Through the Shades: Walgreens “Dance Team”

Didactic Synapse is proud to present a new feature: Through the Shades. Using the metaphor of the 1988 movie They Live, I’ll be deconstructing popular media to expose the festering putrescence beneath the veneer of consumerist fulfillment.

Walgreens has been running the “Dance Team” commercial in regular rotation recently on Hulu (a paid service which still forces hideous ads down our throats). I don’t really recommend watching it, but here it is anyway:

There are so many things that nauseate me here, but it’s taken me a while to sort through them. Let’s start with…

  • Walgreens’ slogan: “At the Corner of Happy and Healthy”. No one in Walgreens is healthy. That’s why they’re in Walgreens! If my health were good, why would I be standing in line to fill my acid reflux prescription? And no one in Walgreens is happy, either. I live two blocks from a Walgreens, and everyone always has horrible desperation painted on their faces. Whether feeding their nicotine fix, stuffing chocolate into their craven maws (my usual purpose), or purchasing cheap sunglasses to ward off UAV blindness, we’re all stumbling around in a discontented daze under fluorescent misery.

Lest anyone think I’m a total sourpuss, let me confess to some positives in this spot:

  • The dance team is profoundly multicultural. African-American, Asian-American, white-American, all bouncing around with each other and gettin down on stage. Dance Mom is a strong black woman who’s able to problem-solve and “never miss a beat”. She’s adaptive, supportive, and joyous.
  • It’s a fun 30 seconds. The girl on the sidewalk is into it. The music is peppy and the expressions are filled with enthusiasm. These adorable kids are not just having fun; this is the best weekend of their lives so far. They take 6th at the competition, but they couldn’t be happier.
  • Old and new technologies are blended seamlessly. Dance Mom is snapping pictures with her phone (while dancing, which must have resulted in some blurry shots that got deleted), but she gets them developed into 4 x 6 glossies. Tweens and middle-aged folks all get what they want.

Ironically, it is this relentless positivity that sickens me the most. So let’s explore the negatives already.

  • The goal is for us to buy more stuff we don’t need. Like all commercials, this ad works in service to a blind fanatical consumerism, tied bone-deep into an affiliation with joy and happiness. We’re supposed to take those fun, peppy sensations and transfer them into our Walgreens schema. Just as we all get warm fuzzy associations with Disney starting at age zero (to the point where some of us just move into corporate HQ), the goal of modern advertising is not merely to convince us to buy one laundry detergent or athletic shoe. Instead, we’re meant to rearrange our entire psychology to link permanently the fun of these young people with the Walgreens brand. Kids can’t just be dancing to have fun anymore — they must do so for the benefit of a huge corporate ad blitz.
  • The flip side is a gut-level rejection of joy. Those of us who hate being manipulated by this kind of advertising reflexively make angry faces and roll our eyes when it begins. The more pervasive and ubiquitous this advertising is (and it gets more so every day), the more we make these faces and feel our stomachs churn. The danger is that we might eventually associate all instances of cute kids dancing and having fun with corporate manipulation, and then we become sour, bitter, cynical crankypants weirdos. (Or, in my case, more so.)
  • Three trips to Walgreens!? As soon as Sidewalk Girl gets in the minivan, her friend announces her Hair Disaster, which we’ll be generous and accept as a legit problem because they’re going into a competition. (It’s another example of advertising telling young girls that they never look good enough, but let’s give Walgreens the benefit of the doubt on this one.) Dance Mom assures her that it’s not a problem, and proceeds to pull a cache of hair products from her canvas Walgreens bag. (A not-at-all-subtle conflation of the corporate brand with environmental thinking, which is absurd and offensive, since Walgreens tosses every tiny thing we buy into atrocious plastic bags because they’re inexpensive.) Then, the whole team must go en masse and en danser into Walgreens again to buy makeup. (Lipstick? Mascara? Blemish remover?) Then, after the competition, they’ve got to swing back into Walgreens to get the developed pictures (sent from the phone, I imagine?) and buy some bags of snacks for the celebratory ride home. What nonsense.
  • Dancing inside Walgreens. This is the most horrible absurdity in the entire commercial, because suspension of disbelief breaks down completely. (And if it doesn’t break down for you, then your brain has been overtaken by the alien propaganda machine and you need serious help.) The only people dancing inside a Walgreens are people suffering from chronic irritable bowel syndrome who are having trouble waiting to buy diarrhea medicine.

