Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Giving the People What They Want

(photo by Steve Rhodes via)

Someone pointed me to this item about a survey which found that, contrary to the propaganda line about overtaxed, over-regulated small businesses, taxes and regulations are quite low on the list of small business owners' concerns. What's particularly intriguing is that the people who conducted the survey evidently expected to get results that fit their right-wing preconceptions. One shouldn't rely too much on one survey, of course, but happily ThinkProgress could point to other surveys which came to the same conclusion.

I hadn't heard this before, but I wasn't surprised. By now I'm used to the idea that government, business and media elites shouldn't be trusted.

Similarly, we are frequently told that most of the citizenry objects to dirty communists taking over the streets, going on strike, and otherwise disrupting the peaceful course of modern life. So I wasn't at all surprised to hear that a BBC poll found that a solid majority of Britons supported the public-sector workers' strike that began today. American support for the Occupy movement appears to be dropping right now, but that doesn't mean that most Americans support the Right's programs; public opinion presumably is unchanged from the status quo, which consistently wants social programs to continue, is less worried about the deficit than about jobs and mere petty survival, and is comfortable with imposing higher taxes on the rich. And this state of affairs persists even in the face of deliberate attempts to mislead the public.

(I've been wondering why I haven't been hearing more from my usual sources about the Egyptian parliamentary elections. Maybe it's because it's hard to squeeze the results into the usual boxes? Turnout, the head of the election commission reported, is high, but "he did not give figures." The US-supported military claims the high turnout vindicates them, though some voters "said they were voting simply to avoid a fine the military announced would be imposed on anyone who did not cast a ballot — 500 Egyptian pounds, or about $85, a significant amount in a country where 40 percent of the population makes less than $1 a day or just slightly more." Egyptian Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood are claiming "an early lead", which worries Israel, the beacon of democracy in the Middle East that got along so well with Mubarak's long dictatorship. Protesters continue to occupy Tahrir Square despite state violence that has killed dozens of people. But the segments of the blogosphere I watch have not had much to say about the elections yet.)

I'd been meaning to write about this stuff before, but then today I found two articles that gave me pause. One, by Ian Welsh, whose point of view and arguments I take seriously even when I don't agree with them, began as follows:

When Occupy started, there were polls that showed the public supported it. Later, polls showed that support had dropped and a majority no longer supported Occupy. In the first case progressives were pleased, in the second upset.

I didn’t care either time. Repeat after me:

Public opinion does not matter.

It is irrelevant. A large majority of the population wanted a public option added to the healthcare bill. A small majority wanted single payor. Calls against TARP were running 100:1 to 1200:1 against. There is no public option, there is no single payer, and TARP passed.

He went to point out the successful suppression of referenda on economic issues in Europe. "Our elites will do what they will do regardless of what public opinion is ... What matters isn’t what the public thinks, what matters is what the public does which has a tangible, real, cost to politicians or their masters."

True enough, as long as it's understood what "public opinion" means in this context. (There's also a begged question there: matters to whom?) As I've argued before, it's not possible that politicians in Washington, especially the Obama administration, don't know what the public wants; they just think they can ignore it. And yet they keep doing the polls, which seems odd. Elections, however empty a ritual, are required by law to take place, but opinion polls are not. Maybe our rulers keep hoping that someday they'll get the results they want.

Elections are interesting, though. On one hand, the ever-rising cost of running for office ensures a certain narrowing of the field of candidates. But on the other, the Tea Party managed to have a palpable impact on government at numerous levels in 2010. This happened partly because their corporate sponsors didn't realize until it was too late that their creation was going to blow up in their faces. I can't help wondering why some "progressive," even left candidates couldn't do the same thing. Despite the best efforts of the major parties to avoid unpleasant surprises, they keep happening. It's clear that Obama is doing his best to ignore pressure from his left (via), hence his silence so far on OWS.

I also stumbled on this post by Will Wilkinson, who appears to be a libertarian. I've read his blog a little, because IOZ has him on his blogroll, but I haven't been impressed. Today's essay, "The Occupy Movement's Enthusiasm and Contempt for Democracy," appeared under the rubric of "The Moral Sciences Club," which sounds like something out of a 1940s comic book for boys, and turns out to consist entirely of posts by Will Wilkinson. He begins by declaring that
now that the Occupy movement has succeeded in shining a spotlight on its primary concerns -- rising inequality, political corruption, and debt peonage -- Occupiers and their allies now ought to pull up stakes, give up their whimsically undemocratic semi-privatization of public spaces, and endeavor to reform public policy through the democratic institutions established to make the collective determination of binding public rules legitimate. Moving on to seek reform through established democratic channels would require giving up the insolent and frankly disrespectful presumption that these often radically left-wing congregations somehow represent not only a majority of Americans, but 99% of them. It would require Occupiers to square up to the fact that their movement's implicit ideology is an ideology, and a minority ideology at that -- just one among our society's many rival moral and political worldviews. The intransigence of the Occupy movement suggests an unwillingness among its numbers to take seriously the fact of pluralism, and the corollary impossibility of consensus, which makes majoritarian democratic procedures necessary in the first place.
I'm sure that Wilkinson must know that many of the public spaces OWS and its spawn have been occupying were already fully privatized when they got there, so I presume that "semi-privatization" is meant to be provocative. It shows just how unseriously he's taking on the questions the movement has been addressing. I could sort of agree with his remark about the "presumption that these often radically left-wing congregations somehow represent not only a majority of Americans, but 99% of them", though of course the Tea Party was even more sweeping and far more dishonest in its claims to represent all Americans. And I don't think Occupy's presumption is at all "disrespectful", let alone that it "suggests an unwillingness among its numbers to take seriously the fact of pluralism" -- very much the opposite. As for so many people, the Occupy movement functions for Wilkinson as a Rorschach blot, onto which he projects his own obsessions.

