Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Art Reflects Life Reflects Art

TAGS: None

There is a flurry of controversial accusations surrounding Elliot Rodger’s murderous stampede in Isla Vista, California. Between his printed manifesto, his YouTube videos, his posts on Men’s Rights Activist websites and forums, and the circumstances around his parents, psychotherapy and police scrutiny, there is indeed a lot of fodder for speculation, and multiple conclusions to be gotten from his actions.

The Misogyny Angle

Almost immediately after the publication of his manifesto, where he blames women as a whole for many of his frustrations, both feminist and anti-feminist organizations have taken to social media to either defend or indict him on those lines: The #YesAllWomen tag on Twitter took off, in response to comments online from men arguing that Rodger’s actions didn’t reflect that of all men (partly under the Twitter tag #NotAllMen). Correct, they replied, not all men act like that, but all women experience men like that.

Some MRA sites, including those Rodger frequented, go one step further in identifying with Rodger’s sexual frustrations. One poster on such a site argued,

More people will die unless you give men sexual options.

Until you give men like Rodger a way to have sex, either by encouraging him to learn game, seek out a Thai wife, or engage in legalized prostitution—three things that the American media and cultural elite venomously attack, it’s inevitable for another massacre to occur. Even game itself, as useful as it is on a individual level, is a band-aid fix upon a culture which has stopped rewarding nice guys while encouraging female whoring to benefit only the top 10% of alpha males, all in the name of societal progress.

The misogyny rather speaks for itself, and continues to argue that Rodger represents a “beta male” mindset, using the terminology of such subcultures, which necessarily puts emotional relationships on a confrontational and competitive stance. Indeed, Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post pointed towards the filmographies of men like Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow, whose careers center around a basic story line:

How many men, raised on a steady diet of Judd Apatow comedies in which the shlubby arrested adolescent always gets the girl, find that those happy endings constantly elude them and conclude, “It’s not fair”?

Both Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow angrily absolved themselves on Twitter, making an argument akin to video game developers’ long-standing stance that violent first-person shooters are not directly responsible for tragic events like school shootings.

The Privilege Angle

Much attention was given to the “welfare checks” the police made on Rodger that failed to discover either the weapons stockpiles he had accumulated or his ravings on social media. According to Santa Barbara’s sheriff Bill Brown,

At the time the deputies interacted with him, he was able to convince them that he was OK. […] When you read his autobiography and the manifesto that he wrote, it’s very apparent that he was able to convince many people for many years that he didn’t have this deep, underlying, obvious mental illness that ultimately manifested itself in this terrible tragedy.

Brown admitted that Rodger had seen a variety of psychiatric professionals who concluded he had serious issues, but was yet deemed copacetic enough neither to be held against his will on what is known as a 5150 – an involuntary psychiatric hold – nor to be denied the purchase of three semi-automatic pistols and several hundred rounds of ammunition.

This prompted a bevy of speculation as to what appears to be a fairly comprehensive social safety net simply not giving any real scrutiny to what is, in hindsight, an obvious threat prior to the slayings. The most common complaint is that it was – ironically, considering his manifesto – his social status as a well-to-do white male that protected him.

Even now, after the event, most media coverage is predicated on his mental health rather than simply labeling him a sociopath and a murderer. The anger of the victims’ families, putting emphasis on issues of gun control and law enforcement, are not given quite as much coverage as the speculation as to his exact mental illness. The newfound emphasis on psychological screening and psychiatric care is certainly warranted, but as with Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, an outsize level of care is given to determining their mental state compared to those of a different ethnic or economic background.

The Sociopathy Angle

Indeed, all this culminates into prescriptions for gun control, for mental health screening, for enhanced psychiatric care, and for a sociological look at the origins and promotions of what constitutes ‘rape culture’ as well as the culture of violence.

To return to Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen, while the argument that the genre of “man-child gets the hot chick” films are directly responsible is akin to arguing that ‘cryptofascist FPS gunporn’ is responsible for school shootings is facile, the indirect relationship is perhaps more worthy of investigation: For instance, as First Person Shooters may be indirectly responsible, through providing a desensitization to violence especially if projected via a filter of “it’s not really happening here” and a drumbeat promotion of solving issues through violence, for public support for pointless foreign wars – as it is clear that public support drops precipitously when conscription starts, as the war then becomes “real” – so too perhaps might man-child films have an indirect influence for public complacency around emotionally-stunted men.

Elliot Rodger, after all, certainly did not lack for human contact. He was not a complete shut-in, which means that there are a number of ostensibly well-adjusted men who have had dealings with him but for whom his actions did not raise enough warning bells to prompt action. Just as the police who knocked on his door simply took his word for it, so have many people who might have received hints as to his character but explained them away and thus allowed him to continue his dysfunctional ministrations.

