Monday, February 16, 2015

Perservering in Poverty: America's Weird Fetish for Bootstrap Narratives

If there's one thing we love in America, it's the idea that any of us can succeed if we just work hard enough. Sheer determination (and some natural talent) will be enough for us to achieve our wildest dreams if we just persevere. We hold up success stories of people starting from nothing and working their way up as proof that the world is fair and hard work does pay off--stories like Stephen King and JK Rowling, who started with nothing but wrote in their spare time working shit jobs and just scraping enough together to make end's meet until they suddenly found success after all their hard work.

One of our most famous and foundational American legends exemplifies this: the wealthy Andrew Carnegie started from nothing and eventually became one of the wealthiest men in America. When it comes to rags-to-riches stories, Carnegie is a staple for American lore.

The "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" mentality is so pervasive in America that politicians still engage in a "log cabin" campaigns all the time. "The Log Cabin Campaign" was a legit campaign run by William Henry Harrison against Martin Van Buren. Since ol' Willy was so old, the Van Buren campaign cracked that he'd be more likely to retire and just hang out in his log cabin. From this Harrison built a campaign around the concept that he was just another poor American living in a log cabin, that he came from poor folks and understood the day-to-day struggle of making end's meet well--which was a line of bullshit because he came from wealthy planters. Meanwhile, because Martin Van Buren had a successful government job, they painted him a being rich and out of touch.

Since that one campaign, it seems like every politician does some sort of variation of the log cabin campaign. If you watched the 2015 State of the Union Address, you probably saw the Republican rebuttal, where Joni Ernst talked about growing up poor.
"You see, growing up, I had only one good pair of shoes. So on rainy school days, my mom would slip plastic bread bags over them to keep them dry. But I was never embarrassed, because the school bus would be filled with rows and rows of young Iowans with bread bags slipped over their feet."
Marco Rubio expressed similar sentiments the year before, and Mitt Romney, presidential candidate with a net worth of $250,000,000, even tried to make his beginnings sound more humble than they were. Ann Romney once described their financial situation when they were first starting out thusly (emphasis mine): "We had no income except the stock we were chipping away at. We were living on the edge, not entertaining.”

While there's not necessarily anything wrong with bootstrap narratives--they're inspiring and push people to work hard to achieve things, and drive is something everyone should have--it also leads to stupid thinking and stupid policies in America. This same "work hard to make it on your own" mentality leads to gutting public aid programs like food stamps, disability, healthcare for the underprivileged, and money for those that have lost their jobs.

The bootstrap narrative operates under the assumption that we live in a just world where your hard work is rewarded and other people's hardships are because of something they did to deserve it. Every poor person is someone that didn't budget correctly. Every person massively in debt used their credit cards stupidly and frivolously.

Some Americans (particularly, right-wing Americans) are so obsessed with the idea that you can make it on your own that Fox News has run several segments demonizing poor people joke...having a refrigerator and a DVD player. But if someone is receiving any financial help from the government, it seems they're not supposed to use any of their income on anything except the most basic, vital things. Any of those small things that could be considered "luxuries," like having a coffee maker, are proof that poor people are gaming the system. (See the Daily Shows and Colbert Report segments responding to this.)

President Obama received a ridiculous amount of flak from the right when he made the statement that business owners didn't build their businesses completely on their own.
"There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t — look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. (Applause.) 
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet."
Because of our beliefs that the universe is just and if you work hard enough, you can become wildly successful, we are loathe to help those in need with any government provided subsidies. Unemployment and food stamps are laughable in how almost ineffectual they are. If you lose your job and have a family, you are fucked. After my parents divorced, my mom struggled for years with money, and I recall times both when she was on unemployment and food stamps. There were a lot of times that she skipped eating so we could have enough. Which isn't to say that people refuse unemployment and food stamps. You take what you can where you can get it. But it wasn't nearly enough.

There's this perception that food stamps, welfare, unemployment, disability are all abused by moochers to get money and free stuff without having to work. Fox News constantly runs scary stories about people abusing these things, like the time someone bought lobster with their food stamps.

That's also not the entirety of the story. As NPR reports:

"Greenslate's benefit amounts to about $2.19 per meal, a calculation based on three meals a day.

As an able-bodied person under age 50, and with no apparent dependents, the San Diego surfer-musician would qualify among a group of Americans who became eligible for food stamps as part of the 2009 stimulus package.

