Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Strangers in their Own Land: Book Review


In Louisiana, the pollution from the industrial plants that line the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans has created “Cancer Alley.” Yet in election after election, Louisiana voters elect politicians who promise to protect the oil and chemical companies. As these companies ravage Louisiana’s environment, politicians decry the EPA and the Federal government. They espouse their love of the free market and small government while relying on the Federal government to supply over 40% of the state’s budget. As the state has given millions in tax breaks to industrial conglomerates, its residents suffer from staggering poverty, high obesity rates, underfunded educational systems, and low life expectancies. Arlie Russell Hochschild has termed this phenomenon “The Great Paradox.” From 2011-2016, Hochschild embedded herself among members of Louisiana’s Tea Party to better understand “The Great Paradox.” Her explanation brilliantly describes the feelings of alienation and cultural decline amongst those on the American right. 

During her research, Hochschild, a UC-Berkely sociologist, interviewed dozens of people, attended church services and Tea Party meetings. She divided her interviewees into different groups. There’s Janice the Team Loyalist—she attached herself to the values of the Republican party and credits them with all her successes in life. If the Republican Party supports oil and chemical companies, then she does too—even as she builds her new house as far away from the chemical factories as she can. There’s Jackie the Worshipper—she thinks that “Pollution is the sacrifice we make for capitalism” (179). She believes this because in her own life she’s subordinated her personal ambitions to God and her husband. Like her wish for a new and better house, we cannot have anything we want. There’s Donny the Cowboy—the daring, individualist. He stoically endures all of life’s challenges including pollution. In the words of Tony Soprano, Donny’s “Gary Cooper, the strong silent type.” 

Hochschild describes the anxieties, fears, and emotions expressed by those on the American right as their “Deep Story.” Her interviewees see themselves in the middle of a line heading up a hill. On the other side of the hill is the American dream. They’re waiting patiently alongside people who look like them—white, Christian, some with college degrees. There are many people in line behind them. They’re poor, black, Mexican, women, immigrants, or not-Christian. As Hochschild explains, “It’s scary to look back; there are so many behind you, and in principle you wish them well. Still, you’ve waited a long time, worked hard, and the line is barely moving. You deserve to move forward a little faster. You’re patient but weary. You focus ahead, especially on those at the very top of the hill” (136). Then the line stops moving at all and even starts moving backwards. 


Worst of all, the same people from the back of the line—the women, immigrants, people of color—begin cutting the line. That’s not fair, Hochschild’s interviewees think. How are they cutting the line ahead of us? It’s the government helping them with affirmative action. How did President Obama cut ahead? He was poor and black, so he must’ve gotten help or worse, he cheated. Now he’s helping others do the same. Those on the American right see themselves as compassionate and caring, but that doesn’t extend to line-cutters. They’ve faced their own problems, but they’re not complaining about it. There’s no government program helping them get ahead. So those on the right feel betrayed. They look at the president and wonder why does he dress that way? Why does he always talk about America’s problems? Can’t he see what a great nation America is? Why is it wrong to be proud of America? Why do I feel like a stranger in my own land? 

The believers of the “Deep Story” practice some deeply un-American beliefs. As Hochschild explains, her interviewees spoke often about Mexicans and Muslims, statistically small percentages of Louisiana’s population. They rarely spoke of African-Americans in their midst. Mostly they felt that they lashed out at Northerners for accusing them of racism. They believed that racism meant using the N-word or hating African-Americans. Yet they only saw African-Americans as the lenses of celebrity, athletics, criminals, or welfare queens. As Hochschild wrote, “Missing from the image of blacks in most of the minds of those I came to know was a man or woman standing patiently in line next to them waiting for a well-deserved reward” (147). This view of African-Americans reveals the systemic racism at the heart of this “Deep Story.” 

