Tuesday, October 29, 2013

We Are Raising a Generation of Wimps

Last weekend I was on a soft foam playground with my little girl, and I reflected on how different things were when I was a kid, shortly after dinosaurs roamed the earth. Playgrounds then were asphalt-covered, jagged-edged death traps for kids, but we didn’t know any differently and our parents weren’t freaked out about it. I vividly remember once hanging upside down from monkey bars and dropping onto concrete directly on my head (now that I think about it, that hit probably explains quite a bit about me). It’s a wonder that my generation survived childhood. What concerns me today is that my daughter’s generation will grow up so coddled that it won’t survive adulthood.

One New Hampshire elementary school has banned the game of tag during recess, because the contact is potentially harmful. “We want them running, we want them jumping and releasing the energy, but just in a safe way,” said principal Patricia Beaulieu. “They’re allowed to play soccer... basketball, there’s jump ropes, there’s different balls they can play with, different foursquare games out there.”

A middle school in Port Washington, New York recently banned footballs, soccer balls, baseballs and lacrosse balls on its playgrounds, because those “hard” balls are potentially injurious. Seriously? Theoretically, anything – or nothing – can be potentially injurious. A kid could break a wrist just by falling awkwardly. I support the idea of switching out dangerous playground asphalt for a bouncy, foamy substitute; but are we really helping our children by restricting their sporting activity to the bland safety of pitching Nerf balls underhanded?

In that same paranoid vein, the Postal Service announced it was scrapping a line of stamps depicting children in various forms of play such as skipping rope, walking and jogging, dribbling a basketball, etc. The reason? It received “concerns” from the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition over apparently “unsafe” acts shown on three of the stamps: a cannonball dive into a pool, skateboarding without kneepads, and a headstand without a helmet (somehow they overlooked the horrifying images of a batter without a helmet, a girl teetering one-legged on a slippery rock, and a soccer player without kneepads). Apparently the Council feared the stamps would inspire kids to perform potentially dangerous acts – as if youngsters these days even know what a stamp is.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

In Defense of Disney Princesses

These days the Disney movie princesses, like Rodney Dangerfield, get no respect. Militant feminism has conditioned parents to reel in horror from the notion that their girls should aspire to be nothing more than fairy-tale damsels in distress, hoping for knights in shining armor to whisk them away from their Cinderella-like drudgery and live happily ever after in ball gowns at the royal castle. But this attitude stems from an unfortunate misperception about the Disney princesses, one that parents would do well to reconsider.

Upworthy posted an article last week about photographer Jaime Moore, who was searching for creative ways to take photos of her 5-year-old daughter Emma “but found most of the ideas were how to dress your little girl like a Disney princess.” Instead, Moore found real-life role models for her project. The result was, as Upworthy put it, “kick-ass” photos of Jane Goodall, Helen Keller, Amelia Earhart, Coco Chanel, and Susan B. Anthony side-by-side with shots of Moore’s daughter dressed and styled as each. Moore closed with, “Set aside the Barbie dolls and Disney princesses for just a moment, and let’s show our girls the real women they can be.”

As “kick-ass” as the photos are, the message frankly is dated. This isn’t the 1950s; American girls now grow up under the assumption that they can be whatever they aspire to. They don’t lack for role models in any profession one can name. Women today are CEOs, pro athletes, attorneys, astronauts, politicians, surgeons, construction workers, and possibly even POTUS in 2016. For decades even the much-maligned Barbie herself has had various professional personas.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Don’t Feed the Trolls

Recently an anonymous commenter responded to an Acculturated article I had written back in February entitled “Why Have Kids? They Make Life Meaningful.” The commenter stated, among other mean-spirited things, that “I hate kids. Always have. See humanity as a disease.” He (or she, but statistically speaking, it was most likely “he”) finished by saying that “women who birth children are dumb farm animals without exception.”

I always try to respond to Acculturated comments, which are almost invariably well-considered and -intended, but I didn’t waste time on this one. It was the very definition of trolling: irrational, hateful, and designed only to provoke and/or bully, not to contribute to a meaningful online conversation. Trolls don’t respond to reason; they seek to agitate, not debate. Responding would have served no purpose except to feed the troll’s perverse need to suck me into a time-wasting, enervating black hole from which even the light of reason cannot escape.

