Whistling for Dogs at the Everyman

This week at The Everyman, I discuss the ‘Dog Whistle’ trope:

For instance, if a candidate talks about ‘States’ Rights,’ that is a signal to white supremacists that he’s secretly in favor of bringing back segregation, because back in the day segregation was partially justified on the basis of ‘States’ Rights.’ Therefore, any mention of ‘States’ Rights’ is code for segregation.

Basically, a dog whistle is a coded message embedded in a politician’s public statements.

It is disturbing how often contemporary discourse involves arguments that would be considered signs of mental illness in daily life.

But let’s not be too hasty. Just because there is such a thing as paranoia doesn’t necessarily mean the mailman isn’t trying to kill you. There is no essential reason why a politician could not signal his ideological fellow travelers by means of a coded message. I will even concede that he may have a reason for doing so—to maximize his results by appealing to mutually exclusive groups (though that would require at least one group to be convinced that what he says is a dog whistle while the other isn’t, and that the two groups differ enough that one would not vote for him if he appealed to the other directly, while being near enough that they wouldn’t be averse to voting for him at all, and that the issue being ‘dog whistled’ on is important enough to the one group that they wouldn’t be likely to vote for him if he didn’t signal them on it. And they would also have to believe he would act on a subject he is unwilling even to speak aloud of. As I say, not impossible, though I’m not sure what the real-life examples would be).

Evasion Through a Mirror Argument

There are, however, reasons why the ‘dog whistle’ trope is stupid.

There is an old argument that goes something like this: belief in God is obviously a matter of wishful thinking. Primitive man, faced with a hostile and seemingly meaningless universe, invented a benevolent supreme being in order to make sense of it and maintains the belief because it is comforting.

The problem with this is that you can just as easily turn it around by saying that non-belief in God is obviously a matter of wishful thinking. Men, conscious of their guilt, desirous of forbidden powers and pleasures, and fearful of the judgment of God, tell themselves that He does not exist in order that they may do as they please and maintain this belief because it is comforting.

I call this a mirror argument, and if you look you can find many examples. The issue isn’t that one side is clearly right and the other wrong; it is that from a logical perspective they are equally plausible and so cancel each other out. You can’t get anywhere with either one of them, except to confuse those in doubt or rally those who are already on your side.

Now, the dog whistle is a mirror argument. Say that Senator Smith (R) gives a speech where he promises to be ‘tough on crime.’ Senator Payne (D) then says “Aha! That is a dog whistle! Senator Smith is signaling to the white supremacists in his party, because ‘tough on crime’ really means ‘tough on black people’!” Senator Smith can then answer back, “Senator Payne is evidently trying to change the subject. He knows he doesn’t have a counter to my position, so he is pretending that it’s a racist code phrase so he doesn’t have to actually address it.”

Read the rest here.

It Came From Rifftrax: ‘Welcome Back, Norman’

For this week, we have the introduction to one of Rifftrax’s most, ah, ‘beloved’ figures: the one and only Norman Krasner.

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“He puts the ‘lovable loser’ in the phrase ‘completely unlovable loser.'”

The best way I can describe the Norman films (of which four have emerged so far) is “Imagine an American take on ‘Mr. Bean,’ as written by Jean-Paul Sartre.” They’re about the misadventures of a middle-aged white-collar worker named Norman Krasner who encounters an endless series of arbitrary inconveniences and mishaps, while reacting in a way no human being ever would. Not in a funny way, you understand, just in a way guaranteed to make his situation worse, all the while looking as though he’s minutes away from sticking his head in the nearest oven.

For instance, this first short sees Norman trying to find his way out of the airport parking lot. Early on he finds that his car is blocked in either side so that he has to squeeze in between the other vehicles to force his suitcase into the back seat. Why doesn’t he just put it in the trunk? Because then we wouldn’t get to see him struggling to put it into the back. Then he might not have left his briefcase on the roof (though considering he later pokes his head out the window and looks directly at it without reacting, that might not have helped).

