Ira Glass and the Art of Storytelling

Ira GlassIra Glass is 55 today. He is my generation’s Studs Terkel, except that Studs Terkel is also my generation’s Studs Terkel. He is something I’ve never quite understood: consistent. He was an intern for NPR at the age of 19. And 36 years later he is still there. (Technically, he is at PRI: Public Radio International.) Of course, his career has evolved over time. And, of course, it all came together in 1995 with the creation of his long-running show This American Life.

The show is probably the best thing on National Public Radio. At its best, nothing touches it. At its worst, it is still better than most shows. And I say this as a fan of most of what NRP has on offer. What is great about the show—at least from my perspective—is that it is mostly just a single person telling a story. There really is nothing more powerful than that.

When I go to see some action film with my brother, I am amazed at just how little the experience moves me. So much of these films are just filler anyway. Is it really necessary to watch the good guy and bad guy fight for ten minutes, when we already know what the conclusion will be? But when someone tells you a story, there is none of that. The only reason they would include details about a fight is because something unusual happened. Otherwise, the story is just being padded.

That never happens on This American Life. The story is king and the telling of it never gets in the way. I highly recommend going over to the This American Life website. But here is Ira Glass on the nature of storytelling, which I assume is from a live episode of the show. It is really compelling and I totally agree:

Happy birthday Ira Glass!

The Lone Gunmen

The Lone GunmenIn my recent discussion with my conspiracy theory believing friend, the subject of The Lone Gunmen came up. It was a short-lived television series spin-off of The X-Files. I had never heard of it, but that is hardly surprising, since I have never seen an episode of The X-Files. I don’t intend to be mean, but both shows fall into that category of “things I would have loved when I was 12.” They are, after all, just updates of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, but without all the charm that Darren McGavin added to everything he was in.

I was asked to watch the pilot of The Lone Gunmen because it has a 9/11 truther tie in. Even though it was released some six months before 9/11, it was about a secret government plot to remotely take control of a commercial airplane and fly it into the World Trade Center. Cue the dramatic music: du-du-duuunnn! The reason they want to do this is to create a new enemy because the Cold War is over and they want those juicy military contracts to keep flowing. They were kind of late to this given that the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

There is a problem with this theory. Those government contacts never stopped flowing. It wasn’t necessary for the military-industrial complex to stage a terrorist attack. All they had to do was more of what they had been doing: lobbying Congress and sending those campaign contributions. Again: the conspiracies are out there, they are just in plain sight and legal. The Supreme Court calls them “democracy”!

But that’s not the fault of the television show. That’s a damned fine premise for a story. And the creation of the whole show is good. It’s about three guys who publish a conspiracy newspaper. There’s the well dressed leader (that seems to be the extent of his characterization), the old radical who keeps things real, and the brilliant young hacker who is excitable. There is also a totally hot female hacker named Yves Adele Harlow (anagram of “Lee Harvey Oswal”) who seems to spend all her time at an indoor shooting range because it turns her hotness factor up to eleven. It’s all pretty standard and with the conspiracy element, it could have been a very fun show.

And maybe it is a fun show. I’ve only watched the first episode. They made 12 more before they pulled the plug. But that first episode is some of the worst television writing I have ever seen. Let’s start with the plot. It is chalk full of the most tired cliches. The leader of the gunmen’s father dies. The father’s best friend talks to them. Oh by God! You mean he was involved?! Who would have thought?! And then they are trying to figure out why he was killed. And then the father is not really dead. And then he shows up and just tells the gunmen why they tried to kill him. It’s all a muddled mess.

The beginning of it also doesn’t make any sense. The gunmen try to steal a new computer chip that has spying capability designed into it. This is clearly a nod to the Clipper chip. Again, they were a little late to this one: it was a big deal in the computer community in 1993, and was dead by 1996. But the gunmen mess up and Yves Adele Harlow steals it away from them, setting them up to be caught. Okay: a big deal computer chip has been stolen and the gunmen are caught, but without the chip. But apparently no charges are filed; they are searched and released. I guess the writers don’t expect us to take the show seriously. But if that’s what they wanted, they shouldn’t have blown the lid off the 9/11 conspiracy! (Note: sarcasm.)

The plot problems might have been okay. They were terrible, but it’s just a television show. What kills the show is the dialog. Really. “The readership doesn’t matter, man, it’s the impact on the black ops that counts!” And it has witty lines like, “Next time, leave the crack pipe at home.” Or this classic example of “stylistic” dialog, “My point being you’re wasting your life, man. A hacker of your caliber ought to be floating in a Silicon Valley hot tub, sipping champers, and counting his IPO cashola.” It is impossible to convey how bad the dialog is. And it is unrelenting. There is pretty much no dialog that is not bad. If you are a connoisseur of such things, watch the whole episode; it will be a hoot:

The episode was written by four The X-Files veterans, who also created The Lone Gunmen: Chris Carter, Vince Gilligan, John Shiban, and Frank Spotnitz. I suppose we could say that the episode is so bad because everyone has a bad day now and then. Or we could say that this episode is the result of group thinking. But I think it is more likely the case that none of them are all that good. The fifth season of Breaking Bad convinced me that Vince Gilligan didn’t know what he was doing. He just fumbled into something that worked. But even at its worst, I don’t recall Breaking Bad being in the same creative universe as The Lone Gunmen. This show is unwatchable.

