Tuesday, May 29, 2012

self-implication

Adam Serwer points out, correctly, that liberal excuses for extrajudicial killing make their opposition to torture nonsensical.

The question, though, is whether there is anything more consistent in Serwer's limited-but-appropriately-ruthless preferences for warmaking. Last year, after bin Laden's killing, he and I argued about the moral status of pacifism, which he equated with that of barbarism, and what the proper amount of bloodlust should be in the liberal imagination. The post-OBL killing period was notable for me in part because of the typical redbaiting and eliminationism that always come when mainstream liberals get annoyed with genuine antiwar sentiment. In the larger perspective, it was just a fascinating time to observe the liberal mind.

The contemporary liberal's foreign policy rests on a tenuous negotiation between principled nonviolence and the need to express sufficiently militarist attitudes to remain politically palatable. This negotiation causes liberals to out-Herod Herod, to dress in the ill-fitting uniform of belligerence, based, I suppose, on the notion that this performance is necessary to win elections. That's folly; you can't out war the GOP. But they try, and they hope to both build a generally restrained military apparatus and simultaneously lionize military efforts they deem worthy.

Serwer believes that you can have both; he thinks that you can kill the bad man and bust out that creepy red white and blue Spiderman suit and party in front of the White House, but also have a foreign policy that isn't aggressive, militaristic, or reckless. And I'm suggesting: no, perhaps you can't have both. Following the death of bin Laden, celebrating liberals assured us that this would be the pretext for ending the war on terror and restraining our military machine. Instead, we have launched more undeclared wars, dramatically expanding the breadth of a program that kills innocent people without accountability or review. We have not slowed the pace of our assault on the Muslim world; we've quickened it. The question that he should ask himself is whether there isn't some connection between so many Good Progressives dancing in the streets because of killing and their tendency to take killing less seriously.

Serwer talks about an "obvious legal and moral bright line" in his post, and this sort of terminology is found throughout his writing on foreign policy. The problem is that politics occurs in the hearts and minds of human beings, and bright lines have a habit of bleeding together within them. People who are told by both sides that it's okay to celebrate killing and war are not going to apply the nuance and discrimination that you might want when the next war rolls around.

 Now, it happens that I too believe in obvious moral bright lines, and as part of a fallen species I could never say that I can maintain mine. And yet I find that they have a simplicity that makes it far easier for me to police them. Don't kill. Do everything possible to avoid war. Never suppose that killing is necessary. Never suppose that such a necessity could excuse such killing. Don't imagine that any killing could ever be simplistically justified. Never celebrate death, under any circumstances. These rules are very difficult to live by, but no more so than Serwer's, and unlike with his it is very easy to know when they have been violated.

Not having any influence, I doubt that good antiwar liberals-- and they are good, and generally antiwar, make no mistake-- I doubt that they'll listen to me. But I suspect that they will continue to be confronted with the  question of whether you can oppose war most of the time and lend it uncomplicated moral support sometimes. They'll be so confronted because they too frequently contribute to the justification of a murderous military apparatus that never needed much justification anyway, and then shudder under the consequences. There will be more bad wars, wars they don't like, that they'll fail to prevent. They'll go on losing and maybe someday that losing will force them to consider whether war is a beast you can feed only when you want to.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

moral support necessitates moral distinctions

Chris Hayes is in quite a bit of hot water online because he said that he was uncomfortable calling dead soldiers heroes. Since his show started, Hayes has done things that I frankly never thought possible on cable news, so I'm biased. And of course I've said more extreme things about our military myself, here in this space.

I will simply say what I have always said about soldiers and the police: there is no such thing as praise that does not recognize the individual character of the person being praised. What our post-9/11 national conformity insisted was that we heap praise on the police, firefighters, and the military without any discrimination between individuals or any judgment of their particular characters. This, in fact, is not praise. It's actually a profound assault on the possibility of real praise; it denies the existence of moral differences and squashes all actual praiseworthy conduct into a homogeneous, bland affirmation. Compliment without judgment isn't good enough for dogs or children. It shouldn't be good enough for those whom we claim to be honoring.

The ethic of unconditional praise, of course, dulls our ability to separate your average grunt from Robert Bales, those responsible for the massacre at Haditha, those responsible for Abu Ghraib. It's the same with police; when you simply call all police heroes, you hand out laurels to crooked cops and wife beating cops and drug dealing cops. Not only are not all cops heroes, not all cops are good people. Cops are humans, and as such there are good ones and bad ones and awful ones. Same with soldiers. And the extension of praise without judgment simply makes it more tempting to be bad; many cops are out of control, abusing people left and right and rebelling openly against accountability. That's the inevitable consequence of our blind regard.

Because Chris Hayes is willing to judge soldiers as individuals, he has the moral and intellectual preconditions for genuine respect. That our culture prefers the false flag of fawning, empty praise to actual human regard tells you just about everything.

