Long Live the Smarm

The Queen is dead. Now is the time of warring edgelords.

Update 09/14/22: I’d hope it wouldn’t need to be said, but “showing grace after someone’s death” doesn’t include “screwing over people needing essential services in a display of extended performative wealth-hoarding.” This post is seeming increasingly tone-deaf the more I hear about how England is handling the mourning rituals, but I was exclusively talking about people debasing themselves on Twitter either for yuks or narcissistic self-righteous indignation. Also: nothing in this post applies to the recent death of Ken Starr. Make fun of him all you want, because that guy was a really irredeemable bag of shit.

When I wrote about Michael Schur’s book How to Be Perfect, I mentioned how I was disappointed that he’d chosen to praise two of my least favorite essays ever published on the internet. One of those was John Scalzi’s probably-well-intentioned but disingenuously tone deaf analogy for the concept of “privilege” as playing a video game on the easiest difficulty. The other was an absolute piece of garbage from Gawker1Redundant? titled “On Smarm.”

I’m not a good enough writer to describe the visceral reaction I had to reading that essay; it was as if the concentrated nugget of evil from Time Bandits had been converted to HTML and was actually being praised online by seemingly dozens of people who should’ve known better. If I remember correctly, my eyes widened and I impotently screamed and pointed at the obscenity, like Carrie White’s mom, then ran away and took a shower, knowing that I’d never be able to wash myself clean of the stain of it.

Ostensibly, the essay was about the tendency of politicians, pundits, corporate media, and “authority figures” in general to stifle criticism or opposition via insincere, overwrought tone-policing. We saw a perfect example of this recently, when Beto O’Rourke called out some trash in the audience who was laughing after O’Rourke was talking about the Uvalde children who’d been murdered in their school. Plenty of people — including NPR, in their desperate attempt to both-sides everything — instantly began deflecting from the epidemic of gun violence in the US, instead running to their fainting couches and worrying whether it were appropriate for a prominent gubernatorial candidate to be using the f-bomb2My self-censoring might seem like a hypocritical example of smarm, but the fact is simply that I promised my mother I’d stop using the word in public.

On the surface, that sounds fine, even if it’s too shallow to qualify as significant social commentary. That kind of smarminess is abundantly obvious, and it doesn’t actually fool anyone who isn’t already eager to be fooled. Call out that nonsense if you want, but it’s not a genuine threat because nobody of substance is actually buying it.

The problem is that that trivially-true observation was used as the vehicle for defending the awful mission statement of Gawker, the candy coating wrapped around the poison pill that had passed undigested through Nick Denton’s intestinal tract. The morally bankrupt notion of shittiness as a public service. The disingenuous idea that being gossipy, crass, petty, bitter, hypocritical, and narcissistic is okay as long as you can make the case that you’re “punching up.”

If you had the misfortune of being on Twitter last Friday and the following weekend, seeing the reaction to the death of Queen Elizabeth II, you’d quickly see that that although original Gawker is dead3Apparently a version of the former site has been brought back to life by people almost as adept at being self-righteously shitty and awful? I haven’t read it, and won’t., that mindset is still alive and in full force.

In both varieties, too. There was the predictable wave of smarmy and insincere In Memoriams, from politicians eager to distract attention away from whatever they’re doing wrong at the moment, and from corporations too eager to show how reverential they are. Even here in the US, they were excessive, so I can only imagine what a barrage of insincerity it was for people in the UK and other places that still have the Queen on their money. And in addition to being predictable, they were pretty transparent.

What stood out a lot more to me, though, were the people practically stumbling over themselves to be shitty about the death of a much-beloved woman. A lot of it was dumb and obvious but probably harmless; I’ve fallen hard off the wagon and have almost returned to my 2009-era levels of posting nonsense on Twitter, but even I’m knew enough not to make hacky jokes about chess, bees, or Freddie Mercury. But I was more struck by how many people were doing the virtual equivalent of dancing on her grave.

And then, the part that reminded me of Gawker and “On Smarm”: throwing a days-long shit fit when they got called out on it. They will not be tone-policed by royalists! “Don’t speak ill of the dead” is not just wrong, it is anti-journalism! Repeated comments on how this was a joyous occasion for Irish or Scottish people. And of course, all the variations on how people of European descent have no right to be telling “folks”4My new least-favorite thing on the internet is preachy, self-righteous types using “folk” instead of “people” as some bizarre signifier of community or identity, ignoring that the word “folks” has decades of connotations that are even more othering, making it sound like you’re talking about people from Appalachia or The Shire. from places that had been colonized by Europeans how they should be reacting to the death of their oppressor.

Now, I’m an extremely white guy from the United States, but I’m pretty confident in saying that one thing that unites us across cultures and nations is that talking trash about someone who just died is petty and shitty. Different people have their own ideas of when it’s justified, but that doesn’t make it any less petty or shitty.

