Thursday, June 30, 2016

Children: Savage Enforcers of Society Conformity

Look at your fingernails. Go ahead, just take a peek. Do you look at them the masculine or feminine way?

If you know the answer to that, you probably learned it in childhood from a peer. In case that's a lesson you missed, boys look at their fingernails by curving their fingers over their upturned palms. Girls point their palms forward.

If you know that, you probably also know that boys look at the bottom of their shoe by bending their knee in front of them, while girls kick their foot up behind and look over their shoulder.

I failed both of these tests in grammar school, and was told I was a girl. I was unhappy about that, and changed appropriately.


When talking about gender stereotypes, it is often suggested that much of the problem comes from toy companies that make all girl toys pink and advertising that divides toys into those for boys and those for girls. Some people seem to think that if we could just remove these societal messages, that children would be free to choose what they enjoy, rather than what society considers appropriate.

But what if Mattel and Walmart aren't really the problem? What if the problem is, in part, a culture of conformity passed from child to child, with rigid, stringently enforced rules? How do you change that?

Childhood is full of rules and tests (according to this thread, there are also gender tests involving looking at the sky and removing sweaters), created not by the media or the government but by children who use them as weapons. Yet even though these rules appear to arise organically out of the muck of childhood, they seem to strongly reinforce the culture's priorities. Besides gender conformity, consumerism is encouraged through attacks on things like "floods," a term for too-short pants.

Floods are a natural result of the speed at which children grow. A typical parental strategy is to buy things when they're too big and keep them until they're too small. This is sensible, but ill-fitting clothes can get you in trouble with the herd. (Note: I have no idea if floods or fingernail testing are still done; children may have different tests now, but I guarantee they have some.)

Why would children be so insistent that their peers shop frequently? No reason. In fact, it's unlikely children actually care that much aesthetically about the length of your pants or the way you look at fingernails.

Instead, it's all about beating you down, because children are savage, sadistic monsters. Children simply grab the popular weapons and use them on every target. They try out new insults and see what sticks. And if it sticks, it is carried on, year after year.

The weapons that stick tend to be those that society at large emphasizes. Society says boys should not act like girls, and boys find ways to test for girliness. (I imagine girls have their own tests, although I don't know what they are.)

To some extent, Mattel actually does effect the concept of normality, because they show children what society holds important. Movies do as well when they feature brave boys and crying girls. But these concepts are so deeply embedded that superficial changes like removing gender recommendations from toy boxes probably won't do much. Fix the toys, and you've still got a society where women speaking firmly are accused of shrill shouting even when faced with men who are shrilly shouting to no objection. You can't teach children to be more open and accepting if all of society if promoting the opposite. One of the first thing children figure out is words mean much less than actions.


My first inclination when I thought of this was that it's all pretty hopeless. Childhood conformity is so powerful that I doubt tweaks to marketing and speech would have any effect.

I did have one idea, though. Children, as I say, just want weapons they can use to beat down their peers (you non-cynics will probably disagree with that, but I feel the evidence is pretty solid). So what if that destructive power could be used for good?

Children, reflecting society, push gender conformity and consumerism because those are the weapons that work. If you could convince children that the worst, most embarrassing, most deviant qualities were racism, or greed, or bad manners, or littering, then these children would create tests for these qualities and crucify those who didn't do things the "right" way.

How can that be done? Well, as someone who doesn't care for children and avoids them as much as possible, I'm not able to answer that question. But if you like children enough to interact with them yet still understand their dark nature, see if you can come up with a way to use their savagery to make the world a better place.

Or if not a better place, at least one where one is judged by something more important than fingernail examination.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

David Cameron is Paul Ryan's Ghost of Christmas Future

The lesson many pundits are taking from Britain's vote to leave the European Union is that the appeal to bigotry, hatred, and fear can lead people to vote against their best interests and royally fuck themselves up out of pure spite. If that can happen there, they say, then a Trump presidency can happen here.

That may be true, and we should certainly all be scared. But Brexit should also scare one particular American, Paul Ryan, who just had a chance to see what happens when politicians make a short-term political calculus that destroys their career.

Brexit happened because Prime Minister David Cameron wanted to get reelected. A chunk of anti-immigration conservatives wanted Britain out of the European Union and to keep the Conservative Party together and win an election, Cameron agreed to a referendum on leaving the EU.

