Friday, April 17, 2009

NBA playoffs predictions

Enough talk about politics, and let's get down to business--this post is about hoops. Specifically, the NBA playoffs, and my fearless, I-lose-nothing-but-pride-if-I'm-wrong predictions for the first round.

In the east....

#1 Cleveland vs #8 Detroit.

If Rasheed shows up to play, the Pistons may win one at home; but no more than that. No way do they win in Cleveland. Cavs in 5.

#2 Boston vs #7 Chicago

This series might just be competitive with Kevin Garnett in the trainer's room, but I still don't see any way that Paul Pierce and Ray Allen go out in the first round. Celtics in 6.

#3 Orlando vs #6 Philadelphia

The NBA's best defense against a team which is lucky to be there (even though Philly managed to sweep my Blazers...) The Sixers do well against finesse teams and are good at guarding the perimeter, but have no answer for Dwight Howard. Magic in 6.

#4 Atlanta vs #5 Miami

Atlanta is by far the deeper team, but Dwyane Wade remains the best player on the floor, and a healthy Wade isn't going out in the first round. The Heat are now playing better than their record--they were a pretty bad team for much of the year, and like my Blazers, are now peaking as the rookies figure out the NBA. Heat in 6.

Western Conference

#1 LA Lakers vs #8 Utah.

Bug, meet windshield. Utah will probably win a game in Salt Lake, but they don't have the horses to keep up with the Lakers. Lakers in 5.

#2 Denver vs #7 New Orleans

Like the Atlanta/Miami series, the best player on the floor is on the lower seed. Unlike that series, though, Denver has the weapons to overpower him. Plus, it's the playoffs, which means Peja Stojakovic is going to go 2-13 some night. Nuggets in 7.

#3 San Antonio vs #6 Dallas

The Battle of Texas. Back when these two teams, along with Phoenix, ruled the WC--Dallas owned San Antonio, SA owned Phoenix, and Phoenix owned Dallas. But both teams are now old, and not aging particularly gracefully. Duncan will win one more playoff series, and Dirk will add more more postseason failure to his resume. Spurs in 7.

#4 Portland vs #5 Houston.

The Battle Royale. The league's best offense vs the conference's best defense. Defense usually wins titles, but I'm going with the Blazers--barely--because 1) They've got homecourt, 2) They've got the best player in Roy, 3) Ron Artest can usually be counted on to do something stupid, and 4) I'm a shameless homer. Blazers in 7.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Same-sex Marriage Opponents, and the Fear of... Discrimination?

With marriage equality now the law in four of these United States, and the brilliant Nate Silver offering predictions as to when other states will do the same, and a President in the White House who has indicated a desire to overturn the DOMA (even if Obama isn't quite ready to embrace SSM)--opponents of same-sex marriage appear to know they have a losing battle as much. Rod Dreher seems to concede as much in an interview with Maggie Gallagher; though Maggie isn't ready to come off the proverbial farm, it seems.

At any rate, a shift in tactics is being observed... SSM opponents are repositioning themselves as a minority, of sorts, who will soon be subject to discrimination and bigotry over their ideological opposition to SSM.

Ahh, the irony!

Of course, many arguments being advanced have little to do with marriage, and have more to do with the issue of sexuality in general. The "National Organization for Marriage", a collection of SSM opponents, recently released a video detailing they tyranny they think will come about were marriage equality to become legalized. Of course, none of the examples they cite (a parent objecting to discussion of sexuality in a public school curriculum, a doctor refusing to treat a lesbian, and a church being fined by civil rights authorities for refusing to rent its facilities to a gay couple) occurred in a state which presently recognized gay marriage; and only the latter example had anything to do with marriage at all. But there is a common theme here--an argument being introduced into the public debate that private religious convictions ought to trump public accommodation and civil rights laws; and that if SSM is legalized, it will lead us down a slippery slope where those opposed to gay marriage will be fired from their jobs, harassed by the state, and otherwise have their lives made miserable. Kind of like gay people have been treated until recently (and still are in many places), don't you think?

Certainly, religious doctrine can and should trump civil rights concerns in ecclesiastic matters, and it does today. Despite numerous laws forbidding gender discrimination in employment, the Roman Catholic Church remains perfectly free to ordain only men into the priesthood--the argument that Title IX or something else applies to the clergy of a faith would get laughed out of court. SSM is unlikely to change that one bit. Likewise, a church which makes its facilities available to congregation members only, for things like baptisms, weddings, funerals, or other events part of the church life--isn't likely to be forced to permit Adam and Steve to march down its aisle.