I can think of at least 5 Americans alive today for whom news of their death will fill me with glee, because death is the only way they’ll ever face any consequences for all the terrible stuff they’ve done. I fully admit that I did feel satisfaction and vindication hearing of Rush Limbaugh’s death, for instance, and also Ronald Reagan’s, and being reminded that there were probably, somehow, people who loved them in life and were sad at their passing didn’t affect that feeling of petty satisfaction at all. That doesn’t make it any less petty, though; it’s just a level of personal shittiness on my part that I’m willing to accept and won’t try to defend by claiming it’s justified or at all righteous.

As adults, we can acknowledge that two things can be true at the same time: 1) The Queen served as a kindly, grandmotherly face on centuries of atrocities done in the name of the British Empire; and 2) That kindly, familiar face of stability was hugely important to millions of people. Of course it’s true that the image of a nice old woman who loved her dogs and had a pretty good sense of humor, is inseparable from the history of stolen wealth, colonialism, and scandals, both decades old and recent. Both as a figurehead, and as someone who was complicit to one degree or another.5I am one of those people who believes that how complicit you are in wrong-doing makes a huge difference. Are you actively making people’s lives worse, are you knowingly benefitting from it and refusing to make reparations, or are you just a representation of it? But if they’re inseparable, that means that you have to accept both.

There was a video going around on Friday, in which a member of the royal guard was telling a pretty charming story about the Queen’s sense of humor: An American tourist encountered them in passing, but didn’t recognize the Queen. When the guard said that he’d met the Queen before, the tourist got excited and asked Elizabeth to take a picture of the two of them together. It’s cute, but it’s also an example of how even a story intended to humanize her is entirely based on her being the Queen of England. The role was universally recognized even if the person wasn’t, and the vast majority of people in the world will never know the difference, or even if a tangible difference exists. (How much of a unique person is left when you’re born into a role and spend your entire life publicly serving it? Do I need to watch The Crown to know the answers?)

Anyway, for anyone trying to turn this into a teachable moment about the history of colonialism, imperialism, stolen crown jewels, or any of the other evils from a century’s worth of world history: your meme of the Queen meeting Margaret Thatcher in Hell ain’t it. Neither is your video of Irish dancing in front of Buckingham Palace. But then, they’re not truly intended to be teachable moments; they’re narcissistic displays that people try to dress up as being more righteous when they get called out for being vulgar or lacking grace.

That’s the part that reminded me so vividly of “On Smarm” and Gawker in general: the lengths to which people will defend their right to be shitty and awful. Mocking the death of an elderly, much-beloved woman is not just my right, but my duty! The thing I found most repulsive about the whole mentality of “On Smarm” was that it was so deeply cynical to the point of nihilism; it didn’t just reject insincere displays of false compassion or sympathy, it refused to even entertain the idea that public compassion or sympathy — or just plain good taste and grace — could ever be genuine. All of Gawker Media was rooted in the assertion that every one of you is as awful as we are, you’re just not brave enough to admit it! It’s an ethos that somehow manages to be more repulsive than Randian Objectivism, because it so frequently sucks in people whose opinions I actually care about.

And that’s not even getting to the rancid, rainbow-colored oil slick of hypocrisy floating on the top of it: it’s its own kind of smarminess, evident in the sheer outrage at being tone-policed by white Europeans who can’t understand the history of oppression that’s embedded in shitty, opportunistic mockery of somebody who just died. It’s still disingenuous self-righteousness, but at least the people who are publicly performing their Reverence For Her Majesty as a distraction are aware at some level that they’re being disingenuous.

Personally, I’m anti-imperialist (both in British and American flavors), and I think the monarchy should be abolished. Those aren’t in any way bold or controversial claims; I think they’re just table stakes for being a decent person in the 21st century. Which is what the whole question of “grace” ultimately comes down to: being a decent person. You don’t have to respect the United Kingdom, or the monarchy, to still be able to respect the people who are affected by it and who lived their entire lives surrounded by it. A lot of people, including myself, could be better educated about the details of history of imperialism and colonialism, not from the point of view of the colonists, but of the people affected.6In college I took a course in African History, because it was a topic I knew almost nothing about. It was essentially a course about Europeans, with almost nothing about the cultures apart from how they were affected — or outright devastated — by colonialism. But there’s a time for that, and it isn’t when someone is really sad because it feels like their grandma just died. Even if they’re sad because they’re focusing on the positive aspects of a public persona, and choosing not to focus on the bad while they’re in mourning. If you’re the type of person to stand outside of a funeral and shout “Your grandma is in Hell because of the British Raj!” there’s a word for you, and it’s not “activist” or “educator.”

  • 1
    Redundant?
  • 2
    My self-censoring might seem like a hypocritical example of smarm, but the fact is simply that I promised my mother I’d stop using the word in public
  • 3
    Apparently a version of the former site has been brought back to life by people almost as adept at being self-righteously shitty and awful? I haven’t read it, and won’t.
  • 4
    My new least-favorite thing on the internet is preachy, self-righteous types using “folk” instead of “people” as some bizarre signifier of community or identity, ignoring that the word “folks” has decades of connotations that are even more othering, making it sound like you’re talking about people from Appalachia or The Shire.
  • 5
    I am one of those people who believes that how complicit you are in wrong-doing makes a huge difference. Are you actively making people’s lives worse, are you knowingly benefitting from it and refusing to make reparations, or are you just a representation of it?
  • 6
    In college I took a course in African History, because it was a topic I knew almost nothing about. It was essentially a course about Europeans, with almost nothing about the cultures apart from how they were affected — or outright devastated — by colonialism.