Such a comment may be rare on Acculturated, but the internet at large is hip-deep in trolls waging such (usually) anonymous, virtual guerrilla warfare. Political websites are particularly infested with them. I spend a great deal of time – too much – reading articles online, and have resolved recently not only to be more discriminating about that, but also to liberate myself from the negativity of reading article comments too, partly due to the high concentration of trolls spreading hate and ugliness for the pathetic satisfaction it gives them.

Studies show that trolls poison online articles, driving out more genteel, respectful, thoughtful commenters, who tire of threads being hijacked by losers with destructive agendas. “Trolling normalizes abuse,” says cultural anthropologist Olivier Morin, who has studied the phenomenon, “and that’s what’s frightening.”

It’s easy to dismiss trolls as lonely losers typing away feverishly in their parents’ basement, but the disturbing fact is that they come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and occupations. “Most people who troll are people who are just like you and me, but just a bit more intense,” says Morin. I can’t agree that intensity is behind it. One can debate a topic very intensely without devolving into hateful goading and insults.

Apart from those who simply take pleasure in being mean, then, what motivates someone to take the time to seek out, say, a website of one’s opposite political persuasion with the purposeful intention of spewing ugliness and gleefully sowing discord in online conversations? Two words: anonymity and powerlessness, a volatile combination.

The Muslims Are Coming!, Part II

Several weeks ago I posted a piece on FrontPage Mag entitled “The Muslims Are Coming!” about a recent documentary following a troupe of Muslim standup comics as they toured the country, enlightening all the middle-American clods who have somehow gotten the crazy impression that Islam poses a threat. I harshly attacked this concept; my take was that the world has an Islam problem, not an Islamophobia problem, and that claiming otherwise and slapping a happy face on the issue is insulting and pointless.

The film’s producer and co-director Dean Obeidallah, who is also one of the featured comedians, unsurprisingly took exception to this and called me a bigot and idiot on Twitter for reviewing a film I hadn’t seen. I responded that my article wasn’t a review of the documentary and didn’t claim to be; it was commentary on the very concept of the film based on the abundant information provided on its website, with a few examples drawn from the movie’s three-minute trailer. He seemed to think that watching the film itself would change my mind. I asked him if the trailer and website were not representative of the film’s content; because if they weren’t, and the film is about something completely different, then he has a marketing problem.

Obeidallah, who bills himself as the Dean of Comedy (Get it? His name is Dean) couldn’t or wouldn’t respond. Instead, he went off and wrote about my piece at the Daily Beast where he could dismiss me as a hater for his audience of smug leftist sheep, who either live in willful ignorance about Islam or happily support the agenda of Islamic fundamentalists to tear down western civilization from within and without.

I still haven’t seen Obeidallah’s documentary, so if it is indeed radically different from how it is presented on the website (and you can read the long synopsis for yourself here), then I will apologize and retract my criticisms. But I know I won’t have to. The website and trailer clearly push the message that media distortion, bigotry, ignorance, and the “irrational fear of Islam” – otherwise known by the Brotherhood neologism “Islamophobia” – are the real issues that need to be resolved in order to bring peace to the clash of civilizations. Obeidallah and his cohorts think that, twelve years after 9/11, American non-Muslims still don’t understand or appreciate Islam, that anyone who expresses concerns about Islamic fundamentalism is a bigot and Islamophobe, and that if we all just learn to laugh about it together, we’ll see that sharia and jihad pose no threat and Islam is perfectly compatible with western ideals of freedom, human rights, and individualism.

In the month since my article appeared, here is what the world has witnessed of Islam:

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Is Amazon Ruining Serious Literature?

Jonathan Franzen is serious about literature. “Serious writers and readers, these are my people,” he reportedly said at a Tulane talk. In recent interviews he has expressed contempt for technological shifts affecting those writers and readers, shifts he finds deeply unserious, from social media to the self-publishing boom being facilitated by

Franzen is one of America’s most accomplished contemporary novelists. In 2010 the New York Times called his number one bestseller Freedom a “masterpiece of American fiction.” Oprah Winfrey crowned it one of her Book Club picks. He also made the cover of Time magazine in 2010, the first living novelist in a decade to do so. His 2001 novel The Corrections won the National Book Award for Fiction and was a Pulitzer finalist.

