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My Guide to Responsible Media Consumption

February 1, 2017

“Truth is the first casualty of war.” I leave it up to you, dear reader, to decide if our current times are war or the prelude to war, but that these are times of upheaval and uncertainty seems to be beyond question.

The primary battleground of our current whatever-it-is happens to be the media, but not in the sense of the White House versus the media (though that is a battleground). No, the war is being fought literally at the end of our noses. The most valued commodity in 21st century America is the public’s undivided attention. Much of our attention still goes to our jobs, our families, our schooling, our friends (if we still have any true face-to-face friends, that is), and what few social institutions still exist in meatspace. The rest of our attention goes to any of various forms of mass communication, which we refer to generally as “the media.”

It is a great danger to assume that “the media” refers only to “the news media.” The lines between information and entertainment were blurred in the 1980s, moved in the 1990s, stayed mostly in place during the 2000s, and have been completely obliterated in the 2010s. It is no more an overreach, then, for an entertainer to use his or her visibility to spread personal viewpoints than it is for the news to report on things that aren’t news (e.g., the lives of entertainers), package the news in a way to trick you into consuming more of it (“Is there a hidden killer in your refrigerator? Tune in tonight at 10.”), or refuse to distinguish between news, opinion, and dogpiling (see Rush Limbaugh, The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight, that stuff your great-aunt posts on Facebook, etc.).

Eliminating the lines between news and entertainment makes it harder to turn off our primitive “lizard brains” that invoke the fight-or-flight response to any stimulus we encounter. We react first, then our human brains construct a justification for what our lizard brains have already done. (For more on this, please see Jonathan Haidt’s excellent book The Righteous Mind.) In times where there is a lot happening, our human brains quickly fatigue of processing all the stuff our lizard brains throw at us. Keeping sanity thus requires us to know when and how much to engage with the various media stimuli we encounter. It’s a critical task in two sense of the word “critical”: It’s important, and it requires us to make judgements.

I have worked in the media and, though I was but a barnacle on a very large ship, I’ve seen the inside of the sausage factory. I am also a member of the clergy who has spent almost two decades living in “flyover country,” one of many bubbles in American culture. I’ve obviously seen the inside of that, too. I’ve been a disseminator of information, and I have seen the effects of our media-rich culture. Some of those effects are highly beneficial. The rise of digital media has democratized information and made us all feel a little less lonesome.

It has also corroded many useful things, not so much due to consumption as overconsumption. With that in mind, I offer these guidelines for how to maintain your sanity in an environment where every form of media is fighting for your attention during all of your waking moments. (When they figure out how to get into your dreams, they’ll fight there too.) To begin:

  1. Your attention belongs to you until you give it to someone or something.
  2. In our media-rich environment, most media requests for your attention are illegitimate, rude, and deceitful, because such requests work better than polite and honest ones.
  3. Therefore, the first rule for keeping your sanity is to limit your exposure to commercialized media in any form. This means anything that has an advertisement before it, in it, or on it, or anything you have to pay for before you can access it.This doesn’t mean that all such forms of media are illegitimate; they obviously aren’t. But it does mean that you need to be vigilant about efforts to keep you locked in on one source (or group of sources) to the exclusion of others.
  4. The primary form of illegitimacy in requests for your attention is a claim to have exclusive information which cannot be found anywhere else. Not all such claims are false; only about 99.93% of them are. Good luck figuring out that 0.07%.
  5. Thus, the second rule for keeping your sanity: Nothing is trustworthy until a number of sources report it.
  6. Though media ideological bias exists (how could it not?), its effects are often overstated. Nonetheless, a savvy media consumer can use the reality of bias to his or her advantage in sorting out legitimate and illegitimate requests for your attention.
  7. The third rule for keeping your sanity: If you suspect a source is biased, give more credibility to its reporting of things you suspect that source wishes it didn’t have to report. You don’t have to trust a biased source’s actual reports, but if they’re reacting to a thing, then it’s probably actually a thing. If sources with a diversity of ideological backgrounds agree on basic facts, those facts are almost certainly accurate, no matter how hard the sources try to spin them.
  8. It isn’t universally true, but biased mainstream sources tend to be more accurate reporting disparaging information about their own side and flattering information about their opponents than vice versa. When a Democrat screws up, look to The New York Times; when a Republican screws up, turn to the Wall Street Journal. But this is only true when it’s something that can’t be swept under the rug.
  9. Which leads to my fourth rule: The primary form of ideological bias in media is omission. This isn’t necessarily a sign of malicious intent, or even any kind of intent.. We all have our blind spots, and a camera can only see what it’s pointed at. But sometimes this omission is malicious and/or intentional.

Malicious and/or intentional bias means turning our attention to the odious question of the term “fake news,” which has almost immediately become a catchall of garbage and yet another way the lizard brain outsmarts the human one. Whatever information we instinctively don’t want to hear or deal with can be dumped in the black hole called “fake news.”

Overuse of that term erodes its meaning and eats at the very concept of truth, however, and that’s a huge problem. So let’s take a moment to distinguish between actual “fake news” and two other problematic media requests for our attention: pushy news and journalistic malpractice.

