Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Schumaker Conversion Failed by Succeeding...

In Spring Training of 2009, the Cardinals took their fourth outfielder, Skip Schumaker, and had him learn second base.  The conversion has been considered a success, since Schumaker has been a below average to average second baseman, and, with the exception of a terrible start this year, has maintained his performance at the plate.

Nevertheless, I think the conversion is a major factor in the Cardinals' disappointing year.

Throughout the Tony La Russa era, the Cardinals have employed a series of stopgaps at second base.  They won the World Series in 2006 with trading deadline pick-up Ronnie Belliard, who was gone immediately therafter.  The 104 game winning National League Champion Cardinals had Tony Womack (and I had to look that up).  The next year, they won 100 games with Mark Grudzielanek.  Second base has been a position the Cardinals have generally favored flexibility.

The Schumaker conversion changed all that.  The organization had invested considerable energy into it.   Schumaker himself worked hard to make it work.  The Cardinals let Adam Kennedy, an adequate second baseman, go, eating a bunch of his salary.  Unless Schumaker turned out to be an embarrassment at second, or stopped hitting, he was going to be out there.

And he wasn't an embarrassment.  He was essentially a league-average second baseman.  Which was enough for the organization and the fans to consider the conversion a success.

What this also led to is resistance to considering second base an area for improvement.   If the Cardinals had simply traded Schumaker the outfielder for a second baseman who performed as Schumaker did, they may have felt differently.

The Cardinals roster is generally not flexible to begin with.  Their two best and highest-paid position players occupy the rightmost positions on the defensive spectrum -- first base and left field.  Their next best hitter in the first half of this year was in the next slot over, right field.  So, the Cardinals couldn't just upgrade their offense by acquiring a "bat" -- it had to be someone who could play a key infield position.  Second base is the one position of those where there can be upgrades available, such as the 2006 Belliard acquisition.

But the Cardinals were essentially locked in.  Making a change at second base would be tantamount to admitting the conversion didn't work, and there was too much invested in it to do that unless it was blindingly obvious.  And so the Cardinals were committed to an average second baseman.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Roots of Islamophobia

As I mentioned below, I don't think the current "frenzy of anti-Muslim sentiment" is driven by a belief that all Muslims are responsible for terrorist attacks and 9/11, but more nuanced beliefs.

What are those?  Well, here's some of them:

  • A sense that Muslims are more concerned with telling other Americans not to blame them for terrorist acts than they are with purging their religion of terror.
  • What seems to be a double standard.  When there is an act of Islamic terrorist violence, everyone races first to look for a perpetrator who is not Islamic, second to downplay the Islamic element, and third to explain the motivation.  When there is violence that seems to come from the right wing, commentary centers on exploring why there is so much violence in conservatism, and how we can punish them for it.
  • A sense that the Islam being presented for public consumption is a whitewashed version that bears little resemblance to what is practiced in reality.  Yes, "Islam means peace," but there are a number of troublesome aspects of both its current practice and history that it seems people are hoping we won't notice.
  • A sense that other groups had to earn the trust and goodwill of Americans, whereas Muslims are tattling to the teacher to make us play nice with them.
  • Expressing any of the above will get you tagged as a bigot.
Incidentally, the list of grievances fueling the "rising nativist sentiment" looks pretty similar to the above.

Not all of these are completely grounded in fact.  And even if true, they don't justify a generalized anti-Islamic feeling that we're seeing.

But it's also different, and not as obviously absurd as the notion that all Muslims are responsible for 9/11.  

The only socially approved conversation one can have about the above is, "Shut up, you bigot!"  So when someone comes along and tells people, "I get what you're feeling.  Vote for me,"  it's going to have a certain appeal.

I have absolutely no sympathy for the politicians who go about stoking these simmering embers of resentment, and if the resulting flame gets out of control, they will bear an enormous amount of responsibility.  They should be ashamed of themselves.