Those who were newly qualified under the stimulus because of low income or unemployment now make up about 10 percent of the 48 million food stamp recipients. (The program is now known as SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.)

Nearly 90 percent of recipients have a dependent, whether a child, a senior citizen or someone with a disability." (Emphasis mine.)

Sure, there are people that abuse those relief programs. I've known some. But the fact is, these benefits help far more people than abuse them, and even that help isn't much. We could do more. And as the Daily Show showed, people that receive this help, when it's done right, work hard to no longer need the benefits. True, some people stay on them perpetually, but that's usually more about the half-assed "help" than the person's work ethic. (See this Cracked article.)

Recently the news got all in a tizzy about James Robertson, a man in Detroit that walks 21 FUCKING MILES ROUND TRIP JUST TO GET TO AND FROM WORK. The media painted this man as the kind of inspiring American bootstraps story we've grown to love. He's been walking to and from work for ten years. He has no social life. Literally his entire existence is get up, go to work, come home, sleep for a few hours, do it again. Several news articles describe him as sleep deprived, and he describes that he mostly can do it by binging on large amounts of caffeine.

It's sickening that people hold this man up as some kind of ideal situation, some sort of personification of the American Work Ethic. I'm not saying the man doesn't deserve praise. He is a fucking bad ass doing what he has to do. But the fact that he has to do it is near goddamned criminal.

His boss is a perfect example of the kind of unreasonable standards that America puts on our work force. From the Detroit Free Press: '"I set our attendance standard by this man," says Todd Wilson, plant manager at Schain Mold & Engineering. "I say, if this man can get here, walking all those miles through snow and rain, well I'll tell you, I have people in Pontiac 10 minutes away and they say they can't get here — bull!"'

Think about that for a moment. The manager decided that this man with his almost comically abysmal situation, is the metric that we should measure all work attendance. While Robertson's dedication is admirable, the poor man's situation is called DESPERATION. If this job is literally all you have, and the only thing you can do to keep the roof over your head, you'll do a lot of goddamned extreme things to make sure you don't lose it. But that shouldn't be used as the example for how we all should behave. Expecting people to go to such lengths is unreasonable.

Put it this way, if a tree falls and crushes someone to the ground, do we expect that person to saw their own arm off like that guy in 127 Hours, or is it reasonable to assume that we'll call an ambulance or the fire department to get that person free?

The boy that started the campaign to get the man a car is good. It's nice. That person did something nice for someone else, and we need more of that in this world. But it doesn't fix the systemic problem we have of people living in the kind of desperate poverty that would sound like something from the Onion if it weren't completely true. And it doesn't fix the systemic bias we have toward people that are struggling to survive.

What if we found out that he was in this situation because he made bad choices? What if he got here because he was frivolous with his money once upon a time? Should everyone that donated to him demand their money back because it turns out he was human? That kind of social Darwinism is the kind of bullshit you see paraded out whenever we discuss helping the poor, and it's cruel. People make mistakes. It says something when many people's concepts of societal justice come straight from the pages of A Christmas Carol.
``At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge,'' said the gentleman, taking up a pen, ``it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.'' 
``Are there no prisons?'' asked Scrooge. 
``Plenty of prisons,'' said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
``And the Union workhouses?'' demanded Scrooge. ``Are they still in operation?'' 
``They are. Still,'' returned the gentleman, `` I wish I could say they were not.'' 
``The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?'' said Scrooge. 
``Both very busy, sir.'' 
``Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,'' said Scrooge. ``I'm very glad to hear it.'' 
``Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,'' returned the gentleman, ``a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?'' 
``Nothing!'' Scrooge replied. 
``You wish to be anonymous?'' 
``I wish to be left alone,'' said Scrooge. ``Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.'' 
``Many can't go there; and many would rather die.'' 
``If they would rather die,'' said Scrooge, ``they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides -- excuse me -- I don't know that.'' 
``But you might know it,'' observed the gentleman. 
``It's not my business,'' Scrooge returned. ``It's enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people's. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!'
We, as Americans, need to start recognizing that Robertsons' situation isn't acceptable. There are many people like him that need help, and we should start providing it. We also need to recognize that when we accept situations like James Robertson, eventually those in power will eventually decide that situations like Robertson's aren't an example of the indomitable human spirit, but rather a norm that all workers should strive to meet. They will start pointing to the James Robertons as examples for why you should be doing more to help yourself. And if you can't...well...maybe you need to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. This is America. We make it on our own.
“It’s alright to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Oh Those Salad Days of Youth

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I love Fall Out Boy.

