Ghostbusters Doesn’t Belong to You

One of the biggest stories in social media for the last couple of days[1] is the “news” that the trailer for the new Ghostbusters is the most disliked video in YouTube history. This is the least historically useful piece of news I have ever heard. And I used to watch a shitload of baseball.[2]

Here’s the trailer for the new Ghostbusters:

As a point of comparison, here’s the trailer to the original Ghostbusters:

Based entirely on trailers I can say that the original Ghostbusters looks terrible. Like, just awful. But, of course, it’s a bit handicapped. Here, let’s take a look at the trailer for The Blues Brothers. Or how about Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Movie trailers before the ‘90s sucked is what I’m saying. At least for comedies. Things got better during the golden age of SNL movies and SNL alum movies. But that’s neither here nor there.

The internet hates the new Ghostbusters. It hates it with a passion. The reason why is pretty obvious to anyone with half a brain: it’s because the movie was made with four women in the starring role. There is no other explanation.

Internet assholes would have you believe something else. They’ll tell you that Ghostbusters is somehow sacred. It’s somehow this untouchable historical artifact that we had better not mess with. Yet I do not recall seeing news stories about how the universally-reviled-on-the-internet Michael Bay TMNT movie or the eventually-universally-reviled-on-the-internet Michael Bay Transformers had the most disliked trailers in YouTube history. I’m pretty sure that if you total up Michael Bay’s YouTube dislikes they don’t equal the dislikes that the new Ghostbusters got on its first weekend.

There are also going to be people who aren’t big on Leslie Jones’ character. I absolutely get that. You’ve got three white women who are smart and accomplished and their streetwise, sassy black friend. Their sassy black friend also appears to be excessively yell-y and religious. So that checks all the boxes for racially profiled writing and casting choices.

But the thing is that if we take the reflexive Michael Bay haters and the people who have a genuine beef about racial stereotyping and the statistical percentage of people who weren’t going to like it just because there are always people who don’t like things we still don’t get to the, “ZOMG! Most Hated Evar!” status. So here’s the part where I have to tell asshole misogynists on the Internet to shut the fuck up. Because that’s what’s at the core of pushing this movie into historically-hated-before-it-comes-out territory.

Here’s the thing: who the fuck cares? Really. Is Melissa McCarthy going to travel the country, stepping on all DVDs of the original Ghostbusters? Is Kristen Wiig going to go to your house and shit on your copy of Ghostbusters? Is Leslie Jones going to go to Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime and force them at gunpoint to sign a contract that says they’ll never stream the original? No. That’s not how it works. If Michael Bay can’t do it then neither can anyone involved in Ghostbusters. Because Michael Bay has people. And a huge stockpile of pyrotechnic charges.

So does the new movie infringe, in any way, shape, or form on your ability to enjoy the original? No. No it does not.

As such, the new movie is forced to stand or fall on its own merits. So let’s draw another comparison. Anchorman 2 was a not-at-all-anticipated, super late to the game sequel to one of the best comedies of the last decade. No one asked for it. No one wanted it. The original response to it from pretty much everyone was, “Why? No, really, why?” The trailer to Anchorman 2 currently has a bit under ten million views and a bit under two thousand dislikes. So I’m calling this the baseline.

Let’s say that the new Ghostbusters starred Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Jesse Eisenberg, and Hannibal Burress. I’m just going to assume that it would be in Anchorman 2 territory. Everyone would be asking, “So, um, why is this a thing?” and then just going on with their lives.

In order to get to the level where something is the most disliked stupid comedy ever it has to be perceived as somehow destroying something important. Ghostbusters in and of itself can’t be that important, in the grand scheme of things.[4] I’ve already pointed out situations where the supposed destruction of a beloved cultural artifact didn’t result in historically low approval ratings.

As such the only thing that can possibly be driving the historically mentionable hatred of the new Ghostbusters is because the internet is filled with misogynistic assholes. There is no other explanation. So just shut the fuck up and don’t watch the movie.

However, this does then get back to a larger issue. I brought up a lot of Michael Bay movies earlier. He seems to keep remaking movies based on properties from my childhood.[5] I mostly manage to not care. I am apparently a rare breed.

Every time some random thing from the ‘80s or ‘90s is rebooted there’s an internet constituency that comes out of the woodwork to make sure we all know how much of an injustice it is that we’re being subjected to it. This week it’s Ghostbusters. Not so long ago it was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Next week it will be Voltron or something. Because to some people the very act of making this new reboot is, to use the vernacular of internet dipshits, “raping their childhood.”

First of all, stop. Just fucking stop. A new Transformers movie isn’t raping you. Comparing someone you’ve never met making a new movie based on a piece of intellectual property created by someone you’ve never met to rape is deeply offensive to people who have actually been raped. It’s also fuck stupid and selfish and self-absorbed.

Second, if your entire childhood memory bank is based on cartoons made in the last thirty years then I am sad for you. Because every single one of those cartoons was created with one and only one goal in mind: to convince you to go beg your parents to take you to Toys R Us to buy toys based on that cartoon. That’s it. I had a shitload of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toys growing up. I look back on that now and realize that I was a goddamn sucker, played for a fool by a bunch of suits in marketing.

So the primary difference between me and you, dear reader who is bitching about how your childhood is being stolen, is that I’m better and smarter than you. I’m better than you because I’ve moved on. I’m smarter than you because I’ve seen the strings and realized what they are.

Ghostbusters doesn’t belong to you. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles doesn’t belong to you. Transformers doesn’t belong to you. They belong to a bunch of suits in a boardroom somewhere. Those suits bring out new content from time to time. Whenever they do it’s not because of nostalgia. It’s not because they love you. It’s because they’ve come to the conclusion that putting out new content will make them money.[6] They’ll sell tickets. They’ll sell ad time. They’ll sell toys. They don’t care. It’s all debits in the cash revenue column. It’s all yacht money.

So shut the fuck up because it doesn’t matter. Ghostbusters doesn’t belong to you.

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[1]This is based on the fact that it just keeps fucking popping up on my Facebook as a news story. This is the least scientific survey of important news stories this side of Glenn Beck telling us that everyone is talking about how Barack Obama is really a space mutant based on articles he read over at Breitbart and cross referenced with the National Enquirer. And my apologies to the National Enquirer, as it does not deserve to be mentioned alongside such obvious non-news entities as Glenn Beck and Breitbart.

[2]There is a ton of dead air during baseball games. So the color guy needs to do a lot of work to fill the viewers’ ear holes while the pitcher is scratching his nuts and trying to figure out which stitch he put his index finger on last time he faced the guy at the plate because he got a K last time and the guy at the plate is the current best hitter in the league. So baseball announcers end up spending a lot of time talking about the historic implications of something that happened. The vast majority of the time there is absolutely nothing worthwhile in those lessons.

Now, there are plenty of historical things worth mentioning in baseball. There are things like perfect games and no-hitters. There are hitting streaks. There are historically important winning or losing records. Those are all genuinely historically relevant. Those also only come along every once in a while, which is why they’re historically worthwhile in nature.

There are also plenty of things worth mentioning in the silly trivia category. This is stuff like, “This is the first time in history twin brothers hit back-to-back home runs,” or, “This is the first time that pitchers who each won two games in the World Series the previous year faced off against each other on Opening Day the following season.” Like, that sort of shit is crazy or fun or crazy and fun.