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“Okay, what the hell?”

Meanwhile, rather than a lovable manchild, Norman’s just a sour-faced ordinary guy who seems like every cliche of the modern, pathetic mid-tier businessman living a life of quiet desperation embodied in a single figure. And you’re right: that isn’t funny. Nor does Norman give any kind of humorous reactions or exaggerated expressions of dismay; he’s pretty underplayed, and the most he offers is a despairing “Uggh….” (“Ah, yes; Norman’s beloved catchphrase: ‘Uggh…'”). Other than that, Norman never speaks.

From what I understand, the Norman series was created, along with other similar short films, as a means to fill out the time between movies on early cable channels. Apparently, they were made by someone with no sense of humor whatsoever who saw that the ‘Mr. Bean’ shorts were popular and tried to copy them like a tone-deaf musician playing a piece by ear.

This results in a perfect storm for the Rifftrax crew: Norman both never speaks, allowing them to project whatever character they want on him, and what character he does have pretty much boils down to “hapless loser.” But he isn’t even an innocent victim whom you could feel sorry for; he actively makes his own situation worse by responding in the most senseless ways or just plain being rude. This makes for a character who is absolutely ideal for roasting, and they don’t let up. Jokes of Norman being a loser, being a pervert, and being the despised plaything of the universe abound. “In the case: third-quarter sales figures, a well-thumbed issue of ‘Penthouse,’ and oddly enough, several ICBM launch codes.” “‘Your Dad is a Norman!’ became the most popular playground taunt after this film was shown.” “In a few days, Norman will have them putting lotion in a basket.” 

The Riffers apparently had the idea that this was meant to be and educational film to be shown in school: a “what not to do” film, which would have made the whole thing even more inexplicable, and which prompts a lot of funny gags (“So, kids, the lesson is, never leave your briefcase on the roof of your Chrysler. Now let’s learn division”).

The short was originally shown with the live showing of ‘Manos: the Hands of Fate,’ with a few minor changes to the riffing when it was released as a stand-alone short: most notably reducing Kevin’s gag of Norman keeping his cat in his brief case to a single joke instead of an ongoing bit. But in whichever version, it’s a glorious introduction to a character who would soon become an institution among Rifftrax fans.

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“Norman will be back in, ‘For the Love of God, Norman, Put Down that Gun’.”


CM Post on Breaking the Rules

My latest Catholic Match post is up, wherein I advise people to break the rules in dating:

You are a unique soul. The person on the other end of the screen is likewise unique. You are both looking for someone who might be the One. There’s no formula for that; no system, no instructions, no ‘right way’ to go about it. There’s only the aforementioned fundamentals and the question of what works.

So don’t be afraid to be creative, to do something bold, unorthodox, or seemingly insane. Again, there’s a person on the other end of the screen, and people tend to respond to things that are directly addressed to them and things that surprise them.

Just for example, the general rule for first messages is to keep it short, light, and mention something you have in common. This is generally good advice. Now say you think you’ve found the artist of your dreams. Rather than start off with “I like art too,” you might try actually drawing a sketch of her profile pic, scribble a greeting on it, and sending that to her (assuming, that is, you can find a way to send attachments. Or, you know, you end up meeting the old fashioned way).

She might find that creepy, or she might find that flattering, or she might start critiquing your art style. One thing she won’t be doing; she’s not going to ignore it.

I also get to compare online dating to virgin sacrifice (though probably not in the way you’re thinking). Go here to find out why.

It Came From Rifftrax: ‘The Myths of Shoplifting’

This week’s offering takes us back to the affluent, synthesized world of the 1980s to learn the truth behind common misconceptions of shoplifting. Like most of these shorts, it’s actually makes a pretty good point, though while being melodramatic and heavy-handed, which makes for a good combination for the Rifftrax crew.