Department of Pettiness, Young Adult Literature Division

I demand retroactive credit for biting my tongue for so many years.

It has been extensively documented how the author JK Rowling has decided to make sure her legacy is not “obscenely wealthy writer of a much-beloved series of books for young adults,” and is instead “obscenely bigoted whackadoo actively using her platform to make young-adult and adult-adult lives completely unnecessarily miserable.”

I’m not even a fan of Rowling’s, and I still spent far too long trying to give her the benefit of the doubt, and to see things from her perspective. Even when it was clear that she’d crossed the line into irredeemable, I tsk-tsked at the tragedy of someone who could’ve been such a strong force for good, instead being radicalized by opportunists exploiting her feminism to use her as a high-profile mouthpiece for their anti-trans bigotry. Such a shame, I thought, that she’s so attached to a simplistic idea of feminism, and so thin-skinned that she decided to run from criticism into the open arms of the most dangerously hateful and disingenuous people in the United Kingdom. I was too attached to the idea of her being easily-manipulated that I ignored all the evidence that she was actually an egomaniac with a dangerously large megaphone she could use to broadcast a hateful message to millions and millions of people.

But that’s not what this post is about. This post is how I’ve always thought the Harry Potter books were pretty bad, but I was always too polite to say anything.

See, now it’s fashionable to point out that they’re not very good. Or to point out all the depictions of races and species and sexual orientations1More accurately, lack of depictions, I guess that are “problematic,” arguments which have varying levels of believability but which all ignore the larger point, which is that the books aren’t very good.

The first few are pretty readable, which is different. I went to a Borders on the release day for one of them2The third one, maybe? The Goblet of Magic or something? I’m not trying to be cute; I legitimately can’t remember the titles of them., and it was exciting to see so many kids waiting in line, excited to read something new. It reminded me of the days in elementary school when the Scholastic Book Fair orders came in. I happily bought a copy and took it home, and my intention to “just check out the first chapter” quickly turned into my reading the first 100 pages or so without even realizing it. I have, in fact, read all of the books, and although the later ones turned into absurdly over-long and poorly-plotted slogs that were actively unpleasant to read, the first few were paced pretty well.3Apparently, after you get to a certain level of multi-millionaire, you stop having to listen to editors.

They’re also very savvy at marketing, devoting pages to describing things in the wizarding world that kids and adult fans both would be dying to buy. That’s a compliment, by the way: I think planting the ideas for stuff like chocolate frogs and gross jelly beans is a genuinely clever case of listening to and adapting the kinds of things that kids really want, instead of just crassly building a fiction around a toy line.

But it’s become a pet peeve of mine when people say that the books have been ruined by the author’s revealing herself to be kind of an a-hole, since I can assure you that they all came pre-ruined. They made little sense even before the ripped-straight-from-a-mediocre-videogame reveal of the “horcruxes.” Any mystery elements were insultingly shallow, depending on big twists based on ludicrous anagrams, or over-complicated backstories revealed at the last minute.

Quidditch is a dumb game that makes no sense, by any measure, unless you acknowledge that it’s designed only to give the main character a heroic moment where he can win the game all by himself. But that applies to the plotting of every single one of the books, too: they don’t make any real sense, but are just collections of scenes intended to make the main character a hero without ever doing much that’s particularly heroic.

Also, there’s an awful lot of ALL-CAPS YELLING! in both internal monologues and external dialogue, of the kind you’d expect from fan fiction but not from international best sellers. Just pages and page of it. I feel like even when I was an over-emotional teen with highly unique problems and ideas that nobody else in the world was even capable of understanding, I would’ve reacted with, “Jeez, take it down a notch.”

But I always figured that it’d be really churlish of me to mention any of this stuff, considering so many people seemed to be enjoying it. And it would seem to be deeply hypocritical, considering how much time I’ve spent trying to defend “low art” or art “for kids” as having just as much merit as anything else someone might choose to engage with.

To take two things that I’ve enjoyed a lot as examples: it would be pointless snobbery to say that if someone found something impactful and personally meaningful in, say, WandaVision; that that’s shallower or less valid than someone having a meaningful connection with Piranesi. That doesn’t mean that the TV series is as deep or as nuanced as the book, which would be a pretty indefensible argument. It just means that the connection is what’s important. We should be encouraging people to be finding these moments of connection and inspiration wherever they can, instead of telling them that they’re doing it wrong. Or worse, acting like something that is “higher art” is going to connect with everyone the same way that it does with us. Reading The Catcher in the Rye had me sobbing at my desk in high school, but I know plenty of people who didn’t like it at all, and it would be stupid to claim that they’re somehow “wrong.”