However, when a religious organization enters the public marketplace--then it has to obey the law. The New Jersey church in the video in question, makes its facilities available to the general public. By doing so, the ecclesiastic exception no longer applies--if you can pay the deposit, you should be able to hire the hall. Likewise, were a church to post an advertisement for a janitor or a groundskeeper with no religious duties--anti-discrimination law applies here, too. And the doctor in question not only was violating California state law concerning discrimination, she was also violating her chosen profession's code of ethics and her professional obligations. Religion is not, nor should be, a "get out of jail free card" for those laws that the faithful might find objectionable. Render unto Caesar and all that.

But I think the anti-SSM crowd have a deeper fear than they are letting on. Back in the 50s and 60s, when laws like the Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act were being debated--similar arguments were frequently being made regarding race--that it violated a persons freedom (of association or whatever) to be prevented from hanging a "whites only" sign on the door. Such arguments were laughable then and are laughable now; nobody forces a bigot to have black friends or to like African-Americans--you simply cannot exclude them from the public sphere. But what has happened to racists (and racism) since the 1960s?

They've become marginalized. Ostracized. While racism certainly still exists in our body politic, these days it has to hide behind code words ("crime", "radical", or even "terrorist")--no mainstream political figure dare make openly racist argument--even in those parts of the country where a significant part of the electorate might sympathize. And, yes--if you go to work and start complaining about your black co-workers, in many places you are likely to get fired. Not because the law says you must; but because openly racist attitudes are regarded as the stuff of crackpots. The society has changed; and attitudes which were commonplace and out of the open forty years ago today have to hide in the (ahem) closet.

This, I think, is what many gay marriage opponents fear: Not that they will be oppressed by the government, but that they will be discarded as irrelevant by society. Maggie Gallagher and her ilk are, I suspect, that they will soon be regarded like the David Dukes of the world are regarded today--as pariahs, as a sideshow, as the obnoxious uncle who gets drunk and says stupid things over Thanksgiving dinner. Many people regard them as that today.

The republic today is, I think, far better off with open racism now regarded as a fringe viewpoint. I think it will be better off when homophobia joins it on the sideline. I will certainly oppose any attempts to outlaw homophobic speech, no matter how much I may disagree--but I look forward to the day when those who make such speeches, are no longer taken seriously.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Taming of the Snark

The blogosphere has been somewhat atwitter (and likely Twitter-ing) about the recent book written by New Yorker film critic David Denby entitled, simply, Snark. In said book, Denby complains at length about the negative impact that "snark", which he holds out to be a primarily Internet phenomenon, is having on our discourse. Needless to say, many online writers have ravaged the book (and in many cases, been downright snarky about doing it)--ranging from complaints about Denby's politics (mostly liberal), to his alleged Ivory Tower attitudes; at least one writer berated him for excessive name-dropping and boasting about his culinary choices. (Suffice it to say, Mr Denby doesn't likely eat at Denny's very often).

I seldom read Denby or the New Yorker. Not that I dislike either; they just doesn't rise above my cut line. As a left-coaster, the arts and culture scene in the Big Apple isn't terribly interesting to me (I fully realize that quite a few folks are of the opinion that anyone in the US with a brain ought to care about the New York cultural scene--regardless of where they in fact live--but that's their problem, not mine). Denby does appear, from many accounts, to be the epitome of a certain subcultural stereotype--the "limousine liberal"--which is frequently flogged in right-wing media (media which frequently go well beyond "snark", and are not the least but subtle in their full-frontal denunciations of that which they oppose).

Many critics of the book have suggested that Denby is merely the latest member of the professional commentariat (and/or their dedicated readership) to bemoan the rise of the "cult of the amateur". This line of argument holds that the amateurism enabled by the Web has resulted in a decline in the quality of the media, as professionals are displaced by amateurs. Others deride this as nonsense, as the whining of a formerly-privileged elite being knocked off their pedestals (and disconnected from their revenue streams). Certainly, in these days of "Web 2.0" (a term I rather dislike), the barriers to entry to commentary have been demolished. This is especially true for punditry and criticism--something which any of us can now do in our living rooms, without the benefit of an employer who has a printing press and a subscriber base. As far as film criticism goes, Rotten Tomatoes is probably far more relevant to most moviegoers than is Denby; although I suspect Denby wouldn't have it any other way. Regardless, that horse left the barn years ago; if this is what upsets Denby, he is howling at the weather at this time.

