Wednesday, November 27, 2013

What’s Behind Upworthy’s Success? The Answer Will Make You Cry

As if the internet weren’t already such an infinite time suck, along comes a website that targets curious, ADD-addled procrastinators such as myself with blatant but ridiculously effective “click-bait.” Once you’re hooked, its content tugs at your heartstrings so irresistibly that you may not even realize you’re getting a dose of a social message as well.

Upworthy is a phenomenally successful site that scans the internet for “things that matter,” as its motto goes, and then propels them into the pageview stratosphere. Launched in March 2012 by Eli Pariser, former executive director of the activist site MoveOn, and Peter Koechley, former managing editor of the satirical news site The Onion, Upworthy was described in a recent Fast Company article as “the fastest growing media site of all time.” It lured 25 million unique visitors in the first week of this November alone.

What accounts for this skyrocketing growth? Upworthy has mastered the art of marketing “click-bait with a conscience,” as The Atlantic put it recently. A slideshow of Upworthy’s strategy explains that the simple idea is to pique readers’ curiosity with a headline tease that compels them to click, and content that compels them to share. “If you can find that happy medium between entertainment and an emotional connection,” reads one slide, “you can make some magic happen.” Hence an example like, “The Things This 4-Year-Old Is Doing Are Cute. The Reason He’s Doing Them is Heartbreaking.”

Here are some other examples that might be familiar to you, from a list of Upworthy’s 11 greatest hits, along with their traffic numbers: “This Kid Just Died. What He Left Behind is Wondtacular” (17 million pageviews); “9 out of 10 Americans Are Completely Wrong About this Mind-Blowing Fact” (6.3 million); “His First 4 Sentences Are Interesting. The 5th Blew My Mind. And Made Me A Little Sick.” (4.9 million).

Thursday, November 21, 2013

“Inner Beauty Doesn’t Exist”: Venezuela’s Beauty Problem

If you had money on anyone other than Miss Venezuela in the recent Miss Universe pageant (or in any international beauty pageant), then you have no business gambling. Venezuela’s socialist economy may be collapsing, but its pageant industry is a booming, national obsession; the country has produced more pageant winners than any other – six Miss World winners, six Miss Internationals, one Miss Earth, and seven Miss Universes, including three of the last six contests. Even when they don’t win, you have to wonder, “Were the judges blind?!” But as always with obsession, there is a dark side to this beauty domination.

The New York Times recently posted an eyebrow-raising article and accompanying video about the impact Venezuela’s success on the world stage has had on the country’s “average” women. It has fueled a fascination among them with cosmetic surgery and procedures like breast implants, tummy tucks, nose jobs and butt-firming injections, as they strive to transform their bodies to approximate an artificial, pageant-worthy ideal. “Beauty is perfection, to try to perfect yourself more and more every day,” said a clothing shop owner. “That’s how people see it here.”

To keep up with this increasing trend, clothing store owners have begun fashioning mannequins with more exaggerated, porn star proportions. Until recently, one owner explained, “the mannequins were natural, just like the women were natural,” she said. “The transformation has been both of the woman and of the mannequin.” Sales have risen dramatically, so such mannequins are now the standard in stores across the country.

One woman who works in a mannequin workshop says, “You see a woman like this and you say, ‘Wow, I want to look like her.’” She explains why, given the opportunity, she would undergo the surgery to help her accomplish just that: “It gives you better self-esteem.”

Cruise, Wahlberg, and Afghanistan

Seriously committed artists – actors, writers, etc. – work hard at their craft. But not combat hard. In the last few days, statements from two of Hollywood’s hardest-working actors highlighted just how important it is to acknowledge that distinction.

With unfortunate timing, rumor hit the internet just before Veterans Day that megastar Tom Cruise, in his deposition for a defamation lawsuit, affirmed his lawyers’ claim that his film work was akin to serving a military tour of duty in Afghanistan. “[T]hat’s what it feels like,” Cruise said, “and certainly on [his most recent] movie, it was brutal. It was brutal.” Many fans expressed their offense on social media at the suggestion that a movie star’s work, no matter how demanding, is comparable to a year or two in the hellhole that is Taliban-infested Afghanistan.