So I’m not here to be dismissive of anybody’s personal connection to the Harry Potter books, because there are obviously many, many readers who consider them formative.4Like the Chronicles of Narnia were for me, even though I’d still insist that those are also much, much better-written and more innovative, beyond any personal connection. But I would like people to back off on the claims that they’re objectively good or innovative books, instead of just objectively popular. Some of us recognized all along that they’re not very good, even for books aimed at juveniles. And we’re just juvenile and petty enough to want retroactive credit for not being joyless chodes about it when so many seemed to be having fun and enjoying themselves.

  • 1
    More accurately, lack of depictions, I guess
  • 2
    The third one, maybe? The Goblet of Magic or something? I’m not trying to be cute; I legitimately can’t remember the titles of them.
  • 3
    Apparently, after you get to a certain level of multi-millionaire, you stop having to listen to editors.
  • 4
    Like the Chronicles of Narnia were for me, even though I’d still insist that those are also much, much better-written and more innovative, beyond any personal connection.

Move Over, Bacon, Slowly, Without Making Eye Contact

A short story about the time I went to see a taping of Kate & Allie

Reading Patton Oswalt’s book reminded me of one of his stand-up albums, where he talks about hosting an open mic in which a random heroin addict inadvertently performed a routine that was more brilliant than some professional comedians. That reminded me of this story:

My freshman year of college was in Manhattan, so I’d spend almost all of my free time wandering around the most touristy parts of the city, taking pictures. One day I was walking past a theater near Times Square — I’m guessing now it was the Ed Sullivan Theater? — and they were calling out to passersby to come in and be part of the studio audience for a television show. I was exactly their target demographic of “hapless layabout with nothing better to do,” so I went inside.

It turned out the show was the sitcom Kate & Allie, and the seats for non-ticketed people wandering by the theater were all up in the balcony. When I got up to the balcony, there were around a dozen people already seated, but strangely, almost nobody was in the two front rows. The balcony seat with the best view of the action, dead center in the front row, was taken by one man sitting calmly and quietly. All around him was empty seats. I quietly took my seat a few rows back.

Before long, it became evident why the other people in the audience were giving this guy his space: during recording, he was perfectly silent, but as soon as the director ended a shot, the man would start talking in a non-stop apparent stream-of-consciousness, randomly emphasizing certain words. As soon as recording started again, he would instantly go back to sitting calmly and silently.

I knew even less about mental illness then than I do now, so I wasn’t sure what was the best course of action apart from just leaving him alone. He was inside, safe from the cold, and didn’t seem to be bothering anyone, so I figured, like everyone else had, that there was no point in making it an issue. (I’d lived in New York long enough to learn that the standard operating procedure there is to just ignore anyone who’s not directly getting in your business).

The scene in this episode of Kate and Allie had the irrepressible young boy trying to save time during breakfast by putting all of his food into a blender and mixing it up, God bless ‘im. But there was a technical issue keeping the gag from working. The blender was supposed to spray food hilariously all over the kitchen, but it kept getting stuck in take after take.

The technicians on hand seemed to think that the bacon was the problem. (This caused the man in the front row to start punctuating his non-stop sentences with “bacon” in increasing intensity). The crew tried a few different approaches to fixing it, but seeing as how it was 1989 and CGI wasn’t available to family sitcoms at the time, none of their practical approaches were working.

Finally, one of the crew members said, “We need to find something that’s like bacon, but not bacon.” As if on cue, the man in the front row shouted out, “SIZZLEAN!”

I left the taping not long after that, without even seeing the rest of the episode. No offense to the writers of Kate & Allie, but I am 100% certain that there was no joke in the entire script that was half as good as that man’s spontaneous outburst.

Revisionist History and Revisionist Present, Splash Mountain Edition

Thoughts on an update of a Disney ride, and being on the internet without taking the bait.

Update 08/27/22: If I had done just a few more minutes’ worth of digging, I would’ve seen that the people vocally objecting to the Splash Mountain re-theme all, without fail, quickly revealed themselves to be blatant bigots. The entire thing is obviously a “Comicsgate”/”Gamergate” style campaign, trying to insert alt-right talking points into discussions about pop culture. They’re assholes who are using people’s legitimate nostalgia for a ride and a movie to help amplify their bigotry, and I regret giving them any attention whatsoever.

Splash Mountain remains a problem, and not just for the obvious reasons. Possibly because the re-theming of the ride was delayed by COVID, we’ve gotten to hear an extra two years of people complaining about it.

I already talked about my reaction to the re-theme back when it was announced. Digest version: it makes me sad, because I grew up with Song of the South, I associate it with a family member who passed away, and when I was little, those animated characters were Quintessential Disney to me even more than Mickey Mouse. But the re-theme is going to be better in every possible way: better for Disney, better for Disney’s merchandising division, better for the young kids who’ll have new characters to get attached to, and better for guests who’ll get a fairly significant overhaul for a 30-year-old ride.

But there’s still a lot of revisionist history going on around Splash Mountain and Song of the South. Not just the movie’s absurdly Disney-fied version of a plantation during Reconstruction, but this bizarre idea that objections to the movie and the ride are some recent “woke” invention.

