Friday Night Tykes

The other day, as I was enjoying a marathon of American Ninja Warrior on the Esquire Network, this ad came on, for the first season of a show called ‘Friday Night Tykes’.

A brief stroll around the internet reveals that I am one of perhaps four Americans who has not already heard of, and been outraged by, ‘Friday Night Tykes’, which follows the football aspirations and coaching of a league of eight and nine year olds in Texas.

If ‘Friday Night Tykes’ is a documentary, an unembellished chronicle of the treatment of children, then it is ghastly and deserves all the censure and outrage which it seems to have generated.  The Season One Replay linked above is appalling.  At one point, an adult tells a child, “I want you to put it in the helmet, you understand?”  When the child affirms, he continues, “I don’t care if you don’t get up”.  Another adult explains to the camera, “When they put that helmet on, it’s time to go to battle.”  At least two children appeared to be injured in the replay alone.

However, I hope that ‘Friday Night Tykes’ is exaggerated in the way of so much reality television.  The clip mentioned above, “I don’t care if you don’t get up”, is edited heavily and cuts off abruptly.  At one point, someone shouts, “You have to earn your playtime!”, which is such a caricaturishly evil thing to shout at children that I struggle to take it seriously.  And, at this point, anyone who takes reality T.V. without a healthy dose of salt is a cretin: not only is it butchered more than edited, but people don’t behave normally in front of cameras.  They know people want stories, and so they give them characters.

I am not in a moral panic about football injuries.  It is obviously a dangerous sport; the evidence is undeniable at this point that many, if not most, professional first string football players retire with crippling injuries, many neurological.  However, I believe that our bodies and our lives are our own to use or damage as we see fit and for whatever recompense we find sufficient.  I object to the information necessary to make those decisions being withheld from players and their families, but, if informed, I think it is perfectly reasonable for someone to choose a few years of high earnings or athletic achievement at the cost of some of their later physical well-being.  And if I would not make the same choice, that is not sufficient reason to deny them the ability to do so.

But those are adult decisions – children cannot make them.  Their parents pose a more complicated problem: they are charged both with protecting their children and with encouraging their development.  What do you do if your child is good at something which may bring them joy, fame, and fortune, or may cripple them?  Or may do both?

Well, certainly, you don’t shout at an eight year old that you don’t care if he gets up or not.  And even if the picture in ‘Friday Night Tykes’ is distorted through the reality T.V. lens, it’s still pretty fucking grotesque.  I called this blog ‘The Gruesome’, but I often wander from that description.  Not this week.  Kids neurologically damaging other kids while adults frenzy in the sidelines is pretty damn sick.

Eric Garner

Let us call a spade a spade.

Here, in the United States, a police officer can kill a black man without fear of serious legal repercussion.  Be the man unarmed, unthreatening, even if there are cameras rolling, a cop can kill him and walk away.

There are two problems here.  The first is that cops have too much latitude to kill people.  Being a cop is dangerous and important work, and so we, the people they serve and protect, have extended to them credit against our lives.  We have given them the benefit of the doubt, and granted them dramatically expanded rights of self-defense.  We have given them license, when vulnerable or afraid, to protect themselves and each other, with the weapons we suffer them to carry.

They have abused that privilege.  They, or some too-great number of them, kill with impunity.  That is outrageous, and it needs to stop.  Cops should not be allowed to shoot unarmed men.  Cops should not be allowed to taze non-cooperative people to death.  Cops should not be allowed to choke the life out of a man, ever.

This does not mean that police should forbear while people shoot at them.  If a cop believes that someone is about to pull a weapon on him, let him shoot.  But, if he is wrong, and there is no weapon, then let him stand for murder.  Don’t let him enjoy the protection of his fellow officers then, or the complicity of the prosecutors.  And if these police killings are the work of a few bad apples, then let their brothers in blue police them.  At the very, very least, the killing of an unarmed person should result in the automatic loss of a badge.  Cops are citizens among citizens – let them enjoy no more protections than we.

The second problem is that the black community has disproportionately borne the weight of these injustices.  This should surprise no one: the black community has been made to bear the weight of many, many injustices.