Sssshh. I don't want to hear it. You can bag on them all you want. I've been a fan of them for ten years now, and I've dealt with a lot of shit from people poo-pooing my favorite band.

What do I like about Fall Out Boy, hypothetical reader I'm using to fuel points for my blog post? I'm glad you asked.

I genuinely dig Patrick Stump's voice. Yes, it's high, but he has some really impressive range when he shows it off. They play in a genre of alternative rock that was popular when I was in high school, so that sound will always be associated with my youth and my formative years for music. And their lyrics. Good God, I love their lyrics. Their lyrics could elevate otherwise average sounding songs to really good and really good songs to extraordinary. They were often darkly funny, arrogant, poetic, and to listen to.

But wait, I hear my hypothetical reader I'm using to fuel my blog post say, why are you using past tense? They just put out a new album.


It's not that their new album sucks...necessarily.

Look, man. I'm just gonna admit, Fall Out Boy is a weak point for me. I'll listen to whatever they put out and not give a fuck. I'm sorry. I'm only a weak human. But yes, their newest album is...rough.

I first started listening to FOB when I was a sophomore in high school. From Under the Cork Tree had just come out, and the cynical, snide lyrics and defiant declaration that NO ONE UNDERSTANDS ME was exactly the headspace I was in at the time. But the album was good. Damn good. Good guitars, good lyrics. Very good.

Their follow up was good, but didn't quite hit my jackpot button like the previous one did. Don't get me wrong, I really liked it, and listened to it incessantly, but Infinity on High somehow didn't quite capture something that Cork Tree did. (I didn't know Take this to Your Grave existed for years, and when I found out, I just...didn't ever get around to listen to it. I know, I'm terrible.) But still, Infinity was a good album, it just didn't have quite the personal resonance that their previous album did.

Then Folie A Deux came. That album was goddamned amazing in my opinion. On the one hand, it was a pretty big departure from their previous efforts. You couldn't really hear their punk-ish tones anymore. But that was okay because the lyrics were still there (I'm coming apart at the seams / pitching myself for leads in other people's dreams / now / Doc, there's a hole where something was / Doc there's a hole where something was). And the music was still there, but it had become something even more. It was more complex, more blended, more interesting, a blend of the guitars-and-drums sound they had before now with pianos, brass horns, choirs. You could hear some of this in Infinity on High, but in my opinion, they perfected it in Folie.

Then they broke up. I was sad, but, I mean, every band breaks up eventually. Or they keep touring to the point where it's embarrassing. So I was okay. And Andy Hurley and Joe Trohman went on to play in The Damned Things, which was different but AWESOME.

When they got back together, I was nervous. I enjoyed their new single at first, but the more I listened to it, the more I felt like it was all build up and no pay off. Before, they would have used that darker, slightly slower sound to build up to some bombastic amazing chorus or bridge. But instead, what you hear is pretty much what you get. And the lyrics were very repetitive--although I did like the sort of glam-rock "I'm on FIIIIIIIIIIIIRE" scream.

One thing that was apparent in Save Rock N' Roll...they were definitely shooting for a more poppy sound.

Except for "Rat a Tat," which I can't listen to because Courtney Love ruins that song--not because she's Courtney Love, but because I swear to God it sounds like she loses time with the music and they couldn't bring themselves to say, "Can we try that one again, ma'am?"--I've listened to Save Rock N' Roll a lot. If old FOB were titling the album--the FOB that titled their first album Fall Out Boy's Evening Out With Your Girlfriend--they would have titled it Fall Out Boy Tries Their Hand at Popular Musical Styles or something of the like. It feels like a snapshot of pop-music sounds from the early 2010's. But it didn't really have a consistent sound, and as Emma Maree pointed out on Twitter, it sounds like bored experimenting.

So where does that leave their new album, American Beauty/American Psycho? Well...

There are some stand out songs, as usual: "Centuries" is pretty close to Folie FOB, blending rock sounds and piano in a haunting cry for immorality. "Novocaine" has classic FOB lyrics: "If you knew / knew what the bluebirds sing at you / you would never sing along." And I dig "Twin Skeletons" for it's more alt-rock vibe that FOB used to be known for.

