Wednesday, January 30, 2013

What I Learned as a Boy Scout

When I was a kid, I was a Cub Scout for a couple of years. This meant that my father had to endure countless hours of nonsensical merit badge ceremonies, and partake in embarrassing uniformed scouting activities. I think he enjoyed camping, and especially building things in the garage. After all, he was a mechanical engineer, and he was probably tired of designing airplanes. Assembling pinewood derbies, a.k.a. blocks of wood with plastic wheels, was probably more stimulating for his talented mechanical mind than flight-testing commercial airplanes.

What I learned from the Cub Scouts was how to find the easiest way to fulfill the requirements of a program. I became adept at scanning through the activity badge requirements, and identifying how to earn the badges with little, or no effort. Other than that, I don't remember much of being a Cub Scout.

After I aced all the Cub Scout exams with flying colors and earned my Arrow of Light, it was time to move on to bigger and better things. And, logically the next step was to become a Boy Scout. If things went well in the Boy Scouts then... unfortunately that would be the end of the road. My shortsighted kid-brain couldn't see that far into the future, but luckily my brother jumped on the miserable wagon and we both became Boy Scouts together.

My brother and I went to school all day, while our father worked. On every Monday evening, the three of us grudgingly attended a weekly Boy Scout Troop meeting in the basement of a nearby church. The Monday meetings were unexceptional and nauseatingly boring. We essentially acted out our roles in an imaginary rank system. Our Boy Scout Troop was divided into groups, and we sat at separate tables, while the older 'leader' scouts marched us through their uninspired agendas. They talked about issues like camping, scouting principles, and sometimes they recited fabricated Native American traditions. Occasionally we did things like pick up used Christmas trees and recycle them for $25, repaint the church that held out weekly meetings (a form of rent), and go camping.

To be honest, I don't know how my father endured of all of it, unless he was secretly drunk; I doubt it, but for his sake, I hope so. I'm pretty sure that some of the other dads were alcoholics, so it goes without saying that they were probably well-sauced.

In retrospect, I came to realize that the the purpose of the Boy Scouts is to facilitate the transition from a carefree childhood into the rigid hierarchical world of adults. It was probably useful for kids who love power structures, and aspired to be corporate goons, or join the police or military. For assholes like me, I learned that I don't respect people who aspire to become authority figures, and that the Boy Scouts is basically an after school program for kids who are not athletically gifted, or who have a track record of minor offenses and have concerned parents.

The Boy Scouts is a right-wing organization, which means that they don't approve of homosexuality,  religious diversity, etc. As kids, we didn't realize that anyone else was excluded from the group, because no one told us. People who weren't like us may have joined other organizations, like the Girl Scouts, where they did equally ridiculous things like sell cookies to cover the massive administrative costs of the Girl Scouts of America. As far as diversity is concerned, like I said, we existed in a foggy bubble, oblivious to that "wooden ship called 'Diversity'" outside.

Although I am surprised, and relieved that the Boy Scouts is considering lifting their ban on gay children, this just exposes the heel-dragging process of change within an overtly right-wing conservative organization. Regardless of your personal identity, I don't recommend joining the Boy Scouts, or subjecting your children to it, unless you love conformity, and/or arguing with other parents about who will lead the automobile caravan to the next camping site. Other than that, I doubt you'll become enlightened to anything interesting, or become a more wholesome person.

I eventually earned the rank of "First Class" scout, which means I fulfilled a handful of easy, bullshit requirements. I never made it any further, because so many of the merit badges required either running, or studying; two activities that I loathe. I'm pretty sure that my brother ascended the ranks a little further than I did. I know that my father earned his Eagle Scout (before his 18th birthday), but owing to a family move, his application was postmarked just past his 18th birthday, so they screwed him out of his rank.

In my Boy Scout Troop, the dads were all miserable, and their conflicts with one another eventually spiraled them into a neverending bitchfest. The kids were bored, and looking for new ways to start fires with gasoline. Someone must have alerted us that disaster was imminent, because several of us simultaneously threw in the towel, and we found better things to do with our Mondays and weekends.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Straight Stars Steal the Spotlight

I recently read that actor Michael Douglas will be portraying singer-pianist, Liberace, in a made-for-HBO film, and that Matt Damon will portray his lover, Scott Thorson ( I also read that Sacha Baron Cohen is slated to portray singer, Freddie Mercury, of the legendarily awesome rock band, Queen in an upcoming biopic ( While I applaud these exceptionally talented actors for their openness and willingness to play characters of different sexual-orientations than themselves, I find the casting decisions to be a bit disappointing.

Hollywood is aware of the close-minded conservatism of American audiences, and for this reason, they are unwilling to cast openly homosexual actors in heterosexual roles (with a few notable exceptions: Neil Patrick Harris, Zachary Quinto). Hollywood studios do not believe that mainstream audiences will accept homosexual actors portraying heterosexual characters. They expect that making such casting choices would result in a lesser box office draw. From a strictly financial perspective, this makes sense, because money is all they really care about anyways. However, I do not understand why homosexual characters are predominantly portrayed by heterosexual actors.

