Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Give me some f***ing pancakes

"Deadwood" fans will appreciate this. (credit to Inside Higher Ed.)

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Stuck in the middle, alone

Slate’s latest Ad Report Card looks at the Ford commercial that ends with a divorced dad thanking his ex-wife for allowing him to tag along on a family trip, and telling the kids he’ll see them next week—presumably during a visit agreed to in the custody settlement.

I haven’t really considered whether this is a good commercial in terms of persuading people to buy a Ford. But as the child of divorced parents—and the spouse of a child of divorced parents—I nonetheless find it quite notable. For years, television programs and commercials portrayed a narrowly idealized version of the American family: two married parents (often white) and a handful of precocious children.

Advertisers seem just as likely to break convention as the creators of television shows. You’re more likely to see an interracial couple in a commercial than you will in a television program. (I can’t think of a single family-centered comedy or drama whose central characters are an interracial couple.) I seem to recall Ikea had an ad with a gay couple a few years back. Outside of cable, you are unlikely to see a gay couple in a television show unless it’s to provide comic relief. (“Will & Grace” might have been a groundbreaking show had Will and Jack, not Will and Grace, been the ones trying to have a child together.)

A few shows have tried to deal with divorce—“One Day at a Time” comes to mind, but divorce was largely a jumping off point for that show, and not its focus. (I have to confess I’ve not watched “The New Adventures of Old Christine.”) As any child of divorced parents will tell you, the consequences of a failed marriage pretty much last forever, all the way into adulthood. In other words, there's plenty of material to work with.

Yet these experiences seem to rate little mention on television, despite the unfortunate frequency of divorce. When I was little, I often felt like the only kid in the world with divorced parents, even though more of my classmates probably came from "broken" homes than I realized at the time, and I can’t help but think that those feelings of isolation were fueled by the absence of divorce in popular culture.

That isn’t a complaint, mind you. Television programs are meant to entertain, which often means escaping from reality, rather than wallowing in it. And commercials are written to sell products, not provide social commentary. One should not expect anything more. Still, whatever its flaws, I’m glad Ford made this commercial, and I hope it helps kids like me realize they are not alone.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Reading is fundamental

Over at my other blog I briefly discuss presidential reading habits and the JFK assassination.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The ghost of Pittsburgh's past

Via Proud Pittsburgh I learn that National Geographic has named Pittsburgh the best city for "urban adventure." Although I think Pittsburgh's image problem is vastly overstated, quality of life measures are important, so it's good to top these kinds of lists. Which isn't to say I can't find something to complain about, like this description of the city:

Thanks to a 15-year urban renewal program, the city has been revived, morphing from a stronghold of industry into a place that better reflects the surrounding Allegheny Mountains. ...The same shift away from heavy industry that beautified the skyline has also reordered the economy...

That description makes it sound as though the region chose to give up steel production, and not that the industry declined over several decades before finally collapsing. Not that I blame National Geographic. For years, many of Pittsburgh's civic and corporate leaders have acted as though they are ashamed of the city's steelmaking past. They are all too happy to point out to newcomers that those ugly, smoke-belching steel mills are gone. True, the pollution is gone. As are the jobs--never to be replaced--that provided thousands of people with a middle-class living, as well as the profits that funded many of the cultural and educational institutions that we now rightly claim make the city so liveable.

Why do so many Pittsburghers want to run away from our past? Part of it is old-fashioned elitism. A lot of people turn their noses up at blue-collar work, and they associate the steel industry with much of what they dislike about Pittsburgh--like the way many residents talk, or their pathological devotion to the Steelers. It is also a reaction to the way many Pittsburghers cling too tightly to the past, which also is unhealthy. Yet it seems to me that we can work for the future without distorting or denying our past. Indeed, Pittsburgh's past provides many cautionary tales that we would do well to learn as we move forward--like the dangers in relying too heavily on a single industry for economic growth.

