Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Executions: A trial of humanity

I'm 100 percent against the death penalty for a variety of reasons. The main reason is that I believe it's rooted in revenge rather than justice. Incidents like this one only reinforce that. Many people are expressing glee over the fact that this man suffered unduly in his final moments, just like his victim undoubtedly did.

Like those people, I abhor murder. Unlike those people, I consider this murder also. Did Clayton Lockett deserve death? That's a different question than, does a government supposedly bound by laws and not mob rule, with a history of executing innocent people — and one most conservatives think oversteps its bounds with health insurance regulations — have the right to end lives? I say a government that decides life-and-death matters is one that's too powerful (I'm pro-choice and pro-assisted-suicide for the same reason).

People like to joke about sterilizing inmates' arms before inserting the death needle, as well as everything else that goes into comfort for the condemned. But like with war, execution is supposed to be a serious, clinical action of last resort, one that is regrettable and reversible to the bitter end. To celebrate either is barbaric.

Many, if not most, Americans who cheer the death penalty consider themselves Christians with the utmost respect for life. Those people need to examine their capacity for a central tenet of Jesus' teachings, forgiveness. No one has to say, "I forgive Lockett for shooting and burying a teenager alive," but there is forgiveness in affording him his dignity and humanity despite his crimes — in being better than he was. We being a species for whom bloodlust is a primal urge and is socially satisfying, forgiveness can be very, very hard. 

But then, being a principled human being often is.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A conversation about the Clippers

Outraged person: "Man, I can't believe the NBA fined Donald Sterling and banned him for life! Don't they believe in free speech?"

Me: "I'm sure they do, but free speech still means you have to deal with the consequences of what you say."

"Come on. He can't possibly the first team owner to say something that bad in private conversation."

"That's probably true, sadly."

"They could have levied a less-severe punishment."

"Well, the NBA apparently decided that nothing short of a lifetime ban would keep the league in the public's good graces. I mean, can you imagine the furor if Sterling came back from a suspension? Even coach Doc Rivers supposedly didn't want to return if he remained owner. The fans were protesting too, as were other owners and even the players themselves, during the playoffs no less. The league doesn't want any of that rancor."

"Such a politically correct world we live in! Would this have even have been an issue if the team owner was black?"

"You mean if a black team owner had told his alleged mistress not to bring white people to games? Yeah, I think they'd call for his head too."

"Well, why doesn't the media point that out?"

"Because, as far as we know, Michael Jordan hasn't said that."

"What about all the other black team owners?"

"In the NBA?"

"Or the NFL. Or the major leagues. Perhaps that's the conversation we should be having."

"I'm not having it."

"I know."

A sterling move

This is the right move by the NBA and I applaud it. It's in the league's best interest to disavow the incredibly racist remarks of one of its owners. When every NBA big-shot is urging action and even the Clippers players are engaging in on-court protests during the playoffs, something has to change, fast.

Just as I said when Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty got in trouble for his anti-gay remarks, freedom of speech doesn't relieve one of the consequences of that speech. And while I respect privacy, I respect more the idea that our movers and shakers aren't vocalizers of hate.

Donald Sterling, like Cliven Bundy immediately before him, has proven that not even money, power or firearms can buy off bigotry. Racism persists, but it hasn't been cool for a long time — and now it's increasingly less cool to express in private, much less publicly. This is a long-overdue phenomenon and it gives me hope for this country. 

Three points!

How to (really) deal with bullies

I remember being bullied as a kid and receiving advice on how to deal with it from all corners. All of it was well-meaning, but some of it was drastically misguided, and I knew it even then.

More than once, somebody (or some pamphlet) told me lines to the effect of, "Talk it out with your bully. Tell them that you have good qualities too." Is it ironic to say I found that advice dorky? I mean, if the bully were operating on any intellectual plane, bullying wouldn't be happening!

At least no one ever urged me to coddle the bully, or not to defend myself or report the abuse, like these 9 Commandments of Crap:

These seem rooted in the idea that you don't want to give the bully any satisfaction, which is a decent root. But it just becomes kudzu from there. Here are some real tips kids could use to counter bullying, from someone who's been in the crosshairs:

RULE #1: It's OK to get mad. Bullying thrives on the idea that you, as a target, are less of a person. That's not true. You have every right to feel hurt by bullying. Because even though the bully feels you deserve it, and wants to make you feel like you deserve it, you don't deserve it. You matter. Don't fault yourself for having feelings.