It's not for me to say (though based on this piece it's not for Wilkinson to say either) whether it's time for Occupy to move to new tactics and procedures, though numerous writers sympathetic to the movement have already been discussing such possibilities. But I think it would be premature for the movement to abandon street action in favor of "majoritarian democratic procedures." (I'm reminded of the commenter at alicublog who argued just before OWS took off that progressives unhappy with the state of our government should write letters to the Washington Post, a move guaranteed to put fear in the hearts of the Beltway elites.) Since the movement isn't interested in being subsidized by corporate donations like the Tea Party, and has a "healthy" distrust of the Democratic Party machine, I'd say it needs to build more of a base before it did such a thing. ("Healthy," by the way, is a word Wilkinson overuses in his piece; I speculate that it's to keep himself from screaming "dirty fucking hippies!" at OWS, but I could be wrong.)

So, where does this leave me? I think that our rulers do care about public opinion, if only because they need to know what to squash. We've seen that in elite responses to OWS, beginning with panic and proceeding to police violence. (I think that Welsh mistakes OWS' tactics toward the police, too. "Nothing," he writes, "is more pathetic than watching folks at Occupy who seem to genuinely believe the cops are on their side." I haven't gotten the impression that they believe any such thing: what I've heard indicates that they're trying to win them over, to remind them of their shared humanity, to remind them that the rich aren't on the cops' side either, to undermine the state's repressive arm. It won't be completely successful, but it might make a difference now and then. And since Welsh also advocates targeting the ruling elites directly, he knows perfectly well that the police are not the real enemy.)

For the movement, knowing public opinion can be useful too, even if it chooses not to be guided by it. But then, contrary to Wilkinson, the Occupy movement is the public. We're back again at the dictum that when the media talk about "special interests" they're referring to the overwhelming majority of people, and the "national interest" refers to a tiny elite minority. The "majoritarian democratic procedures" we have are currently structured to exclude the concerns of the majority of people; the question is is how, if it's possible at all, to make them more responsive. We didn't reach our current situation through the transparent working of those procedures, but through their subversion.

P.S. This episode of Making Contact offers an excellent discussion of the state of the movement. Listen or read the transcript. Andrew Levine has a very good analysis at Counterpunch, Democracy Now! did a story on the Egyptian elections, and the Daily Show (via) also noticed the curious lack of interest in them in American media.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Kiss Is Just a Kiss

So, the Vatican threatened legal action over Benetton's photoshopped image of Pope Rat kissing Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed El-Tayeb.

I wonder why. This one, genuine not faked, didn't seem to be a problem:

Nor did this one:

Though this one, of course, is beyond the pale:

(That's the Popemobile in the background, bravely ignoring the kiss-in.)

I guess there are just some mysteries man was not meant to understand.

Monday, November 28, 2011

A Boy Has to Have Standards!

The largest exhibit at the Nimitz, "History Walks of the Pacific War," features "three acres of World War II artifacts, tanks, guns, and large relics" in the words of its brochure. This "Walk" avoids the history of the war in favor of an obsession with the nuts and bolts of the war's machines and of obtaining and preserving these specimens." I watched as a veteran of our armed forces (but not of combat) demonstrated an LVT (landing vehicle, tracked) and a flamethrower for a group of elementary school students. The museum claims that its living history "programs try to convey the day to day reality of life for the American soldier in the Pacific theater, the complexity of the U.S. war effort, and the harsh truths of modern war." They fail. The children's response -- "Ooh, that's neat" -- was perfectly appropriate to the spirit of the presentation. -- James. W. Loewen, Lies Against America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong (The New Press, 1999), p. 190-191, on the Nimitz Museum of the Pacific War in Fredricksburg, Texas
I finally got around to watching The Eagle, which I wrote about immediately after I heard about it. It was a lot better than I expected, just because I'd heard such bad things about it, and looking at some of the reviews and other commentary it received gave me food for thought.

The Eagle is based on a young-adult historical novel from the 1950s by Rosemary Sutcliff; apparently director Kevin Macdonald (best known for The Last King of Scotland) and producer Duncan Kenilworthy read it and loved it as boys. It's the story of a young Roman centurion, Marcus Flavius Aquila, who ventures into the wilderness north of Hadrian's Wall in quest of the Eagle, the golden standard of his late father's legion, which disappeared there without a trace. His only hope of survival, let alone success, is that he's accompanied by his British slave Esca, whose life he'd saved from a public exhibition-killing, and who therefore owes him a debt of honor even though his family was killed by Roman invaders.

The way the story is framed even sounds like a young-adult novel, doesn't it? The filmmakers aimed for a PG-13 rating, which meant leaving out a lot of the cinematic violence that characterized other recent blockbusters set in the Classical period. I watched the unrated DVD version, which inserts many brief shots of blood and gore that were left out of the theatrical release, but even so it's less gory than most action/military films these days, and I found I didn't mind that at all. Not because I necessarily object to violence in movies, but blood fountains and flying body parts have become ends in themselves, going far beyond the requirements of realism. (I read a semi-scholarly article on Mel Gibson's The Passion that described how the violence in that god-snuff movie was enhanced with CGI, to make chunks of flesh fly. But I've also heard that many Christian homes possess unopened copies of the film, bought to support it, even though they didn't want to watch it.)

So, of course, some reviewers and many commenters complained because The Eagle wasn't gory enough. The line between reviewer and commenters is blurred on movie blogs, which are often the work of fanboys who don't know much about cinema but know what they like, namely fountains of blood, explosions, and bare titties. Not there's anything wrong with that, I guess, but there is more to movies than that holy trinity. (I've never been able to decide whether this review of The Passion was serious or parody.) I've been baffled over the past couple of decades to see how many people, most of them male, have herded themselves into a shared mindset where nothing else matters; not only do they celebrate the refinement of special effects in the service of simulated mayhem, but they don't think anything else is worth watching and can't enjoy movies on any other subject. They're even sure that anyone who claims to enjoy other kinds of movies are either lying or deceiving themselves.