Despite all that, I do think that Denby has a valid point--there is an unhealthy level of meanness and contempt in our public discourse. The Web, and amateur writers and publishers, aren't entirely to blame, of course--talk radio and TV has been a virtual sewer of vitriol since before there was a World Wide Web. I must to confess to watching Morton Downey Jr. as a teenager back in the 1980s, and rather enjoying it. Of course, Mort was merely Donahue turned up to 11, and from a conservative rather than liberal point of view. Lots of snark and nastiness and such can be found in the elite media as well. To suggest that "snark" is a recent phenomenon is in error, as is to blame it on bloggers and the like. Nor is nastiness an attribute of a particular political faction--the likes of Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, and the late Susan Sontag could all get just as down and dirty as Limbaugh or Malkin or Coulter.

All that aside, nastiness is there--and it is corrosive. Many writers (and readers) correlate nastiness with level of outrage. Unfortunately, it's far simpler to pen a withering ridicule of something or someone, than it is to write a sensible and fair-minded critique of it--and many commentators, professional and amateur alike, have found it a useful tactic to turn the dial up to 11 and leave it there. I've certainly been guilty of this in the past, and will probably succumb to this temptation in the future--it's just far too easy. Whereas with interpersonal conversation, the act of saying something to someone's face will often cause you to soften the edges, the interpersonal nature of writing (whether online, or for a dead tree publication) insulates a writer from his/her target.

Rather than questioning a politicians policies--their integrity and loyalty are instead called into question. If you believed all the political rhetoric out their; you'd be convinced that one of the major US political parties is composed of traitors and parasites; the other of sellouts and troglodytes. Even in the realm of film criticism--Denby's day job--it's far too easy for critics to hurl insults at the cast and crew, comments which go far beyond fair criticism of the performance or production. And when this is done, ad nauseum, then it raises the bar for the next truly withering review or analysis, which must dive deeper into the mud to "stand out" among the noise and have a chance at making its point. The effect of nastiness is further multiplied in the context of politics, where the targets and their supporters will have ample opportunity to return fire.

Denby is dead right when he complains that excessive meanness is damaging to our public conversation. However, he is dead wrong in his diagnosis of the cause. Amateurism isn't the cause of nastiness-- professional commentators frequently produce stuff which is just as mean. In some cases, the presence of an editor (or lawyer), or the delays inherent in going to print, will tone things down--but for many professionally-produced media, the editor actually helps sharpen the blade, and the commercial demands of for-profit media calls for more sensational content, not less. (US libel law is quite friendly to publishers and writers, especially when it comes to politicians). Even if we could somehow make the Internet go away--or at least once again raise the bar to entry--there would still be plenty of writers who are members of the club, who would be more than happy to continue slinging mud.

Ultimately, though, nastiness is so commonplace in the field of commentary because it's what readers, viewers, and listeners want. Democrats who get upset when Rush Limbaugh spends an entire hour hurling insults at Barack Obama, often cackle with glee when it's George Bush or Sarah Palin being splattered with rhetorical feces. Vice versa, ad infinitum. I'm actually pessimistic about finding a media-centric solution to the problem, as the sort of draconian techniques which would be needed to curtail inflammatory commentary on the producers side, simply aren't going to happen. (First Amendment and all that). Barring that, the people will be provided with what they desire.

Perhaps if we as a culture reach a stage where there is no demand for excessive nastiness--where the offerings of Malkin and Moore are widely viewed as refuse that only a kook or a nutjob would touch--then, I'd have hope. There are certain forms of discourse that appear to be out of bounds--but the topics they address are for the most part disjoint with mainstream American politics. President Obama seems to want to move the country in this direction--and his efforts so far seem genuine. Whether or not they will be successful is another matter--there is still lots of mud being flung across the aisle in both direction. But in the end, it is up to us.

If we, as a society, want the nastiness to end, then it is we who have to turn the page, change the channel, or click the back button whenever we see it. The media, professional and amateur alike, exists mainly to serve its customers--but they don't care what we "want" (in the abstract). They care what we are willing to buy.

Money (and page hits) are what talks. And we are speaking loud and clear.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Attack of the Gay Vampires

I realize that I run the risk of trivializing an important topic, by my use of such a flippant tile. But in the ongoing discourse on the subject of same-sex marriage (SSM) , there is an important point that I think is being overlooked--in explaining why some people, religious or otherwise, are so opposed to what should be a no-brainer for society.

