Marching Again…

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In the pilot episode of the short-lived (but well-written and well-acted) HBO series The Newsroom, we are introduced to a TV anchorman named Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels.

At the beginning of the episode, he’s asked what makes America great and he says that he can’t think of anything great about America. Later on in that episode, his executive producer MacKenzie (played by Emily Mortimer) tells him where he messed up: the greatness of America is in its promise, its attempts (to varying degrees of success) to live up to the enlightenment ideals upon which it was founded.

I recalled that scene yesterday, when I attended one of the more than 700 marches around the country, in protest of the zero tolerance policies created by the current administration and enforced at the US-Mexico border, which has resulted in all sorts of atrocities being committed against people seeking asylum in this country. The most high-profile of these atrocities (rightly so) is the separation of parents from their children.

A lot of people — pundits and politicians alike — are saying that these kinds of policies are not the America they know and love.

While there may be a truth to saying things like that, it would be wrong to categorize them as being inconsistent with some of the more shameful events in American history. Things we should be embarrassed about on behalf of the country.

Is this policy really any different from any of the other anti-immigrant rhetoric that has pervaded social discourse for almost as long as the US has been a country? There was once a time when shop owners would bar Irish immigrants from patronizing them.

Or what about the way we decimated the natives and stole their land away from them? We intentionally infected them with smallpox!

What about slavery? Remember that the constitution itself explicitly said that slaves count as 3/5 of a person.

I could go on… Japanese internment camps, unequal treatment of men and women, the fact that this year marks a mere fifteen years since it’s been legal to be gay.

And that’s just shameful domestic policy.

Going back to the Monroe Doctrine (at least) we can point to America intervening in other countries’ affairs to the detriment of the locals. Just in the Americas, we’ve done horrible things in and to just about every country in the Western Hemisphere, many of which are the sources of our current immigration “crisis”.

And that’s not even getting into the horrors we inflicted on September 11, 1973.

I’m sorry to say that this zero tolerance policy is something entirely consistent with many of America’s misdeeds. That doesn’t make it right, for sure, but I would much rather recall what we’ve done wrong so we know how best to make it better.

The promise of America is constant improvement. We fail more often than not, but that’s what we can all strive to do. It’s even in the preamble to the constitution: we want “to form a more perfect union”.

That’s something we can seek to do. That is the America I know and love. The government right now doesn’t represent that. At all.

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Conservative dishonesty, again

I swear. I could find a new article on some conservative website every day, and point out how dishonest the article is, and still be scratching the surface of the mischaracterizations, half-truths, and bald-faced lies that motivate the American political right.

Today’s stupidity is from a perennial favorite, Movieguide. They’ve got an article about an article in Teen Vogue about Karl Marx.

Before I get into the actual content of either article, please note what I did there. I linked to both the Movieguide and Teen Vogue articles. Feel free to criticize me for the relative lengths of the hyperlinks themselves but I readily concede that I’m not sure of the appropriate rules for deciding which words deserve to be included in the actual links.

Regardless, the links, I think, are important (without regard to the text I use for the links). I’m inviting you to take the time to read both articles so you can know how much of my personal spin I’m putting on things. The first thing you’ll notice, is that Movieguide doesn’t link to the Teen Vogue article they criticize.

It’s almost as if they don’t want people to know the true content that got published in Teen Vogue. I wonder why…

That a conservative publication like Movieguide would come to the ardent defense of capitalism isn’t news. Anti-communism has been around pretty much since the Russian Revolution a century ago, and has been a staple of the Republican Party platform at least since the time of President Warren Harding.

I’ve been hearing about how “Marxism is a great idea in theory” since I was in high school. Indeed, it was one of the simplistic platitudes my high school bully liked to spout. As if its failure in practice has demonstrated anything but the flaws in how it was supposed to be practiced.

Let me make it clear that I’m not a communist. But I’m not a full-on capitalist either. We as a society are far better off if we remove the profit motive from some processes. (Health care and prisons come to mind…)

The Teen Vogue is a reasonably accurate history lesson on what Marx actually said and wrote, albeit distilled down to the audience that reads Teen Vogue. If it can be faulted for anything, it should have mentioned that the concept of the dialectic was first described by the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friederich Hegel a generation or two before Marx.

There is a very subtle dig at Donald Trump towards the end of the article, but if Movieguide were to get outraged by every article in every publication that points out that Trump doesn’t have America’s best interests at heart, they’d never get around to reviewing movies. Besides, it’s not as though this is the first such article in Teen Vogue.