This is why I quoted the passage from James Loewen's book on American historical monuments, by the way. It might seem somewhat contradictory to say that flying body parts and gushers of CGI blood glamorize violence, but I think that is what happens. The fanboy commentators I've read seem to equivocate between believing that movie violence is real, and simply wanting more lavish fake violence. They know it's not real, but they still think it's cool, and they talk about it as though it was real. "Ooh, neat!" seems to be the reaction either way.

There appear to be a number of roots of this phenomenon. One is the slasher film of the 70s and later, which started as a virtually no-budget product but gradually improved production values as the genre became better-known and more popular. Carol J. Clover wrote an excellent book on this subject -- Men, Women, and Chain Saws (Princeton, 1992) -- which introduced and guided me into the genre, but I soon lost interest in it; there just wasn't enough going on to keep my attention. Another is the crime film, which grew from the B-movie and noir to The French Connection and Die Hard by way of the Godfather and Dirty Harry series. I suppose you could add spaghetti Westerns, which fed into and were fed by Japanese and Hong Kong martial arts films: Akira Kurosawa's samurai epics were influenced by Westerns, and in their turn were remade in Hollywood and Europe as Westerns; A Fistful of Dollars is essentially a remake of Kurosawa's Yojimbo.

In all of these the plot was a thread on which to hang car chases and gun battles, with rapid development of special effects to make the violence more "real", though again, reality was not really the point. I think it was Linda Williams who compared hardcore porn to Hollywood musicals in Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible" (California, expanded edition 1999), with the sex scenes analogous to the production numbers. Well, in these movies the fights and car chases are the production numbers: a disproportionate part of the budget goes into planning, choreographing, and executing them. And just as in pornography the plot (which porn used to have, however weak) has largely been abandoned for nonstop action, in today's action movies plot and characterization are grudgingly included, but only pro forma.

Sometimes the leads improvise their dialogue, which saves a lot of money on writers. (I've often wondered about that. Of all the costs of mounting a major motion picture, the writer must be among the lesser ones, but the money people begrudge it anyway. Also true in TV, hence the rise of "reality" shows.) One of the worst movies I've ever seen, Eight Million Ways to Die (1986), based on Lawrence Block's detective novel, featured long scenes with Jeff Bridges and Andy Garcia amiably facing off and snarling "Fuck you" at each other, with shitfaced grins pasted onto their faces. ("Oh yeah? Fuck you.") I read in Time or Newsweek that in one of the Rambo movies, the second I think, Stallone extemporized "Fuck youuuuu" at his oriental torturer. "That was completely ad libbed, not in the script at all, but they decided to use it!" a publicist gushed. That was a proper poke in the eye to snobs who thought Sly was inarticulate. Why bother with writers when you've got a guy who can come up with lines like that in front of the camera?

Which brings me to something else that excited some controversy about The Eagle: the Roman characters speak with American accents, while the Britons speak with English accents, except when they speak in subtitled Gaelic. This was a conscious decision by the filmmakers, going against decades of movie tradition which decrees that all foreigners, especially ancient ones, speak with posh British accents.
But Macdonald sees no reason why Romans should be portrayed with English accents, any more than with American ones. ...
"My take on all this was that it's a metaphor for empire and the end of empire… In the 1930s, 40s, 50s, when Britain had an empire, and could be seen as an oppressive force, that made some kind of metaphorical sense and that's why they did it. Well, today that doesn't make any sense. Today the empire is America, and the sense of bigotry that some Americans have, and of a single-minded belief in their own culture and the greatness that's America." At the same time Macdonald is not setting out to make a political drama and promises that the film will be first and foremost a "mainstream story" and an "adventure film".
After all, if you want authenticity, the Romans should be speaking Latin, not English. This decision, which I thought worked well, infuriated not only some commenters (see the message boards at IMDB, for example) but some professional reviewers. Scott Tobias at the Onion AV Club complained about Channing Tatum's "wavering, inexplicable accent" as Marcus Aquila: but Tatum didn't put on an accent that I could hear, he spoke standard movie American. I suspect that Tobias expected him to put on a Brit accent, as a good Roman should, and tried to hear one whether it was there or not. I could hear some of the British actors who played Romans having to work at their American accents, though. And quite a number of characters, Roman and Briton, were played by Hungarians, where part of the film was shot; if Jamie Bell had a job learning his lines in Gaelic, it must have been harder for them.

Band of Thebes, whose parody review of The Eagle enticed me into watching it to start with, read it as a leather/s&m romp.

In the first half, the buffer, more built 30 year-old muscle stud Marcus rescues the skinnier, cuter 24 year-old Esca from a brutal top in a helmet mask and makes him his slave. Fine. Lucky them.
I enjoyed watching the movie through that filter, which made it a lot more fun, but (for better or worse), I didn't even detect a gay subtext in it. It's just another male-bonding story, though the leads are certainly cute enough and I like to imagine them making out between the frames. Tatum, who's apparently copped to being bisexual in the past, playfully told New York Magazine that, although he didn't see The Eagle as particularly homoerotic or even bromantic, he and Jamie Bell (who played Esca) have "been having sex for a few years now." A commenter somewhere jumped to the conclusion that Tatum must have been the top; I think that's taking one's fantasies too seriously.