But those who know better have left this field open to them by answering these concerns with platitudes about Islam being a peaceful religion and how unfair guilt by association is.  If people are interested in stemming this tide, not just feeling superior to it, we're going to have to do better.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Yes, we know not all Muslims are responsible for 9/11.

There seems to be a lot of commentary these days making the point that not all Muslims were guilty of the 9/11 attacks, so it would be wrong to collectively blame Islam or any individual because he happens to be Muslim.

Fair enough, but I don't know of anyone who holds this view, at least expressed this crudely.  Some made statements that are apparently motivated by anti-Muslim sentiments, and it's likely those sentiments were brought about or intensified by 9/11, but I don't know anybody who would say that all Muslims are guilty of 9/11.

As such, it is difficult for me to imagine a reader be persuaded by a statement or argument that it is wrong to hold Muslims collectively guilty for 9/11, because it is difficult for me to imagine a reader who would (even to himself) cop to this view.  Again, this is not meant to say that there is no anti-Muslim bigotry in America, or even that it has dwindled to anywhere near an acceptable level.   But it is a bit more nuanced than can be effectively engaged in a tweet-size message.

Which isn't to say it's right.  But turning it around is going to take more than platitudes about the wrongness of collective guilt.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Let's not be so principled

Right now, it seems the point of almost all discourse is to plausibly characterize your adversaries argument as one of the following, in rough order of severity:

  • Bigotry
    • Sexism
    • Racism
    • Homophobia
    • Religious Intolerance
  • "Hypocrisy"*
  • Support of an enemy group.
  • Failing to support a sympathetic group (soldiers, teachers, "science", etc.)
  • Violating a Constitutional principle
  • "Moral equivalence"**
On the other hand, it is considered a sufficient defense of any action to evade charges of any of the above.

On Catholic blogs, the game is to associate your opponent with "formal cooperation with intrinsic evil."  

There is not space to debate matters of prudence.  Either we don't trust our instincts on these matters, suspecting they are rooted in bigotry, or we just don't want to talk about it.  So, if we disagree with what somebody does, we have to try to fit it into one of the boxes above.

This leaves us impoverished when it's time to discuss an issue that doesn't entirely fall neatly into one of those boxes -- as evidenced by the Cordoba House controversy and the Qu'ran burning.

The Mayor Bloomberg-approved conclusion from the Cordoba House debate seemed to be that our country has a grand tradition of free exercise of religion, and any effort to curtail another's exercise of religion is bigotry.  Don't we remember the ugliness of how Catholic Irish immigrants were treated years ago?  Don't all arguments against it boil down to guilt-by-association bigotry, or accommodation thereof?

And along comes a Florida pastor with his plan to burn the Qu'ran, and we recognize it's a bad idea, but we don't have the language to say so.

On the one hand, it is religious intolerance, but it's also their exercise of religion on their property.

Some have tried to use General Petraeus's statements against it to create a mixture of hypocrisy and failure to support the troops.  But most recognize it's not quite a fit.  Besides, why would this endanger the troops?  Because some might hold them responsible for the church's actions.  Well, isn't that guilt-by-association bigotry?  And didn't we just decide that we don't accommodate that sort of thing?

We need to develop a culture where we can have robust debates about matters of prudence rather than just continuously asserting rights.  And we have to be open to the possibility that even if we have the right to do something, it might not be a great idea to actually do it.

* In public discourse, "hypocrisy" does not mean saying one thing and doing another, it means something like inconsistency; e.g.  you're all for "small government" on Issue X, but that seems to disappear on Issue Y.

** Strictly speaking, this would be asserting that the act in question is exactly like one that is universally disparaged.  But it is typically deployed when any kind of analogy is offered, even if the speaker explicitly denies claiming moral equivalence.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Inclusive or Exclusive?

