Is Superman American?

He was born far away but came here as a baby. For some, he’ll always be an outsider. 

Over the weekend, a few friends and I were playing a guess-who game in which each player must figure out the secret identity that they have been assigned  by asking yes or no questions. When it was time to play Clark Kent, someone asked “Am I American”? At first, the group responded with an unsure medley of yes-no-maybe. Then, it seemed as if everyone simultaneously remembered that Superman was born on the planet Krypton. The group almost unanimously answered that Clark Kent was, in fact, not American.

I insisted that Superman was American. After all, this was the guy who fought for “truth, justice and the American way”. My claims were roundly dismissed. I kept silent for not wanting to give the player too many hints, but had wanted to ask whether by the group’s logic, I too would be considered “not American”. Clark Kent arrived in Kansas as a baby whereas I immigrated from India at age 4. Was I even less American than this non-American? Of course not.

Obviously, a Saturday night party game is not the best test  for the boundaries of perceived national identity. Most people, Americans and Indians included, perceive me to be more American than Indian. But I wonder if the group’s answer to the question that night means anything? Did they merely forget that immigration and assimilation apply to the comic book world as well? Or did they merely slip and revert to a bygone era in which the place of ones birth was all that mattered?

Perhaps I was guilty of a false equivocation – rather than being an issue of American v. non-American, this was an issue of human v. non-human. I.e. Superman can not be considered a citizen of any country on earth. But that of course is wrong, Superman was a US citizen – otherwise, he would not have been able to renounce it. Much to the dismay of Fox News and conservative American, Superman renounced his US Citizenship in April 2011. So I guess I was wrong, but not for the reason I had anticipated.

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Colbert Super PAC Explained

How is it that a Comedian is teaching Americans more about civics than any politician? 

A Brief Timeline

January 2010: The US Supreme Court rules 5-4 in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission, that the government may not prohibit organizations such as unions, corporations and political action committees (PACs) from spending money on political campaigns. The ruling was based on the premise that groups of citizens have the same rights as individual citizens and that spending money is a type of free speech protected under the First Amendment.

Shortly thereafter: PACs, which are essentially non-profit organizations that exist to advance the outcome of an election, political issue or legislation, begin to mutate into Super PACs. The main difference is that PACs were restricted in how much money they could spend on election campaigns, whereas Super PACs can spend unlimited amounts. Also, they are not permitted to coordinate with candidates for office. Super PACs are still required to disclose the source of their funds.

May 2011: Stephen Colbert establishes a Super PAC called Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and begins soliciting viewers for donations to make tomorrow better. It should be noted here that Stephen’s lawyer is Trevor Potter, the former Commissioner and Chairman of the FEC (the losing side in the Supreme Court case referenced above).

August 2011: Colbert Super PAC’s first TV ad hits the Iowa airwaves. It was weird. The second was mildly disturbing.

September 2011: Stephen Colbert forms a shell corporation (usually established so that companies can do things indirectly in order to avoid publicity and taxes), which allows Stephen to anonymously direct unlimited amounts of money to his Super PAC. I repeat, anonymously! All legal!

January 2012: Stephen announces that he will explore a run for President in the South Carolina Republican primary election. To comply with non-coordination requirements, Stephen legally handed over control of his super PAC to fellow comedian and former boss, Jon Stewart. Colbert Super PAC began to be referred to as the “Definitely not coordinating with Stephen Colbert Super PAC”. As the two men pointed out, the fact that they were close friends and business partners was not a legal barrier.

South Carolina Ads: In the run-up to the primary, Stephen suggested that Mitt Romney is a serial killer. Since he could not get his name onto the ballot in time, and since Herman Cain had dropped out of the race already, Colbert Super PAC urged South Carolinians to vote for Herman Cain as a sort of perverted proxy candidate. And then there was the attack ad on how super PACs carry out too many attack ads.  Even Samuel L. Jackson pitched in to narrate this ad, which actually attacks Stephen.

Conclusion: Through Herman Cain, Stephen managed to garner only 1.1% of the vote, good enough for a distant 5th place. But still, 6,324 registered Republican in South Carolina felt it worthwhile to vote for Stephen. I mean Herman. Not too shabby.