Movieguide’s chief complaint is that Teen Vogue is ignoring the atrocities committed in the name of Marxism in the 20th century. I don’t (and never will) attempt to minimize such concerns, but the reality is that (1) that’s not the point of the Teen Vogue article in the first place, (2) in places where the socialist experiment has been more consistent with the way Marx envisioned (see: modern day Scandinavia), it has actually flourished and created a better life for all, and (3) the Cold War is over (and soon it’ll be thirty years since it did).

I think Movieguide will do better going back to telling us which movies have boobies. Makes it easier to laugh at them.

They touched a nerve…

About a week ago, there was an article in GQ magazine (or at least on their website). I readily confess that I wouldn’t have known about it if it hadn’t been for the reaction of the religious right.

Before I get to the actual article, I have to say that I like the idea. Sometimes I wonder if certain required texts in high school English class might do more harm to a young person’s love of reading than good. And it is with that in mind that GQ collected a list of 21 books you don’t have to read.

I’m sure you can see where this is going.

Side note: we can agree or disagree about any or all of these books (including the alternatives they suggested). That’s what lists like this are for. My 13 year old son asked me a similar question just the other day and I listed a few books I don’t care for either.

Book number 12 on their list is The Bible, and it’s kind of hard to disagree with the justification for its inclusion alongside books like The Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn, and A Farewell to Arms. One line that I’m sure will rankle the so-called true believers is “It is repetitive, self-contradictory, sententious, foolish, and even at times ill-intentioned.”

Repetitive? How many times does the word “begat” appear in Genesis alone?

Self-contradictory? It is literally not possible to construct an accurate timeline of what happened between Jesus’s burial and the opening up of the tomb, based upon all of the gospels.

Assuming the true believers know what “sententious” means, how can they disagree that that’s basically the whole purpose of the books of Leviticus, Psalms, and, to a lesser degree, just about any of Paul’s epistles?

Foolish? Admittedly, I had a hard time with this one. Is there an easy example of a passage in the Bible that’s foolish on its own without falling into any of the other adjectives outlined in that sentence? My mind kept going back to Psalm 14:1 about how the fool hath said in his heart there is no god, despite Matthew admonishing us not to call others “fools”. But that’s self-contradictory. Ultimately I decided that the first (or the second, contradictory) description of god’s creation of the universe, complete with him talking to himself and having the daytime light before an actual source of that light is foolish enough.

Ill-intentioned? Children are often the subject of some real malice in the Bible. From god telling Abraham to kill his only son as a test of faith (Genesis) to the kids in 2 Kings who were mauled by a bear for making fun of Elisha’s bald head, to the psalm that says that dashing children against the rocks is the key to happiness… Yeah, I think “ill-intentioned” is the polite way of putting it.

As you can probably guess, the right-wing outrage machine is not pleased. It started, as these things often do, with Breitbart, and almost immediately got picked up by Franklin Graham on his Facebook page, and then, more recently, Movieguide, which is actively seeking an apology from GQ, complete with the canard about how they wouldn’t have the guts to say the same about the Qu’ran. Maybe that’s because, when you look at the other 20 books, they’re books that a lot of Americans are asked to read.

I’m not sure the Notebook by Agota Kristof is a suitable alternative to The Bible and we can certainly quibble over that point. (I’d recommend 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, by Rebecca Goldstein, personally.) But they didn’t suggest either the Qu’ran or the Book of Mormon (or the Bhagavad Gita, or the I Qing or any other holy text) as alternatives to the Bible or any of the other books on the list. That’s probably more than enough.

Most telling about the articles of outrage, if you ask me, is the fact that not a single one of them tries to refute the content of the relatively simple paragraph in GQ. They talk about how statements like these offend the sensibilities of the faithful, or the sales figures, or, in the case of Movieguide, how they’d like an apology…

(In fairness, Breitbart did criticize GQ for other choices on the list, too, in a disjointed anti-PC screed that still doesn’t even try to rebut the points made, as though not wanting to prop up white male privilege was, in and of itself, a fault…)

It’s weird. These people claim to be anti-PC but are really sensitive when someone says or does something they deem offensive. I’d just like to see them actually offer a real rebuttal to the statements that offend them, rather than just be outraged. Can they answer the message without impugning the messenger?

Entitlement

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen or spoken to Bill H. I want to say I was in either eighth or ninth grade when I saw him last.