That rumor “is a gross distortion of the record,” Cruise’s attorney said in a subsequent statement. He made it clear that an unreleased video of the deposition shows that Cruise wasn’t being serious. “As the video shows, he and the lawyer were laughing at his answer, and, when asked in the next question if the situations were comparable, Tom said, ‘Oh, come on,’ meaning of course not.”

Fair enough. But then Cruise went on to compare himself to Olympic athletes: “There is difficult physical stamina and preparation. Sometimes I've spent months, a year, and sometimes two years preparing for a single film. A sprinter for the Olympics, they only have to run two races a day. When I'm shooting, I could potentially have to run 30, 40 races a day, day after day.”

I hesitate to speak ill of Cruise, because he drops the hammer on $50 million lawsuits anytime he feels he’s been defamed. As comedian Russell Brand recently put it to Conan O’Brien, “[Cruise] is a glorious man and he’s very kind and sweet – that’s what you say if you want to continue to work in the film industry.” I readily concede that his Afghanistan comment was taken out of context; tabloids have a habit of skewing celebrity quotations to suit their profit margin. But in combination with his Olympian comment, Cruise came off looking rather arrogant in the deposition.

Controlling the Language of Political Warfare

Over at the Addicting Info website, which you may not have heard of but is surprisingly highly-trafficked, Elisabeth Parker posted a piece entitled “12 Phrases Progressives Need To Ditch (And What We Can Say Instead)” encouraging her readers to gain the upper hand in the war of political language. This strategy is certainly nothing new, but it’s worth a look at her recommendations as a window into the left’s mindset and a reminder that language matters. Whichever side controls the terminology on a given issue wins – it’s as simple as that.

Below are the phrases to which Parker objects, her explanations (edited for length), and my commentary in italics throughout. Some of them are old news, except perhaps to the young readers she’s obviously addressing, but she adds a new wrinkle here and there:

(1). Big Business: (Also Corporate America; Multinationals; Corporate Interests) People think, “what’s wrong with that?” After all, they’d like their own businesses to get “big.”

Exactly – but progressives disapprove of anyone becoming “too” successful. Everyone must be reduced to the same level of mediocrity.

Instead, progressives can try: Unelected Government. This puts big, global, multinationals in their proper context as unelected entities with unprecedented powers, whose actions have immense impact on our lives, and which we are powerless to hold accountable.

It’s no surprise that big government proponents despise big business. Here she is equating the latter with an illegitimate shadow government with evil designs, which must be overthrown. “Unelected government” is an even more outlandish distortion of the truth than the term “undocumented residents,” which she predictably gets to later.

(2). Entitlements: “Entitlements” sounds like something a bunch of spoiled, lazy, undeserving people irrationally think they should get for nothing.

For more information, see “Wall Street, Occupy.”

Instead, we progressives should try: Earned Benefits. This term not only sounds better for the progressive cause, it’s also more accurate.

I don’t expect a progressive to understand or care about economic realities, but here’s an article Ms. Parker should read about the explosive growth and impact of out-of-control entitlement programs on our economy: “The Shocking Truth on Entitlements.”

(3). Free Market Capitalism: (Also Capitalism, Free Markets, and Supply-Side Economics) Like “Fascism” and “Communism,” “Free Market Capitalism” is a 20th-century utopian ideal that has amply been proven an unworkable failure, and damaging to society. Instead, progressives should try: Socialized Risk, Privatized Profits.

She says “privatized profits” as if they’re a bad thing. At least she admits that Communism is an unworkable failure, but 20th century America’s extraordinary standard of living, unprecedented in history, and her superpower domination in less than 200 years of existence proves anything but the fact that capitalism is a failure or damaging to society at large. Certainly, capitalism is messy – which upsets progressive utopians – but unlike the collectivist, big government leviathan they prefer, capitalism offers mechanisms for correction.

(4). Government Spending: (Also Taxes, Burden, and Inconvenient) Conservatives talk about “government spending” like it’s this awful thing, but the fact is, communities across America benefit from U.S. tax dollars. 

Instead, progressives should try: Investing in America. Because, that’s what our federal tax dollars do. They invest in education and infrastructure that wouldn’t prove profitable for businesses, but which still benefit society in the long-run.