Simply put: Disney was well aware that there were objections to the movie when it was made in 1946, and that there were objections to the movie when the ride was made in 1989. Suggesting that it was a simpler time and they were just unaware of the connotations is an insultingly lousy defense, because it suggests that the people at Disney were either stupid or grossly naive. No, they’ve known at every step that there was going to be push back, they just never had enough incentive to care.

Really, the whole history of the movie and the attraction has been a series of half-measures to work around objectionable material, for the sake of preserving a bunch of charming characters. The movie was re-worked to emphasize that it was set during the Reconstruction and therefore the happy, magical black people weren’t actually enslaved. The ride was re-worked to change the “tar baby” to a beehive and put all the focus on the animated segments. The benefit of hindsight makes it clearer that it would’ve been a lot easier to just pick different source material, instead of juggling a hot potato for decades, trying to surgically remove the most objectionable thing and then leaving the rest for the next group of people to deal with. But to suggest that nobody’s ever had a problem with it until political correctness came along is just laughably false.

Even if you have the most charitable possible impression of Joel Chandler Harris, and believe that he was sincerely trying to bring African-American folklore to both black and white audiences as a reunification effort, it’s still obviously a problem because it’s black culture as filtered through a white man. I personally think it’s reasonable to give him the benefit of the doubt — just like with everybody involved with the movie, who I think were at worst insensitive, not malicious — but the whole thing is a problem straight down to its origin.

Ironically, one of the stupidest things I’ve read online also has the barest nugget of a valid argument against a Princess and the Frog re-theme. One of the chuckleheads complaining incessantly on Twitter about “woke Disney” actually said that it was objectionable because it was replacing characters from African-American folklore with a fable written by “two European white men.” Once I stopped laughing at the sheer cluelessness of that, I did feel the barest tinge of regret that we were losing a piece of what is authentically Georgian culture.1A digression about that: since I loved the animated parts of the movie growing up, and just ignored the live action, I had no idea just how much of the movie people find objectionable. I was surprised to hear people call the voices for Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear “racist” since I always just thought they were exaggerated cartoonish versions of how some people in Georgia talk, unaware that the actors were from Amos & Andy and their dialect was dated at best. I have to say I still kind of shrug at that, since I swear that I’ve met several white people who really do talk like Br’er Bear!

So I definitely sympathize with anyone sad to see Splash Mountain go, but I’d also encourage them to get over it, since the re-theming is absolutely a no-brainer of a good idea by every measure2Except for the new name, which I sincerely dislike. It really needed to have “Mountain” in the name, even though there are no mountains in New Orleans as far as I’m aware.. But the actual complaints about the change are so fatuous — even by the standards of people complaining online about Disney parks3I once read a sincere comment from someone complaining about smoking areas, back before they were all removed, and saying that Walt Disney would’ve been disappointed to see so many people smoking in his parks. — that I can’t even believe that they’re being made in good faith.

That’s now true of every complaint about anything “woke” now. It’s so disingenuous and fake and deeply, deeply cynical. Opportunists have realized that they can get immediate attention any time they complain about whatever book, movie, comic book, video game, TV show, or really anything that includes women, LGBT people, non-whites, or non-Christians. Everything gets targeted with a campaign of review bombs and blatantly fake Twitter comments, because they’ve seen over and over again that it’ll generate a ton of reactions.

At this point, it’s just depressing to see people repeatedly taking the bait. Whether by reacting as if the comments are being in good faith, or much more often, just amplifying the stupid comments in order to publicly dunk on them. It’s too tempting to think, “I have the perfect response that will put an end to this kind of backwards thinking once and for all,” or, “I will shine a light on the kind of toxic behavior that permeates the internet, instead of letting their targets suffer privately,” which is exactly the goal behind them: to elevate nonsense and treat it as if it were the subject of reasonable debate.

I don’t know what the actual solution is, but I do know that, for instance, I wouldn’t have given a second thought to the casting of The Sandman (apart from “hey, good choices all around!”) if Neil Gaiman hadn’t publicly responded to complaints about gender-swapping or casting black or non-binary actors. Some of the comments were so obviously phony, written by someone who’d never read the source material, that it’s tough to see what was gained by engaging with them as worthwhile. But if the alternative was for Gaiman to just let all of that garbage float around unaddressed, that’s not great, either.

And the part that’s especially dispiriting is that we’re in at least the fourth or fifth generation of this whole process. You can see how thoroughly it’s infected the conversation around everything. Bullshit, regressive ideas that would’ve been roundly rejected in the days before Web 2.0 are now just taken for granted and expected. This story has a woman superhero, so naturally some people are going to find that objectionable.

Real progress would mean that yes, of course, in 2022 we can see, for instance, a Predator movie with a bad-ass Comanche woman as its lead, that sounds awesome, you’d have to be a fool to object to that. But instead, we get a round of “hey look at this fool who’s objecting to that, let’s all point and laugh.” Even if we’re dismissing them as bullshit, we’re still spending way too much time thinking of bullshit.

What’s even more dispiriting than that is that I’m having a harder and harder time believing any of it is genuine or in good faith, from any direction. We’ve already seen worthless, contemptible piece-of-shit policitians4And that’s me being polite. shamelessly gin up culture wars — putting real people in danger — to advance their own political careers. If those assholes can get so much attention for it, it stands to reason that crass media marketing types are much, much better at it.