RULE #2: Your bully is a bully for a reason. It has nothing to do with you. They're probably dealing with something far worse than they dish upon you. Keep this in mind.

RULE #3: But don't take it lying down. Empathy for your bully does not mean that their actions against you should have no consequence. Anything they do or say to you should be dealt with — and there's a right way to do it.

RULE #4: Defend yourself with your attitude. A defense can be anything from a witty retort to simply brushing it off. In every case, it's about establishing your confidence in yourself. Confidence is Kryptonite to bullies. (Don't worry if you have to fake some of this confidence. Everybody does at times. Bullies fake just about all of theirs.)

RULE #5: Do not attack. Many bullies are out to provoke you, because they enjoy enraging someone they feel can't hurt them back. Don't take the bait. Two wrongs don't make a right.

RULE #6: But do fight back if necessary. If your physical safety is on the line, do whatever you must to get it back. And then flee the situation as fast as possible, so that the bully can't regain control.

RULE #7: Don't embrace violence. Because then you become the bully. 

RULE #8: Tell on bullies. If nothing else, it'll get them off your back. But it also might alert an authority figure that something deeper is going on with the bully. Don't be concerned with how the bully will feel about your snitching. You don't care what they think, remember?

RULE #9: It's not your fault. No one deserves to be bullied, not for being small, or nerdy, or different, or even for being a sore loser. No one should ever make you feel bad for things you can't control. But even where you can change, that isn't grounds for others to attack you. No one should ever feel like simply being who they are merits abuse. 

RULE #10: It gets better. There's an entire campaign centered around this for LGBTQ youth, but its message applies to anyone who feels trapped in torment. Your school years can be miserable, but schoolyard bullying doesn't last forever. And neither do bullies, at least if they want to get anywhere in life. 

Bullies eventually become trivia questions. I never saw most of mine after middle school. Some apologized and we are friends now. Some didn't, but they have zero sway in my life. Others tragically died young from the same poor decision-making that marred their adolescence.

On the other hand, the qualities that attract the scorn of bullies are usually exactly what make people interesting. Nearly every person who has cultivated their talents can point to a time in their childhood when they were mocked or harassed for being different. On the other hand, very few game-changing adults are bullies — and of the few who are, even fewer are respected.

So, be interesting. Be strong. Be you.

He chose ... poorly

So this is a real ad I saw on some website earlier this month. I think it's a tattoo removal gone horribly wrong or ... maybe a rotten potato? A carving of various orifices? Whatever it is, it's missing a giant piece of itself.

I'm pretty sure no one is looking at this and is thinking, "I could really stand to lose weight ... by having a chunk of my bicep fall off." (Picturing vegetables this way might hook someone on junk food for life, also a lousy weight-loss strategy.) If this is the "Holy Grail" of weight loss, then eternal life sounds like a death sentence.

OK, so this is probably a randomly generated image, but somehow that makes it worse. So much worse.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

No fun left behind

Today in "I'm not an educator, but I can sniff out terrible ones" news:

The idea that a school would cancel its annual year-end kindergarten show to "[prepare] children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers" is already wrong, stupid and tragic on every level. But the letter's next sentence truly brings the thought process into focus:

Please do not fault us for making professional decisions that we know will never be able to please everyone. But know that we are making these decisions with the interests of all children in mind.

Yes, parents, don't be upset that the people charged with educating your kids are being utter (and tellingly defensive) buffoons. It's only your children. They have their whole lives to learn cooperation and socialization, presumably outside of class — these spreadsheets aren't going to spruce up themselves!

Trust us, your 6-year-olds may bemoan the cancellation of the school show now, but when they get that extra point on the SAT in 11 years, they'll realize that sucking every ounce of soul out of their education was worth it.

This is yet more proof why treating kids like tiny adults, and why running non-businesses like businesses, never works. Despite every dumb federal effort to try, you can't quantify every aspect of education into a test score. Learning information and taking tests is (or at least should be) a fraction of what education is about. Different ages have different developmental needs, and it's important to meet those needs at the appropriate time, in ways that engage kids. That gets them interested in learning, and teaches them life skills that come in handy later. You know what else it does? Makes them better at school! All 12 years of standardized tests accomplishes is making a school look good in a ledger. Meanwhile, the kids have all sense of fun and soul stripped from them as qualities to be treated with scorn.