He and I went to elementary school together. We met in kindergarten and then were together in school through the fifth grade. After that, he went off to a local private school.

When I last saw him, he told me that he was taking classes with Ennis Cosby, the son of comedian Bill Cosby. And that he thought the younger Cosby was “a real asshole.”

I’m not trying to speak ill of the dead here and I don’t remember exactly what I said at the time, but I remember not being particularly surprised by this fact. After all, Ennis grew up with an extremely rich, famous, and influential father. Surely there was a sense of entitlement that came from his upbringing. Add in how hard it is to navigate the teenage years for anyone, and, yeah, it would be more of a surprise if he’d been totally down-to-earth and, for lack of a better word, normal.

In the 1980s, most people loved Bill Cosby. He was a very funny comedian, had a popular family-based sit-com, sold Jell-O… His public persona definitely was beloved and maybe even to be envied.

Unfortunately, over the past few years, we’ve seen a decidedly more sinister private side of him that… I don’t need to go into the details since they’ve been all over the news lately. In a sense, the same entitlement that Ennis displayed to my friend Bill, is what led the elder Bill to think he could get away with some truly repugnant behavior that is unacceptable under any circumstances.

It’s been a long time since the allegations first came to light (well over a decade) and we can be forgiven for not initially knowing whether or not to believe them. But as the evidence mounted, you’d need to be willfully ignorant (at best) to think they’re anything but credible.

I don’t know who said it, but justice delayed is justice denied. Bill Cosby is now 80, and any punishment he will receive can rightly be perceived as too little too late.

At the same time, this is the first real trial in the MeToo era. Bill Cosby’s accusers themselves may feel some degree of vindication, to be sure. May they stand as monuments, against anyone whose sense of entitlement is overblown, undeserved, or otherwise wrong. And it doesn’t matter if he’s a famous comedian or his asshole son.

Guard your irony meters!

It’s a good thing there are no actual devices out there that are capable of measuring irony as though it were something measurable and quantifiable. If so, then the mere existence of evangelical Christianity, for all its self-righteous hypocrisy, would make it impossible to find a maximum level to be measured.

I’ve talked about this before. We see bigoted people doing bigoted things, and then complaining that they’re being called bigots. Randy Cassingham, whose online column This Is True has been collecting weird and unusual news stories since the mid-90s, is quick to point out that he gets a disproportionate number of complaints when the subject of a negative article is a Christian compared with literally any other group (including other religious groups and political groups of all stripes).

We often see a degree of irony in backlash to the phrase political correctness. As if trying not to offend people is a bad thing. People railing against political correctness often call those of us who don’t want to offend, “fragile little snowflakes” or something similar.

Well, there’s a new article on Movieguide — about which I’ve written before — that, if anyone takes this complaint seriously, they immediately forfeit all right to call anyone else a “snowflake”. Brace yourself.

Apparently Google Home doesn’t know how to answer the question of who Jesus is. And people complained about this fact. If the comments section is to be believed, they’ve leveled the playing field by taking out references to Abraham, Mohammed, and Buddha.

Seriously? Let’s get past the fact that I don’t know why anyone would ask a smart speaker that question in the first place. For all of the different places where you can look up whatever you want to know about Jesus (and I recommend starting with the Skeptics Annotated Bible) why would you use a smart speaker?

It also bears mentioning that the only people who would ask this question already have a preconceived answer they’d expect to hear and anything short of that will miss the mark in their terms.

But if they’re getting that upset about it, I seriously think that the real problem is with them. And they’re the true “snowflakes”.

This feels like fraud

According to their website, Murka has been making casino-type games on various computing platforms for six years now. I have three of their games installed on my phone. (Two slot machine games and one blackjack game.)

I want to talk specifically about one of their slot games: Scatter Slots. I’m not going to deny that I do enjoy playing the game. Although I do like it, I have found that there are some aspects to its actual execution that simply could work better. For example, although the graphics, gameplay, and soundtrack are excellent, I found that the in-app notifications and solicitations for purchasing more coins are excessive. I have had several run-ins with their less-than-helpful customer service.

As a result, I wrote a detailed review and gave the game two stars on the App Store. (Out of five).

One thing that makes this game unique among games of this type is that it offers multiple virtual slot machines and a quest-type form of gameplay. You move from one machine to the next on a vintage-looking “map” by completing goals. (For example, win a certain number of coins or spin a certain number of times.)

