DAILY TECH & A CODA FOR BUSH

Today’s a bit of a slow-down compared to yesterday. I had a great birthday, that’s for sure.

First up, the round-up of daily tech stories:

*Oh CRAP. R.I.P., Nortel. Just think, 10 years ago every graduating engineer I knew at Queen’s wanted to work for them and their stock price was terrific. Now… what a disaster.
*One of the big trends in Hollywood now is rebooting old TV shows and movies with a new sense of sophistication (see Battlestar Galactica). The Prisoner is now being re-imagined for TV. This looks very, very impressive.
* I talked about this before, but the war in Gaza is spilling over to the online world in a very big way now.

MY CODA FOR BUSH: I write sometimes for my pal Neate’s collective sports blog, Out of Left Field. Today I posted an article about how the Bush Era’s culture of cynicism, greed and selfishness infected professional sports.

I’m re-printing it here, as I’m pretty proud of this article. It’s my own way of saying goodbye to a man I never, ever want to see in public again.

Writing a coda to the presidency of George W. Bush is surprisingly tough. Almost every major publication in the United States has written and published their final laments for a presidency gone so terribly, horribly wrong.

None of you need to hear again the litany of horrors Bush and his inner circle have inflicted on America and the world: 9/11, two major wars with no real end for either in sight, Katrina, New Orleans, Gitmo, the use of torture, Abu Ghraib, alienating nearly every political ally of the United States, the emboldening of America’s enemies like al-Qaida, the Taliban and the Muslim Brotherhood, national debt set to exceed $10 trillion, the near-collapse of what was once known as the world’s most powerful economy. It’s Mission Accomplished alright.

Even Osama bin Laden probably couldn’t have imagined this kind of endgame back on Sept. 11, 2001. Hell, when comedians like Jon Stewart can barely contain their anguish, anger and outright indignation on The Daily Show, no longer interested in generating laughs vis-à-vis irony or sarcasm, it’s gotten pretty damn bad.

Bush is about to spend his post-Presidency years in the wilderness of seclusion and near-universal hatred around the world. There will be no lasting tributes. There will be no Presidential Library. He is spending his remaining years as a dark vision of enmity for Americans – a man who personifies the worst characteristics of the American Dream turned nightmare.

It’s hard to believe, but one of America’s Top Five Worst Presidents (there’s considerable debate if he is the worst, but only future historians will be able to say for sure) is nearly gone.

But since this is a sports blog, I want to talk about what the Bush Era has meant for sports culture in North America.

If there’s one tip of the iceberg for what the Bush Era has meant for sports culture, it’s undoubtedly this week’s revelation that FOX Sports’ Troy Aikman, Joe Buck and Tim McCarver have been travelling to NFL games and this year’s World Series accompanied by armed U.S. federal marshals.

In many ways, this is just another in a very, very long line of government abuses of taxpayer funds over the past eight years (let’s not mince words and suggest any Presidency has been squeaky-clean and responsible with taxpayer funds). But what this kind of story suggests is another example of the cynical, abusive, wasteful nature of the Bush Era: Three sportscasters getting the Five-Star Treatment with taxpayer money?

The Bush Era culture of unabashed greed and cavalier attitude towards the public infected professional sports like a virus in the past eight years. The FOX story is ultimately harmless (as Shysterball noted, if something happens to Buck, Thom Brennaman becomes their lead baseball play-by-play man), but it’s a window into the soulless, money-hungry nature of the sports-industrial complex that has left us all jaded.

It’s a sentiment that sports, like business and politics, has become divorced from the people these institutions presume to serve. Accountability, leadership and cooperation seem like sick, unfunny punch lines nowadays.

In the past eight years, we’ve seen some truly awe-inspiring moments of selfishness in pro sports. We’ve seen players like Mark McGwire and possibly Roger Clemens either lie or take the Fifth to Congressional committees in front of millions of people in vain efforts to save their own skins from permanent damage (talk about wasted energy).

We’ve seen the inequities of baseball revenues increase to the point of absurdity. We’ve seen rich teams get much, much richer and everyone else barely holding on. The survivial of the fittest mentality America used to use as a quiet turn of phrase to justify its numerous “bad acts,” foreign and domestic, metastasized into something else in America during the Bush Years; the utility of saying “I care about me first, screw you all” became particularly self-evident the day sports reporters railed at the lunacy of America’s Most Hated Team, the Yankees, spending $400 million in one week and launching the New Yankee Stadium during a time of economic austerity measures.