Some of Hochschild’s interviewees deeply believe in inequality. Janice the Team Loyalist wants to put people to work on highway construction projects with shovels and wheelbarrows. That way: “When people got home at night, they’d be tired and wouldn’t be out drinking or doing drugs” (159). Americans should repatriate the graves of American soldiers in France back to the United States. Then we could employ American boys to mow the graveyards. She supposes that war isn’t such a bad thing, especially since it would put people to work making missiles and uniforms. Handing out guns and ammunition to everyone in the Middle East is the best way to spread democracy. If poor women want to receive government support, she contends, then the government should sterilize them. The rest of America’s problems, she contends, could be solved by better “churching.” As Hochschild explains, “Underlying Janice’s reasoning is her idea about inequality. Some people may just be destined to remain at the end of the line for the American Dream” (160) and it’s not the job of the government or anyone else to help them to the front of the line. 

Hochschild's illumination of the American Right's Deep Story is a necessary first step in understanding and even attempting to bridge the political and social gap in the United States. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Revisiting the Independence Day Movies

In honor of July 4 (coming up this Saturday), it's a good time to revisit one the great blockbuster disaster movies of the 1990s and it's largely unnecessary sequel that tried to launch another Hollywood franchise.

The original Independence Day was a smashing financial success in the summer of 1996. It starred Will Smith (at the height of his popularity) as a brash fighter pilot out to save the world. Bill Pullman played a beleaguered American president who spawned the film's iconic moment--a speech delivered to a rag-tag group of Americans before their final stand against the aliens. Then there was Jeff Goldblum as a satellite repair technician/genius inventor who using a MacBook uploaded a computer virus into the alien mothership ensuring humanity's survival. The movie is both silly and a ridiculous spectacle, as outlined in the Honest Trailer below.



Then there was the 2016 sequel, Independence Day Resurgence. We reviewed the movie here shortly after it came out and there's some of it that's worth revisiting.

Resurgence starts out promisingly enough. Twenty years later, there's moon bases, a scarred African warlord who led an insurgency against the remaining aliens on Earth. Bill Pullman is battling psychological demons. Jeff Goldblum is there doing Jeff Goldblum things. When the movie focuses on Earth and the aftermath of the alien invasion, it hums along nicely. When the aliens show up, it goes off the rails.

There's a surfeit of characters who have precious little to do. There's a predictable veneration of China to appeal to Chinese government censors. There's a bus full of children driving around the Bonneville Salt Flats. And by the end, there's a second alien species who arrive with super-amazing technology to ally with humanity and take the fight to the aliens across the Galaxy. The only winner here is Will Smith, who wins because he refused to be in the movie in the first place.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Star Wars Film Rankings UPDATED: Part Two


Last week we started our updated look at the Star Wars movies now that the sequel trilogy is complete.

Return of the Jedi: Jedi loses some points for the middle portion of the movie, which is slowly paced and spends way too much time on the Ewoks. The opening and closing acts (freeing Han from Jabba’s palace and the Battle of Endor), however, are quintessential Star Wars. At the beginning, we see Luke putting his Jedi skills into action. (The film also suffers from sexually objectifying Carrie Fisher in her slave outfit.) The end effectively balances the space battle above Endor, the fighting on the surface, and Luke’s confrontation with Vader and the emperor. It is a fitting emotional end to Luke’s journey and his father’s redemption. 

Revenge of the Sith: Revenge of the Sith may be the best of the prequels, but that’s like saying Sbarro is the best airport pizza option. In the end, it still sucks. The film’s opening space battle is enjoyable enough, but it still suffers from plodding dialogue and incredibly poor pacing. The sequel trilogy reduced Natalie Portman’s Padme from gun wielding intergalactic badass to weeping pregnant woman in three short movies. Her delivery of the line, “Anakin, you’re breaking my heart” is still painful to listen to The film’s emotion comes solely from Ewan McGregor’s ability to convey his distress at his friend's betrayal of the entire Galaxy.

Phantom Menace: This isn’t an argument that Phantom Menace is a good movie, just that it’s better than Attack of the ClonesPhantom Menace has a fun podracing scene—ripped off from Ben-Hur, but still fun. There’s also Liam Neeson doing his best with some truly clunky George Lucas dialogue (also another Lucas weakness). Yes, Jar-Jar Binks is terrible and a racist stereotype (one of several in the film). And if you watch the film in the Machete Order (4, 5, 2, 3, 6) you can skip Phantom Menace entirely and not miss a beat. The film’s climatic duel with Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon, and Darth Maul is far and above anything in Attack of the Clones.  




