‘To one subject only’

Matthew Rozsa’s Masters Thesis from Rutgers

Date Created2012

Other Date2012-01 (degree)

Subject: History, Presidents—United States—Messages, Cleveland, Grover, 1837-190

Description: Grover Cleveland‘s third State of the Union took the unique step of only discussing one subject, tariff reform. This was in marked contrast to its predecessors, which had always covered a multitude of issues. This study analyzes the impact of the third State of the Union on the political and policymaking power of the presidency during the Gilded Age and on the ideological character of the Democratic Party following its post-Civil War doldrums.

Click here to download the paper in its entirety.

Movie Review for ‘The Avengers’

Published PolicyMic (May 18, 2012)

Film critics haven’t been mincing words about The Avengers. From Hollywood Life and The Washington Times to the Dekalb County Times-Journal, pundits of the silver screen are not only praising Joss Whedon’s take on the band of Marvel icons, but referring to his motion picture as the greatest superhero film ever made. While I don’t quite agree with this superlative assessment, it hits very close to the truth.

A brief retrospective of recent cinematic history is necessary to fully understand why. The last dozen years have been something of a Golden Age in comic book movies. Ever since the success of Bryan Singer’s X-Men in the summer of 2000, cineplexes have been bursting at the seams with narratives inspired by or ripped straight from the pulpy pages of graphic novels. Lucrative blockbusters like Spider-Man, Spider-Man 3, and The Dark Knight were the highest grossing films in their respective years of release (2002, 2007, and 2008), while especially acclaimed entries like Iron Man and The Dark Knight have netted prestigious Oscar nominations and spots on critical top ten lists.

In the midst of this deluge, two categories have emerged. First there are the traditional superhero stories, characterized by the familiar tropes of likeable good guys, memorable baddies, and unapologetically melodramatic three-act story archs (the Spider-Man and Iron Man series are perhaps the most popular in this group). Alongside those have been the more existential pieces, defined by their topicality, thematic depth, and attempts to transcend normative genre strictures (more famous examples include Unbreakable, The Dark Knight, and Watchmen).

Saying that The Avengers falls into the first category, though true, does it a bit of an injustice. While no single aspect of it stands out as unusually superb, every element that needs to fall into place does so beautifully.

As these types of movies rise or fall based largely on the merits of the characters, it certainly helps that The Avengers has quite a range of compelling figures in its arsenal. Leading the pack of heroes are a pair of dueling archetypes (metaphorically and literally): Iron Man/Tony Stark, a blithely egomaniacal playboy and renaissance man, and Captain America/Steve Rogers, whose Boy Scoutish persona almost comes across like Marvel Comic’s answer to DC’s Superman. They are accompanied by the mild-mannered Dr. Bruce Banner, who when roused to anger transforms into the terrifying green behemoth known as the Hulk; Thor, the Norse god of thunder; Black Widow, a Russian superspy; and Hawkeye, a master archer and “World’s Greatest Marksman.” This eclectic crew is led by Nick Fury, director of a government military agency known as S.H.I.E.L.D that is responsible for assembling the titular Avengers to deal with crises once they become global in scale.

Each of these characters is perfectly cast, from Robert Downey Jr. as the inimitably sharp-tongued Stark to Samuel L. Jackson as the sullen but gravitas-laden Fury. The standout here is almost certainly Mark Ruffalo as Banner, whose depiction of a man deftly controlling the tempest of his own emotions is memorable in its stirring poignance. Tying all of them together is a plot in which the heroes search for a MacGuffin known as the Tesseract that must be kept out of the hands of Loki, the Norse god of mischief and brother to Thor who aspires to use that device to (of course) rule the world. While the story itself is not particularly original, it is utilized to its fullest potential, keeping the narrative running at a smooth clip and causing its two-and-a-half hour running time to fly right by.

All of this is spiced up by Whedon’s distinctively intelligent and engaging writing style. From witty lines (Tony Stark introducing himself to Bruce Banner: “Dr. Banner, your work is unparalleled. And I’m a huge fan of the way you lose control and turn into an enormous green rage monster.”) to unexpected moments of physical comedy (such as a scene in which one character receives a surprising but richly deserved humiliating beating), the screenplay proves to be almost as much of a character as any of the protagonists themselves, adding levity to prevent the story from being bogged down in its own sturm und drang while maintaining the proper dramatic perspective throughout the proceedings.