But then there’s the stuff that usually comes up. That’s stuff like, “He’s the first guy to strike out five switch hitters in the month of May since Fred McJackerson did it in 2003.” First of all, striking out five switch hitters is not something anyone cares about. Second, 2003 isn’t really that long ago. Third, unless you’re Fred McJackerson or his mother you’re probably going to have to look him up. Then when you do you’ll likely find out that poor Fred lost all of the games he pitched in May of 2003 before getting sent back down to the minors by a Kansas City Royals squad that only won 73 games that year. In short, there is absolutely nothing of historical significance about this historically significant event the color commentator is bringing up. He’s only doing it because most of his audience is drunk, asleep, or doing something else while pretending to watch the game.

[4]It would be like if they did a remake of Black Sheep or Tommy Boy with Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig. Or Sarah Silverman. I bet Sarah Silverman would be an awesome female David Spade. Those are undeniably awesome movies, but no one is talking about them right now because why would they? Much like no one was really talking about Ghostbusters at this time last year because oh my god, thirty year-old movie.

[5]I can’t entirely hate Michael Bay right now, though. He’s an Executive Producer of both Black Sails and The Last Ship. Black Sails is, hands down, the best thing on TV right now. The Last Ship is a pretty good show, too.

[6]I am a lifelong Star Trek fan. I despise the JJ Abrams Star Trek movies. Paramount keeps making them because it makes them money. My response to this is to occasionally make fun of the JJverse while mostly ignoring it in favor of focusing on the things that made me love Star Trek in the first place. It’s not rocket surgery here.

This American Dream I am Disbelieving

So I had big plans for the blog this week. None of them happened, so we’re going to have to push things back a week. Instead I offer an attempt at sharing some thoughts I’ve been trying to figure out how to put into words for quite some time.

Didn’t you know that this world
Is not meant to be dreamt in
But what hurts me most
Is all the time that we’ve wasted
I’ve wasted all the dreams in my head
I’ll have to move out of this country instead
–Idlewild, “You and I are Both Away”

It seems to me that it’s easier to make something of yourself if you start with nothing than it is to make something of yourself if you start with something. Like, I’m not talking rich when I say “something,” I’m talking your basic American middle class existence. If you grow up middle class your life is planned out for you pretty much from the start. You go to school for 13 years. The final two years are spent applying for college. You then go to college and emerge with a slightly pickled liver, a degree that may or may not be useful, and crushing loads of debt. Then you’re supposed to get a job as an accountant, get married, buy a house, have 2.4 children and a dog, and eventually you die.

The reason I say it’s easier to make something of yourself if you start with nothing isn’t a Republican-Presidential-Candidate-esque rant about how the poor have it too easy in America. It’s a psychological statement. If you have nothing you don’t have anything to lose. If your dreams are big enough, your skills are honed enough, and luck is on your side you can go anywhere from nothing because no one is expecting anything of you.

If you start with something most of the messages you get as you’re growing up are about how to not lose what you have. You can’t be in a band because guys in bands don’t make any money. You can’t be an artist because artists don’t make any money. You have to be an accountant[1] or an engineer or a middle manager or something.

Last summer in a fit of pique I wrote three posts about how corporate America is destroying America. I still believe every word I wrote.

The message we get growing up in the vast and shrinking middle classes of America is, “Make the safe choice.” We kill ourselves every day with the safe choice. Our dreams become secondary things that we might get to turn into hobbies when we’re 50 if everything goes according to plan.

What if the plan is terrible? Does that matter?

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I also think that this directly impacts the politics of America. I’m not really talking about Trump rallies or Bernie and Hillary here. I have many things to say on the subject of Trump rallies, though. Hopefully there will be a long-ass post about that next week.

What I’m talking about is something more primal. We’re increasingly divided and increasingly hateful of each other. There’s the obvious shit, like the way that you can apparently get one third of the country to support you if you spout off any racist shit that you can think of.

I think it’s because most of us are mad. Most of us are scared. That convenient path to a long, healthy life is increasingly closing off. Wages are stagnant while college costs and housing costs are climbing ever higher. But this is the American Dream. This is what we’re supposed to do. What do we do when it’s not working anymore?

This is where Donald Trump gets scary. He might be a buffoon or a con man or pulling the greatest piece of performance art since Andy Kaufman disappeared, but he’s tapped into something primal and dangerous in America. It’s something that’s always existed at the fringes of the American psyche and sometimes gone mainstream, but it’s always something that goes away and we pretend can’t happen anymore. America has always had a nativist streak, always had an isolationist streak, always had a hateful streak. The waves crested with the Know Nothings and the Ku Klux Clan but they’ve always been around and will probably always be around.

So when the bully stands up and says “Make America Great Again,” people know what that means. They look around at the ruins of their own lives and look at the American Dream and they know that something has stopped them from achieving the American Dream. It can’t possibly be that they failed. It can’t possibly be that America as a whole failed. It has to be because someone, somewhere, is trying to actively destroy America.

It can’t be my fault it’s all falling apart. It has to be yours.

———————–

I am increasingly convinced that politicians cannot fix this. Obama couldn’t do it. Bernie Sanders won’t be able do it even if he does get past Hillary. The President is just one person at the head of a vast, sluggish political machine. Each of the cogs of that machine are more interested in keeping their jobs than doing their jobs and the crazy thing about politicians is that doing your job is not a pre-requisite for keeping it. That machine is propped up on an 18th Century document not designed to cope with the sheer size and complexity of modern America.

Politicians let Flint, Michigan drink lead water for over a year. Politicians stand up and tell us how awful all the gun violence is and never actually lift a finger to fix it. Politicians don’t fix it because it doesn’t actually matter to them anymore. They’re going to get their votes, anyway.

Americans don’t follow politics anymore. This might seem like a weird statement to make since we’ve had wall-to-wall coverage of the 2016 race for over a year now and people discuss politics in America in the same way the residents of Constantinople once discussed the finer points of Arianism. But what we’re doing isn’t about the actual politics anymore. We follow politics like we follow team sports. It’s no longer an exercise in deciding who can best steer the ship of state but an exercise in handicapping and picking the right team and winning.

The Democrats don’t have to talk to the Republicans anymore, since a huge number of Republicans wouldn’t vote for Hillary or Bernie if Mecha-Hitler won the primaries and chose a methed-out velociraptor as his running mate. The Republicans don’t have to talk to the Democrats anymore since Trump is a guy with bad hair pretending to be Mecha-Hitler and Ted Cruz is a methed-out velociraptor who may or may not be the Zodiac Killer.

So in the absence of anything better to do the Democrats are currently eviscerating each other as Bernie continues to insist on not going away. It’s positively vitriolic between the Bernie and Hillary camps right now. If you don’t support Hillary you’re a sexist douchebag. If you do support Hillary you’re just begging for four more years of a President toadying up to Wall Street. If you support Bernie you’re an idiot who doesn’t know how reality works. If you don’t support Bernie you’re a fucking moron who wants Wall Street to keep running our lives.

The Republicans, meanwhile, are, um…actually, I’m not sure how the followers of the various camps are doing over on that side. It’s all just unintelligible screeching and men in suits that cost more than a house in Flint, Michigan smearing shit all over each other.

Meanwhile real Americans drink water filled with lead. Real Americans can’t find work. Real Americans lose their houses. The shitheads that are supposed to help them and represent them point at the other shitheads wearing the opposite team’s colors and say, “It’s their fault.”

And those real Americans believe the shitheads. Because it doesn’t matter whether the shithead is wearing a blue or a red jersey. It’s all about the team.

——————–

I’ve come to realize that the politicians cannot save us. The politicians don’t want to save us. The politicians just want to keep their jobs and if we’ve learned anything in the last few years it’s that the only way to keep your job as a politician is to avoid doing your job.

