Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Good Place vs. "The Good Place"

What follows is a bunch of things I've kinda put together following the end of The Good Place season finale. If you've not watched The Good Place to the end, you've done yourself a terrible disservice and should fix that. Anyway, spoilers.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Thinking on Hillary Clinton, Foreign Policy President

It's easy to say that, of all of the candidates who ran and are running in this election, Hillary Clinton is demonstrably the most experienced and thoughtful about foreign policy. The third party candidates have no meaningful experience on that front at all and only broad ideological concepts for it. Bernie struggled to have answers at all throughout the primary. And the GOP side's plans pretty much ranged from "nuke them all" to "nukes for some, miniature American flags for others." To say nothing of Trump's quantum foreign policy which purports to be both isolationist and aggressively fighting Islam at the same time.

And yet, it's that exact experience that has opened her to ridiculous attacks from the right in the form of Benghazi and criticisms from the left on what that policy actually is. After all, we know who Hillary Clinton is as far as these things go- she is interventionist. She is overly pro-Israel. She insists on America as a military peacekeeping force. And she's wrong. She is not pursuing an anti-Islamic stance like Trump, but it will still be Muslims abroad who suffer the most under a Clinton presidency.

But I understand her. I understand where her policy comes from- as a personal philosophy and as one from experience. Hillary is Hermione Granger, unable to not act when action is an option. It's almost a pathological need to do something when it looks like something needs to be done. And to contrast that need, she was there watching for the entirety of her husband's presidency, when it looked like a reticence to commit to action resulted in countless lives being lost in Somalia, in Rwanda, in Bosnia. The US had the option to stop genocide and brutal war and Bill dragged his feet.

Her interventionism doesn't come from neo-conservativism, cronyism, or nationalism. It's not an assertion of American dominance nor is it intended to prop up the finances of her friends. It comes from a need to act for perceived good. But understanding isn't apologia and intent isn't magic. She is wrong. She was wrong when she voted for the war in Iraq. From her perspective, I get the vote. I get thinking that Saddam needed to go, whether or not he had WMDs, for the good of the Iraqi people. I thought that too. I was wrong. The end result, regardless of intent, is imperialism at best and, in the worst case scenario that we're seeing, the complete destabilization and radicalization of a region.

I want to see a Hillary Clinton who learns from being wrong. I want to see her as a president who understands that military inaction can be a radical action toward peace. Who doesn't necessarily need to hold a knife to the throat of diplomacy just because she has it. I want her feet held to the fire on this because it's her most dangerous feature.

In the end, though, I don't know how to best make that happen. Not electing her is not an option, and, frankly, I feel like the best way to shift a politician is the buy stock in them with votes in the first place (unless you have the cash to literally buy them.) Electing a leftist legislature who will fight her on these impulses will help, but is only so possible. It's a frustrating feeling to know your best option isn't good enough. There needs to be a real movement, one that isn't obsessed with tearing things down but instead building newer, better structures. Structures are built from the bottom, but you always try to build high enough to reach the top.

I have no satisfying ending or conclusion. Just frustration.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The First Lady

When I was in third grade, we were learning about First Ladies and the history of the president's wife. At one point the teacher called upon a kid who was obviously not paying attention and asked "Why are First Ladies important?"

The kid, with all the confidence of a 9 year old who didn't want to look like they weren't paying attention, responded "Because they were here first."

In 1776, Abigail Adams, wife of future president John Adams, told the First Continental Congress to "...remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation."

In 1814, as Washington D.C. burned, Dolley Madison stayed in the White House until the very last minute to ensure the nation's treasures that resided there, including the official portrait of George Washington, would not be burned by the British.

In 1850, Abigail Fillmore, who was both wife and teacher to Millard Fillmore, created the White House library, a concession Congress had fought against fearing the power of a personal collection of knowledge for the president, and personally filled in its collection.

In 1919, Woodrow Wilson was heavily debilitated by a stroke. Edith Wilson took over his duties, protecting him from the public, passing on legislation and potentially dealing with it herself. She even went so far as to stage a photo-op to demonstrate the president's continuing capability while she basically Weekend at Bernie's-ed the dude.

In 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt became First Lady and ushered in a new era of political First Ladies. She fought for civil rights, sat on the board of the NAACP, helped created the UN, and set a nearly unmatched standard for powerful women in America.

In 1950, the romance between the young actress Nancy Davis and the actor Ronald Reagan began to shape his political views and ambitions. Her influence pushed him into a political life that lead to his being Governor of California and President of the United States.

In 1963, still covered in the fresh stains of the the day's tragic events, Jacqueline Kennedy stood aboard Air Force One to oversee the official transfer of power from her late husband to Lyndon Johnson.

