Saturday, March 28, 2009

Political Correctness: An Evolving History

I remember the first time I heard the term "African-American." No I don't. But I do remember my reaction to it. I thought it was a fantastic development. What a great step forward to refer to people by their history rather than by their skin color. I sensed a movement underway, a step in the right moral direction.

Then, before you knew it, the backlash emerged and branded this new language as "political correctness." I in turn branded the backlash people as "respect-challenged." (Not really, but I should have thought of it.)

As time went by--and hyphens became downright fashionable--a strange thing happened: I actually started to sympathize with the backlashers. This new terminological movement no longer moved toward the truth; it obfuscated against it. I found myself increasingly receptive to the comedians who exposed it as the domain of the human nature-denying academic bourgeoisie. "Hey, let's be honest, when we make a distinction about race, we really are talking about race. Isn't it dishonest to pretend we're talking about history when we really are talking about skin color?" I had to admit, they had a point.

But then, no sooner had I joined the anti-PC crowd that I felt compelled to switch sides again. Why? Because now I realized that every true bigot and misogynist was using "PC" as a shield against their racism and misogyny. I hesitate to think about how many Life Minutes I lost listening to idiot men on sports and political talk radio preface a comment with, "Well, I may not be the most 'politically correct' guy on the planet, but..." and then follow it up with something baldly racist or sexist. From their perspective, it was a brilliant ruse: Hey, I can say and do anything I want with no accountability, simply by being all unapologetically masculine about my hatred and/or ignorance!

Now, alas, as of one week ago, I once again find myself flirting with the other side. First, I was gently chastened for using the term "normal," when apparently "typical" is the preferred word. That's okay. If I think really hard about it, I can see that the former holds more of a value judgment than the latter. Next, I was sitting in my church, which I lovingly call Our Lady of Prius, when the band struck up "Amazing Grace." Everybody knows the words (at least to the first verse), but I nevertheless decided to glance up at the screen where they flash all song lyrics. And this is what I saw:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved someone like me.
"Someone"? "Someone"?! Excuse me, but the word is "wretch": that saved a WRETCH like me. I didn't know until now that "Amazing Grace" was written by a reformed slave trader, John Newton, and that the song may or may not have been his apologia for engaging in said profession. But it doesn't matter. Whatever this song's composer is regretting--and he's obviously writing from a state of extreme regret--he's calling himself a "wretch." A miserable person. Someone who is filled with self-loathing. It's a strong word. It's important.

You can't mess with author intent like that. You can't change self-loathing into matter-of-fact genericism. And what exactly is wrong with the word "wretch"? Is it offensive to somebody? Is there a cabal of self-proclaimed wretches out there who are both self-loathing and overly sensitive? Is there a wretch lobby that has decided to build awareness of their condition and demand more societal respect via a new microsite at

It's ridiculous. No, it's beyond ridiculous. It's shameful. In fact, it's not even politically correct. It's just incorrect... which is a PC way of saying "wrong."

- A Wretch

Friday, March 20, 2009

Totally Random

I haven't had time to keep up with this blog lately, which creates a serious lack of balance in my life. So as much as I like to make up a theme and actually put real thought into a post, right now I just need to write something besides marketing copy. Bear with me as I strike up the Randomizer.

- Tom Friedman is famous for using the term "the world is flat" in referring to globalization. What he really means is that there's a level playing field. So it's not really an original term at all. Also not original: my analysis of Tom Friedman's term.

- But speaking of that level flatness, here's what's actually flat right now: information. And it's disorienting. Go to right now and look at Latest News. We go from Ben Bernanke to Natasha Richardson to Obama to poor people to college students getting robbed on spring break to March Madness. This is supposed to be a snapshot of what's most important right now. Is a starving Bangladeshi really on the same playing field as a pick-pocketed college kid? Is a fatal head injury to one celebrity as important as global economic contraction? It's crazy. In a world where these things are treated equally, it's impossible to take anything seriously. And in a world where it's impossible to take anything seriously, it's impossible to change the world.

- On another level, I go up to my Firefox live bookmarks half a dozen times and day and click on the RSS headlines. I go from CNN to Facebook to my friend Pat Donnelly's blog. Only rarely does it occur to me how mentally out of whack this really is. I'm saying that I care equally about world events, what my friends are doing and what just ONE of my friends is thinking (don't get me wrong, Pat, I love your blog, and I hope you're reading mine, so I guess I'm part of the problem...). In a way, that's just reality. But there's something contradictory about a web browser: By leveling the information hierarchy, it actually distorts it.

Global warming is going to devastate the food and water supply in my son's lifetime, but dude, your status update was hilarious!

- I've never been one of those people who carries around a notebook and jots down novel, screenplay and song ideas. As a result, I probably lose 95 percent of my PCO (Potential Creative Output). So recently, I decided that I would use the Recorder app on my iPhone to do the equivalent thing. The damn device is practically subcutaneous at this point anyway; why not use it as a handy Dictaphone whenever an idea strikes? After two weeks, I've only remembered to do this twice. My ideas so far:

1) After seeing a billboard that implored me to "Take a YOU turn" on Hwy. 280, I recorded all those "you-ey" phrases that work in marketing because they enable navel-gazing. "Isn't it time YOU did something for YOU?" "Don't YOU need more time for YOU?" "Isn't it time people appreciated YOU for who YOU are?" These phrases make me sick, like the word "pamper." I wanted to create a fake commercial that overdid the YOU thing and made the audience share my nausea. But YOUism will never go away. (It's YOU-niversal.)