You know who’s going to save us? The artists, the thinkers, the philosophers. It’s going to take people rejecting the simple path and taking the difficult one. We do need a revolution, but it needs to be a revolution in how we treat each other and think about the people we put in charge.

That’s a scary thought. But the alternative is even scarier. The American Dream is a lie and every 4 years we make that lie a little bit bigger.

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[1]I am currently taking a corporate accounting course. Oh. My. God. Accounting is the fucking worst. So I’m a bit down on accounting right now.

The Force Awakens: Barely Better than the Prequels

Yesterday’s post was going to contain my final thoughts on Star Wars the Force Awakens, but it’s been such an inescapable pop culture suck for the last few months that I can’t not think about it. It’s odd, when you think about it. I think we can all agree that JJ Abrams was handed a project with a bar so low he couldn’t help but clear it. That project then ended up being attached to a hype train I don’t think we’ve ever seen before. Disney could have spent exactly zero dollars advertising the new movie and still gotten wall-to-wall coverage, since every other commercial has been Star Wars related even, hell, especially if it’s something that’s not-at-all Star Wars-y.[1]

The part at the end inevitably left me with two questions: first, where does the Force Awakens rank in the Star Wars universe overall and, second, is Star Wars the Force Awakens actually good? Given the nature of this post I would say it’s time to assume there will be spoilers. Such things are unavoidable, so if you don’t want to see any spoilers just, y’know, stop reading.

In order to answer those questions it’s necessary to establish a baseline. Let’s talk about three recent sci-fi movies and my reactions to them: Pacific Rim, Jurassic World, and Avengers: Age of Ultron.

First, there’s Pacific Rim. I am an unabashed fan of that movie. The first time I ever heard of it there was exactly one thing I wanted in the world: for Pacific Rim to be in my brain. In the weeks leading up to the actual release of the film it occurred to me finally that Pacific Rim might actually suck. I saw it on opening night in a regular theater. Over the course of the next 2 weeks I saw it three more times in IMAX 3D. I own it on Blu-Ray and have watched it several times. Hell, I was thinking of watching it today.

Second, there’s Age of Ultron. I was moderately excited for that one, given that I’ve enjoyed the MCU so far and I thought The Avengers was awesome, to the point where it’s now on FX’s regular rotation and I will watch the final fight scene in New York City pretty much every time it comes on. I saw Age of Ultron in IMAX 3D and then thought about going back to see it again and I just couldn’t bring myself to summon the energy.

Third, there’s Jurassic World. When I first saw they were making the movie my reaction was, “Who is asking for this, seriously?” I went and saw it in IMAX 3D not because I really wanted to, but because I figured it would be a spectacular failure and I wanted to see said spectacular failure in the most spectacular way possible. Then they took the train through the doors to the park and did that helicopter swoosh down the park’s main thoroughfare to the Jurassic Park music and the little hairs on the back of my neck stood up and, long story short, I’ve seen that movie three times in IMAX 3D.

In the weeks following the releases of Pacific Rim and Jurassic World I saw plenty of articles ripping those movies apart. They were called dumb. Little details and reasonable size plot holes were picked apart. I was basically called an idiot for enjoying such stupid movies. The thing about it is that those articles didn’t tell me anything I hadn’t already figured out on my own. I saw both movies three times in the biggest possible format.

There is no such thing as the perfect movie. We as a society have pretty much hit upon a formula where we can identify and more-or-less agree with each other about which movies are good and which ones are bad and then we can usually get to an agreement to the level of “so bad it’s good” and “fell just short of good and became awful.”

The place where problems and arguments start is that we have a hard time really coming up with a common understanding of how to deal with things like plot holes and general ridiculousness. Like, with Pacific Rim there was the question of, “Why didn’t they mention the damn sword earlier? Isn’t that convenient?” and, “No, really, giant robots punching giant monsters in the face? What the fuck, man?” I saw those things and kind of shrugged them away while others saw them and were all, “Well this is just goddamn stupid.” Which is something I knew already, since I went in expecting to see a movie about giant robots punching giant monsters in their giant faces. This might have been the Citizen Kane of Humongous Mecha movies, but it was still a Humongous Mecha movie, which means it was never going to actually be Citizen Kane.

So from there we have to fall back to the question, “What is this movie about?” In the case of Pacific Rim it was Guillermo del Toro penning a love letter to a whole genre of movies with a little bit of environmentalism thrown in. It could have been awful but they picked a great cast who got into the ridiculousness wholeheartedly and made the question, “Would this look really fucking cool in IMAX 3D?” their guiding principle. In the case of Jurassic World it was actually more complicated. I realized early on that first time I saw it that the movie was actually a meta-movie about how summer blockbusters had changed, both for the better and worse, since Jurassic Park first came out.

The interesting thing about both Pacific Rim and Jurassic World is that both movies were full of references, callbacks, and Easter eggs. I can’t really speak to Pacific Rim, since I’m not really familiar with the genre as a whole, so I’ll just talk Jurassic World. Many of the setup shots in that movie were meant to directly mimic shots in Jurassic Park. There was, of course, the scene where the technician guy got called out for wearing a Jurassic Park t-shirt, which seemed a bit heavy-handed but it also served as a piece of the meta-plot about the making of movies itself. It was there for a reason that did actually go beyond, “Hey, wouldn’t it be hilarious if we had a guy wearing a shirt from the 1993 movie?”

This is why while I admit that Avengers: Age of Ultron is a good movie I also didn’t care about it all that much and certainly not as much as I cared about The Avengers. Age of Ultron wasn’t about anything more than moving the Marvel Cinematic Universe forward. Yeah, it had the metaplot about the modern surveillance state and making ourselves into monsters because we obsess over fighting monsters, but on a deep, fundamental level the movie just existed to fill out a spot on Marvel’s schedule of taking over the world. It felt perfunctory and, if I’m completely honest, I’ve cared less about the MCU since I saw it than I did before, since it showed that the MCU exists to keep the MCU existing and keep all that money rolling in so that it can keep going.

So with this in mind we must go to Star Wars.

George Lucas started telling the stories in Star Wars because he wanted to tell the story of the Hero’s Journey. In the original movie he nailed the format and we could have just left it at that. But we didn’t and Lucas almost immediately started compromising his vision. What was the underlying message of Return of the Jedi, after all? It was, “Go to the store and buy toys!” That’s why the Ewoks were in the picture. To sell toys to children. Even so, Return of the Jedi couldn’t help but be a good movie, since the franchise had so much momentum coming out of The Empire Strikes Back and we still had to finish up the stories of Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine and Luke and Leia and Han. In all honesty the world of Star Wars should have just stopped right there. But people being people the fanboys couldn’t leave well enough alone.

So what did George Lucas do? He created a two-hour toy commercial. Jar Jar Binks was the new Ewoks. Darth Maul’s ridiculous double-bladed lightsaber was there to look cool on the shelves at the Toys R Us. Lucas’s vision was compromised from the start since he didn’t actually care about making a Star Wars movie. Even if Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith had ended up being really good movies the prequels might have been sunk by that first movie. Which sucks, because there was an interesting story in there somewhere.

So this forces us to ask the question, “What is the underlying message of Star Wars the Force Awakens?”

That message is as simple as it is misguided. It’s, “Hey, look everybody, I, JJ Abrams, can totally make a Star Wars movie! Isn’t that neat?” That’s it. That’s the great message of the new Star Wars movie. JJ Abrams proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he’s capable of chopping up the plot points of the two objectively great Star Wars movies and reassembling them in a slightly different order. And even at that he hasn’t proved that he can do it well.