Similarly, if one believes that art can make a difference – and how could one not and still choose to become an artist – then at least some attention must be given to what sort of message is imparted. This is, of course, an issue that all writers must tangle with: The necessary glamorization of a project to make it palatable to a mass audience can end up tainting the final message. “All these accoutrements of the rich are superficial and cold,” says F Scott Fitzgerald, “yeah, but they sound beautiful” read his readers, who then stage ‘Gatsby parties.’ The incongruity can be cause for lament for some artists, but in this age of immediate and pertinent feedback, Apatow and others still keep making the same movie.

If Ann Hornaday had a point, it came with Rogen and Apatow’s angry responses, for while there is no direct cause and effect between their genre of films and rape culture, their utter unrepentant stance implies and gives credence to the idea that there is some correlative connection. This is perhaps too strong an indictment of any one piece of mass media – and would indeed give such content purveyors too much credit to call them culture guardians – but society made Elliot Rodger, and society must do some soul-searching in order to that it may not make another.

Leeches and Thieves

TAGS: None

In a stunning portrayal of how throwing money at the problem can fail to solve it (not to mention an interesting rebuke as to the fallibility of billionaire internet playboy entrepreneurs) Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and mayor Corey Booker managed to give two hundred million dollars to the Newark public school system with little to show for it.

To quote Vivian Cox Fraser of the Urban League of Essex County, as the New Yorker reported last week, “Everybody’s getting paid, but Raheem still can’t read.” Indeed, it would appear that what they had managed to attract with all the money was not so much top managers and skilled teachers but rather a feeding trough of contractors and consultants, ravenously running through the windfall (and then some) and more than willing to bill a thousand dollars a day each to explain how to run the system efficiently.

To his credit, Zuckerberg admitted that he knew little of education administration, but the problem isn’t so much education administration but the sorts of people Zuckerberg represents. When I worked in the New York Department of Education, I remember a percentage of my schools’ already strained budgets going to high-flying celebrity consultants, who would touch down from jet-setting around Japan and Finland to explain how to run the school better. The message was always one of a theme: Fiscal conservatives would play up how schools or, for that matter, any other ultimately universal social services, should be run efficiently, which is to say, like a business.

The only problem is, efficiency and universality are at cross-purposes. There was a dialogue one union leader started when a consultant was going through an extended analogy comparing teaching to blueberry picking:

“So what do you do with the berries that are sour or rotten or discolored?”

“We throw them out.”

“Yeah, we can’t do that.”

While the most efficient thing to do in a business is simply drop the costliest and most unproductive 10-15%, we can’t simply drop 10-15% of the population. (This is also, in short, the reason why voluntary admission to charter schools never actually solves the education problem: As charter schools get more popular, the remaining public schools get saddled with a more disproportionately difficult subsection of the student body, for the cast-offs never truly disappear.)

Likewise, throwing money at the problem without proper forethought results in a swarm of leeches and thieves, but there is a commonality to both issues: In both cases the problem is that there’s a very strong profit motive, a practically non-existent concern for the actual goals of the institution, and little regulation to enforce the latter. In short, the problem is capitalism. By that metric, Zuckerberg’s inherent philosophy – money will attract talent and the rest will take care of itself – worked splendidly. Unfortunately, that money went towards attracting people that are talented at making money (and made out like bandits) with very little actually filtering down to teachers and students.

Much as Uber’s business ethics and AirBnB’s cavalier practices certainly result in supremely profitable ventures but questionable social value, so too does the practice of injecting venture capital to a system that cannot by its nature be capitalist result in very little qualitative output. The underlying issue is one of competing and mutually exclusive ideologies. One can only hope the right lesson is learned, lest education funding is itself indicted.

And Damn the Human Cost

TAGS: None

Another career Democrat got in the news for a horrific ethics scandal: Sheldon Silver, Speaker of the New York State Assembly – a position he’s held since I was in elementary school, for a career in the lower state house that rivals Congressman Charlie Rangel’s deep tendrils in the lower national house – stands caught touting a petty lie over his efforts to block the use of a large plot of land in the Lower East Side of Manhattan for affordable housing; instead intending to steer it towards the coffers of private interests of which he was allied and in so doing allowing those lots to stay vacant for almost fifty years.

To put it succinctly, and in Silver’s own words in 1980: “Are you crazy? We’ve got enough low income housing.” Oh, really.

