Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 Year in Politics

Election years are always crazy years for American politics.  They're not always Clint-Eastwood-talking-to-an-empty-chair crazy, though.  Nor are they, as a rule, "legitimate rape"- or "binders full of women"- or "fiscal cliff"- or "austerity"- crazy, that is, so crazy that one requires a Crazy-to-English translator to watch the evening news.  And although American politics is never particularly kind to women, the poor and minorities, 2012 sure made a bad situation worse for many of them/us.  In a word: Malarkey

This year, I've restricted my look-back at 2012 to American politics only, despite the fact that some pretty amazing things were happening elsewhere.  (See Mohamed Morsi's election in Egypt, the assassination of Hamas leader Ahmad Jabar by Israeli state forces, the escalation of violence in Syria, the rise of China's new President Xi Jinping, the devastation of typhoon Bopha in the Philippines, the "Idle No More" protest movement among our neighbors to the North, and deep conflict over austerity measures in Greece and Spain.)  There are always too many things to cover, so I grouped my retrospective picks into four categories: the War on Women, Guns, SCOTUS and the Presidential Election.  If you want to hear about the so-called fiscal cliff, you'll just have to wait until next year's list.

Here it is, the 2012 Year in Politics:

War on Women, Part I: Sandra Fluke
 Back in February, as Congress debated the merits and demerits of mandating insurance coverage for contraceptives, a Georgetown University law student named Sandra Fluke gave a speech to House Democrats in support of the measure.  Fluke's (entirely reasonable) position was that access to safe and affordable contraceptives is not only a fundamental necessity for women's health but also a pretty hefty benefit for the rest of society, too.   Shortly thereafter, conservative radio blowhard Rush Limbaugh called Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute," claiming that her appeal for contraceptive coverage was the same as as asking "to be paid for sex."  A nation of women rolled their eyes.  I mean, this was Rush Limbaugh after all. How much harm could a buffoon like that do?  How representative, really, are his views?  Fluke weathered the storm with grace and aplomb-- she was later nominated by Time magazine for Person of the Year-- but the Fluke Affair definitely put women on their heels to start off 2012.  Oh, if only we had known then what the rest of the year was to bring...

War on Women, Part II: Legitimate Rape
 The deeply twisted logic of Limbaugh's filleting of Fluke began to make a bit more "sense" later in the year when Republicans across the nation began saying what can only be described as BAT SH*T CRAZY things about rape, pregnancy, abortion, and all manner of other issues related to women's bodies and reproductive systems.  One of the most egregious of these was the claim by U.S. representative Todd Akin of Missouri that pregnancy from rape rarely occurs in the case of what he called "legitimate rape."  (Full quote: "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." Watch Akin's interview here.)  Instead of proceeding quickly and calmly in the opposite direction of Akin, which would have been the not crazy  thing to do, other socially conservative Republicans flocked to him.  Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, in what I can only assume was an attempt to redeem Akin's utterly non-scientific reflections on the relationship between sex and pregnancy, acknowledged that well, yes, rape does sometimes result in pregnancy... but when it does, that pregnancy is "something God intended."  A nation of women rolled their eyes again, but this time they were a bit more aggravated.  C'mon, guys, this is twice in the same year!

War on Women, Part III: Unhappy Females
 At first it seemed like an unfortunate coincidence, then a kind of amusing debate-coach blindspot, then a little more like a regrettable faux pas, and finally like an outright conspiracy... but whatever it was, there was something definitively thematic about the way the Presidential candidates talked about the women they met "on the campaign trail."  Namely, EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THOSE WOMEN WAS UNHAPPY.  (Videos of the debates are here, here and here.)  It didn't seem to make any difference what point the candidates were trying to illustrate, they had met a woman on the campaign trail whose unhappiness was illustrative.  After the umpteenth repetition of the unhappy female trope, even I had to chuckle at it.  Did either of them ever meet a happy female? And, if they hadn't, maybe the most illustrative point they should have be relaying was that WOMEN IN THIS COUNTRY ARE UNHAPPY.  I'd like to say women across the nation rolled their eyes, which I'm sure they did, but that would just reinforce the rhetorical nonsense of the candidates.  Sigh.
 
War on Women, Part IV: Binders Full of Women
 In the second Presidential debate between incumbent President Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney, Romney was asked a question (from the "town hall" crowd of undecided voters) about persistent gender inequality in the workplace and specifically the fact that women continue to make 72% of what their male counterparts earn.  Romney, attempting to demonstrate his record of concern for gender-gap issues, recounted a story from his businessman days when he made a concerted effort to ensure that women job candidates got equal consideration. When his minions told Romney that all the qualified candidates were men, he replied (his actual words): "Well, gosh, can't we-- can't we find some-- some women that are also qualified?"  The minions were stymied, so Romney went to a number of "women's groups" with the same request and, voilà!, they brought him "whole binders full of women"!  The unhappy females rolled their eyes again, but then they took to the Interwebz in full force to create one of the best memes of the year

Let me just go on the record as saying that the War on Women will be even harder to win than the War on Drugs or the War on Terror.  If 2012 taught us anything at all, it's that we may as well lay down arms in that one.  Unfortunately, this year also gave us several reminders of our national need to lay down arms.

Guns, Part I: Aurora Movie Theater
On Friday, July 20, at a showing of The Dark Knight Rises in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, James Eagan Homes opened fire on the trapped crowd, injuring 58 people and killing 12.  Homes is awaiting trial on multiple murder charges. The names and stories of the victims are here




Guns, Part II: Sikh Temple
On August 5, at a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Wade Michael Page (a white supremacist) killed six people and wounded four others.  After being shot and wounded by a police officer, Wade fatally shot himself in the head.  The names and stories of the victims are here



Guns, Part III: Sandy Hook
On December 14, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, Adam Lanza killed 2o children and 7 adults, including himself, in one of the deadliest mass killings in United States history. The names and stories of the victims are here.   