He didn’t earn those kudos by screwing around on the worldwide web. Franzen disables his internet connection when he writes, and has contempt for the time-sucking, narcissistic ephemera of social media. Twitter he calls “unspeakably irritating,” and Facebook he slams as a “private hall of flattering mirrors.”

As you might guess, Franzen is very Old School about ebooks too, which he finds unsettling: “A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it's just not permanent enough.”

As for the technology that now enables anyone to self-publish, not just “serious writers,” that too disturbs Franzen’s literary sensibility. In an article for the Guardian Review, he sharply criticized’s dominance as an online platform for self-published writers. He came close to likening head honcho Jeff Bezos to the anti-Christ for the changes his company has wrought for writers and readers alike: “Amazon wants a world in which books are either self-published or published by Amazon itself, with readers dependent on Amazon reviews in choosing books, and with authors responsible for their own promotion.”

What Franzen doesn’t acknowledge is that in the old publishing model, authors are already responsible for their own promotion unless they’re bestsellers like him, which is rare. Publishers concentrate their promotional efforts behind rainmakers like Franzen and largely leave midlevel authors and below to fend for themselves in the marketplace, and that’s why social media have become necessary and effective tools for getting the word out about one’s book.

Sleepy Hollow’s Patriotic Thrill Ride

Several weeks ago, AMC premiered a new drama in the coveted time slot immediately following Breaking Bad, hoping to snare Walter White’s legions of fans: Low Winter Sun, a gritty cop drama set in decaying Detroit. Unlike The Shield, however, another gritty cop drama, Low Winter Sun’s protagonists aren’t just morally compromised – they’re flat-out bad. Every character is unsympathetic; it’s impossible to care about them. I gave up on the relentlessly humorless series after a few episodes – just in time to start enjoying a show that is its polar opposite: the unabashedly lively, entertaining Sleepy Hollow.

Fox’s new fantasy drama series begins with the unique premise that Ichabod Crane, the protagonist of Washington Irving’s 1820 short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, has been mystically transported forward in time to contemporary Sleepy Hollow, New York. Unfortunately, so has a version of Irving’s Headless Horseman, here reimagined as a demonic killing machine, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse described in the Biblical book of Revelation.

The show’s creators have revamped Crane too, as a British soldier who accepted the rightness of the American patriots’ fight for independence from the King and switched sides. He was actually carrying out a spy mission for Gen. George Washington before awakening in 2013 and finding himself suspected in the beheading of the local sheriff at the hands of the fearsome Horseman. Police Lt. Abbie Mills, investigating her mentor’s gruesome murder, takes a chance on partnering with the suspect Crane to solve the supernatural mystery and to take on the dark forces that seem to have been unleashed in her formerly sleepy corner of the world.

Unrelenting suspension of disbelief is a requirement for viewing this almost comically fast-paced series, which is stuffed to the gills with supernatural phenomenon: witches, the apocalypse, Biblical revelations, ghosts, demons, everything but UFOs – all in the first two episodes. The show moves at such breakneck speed that it doesn’t allow the viewer time to question the show’s confused theology and lapses in credibility (e.g., cops don’t transport crime suspects in the front seat) – and frankly, it’s so much fun that you don’t care about those.

Sleepy Hollow’s pro-American Revolutionary spirit and unmuddied moral waters are a welcome change from the moral equivalence so common from Hollywood (the terrorism drama Homeland comes to mind). There is even a sympathetic nod to the Tea Party – not the protesters of Crane’s day who dumped British tea in the Boston Harbor, but today’s movement protesting big government overreach. When Abbie tells Crane his story sounds insane, he takes a look at their breakfast receipt and announces, “What’s insane is a ten percent levy on baked goods! You do realize the Revolutionary War began on less than two percent? How is the public not flocking to the streets in outrage?!”