The question that should be asked is how to punish a man who has not lost an election since 1977, due in large part because of the power of his political machine and the ethical, moral and demographic bankruptcy of the opposing party. In short, he’s got the city and the state by the short hairs, which is how scandals like this one originate. It is not terribly dissimilar to Charlie Rangel’s ethics scandal in 2008 – which involved his misappropriation of multiple rent-regulated apartments – for which he escaped voter censure handily.

In a political climate where Chuck Schumer, the “Senator from Wall Street,” could give a pass to investment bankers following the Great Recession due to political kickbacks and not be held accountable due to how secure he is in his position (and the blowback to the Democratic Party were he to be voted out) it’s difficult to see where the line can be drawn. In New York City, one such organization that takes it upon itself to police the liberalism of party Democrats – the Working Families Party – has been caught up in that very question when it comes to governor Andrew Cuomo.

Cuomo’s multiple rebukes to mayor de Blasio can be interpreted as a courtship between him and state conservatives for the 2014 gubernatorial election in a bid to be seen as an apolitical centrist and thus a viable bid for higher office on down the line. This interpretation is buttressed by the fact that both parties see him as a “shoo-in” due to a lack of viable contenders, and thus there is little need for him to redefine himself. The Working Families Party would like to punish him for his raids on the MTA capital fund and his lack of support for issues related to housing and jobs in New York City, except they are concerned that if they should refuse to endorse him, they could possibly fail to received the required 50,000 votes to remain on state ballots and with it any possible influence in party politics.

They are, like most community groups, caught between playing politics to remain relevant, or staying true to their message and risking becoming irrelevant. This is, to me, a mark of how corrupting party politics is: From Obama’s continuation of deeply unpopular Bush-era policies in order to be seen as bipartisan on down to de Blasio’s unpopular choices in order to pay off political debts to the Taxi and Limousine Commission, playing politics appears to be the main thrust of governance and policy-making, and actual representation is less and less evident. Why should Democrats act like Democrats? Politically expedient decisions must be made, and damn the human cost.

But then, that is, I suppose, what one should expect from an oligarchy.


TAGS: None

Princeton student Tal Fortgang got an article last week into Time magazine titled “Why I’ll Never Apologize For My White Male Privilege.” Before I read it I expected the article to be part and parcel of that libertarian conceit that societal prejudices don’t exist and we’re all islands. Funny how it’s mostly white men who think that. Instead, Tal made a rather sarcastic argument in that he won’t apologize for the suffering his people have lived and died through: As the child of Holocaust victims and anti-Semitism in the States, he felt that the resentment as to his status was unfounded, and as such he had no need to apologize.

His article garnered a lot of strong replies, as any controversial article would, from folks who thought he was playing the “my suffering was worse than your suffering” game and folks who thought he was learning the wrong lesson about the Holocaust. Point of fact, he was effectively using it as a shield against actual insight: I can do no wrong because this is what happened to my grandparents. He became defensive, which highlights just how he failed to think when he was asked to.

Funny enough, it reminds me most of my students when I was working in a public school in Brooklyn: It was filled with mostly Black students who came from the projects in Crown Heights. They were not privileged, but they were prejudiced: Racism, according to them, was what white people did to Black people, and their endless fist-fights and insults levied at east Asian students were not viewed in that context. That white teachers had to teach them that “ching-chong” jokes were not acceptable much in the same way that “nigger” and “spic” aren’t acceptable was an awkward situation at best, if for nothing else than how it illustrated how the teachers conflated epithets with institutional discrimination, but I digress.

The students had a similarly hard time in World History, when an Irish teacher attempted to explain about the Black and Tans during the Irish War of Independence: Their framework on the Irish involved cops, unionists and city officials, and those were not victims but rather victimizers. (Would that the teacher was as interested in teaching how the transition from one to the other was effected but, sadly, even if he wanted to our core curriculum compartmentalizes such learning.) They viewed themselves as victims. In a very real way they were and are, but to extend that notion was difficult. Tal Fortgang views himself as a victim as well, but as his article shows, there-in lies a blindness.

Either way, the message is clear: “What I suffer,” they surmised, “is special and in no way comparable to your plight.” That this child of Holocaust victims failed to recognize that other people suffer too, and that he may actually be complicit in their suffering, is a sadness, just as watching Black teenagers gay-bash is a sadness. Your suffering is not a cloak to ward against criticism, nor is it a license to cause suffering in others.


TAGS: None

“Look at all these wonderful people on the train!”

“Yeah, and I bet they all got jobs!”