My kindergarten class did a show for graduation in 1986. I still remember the song. Just like I remember my first-grade play. And my third-grade class play, "February On Trial," where I played a Boy Scout. And being a leaping lord in a French version of "The 12 Days of Christmas" in eighth grade. And watching my brother and sister nail it on stage during the high school musicals they were in. And all the other activities and sports, and even recess — all of the things referred to as extracurricular, as if they have no value instead of most of the value.

You know what I don't remember? Most of my test scores.

Collegewise, this set me back 12 years.
Nevertheless, I seemed to have turned out fine. I graduated high school on time and eventually earned a master's degree. I could have taught, even, but No Child Left Behind made just getting on board an expensive, red-tape-choked ordeal. And its rules meant I wouldn't be able to be the kind of teacher I wanted to be, like the ones who'd inspired me.

Going back to the buzzkills in New York: The affected students will indeed learn one lesson — that trusted adults don't always know what's best. Though it seems to me they'd want to put off that lesson, considering their stifling educational model.

Where are you when we need you, Uncle Buck?

Friday, April 25, 2014

That's what he (should have) said

Cliven Bundy's recent remarks have brought out the inner poetry professor in many of his supporters, who are expertly explicating why his remarks weren't at all racist

It's tempting to ridicule these people, because Bundy's comments on race would embarrass Archie Bunker (and possibly David Duke). But I think Bundy's defenders have a point; after all, his overarching point (buried beneath the toxic slurry of slurs) was that the U.S. government enables dependence. The main point is one deserving of a more reasonable, less-racist rant. Here's what Bundy should have said:

"Too many people in this country want something for nothing. They think they can just take whatever they want and not have to pay for it. They'll even cite some mistreatment 150 years ago as an excuse. But hey, that's the past! They'd know that if decades of government freeloading hadn't muddled their thinking."

Though I suspect that would be immediately followed by, "What? Something in my teeth?"

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Game of Thrones

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Sorry. I was just on the Internet for 30 seconds.

Monday, April 21, 2014

One person, one vote. Yes, still.

This AlterNet column by Heather "Digby" Parton nails something that amazingly isn't spoken of more often. Here's the applause line:

[Republicans] often explain that they actually won — it was just all those young nonwhites who messed up the proper results.

Digby's talking about how the GOP marginalizes minority votes as mere gadflies. But really, she could be talking about any vote Democrats attract.

I attended college from 1998 to 2005. That's a swing from Bill Clinton to pre-Katrina George W. Bush. Starting with the 2000 election, most of my classmates and teammates knew my political views. From 2002 on, I was the liberal voice for the university newspaper. Also, I was a political science minor at a school in south Louisiana. So you can imagine how many times I heard, "When you get older and wiser, you'll come around." (Sometimes I heard this from people younger than me.) There was also that oft-spoken old line about how if you're under 30 and conservative, you have no heart, but if you're over 30 and liberal, you have no brain. (Again, sometimes spoken by conservatives and libertarians under 30, which was often an accurate, if inadvertent, self-assessment.) 

They were telling me that I was a misguided person. That because I was young and liberal, I obviously hadn't matured into the kind of voter who doesn't botch electoral results with my earnest ignorance. It was a phase that I'd grow out of, I was assured. All I needed was time, a paycheck and the right education — then, perhaps, I'd lay off the desire to get something for nothing that I'd apparently expressed to the Men in Black. Or, I could become a Young Republican and instantly be mature enough in their eyes.

Minority voters are also accused of voting out of ignorance, and out of greed. That is, if they vote for the party more likely to salvage the social net that so many rely on. But if they vote for the party that consistently tries to revoke their voting rights and blows other racist dog-whistles, and otherwise offers nothing to them but condescension, that's apparently wise.

In other words, these critics see every progressive vote as the province of ignorant youth. Or of greedy, lazy minorities. Or of white adults who refuse to grow up. Basically, a bunch of demographics who are getting it wrong, so they should count less. Hence the alternate-universe recounts that favor Republican candidates — taking the pulse of Real America, unencumbered by the votes of idiots.