I saw a guy I went to high school with a couple years ago; he had done a tour of duty in Iraq. He told me he never says "support our troops," because "some of those guys still owe me money." There's wisdom in that.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild



I was lucky enough to catch a screening of Beasts of the Southern Wild at Wesleyan University tonight. The film was made be a bunch of Wesleyan grads; the director, both producers, and many smaller others involved all went to Wes. A few impressions:

1. It's really, really good. I'm someone who hates hype and so I work hard to avoid engaging in it. But I'm perfectly happy saying that this is a beautiful film, extraordinarily deft for such young film makers. The art direction and overall ethos of the movie is so particular, and I think will become iconic. Pulling off beautiful wreckage is difficult; it's often attempted and rarely succeeds. More impressively, the landscape is evocative of very real poverty without being exploitative or reductive. Its fantasy elements never diminish what the movie says about real material conditions of real people. That's quite an accomplishment.

2. The central performances are as good as you've heard. As good as the main character is, the performance of her father is even better.

3. This is a movie to see in the theater. Wesleyan's newish film building has a state of the art theater. (They got some of that Whedon money.) Experiencing the film with an advanced audio system was really a revelation; the storms, so central to the movie's plot and energy, sounded amazing.


4. If I had to offer criticisms, I would say that the film loses a little energy in the last twenty minutes and goes on a bit too long. There are some cuts I would make in that stretch. But losing steam at the end is a complaint I could make, without exaggeration, about 9 out of 10 movies that I see nowadays. More curious is that, with the benefit of a couple hours, I'm not so sure that the most fantastical of the fantasy elements actually lends that much to the story. I think it's a bit thematically confused, really. But visually, it's stunning.

5. When it opens wide, check it out. It's a remarkable film and one built with tremendous care and personality. It's remarkable how much the movie reminds me of Days of Heaven, which is praise about as high as I know how to give.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Fourth Grade Journal

Tuesday, September 11, 1990. Thinking about music lessons yesterday, I decided to try the trumpet, because I want to play jaz and I don't like saxophone music.

Monday, Oct. 1, 1990. I'm looking forward to this week because no more Mastery tests!!! No more answer sheets, no more boggleing questions. On the other hand, no more Smartfood.

Monday, Oct. 15, 1990. Today is a good to make a Christmas list. Yes, planning ahead is my game.

Tuesday, Oct. 23, 1990. If I were a bus driver I'd hijack the bus and fill it with food. Then I would drive to Disney World. Then I'd go to some cabin and live there. Of course, if I'm nice I'd drive them to and from school. But if I was me, I'd quit, become a millionare, make Trump grovel at

Tuesday, Nov. 20, 1990. Honesty is important because if you lie and you're caught people might not believe you later. Sort'a like "The Boy that Cried Wolf" or yesterday's "Murphy Brown." So you need to be honest.

Thursday, December 17, 1990. The difference between third and fourth grade is about one grade. Also we're more mature than before. Probably smarter.

Friday, Jan. 4, 1990. The happiest moment this week was when I found out my favorite show won't be canceled! I mean, 30 wouldn't be 30 without it! Geez, I mean, that stations main support is that show! And to think they wanted to shut it down! Course, I never really cared about that show.


Wednesday, January 16, 1991. I felt like hangin' around, I reached for


January 23, 1991. I sometimes daydream that I meet people who are in books, like Jim Hawkins or Huma.


Thursday, January 24, 1991. Believe me, it's bad. We now have a bad reputation. I hope it does not travel far.


Monday, February 4, 1991. If I could I would tell everybody I like chocolate. I would ban drugs! I would eat all the chocolate.

Wednesday, February 20, 1991. I would teach about volcanoes. I'd take them to a volcanoe and give them some binoculors. If they're bad I'd push them in.


February 26, 1991. Water is important to me because humans are 80% water. I keep that balance.


March 1st, 1991. I feel it's pretty much over. The fighting's stopped. Kuwait is a free city, and Iraq's moving out. Many people say the conflict is over. The only thing left is capturing Saddam. There is probably a lot of paperwork too.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

a modest request

Can we call a moratorium on the word "innovation" and its subsidiaries for, say, six month?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

they call it accentuating the differences

Not to flog my same old line, but here's a good example of where my general thesis seems entirely obvious. People can't hate Garfield this much. But they can desire to be seen as the kind of people who hate Garfield.

Update: Although, taking a good long look at Garfield comics for the first time in, oh, 20 years....

Update II: I guess it's a joke about responding inappropriately to bland corporate humor? Goes over my head.

Monday, May 21, 2012

stop being shitty, shitty

Alex Knapp wrote an informed, intelligent response to that Oatmeal comic that I criticized the other day, in which he quotes Alex Waller's great piece on the same theme. The author of the Oatmeal, a comic which enjoys a tremendous amount of goodwill, responded with a whiny, petulant reply that is long on attitude and low on factual challenge's to Knapp's piece. Worse, he claims that he's just a cartoonist, and you can't take everything he says seriously. But he clearly wants to be taken seriously as an advocate for the merits of Tesla.... You can't have it both ways. Being wrong is fine, if you're willing to evolve when proven wrong. But take responsibility for what you say.