Endless Details of Conspiracy Theories

Single and Magic Bullet Theories

You all know my position on conspiracy theorists: they are smart (often brilliant) people who get lost in details in the name of a broad but predetermined narrative. I admire the fact that they don’t just accept the official story, but they very often get trapped into the “conspiracy” story and stop looking at all the data. It’s easy to do because there is a conspiracy theory industry that is determined to push a particular line by avoiding all information that pushes against the conspiracy theory.

Yesterday, I found out that one of my friends is, for lack of a better term, a conspiracy theorist. I hate to apply that moniker, because he is a very interesting and intelligent guy who is more than that. But included in the individual he is lies a conspiracy theorist. It came up regarding the assassination of John Kennedy. It never occurred to me that he might think that Oswald was not the lone gunman. To me, an honest appraisal of the information makes that conclusion undeniable. But he clearly had a lot of reserves of old and misleading information. He started talking about the 1979 House Select Committee on Assassinations report which concluded that there had been some kind of loose conspiracy of individuals who wanted to kill the president. But, of course, he framed it as a CIA plot, which is not mentioned in the report at all.

That’s the thing about talking to people who believe conspiracy theories: there is no getting to the truth. Conspiracy theories start with some ill-defined narrative: Oswald didn’t kill Kennedy. After that, there isn’t an argument. Instead, there is just a long string of of facts. For a very long time, one would hear about the “magic bullet” that hit Kennedy as well as John Connally. Finally, it seems that Dale Myers’ 1993 animation of this bullet has put this to rest. At least to a large extent.

One would think that after all the arguments about the “magic bullet” and how important it was to the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theory, people would have packed it in after Myers introduced his animation into evidence in the court of public opinion. But no. The conspiracy believers went onto other things that don’t “add up.” It’s sad. It doesn’t matter how many bit of “evidence” are corrected, there will always be more for the conspiracy theorists to jump to.

What makes it all that much worse is that, as I’ve said, conspiracy theorists tend to be smart people with agile minds. And there is a very big conspiracy that they studiously avoid: the conspiracy of the rich and powerful to maintain their wealth and privilege. When Upton Sinclair ran for governor of California, there was an actual conspiracy against him. Archer Daniels Midland was part of an actual conspiracy to manipulate prices. But I have no doubt that the power elites who want to illegally increase prices and restrict democracy love the fact that many of our smartest people spend their time focused on who shot JFK rather than why government policy has spent the last four decades funneling money from the poor to the rich.

Afterword

Notice how the “magic-bullet theory” shown above does not serve to discredit the single-bullet theory so much as it serves as a metaphor for the logic of conspiracy theories.

Fed Is By, For, and Of Power Elites

Federal ReserveThis morning Paul Krugman wrote, The Inflation Obsession. It’s about the recent dump of Federal Reserve documents and how despite the economy in free fall and a long depression in process, the Very Serious Fed Members were obsessed with inflation. How obsessed? He quotes Matthew O’Brien, who took the time to count words in the transcripts. “In the meeting on Sept. 16, 2008—the day after Lehman fell!—there were 129 mentions of inflation versus 26 mentions of unemployment and only four of systemic risks or crises.”

Krugman goes on to discuss various reasons why the Fed was so obsessed with a non-problem like inflation and hardly at all with the very real problem of unemployment. He blames the cluelessness on the political philosophy of the board members. What they say is similar to what global warming deniers say: we shouldn’t do anything to fix the problem and even if we should, we couldn’t. The work of depressions must be completed. And if we did anything, it would turn us into Greece, Greece I tell you!

While all of this is true, I think the situation is simpler than Krugman makes out. The power elites who sit on the Federal Reserve board are only interested in their fellow power elites. The biggest threat to those who already have a lot of money is inflation, so the Fed is only really interested in inflation. They are interested in unemployment only in so much as it might harm the functioning of the economy. They are not at all concerned that one percentage point increase in unemployment means well over a million people lose their jobs.

What’s more, let’s not forget: high unemployment is largely good for corporations. It means they can have their pick of employees and there is no need to raise wages. In fact, it is an opportunity to lower wages. And employees become more compliant. From employers’ perspective, he only bad thing about high unemployment is that it keeps demand low. But at worst, it is a wash. So why should the Fed care about unemployment? It isn’t in the interests of their class, so they don’t care.

The Federal Reserve has a dual mandate to maintain price stability (low inflation) and full employment. This was established in 1977. But I don’t think most of those on the Fed have ever taken the employment provision of the law very seriously. Their focus has always been on inflation, and if inflation is well under control then they tinker with employment. We’ve seen this throughout our current crisis. The Fed targets 2% inflation, which I believe is too low regardless. But even with this low target, inflation has been too low. But the Fed has not shown any concern about unemployment, even at its peak of 10% in 2009.

By itself, it isn’t a problem that the Federal Reserve is the watchdog for the power elites. It actually makes sense, being a bank. The problem is that the rest of the government is also dedicated to ensuring that the rich stay rich. Given the state of things, however, it is an outrage that the Fed’s dual mandate means 99% focus on inflation and 1% focus on employment.