Cameron didn't want Britain to leave the EU, he just wanted to pacify those on the right and counter the popularity of the anti-immigration U.K. Nationalist Party. He figured he could easily persuade voters to vote REMAIN.

He couldn't, and having created a disastrous situation with disastrous results, he had no choice but to resign.

Now, Cameron will go down in history as the guy who screwed Britain and the EU. That is his legacy. Nothing he has ever done in his life will matter; he's the Brexit guy.

Like Cameron, Paul Ryan decided to do something dangerous to the country for political expediency: support Donald Trump as the Republican presidential candidate. Trump, a racist, xenophobic no-nothing conman (or, as the Scottish would say, a weaselheaded, Cheeto-faced, jizztrumpet/fucknugget/shitgibbon) who spews hatred against minorities like a shit-throwing sprinkler system, gained the nomination through big lies and absurd promises. It's clear to everyone with half a brain, including Ryan, that he is a toxic bomb set to blow up this country.

But Ryan also believes, probably correctly, that Trump is somewhat more likely to support his help-the-rich, screw-the-poor agenda than Hillary Clinton, and for that reason, he has chosen to endorse the monster.

Ryan's endorsement looks worse and worse every time Trump claims his right to be judged only by those with European ancestry or congratulates himself when horrible tragedies befall the country, but while Ryan will mildly criticize Trump's remarks, he is still determined to make him president.  Ultimately, whether he succeeds or not, he is probably destroying his career.

In November, one of two things will happen. Either Trump, in spite of a phenomenally incompetent campaign, will win, or Clinton will. If it's Trump, well then, an authoritarian lunatic will helm this country, most likely sending the world into economic collapse, and Ryan will intimately tied to that disaster (and probably won't even get much from his shopping list out of the short-fingered megalomaniac). If it's Clinton, then Ryan sold his soul and got nothing for it except a GOP in flames.

The U.S. does not have Britain's parliamentarian system, so Ryan won't have to resign anything. He'll still be a congressman. He might even get reelected; in this country an incumbent can get reelected even if he's in prison for fraud. But his career as the golden boy of the GOP will be over. Like Cameron, he will forever after be known for one thing; tying himself to a bucket of shit, throwing the bucket down a well, and trying not to fall in after it.

Watch out Ryan; it's a very heavy bucket.

Monday, June 27, 2016

On Not Being Photographed by Bill Cunningham

I first heard of Bill Cunningham years ago when someone told me he was at the Jazz Age Lawn Party and I said, who? It was something I was supposed to know.

For 40 years, until quite close to his recent death, Cunningham took photos for the New York Times, specializing in people he found stylish. Some were famous, some were just people walking by. He would also turn up at events that drew those who wanted to show off their finery, which is why I used to catch sight of the dapper gentleman clicking away at JALP and the Easter Parade.

The dress-up people at JALP seemed obsessed with getting their picture taking by Cunningham. By dress-up people, I mean those who devoted themselves to period wear. The people who scoured eBay and thrift shops for authentic 1920s vintage clothing. Who studied old photos to get the look just right. Who purchased vintage picnic baskets. For many, that picture in the Times was a victory, and Cunningham obliviously walking past you without a glance at your authentic, over-priced 1920s hat a terrible defeat.

It was a race I never ran.

I mainly went to JALP to dance. Sure, I dressed up a little, but I've always had a close-enough-for-rock-n-roll approach to vintage dress, and worried more about being comfortable in the blazing heat of summer than in wowing the dress-up world. I would certainly never, as the serious folk did, wear wool on a humid, 90-degree day.

Look at this picture from the New York Post of me dancing with my girlfriend Laurel. I am making less effort than the three people I'm sharing the picture with, who are all aiming for authenticity. I've got some nice wide-legged pants, but I'm also wearing a golfing shirt that wicks away moisture, a bow-tie with a crossword puzzle design, and elastic suspenders with skulls on them.

Not that I don't think I look great. I love those suspenders, and that bow tie is hilarious. I had other great things I wore to JALP, like orange linen pants that Laurel still mocks me for. But though I liked my colorful, somewhat rumpled style, I knew it wasn't Cunningham-worthy. And I respected his vision.

While others think fondly back to the day Bill stopped to snap their picture, I celebrate him for a different reason; he knew enough about style to ignore half-assed outfits like mine.

Orange pants, suspenders with a newspaper theme and a golf shirt. Close enough.