In 2017, the nation's first female president may well be Hillary Clinton, a First Lady built from Eleanor Roosevelt's mold and the only First Lady to ever ever held an elected office.

I've seen a lot of people grumbling that the potential first female president is married to another president. Why is the first major female candidate for president also a First Lady?

Because they were there first.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Playing Humanity Straight: The Essentialist Philosophy of Star Trek

When James T. Kirk encounters the man who would forever be known as his greatest villain, Khan Noonien Singh, we learn something about Earth history. In the late 20th century, humanity attempted to go beyond its physical limitations via genetic manipulation. The result was a breed of super-intelligent, super-strong people who had commensurate aggression and arrogance. The war between unaltered humans and these augments was the Eugenics War and it either caused or was a contributing factor to the world war that would send humanity into a post-apocalyptic dark age, only brought out by the work of Zefram Cochran. This caused all genetic manipulation to be banned in the Federation.

Fast forward a century or so and we learn that that ban has been slightly lifted. Genetic engineering is now acceptable as a corrective tool for people born with genetic defects. Enhancement beyond that is illegal and people who have been enhanced are second-class citizens at best and locked away at worst.

Consider also technological enhancement. Jean-Luc Picard has an artificial heart. Geordi LaForge has a visor that corrects his blindness. Yet we never see a single instance of a human who has used technology to augment their body in such a way that surpasses the limitations of a fully abled human. In fact, we have the Borg in stark contrast. More machine than biological, their individual abilities have surpassed any individual human but at the cost of individuality and freedom, rendering them nearly-unstoppable monsters.

Cloning is also questioned as being outside of the natural order of humanity. When the Enterprise-D encounters a lost colony who survived being wiped out via repeated cloning and the abandonment of sexual reproduction altogether, little effort is made to preserve their new entirely asexual culture. They are simply told to reproduce as per the biologically mandated norm in order to survive.

There's a common thread to all of these cautionary tales: there is a 'correct' humanity that needs to be preserved. Star Trek has often been hailed as an optimistic counterpoint to the tendency of sci-fi to pick holes in future tech and create doomsday scenario- but the show is actually quite clear in that it's only optimistic because humanity doesn't try to change essential aspects of its physiology. Indeed, there is an ideal human and technology is only there to 'raise' differently abled people to that standard and no further. Deviation from the biological norm is heavily discouraged.

With this in mind, it suddenly becomes even more dire that LGBTQ+ representation is practically non-existent on Star Trek and 100% non-existent among humans in Star Trek. The lack of representation takes a darker turn: perhaps it is this very basic essentialist view of humanity that precludes the existence of LGBTQ+ people. It's clear that the writers of Star Trek generally held this view- after all they wrote all of the cautionary tales of deviating from the norm. It doesn't take too much of a stretch to assume that this is also how they viewed LGBTQ+ people- a deviation to be discouraged and not represented. It seems as though, to the writers, this lack of representation in humanity is not a bug- it's a feature.

Consider the cultures in Trek that exist outside of a cis hetero gender binary. The aforementioned clone colony from "Unnatural Selection", the agender species in "The Outcast", the three-sex species in "Cogenitor". They all have something in common: they're antagonists and their antagonism is directly related to the fact that Federation humans have a moral complaint related to what makes them different. In general, this complaint stems from the fact that these cultures engage in patriarchal actions, but twisted to fit the mold of their different sexuality. Is this a flipping of the narrative of the damage of the patriarchy or is this a defense of the correct cis hetero patriarchy? If there were an example of such a culture that was presented sympathetically, perhaps that question would be easier to answer.

But there lies the greatest disservice the Trek writers did to the show. They simply didn't present those stories. They didn't allow themselves to explore those margins of the human experience in a positive way. They took an essentialist stance- one that knew what 'humanity' was without question and treated everything else as inhuman- even if those features were something already found within humanity.

Picture mildly related.

Friday, August 7, 2015

The Necessary Whiteness of Bruce Wayne and Oliver Queen

There are precious few superheroes whose whiteness I feel is an important aspect of their character. For the vast, vast majority, they are white as default and created and drawn in an era when the idea of making them anything but white would've been unthinkable- literally, no comic creators would think of it. Holding onto them as white is basically saying that we accept that enduring legacy of racism in our popular culture. That's because they have always been white, and obviously they must continue to be so- it's our heritage.

However, there are two men whose whiteness says something about them and about their roles as superheroes.

Bruce Wayne is a man who grew up with every single possible privilege afforded to him. His childhood was spent comfortably in the blanket of invulnerability that created for him. When that was shattered by the death of his parents, he turned to rage and vengeance. He looked at a world that damaged his own privileged perspective and demanded 'justice' for that crime.