This is a hopelessly naïve notion of what government spending actually accomplishes. Investment in America comes from supporting businesses and individual rights, which is anathema to the left’s “you didn’t build that” mentality and hostility to business.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Solidarity of the Heart

As if the photos last week of Pope Francis comforting a man afflicted with a terrible, painful genetic disorder weren’t heart-tugging enough, a video hit the internet about a touching gesture by a middle school football team in Olivet, Michigan. The two news stories, one international and one local, demonstrate the transforming power of compassion.

The video report featured Keith Orr, a sweet but learning-disabled boy at Olivet Middle School who “struggles with boundaries,” as the reporter says (you can see Keith in the video unself-consciously hugging everyone he encounters). Without their coaches’ knowledge, the football team plotted a special play for him during a recent game.

After intentionally downing the ball at the goal line rather than taking an easy score, the team brought Keith in, hiked the ball to him on the next play, and escorted him in a wedge of blockers into the end zone. Keith scored untouched, and became a football hero at school.
One player told the reporter, “We really wanted to prove that he was part of our team, that he was one of us.” Another, wide receiver Justus Miller, said, “It was just like, to make someone’s day, to make someone’s week, to make them happy.”

But the story didn’t end with Keith’s big moment. It was also about the transformative effect on those who gave Keith that gift. When the reporter asked Miller why Keith’s touchdown made Miller himself so happy, he replied, “Because he’s never been, like, cool or popular,” – at this point Miller gets emotional – “and he went from being pretty much a nobody to making everyone’s day.”

The handsome Miller, who probably is one of the cool and popular kids, tearfully admitted that previously it would never have occurred to him to think about doing that for Keith, but that it changed him: “I went from being somebody who cared mostly about myself and my friends to caring about everyone, trying to make everyone’s day and everyone’s life.”

Jimmy Kimmel and the Tyranny of Feelings

“You know, today is a weird day,” late night TV host Jimmy Kimmel said on Monday’s show. “There seems to be a lot of people upset with me, more upset than usual.” That’s because he is at the center of a growing controversy over a skit back in mid-October that offended Chinese-American groups and sparked a petition with enough signatures on it to warrant a White House response.

The controversy began with a segment satirizing political punditry called “Kids’ Table,” which featured Kimmel moderating a panel of four children, aged 5-6, discussing the hot topics of the day. After getting the kids’ opinions on the recent government shutdown, Kimmel addressed America’s debt problem. He told the child panelists, “America owes China a lot of money, $1.3 trillion. How should we pay them back?”

“Shoot cannons all the way over and kill everyone in China,” one boy immediately joked, prompting Kimmel to chuckle: “Kill everyone in China? OK, that's an interesting idea.” He then posed the mock-serious question, “Should we allow the Chinese to live?” The panel momentarily debated this loudly until Kimmel closed with “Well, this has been an interesting edition of Kids’ Table: The Lord of the Flies edition.”

To any rational adult viewer, this was all in good fun, kids in suits playing at being grownup experts and making comically outrageous pronouncements – sort of like an edgier Kids Say the Darnedest Things. And yet the segment prompted many to raise cries of racism and even comparisons to Nazi Germany’s Jew-hatred. Chinese-American groups protested outside ABC with placards bearing Kimmel’s likeness – adorned with a Hitler mustache. One individual initiated a petition which read, in part, “[Kimmel and ABC management] had a choice not to air this racist program, which promotes racial hatred. The program is totally unacceptable and it must be cut. A sincere apology must be issued. It is extremely distasteful and this is the same rhetoric used in Nazi Germany against Jewish people.

Actually, it was nowhere near the same rhetoric directed against Jews in Germany, and it did not promote racial hatred. The confusion stems from our abuse of the word racism, accusations of which are hurled these days at the drop of a hat. Even if you took the boy’s outlandish suggestion seriously, it wasn’t racist. He wasn’t advocating the genocide of all people of Chinese descent because they are an inferior race; he was talking about bombing the country of China as a solution to erasing our debt. Over-the-top, to say the least, but not racist. Words and definitions matter, but we are so indoctrinated by political correctness that we take kneejerk offense even at childish nonsense, thus diminishing the damage of legitimate racism, like that of which Nazis were actually guilty.