What an defensive, shitty display. And yet it's all excused, in his own mind and elsewhere, by the fact that he represents himself as some kind of victim of society. I have no idea whether he's really faced the social marginalization he says he has, but even if he has, it's no excuse to be a jerk. The mix of aggression and perceived victimhood is a dangerous cocktail. I'm trying not to comment on the geek thing here, but it has to be said that it seems like he often excuses his worst behavior because he identifies himself as part of an aggrieved subculture.

Incidentally, I just reject his thesis, that Tesla is somehow unknown. He may have been at one time. But that time is long past; he's appeared as a character in movies, been the subject of glowing magazine pieces, has had several books published about him in the last several years, was talked about reverently on MythBusters.... I think the secret is out. And for the record, I was taught about Tesla in high school.

Update: Commenter Mysterious Man from the Shadows makes a good point: the Oatmeal's creator compares Edison to Steve Ballmer of Microsoft. But in fact the far more apt comparison is to Steve Jobs.

Update II: I happened to check out the dude's Twitter feed, and he's continuing on with his denigration of Alex Knapp. He and his followers are saying two things at once: one, that he actually did factually rebut Knapp (which he most certainly didn't do) and two, that it's all just a joke, he's just a cartoonist, etc. etc. (You can tell from his tone that he's very clearly been gotten to.) The combination of the two are utterly self-defeating; if it's just a cartoon and all just jokes, how can he have rebutted anything? If expressing something in cartoon form means that it has no standards whatsoever, how can he claim to have rebutted Knapp at all?

I mean, why stop where he has stopped, if it's all games and jokes? Here, try this on for size: Tesla also invented Jelly Beans. And love. Plus Thomas Edison had sex with little boys. I mean what's the difference? Hey, we're all just joshing here! I'm gonna write a cartoon accusing the Oatmeal dude of murder. Who cares? He can't even write a real comeback. Remember, there are no facts in a cartoon.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

a few things

1. I didn't say, and have never said,  that "it's not about race," or any such thing. That's an offensive statement. Of course it's about race, and it's about sex, and it's about sexual orientation. It's just also about class, and many other things that need to be attended to.

2. Achieving social justice is not a zero sum game. Saying "so you were inspired by a post about white straight men's privilege to talk about white straight men's problems?", and playing other cute games of critical footsie, suggests that these are either/or problems. As I said in that post, I truly believe, on a practical and theoretical level, that these problems can only be meaningfully addressed together. I am completely uninterested in trying to rank some sort of hierarchy of suffering. It's theoretically useless, and politically ruinous. Setting black people against queer people against gay people against poor people against Jewish people, etc., is exactly the method of status quo power. And it is a game that guarantee that all of them lose.

3. You have to understand: an awful lot of good people have never been substantially exposed to poverty in their lives. For them, poverty lives in fleeting moments at the street corner and on the subway. I'll never forget the most clarifying, depressing day I ever had of reading and thinking about education. That was the day I realized that so many of the people who argue about education policy on the national stage literally have never been exposed to educational failure. By that I mean that they have all the demographic advantages that contribute to educational success, went to private elementary schools and elite high schools and Ivy League colleges, and never experienced seeing someone else struggling and failing at school. After I really grokked that, so many things made sense, and so much of my hopes for a better discourse on education died.

It's the same with poverty. Many of them simply can't comprehend that pain, and unlike with racism and sexism and homophobia, there is not nearly the social pressure on them to acknowledge it. (This phenomenon is self-replicating.) So there's a kind of oblivious callousness there, one driven by ignorance more than by malicious intent. I grew up in a town with an elite private college there. The students by and large had, to me, enlightened politics, fiercely opposed to sexism and racism and homophobia. But many of them (and forgive me for painting with a broad brush) simply could not have been more wrongheaded when it came to class. They'd fight against injustice from afar, but wouldn't hesitate to chew out a waiter because their pancakes were too thin. "Townie" is the slur you keep in your pocket after a couple of semesters of cultural studies.

I've been exposed to poverty, professionally, working in a public school and for an inner city YMCA in Chicago and with a literacy program. And to those who simply don't like to hear talk of white people's problems, I can only confess: I take this stuff seriously. White poverty matters to me, and I consider ending it no less a part of our public duty. There is pain out there that I can hardly fathom, with all of the usual baggage and complication that comes with any such entrenched oppression and neglect. Including the tangled web of considering the subaltern and how and why and why not to speak for them.

That's the long and the short of it. I know anyone with a subscription to n+1 and an Internet connection can find ample theoretical trouble with all of this. I just really don't give a shit.
Just kill me now.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

how long are we going to keep doing this shit?

So this followup post by John Scalzi is very, very teachable.

