Dear Arizona State Credit Union,
Hello there. John Ryan McKever here. Your computers may remember me as account number XXXXXXXXXX. I know we haven’t corresponded in a while, but I have some bad news for you. I’m afraid that, after something like ten great years (wow, has it really been that long?) of a solid, dependable, and personally enriching bank-to-client relationship, after auto loans and credit cards with a mercifully low interest rates, and after finding myself on first-name bases with so many of the professional-yet-cheerful representatives at your Flagstaff-Beaver Street branch, it’s just not working out between us anymore. I can’t tell you how sorry I am, since your computers literally cannot register that kind of thing, but our relationship has to end here. I’ve already moved on, and I know deep down that you will be able to do the same, even without me.
Here’s my actual, serious business request: I need to close my entire account with you—checking, savings, and my recently paid-off Visa—permanently. I don’t want to rush you, but I would appreciate it if you could do this at your earliest convenience and if you could send a check for my remaining account balance, which should be only a paltry $15, to:
John Ryan McKever
XXXX XXXXX XXXXXX XXXX
Portland, OR XXXXX
It’s been great, though, and we’ve had some good times, to be sure; you were my first bank, after all. The remembrance of our first meeting, me a long-haired fifteen-year-old with my first real paycheck for the then-mind-boggling sum of about $180, and you a cold, sterile, brown cement affair with a faux-fireplace and free mints, still reaches out and forward through time to tug at my heartstrings. I was so confused, having never dealt with a financial institution or my own personal income before, and more accustomed to Mountain Dew, the Smashing Pumpkins, and ultra-violent ninja video games than commitment and fiscal responsibility, but your guiding hands and professional wisdom saw me through that daunting process.
And now look at me: I’m a college-educated adult, I live in another state, I have another credit card, and, if you must know, I’m with another bank, and it seems to be doing a very good job of holding onto my money for me. So, I guess it’s all in the open now. If it makes you feel any better, though, the other bank is still a credit union—I find you all just so refreshingly ethical and transparent, and I can only thank you for helping me to acquire such socially responsible taste in abstract, coolly inhuman business entities. The upshot of all this, and the part I’d like you and any customer service or quality control staff you may have to take to heart, is: It’s not you, it’s me. You’ve never done me wrong, and I’ll always appreciate that.
I hope this letter is enough. I don’t usually like breaking news like this in anything less than a face-to-face setting—too impersonal, if you ask me—but my circumstances simply don’t permit that kind of interaction right now, and this letter is the best I can do. After speaking with one of your very informative (but very obviously outsourced) online customer service representatives, I learned that you would accept a written request for account closure, so I figured I would make the most of it. After all, I’ve always enjoyed writing good, old-fashioned letters. They just seem so authentic and genuine in today’s age of electronically-enabled impersonality and coolly inhuman business entities which market themselves as the smiling providers of friendly service, individual attention, and authentic, personal care for and understanding of the customer’s needs, whatever they may be. If you, Arizona State Credit Union, can turn a human face to me, then I can turn one to you, and I’m glad that I had the wonderful opportunity to write you this letter so that I could do exactly that. I’m sure you can tell that I enjoyed writing it, and I sincerely hope that you’ve enjoyed reading it. Really.
If, for any reason, you need to contact me about anything I’ve written here, or if you need to confirm the actual, serious business request (which I assure you is, by itself, 100% non-ironic) from paragraph two, above, in any way, shape or form, I hope you won’t hesitate to call me at the cellular number which your computers know by heart. I prefer late morning or mid-day.
Good Luck and Goodbye,
John Ryan McKever
P.S. My new credit union has free coffee in the lobby. Free. All the time. Just saying.
Freedom is not justification. The whole concept of you and me and everyone we know living in a “free country,” while true and justifiably sacred, does not provide reasoning for anything in particular, and so cannot be used to justify anything in particular. At best, it’s a safeguard against coercion, not a catch-all for frivolity. Americans, who rightly cherish all these freedoms and of which I am pretty enthusiastically one, miss this point all the time.