Unfortunately for Republicans, the "idiots" are increasingly the majority in this country. Population estimates consistently show that we will be a majority-minority nation in a not-far-off decade. Younger people of all races are consistently more liberal on social issues, even if some are conservative economically. Oh, and they aren't idiots; if anything, they're very smart about their vote — as smart as the right wing claims can only describe their bloc. The GOP must change to reflect American diversity, because its old guard is rapidly dying off, taking its most outmoded and poisonous ideology with it. The party will have to adapt if it wants to win any major election other than through twisted hypotheticals.

A fine start to re-establishing the party's good graces as a necessary counterpoint in our political system would be to acknowledge the world as it is. Or, short of that, to stop slamming all votes that don't go their way as functions of unenlightened races, age groups and/or economic classes. Or, short of that, at least acknowledge the subconscious urge to consider only conservative, affluent white votes as legit. Because that goes beyond ideological disagreements. That's embarrassing. And the wrong way on history's highway.

Friday, April 18, 2014

No fan of fanaticism

Because they are certain they are correct. Correct about God, correct about birthright, correct about politics, correct in judgment of others, correct in their self-superiority. As such, they're above any societal structure put in place to control the inferior people. With The Truth on their side, nothing is unjustified, including unlawful acts against society. For them, the law is just another belief that they can choose to believe in, or discard, ridicule or actively combat, when it fits their needs (which, again, are always justified). 

Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Childlike thoughts

I highly recommend the article above. It's a thoughtful look about how Americans treat children, from a veteran teacher of 31 years. It helps put a finger on something that's always troubled me: adults treating children like little adults, but also as uppity children. 

I come from the South, a culture of authority and seen-not-heard attitudes (though my parents were not excessively such), and have no kids of my own. And yet, I love children. I gravitate toward them at gatherings and they to me. My parent friends often remark about how their kids like me when they typically ignore adults. But I don't feel like a child whisperer so much as I simply acknowledge their presence. I vividly remember being a child and being able to sniff out the adults I liked versus the ones who would have been happy to give me a blender to play with. The difference wasn't that the likable ones showered me with attention; it's that they made me feel that I was a human being with value. They'd indulge my bizarre imagination for the fleeting moment that I bothered them. Or they'd approach me: If I was sitting at the table drawing, they'd ask me what I was working on. Or they'd ask about my report card. Occasionally they'd start a game or intellectual exercise with me.

So many times when I take similar actions with kids, the parents will reflexively apologize. I always tell them, there's no need. I understand the impulse, because many adults are annoyed by children. But still, it's sad. I love to make a kid laugh or otherwise feel good about themselves, especially if I sense that they're in need of it. Many children rarely encounter adults who aren't authority figures to them, like parents and teachers, who understandably have to put at least some distance between themselves and the child. And it's even rarer for children to encounter an adult who is willing to channel their own inner child. (I'm goofy, is what I'm saying.)

Children aren't little adults in the sense that they have matured senses of right, wrong and social tact. But they do share with adults the need for interaction and respect. They're unique that way. They're kids.

I'm a big proponent of understanding kids are kids for another reason — because of myself. I have a sister who is 10 years younger. I was often tasked with her care and transportation, and thus at a relatively early age was compelled to negotiate the disputes between her needs, my needs and our parents' needs. This meant I was sometimes grouchy to her when she did nothing to deserve it. I feel terrible about those times and hope for her that they don't overshadow all the happier memories.

When I look back on the more traumatic moments of my early life, most revolve around an adult screaming at or physically striking me (or seeing the same happening to someone else). When I witness such things now (rarely, thankfully), it always appears to be a case of a well-meaning but exasperated adult trying to treat a child like an adult, but also like a powerless child. When you're young enough, that's beyond your emotional comprehension. Such disconnect by adults is a consequence of holding children to a different, and lower, plane.

As I often say, the kids are all right. It's up to us as adults to make sure we're all right too.

Fish in a rifle barrel

This Atlantic article demolishes rancher Cliven Bundy's sovereignty argument by pointing out that the Nevada constitution has a paramount-allegiance clause (specifically noting that the federal government supersedes the states), and that the document was ratified two decades before Bundy's ancestors settled there. The article argues that if Bundy follows all of Nevada's laws as he claims, then by definition he should also abide by the parameters of the federal government.

That's a far more compelling argument than Bundy's, which seems to be, "I should be able to do whatever I want because I really, really want to."

That's the problem with the anti-government, militia movement in general. They view government like Christian Scientists view medicine. On second thought, strike that. I don't know of any Christian Scientists who take sniper posts at pharmacies.