The Guardian reviewer noted that "Inevitably, in the absence of more traditional romantic interest, there's a certain unobtrusive homoerotic aspect to the relationship." That's because there are no women at all with speaking parts in the movie (unless you count some of the spectators at the gladiatorial game who get to yell "Kill him!"). At one point Marcus makes eye contact with comely Brit lasses, but that's the extent of heterosexuality in the movie. John Podhoretz complained in the right-wing Weekly Standard:
But it probably didn’t have to go all Brokeback Mountain on us either. After a time The Eagle comes to turn on the relationship between Aquila and the British slave he rescues from a gladiator’s blade. The slave’s name is Esca, and he pledges his life to Aquila even though he says he “hates the Romans and everything you stand for.” Their relationship is extremely physical. During an operation to save Aquila’s leg, Esca throws himself on top of Aquila’s body to hold him down. They ride together, they camp together, they even have a fight during which they roll around on each other.
Oh, why couldn't they have had a fight without physical contact? Too bad Esca didn't just whip out a gun -- no, wait, that's a phallic symbol ... Esca only "throws himself on top of Aquila's body" because he's ordered to, not out of devotion or desire. Brokeback Mountain was often invoked in connection with The Eagle, but I think that was more due to reviewers' hangups or wishes than anything in the movie. I wrote about an earlier case of this syndrome, the reviewer who lamented that "because of Ang Lee’s successful film, he could no longer see the frolicking of two talking animals in a children’s animated cartoon as 'completely innocent.'"

There's a thread at IMDB's message boards in which some users were vocally pleased that no love interest had been added; not having read the original story, I can't say, but in 1950s YA fiction the heterosexuality would have been toned down. This also used to be true of American cowboy movies, war movies, science fiction, and traditional Asian martial arts films. (Jeffrey P. Dennis documented this in We Boys Together: Teenagers in Love Before Girl-Craziness [Vanderbilt, 2007].) I recall how many male martial-arts fans objected to the blatant heterosexuality in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which went (deliberately) against genre expectations. In the military and in sport -- to say nothing of the monastic strands of Asian martial arts -- contact with females is polluting; the ladies' man is depicted as dandified if not effeminate. You can also see that this notion is still alive and well in today's USA from boy-culture panic about the dread, masculinity-draining chick flick.

One odd complaint involved what the Guardian critic called the film's embrace of "certain unfashionable virtues of what might be considered a Roman brand – duty, honour, filial piety." A surprising number of action-movie fans professed to be unable to understand why Marcus would go to all that trouble to recover the standard. Maybe if it had been an American flag, they'd have gotten it. Armies everywhere are honor/shame cultures, so it shouldn't be that much of a leap; I don't share those values at all, but I was able to suspend belief on this point with no difficulty.

But maybe that's my strength as a movie watcher: I'm not bound to one genre or style. There's no real reason why fanboys should enjoy different kinds of movies -- if you want to be a robot that responds only to a handful of keywords, it's your life. I don't hate action movies, or even quite violent ones. Peppermint Candy and Save the Green Planet! are both extremely violent in different modes, grimly realistic and comically over-the-top, but they're among my all-time favorites. But I also enjoy character-driven stories with no special effects and no bloodshed; I recently saw Mike Mills's Beginners, and enjoyed it thoroughly, and there are many others.

I liked The Eagle because it put character development before CGI blood geysers; while the characters were nevertheless a bit thin, they worked well enough for the movie's purposes. The use of accents was a pleasant change from routine. The budget was relatively small for a costume epic, and it showed in good ways: the filmmakers had to concentrate on story and motive rather than technology and crowd management -- but for all that, the battle scenes were very effectively done. Sometimes lack of funds stimulates invention. The photography was excellent. I might watch this one again sometime.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Major Suckage, Y'Know? I Am Like So Sure

So, this Kansas high school senior named Emma Sullivan went to Topeka "as part of Kansas Youth in Government, a program for students interested in politics and government." She reported on her Twitter account that she'd (via):
Just made mean comments at gov brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot.
Now, this was the girl's personal Twitter account, with about 60 followers, so that should have been the end of it, especially since she had not in fact "told" the governor anything.
Sullivan, 18, said she posted the comment because she doesn’t agree with Brownback’s policies, particularly recent cuts in state aid to schools. She is a registered Democrat.
“Some of my friends were joking about what they’d really like to say (to Brownback), so I just took out my phone” and tweeted, she said. “I guess it was kind of a heat-of-the-moment thing.”
But it turned out that Governor Brownback's staff "'monitor social media so we can see what Kansans are thinking and saying about the governor and his policies,' [Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene] Jones-Sontag said. 'We just felt it was appropriate for the organizers to be aware … because of what was said in the tweet.'" So they reported it to the girl's school, and the principal called her in to his office and ordered her to write an apology.

One commenter on Steve Benen's post wrote, "And how much do they get paid to camp out on Facebook and Twitter all day? Sounds like 'too much government' to me." Yeah, well, as they say, eternal vigilance is the price of freedom, especially elected officials' freedom not to be criticized by anyone for anything.

I don't want to make a big deal out of this incident. It's normal operating procedure in so many ways. Sullivan's principal scolded her for embarrassing the school, which is probably the major concern of any bureaucrat, whether in the private or the public sector. Sullivan also has received a lot of support for her freedom of expression, which is good.
“I’m really glad most people have been supportive of me, regardless of their political views,” she said. “They’re standing up for the fact that it’s my … right to express myself.”Not surprisingly, much of the support came via Twitter, where Sullivan’s original hashtag – #heblowsalot – was adopted and reposted hundreds of times by Brownback critics. Some pledged to create posters and T-shirts with the slogan.
“If I would have known this would happen, I might have worded it a bit differently,” Sullivan joked.
It's what's typical about the story that bothers me, though. For example, it's a reminder that despite what we hear about the wonders of the social media for political speech and organizing at the base of the social pyramid, from the top they are also useful for surveillance. There was no reason for Emma Sullivan to suppose that her tweet would be noticed by the Governor's office, but that also shows that our tech-savvy young people aren't always very savvy after all.