Pittsburgh's handwringing over its past reminds me of something that happened several years ago when I was in the market for a new car. I went to a Honda dealership in the hopes of test-driving a Civic, but there were none on the lot. So the salesman tried to interest me instead in a Hyundai Elantra. "Hyundais aren't like they used to be. They're good cars," he said.

That guy cost himself a sale. I knew nothing about Hyundais, but the salesman's pre-emptive admission that they once had a reputation for being shoddy made me suspicious. It makes me wonder if Pittsburgh might not have an image problem at all if the people charged with promoting the city didn't feel the need to apologize for it first.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

That's a low blow

What's surprising about this article is not that yet another newspaper sent a reporter to write a stranger-in-a-strange-land article about spending time in a rival sports team's hometown, but that it contains a reference to"Joe Versus the Volcano":

Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck warned me about Pittsburgh. He filmed a soup commercial in Pittsburgh this summer, said it reminded him of the first five minutes of "Joe Versus The Volcano."

In case you've never seen the movie, that is not a compliment.

(Thanks to Pittsblog.)

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

"It's a fad"

Bruno Kirby was never going to win an Academy Award. But he was the kind of durable character actor who was often able to make himself indispensible to the films in which he appeared. Thanks to him, "When Harry Met Sally" was something more than just a chick flick. The film is best known for Meg Ryan's fake orgasm, but to me the best scenes involved Kirby: when he and Carrie Fischer ditch their respective dates--Ryan and Billy Crystal, respectively--to hook up, and then later when Kirby's character must part with his beloved wagon wheel coffee table to head off trouble with Fischer when the two move in together.

Kirby had a memorable scene in "This is Spinal Tap" as the Sinatra-obsessed limosine driver who tries and fails to make small talk with the equally clueless rock band he is ferrying. He proved his versatility playing the humorless Lieutenant Hauk in "Good Morning, Vietnam." And of course, in "The Godfather, Part II", he played the young Peter Clemenza, drawing Vito Corleone into a life of crime only to become his lieutenant.

He will be missed.

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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Lurching left?

I was happy to learn that Joe Lieberman lost the Connecticut Democratic primary, and that Democratic leaders are closing ranks around the victor, Ned Lamont. It wasn't just that Lieberman supported the Iraq war--he also contributed to a climate in which dissent was deemed to be disloyal, and in which opposition to fighting in Iraq was tantamount to opposition to fighting anywhere. I also grew tired of his moral preening, his self-righteousness which is so prominently on display in his stubborn bid to run as an independent.

And yet I also share Jacob Weisberg's concerns that Lieberman's loss is a signal that the Democratic Party is taking a sharp left turn on national security:

The problem for the Democrats is that the anti-Lieberman insurgents go far beyond simply opposing Bush's faulty rationale for the war, his dishonest argumentation for it, and his incompetent execution of it. Many of them appear not to take the wider, global battle against Islamic fanaticism seriously. They see Iraq purely as a symptom of a cynical and politicized right-wing response to Sept. 11, as opposed to a tragic misstep in a bigger conflict. Substantively, this view indicates a fundamental misapprehension of the problem of terrorism. Politically, it points the way to perpetual Democratic defeat. ...

The party's Vietnam-era drift away from issues of security and defense—and its association with a radical left hostile to the military and neutral in the fight between liberalism and communism—helped push a lot of Americans who didn't much like the Vietnam War into the arms of Richard Nixon.

Well, OK, so I too happen to see Iraq as a symptom of a cynical and polticized response to Sept. 11. But I also think it's a big problem that Democrats is continue to lack a coherent national security strategy, and that too many of their standard-bearers seem overly reluctant to exercise American military power under any circumstances. One of the reasons John Kerry lost to George W. Bush is that many Americans decided they'd rather have a president too quick to use force than one who is too slow. Until Democrats erase that perception, it may be quite some time before Americans trust them with the presidency, Iraq or no Iraq.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Money like water

A pair of election law attorneys argue persuasively that the nation's labyrinth campaign finance laws not only fail to cleanse politics of corruption but merely protect the incumbent lawmakers who voted for the regulations in the first place:

The law is not only increasingly complex but, in many cases, counterintuitive, requiring ever more nuanced clarifications from regulators. ...