Let’s draw an analogy with other freedoms, such as the freedom of any individual to spend their money mostly however he or she wants. In our great land, anyone is free, for example, to spend their entire paycheck on cheap beer, Cheez-its, and a 52″ LCD television ($1700 MSRP, $1139.98 retail, runs on a computer more powerful than the ones used in all 17 Apollo missions combined), but no one would ever—ever—use that freedom as a justification for being unable to pay their portion of the month’s rent. They would not use it because they know that no one would accept such an argument. It just doesn’t work because it’s blatantly an absurd cover for juvenile irresponsibility, and no one should expect it to work for really any freedom, including freedom of speech. So why does anyone accept the invocation of our all-important First Amendment as justification for saying something destructive, deliberately ignorant, or just plain meaningless?
Freedom of speech, after all, is not a reason to say anything in particular; freedom of religious belief is not a reason to hold any specific religion as sacred; the freedom to own a gun is not a reason to own a gun; the right to vote is not a reason to vote for any specific candidate, let alone to vote at all. Ideally, all of these require, y’know, like actual reasons. Sound logic and verifiable evidence and stuff. Maybe they even require genuine time, effort, thought, and above all, care.
Living in a free country is about the freedom to choose one’s reasons for doing something rather than just doing whatever one wants freely, as it were. It’s not about protecting one’s private reasoning from scrutiny—that of others, or one’s own.
(Part of an ongoing series about how to defeat common, super-annoying arguments.)
Many people I know disliked Seth MacFarlane’s turn as host of this year’s Academy Awards, and many other people seem to have enjoyed it greatly. The anti- or “offended” crowd, consisting of sort-of-serious film aficionados, journalists, and anyone whose reputation is an asset, basically just says he was offensive. Meanwhile, the pro- or “amused” crowd, consisting of just the demographic the Academy wanted to appeal to by choosing MacFarlane as host, basically just says that he was funny—perhaps, according to personal friends and acquaintances who shall remain nameless, even “brilliant.” Predictably, I disagree with all of them.
Consider this: labeling MacFarlane as “offensive” because he tells cringeworthy and insensitive jokes which challenge our (perfectly valid) normative views about the world is, quantitatively, not much more of an exercise in critical thinking than simply saying that he’s funny because he makes us laugh. He makes us laugh because he’s funny and he’s funny because he makes us laugh—but we cringe because he’s offensive and he’s offensive because he makes us cringe and—rinse, repeat. Do you see the circular reasoning here? In both cases, we let our immediate impressions and gut reactions masquerade as solid reasoning, allow them think for us, and make minimal headway on forming an opinion.
Honestly, I found the whole thing to be just the epitome of amusement, but, I’m going take a stance and say, amusement aside, that I didn’t like it. I won’t say that it exactly offended me since, like any American who came of age within earshot of television, I am not an easy person to offend, and the degree of like/dislike and defense/offense are two independent variables, ideally to be evaluated in isolation. Everyone on both sides seems to be missing the point: MacFarlane is neither offensive nor funny, but utterly vacuous and, if anything, emotionally stultifying.
2. (So how should we feel?)
Over the course of the past week-ish, a deluge of op-eds and media analyses have been trying with varying levels of success to persuade me to feel offended. The New York Times’ morning-after cringe piece takes a predictably safe route, highlighting the show’s repugnance but attributing negative comments primarily to other individuals or entities, but still getting its point across: we should feel offended. My personal favorite passage is the damning mention that “Hawk Koch, the president of the Academy, did not respond for requests for comment [sic],” but that some anonymous but importantly female spokeswoman defended the show on grounds of “creative freedom” and the painfully insincere hope that the estimated 1 billion people who watched this celebration of artistic accomplishment, found it “entertaining.” With this, the New York Times sets the paradigm for all to follow, laying out the rhetorical moves of indignity and arranging the major set pieces: the gay jokes, the misogyny of the song “We Saw Your Boobs,” an off-color remark about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln which has seamlessly faded from journalistic scrutiny for obvious reasons along with the racist jokes, etc. This is a ready-made template which we have heard a hundred times before. It is not novel, it is not interesting, and it is indeed best described as a prototype of whatever we would readily describe as having heard “a hundred times before.” Basically: it’s ineffectual.
