On the Proper Use of Kryptonite

Frank Rich winds down an editorial damning GOP nominee John McCain with faint praise by noting (of Democratic contender Barack Obama),

What repeatedly goes unrecognized by all of Mr. Obama’s opponents is that his political Kryptonite is the patriotism he offers in lieu of theirs. His upbeat notion of a yes-we-can national mobilization for the common good, however saccharine, speaks to the pride and idealism of Americans who are bone-weary of a patriotism defined exclusively by flag lapel pins, the fear of terrorism and the prospect of perpetual war.

I first clicked through to the article after seeing this bit quoted approvingly to try and figure out what Rich was trying to say.

The problem with this turn of phrase “his political Kryptonite is the patriotism he offers in lieu of theirs” is that when we say X is somebody’s Kryptonite, we mean that X is his/her weakness. This is the standard usage since the phrase came into fashion during the 1990s, and thousands of examples can be found from Googling the phrase. As one can glean from the excerpt I quoted, though, Rich’s usage of the phrase goes against the actual meaning. He ought to have written, “Obama’s concept of patriotism is his opponents’ Kryptonite” or something along these lines. I am inclined to disagree with that assertion, of course, but at least that formulation would be correct.

Thus concludes my editorializing on the dangers of op-ed writers trying to sound hip.

Update:  Daniel Larison already noted Rich’s Kryptonite flub and has substantive analysis of the column as well.

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Mass Media Effect

I’m coming late to this one, and what’s worse, I’m going to begin with a cliche.

An old saying goes, conservatives worry about sex in the media, while liberals worry about violence. Recent blogging on the game Mass Effect serves to underscore this point.

Mass Effect is an adult-market science-fiction role-playing game created by Bioware, a company famous for making some of the finest role-playing games to ever appear on the PC and X-Box platforms. Because the game has a 17+ M (mature) rating, the creators have the flexibility to include graphic violence, some profanity, and a little bit of sex. These mature elements add to the realism of the story but they’re not what the game is actually about. I’ve played through the game once and intend to play through it again, not for the sake of titillation but for the enjoyment of watching my character grow and develop.

Now, I stressed “a little bit of sex” for a reason. In Mass Effect, like most Bioware games, the player is given the option to pursue a romance with one of the game characters, and in an almost cliched fashion, that character will give you a chance to consummate the romance before the final battle. (This is one of the few weaknesses in Bioware’s storytelling.) Since Mass Effect boasts excellent graphics and animation, the non-interactive 30-second love scene* is more realistic than most games that came before it, but it’s tame compared to movies or even network TV.

Yet, as I noted at the onset of this piece, conservatives stereotypically get their dander up at depictions of sex in the media. Since the right has pretty much given up on fighting the good fight against sex in movies and TV, the topic of sex in games — which might be played by kids! — is still an open battleground. And for the last couple of weeks, Mass Effect has been a casualty of this (little) culture war.

The incident is also a good example of how Internet memes can filter over into mainstream media in a very short time. It all started when Kevin McCullough wrote and blogged about Mass Effect online, spreading rumors that the game was an alien sex simulator. In turn, talk radio hosts began bashing the game, only to be followed up by negative news coverage on Fox. The curious thing is that after each escalation of the criticism, many of the critics, including McCullough, backed down and admitted the game wasn’t nearly as racy as they thought. Yet that didn’t stop the momentum of Mass Effect criticism — it just kept rolling and rolling through the media with a life of its own. However, after the Fox segment, it will probably die down unless an opportunist politician picks up on it.

Note that if Mass Effect does fall into the political crosshairs again, it might be for the violence rather the sex. As I said in the beginning, liberals tend to criticize violence in the media, and videogames are no exception. Several prominent Democratic Congressmen led a crusade against violent videogames in the late 1990s, with the end result being the more stringent rating system in the industry today. More recently, the left-liberal Internet blog Think Progress went after the US Army for including the violent but phenomenal game Gears of War in a videogame tournament, labeling it a “chainsaw massacre video game” (it makes the phrase “alien sex simulator” seem quaint, doesn’t it?).

So could Mass Effect be attacked by the usual suspects for being violent or antisocial? When Mass Effect was coming to market it was dubbed “Jack Bauer in space” by the gaming media, and like the fictional hero of television’s “24,” the protagonist of “Mass Effect” is a government agent whose world is painted in shades of gray. While the game simulates no torture — the element of “24” that seems to trouble liberals the most — the player, if he or she so chooses,** is able to lie, threaten, steal, murder, and do other nefarious acts while pursuing the game’s villain. He or she can even — horror of horrors — run over space monkeys with an APC. (Just wait until PETA hears about this!)

Then again, the possibility of left-wing criticism of the game is all hypothetical. Right now, it’s just the right wing who is speaking out against Mass Effect and, in so doing, reminding me that the people who make it hardest to be a conservative are often the conservatives themselves.

* This in a game that lasts about 40 hours if the players explore everything. That means that sex is approximately 1/4800th of the game experience. Compare that to Ang Lee’s critically acclaimed Lust, Caution, which is 10% sex, and Mass Effect seems like a ripoff. Perverts should stop playing games and go to the video store.

** It’s sad but to be expected that critics of Mass Effect report that the game is a “role-playing game” without actually knowing what “role-playing” means.

An Honor Well Deserved

C-Span founder Brian Lamb is one of the recipients of this year’s Presidential Medal of Freedom award. Besides helming C-Span, which proved ridiculously addictive to political junkies like me during the 1990s, Lamb has always been one of the best interviewers on television, especially in the now-retired C-Span series “Booknotes.” During a 1999 interview with Michael Ebner, Lamb discussed his semi-Socratic interviewing style:

ME: Your interviewing style on Booknotes is distinctive. Now, I believe that it’s carefully designed to achieve a special effect. I wonder if you would be willing to elaborate on your interviewing style?

BL: Well first of all, not to disappoint you, but it’s not carefully designed. It’s kind of an evolutionary thing that again came out of my early days of not liking the fact that so many interviewers get in my way when I watch television. They are giving me their views, and I don’t want their views. They are also either confronting the guest in a negative way or agreeing with them in a positive way, and what I’m trying to do is not have you look at me when I’m doing the interview. I don’t care that you notice that I’m there, but I don’t want you to keep saying to yourself, “Why won’t he get out of my way” I want to get a chance to watch the author talk about the book, discuss why they wrote the book, all the little questions that I’ve asked over the last ten years. I’ve just finished two years of book tours with two different books and have been in over fifty bookstores and done 200 interviews and basically been out in the country. Most people that I come in contact with have the same questions–where do you write, when do you write, how do you write–because there’s a mystery about it. People who read books generally admire writers.

Sadly, “getting out of the way” is something few television interviewers seem capable of doing, which is one of the reasons I don’t miss Fox and the other networks and their slate of infotainers who make a living talking down down to people. Though he found a niche almost thirty years ago, Lamb’s straightforward, calm, and nonpartisan demeanor would get him nowhere in television today, which speaks volumes about the decline of the modern media. (Upon reflection, this paragraph is pretty ranty, isn’t it?)

For people interested in reading more about Brian Lamb, ABC made him their Person of the Week in December 2004.