They accept cash, credit cards, food stamps and phone numbers. Whatever you offer, they’ll take it. A staple of the long gaps between stations on express train service, and consummate if wobbly showmen, subway breakdancers have been a part of my commute for as long as I can remember. They are also one more thing police commissioner Bill Bratton has a problem with:

“There is an opportunity in certain locations in the system where those individuals can perform and not be a risk to themselves, or to the public on moving cars,” Bratton said. “On a subway car that sways, jilts, stops, it’s too great to ignore and we will not ignore it.”

Of course, this is the man who went up against jaywalkers in the city that practically invented the term. Unlike Bratton, of course, I was born and raised in this city. I’ve been a Manhattanite more or less all my life. While I find subway breakdancers sometimes fun and sometimes mildly annoying, I’ve never been hit by one or seen somebody hit by one, and only in the last two years have I heard this echo chamber of “I hate the ‘Showtime’ guys; they’re the worst.” They seem to get particular ire from zines that cater to a younger, richer crowd.

I don’t hate subway dancers. I don’t hate mariachi men, I don’t hate the drum circles, I don’t hate the crooners nor the magicians, the peddlers, the occasional beggars or the habitual beggars. I don’t think they’re a threat to my person or my sanity. I don’t think they deserve all that much official attention at all.

I can’t pinpoint where this frothing “we must get the police involved” push is coming from, but I suspect it’s a class thing: Middle class transplants are coming in and while they are, on the one hand, discovering things New Yorkers always knew (like walking to the train car closest to the exit you want) they are also, on the other hand, becoming unduly incensed about the things New Yorkers have always abided. The crackdown bears a striking resemblance to the noise complaints new residents successfully levied against the drum circle of Marcus Garvey Park that had been there for 40 years.

The argument city officials and new residents make is that this means that the city will be a nicer, cleaner, safer place, but I remember the most telling criticism of the Upper West Side, where Community Board 7’s reputation of being particularly effective at following through on Quality-of-Life complaints has drained the whole neighborhood of its color. It’s been called a “cultural wasteland,” and not without reason.


TAGS: None

A subway preacher started up, out of nowhere, past 50th Street on the uptown A. It took a bit to realize he was talking about the Book; his every third word was an expletive – not in language but in format – and the resemblance of drunken ranting was notable. He made a point of remarking, however, that he wasn’t drunk, and in that sense was at least nominally self-reflective. This didn’t convince the captive audience, whose reactions were divided between open annoyance and passive abidance.

What creates such a man? SHUT UP, he demanded, to a silent car, before waxing on about Obama and God and other entities beyond a mortal’s reach. It’s hard to imagine; or rather easy to form a narrative in a bleeding-heart liberal sort of way: Anybody who has heard stories of how the Great Depression can destroy a man’s soul can understand how such a broken creature can lash out so fruitlessly, can glom onto if not answers then rituals – rituals that promise a future that’s better than the present, like dancing and praying and self-flagellating for rain during a drought.

A homeless man stepped in the train on 81st Street. Halfway through his spiel, the preacher sallied forth, FUCK YOU! Directed at the man? Who cares? Life sucks regardless, right? It’s hard to humanize the man, either man, truth be told, but it’s also hard not to recognize the frustration at a general dysfunction that they embody and are aware that they embody. One can pay lip service about the need for social services and mental health programs, but the truth of the matter is the system creates the man, and the system is not going to substantively change. The individuals’ response is the institutional response: Abide until they’re out of sight, then continue on as normal.

A white man in a baseball cap entered at 103rd Street, sucked his teeth and muttered “fuck this” before heading to the next car. Vote with your feet! A political microcosm if ever I saw one. Like all humans, and I’m sure Stanislaw Lem would agree, I can only consider the story through a personal format born of my own experiences, and mine immediately harkened to the despair I felt at my last job: Toiling for a business that is callously making the world a worse place for just barely enough money to continue existing. Logic dictated at that point that my contribution to the world was at risk of being negative, and that society would be better off without me. It’s no wonder they fired me.

At 145th Street, the preacher ran out of things to rant about, or was simply tired of his own self, and piped down. Anger, at heart, is self-destructive, but then again what isn’t? Nobody gets out alive, or so I heard from some 90s punk mantra. Without missing a beat, two women started a conversation in the ensuing lull about their work: The sideshow is over, we can once more set up our walls against the world. It’s a good thing that defense mechanism is so robust: The precariousness of all our societal positions, for which it is uncouth to dwell upon, is a true humdinger.

New York is known, among all things, for fostering neuroses. All big cities are, though if America is to continue its supposition of being exceptional, it must own this preacher too. The flip side to freedom is how poorly it melds with desperation, and if desperation were a stock these days, I’d buy some.

© 2009 Big Smoke. All Rights Reserved.

This blog is powered by Wordpress and Magatheme by Bryan Helmig.