The Importance Of Words, Part 381

Moreover, the demand that “The Interview” be withdrawn because it treats North Korea disrespectfully — as it most certainly does — isn’t all that different from the arguments behind the various speech codes that have proliferated in Europe and Canada of late, exposing people to fines and prosecution for speaking too critically about the religions, cultures and sexual identities of others.

So writes blog-favorite Ross Douthat.  As you know, I’m a stickler for the usage and meaning of words, and I just can’t get on board with this description. Here’s the key part I disagree with: “the demand that “The Interview” be withdrawn because it treats North Korea disrespectfully — as it most certainly does.” The question I ask is this: what is North Korea?

The answer seems pretty simple, but it isn’t. Wikipedia says that “North Korea, officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, is a country in East Asia, in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula.” If we say that North Korea is that particular territory, we’d be technically correct – but would Douthat be right? I don’t think he would, since I doubt the movie (which I’m yet to see, although I certainly will, and was always going to) hardly mocks the particular territory. It mocks – what? Certainly not the majority of people* of North Korea, who are slaves to a tyrannical regime. Certainly not the landscape, which basically a landscape.

*At least I hope it doesn’t. If it does in fact mock the innocent, then go ahead and do terrible things to Seth Rogen and James Franco.

The movie mocks the North Korean government, and it’s important to keep this distinction alive. Those who protested the current Iraq war were protesting the American government at the time, not the population, which was at best torn about the prospect. Those complaining about “Japanese,” “Chinese,” and “Greek” action in the last few years have the same complaint. Even in democracies, there is a big slack between popular opinion and government action, and saying that the latter always correctly reflects the former – and that the former is an accurate gauge of popular sentiment – is just incorrect.

So no, we do not mock North Korea – and we certainly wish nothing but the best to its people. We mock a tyrannical government that needs to disappear before I have to explain to my children why we let it exist at all.

Blog Note/Brain Dump

As you may have noticed, the blog has been very quiet until tonight, when I discovered a coding error and released a bunch of backed up reviews. The reason for the silence is my continued high workload, which is why I stick to reviews (easy) instead of commentary on current events (hard). Before I go back into hiding, scattered thoughts about recent events:

  • I once independently discovered Sam Harris’s question about morality of national governments, which is what they would do if they had the “perfect” weapon that could destroy their enemies. The United States, in my mind, had always done well in that measure, since it could have carpet bombed from Libya to India and never even came close to using its maximum firepower. With the torture report, however, the US can no longer get the benefit of that. The activities in the report are vile, and the fact that slight majorities approve of them are sickening reminders that us vs them is everywhere and always a bad influence.
  • The two grand juries who failed to indict the killers of Michael Brown and especially Eric Garner would not have done the same if the shooters were not cops. I think that’s clear. I also think it’s obvious that a prosecutor who works WITH the police every day shouldn’t also be in charge of investigating that same police. The fact that we let this happen (or that we let the chief of police be in charge of the unit that also investigates police corruption) is a sign that we’ve let a warrior caste arise in our midst that’s now violent and unaccountable, protected by both law and public opinion even at their worst.
  • It’s unfortunate that the fallout from the grand jury decisions has become so racialized, as exemplified here by Smith College president Kathleen McCartney who had to apologize for saying “all lives matter” instead of “black lives matter.” This is not to deny that black Americans suffer more of the consequences of the police state gone wild – they clearly do. The unfortunate aspect is that making race so salient is probably not the best way to effect change; paradoxically, by not emphasizing race one could reach the best outcomes for those discriminated against on racial grounds. By focusing on the universal aspects of police overreach, one could build more public support for reforms, the effects of which would be felt more strongly in those communities currently suffering the worst effects. By making it race-specific, you turn on the us vs them parts of the brain and just don’t reach certain people whose support is necessary for real change. It seems that the black community faces the unfortunate choice of solving the problem or being heard, but not both.
  • One in five American college students does not get raped. You know that if you’ve been near any college, which is not a constant scene of war-crime-level assault. Sexual assault is still too common (“too common” defined as “above zero”) but by emphasizing a wrong figure proponents are doing a disservice to the cause of minimizing the problem, once again by excluding reasonable people whose support is important.
  • Obviously the previous bullet was inspired by the Rolling Stone story that’s since been all but retracted. I think it’s obvious that most part of the story as reported were not true, and the Washington Post has done some excellent reporting on the issue. That said, it’s not like it proves that nothing ever happened to “Jackie.” I don’t have much sympathy for those who file false reports but I can’t help thinking that the best way to describe this young woman is “troubled.” Rolling Stone, of course, has no such excuse, and the Greek organizations suspended on the basis of this story have a legitimate beef with the magazine.
  • Of course we should have normalized relations with Cuba decades ago. Contact means exchange, of goods, services, and ideas. The Chinese are better off for participating in the world, the Vietnamese are, and the Cubans will be, too. As for us, try some Havana Club before you knock freedom.