This story also sheds some light on the popular claim that calling things you dislike "gay" has nothing to do with real gay people. This sort of thing, you know: "Ladies and gentleman, electric cars...are gay. I mean, not homosexual gay, but, you know, my-parents-are-chaperoning-the-dance gay." As I've said before: even leaving electric cars out of it, what do parents chaperoning the dance have to do with sucking dick? Now Emma Sullivan seems to have inadvertently answered that question: Anything she doesn't like is equivalent to sucking dick. Why that is, I don't know. What do "recent cuts in state aid to schools" have to do with sucking dick?

Okay, so it was a tweet to sixty-one of her closest friends, and she's like eighteen, okay, and it wasn't her fault that her vacuous, nasty little opinion got shared with the world. I'm sure that if she were an adult, knowingly addressing a larger audience of politically sophisticated liberals, she'd have put more substance into her snark, and maybe wouldn't have bullshitted about having "told him he sucked, in person". Right?

Well, let's see. An article at Daily Dos supported Sullivan by declaring that she'd "correctly noted that he sucks." It linked to an article at Wonkette which agreed:
Yeah, but Sam Brownback really does “suck,” and really “blows a lot.” This is well known, nationally, and to expect smart young people in Kansas to be ignorant of this fact is to want children to be born without brains.
The Brownback administration basically tried to have this girl killed, for making a joke about a thin-skinned politician, on Twitter. And now her school has been forced to force her to “write an apology,” etc. Sullivan was already liberal (she’s intelligent), but Sam Brownback has probably forced her to become a liberal leader.
("Intelligent"? I haven't seen any evidence to indicate that.) Neither article had anything substantive to say about what is wrong with Brownback, nor any links to more information. His faults may be "well known, nationally," but not to me. I'm willing to believe he's worthless, but I don't see why I should have to do the legwork myself to find out why, especially since both writers were willing to use their bandwidth simply reiterating a homophobic slur. (And "basically tried to have this girl killed"? Get a brain.) I'm willing to cut a teenage Twilight fan some slack, but not adult political writers who should have outgrown that schoolyard mentality long ago. As I've also said before, the trouble isn't so much that such people use such language, as that they mistake it for reasoned political discussion. (Read the comments under the Wonkette article, for instance. Those people can't all be twelve years old.)

For all I know, Sam Brownback does literally blow a lot. He's a reactionary Republican, after all, and we know about them. But so do lots of liberal Democrats. What does a penchant for fellatio have to do with cutting state funding for public schools, or whatever other wicked political things he's done?

The final irony is that by diversity-manager standards, Sullivan's tweet was "hate speech." It could have caused Governor Brownback to commit suicide! Its wide dissemination now might cause countless gay teens to hang themselves! At the very least, instead of making this twit into a martyr, she should be made into a teachable moment. On Speakers Bureau we often say this in education classes to prospective teachers: Instead of throwing a hissyfit over words like "gay", "retard," and "that sucks," they should prod their students into broadening their vocabulary. If Brownback and his staff had any sense, they could have taken that line themselves. But I won't condemn them too harshly, because hardly any political operatives anywhere on the political spectrum do any better, and besides, when you're the victim of hate speech, you can't be expected to react rationally: you are supposed to go off and kill yourself.

Can Emma Sullivan express herself with more intelligence on political matters? I have no idea; maybe she'll grow into it. Meanwhile, I fully support her First Amendment right to be a total douche. But she will still be a total douche.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Traditional Intelligence Researchers Strike Back

Glenn Greenwald recently linked to a post by Andrew Sullivan lamenting liberals' lack of love for President Obama (hey, you "conservatives" can have him, Andy!). After I'd looked it over I noticed that Sullivan had written the day before about "The Study of Intelligence." I knew he'd had some stupid things to say about that in the past, so I decided to bring myself up to date.

Sure enough: The study of intelligence has, according to Sullivan, "been strangled by p.c. egalitarianism." Anyone who's still using "politically correct" seriously is a fool; in his boot-licking piece on Obama, Sullivan complained "If I hear one more gripe about single payer from someone in their fifties with a ponytail, I'll scream." Well, if I hear one more gripe about "p.c." from a balding right-winger with a goatee ...

Sullivan went on: "The reason is the resilience of racial differences in IQ in the data, perhaps most definitively proven by UC Berkeley psychologist Arthur Jensen", and quoted the article he'd linked on the subject:
"Jensen is still greatly respected by many traditional intelligence researchers," Garlick says. "By 'traditional intelligence researchers,' I mean researchers who still value IQ and continue to do studies that evaluate the effectiveness of IQ in predicting outcomes, or studies that examine possible mechanisms that may cause differences in IQ. However, due to the unpopularity of Jensen’s findings, this group of researchers is now very small.
Well, no, the reason isn't "the resilience of racial differences in IQ in the data", it's doubts about the validity of IQ as a concept. (A good place to start informing yourself on this would be Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man.) The writer of the Alternet article complains, "Somewhere along the way, the very idea of intelligence became politicized." Nonsense. The very idea of intelligence was politicized all along (and Sullivan hopes to continue the grand tradition), but especially since the original Binet intelligence tests were modified for use in the US by researchers at Stanford. "Its legitimacy as a field of study, as a measurable quality -- on par with height, eyesight and hand-and-eye coordination -- and as a concept came under fire." Well, there's your problem right there: you can't assume that intelligence is a trait like height, you have to prove it, and attempts to prove it have failed. Significantly, neither Sullivan nor the Alternet article even mentions The Bell Curve, a reminder that biological-determinist claims about intelligence and IQ could still get a rapturous reception in the US as late as 1994. Yet again, Andrew Sullivan shows that not knowing what he's talking about never inhibits him from taking a firm stand.