Rise of Skywalker: Rise of Skywalker is bad. It's a jumbled mess of fan-service moments from a filmmaker disinterested in anything but reminding you of other better moments in other better films. It also goes out of its way to trash The Last Jedi. Rise of Skywalker packs so much fan-service into a nonsensical plot that it's downright insulting. Look a cell-block escape! Chewie gets a medal! The emperor is alive (?)! Luke lifts an X-wing out of the water! C-3PO and Chewie sort of die but not really! Let's give Poe a love interest and a super-duper extra evil villain armed with a fleet of planet destroying star destroyers! 

Solo: A Star Wars Story: Like the far-superior Rogue One, Solo tries to answer questions about the original trilogy that didn't need answering. Who cares where Han Solo got his name? Or how he got the Millennium Falcon? And why did we need a movie to show us that everything awesome that happened in his life came on one action-packed weekend? By the time--chronologically speaking--we get to Han Solo in a New Hope, he's less a galactic rogue and more a guy desperately trying to recreate his high school glory days. 

Attack of the Clones:  Clones drags on interminably (sensing a theme? George Lucas has pacing problems in his movies). The middle sections where Padme and Anakin escape back to her home planet are some of the worst written romance sequences ever put to film. Throw in a murderous side trip to Anakin’s home planet where he rescues his mom and murders an entire village of sand-people and you’ve got a disaster on your hands. Then there’s the inclusion of Jango Fett—because Boba Fett, the galaxy’s lamest bounty hunter, needed a tragic backstory?—who promptly gets his ass handed to him by a bunch of Jedi. The film’s battle scenes are simply a collection of CGI mumbo-jumbo as one giant CGI army fights another one. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Star Wars Film Rankings UPDATED: Part One


A few years ago, we offered a ranking of the best Star Wars movies. Now that the sequel trilogy is complete--along with two standalone movies. It's time to update those rankings. Here we go.

1. The Empire Strikes Back: Embracing a darker tone, Empire pushes deeper into the emotional core of its characters. There’s more Han-Leia banter as the two grow to realize that they can’t stand one another but also love each other. Luke starts training to be a Jedi and risks turning to the dark side to save his imperiled friends. Darth Vader is back and more determined than ever to crush the rebellion. The Battle of Hoth rivals the destruction of both Death Stars for its scale and staging. Then there’s the famous, “No, I am your father” scene. And Han’s “I know” response to Leia’s declaration of love as he’s about to be frozen in carbonite. Sci-fi doesn’t get much better than this. 

2. The Last Jedi: Rian Johnson's revisionist take on the Star Wars universe dared viewers to leave the past behind and kill it if they had to. Toxic fanboy objections aside, Johnson created a visually daring film that is so stuffed with ideas that it is both too long and too short at the same time. The brave and foolhardy actions of reckless and selfish men find themselves under examination as a gallery's worth of prominent women show their male counterparts just what leadership really looks like. And it's not sulking in exile for 20 years or jumping in the seat of an X-Wing and getting half your fleet killed. It's a story of sacrifice and passing down hard-earned lessons to a new generation of heroes. 

3. A New Hope: All these years later, A New Hope remains an enjoyable viewing experience with Luke Skywalker’s heroes’ journey from farm boy to galactic savior. Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher shine as Han and Leia. Alec Guinness lends his considerable gravitas to his role of Obi-Wan giving the film an air of seriousness and depth. As was shown in the prequel trilogy, George Lucas’s clumsy dialogue sounds a lot worse in the hands of lesser talented actors. The climactic attack on the Death Star remains one of Lucas’s best directed set pieces of the entire series. There are a lot worse ways to spent two hours than revisiting this classic movie.



4. Rogue One: Director Gareth Edwards has an impressive grasp of scale. He frames a Star Destroyer in the foreground with the installation of the Death Star’s super-weapon in the background. Rebel fighters crash into the front of a Star Destroyer exiting hyperspace. The film’s climatic hour succeeds where Force Awakens failed, by creating clear stakes for each part of the battle to retrieve the Death Star plans. Unfortunately, the film’s first half suffers from underdeveloped characters and a grueling slog from anonymous planet to anonymous planet that reeks of reshoots and a desire to make a film where everyone dies at the end into a family friendly adventure.