There’s more, but that’s enough complaining for one afternoon. You’re a terrible company, Walgreens, and I urge you to stop running this commercial immediately. Thank you.

The Didactic Interview: Adam Sherburne

For decades I’ve been a fan of the industrial music group Consoldiated. Their energetic music and political lyrics lit a fire in me at an early age, and I’ve benefited tremendously from their work.

Today I had the honor to spend an hour talking with Adam Sherburne, former front man of Consolidated and coordinator of a group in Portland called Free Music. We discussed music, capitalism, white supremacy, and a dozen other topics. Check it out.

DS Interview: Adam Sherburne

(I forgot to drop the level of my mic before recording, so the audio is a bit crummy. Apologies all around.)

I should have a full SynCast up before too long. Thanks for listening!

Why Jen Kirkman Is Awesome (And Why She’s Right To Be Mad At Me)

I’ve been a huge fan of comedian Jen Kirkman for years. Ever since I first heard her 2006 standup debut Self Help, I was hooked. Her immaculate timing, her wry self-deprecation, her feminist perspective. She followed it in 2011 with Hail to the Freaks, which took things to the next level. Funny and intelligent, she mixes pop culture with social politics and everything in between.

I devoured her 2013 book I Can Barely Take Care of Myself, especially since it humorously attacks the view that people must have children in order to fulfill their destiny as mature adults. My wife and I decided not to have kids, and it’s refreshing to see someone so succinctly reflect our beliefs on the issue.

When I found out she started a podcast called I Seem Fun, I raced to subscribe. Every week she mixes feminist perspectives, tales of oddballs on airplanes, and reflections from her life. She moves from DMX to Kurt Cobain to Dolly Parton, from #yesallwomen to the art of writing to dealing with stress. Along the way she uses funny voices to ridicule annoying people, especially those pestering her on social media. As usual, she jokes about herself as well, like when she gets the episode number wrong. It’s a fun hour-long show and it always jumps to the top of my queue when a new episode is released. (The only other shows that do this are The Dana Gould Show and My Brother, My Brother, and Me.)

Kirkman is very friendly with her fans, and I’ve used the opportunity to communicate on several occasions. I thanked her for her feminist response to the #notallmen trend, and sent her an email (which she read on the show, and found amusing) about a time someone showed me a bad movie. When I referred to her joke about the hapless librarian in It’s a Wonderful Life as “podcast gold”, she favorited my Tweet. As silly as it may sound, it’s quite rewarding when a comedian you respect and admire so much takes the time to respond.

Why She’s Mad At Me

Without intending to, I became one of those people pestering her online. One of the characters Kirkman uses occasionally on the show is “The Corrector”, a nasally doofus who takes great pride in disputing tiny technical details. She’ll say something in passing, and then acknowledge that perhaps there’s some tiny point that a pathetic jerk might quibble with (as people often do online): “Well, technically..” (As she points out, it’s usually men who engage in this nonsense, and they often target women as part of the mansplaining phenomenon.)

A week and a half ago, on Episode 60, she started by making fun of The Corrector, since she delivered the introduction flawlessly: “Hey, I said it right! ‘Well, technically…’ I don’t even know.. That guy had nothing to say. He stopped himself.” She sounded almost sad, like she wanted The Corrector to find some small thing to complain about.

So I thought it would be funny if I played the part. I wrote a series of Tweets (yes, more than one) pointing out that “right” is an adjective, and “correctly” is the proper grammatical term in that instance. I pointed out that I am an English teacher. I tried to be intentionally obnoxious so she would realize I was only playing an annoying character, instead of my charming, gracious self. But that’s not how it came through. (Perhaps I thought she might remember me from our past interactions, but that would have been ludicrous.)

She responded angrily on Twitter: “Are you kidding me?” Many of her followers sent me angry Tweets as well, and I felt really bad for days.

Then today she released the latest episode of her podcast, which includes a special “bug off” comment to me. (I’ve provided just the relevant 60-second slice.)

Jen Kirkman to me: “Get a life”

Needless to say, this made me feel sad all over again.

Why She’s Right to Be Mad

Everything Kirkman says in that sound clip is 100% correct. It’s obnoxious when people nitpick about grammar, especially in contexts where it doesn’t matter. As I tell my students all the time, all that really matters — except when you’re trying to get a job or impress your future in-laws — is that the other person understands what you’re saying. (This is the split between prescriptive and descriptive grammar.)