Because the tragedy at Sandy Hook involved so many small children, it reignited discussions about gun rights, regulation and controls in this country.  Unfortunately, very little in those conversations seem to have bridged the deep divide that continues to rend our nation.


SCOTUS, Part I: Obamacare
President Obama's most ambitious (and likely most historic) healthcare-reform initiative, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in June.  The most politically charged element of PPACA is what came to be known as the "individual mandate," which requires Americans to purchase health coverage.  Opponents of PPACA have tried to repeal it in whole and in part, but when SCOTUS confirmed the constitutionality of PPACA in the Sibelius decision, a nation of uninsured breathed a sigh of relief.  Of course, the challenges didn't end with Sibelius, but it was a major victory for healthcare reform and Obama.

SCOTUS, Part II: Show Your Papers
Also in June, the Supreme Court handed down a split-decision on Arizona's controversial immigration law SB1070.  The court unanimously agreed to uphold the most controversial part of the law-- more commonly known as the "show your papers" provision-- which requires state law enforcement officials to determine the immigration status of anyone they stop or arrest if there is reason to suspect that the individual might be an illegal immigrant.  But SCOTUS blocked many of 1070's other provisions on the grounds that they interfered with the federal government's ability to set immigration policy.  The immigration question certainly isn't going anywhere anytime soon, and states like Arizona are fueling the passions on both sides.  For many of us, President Obama has been underimpressive on this issue, though he did announce in June that his administration would stop deporting young immigrants if they met certain requirements.  If demographic predictions are correct, this country is getting less and less white, so there's not much time left to ride the fence on this very important matter.

SCOTUS, Part III: Fair Sentencing
Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, at the behest of President Obama, reducing the disparity between the amount of crack cocaine and the amount of powder cocaine needed to trigger certain sentencing penalties, largely because it had been shown that the disparity had a disproportionately negative impact on racial minorities.  This summer, in Dorsey v. United States and Hill v. United States, SCOTUS determined that the provisions of the Fair Sentencing Act applied to people who were convicted before the act was passed but sentenced afterwards.  Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, hailed the ruling as "another step toward racial fairness."  When the Fair Sentencing Act was passed, black Americans made up roughly 13% of the population and 14% of monthly illegal drug users, but made up 80% of people convicted of a federal crack cocaine offense.  Even under the new guidelines, mandatory minimum sentencing laws are still racially discriminatory, so there are many more steps toward racial fairness to go.

It was definitely a big year for SCOTUS, and 2013 looks to be even bigger.  Justices Ginsberg, Kennedy, Thomas and Scalia are all old and likely won't all make it through Obama's next term.  This may be the first time in a long time to shift the leaning of the High Court more to the left.  We'll have to wait and see.

Of course, the BIGGEST political story of 2012 was the Presidential election.  And so, finally, here are the highlights:  

Presidential Election, Part I: The Conventions
The two biggest events of the RNC and DNC conventions this year did not directly involve the candidates.  For the RNC convention, it was Clint Eastwood's bizarre "dialogue" with Invisible Obama.  Too hard to describe, so just watch:



At the DNC convention, former President Bill Clinton was the big star. His "arithmetic" speech reinvigorated a party embattled, embittered and loooking to recapture the hope of 2008. Here's Clinton:


Presidential Election, Part II: The Debates

The Presidential debates this election year were especially interesting-- less so for the substantive content of the conversations and much more so for the goldmine of hashtags and memes unleashed as a consequence of those conversations.  If you want to relive all of the fun, you can watch the three debates in their entirety below: 


Presidential Election, Part III: The Winner 
The real winner of the 2012 Presidential election was Nate Silver, but the person who won the Presidency was Barack Obama.   President Obama has disappointed many over the last four years, and his performance in the months leading up to his reelection was far from stellar, but the hope-and-change candidate reappeared on election night to deliver his acceptance speech.  Here's our President:


All in all, 2012 was what about one expects from an election year. Divisive, inspiring, maddening and sometimes flat-out jaw-droppingly crazy.  For the next year, I hope we'll see that we learned some lessons from 2012.  Let's end the War on Women.  Let's regulate guns and gun-owners better.  Let's replace the departing Supreme Court Justices with more judicious and compassionate men/women.  We've got Obama for another four years, so let's hold him to a higher standard.  Let's  hold all the rest of our statesmen and -women to a higher standard as well.

And let's do the same for ourselves.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

2012 Year in Sports

Legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi once said: "If winning isn't everything, why do they keep score?"  In spite of the many ways sports serves as an apt metaphor for life, Lombardi's sage reflection keys in on one of the important differences between sports and life.  Namely, in sports, they keep score.  On a scoreboard.  And whatever is on that scoreboard when the clock runs out gets recorded for posterity. Some of it also gets recorded on this blog at the end of the year.

The 2011 Year in Sports was a mostly "bad and ugly" one, and though 2012 had its fair share of bad and ugly stories, there are more "good" ones to weigh in the balance.  I'll go ahead and note that I'm skipping stories about the major championships this year. For the record, though, the World Series Champions were the San Francisco Giants, the Super Bowl Champions were the New York Giants, the BCS Champions were the Alabama Crimson Tide and the NBA Playoff Champions were the Miami Heat.  Of the major championships, there weren't especially gripping stories to tell, except for maybe the fact that Lebron James FINALLY got to kiss an NBA Championship trophy.  And the fact that Eli Manning DID execute a pretty impressive fourth-quarter comeback in the Super Bowl.  And I suppose it's a kind of cool story that the Super Bowl and the World Series were both won by "Giants." Still, even this year's Giant stories paled in comparison to 2012's other stories, which in many cases were truly Olympian.