5. Force Awakens: The Force Awakens benefits from strong casting and character work as well as being competently entertaining following the under-baked prequel trilogy. Tasked with introducing a new cast to go alongside the old veterans, director J.J Abrams more or less made a carbon copy of a A New Hope, which isn’t the worst thing in the world, but limits the film’s upside. The plot of the last hour or so takes a backseat to character work as there’s another bigger, badder Death Star but without any of the tension or stakes that came from blowing up the first two Death Stars. Abrams, however, moved the franchise in a positive direction by creating likeable and relatable main characters like Rey, Finn, and Poe. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Quiet: Book Review

        


Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking offers a sophisticated examination of “the single most important aspect of personality”—where a person falls on the introvert-extrovert spectrum (2). Being an introvert or extrovert shapes the choices we make about friends, life partners, hobbies, careers, social interactions, critical thinking skills, and pretty much everything else. In the United States, Cain points out, we have embraced an “Extravert Ideal.” She explains that “We’re told that to be great is to be bold, to be happy is to be sociable. We see ourselves as a nation of extroverts—which means that we’ve lost sight of who we really are” (3). In reality, however, we are a nation of extroverts and introverts. Somewhere between one third and one half of all Americans are introverts. Through an examination of the relevant scientific research, Cain critiques modern society and its emphasis on extroversion and seeks to recognize and foster the contributions of introverts. 

Borrowing an idea from the cultural historian Warren Susman, Cain outlines how the “Extrovert Ideal” arose out of a fundamental shift in the early 20th century away from a culture of character to a culture of personality. "In the Culture of Character," the ideal self was serious, disciplined, and honorable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private” (21). With the culture of personality, “Americans started to focus on how others perceived them. They became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining” (21). 

As the “Extrovert Ideal” came to dominate American culture, it reshaped institutions like workplaces and schools. The best workers in the office were those who were bold, aggressive, and charismatic. The best students were those who spoke up, asserted themselves, and eagerly shared their ideas. Such workers and students got better grades, earned more promotions, and were generally held in higher regard by their superiors than their introverted colleagues. 

The problem with valorizing these behaviors, as Cain points out, is that they don’t lead to better results. The loudest, most assertive, or most confident speakers aren’t better leaders nor do they have better ideas or make better decisions. Building on the work of other researchers, Cain suggests that this extrovert ideal contributed to the 2008 financial crisis and other recent business scandals. Vincent Kaminski, a former research director at Enron, tried to warn the company of its dangerous business practices, but was ignored and demoted by his more aggressive and risk-taking bosses—the same men who drove the company into bankruptcy. 

Similarly, the student who talks first, loudest, or most assertively doesn’t have better ideas than anyone else. In fact, they’re most often the student who has thought the least about the question being asked. Yet as research has shown, we rate people, individually and in groups, who are talkative as more intelligent and attractive. Cain stresses that recognizing the contributions of introverts means we must confront and acknowledge our own biases.



Cain interrogates the stereotypical understanding of introverts as anti-social by examining the scientific literature on the subject. She highlights the influential research of psychologist Jerome Kagan who identified the importance of the amygdala, the brain’s emotional switchboard, in understanding introversion and extroversion. Among its many responsibilities, the amygdala detects new or threatening environments and reacts to them. Kagan theorized that people who had high reactivity to new situations were more likely to be introverts. When placed in new situations, introverts had higher levels of activity in their amygdale, while extroverts were less reactive.

Kagan’s research redefines what we think of as the primary differences between introverts and extroverts. Instead of defining extroverts as social and introverts as unsocial, we should think of them as differently social. Because introverted brains are more activated by novelty, introverts tend to react more deeply—intellectually, emotionally, or otherwise—than extroverts whose brains don’t engage on this deeper level.  

Researchers have also identified how introverts can act like extroverts through a trait known as “self-monitoring.” High self-monitors are highly skilled at adapting their behavior to match the demands of a given social situation. They look for clues on how to act based on the environment, the context, and the behavior of others. Low self-monitors are less sensitive to social cues and allow their own personalities to guide their interactions.

