April 28, 2012

What South-Central L.A. looks like

For the 20th anniversary of the Rodney King riot, newspapers are running stories on the Mean Streets where the rioters lived. (The above picture is from today's L.A. Times.) A decade ago, I wrote the same article for the 10th anniversary of the riot and ran into same conundrum: the residential streets around the notorious corner of Florence and Normandie in South-Central L.A. look fine. 

But the business streets look awful. 

This isn't a new phenomenon, either. On July 4, 1977, I drove around Watts, a dozen years after the Watts riot. The side streets of Watts looked nice. The main streets looked bad.

In theory, South-Central L.A., or as it's been officially rebranded "South L.A.," could represent the world's largest gentrification opportunity. The weather is phenomenally mild and this sprawling region is freeway close to lots of jobs. South-Central is one of the few neighborhoods in the world to host the Opening Ceremony of two Summer Olympics, and is home to most famous film school in the world.

But, white people in L.A. find flat land unnerving. They mostly want to gentrify hilly neighborhoods, which, deep down, they find psychologically reassuring. Hills look more tactically defensible for when the hammer finally comes down and the long-awaited L.A. Apocalypse is at hand. 

Roots of "Girls" Whiteness Crisis: "Tiny Furniture"

So, I watched Lena Dunham's 2010 indie film Tiny Furniture, which served as a trial run for her HBO series Girls

For a $50,000 budget film written, directed, and starring a 23-year-old, it's quite competently done. It gets lumped in with the "mumblecore" movement, but the dialogue is crisply written and well-recorded. The word that kept coming to my mind is "watchable." (Here's the trailer.)

Tiny Furniture is not laugh out loud funny, but it gets funnier a second time through as you pick up that you aren't supposed to feel terribly sorry for Dunham's dumpy character as she endures repeated humiliations trying to launch a career as a hipster media sensation. She isn't supposed to be likable, as she does selfish things to people trying to be nice to her. She's a young, female George Costanza, but an ambitious egomaniac to boot, lacking George's contentment with his own mediocrity. 

You sympathize a little with her for having a mother / role model who has, somehow, clawed her way to making a lot of money in the New York art scene by taking photos of tiny furniture (played in the movie by Dunham's real life mother, who, indeed, makes money selling in galleries her photos of tiny furniture). But, it's an inherently absurd situation.

So, who exactly are all the aggrieved People of Color who want to be Georgette Costanza's friend? And why?

And, would People of Color actually be watching this show in vast numbers if one of the four girls was nonwhite? Blacks famously wouldn't watch Seinfeld, and I doubt if adding Martin Lawrence to the cast would have done much for Seinfeld's black ratings.

We can actually test this hypothesis about "Girls" quantitatively right now by looking at how many blacks have bought tickets to see Whit Stillman's current movie Damsels in Distress, in which one of the four damsels is black. My guess is that Troy Patterson would go see any Whit Stillman movie no matter who was in the cast, and the vast majority of other blacks wouldn't go see a Whit Stillman movie even if the four damsels were played by Beyonce, Mo'Nique, Lil Kim, and Tyler Perry.

Speaking of George Costanza, that also raises the question of earlier New York sitcoms about People of Pallor, such as Seinfeld, where the only memorable black character was Kramer's Johnny Cochran-inspired lawyer. (I vaguely also recall a black executive who played straight man to George's fecklessness).

After Seinfeld and, especially, after Curb Your Enthusiasm (by which point Larry David had a half billion dollars, so even if he got Michael Richardized if a race joke went over wrong, he'd still have a half billion dollars), isn't it pretty obvious that Larry David's views on race are closer to mine than to those of all the folks who are in a huff over Lena Dunham's three titular friends being white? At least on the central issue -- Race Is No Joking Matter! -- me and Larry are on the same side of the barricades.

Note to Colbert Report writers: Cousin Marriage is back in news!

When reading Stephen Colbert's very funny book I Am America (And So Can You!), I kept getting the impression that at least one of Colbert's writers was a reader of mine. Nothing at all was ripped off, but a lot seemed riffed off, which I very much like. Then I came to an entire page of the bestseller on the less-than-burning topic of cousin marriage, confirming my surmise.

So, for the benefit of Colbert writers, let me point out that the scientist, Alan Bittles, whose research I used most for my pre-Iraq war article on cousin marriage has a new pro-cousin marriage book out, Consanguinity in Context:
A Perth-based researcher has called for an end to the stigma surrounding marriage between cousins, after uncovering evidence that the health risks have been greatly exaggerated. 
Murdoch University adjunct professor Alan Bittles has shed new light on the consequences of intra-familial marriages, which he says are on the rise in Australia due to increased migration. 
Bittles has sought to address common misconceptions of same-blood marriage, from a social, medical and religious perspective, in a new book based on 35 years of research. 
Bittles claims more than 1.1 billion people are either married to a close relative or are the offspring of such a marriage, which are common in many Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and Jewish communities. 
In his book, Consanguinity in Context, Bittles called for greater understanding and acceptance of the practice, which is largely taboo in Western countries. 
He said there was a general belief that first cousin marriages lead to negative genetic outcomes, yet a large majority of children born to first cousins are healthy. 
And in many cases of those born with defects, non-genetic factors were often to blame.

It's kind of like how society is always getting upset at people who drive with their infants on their laps while texting. A large majority of the time, however, the baby doesn't fly out the window of the moving car. And even if the infant does land on its head, it probably didn't inherit good brains to start with, so no biggie. Likewise, why is society worried about Muslim immigrants forcing their daughters to marry a first cousin from the Old Country as part of an immigration fraud scheme and then having the taxpayers pay for a lifetime of care for the offspring with birth defects?

White Male Privilege

From the Daily Dot:
Justin Anthony Knapp. 
The bearded and bespectacled former pizza delivery guy from Indianapolis, Indiana is a pretty extraordinary wikipedian. Last week, Knapp, 30, became the first person on the site to reach 1 million edits. He’s done it by spending “several hours” every day on the site. Knapp’s never received a cent of pay from Wikipedia and is currently unemployed.

The Mightiest Mestizo

It's universally assumed that as the Mexican-American population increases, integration and assimilation will ensue. Yet, I keep recalling great Mexican-American athletes of the past, such as Pancho Gonzales, Lee Trevino, and Nancy Lopez, who lack contemporary counterparts. 