This isn’t to say that The Avengers is without its weaknesses. While Loki is an adequately detestable villain, he hardly compares to comicdom’s more legendary celluloid foes (Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octavius, Heath Ledger’s The Joker), and the story’s intelligence is more surface than substantive, causing it to lack the thoughtfulness of The Dark Knight or philosophical layering of Watchmen. Nevertheless, The Avengers stands out as a practically perfect popcorn flick, thoroughly entertaining even the most disillusioned moviegoers (of which I am one) from the opening frame to the second post-credits scene (which I highly recommend audience members stick around to see). When it comes to the traditional type of superhero movie, it’s hard to do any better.

Satire: Confessions of a Freedom-Hating, Tax-Loving, Marriage-Destroying Liberal

Published: PolicyMic (May 10, 2012) 

My fellow American liberals,

I would like to make a modest proposal.

For far too long, we have been accused of terrible things. In the last decade alone, our opponents have said that we’re un-American, that we’re Communists, that we’re a “tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show.”

It’s time we ‘fessed up to it.

I know that’s asking a lot, but what’s right is right, and if the right is right and the left is wrong, then the left needs to leave its leftist wrongness so that it can start doing right by the right.

All right? So with Jonathan Swift as my guide, here I go:

1. We hate the Constitution.

Hell, we hate the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, and just about everything our Founding Fathers believed in. In part, that’s because we’ve seen too many Michael Moore movies, but mostly it’s because …

2. We hate freedom.

The state is our God and we know that if we just give ourselves over to it, all of our problems will be solved. That is why we support health care reform, financial industry regulations, and consumer protection measures. There is just nothing we want more than an all-powerful, all-encompassing nanny state guiding us through every step of our lives. Just look at how much …

3. We love taxes.

After all, none of us really contribute anything to society on our own, so what better way to punish the most productive members of society (i.e, the rich) than by forcing them to give their money to lazy layabouts through entitlement programs?

I’m guessing it now goes without saying that …

4. Joe McCarthy was right all along.

Academia, the media, Hollywood, and the Democratic Party are full of covert Communists gradually inching America toward the Soviet system, one liberal program at a time. In fact, I wasn’t even allowed to register for my first PhD course until I’d sworn to take an oath on a copy of Marx. Technically I’d be violating that oath by telling you all of this, but luckily I switched “Das Kapital” with “Groucho and Me” at the last minute.

Speaking of things that are funny …

5. We love killing babies.

Abortion, stem cell research, those death panels in Obama’s health care reform bill … you name it, we’re laughing at it. True story: Jon Stewart’s entire audition for “The Daily Show” gig consisted of telling dead baby jokes.

Do you know what we take very seriously, though?

6. We want to ruin the institution of marriage.

This is why we want gay people to be able to marry each other. With the institution of marriage forever sullied, we can have lots of frenzied hedonistic dirty hippie sex free of any sense of restraint, propriety, or guilt. Who wouldn’t want that?

Oh yeah …

7. We’re persecuting members of the Christian Right.

They’re right about our “secular-socialist” agenda. I personally spend the first half of my day mulling over how I can ruin at least one person’s faith in God (although when I succeed, I usually spend the second half trying not to get shot). I mean, we’re liberals, so we already know we’re going to hell (it was the baby killing, wasn’t it?), and we get bored pretty easily, so we’re trying to take as many people down with us as possible. I heard the weed down there is great.

I feel like I’m leaving something out. Eight has always been my lucky number, so I probably need one more thing …

8. We already know Barack Obama wasn’t born in this country.

Back in 1961, when the liberal establishment heard that a Kenyan graduate student in Hawaii had just married a white teenager who was three months pregnant with their illegitimate child (and she had only become a legal adult nine weeks earlier), we knew that that biracial baby would grow up to become the perfect instrument for our socialist schemes. That’s why we ignored the fact that segregation was still around, told them that we were setting their child up to be president, insisted that they make the 21,458 mile roundtrip from Honolulu to Nairobi so he could born in Kenya instead of Hawaii (don’t ask), and then planted fake birth notices in the “Honolulu Advertiser” and “Star Bulletin” to throw everyone off the scent. Later we also passed a law prohibiting Hawaii from releasing the official birth certificates of its residents, so that way when Obama was only able to provide the obvious forgery we called a “duplicate,” we’d have an excuse.

