Thursday, July 2

It's Not Your Grandfather's Special Double-Reverse Counterintuitive Contrarianism. It's Got Half The Calories And None Of The Charm.

Troy Patterson, "Fireworks Suck: They really do." July 1

AT one point Patterson quotes George Plimpton, disapprovingly:
Do you remember Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief, their union symbolized by a great crash of fireworks outside their balcony overlooking the harbor of Monte Carlo? The only thing wrong with that scenario, it has always seemed to me, is that any normal couple would be out on the balcony enjoying the fireworks, and not inside tumbling around on a bed.

Now, I used to enjoy Plimpton, in suitably small doses widely spaced; he is, after all, partly responsible for Edie, the urban Wisconsin Death Trip, as well as a man who here is Just Plain Wrong, beginning with the idea that Cary Grant and Grace Kelly were, in reality or on the screen, ever anything remotely describable as "normal people". Still, one wishes they'd print the thing out and line the puppy cages at Slate with it, so that some of them might figure out how one goes about actually being contrarian.

I swear to God I clicked on this thing just to see how Slate could manage to screw up both one of my mostest cherished pet peeves and the smoking gun of "bi"-partisan political venality and sorry-assed quasi-libertoonian dedication to "freedom" in America's Third-Worst State Legislature™. And was not disappointed.

Regular readers will no doubt have already memorized the progression: until the previous decade the only legal fireworks in Indiana were sparklers. Then, suddenly, in an era of increasing concern over product safety and regular rivers of crocodile tears over "family values" and "the sake of the children", there's a bill to legalize fireworks in Indiana. Legalization has two constituencies: large-scale importers of Chinese explosives, and people who share the mentality and, generally, the self-control, of eleven-year-old males. It takes the requisite three or so sessions to build up enough graft to overcome "resistance"--I said it's the Third-Worst State Legislature, not the third stupidest--until a "law" is passed, one which had the subtlety of your average Marlboro addict and more hypocrisy than a Southern Baptist convention after lights out. It required--get this--citizens who wished to purchase fireworks to buy a license, which granted them permission to set their little bomblets off in designated fireworks areas only, to which they had to attest, or else swear they were taking the things out of state before lighting up, or that they were themselves fireworks dealers. And you thought Prohibition was ignored with impunity.

After five more years and continued graft buildup the legislature decided to "remove the hypocrisy" it had itself installed, as cover, and Let The Freedom To Terrorize Your Killjoy Tory Neighbors Just Like 1776 Ring. They removed the licensing fee, and the requirement that you be within hailing distance of a possibly responsible adult, and they upped the dynamite equivalence from 1/8 to 1/4 stick--Freedom!--this, mind you, right in the middle of the popular Everybody Piss Your Pants Over Terrorist Attacks campaign. And just to show the proper level of nostalgia for the Old Ways, they hypocritically added "permissible hours" for the detonation of these blasts in once-quiet neighborhoods throughout the state: until 11PM every day of the year except "Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, and New Year's Eve", when they add an extra hour for the sake of patriotism, somber reflection, and maintaining the proper respect for the Gregorian calendar in a changing world.

And this, mind you, from the same legislative body which regularly increases the number of hours children must attend school, and which prides itself as the champion of hard-working little people who pay taxes, and who, presumably, have to sleep occasionally between shifts, if they're lucky enough to have any. Plus, even though these restrictions do not overrule local zoning or noise ordinances, they are generally understood as doing so, and routinely reported that way by local teleprompter readers, who, of course, also serve as honorary junior retailing associates. (In Indianapolis, for example, it is illegal to play music in your own home which can be heard from fifty feet outside it at any time of day; but, somehow, 150-decibel blasts at the edge of your property are now okey-dokey if you stop soon enough after midnight that the cops can't get there first.)