Bruce Wayne, ladies and gentlemen.
It's notable that Bruce's initial quest was not to be a crimefighter- he merely wanted to punish the man who killed his parents, Joe Chill. Generally, he doesn't get this revenge- other people tend to kill Chill before Bruce has a chance, frustrating his quest and redirecting his rage. He no longer has a clear target, but someone needs to be held accountable.

As a result, he uses his vast wealth to be the Batman. Batman is a force of fear and legend. The intent is that the possible consequence of brutal violence at the hands of a masked vigilante will cure the city of its criminals. These people who commit crimes need to be punished swiftly and without question. It is inherently the logic of the white male who thinks society itself has wronged him by allowing these people to exist. Bruce Wayne is a man who faced tragedy and instead of asking how and why it happened, demanded that other people suffer for him. He asks society how it can rebuild his fortress of privilege.

In contrast, take the other essentially white man in question: Oliver Queen. Again, his whiteness is intrinsically tied to his privilege and how that informs his personality and his goals. Like Bruce, he comes from a whole dang lot of money. After being stranded on a desert island and forced to survive on nothing but himself, he developed skills by necessity (not anger, unlike Bruce)- skills he would have to use to destroy criminal organizations based on the island.

He returns to Star City to fight crime as an adventurer, the Green Arrow, but the more he explores the criminal side of his city, the less he sees it as adventure- he starts to understand the real core problems. He starts to empathize with those who are truly oppressed. He starts to see the systems of power keeping them that way and endeavors (with varying degrees of success) to fix them, both through his connections and money as Oliver Queen and by the point of an arrow as the Green Arrow. He's not acting out of rage- he's acting out of concern. Where Bruce asks society "How can you help repair my fragile feelings of privilege and masculinity?" Oliver asks "How can I help you repair yourselves with my privilege?" The (fantastic) Arrow TV show goes a step further- he returns from the island understanding that not only was he blinded by privilege, his privilege was actually quite directly causing the oppression of others. His family's wealth was built on the backs of other people and the systems that allowed that to happen, the people who caused it, were the things that needed to change- not the petty criminals who were created in that system. 

There's a lot put upon Bruce Wayne's psyche in that really, even when he's being Bruce, he thinks of himself as Batman. He's only in danger when he's Batman, when criminals and supervillains are aiming to kill him, when society shuns him as a vigilante. So it's telling that he chooses to internalize those feelings even when he's not wearing the suit- when he's actually just the richest whitest dude in Gotham and no one could possibly be a threat to him. In contrast, Oliver Queen adopts the Arrow persona, but is still essentially Ollie. He doesn't internalize that oppression and danger- he willingly takes it on to help people when he has to. He's a great contrast in every way.

It's not like I'll get up in arms if such a day ever passes that either is cast with a person of color. I'll actually be fine with it. But I do think there's something important said about both of them via the fact that they're white. It doesn't happen often with superheroes, but in these two particular cases, it actually works. 

Here's a picture of Stephen Amell shirtless.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Akira, Shakespeare, Whitewashing, and Racebending

The triannual threat from Hollywood to make a live-action Akira movie has once again reared its ugly head. In years past, it's always been made very clear that they intend to make an "American" version with an entirely white cast. This is, of course, horrible. Akira is a deeply Japanese manga. The culture described is based very firmly in Japanese youth culture of the era in which it was written. The plot is a reflection of cultural memory of the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Translating it into American culture is deeply problematic and difficult, and that's even assuming anyone involved gives even the slightest shit about doing any more than saying "It's set in Manhattan now, and everyone's white." Which is what's going to happen if this abomination ever gets made (it won't.)

But one of the arguments I see people make in favor of that treatment (and, horrifically, they exist) is that cultures all over the world get to do their own version of Shakespeare! That's something that's ours, as white people, dammit, why do they get to do it?

Oh my goodness, what an argument. Let's put aside the issue of cultural appropriation and its intrinsic ties to power differentials and colonialism- that colonialism impresses its own culture on other people's by choice and then steals from them by force and hegemonic pressure. I mean, that's a really big elephant to put aside, but I'm not the best at discussing that and it's not a topic people who would be making the Shakespeare argument would even believe in anyway.

I am, however, pretty good at discussing history, and motherfucker you just put Shakespeare and race in the same discussion so yes, let's discuss that.

There's two Shakespearean plays where a person of color is a prominent, even titular, protagonist: Antony and Cleopatra, and Othello. Of the two, Othello is the more interesting and is widely celebrated as one of his best tragedies. The 1965 film version is the single most critically rewarded film adaptation of a Shakespearean play. It's survived largely unchanged for over 400 years.