Recently, an ESPN article "NFL Draft Lacks Latinos" predicted that few Hispanics would be drafted. Indeed, through the first three rounds or 96 picks, there was only one Spanish surname called, and Kendall Reyes is definitely not Mexican.

And this reminded me of a Mexican-American guy of my age from Ontario, California (Inland Empire) who ranks right at the top of offensive linemen in the history of the NFL, Hall of Famer Anthony Muñoz. I'm not a football expert, but I typed into Google "greatest offensive linemen" and one article from 2010 concluded its top ten list with:
#1 Greatest NFL Offensive Lineman of All Time: Anthony Muñoz 
Anthony Muñoz is the greatest offensive lineman of all time. At left tackle, Muñoz was the total package of size, strength, athleticism, and technique. In the passing game, Muñoz routinely shut down the game's best defensive ends and outside linebackers. In the running game, Muñoz could wall off his man for two counts, throw him onto the ground, and rumble downfield to wreak havoc on pesky linebackers and defensive backs. As a receiver, Muñoz also hauled in four touchdowns on tackle-eligible plays during his 13-year career as a Cincinnati Bengal. Anthony Muñoz mastered, perfected, and dominated his position as well as any man that has ever played any sport. Anthony Muñoz—the Gold Standard franchise left tackle.

A lot of top ten lists on the Internet are content farm produce. There aren't many statistics on offensive linemen, so there's no way to conclude the argument over who was the greatest ever. But Muñoz is definitely in the argument, and might well be the favorite.

This is kind of weird when you stop and think about it. Because of the huge increase in population, there ought to be more famous Mexican-Americans today in more different fields than there were in the past, but it doesn't really look like that, does it?

April 27, 2012

The "Girls" Whiteness Crisis Mounts

From today's New York Times:
Whiteness is too often invisible on television, so much the norm that it no longer begs evaluation, and for whatever advances “Girls” makes in expanding the range of women on television, and the sorts of conversations they’re permitted to have, it certainly lacks for other forms of diversity. All the central figures — four young women scavenging New York for bits of love — are white.

Wait ... wait ... Don't tell me!

From the New York Times:
Police Chiefs Focus on Disparities in Gun Violence, With an Eye Toward Solutions 
by Erica Goode 
In a single week last April, 3 people were killed with guns in Philadelphia, 14 more were shot and wounded, 68 robberies were carried out at gunpoint and a total of 144 crimes involving firearms were reported.During that same week in San Diego, a city of roughly the same size with far fewer police officers, there were no gun-related homicides, 2 people wounded by gunshots, 4 robberies committed at gunpoint and a total of only 20 gun-related crimes. 
What made the difference? About 250 police chiefs from around the country debated this question and gun violence more generally at a meeting here this week, taking as their focus a survey of crimes occurring in six cities — Philadelphia, San Diego, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Austin, Tex., and Toronto — over a seven-day period in April 2011. The survey was carried out by the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit police research group that sponsored the session as part of its two-day annual meeting.

I hear Carmel, CA has even less gun violence. The Police Executive Research Forum should go investigate Carmel.

The Secret History of the 1990s

With the 20th anniversary of the South-Central L.A. riot of 1992 coming up, I was glancing at a thumbsucker in the Books section of the L.A. Times by a diligent literary critic who concludes that, unlike the 1965 Watts riot, literary types have avoided the subject of the latter riot:
But 20 years later, the shelf of books addressing the disaster is threadbare, conditional even, as if we've never figured out how to write about these events.

My explanation for this is that the most true and interesting things anybody can say about the Rodney King riot are A) that it was a shameful tantrum by African-Americans (which of course few aesthetic writers dependent upon grants would dare say), and B) that blacks actually were embarrassed enough by it to slowly start behaving better. 

By a variety of measures, the early 1990s represented a crisis among black. The most obvious is the peak in the black homicide offending rate, especially among very young blacks. But lots of other things went wrong: test scores went down and teen fertility was up.

The invention of crack in the mid-1980s was obviously one big problem, but another was rap, especially as it evolved toward celebrating criminality in the late 1980s. Put crack and rap together and what do you get? In the intellectual sphere, the early 1990s were the peak of multiculturalist postmodern whoop-tee-doos in the academy.

On a more conscious level, blacks were even more embarrassed three years later by their celebration of O.J. Simpson getting away with murdering those two white people. That led quickly to Minister Farrakhan's Million Man March, which had a remarkably penitential aspect to it by the standards of anything black-related. But, I think the aftermath of the Rodney King riot was the moment when blacks collectively stared into the abyss of where they were headed and started to take a few halting steps back toward collective sanity.

J. Alfred Prufrock never had it so good

An average looking young nobody and a few confederates who explain to onlookers that he is "Thomas Elliott" and was either in The Hunger Games or will be in a Spider-Man movie make the day of various young women at a mall. The video isn't really that amazing -- the title cards rather overplay it. But, yeah ...

Much of the job of being a celebrity is mustering up the energy to make your fans' day. Taylor Swift is famous for this. It looks easy to do on your own schedule, but could you do it all the time on the public's incessant schedules? John F. Kennedy Jr. apparently figured out at some point that his main talent and thus his calling in life was Making People's Day (or, considering the dynastic psycho-energies random people invested in him, Making People's Week). He became a gracious figure to all the people he rode in elevators with as he went about his business in NYC, which helps explain some of the bizarre media outpouring when he died in a plane crash in 1999. In New York media circles, everybody had at least one friend who had once met JFK Jr. and he'd been like a prince to them.

One interesting converse of this is that talented actors can use their acting skills to go about their daily business unnoticed and live like normal people when they feel like it. For example, my wife and I were at the crowded L.A. Auto Show in 2001, looking at some zillion dollar car, and she asked me a technical question about it to which I had no idea what the answer was. The lady standing next to her chimed in and explained to us the engine was a V16 and so forth and so on. When she walked away after a couple of minutes of technical conversation, my wife said, "That was Tom Hanks' wife." 