The Atlantic takes a more interesting approach. In “The Banality of Seth MacFarlane’s Sexism and Racism at the Oscars,” all the hallmarks of a slightly more sophisticated perspective are present: from rhetorical questions (it “may have been meant to provoke, but provoke what?”) to remarks which challenge that painfully insincere Academy spokeswoman in a self-conscious and thus casually self-defeating way (“It’s a free country, etc.”) to even granting MacFarlane a few concessions (“it was nice to see someone as youthful as MacFarlane trying to push buttons. But…”). In this, Stage II of Oscars Backlash, the overriding impression is that of a journalistic facepalm, starkly contrasting with the New York Times’ passive aggressive litany of grievances and other outlets’ good old-fashioned outrage. One notable part about this piece is the pull quote, which contains the proposition that “It shouldn’t be hard to come up with a sensible position on this.” Perhaps it’s just my being prone to second-guesses and unproductively-careful analysis but I cannot help but be deeply skeptical of this proposition. The real, actual, slippery-as-hell argument of this piece, I think, is not that we should come up with our own opinion, but that coming up with our own opinion should be easy.
Such an argument ought to give us pause. When a journalist feels the need to inform us that, as comfortable and informationally affluent citizens of the industrialized world, we are perfectly capable of forming our own meaningful opinions, we should take it as the symptom of an underlying problem. We might actually be unable to do it. The obvious and sweeping (and interesting for the same reason that any other piece of sensational or ominous news is interesting) claim to make here is that we are all ignorant and zombie-like consumers of the news media, varying only quantitatively. But the more salient one is that the ground of the controversy over MacFarlane and the 2013 Academy Awards might actually be more treacherous than we initially ascertain. If we need to be explicitly reminded to form our own presumably independent opinions about something, it could just mean that we are in danger of botching it all from the start, simple as it may seem to judge the whole thing as straightforwardly offensive.
Let’s take a close look at “We Saw Your Boobs,” which is the centerpiece of most critiques of MacFarlane’s whole thing. On the surface, this song is offensive for the same reason anything is offensive: it disagrees with, or even actively attacks, our morals. The embattled moral here is simply that women should not be treated as sex objects, and that they deserve as much respect as any man, especially in a professional setting such as film production or at the internationally televised Academy Awards, which is a no-brainer. By boiling a number of talented actresses’ careers down to a 2-minute song about their boobs, Seth MacFarlane seems to undermine this important thesis, but I am not quite convinced that he is arguing against it. Many reactions to something like “We Saw Your Boobs” are grounded in the tacit assumption that he posits the opposite thesis: women in fact should be treated as sex objects, especially in a professional setting, and especially on internationally broadcasted live television. But is MacFarlane truly and earnestly advancing that argument with the intention of persuading us, the audience, to accept it?
In the context of its skit, “We Saw Your Boobs” is supposed to serve as a warning to MacFarlane from the future about what to avoid for the evening, lest he ruin a ceremony which normally tries to present itself as genuinely respectable. MacFarlane, we are informed by none other than William Shatner as Captain Kirk, will be remembered by posterity as the worst Oscar host ever—hardy har har. The implication of this, coming from a man whose counterfeit cultural obsolescence makes his every word a neurally taxing exercise in irony recognition, seems to be that if I agree I will become just as obsolete, uncool, and uptight as Shatner himself. It’s a really subtle warning. In the context of the program, of course, we know that the song-and-dance routine plays regardless of what seems like its prevention, but MacFarlane keeps it at arm’s length by playing it as a case study in what not to do, as something which is deliberately offensive. He preemtpively short-circuits any attempts to make him responsible for what he (and, to be fair, his massive, behind-the-scenes team of professional Oscars program writers) says. Basically, I’m just saying that MacFarlane sings “We Saw Your Boobs” ironically; there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, and since we are all, unconsciously, adepts at it in our daily lives, there is no solid reason to that he should be more a target of criticism over it than anyone else.