"The right response to unsettling data is to probe, experiment and attempt to disprove them - not to run away in racial panic. But the deeper problem is that the racial aspects of IQ have prevented non-racial research into intelligence, and how best to encourage, study and understand it," Sullivan concluded. Given the deranged lies Sullivan likes to tell about Noam Chomsky, I can't resist quoting what Chomsky wrote on this very subject forty-odd years ago:
In fact, it seems that the question of the relation, if any, between race and intelligence has little scientific importance (as it has no social importance, except under the assumptions of a racist society). A possible correlation between mean IQ and skin color is of no greater scientific interest than a correlation between any two other arbitrarily selected traits, say, mean height and color of eyes. The empirical results, whatever they might be, appear to have little bearing on any issue of scientific significance. In the present state of scientific understanding, there would appear to be little scientific interest in the discovery that one partly heritable trait correlates (or not) with another partly heritable trait. Such questions might be interesting if the results had some bearing, say, on some psychological theory, or on hypotheses about the physiological mechanisms involved, but this is not the case. Therefore the investigation seems of quite limited scientific interest, and the zeal and intensity with which some pursue or welcome it cannot reasonably be attributed to a dispassionate desire to advance science. It would, of course, be foolish to claim, in response, that “society should not be left in ignorance.” Society is happily “in ignorance” of insignificant matters of all sorts. And with the best of will, it is difficult to avoid questioning the good faith of those who deplore the alleged “anti-intellectualism” of the critics of scientifically trivial and socially malicious investigations. On the contrary, the investigator of race and intelligence might do well to explain the intellectual significance of the topic he is studying, and thus enlighten us as to the moral dilemma he perceives. If he perceives none, the conclusion is obvious, with no further discussion.

... The question of heritability of IQ might conceivably have some social importance, say, with regard to educational practice. However, even this seems dubious, and one would like to see an argument. It is, incidentally, surprising to me that so many commentators should find it disturbing that IQ might be heritable, perhaps largely so. Would it also be disturbing to discover that relative height or musical talent or rank in running the hundred-yard dash is in part genetically determined? Why should one have preconceptions one way or another about these questions, and how do the answers to them, whatever they may be, relate either to serious scientific issues (in the present state of our knowledge) or to social practice in a decent society? [from For Reasons of State, Pantheon, 1973, p. 361-362]
More or less Sullivan's position, you can see, only better informed and more intelligent. I also want to quote this passage from the same essay:
Similarly, imagine a psychologist in Hitler's Germany who thought he could show that Jews had a genetically determined tendency towards usury (like squirrels bred to collect too many nuts) or a drive towards antisocial conspiracy and domination, and so on. If he were criticized for even undertaking these studies, could he merely respond that “a neutral commentator ... would have to say that the case is simply not settled” and that the “fundamental issue” is “whether inquiry shall (again) be shut off because someone thinks society is best left in ignorance”? I think not. Rather, I think that such a response would have been met with justifiable contempt. At best, he could claim that he is faced with a conflict of values. On the one hand, there is the alleged scientific importance of determining whether in fact Jews have a genetically determined tendency towards usury and domination (an empirical question, no doubt). On the other, there is the likelihood that even opening this question and regarding it as a subject for scientific inquiry would provide ammunition for Goebbels and Rosenberg and their henchmen. Were this hypothetical psychologist to disregard the likely social consequences of his research (or even his undertaking of research) under existing social conditions, he would fully deserve the contempt of decent people. Of course, scientific curiosity should be encouraged (though fallacious argument and investigation of silly questions should not), but it is not an absolute value [360].
One major problem with Sullivan's claim is that it was researchers like Jensen, who "politicized" the study of intelligence by tying it explicitly to race. (I remember Sullivan himself speculating, in a piece for the New York Times Book Review, that East Asians might have higher IQs than whites, based on their test scores and school performance in the US. He had no evidence for the notion, he just liked the idea for some reason.) In a racist society like this one, such claims can never be innocent. As the Alternet article admits, there has been plenty of other research on intelligence in recent decades; I can only conclude that Sullivan doesn't like it because it's not politicized enough to suit him.

Sullivan also assumes that racial differences in IQ can be dealt with only by "disproving" them. As Chomsky indicates, though, they're not of any scientific importance, and they can only have political importance to racists. Political equality isn't tied to IQ scores or even a hypothetical better measure of intelligence. So, why is Sullivan so obsessed with the question?

From there I somehow found myself reading Michael Ruse's blog / column at the Chronicle of Higher Education. (You'll remember Professor Ruse as the man who believes that rape means "fucking the female if [a man] gets the chance," without asking another male's permission.) In a post on Darwin, Ruse wrote:
About thirty years ago, there was a huge debate among evolutionists about the applicability of the theory to social behavior, particularly to human social behavior. Arrayed on one side were a number of scientists, including our own David Barash. They argued that using Darwinian Theory casts considerable light on human behavior and society. Arrayed on the other side were many other scientists, including the late Stephen Jay Gould. They argued that Darwinian Theory does nothing but uphold the status quo – capitalist, racist, sexist. At least [Robert J. Richards] and I like each other and respect each other. Barash versus Gould put one a bit in mind of American politics. And I am not sure that ultimately they were (or would be now) any closer to settling their differences.
Ruse's characterization of Stephen Jay Gould is false; considering that Ruse lived through the period he refers to and participated in those debates, I don't think it's going too far to call it a lie. (Ruse and Gould also participated as expert witnesses for evolutionary theory against Creationism on at least one occasion.) The two positions Ruse sketches so casually aren't even really opposites. Gould and those unnamed "many other scientists" argued that their contemporaries who tried to apply Darwinian Theory to human behavior and society were misrepresenting Darwin, and doing bad science. I haven't read much of Barash's work, but Gould was a very civil debater, not like "American politics" at all. It was some of his adversaries, like Richard Dawkins, who acted like the Tea Party Movement. The same is true of Gould's colleague and ally, Richard C. Lewontin, as you can see by reading his articles from The New York Review of Books and the ensuing exchanges with his critics, collected in It Ain't Necessarily So: The Dream of the Human Genome and Other Illusions (New York Review Books, 2001); he concentrated on scientific questions while his opponents, like Stephen Pinker, simply red-baited him.