In the end, what Colbert and Stewart have shown is that the current interpretation of the law has so many loopholes that will certainly be exploited by moneyed interests. If Colbert and Stewart can legally claim to not be coordinating with one another and get away with their brand of fake political advocacy, there is nothing to stop corporations from wielding even more influence in an electoral system that is already saturated with money.

FYI – here is a list of Super PACs and the candidates they support.

Blame Germany Too!

Everyone is blaming Greece and the rest of the PIGS but let’s take a look at who benefited the most from the formation of a currency club that was supposedly too large to begin with.

The Euro has depreciated against the US Dollar by about 15% since it’s 2011 peak of almost 1.5 Dollars for every Euro. Many have argued that the Euro was overvalued for years and that currency markets are merely correcting for past discrepancies. Even during the Euro’s heyday, the imbalances between Europe’s rich north and “poor” south benefited the likes of Germany who were effectively working with an undervalued currency, whereas Greece had to deal with an overvalued currency. This was a boon for German exports in that they artificially deflated the price of German goods on the international market.

Now, as the Euro has lost some of its value, and the rest of the Eurozone considers kicking Greece out of the club, Germany stands to gain the most once again. As long as Germany is entwined to its poorer neighbors, its currency will be valued lower than it otherwise would have been – the more poor the country, the more likely that the Euro would be undervalued. Any depreciation in the exchange rate benefits the Deutsche economy. Germany is already the second largest exporter in the world and has recently held the top spot if only for a few months.

Furthermore, the capital rich countries of Europe’s economic core were more than eager to lend money to the peripheral countries at high interest rates – fuel to the fire! For years, Germany has been riding the wave of an undervalued currency and cheap markets for their surplus capital; and when the problems began to emerge, all fingers started to point towards the south. It seems like another case of a drug dealer blaming the user.

Germany, more than any other country, has benefited from the Eurozone’s premature expansion and subsequent fall. They should be the last to complain.

The Rise of the Ironic White Rapper

Self-deprecation and irony are pushing the boundaries of the rap world, but only among white artists. Where are the weird black rappers?

White rap has come a long way from Vanilla Ice and Marky Mark. Whereas Eminem has been successful in achieving underground and mainstream praise, as well as universal credibility, a new breed of white rappers has emerged. They are extremely gifted but use humor to propel their music.

To call them rappers at all would be to miss the point; they are more entertainers, or rather, stand-up comedians who know how to freestyle and tell jokes to a beat. The most prominent example would be the boys of Lonely Island ( Akiva “Kiv” SchafferJorma “Jorm” Taccone, and David Andrew “Andy” Samberg), who used Saturday Night Live as a launching pad for their over-the-top songs concerning oft forgotten topics. Their first hit (on Youtube at least) was Lazy Sunday in which the members of the group watch the Chronicles of Narnia and then eat cupcakes from Magnolia Bakery – the polar opposite of the typical rap fare. Their breakout moment came just before Christmas 2006 with the release of Dick in a Box, which went on to win an Emmy for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics. The hits kept on coming with Jizz in My Pants, I’m on a Boat, I Just had Sex and the sequel to Dick, Motherlover (featuring Patricia Clarkson and Susan Sarandon). The group’s second album, Turtleneck & Chain, was at one point the best-selling rap album in the country in 2011.

North of the border, Canadian comedian Jon Lajoie has been producing similar tunes for years, most notably with his hit Everyday Normal Guy, which is in many ways the antithesis of the ego-inflated chauvinism found in mainstream rap music. The first verse of the song goes:

I am just a regular everyday normal guy…
Nothing special about me Mother Fucka
I am just a regular everyday normal guy…
When I go to the clubs I wait in line Mother Fucka

I am just a regular everyday normal guy…
I got 600 dollars in the bank Mother Fucka
I am just a regular everyday normal guy…
And my sexual performances are average.

Perhaps the most impressive part of Lajoie’s craft is that he’s actually got good songs, i.e. they would make for great radio play as long as one were to ignore the lyrics.

Mac Lethal even went viral while rapping about making pancakes. The current generation is running confidently in the tradition of the Beastie Boys and Weird Al Yankovic, who are no strangers to silly rap and poking fun at themselves.