That picture, from the article, is of a militia member from Idaho, pointing a firearm at Americans in another state who are engaged in what amounts to a bureaucratic dispute that's none of this guy's business. Absolutely everything is wrong with this. These people insist they're the guardians of freedom, but they are the exact opposite. All the blather about sovereignty and black helicopters overlooks the fact that government agencies are governed by laws, due process and public accountability (which in part is why they backed off in this instance). These self-appointed militia men, on the other hand, are governed only by their personal temperaments — temperaments that tell them it's OK to lie on a highway bridge and potentially murder fellow citizens over political disputes. Given that, I understand completely why the government prepares for the worst. It's not tyranny; it's preparing to deal with sociopaths.

If anything, the militia types are among the lesser-persecuted groups in America. There's a bizarre sympathy for these guys that allows them to get away with actions that we throw other people in prison for even planning. It might be a case of us not feeling like the target, so it's OK. Whereas terrorists threaten violence to disrupt America, militias threaten violence to "protect" America. In a land supposedly governed by laws and not bullets, it's amazing we draw a line there.

That bridge looks like any of dozens I cross on a regular basis in Nevada. If I saw a volunteer gunman peering through one, I'd feel a wave of emotions. Safety and pride would not be among them.

Monday, April 14, 2014

My hometown, everybody

"Crime is about opportunity. If you create that opportunity, you create the opportunity of you becoming a victim." — Lafayette Corporal Paul Mouton (From an article so roundly criticized that it was taken down)

The above quote is in reference to a 21-year-old woman who was found dead Sunday in a ditch in Girard Park (a popular Lafayette park and a lifelong favorite of mine). In that context, it's pretty despicable.

Of course you should be careful when you're out and about. And when you're in and still, for that matter. Always know the risks of your surroundings, whatever they are, and try to avoid the most perilous situations. Don't be paranoid, but don't be blasé either. 

However, that's no excuse to blame the victim. In this particular case, we don't yet know what transpired. But even if we did, there's likely a genuine crime here, and the fault lies with the assailant. It always does. No one asks to be the victim of a homicide. No one tempts another into kidnapping or rape. People are responsible for their own actions; laying the blame on the victim is unproductive at best and sexist at worst.

Men are not helpless creatures led astray by their libidos, nor are women enablers of crime and lust by virtue of being women. That is the thinking of the world's most repressed societies (and the more conservative pockets of free societies). In reality, we're all human beings with brains, and we must take responsibility for the choices we make with those brains. And stop chiding victims for acts inflicted upon them.

Now that would be justice.

Sufferin’ from stakes and claims

By Earl “Clem” Bob
Proud American

Until this week, my favorite Bundy of all time was King Kong, followed by Al. I shouldn’t have to tell you why on that first one, and the second one won me over with his group NO MA’AM. I’m still tryin’ to get a local chapter started over here. (Not a fan of Ted, though. Talk about a Republican In Name Only.)

I like the name Bundy, ’cause it rhymes with Sunday, my favorite day of the week, and with “fundie,” my favorite people to be around on Sunday.

The good name of Bundy’s got an ever-bigger boost now thanks to the exploits of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who stood up to the jackbooted thugs of the federal government. And won! What a glorious day for freedom.

See, the government claims Bundy is on the hook for more than $1 million in federal grazing fees dating back 20 years. And he’s proudly refused to pay those fees, because he’s an American. Good for him!

He shouldn’t have to pay to use government land. The government is us, so it stands to reason that if we want something it’s got, we should just go out and get it! That’s the American way. Besides, he was usin’ that land to grow his cattle operation. Why must we punish success? Especially in an age where we glorify welfare recipients and politicians livin’ large off the government teat, always wantin’ somethin’ for nothin’!


(And don’t even get me started on the tortoises. What makes them think they can just live on such valuable land? Maybe they should taste good or start a business if they want us to care.)

Not that we’re sure it’s federal land anyway. Bundy claims his family owned the land first, well before regulators were even a thing. He has no proof of that beyond his ranch, but his word is good enough for me. Who needs fancy titles and deeds? Honoring sovereign land claims has been an American tradition since the Mayflower first docked here!

It’s time to take our country back. To make it a nation of laws, not of corruption and violence! So I’m glad to see real Americans disrupt the feds until they backed off due to safety concerns. Talk about law and order in the face of tyranny.

We the People will graze wherever we want. We ain’t cattle.