This is all you need to know about the process; in fact it may be all you need to know about the United States of America, circa early 21st century. It's from a Letter to the Editor published in the Indiana Business Journal shortly after the new "law" went into effect:
The National Council on Fireworks Safety congratulates the residents and lawmakers of Indiana for the recent changes in the state's fireworks laws. The availability of legal fireworks discourages the use of illegal items.
In the Grand Tradition of salmon that doesn't turn pink in the can. Of course Freedom Isn't Free, and this particular chunk came with a 5% fireworks tax, which saved the day, since somebody woke up the State Fire Marshall at the last minute and he muttered some objections until they gave him a part of the proceeds for "training purposes". Here, Chief, this is for your favorite charity; we're sure you can handle getting it there on your own.

And yet somehow--probably because of--just this sort of thing, we get this from the Merry Slatesters:
Let me be clear: I have no truck with firecrackers or bottle rockets or Roman candles or anything else that one might set off in one's cousins' backyard. Those are pretty fun, especially if you happen to be in any of the magnificent states where that particular type is banned by law at that particular moment. Doing dangerous stuff in your cousin's backyard is an important element of American folk culture. Those firecrackers are handsomely humble.

Meanwhile, the professional fireworks display is an exercise in pomposity, aggression, triumphalism, and hubris. The pyrotechnician—and, more importantly, his patron—intends to ornament the night sky beyond the powers of God himself. He means to inspire awe for little purpose other than to demonstrate his power. The first great fireworks nuts in the Western world were Peter the Great (who put on a five-hour show to celebrate the birth of his first son) and Louis XIV (who, with a specially equipped sundial, used them to tell time at Versailles). Fireworks are imperialist and, as we used to say in school, hegemonic. That they are popularly believed to be populist entertainment does not say much for the populace.

Okay, did someone reverse the meaning of "have no truck with" overnight, or did Patterson decide the first half of that sentence should go to war with the second, or is it one of those trick reverse-slide contrarian yodels only dogs can hear? At any rate, next time kindly ask someone who's been there. I lived within a mile-and-a-half of the really big fireworks display here for about a decade, and I'll tell you this: it happened once a year, on the Fourth, and it shut off exactly on time. It was a constant booming for, like, ninety minutes. It didn't begin with sporadic firing starting in May, when the shit went on sale, and there never was an impromptu 3 AM encore after the ordinance handlers had downed fifteen corn brews and some sugared 2-year-old whiskey. It didn't trail off into August, and nobody--to my knowledge--had to bribe the Fire Marshall to get him to look the other way. Never found the remains in my yard or on my roof. It's certainly never really inspired me to question the cortical function of my fellow citizens, at least not in the way three hours of sssssssss...bang....ssssssss...bang....ssssssss...bang....every night for two months does. Maybe professional pyrotechnics really suck, but, unlike Howie Mandell, they're not on five nights a week. And just stop for a minute and consider what your world would be like if the five biggest idiots on your block did Howie Mandell impressions at jet-fighter noise levels all hours of the day and night, just because the surgical glove and industrial-strength amplified kazoo industries bought off your lawmakers.


harmfulguy said... exercise in pomposity, aggression, triumphalism, and hubris.

Is it just me, or does that sound more like Slate itself?

heydave said...

I think fireworks are some deep Zen metaphor symbolizing the ultimate order, yet perceived anarchy, of nature. And if we get lucky, the weakest links in the gene herd thin themselves.

arghous said...

Ah, yes. I remember seeing my first professional fireworks display as a youngster. I thought "My God!", as in, "You're my new God now!".

Well, actually I didn't, as I apparently wasn't destined to grow up to be a complete moron like Patterson.

Brian said...

The problem with the weakest link theorem, though, is your cretinous neighbors out here can easily set entire hillsides on fire. Fines or up to $1,000 in some Northern California cities.

I find them really annoying. I'm middle aged, sure, but I have pretty much always found them annoying and, ultimately, a little boring. I guess I am a killjoy.

Julia said...

I think it's kind of sweet that he imagines that a "normal" woman would be equally undistracted from fireworks by sex with a "normal" man (him, presumably) and sex with Cary Grant.