First of all, there’s the minor problem that Abrams seems to have mistaken making references to things that already happened for good moviemaking. Every single thing that happens in The Force Awakens is a call-out to something that happened in either Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back. Most of the scenes are designed to be direct compositional callouts. Most of the sets are designed to look like other places we’ve already been. He’s got a whole galaxy to play with and all he can think to do is make a desert planet, an ice planet, and a shady bar filled with crazy looking aliens. He could have pulled his villain from anywhere but all he could think to do there was make a new Darth Vader right down to the same exact origin story.

That part could have been an interesting meta-commentary on how good and evil are cyclical, but he even fucked that one up pretty badly. Kylo Renn is a bad character in general and a worse big bad. Interestingly enough he’s bad for the exact same reasons Anakin Skywalker was a bad…whatever we want to call him from the prequels. We already know him too well. This is actually where we get to the truth that an origin story for a villain is really, really, incredibly hard to do well, especially if everyone knows that the origin story in question is for a villain.

The great thing about Darth Vader was that we knew basically nothing about him.[2] He’s only actually on screen for maybe 15 minutes of the run time of the original movie. What does he do in that time? He captures Leia, he Force chokes his own Admiral, he blows up a goddamn planet just to make a point, and then he kills Obi-Wan. That is a terrifying dude.

I’ve already talked about this, but we already know Kylo Renn too well. Abrams couldn’t wait to spoil his parentage. He then had a temper tantrum and destroyed a room. Then he took off his mask and pitched a fit and let Rey know that he was scared of her. What the fuck kind of villain does that? It makes him look weak and pathetic and the exact opposite of scary. He had the hero at his mercy and ended up being all, “Ehrmagerd, you’re more powerful than me. I’ma go run to my giant orc hologram buddy for help.” And in the next scene he was standing there without his damn mask whining away to his boss. No. Just…no. I could not take him seriously as a bad guy at that point.[3]

Oh, also, Supreme Leader Snoke is a terrible character. It apparently never occurred to JJ Abrams that it might be hard to take a bad guy who looks like Voldemort and Gollum had a love child who nearly died in a house fire. And making him a hundred-foot tall hologram just makes him, well, let’s just say I’m guessing he drives a big ol’ SUV with truck nutz hanging off the back. At this point the only thing that can possibly redeem Supreme Leader Snoke is if we have a Wizard of Oz moment and it turns out that he’s actually an old man behind a curtain. Or Jar Jar Binks. Or Admiral Ackbar, who started the First Order[4] as an elaborate false flag to get more military funding from the Republic.[5]

And here we get to the part that’s sure to make me plenty of enemies on the internet and will also make me friends with people I don’t want to be friends with. Rey is not a good character. She’s a full-on Mary Sue fanfic insert who was impossible to take seriously as a character.

This is absolutely not because Rey is a woman. Let me make that clear right now. I actually think it’s fantastic that the two leads of the movie are a woman and a black dude. I think it’s awesome that we have a female Jedi. I think it’s fantastic that Rey figured out how to take care of herself. I just wish they’d managed to do all of that in a way that wasn’t just totally, mind-numbingly stupid.

Rey starts the movie as a presumably uneducated orphan living in the leg of a dead AT-AT walker on a planet that makes Tatooine look positively civilized. By the end of the movie she’s figured out how to fly and repair the Millennium Falcon, how to use her Jedi mind tricks to get a Stormtrooper to release her from custody, use the Force to telekinetically grab a lightsaber that another Jedi who is trained and also physically closer to it is also reaching for, and how to beat a bigger, stronger, actually trained Jedi in lightsaber combat. Yet she doesn’t receive a moment of training for any of that and there’s nothing in her backstory that indicates she has any sort of training in anything but stripping parts from busted Star Destroyers.

She actually completely destroyed my ability to suspend my disbelief almost immediately.[6] The First Order tracks BB-8 down and she and Finn have to beat a hasty retreat. So they end up stealing the Millennium Falcon and trying to outrun a couple TIE fighters. This leads to that most tired sci-fi cliché: the attempt to shake the bad guys by flying through an impossibly tight space at high speeds, in this case the hulk of a crashed Star Destroyer. This is the Millennium Falcon. It’s a really wide ship with the cockpit all the way over on the far right. Taking it into tight spaces at high speed within moments of taking off for the first time is a recipe for disaster. But it all works out great because double plot armor, I guess.

Then in the middle of the movie she finds out she’s a Jedi. By the end of the movie she’s a pretty kick-ass Jedi even though she’s never even met another Jedi. Why? I’m guessing it’s because JJ Abrams couldn’t figure out a way to actually make a believable movie.

Let’s go back to the original Star Wars. Luke finds out he’s a Jedi. Yet throughout the first movie he’s still pretty much helpless. The only moment he actually uses the Force is at the very end. Meanwhile, he can fly an X-Wing because he already knows how to fly and we can only assume there was an off-screen moment where Jek Porkins and Wedge Antilles showed him how to find the on switch and the trigger mechanism. The first time we see Luke use the telekinetic Force grab trick is in The Empire Strikes Back when he’s trying to escape from the Wampa and that takes him quite a bit of effort.

What this all illustrates is that JJ Abrams doesn’t actually understand what drove George Lucas to create Star Wars in the first place. Lucas had a vision. Yes, he compromised that vision as soon as he realized he could make enough money to make Scrooge McDuck jealous, but at the beginning he had a vision and he created an enduring movie because he followed through on that vision and understood what it was all about.

JJ Abrams doesn’t have a vision. JJ Abrams knows that Star Wars is cool and that he wanted to make a Star Wars. So he went out and made a Star Wars. That’s good for him, I guess. But I would argue that JJ Abrams’ lack of vision caused The Force Awakens to fail almost as badly as George Lucas’s compromised vision caused the prequels to fail. The only thing that’s saved him so far is that the bar was literally set at, “I’ll love it if it doesn’t have Jar Jar Binks.” But Lucas managed to clear that bar in Revenge of the Sith. I don’t recall anyone saying nice things about that movie.

The one saving grace for the Star Wars franchise is that we probably won’t get a Star Wars Into Darkness, though. We already know that Rian Johnson is directing Episode VIII. He did Looper and Brick, so we can only hope that this means we’ll find out that Joseph Gordon-Leavitt is actually pulling the holographic strings for Supreme Leader Snoke. I would be totally okay with that.

Seriously, though. How do you complain about Jar Jar Binks and give Snoke a pass? He’s easily as dumb even if he isn’t as annoying.

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[1]”Go buy some jewelry in your new Fiat 500 Abarth and then see Star Wars the Force Awakens, in theaters December 17th!” Huh? What?

[2]This, incidentally, is the mark of any good movies’ treatment of the bad guy. We should not know the bad guy beyond their powers and their presumed intentions. We should spend all of our time watching the good guys scramble around to try to figure out what’s going on and how to stop it. Think about it in terms of movies I’ve already discussed. In Jurassic Park and Jurassic World the dinosaurs that are terrorizing everyone are barely on screen. They break out of their pens. They have big set-pieces to set up the whole, “Yeah, that’s why we should be terrified,” and then they kinda just…disappear for a bit and let us worry that they’re around every corner. In Pacific Rim we never actually really even see the real bad guys. The Kaiju are just their foot soldiers and we only see their dimension for a moment at the end, leaving everyone to wonder who the fuck these guys are and how they’ve decided that bio-engineering thousand-ton killing machines and sending them through a hole in the ocean floor is actually a good plan. In The Avengers we do see Loki quite a bit, but he follows the same pattern and we see way more of the Avengers trying to get their shit together.