By fake news I mean media sources (or reports within those sources) that serve no other purpose than to engage our lizard brains to provoke an immediate reaction. The hallmarks of fake news are many but include:

  • Single words or phrases in headlines rendered in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS
  • Video clips in which one can “Watch x DESTROY y!”
  • Stories that lead with shocking graphics, often depicting violence
  • Bold stands in favor of things no sane person is against, or vice versa
  • Calls to share information virally
  • Unusually dire proclamations of things that must be stopped now
  • News reports accompanied by requests for donations to the reporting source
  • Sources whose actual names contain lizard-brain words like “angry,” “fed-up,” “pissed,” or, sadly, even “truth” (this emphatically does not apply to The Truth About Cars, though you should be aware I wrote for them over a decade ago).

It’s a sad commentary, but the more strenuously a media source asserts itself as a lone voice of truth, the less likely it is to be one.

By pushy news I mean content where presenting the news is just an excuse to pontificate and thereby shape the audience’s human mind by constantly engaging the lizard brain. You can spot pushy news thusly:

  • The presenter doesn’t just tell you what the news is but also how to feel about it; this is usually presented as telling you “what this means for you.” When they say this, they’re not asserting that they understand you; they’re telling you who they want you to be.
  • The source, over time, draws lines in such a way that there is always an “in group” and an “out group,” the membership of those two groups seldom if ever changes, the “out group” is the cause of all the trouble in the world, the “in group” is the world’s only hope, and the audience is always in the “in group.”
  • There is an excessive focus on the out group’s supposed evil and/or hypocrisy.
  • The out group is never actually heard from except under unusual circumstances.
  • The in group’s personal experiences of the out group is given more weight than the out group’s personal experiences of the in group.
  • The in group’s personal experiences of the out group is given more weight than the out group’s personal experiences of the out group.
  • Any in group evil/hypocrisy is hand-waved away by the existence of out group evil/hypocrisy. This actually has the name of Whataboutism; it’s an old Soviet propaganda technique.
  • It doesn’t necessarily engage in outright conspiracy theorizing, but the same few bogeymen keep cropping up, like the Koch brothers or George Soros.

(It should be obvious that much cable news programming is what I consider “pushy news.” That’s just the nature of the beast; if I ran a cable news channel, I’d do the same thing. Pushy news isn’t useless but it needs to be treated more critically than straightforward news presentations.)

By journalistic malpractice I mean stuff that’s so badly handled it’s impossible to tell if it’s fake news, pushy news, foreign propaganda, performance art, utter incompetence, or deliberate sabotage. Its hallmarks are:

  • Obviously bad editing
  • An abundance of unidentifiable (as opposed to unidentified) sources
  • False balance (as opposed to the false equivalence of pushy news)
  • Playing “devil’s advocate” for positions no sane person would hold
  • Spinning facts to fit a preconceived narrative, rather than adjusting a narrative to fit the provable facts
  • Equating far-fetched possibilities with the most likely explanations
  • Refusal to correct errors (all news sources make errors from time to time, but an error doth not “fake news” make; reputable sources correct their errors and responsible consumers allow them to do so)

The classic example of journalistic malpractice in our time is the Killian documents fiasco that ensnared Dan Rather and CBS News. I don’t believe that CBS ran with the story because Dan Rather wanted to do a hit piece on George W. Bush; I do believe that the company’s desire to do a hit piece on George W. Bush caused them to be sloppy in their fact checking. They did correct the error and Dan Rather paid the appropriate price for it, but the lack of objectivity was clear and a sign that at least some mainstream media reporting is (or at least was) driven by ideological bias.

Fake news plays to our passions and prejudices. Pushy news tries to addict us and shape us. Journalistic malpractice makes us distrust all forms of reporting. Awareness is important, but honestly, the best defenses against being driven insane by media and its competing truth claims is this:

  • Healthy people don’t spend more than maybe 90 minutes a day watching or listening to the news.
  • Healthy people avoid snap judgement about the truth of reported news, because, while it can be too late to be right, it’s always too early to be wrong.
  • Healthy people accept that their ideological opponents are not automatically mentally ill, cannot always be wrong about everything, and are as likely to be acting in good faith as their ideological allies.
  • Healthy people are aware that they can be deceived by flattery and can be induced to bigotry.
  • Healthy people know there are no perfect solutions, only perfect problems.

Keep these things in mind as you try to negotiate this highly charged media environment. “All you can eat” was never meant to be a challenge.


A post-mortem, if something has died

November 9, 2016


14. And they have reason to be. The establishment doesn’t do a goldang thing for them.

15. The cost of healthcare is a problem. A big one. Obamacare didn’t solve it. That’s due to GOP sabotage, but still.

16. Exactly TWO people in this race–Trump and Sanders–understood that the system is rigged. Not the way you think.

17. It’s rigged to protect privilege. If you make it to the six-figure income class (and yes, that’s all it takes), you’re home free.

18. What @#$@ing sense does it make that health insurance least protects the people who needs it most?

19. What good is a $7500 deductible when you make $46k a year? NONE. Might as well be no insurance at all.

20. The people who voted for Trump weren’t voting to oppress the different. Okay, a few blithering idiots were, but …

21. … for the most part, this election was about disposable income. And class. But mostly disposable income.

22. Clinton couldn’t admit that health care costs (insurance and bills) were going up too fast. But everyone knew they were.