In it, Othello is a Moorish captain in Venice, in love with an Italian woman, while forces conspire to keep them apart, succeeding in tragic fashion (spoiler alert). Themes of racial and cultural divides are central to the story. Othello's actual racial identity is much debated, as the Moors were a very cosmopolitan people in Elizabethean times. Some contend he was of Arabic descent, others say he was of sub-Saharan descent- in any case he was certainly a person of color.

It probably goes without saying that Shakespeare did not actually cast a Moor as Othello. His players were 100% white English dudes, including the women (basically, they were Monty Python.) There's some debate as to whether Shakespeare had ever even met a Moor. So, naturally it was played in blackface. In fact, an actor of color did not play Othello until 1826- 261 years after it was written. Richard Burbage took the stage to play the Moor in London and his presence was about as well received as you can imagine:
Unsurprisingly given the times, there was considerable resistance to the presence of the world's first black Othello. Eighteenth century London was the epicentre of Britain's pro-slavery lobby, and the press conducted a campaign of blatant racism against him. In one of his two Othello performances at the Covent Garden theatre in 1833, The Atheneum objected to actress Ellen Tree as Desdemona, being "pawed about on the stage by a black man." The Times newspaper had been just as scathing eight years prior, when it commented that, "Owing to the shape of his lips it is utterly impossible for him to pronounce English."
Of course, this was England, where racial issues were certainly present, but not quite a fraught as in America.  In fact, in America, a racially correct Othello wasn't seen until 100 years later in 1943, when Paul Robeson played the character.

And then, we come to Hollywood. You'd think, okay, the first black film actor to play Othello couldn't have come too long after the first American stage actor. Oh, gosh, you would think huh?

1995. Laurence Fishburne. That wildly celebrated 1965 version I mentioned earlier? Sir Lawrence Olivier in blackface. In Nineteen. Sixty. Goddamn. Five. That's only 50 years ago and he was nominated for an Oscar for his blackface.

So yeah. Let's goddamn bring Shakespeare into the race conversation, because it's not really helping the "WOO WHITE PEOPLE" side over here.

In more positive news, Neil Gaiman's American Gods is being adapted for TV by Bryan Fuller (creator of Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies, and Hannibal). Production is starting as soon as they cast the protagonist- Shadow.

Like Othello, Shadow is described as having dark skin- certainly a person of color. He is however, left very racially ambiguous. Many people assume he's black, other people picture a more Hispanic character- I feel like he probably looks racially ambiguous, owing to the themes of America's role in taking the cultures and gods of immigrants and stripping them away into nothingness, forcing them to leave behind their identity.

At any rate, Fuller had this to say about casting him:
I think if we cast a white man to play Shadow we would be the biggest assholes on television...
One of the things I’m most excited about for American Gods is the diversity in the cast because there’s such a wide range of ethnic Gods in the world. Right now, we’re imagining two white roles and everybody else is non-white, so my goal, Michael’s goal, certainly Neil’s goal has been to have a very ethnically diverse cast. That’s important to all of us.
Right. On.

Monday, June 15, 2015

On Blogging with Privilege

I spend a lot of time thinking about why the hell I blog (for the three weeks out of the year that I do). I don't consider myself or my opinions particularly important. But I still (occasionally) write things. Part of it is feeling like I should be writing more. Just the act of writing encourages better writing and even if it's terrible, sucking at something is the first step to being kinda good at something.

But then there's the issue of what I tend to write about. It's no secret that I'm a cis white dude. But a lot of what I write are opinions and analysis of feminisms and racisms and other social justice-y things. Why the hell does another white dude's opinion on any of this matter, even if it's from the perspective of an ally?

Puppy unrelated.

It's totally a question I find myself wondering anytime I write anything related. Am I adding anything meaningful to the conversation? Is it even possible for me to add anything meaningful?

I feel like one way I can answer that is: I'm not necessarily part of the larger conversation. Yes, this blog is public, but I don't want to inject it into a conversation where my presence has not been requested. It's a place where I can converse with myself. Where I have a record of thoughts and can look back and decide whether or not I agree with myself still. Really, I have to lack any anticipation of anyone caring (not hard!)

In that sense, it's easier to blog. I'm just talking to myself publicly. But why do I need to do it publicly?

Maybe it's because it'll be easier to link my thoughts? Maybe it's easier to be called out when I'm wrong. I like that second one. Because I'm totally and easily capable of being wrong and if someone comes across me being wrong and tells me I'm wrong, that means I could be more right later on. Which is good. So maybe that's the value? I have a corner of the internet where I talk to myself about things I find important. If someone listens in, they can point out flaws in my logic. If no one listens in, that's okay too.

I don't know why it took me that long to figure that out.