Ending the War on Terror

In a piece last week in The Atlantic entitled “Terrorism Could Never Threaten American Values—the ‘War on Terror’ Does,” James Fallows says it’s high time that President Obama shows he understands the truth of that article’s title, and calls to put a stop to the “open-ended ‘Global War on Terror.’”

Fallows, a longtime national correspondent for The Atlantic, has argued at least as far back as 2006 that we had al Qaeda on the run, and that even though its “successor groups in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere will continue to pose dangers… its hopes for fundamentally harming the United States now rest less on what it can do itself than on what it can trick, tempt, or goad us into doing.”

There is some undeniable truth to this. All one has to do is look at how Shoe Bomber Richard Reid, who wasn’t even successful in his attempt to bring down Flight 63 from Paris to Miami twelve years ago, transformed our air travel experience into a tedious, massively bureaucratic and intrusive TSA nightmare, detrimentally impacting our economy in the process (in a succinct summation of Fallows’ argument, famed atheist Richard Dawkins recently tweeted his irritation over what he deemed the pointless idiocy of airport security extremes: “Bin Laden has won.”). And of course, one could look at how terrorist acts have resulted, even more intrusively, in the surveillance state that emerged under George W. Bush and which has metastasized exponentially under Barack Obama.

“But if it saves a few lives…” goes the seemingly reasonable rationale for all this “security.” Of course we should protect American lives; the question is, are there more effective and reasonable ways to accomplish that and to combat terrorism which also don’t require severely diminishing our freedoms and individual rights?

Fallows acknowledges the seriousness of terrorist acts themselves. “Attacks can be terribly destructive, as we saw in hideous form 12 years ago,” he continued in last week’s article. “But the long-term threat to national interests and values comes from the response they invoke. In the case of 9/11: the attack was disastrous, but in every measurable way the rash, foolish, and unjustified decision to retaliate by invading Iraq hurt America in more lasting ways.”

Perhaps Fallows misspoke here, because surely he knows we didn’t invade Iraq in retaliation for the 9/11 attack. We went into Iraq because during a “decade of defiance,” as Bush put it, Saddam Hussein had become an increasingly clear and present danger: harboring terrorists, financing terrorism, developing weapons of mass destruction, and ignoring years of UN demands about those weapons. Maybe Fallows means that going after Saddam was an unnecessary extension of the ill-named war on terror, but the “lasting ways” in which America has been hurt in Iraq and Afghanistan resulted more from our ongoing, blood-and-treasure-sucking, nation-building efforts there than from our invasions of those countries.

Fallows complains that “over-reach by [the NSA] and the security establishment… is badly harming American interests, ideals, and institutions. The President is the only person in a position to signal a change in course, and he had better do it fast.” He says that <div><a href="" title=""><img src="" alt="" /></a></div>
“the revelations that come out every day of programs that began under Bush and have continued under Obama suggest that he doesn't grasp [the fact that the war on terror threatens our values more than terrorism does] as clearly as he should.” I submit that Obama grasps this perfectly clearly, but he is not about to change course – not because those program are essential to combating terror, but because it suits his broader totalitarian agenda to perpetuate and expand them.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Boys to Men: One High School’s 83-Year Mission

I did a double-take recently when I noticed a Washington Post report that San Francisco 49ers owner John York and the sons of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones – Stephen and Jerry Jr. – announced that they and an anonymous donor had pledged to donate nearly $10 million to an all-boys Arkansas parochial school from which York and the two Jones brothers had all graduated. What caught my eye was that it was my alma mater as well.

Little Rock’s Catholic High School for Boys was founded in 1930 and has since carried on a tradition of not only providing nationally recognized quality academics (every year, more than 97% of its graduates go on to a four-year university), but more importantly, guiding boys toward becoming men. York graduated from there in 1967 and the Joneses in 1983 and 1988, respectively (Jerry Jones’ son-in-law also graduated from Catholic High, in 1981). The NFL owner connection prompted current CHS principal Steve Straessle to say in an interview, “No other high school in the country can say that. We not only infuse boys with a great love of sports, but we also imbue them with the creativity and the drive not only to become athletes but to become team owners.”