23. If you think Trump and our useless lump of a legislative branch will do anything about that, you’re nuts.

24. Two people told us the truth about how our ruling class let us down. One wanted to fix it. One never will.

25. Again, I didn’t vote for Trump, for the same reasons a lot of you didn’t. But be real careful about assuming that …

26. … the people who DID vote for him did so because they’re in favor of all the things about him you don’t like.

27. For every person who squawked about Clinton’s emails, there were 5 who just thought she’d find a way to take $ out of their pockets.

28. To paraphrase Roger Ebert (God rest his soul), elections aren’t about what they’re about, they’re about how they are about it.

29. This was a class-and-culture election. A “why did Firefly get canceled?” election. It just looked like it was about immigration.

30. And a bunch of other things. “Deplorables” is the new “47%.” It was over at that point.

31. This was the Big Bang Theory audience, the Chili’s patrons, and the Guy Fieri fans reminding you they outnumber you.

The Vanity of the Bonfires

November 2, 2016

Fashion Consistent CandidatesAs we head towards the 2016 presidential election, the pace and tone of the think pieces regarding the awfulness of the upcoming decision and the crumminess of the campaign season is unrelenting and unwavering. I am willing to grant that we have never seen candidates as unlikable as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. But this is hardly the first time we’ve faced a choice between two candidates nobody really liked. It’s not even the first time it’s happened in my life.

Rewind with me now to the heady year of 1988, twilight of the Reagan era and apotheosis of our hair-metal captivity. Eastern Europe was only beginning to wake up to the notion that freedom might not be so distant. Terrorism was caused mostly by Libyans acting under Moammar Last-Name-Unspellable’s direction. The stock market had crashed hard the previous fall and the end of what we’ve come to call “the go-go Eighties” — the yuppie era — was close at hand. A new America was coming, and nobody really knew what it was going to look like.

The bloom was falling off Reagan’s rose by ’88. The Iran-Contra scandal in particular was particularly damning to the president’s reputation, as it should be when you’re caught selling arms to one of your putative enemies in the name of financing revolution in another country that you’re hoping to turn into a client state. But it was clear at that point that the game had passed Reagan by and his staff was running the nation even more than they used to. This is in contrast to now, as Obama is becoming more popular as his term nears an end.

The Republicans expected George H.W. Bush to be their nominee. But he was scarcely the only person who ran. The field also included:

  • Bob Dole
  • Pat Robertson
  • Jack Kemp
  • Pete du Pont
  • Alexander Haig
  • Donald Rumsfeld (!)
  • Paul Laxalt
  • Harold Stassen (of course)

… and a couple people I’ve never heard of. Despite Bush’s presumptiveness, he actually finished third in the Iowa caucuses. (Bob Dole won and Pat Robertson had 30% more support than Bush, proving that my beloved home state should not be allowed to serve as America’s Sorting Hat.) Bush attacked Dole on voting for tax increases (something every responsible politician must do when the circumstances warrant) leading to Bush’s infamous, politically fatal “Read my lips: No new taxes” pledge.

Why were people not solidly behind Bush the Elder? It seems strange given that he’s become well-liked as an ex-president, sort of America’s goofy great-uncle, but at the time he represented a thread of Republicanism (Eastern traditional elitism, not overly concerned with traditional moral values but not opposed to them either) that many in the party wanted to move beyond. Robertson was a bad choice but represented the direction the party would move as the power of conservative Evangelicals began to grow.

So it was a muddled mess on the GOP side, but the Democrats weren’t doing much better. The epic face-grind they’d suffered in 1984 when Walter Mondale won only his home state of Minnesota and his other home state, the District of Columbia, had not yet been fully absorbed or understood. Nobody really knew what was coming next. So their slate included:

  • Michael Dukakis
  • Jesse Jackson
  • Al Gore
  • Dick Gephardt
  • Paul Simon (no, not that Paul Simon, the other one)
  • Gary Hart
  • Joe Biden
  • Bruce Babbitt
  • James Traficant (!)
  • David Duke (seriously)
  • Lyndon LaRouche (of course)

… and, again, a couple people I’ve never heard of. Absent from the list was New York governor Mario Cuomo, who was at the height of his popularity. Gary Hart was the favorite. Unfortunately, he was a tomcat, and you couldn’t get away with that in 1988. Biden got flushed for plagiarizing a British politician’s speech (which was a speech worth stealing) in a foretaste of the feast of political dog vomit that was to come over the ensuing decades.

I’ve heard it said that when a committee can’t settle on a preferred choice, the winner will be the thing that nobody wants. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but the nomination went to Michael Dukakis, a decent, principled Massachusetts governor who could not have been a better embodiment of “Massachusetts Democratic governor.”He’d gone back on a promise not to raise taxes and had commuted the sentences of criminals who hadn’t been reformed. He’d also antagonized public employee unions by reducing the state bureaucracy, meaning that lots of people had it in for him. Still, he served three nonconsecutive terms as governor. He wasn’t incompent at governing. There just wasn’t a lot to get excited about, but there were things about him to not get excited about.

So at this point the matchup was set: a former political opponent of the sitting president turned close associate whose stances were malleable and generally closer to the center than the party’s, versus an opponent who represented everything the average American feared to be true about his party. The only way this could get closer to the situation in 2016 is if one of them was a horrible campaigner and the other ran a janky campaign full of dog whistles.