Because, with all due respect, dude, Cary Grant.

Anonymous said...

Mother Nature solved our fireworks issue with her droughts. It only takes a spark(ler) to get a fire going!

No one I know cares if the neighbors have contraband, but they don't want anything flammable near their property.

Narya said...

I absolutely lurve big fireworks displays; always have. (Still, I probably won't brave the lakefront tonight, because (a) I am not in the mood for dealing with a massive crowd that will have been drinking for a solid 10 hours and (b) the city no longer uses the Grant Park orchestra, or whoeverthefuck that was, but instead uses a local crappy (as in unbelievably crappy) radio station's playlist as the accompanying music.) I do not give a flying fuck about their supposedly imperial history.

And, much as I do NOT like the smaller versions that people set off in their allies and back yards, especially when "smaller" is still a quarter-stick, what I really don't like is the habit of the residents of this Fair City to go out and fire their weapons into the air--New Year's Eve, yes, but also around this time of year.

Seriously, people: I know most of you didn't actually take physics, but that whole what-goes-up-must-come-down thing has been SUNG, fer chrissakes, in popular song, and surely you can figure out that it applies to bullets.

StringonaStick said...

I live in a Colorado city with a fairly famous engineering college; one of its alumni apparently became a pyrotechnics engineer (or so the legend goes) and he gives them a hell of a deal on fireworks for their annual school celebration. This is in April of each year, the one weekend these overly-serious students actually drink beer and act like normal college students; otherwise it is hard to know there is a college in this small town. Each year I see things so magnificent that a community 4th of July celebration is a joke compared to the display put on by this college.

There are several advantages to this college display:
1. less fire hazard since it is held at a time where snow storms or rain is not uncommon.
2. being an engineering college, the display begins on time, and most importantly, ENDS ON TIME.

Rugosa said...

I was just thinking that one good thing about the month of rain we've been having has kept the neighborhood pyromaniacs inside.

LP Steve said...

I just got here. Followed the link to Slate and saw that the sentence you trashed, "I have no truck with..." now reads, "I have no beef with..." Now, did you get the quote wrong, or (as I most strongly suspect) did this asshole go back and correct his article without noting the correction?

Scott C. said...

Okay, did someone reverse the meaning of "have no truck with" overnight, or did Patterson decide the first half of that sentence should go to war with the second, or is it one of those trick reverse-slide contrarian yodels only dogs can hear?

Forget it, Jake. It's Slate.

heydave said...

I used to have truck, but hit deer.

Anonymous said...

I followed that dope Patterson's link to the "magnificent states" map of where fireworks are illegal and where they ain't. I'm in an ain't state (NJ), and glad of it. The suburban towns have modest and enjoyable displays, and though you hear a few pops and whistles around the neighborhood, it's nothing major or longlived.

I wonder if Patterson's truck, or beef, with the big displays (is he a DC man?)isn't partly with the musical part, or in the case of New York City, the music-with-giant-pretentious-narration part, which is often very irritating to anyone of sensibility. At least on TV. Maybe in the flesh in a big park or riverside, where you perhaps can't hear the soundtrack that well and can just dig the colors, lights, patterns, gut-resonating booms and exciting whiff of gunpowder, everything is better.

New York also bans private consumer fireworks. The great mystery therefore is the origin of the mass quantities that are detonated in the streets and on the roofs of Little Italy and Chinatown in Manhattan every
Fourth. I guess the cops just turn their backs, since in both cases you're dealing with a powerful ethnic tradition (and constituency).

If you want to see major firework paganism, though, London on
Guy Fawkes' Night or Bonfire Night is the place to be. The whole atmosphere is electric with the indefinable.

Li'l Innocent

mndean said...

Love the conceit that ice princess and future sot Grace and switch-hitter Cary were anything normal in our world. Cary probably took hits of acid just to stay straight long enough to get married so he finally could have a kid. Hollywood swingin'.