So, I started looking around for Hanks, who was at that point still about the biggest movie star in the world. And sure enough, there was Tom Hanks nearby, wandering around like everybody else, looking at exotic cars that, out of the thousands of people all around him, only he could afford. No bodyguard or personal assistant. He had a baseball cap pulled down low, but he's tall enough to stand out in a crowd, except that he'd set his body language and facial expression so that he'd look completely uninteresting. It was like that Jedi mind control scene in Star Wars: "This is not the Forrest Gump / astronaut Jim Lovell / Capt. John H. Miller / Woody the Talking Cowboy Toy you're looking for." I watched dozens of people walk by him, with only a few doing doubletakes after they'd passed him by and realized, "Hey, that nobody looked just like Tom Hanks, if only Tom Hanks weren't Tom Hanks!"

There's a famous story about Marilyn Monroe and a friend walking down the street in New York City unnoticed, when the star stops and announces she's now going to switch from Normal Jean mode to Marilyn mode. With minutes, traffic is gridlocked.

April 26, 2012

Democrats and white men

From USA Today:
House Democrats will make history in the 2012 election, sending to Congress next January the first women and minority-majority party faction in U.S. history. 
A new analysis by the Cook Political Report reveals a further progression of white flight from the Democratic Party, which is increasingly represented by women and minorities, while the GOP remains a party dominated by white men. 
The projections were calculated by David Wasserman, an election analyst for the non-partisan Cook Political Report, who details the rise of women and minority influence in the Democratic ranks in the latest issue of National Journal magazine out today. 
In 1950, white men constituted 98% of House Democrats -- a percentage that fell precipitously to just 53% following the 2010 elections. Based on the makeup of candidates in the current congressional races, Wasserman projects that the 2012 elections will result in a House Democratic Caucus that will be 46%-48% white males when the next Congress starts in January -- whether or not Democrats win a majority. 
In contrast, white men continue to make up the vast majority of the Republican Party. In 1950, House Republicans were 97% white men, which fell to just 86% in 2012 -- a figure that Wasserman says will remain largely unchanged in the next Congress.

The change in sex ratios doesn't necessarily mean much: the sterling career of Nancy Pelosi is a continuation of the D'Alesandro family's political dynasty: her father and brother were both mayors of Baltimore, back when that was a fun job, and her father was in the House before her.

Still, if you look at America's most globally competitive industries, especially ones that are apparently considered too cool to have to worry much about discrimination lawsuits, such as Silicon Valley and Hollywood, you'll notice that white men pretty much run everything. 

April 25, 2012

Latest on "Girls" diversity crisis

The New York Times solicits eight opinions on the burning issue of the day "Whitewashing on the Small Screen." You see, HBO's new non-hit sit-com "Girls" has four white actresses playing the four titular girls. 

But, where is the diversity among the debating diversitoids? I see five blacks, two Jewish women, and, mirabile dictu, one Asian dude. But why is the vibrant 50,000,000+ Hispanic Latino/Latina community flagrantly excluded from the debate? It's almost as if nobody particularly cares about them. The New York Times should have a debate over the lack of diversity in this debate. I see the opportunity for an infinite regress coming on.

How to attend the Olympics

I went to the second week of the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. My main advice is: only attend the events at which gold medals are handed out. Stay away from preliminary rounds. 

The excitement of a once every four years prize makes minor sports fun for a day. For example, a weightlifting final I attended turned out to be a blast, almost as much fun as professional wrestling (the weightlifters try to psych each other out, which is fun to watch). This was their moment in the spotlight and they took full advantage of it. In contrast, watching the American basketball team starring Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing win a fairly close basketball quarterfinal match over West Germany 78-67 sounds pretty good in theory, but was actually rather dull.

Why the most hated man in America looks a little like Obama

The New York Post runs a long Reuters article on George Zimmerman full of valuable information. Here's a minor bit that answers one question that struck me: Whereas he looked quite mestizo in the notorious orange shirt photo, why, lately, does a skinnier, shaven-headed, suited Zimmerman look a bit like the President?
The 28-year-old insurance-fraud investigator comes from a deeply Catholic background and was taught in his early years to do right by those less fortunate. He was raised in a racially integrated household and himself has black roots through an Afro-Peruvian great-grandfather - the father of the maternal grandmother who helped raise him.

So, he's not just a mestizo, he's a "pardo," like Hugo Chavez calls himself.

More good stuff:
A criminal justice student who aspired to become a judge, Zimmerman also concerned himself with the safety of his neighbors after a series of break-ins committed by young African-American men. 
Though civil rights demonstrators have argued Zimmerman should not have prejudged Martin, one black neighbor of the Zimmermans said recent history should be taken into account. 
"Let's talk about the elephant in the room. I'm black, OK?" the woman said, declining to be identified because she anticipated backlash due to her race. She leaned in to look a reporter directly in the eyes. "There were black boys robbing houses in this neighborhood," she said. "That's why George was suspicious of Trayvon Martin." 
George Michael Zimmerman was born in 1983 to Robert and Gladys Zimmerman, the third of four children. Robert Zimmerman Sr. was a U.S. Army veteran who served in Vietnam in 1970, and was stationed at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia, in 1975 with Gladys Mesa's brother George. Zimmerman Sr. also served two tours in Korea, and spent the final 10 years of his 22-year military career in the Pentagon, working for the Department of Defense, a family member said. 
In his final years in Virginia before retiring to Florida, Robert Zimmerman served as a magistrate in Fairfax County's 19th Judicial District. 
Robert and Gladys met in January 1975, when George Mesa brought along his army buddy to his sister's birthday party. She was visiting from Peru, on vacation from her job there as a physical education teacher. Robert was a Baptist, Gladys was Catholic. They soon married, in a Catholic ceremony in Alexandria, and moved to nearby Manassas.