Which is exactly what happened.

Bush hammered Dukakis on Massachusetts’s high tax rates (which weren’t high enough to dissuade a number of high-tech startups, but I digress), his membership in the American Civil Liberties Union (this is where “card-carrying member” reentered the American political lexicon; the ACLU was not very popular in the late 1980s), and most notably his “furlough” program of letting prisoners leave prison early on occasion. That’s not the greatest idea, of course, but the way Bush attacked it was by calling attention to a prisoner named Willie Horton who committed a sexual assault in Maryland while on furlough from Massachusetts. I’ll give you three guesses as to Willie Horton’s skin color, and the first two don’t count.

To make the parallels even creepier, Bush’s running mate, Dan Quayle, was a political lightweight from a state the GOP couldn’t afford to swing, while Dukakis’s was a well-regarded senator, Lloyd Bentsen, with whom he probably should have switched places on the ticket.

But the main problem was that both candidates had the same fatal flaw: they were both wimps. Now, obviously, Bush the Elder is a well-decorated war hero. Nobody doubted his courage under fire, but in most other areas of public life he was notably wishy-washy. Any merely competent opponent should have been able to take advantage of this. Dukakis, unfortunately, was an even bigger wimp. He famously froze up when asked if his rehabilitation-oriented stance towards criminal justice would change if someone had attacked his wife. (The correct answer for him would have been something like “If I abandoned my principles the minute something bad happened to me, I’d be just like my opponent,” but again, I digress.)

Nobody bought George H.W. Bush as an apex predator, but Dukakis’s response was as tone-deaf as his entire campaign: a risible photo-op behind the controls of a tank. Dukakis had actually served in the Army as a radio operator in postwar Korea. This wasn’t the worst example of inflated military experience in the 1988 campaign; Pat Robertson turned his time as a Marine booze-fetcher into combat experience.

Did I mention that Bush’s speeches were almost comically incoherent? Or that the Yalie Bush attacked Dukakis’s Harvard background as being “elitist?”

Obviously it’s not a perfect match between 1988 and 2016. Firstly, the parties are flipped; secondly, Michael Dukakis has actually held elective office; thirdly, Trump is running Bush’s aggressive campaign while Clinton is running a slightly less stultifying version of Dukakis’s. And neither Clinton not Trump is a wimp. But they’re both liars, albeit of a different sort. Clinton is a dissembler; she spins and evades and tries to run out the clock. Trump, on the other hand, is a prevaricator; he says stuff he has to know just isn’t true. Small matter. A parallel doesn’t have to line up exactly. But know what happened in 1988: Bush won a giant electoral landslide and took the popular vote by 10 points. On his watch, the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union came undone, and the US won a decisive victory in the first Gulf War. He was the last US president to be voted out of office, because nobody really wanted him in the first place. He was just marginally closer to acceptability than his original opponent was.

I’m not saying such a fate awaits next week’s winner. I’m not saying it doesn’t.

Late in 1987, Tom Wolfe published his greatest novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities. In it, the life of a rich New Yorker in particular and all of New York in general is revealed to be impossibly fragile when an unfortunate accident sets off a feeding frenzy among political opportunists and media vultures. Nobody wins in the end but it’s apparent that the high competitiveness of the political and media environment made things much worse than they should have been.

Mr. Wolfe, I know you’re secretly writing the story of 2016. It has your fingerprints all over it. Please tell me this one ends with something good happening, even if I don’t know what that “something good” is.

My Top 10 Ballot, November 8, 2015

November 8, 2015

1. Clemson. I have no idea if they’re truly the best team in the country. Neither do you. And neither do you know they’re not. And neither do I. They’ve just been getting it done, that’s all.
2. Alabama. Yes, they lost to Ole Diddly-Dang-Dum-Doodley Miss Y’all, and that loss looks worse now that the Rebs have lost to Arkansas (which isn’t even supposed to be any good) and Memphis (which previously beat Ole Miss) lost to Navy. I still wouldn’t want to play the Crimson Tide right now. Would you? At some point you have to look a little less at resume and a little more at trajectory. Bama’s trajectory? Straight freakin’ up.
3. Ohio State. I have seen a team go from having an embarrassment of riches at quarterback one season to struggling without its starter the next. I’ve never seen that happen when the three QBs who were on the roster last year are still on this year’s roster. If not for a ferocious defense, tOSU would have lost a game by now. (Just don’t ask me which.)
4. Oklahoma State. See ‘trajectory’ under No. 2, above.
5. Baylor. Struggled against K-State in Manhattan on the same weekend TCU lost and Okie State shone. That lets me pretend that I moved them down for a reason other than that I don’t like Art Briles very much. Yes, Baylor was using its second-string quarterback. K-State was using its third. Thanks for playing.
6. Iowa. The Hawkeyes beat Indiana by one more point than Ohio State did. I don’t want to be skeptical about this team but no matter how much my heart says “they really are pretty good” my brain reminds me they haven’t killed a giant yet, and every great team has to.
7. Notre Dame. Pitt’s very good, so we have to give proper credit to Brian Kelly’s team for a quality win.
8. Stanford. Recovering nicely from the Northwestern loss, which is good, since Northwestern is starting to play like that victory wasn’t actually a fluke for them.
9. Florida. I’m kind of guessing at this point. I think Florida is to the 2015 SEC what Purdue was to the 2003 Big Ten: the team that wins a couple it shouldn’t have but can’t quite break the rock.
10. LSU. I still can’t make up my mind whether Les Miles is a good coach or not. But if he had it in him to coach a truly elite offense, he’d have done it by now.