We’ve seen what hubris and hypocrisy can do to an entire sports league with the jaw-dropping decline of the NHL. Case in point: The Phoenix Coyotes –- a team on the verge of bankruptcy due to poor managerial decisions and a market best described as ambivalent. Even after the two-faced parlour game that was the season-killing Lockout of 2004-05, the NHL has fallen into an economic tailspin, has no major TV deal in America and has alienated fans across the continent. In the zero-sum game that is pro hockey, the unabashed greed of players and owners alike have killed whatever goodwill towards hockey there ever was in tenuous markets like Florida or Nashville.

These are just a few examples. And really, listing them all off isn’t going to accomplish anything.

Bush and Co. didn’t make these aspects of professional sports happen themselves. But it’s also naïve to think sports is distinct and separate from politics. If anything, sports and politics got a lot closer (some would say much too close) during the Bush Years. After all, the Rovian Strategy of Win At All And Every Cost, But Just Win It has a lot in common with sports. Even the fact both domains have the tendency to feature, once in awhile, people who will break the rules for the final big score at the end.

But it’s not as if sports are a pointless activity for the people who love it. Sure, sports are a business first and foremost — entertainment for the masses of people who just want something to celebrate about.

But it’s also, quite candidly, something people need to believe in. In a world full of empty slogans, false rhetoric and strange analogies involving pit bulls and lipstick, sports is something a person can have faith in . We can see it, touch it or relate to it unfailingly. It’s real. It’s a place of transcendence, emotion and transformation. It reminds people that no, life isn’t all about living paycheque to paycheque or coming home to a house full of pain and dreams unrealized. It’s something you, your neighbour and someone 3,000 km away can share in.

Thing is, belief is a precarious thing. If the Bush Years accomplished one cerebral, indefinable truth these past eight years, it’s this: Bush made people stop believing.

People stopped believing in a lot of things during his Presidency: Government run by people for people, businesses that didn’t so brazenly and publicly act with contempt and ignorance of average people –- the list goes on and on. When people lose faith in their leaders, it won’t be long before people lose faith in the institutions that support them.

But there’s hope yet.

Two great aspects of American Life came into their own during these eight years of tumult that may help restore faith in sports: the Internet and Barack Obama.

Back in 2000, the Internet and blogs were largely ineffectual to the way things were done in politics, business and sports (the dot-com crash now looks like a small-time correction compared to today). While it’s important to not overstate the case at the risk of OOLF’s own potential for hubris, blogs and the Web have become powerful tools to keep our leaders in check, balance power and report stories that can change things.

Even the 44th President, Barack Obama, has done more before his inauguration to restore hope to Americans than Bush could ever achieve in eight years. He’s brought back the idea that the ideas of accountability, leadership and vision have places in government; let’s hope that it also filters into areas of business and sports. Obama’s even ventured into one of America’s most precious sports institutions —- college football — and inspired the possibility of change in one of the most hidebound sports institutions. Did anyone really swallow whole the notion that the Florida Gators were national champions after that unwatchable BCS title game broadcast on FOX Sports with the heartbeat-away Thom Brennaman mucking up the call? (Brennaman is the son of a long-time baseball broadcaster, Marty Brennaman, so how appropriate that it was graced by someone who has been legacy pick all his life — like Bush!)

At the end of the day, Bush’s Reign of Error has instilled a lesson into all of us: ideas about the world are meaningless if you can’t back them up with responsibility and action. Cynicism is only possible when we allow it to happen, for taking control of ourselves and our democratic institutions means more than just concerning yourself with just yourself.

The sports world has seen some rough times during the Bush Era. It is going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better.

Of course, keeping the faith is important. As goes one of the lines in The Dark Knight — perhaps the single most defining film of the Bush Era —”people deserve to have their faith rewarded.”

Enjoy Inauguration Day next Tuesday.

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THE END OF FAMILY GUY?

I think Family Guy is a sometimes-funny show. It’s been an important cultural touchstone throughout the Western world for well over seven years, a time period that includes two cancellations and DVD sales that powered the show back onto the ever-fickle Fox Network’s prime time schedule. It’s hard to ignore Stewie, Brian and Peter as the comedic emblems of this era.