[3]This, weirdly, reminds me of nothing so much as Superman Returns, or whatever that movie was called. There was a scene in that movie where Lois Lane snuck aboard Lex Luthor’s yacht and all of the sudden runs into him…while he’s brushing his teeth. That was actually a great scene in an otherwise terrible movie and not just because Kevin Spacey is awesome. See, Lex Luthor is a regular human who’s trying to come up with a plot that has to get around the fact that at some point god hisownself will notice and step in to stop him. So when we see Lex Luthor brushing his teeth it drives home the point that he’s just a human. Which makes it all the more impressive that he’s going through with his plan to try to kill god.

[4]Also, I’ve realized that I spent almost all of yesterday’s post calling the First Order the New Order. I cannot be arsed to change that, since I actually don’t care. The names are both just so generically boring.

[5]It’s a trap!

[6]This scene also has a patented “JJ Abrams doesn’t have a fucking clue how anything works” series. First, the Millennium Falcon, which has been sitting under a tarp in the desert, just starts right up. Second, Rey manages to crash it into literally everything while trying to lift off. She hits the ground a couple of times and plows through an archway. There’s no way that would end well for a spaceship.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Belteshazzar?

So there were these four Jewish dudes. Their names were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. They were burly, strapping young lads at a time when the Babylonians were in charge over in Israel. Nebuchadnezzar, the king in Babylon, was all about having Jewish captives in Babylon to keep the Jews in line. It was custom at that time.

So Nebuchadnezzar, who’s better known as the hovership in The Matrix, was interested in getting his new subjects to go native and figured the best way to do it was to take their highest quality young folk and, um, Babylonify them. So he gave them names that were more Babylon-y than Jewish-y. So he called Daniel Belteshazzer. Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah got names that would be familiar to anyone who grew up in Sunday School: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. For the younger folk they might be better known as Rack, Shack, and Benny.[1]

Our four little buddies then had a series of adventures. There was the one where they ate a bunch of vegetables because the king’s food was too sinny or something. Then there was this other one where they didn’t bow to some idol. Then there was that one time Rack, Shack, and Benny got thrown into a fiery furnace while Daniel was back home visiting his mother and presumably using his Kung Fu skills to clean up his old block that was now infested with a gang of Illyrian toughs or something. I assume there was a romantic subplot involving his old high school girlfriend, too. Daniel also interpreted a few dreams and gave us the phrase “the writing on the wall.” He was an all around cool dude, y’know? Like Idris Elba.

The one that I want to talk about is the last story in the cycle. It’s the famous one about Daniel[2] in the lion’s den. You know the story, right? Daniel got thrown into the lion’s den. The lions didn’t eat Daniel in spite of the fact that they were super hungry. King Darius realized that the god of the Jews was super awesome and bowed his head or whatever. Then everyone lived happily ever after until Alexander the Great showed up and ruined everything.

The part I care about, though, is the why of Daniel being in the lion’s den. See, he was a super popular adviser and seer under the Babylonians, because god told him stuff and all the prophets of the false Babylonian gods didn’t know nothin’ from nothin’. Daniel even prophesied the very night Darius and the Persians would take Babylon from King Belshazzar.[3] Darius was so impressed by him that he made Daniel one of the most powerful men in the Persian Empire and satrap over the former Babylonian territory. So what happened?

The king’s other advisers didn’t much like Daniel, so they tricked the king. They got him to sign a decree under the law of the Medes and the Persians that people could only pray to the king for a certain period of time and violation of the law was punishable by lion. Well, it turned out that Daniel rather famously prayed out on his balcony every morning. To his god. So it became a gotcha game and, sure enough, Daniel got got. The king didn’t actually want to put Daniel in front of the firing lion,[4] but his hands were tied, since the laws of the Medes and Persians just couldn’t be broken,[5] not even by the king. So into the pit Daniel went.

But Yahweh would not take that assault on his favored son lion down. Daniel survived, the king himself got him out of the pit, and for a moment it seemed the only losers were the poor, hungry lions. So the king solved that by throwing those other guys who tricked him down. It’s a win-win!

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There was this one time Jesus was preaching, as he did. He was on a roll, y’know? Pharisees this, faith of a mustard seed that, kingdom of god. Real good stuff. So in the middle of all this he told his followers not to pray as those pagans and hypocrites did, out on the street corners and all braggy-like. He told them to go pray in secret. Hide in the closet if they have to.

Proponents of secular culture in America love this part of Jesus’s wisdom above pretty much anything else. See, we have this real problem in America of people deciding they need to get all Jesus-y in public and rub everyone else’s face in it. It’s tasteless, really. Like having sex on Main Street right there in front of the elementary school and fire station. Nobody wants to see that. Well, I don’t know. Maybe if it was, like, Scarlett Johansson and Charlize Theron we’d all stop and let it happen and then we’d spend the rest of our lives talking in hushed tones about where we were the day an entire town uploaded videos of ScarJoCharThon[6] to YouTube at the same time. But, like, if it was just some random middle-aged couple who have a really specific fetish that they finally worked up the courage to try we’d all be like, “Ew, stop that. Regular people are gross.”

Religion is like fat people having sex is what I’m saying. It’s pasty and kinda floppy and there’s way too much grunting. Wait, where was I going with this?

This particular preaching from Jesus is actually kind of weird. See religion at the time was a public practice. We’re talking about a part of the world under the thumb of the Romans, who appropriated most of their culture from the Greeks. Religion was totally a public spectacle for the Greeks and the Romans. The Greeks were even a step back from some of their neighbors, notably the Egyptians, for whom religion was an all-consuming aspect of everything.

For the Jews the notion of religion as public spectacle was a big deal, too. That’s why the building and rebuilding of the Temple was such a big deal to them. Ezra didn’t head back from Babylon with Cyrus’s blessing so he could supervise the rebuilding of the Temple and then go pray in the root cellar for fear someone would see him.

I don’t think Jesus had any real problems with public religion. His real problem is right there in the beginning of Matthew 6: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your father who is in heaven.” It was an attack, as we so often see in the New Testament, on hypocrisy.

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So here we get to the heart of the problem. Whenever someone does something blatantly religious in public in America people who are against that sort of thing throw Matthew 6 at them. This doesn’t help, though, because those people see themselves as living out Daniel 6. So when we all take to Facebook and Twitter to mock them they see themselves as being thrown to the lions.

Sometimes this sort of behavior needs to be smacked down. Is a judge starting court sessions with prayer? That’s a problem. Is a public high school teacher telling gay kids they’re going to hell in sex ed classes? That’s a problem. That sort of thing needs to be stopped. It’s against the law.

Most of the time I think this behavior should be ignored. Is some jackass trying to start a controversy because of the color of a coffee cup? He can be ignored. Is some has-been celebrity reinventing himself as a warrior for Jesus? Who cares? I tell you, they’ll get their reward in full in the form of page views. Let’s try to make that number as close to zero as possible. Because while we all know they’re just being assholes they think they’re being latter day Daniels. Silence is the best response in that case.

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[1]This has now brought us to the part of the show where Geds goes to YouTube and watches VeggieTales videos. So I watched the Hairbrush Song and Song of the Cebu and, wow, VeggieTales have not aged well. Song of the Cebu used to be hilarious.