In this case, the problem is not only that blacks come under undue and undeserved pressure from the criminal justice system, but also that abuses of power which victimize blacks are less likely to be punished, less likely to be treated by the community as the outrages that they are.

The black community must contend with a police force that can harass, assault, incarcerate, and murder them – their ability to make meaningful protest is hampered by the danger the police pose to them.

The white community tsk-tsks and fails to indict – we have voted less with our feet than with our essential apathy.

And it must be apathy, for there is no excuse for disbelief.  True, people tend to believe the evidence of their eyes, and the white community, particularly the white community with power, has a different relationship with the police than the black community.  If I were going only by my own experience, I would have to conclude that the police in the United States are merely an armed concierge service.  But they are not.  And, given the overwhelming evidence, historical and contemporary, it would be absurd to doubt that the American government and populace are capable of systematically disenfranchising, terrorizing, or brutalizing black Americans.

There are self-interested reasons to care: if the police can trample on their rights, then they can trample on your’s.

But, more than that, the fact that people don’t look like you, the fact that their misfortune does not happen to be your’s, does not excuse you for turning a blind eye to a wrong done to them.

The police may not value black lives as much as white lives, but we should.  What would you do if Eric Garner had been white?  Would your outrage be the same?  Or would it be easier to imagine then that the next person killed might be your neighbor, or son, or husband?  Or you?  What would you do, if you really believed that the reality that strangled him might reach out and touch you next?  Would you remark how sad it all was, and then turn off the T.V.?  I don’t think so.

Image taken from Time.com.

Why Does It Matter If Aliens Are Scary?

Part 2:  Fear Learning

[For Part 1: Biology, see last week’s post]

Besides the sheer biological improbability of humanoid aliens, why do I care whether or not aliens in movies are effectively scary?  

We can learn a great deal from what scares us and what doesn’t.  My original thesis was that the scariest aliens are the most, well, alien, and that we are more frightened by the other than we are of the malignant same.

Which does not necessarily make sense.  We may be frightened of the other, but we are also guarded against it.  We are much more likely to be hurt or killed by someone we know than by a stranger.  We are much more likely to be killed by a fellow human than eaten by animals.  And if that is true on Earth, how much truer it is of the universe as a whole.  To date, there has been no confirmed killing of a human being by an extraterrestrial.  Finding aliens scary is not terribly rational.

But the human fear of the other betrays itself in many corners of our thinking.  Many of humanity’s darker moments involved the demonization and destruction of those we consider alien.  Those behaviors were predicated on the idea that those who are different from us are therefore less safe or less trustworthy than those who are like us.

Of course, neophobia doesn’t belong to human beings alone.  Animals, particularly social animals, display it.  And something which is unknown may present unknown dangers.  But there is a difference between that which is unknown and that which is known but different, and it is a dangerous human error to confuse the two.

It is perhaps a little glib to draw parallels between genocide and space aliens.  But fear distorts our thinking and constrains our lives, and it’s worth giving some thought to what scares us and why.

Why Does It Matter If Aliens Are Scary?

Part 1: Biology

I wrote a few weeks ago about movie aliens, about which ones were scary and which ones weren’t.

Alien 2

Alien: scary.

Colonist - X-Files

A colonist from ‘X-Files’: not scary.

My thesis was that movie aliens don’t achieve scariness unless they first achieve un-humanity.  Humanoid aliens aren’t only uniformly unfrightening, they are also products of intellectual and creative laziness, and we should stop making movies about them.

Who cares?  Movies, famously, little resemble real life – that’s part of why we watch them.  Aliens, at least so far, don’t figure in real life at all, so why am I so upset about how they appear in movies?

For two reasons.  The first, let’s call ‘Biology’.  The second, about which more next week, we’ll call ‘Fear Learning’.

Biology:  

Put simply, the evolutionary thinking behind humanoid aliens is, well, nonexistent.

It’s a safe assumption that whatever planet aliens evolve on will be, in some way or another, different than Earth.  It may be bigger or smaller, and therefore exert greater or lesser gravitational force.  The chemical composition of the atmosphere may different.  It may be further away from or closer to a big star, which would change the amount of heat or light the surface of the planet gets.  Whatever the difference, the environmental conditions on this alien planet aren’t going to be identical to the environmental conditions here on Earth.  Therefore, the chances that an alien species would evolve to exactly resemble human are slim indeed.