Over at Balloon Juice, I wrote about Scalzi's much ballyhooed, much Twitterati-beloved piece on how to talk about privilege to the people who have it. I wrote at BJ about the post's failure to appropriately highlight poverty and social class. Scalzi hides discussion of socioeconomic class in his consideration of skill points (or whatever) and how they're unevenly distributed. He makes no attempt to distinguish between random factors and poverty, which we know (empirically) is not random but rather heritable, self-replicating, and enormously difficult to rescue yourself from. And unfortunately, the white liberal political class is terrible at talking about white poverty. Taking white poverty seriously and advocating for the interests of poor white people is simply too challenging to the social and cultural commitments of most people in the media. I think that's important so I wrote about it. Because there's tremendous suffering, out there, and it is preventable, and the people suffering from it don't deserve it, even when white, straight, and male.

Unfortunately, since the initial post Scalzi has not made things better. He's made them worse. A rundown:

1. John Scalzi publishes the post, which has the explicit purpose of making it easier to convince white straight men of their privilege and, in doing so, perhaps reduce racism, sexism, and homophobia a little. You know. Improve social justice, that sort of thing.
2. Straight white men show up in the comments of the post and, as is frequently the case, say stupid, misguided stuff, about how they're the real victims, sexism isn't real, etc. In other words, they announce themselves as precisely the people who need educating about privilege.
3. Scalzi does not educate them. He mocks and dismisses them. His supportive commenters either lavish his post with praise, engage in the mockery themselves, or both. Scalzi publishes an entire post which has no function other than to mock the (admittedly ignorant and wrong) men who he claimed to want to educate. Given human nature, they are likely to be less willing than before to admit their privilege or to consider racism, sexism, and homophobia. Again, commenters sympathetic to Scalzi participate in mocking the rubes and fall over themselves praising him.
4. Scalzi publishes the followup. It deepens every one of his sins. He responds to claims that he should have talked more about poverty by claiming that poverty is different from race, sex, or sexual orientation because it isn't "intrinsic." (I would argue that this is an ass-covering way of implicating poor people in their own poverty.) He continues with the mockery and dismissal that animated the original post. He is completely dismissive of the idea that we have to demonstrate privilege empirically, when in fact that is absolutely necessary for engendering change. Worst, he expresses a kind of condescending ambivalence to the question of what white straight men should do-- exacerbating all of the negative feelings of the people who need to know how to behave better and giving them an excuse to exculpate themselves.

There appear to be two rational explanations for this behavior. One is that Scalzi and the commenters who aped his behavior have a simply atrocious grasp on psychology, human behavior, and politics, and sincerely believed that mocking people would lead to their enlightenment. The other is that John Scalzi's purpose was never to actually contribute to education and social justice, but rather to demonstrate his superiority to those people he claimed to want to educate, and in doing so show what a brilliant and enlightened guy he is to the liberals he is in cultural competition with.

The idiom that Scalzi has used to present his case is no doubt familiar to you. It's the default language of  many prominent liberal or leftist publication when the talk about racism, sexism, or homophobia: self-aggrandizing, pawing at a kind of witty derision, choked with condescension, and invoking a tribalism of the enlightened. That this kind of discourse is a profound rhetorical failure-- that it is the kind of language that is never going to convince anyone of anything-- appears to be of no consequence.

Scalzi's piece is teachable in large part because his initial post stated explicitly that he wanted to provoke change, that he was out to show a way to better inform people and educate them. Which means that he can't defend his subsequent conduct by saying that he was just trying to get to "the critical truth," or whatever else people say when they dismiss their total failure to express their politics in a way that has a chance to produce tangible benefits. He said he was engaging in an attempt to engage with the problem, but then did everything possible to undermine that engagement, and in a way that brought him accolades. (I often wonder: do people think it's merely a coincidence that their discussions of race and gender and social justice always end up being a discussion of their own superiority?)

I read a lot of articles, blog posts, and tweets expressed in this language. I can't imagine someone arguing that it's working. The people who talk this way, after all, would agree that this is still a terribly racist, sexist, and homophobic society. And I'm sure that they would tell you they want to change that. So why the continued use of totally ineffective tactics? Why engage in language that ensures that you aren't going to actually invite anyone into greater enlightenment? If you just don't care, cool. If you want to pose and say "it's not my job to enlighten the ignorant," cool; you aren't obligated to try and fix things. But please, if you think that these problems are worth solving, and you want to give yourself credit for being on the right side, consider your rhetoric. Ask yourself if the language of condescension is actually a vehicle for any real change. Consider whether you have to choose between being funny and cutting or being productive.

How long are we gonna do this shit before we realize that this is why we lose? And what will it take for critical self-reflection to be as celebrated, linked, tweeted, and read as self-aggrandizement?