Ten million dollars is an enormous endowment for a high school, even from the deep pockets of pro football team owners. It will go toward the modernization of the classrooms, an updated athletic field, and air conditioning (the latter must be a particularly welcome and long-overdue gift, because I remember sitting in sweltering Arkansas heat during the beginning and ending months of the school year).

What prompted such generosity? “This capital campaign will help ensure that the same quality education and experience I received will be passed down to more generations to come,” said the 49ers’ York. “Just being a part of the Catholic High history and tradition is an honor.” Jones said his family’s gift was a way to honor Monsignor George Tribou, who died in 2001 after 50 years at the school as a teacher, principal, and local legend.

Father Tribou’s name was synonymous in Arkansas with rigorous academic and moral standards for the students under his care. “He was a mentor to my sons and also to me, and his commitment to educating and disciplining young men had a wonderful impact on several generations,” said Jones. “His primary goals were always to build a better school while also building outstanding young men, and his legacy will be felt for as long as young men pass through these halls and feel his spirit.”

Are the Democrats on the Ropes?

As the laughably named Affordable Care Act simultaneously self-destructs and wreaks havoc, the right grows more and more optimistic that this boondoggle may be the beginning of the end for the Democrats. Finally, a glimmer of hope on the horizon for America! But we mustn’t kid ourselves – it would be a fatal mistake to believe that we have the left on the ropes.

This conservative optimism stems not only from the undeniable failure of the Obamacare rollout, but from the hopeful signs that President Obama is losing his sycophants in the mainstream media and Hollywood – a sea change that would have seemed as likely as icicles in hell during his first term. Even those normally steadfast supporters are no longer publicly pretending that Obamacare is anything but a disaster right out of the gate.

For example, NBC actually reported that Obama lied about Obamacare when he repeatedly claimed that people who like their current health insurance policy could keep it – again, this was NBC, not “Faux News,” formerly Obama’s only media critic. That rare brief foray into objective journalism was cut short, however, when the article was pulled offline, then reposted with edits tempering NBC’s original criticism. But it’s a start.

Earlier that week, Lara Logan’s report on CBS’ 60 Minutes about the Benghazi debacle did not mention Obama by name, and stopped short of directly condemning our government for ignoring warnings and security requests prior to the murderous al Qaeda attack in Libya; but it was noteworthy for at least lobbing some criticism, however tentative, at the administration over Benghazi.

The Daily Show’s host Jon Stewart, the most trusted news source for young progressives, has not only been ridiculing the Obamacare rollout, but also mocking Obama himself for his “total ignorance of what the administration is doing,” and for seeming so out of the loop on most issues, that “there appear to be very few loops he’s in,” including the NSA surveillance scandal. “Does the president believe in surveillance fairies?” he asked. Add to this the fact that late night talk show hosts like Jay Leno now regularly take comic jabs at a president they previously considered too cool and too infallible to target.

Hollywood, normally ready and willing to do Obama’s every bidding, initially helped spread the word about the Obamacare leviathan but quickly pulled back from promoting it. In the wake of the Obamacare website incompetence, and revelations about millions losing their health insurance, public relations teams are reportedly cautioning their celebrity clients to lay low. Even Oprah Winfrey is said to have refused to lend her influence.

Some celebs are doing more than just keeping a low profile. The civil liberties organization Electronic Frontier Foundation recently put out a star-studded video called “Stop Watching Us,” condemning the National Security Agency for spying on American citizens. Backed by a diverse group including the ACLU, the conservative Freedom Works, and the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute, it features actors Maggie Gyllenhaal, John Cusack, and Wil Wheaton, as well as activist/director Oliver Stone, denouncing the growing surveillance state under Obama – although they weren’t brave enough anywhere in the video to assign responsibility to Obama himself. Instead, as an example of presidential deceit and abuse of power, they dredged up Richard Nixon. Again, it’s a start.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Most Interesting Man in the World is More Interesting Than You Think

You know him as the Most Interesting Man in the World: the gravel-voiced spokesman for Dos Equis beer, always flanked by beautiful women, who urges you to “stay thirsty, my friends.” His personality is so magnetic, he is unable to carry credit cards. He is the only man to ever ace a Rorschach test. Sharks have a week dedicated to him. Even his enemies list him as their emergency contact number. But at 75, even the most interesting man in the world is concerned about leaving a legacy of service.