Even if we hew religiously to the anthropic principle, that the universe is necessarily conducive to the evolution of life like ours (as evidenced by our life), the odds are overwhelming that extraterrestrials won’t look like us.  Even if we accept the common hand-wave, that aliens have come to to disrupt our planet because it is so like their own, it is still unlikely that they will look like us.

Look around.  All life on Earth evolved under Earth-like conditions (obviously), and very few of our fellow-earthlings look like us.  In fact, there really aren’t any animals that look as much like humans as the aliens from ‘Signs’ do.  Honestly, which do you more closely resemble, the little green men from the X-Files, or a gorilla?  Tell the truth – it’s a close call.  And if other humanoids haven’t evolved here on Earth, what are the odds that they evolved somewhere else?

The idea that interstellar aliens, even if they evolved under similar conditions, would be cephalated, binocular, bipedal, and hairless, is preposterous.  To portray them thusly is so lazy, requires so little mental effort, as to be offensive.  We probably aren’t going to guess accurately how the aliens we meet, if we ever do, will look, but we should at least try.

 

The Nine Satanic Statements

The next time you’re flipping idly through the Satanic Bible, take a look at the nine Satanic Statements which preface it.  As the precepts which outline Satanism’s essential belief structure, the Satanic Statements are curiously unimpressive.  Whatever one may make of their substance, certainly their formulation utterly lacks the eminence that one has come to expect from one’s commandments.

The Nine Satanic Statements are as follows:

1. Satan represents indulgence, instead of abstinence!

2. Satan represents vital existence, instead of spiritual pipe dreams!

3. Satan represents undefiled wisdom, instead of hypocritical self-deceit!

4. Satan represents kindness to those who deserve it, instead of love wasted on ingrates!

5. Satan represents vengeance, instead of turning the other cheek!

6. Satan represents responsibility to the to the responsible, instead of concern for psychic vampires!

7. Satan represents man as just another animal, sometimes better, more often worse than those that walk on all-fours, who, because of his “divine spiritual and intellectual developments”, has become the most vicious animal of all!

8. Satan represents all of the so-called sins, as they all lead to physical, mental, or emotional gratification!

9. Satan has been the best friend the church has ever had, as he had kept it in business all these years!

Surely, when all your commandments require exclamation points, that is a clue that they lack sufficient gravity.  And note the overly-colloquial phrasing: “spiritual pipe-dreams”, “wasted on ingrates”, “so-called sins”, “kept it in business”.  “Psychic vampires” I will pass over without comment.

Compare the motivational-speaker-amateurishness of “Satan represents vital existence, instead of spiritual pipe-dreams!” with “I am the Lord thy God – thou shalt have no other gods before me”.  Or “Satan represents all of the so-called sins, as they all lead to physical, mental, or emotional gratification!” to “Honor thy father and thy mother”, or even ‘Thou shalt not kill”.

The Satanic Bible was written by Anton Szandor LaVey, an un-majestic former carnie, in 1969, and perhaps he would rejoin that the Satanic Statements are not meant to inspire awe, that the Church of Satan (of which he was the High Priest) celebrated the essential nature of man and did not seek to change him through the imposition of fear.  Perhaps, but the nature of man is not without its own grandeur, and commandments, whoever’s they are, might try to speak to that.

 

Thank You, Kim Kardashian

     Kim Kardashian, never a favorite of the intelligentsia, has come under withering fire this month for the Vogue cover featuring her and fiance Kanye West.  The cover, which is perfectly nice to look at if you know nothing about the people pictured, becomes absurd when you do.

Vogue - Kim Kardashian

     Nevertheless, in their indignation at Kim Kardashian’s very existence, people seem to have forgotten how much we, as Americans and as cultural consumers, owe her.

     Americans, who as a people are capable of astonishing feats of cognitive dissonance, have an ambivalence about celebrity.  On the one hand, we worship celebrities, we follow their every move, we have reality shows to create them and magazines and websites to chronicle them.  But we lament our own interest, and hate ourselves in the morning.