For instance: I think that Kate Bush is undeniably a genius, but you could show me detailed transcripts from Netflix headquarters and I still wouldn’t believe that the recent popularity of “Running Up That Hill” was completely organic, and not manufactured by the Stranger Things team doing some extremely effective viral marketing. That’s the innocuous version. What happens when a marketing campaign realizes that people complaining about a black or a Muslim or a female character in a movie or TV series generates a ton of buzz around it?

I know it sounds implausible that people involved in marketing would knowingly do something that makes people’s lives worse, but humor me in this obviously fantastic thought experiment.

It’s entirely possible that I’m being overly optimistic when I assume that people can’t possibly be so genuinely upset about a 30-year-old theme park ride, or a black man or a white woman being cast as the lead in an action movie, or transgender people simply existing. But even if I’m wrong about that, I’m right in thinking that those people don’t deserve to keep having such an outsized part in our conversations.

  • 1
    A digression about that: since I loved the animated parts of the movie growing up, and just ignored the live action, I had no idea just how much of the movie people find objectionable. I was surprised to hear people call the voices for Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear “racist” since I always just thought they were exaggerated cartoonish versions of how some people in Georgia talk, unaware that the actors were from Amos & Andy and their dialect was dated at best. I have to say I still kind of shrug at that, since I swear that I’ve met several white people who really do talk like Br’er Bear!
  • 2
    Except for the new name, which I sincerely dislike. It really needed to have “Mountain” in the name, even though there are no mountains in New Orleans as far as I’m aware.
  • 3
    I once read a sincere comment from someone complaining about smoking areas, back before they were all removed, and saying that Walt Disney would’ve been disappointed to see so many people smoking in his parks.
  • 4
    And that’s me being polite.

The Ineffable Subtleties of “Ow! My Balls”

I get annoyed with a vlogbrother and defend a movie I thought was just okay

Well, I’ve already broken my pledge several times over: not only did I start a new Twitter account, but I’ve gotten to reading it habitually and even actually writing replies to strangers1But deleting them quickly afterwards. Maybe there’s still hope?.

What set me off today was this tweet from Hank Green:

The movie “Idiocracy” is, at minimum, implicitly pro-eugenics.

And I mean, come on, man. It’s tough because I usually like (and occasionally really like) Hank and John Green; and I think they’re generally a force for good on the internet, both for helping make complex topics accessible, and for encouraging kindness, charity, and perpetual learning.

But that’s such a shallow and disappointing take that it seems like it was carefully formulated to irritate me as much as possible. It’s not even that I’m a particularly big fan of Idiocracy — I thought it was fine but not particularly deep or memorable past its core premise. Which, it pains me to have to explain, was satire. It’s as much “pro-eugenics” as A Modest Proposal is “pro-infanticide” and “pro-cannibalism.” And it’s not even that subtle about it.

We shouldn’t have to be explaining satire to grown-ups. And of course, I realize that “No but you see it’s actually satire!” has become the go-to defense whenever anyone says or makes something that makes them look like an asshole. But just because it’s been mis-used so often is no reason to throw out the concept altogether.

Maybe what’s needed is the YouTube IDIOCRACY EXPLAINED! approach, complete with an attention-grabbing thumbnail with big red circles and yellow arrows2I tried my best, but couldn’t figure out how to make the arrows with the latest version of Photoshop before I lost interest in the gag. I guess I shouldn’t have gotten my graphic design degree from Costco.. How about we start with the opening, which sets the tone and makes one thing clear almost immediately: The movie is making fun of everyone.

The “High IQ” couple isn’t being put forward as a role model. They’re self-centered and petty. As the woman explicitly says that they don’t want to have children with “the market” the way it is, they’re shown against a background of increasingly fancier and more expensive homes. (While the children of the “Low IQ” couple lives in chaos and disarray). To spell it out: it’s a criticism of socioeconomics, not genetics. One couple is too focused on accumulating wealth for themselves to be willing to devote any of that wealth to children.3On IMDb, at least, they’re credited as “Yuppie Wife” and “Yuppie Husband,” and if you believe that Mike Judge was pro-Yuppie and was advocating having more of them in society, then I don’t know what to tell you apart from “watch literally anything else that Mike Judge has made.”

And even if you can’t let go of the over-literal extremely-online mindset, and are still convinced that Mike Judge and Etan Cohen were sneaking in a sincere pro-eugenics manifesto and disguising it as a silly comedy, then you could consider the entire rest of the movie. The whole story is about a thoroughly average person who’s forced to make an effort for the first time in his life, because he’s held up as superior to everyone else by a completely arbitrary metric. The movie makes fun of the whole concept of intelligence and wealth as signifiers of actual aptitude. It’s chastising early 2000s society for racing to the bottom, settling for the least amount of effort, and appealing to the lowest common denominator.4And yes, we are all aware that we saw exactly that play out in the late 2010s, everybody can stop saying “it was a documentary!” now.