In roughly chronological order, here is the 2012 Year in Sports:

The Penn State Aftermath:  It's hard to imagine any year being worse than last year was for Penn State.  But, just a few weeks into 2012, it was clear that things were already looking dark in Happy Valley.  On Jan 22, longtime Nittany Lions football coach and Penn State legend Joe Paterno died of lung cancer.  Then, in June, the long and tragic story of last year's scandal was rehashed, and a judgment finally passed, as former Assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of child sexual abuse and sentenced to a maximum of 442 years in prison.  A month later, in July, Penn State's internal investigation yielded the very damning Freeh Report, which pointed an accusatory finger at both Joe Paterno and senior Penn State administrators for their "callous and shocking" role in covering up Sandusky's actions.  The final nail was driven into the coffin of this scandal shortly afterwards, also in July, when the NCAA delivered one of the harshest penalties in college sports history to Penn State: a $60 million fine, a four-year bowl ban, a reduction of annual scholarships from 25 to 15, and five years' probation.  The NCAA also vacated all Penn State football wins from 1998-2011, casting Paterno out of the history books as one of the winningest coaches in college football.  In sum, 2012 was the year that Penn State paid the piper... and the piper was pissed.  It will be a long and arduous road back to Penn State's former glory, both in terms of football and in terms of its reputation.  Let's hope there is a lesson learned here somewhere.

Amazing Is Amazing In Any Color Jersey: Peyton Manning is, without a doubt, one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game.  So, it came as a shock in March when the Indianapolis Colts cut Manning from their roster, on which he had served as the leader for fourteen years.  Manning suffered several serious injuries in 2011 and the Colts feared he would never return, or would never return the same.  Like champions do, though, Manning found another place to play.  Less than two weeks after being released by the Colts, Manning announced that he would be joining the Denver Broncos.  (Added bonus:  Manning's selection forced the Broncos to trade Tim Tebow.  Manning's alma mater is the University of Tennessee and Tebow's is UT arch-rival Florida.  Many Vols fans saw a kind of poetic, if not also cosmic, justice at work in these events.)  Just to put a bow on the whole story, Manning went on to be THE comeback player of the year.  On the heels of his brother's Super Bowl win in January, Peyton's story made it clear that the Manning Dynasty still reigns.

A Hit Is NOT Just A Hit:  Elsewhere in the NFL, things were not so pretty.  In March, the NFL released a report charging the New Orleans Saints (and, in particular, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams) with running a an illegal "bounty" pool, which rewarded players with cash for delivering hits that knocked players on the opposing team out of the game.  Saints' head coach Sean Payton was suspended for the 2012 season and Williams has be banned indefinitely from the league.  The Saints were also find a half-million dollars and forced to give up draft picks. Everyone knows that football is a physical, even violent, game.  But everyone should know that intentionally injurious hits demonstrate more than just bad judgment or poor sportsmanship.  With the size and speed of today's players, those hits can be life-threatening.  Shame on the Saints, and shame on every sportscaster who tried to downplay the severity of their transgressions.

A Legend Retires: University of Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt is not only a Hall of Famer, but the recipient of an Arthur Ashe Courage Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  Oh, and she is the all-time winningest coach in NCAA basketball history.  Men's AND women's basketball history. In April, just a year after her diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer's disease, she announced that she would be stepping-down as the coach of the Lady Vols.  It's hard to exaggerate what Summit did not only for women's basketball, but for women's sports more generally.  She was unrelenting in her demand for toughness and discipline-- her court-side scowl was legendary-- but she inspired dedication and excellence in her players.  Championship-winning dedication and excellence.  For years, the Lady Vols were the collegiate women's-basketball equivalent of the Yankees or the Patriots.  They were a dynasty.  And they owe it ALL to Pat Summitt.

BCS Finally Makes A Semi-Rational Decision:  There's nothing that unites fans of college football more than disparaging the BCS, the governing organization that decides which team gets the title "National Champions" every year.  Officially, the team that wins the BCS Championship Bowl Game is the National Champion, but understanding exactly how the two teams who play in that game got there requires not only a dizzying command of complex algorithms, conference alignments and coaches' preferences, but also probably a heavy toke of the wacky tobacky, too.  Thus, almost every year there are teams who argue their "claim" to the National Champions title without winning (or, often, even playing in) the National Championship Game.  The truth is, organizing a playoff series for college football is complicated for a variety of reasons.  Because it's football, games can only be played once a week, so there's no cramming a 64-team playoff tournament into a few weeks like they do for basketball.  And because it's college football, you can't have a playoff series that lasts several weeks (like the NFL) anyway.  (These are students, after all, and some of them like to go to school, not to mention also home for the holidays.)  Still, there has been growing discontentment with the current system for too many years.  So the BCS announced that, starting in 2014, the top four teams will compete in a semi-finals playoff.  Of course, all this really will accomplish is to give 4 or 5 more teams grounds for complaint.  Whatevs.  I'll just suggest again my solution to the BCS woes, which has two parts: (1) The SEC Conference winner should be named the National Champion every year, and (2) All the rest of the teams can compete for the Heisman Trophy, for which SEC players will be ineligible.  Done and DONE.

Michael Phelps, Golden Boy:  In the London Olympic Games this summer, swimmer Michael Phelps became the most decorated Olympian in history with an impressive 19 medals.  Many people wondered whether or not the Phelps we saw in Beijing four years ago would be able to return with the same dominance.  He had fallen out of shape, gotten into some trouble and (by his own account) lost some of his passion for the sport in the intervening years.  But the worries were assuaged as soon as he jumped back into the pool, adding 11 more medals in London to the 8 he won in Beijing. It will likely be a long time, if ever, before we see another swimmer like Phelps, who announced that the London Games were his last.  Well done, Golden Boy.

London Olympics Hit By A Lightning Bolt:  Repeating his gold-medal performances in the 100m and 200m sprints from Beijing, Usain Bolt proved once again in London that he is the fastest human alive.  His performance this past August made him the first person to win 100m and 200m gold in back-to-back Olympics.  In fact, Bolt's performance in the 100m has only ever been beaten by one other person:  Usain Bolt.  If you didn't get to see it when it happened, it really is a feat to behold.  Bolt runs with ease and confidence and, of course, inhuman speed, but what really made him an international star is the endearing braggadocio that he brings to every race.  All I can say is: yeah, yeah, he's fast, but he should really be credited for his hilarious cameo on Saturday Night Live mocking Vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan.  You go, Bolt. 

Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing, Baby:  Lordy, lordy, did the NFL "replacement refs" stink it up back in September!  I mean, f'realz, STINK IT UP.  Regular, professional referees catch a lot of flack for what they do, but nobody-and-I-mean-NOBODY realized how good we had it with the real zebras until the scabs showed up.  In a Seahawks-Packers game in the third week of the season, two officials made a simultaneous call in the endzone:  one called an interception, the other a touchdown.  The image of that snafu is worth a thousand NSFW words.  No better way to settle a labor dispute between the NFL and the regular officials than a blown call, apparently.  By Week 4, justice had been restored on the football field and (presumably) the refs' bank accounts.

The Mighty Falls:  For years, Lance Armstrong has been a living testament not only to how discipline, dedication and training can stretch the limits of human endurance and achievement, but also how the same can overcome the very worst that Nature deals the human body.  Armstrong won one of sports' most grueling and demanding contests, cycling's Tour de France, a record seven consecutive times between 1999 and 2005.  Impressive as that was, it was overshadowed by his seemingly miraculous victory over brain. lung and testicular cancer.  (The latter of those victories inspired the LiveStrong movement, which millions of people supported by wearing Armstrong's bracelets.)  So, in August, when the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency finally stripped Armstrong of his Tour victories and banned him from the sport, it seemed hard to believe that a hero could have fallen so far, so hard and so ingloriously.  Armstrong protested that he was innocent to the very end, and beyond, but the evidence against him was overwhelming and damning.  What is more, it appears that the whole sport of cycling has been rotten to the core for many years.  Armstrong is no doubt still, and has always been, an athlete of the most elite caliber... but we finally have to resign ourselves to the truth that his impossible performances were as much a credit to doping as they were to discipline.

Notre Dame Played Like A Champion This Season:  I've never been much of a Notre Dame football fan, mostly because I don't like their we're-too-special-to-play-in-a-regular-conference nonsense, but I've always had a lot of respect for the long and storied history of that program.  For the last decade or so, though, Notre Dame football hasn't been worthy of much respect.  The 2012 season marks the return to glory for the Fighting Irish, and their first shot at a National Championship in a long, long time.  As the season drew to a close, Notre Dame caught a lot of breaks from key losses by other contending teams, but that shouldn't cast a shadow over their right to play for the title.  This is a solid team. Definitely not as solid as the 2nd- or 3rd- (or maybe even 4th-) place team in the SEC, but if it's not going to be an all-SEC BCS Championship this year, I think ND deserves to be the loser. 

That's it for the 2012 Year in Sports.  Next up: 2012 Year in Politics.  Better put your seat-belts on now.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

2012 Year in Music

This has been a quiet year here on RMWMTMBM, but I didn't want the year to end without my annual retrospective wrap-ups of 2012.  Following in the tradition of the last couple of years, I'll break the lists up by topic, beginning with 2012 Year in Music. (If you're feeling nostalgic, check out 2011 Year in Music and 2010 Year in Music.)

I'm not even going to try to defend my picks for 2012.  They are, for the most part, pretty mainstream.  Maybe I just wasn't feeling sonically adventurous this year.  I don't know.  Many of the albums that made it to the tops of other year-in-review lists never really took hold with me, some for reasons I can easily explain and others for reasons that elude me.  For example, Taylor Swift's Red isn't on my list, because I think Taylor Swift is awful.  But other albums, like the Alabam Shakes' Boys and Girls and Frank Ocean's Channel ORANGE, were albums that I liked-but-didn't-love, and so they didn't quite make the cut.  Then there were the ones that a lot of people loved but just weren't my cup of tea at all, like the Japandroid's Celebration Rock and Smashing Pumpkin's Oceania.  Taste is a funny thing, I guess.

In no particular order, here are the albums that got the play-and-repeat treatment from Dr. J in 2012:

Fun., Some Nights:  This may be my favorite album of 2012.  Down to a track, it delivers exactly what the band's name promises, that is:  Fun. Period.  (I love that the band's name is "Fun(period)".  That's just brilliant.)  Some Nights is pop-perfection.  It's hooky, at times anthemic, full-on endorphin-producing and (despite its being played almost endlessly and everywhere since February) it hasn't gotten old or tiresome yet.  Lead singer Nate Ruess, who has more than a little bit of Freddy Mercury in him, manages to deliver the sometimes over-the-top lyrics ("some nights I rule the world/ with bar lights and pretty girls") with a healthy dose of charming self-deprecation ("but most nights I stay straight and think about my mom"). They definitely threw in everything AND the kitchen sink on Some Nights-- the regular guitars, keys, drums and bass, of course, BUT ALSO horns, synthesizers, adult and childrens' choirs, strings, and even the inimitable Janelle Monae-- which is a pretty impressive smorgasbord for a 3-piece band.  In their song "Stars," Ruess repeats the refrain "I know I could be more clever" over and over... but I'm unconvinced.  