It’s kinda weird, too. It’s not like I was only allowed to watch VeggieTales in my youth. I was out of high school by the time they got popular. But I worked in a Christian book store at the time and VeggieTales was huge money, so I was quite familiar with the whole thing. It was enjoyable and silly in a way no Christian children’s entertainment had been before. Most of the previous stuff was just terribly earnest and kinda creepy. I present Bibleman for your viewing…uh, pleasure? VeggieTales was way better than this. Not that it takes much.

Also, yes, that’s Willie Aames, Scott Baio’s sidekick from Charles in Charge as Bibleman. So if you’ve ever asked yourself, “Hey, what happened to that guy from Charles in Charge who wasn’t Scott Baio, now you know.

I’m terrified to find out what tonight does to further fuck up my YouTube recommendations.

[2]One of the things I’ve always found weird about the book of Daniel is that all four got Babylonian names, but Daniel remained Daniel while the others were always Rack, Shack, and Benny. Meanwhile, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego aren’t really Babylonian names. They’re undoubtedly symbolic of something.

Which, actually, gives us a whole different topic of conversation. Daniel is a Jewish name meaning “God is my judge.” The “god” part of that name is right there at the end: El. Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah are all various ways of saying god is great, but the use of god there is Yahweh. This goes way back to the book of Genesis where god is alternately referred to as El and Yahweh, which is a good indication that the early Jewish texts are actually an attempt to merge two different traditions. I don’t actually know if this has any significance. I just find it interesting. Because I’m a nerd.

Meanwhile, Daniel himself is a semi-legendary figure in Jewish myth. It was traditional in ancient literature to attach stories to legendary figures and people had a hard time telling truth from myth. We haven’t advanced too much from there, honestly, even with all of our advances in literacy and communication. Look no further than President Obama, who is single-handedly traveling the country to convert all of the good little Christians into Muslims and take away the guns while using the Constitution as toilet paper and laughing at us because he’s really from Kenya. Meanwhile, all the stupid liberals think he’s just a centrist who’s helping the economy and bringing America’s respect abroad back up from the abysmal levels to which it descended during Bush’s presidency. Poor, deluded fools.

[3]How do we know that the book of Daniel is pretty much made up whole cloth? Timelines and actual historical fact. Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, and Darius were, indeed, real people.

Nebuchadnezzar actually did conquer Judah in 597 BCE. Belshazzar did, in fact, lose Babylon to the Persians. Belshazzar, however, was the son of King Nabonidus and the guy in charge of the army that lost to the Persians. This was in 539 BCE, which is 58 years after Nebuchadnezzar conquered Judah. Now it’s certainly possible that Daniel lived through all of this. He would have been somewhere in his 70s or 80s, which isn’t unheard of for someone living high on the hog as the king’s favorite advisor.

This is where we hit the other half of the problem, though. Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon. Darius the Great became king 17 years later. Daniel 9 referred to him as Darius son of Xerxes. Darius was, in fact, the son of Hystaspes, a minor satrap, and managed to take the throne after a minor scuffle when Cyrus’s sons, Cambyses II and Bardiya, had a minor civil war. Darius, meanwhile, had a son who also took the throne: Xerxes I.

The latter half of the book of Daniel, meanwhile, takes the form of Daniel writing his recollections, including being the guy who convinced Darius, son of Xerxes, to allow the Jewish people to return to Judah and rebuild the Temple. The book of Ezra records that it was Cyrus the Great who allowed that to happen. As far as history goes, we have the Cyrus cylinder, which records Cyrus’s good deeds in terms of sending Babylonian slaves back to their homelands and restoring their native religions and places of worship. It does not specifically mention the Jews, but there’s no reason to think it would.

Our big takeaway here, though, is that the book of Daniel is problematic, historically speaking. It seems likely that it was written by someone who knew enough to know some real names, but didn’t know where they belonged. So we’re talking about someone who lived much later. Most scholarship points to the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who was rather famous for being the Hellenistic king at the time of the Maccabean Revolt.

[4]Firing lion. Firing. Lion. I just wrote that. I feel good about it.

[5]I’ve studied the history of this area in some detail and never run into a reference to this unbreakable law outside of he book of Daniel. It seems to me more like a convenient plot device than anything else. The entire first half of Daniel comes across that way, though. The king’s jealous advisers see that the 4 Jewish guys are prospering so they convince the king to do something that will result in their deaths. They don’t die and in a convenient reversal the jealous advisers are hoist on their own petard. Then the king orders everyone to obey the Jewish god. Then the credits roll and, “Next week on the Dukes of Babylon…”

And now I’m seeing four guys on a chariot named the General Zedekiah jumping ramps over the Tigris to escape Boss Neb and Sheriff Rothbus P. Coltrazzar. And I’m not gonna lie. I would watch that.

[6]Pronounced “Scar-Jo-Char-Thon.”

Planned Obsolescence is Destroying Us

I have a five and a half year old car. When I went shopping for said car I had basically three requirements: it had to be bigger than my Chevy Cavalier, it had to have a sunroof, and it had to have Bluetooth connectivity. I ended up with a surprisingly primitive car. It has the power sunroof and power windows. It has a 6 CD changer. It has an Aux In plug in the center console. It has Bluetooth. It has 1 6-way power seat. It does not have an in-dash GPS. It does not have integrated Wi-Fi. It does not send me emails when it’s time for an oil change. I didn’t want any of that shit.

My reasoning was simple. The more stuff you put onto a car the more there is that can break. The more there is that can break the more expensive it is to maintain that car. So if I got that fancy in-dash GPS system and it broke I’d be out, say, $2000 (actually more like $4-5000, when you consider that said fancy in-dash GPS cost more money to buy in the first place). My $200 portable Garmin GPS, though? I could buy ten of those fuckers for the cost of that one in-dash unit.[1]

Meanwhile, the fact of the matter is that most of the stuff that’s now on cars looks really cool in the showroom or on commercials but is annoying as fuck to live with day-to-day. The guys on Top Gear managed to find a nearly endless well of comedy by simply showing two of the guys drive away while the third (usually James May) sat in a Mercedes or Maserati and tried to figure out how to start the damn thing.[2] All of that shit is unnecessary for basically 100% of drivers. But it looks really cool in the showroom, so we just keep seeing more and more garbage put on our cars.

I sold audio equipment back in the day. We were always trying to upsell customers who were looking at the receivers and whatnot. There was usually a 1000-series unit that was just bare-bones garbage, then a 2000- and 3000- series unit that were perfectly acceptable. What you wanted to sell, though, was that 4000-series monster whatever. The thing that inevitably set the 4000-series apart was that it offered a whole bunch of different modes and a bunch of gobbledygook terminology like “dynamic leveling” or other meaningless marketing mumbo-jumbo. Odds are extremely good that everyone who bought that 4000-series took it up, set it up, set the mode to “Theater” or “Live Sports” and never changed anything ever again. But, dammit, he bought the 4000-series because of the dynamic leveling and the 56 pre-programmed equalizer settings and all his buddies who only got the 3000-series are so damn jealous even though the 3000-series is actually the same damn unit without that little digital display.

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Have you ever seen an appliance built in the 1950s? They are overengineered monstrosities built like brick shithouses and designed to last until approximately five years after the Sun goes supernova. You would think that if you took that sort of attitude and added it to the massive leaps in technology we’ve made over the last 6 decades we’d all be buying refrigerators designed to last longer than the universe. Instead we’re getting appliances that last for exactly three days past their 5-year limited warranty.