Earl "Clem" Bob ain't cattle.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The confines of Colbert (and why I'll miss them)

I'm sorry to do this again. But I'm seriously fixated on the Stephen Colbert move and no amount of distraction seems to be helping. It's affecting my overall mood in ways that it shouldn't. Maybe getting all my thoughts out about it will.

Supposedly, Colbert increasingly felt confined by his character and wants to branch out from it. I wonder when that fatigue kicked in (he hid it well, assuming it happened before this week). I understand professional burnout, but it's still sad from this fan's viewpoint. I can only be comforted so much by how "prestigious" the move is for his personal resume. His comfort is satire's huge loss. 

The consensus is that Colbert will now be able to show off his other talents. Which sounds fine in theory, because they are indeed plentiful (as we've seen on the Colbert Report and other TV appearances). But...

Last week on Saturday Night Live, Anna Kendrick hosted. It was a dynamite episode that had me laughing out loud a lot. Pharrell Williams' musical performances were solid as well. But the episode's opening monologue was the weakest link by far. In recent years, SNL has leaned heavily on musical numbers in the monologues. That's cool when the host is a singer or it's otherwise ridiculous in a funny way. But all too often, they resort to a "Hey! I'm hosting SNL!" song, which always seem written mainly to fill time. They don't bring the funny or make a point. I'm relieved when someone like Louis C.K. comes on and actually performs a funny, biting monologue (or just funny; the bite is a bonus).

Maybe that's just me. I gravitate toward bite much more than song-and-dance. I suspect Colbert's new show will be much more song-and-dance than bite. And while Colbert is a shockingly talented performer, it's still going to take a lot on his part to convince me that this move is an upgrade. (If he just wants to coast, he could admit that, as many fans seem to think he's entitled to rest on his laurels.)

Colbert owes me, one insignificant fan, nothing, and never has. But it still hurts. I got through less than two minutes of The Daily Show last night before I turned it off. I couldn't take the cheering or the images of Colbert (even glimpsing the departing David Letterman makes me sad). 

I typically mock people who get emotionally invested in TV shows. Even with the few shows I like, I rarely lament them when they're gone. I pride myself on having a real life. So I'm surprised that I feel this strongly about Colbert. But I do. I guess because I've long felt America needs that show, and more like it. They serve a purpose, and most of all I love them. And to see it go for one of my least-favorite reasons — mainstream fortune and glory — makes it doubly painful.

Like I've been saying, I think Colbert will be a fine host and the Late Show will thrive, as it did during Letterman's finest hours. But it will never be the same. Indeed, it's already different. 

Whether that's a better different remains to be seen.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

"The market has spoken," indeed

TMZ's Facebook question about the just-announced news that Stephen Colbert is taking over David Letterman's Late Show is this: 

That's the problem right there. Colbert shouldn't have to fill anyone's shoes. It's going to be sad to watch him try. I am disheartened by this move and saddened by the brilliant show that's being sacrificed in the name of fame and fortune.

I hope I'm wrong. I hope in two years, people point at and laugh at me for being so off-base in my predictions. I hope Colbert can bring a subversive bent to a mainstream network audience that continues what he started on the Colbert Report. That would be awesome. But right now, I'm not convinced. 

The Colbert Report was a show with a purpose. But like with most pieces of artistic integrity (and most things I love in general), money eventually shoves it out of existence. I hate money. 

But even more, I hate the waste of talent that this portends. Any one of hundreds of comedians could have succeeded Letterman, some of whom need to be on TV every night. No one will be the next Colbert, and Colbert will be judged harshly against Letterman. Just, bad move. Bad in all the right ways and good in all the wrong ways.

Well, thanks for the nine years, Stephen. It was fun while it lasted. I hope someone is able to take the torch you just spiked.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

College athletes: Worth it

It’s time to pay college athletes.

Here’s what I mean by that — athletes who train several hours a day and represent their school, and who are often hamstrung with regards to other employment, should be compensated reasonably to reflect that.

I realize this is an incredibly complex issue, one with no easy answers, and no clear heroes or villains. I couldn’t even point to a specific plan myself. But I do know that the current system, in its attempts to thwart corruption, actively invites it.

College athletics is a unique creature. In a nation that defines itself by its capitalist work ethic, we not only expect athletes to compete for free, but we also lionize that free labor. Unpaid internships are a hot-button issue, but athletes are usually excluded from that conversation. They shouldn’t be, no matter how much love for the game they have.