Of course, there is another possibility. It could just be that liberals have a different interpretation of the Founding Fathers’ intent and the Constitution, generally oppose expanding state power but believe that it is necessary when there are greater social problems that can’t otherwise be effectively addressed without it (injustices in the medical industry and on Wall Street, consumer safety), believe the wealthy should pay more in taxes because they can afford it (even though they generally pay less in aggregate), believe that there are far more people who benefit from welfare and genuinely need it than there are those who abuse it, think women should have the right to decide for themselves what to do with their bodies, believe homosexuals should have the exact same rights as any other adult couple, simply want the Christian Right to stop trying to blur the separation between church and state, and elected a president who – regardless of what you think of him – has already proven as much as can be reasonably expected of him that he was born in this country.

Nah. That would be ridiculous.

How To Tell If You’re An Ideologue

No one wants to be an ideologue. Defined by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary as “an often blindly partisan advocate or adherent of a particular ideology,” ideologues are correctly viewed as one of the banes of the political world. While at their most extreme, they provoke violence and oppress non-believers, even the more innocuous ones manage to hinder debate and exacerbate social divisions, often being as obnoxious as possible in the process.

Yet although no one wants to be an ideologue, the indisputable fact remains that ideologues are still everywhere. They just don’t view themselves as such, which brings us to the purpose of this essay – how to tell if you’re an ideologue.

To start, ask yourself the following question (which I’ve put in boldface for reasons that will be explained at the end of the editorial):

Do you believe it’s possible for well-intentioned, well-informed, independent-minded, and intelligent people to disagree with your political views?

Even the most ardent zealot usually says yes when this question is merely posed hypothetically, since doing otherwise would involve admitting to being an ideologue (or at least a pompous jerk). For this question to work, however, you need to test yourself with concrete examples instead of applying it as an abstract self-assessment. List three political issues that are especially important to you. Then, for each one, name three individuals whose positions are the opposite of your own, making sure to include both people who are directly involved in your life (anyone you’ve debated face-to-face, commenters you’ve encountered on message boards) and those who aren’t (politicians, pundits, influential intellectuals).

After you’ve done that, think about how you’ve treated them or what you thought about them privately. How many have you assumed weren’t poorly informed or in some other way just didn’t “get” the things that you better understood? How often did you claim someone wasn’t really “independent minded” like yourself, whether it was because they were unduly influenced by the media, their religion, a political party, or anything else that had “brainwashed” them? Have you dismissed people as being downright irrational or stupid? Do you often believe someone is really driven by some ulterior motive, such as prejudice, greed, or a radical political agenda?

Make no mistake about it, there are many, many people out there who possess some or even all of the negative characteristics I just described. Thousands of years of recorded history exist to attest to that, enough to glut the appetites of even the most avid misanthropes. That said, the defining characteristic of an ideologue is the tendency to automatically jump from Point X, or the fact that another person doesn’t share his or her point-of-view on an important political issue, to Point Y, or the conclusion that said disagreement is in and of itself proof that the other person is stupid, ill-informed, brainwashed, and/or malevolent.

This doesn’t mean that believing or accusing another person of having those traits automatically makes you an ideologue. What it does mean, however, is that the burden of proof falls on you to actually demonstrate that those things are true.

If you think someone is using poor reasoning or is ill informed, don’t just rest on the assertion that if they knew what they were talking about they would support this policy or agree with that theory. After they state their position, ask them to list their facts, provide their sources, and explain their logic. Then check their facts for accuracy, their sources for reliability, and their logic for fallacies. When it comes to the deeper beliefs on which they’re basing their opinions, dissect why you think they’re wrong – and, just as important, make sure you are aware of your own assumed ideological premises, rather than taking for granted that any intelligent person would automatically share them.

At no point should you ever openly declare that the other person has revealed himself to be stupid, brainwashed, or poorly informed. If you can demonstrate errors in their facts, sources, logic, and basic ideological premises, your conclusions about the other person’s intelligence and knowledge will become self-evident. The moment you directly say that your opponent is intellectually wanting simply on the grounds that he or she disagrees with your views, on the other hand, you reveal that you have reached a point in which you don’t feel comfortable defending your beliefs and must blindly accept their veracity. That, in turn, reveals that you are an ideologue.