The reason for this is a concept called “planned obsolescence.” That’s the idea that something should be designed to last for a couple of years and then get replaced. It’s why you get a new smartphone every 18 months and a new dishwasher every 5 years even though your grandmother still has the same washer-dryer she bought at the Five-and-Dime in 1957 and you’ve got a Nokia candy bar phone in a desk drawer that still totally works and lets you play Snake like a boss.

I know that we can build stuff to last way longer than we used to because I know how cars are built now. I’m not talking about your in-dash GPS or trunk-mounted latte machine. I’m talking about the actual guts of the car. Cars that were built in the 1950s weren’t actually supposed to have long shelf lives because the metal rusted out in about ten minutes and the seals on the engine, hoses, and fluid lines were terrible. We’ve made quantum leaps in that technology. It used to be a big deal when a car hit one-hundred thousand miles. Now if a car doesn’t go that far it’s pretty much a lemon. You used to have to get an oil change every 3,000 miles and check your oil pretty much every time you filled up (which was twice a week because the cars got 9 miles to the gallon). There also used to be maintenance checklists where you’d basically have to get your 3,000 mile oil change, then every 6,000 miles get a tire rotation, every 9,000 miles check the transmission fluid, and at 24,000 or 36,000 miles get a major tune-up. My car’s factory recommended oil change is 7500 miles. I don’t think I’ve ever checked the oil myself. When I hit somewhere in the neighborhood of the old 36,000 mile mark I took the car in for the usual oil change and tire rotation and was terrified they’d give me a $500 list of things that needed to be done. Nope. All of that stuff happens at 100,000 miles or so now. I can drive it for another 4 years before I have to worry about the timing belt. Engineering is better. Unibody construction built with high-impact plastics and carbon fiber basically removes structural failure due to rust from the equation.

We can make things that are just better in every way than in the past. We can make things that will outlast the slow heat death of the universe. We choose not to, however. We build things that are supposed to break 2 years after we take them out of the box. Why do we do this? Because the entire American and, therefore, world economy is built on making sure we’re constantly buying shit we don’t need.

Why are millions of Chinese workers spending their days in unsafe factories putting iPhones together for pennies an hour? Because that’s the only way that Apple can sell you an iPhone for $299. Why is Apple trying to sell you an iPhone for $299? Because they know you need to replace the iPhone you bought for $299 in 2013 and want to make sure you replace the one you’re buying now in 2017. So they make ‘em cheap. There’s no doubt in my mind that they’ve researched the hell out of that price point and know that the average consumer will balk at buying a new iPhone every 2 years for $399. There’s also a pretty decent chance that they could build one at a $599 price point that will last for 5 or 6 years, but then they’ll go out of business in 2017 or something different will capture the zeitgeist and they’ll lose all of their customers.

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This, then, is the part three I didn’t realize I needed when I wrote “The Only Thing Wrong with Corporate America is Everything” and “We Owe Our Souls to the Company Store.” We’ve built planned obsolescence into everything, even shit that doesn’t need it. Our cars that can mechanically last for ten years easily now have a bunch of shit in them that will break in three. Even so, we really don’t want to keep that car for more than three or four years because the all-new redesign for 2017 comes with a popcorn maker and a little arm that gives you a handjob when you’re waiting at stoplights (you laugh, but I’ll bet someone at BMW just got a really confusing erection).

The reason we keep building our stuff to break is because the economy in America is unsustainable without rampant, unnecessary consumerism. We’re no longer able to see the bars on the cell because life is a never-ending barrage of commercials and messages that if you just get that new car or new phone or new backpack you’ll finally be happy and you’ll finally be accepted by the cool kids and you parents will finally tell you that they’re proud of you. We’re also increasingly dependent all of this shit and hopeless when it breaks.

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We’re also talking about renewable energy. We’re talking about using re-usable bags at the grocery store to cut down on disposing of plastic bags. We get self-righteous about separating the recyclables out from the trash. What about that stack of broken iPhones, though? What about the five year-old washer and dryer that the guys just carted away because they broke and you got a new set?

What about all of the moralizing Americans get into over China’s terrible labor practices and the fact that they’re dumping waste into their rivers and belching soot into their skies in a race to industrialize? What is driving China’s industrialization? Our $299 iPhones. This doesn’t even touch on the fact that everything out there that uses a circuit board requires rare-earth elements that are mined in conditions that make blood diamonds look like a game of Candyland.

All of this comes at a massive, terrifying cost but we, frankly, don’t seem to care. Tomorrow can take care of itself because I need that new shiny today. The true costs of that cheap iPhone will be paid on the other side of the world right now and by our children or grandchildren.

We keep living this way because it will cost a lot to change. The costs of not changing are unimaginably higher. I don’t think we as a society will realize that until it’s far too late.

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[1]The calculations actually get worse the longer you own the car. Let’s say I bought a unit in my 2010 model year car. In 2012 they discontinued my style and came out with a brand new version of the 6. I assume that also means that they re-did a lot of the bells and whistles, so if in 2015 my in-dash GPS broke they’d probably be all, “Well, we discontinued that unit 3 years ago, so they don’t make these anymore. That’s gonna be five grand to replace.” I assume that scenario is at least a possibility.

[2]I have a friend who drives a Prius. A couple weeks back he asked another friend to move his car because it was parked illegally. Said other friend held up the little black key fob thing and told me that he couldn’t figure out how to start the car because it had no key. That’s another one of those things. My car has a goddamn key. I test-drove a couple of cars that had the whole keyless push-button Bluetooth fob technology thing and while it was initially cool all I could think of was, “What happens if this breaks or the battery dies?” Yes, your key could break, too. But I’m far less worried about that. Also, again, you’ve just paid another thousand dollars for something that will then cost you a couple grand to fix when it inevitably breaks. I just don’t get it.

We Owe Our Souls to the Company Store

I got a new job after being out of work for a while. I was immediately struck by just how very pointless much of the entire process was. I’m talking about the actual process of going to work itself. I went from basically running a schedule off of my own biorhythms[1] and doing whatever I wanted in whatever order I wanted to having to get up in time to get to an office, spend nine hours at that office, and then drive home.

At no point during that gig did I have more than 3 or 4 hours of work on any given day, yet I devoted at least 11 hours of my day to those few hours. It occurred to me that this is a problem at the core of America’s many, many current shortcomings. Every day has 24 hours. If you’re spending 11 hours devoted to work that means you’ve only got 13 hours for yourself. If 8 of those hours are for sleep you’ve got 5 hours left. So if you’ve got a family? Best of luck with all that.

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I’ve noticed a shift in American culture over the last few years. Nobody actually tells us what anything costs anymore. I think it started with cars, but it’s stretched out to basically everything that gets advertised that costs more than a pizza.

“Get a car for just $399/month,” the TV tells us. But that’s for a 60 or even 72 month loan period. Hell, I’ve even seen 84 month loans advertised. That’s seven years. So what you’re actually looking at is $25 or $30,000 for a car but you’re just thinking of it as, “Eh, I’ve got four hundred bucks, no biggie.” We humans are terrible at projecting the future, though, so we don’t think that maybe in 32 months or so that four hundred dollars will be a huge expense.

It also makes it a lot easier to get people to spend money they don’t have. Moving from the ES to the EX model isn’t actually a $4,000 jump in price. It’s just 50 bucks a month. No biggie, right? And you get that sweet in-dash satnav system.[2] Also, um, oops. That 50 bucks a month is more like 70 or 80 because it increases sales tax and there’s still that finance charge. Silly me, forgetting all about that.

