but humbly, like an awkward adolescent. And reluctantly, like a, er, reluctant western sheriff. Yeah. That sounds right. Frank leaves nothing to chance, though. He wants to make sure that even the dumbest of us get what he is talking about:
The extraordinary popularity of this hero on America's Fourth of July weekend might give partisans on both sides of the political race pause. As a man locked in a war against terror, Peter Parker could not be further removed from the hubristic bravura of Bush and his own cinematic model, the Tom Cruise of "Top Gun." There's nothing triumphalist about Spider-Man; he would never declare "Mission Accomplished" after a passing victory, and his very creed is antithetical to the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war. But neither is he a stand-in for John Kerry. Whatever inner equivocation he suffers over his role as a superhero, he stops playing Hamlet when he has a decision to make. Nor does he follow Kerry's vainglorious example of turning his own past battles into slick promotional hagiography.

It's okay to fight back against evil, but when you do that, you can't do it right out in the open, as if you were leading a country or something. You can't make a big deal out of anything that's accomplished in the fight. You have to do it the way you would if your life could be ruined by someone learning your secret identity, but you still have to be decisive, like a, er, reluctant western sheriff or comic book superhero. You can't be too masculine about it, though. You have to have doubts. You have to have hurty parts. And a softer side. Maybe someone like Hillary. But definitely not someone triumphalist like Bush or vainglorious like Kerry. It just wouldn't do to fight a war against evil by coming right out and fighting that war boldly and in the open. You have to do it in the shadows, in disguise, without asking for any support from the populace, and only after the evil has already launched another attack. You have to do it like Spiderman. Hey, do you suppose Spiderman is available?

So should we all order our Spidey for President bumper stickers? Maybe, but there's also a chance -- we figured this out after a lot of blockhead talk like us blockheads do all the time-- that Frank Rich wasn't actually suggesting Spiderman for president. It seems possiblle, anyway, that what he was after was using the incredibly deep and subtle symbolism of Spiderman to help us look at Bush and Kerry in a new way. In a new, you know, context? So that we'd be able to see some things we could never have seen without a little inspired help.

And you know what? We were right? When we went back and finished reading the rest of the article, Frank practically came out and said it, proving we weren't so dumb, after all:
Whatever light "Spider-Man 2" may cast on the dueling, would-be heroes of the presidential race, however, it is not going to change the dynamic of the election any more than "Fahrenheit 9/ 11" will. But if it or any movie cannot move an election, its box-office triumph shows us something about those who will be doing the voting.
"Spider-Man 2" is an escapist movie that serves as a rebuke to what its audience wants to escape: a pop culture that is often too shrill and an election-year political culture that increasingly mimics that pop culture. It gives us a selfless hero unlike any on the national stage, and promotes a credo of justice without vindictiveness.
This year that appears to be the heretofore missing formula for capturing a landslide mandate in red and blue states alike.

Thank you, New York Times, for Frank Rich. Thank you, God, for the New York Times. Think where'd we be without such a powerful lantern to light the way.

Sunday, July 11, 2004


Context I

SEPTEMBER 2001. Context is the bigger picture, the longer timeframe, the multiple perspectives that enable us to escape our myopic focus on the here and now. What's so wrong about the here and now? It barges in on us with the force and freshness of what is new, making the old seem stale or even obsolete. The here and now is more entertaining. And if it seems to obliterate the preoccupations of yesterday, that can be a liberating experience.

We have been through a particularly intense period of such obliterations this week. The Senate Intelligence Committee has decided that the CIA is to blame for failing to prevent both 9/11 and Bush's unpopular war in Iraq. Blame is a great here-and-now emotion. It gives us the sense that the past is somehow under control. We get to feel superior about the fools of yesterday who weren't as smart as the pristine certainties we enjoy in hindsight. They are folly. We are wisdom. We are not vulnerable as they were. And so we kid ourselves that we are also separated from the stream of consequences that continue to flow out of the past. Once blame has been assigned, we can start anew, as if we have magically achieved a clean slate.

New beginnings are joyful occasions. They're a time for broad smiles, fresh faces, lavish parties. That's why so many plays and movies launch the "happily ever after" of their concluded conflicts with the apotheosis of new beginnings, the wedding ceremony. The bride and groom in consummating their union are symbolically renewing the promise of life for all of us. That's why it's no surprise that this week also brought us the ecstatic exchange of vows between John Kerry and John Edwards, as well as the star-studded reception in which the guests presented their toasts as scathing denunciations of the unacceptable past. Scorn is a great obliterator. It is so self-absorbing, like a balloon in one's innards, that its expansion drives out the ability to perceive irony. Who has noticed the wit of the idiot Bush in choosing this week to speak out against gay marriage?