People who use their knowledge to annoy other people are insufferable and pathetic. They are quick to say “I’m just joking” or use some other smug excuse, but that doesn’t change the fact that their comments are obnoxious and pointless. It’s like lame white guys rapping badly; even when you’re doing it ironically, you’re still a lame white guy rapping badly. (Learn how to spit with a flow like The Rhymenoceros and The Hiphopopotamus, and then it can become something else.)

So while I thought I was being clever and insouciant, in effect I was just being a jackass. As with other forms of harassment, intention doesn’t matter. I should have realized how irritating my comments were, and prevented myself from sending them. (I try to be extremely conscious about my gendered interactions, and I think I’ve got a good track record as a male feminist. Still, as she points out, it’s important for all of us guys to check ourselves when communicating, especially online.)

I know what I meant, but it’s irrelevant, and I respect people who call me on my nonsense. (It’s one of the things I love most about my wife.) More to the point, I shouldn’t wait for other people to point out when I’m being dumb. As I Tweeted the day after the original debacle, I should get a tattoo on my forearm that reads: “You are NOT FUNNY when you’re being pedantic about grammar.” I can’t beat myself up about this stuff, but there’s a fine line between doing that and failing to learn from my mistakes.

The Bizarre Intimacy of Social Media

When politicians first began appearing on call-in TV shows, the political cartoonist Tom Tomorrow made fun of the idea that we can feel close to the people on The Box With Colors. Facebook and Twitter have only made this phenomenon more surreal, with our favorite celebrities in such easy reach. (Kirkman points out that she’s far from the level of celebrity most people expect, but she has 139,000 followers and she appears regularly on a popular TV show.)

This proximity brings a bizarre paradox: We feel like we’re becoming friends with the people we talk to on Twitter, even though we exchange only brief slices of words in the midst of lots of other activity. I know that I shouldn’t really be hurt by Kirkman’s comments, just as I shouldn’t get filled with excitement when she likes something I say. But I am, and I do. I suppose these things are all part of the irrational complex casserole that is human emotion.

Through the video game podcast I co-host (and my own politics/economics podcast), I’ve gotten to know some people over social media, and I’m always amused when I find myself on the other end of this exchange. Sometimes people will thank me for providing something fun for them to listen to on the commute, for example. Our audience is relatively small, and we don’t get annoying stuff on social media. I can only imagine how annoying it would be — especially for women in a world where so many guys are oblivious to both their privilege and their potential to be irritating — to deal with random yahoos online all the time.

So while (of course) I’d rather not be blocked from Kirkman’s Twitter feed, I don’t blame her. If you’re reading this, Jen, please accept my apology. I thank you for calling me out on my obnoxious idiocy, and I hope we can still be friends. (Well, technically, we’ve never been friends. Dammit, I’m doing it again.)

The Pessimism of George RR Martin and the Inadequacy of Game of Thrones

“Pessimism about man serves to maintain the status quo. It is a luxury for the affluent, a sop to the guilt of the politically inactive, a comfort to those who continue to enjoy the amenities of privilege.” — Leon Eisenberg

“All the pessimists in world history together are nothing against reality.” — Elias Canetti

“[A pessimist is] a man who thinks everybody as nasty as himself, and hates them for it.” — George Bernard Shaw

Note: I haven’t read the books. If you feel this disqualifies me from responding to the show, it’s probably best that you stop reading now. You will be missed.

Game of Thrones is the Human Centipede of fantasy epics in the 21st century. Both stories revel in the deplorable wretchedness of humans at their worst, without any viable mention of compassion, empathy, or conscience. Both stories work primarily to shock and revolt audiences, exploiting our emotions rather than digging into the deep soil of humanity.

There’s no question about the skill of Monsieur Martin (and the show’s writers) in creating complex characters, effective dialogue, and epic story arcs. My complaint is not with his skill with the tools of fiction writing; my complaint is with how he uses these tools.

There’s also no question about — and therefore hopefully no reason for me to discuss — the horrible brutality of GoT. We’re introduced to sympathetic characters and hopeful situations, only to watch them mutilated without mercy. Much has been written about the veneer of Schadenfreude that permeates Martin’s work, and many of his fans delight in watching newcomers cringe and squirm as good butchered by evil.

Responding to this phenomenon, Martin is quite clear. When asked by Entertainment Weekly if his books present a cynical view of human nature, he said:

I think the books are realistic. I’ve always liked gray characters. And as for the gods, I’ve never been satisfied by any of the answers that are given. If there really is a benevolent loving god, why is the world full of rape and torture?