Update: To be clear, I quite liked what Scalzi was doing in the original post. What bothered me was his reaction in comments and the subsequent posts he's done. It bothers me precisely because he undermines what he could have accomplished in the first place.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

putting my geek culture thoughts to bed

I was asked to write up a piece on my thoughts on geek culture, for Parabasis. So I did! And I'm glad, because I have long flogged away at these issues without getting to just how I feel. This piece is my summation. I hope that people can see from it that the point is not to denigrate or attack people who still feel marginalized as fans of sci-fi or whatever, but to ask them to place those feelings in a larger context. I really do mean it: it's time to enjoy the fruits of the growth that you've craved, and you can't do that if you're too busy lamenting. Check it out, and please share/tweet/link it, if you're inclined.

good things about the Atlantic

1. Derek Thompson really is an admirable writer and researcher. He makes evidence-based arguments that are consistently sober and appropriately limited. In a sea of young journalists who are trying to make a name for themselves, he's avoided the temptation to make a name for himself with overreach and bombast. Instead, he's done so with empirical rigor, with restraint, and with what might be the most important trait for an opinion writer, a sympathetic intelligence.

2. This piece by Andrew Cohen is really remarkable. Obviously, much of the credit belongs to the team at The Columbia Human Rights Review for their extraordinary efforts. But I think Cohen shows how an informed commentator can write effectively about other people's work, develop and extend it, and shed new light on key facets. For an issue this close to my heart, that's a real blessing. The Atlantic has quite a stable of informed writers.

3. I have some misgivings about Ta-Nehisi Coates's blog as a phenomenon-- I think some of his readers come to it looking for some kind of absolution, which is quite troubling-- but you have to give it up. He's got one of the best prose styles out there, and he enhances that strength by restricting himself to a certain range of topics which best fit that style. That might sound like a backhanded compliment, but it isn't, at all; in fact I wish most bloggers had a better sense of where their relative strengths lie and were less likely to weigh in on whatever pops into their head. (I include myself in that criticism.) But even beyond sticking to a particular range of topics (which many bloggers do), I think Coates has shown a new evolution of blogging, which is to look at the blog truly as a unified project beyond the sum of individual posts.

4. Conor Friedersdorf's posts on foreign policy and domestic surveillance are crucial, to my mind. He's got a certain credibility on those issues that is not easy to forge, given how bipartisan support for endless war and surveillance has become. Most criticisms of Obama on foreign policy that come from conservative sources simply are not credible, considering that they are just part of a universally-negative litany. Friedersdorf, though, isn't unwilling to praise Obama, and more importantly, he doesn't pretend that Republican bellicosity is matched by that of the Democrats. Of course, for his troubles, he is reviled by most mainstream conservative bloggers, but then they are wretches so what do you expect.

5. Alexis Madrigal's hair is a delight.

Monday, May 14, 2012

nerd self-mythologizing

I don't want to step on a piece I'm finishing for another venue on the Nerd Victimization and Grievance Industrial Complex, but I was struck by this comic from the Oatmeal. It's mostly a piece of hagiography about Nikola Tesla (indeed, a great man) that confirms again that most hagiography actually makes you feel worse about its subject, not better. But its subtext is yet another in the Oatmeal's series on how geeks are better than you. (The sub-subtext, of course, is that the guy who writes the Oatmeal is better than you.) Which is not to blame the Oatmeal dude specifically for this; there's this whole huge edifice of geek self-mythologizing. What I always wonder when I read this stuff is, don't you guys know that adults aren't supposed to talk about how great they are?

Now, I know what my frequent critics on these issues will say: but the context is a world where geeks and nerds are/have been oppressed. On the "are" front, I would say, no they're not. Not for the things that are self-consciously geeky, not the stuff that self-described nerds and geeks use to so self-define. The social awkwardness is totally independent of the cultural convictions that are used to define geekdom. And, indeed, derision and marginalization of socially awkward people are prevalent in the halls of geek culture, too. On the "have been" front, I would simply point out that reacting to a changing world is important to maintaining a worthwhile self-criticism; that oftentimes the worst bullies are those who have been bullied themselves, and thus can't imagine themselves in the other position; and finally, that even if you could go back and erase the stigma about comic books or whatever that was the focal point of bullying in the past, it wouldn't have removed the bullying. The bullying just would have taken a different form. Social aggression exists for reasons that are entirely separate from the proximate target of that aggression. Bullies and jerks will always find reasons.

Incidentally, the comic lionizes Tesla for choosing to forgo sex in order to remain mentally sharp, portraying it as a kind of heroism. I would argue that it's actually a pathology. And incidentally, sex>alternating current.

Update: I kid Nikola Tesla! I love Nikola Tesla. I'm just kidding about the sex. And, you know, most everything else. I'll link to the piece as soon as it's out. I want only for geeks to recognize and enjoy the fact that they've already won.

Update II: But do check out Alex Waller for a spirited and informed defense of Edison.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

feature, not bug, Hulk

My favorite essayist, when it comes to movies, is the Hulk*. Note that this is something entirely separate from my favorite film critic, which is Anthony Lane. Hulk is only okay when it comes to writing a film review. But as an explainer and explorer, he's top notch, though I frequently disagree with him.