I’m all about the love of the game. But that love doesn’t exempt people from needing to eat and otherwise meet their basic needs. That’s what needs to be addressed.

One obstacle I’m seeing is the image most people have of a college athlete as the big, dumb, spoiled jock who has someone else ghostwriting his transcript while he bides his time until the pros come calling. That is a tiny, albeit amplified, fraction of the student-athlete population.

Most college athletes are sincere students who view athletics as an opportunity to defray the costs of a degree that they intend to use to pursue a nonathletic career. Many of them are on partial scholarships for sports that aren’t cash cows, and have to go through red tape to make up the difference with another job (and have multiple aspects of their lives scrutinized regardless). Sometimes the opportunity isn’t feasible, and they have to drop out of sports, and/or school, altogether. That hardly seems like the end goal of limiting monetary influence. There has to be a way to help those people without encouraging the worst excesses that typically come to mind.

College athletics doesn’t need to become the pros; in fact, it shouldn’t. But the stigma against compensation needs to end. Players already get scholarships, per diems and other approved perks such as officially sanctioned apparel, so it’s wrong to say amateurism exists in its pure form. Anyway, no one calls for amateurism in other college pursuits, such as journalism. In fact, the student newspaper was a paying gig. I had it.

I was also a scholarship athlete (an equipment manager, but bureaucratically it wasn’t much different). I consider that the luckiest break of my life — a terrific gig working with great people that involved lots of exercise and travel, that paid for my education. It was also nearly full time, and harder work than any professional, salaried job I’ve had since. (It’s also the source of my recurring back injury.) What people don’t often realize is that college sports are year-round gigs that require daily commitment when classes are in session (and sometimes when they aren’t). It’s a lot of work that typically averages out to sub-training wages, meaning most participants are dependent on their support systems — or whatever else tiptoes their way.

So how would you go about paying student-athletes? I don’t know necessarily; it’s a giant labyrinth that pretty much varies with the individual. Minimum wage isn’t much, but it would be a step up for most. Pay them the difference as a stipend, perhaps. Something to where they can meet basic expenses. Would this curtail the amount of openings available? Some might argue that. I don’t know. But again, it’s a conversation worth having. (And I hope it goes without saying that student-athletes should put in the practice time, perform at their best and keep up their grades always. It's their commitment as well.)

Compensating college athletes ties into my oft-stated belief that work needs to pay, not just to support the worker, but also to give them the incentive to work and to be invested in that work. Such an investment benefits all of us. Corruption is worth stopping, but so are the conditions that foster it in the first place.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Apparently it's Colbert week here

Long ago, I used to aspire to be the pinnacle of many things — pro sports, politics, entertainment, journalism, the literary world, to name a few. That desire's never gone away, but I realized something. 

To reach the top, you have to make lots of compromises. Some are worth it; some aren't. Very few people get to positions of power by truly being themselves. Or they do, but then have to suppress a lot of their personality once they reach that top rung. I think I would find that hard to do. Not that I'm likely to ever test that principle the way Stephen Colbert is at the moment.

One of the stated pros of Colbert taking over David Letterman's Late Show is that he'd be reaching the top. That's hard to argue. But — as I contended in yesterday's letter — Colbert shouldn't be at the top. Or, to put it more accurately, the top doesn't deserve him.

Colbert, in his current incarnation at least, is a gadfly. His following is organic, earned from putting on a late-night-cable masterpiece. Sure, he benefited from being a Daily Show legacy, but that's still ultimately a niche market. Building what he has, where he has, is a testament to the appeal of Colbert more than anything else. Nobody ever had to watch Comedy Central at 11:30 p.m., but Colbert made it a can't-miss. And I never say that about TV.

This is also true of Letterman, because his being snubbed to replace Johnny Carson meant his defection to CBS, where he built up the Late Show as his personal playpen. Atop the Tonight Show, Letterman might have had to be a different guy. 

Both Colbert's and Letterman's shows, though, are now institutions. They are established time slots with guaranteed eyes. Network late-night shows in particular are machines that can make or break their hosts. Even Americans who don't or have never watched know when these shows air. If someone isn't already a star when they settle into that desk, they will be. Millions will watch every night. Some are devoted viewers; others will pine for the good old days when it was "better." In any case, those shows have considerable laurels, and hosts must live up to them. There's much less room for a host to be themselves.