Similar rules apply when attacking someone’s character. If you believe that someone’s position betrays a radical political agenda, demonstrate the connection between the belief in question and the larger agenda they allegedly possess. It isn’t enough to simply say that holding a certain opinion automatically proves a larger belief system; you need to demonstrate the link between Point X and Point Y. Likewise, if you feel someone has a certain belief because of a personality flaw – such as greed, power-lust, or prejudice against other groups of people – explain either how the belief in question proves the ulterior motive or, even better, how the actual person you’re talking to has actually revealed it in him/herself. Merely asserting these things to be true reveals not only that you are an ideologue, but also that you are the most dangerous type of ideologue – i.e., the one who feels the need to vilify dissenters.

I’m not claiming to have always perfectly followed the standard I just laid out. Indeed, I suspect most people have acted like ideologues at some point or another in their lives; after all, human beings are proud creatures. That said, I do know that there are well-intentioned, well-informed, independent-minded, and reasonable people who disagree with my political views. No matter what your views happen to be, I guarantee the same thing is true of you.

POSTSCRIPT: WHY THE OPENING QUESTION WAS IN BOLDFACE

I encourage all people who encounter ideologues trolling the message boards here to respond with the boldface question I put in this article. Don’t let them get away with not answering it or simply brushing it off either. While not feeding the trolls is usually the best route, forcing accountability on them is a close second.

Soliloquy of an Insomniac Writer”


Like most of the writers I know, I don’t sleep well.

This is probably because when you’re a writer, your mind never entirely shuts off. When it isn’t busy whirring away on your next literary project(s), it is almost certainly seeking material that can inspire it to produce something new. Even when you don’t think your mental
roamings are going to build up to anything – even when you sincerely believe, for example, that your aimless wanderings through online news sites are nothing more than the diversions of a sleep-addled mind – on a subconscious level, your brain is always seeking fuel to feed its bottomless hunger for new excuses to employ the written word.

If you’re lucky, what you find will be intriguing, entertaining, or even uplifting. If you aren’t so fortunate, you’ll wind up stumbling across stories like these from the headlines of May 2, 2012:

– A right-wing milita leader with Nazi sympathies and an avowed hatred of illegal immigrants murdered four people outside of Phoenix before turning his gun on himself. One of his victims was a toddler girl.

– In Egypt, eleven people were killed during a clash between protesters supporting an ultraconservative Islamist preacher and a group of unknown attackers. The Muslim Brotherhood and other influential Egyptian political parties have used this as an excuse to boycott meetings with military leaders to draft a constitution, thus furthering that nation’s dangerous instability less than a month before a critical presidential election.

– In Oceanside, CA, football star Junior Seau was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. A beloved player as well as legendary linebacker, Seau showed no signs of depression, leaving his friends and family mystified as well as distraught. His devastated mother was quoted asking, “Junior, why you never tell me?”

– An engineering student at the University of California San Diego was hospitalized after agents at the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) accidentally left him handcuffed in a cell for five days. After being rounded up in a drug raid, the young man had been cleared of any wrongdoing and was told that he would be shortly taken home. The DEA officials then forgot he was there, leaving him without food or water and forcing him to survive by drinking his own urine.

– At the trial of erstwhile presidential candidate John Edwards, a former staffer testified as to his wife’s reaction upon learning that he had been having an affair. The ex-aide recounted how Elizabeth Edwards – then in the midst of a battle against cancer she would ultimately lose – tore at her clothing and exposed her chest while telling her husband, “You don’t see me anymore.” As this story was being relayed to the court, one of John Edwards’s daughters left the room in tears.

Each of those anecdotes could easily be used as the focus for an op-ed piece that would do credit to PolicyMic’s reputation for informed and lucid commentary. Middle Eastern politics, racism and xenophobia, violations of civil liberties, political sex scandals, celebrity suicides – these are the ores from which skilled writers can mine great insights or, failing that, pound out crowd pleasing polemics.

Woven together, however, these stories simply remind me that behind every polished editorial, there is real human suffering. It is easy to overlook that these days, residing as we do at a time when slick talking points and :30 second sound bytes trump thoughtful reflection. This is especially true for anyone who regularly writes and/or talks about political and social issues; after a while, even the most sensitive pundits find that their emotional sensoria have been numbed by the deluge of tragedies they constantly hear about and discuss.

While the potential for editorializing may seem clear in the light of day, though, at night the human reality of it all can settle in. Once that happens, all that comes to mind is the great question Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once wrote for Sherlock Holmes:

“What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? That is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.”

Indeed.