More soberly, who has juxtaposed the self-congratulating Democrat contempt for Bush displayed in Kerry's tony fundraiser with the odious fracas in Seattle, where we got an Independence Day reminder that anger is obliterating, too:

...Jason Gilson, a 23-year-old military veteran who served in Iraq, marched in the local event. He wore his medals with pride and carried a sign that said "Veterans for Bush."

Walking the parade route with his mom, younger siblings and politically conservative friends, Jason heard words from the crowd that felt like a thousand daggers to the heart.

"Baby killer!"



To understand why the reaction of strangers hurt so much, you must read what the young man had written in a letter from Iraq before he was disabled in an ambush:

"I really miss being in the states. Some of the American public have no idea how much freedom costs and who the people are that pay that awful price. I think sometimes people just see us as nameless and faceless and not really as humans. ... A good portion of us are actually scared that when we come home, for those of us who make it back, that there will be protesters waiting for us and that is scary."

Is it unfair to drag John Kerry away from his preening embrace of a not-quite-one-term prettyboy senator into this squalid scene? Sometimes real life provides its own helpful context. One of Gilson's fellow marchers had good reason to know the precedent for this kind of treatment of veterans. His father is a man named Frederick Scheffler.

Scheffler -- an Army veteran of two tours in Southeast Asia -- was shot in the leg during that long-ago conflict.

He came home with a cane, only to discover the American public was either indifferent to his sacrifice or downright hostile.

"I didn't think in this day and age combat veterans would be treated in this manner," Scheffler, 60, tells me, reflecting on Jason. "I saw it happen to veterans in Vietnam. I'm not going to let it happen today, not to these kids."

Oh, but he has no choice. He cannot hold back the gaiety of Democrat nuptials and their power to mesmerize both the media and the Hollywood-adoring onlookers. If their party is loud enough and scornful enough, it just might be possible to make America believe that the past is not still waiting and working and warring against us.

And they can always count on our most civilized compatriots, the Europeans, to do their part in magnifying the distractions of the here and now. Again this week, the magisterial Hans Blix uttered the pronouncement that the threat of global terrorism is outweighed by the impending catastrophes of hunger and global warming. Now there's some welcome obliteration: we have bigger things to worry about than Bush's feckless war on terror.

Yet underneath the accumulating mountain of diversion, there is a single tectonic plate whose magnitude we all do remember, no matter how dazzlingly diverse our efforts to forget it. In each of us lies that earthquake moment which divided the whole context of the present from the context of the past. Everything we are piling up to build more distance between ourselves and the crack in the world created by 9/11 is really an outgrowth of it. The hugs and kisses of Kerry-Edwards do not change the momentum of the quake; their power is no more than the false comfort of Mommy's lap as the roof is caving in with crushing strength.

It's impossible to look ahead farsightedly if you do not carry the past vividly with you through the mad parade of the present. Fortunately, there are those who work tirelessly to help us remember. For this reason, we'll close with a thank you to Charles Krauthammer, who survived the week's nonsense to counter Hans Blix's wishful thinking with plain and simple truth:

Hunger is a scourge that has always been with us and that has not been a threat to humanity's existence for at least 1,000 years. Global warming might one day be, but not for decades, or even centuries, and with a gradualness that will leave years for countermeasures.

There is no gradualness and there are no countermeasures to a dozen nuclear warheads detonating simultaneously in American cities. Think of what just two envelopes of anthrax did to paralyze the capital of the world's greatest superpower. A serious, coordinated attack on the United States using WMDs could so shatter the United States as a functioning advanced industrialized society that it would take generations to rebuild.

What is so dismaying is that such an obvious truth needs repeating. The passage of time, the propaganda of the anti-American left, and the setbacks in Iraq have changed nothing of that truth. This is the first time in history the knowledge of how to make society-destroying weapons has been democratized. Today, small radical groups allied with small radical states can do the kind of damage to the world that in the past only a great, strategically located industrialized power like Germany or Japan could do.

Somewhere in our heads, the planes are still flying into the towers, the victims are still jumping and burning, the mightiest buildings in the history of New York are still crumbling into ruin, a whole nation is still grieving and ready for war, an untried president is still feeling the weight of a new world settling on his shoulders and grabbing a bullhorn to rally us back from despair. We have to find that place in our heads and preserve its pain, because it is that important kind of pain which no one can kiss away.

Back to Archive Index

Amazon Honor System Contribute to Learn More