3 reasons Judge Posner’s gay marriage ruling is awesome

So it’s nearly 2015, but there’s still plenty of anti-gay-marriage law across this great nation. Because children?

Nah — because bullshit. This week, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed district court decisions striking down Indiana’s and Wisconsin’s same-sex marriage bans. Judge Richard Posner’s ruling is an amazing indictment of said bullshit enshrined as discriminatory legislation.

Here are three reasons why Posner’s ruling — which you should totally read right now — is fucking awesome.

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Why agreeing in improv is so much better than arguing

I have an improv confession: I’m an arguer.

I have a bad, albeit common, habit of reacting to offers by protesting, taking an opposite point of view of someone in the scene, or otherwise introducing conflict.

Arguing is different from — and maybe more insidious than — straight-up denial, which is usually called out quickly. You can be an arguer for much longer than a denier because arguing doesn’t seem like a violation of “the rules;” because it’s often an honest reaction to an offer; and because conflict can lead to great scenes (given the right context and improvisers).

But I want to stop arguing, or at least learn to argue less. After a bunch of recent arguing scenes and a workshop with Michael McFarland that focused on agreement, I finally get why agreement opens so many more possibilities than argument* — and turns your scene partner’s offer into a gift of an endowment.

Consider a scene I was in this week. My scene partner handed me a putter and a mini golf ball. Told me to go ahead and putt.

Then he put a gun to my head.

My character freaked out — and boy did I commit to freaking out! I even remembered to establish a relationship (“Uncle Tim, this is NOT why I came to visit you!”).

Then not much else happened.

How did we go from such a brilliant offer — the kind of inspired, so-random-he-couldn’t-have-planned-it choice that makes improv scenes so great — to such a not-great (if not-terrible) scene? I didn’t do anything “wrong.” I reacted in an honest way (wouldn’t you freak out at a gun to the head?); I established a relationship; I didn’t deny (no “Uncle Tim, why are you pointing a banana at me?”).

The problem with arguing is it usually represents a normal, average, rational person’s normal, average, rational reaction. But the average person is boring! So taking the average person’s perspective in an improv scene greatly increases the chance that the scene will be boring.

Wouldn’t it be more interesting to explore characters for whom the irrational (to us average folks) is the normal reaction?

The key is to expand our notion of what “reacting honestly” means. In the mini golf scene, I was reacting honestly as someone who would get freaked out when a gun is pointed at them at a mini golf game — i.e., as an average person. But what if I reacted honestly as someone who doesn’t get freaked out by this? Think of the kind of characters that agreement would have opened up:

  • Danger-seeking golfer trying out a new motivational strategy
  • Dad so bored of suburban life that he gets his kicks from taking life-threatening risks at children’s activities
  • Colleagues at some job that holds life-threatening activities at  orientation/retreats

The details would have emerged organically. I could have even accepted reluctantly (golfer whose career is on the skids and will try anything to get back on top, even if he’s wary). But at that point, the details are ancillary — the character is already established and emphatically not-boring, simply by accepting the offer!

In other words, agreeing with an offer that your first instinct is to argue with is like getting an endowment for free.

Meantime, arguing instead of agreeing is like an anti-endowment, an anti-deal. The deal of a character who argues “I oppose a gun to my head”  is simply “I don’t want to die.” But that kind of deal — or common argumentative-reaction deals like “I’m unhappy that you cheated on me,” “I AM good at X,” “I don’t want to be fired,” etc. — is often a dead end because it’s a basic, inherent deal of every rational person on the planet. Common, everyday human deals are boring and don’t define characters.

Arguing also leads to:

  • Standoff scenes that are like watching bulls butt heads, as McFarland put it (possibly quoting someone else?).
  • Scenes that get stuck on plot details because one character argues against doing something that the other character suggests.
    • I think of these as tip-the-cow scenes: Another recent scene I was in featured a character inviting her grandson’s fiancee to tip a cow as a family initiation, and the grandson and fiancee resisting. To which Mikael Johnson, who was coaching that practice, said: “Just tip the cow!!!” The scene would have been much better if the grandson and fiancee accepted the offer because people who happily participate in cow-tipping family rituals are bound to be more interesting than those who think such rituals are odd.

As with everything in improv, understanding something is much different than successfully and routinely doing it. But I hope I can start to be more of an agree-er and less of an arguer.

What can improvisers do to get better on their own?

This year I finally took the plunge into the wacky, wonderful world of improv.

I took all four of Shawn Westfall’s excellent classes at the DC Improv. I’ve been in three graduation shows, a DICSC show, and four shows with two troupes.

I can hold my own on stage, but I still don’t know what I’m doing. I’m not good. And I want to work hard on my own (in between practices and performances) to try to get good.

But here’s the thing: I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as “work hard on your own to get good at improv.”

Solo artistic endeavors, like solo sports, generally have clear paths to go from having potential to being good. A marathoner can create specific training programs and follow the right diet. A painter can study and practice different techniques. Stand-up comedians and other comedy writers can write and watch and write and listen and write.