Disappointing Halloween Candy Power Rankings, 2015 Edition

October 31, 2015

peanut butter kisses

As we all wait for our children to return with a bag full of goodies this afternoon/evening, here’s a quick round up of the stuff that’s more trick than treat.

  1. Milk Duds. There has never been a more aptly named candy.
  2. Smarties. Beloved by one of my three kids and tolerated by the other two, these pills of pastel-colored drywall are good for one thing only: Close your eyes, have someone put one in your mouth, and see if you can guess what color it is. (Spoiler alert: You can’t.)
  3. Peanut Butter Kisses. These haven’t actually been manufactured since 1973. We’ve almost burned through all the old stock, after which these will disappear forever.
  4. Chocolate eyeballs. But big ups to whoever finally figured out something to do with crayon stubs: Melt them down, shape them in to balls, wrap them in eyeball-print foil, and pass them off as chocolate!
  5. Tootsie Rolls. It’s not that they’re so bad, though you never hear anyone say “I could really go for a Tootsie Roll.” It’s that they just seem to appear out of nowhere, like they hide in the bushes by people’s front doors and leap into treat bags when your kids are distracted. Your kids won’t remember being given Tootsie Rolls, but they’ll bring home at least three dozen.
  6. Three Musketeers. I like these fine, but these have always been the most disappointing candy bar to get on Halloween. All the more so now because somebody once decided these were “healthy” since they have slightly less fat than the average candy bar.
  7. Krabby Patties. Young kids will be thrilled to get these since they’re from SpongeBob. Then they take one bite, spit the rest into the trash, and go find something else to do.
  8. Raisinettes. Another candy I like just fine that nobody really wants to find in a treat bag. Like Three Musketeers, they suffer now from a “healthy” image, since technically raisins are fruit.
  9. Unidentifiable Petrified Gummi Masses. You know what I’m talking about, and you don’t know what they are either. Nor do you know when they were manufactured. Or if they were manufactured. Do clods of gummi just drop from the sky? Spring up from the ground after rainstorms? The world may never know.
  10. Chick-O-Sticks. These are actually delicious, but they don’t look like they’re going to be. Also, your kid will think they’re actually chicken and thus won’t touch them. Not only that but they’re peanut butter and somewhat loosely wrapped so they have the potential to ruin a whole bag of treats for the allergic. If this is your thing, give out Zagnuts instead.

My Top 10 Ballot, October 25, 2015

October 26, 2015
  1. Ohio State. It’s like this: Unless a defending national champion loses a metric boatload of key contributors (which tOSU didn’t) then I think they get the benefit of the doubt until they lose a game. The Buckeyes have not dazzled at any point this season but in my frame of reference they don’t have to. But good luck convincing me Urban Meyer didn’t make some sort of a deal with Cardale Jones to keep Jones in Columbus. J.T. Barrett is so obviously better for this team.
  2. Clemson. Because they can score points and play defense too. Granted, Miami’s not wonderful, but still, 58-0!
  3. Baylor. Because sooner or later they’re going to go up against a team they can’t just outscore. It won’t happen until the playoffs, though. And I am curious what effect losing Seth Russell will have. Also, even in the rain, great teams don’t give up 27 points to Iowa State.
  4. LSU. I can never decide if Les Miles is a genius or not. I’m still leaning towards “not,” though I admit he could just be the brilliant weirdo college football always needs. They get a bye week to prepare for Alabama, who also gets a bye week to prepare for them.
  5. TCU. They’re essentially Baylor, but a Baylor that scores ten fewer points per game. It’s a long time until Black Friday when the Bears and Horned Frogs meet. One of those teams will not be undefeated when they meet. Hey, they might both lose one. But I’d take Baylor as slightly more likely to win out until then.
  6. Alabama. This is not Nick Saban’s best Bama team and it shows but the Tide are clearly the best one-loss team in the country. People unimpressed by Saturday’s narrow victory over Tennessee should bear in mind that this is the best Tennessee team in years–even though it still isn’t very good.
  7. Michigan State. Sparty should have lost to Michigan. There, I said it. If they had, they wouldn’t be on this list. As it stands, the Spartans are apple crisp: nobody’s first choice of a great team, but not a choice you’d ever regret either.
  8. Notre Dame. I’m surprised to see them here too. But their only loss is to Clemson, a team that I think is powerfully good. The Irish lack a dazzling win but with three currently-ranked teams left on the schedule, they’ll have a chance to move up. After all, most of the teams above them play at least one other team in my top seven.
  9. Stanford. At some point you have to recognize the Northwestern loss as the opening weekend snakebite it was. The Cats are not great but the Cardinal were just flat and unprepared in that game. Hold it against Stanford if you must, but as the season goes on, that becomes more like using a friend’s unflattering high school nickname when you’re both pushing 40 and gainfully employed.
  10. Iowa. So there are three teams on this list with a common opponent. All three teams are undefeated. Versus this common opponent, two teams scored ten points or more below their season average; the third scored pretty much on its season average. That third team also allowed fewer points than the other two and is indeed the only team to hold that common opponent under 21 points all year. The common opponent is Iowa State. The first two teams are Baylor and TCU. The third team is Iowa. In case you were wondering if the Hawkeyes actually belong on this list, they do.