Longtime actor Jonathan Goldsmith – not the Latin lover he portrays but a New York Jew – starred in hundreds of roles before snagging the Dos Equis gig which brought him fame. In those commercials, he projects a suave, sex symbol charm in homage to his old friend, actor Fernando Lamas, father of 90s TV heartthrob Lorenzo. (On a side note, Fernando also inspired Billy Crystal’s “Fernando’s Hideaway” skits on Saturday Night Live in the mid-80s, which featured Crystal’s dead-on Lamas impression in catchphrases like “You look mahvelous!” and “It is better to look good than to feel good.”)

But Goldsmith feels compelled to look beyond the success of his iconic character to a more fulfilling and longer-lasting achievement. The actor, who lived for many years on a 47-foot sloop in the Marina del Rey harbor (he and his wife now live in a home in Vermont), spoke in a recent Esquire interview about a growing sense of his own mortality:

I want to leave something behind. I don't want to just be here and leave no handholds for the future, no footprints. It's very, very important to me that the recognition that I have achieved as a so-called celebrity can be used to help others. I'm very involved in charities. I just came back from going to Vietnam for an organization called Clear Path International, which works with a mines advisory group from England. We work with those who have been injured and help them with packages of assistance that will help with their education, with prosthetic limbs, with bereavement benefits.

“I am glad to help in any way I can to bring more attention to their work,” says Goldsmith on the organization’s website.

In other charitable work, he supports the S.A.B.R.E Foundation, whose mission is to protect and preserve the Siberian tiger; the Free Arts for Abused Children, a nonprofit that uses the arts to help abused, homeless or otherwise imperiled youngsters; and the Stella Link Foundation, which drew attention to child sex trafficking.

Friday, November 1, 2013

What is a Genius (and is Kanye West One)?

“I’m a creative genius,” rapper and self-proclaimed fashion maven Kanye West boasted sincerely in late night conversation with Jimmy Kimmel recently. “And there’s no other way to word it. I know you’re not supposed to say that about yourself... For me to say I wasn’t a genius, I would just be lying to you and to myself.”

Correct – you’re not supposed to say that about yourself. The judgment of history is supposed to do that for you. Even the consensus of your contemporaries isn’t a fair gauge, because legitimate geniuses very often aren’t recognized as such in their lifetime, and others who are too quickly praised as such very often fade into obscurity. In any case, one’s own ego is an unreliable judge.

What exactly is a genius? It originally meant an external being, a sort of guardian or guiding spirit who accompanies a person from birth to death. Through the centuries that spirit was internalized and the word came to refer to a person who possesses extraordinary intelligence or talent. MENSA members, for example, like to point to their high IQs as evidence of it, but in the case of Kanye West, who once proclaimed himself “a proud nonreader of books,” we’re not talking about intelligence but what the Oxford English Dictionary calls the “extraordinary capacity for creative imagination, original thought, invention or discovery.”

By that definition, is West right about himself? This seems like a very subjective judgment – after all, some say West’s music is brilliant, some say worthless. Who is right? There is no standardized understanding of just what constitutes genius and who qualifies as one.
Allow me to offer parameters that might help clarify things. The first step toward determining who is legitimately a genius is for us all to agree that the term shouldn’t be used lightly, that it should refer to only the highest standard of creative inspiration – otherwise it has no meaning and value.

Furthermore, let’s establish that a genius should be more than just a talent who creates something extraordinary – that could include countless thousands throughout history – but who changes the world in some positive way, who expands our perspective as a species and nudges us forward culturally, scientifically, spiritually. As Schopenhauer wrote, “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.

Obama's 1984

The David Horowitz Freedom Center just published my pamphlet, Obama's 1984. Here's the description:

In Obama’s 1984, Mark Tapson shows that if he were here today George Orwell would see a disturbing resemblance between the U.S. and the dystopian future he wrote about so prophetically a generation ago. Obama’s 1984 takes the reader into the dark heart of this administration, a place of omnipresent NSA surveillance, police state tactics by the IRS and TSA, and nonstop intimidation of political opponents...  This pamphlet shows that we are less free than before as we head back to Orwell’s future, and because of Barack Obama the road we travel is the road to serfdom.

You can read it on the site at the link above, or order the hard copy for $3 here.