A fair question, and I wish neither to argue to problem of evil from scratch, nor demand a theistic narrative paradigm. But Martin’s worldview as depicted in GoT is unrelentingly negative, and it is pessimistic. It pretends that compassion and empathy are statistically insignificant freaks of nature.

But this is not a full and fair accounting of reality, and I am tired of seeing hideous atrocities presented as the only “real” things, with the vast array of other human interaction derided as “unrealistic”.

To wit: Martin was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. He worked with the VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America) program, part of Johnson’s War on Poverty. He clearly believed that there was a pathology in carpet-bombing thatched huts in Vietnam, and that he could do some good in refusing to fight.

So where are the conscientious objectors in Westeros? Why are there no scenes of compassion triumphing in small ways against hideous evil? I’m not calling for simplistic Pollyanna happiness, nor an idiotic deus ex machina to stop the wicked machinations of the Lannisters. But blood and suffering are the only “reality” we’re given. (A few tiny moments of romantic or motherly tenderness are inevitably bookmarked by elongated sequences of torture, rape, and murder.)

At the risk of repeating myself: Those horrible atrocities are not the full and fair reality of our world.

You cannot tell the story of the Santa Cruz massacre without mentioning Amy Goodman. You cannot tell the story of Black September without mentioning Marie Colvin. You cannot tell the story of Rwanda without mentioning Paul Rusesabagina. You cannot tell the story of the My Lai massacre without mentioning Hugh Thompson, Jr. And so on.

I’m not done with Game of Thrones, but I’m sick of its facile emotional exploitation. If a storyteller asks me to give up 30 hours of my life, I think I deserve a little more than crude manipulation and superficial reminders of how nasty people can be.

<3 <3 <3 Rachel Maddow

There’s a lot of talk these days about how FoxNews and MSNBC are two sides of the same coin in US politics. Fox is a tool of the Republican Party, and MSNBC is a tool of the Democratic Party. Everything’s just spin and partisan rhetoric on both sides, and there’s never any real honest exploration of the facts. (CNN would like us to believe that it provides the much-needed third way, but as John Stewart explained to Larry King, they miss the mark terribly.)

Without question, MSNBC often plays into this. Ed Shultz does more bellowing than explaining, Chris Matthews is an annoying jerk, and I get bored quickly with the nonstop right-bashing that takes place on that network. More to the point, every event and issue is constantly presented in terms of party politics: What will this mean for Obama’s re-election chances? What does the Romney campaign need to do in order to change peoples’ minds about that?

But Rachel Maddow is a powerful exception to the rule. Her show is a superb place for intellectually honest discourse, and I love her commitment to rising above the simplistic “right said / left said” binary bollocks. She is the reason why MSNBC > FoxNews. There is no one on Fox — not Bill O’Rectum, not Sean Hammity, not even Greta Van Susteren — who comes close. She digs into the truth without abandoning her principles or losing her mental footing, and it is exactly the sort of conscious awesomeness our country needs.

For example: When former US Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge visited her show in 2009, she did not pull any punches. She asked difficult, probing questions, and followed up to demand real answers. He was clearly uncomfortable at times, unaccustomed (I expect) to being interviewed with such vigor.

And yet, at the end of the interview, he said:

I really appreciate the civil way we’ve had the discussion. Frankly, I think we would advance our interests as a country a lot further and a lot faster if we could have the discussions such as this. And I thank you.

Can you imagine anyone saying this sort of thing after an interview with O’Reilly?

Cash Rules Everything Around Misogyny

Recently I was listening to an episode of the superb podcast Best of the Left, and heard yet another magnificent segment from Ms. Maddow, this time about the pay gap between men and women. So I went digging, and I found another bushel of awesome. (I try to limit my use of that word, but nothing else fits here.)

In April, Maddow appeared on Meet the Press to discuss women and the presidential campaign. During this appearance she clashed with a Republican “strategist” (which apparently is a term applied to anyone who wants to say something on TV to support a political party, and the Democrats use it just as frivolously as the Republicans) named Alex Castellanos. There’s a summary on HuffPo, or you can watch the whole segment on NBC.