I hate it when people act like there’s one correct interpretation of any piece of art, but I mean, again: this movie is not that subtle. Which is why it’s so frustratingly ironic to see this movie in particular hit with such a shallow and dismissive analysis, since it’s so stridently criticizing us all for settling for less. It shows what happen if we keep lazily declining to engage with anything of depth, until we’re all buried under trash.

There are a couple of reasons this set me off. First is that I spend too much time online. I’ve seen too many examples of people gradually (and eagerly) descending into idiocracy, since so much of online media favors immediate engagement over thoughtful consideration. Blog posts like this one are an anachronism, and I feel very silly as I’m writing it, because it’s just not cool in 2022 to be devoting so much time to anything so inconsequential.

Instead, they’ve been replaced by explainers: web articles or video essays that aim to take everything from topics in social or natural sciences to the current most-SEO-friendly movie release, pick all of the meat off of them, and encapsulate them into an easily-digestible conclusion. The Green brothers in particular were among the first to popularize the short-and-accessible explainer format, and in a lot of cases, I think they’re great. I appreciate it when someone can take a complex topic and present it so that understanding the basics is easily accessible without scolding me for not already understanding the basics and still acknowledging that there’s much more complexity than can be easily explained.

But while it’s great for sciences and history, it’s just deadly for art and entertainment. The art itself is the explainer.

Which leads to another thing that set me off: I’m wondering how much I’m culpable in all this, since I tend to be such a proponent of accessible media. (By which I mean accessible to interpretation. I’m also a strong believer in accessibility for people with disabilities, but I’m not as vocal a proponent of it as I probably should be). I love writing about the MCU and Star Wars — and invite anyone who claims it’s shallow or juvenile to piss right off — because it’s fun and easy. They’re designed to be widely accessible but still have just enough depth that they don’t end up feeling like empty calories.

So I’m all over it when someone wants to point out easter eggs or bits of lore that I’m not enough of a True Superfan to have recognized, but I can feel the soul seeping out of my body when that turns into “explaining” the show or the movie itself. Especially when it just restates the most obvious interpretation of a work. Usually, this stuff isn’t all that ambiguous, so all you’re doing is restating the obvious in a much less elegant way.5One of the things I like about Nope is that it throws out a bunch of ideas and fits them altogether, leaving the overall theme just ambiguous enough to allow for multiple interpretations. I saw somebody had made an explainer video for the shoe in the Gordy’s Home scenes, which just restated the most obvious things then insisted that everybody else was wrong and that this was the “real” meaning of the scene. Don’t be like that guy.

I guess like everyone else who’s ever entered middle age and seen the culture being increasingly driven by younger people, I can’t escape the anxiety that they’re doing it all wrong and ruining everything. I’m generally for the resurgence in earnestness and rejection of unnecessary irony, but not if it’s at the expense of having everything dumbed down and over-simplified.

I get that there’s a lot more noise than there ever has been, and it’s increasingly hard to have patience for people who won’t just say what they mean. There’s a preponderance of people out there actively lying, obfuscating, and disingenuously arguing about things for malicious intent.6I really wish people would stop trying to engage with anyone complaining about women or marginalized people in media. Whether you’re trying to make a point or just dunk on them, you’re not accomplishing anything because they’re always being made in bad faith. All you’re doing by engaging is helping them make basic kindness and common sense seem like something still subject to differing opinions and debate. In fact, I spent some time wondering if Hank Green were pulling some kind of prank with his tweet, but a) that doesn’t seem like his style, and 2) it doesn’t really do anything with the idea, because there’s no twist apart from restating the satirical premise of the movie and calling it a “hot take.” (If that were indeed the “joke” then… okay I guess?)

But if it means that there’s no obligation to analyze a creative work at any level apart from what it says on the surface, and that there’s no obligation to consider whether your first interpretation might not be the one correct interpretation, then we’re heading towards shallower and shallower art. It starts with people believing that the “Twin Pines Mall” becoming the “Lone Pine Mall” in Back to the Future is some delightfully obscure easter egg that only a select few had picked up on. Continue for a few hundred years, and you get “Ow! My Balls!”7But on the brighter side: fewer thinkpieces and blog posts like this one!

  • 1
    But deleting them quickly afterwards. Maybe there’s still hope?
  • 2
    I tried my best, but couldn’t figure out how to make the arrows with the latest version of Photoshop before I lost interest in the gag. I guess I shouldn’t have gotten my graphic design degree from Costco.
  • 3
    On IMDb, at least, they’re credited as “Yuppie Wife” and “Yuppie Husband,” and if you believe that Mike Judge was pro-Yuppie and was advocating having more of them in society, then I don’t know what to tell you apart from “watch literally anything else that Mike Judge has made.”
  • 4
    And yes, we are all aware that we saw exactly that play out in the late 2010s, everybody can stop saying “it was a documentary!” now.
  • 5
    One of the things I like about Nope is that it throws out a bunch of ideas and fits them altogether, leaving the overall theme just ambiguous enough to allow for multiple interpretations. I saw somebody had made an explainer video for the shoe in the Gordy’s Home scenes, which just restated the most obvious things then insisted that everybody else was wrong and that this was the “real” meaning of the scene. Don’t be like that guy.
  • 6
    I really wish people would stop trying to engage with anyone complaining about women or marginalized people in media. Whether you’re trying to make a point or just dunk on them, you’re not accomplishing anything because they’re always being made in bad faith. All you’re doing by engaging is helping them make basic kindness and common sense seem like something still subject to differing opinions and debate.
  • 7
    But on the brighter side: fewer thinkpieces and blog posts like this one!