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“For instance, did you know that many security guards are actually deadly cyborgs?”

The short depicts a few different characters (only two of them are actually connected, which admittedly makes the short less contrived than it might otherwise have been if they all knew each other) as they experience the myths of shoplifting (“Is that the one where Hercules picks up a 7-11?”). Among these mythes are that no one gets caught, nothing happens if you do, it doesn’t hurt anyone, and so on. It’s actually rather effective despite the melodramatic tone. The bit where the kid’s parents are called to the store to pick him up does a particularly good job of conveying the discomfort of the situation. It’s followed by a nice bit of the boy telling his friend (who was trying to laugh the situation off) that the worst part was “I felt like a thief.” (“Wait, felt like a thief? You were a thief. Hey, come back here!”).

Incidentally, the boy is Black, the son of two obviously middle-class parents who lay into him when they find out he was stealing, taking the store’s side one hundred percent and pointing out that the kid had no excuse to be doing that. Race is a topic I tend to avoid, since I find it incredibly tedious and I think most of the rhetoric surrounding it is painfully stupid, but to dip in for the moment, it seems to me that this is the kind of thing you don’t see very often anymore. The kid is just presented as a kid; not as a representative of a social class bearing the weight of x, y, and z issues. Same thing with the young woman who loses out on a job when they find out she was picked up for shoplifting as a teenager (“Prepare to live a life haunted by scarves and calculators”). Meanwhile, several of the police and security guards on display are also Black, just mixed in with the other characters. And this is in an extremely casual, educational film from the 1980s (this tallies with my experience of other films of the era, which, by modern standards, were incredibly relaxed about race. They didn’t ignore it, but they tended to relegate it to a secondary issue at best, behind, well things like ethics and the storyline at hand. So…good job with that, intervening years).

Anyway, leaving that aside, this is one of those shorts that is interesting in itself, but very funny for the riffing. The guys glean a lot of humor from the unimpressive leads (“We’re going to turn you over to the Nerd Crimes division”) and the subject matter itself (“Tough place; I’d better tell my cellmate I stole a graphing calculator”). They have fun taking the melodrama to the extreme (“Skulls of the shoplifters are displayed as a reminder”) and on the idea that the merchandise is probably not even worth the effort to begin with. Overall, the humor complements the short very well, letting the message play through while turning it to comedy (“Do you offer a five finger discount?”). The short is competently done enough to be engaging (including giving a realistically stupid portrayal of rebellious teenagers, like when one kid is more excited about having been arrested than concerned about the effect it’ll have on his future), while the Riffers inject supporting humor throughout (“Alright; on to my embezzlement hearing!”).

In short, a fun, engaging little flick enlivened by strong riffing making for another solid short from Rifftrax.

Talking Strength at Catholic Match

Here’s one that was percolating in my mind for a while before I was able to put it up; discussing the concept of strength, some reasons men should seek to acquire it, and, as a byproduct, the contemporary tendency to prioritize comfortably ambiguous ideas of ‘inner strength’ over, you know, the kind you can’t fake.

This danger is to emphasize inner strength to the point of devaluing outer strength. We do the same thing with beauty. It seems we can hardly talk about either without tripping over ourselves to add that we mean primarily “inner” strength or “inner” beauty.

The problem with this is that inner strength is indeed a much more valuable quality than outer strength, but it is also a much more ambiguous one. Anyone who likes can claim that he has inner strength, just as anyone can claim that she has inner beauty, and there isn’t much anyone can do to disprove that.

Nothing is so common as to hear cowards talk about how much courage it took to run away, or degenerates wax lyrical about how brave they were to give into their lowest instincts. Like with school essay questions, it’s fatally easy to fudge the issue—particularly in today’s pluralistic culture—and twist anything and everything we do into an example of great virtue.

This is why it’s important to start with blunt facts, with developing ‘outer’ strength.