Okay, so, yeah, we all know Bob Dylan's real name is Robert Zimmerman, but there really are a whole bunch of people in America with Germanic names who aren't Jewish at all or are only marginally Jewish. They just tend to be less famous per capita than Jewish people with Germanic names. A Baptist American named Robert Zimmerman, George's father, is more likely to never become famous than a Jewish American named Robert Zimmerman
Gladys came to lead a small but growing Catholic Hispanic enclave within the All Saints Catholic Church parish in the late 1970s, where she was involved in the church's outreach programs. Gladys would bring young George along with her on "home visits" to poor families, said a family friend, Teresa Post. 
"It was part of their upbringing to know that there are people in need, people more in need than themselves," said Post, a Peruvian immigrant who lived with the Zimmermans for a time. 
Post recalls evening prayers before dinner in the ethnically diverse Zimmerman household, which included siblings Robert Jr., Grace, and Dawn. "It wasn't only white or only Hispanic or only black - it was mixed," she said. ....
Zimmerman's maternal grandmother, Cristina, who had lived with the Zimmermans since 1978, worked as a babysitter for years during Zimmerman's childhood. For several years she cared for two African-American girls who ate their meals at the Zimmerman house and went back and forth to school each day with the Zimmerman children. 
"They were part of the household for years, until they were old enough to be on their own," Post said. 
Zimmerman served as an altar boy at All Saints from age 7 to 17, church members said. 
"He wasn't the type where, you know, 'I'm being forced to do this,' and a dragging-his-feet Catholic," said Sandra Vega, who went to high school with George and his siblings. "He was an altar boy for years, and then worked in the rectory too. He has a really good heart." 
George grew up bilingual, and by age 10 he was often called to the Haydon Elementary School principal's office to act as a translator between administrators and immigrant parents. At 14 he became obsessed with becoming a Marine, a relative said, joining the after-school ROTC program at Grace E. Metz Middle School and polishing his boots by night. At 15, he worked three part-time jobs - in a Mexican restaurant, for the rectory, and washing cars - on nights and weekends, to save up for a car. ...
In 2004, Zimmerman partnered with an African-American friend and opened up an Allstate insurance satellite office, Donnelly said. 
Then came 2005, and a series of troubles. Zimmerman's business failed, he was arrested, and he broke off an engagement with a woman who filed a restraining order against him. ...
Zimmerman enrolled in Seminole State College in 2009, and in December 2011 he was permitted to participate in a school graduation ceremony, despite being a course credit shy of his associate's degree in criminal justice. Zimmerman was completing that course credit when the shooting occurred. ...
 By the summer of 2011, Twin Lakes was experiencing a rash of burglaries and break-ins. Previously a family-friendly, first-time homeowner community, it was devastated by the recession that hit the Florida housing market, and transient renters began to occupy some of the 263 town houses in the complex. Vandalism and occasional drug activity were reported, and home values plunged. One resident who bought his home in 2006 for $250,000 said it was worth $80,000 today. 
At least eight burglaries were reported within Twin Lakes in the 14 months prior to the Trayvon Martin shooting, according to the Sanford Police Department. Yet in a series of interviews, Twin Lakes residents said dozens of reports of attempted break-ins and would-be burglars casing homes had created an atmosphere of growing fear in the neighborhood. 
In several of the incidents, witnesses identified the suspects to police as young black men. Twin Lakes is about 50 percent white, with an African-American and Hispanic population of about 20 percent each, roughly similar to the surrounding city of Sanford, according to U.S. Census data. 
One morning in July 2011, a black teenager walked up to Zimmerman's front porch and stole a bicycle, neighbors told Reuters. A police report was taken, though the bicycle was not recovered. ...
But it was the August incursion into the home of Olivia Bertalan that really troubled the neighborhood, particularly Zimmerman. Shellie was home most days, taking online courses towards certification as a registered nurse. 
On August 3, Bertalan was at home with her infant son while her husband, Michael, was at work. She watched from a downstairs window, she said, as two black men repeatedly rang her doorbell and then entered through a sliding door at the back of the house. She ran upstairs, locked herself inside the boy's bedroom, and called a police dispatcher, whispering frantically.
"I said, 'What am I supposed to do? I hear them coming up the stairs!'" she told Reuters. Bertalan tried to coo her crying child into silence and armed herself with a pair of rusty scissors. 
Police arrived just as the burglars - who had been trying to disconnect the couple's television - fled out a back door. Shellie Zimmerman saw a black male teen running through her backyard and reported it to police. 
After police left Bertalan, George Zimmerman arrived at the front door in a shirt and tie, she said. He gave her his contact numbers on an index card and invited her to visit his wife if she ever felt unsafe. He returned later and gave her a stronger lock to bolster the sliding door that had been forced open. 
"He was so mellow and calm, very helpful and very, very sweet," she said last week. "We didn't really know George at first, but after the break-in we talked to him on a daily basis. People were freaked out. It wasn't just George calling police ... we were calling police at least once a week." 
In September, a group of neighbors including Zimmerman approached the homeowners association with their concerns, she said. Zimmerman was asked to head up a new neighborhood watch. He agreed. ...
Less than two weeks later, another Twin Lakes home was burglarized, police reports show. Two weeks after that, a home under construction was vandalized. 
The Retreat at Twin Lakes e-newsletter for February 2012 noted: "The Sanford PD has announced an increased patrol within our neighborhood ... during peak crime hours. 
"If you've been a victim of a crime in the community, after calling police, please contact our captain, George Zimmerman." 
On February 2, 2012, Zimmerman placed a call to Sanford police after spotting a young black man he recognized peering into the windows of a neighbor's empty home, according to several friends and neighbors. 
"I don't know what he's doing. I don't want to approach him, personally," Zimmerman said in the call, which was recorded. The dispatcher advised him that a patrol car was on the way. By the time police arrived, according to the dispatch report, the suspect had fled. 
On February 6, the home of another Twin Lakes resident, Tatiana Demeacis, was burglarized. Two roofers working directly across the street said they saw two African-American men lingering in the yard at the time of the break-in. A new laptop and some gold jewelry were stolen. One of the roofers called police the next day after spotting one of the suspects among a group of male teenagers, three black and one white, on bicycles. 
Police found Demeacis's laptop in the backpack of 18-year-old Emmanuel Burgess, police reports show, and charged him with dealing in stolen property. Burgess was the same man Zimmerman had spotted on February 2. 

And there's much else, such as why Zimmerman bought a gun.

Here's a question: Whom would you rather have as a neighbor: George Zimmerman or Trayvon Martin?

The overall picture that has finally emerged is the opposite of the Prestige Press's narrative: while an occasional screw-up, Zimmerman was way above average in altruism and pro-social activity, while Martin was increasingly seduced toward the dark side by hip-hop culture: apparently involved in burglary of jewelry.