In taking the baton from Letterman, Colbert would face a divided audience: Letterman fans who'll insist Colbert will never be a good as his predecessor, and Colbert fans who'll bemoan the mainstreaming of their favorite subversive host. They'll both be right. 

Colbert has nothing to gain from uprooting his empire just to be at "the top." He's already at a much better top for his talents. I wish more people aspired to be at "their top" than "the top" — because "the top" can be a milquetoast place for many. 

Granted, money talks. But even then...

One of Colbert's most hilarious shticks is how eager a shill he is, with his Doritos jackets and random Bud Light Lime imbibing, and on and on. He's such a plug that he even makes up products to push, such as his ever-expanding Prescott Pharmaceuticals line. How likely is that gag to translate to network? In any case, that joke would be far less funny if it turned out Colbert really was that way.

Colbert needs to stay where he is, for all the reasons above, and because there are so many comedians perfect for the Late Show desk, most of whom aren't currently on iconic shows they built virtually from scratch. It'll be interesting to see how this all pans out ... as long as it goes exactly as I want it to.

Compromise. It's what gets you to the top.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Dear Stephen Colbert:

Please do not entertain any notions of replacing David Letterman.

Slate's Amanda Hess says you're perfect for the job because late-night shows are slick, inoffensive promotional vehicles crafted to appeal to wide audiences, and thus belong to slick, inoffensive white guys. She obviously only knows about you what she saw in a picture she once sprinted past, but her point that genuine talents are better off creating on the fringes is a good one.

David Letterman succeeds as a late-night host because he made the form his own. He took a stuffy genre and mocked it within its confines. But even more importantly, it's how he earned his fame. This, as much as his abilities, separates him (and everyone like him) from the Jay Lenos. Someone like Leno, no matter how well he does, will always be compared unfavorably to his once-edgy stand-up act. You, Dr. Stephen Colbert, DFA, sir, will be judged even more harshly if you take David's reigns. To say nothing of trying to follow up a king — you have nine years running of The Colbert Report, one of the most consistently brilliant and blistering political satires ever to grace the airwaves, ever lurking as a landmark. No matter how hard you try, you will not top that on network television. You are not allowed to top that on network television. Your talents, not to mention the joke if you manage to keep it up, will be wasted in such a forum. There's nothing wrong with a straight-playing, late-night host; indeed, I'm a fan of most of them, even if I don't watch regularly. But you are not right for that role. Many people are. But many people aren't right for your role.

You have a smart, top-rated comedy show on one of the most effortlessly hip networks on cable. People like me — your target audience — hardly ever sit down to watch late-night on the networks, but we'll make a point to catch the Report every night. We do so because we know that you have no obligation but to your young, savvy audience and to your very happy advertisers. Chucking that for a decades-old convention is a trip back in time for you, at a time when you're defining the future.

Again, this isn't to knock mainstream late-night hosts or to imply lack of support in any circumstance. But you are one of the best to do what you do, at a time when biting political satire is needed more than ever. And, hey, it's not like you need the money, I would presume. So I beg you, as an undying loyal fan of what you do (and an owner of at least one of your books), please stay with the show that will forever be your legacy, rather than fall short at filling someone else's shoes.

(Citizen of Colbert Nation and occasional market participant)

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

How I felt about the Mother finale


I only occasionally watched How I Met Your Mother — not enough to catch all the references or to diagram plot lines, but enough to get the gist of the series (and to catch numerous Saints-shirt sightings.) Last night, I managed to catch the last couple of minutes of the finale. 

I thought it was perfect. Somewhat tragic, but realistic, and at least more substantive than if the mother just walked in and said, "OK, kids, time for bed." (Though having her say, "Let me tell you what really happened" could have had spinoff potential, but I guess you can only have so much kid footage from 2005.) It ends on a hopeful note, and a long-simmering one that the writers went out of their way to not let anyone see coming, even if they did from the first episode.

Conversely, I loved that Barney and Robin's much-hyped marriage ends suddenly and anticlimactically. That's real. Who doesn't know someone who had the wedding of a lifetime and that turned out to be the zenith of the relationship? People act like they, as viewers, were owed a perfect union just because of the hype. And everything else that's predictable. But then that would have been panned as predictable.

Many viewers didn't like the subversion, but I did. So, good work.