Bruno Mars, Unorthodox Jukebox:  Bruno Mars' sophomore album is every bit as fun as Fun.'s and twice as eclectic.  I would hate to be the iTunes employee that had to assign a genre to Unorthodox Jukebox, because Mars' incredible facility with (and willingness to) not only genre-bend but outright genre-jump-and-shout makes this album nothing short of a tour-de-force.  A couple of weeks ago, much to the chagrin of my Motown-loving friends, I suggested that Bruno Mars was the new Smokey Robinson.  It's always dangerous to compare the up-and-comers to the greats, of course, but I'd still argue that if Bruno Mars had the full force of a studio like Motown or Stax behind him, he would be every bit the star now that Smokey Robinson or Otis Redding or Al Green was back in the day.  For the record, I've since revised my comparison-- I now think that Mars is more of an Otis than a Smokey.  The Otis-revision is inspired, mostly, by the fact that Mars is not only a great singer/songwriter but also a consummate performer, a bona fide showman.  The only thing that would make listening to Bruno Mars' Unorthodox Jukebox better would be to have Mars and his entire horn-posse right there in the room to do it justice.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, The HeistThere were several notable rap albums released this year, but my pick is The Heist.  Macklemore & Ryan Lewis showed up on my radar first when a student of mine forwarded me their simple, sweet and sensitively-delivered "Same Love," a kind of queer-affirming reflection on homophobia.  (If you crossed the lyrical message of Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" with the musical-styling of Will.i.am's "Yes We Can," you'd have Macklemore's "Same Love.") Macklemore is an interesting, hard to characterize, white rapper.  He's got skill, for sure, but he's not hyper-hard (like Eminem) nor is he corny/ironic (like Asher Roth), which seem to be the two categories into which most white rappers inevitably fall.  Macklemore is passionate but joyful, honest but sincere, attentive to and reflective about the world's many woes but hopeful still.  What's more, he and Ryan Lewis have a great ear for just-right hip-hop melodies, which  make most of the tracks on The Heist contagious, if not downright earworm-y.  "Cant Hold Us" is one of this year's definitive dance-club hits, but my favorite track on the album is without a doubt the hilarious "Thrift Shop."  

MoZella, The Brian Holland Sessions: I don't know why more people don't know about this album, or why it isn't on every "Best of 2012" list.  MoZella (née Maureen Anna McDonald) has created what can only be described as an homage to Motown.  Seriously, it's impossible to listen to The Brian Holland Sessions and not be immediately transported to Detroit in the 1960's.  (The "Brian Holland" of the album title was one-third of Motown's Holland/Dozier/Holland songwriting trio, which produced hits for The Marvelettes, The Supremes, The Four Tops and The Isley Brothers.)  MoZella reproduces all of the sweetness and syrupy goodness of Hitsville USA without hint of irony.  This is only speculation, but my guess is that MoZella and her album probably got lost in the shadow of Adele, who she sounds a lot like.  Still, this is definitely the album of 2012 that I would recommend first, if only because my bet is that whomever is asking hasn't heard or heard of it.  For just a taste, check out the (obviously Supremes-inspired) "You Don't Love Anyone But Yourself."  Then go listen to the rest of it.

Leonard Cohen, Old Ideas:  There's not really much to say here.  In any given year, if Leonard Cohen puts out an album, that album is going to be on my list.  If you know anything at all about Leonard Cohen, there will be nothing at all surprising to you on this album.  It's slow, brooding, tortured, equal parts consonance and dissonance, full of reflections of the vicissitudes of life and love as they are always seen in Cohen's fun-house lyrical mirror.  It's poetry.  When I listen to any of Cohen's albums, I feel like the narrator of the second track on this album ("Show Me The Place"), left helpless to say anything other than "show me the place where you want your slave to go."  I guess this is true for a lot of his fans, but I find Cohen's songs inescapably gripping.  They grab hold, squeeze tight, hurt a lot but caress a little, too.  He's always sounded old and wise, but there's something even older and wiser about Old Ideas.  And something that convinces you that there probably aren't really any new ideas anymore, anyway.  

Flo Rida, Wild OnesI'd like to say that Flo Rida is one of my guilty pleasures, but that would require that I feel at least a modicum of guilt about my pleasure.  Which I do not.  I have both of his previous albums (2008's Mail on Sunday and 2009's R.O.O.T.S.) and this one is every bit as good.  If you need something to get you up and moving, "Wild Ones" is a winner, but my favorite track is the absolutely addictive "Whistle."  If you've heard the song, you might find this interview with Flo Rida amusing, since he explains that "Whistle" is just a song about "getting my attention" and NOT  what most people think, namely (in Flo's words), "some real freaky stuff."  The first track of Wild Ones ("Run") is a high-energy pairing with RedFoo of LMFAO, and somehow manages to take an otherwise LMFAO-sounding track and give it just the right dose of barbiturates. For the best hip-hop sampling of 2012, I'd nominate Flo Rida's "I Cry," which samples the Bingo Players' "Cry (Just A Little),"which itself included a sample of Brenda Russell's "Piano in the Dark."   That's some meta-musical-goodness.  

Rolling Stones, GRRR!Last but not least, I have to include the newly-released, 3-disc mega-compilation of Rolling Stones' hits. What's noteworthy about GRRR!, other than the obvious fact that it's ALL STONES, is that it includes two previously-unreleased tracks, "Doom and Gloom" and "One More Shot," neither of which are anything to write home about really.  Compilations can be tricky sometimes if the work compiled is not uniformly good.  But it's not tricky at all with the Stones.  Just push play on GRRR! and you get more than three straight hours of the greatest rock-n-roll band of all time.  It's that simple.  Just hang your tongue out like a gorilla and growl to your heart's content.



Honorable Mentions:I would've included Katy Perry's Teenage Dreams: The Complete ConfectionNicki Minaj's Pink Friday... Roman Reloaded and Ke$ha's Warrior, but all three are technically "re-releases," that is, expanded versions of previously-released albums.   I also really liked The Wallflowers' Glad All Over, but it sounds like every other Wallflowers' album (which is fine by me).  Ne-Yo's R.E.D. was another close call; it didn't make my list but definitely counts as the R&B album that beats out Frank Ocean this year.  Finally, I'm a little surprised myself that there isn't any alt-country/roots music on my list this year, but if there were, the nods would definitely go to The Avett Brothers' The Carpenter or The Lumineers' The Lumineers.

That's it, readers.  Feel free to let me know what I missed in the comments section.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

In Memorium

Yesterday, one of the worst mass-killings in United States history occurred, taking the lives of 20 children and 8 adults, including the shooter.

Especially in the wake of an unspeakable tragedy, it is sometimes too easy to ignore the immeasurably valuable and radically singular worth of each and every human life.  Even those lives that were not, in whole or in part, lived well.

In memorium for each of those who died in another senseless act of violence, in a culture of violence, that may have been prevented with a more conscientious sense of care from the rest of us.  All of us failed all of you.