Netflix Review: Bill Burr

Bill Burr: I’m Sorry You Feel That Way

I’ve reviewed Burr’s specials before, and I even got to see him live last year. This special covers some of the live show I saw (for example, the practical difficulties of adopting an African child soldier as your son) and some new stuff (like his new marriage). Typically unabashed and unrestricted by social norms, Burr unloads on political correctness (“You can’t hit women. Have you ever seen them fall? They fall like toddlers. It’s like they’ve never fallen in their lives. It’s horrific to watch.”) and those offended by daily life (“What did you expect an 80-year old billionaire to think? He did well! He didn’t even say the n-word once!”). Burr’s acerbic wit hasn’t changed one bit, which usually works for him. (He revisits the dangers of overpopulation again, which is unfortunate.)

Highly recommended.

Netflix Review: Nick Offerman

Nick Offerman: American Ham

I saw Nick Offerman’s show two years ago, and this special captures a big chunk of it. Nick Offerman, who is basically Ron Swanson from Parks & Recreation, gives us his life tips for a better life. He’s not a joke teller but a story teller, and it’s not easy to repeat his jokes. The wise, salt-of-the-earth persona evokes a mood and an aura before it makes you laugh, and it works across the board. Offerman peppers the show with songs reinforcing his advice – advice like “always keep a hanky” and “make romantic love.” The songs feature a special bonus: appearances from a copyright lawyer forcing Offerman to change his tune or (as he does) refer the audience to youtube, where his copyright-violating performance is sure to be found. Offerman’s all-American style is exactly what you think it is. If you like him, you’ll like the show. It’s that simple.


Brian Regan (Chicago Theatre)

I’ve enjoyed Brian Regan’s standup comedy for at least a decade but seeing him in person gave me a new perspective on his work. His physicality and his facial expressions are among the best in the game, to the point where you’ll find yourself laughing at lines that aren’t, in the strictest sense, jokes. I dare anyone not to laugh when seeing his expression responding to a waiter at a fancy restaurant telling him he made an excellent choice. Obviously this is hard to transcribe, but it’s not like Regan isn’t an extremely polished joke teller – he is. He admitted to his most terrible joke about wanting to put a second NBA team in Miami solely for the introductory press conference: “What are you going to call your team?” “Well, it’s not the Heat. It’s the Humidity.”

Regan reportedly got divorced recently and for the first time in a long time is doing dating jokes, most of which land and many of which people can relate to. (Cue story about difference between “this exit” and “the next exit.”) As always, he’s clean and family-friendly, and of course, can make you laugh just by stating the obvious. (“I got your post card.” “Good! I’m glad you got it! That’s why I sent it, so you’d get it!”)

As a special treat, I’ll quote here my favorite extended story that had me laughing for three straight minutes and which just won’t be properly represented in just text. Before I do, a note on the opening act: he was a less good Brian Regan.

They make asking women out look so easy in the movies.
“Would you like to have dinner with me Saturday night?”
“I’d love to!”
“Pick you up at 8.”
That doesn’t really work in real life like that.
“Would you like to have dinner with me Saturday night?”
“I’d like to, but I can’t Saturday. My sister’s in town this weekend so I have plans with her. But I’m free Friday, we could do it on Friday.”
“Alright, Friday. Pick you up at 8.”
“Oh, 8 is not gonna work. My office holiday party is that evening, but it’s probably gonna be over by 9, so you can come by at like 930, and we’ll do a late dinner at 10?”
“Alright. Pick you up at … 930. On Friday.”
“Don’t you need to know where I live.”
“…I do need that information, yes.”
“I live in Jefferson Township. You can take route 27 there, but you can’t take it all the way ’cause they’re doing construction for the last two miles so you can’t go all the way in. So for the last two miles you have to get onto Elm Meadow Lane. That’s parallel to route 27. Then when you get in, you’ll be coming from the west side, you’ll see a place called Alhambra Apartments on the left. That’s where I live, but you can’t park there because they’re doing a water treatment thing. They’ve been doing it all year, they were supposed to be done three months ago, we’ve written to the city a bunch of times, it’s all very frustrating. Anyway, you can’t park there, but if you go across the street, there’s a fence with a sign that says “No parking,” but you can park there because they know about the water treatment thing so they let people park there now. So you can park there and then walk across the street and ring the buzzer of 8B. And also I should tell you I’m gluten free.”