A significant fraction of the US public--and certainly a majority in certain demographics and regions--is utterly opposed to same-sex marriage, and in many cases to same-sex anything. Some deny any personal animus to gays and lesbians--disapproving of homosexuality and bisexuality in the abstract, while practicing tolerance towards individuals--whereas others are openly hostile to a minority they view with contempt and disgust. Many on all sides of debate have attempted to explain the strong feelings that many people have considering anything gay, and numerous justifications and rationales have been offered up--religious teachings, appeals to "nature", revulsion towards "the act" (or acts) involved in homosexual coitus, a necessary coupling of sex and childbearing. Less flattering justifications include power politics (certainly a few political operatives see gay-bashing as their road to office), male insecurity, and just plain bigotry and nastiness. Probably all of these have some kernel of truth to them, and depend on who you ask. But... I think there's more.

Opposition to homosexuality, after all, is found in many demographics, not all of them white and evangelical. Quite a few homophobes aren't religious at all; for others, Leviticus is the only part of the Bible they can recollect. Anti-gay attitudes can be found in almost any fraternity house or locker room. I've met many homophobes whose own sex lives, while straight, were definitely not narrow--folks who denounced the immorality of gays and lesbians while playing the field like sailors on shore leave. In short--people who oppose homosexuality on some grounds--but none which they can articulate without looking like complete hypocrites.

But in many cases, I think I know the answer: They view gays... as vampires.

Not literally, of course. But a significant part of the population seems to view homosexuality as an acquired terminal condition which is spread by hostile action--akin to vampirism.

The origin(s) of human sexuality itself is a subject of debate within the larger debate. Biologists have long observed homosexual behavior among animals, including specimens which appear not to mate with the opposite sex; this inclues many species for which neither physical pleasure or emotional attachment is a relevant concern. Many (on all sides) consider the nature-vs-nurture-vs-choice question to be highly relevant to how society should react, and how this reaction should be expressed in cultural and legal norms. Supporters of gay rights have long supported the belief that sexuality is a matter of biology; whereas opponents have long referred to it as a "lifestyle choice", akin to the choice to drink alcohol or not. Obviously, it is harder to justify legal discrimination considering a characteristic which is involuntary.

However, there is yet another theory, which is seemingly popular in some circles--it is what I'll call the "vampire theory of sexuality". This theory is seldom defended in any serious academic forum, and as far as I'm aware there is no scientific evidence for it whatsoever. But it is a popular meme, and one which explains, I think, the strong reactions that some people have to gays. The theory goes like this:
  • The natural state of humans is heterosexuality. People are "born straight", and barring any event as described below, will remain that way for their lives.
  • Some small percentage of the population, however, is not straight--the origins of homosexuality and bisexuality aren't always addressed, but aren't really relevant for the theory.
  • The gay population--rather than simply forming relationships among themselves--needs to find new members to be sustained, much as vampires need to find new victims to feed on. Thus, they actively "recruit" among the straight population--looking to seduce young (and often unsophisticated) persons, and get them to "try" homosexual acts.
  • A significant fraction (not all) of those so seduced find they like it. It is at this moment, as a result of this act of "seduction", that a person becomes gay (or bisexual). According to lore, one who is bitten by a vampire becomes a vampire themselves; and so it is, according to the meme, with homosexuality.
  • Once so converted, they immediately start looking for other "converts" to recruit, in order to further perpetuate the cycle.
  • Gay political activism, gay rights, SSM, and all other things collectively derided as the "gay agenda"--is not done so that gays can live their own lives in peace--it's to permit the "cycle of seduction" to occur in the open, and to frustrate attempts to oppose it.
In short, gay persons are routinely viewed as predators, seeking to "corrupt" young persons into a deviant lifestyle--not as a separate minority that wants simply to be left alone. This meme explains quite a few of the claims that homophobes routinely express--the conflation of homosexuality and pedophilia, fears of encountering a gay person in the locker room or in the barracks, and the open hostility and hatred which is expressed towards gays, but not towards other groups which may be viewed as undesirable. Gays are viewed as vampires--lurking in the dark, seeking out "fresh blood", always wanting to add to their number. (Similar themes of "corruption" can be found in other prejudices and attitudes, concerning topics ranging from miscegenation to drug use).

This meme is, of course, utter rubbish. As gay people come out of the closet and interact openly with the straight population, many of the rumors and lies which underly the "gay vampire" meme vanish--people notice that openly gay persons aren't hitting on their straight acquaintances, and in many (most) cases are living in monogamous relationships with a committed partner. But for those who DO believe in the gay vampire meme (especially those whose view on the subject is intermingled with a belief in an supernatural malevolent entity bent on wrecking the world--Satan, for instance), the advancement of gay rights isn't just an annoying development in the annals of civilization--it's a direct threat to civilization's survival. Which is a major reason, I think, that the opposition to SSM has been so fierce.

And helping to drive a stake through the heart of the "gay vampire" meme is one reason why SSM is so important.