All that being said, Family Guy’s probably one of the least original shows on television (ignoring The Simpsons references). Often it’s crass, tasteless, superficial and sight-gag heavy. Unlike so many animated “adult-themed” shows, Family Guy’s cultural resonance seems confined to pop culture references and interchangeable jokes – a thoroughly post-modern take on what constitutes The Funny. South Park, in its infamous Cartoon Wars episodes two years ago, made this point clearly: Family Guy’s detractors rightly point out that it’s a trashy show, sure, but its humour and appeal seems to come from audiences not investing very much of themselves into it. It’s basically the TV version of M&M’s – tasty at first, a little sickening after awhile, not good for you and very superficial in its appeal.

But how has a show so clearly and unapologetic in its trashy ways gained such a huge audience in less than three years? After a very sluggish start back in 1999, the show’s gained traction largely through DVD sales. While the animation has improved slightly over the years, nothing about Family Guy has evolved in the slightest since the show’s debut. The character development is weak, the story lines inconsequential, and the humour is decidedly mixed in result. For every laugh-out-loud moment of Peter Griffin insanity, there’s distinctly unfunny moments that border on creepy (the Marge Simpson being attacked by Quagmire on screen clip comes to mind). More to the point, the show seems to have reached a threshold in terms of “quality” – this year’s season has been mediocre, at best, so far.

The answer to this show’s popularity, I’m daring to argue, isn’t because people’s cultural tastes have declined considerably (although that may be true). It isn’t because, in an era of time compression, people aren’t interested in getting into shows with depth and narrative.

It’s got everything to do with the America of George W. Bush.

As so much of how we understand culture is based on private theories, this is one theory that probably doesn’t make sense at first. But there’s some merit to it.

In the America of Bush II, two very distinct trends have emerged when it comes to how we consume culture, specifically on television.

Firstly, the culture of attack. Television culture throughout America has gotten much rougher under the reign of Bush. While Dubya isn’t himself to blame for this, it’s undeniable that from cable news shows to ‘personality-driven’ shows like Bill O’Reilly’s The O’Reilly Factor to torture-friendly shows like 24, the general morbidity and darkness of the Bush Era have filtered down into our culture. The nasty, cut-throat humour Family Guy embodies – the Nazi-McCain arc of last week’s episode is one example – seems part of this general theme. But unlike Bill O’Reilly or 24, the roots of Family Guy as satire – or at least, an attempt at satire – is nasty, aggressive and mean-spirited in a particularly unsettling way. It’s sending a message that brutal equals funny, that it’s perfectly acceptable to say and do sophomoric, stupid things just because it’s aggressive. It’s humour in spite of itself.

It’s funny for a time of acute frustration with institutions, business and even the Presidency. In a world where no one seems accountable – even Bush – and the anger of a populace is impossible to channel, saying brutal things that would be unthinkable on comedies even ten years ago seems enabled, in part, by a much angrier, attacking culture.

But there’s another element to it: the Culture Of The Disconnected.

Family Guy, like America throughout these brutal eight years, has become a much more disconnected culture. Shared cultural narratives form the heart of any nation; just like books, movies or LPs, sharing an appreciation of cultural artifacts is an important part of any national debate. Family Guy, in this respect, brings people together. But not in the way you’d think.

In a time where finding humour in our daily experiences is impossible due to the sheer gravity of the crimes Bush and his cronies have done, Family Guy takes a variety of cultural references that have nothing to do with moving a plot forward. It’s funny in bite-sized chunks that are familiar, but not innovative. It’s grabbing useful cultural bits and putting them together into a superficial package. In the Bush Era, smart political satire that directly takes on the administration’s craven nature is impossible – there’s too much bad, too much of the time. Finding the funny in a sea of bad – Iraq, the financial crisis, Katrina, et al – is hard and deeply polarizing, particularly in a country like America that seems frozen into highly divided, deeply partisan bickering. It’s easier and lazier to take pop cultural reference points and pass them off as original and funny.

At its heart, Family Guy reflects America in this deeply troubled time: creatively bankrupt, extremely harsh and, dare I say it, lazy. It’s humour for the nihilistic, the disconnected, the superficially engaged.