To illustrate the history of this phenomena, below is a shortlist of heterosexual actors, and the respective films in which they portrayed homosexual characters (from here:
  • Robert Redford, Inside Daisy Clover (1965) (Golden Globe Nomination)
  • Marlon Brando, Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967)
  • Al Pacino, Cruising (1980)
  • William Hurt, Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985) (Oscar Winner)
  • River Phoenix, My Own Private Idaho (1991)
  • Tom Hanks, Philadelphia (1993) (Oscar & Golden Globe Winner)
  • Will Smith, Six Degrees of Separation (1993)
  • Leonardo DiCaprio, Total Eclipse (1995)
  • Robin Williams, The Birdcage (1996)
  • Greg Kinnear, As Good As It Gets (1997) (Oscar & Golden Globe Winner)
  • Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Ewan McGregor, Velvet Goldmine (1998)
  • Matt Damon, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) (Golden Globe Nomination)
  • Hillary Swank, Boys Don't Cry (1999) (Oscar Winner)
  • Ed Harris, Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep, The Hours (2002) (Oscar winner, and multiple nominations)
  • Charlize Theron and Christina Ricci, Monster (2003)
  • Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mysterious Skin (2004)
  • Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, Brokeback Mountain (2005) (2 Oscar Nominations)
  • Tracy Morgan, The Longest Yard (2005)
  • Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote (2005) (Oscar Winner)
  • Sean Penn, James Franco and Emile Hirsch, Milk (2008) (Oscar Winner, and Golden Globe Nominations)
  • Colin Firth, A Single Man, (2009) (Oscar Nomination)
  • Ewan McGregor and Jim Carrey, I Love You Phillip Morris (2010)
  • Julianne Moore and Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right (2010) (Golden Globe winner)

If openly gay actors are not cast as heterosexual characters in films (with the occasional exception), and many homosexual roles are dominated by straight actors, then what roles remain available for gay actors? Moreover, why do straight actors win awards when they portray gay characters (see list above)? Is it that much of a stretch? Is it not an actor's job to portray other people?

Sunday, January 27, 2013

You Probably Don't Need a Machine Gun, But That's Not the Point

When gun violence tragedies occur, analysts rush to isolate and explain the incidents as unique, isolated incidents; case studies. Analyses are often superficial, focusing on lengthy narratives concerning the back stories of the attackers, and when these stories become stale and uninteresting, discussions retreat to tired and ineffectual discussions about gun control legislation.

Mainstream media refuses to address a huge contributing factor to gun violence, which is that high levels of violent crime, and especially homicide rates (, are symptomatic of the underlying social problem of extreme [and growing] economic inequalities.  Addressing this issue would require that lawmakers and mass media openly acknowledge huge economic disparities that divide American society. To do so would threaten power and wealth, which would require bravery, which is precisely why these factors are never openly discussed.

"Crime rates and inequality are positively correlated within countries and, particularly, between countries, and this correlation reflects causation from inequality to crime rates, even after controlling
for other crime determinants." ( page 1).

Conversations about gun control legislation with regards to individual gun ownership are, in essence, a distraction for an uneducated public; a circus show of fools parroting tired opinions. But it works every time, because guns are symbolic and emotional objects, and it is very easy to draw mobs of angry pro/anti gun people into pointless arguments. In my opinion, the purpose of hosting forums to play out the same arguments is to belabor the same talking point until people become bored and stop paying attention. It's better and safer for mainstream media to sidestep discussions about the plutocratic nature of our society, because they can feign commitment to their journalistic duty to truth, without biting the wealthy hands that feed them.

Focusing all of our energy on gun control legislation while ignoring severe economic inequalities is analogous to prescribing medication to treat symptoms of a fatal disease while completely ignoring the disease itself.

Aside from all of this, in my opinion, it is quite obvious that no one needs assault rifles and handguns to protect their freedoms from imagined threats. The toy guns that I owned as a child were just as effective as real weapons in defense against imaginary enemies; of course, this may be because they were laser guns.

Let's Get Local

With global unemployment rates on the rise, the future appears grim for hundreds of millions of people around the world. The statistics are very unsettling, and the situation appears to be hopeless. However, the problem is not that the world is coming to an end because of job shortages. The real problem is that we continue to approach economic problems from a free-market institutional perspective, and in doing so we perpetuate our own economic crises.

Large institutions have gradually supplanted natural, sustainable, community-based ways of living. These large institutions have strategically installed themselves as the intercultural, inter-societal conduits, or channels through which our means of survival are exchanged and distributed. We trade our time for money from large institutions, and then use that money to buy things back from those same large institutions.  Because societies have surrendered to industry, we have found ourselves trapped in a state of dependency.

It doesn't take a genius to realize that profit-dependent organizations must continue to expand, or magically create new profit ad infinitum in order be a lucrative pursuit for investors/owners. Eating from the same finite pie of profit, over time, for-profit organizations must find novel ways to continue profitability. With shrinking consumer bases— owing to consumers ever-increasing unemployment and limited purchasing power—  organizations increase profitability by squeezing more production/profit out of the same human resources. Beyond this point, in the never-ending pursuit of profit, human resource expenses must inevitably be reduced as well; leading to greater unemployment. Small businesses are no exception to these inevitabilities, because although many may not be beholden to investors, their free market struggles are the same as publicly traded companies; shrinking consumer bases, increased price competition, etc. In sum, the belief in the fantasy of sustainable, infinite profit is dangerous and self-destructive.

If our well-being is contingent upon the perpetual expansion, or profit-dependent survival, of  organizations that by their very nature must eventually discard people in order to secure their own futures, we are most certainly doomed to either unemployment or severely decreased wages. We cannot expect the current economic trajectory to magically transform. Anyone with a basic comprehension of systems understands that if you jam the same inputs into the same function without reconfiguration, the output(s) will not suddenly change.

Since the correctness of my arguments is abundantly clear to rational minds, the real question is: What can we do to improve our plight? Let's start by embracing cooperatives, eating local, and try to avoid feeding the monsters by not patronizing the wealth-extracting supermarkets and retail chains that decimate diversity, community, and opportunity. There is no shortage of fertile farmland, we have strong communities, and very able/skilled people. Therefore, I believe that a sustainable future is achievable within local, not-profit-dependent communities.