As for the actual content of the song itself, let’s zoom out for a moment and make an analogy with MacFarlane’s gay jokes, which have been the subject of significantly less media outcry than his purported misogyny. True, he made plenty of gay jokes during the Oscars, but since in the real world he is actually a relatively outspoken advocate of gay rights, so I find it hard to believe that he means them in a truly derogatory way. This does not necessarily make the jokes OK or even funny—they are still flippant, immature, and repetitive, but not hostile. So if we have to think twice about whether he is a homophobe, a misogynist, or for that matter even a racist, we have to also think twice about whether he has actually attacked or disagreed with anything we believe to be important, and thus about our grounds for taking offense at whatever jokes he tells that project such an image. It’s no secret that we cannot and should not take anything he says at face value—in terms of precept for understanding irony, this is about as fundamental as it gets, and if you don’t get it, you’re about as out of the loop as William Shatner.
One way of putting all this is that none of it is any more offensive than an emotionally developing fourteen-year-old boy’s doing the same thing to occupy himself during a torturous lecture on Shakespeare. I do not note in passing that torture was the chief controversy behind Zero Dark Thirty (nominated for five Oscars, winning one), and that it disappeared from the news media with a black bag over its head the moment that Seth MacFarlane stepped onstage. And Shakespeare, one of the giants on whose shoulders modern narrative stands (including MacFarlane’s), was no great friend of women himself by the way—Lady Macbeth and “Frailty, thy name is woman” and all that.
Anyway, we return to the original question: is the song “We Saw Your Boobs,” in fact, offensive? I hope I’ve convinced you that by virtue of its irony it’s at least not misogynistic (and even if I haven’t, read on—there’s a twist in the argument yet to come), but this does not illuminate anything about what the song actually does say, the normative claim(s) it makes. We still have no firm ground for evaluating its message, which is a prerequisite of being offended and thus regarding the cultural artifact in question as being offensive in nature. Now, I’m a big practitioner of the “Everything Is an Argument” argument, which is literally means exactly what it says (my map of the United States is an argument for the geographically discrete territory of the modern nation-state, biological organisms are arguments for their own evolutionary success, and Ulysses is an argument for the failure of masculinity in the face of the fluid dynamics of language), but I’ve had a tough time figuring out just what argument “We Saw Your Boobs” makes. This is all because of its ironic frame. It is not exactly misogynistic, but it definitely is not philogynistic either. Really, once we parse all this stuff out we find that it says precisely nothing. In practice, this is an argument for non-argument—for the philosophy that all arguments are pointless and that, if you take any of them too seriously, you are uptight, obsolete. It’s the epitome of amusement: the categorical denial of seriousness.
This is what I really dislike about MacFarlane’s performance—in fact, aside from some dimly nostalgic memories of finding Family Guy funny when I was about 17, I strongly dislike almost everything he does and his whole style of humor. It’s not because he is immature, insensitive, unoriginal, tedious, or a one-trick pony; it’s because he has nothing to say at all, no points to make, and nothing to advocate aside from mindless viewing and revulsion (i.e. taking offense) at the very idea of embracing anything as worthwhile or valuable or important. Yet he still talks, and, conspicuously, few of us seem to find it offensive or even irritating. Is it any wonder that MacFarlane ends “We Saw Your Boobs” with a military salute to the audience?
In the past, I have accidentally weirded people out with sexual interpretations of books and movies. In college, I wrote a term paper analyzing Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children on the basis of its female sexual symbolism, and when it came time to revise my paper with a small group of my classmates, I found myself the only man in a group with three women. Before this point, when I had yet to be faced with the task of explaining sexual symbolism to others, it had never occurred to me that the literary metaphor between bodies of water and female reproductive organs (upon which my argument, thus paper, thus final grade was based) was more than a little awkward. One of the women in my revision group was openly skeptical of my reading of Uncle Tom’s Children, and actually asked me to justify it. Why, she asked, are bodies of water yonic symbols? (Yonic symbols are, politely, the biological opposite of phallic symbols.) Now, there was nothing wrong with this kind of skepticism on her end—it’s basic critical thinking—but there was something wrong on my end: I did not feel that I had a solid answer.