(This is my ballot for this week’s Campus Pressbox Mock College Football Playoff poll.)

The Exploding Plastic Inevitable

June 26, 2015

When I was an intern pastor a mere [REDACTED] years ago, I had to deal with a situation that changed the way I would forever look at everything. But enough about ice dams. I also had to deal with a situation that forced me to think about the relationship between church and state and the fundamental nature of marriage.

There was a couple in our little town who wanted to marry but had a big problem. He was chronically ill, on disability, unable to work and only able to stay alive because he thus qualified for Medicaid. That’s enough of a problem. But his wife-to-be had an even bigger problem, one you might even call a pre-existing condition.

She had a job.

Yes, and since she was employed, she made money. How much, I know not; it wasn’t any of my business and it still isn’t. I only know it was enough that, if these two made a family, he’d lose his health care, go broke trying to keep himself alive, and eventually die.

For some reason, they saw this as an undesirable outcome.

They had a second, mutual problem: they were both Christians and believed they ought not live together as husband and wife without actually saying vows in front of God. Their proposed solution was to have a marriage ceremony without ever bothering to get a marriage license. They’d be married in God’s eyes, but not the state’s. Their consciences would be eased, and in a way that would not lead to imminent death, bankruptcy, or (most likely) both.

As an intern pastor I had the option of participating in this service or not. I chose not to. I chose poorly.

Bear in mind, all I knew of this couple was their situation and their plan. I didn’t know them at all. I didn’t even know their names. I still don’t. But for some reason the notion of participating in a marriage ceremony which was unsanctioned by the state unnerved me. So I didn’t.

The more I thought about it, and the more I’ve thought about it since, the more wrong I realize I was. What business is it of the state who does or does not take part in a religious ceremony? Or what that ceremony means to the people involved? Does the state have the right to exact huge financial penalties against people who are acting on their consciences? Conversely, should people be able to escape adverse effects by choosing to forgo the benefits of a legally recognized marriage?

There aren’t easy answers to some of these questions, but some of them do, in fact, have easy answers. It’s not the state’s business who takes part in a religious ceremony, at least not to the extent that they should be required to purchase a license before they can. And if people are willing to deny themselves the benefits of legal protection for their marriage, they absolutely should be able to avoid the consequences that would stem from choosing those benefits. “For better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness or in health” notwithstanding.

Only when I began to see things through the lens of this test case did I understand something very important: the traditional legal and religious definitions of marriage have nothing in common but a name. Neither one is a necessary component of the other; each can exist independent of the other. In other words, they’re separated, almost as if by a wall. Would I choose differently if this situation came before me again? I absolutely would.

And it flows in both directions: The fact that I am a Christian gives me no veto power over what happens at the county clerk’s office. What happens there neither affirms nor denies what happens (or does not happen) at the altar, and vice versa.

Look, it’s painfully obvious to anyone who has even given serious thought to the 14th Amendment and all its implications that today’s Supreme Court ruling was coming. If we Christians are going to be up in arms about it (a) we’re terrible Constitutional scholars and (b) we’re many, many decades too late.

For my whole life the predominant narrative about marriage in American culture has been that it’s awful. We’re all aware of the rise in the divorce rate since the 1960s, but even before then marriage was presented not as a man and a woman working together but as a man versus a woman. Husbands couldn’t defer to their wives’ wishes without hearing the cracking of a whip in the background. Wives apparently couldn’t defer to their husbands’ wishes without losing serious “girl points” unless they got some expensive material thing in exchange. Both sides saw marriage as “the old ball and chain.” And don’t get me started about mother-in-law jokes. Even back in the days when Elvis was driving a truck, this is how people in this country saw marriage: a vital institution that no one enjoyed. EVER.

And it hasn’t gotten better. When’s the last time you saw a positive media depiction of a marriage that was more than a few weeks old? When you look at TV, movies, novels, or other forms of entertainment, whose marriage would you want? And how do all these depictions shape our expectations of marriage?

The point is, it’s too late now to assert that marriage is so sacred to us that society must not be allowed to deviate from our understanding of it. It’s long been legal to run off to Vegas and pledge a lifetime of fidelity to somebody you just met, at 2 am, while you were both drunk, in a 24-hour wedding chapel. We’ve been indulging in episodes of Divorce Court on TV for fifty-eight years now, pretending that we were just examining the depravity of the world rather than being entertained by it. We’ve stood by while the fundie-versus-hippie freak show known as Wife Swap went on — heck, we watched it. If somebody in 2015 aired a TV show that depicted a nuclear, heterosexual, median-sized family without major issues, where everyone was of average health, well-adjusted, tolerant of others’ faults, comfortably middle-class, and uninvolved in the personal lives of their neighbors, we’d ignore that show so hard it would be canceled in two weeks or less. (Even though a significant number of our own marriages would fit that mold perfectly.)