There are other songs I enjoy on the album, but what struck me as I listened to the album is how generic a lot of it sounds. "Favorite Record" could be by anyone making music right now. There's no trademark or innovation that makes me think "Fall Out Boy." "Jet Pack Blues" has some promise--I love a dark, bluesy sound, and Stump warbling in his lower register--but the chorus is literally just "Baby...come home!" It sounds like something rejected by N'Sync. And "Fourth of July" compares young love to fireworks...just...really? And then there's, "In between being young and being right / you were my Versailles at night." Ugh.

Like I said, I listen to and love Fall Out Boy. I've listened to this album over and over and over. I like Patrick Stumps vocals, I like to sing along, and there are little flashes of good in this. For a pop album, it's not bad. It's catchy, and better than a lot of dreck that plays on the radio anymore. But ultimately, I was really disappointed. Each album they've released since their break up has made me appreciate their previous albums more and more. Infinity on High is no longer my least that's something.

What I hope these past two albums means is that they're experimenting, and they'll eventually find their footing. If I were to describe American Beauty/American Psycho in a word it would be: loud. In a phrase: generic, with flashes of brilliance. I hope they can work through whatever they're working through, and I hope their next album really surprises me. When 5 Seconds of Summer does your sound better than you need to think about what you're doing and maybe re-evaluate.

*puts on headphones* *blasts Folie A Deux*

Monday, February 2, 2015

Horror: America vs. Everyone Else

Image from: Wikipedia
[About halfway through the post I start talking about the endings of horror movies, and talk in detail about several of them. I've marked that happens, so you should be safe to read everything up until then, but if you don't want to chance it...y''s your warning.]

Over the weekend, my wife, my brother, and I rented the movie The Babadook, a little indie horror flick that had been catching lots of attention among the people I follow on Twitter. After seeing the trailer, we all decided it was worth a watch.

The short of it is: yes, it was. It was awesome. Very effective. Very well done. The pacing was great, the acting was brilliant, and it had a smart script.

Watching The Babadook, though, made me think about one of my favorite movies to come out of the past few years: Oculus. Eventually, I started thinking about horror movies in general, and the similarities and differences, especially depending on the country of origin.

If you only fish in one hole, you never know what other kinds of things you can catch, and the same goes with whatever media you consume. If you only ever watch American Horror movies, you may never be exposed to some really interesting horror concepts. In that vein, I've been trying to watch more movies from outside of the US.

The Babadook and Oculus are very similar movies. Both deal with some supernatural thing haunting heroines, both are combined mostly to one house, and both deal with experiences in the past haunting the main characters. In The Babadook, the main character's husband dies in a car crash on the way to the hospital while she's in labor with her son. In Oculus, it's the main character's brother killing their dad after he goes nuts and murders their mother.

What I found interesting was the differences in the execution of the scares. With Oculus, while a fantastic movie, there was still a bit of that American JUMP/LOUDMUSIC/AAAAH scares that don't really add much to the movie. Oculus, thankfully, is much better about that than most American horror movies of late, but it's still there some. Meanwhile, The Babadook doesn't really have that. Most of the scares in that film are less INYOURFACE and more subtle. It's unsettling sounds, eerie noises, disturbing imagery that leads into something actually happening.

One example of what I'm talking about is a scene in which the main character is watching TV. She almost looks bored, and she casually glances over to see her son lying on the ground with his throat slashed open. She stands up and starts to panic and cry. When her son calls for her, she snaps out of it, realizing that he's actually, okay, but that she does appear to be approaching him with a knife in her hand.

All of this is done with no music, which makes the cut to her son's slashed throat almost more unsettling. All you have going on is the terrible image on screen the mother's horror at what she thinks she's done. A quiet moment of horror. Contrast that with any number of similar scenes in US horror. The scene would have cut to the boy, and there would have been an explosion of strings or horns toning and clashing and creating a great noise. Probably a loud crash or flash sound effect as well when the delusion ended. US horror doesn't seem to have confidence that you'll understand that this is horrific, the music seems to be there to remind, THIS IS SCARY, DON'T YOU SEE THIS IS SCARY???


Now, let's talk about narrative for a second because The Babadook does something very interesting with their ending.

US horror movies ending the same a lot of the time. The supernatural horror outwits the heroes, either by deceiving them into thinking they've beaten it and going into hiding only to appear later to surprise the audience, or--as in Oculus--the supernatural horror outwits the heroes and leads to their immediate downfall or demise. US horror movies often end on a down note, as if to say, you can win the battle, but you can't win the war. These things will always come for you. The Possession ends with one of the awesome helpful side characters being killed in a "random" accident that clearly the supernatural enemy orchestrated. Sinister ends with the supernatural enemy following the characters to their next home. Oculus ends with the mirror causing the brother to accidentally murder his own sister.