Here's one piece that I think is great and interesting and yet fundamentally misses a key point. Hulk claims that David Fincher has a deep problem of matching tone, theme, and plot, while talking about Fight Club. He actually goes through a good chunk of Fincher's filmography in doing so, sometimes quite convincingly, sometimes not. His central claim about Fight Club is a version of a fairly common one: that the movie's conclusion suggests that Tyler is right to reject "Tyler" and Project Mayhem, but "Tyler" and Project Mayhem are so alluring as to undermine the point. Fincher the technician of anarchy is more compelling than Fincher the moralist. You can get to the point where you recognize the scariness of "Tyler" and perhaps even the evil in him, but damn, Brad Pitt always looks really cool. 

True enough! Like I said, it's a common complaint. And let me say, I am totally incapable of reading Fight Club as satire at all-- as incapable as I am of reading "A Modest Proposal," which Hulk invokes, in that way. The experience of satire requires the shock of recognition, and in neither case do I feel it, in Swift's case because political satire is based on political timeliness and in Fight Club for the reason Hulk says. But Hulk underestimates the power of the conclusion, even if we admit that general observation, and it hurts his understanding of why the movie was as effective as it was with some people. Hulk, to his credit, doesn't come to an overly broad conclusion, but he does seem very sure that the ending isn't nearly as attractive as what precedes it. I don't quite agree: I think the gap Hulk recognizes is just that, a gap. Both are extremely attractive to men of a certain culture and age; it's the lack of a narrative of how to get from one to another that dramatizes the disconnect a lot of men feel.

What I mean is that I think the Hulk badly misreads people if he find the very ending-- not the last 20 minutes but the last five-- ineffective. I think, in fact, that the final shot of the buildings collapsing, Tyler and Marla grasping hands, and the Pixies playing is incredibly moving, at least for the movie's probable audience. It certainly still moves me, no matter how many times I've seen it. It's profoundly romantic, in several senses, and I would say that what the movie best understands about this generation of men who feel lost is their deeply romantic ontology, their desire to be rescued by love and by a woman. (Feminist theorists can feel free to pull that all apart.) Yes, "Tyler" and what he represents are still alluring. And Hulk is right to say that Edward Norton's turn seems unconvincing. That's the point, and that's the problem: the kind of men who Fight Club is about want to engage in Project Mayhem even though they know they ultimately want to get to Marla. They seem romantic love, or at least familial stability, as the righteous and natural endpoint of their progressing into actual adulthood. But they have no idea how to get there. That's what's dramatized in the movie, including its unconvincing character progression: distinct and vastly different conceptions of male adulthood, both essentially romanticized, and a profound lack of direction. 

If you'd like a little textual support, I would say that the first most important small moment in the movie is when Tyler's house blows up and he first calls Marla. (The second most important bit is the overly deliberate shot of Brad Pitt holding down the chief of police while Ed Norton very specifically is turning the lock to the bathroom stall.) His first instinct is, as the conclusion suggests, the correct one: go to the girl. Team up. Make a family. But his fear keeps him from trying to connect-- he's completely inarticulate, literally not saying anything into the receiver. So then he goes to Tyler. Again, I don't deny that the transition isn't convincing. But then I think this speaks to a disconnect experienced by the men who are being simultaneously spoken to and sent up by the movie.

Did Palahniuk/Fincher/Norton and Pitt/etc. intend that? I have no idea, and I don't care.

*I suppose I'm obligated to say something about the whole Hulk thing. Well, I guess I don't find it too distracting. He often just sort of lets it go, and I sometimes think he would rather just abandon the gimmick altogether. But it's not a big deal. You could go into a whole examination of how it's a gimmick that's so self-consciously gimmicky that it kind of wants it both ways. But who has the time.

cross-posted at Fredrikdeboer.com

Thursday, May 10, 2012

that was unexpected

I've found Junior Seau's death and the attendant discussion very sobering. I found this piece by Daniel Engber sobering as well, just in a different sense.

As you know, I have a lot of problems with the media, and my most consistent complaint is that too often, people who are paid to find out the facts don't. Instead, they accept a narrative that sounds plausible or speaks to their own biases: America used to be number one in education; digital tools make a big difference for students and schools; printed book sales are in steep decline; and so on. But I've been guilty of similar thinking when it comes to the NFL, concussions, and suicide. And Engber-- who, I must highlight, is writing for my frequent target, Slate-- takes the time to look at the evidence and finds it lacking. The narrative was just so clean, and too flattering to certain of my preconceptions. Engber:
At the request of the NFL Players Association, government scientists compared the death rates for almost 3,500 of the league's retirees to those for age- and race-matched non-athletes over the same years. The football players had much longer lives: Just 334 of them had passed away, compared with an expected total of 625.
What does this have to do with Junior Seau? The CDC study was designed to look for fatal cases of cardiovascular disease among the athletes. (It found one-third fewer than expected.) But the researchers also compiled numbers for more than a dozen other categories of disease and injury, including suicide. Former players were 42 percent less likely to die of cancer, 86 percent less likely to die of tuberculosis, and 73 percent less likely to die from digestive problems. And among the athletes who regularly played professional football between 1959 and 1988, a total of nine perished as a result of "intentional self-harm," compared with an expected number of about 22. The sample size was small, but the effect is large: Ex-NFLers were 59 percent less likely to commit suicide.
This is not to say, as Engber hastens to point out, that we know for certain in the opposite direction. But the evidence, for now, that concussions specifically and football-related injury generally are leading to suicides is startlingly lacking, given our casual certainty. I sometimes wonder if this sort of failure is inevitable these days. We rush to judgment as a matter of course. And it's not just the speed at which we communicate, but the way in which social conditioning is now omnipresent. There's so little time or space for reflection that isn't mediated through the Internet, which constantly impresses other people's opinions on us. I certainly don't envy Engber, who is likely to receive a lot of pushback and a lot of accusations of insufficient concern for these football players whose lives appear ruined.