On the other hand, let me point out that Trayvon's trajectory through age 17 didn't inevitably doom him to a life in and out of prison: three school suspensions of increasing severity and an unproven but probable suspicion of burglary or fencing burgled goods is pretty bad.  But if he'd had the same track record at 15, his chance of pulling out and getting back on the straight and narrow would seem far worse. As of 17, he didn't appear to belong to an organized street gang, which strikes me as key. My impression is that the appeal of joining a criminal gang starts to diminish pretty rapidly in the late teen years, so the key for his life would likely have been staying out of trouble enough to graduate from high school. His parents had some resources to move him around to get him away from the bad influences he was hanging out with in Miami. In general, he comes across as a classic victim of hip-hop, the kind of kid who would have been okay if pop culture wasn't constantly telling him to act like a thug.

My vague impression is that younger people in America are trending in the direction of Zimmerman rather than Martin: away from outlawry, toward pro-social behavior, conformism, authoritarianism, and so forth. You'll notice that the prestige press's response to this case was to play up Martin not as a would-be thug, but as an angelic innocent, while Zimmerman was portrayed as a Loose Cannon.

Lesley Arfin: The witch hunt for the young female John Derbyshire

When Rich Lowry fired John Derbyshire, that of course excited the witchburner sort of pundits to hunt down more crimethinkers suspected of not taking the reigning racial pieties with full somberness. Attention has thus shifted to an obscure young comedy writer named Lesley Arfin, a staff writer for "Girls."

That's the new HBO show that everybody is tweeting about but (virtually) nobody is actually watching. It's a half-hour downbeat comedy about four not-quite-affluent enough young ladies trying to make it in New York City. It was created by 25-year-old Lena Dunham, writer of the 2010 indie film Tiny Furniture.

I don't have cable TV, so I haven't seen Girls. (Here is a rave about the show by Slate's quite reliable TV critic Troy Patterson, who is just about the best black writer in America whom nobody notices is black.)

Unsurprisingly, there were the usual complaints that all four of the girls on "Girls" are white. 

Arfin, one of Dunham's staff writers, cheekily tweeted in response: 
"What really bothered me most about Precious was that there was no representation of ME." 

This is in the same vein as Sara Silverman worked: the Evil Ingenue ("I don’t care if you think I’m racist; I just want you to think I’m thin"), the young woman too narcissistic to notice the rules about what you are allowed to say about race. 

Silverman's best joke went:
I got in trouble for saying the word “Ch*nk” on a talk show, a network talk show. It was in the context of a joke. Obviously. That’d be weird. That’d be a really bad career choice if it wasn’t. But, nevertheless, the president of an Asian-American watchdog group out here in Los Angeles, his name is Guy Aoki, and he was up in arms about it and he put my name in the papers calling me a racist, and it hurt. As a Jew—as a member of the Jewish community—I was really concerned that we were losing control of the media.

But Arfin's tweet is still still pretty good for 140 characters. 

This enraged various moral watchdogs. It's fascinating how in this Age of Point 'n' Sputter, this Era of Not Getting the Joke, how much pride some of these people take in being humorless buffoons. 

On CNN, Soledad O'Brien, the networks go-to gal for all things African-American, and Sharon Waxman were confused and outraged by Arfin's joke:
“Wow!” Waxman responded. “Wow.” 
The CNN panel momentarily tried to figure out if Arfin’s racially-inflammatory tweet was a joke. 
“Do you think so?” O’Brien asked. “I guess it seems like she’s not necessarily taking the question of representation seriously to me.”

The New Yorker called Arfin's joke "breathtakingly dismissive and intellectually dishonest."

ThinkProgress whined:
Lesley Arfin, John Derbyshire, Vice, Taki Magazine, and the Lingering Cultural Capital of Racism

Elspeth Reeve of the Atlantic, who had piled on Derbyshire, entitled her angry piece:
'Girls' Writer Responds to Critique of 'Girls' with Horrible Joke

and followed up with:
'Girls' Writer Is Learning There's No Such Thing as Ironic Racism

Another notoriously butt-hurt site, Gawker, complained:
A Girls Writer’s Ironic Racism And Other ‘White People Problems’

You might think that the best way to complain about a comedy writer's joke is by making a joke back, especially if your complaints are really intended to get you an affirmative action job writing an HBO show. I mean, there are a lot of complainers in this world, so if HBO is going to have to hire some to write a People of Color sit-com, they might as well hire funny ones. But that kind of thinking is so pre-Trayvon.

April 24, 2012

Tiger Woods and George Zimmerman

In my new Taki's Magazine column, I explain the bizarre story behind a weird phenomenon I had pointed out in May 2009: In 2006-07, golfer Tiger Woods suddenly bulked up to look like a GI Joe action figure. You don't really need to look like that to win at golf, and, it turns out, Woods may have had a very different goal in mind.

To find out what Woods was thinking about quitting golf to do, read the whole thing there.

How to invent a sport women would like

In the name of gender equity, the Summer Olympics are debuting women's boxing at the London games. Women's wrestling was added at the 2004 Athens games. 

The problem, of course, is that very few women are interested these highly masculine sports. Yet, as part of Chris Rock's Keep Your Daughter Off the Pole movement, it would be good to invent some sports that would appeal to normal girls and young women. The idea would be to come up with something less crudely sexualized than pole dancing but less unfeminine than wrestling.

One problem is that the kind of sports-minded nerds who would be good at inventing the rules for sports generally don't understand women well, and conventional female minds aren't tuned to inventing universal rules for sports. There have been a lot of studies of little boys and little girls making up games with balls. The boys argue a lot, but from their arguments actually do evolve better rules that deal fairly with an ever-larger percentage of future situations. The girls, in contrast, tend to devolve the rules to make participants feel better in the present by making ad hoc exceptions when feelings get hurt.

What do women want? Well, one approach is to look at the sports that most excite women viewers in the Winter and Summer Olympics: figureskating and gymnastics.