Netflix Review: Chelsea Peretti

Chelsea Peretti: One Of The Greats

A few times during this special, the camera cuts to audience members, faux audience members, and manifestations of Chelsea Peretti’s psyche, and shows their reactions to the performance. This is not any less strange than it sounds, and it’s unfortunate that it distracts from an otherwise very good performance. Peretti gives off great confidence, and it’s strange to see her feel the insecurity implied by those gimmicks. They certainly weren’t necessary, as Peretti is a gifted comedienne with great material. She’s willing to get to the line and cross it (“The ‘don’t text and drive’ ad campaign should have one guy whose last text was a dick pick. ‘Was it worth it?'”). I also agree with many of her important positions (“‘Hubby’ is equivalent to the ‘n-word.'”). My favorite joke of hers plays on the aforementioned vulnerability I didn’t expect from her: “It must be great to be a guy; to wake up and think ‘I’m awesome! People probably want to hear what I have to say!'” Peretti gives the impression that she wakes up feeling this way, too. She certainly should.


Netflix Review: Donald Glover

Donald Glover: Weirdo

As a lover of Community, I was bound to be disappointed by Donald Glover’s standup comedy, and he warns everyone that his standup is very different from the show. (It is.) Glover’s humor is that of a young black New Yorker, and it’s unfortunate that you already know what I mean by that. Don’t get me wrong: he tells good jokes, and I laughed. It’s just that Glover doesn’t bring a whole lot of originality to many of the topics, and that limits how funny you can be even if, as he does, you execute to near-perfection. He covers the usual race and dating areas that you would expect him to, making some exellent observations along the way. (“How is AIDS different from kids? You get it through sex, you have it for life, and you can only date people who also have it.”) Glover’s energy is also infectious, which helps carry through his weaker material.

Recommended, if you like Donald Glover.

Book Review: Left Turn – How Liberal Media Bias Distorts The American Mind

Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts The American Mind, by Tim Groseclose

The title may be a little strong, but this book is a solid demonstration of the ideological slants of mainstream media relative to the average voter. It’s not a surprise to anyone remotely familiar with the average national journalist and the average voter, but you’d be surprised how few people understand both groups. Groseclose is a true conservative – not a libertarian like myself, but a social and fiscal conservative – in a liberal field (academia) who is very good at showing the pernicious effects of unstated ideology. Those are perhaps the most galling anecdotes in the book: journalists claiming that their strong and uniform ideology has no effect on their reporting. Wish that they were such angels, but they are not. Groseclose also quickly takes care of the usual objections to liberal media bias (corporate bosses are conservative! media just give people what they want! etc.) before measuring its effects.

Groseclose provides evidence from elections that journalists (political correspondents, specifically) vote Democratic ~93% of the time, compared to 50% for the average voter. That makes the average journalist much more liberal than the average citizen of Massachussets, or even of Berkeley, CA. The empirical evidence of journalist bias is overwhelming, and the conversion of ideological leanings onto a numerical scale is helpful in comparing magnitude of bias (although Groseclose treats the numbers as more precise than they are – there’s a big error margin around his estimates).

The best parts of the book take individual stories and show how reporters can put together a biased story using only true facts – by choosing the topic, the facts to show (and hide) and the experts to cite (or omit). Thus, a story of entirely true facts can tell you that the number of black students at UCLA is falling (when it is not) or that the Bush tax cuts are regressive (they were not). Of course, the audience doesn’t know what’s being omitted, so they have no way to compensate for these choices.

A similar omnipresent journalistic tactic is the insertion of qualifiers for anything that is conservative while omitting the same from liberal equivalents. You are told that someone is “the conservative regent” but not “the liberal dean” – she’s just “the dean.” Conservative viewpoints tend to get a “so-called” or “what critics call” prefix, while liberal viewpoints don’t. And now that you’re aware of this, you won’t be able to unsee it wherever you look.

The last quarter of the book is a little more speculative, purporting to show what the average American voter would be like if the information she had access to were undistorted. (Answer: Kansas.) The methodology here is a little less reliable, assuming linearities where that’s not necessarily warranted, but it’s hard to disagree with the conclusion that the average voter would be even more conservative if media were less biased.

Recommended, with the aforementioned error bars around precise measurements.

PS: If you have any doubt about the conclusions of this book, here are the stories that happened while I was reading it:

Netflix Review: Wyatt Cenac

Wyatt Cenac: Brooklyn

As a storyteller, Wyatt Cenac is very solid, and his performance is more a one-man-show than it is a straight standup comedy set. Titled “Brooklyn” and performed in Brooklyn,” it has essentially chosen both its topic and its audience ex ante, and it doesn’t veer much from the bounds that imposes. Cenac commits to a topic for minutes on end sometimes it works: his experiences with a doorman are fantastic, and the awkwardness he conveys when the cab radio announces that the “taxi cab rapist” is still at large. (It was unclear to all involved whether the rapist was a taxi cab driver, which created confusion.) Of course, when the story isn’t that interesting (hockey games, hoarding), you have a few minutes of waiting for the next topic. Cenan isn’t particularly polished (yet), so these moments do happen. There is enough here to make you laugh, but remember that it’s uneven in parts.

Thoughts on law, economics, sports, food, and pop culture. Not necessarily in that order.