American Atheists have re-entered the lists for this year's War on Christmas season, with a series of billboards (h/t to JV). "37 Million Americans Know MYTHS When They See Them," reads one, with pictures of Poseidon, Jesus, Santa Claus, and Satan. Sigh. I'm a bit more careful in my use of words like "myth," but leave that aside for now. The point I want to make now is that scientists and secularists keep coming up with myths of their own, like Ruse's about the debates over evolution and social behavior. It's a myth in the strict sense: a story meant to express certain truths (or truthinesses) about a society, thereby promoting solidarity within the group. In the broader, less careful sense, it's a myth in that it's clearly and simply false. Sullivan is religious, of course, but his account of the study of intelligence, which appeals to science, is also a myth in both of those senses.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

There Are Starving Children in Korea Who'd Love to Eat the Pepper Spray You're Complaining About!

Seoul police used water cannons the other night on demonstrators who objected to the passage of the Korean-US "Free Trade Agreement." (It still hasn't been signed by President Lee, but it's hard to imagine what would stop him after he's pushed it so long.) According to the Hankyoreh, this happened in sub-freezing weather:
Participants struck by the cannons said the cold was such that the water froze on their clothing. A 27-year-old participant named Kim recounted that police even fired the jets indiscriminately at people on the sidewalk.

“It was so cold out that my clothes froze, and all the friends who came out with me to the rally caught colds,” Kim said.

A 31-year-old named Ahn said, “The cold was unbearable. I was only sprayed a little while I was in the street, but I was shivering terribly.”

Criticisms of the police’s failure to take into account the cold when using water cannons were not limited to civic and social organizations. Lawmakers with the ruling Grand National Party (GNP) also issued notably stern statements against the decision.

That is surprising, because it was the GNP that pushed the FTA through in the first place. But don't worry, it's all standard police procedure.
The Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency (SMPA) Security Department chief Yun Cheol-gyu said, “The march itself was illegal, so we fired the water cannons after first broadcasting an order to disperse according to procedure, and we took direct aim after they did not.”

Yun added, “There are no standards for the use of water cannons according to weather conditions, and everything was done in line with legitimate procedure, so there is no issue.”

So, that's all right then.

Water cannons were used for "riot control" in the US during the 1960s (we got the idea from the Germans in the 1930s), and Prime Minister Cameron authorized their use against "rioters" in the UK this past August. The Italian police used them against the Occupy Rome protests in October, too. Last June in Chile (during their winter, isn't it?) students protesting against education cuts threw a molotov cocktail at a water cannon that had been used against them. I've seen talk about deploying them against peaceful protesters in the US; I figure it's only a matter of time.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Every Knee Shall Bow and Every Tongue Confess the Name of Nike

Today I'm reading China in Ten Words (Pantheon, 2011) by Yu Hua. Born in 1960, Yu grew up during the Cultural Revolution in conditions of moderate poverty (which means he was hungry most of the time, but not hungry enough to die of it), though both his parents were medical doctors. In these essays, he contrasts his memories of China's recent past with its drastically changed present, but he's not interested in oversimplifying the present either. After I'd started reading the book, I looked again at the blurbs on the back cover, especially this one from Orville Schell, a longtime writer on East Asia.
In this era of the China Boom, when Communist Party officials are so inclined to erase the travails of their country's past from public consciousness, Yu Hua's insistence on remembering comes as an almost shocking intrusion into a willful state of amnesia. His earthy, even ribald, meditations on growing up in small-town China during Mao's Cultural Revolution remind us of just how twisted China's progress into the present has been and how precariously balanced its success story actually still is.
Ah, the State of Amnesia! It ought to be admitted to the Union officially, it's so essential to our nationhood. For any American to dwell on another nation's will to amnesia is disingenuous. Schell has his own history as a critic of US policy in East Asia, especially Vietnam, but from this paragraph it sounds like he's been reabsorbed into the American elite that spawned him. There's nothing exactly false in what he wrote, though; it's just a wee bit one-sided. Advocates of capitalist "reforms" in the US don't want to think about the human cost of China's "progress into the present" either -- well, the Right is concerned about the plight of Christians there, it's true, and the Liberal-Left is very concerned about dangerous child toys we import from China. But the human cost to most Chinese? Not so much.

For example, in "Disparity" Yu recounts this story, which he heard from his "friend Cui Yongyuan, an anchorman on China Central Television," who,
In May 2006, ... began to retrace the route of the Red Army’s Long March, along with his film crew and twenty-six other people from different walks of life. It took them 250 days to travel the 3,800 miles …

By the summer of that year, just when the soccer World Cup finals were taking place in Germany, Cui’s miniature Long March expedition arrived at an impoverished area in China’s southwest, and there he had a sudden inspiration to organize a soccer match for the local primary school children. Even if it was a far cry from the passions of Berlin, he thought, at least it would create a little ripple of World Cup excitement in this backward hinterland county.

He immediately encountered two problems. The first was that no soccer ball could be found in the stores of the county town, so he had to send two fellow Long Marchers off in a car to a bigger city to buy one. The second was that the local primary school children not only had never seen a soccer match; they had never even heard that such a game existed [155-6].
From the context that Yu provides, it's clear that never having heard of soccer is the least of these children's disadvantages. Cui's cluelessness would, I feel sure, be echoed by most Americans on learning that these children had never heard of the Superbowl. Someone would probably start a charity to bring that and other similar blessings of civilization to these poor unfortunates.