One thing that I've been thinking about this-- suppose the evidence gradually emerges that football indeed has debilitating consequences for the large majority of people who play it. And suppose that the only way to make it safe is to become, in essence if not in name, two-hand touch. That's more plausible than you might think. Now, if the NFL was to adopt that kind of change, I think I'd respond in two ways: I'd say "good for them." And then I'd vote with my feet by ceasing to follow football. Oh, I'd last for a little while. But despite what my conscience says about the game, I just wouldn't be interested in watching a "safe" version of it. I'm already turned off enough by the sudden ubiquity of 4,000 (and 5,000!) yard passing seasons. I wouldn't maintain interest, and I doubt I'm the only one.

Given that economic reality, how long before a rival football league emerges, playing old school football? And given the money involved, how many young men would be willing to take the risks and trade their health for the possibility of wealth and fame? Maybe this is just bad faith, and I'm raising these issues out of guilt. But I can't help but think that a safe NFL wouldn't lead to the end of violent football. Football is violence, it always has been.

Update: Or take the recent calls to ban college football. I'm not a college football fan, so it wouldn't matter much to me. But does anyone doubt that a new minor/developmental football league would emerge to replace it? As long as we're not talking about actually criminalizing the game-- and as I think that the government has no business regulating the self-injurious behaviors of informed, consenting adults, I hope we aren't-- I seriously question our ability to reduce these risks.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

ah, propaganda

Over at the Atlantic, which is really working at a feverish pace to establish itself as the worst media enterprise in the world, I find this. Some self-important apparatchik name John Hudson-- seriously, peep the man's Twitter feed, it's like a parody of what it means to be white and self-involved today-- catches an Iranian news source using one of those Photoshopped images from their missile test. I'm guessing somebody at that publication was in a playful mood, but being a staffer at the neoconservative Atlantic, Hudson takes it as an opportunity to slander all of Iran. The results are as you'd expect; in the comments, for example, you've got charming people saying things like "Is there an Iranian Mensa equivalent?" See, because the brown-skinned evildoing evildoers aren't just the bad guys, they're also stupid.

The Atlantic Wire is a pretty shrewd move; it's a way for the magazine, which is well known for coordinating its opinion sections towards particular political goals, to present as news what's really commentary. Hudson is merely keeping himself employed; the Atlantic is owned by a self-described neocon and doesn't hesitate to send out Jeff Goldberg to invent wars. The shame is just that Hudson clearly thinks of himself as a super serious journalist. That he's capable of maintaining that self-delusion while spouting such absurdly biased bullshit tells you more about the media than about him. It's no surprise whatsoever that someone in comments spouts off with "Stupid F'ing ragheads;" Hudson would of course claim that he doesn't support that thought, but his post is expressing exactly that sentiment. Publications like the Atlantic are always going to provide forums for people who think of themselves as cultured to express bigotry.

The best part: the post falls under a subhead saying "Propaganda Parade." Honey, if you only knew.

(seriously, that fucking Twitter feed. It's like a very dry parody: the lame, desperately-signalling social references, the tired jokes that he obviously spent a lot of time coming up with, the "I'm totally down with the hippity-hop!" cultural anxiety, the attempt to defuse an absurdly pretentious headshot with some Photoshopping that, I promise you, he devoted an entire afternoon to....)

Update: A commenter points out that the Atlantic recently ran a positive profile of John Mearsheimer, which is definitely a cut against the magazine as neocon mouthpiece. Also, I got violently ill shortly after posting this, so if you're inclined to believe in karma....

our drug war

I'm flipping through channels and I happen upon the show Cops at exactly the wrong time. A guy has just been caught with heroin. They're loading him into a cop car. He's weeping, saying "I'm going back to prison" again and again. He's weeping, of course, because when he returns to prison he'll be beaten and likely raped and subject to daily psychological and physical torture, from his conditions and from his fellow inmates and from the guards. And chances are very good that he was out scoring heroin because he was addicted to it the first time he went to jail and he stayed addicted while he was there and he was addicted when he came out. The cops keep insisting that he had more than was for his personal use, because they always say that; to listen to the police and prosecutors you'd think that no one has ever just been a drug user. They're all also drug dealers, always.