None of these are bad endings. They're just very similar in how the supernatural thing is dealt with. And it's understandable to a point. Afterall, the characters in these movies are only humans. How on Earth can you defeat something science doesn't even recognize as existing? Freddy Krueger can't be beaten because he's magical--he goes beyond the realm of natural law. And evil always exists, so you get my point. The downer endings where the baddie ultimately gets the upper hand makes sense.

However, The Babadook doesn't do this. I don't know if it's just because it's a very clever movie, or if it's significant because of Australian culture. I'm not sure. But in The Babadook, the main character sort-of defeats the monster, but doesn't utterly destroy it. In fact, they come to a sort-of living arrangement, almost keeping the Babadook as a very dangerous pet. They dig up worms in the garden, and the mother goes down into the basement where the Babadook has taken up residence and feeds it.

But it's not all neatly checked boxes either. While she clearly intimidates the creature in the climactic battle, when she goes down into the basement to feed the creature, it rushes up at her, gets in her face, nearly knocking her over. It intimidates her as well. She has to smooth-talk it, soothe it. Keep it calm. She has learned to live with the evil, to co-exist, but this balance is delicate, and there's very little, if anything at all, from stopping the creature from killing her and her son.

Obviously, this ending can be a metaphor for learning to live and cope with any number of dark things that really plague people in the real world, from chronic pain, to depression, to any other hardship. But the fact that the monster doesn't exactly get the upper hand, and isn't defeated, is very interestingly gray.

I also would like to mention another movie I saw a while back. As I said, I'm trying to watch more foreign films. My first real foray into this was a Chinese horror movie called Dumplings.

The movie's description on Netflix did not tell me what it was actually about, however, just based on the fact that it was a horror movie called "Dumplings" I assumed cannibalism of some kind. And I wasn't wrong. But it's execution was much different than I expected.

The movie is about an aging actress who seeks out help from a mysterious woman who claims to be able to reverse her aging and make her stay young through a change in diet--eating her special recipe dumplings.

The most fascinating thing about this movies was the execution of the "twist." The secret to her dumplings, the thing that keeps her and the main character youthful, is that she uses aborted fetuses. (Yes, I know, gross, but...I IS a horror movie, guys.) This obviously has a special connection in China due to the "one child rule" that was effective for so long. (I'm not sure if it still is or not? The movie seemed to imply that it no longer was.) What was interesting was this is revealed right up front, from the start of the movie, and not just to the audience. The main character knows exactly what she's doing when she goes to this woman for dumplings.

Narratively, it follows a pattern that you would expect: she eats some, gets a little younger, discovers unexpected and bothersome complications, but ultimately becomes dependent on them and will do anything to eat them again, at great personal risk. But in the US, the actual reveal of what was in the dumplings would have been saved for the end. She'd stumble onto the woman chopping up the ingredients and panic and vomit or pass out or something. There'd be an explosion of music, the woman would go into hysterics, the film would possibly fade to black. Not here. She does sneak into the kitchen and peek into the process at one point, and she does get nauseous and try to flee, but since we all knew what was going on from the start, the focus of the scene isn't on the horror of what's being done, necessarily, but the woman's reaction to the horror.

Ultimately, while a little slow, I actually really enjoyed Dumplings, even if the ending sort of just...stops. I guess that's not fair, since the movie sets the main character up as continuing the dumpling-making thing for herself, but very few of the other arcs are really wrapped up so the movie feels like it just sort of goes, "Okay, you get the idea. CREDITS!"

But, as I said, I enjoyed it. It was interesting to see how another culture interprets and makes horror metaphors out of their own cultural trappings. For a similar example of this (in audio form) for British culture, I recommend listening to "Lost in the Fog" by J.D. Beresford on Pseudopod. Alasdair Stuart explains the relationship of that story to British culture in a way that I never would have realized if it hadn't been pointed out, since I'm not a part of that culture.

Ultimately, I'm hoping to find some good quality foreign horror to both learn what other cultures find scary, and to see what other cultures emphasize: the horror of eating fetuses vs. watching a woman deal with her choices emotionally after seeing something she knew but hadn't SEEN; defeating an evil only to have it one-up you later vs. learning to coexist with the evil; slow quiet dread vs. surprise.

Do you have any foreign horror films you like and would recommend? Leave a comment. I'd love suggestions.