America’s Hate-Love Relationship with Pork

Pork, everyone hates it, but no one can live without it.

But I am not talking about the meat; I’m talking about Congressional pet projects. And what can be said about pork the food can also be said about pork spending: everyone wants less because they know it’s bad, except they can’t quite give it up when it’s their turn.

In tonight’s State of the Union, President Bush will make an emphasis on stopping earmarks, money set aside by members of Congress for projects designed to funnel money, jobs, and favor into their own districts.

Look, I’m for cutting back on pork as the next guy, but let’s be honest here: pork-barrel legislation is the grease that helps the American political engine run. Because when push comes to shove, when election time rolls around every 2, 4, and 6 years, the only thing that an incumbent can use to appeal to his local constituents is pork. He can say that he got x amount of money and jobs in his district, and of course, his local constituents will applaud him for it.

The heart of the matter is this: everyone, politicians and constituents, play this little game called “let’s bash pork-barrel” spending, but no one is really willing to give up pork. The same people who decry the Bridge to Nowhere will not decry when their own district representative brings federal money in the form of a construction contract that generates jobs for the locals. The same people who decry other Congress members’ pork-barrel spending will not elect their own representative if he fails to bring in an equal amount of federal money.

Because at the bottom of it, American politics is really about representation of local interests, and the pork is the easiest and most obvious way for politicians to show their constituents that he is representing their interests. Whether you think this way of conducting politics is normatively correct is another matter. But to me, it doesn’t look like people really want something different. Sure, every once in a while, we all play the game and denounce some easy target like the Bridge to Nowhere, but everyone–politicians and citizens both–are complicit in this little game we play.

And in this little game, everyone benefits. Congress members get a chance to denounce an easy target and sound the righteous rhetoric horn, appearing to be above the squalor, all the while negotiating deals with other Congress members that will funnel money into all of their districts. Voters, on the other hand, are assuaged that their representatives are “clean,” all the while enjoying the very money funneled through a process that they supposedly “hate.”

Of course I’m not saying that pork spending should be limitless, but all this incessant, self-righteous rhetoric about “stopping waste” strikes me as dubious, self-serving, and worst of all, hypocritical. More so, it is utterly unrealistic, because the structure of American politics present an irresistible incentive to create pork spending. Unless Americans are willing to change the structure, they can never realistically expect pork spending to stop.

Caption: Here, one can see a local constituent enjoying the federal money funneled into his district by his Congressional representative


On the Need to Identify with Fictional Characters

My two favorite movies from 2007 are No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. What they have in common among other things, and it is this commonality that makes me attracted to both of them, is their protagonists: Daniel Plainview in TWBB, and Anton Chigurh in NCFOM.

In my discussions with other people about these two movies, one complaint has emerged on a fairly consistent basis, namely, that neither movie really “explains” these characters, thereby making them almost impossible to identify with. A related complaint is that because these characters are impossible to identify with and are not historicized, they do not “grow.”

I fail to see the merits of these criticisms, because the need to “identify” with a character through some kind of psychological historicization of the character seems to me a reflection of the prejudice, unsophisticated in my opinion, to feel at one with the characters. I see no reason why identifiability should be an artistic requirement.

First, these two movies are not naturalistic or realistic; they are rather mythical. They both take place in a geographical settings that are rich with allegory and symbolism, and they both feature stories that have overt Bibilical/religious undertones. Therefore, to expect these movies to be populated by realistic, everyday people is futile at best. Rather, these movies are populated by larger-than-life, mythical, otherworldly characters.

Second, why the demand to identify with these characters? What is the point of identifying with an extreme misanthrope or an utterly pathological psycho-killer? Some characters are meant to provoke and shock, not to identify with. If they are to provoke and shock at all, they must in some sense remain mysterious to the viewers.

Third, why the need to, so to speak, “psychologize” these characters, in other words, to explain and rationalize the process by which they become who they are. There are many pitfalls in taking such a psychological approach. First, it is likely that any psychological explanation that is offered will be too reductive. After all, do we need another “he was abused as a child by his father” type of explanation? These kind of psychological explanations are too simplistic or causally trivial. Second, the need to psychologize and rationalize evil reflects a bias to moralize everything. Why is it not acceptable to accept that sometimes evil people just exist, that they are just evil.

Fourth, why do these characters need to “grow”? What are they supposed to be growing into? Are they supposed to undergo some kind of moral transformation that makes them bearable? Again, this is just a bias to moralize fictional characters. If they are presented as fully formed in the beginning, what exactly is wrong with that? But of course, these characters are not presented explicitly in the beginning. The viewers begin to understand more of these characters as the films progress, but that is not the same thing as these characters’ growing, because the characters themselves are already fully-formed–it is only the audience that needs to peel back the layers so to speak. But even then, both movies never fully reveal these characters, which is good, because the mysterious and inexplicable nature of these characters contributes to the overall effect.

And these arguments that I have made go for pretty much all works of art. Why is it that people feel the need to identify with characters? It matters not to me whether a character is “likable,” because that is not the point: the point is to create an artistic effect. I just see the need to identify as reflecting a kind of self-absorption, the inability or willful denial to confront reality, which is to say, the denial that in real life, as is in art, there are people whom we can never know or understand, and that sometimes they commit acts of evil which cannot simply be rationalized away.