2) Two words: Bully Convention.

- There's a reason I forget about the vast majority of ideas that come into my head.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Not Normal

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Random Reviews

It's time to spew random opinions about random things. (My ratings system is based on a scale from 0-11, just to be annoyingly and self-consciously original.)

"No Line on the Horizon": U2 : 9

The sign of a truly good album is one that you don't like the first time you hear it. Such was "No Line." The first song they put on the radio ("Get on Your Boots") sounded like "Vertigo 2.0," and the first chord of the title track just hit my ear wrong. But after a few listens, something magical happens with this album. You get used to the tone, and you start hearing all those U2 trademark sounds. Edge's classic delay. Larry Mullins' 16th-note high-hat rhythm. Adam Clayton's bulky bass. And Bono singing as well as he has in years. But here's the thing. Unlike "Atomic Bomb," which was hailed early (and erroneously) as the band's best album, this one doesn't try to be liked. "Atomic Bomb" is filled with great songs, but it tries to reach epic proportions on every track. There's no relief, and that gets exhausting. "All That You Can't Leave Behind" was a great album, but it didn't seem cohesive. "No Line" is mature and developed without being dispassionate or overly produced. It's really the best "best of" U2 collection, because it somehow combines best sounds of "October," "Unforgettable Fire," "Joshua Tree" and "Achtung Baby" while still coming across as its own thing. My advice for the Dublin lads: Keeping working with Brian Eno, and keep choosing new locations for recording (this one was recorded largely in Morocco).

"The Sound and the Fury": William Faulkner: 10

A brilliantly written novel. I have no idea what happened.

The Coffee I'm Drinking Right Now: Starbucks: 7

I might be a victim of their marketing, but the Pike Place roast that Starbucks has been barista'ing out for about a year now does seem to be smooth and well-balanced. Nothing compared to a Sumatra at Kopplin's, however.

"I'm Not There": Todd Haynes: 4

This might be one of the only movies on DVD that I don't finish. I'm a big Dylan fan. I'm fluent in his life story. After hearing an interview with writer/director Todd Haynes months ago, I liked him and was eager to see this project. But it just goes to prove how fascinating it is to watch an ambitious experiment that doesn't work. Individual performances are good. I winced the first time Cate Blanchett opened her mouth, but after that, she sold me completely. The problem is that the film doesn't know what it wants to be. Some parts are serious. Others seem satirical, especially with Julianne Moore's obvious Joan Baez character. And other parts are trippy for being trippy's sake (an animated whale sequence comes to mind), which is incredibly annoying. The idea of splitting Dylan's character is inspired. But why pretend that each character--and so many other people--have different names? The Beatles are "The Beatles," but Joan Baez is "Alice Fabian." Why? I'm sure there's a reason in Todd Haynes' mind, but it doesn't matter. Mixing reality, magical realism and trippy trippyism is a little like making peanut butter soup.

"Froggy Style": Salut: 9

Salut on Grand was a pleasant surprise. Don't confuse it for a French restaurant. This is Minnesota. But in a way, that comes as a relief. If you go, order the sweet potato wantons as an appetizer. And if you don't hate gin, order a "froggy style:" Hendrick's gin, mint, sugar and cucumber--as girly as a drink can be and still be manly.

My Son's Newest Drawings: James Kelley Conklin: 10

On Friday, he drew a serious of pictures in marker accompanied by just one word: "Famous." One shows a small muscle man holding up a huge trunkless elephant in a cage. The colors and the web-like pattern of the cage remind you instantly of Spider-Man. But there's something about the image accompanied by the word "Famous"... it's oddly fashionable. I'd put it on a T-shirt try to start a trend if I were capable of starting a trend.

"Mad Men": Matthew Weiner: 11

If I continue this "RR" series, I'm simply going to end every segment with this review. Because "Mad Men" will go down as one of the greatest shows in the history of television, and I won't rest until everybody gets hooked on it. Get Season One on DVD. Trust me.

Monday, March 2, 2009

LangAlert: "On the Milk Carton"

So I was watching something pretending to be a Notre Dame basketball game tonight, in which the Fighting (hah!) Irish lost to Villanova at home, virtually guaranteed that the preseason #7 team wouldn't even make March Madness, and (most important) continued to make a mockery of my on-the-record prediction of their greatness.

One thing did make the game memorable, however, when midway through the second half one of the announcers described a player by saying, "He's been on the milk carton much of the season."

On the milk carton? It took a few seconds, but then I got it. "On the milk carton," as in "missing," as in "missing in action," as in "riding the pine," as in "sitting on the bench."

I'm usually open to a twisted sense of humor, as evidenced by one of my recent Conk Creative videos that prompted a complaint email from PETA. But "on the milk carton"? I'm sorry, guys, but that just ain't right.