There is a feature on this game that I truly have mixed feelings about: integration with Facebook. On one hand, Facebook, as an advertising medium would know that I play the game and the game often tries to post on my wall, something I consistently try to prevent from happening. I don’t care when my friends play a game and don’t want them to know when I am. On the other hand, the game saves your progress on Facebook’s servers and, thus, allows you to play the game on one device, put the device down, and then pick it up where you left off on another device.

But I can’t deny that, without this Facebook integration, I wouldn’t know what I’m about to say.

When you switch from one device to another, the game will ask you if you want to restore from the locally saved version of the game, or if you want to load the online version. You could argue that it’s cheating to go back to a save point and revert to what you had before you lost all those coins. Perhaps, but you also lost any progress you might have made.

If you do this, and then play the same “machine” that you played the first time around, something interesting happens. It turns out that the results of a given “spin” aren’t as random as Murka would have you believe. The pattern of wins and losses, and the actual symbols and the location where they appear on the board are exactly the same when you play them from the same starting point.

What this means is that if Murka sets a goal of, say, spinning with the maximum bet 50 times for a given “mission”, then the game already knows exactly how much you’re going to win or lose before you spin the first time. And it’ll be the same no matter how many times you restore from an older saved version. Or even how long you wait before trying again.

I amazed my thirteen year old son by correctly “predicting” the results of a bonus game on the “Spirits of Nature” board. In reality, I had already seen those same results three times before I tried it in front him.

If it were a real slot machine playing with real money, there are regulations that vary from one state to the next that dictate minimum payout rates. I’m not aware of any related regulations for ones with no real money at stake.

That said, there is real money involved to some degree in the form of in-app purchases, as I mentioned above. And if your in-game bank is low enough, they can definitely be tempting. And that kind of inducement makes you wonder if they’re trying to fleece consumers.

One of my many encounters with customer service involved me complaining about the low payout rates of one of the game. The person I corresponded with told me to sit tight and I’d win more eventually. This new information certainly puts that conversation into perspective.

Is it illegal? I’m not a lawyer and I wouldn’t know. It’s certainly unethical, though. I’m not saying not to play this game but you absolutely shouldn’t buy anything within this app. Even if you need extra coins.

Murka certainly has some ‘splainin’ to do.

Movieguide’s New Low

I've written before about the Christian movie review site Movieguide. I've come to expect dishonesty if it furthers their worldview but they've got a new article that's appalling even by their standards.

Entitled "Wake Up Google," I first thought (hoped?) that maybe they'd take a stand for simple human decency and condemn the so-called Google manifesto that's been circulating on social media for about the past week. That manifesto is the stuff of another essay, but I'll just say that diversity is almost always a good thing and you look stupid if you try to argue otherwise.

No, Movieguide is up in arms about the supposed hypocrisy of Google for simultaneously supporting The Equal Justice Initiative while lobbying congress in opposition to changes to the controversial Communications Decency Act of 1996.

Let's ignore, for a moment, that whatever lobbying is done by Google's parent company, Alphabet, is completely unrelated to its social outreach. But the CDA is problematic on simple first amendment grounds. If any right guaranteed by the constitution is sacrosanct, it's the freedom of speech. No matter how outrageous the speech is, it is protected. It's why we have the right to protest outside of military funerals with signs reading "god hates fags." If that kind of speech is legally protected, I can't imagine what wouldn't be.

Certainly not pornography. And the CDA is thinly veiled censorship. When you hear people say things like "what about the children?" you know they don't know how to protect their children from some of the less desirable aspects of the world and/or things the children are not yet old enough to see and hear. Google is right for not wanting to expand the CDA.

Movieguide then goes on to list six murder victims in defense of their position that we need to get violent pornographic images off the internet. Since they didn't provide any links to their stories, I decided to google their stories (ironic, I know…). And damn, did they mislead its readers about what happened in their cases.

What do the six victims have in common besides being female? First off, they were all citizens of the UK, which means that nothing related to changes to American law would have made a difference in their cases. Five of them were strangled, and the sixth we simply don't know how she died because her body was never found and the killer isn't talking. Of the other five killers, only one could claim to be influenced by violent pornography he found online. But even he said that he was interested in erotic asphyxia before he found the porn of it. And the sex was consensual with his girlfriend/victim as he choked her. He went too far and pleaded guilty to manslaughter. He was convicted of murder anyway.

I get that sites like Movieguide are big on censorship and they have no use for sexually charged imagery. But let the truth get in the way of a good narrative when the lie serves your purposes much better?