Charlotte Bacon, 6
Daniel Barden, 7
Rachel Davino, 29
Olivia Engel, 6
Josephine Gay, 7

Ana Marquez-Greene, 6
Dylan Hockley, 6
Dawn Hochsprung, 47
Madeleine Hsu, 6
Catherine Hubbard, 6
Chase Kowalski, 7
Jesse Lewis, 6
James Mattioli, 6
Grace McDonnell, 7
Anne Marie Murphy, 52
Emilie Parker, 6
Jack Pinto, 6
Noah Pozner, 6
Caroline Previdi, 6
Jessica Rekos, 6
Avielle Richman, 6
Lauren Rousseau, 30
Mary Sherlach, 56
Victoria Soto,27
Benjamin Wheeler, 6
Allison Wyatt, 6
and...

Adam Lanza, 20

Those Children Were Not Babies

In a press conference shortly after the horrible news of the Connecticut grade-school shooting broke, White House press secretary Jay Carney said: "There is, I am sure-- will be, rather-- a day for discussion of the usual Washington policy debates, but I do not think today is that day.”  Carney could not have been more wrong.  Yesterday-- and every day-- absolutely *is* the day for a discussion about Washington policy debates that bear on the tragic events that took place in Newtown, chief among them policy debates about how to tame our nation's violent gun culture and how to make mental healthcare more effective, accessible and affordable for those who need it.  To talk about these things in the wake of a tragedy is not to "politicize" that tragedy.  Tragedies that result in the lost lives of citizens, especially the youngest and most vulnerable of our citizens, are already political.

There are and will always be members of our communities who break the law, both moral and juridical.  Some will do so exercising the full force of a mostly unfettered rational agency, while many more will do so coerced in some way or another by forces more or less outside of their control (mental illness, poverty, addiction, or any of the countless other forces of desperation).  When something as incomprehensible as what happened yesterday occurs, we assume that the agent must have been mad, crazy, broken.  Whether or not the alleged, and now deceased, shooter Adam Lanza was mentally ill has yet to be determined.  If we come to learn that he was, we will need to re-examine what, if anything, could have been done to care for his illness better.  But we will know, sadly, that even the best mental health care cannot guarantee that the complex, dark, invisible and largely inaccessible drives that characterize some psychological illnesses may not have found expression in something horrible anyway.  The human mind, the human impulses, the human wants and needs-- coupled with human freedom-- are, mostly for the better but too often for the worse, incalculable.  The same mysterious combination of human capacities and powers that awe and inspire us also horrify and devastate us.

All that is just to say, first, I don't know if Adam Lanza was "crazy" and, second, I do know that there's a limit to what could have been done to prevent yesterday's tragedy if he was.  I don't think people necessarily have to be certifiably "crazy" to do horrible things.  I hope that, if he was ill, he was cared for as best as possible, though the deficiencies in mental healthcare in this country lead me to suspect that even the best care might not have been enough.  Yesterday, today, and every day is the day to talk about how to care better and more effectively for the myriad unseen illnesses that afflict our friends, family members and fellow citizens and which cause them to suffer the unspeakable pain of an unsettled mind, a restless heart, loneliness or isolation.  But, in the end, Adam Lanza's mental illness didn't kill those children in Connecticut.  Adam Lanza's mental illness didn't even kill Adam Lanza.

Adam Lanza's guns did. 

We have, in the United States, not only a gun-control and gun-regulation problem, but a gun-culture problem.  (Just check out the Washington Post's very informative "Twelve facts about guns and mass shootings in the United States" that was circulated yesterday.) And our problem is getting worse.  Of the 11 deadliest shootings in United States' history, 5 have happened in the last 5 years.  Adam Lanza, the alleged shooter in the Connecticut school tragedy, was armed with two semi-automatic firearms, neither of which belonged to him but both of which were legally registered, making it possible for him to kill 20 children and 5 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School before any help could arrive.  Of course, any handgun can kill, but as William Saletan explained in his article for Slate, the faster the gun, the higher the body count.  Whatever else might have been wrong with Lanza, it is doubtlessly the case that he would not have been able to kill 26 people without a gun, and he would not have been able to kill so many so quickly without semi-automatic weapons.  Perhaps, if we collectively spent less time justifying and defending our right to bear those kinds of arms qua patet orbis and more time addressing the sorts of problems that make gun-ownership seem like a right worthy of the most vigorous defense, then it may not have occurred to Lanza, in his darkest moment, to take up arms. Like all the rest of us, Lanza is in large part a product of the culture that produced him as a subject.  Ours is a culture that validates, with hardly any qualifications, gun violence as a civic option.  Full stop.

Stricter gun laws will not put an end to gun violence.  The only thing that will put an end to gun violence, ad oculos, is the complete eradication of guns.  Barring that unlikely possibility, all we have at our disposal to diminish gun violence is the law.  We quite simply must regulate more and better when it comes to firearms.  There is NO reason for citizens to own semi-automatic or assault weapons.  They're not needed to hunt, nor are they needed for personal protection. (Arguably, they *are* needed for revolution, which I take to be at least one of the subtexts of the 2nd Amendment, but-- and, seriously, I've always wondered this-- what need does one have for an appeal to Constitutional right in the execution of a coup d'etat?) The one and only purpose of semi-automatic and assault weapons is to kill a *lot* of people quickly and efficiently.  I cannot imagine any reasonable interpretation of the 2nd Amendment that ensures the right to those kinds of weapons.