Another approach that converges on a similar idea is to look at women's fashion magazines. Why, for generations, have women been buying magazines to look at pictures of 5'10" 112 pound fashion models? Yeah, yeah, I know, it's all a Big Gay Conspiracy. But, 2Blowhards had a little essay once on why Mrs. Blowhard loved looking at pictures in fashion magazines. 
There's an additional fantasy element too, which is autonomy. Part of what women fashion-magazine fans seem to enjoy imagining is the fantasy of being found glamorous purely for its own sake. They seem to want to forget about the pleasing-guys element. There's a little defiance in the fantasy -- and you can see the defiance in many of the kicky poses and attitudes the models strike. 
Perhaps something that helps explain the appeal of these images is that not only do many women enjoy imagining looking like these models, they enjoy imagining feeling like them too. I think guys often forget what a weighty and earthbound thing it can be, being a gal. There's so much dreariness to contend with: fatbags, hormones, moods, emotional agonies, etc. Women are weighed down by a lot of burdens, or at least they feel that they are, which is good enough for the purposes of my attempt at an explanation here. 
The gals in the pages of fashion magazines and catalogs aren't weighed down by anything, not even flesh. They burst out of cabs, they leap onto sidewalks, they let loose with irrepressible guffaws, they're caught by insistent cameras looking their klutzy-but-charming best; they're tall and slim, and they're feelin' good and they're lookin' ready to dazzle. The girls in the pix get to enjoy the champagne-and-cocaine fun parts of being a grownup woman. They aren't saddled with fat asses and wobbly upper arms, with PMS, with no-good boyfriends and lecherous bosses, with imperfect features, with senseless mood swings, etc. 
What the fashion mags are selling is, to some extent, a fantasy of play and freedom. Which, come to think of it, is (in a general sense) pretty much what men's magazines sell too. Many guys enjoy indulging in fantasies about utopia -- a male utopia full of gadgets and sex-without-consequences. Many gals love indulging in fantasies about utopia too -- a female utopia, where the fantasizer is carefree and irresistably desirable 24/7. 
My hunch: perhaps superslim-and-supertall are a visual representation of carefree-and-desirable.

What we want in feminine sports is to emphasize, in the interests of keeping-your-daughter-off-the-pole, is to downplay the Desirable aspect and emphasize the nonsexual aspects.

A reductionist approach would be that what might attract feminine interest in a sport is freedom from gravity. Figure skaters glide endlessly and then leap and twirl. Gymnasts fly through the air. The final night of women's figure skating in the Winter Olympics is to crown the World's Greatest Princess and the all-around night of women's gymnastics in the Summer Olympics is to crown the World's Greatest Pixie. 

The problem with this is that nobody really is free from gravity. Competitive cheerleading, for example, is a feminine sport that has evolved toward ever more high-flying death-defying stunts, which is great, except for the cheerleaders who end up in wheelchairs for life.

Trampolining was recently added to the Olympics and it's very exciting because it's amazingly high-flying. But it's also terrifying to watch. I don't think the dads and moms of America are going to get too excited about their daughters taking up trampolining. When I was a little kid in the 1960s, trampolines were a popular backyard amenity. But then they stopped being common because so many kids got hurt on them. 

So, here's my idea for the perfect 21st Century sport for middle class American families with daughters: invent a sport where the girls fly, do quadruple somersaults and quintuple axels or whatever, but are actually in movie special effect wire work harnesses, like in The Matrix.

So, that takes the fear of paralytic injury out of the equation. You still have the puberty problem (the laws of physics decree that girls who haven't developed T&A yet can spin faster than those that have). Figure skating and gymnastics had to put minimum age requirements into the Olympics to keep their sports from being dominated by girls taking drugs to hold back puberty.

So, there's no perfect solution, but some kind of acrobatic event suspended from a bungee cord might go over big with today's parents and their daughters. Another possibility is that "indoor skydiving," flying on fan-blasted air that you can now do at amusement parks. For the very rich, zero gravity acrobatics flying on the Vomit Comet could be the next big thing.

No stereowiping possible

From the New York Times, an article on a U.S. Olympic wrestler getting married.
Becoming an Olympian, and Then a Newlywed

It took me awhile to figure out what the point of this article was that demanded national coverage. Don't jocks get married all the time? Is it surprising that wrestlers tend to be short (to help make their weight class) and dress jockishly even at their weddings? And who cares enough about amateur wrestling to be interested in some wrestler dude's private life?
Oh, wait, it's a Man Bites Dog article! Or, to be precise, Woman Bites Woman.

See, the Olympic wrestler is a woman, so it's a heartwarming Gay Marriage story, which of course needs to be promoted by the Newspaper of Record. (Who knew that women's wrestling was now part of the Olympics?) 

And pushing gay marriage overrides even the prime directive of Wiping Out Stereotypes, since the wrestler gal looks like me and Plato got together over a few drinks to dream up the Platonic Ideal of the woman amateur wrestler. 

Why is women's wrestling now part of the Olympics? What percentage of the U.S. women's wrestling team is made up of lesbians whose dads were high school wrestlers who didn't have any sons to push onto the mat? And what percentage of the female population is that? O.2%? 

Why does the Summer Olympics keep mindlessly replicating for women macho sports that appeal to a negligible fraction of females? In contrast, the Winter Olympics introduces swoopy new sports that more than a few women actually like, such as Snowboard Cross (here's video of the hilarious 2006 women's final), events in which women can do things they like (such as, go fast elegantly and show off, all while wearing this winter's most fashionable sports attire).

But my view that women's sports should try harder to include sports that many women would like is despicably extremist compared to the dominant push to prod a few women into competing in each and every macho sport ever invented by men for men. Where's women's sumo wrestling?

I wouldn't be surprised if someday it will become a national priority to spend a trillion dollars to build a time machine for the express purpose of going 800 years back into medieval times and establishing a Ye Olde Fair Maiden's Jousting League just so the past won't be tainted by the sexist fact that only men jousted. How can we live knowing that in 1212, there must have been some woman somewhere who wanted to joust and couldn't?

April 23, 2012

Monopoly is more fun than competition

David Brooks writes:
The Creative Monopoly 
The question got [Paypal founder and Facebook investor Peter] Thiel thinking. His thoughts are now incorporated into a course he is teaching in the Stanford Computer Science Department. (A student named Blake Masters posted outstanding notes online, and Thiel has confirmed their accuracy.) 
One of his core points is that we tend to confuse capitalism with competition. We tend to think that whoever competes best comes out ahead. In the race to be more competitive, we sometimes confuse what is hard with what is valuable. The intensity of competition becomes a proxy for value. 