But where are the strange black rappers? Granted, there’s Andre 3000, who is about as strange and as talented as any rapper out there, but he is not a running parody of the genre. What is unique about Lonely Island and Lajoie is that they are making fun of rap culture itself. Is it that white rappers have a hard time being taken seriously as tough thugs? Or is it that black rappers are pigeonholed as such and prevented from exploring more tongue-in-cheek personas? Or is all of this merely a coincidence?

If Each State in India Were its Own Country

In 2011, India began releasing the findings of its 15th national census. We already knew that the country was enormous and that it would soon overtake China as the world’s most populous. There are currently just over 1.2 billion people in India – a figure that may be too large to grasp. The following graphic from The Economist is the best representation that I have seen so far:

Imagine all of Brazil living in Oregon – welcome to Uttar Pradesh. India is more than 11 times as densely populated as the United States. It’s population is expected to level off in the middle of the century at around 1.7 billion. But for all the Malthusian fear-mongering, this is not necessarily a problem. The emerging research argues that although growth must be contained, India is currently the beneficiary of the demographic dividends of its high population.

Newt Wins South Carolina, but at What Cost?

Gingrich walks away from South Carolina as the surprise winner, embarrassing Romney and having said a lot of things he may come to regret.

It was beginning to look as though Mitt Romney was distancing himself from the rest of his Republican competitors. Just a week ago, he had “won” both Iowa and New Hampshire and was heading into South Carolina in the hopes of becoming the first candidate to win all three of the first Republican primaries. Instead, something more historic has happened – a different candidate has won all three. Romney’s distant second place finish came one day after the Iowa Republican Party announced that after counting all the votes, Rick Santorum was the official winner of the caucus.

Key to Gingrich’s victory was appealing to the more conservative elements of South Carolina’s electorate. Let’s keep in mind that Iowa was one of the first states to recognize same-sex marriages and that New Hampshire is a quasi-blue state. South Carolina’s Republican voters are easily the most conservative we have seen in this primary season and Gingrich was keen to exploit that by playing the race/hate/liberal-bashing card. This is the same Gingrich that earlier in January said he would go to the NAACP and urge blacks to demand paychecks, not food stamps. The same Gingrich who referred to Obama as the “best food stamp President in American history“. The same Gingrich who proposed that we hire children as janitors in inner-city (code word for non-white) schools.

This tactic may have worked in South Carolina, but it will not resonate as strongly in Florida, Nevada, Maine, Colorado, Minnesota, Arizona and Michigan, which are all scheduled to have their respective primaries/caucuses over the next month.

Momentum Building on Marriage Equality

Microsoft joins the chorus of support for marriage equality on the grounds of business competitiveness.

On Thursday, Microsoft and five other corporations (Northwest employers Concur, Group Health, Nike, RealNetworks and Vulcan Inc.) based in Washington sent an open letter to Governor Chris Gregoire, expressing their support of Senate Bill 6239 and House Bill 2516, both of which seek to recognize marriage between same-sex couples. Washington would be the seventh state to have full marriage equality following Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont.

Microsoft’s official blog stated that “as other states recognize marriage equality, Washington’s employers are at a disadvantage if we cannot offer a similar, inclusive environment to our talented employees, our top recruits and their families…Marriage equality in Washington would put employers here on an equal footing with employers in the six other states that already recognize the committed relationships of same-sex couples”.

This is not Microsoft’s first foray into marriage equality. Late last year, Microsoft and 70 other companies (including Google, Xerox, CBS, Nike, Starbucks, Zipcar and Levi Strauss & Co.) filed an Amicus brief with the US Court of Appeals seeking to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, which, since coming into effect in 1996, has defined marriage (by the federal government) as the legal union between one man and one woman.

In July 2011, New York became the sixth state to recognize same-sex marriages, but perhaps more importantly, it was the first “big” state to do so. The New York law was seen by marriage equality proponents as the first step in an eventual snowball effect of broader support nationally. Even former US Representative Bob Barr, the original sponsor of DOMA, has apologized for his involvement with the legislation and favors the proposed bill for the Respect for Marriage Act which seeks to overturn DOMA and recognize same-sex marriages at the federal level.

It will only be a matter of time before more states (another California referendum anyone?) join in, driven by both economics and ethics. If Washington steps up and recognizes what the majority of Americans already support, it will only be a matter of time before another Washington follows suit.