I've heard and read many people remark, in reference to the schoolchildren that were killed yesterday, that they were innocent babies who didn't deserve the tragedy that befell them.  They certainly did not deserve to be shot.  No one does.  But they were not "babies."  They were 6- and 7-year-olds, no doubt old enough to know what a gun is and what it does.  As they watched their friends die and watched Lanza point his gun at them, I cannot imagine any defense of the right to bear arms that would have sufficed to assuage their fear and horror.  Nor can I imagine any defense of the right to bear arms that could explain to them or their friends or their families why they were about to become, in effect, the collateral damage of what press secretary Jay Carney so flippantly called "the usual Washington policy debates."  The same goes for the poor children who survived, and who actually will need to be given some account of why we continue to allow weapons like the ones Lanza used to circulate among us, regulated or not.  THAT is the point utterly, tragically and inexcusably missed by press secretary Carney.  The day to talk about these things is every day.  EACH AND EVERY DAY until there are no more days on which we are given reason to be afraid of talking about why we value the right to make it easy to kill each other, a LOT of each other, quickly and efficiently.  Even a child knows that.

Those children were not babies.  They were still-developing moral agents, to be sure, but moral agents with reason and volition nonetheless.  They could think and speak and deliberate with one another and understand and empathize.  Some of them could read and write.  They felt pain and they could be afraid.  They may not have been fully "political" agents yet, but they had a vested interest in how we constitute our polis.  What the rest of us should be asking ourselves, pace Carney, is not how we can avoid "politicizing" the tragedy of their deaths, but rather why we have nothing of any comfort to say to those like them who survived...

Not to mention why we have even fewer things of any comfort to say about why we fail to take the very obvious steps that could have prevented their deaths.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Concepts in Motion (or, Why You Should Assign Short-Films in Philosophy Courses)

"I say that I do philosophy, which is to say that I try to invent concepts.  What if I say, to you who do cinema: what do you do?"
--Gilles Deleuze

French philosopher Gilles Deleuze famously speculated in Cinema 1 (1983) that what he called the "movement-image," a unique creative product of cinema, makes it possible for us to "think the production of the new."  According to Deleuze (and his longtime collaborator, Felix Guattari) what cinema creates (movement-images) is different than what science creates (functions) or what art creates (blocs of sensation, percepts and affects), and all three are different than what philosophy creates (concepts).  Each of these modes of thinking are what Deleuze calls "disciplines of creative activity" and, despite their differences, they not only can but must speak to one another.  The details of Deleuze's account of the relationships between science, art, cinema and philosophy are complex-- I can't unpack them all here-- but I wanted to emphasize Deleuze's fundamental insight about the productive conversation that can be had between philosophy and film as a preface to what follows.

Three years ago, I began incorporating a short-film assignment (first for extra credit, now as a requirement) in my classes.  I've given some account of the why I began assigning short-films on this blog before (here and here), and there is much more to say about that, but since several of my friends and colleagues have asked me about the how, I thought I'd try to shed a little light on the advantages and challenges of the assignment.  First, though, I think it's helpful to look at some of the final products produced by students, which vary widely.  Now three years into it, I find that most student films are of roughly four types: (1) documentary, (2) mockumentary, (3) stop-motion/animation and (4) what I might call "confessional" (a la, reality television-style confessionals).  Of course, these aren't always mutually-exclusive categories and the content of the course tends to influence heavily the style/genre of the films produced, but in my experience this is a useful taxonomy.  What is noticeably missing is the standard "narrative" dramatic film form.  (I can only think of a few cases in which students wrote a script and employed actors to film a narrative story.)  The films that I do get are no less "creative" than your standard fictional accounts, to be sure, but they aren't, as a rule, driven by character or metaphor.

That said, let me begin with two of the *most impressive* film I've ever seen by students, both of which are narrative/dramatic films.  The first was made by Tim Garton for my Feminism and Queer Theory course, and the second was made by Zach Pless for my Existentialism course:


I'll say more about the details of the assignment below, but before viewing the following genre examples it's important to know that the assignment requires them to make a (roughly) 6-minute film.  That may not seem long if you're thinking of these films in comparison to, say, a 10- or 15-page paper, or if you've never tried to create a film yourself, but you'll just have to trust me that 6 minutes *IS* long and requires a tremendous amount of work.  (By my students' accounts, I've learned that there is, on average, about 2.5 hours of work behind every minute of film.  I've never tried to figure out the "hours-worked : pages-written" ratio, but my guess is that it takes students at least as much time to make a 6-minute film as it does for them to write a 12-page paper.  Probably more.)  The examples below are from three different courses:  Existentialism, Feminist and Queer Theory and the final semester of a three-semester core-humanities course sequence that Rhodes calls the Search for Values.  (I'm leaving out the films from an advanced seminar that I taught on "Humanism and Human Rights" because all of those films were documentary, as per the assignment.)  So, here are examples of the four genre-types above:

1.  Documentary: The example below is a documentary-style critical treatment of "Horror Films and Sexualized Violence" produced for my Feminist and Queer Theory course.  The technical skill employed here is truly impressive, but not as much as the philosophical skill.


Other excellent examples of (more traditional) documentary style student films are: "Queer at Rhodes" and "What's The Difference?" (both for Feminist and Queer Theory, Spring '12).

2.  Mockumentary:  Here are two examples of mockumentary student-films, the first is David Pettiette's film for my Search for Values course and the second is one produced by a group of students (Patrick Harris, Phong Lam and Tanner Evins) for the Existentialism course:

I don't know why the mockumentary-style is so attractive to students, but I imagine it can be partly explained by this generation's hipster/Stewart-Colbert aesthetic and partly by the difficulty of combining philosophy and art.

3.  Stop-motion/Animation:  As with any other assignment, there are students who arrive in class already possessing more skills for doing good work than others.  That is to say, in the same way that some students are more familiar and adept with the resources available to them for research, some students are more familiar and adept with the resources available to them for manipulating images.  Animation requires some serious technical skill (not to mention artistic ability), but I've learned over the last few years that stop-motion (although time-consuming) doesn't require an unreasonable amount of technical skill.  I mean, after all, you only need a camera and an editing program and A WHOLE LOT OF TIME to create a stop-motion film.  Anyway, here's a couple of the better stop-motion/animation films I've received from students.  Below are examples of both stop-motion and animation, first by Andrea Tedesco, second by Brianna Xu, and third by Patrick Cudahy (all for Search for Values, Spring '12):




Other interesting examples of stop-motion were submitted by Manali Kulkarni and Courtney Martin (here) and Brannen Vick and Sarah Knowles (here), both for the Existentialism course.

