Sunday, May 24, 2009

KINDNESS, APPARENTLY, IS IN. At least according to today's New York Times, which charts a spike of niceness on the big board of contemporary culture. I would agree. I was puzzling over a post for today on the dramatic increase in the frequency and eagerness with which people hold open doors, when I came across today's story in the Sunday Style section.

Sure, crankiness is still as prevalent as exhaust, but, for whatever reason, more and more people seem to be nicer. I think this is nice. But I'm curious why this is the case. Why now when so many things are going wrong?

My hunch is that the social contract becomes more important as legal and cultural covenants blur. Clear demarcations in culture, class, ethics, and morality lend themselves to organized behavior. Everyone knows what to expect from everyone else. Kindness isn't needed because order exists instead.

But, order's stock is plummeting.

The world is in flux. America, known for its ability to black and white itself into tedium, is going gray. Hazy beyond recognition are the lines between public and private, right and wrong, legal and illegal, ethical and unethical, the virtual and the real. Forget video games and chatrooms and cell phones. Contemporary cultural enmeshment is forcing us to redefine and rethink every form of information and identity. For example, people are now announcing divorces on Facebook, effectively doing away with the discreet conversation. The State of California keeps reversing itself on whether certain humans can or cannot marry, suggesting that the most sacred, most fundamental issues of morality can be inverted from one day to the next. Authors and publishers continue to pass off fiction as autobiography, and the most popular (and sometimes the most entertaining) television is a form of reality that is not really even real--nor is it fake.

In times like these, when almost nothing is certain--will we be married tomorrow or not? Will our banking system exist or not? Will we have a house or not?--manners often replace morality. One of the great ironies of the polis is that in times of extremis, the invisibility of the social contract provides an ordering mechanism that other more concretized systems do not.

In other words, being nice makes us feel grounded. It restores order. It calms and soothes. It reassures. Our economy may sink into a recessional morass, but you might get the thank you wave for letting some schmo squeeze into the lane in front of you.

It's really not a bad trade-off.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Topps Obama Trading Cards

IT WAS WITH A mixture of fear and anticipation that I opened up the new Topps Obama trading cards. I was excited because I thought there might be some images of him wrestling with Hillary Clinton or dunking over George Stephanopolous.

Imagine my disappointment when the most action-packed card was not him decking John Edwards or tripping Bill Bradley, but the moment just after David Axelrod told yet another knock-knock joke. It was worse than all those football cards of offensive linemen in the three-point stance.

I wouldn't even need doubles to trade that card.

Another letdown was the sheer number of ties in the Obama trading cards. No one wears ties on baseball or basketball cards. Can you get excited as a collector when the star on the cards never seems to change his white collared shirt? It seems unlikely?

Wait, when did this post become an Andy Rooney routine?

Regardless, I was also hoping for some super cool stats on the back, like the number of direct hits during debates, or the number of times the word "change" was uttered during stump speeches. No such luck.

The truth is, the Topps corporation should market these as the Obama inaction cards. Sure, they feature heart-stopping images of the president waving, explaining a complicated point, and pretending to listen to John McCain, but a man can only take so much.

Sadly, these cards would feel more edgy, more active if they were candidate Obama cards rather than President Obama cards. It's sort of like capturing Manny Ramirez eating at Cheesecake Factory in November--the good stuff has already passed.

My suggestion to Topps is that they start working on the Supreme Court Judge Confirmation Hearings cards and the Republicans Who Switch Party cards. Throw in some stickers of recently outed and divorced politicians, and you've got something I'd actually trade for.