We didn’t stand up for marriage and family life when it was under attack by the ghouls of the American entertainment industry. Now that “someone else” has seen through the bogusness of the cultural narrative and decided to embrace marriage (with all its flaws, and I do acknowledge they exist), we’re rushing to defend what is theoretically our trademark. But it’s been abandoned. By us.

So pardon me if now I refuse to see a culture at a crossroads. This was already a culture that embraced a vision of marriage that wasn’t “Godly.” And we helped it, simply by not telling the truth about how good marriage could be. Maybe now that marriage is open to all couples, we will finally stop thinking of it as “man versus woman” and start thinking of it as a vital institution again.


Customer Service

February 11, 2013


“Thank you for calling PrestWood Industries’ Automated Parts Replacement Hotline. If you require a replacement part whose part number is lower than 830296a, please say ‘Lower’. If you require a replacement part whose number is higher than 830296a, please say ‘Higher’. If you don’t know the number of the replacement part you require, or if you are unsure if part number 830296aa is lower or higher than 830296a, please say ‘Derp!’ now.”


“Okay. If you are calling about a product manufactured at our Martinsville, Virginia fabrication facility, please say ‘Virginia’. If you are calling about a product manufactured at our Martinsville, West Virginia fabrication facility, please say ‘West Virginia’. If you would like me to explain the difference between Virginia and West Virginia, please say ‘Worn-out stereotypes’.”

Uhhm … Texas?

“I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that. Could you please repeat your request?”

I’d like to speak to a person, please.

“It sounds like you said you’d like to sleep in a Turkish breeze. If you’d like to sleep in a Mediterranean breeze, please say ‘Izmir’. If you’d like to sleep in a Black Sea breeze, please say ‘Trabzon’. If you’d like to sleep in an inland breeze, please say ‘Kahramanmaras’.”

I’d like to speak to a person, please.

“It sounds like you said you’d like to speak to a Pekingese. If you meant that you’d like to speak to a person from Peking, China, please say ‘I didn’t know it was actually called Beijing’. If you meant that you’d like to speak to a small dog, please say ‘Arf’. If you meant that you’d like to speak to someone from Pekin, Illinois, please hold the line and we will connect you to a random telephone number in that exchange.”


“It sounds like you said you’d like your dog to learn German. Please hold while I connect you with our Canine Language Institute.”


“Danke für Ihren Anruf Sprache für Hunde. Wenn Ihr Hund spricht gut Deutsch, bitte sagen, ‘Landschaftsarchitekt’. Wenn Ihr Hund kämpft mit dem Geschlecht der Substantive, bitte sagen, ‘Krätze-Epidemie’. Wenn Sie Hilfe benötigen Konjugation des Verbs hocken, bitte sagen, ‘Vollkorn-Müsli’.”

(long pause)

Gunter … glieben … glauchen globen?

“Wenn Sie einen Leoparden, der nicht hören kann, bitte sagen Sie nichts, da Sie offensichtlich lügen würde. Wenn Sie tatsächlich ein Hund, bitte sagen ‘Arf’.”


“If you are an English speaker who wound up trapped in our German subsidiary’s automated voice response system because you quoted an old Def Leppard song and barked like a dog, please say you’re sorry.”

You’re sorry.

“No, you say that you, personally, are sorry.”

I’m sorry.

“Thank you. I will now connect you to an English-speaking customer service representative.”


“Szenk yiaoue verkallen PraistVoood, meinaame i Jason, hyow mayi kjelp yiaoue?”

Um … an English speaker, please?

“Eijam spaykeen Unglosh. Hyow mayi kjelp yiaoue?”

I need a replacement part for my new entertainment center, I was short one cam follower.

“Khwot paart nummer diyaoue nid?”

What part number do I need?

“Tsjes, paart nummer.”

I don’t know the part number.

“Da yiaoue throo awaie thee dirrashoens?”

Huh? No, no I didn’t throw away the directions.

“Kjif yiaoue luctin thee dirrashoen, yiaoue wulzi dapaart nummber fordi khaw flowerer.”

My directions don’t have part numbers, for some reason.

“Mokay. Khwot maadel izyur antitunement sunder?”

It’s the DigiTech Complete Home Theater Support Rack.

“Mokay. Iv yiaoue gummi yiaoure abress, eiwull sen yiaoue szumnu dirraeshoens. Don, yiaoue conkle baak wivdi gurrect paart nummer.”

Wait … you’re going to send me new directions so I can call you back with the correct part number?


Can I speak to your supervisor?

“Szerdenli. Plaize huld.”


“Hello, this is Jane, how may I help you?”

Oh, thank goodness. If that last guy’s name was really Jason, my name is really Sergeant Bjorn Abdul Sakamoto.

“What can I do for you today, Sergeant Sakamoto?”

*stunned silence*

I need a cam follower so I can finish putting together my new entertainment center. I don’t know what part number I need because for some reason the directions that came with my entertainment center don’t have any part numbers. I thought maybe he could look it up on his computer, but he told me he’d have to send me new directions and then I could call in with the correct part number.

“Yes, that is correct. Where would you like us to send the new directions?”

Well … can’t you look it up?

“I’m sorry, sir, I can’t do that.”

Why not?

“I’m not authorized to look up part numbers.”

Well, could you connect me to someone who is authorized?

“I’m sorry, I can’t do that, either.”