In a team sport or art, individuals obviously have to practice and perform with the team to reach their full potential. But a basketball player can get good in the meantime by studying the playbook, shooting 200 free throws a day, and working out. A violinist can get good between concerts by memorizing the score, playing for four hours a day, and doing violin-specific strengthening exercises.

What can improvisers do to get good on their own?

I’ll read Truth in Comedy and Mick Napier’s book. I’ll watch Asssscat videos and go to shows. I’ll continue practicing and performing with troupes.

But will that only go so far toward becoming a better improviser? When it comes to improving as a troupe — when we’re all trying to figure it out at the same time — it seems hard to make the kind of progress that comes in other team activities when everyone is also improving on their own.

Hopefully I’m just being impatient. With enough time — enough practices and performances — I hope I’ll reach the equivalent experience of a quarterback who sees the game slow down, as Mikael Johnson puts it.

In the meantime — help me out, improvisers: Are there things I can do outside of a group context to get there faster?

The struggles of a news civilian, cont’d: Three views on politics and tech news

My struggles as a news civilian largely fit into two categories:

First, as a civilian who lacks salary-supported info-consumption time, I struggle to get through the never-ending queue of smart/worthwhile/interesting news. And it feels like news soldiers, who do have that time and are otherwise consumed by info consumption, don’t understand that people outside the industry might be like me.

Second, there is also a never-ending queue of pointless/time-suck news, but many news organizations and journalists don’t distinguish worthwhile news from pointless news. (Or industry economics don’t allow them to distinguish the two.)

I’m not talking about TMZ and celebrity gossip. I’m talking about the extremely high percentage of “news” — from the AP, NPR’s daily news shows, tech news orgs, almost every news org that covers politics, etc. — that to the average person is literally trivia, as useful (and useless) to their everyday lives and thoughts as a game of Trivial Pursuit. As a news civilian, I don’t know why I’m supposed to care.

Because news orgs continue to shovel this trivia toward me without explaining why it’s important or rethinking whether they should be producing it, I grow to suspect and resent them and feel less bad about my lack of info-consumption time. Or I continue to waste time on this news  and grow to resent myself. Down that road lies some combination of info-numbness, self-hatred, and a (further) tuned-out citizenry.

Three recent blog posts illustrate my second struggle.

Here’s Brian Lam, in his awesome post about reducing “the overage of technology and noise” in our lives to increase happiness:

I stopped reading the stupid hyped up news stories that are press releases or rants about things that will get fixed in a week. I stopped reading the junk and about the junk that was new, but not good. I stopped reading blogs that write stories like “top 17 photos of awesome clouds by iphone” and “EXCLUSIVE ANGRY BIRDS COMING TO FACEBOOK ON VALENTINES DAY.” And corporate news that only affects the 1%. Most days, I feel like most internet writers and editors are engaging in the kind of vapid conversation you find at parties that is neither enlightening or entertaining, and where everyone is shouting and no one is saying anything. I don’t have time for this.

Ezra Klein, on the “tornado of idiocy that is American politics“:

“Most people don’t care about politics,” [UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck] said. “They’re not running around with these preformed opinions in their head. They worry about what they’ll make for dinner and how to get their kids to bed. And that hasn’t changed. For us, that’s an alien world. We think about politics all the time. But we’re not normal. The 24-hour news cycle has not really affected the average American who isn’t into politics. And that’s really important to remember.”

I think most people in Washington believe voters would make better decisions if they spent more time following politics. But I spend a lot of time following politics, and quite often, I couldn’t be happier that voters are tuning out the inanities that obsess this town.

And Om Malik, reflecting on recent news about tech executives changing jobs (via Alexis Madrigal’s awesome essay on app/tech stagnation):

Sure, these are some great people and everyone including me is happy for their new gigs and future success. But when I read these posts and often wonder to myself that have we run out of things to say and write that actually are about technology and the companies behind them? Or do we feel compelled to fill the white space between what matters? Sort of like talk radio?

Something’s percolating here. Can anything be done about it on more than an individual level?

Confessions of a news civilian

I used to be a news soldier.

By day, I read dozens of news stories for my job as an editor. By night, I read dozens more for my then-current or assumed-future writing gigs, and for my perpetual gig as deputy assistant knowledge dilettante.

I read 90 percent of the Atlantic, New Republic, and New Yorker issues (front- and middle-of-the-book sections, at least) from 2002 to 2009. I religiously followed Talking Points Memo during the Bush years. Slate, video game blogs, why-am-I-still-reading-this runs of Rolling Stone — anything to fill my professionally and dopaminically mandated info quotas.

But I’m out of the game now. Been out for a couple of years1. I’m a news civilian. And I am lost.