It just goes to show the success of free marketeer propaganda that Brooks is struck by Thiel's point that capitalists should compete as little as possible. The basic point of modern business strategy as written down in the 1970s by Bruce Henderson and the like is to find monopolistic advantages and exploit them.
In fact, Thiel argues, we often shouldn’t seek to be really good competitors. We should seek to be really good monopolists. Instead of being slightly better than everybody else in a crowded and established field, it’s often more valuable to create a new market and totally dominate it. The profit margins are much bigger, and the value to society is often bigger, too. 
Now to be clear: When Thiel is talking about a “monopoly,” he isn’t talking about the illegal eliminate-your-rivals kind. He’s talking about doing something so creative that you establish a distinct market, niche and identity. You’ve established a creative monopoly and everybody has to come to you if they want that service, at least for a time.

Uh, actually, I think he is talking about eliminating your rivals, which used to be fairly illegal but now is less so, for reasons nobody seems to talk about much. According to the transcript, Thiel said:
Generally speaking, capitalism and competition are better seen as antonyms than as synonyms. To compete isn’t what you should set out to do. That doesn’t mean you should slack off. To succeed you probably need to work intensely. But you should work on something that others aren’t doing. That is, focus on an area that’s not zero-sum. 
Sometimes, though, you need to compete. Monopoly is the theoretical ideal that you should always pursue.

That's just Econ 101. As an example of a perfect competitor, economists always used the example of a wheat farmer, which always struck me as pretty grim. Inventing a monopoly is a lot more fun, but the real money is in holding on to the monopoly.

Thirty-years ago, I went to work for a 2-year-old firm that was the first in the world to figure out how to use supermarket checkout scanner data effectively for market research. After five years of very hard work, there were three firms in the industry, tearing each other to pieces in a price war. My boss merged our company with the richer of the two competitors for a very nice price. The Reagan Administration shot down the merger on antitrust grounds because clients like P&G complained that the two remaining firms would make higher profits by not cutting prices as fast.

That seems so 20th Century by now.

The implications of all this for, say, immigration policy are obvious, but nobody gets them.

Thiel has some good nerds v. jocks thinking:
In thinking about building good company culture, it may be helpful to dichotomize two extreme personality types: nerds and athletes. Engineers and STEM people tend to be highly intelligent, good at problem solving, and naturally non zero-sum. 
Athletes tend to be highly motivated fighters; you only win if the other guy loses. Sports can be seen as classically competitive, antagonistic, zero-sum training. 
Sometimes, with martial arts and such, the sport is literally fighting. 
Even assuming everyone is technically competent, the problem with company made up of nothing but athletes is that it will be biased towards competing. Athletes like competition because, historically, they’ve been good at it. So they’ll identify areas where there is tons of competition and jump into the fray. 
The problem with company made up of nothing but nerds is that it will ignore the fact that there may be situations where you have to fight. So when those situations arise, the nerds will be crushed by their own naiveté. 
So you have to strike the right balance between nerds and athletes.

Back in the 1990s, I pointed out that nerds v. jocks is a useful framework.

In the same lecture, another Paypal founder offers some insights into diversity:
Max Levchin:  The notion that diversity in an early team is important or good is completely wrong. You should try to make the early team as non-diverse as possible. There are a few reasons for this. The most salient is that, as a startup, you’re underfunded and undermanned. It’s a big disadvantage; not only are you probably getting into trouble, but you don’t even know what trouble that may be. Speed is your only weapon. All you have is speed.  
So how do you move fast? If you’re alone, you just work really hard and hope it’s enough. Since it often isn’t, people form teams. But in a team, an n-squared communications problem emerges. In a five-person team, there are something like 25 pairwise relationships to manage and communications to maintain. The more diverse the early group, the harder it is for people to find common ground. 
The early PayPal team was four people from the University of Illinois and two from Stanford. There was the obligatory Russian Jew, an Asian kid, and a bunch of white guys. None of that mattered. What mattered was that they were not diverse in any important way. Quite the contrary: They were all nerds. They went to good schools. (The Illinois guys had done the exact same CS curriculum.) They read sci-fi. And they knew how to build stuff. Interesting to note is that they did not know how to build stuff the right way. It turned out that scaling up would be very challenging for PayPal because the 26 year-olds who were managing hundreds of thousands of credit cards didn’t make all the optimal choices from the beginning. But there was great clarity in the early communications. There was no debate on how to build that first database. And that alone made it possible to build it.

Which ethnic leaders have followers?

A continuing question here at iSteve is whether media-proclaimed ethnic leaders actually have many followers. For example, there is little evidence that that the well-funded "Latino leaders" who get quoted in English-language newspaper articles actually have many followers. A Pew survey asked Hispanics who the most important Hispanic leader is, and 74% said Don't Know or There Isn't One. The déformation professionnelle of these synthetic Hispanic hierarchs constantly cited in the Washington Post and the New York Times claiming that the vast numbers of voters who are their followers want, above all else, more immigration is that they have their jobs only because white people with money and power look at the Census data and figure they need to get on the good side of the coming tidal wave. Not surprisingly, these spokesmodels argue, in turn, for an even bigger tidal wave to make them even more employable in the ethnic leadership racket.

There actually are leaders who in the spring of 2006 turned out hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants to march through the streets of big cities: they turned out to be funny drive-time disk jockeys on Spanish-language radio stations. But the English-language press hasn't wanted to go there, for several obvious reasons. And there's little evidence that English-speaking Latinos even know whose these disk jockeys are. Plus, the funny DJs haven't been able to think of much of anything for their listeners to do as a follow-up. The May Day marches of 2006 featuring vast throngs waving Mexican flags were a political disaster that helped sink amnesty in 2006, and weren't repeated in 2007. 

And, in Florida, there are, most definitely, Cuban leaders, whom you don't want to cross, as Ozzie Guillen recently discovered. 