Why not?

“I’m the owner of the company. There is no one above me.”

So … you haven’t authorized yourself to look up part numbers at a company you own?

“No, sir, PrestWood hasn’t authorized me to look up parts numbers.”

But, don’t you own PrestWood?

“No, I own Toyuq Yanıb Yüngül Xalq Kollektiv in Izalgonbad, Wedundistan. We do parts fulfillment for PrestWood.”

I never would have guessed. Your English is flawless.

“Well, I’m really an actor, but I’m just owning and operating a small parts warehouse in a central Asian backwater until I get some callbacks.”

Oh. Well, anyway, why can’t you just look up the part number I need?

“Because we don’t have any assembly directions on site.”

Why not?

“We sent our only copy to another customer four months ago, and he hasn’t returned them yet.”

You only have one copy?

“For now. We have two more on order from Güləşçi Xalq Kitab Anbarı Qısa across town. Should be here in six to eight weeks.”

Six to eight weeks? From across town?

“The owner’s in Los Angeles right now auditioning for a part in an industrial safety film, the lucky fig.”

Oh. Well, I think I have a couple cam followers left over from the microwave cart I bought a couple years ago. Maybe I’ll see if one of those will work.

“Is it a PrestWood?”

Yes. Yes, it is.

“No problem. All PrestWood cam followers are 100% interchangeable.”

*more stunned silence*

“Anything else I can do for you, Sergeant Sakamoto?”


“Sergeant Sakamoto?”

Bad Christmas Song Power Rankings, 2012 Edition

December 17, 2012

1. Jingle Bells (last: unranked). It’s almost every kid’s favorite song, and at some time I’m sure it was mine but honestly, what does this song have to do with Christmas? Its sole redeeming grace was keeping the memory of Batman and Robin alive during the dark years of the late 1970s and early 1980s when all we had was SuperFriends and reruns of the 1960s TV show to keep the Dynamic Duo in our minds. One day kids will sing the alternate lyrics and they’ll make about as much sense as a song about Flash Gordon would make to kids now.

2. The Little Drummer Boy (last: 1). My rationale hasn’t changed. Drums and newborns don’t mix, particularly in the minds of those who were once 12-year-old male percussionists.

3. Do You Hear What I Hear? (last: unranked). This song is somewhat redeemed by the freaky alternate explanation (released at the height of the Cold War, the star “shining in the night” could also be a nuclear explosion) but it’s still kind of pompous and boring, an idea that goes absolutely nowhere musically.

4. Last Christmas by Wham! (last: 2). Did you ever notice how poorly George Michael sings this song? “Lass Chrissmuss ah gev you mah art …” Amazing. He’s actually a good singer, but this song has always seemed like a contractual obligation/quick seasonal cash-in. I’m softening towards it a little in my middle age. Still, I’ll stick by what I said the last time I did this: This is a Christmas song in the same sense that Die Hard is a Christmas movie. Change “Christmas” to “Thursday” and the song still makes sense.

5. Happy Xmas (War Is Over) (last: 10). Remember: if the war is not over, it’s your fault, because you really didn’t want it, you hideous monster.

6. Santa Claus Is Coming to Town (last: 5). This is still the creepiest Christmas song of all time, even if you consider “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” a Christmas song. I don’t know who wrote this, but I’m sure he or she wrote it after extracting a four-year-old from the top of the refrigerator for the fourth time in an hour.

7.  Carol of the Bells (last: 3). Don’t get me wrong: I don’t like this song any more than I used to. I realize I’m badly outvoted because of how prevalent this song happens to be. It’s still half an idea stretched beyond the breaking point and it’s a worse earworm than “Gangnam Style.”

8. Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer (last: 4). If you make a parody, and you do a really good job of it, there’s a real danger  that people will think you were being serious. Elmo Shropshire didn’t know this in 1979 when he skewered Christmas songs and family dynamics, but he knows it now. He doesn’t care, because he’s made millions of dollars off of it, but he’s learned it. Multiple demerits for the keyboard line that suggests “Jingle Bells,” thereby making you think of one annoying song while listening to another.

9.  O Christmas Tree (last: unranked). It’s not that this song is so terrible, it’s just that … well …

… I mean, come on.

10. I Yust Go Nuts At Christmas (last: unranked). At one time, you could make fun of people with Scandinavian accents and people would think it was hilarious because, well, they actually heard those accents sometimes. I bet this wouldn’t even fly in North Dakota any more. Still, I offer this up to my Southern friends as proof that the Southern accent is not the only one  Northern Americans have picked on with impunity.

Dropped out: No. 6 Jolly Old Saint Nicholas (5th grade bands have to play something at the Christmas Holiday Winter Concert), No. 7 Happy Holiday (wrongly blamed for being the start of The War On Christmas, mostly by people who haven’t seen the Bing Crosby movie it’s from), No. 8 Good King Wenceslaus (but only the Omaha-funky Mannheim Steamroller version), No. 9 The Holly and the Ivy (which I don’t have anything left to say about).

Top 10 Brand Names That Would Have Made Great ‘Batman’ Sound Effects

April 18, 2012

10. Zout!

9. Tab!

8. Braniff!

7. Dove!

6. Kia!

5. Breck!

4. Pabst!

3. Biz!

2. Torx!

1. Twix!