Monday Cat

Here’s another experiment learning Nomad Sculpt for iPad. The cliche that cats are grumpy and mean-tempered is lazy and inaccurate. This cat, for instance, loves Mondays. That’s the day he gets to go to his job at the bank, foreclosing on people’s homes.

Dreidelbot

And here’s the Dreidelbot 8000. I made it out of Nomad Sculpt. Partly to make up for posting Santa renders while Hanukkah was still going on, but mostly because I wanted to see if I could make a Nick Park-style robot. Don’t be alarmed by his low battery meter; his fuel tends to last longer than you might expect!

That reminds me: have there ever been any Black Christmas-type horror movies set during Hanukkah? It seems like a natural, what with a murder each day and so on. I can even think of the tag-line for the poster: “With his dreidel he will SLAY.”

Santa, Baby

I’ve been having a ton of fun with Nomad Sculpt on the iPad. I admit I didn’t think much of it until I found videos by Eric Lee on his eric3dee channel. (Start with his video doing Popeye). Not only is it possible to make neat-looking models with it, using the Apple Pencil directly on the model makes it feel a lot more natural than my previous attempts with Blender.

(It also makes it a lot easier to make simple lighting setups and renders than Blender does. I still can’t for the life of me figure out how to make even a basic 3-point light setup in Blender that doesn’t look lousy).

Anyway, here are a few shots of my first project with Nomad. It’s Santa Claus arriving at the home of Zhiyang Z Zyzzenberg, the 4.3 billionth person on his list. (Hope you wanted an Instant Pot, because that’s all that’s left!) I’d thought about doing an actual Santa Baby, but it got weird and unsettling real fast.

Friday Night’s All Right for Looking at all Those Chickens

Just a grab bag of older funny videos this week

Some weeks you don’t have the energy for anything other than looking through old videos. None of these are recent, they’ve all been memed and re-memed and their creators have likely milked every last penny of virality out of them, but they still make me laugh every damn time. I miss Vine. Look at all those chickens!

Friday Night’s All Right For Keeping the Kids Out of the Pool

Friday link post featuring Adult Swim and long-term storage of renewable energy

This week was the 20th anniversary of the Adult Swim block on Cartoon Network, and this mini-retrospective by Kyle Anderson on Nerdist.com does a pretty good job of concisely summing up why the combination of cheap TV programming and clever ad bumpers made such a huge impact on nerds of a certain age.

Or multiple certain ages, I guess. I’m having trouble coming to terms with the idea that I was 30 when Adult Swim debuted, because I could’ve sworn I watched it in college. Anyway, it’s a good opportunity to listen to the D-Code Mix of Mambo Gallego by Tito Puente and remember there’s no eating in the pool. What’s that guy eating? Is that pimento?

  • Dianna Cowren on her YouTube channel PhysicsGirl just finished a series about hydrogen fuel cell cars. It was sponsored by Toyota, so it’s definitely spun to be more positive of the potential of fuel cells than you’d tend to see otherwise, but it also does a good job of realistically assessing the downsides of hydrogen, why passenger vehicles may not see wide adoption over battery EVs, and why a combination of fuel cells (faster refueling, longer range) and BEVs (everything else) will be necessary to get wide-scale conversion to electric.
  • The parts of Cowren’s series that I thought were even more interesting were the episode about approaches towards storing renewable energy and different kinds of solar farms beyond the familiar photovoltaics. I was vaguely aware that solar and wind power needed some kind of storage solution to be available on demand, but I’d just assumed that massive batteries were the solution. That video explains some ingenious alternatives, such as using excess energy to pump water to a higher elevation, then using the water falling to power turbines when that energy is needed.
  • Lucas Pope is doing a devblog for his Playdate game Mars After Midnight, and last week’s entry “Working in One Bit” was a neat account of what’s involved in making art for a small one-bit display in 2021.
  • Another interesting project for Playdate that’s in the works: a framework for crank-scrollable comics called Panels, by Cadin Batrack.
  • Those two projects made me realize that I’ve been a little short-sighted about what exactly appeals to me about the Playdate: as somebody who still pines for his Mac Plus, I had been thinking of it as throwing back to a very specific kind of mid-to-late-80s nostalgia for the early Macintosh aesthetic. Instead, I think the actual appeal is broader: it feels like a direct expression of creativity from developer to audience. I got reminded of the wonderful and bizarre Comic Chat IRC client from Microsoft. Frankly, I never saw it actually work as well as its concept promised, but I’m still amazed by the fact that it existed at all. Not just that such an R&D project came out of Microsoft, but that they managed to get Jim Woodring to do the art!