     This conflict runs deep within us, and is probably impossible to resolve.  Celebrities are both of us and above us, and we emulate them even while resenting the time that we spend on them.  On every online article about Kim Kardashian, there is inevitably one commenter who will ask, “Who is this woman and why do we care?”.  Or, consider another example:  a few weeks ago, when Scarlett Johansson was inarticulate about Woody Allen and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, people were outraged, as though it were breaking news that Scarlett Johansson is not one of the great intellectual lights of humanity.

     And why should she be?  That was not the selection criterion for her job.  People spent precious minutes of their short lives reading Johansson’s opinions (truly as pointless an activity as I can imagine) and then felt cheated when she failed to scintillate and inspire.

     It is in these moments, when we have gone down the rabbit-hole of celebrity and come out only stupider and closer to death, that Kim Kardashian comes to our aid.

     Kim Kardashian is a woman whose sole pursuit is fame.  She does not excel at anything.  She does not want to be famous for anything; she only wants us to look at her, and she doesn’t care if there is anything of substance to see there.

     Kardashian is the worst of celebrity made flesh, and she exemplifies what we hate about it:  the way it draws our attention without giving us anything in return, the way it wastes our time.  And, yes, every moment that we spend on Kim Kardashian is, in a sense, wasted.

     But now, when we grasp for the words to explain our simultaneous fascination and disgust, we can reference one person.  Kim Kardashian contains in herself everything for which we hold fame-seeking in contempt, and because she possesses no real skill or distinction, we have no excuse for her.  She is empty calories, and when we binge, we cannot but call it what it is.  And that is clarifying.  Kardashian gives us a name for our problem, and that makes our self-reflection more efficient.  The first step to healing is to admit you have a problem, and Kim Kardashian is rock bottom.  When we self-assess, we can (and do) point to her.  She is the face of our weakness, and so she has become our scapegoat.  And we need a scapegoat: we need to build up and then tear down – that’s how we prove to ourselves that, although we read about her, we are still better than she.  It is not, perhaps, an enviable job, but she has volunteered.

     And for that, Kim Kardashian, we thank you.

Image from Vogue.com.

Gruesome

    I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know that I was weird.  I knew well before my differentness was socially exposed and remarked upon by my peers, though of course it was.  I knew that I was unshakably interested in things that other people were reluctant about.

    I was drawn to dark things.  I sought out creepy, nightmarish things, but I was even more interested in things that were real, or realistic.  Murders, depravities, scientific anomalies, tortures, disappearances, parasites, epidemics, I wanted to see every strange or gross or scary thing this world ever produced.  I wanted to know if evil really existed.

    More than that, I was obsessed with the idea that there were things that it was healthy and normal to be curious about, and that there were things, my things, that it was morbid and disturbed to be curious about.  My enthusiasm for books was great, but the significant portion of my library devoted to serial killers raised eyebrows.  My interest in history was applauded, but my particular focus on medieval interrogation and torture was troubling.

    These distinctions always seemed arbitrary and counter-intuitive to me, and I was never really clear on the exact concern of the people around me: was my interest taken as a sign that I was a budding psychopath, that my desire to know would become a desire to emulate?  Or was the anxiety I produced protective?  Was everyone worried that too much knowledge of the dark places in the world would damage and frighten me?  And how, I wondered then, and frankly still wonder now, did everyone fail to notice that these things, these terrible things, were also fascinating?

    I still don’t understand why some people avoid gruesome information and some people seek it out.  Maybe, for me, there was a feeling of triumph, of being able to handle something that overwhelmed other people.  Maybe, as a child who wasn’t strong, who was hurt easily and often, this was the only way to be tough.

    I’m not sure that I’m stronger as an adult for all that curiosity.  I don’t even know that I’m really that much darker for all the ghastly bits of information I’ve gathered over the years; after all, I was at home in the dark to begin with.

    But I think that what was once a fascination and a self-administered test has become a genuine love, a source of thrill and enjoyment, as well as a source of fear and occasional pain.  I’m not drawn to the dark now, to the sinister and the grisly; I just like them.  I like horror movies, and scary stories.  I read true crime and visit medical anomaly museums.  I still seek out the darkest chapters in human history.  And sometimes the terrible things in the world have frightened me, but I still want to know about them.  I still want to see them.