The most telling thing about this whole incident is the astonishing panorama of facial expressions on Castellanos’ face while Rachel is talking. His face is like a blur suit in A Scanner Darkly. One second he’s frowning with concern, then he’s guffawing like he just heard a silly knock-knock joke, then he’s rolling his eyes with contempt, then he’s smiling like Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel. In fact, I’m going to make a collage right now:

Remember: These shots are not from when he’s talking! This is all during Maddow’s turn. It’s like he doesn’t know what face he’s supposed to make when someone else is talking (and he’s obviously not listening carefully so as to respond to what the other person is saying) so he just cycles through some different expressions as they pop into his big stupid head.

So what were they actually debating? Here’s the issue: Do women make less money than men? Well, most pundits would do the appearance on Meet the Press and the headline would be “Big Disagreement” and we’d never get any real answers. We’d all just agree with the person from our political party, and that would be the end of it.

Fortunately, that’s not how Rachel rolls.

The next day, she confronted this asinine notion that reality is whatever we’d like it to be, and examined what the research actually shows. Her guest was Heidi Hartmann, President of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. You can watch the whole segment on MSNBC or just the interview on YouTube. In fact, the interview is so superb I’m going to embed it here:

Maddow and Hartmann sort through statistics from the Government Accountability Office, Bureau of Labor Statistics, and US Census Bureau. As they explain, the numbers show, without question, that women make less money than men as a rule, and that a good part of that disparity cannot be explained (as conservatives, usually men, often try to dismiss the issue) by things like hours worked, career paths, or family choices.

This segment wasn’t perfect, of course. The one thing Castellanos said on Meet the Press that caught my ear was the bit about how single women tend to make more money than single men in the 45-65 age range. I would like to hear Ms. Hartmann respond to this statement, verify or challenge it, and provide meaningful context.

I also recognize that Hartmann comes from a particular ideological point of view, and I would be willing to entertain a response from an opposing point of view (so long as it actually discussed facts and reality, not rhetoric and dogma).

Facts Exist

But this segment really bashes apart the myth — sadly dominant these days — that the issues we face as a nation are just too complex for most people to understand, and that we just have to take the word of whichever partisan hack shows up on the TV. No. Numbers and statistics can be spun, but they exist, and we can — we must — look at them honestly. As Maddow points out, we must start with a factual understanding of reality, and then we can proceed to the ideological disagreements and bickering about how to deal with that reality.

This concept is why I love the book Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games, And What Parents Can Do. (I praise this book all the time, so I apologize if this is repetition for anyone.) It resists the trend of just skimming the research to babble out a string of talking points or vague generalizations, like most reporting about video games.

Instead, the authors dig deeply into what the research actually tells us, how it was done, and what misinformation we’ve absorbed through the years. A quick example: We often hear about how violent video games make kids “more aggressive”. Well, the authors ask, how is that measured? Turns out that in a number of experiments, after the kids are allowed to play video games (some violent, some non-violent), they are invited to press a buzzer that makes noise. Kids who press the buzzer more or for a longer period of time are classified as “aggressive”.

I used to participate in the online message board PoliticalForum, since its user base is diverse along the political spectrum, and forbids one-line messages. Unfortunately, that space is deeply polluted with ideological rigidity and a refusal to discuss the facts as they are. (Most users prefer to observe reality as they would like it to be, just as Bertrand Russell warned us about.)

Some areas of Reddit are better, but there’s still a woeful refusal to actually dialogue with give and take. Most people want to debate, and they want to win the debate. So I usually dip in, make a point, post a link or two, and duck out. I wish I could find a place where we could all meet and talk the way Rachel Maddow and Tom Ridge talked.

Why I Don’t Watch TRMS Every Day

It’s not possible to be totally awesome all day every day. For whatever reasons (and I expect they include pressure from the Democratic Party, advertising concerns, time constraints, logistic impediments, and stuff that I would have no idea about, since I’ve never worked in television), Maddow’s guests are often “usual suspect” talking heads and Democratic “strategists”. She doesn’t have the variety of people that Amy Goodman features, nor the almost flawless signal-to-noise ratio we get from Bill Moyers. (Make sure you watch his conversation with Chris Hedges! Or you can listen to the audio, if you prefer.)

Still, I’m rarely disappointed when she does a show that inspires someone to share the link. Rachel Maddow is easily one of the five best journalists working in the US today. (Now I have to consider how I’d fill the other four spots. Let’s see. Goodman and Moyers, of course. Jon Stewart and Tavis Smiley. Yeah, let’s go with them.)

Thank you, Ms. Maddow! You rock.