The thing is, though, I see the appeal. If you’re going to spend a minimum of 10 hours a week in your car you might as well get a really nice car with leather seats and a bitchin’ stereo and one of those onboard computers that probably has a secret menu that launches nukes at Russia. Besides, cars are a status symbol. You want to make sure that guy in the next lane over in the clapped-out Toyota Tercel knows you’re a big shot.

I assume you’re also carrying your brand new Dyson Ball vacuum to work with you, too. Probably prominently displaying it in your office for everyone to see. That’s the only reason I can figure why it’s being advertised for only five easy payments of $79.99.

It takes only a tiny amount of math to realize that the people on the talking picture box are trying to get you to buy a $400 vacuum. The thing is, though, that they know they majority of people will never take that quick step. It actually uses two tricks. The first is that the brain short-circuits and doesn’t see $79.99 as $80. The second is that the brain sees, “Five easy payments of $79.99,” as, “Oh, hey, that’s cheap.”

The advertising itself is similar to, “Hey, you’ve got to be in a car all the fucking time, might as well make it a nice one,” and feeds off of the angst of those 11-plus-hour days at the office. It’s so simple, it’s so revolutionary, it practically cleans your house itself and certainly does a better job than that horrible piece of shit Dirt Devil your mom got you for $50 at last year’s Black Friday sales.[3]

It goes on. Are you a lard-ass who would be built like Charles Goddamn Atlas if you only had time to go to the gym? Get this Bowflex for the low cost of $119/month and you’ll look like the Crossfit addicts we hired to pretend they use it for the ads in no time!

Hell, we’re even at the point where we’re apparently willing to pay a premium to have someone on the internet deliver snack food to our homes. What the fuck is up with that?

Add to that the good, old-fashioned American jealousy to “keep up with the Joneses,” and you’ve got a nation of poseurs who are mortgaged to the hilt and can’t figure out how to make ends meet on a six-figure salary.

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This should not be taken as a polemic against the poor. It also shouldn’t be taken as some moralistic crusade against the excesses of the American middle class. The fact is that wages have remained stagnant or even declined relative to inflation for decades while costs for things we now consider necessary have skyrocketed.

Housing costs are up. College costs are through the roof and going up every year. Even the stuff that’s regarded as some sort of luxury by the talking heads on Fox News is now more-or-less necessary. It’s difficult to get by these days without a cell phone and having an internet connection is almost obligatory. Public transportation in much of America is so bad that we might as well consider a car to be as important as the food on our table and roof over our head.

I did the math a few months ago. If I got rid of my mortgage payment and paid off all of my credit card and student loan debts I still wouldn’t actually be able to live on minimum wage. The number I came up with as a minimum yearly salary to live the life to which I am currently accustomed was something like $36,000/year. That works out to a bit over $17/hour.

It’s disgracefully easy to get in over your head in America due to unfair labor practices, and insane costs for necessary things like college and medical care. That’s also a completely different beast from leasing a new BMW for $800/month every three years to make sure everyone knows you’re a big shot. You’re not. You’re an asshole with a BMW who either wants everyone to know you have BMW money or think you have BMW money.

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I finished paying off my car back in June. I started counting down the days pretty much as soon as I signed the paperwork. I had recently come into some money and, dealerships were desperate to get cars off their lots, and I was tired of driving my 2004 Cavalier with the burlap seats and hand cranked windows. I also knew that the car would never make it back to Chicago and I had no intention of living in Dallas for too long. It only made sense.

I also considered those monthly payments a necessary evil. The only reason I made each and every one is because I had 0% financing (fun fact: I didn’t pay a dime of interest on either the Cavalier or the Mazda). Were that not the case I probably would have tried to pay the car off early.

Right around December I remember watching a commercial advertising a low monthly price on a lease of some luxury car or other, probably a BMW. It suddenly occurred to me that signing a lease is tantamount to saying, “I will be making car payments until the day I die.”[4] I could not fathom that decision making process.

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I’m pretty sure that the next thought came later that day. It suddenly occurred to me that my car payment wasn’t actually $400/month, but $600. I needed to make $600 to have the $400 to make my car payments because of taxes and whatnot. So then I realized that without a car payment I could take a job that paid $7200/year less and still break even or take a job that paid what I was making before and be $7200/year ahead.

It all snowballed from there. Take the car payments and go up the scale to a mortgage. Take the car payment and go down the scale to that Dyson Ball vacuum that you’re not using to clean the dust off of your Bowflex.

We’re driven to misery because of all the shit we buy that’s supposed to stave off the misery. If you know that every month you have to send $2,000 to Wells Fargo to pay the mortgage on the McMansion you bought to drive the $500 you send to BMW every month to and from work you’re going to do everything you can to hang on to your job. You signed that 30 year mortgage and agreed to lease cars from now until the day you die. Then you bought that 62” TV on credit because you don’t want to do anything after you get done driving that BMW to and from the office and only have 4 hours between when you get home and when you go to bed, anyway. Then you added that $400 vacuum to get your cleaning done in record time and that $119/month payment on the home gym because you’re getting a bit tubby and who has time to go to the gym?

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The company store is an outdated concept from American history. The workers in the coal mine or factory or whatever (Tennessee Ernie Ford is referencing coal mining, but one of the most infamous examples of the company store was Pullman on the South Side of Chicago where they made luxury train cars) lived in houses owned by the company and had to buy all of their supplies from the company store. If the workers were a little short on cash the company store was more than happy to extend credit against next month’s earnings. This was sold as a great benefit to the workers.

For some reason, though, every month the workers seemed to come up just short. It’s almost like there was some sort of conspiracy to turn free workers into indentured servants. Oh, wait, that’s exactly what happened.

I’ll bet the Robber Barons are spinning in their graves right now, though. It never occurred to them that they didn’t even need to go through the hassle of setting up a company store. Just tell Americans that the American Dream can be theirs for the low price of a perpetual $79.99 lease and we’ll turn ourselves into indentured servants for the privilege of owning a nicer vacuum cleaner than that asshole down the block.

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[1]I am most definitely a night owl. I often say that if I had it my way I’d sleep from 2 am to 10 am every day. It’s why I have to be really careful with vacations or even just weekends when I have to actually be up in the morning. I might be the only person in the world who sets an alarm for 7:30 in the morning on Saturdays and Sundays even when my schedule for the day is, “Be a lazy ass until bedtime.”

[2]Several years ago I set out to buy a new car. I started from, “How much money do I want to spend?” and worked my way backwards. I knew I’d have to finance and I knew how to calculate monthly payments based on principle and interest. I calculated so many scenarios that I could basically ballpark how much any minor change would move the needle to within about $5-10. We were writing up the paperwork and the finance guy gave me the number $391.20. I made some off-hand comment about how I’d come in under the $400/month payment that was my absolute ceiling and he said, “We can move these numbers around to get it to exactly $400.” I was baffled. Why the fuck would I want to do that? I assume it was just reflex from having to deal with people who were seeing a number that was bigger than they thought and getting cold feet.

[3]My vacuum cleaner is a Dirt Devil my mother got at a Black Friday sale 8 years or so ago. I can assure you it works just fine. Hell, I actually use it instead of my Shop Vac when it comes time to try to get the dog hair out of the car. In the interests of full disclosure, though, it’s amazing how durable a vacuum cleaner can be when you mostly use it as a hat rack.

Also, I only own, like, three hats.

[4]It’s not that I hadn’t figured out that angle on leases. It’s more that that’s the first time I realized just how fucking insane that is. I’ve never once considered leasing a car so I’d just never put too much thought into it.