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Why the ‘bloggers aren’t journalists’ Oregon court ruling isn’t so bad

The journosphere is taking note of a U.S. District Court ruling in Oregon that “has drawn a line in the sand between ‘journalist’ and blogger,'” as Seattle Weekly’s Curtis Cartier put it in a post that (I think) broke the story.

“Now … we see why ‘who’s a journalist?’ is so wrong-headed,” tweets Jay Rosen in response to the news. Clay Shirky chimes in: “Bloggers have no right to speech unless they’re part of the ‘official media establishment’? Ethiopia,Belarus &…Oregon.”

I can’t tell from those tweets if they read the actual ruling, but I did — and it actually doesn’t seem that bad. Rather than representing a luddite judge’s ignorant dismissal of a new medium, the ruling seems to lay the groundwork for a fairly expansive legal definition of journalism.

In the ruling, Judge Marco A. Hernandez upholds a defamation claim against blogger Crystal Cox, rejecting Cox’s seven defense arguments. The initial journosphere reactions have focused on Hernandez’s rejection of two of those arguments: that Cox shouldn’t have to reveal the source of this column because she is protected by Oregon’s media shield law; and that Cox should be protected from damages claims because she is “media.” In both cases, Hernandez rejects the arguments on the grounds that Cox is not “media.”

Hernandez’s rejection of Cox’s shield law defense seems to rest on a literal reading of Oregon’s shield law, which applies to people affiliated with a “newspaper, magazine or other periodical, book, pamphlet, news service, wire service, news or feature syndicate, broadcast station or network, or cable television system.”

Hernandez says, correctly, that Cox is not affiliated with any of the above; therefore she is not “media” according to Oregon’s law. It seems reasonable that the judge applied the law as written rather than expanding the interpretation of the law to include online media. If Oregon had updated its shield law to cover the Internet, as Washington state has done, perhaps Hernandez would have ruled differently.

But it’s Hernandez’s rejection of Cox’s second media defense that, to my mind, actually gives hope for future expanded legal definitions of “media” and “journalist”:

Defendant fails to bring forth any evidence suggestive of her status as a journalist. For example, there is no evidence of (1) any education in journalism; (2) any credentials or proof of any affiliation with any recognized news entity; (3) proof of adherence to journalistic standards such as editing, fact-checking, or disclosures of conflicts of interest; (4) keeping notes of conversations and interviews conducted; (5) mutual understanding or agreement of confidentiality between the defendant and his/her sources; (6) creation of an independent product rather than assembling writings and postings of others; or (7) contacting “the other side” to get both sides of a story.

If Hernandez believed that you need to have a Columbia J-school degree or work at the New York Times to be considered a journalist, he would have stopped at No. 2. But he doesn’t stop there — instead, he offers five additional criteria that could define someone as a journalist. These criteria aren’t based on a credential or business card — or a particular medium — but on practices, values, and standards.

By doing this, the ruling smartly avoids saying “bloggers aren’t journalists.” It merely says “this blogger is not a journalist.” By listing criteria 3-7 and avoiding any mention of specific media, Hernandez is basically saying: “Bloggers may be journalists — but to be considered as such, they have to do something that could fit a standards/practices-based, medium-agnostic definition of journalism.”

It’s easy to quibble with Hernandez’s choice of canonized practices and standards (I can see some in the journosphere taking issue with No. 6 in particular) or say his criteria aren’t expansive enough. But to the extent that “journalist” and “media” need to be defined in the law, Hernandez’s approach seems like the right one. And his criteria seem as hopeful a starting point* as any.


* Note: I’m not up to speed on other definition-of-journalist case law. I’m sure there have been other rulings that offer their own criteria for such definitions.

The real problem with ‘The Rising’: It’s not actually about 9/11 (or anything at all)

As a fan of Bruce Springsteen revisionism, I was happy to see John Cook’s Gawker post challenging the canonization of Springsteen’s The Rising as “the closest thing we have to an official soundtrack to 9/11”:

The Rising is a failure. It purports to document a nation’s rupture and guide us toward salvation—”here the poet, not unlike the priest and community during Mass, opens a window in space and time for communion with the dead themselves: the dead who alone, perhaps, can transform the rage of the living and awaken in us a vision of something more than more of the same,” is how one Catholic critic recently put it. You can almost feel the weight of Springsteen’s duty on the record—these are his people, these firefighters. This is his backyard. A nation turned its weary eyes to the Boss, and he keenly felt the need to answer. But the answer was overwrought, grandiose, bombastic. He went big. We didn’t need anymore big things.

Cook’s right that The Rising is a failure, but he doesn’t quite get at the reasons why. The Rising isn’t just big and overwrought. It’s lyrically vague to the point of being a 9/11 album in name only. Absent the marketing push that announced the album as Springsteen’s big 9/11 statement, The Rising could be interpreted as being about pretty much anything (or nothing at all).

I wrote about the Boss’s 9/11 dodge in a 2003 piece for the Valley News in New Hampshire. (It’s actually a section from a larger essay about that year’s Grammy Awards.) I think it holds up pretty well.

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