But, as Cain points out, introverts can only play the role of extroverts for a certain amount of time before they need to withdraw and recharge. Getting better at playing the extrovert comes with practice and determination. Cain also stresses that acting like an extrovert is a good thing, especially if it’s in service of something good/useful like your career, fulfilling a passion, promoting some good cause etc. 

Ultimately, Cain's Quiet is an outspoken call to reevaluate and rebalance the societal relationship between introversion and extroversion. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

The Best Season from a Louisiana Baseball Player


While Philadelphia Phillies starter Aaron Nola is a native Louisianan, he is somehow not from New Orleans. He was born in Baton Rouge and attended LSU before being drafted in the 1st round of the 2014 MLB draft.

In 2018, Nola put up a pitching season for the ages. Nola’s 2018 was the highest wins above replacement by any player born in Louisiana. So let’s revisit what made Nola so good in 2018. 

Nola started 33 games and threw 212 and one-third innings. He allowed only 149 hits and struck out an astonishing 224 opposing hitters, eighth in the majors. Opposing hitters only mustered a measly .197/.259/.311 batting line against Nola. In an offensive friendly era, Nola held hitters to only 17 home runs and was sixth in majors in home runs allowed per nine innings. 

Nola thrived against high-level competition, holding Nationals superstar (and future teammate) Bryce Harter to just two hits in 17 plate appearances. All told, Harper hit only .125/.176/.313 against Nola. Nationals rookie phenom Juan Soto didn’t fare much better, hitting just .091/.333/.182 in 15 plate appearances. The Braves' rookie sensation Ozzie Albies similarly struggled, garnering only a .231/.231/.308 batting line in 13 plate appearances. At the end of 2018, Nola finished third in Cy Young voting behind winner Jacob deGrom and runner-up Max Scherzer and made the NL All-Star team. 


Nola’s best game of the season game was against the New York Mets on July 9, 2018 at Citi Field. Nola threw seven innings and held the Mets to only one hit—a Wilmer Flores single to left field in the bottom of the first inning—and only one walk (to Mets outfielder Michael Conforto in the bottom of the seventh inning). He struck out 10 Mets, including center fielder Brandon Nimmo three times. 

Even more impressively, Nola was his own run support. In the top of the fifth inning, Nola came to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs. He drove the first pitch he saw down the right-field line for a bases clearing double. Nola’s 3 runs batted in were the only runs the Phillies scored all game. According to win probability added (a statistic that measures how much a player helped his team win the game), Nola’s performance at the plate (.307 WPA) was nearly equal to his performance on the mound (.347 WPA).

Since arriving in the majors for good in 2016, Nola is seventh in wins above replacement among pitchers, nestled between future Hall of Famers Stephen Strasburg and Clayton Kershaw. Nola recently signed a four year, $45 million contract to buy out his arbitration seasons and first few seasons of free agency to remain in Philadelphia. 

Nola already ranks 17th in WAR amongst pitchers from Louisiana and will be in the top 10 within two healthy seasons. If things go his way, he may even challenge Andy Pettitte and Ted Lyons as the best pitcher to come from Louisiana. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Dogs

Everyone here at DGA has a dog. Some of us have more than one. Only Benson has cats (but also two dogs). Dogs are, quite simply, the best. They comfort us, make us laugh, and are fantastic companions.

Our dogs have been especially important in the midst of the pandemic, providing a reason to go for walks and a welcome distraction from the world. And while they have surely noticed that there's something up with their human companions, they remain committed to their day-to-day lives--chewing bones, eating yard detritus, and being especially bothersome and ill-behaved at the worst possible moments. They are the best.

A few weeks ago, we began passing around a series of dog videos made by UK golf announcer Andrew Cotter. While they are relatively short, they brilliantly sum up the joys and absurdities of life with dogs. In Cotter's case, he has two Labrador retrievers--Olive and Mabel. Mixing the seriousness of his announcing voice and the mundanity of watching a dog eat or play with a bone is the perfect distraction for a world in the midst of a pandemic.

For those of you who haven't seen them, the first two videos are imbedded below. Enjoy and if you're anything like us, you'll watch them half a dozen times or more.