Slate's Friend or Foe advice columnist passes on the following widely typical platitude about Jesus:

I'm not a Christian myself, but I know that Jesus' message was one of inclusion, not exclusion. It's a shame that Emily has forgotten that lesson as she goes about subtly denigrating those who don't worship in exactly the same manner as her.
Oh, how I love it when non-Christians deliver lectures about what Jesus's message was really about.  But is this correct?

Well, let's take a look at last Sunday's Gospel:

If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother,
wife and children, brothers and sisters,
and even his own life,
he cannot be my disciple.
Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me
cannot be my disciple.
In the same way,
anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions
cannot be my disciple.
I'd say this pretty much excludes everyone, at least among Friend or Foe's readers.

Perhaps Friend or Foe should repeat the lecture to Jesus about how He has forgotten His central lesson of inclusion...

Monday, September 06, 2010

Baseball Thoughts...

Cardinals and Rasmus
  • Reading this article, it seems to me that the whole "Rasmus wants out of here" thing is a bit overblown.  I suspect if one looked back at most players, they had a bout like this in their history.  I think the Cardinals should just ride it out.
  • Unless, Pujols genuinely can't stand the guy, and Rasmus's continued presence on the team would dissuade Pujols from re-signing.
  • I think part of being a successful organization is giving young talents like Rasmus room to grow.  If the culture of the Cardinals is one that resents hot new talents that come up (and can help the ballclub), they've got bigger problems than just an unhappy centerfielder.

Nyjer Morgan

There was some talk that Nyjer Morgan broke an "unwritten rule" by stealing two bases when his team was down by 11 runs in the fourth inning, and if so, that is a ridiculous rule, since a team shouldn't stop trying to win.

True enough, but Morgan's act wasn't ordered toward helping the Nationals win that ballgame, or any other game for that matter.  From a percentage standpoint, trying to steal bases when your team's down eleven runs is a terrible baseball play.  It was to deliver an "eff you" to the Marlins, and that point was not lost on the Marlins.  And when you do that to people, they tend to react in bad ways, e.g. throwing at you the next time you come up.

The Marlins didn't throw at Morgan because he broke an "unwritten rule," they threw at him because he hurt their teammate the night before, and was acting like a jerk, and they thought he needed a butt-kicking.  And I can't say I disagree.

There isn't a "rule," written or unwritten, against stealing bases when your team's behind.   There is a rule against being a jerk.  The need to fit everything into some hard-and-fast rule and withhold judgement is one of the weaknesses we have these days.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

It's About The Experience

Just finished Chuck Klosterman's Eating the Dinosaur, an interesting romp through music, television, sports, and other fun stuff.

Klosterman devotes one chapter to the stupidity of the laugh track.  His take is interesting, but doesn't really break new ground -- why should I need to be cued to know something is funny?  Doesn't this show how insecure we are?

I think the main point that Klosterman misses is that the purpose of the laugh track is not to enhance our appreciate of the show, but to enhance our experience of watching the show.  I know those sound like pretty much the same thing, so let me explain.

Klosterman uses Friends in an extended example.  I submit that what NBC sold before and syndicators sell now when they sell Friends is not the episodes or the entire opus as an artistic achievement, but the experience of watching Friends (or, rather they are selling advertisers the set of people who opt for the experience of watching Friends).  The laugh track isn't a trick to manipulate people into thinking they're watching a funnier show than they are; it is part of the package they are delivering.

There is something fundamentally enjoyable about laughing with other people.  It is a different experience that laughing by yourself (and the same goes for cheering, crying, singing and other things).  Is it really that funny that Monica's a control freak or that Joey's oversexed?  Not really, but it's fun to commiserate about these things, even if our fellow commiserators are distant or (as Klosterman suggests) dead.

After the 9/11, Friends had a spike in its ratings.  Did the writing or acting get better?  I suspect not, and that an alien would not be able to choose which Friends episodes came during this spike and which came from more lackluster times.  What was reported was that Friends was comfort entertainment -- we were opting for simpler pleasures, like laughing along at Ross's social awkwardness.