Most people I know have mixed feelings about Animal Collective, are indifferent to it, or just dislike it flat out. I can probably count all the people I’ve ever known who, if asked, would just give me a straightforward affirmative on my hands with a few fingers left over. Now, this affirmative doesn’t need to be unqualified—I myself have only listened to their early albums and EPs a handful of times, and I think the best word to describe their latest album is: weak. Still, there is some incredible music in their catalogue and since they have had some major staying power as a favorite of mine for something like five years now, there comes a time when I have to recommend them to others to people. As much as I like them, as much as I can consistently allow them to do whatever it is to my music glands that they do, I do not exactly relish the opportunity to recommend them to people. A dreaded question always emerges: What kind of music is it?
It turns out that this question is not easy to answer, and not just for Animal Collective.
Right now, I’m cooking some rice in the kitchen in my apartment. A few minutes ago, I diced some garlic and added it to the rice, because rice by itself is boring and flavorless.
Loosely defined, “interpretation” is the construction of meaning from information. We would all very much like to think that reality is straightforward and easy to interpret because everything we do so hinges upon some interpretation of reality that, if we were not able to radically construct meanings and take them for granted, we would be unable to perform almost any task.
By this point I probably should answer for the way I introduced this entry, lest I alienate you, the reader, from my broader point. Let’s start with the rice in part 0.1, which is a questionable metaphor for the reality of part 0.2. The garlic is an equally questionable metaphor for the interpretations in part 0.2 which make reality workable for us. Just as there is such a thing as rice without garlic there is such a thing as reality without interpretation, but neither of these things is terribly attractive; they are bland and flavorless and boring and neither is very well-suited for human consumption.
The metaphor is bad because rice is edible and (sort of) nutritious even without garlic, while reality is completely cold, nihilistic, and uninhabitable without interpretation. If there was nothing on the face of the planet except for this bowl of rice, would it still be food? For whom? If there was nothing with a visual cortex to interpret the full spectrum of “visible” light reflecting off of the rice into the color white, would it still be white? Without anyone to use it, would the bowl be a bowl or just a hunk of ceramic? Is it even possible for us to conceptualize a garlic-free reality?
Science has told us that we, as human beings, evolved from “lower” animals like monkeys over huge scales of time. It has also told us that this process is natural (i.e. Natural Selection) and is non-teleological, which means that it is not a goal-driven process. This, in turn, basically tells us that we are not special and defeats the existential therapy which Religion has always sought to offer by telling us that we are. Thus, Science trumps Religion. Science tells us that at some point in the very distant future, our sun will expand and engulf the inner planets and probably turn the gas giants into what the inner rocky planets are now. It tells us how our brains work and why we are so obsessed with sex and why we learn spoken (but not written) language so easily. Science enables us to design airplanes and computers and factory farms, then it tells us how all of these things impact the environment or your body, which are themselves delineated, conceptualized, and thus in a sense created by science. (This is tricky: what, if anything, makes a beaver dam inherently a part of “the environment” but not a human-built log cabin, and what makes the naturally-occurring E. coli in my digestive tract a part of my body but not an influenza infection, or an abstract idea as remembered by the physical configuration of neurons?)
Science tells us so much about ourselves—so much, in fact, that it is often taken for a Worldview in the most comprehensive and capital-W sense of that term, giving purpose and meaning and ethical norms to life, just like Religion did before it, and just like basic hunger and fear and libido did before that. One such Worldview conquers another in its turn and pushes us forward in some way, undergirding and sponsoring our very existence, which is why you and I can today make a statement like “Science tells us X” without having to really think through exactly who is speaking or even exactly what “Science” refers to. Whether we want/need it to or not, common sense takes on a lot of that often pedantic and always burdensome through-thinking for us, and as necessarily happens when we allow common sense to make broad, complex calculations like this, unexamined assumptions and conflations seep into the way we think via the way we talk.