Many politicians favored McCain-Feingold because it prohibited certain advertising that mentioned opponents’ names, or because it authorized them to raise more money if they were challenged by wealthy, free-spending opponents. The bill also attempted to strike at “negative” political speech — known to ordinary Americans by its other name, “criticism”— by requiring candidates to publicly approve their ad content.

In 2004, the first election year during which McCain-Feingold was in effect, negative campaigns overwhelmed the government’s efforts to discourage them, and fund-raising records fell beneath the frenzied pace of collections by candidates, parties and interest groups.

By 2005, a rash of scandals, including the Abramoff and Cunningham cases, had answered the question of whether this legal crusade would quash corruption.

I've discussed this previously. Our campaign finance laws make money harder to trace, thus reducing the accountability of candidates and donors, and they also make money much harder to raise, which puts incumbents at an advantage over newcomers. I fail to see how this state of affairs is good for democracy.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

With friends like these...

A Trib columnist wrote this analysis of the Casey-Santorum Senate race in The Weekly Standard, in which she argues--correctly, in my mind--that Santorum can still pull it out. What's astounding to me is this statement from Gov. Ed Rendell:

"I will eventually campaign with Casey," Rendell went on. "But, no, you won't see me attack Santorum." He added, "I work well with him and [U.S. Sen. Arlen] Specter. When it comes to Pennsylvania, Santorum delivers."

Now that kind of praise from an office holder of one party about an incumbent candidate from the opposing party is not entirely without precedent. In 1998, Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy gave Republican Gov. Tom Ridge a tacit endorsement in his race against Ivan Itkin. But there are a few factors that makes Rendell's comments different:

1. Rendell handpicked Casey to take on Santorum, against the wishes of many of the Democratic Party faithful who wanted a more liberal--and charismatic--candidate. But Santorum is still the greater evil, and for Rendell not to go balls out to work for his defeat is a slap in the face to every Democratic voter who is going to hold their nose and vote for Casey.

2. Tom Ridge was a moderate Republican who was going to waltz his way to re-election no matter what Tom Murphy did. Murphy no doubt calculated that he had little to gain--and that Pittsburgh might have had much to lose--by actively campaigning for Itkin. Santorum, on the other hand, is one of the nation's most conservative senators and one of the Democrats' biggest targets in attempting to take control of the Senate. He's vulnerable; Ridge was not.

3. In regard to my second point, it's worth noting that Ridge was running for his final term as governor in 1998. Even though at the time he had ambitions for higher office, he nonetheless had more latitude to punish Murphy by denying him funding for some pet project than Santorum has with Rendell. Santorum faces the very real possibility that, even if he beats Casey, he's going to need to win at least one more statewide race before he can take a shot at the White House, which many people assume is in his plans. I doubt he gets offered a spot on the ticket on 2008, which reduces his shot of getting the nod either as the presidential or vice presidential candidate in 2012. That means he's going to have to continue to deliver the pork to Pennsylvania.

So why would Rendell say such a thing? He may indeed have some favorite project that will depend on federal largesse, and he wants to hedge his bets. Or he wants to shore up his own re-election bid by keeping Santorum from actively campaigning for Lynn Swann. In other words, you don't stab my back, I won't stab yours. To cut him a little slack--just a little--it's only human not to want to spoil a working relationship that's going to have to continue for six more months, whether Santorum wins or loses.

Either way, if you're desperate to see Santorum go down, it's an unwelcome statement.

UPDATE: I forgot to credit A Big Fat Slob for the original link to the Weekly Standard article.