In contrast, African-Americans have lots of leaders who they really do seem to enjoy sort of following, at least as long as they are being entertaining. Rev. Jesse Jackson has lost a little off his fastball 44 years after he waved the bloody shirt, but, 25 years after Tawana Brawley, Rev. Al Sharpton can still bring the heat, as the Trayvon case shows. When the anti-Semitic Louis Farrakhan called for a Million Man March in 1995 and gave a speech about numerology, there was much snickering in the press about how the crowd wasn't anywhere close to a million. Then, however, people started looking at the pictures of the crowd Farrakhan had conjured up and ... holy moly, I don't know what a million men looks like, but that was a big crowd. 

Among the Marchers, for example, was Barack Obama, who took time to fly from Chicago to Washington for the October 16, 1995 event. His mother died of cancer three weeks later on November 7, 1995, unvisited by Obama. Dying mother or Minister Farrakhan: who is more important to an aspiring black politician?

Plus, there are lots of local black leaders, such as Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who do pretty well for themselves. For instance, U.S. Senator Barack Obama donated $52,770 to Wright's church in the 2005-07 tax years.

Moreover, black leaders have a credible weapon that other groups don't have: As Tom Wolfe pointed out over 40 years ago in Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, they profit by playing the riot card, by claiming to be the only thing holding their followers back from burning down the cities again. That doesn't mean that "black leaders" actually can keep blacks from doing bad things. As Wolfe noted in 1970:
Every time there was a riot, whites would call on "Negro leaders" to try to cool it, only to find out that the Negro leaders didn't have any followers. They sent Martin Luther King into Chicago and the people ignored him. They sent Dick Gregory into Watts and the people hooted at him and threw beer cans. During the riot in Hunters Point, the mayor of San Francsco, John Shelley, went into Hunters Point with the only black member of the Board of Supervisors, and the brothers threw rocks at both of them. They sent in the middle-class black members of the Human Rights Commission, and the brothers laughed at them and called them Toms. Then they figured the leadership of the riot was "the gangs," so they went in the "ex-gang leaders" from groups like Youth for Service to make a "liaison with the key gang leaders." What they didn't know was that Hunters Point and a lot of ghettos were so disorganized, there weren't even any "key gangs," much less "key gang leaders," in there. That riot finally just burnt itself out after five days, that was all.

So, perhaps its most useful to think of "black leaders" as being more like "rock stars" than as powerful in the sense of getting followers to do things they don't want to do. In 1978, Ted Nugent could get 300,000 white people to show up in one spot and hold their lighters up, but Ted's personal dislike of drugs didn't seem to have much effect on them. Similarly, Rev. Al has had made many admirable criticisms over the years of the message of hip-hop to young black males, but you can't make much of a living doing that. Deep down, Rev. Al disapproves Trayvon Martin's Twitter handle, but where's the money in that?

In any case, the rock star concept is helpful in thinking about the various Ford Foundation-funded Latino leaders who are so frequently quoted in the national press: how high would you have to get to think of any of them as rock stars?

The most interesting, complicated, and (of course) least discussed case are Jewish leaders. Unlike with Mexicans, there is a lot of talent, a lot of organizational skill, and a lot of money available.

There are, of course, numerous overt Jewish leaders, such as Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, whom you don't want to cross.

As we've seen with illegal immigration, where Jewish-Americans tend to agree more with their fellow American citizens than with their self-designated leaders, the bad habits of self-appointed Jewish leaders shouldn't be blindly imputed to their putative followers. The déformation professionnelle of Jewish leaders is particularly obvious. As Israel's quasi-governmental Jewish People Policy Institute recently noted:
“World Jewry today is at a historical zenith of absolute wealth creation. … one can say that Jewish wealth is higher than almost any other ethnic group worldwide.”

You may have noticed, however, that you haven't heard much about the JPPI, compared to, say, the SPLC. Realism doesn't sell. Fear and loathing are proven moneymakers, as the SPLC's quarter of a billion dollars in assets proves. To make a nice living in a Jewish organization, you don't need to appeal to the rationality of most American Jews, you just need to tap into the emotions of a few rich ones.

You'll notice that the SPLC is not an overtly Jewish organization. Theoretically, it is supposed to fight Souther Poverty, but it never seems to employ many blacks in important positions.

But, I want to talk here about an even more "informal sector" of Jewish leadership: the spontaneous billionaire Jewish avengers who sometimes suddenly spring up to ruin the the livelihoods of public figures pour l'encouragement des autres.

With about 35% of the Forbes 400 Jewish as of 2009, a Jewish leader can be his one and only own follower and still have a major impact.

For example, in 2003, center-left pundit Gregg Easterbrook wrote one sentence on his blog at Marty Peretz's New Republic implying that Jewish executives have a lot of power in the entertainment industry and should avoid making ultra-violent movies. Now, you might think that being pals with Marty Peretz would mean you are safe from accusations of anti-Semitism. Moreover, Easterbrook's big brother Frank Easterbrook is a heavyweight federal judge, currently the chief judge of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, so, I, personally, would hesitate before shoving around a member of the Easterbrook clan.

But, Easterbrook was immediately fired from his other job as a columnist for ESPN by Disney CEO Michael Eisner.

The general response was that Easterbrook had it coming. How dare he claim Jews are influential within the media? CNN anchorman Rick Sanchez suffered the same fate in 2010. (And here's how Sanchez's career was going a year later.)

As an influential 20th century Jewish thinker once pointed out, "With great power comes great responsibility."

Except when it doesn't.

This is not to say that there isn't much criticism of Jews by other Jews on an ad hoc basis, especially over Israel (especially motivated by the Likud-Republican Party connection), but, domestically, there are two things lacking:

A). The notion that there bad habits that Jews are prone to (e.g., insisting that the crucially important policy issue of immigration be viewed only through the lens of Ellis Island kitsch) is off limits even to Jewish critics. For example, if you read one centrist Jewish blogger for years like I have, it's not hard to imagine that he has an unarticulated thought that goes something like this: "People like me have a whole lot of power in 21st Century America, and we seem to be prone to certain bad habits, certain patterns of shortcomings, so I should be on the lookout for individual abuses by rich and powerful Jews, because nobody else seems to have noticed these patterns." But that's just my guess. I don't recall him ever publicly enunciating such an admirable concept. Presumably it would be incredibly dangerous to his career to say such a thing, despite being Jewish himself.

B). For gentiles, you can raise your estimate of the dangers by an order of magnitude.