4. Confessional: Far and away, the "confessional"-style is the most popular genre employed by students for my short-film assignments.  In some way, it's the easiest to do-- inasmuch as it doesn't require much other than a camera and a speaker-- but, despite its technical simplicity, it's one of my favorite styles and it is definitely the one that most closely approximates writing a paper.  The confessional genre lends itself best to my Search for Values course, in which I require students to produce a film that "summarizes" the results of their experience in Rhodes' three-semester core-humanities "search for values" course sequence.  (Some very excellent examples here, here, and here.)  I like these films, in part, because they're so honest and often so earnest, but I also like them because they impose upon the students the responsibility of "authoring" their own thoughts, values and words so publicly.  The two examples below are not strictly (camera-in-front-of-subject) confessional-style, but the heart of them is.  Here are two of my favorites, both for this semester's Search for Values course.  The first is by Chandler Schneider (who, impressively, includes an original autbiographical song at the end) and the second is by Will Geitema:



The confessional films above clearly evidence the hybrid nature of many of the films that I receive from students in general, but they also exhibit (in my view, anyway) the manner in which this short-film assignment is very, very close to a more traditional paper-assignment.  Unlike a "real" confessional, which I (having never been in one) assume is more spontaneous in its narrative account, the confessional-film does require that some "script" be composed in advance.

For what it's worth, most of the students' films are some form of hybrid, involving one or more of the categories that I've listed above.  One of my favorite hybrid's is this one, by Karissa Bowley (for the Search for Values course):



All of my student films are available to view on their course blogs: here (Existentialism '09), here (Existentialism '11), here (Feminist and Queer Theory '11), here and here (Search for Values '12). So, at long last, let me get to the nuts-and-bolts of this assignment for those of you who may be in some part persuaded by the above that it's a better-than-average pedagogical idea.

First, I leave my short-film assignment intentionally-- and maddeningly to students-- vague. That is to say, in most of my classes the assignment does not have many more parameters than to "create a short (roughly 6 minutes) film about [the course material]."  In some of my courses (e.g., Existentialism and Feminist&Queer Theory), I require students to also turn in a short (2-4 page) "artist's statement" about their films.  (In my Existentialism course, I tell them: "If you want to film a man sitting on a park bench for 6 minutes, that's fine with me, as long as you can explain how that is existentialist.")  I don't require the "artist's statement" for my Search for Values course because the film itself is meant to be, in effect, an artist's statement.

Second, yes, it is the case that students FREAK OUT about this assignment.  They're worried (rightly so) that they don't know how to make a film, and they're worried (rightly so) that the assignment isn't entirely clear, and they're worried (rightly so) that they don't know how to achieve an "A" on the assignment.  I don't think there's any way to avoid these worries.  As I explain to them, and as I really do believe, there are host of skills involved in manipulating images that some people come into college knowing very little about... but no more, in the grand scheme of things, than doing traditional academic research.  That is to say, in the same way that some students come to college knowing how to navigate the library or JSTOR, or who come to college with sufficient facility with citation styles/techniques, some students come to college with animation skills or film/photography skills or editing skills. And just like with library/research resources, the ability to learn how to manipulate images/video is readily available to everyone... IFF they make some effort to learn how.

To wit, students do NOT need any special skills or equipment to complete this assignment.  Every single computer today comes with the editing programs Windows Movie Maker (for PCs) or iMovie (for Macs), and both programs are not only user-friendly but also free to download in the unlikely case that a student doesn't already have it, so the editing equipment is readily available.  For educational purposes, students are free use images/sound/video that they find on the Internet for the raw materials of their films (though it *is* important to discuss fair use and copyright issues with them).  If they have the impulse to be more creative, almost any standard smart-phone can shoot quality images and video.  And in most colleges/universities, higher-quality cameras and video-recording devices are readily available to check out from the library.  So, there's really no excuse for students who want to complain that they can't make a movie.  It's not that they can't; it's just that they don't know how.  And, as is the case with everything else that we do for the first time, learning how begins with making an effort.

Let me be completely honest here and say that, in my experience, assigning short-films requires (of the instructor) not only an incredible resolve and restraint-- in terms of not hand-holding students through the assignment, but rather letting them experience the inevitable angst that comes along with (in Deleuze's formulation) "thinking the production of the new"-- it also requires an incredible amount of patience.  My advice is to begin early-- like, ON THE FIRST DAY OF CLASS-- reminding students that this project will consume a tremendous and likely unanticipated amount of their time.  And then reiterating that reminder every couple of weeks for the rest of the term. I would also recommend, against the standard professor-instinct, not to "help" too much.  My experience thus far has been that the less prescriptive (and proscriptive) the assignment is, the better the final products are.  I'm comfortable enough at this point to tell my students that I know they're freaking out, but I am far more confident that they will be immeasurably proud of what they will, in the end, produce.  And I haven't been wrong about that yet.

As I recounted before here, the great advantage of the short-film assignment, as I see it, is that it capitalizes on a skill that students already come into our classrooms with-- even if unknowingly-- namely, the skill of thinking in images.  I think they have (ready-to-hand, so to speak) a capacity for thinking in images that is greater than their capacity for thinking in language, and the former is something that we can help them to make present-at-hand IFF we can find a way to creatively couple it with the latter. For those of us old folks, among which I reluctantly include myself, that mean relaxing the pedagogical reins a bit.  The short-film assignment has managed to accomplish that in a way that I can live with and that doesn't sacrifice what it is that I mean to accomplish in a philosophy class. 

What I mean to accomplish in every philosophy class, I like to think anyway, is to put concepts in motion.  That is, I want to make it possible for students to integrate new concepts in their lived-experience, or in what Deleuze might call space-time.  To that end, I'm incredibly thankful for cinema, for the movement-image, in helping to facilitate the thinking (and the learning) of the new.