It may be lower, but it is also more honest. You can fudge on whether you are in fact a coward or a sincere pacifist, but you can’t fudge on whether that weight came off the ground or not.

Which, of course, is part of the point; not just that physical strength is valuable in itself, but that, like learning Latin or mathematics, it is uncompromising. Either the weight moves or it doesn’t. Either you run the whole mile or you don’t. There is no room for ambiguity, excuses, or uncertainty. Physical strength is an objective quality, meaning that it forces us to learn at least a little of the infinitely valuable skill of facing up to reality.

Read the rest here.

It Came From Rifftrax: ‘Courtesy: A Good Eggsample’

So, let’s do one from the ‘completely insane’ school of educational shorts.

This one is well-summed up by Kevin right out of the gate as “Batman villain Egghead’s brief foray into educational films.” That actually would make a lot more sense than the idea that this was seriously intended as an educational film.

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“I mean, we ordered up a thing for kids about courtesy; this is just a bunch of crap about eggs!”

Basically, it’s a stop-motion short about sentient eggs who, we are told, learn about courtesy. Mostly it just amounts to the antagonist Benedict being discourteous while protagonist Eggbert (“If your name is Eggbert, you’re pretty much required to wear a bowtie”) models courtesy to a much lesser extent. There’s little through line or thesis to it; Benedict is a jerk for most of the short, then falls off the slide and cracks (“Fry him up so we can feast on his innards!”), so Eggbert takes him to the nurse’s office, which somehow results in them becoming friends because Benedict has learned about courtesy (though very reluctantly, to gauge by his subsequent behavior).

See, the thing is, no one ever actually learns anything, despite Eggbert’s assertion to the contrary; we just see Benedict and a few others being discourteous, Benedict suffers an injury in part because of it, then he reluctantly behaves better. We’re never actually told what courtesy is, or how to show it, except for a since line where the teacher assures Benedict that, “if you show consideration for others, they’ll show consideration for you.” Something that is never demonstrated in the short, since Benedict is more or less just punished into being sort-of courteous, and Eggbert shows him consideration regardless. I’m not even sure how many of Eggbert’s actions are meant to be models of courtesy. Even if you re-filmed the exact same script with human characters, it still wouldn’t make much sense. As the guys point out more than once, it’s basically just a pointless exercise in egg-puns, even though someone evidently spent a lot of time making it (“I’m managing to have the courtesy not to call this short a cheap, annoying waste of time”).

Naturally, this results in a lot of very funny riffing on the sheer insanity of it all, such as commenting on how everything is egg-shaped (“Those green egg trees are missing something…”), or the logic of an egg-based society (“Remembering the dead egg Marines who died in the mess-kits at Normandy”). The extremely basic music gets a lot of good humor as well, not to mention Mike’s Vincent Price imitation. On top of that, just the utter madness and pointlessness of the short itself is good for a laugh; it would be funny even without the riffing just for the sheer weirdness. A definite recommendation if you like utterly bizarre, misfired ideas.

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“Horrible. None of them know they’re headed to the omelette bar.”

New Catholic Match Post

I saw some people discussing this on the Catholic Match forums a while back and gave the question some thought. The results are now up:

The basic version is that men are more physically oriented, women more relationally oriented. A woman typically wants to learn more about a man’s character, personality, and capabilities. Thus, what a man fundamentally looks for is signs that a woman is studying his character, trying to dig out more of his personality, and liking what she sees.

Here are some specific, simple signs you can give to let the man you’re talking to know that you’re interested in him.

  1. Talk about yourself.

Sounds a little counter-intuitive, but there is a method to the myopia.

Obviously, this doesn’t mean talking non-stop about yourself, or making the relationship all about you. It means sharing your personal concerns, your ideas, and what’s going on in your life and (this is important) seeking his input and support. By talking about your own life, you signal that you want him involved in your life; that this isn’t just a means of passing the time for you, but that you want him to take an interest in you, personally.

Read the rest here.