I suspect some people would watch a channel that was all laugh track with no visual.  They would never admit it, but they would tune in.  The show itself can be a pretext to enjoy this (such as baseball games are a pretext for sitting out in the sun drinking beer with your buddies, or football games are pretext for hanging out in a parking lot grilling meat).  Now, it has to be a credible pretext, which is why some shows fail and others succeed, but once the ball is rolling, the content is almost irrelevant.

I think part of the success of American Idol is how it plays on both sides of this tension.  We enjoy watching a half-decent singer deliver a karaoke version of a familiar song, but we kind of hate ourselves for it.  So we enjoy the performance, and then we enjoy Simon Cowell's evisceration of the same performance we just enjoyed.  It's win-win.

The popular story is that the success of laugh-track free comedies like The Office, 30 Rock, and Arrested Devleopment demonstrate that both the craft and the audiences have evolved beyond these simple pleasures, but I'm not so sure.  For these shows, the Internet is the laugh track.  The (mostly affluent) people who enjoy these shows can share their appreciation with each other all over the world.  It may not be immediate or obvious as a laugh track, but it's there, and I'm not sure these shows would be successful without it.

This was driven home to me six months ago when I got to attend a taping of the Late Show with David Letterman.   I was there the night Bill Murray dove into a water-filled dumpster..

The studio audience is managed by pages who are apparently recruited from the same pool of candidates from which the Jungle Cruise guides at Disney World are pulled.  We were instructed to laugh at everything Dave says, assume everything is hilarious, and suspend any critical analysis.

Now, there is some dissonance between these instructions and the persona of David Letterman, who recognizes that half of what he says on the show is crap, and knows that you know it, too.  It would be difficult to imagine Letterman himself respecting these instructions.

But, at the same time, he (or the people running the show) recognize what his job is, and that's to deliver an entertaining hour of entertainment. And part of that is an audience that the people can laugh along with.   It's not the merit of the jokes -- is anyone really blown away by jokes about the hookers in Time Square, or Dick Cheney shooting his hunting buddy? -- but a fun experience for those who tune in.  Perhaps one reason Jay Leno has been more successful than Letterman, at least in terms of audience size, is the degree to which he is willing to surrender himself to that goal.  Leno just wants to entertain the maximum number of people; Letterman wants to retain his dignity.  Perhaps Letterman's approach is superior on a human level, but one can understand why NBC keeps choosing Leno over comedians who enjoy greater success.

Getting back to the original point, the laugh track isn't something bolted on to the show to trick people into liking it, like sugar-coated cereal; it is part of the actual product.  TV's continued embrace of it does not reflect stupidity, but rather a keen insight into what people enjoy.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

The Courage To Tell me What I Want to Hear

Jacob Weisberg criticizes Obama for not exercising leadership on immigration, same sex marriage, and the "Ground Zero" mosque.  (Apparently, the irony of publishing a "call to courage" at the beginning of a holiday weekend is lost on Weisberg).

Like most people who call for "leadership" (Catholics wanting "leadership" from their bishops being chief among them), Weisberg doesn't want to actually be led.  He just wants a presidential seal of approval for his own positions, which he trusts Obama secretly shares.

For someone like President Obama, which requires greater courage?

  • Angering Fox News
  • Angering Weisberg and his cohorts like Rachel Maddow, Paul Krugman, etc.
I submit that the latter requires more courage.  President Obama has given no indication of caring what Fox News says about him.  He is probably convinced they will criticize him no matter what he does.

Perhaps Weisberg should consider the possibility that Obama is exercising courageous leadership, but the object is not Those People Over There, but people like Weisberg who adopt a Manichean black/white view on these issues and stop listening to the other side.  Maybe he should reconsider his attitude toward those who disagree with him on these issues.

That would take courage.