The more you look around in America the more you find people whose suffering is simply assumed as a part of the social fabric; it's compromises all the way around. I think about Omelas a lot.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

nota bene

Matt Langer's piece on Lindy West's piece is great. That is all.

Ms. 21st century

I occasionally get emails from people who find my critique of the Internet generation cruel. Last week, I got an email that said point blank "what do you want people to do?"

Let me take a detour on the way to answering that.

My friend James sent me a link to this post by Penelope Trunk. It's a pretty typical screed against grad school, of the kind that you've read before and that I've critiqued before. I could rebut it; as is typical of those sort of arguments, it's long on attitude and low on facts-- facts like median income and employment rate for those with graduate degrees, etc. But honestly, why bother? It strikes me that grad school is a bad idea for very many people and a fantastic idea for a much smaller number of people. And yet I find that notion-- that some choices are good for some and not good for others, and that there is no way to sort which is which except by living those choices-- to be anathema to both Trunk's project and our culture.

Now, I could go into take down mode with Ms. Trunk. There's a lot to mine there. You'll find Trunk is something of an archetype: the person who is Winning at Life and insists on telling you. Loudly. Page after page of her blog amounts to self-justifying and self-promoting. She has launched three successful startups! She has appeared on 200 radio stations! She used to be a professional beach volleyball player! But as I navigated the site, I just got more and more bummed out, to see a person whose entire shtick is built on projecting the confidence which no one with actual confidence ever feels the need to project. Turns out that Trunk herself went to grad school. (She can't simply disagree with those who believe grad school can sometimes make sense; she must "crush" them. What does that tell you?)

There's a single lesson that I have learned more forcefully and more completely than any other in my life.

Those who try to show you that they're strong are weak.


Strong people don't talk about their own strength. Weak people do that. Secure people don't try to convince you of their security. Insecure people do that. People who love themselves don't have to prove it. People who hate themselves try to. When you get down to the root of my complaints, why I'm so cranky about Internet culture, the thing that I object to most strongly is the refusal to let other people make their own choices. And my belief is that this refusal stems from a desperate need people feel to validate and justify their own lives. I've written in defense of monogamy many times, and one point I've made over and over again is that those who attack the romantic ideal often do so because they don't like the implied judgment of other people's successful relationships. When people say, for example, "everybody cheats," what they are in fact saying is "I cheat, and I can't countenance the implied judgment that might exist if others don't." Take that perverse logic and apply it to almost everything, and you've got  something like 21st century aspirational culture.

I mean check out this post from Penelope Trunk's blog. Look at the list of what she accomplishes. I would put it to you that literally listing the reasons you feel good about yourself is a rather strong indication that, in fact, you don't feel that good about yourself. But if Trunk does it with less self-awareness than others, she is no less of a model for your typical blogger at Gawker or the Awl or wherever else. Take pop culture writing. When people talk about the AV Club, they talk about a place where people can discuss the pop culture they love. Who could argue with that idea? But when I look at the actual AV Club, I just see row upon row of people who need to let everyone know that being a fan of Community marks you as a connoisseur while being a fan of Two and a Half Men makes you a chump. Even our purely subjective aesthetic choices are not allowed to be our own anymore. If tastes are subjective and people are allowed to make whatever choices they want in the media they consume, people can't use those tastes to justify their self-conception as arty or hip or whatever. So what you get is a lot of people heaping derision on those who make different aesthetic choices. Nobody can leave other people alone anymore.

Perhaps if I thought that this all made people actually happy and fulfilled, I could let it go. But that's not what I find. I find, in fact, that the more time people spend justifying and validating themselves, the bigger gulf they feel between the self-concept they try to project and how they actually feel about themselves. It may be a cliche, and it may tiptoe up to the line of New Agey goop, but I do believe it's true: you will never achieve self-fulfillment by looking outside of yourself. Other people cannot validate you. Not that they shouldn't, but that they can't and won't. If they could, all of this manic effort to get them to would have certainly accomplished it by now. I drone on about self-pitying sci-fi fans not just because they're bullying and sanctimonious. It's also because the self-pity and sanctimony don't actually make them happy. As showy as they are in rejecting "high culture," they also yearn for validation from that culture. But that's an empty concept, and even if there were designated high priests of high culture, their approval would not make sci-fi fans happy. It comes from inside or it doesn't come at all.

If I am cruel, then I hope it is a kind cruelty, one in the service of getting past a particularly unhealthy cultural moment. For now I look out at a broader culture, made increasingly visible and explicit by the Internet, and see an army of Penelope Trunks: outwardly self-satisfied, brimming with false confidence and showy self-esteem, incapable of accepting that other people make other valid choices, terrified that someone will puncture the bubble of their self-presentation, desperate to position themselves above and apart from the same people they look to for validation, and deeply unhappy.