Yu knows better, though. A bit later in the same essay he talks about poverty in China. He says that around a hundred million Chinese earn no more than 800 yuan (US $125.99) per year, and tells this story:

When I pointed this out at a talk in Vancouver in 2009, a Chinese student rose to his feet. “Money is not the sole criterion for judging happiness,” he objected. This remark made me shudder, for it is not just a single student’s view; a substantial number of people in China today would take a similar line. Surrounded by images of China’s growing prosperity, they have not the slightest inclination to concern themselves with the hundred million who still struggle in unimaginable poverty. That is the real tragedy: poverty and hunger are not as shocking as willful indifference to them. As I told the Chinese student, the issue is not how we judge happiness but how we address a widespread social problem. “If you are someone with an annual income of only 800 yuan, you will earn a lot of respect for saying what you did,” I replied. “But you’re not.”
China isn't a Christian country, but it has traditions of concern for the poor, however inadequately they were carried out in practice. Communism took them further, however badly Mao's regime carried them out in practice. Capitalism has no such tradition, and Yu's story reminded me that when I see right-wing Christians on Facebook call for putting Christ back into Christmas and God back into America, they never talk about poverty, in the US or elsewhere. (The closest I've seen anyone come to it was in the immediate aftermath of last year's earthquake in Haiti, when one Christian Facebook friend complained that though people go to bed hungry in the US, "we have a benefit for the people of Haiti on 12 stations." But she didn't want universal healthcare, because it would help "illegal immigrants.") All that matters to them is that there be a Christmas tree in the White House, that no one says "Happy Holidays", that everyone says "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, and that we support our troops -- until they come home, at which point who cares? None of these concerns can be found anywhere in the New Testament, but one theme that runs through both testaments is care of the poor. "Sell all you have and give to the poor" is one of those teachings of Jesus like "There are those who make themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven" -- all very well in his day, no doubt, but no longer relevant in ours.

At other points of the political spectrum, blame is laid at the feet of the poor for having too many children, a familiar theme from a century ago. China was the culprit then, and there was more fuss in the US about the prospect of a billion Chinese than there ever was about a billion Hindus, though I think India got there first. And probably there are more human beings than we can support; the trouble is that there's very little serious attempt to support them. Instead we get distractions, like China's capitalist "reforms." As Raymond Williams wrote in "Socialism and Ecology," twenty or thirty years ago, it's an error that even the great socialist theorists couldn't seem to avoid:

Because of course these attitudes of mastering and conquering had from beginning been associated not just with mastering the earth, or natural substances, or making water do what you wanted, but with pushing other people around, with going wherever there were things which you wanted, and subjugating and conquering. That’s where the metaphors of conquest and mastery came from. They were a classic rationale of imperialism in just that expanding phase. They were from the whole internal ethic of an expanding capitalism: to master nature, to conquer it, to shift it around to do what you want with it. Engels went along with that and then suddenly remembered where the metaphor came from and said, quite correctly: we shall never understand this if we fail to remember that we are ourselves part of nature, and that what is involved in this mastery and conquest is going to going to have its effects on us; we can’t just arrive and depart as a foreign conqueror. But then he shifted back, under the influence of this very strong nineteenth-century triumphalism about nature, and took up the metaphors again. And still today we read these triumphalist arguments about production. They are a bit less confident now, but if you read the typical case for socialism, as it became standard between the wars in the dominant tendency, it is all in terms of mastering nature, setting new human horizons, creating plenty as the answer to poverty...

It has always been a running argument within the Labour Party, especially since 1945, whether we’re going to get equality, and what are usually referred to as ‘the things we all want’ – schools and hospitals are usually the first to be named – when we’ve got the economy right, when we’ve produced enough, enlarged the national cake and so on; or whether equality and the priority of human needs require, as their first and necessary condition, fundamental changes in our social and economic institutions and relationships. I think we now have to see that argument as settled. The usual ‘national cake’ position, the soft political option, can be seen to rest on a basic fallacy, which the United States has demonstrated to the world – and no society is ever going to be relatively richer in gross indiscriminate production than that one – that by getting to a certain level of production you solve the problems of poverty and inequality. Tell them that in the slums, the inner cities, of rich America! All socialists are then forced to recognize that we have to intervene on quite a different basis. We have to say, as Tawney said sixty years ago, that no society is too poor to afford a right order of life. And no society is so rich that it can afford to dispense with a right order, or hope to get it merely by becoming rich. This is in my view the central socialist position. We can never accept so-called solutions to our social and economic problems which are based on the usual crash programmes of indiscriminate production, after which we shall get ‘the things we all want’. By the ways in which we produce, and the ways in which we organize production and its priorities – including, most notably, the inherent capitalist priority of profit – we create social relations which then determine how we distribute the production and how people actually live [reprinted in Resources of Hope (Verso, 1989), 214, 222].
Reading Hua's account, I remembered something the American historian Stephen F. Cohen wrote about Russia in the 1990s, in his Failed Crusade (Norton, 2000):
Many American correspondents clearly did not like "doom and gloom" stories about unpaid wages and pensions, malnutrition, and decaying provinces, where, a Russian journalist tells us, "desperation touches everyone." (Newsweek's correspondent advised the poor to continue living on bread: "They could do worse.") ... American journalists found instead preferable "metaphors for Russia's metamorphosis" -- usually in the tiny segment of Moscow society that had prospered, from financial oligarchs to yuppies spawned by the temporary proliferation of Western enterprises.

Thus, for a Washington Post columnist who had recently been a correspondent, an especially successful insider beneficiary of state assets was a progressive "baby billionaire" and, for the Wall Street Journal, a "Russian Bill Gates." For many others, like a New York Times editorial writer and also former Moscow correspondent, "One of the best seats for observing the new Russia is on the terrace outside the cavernous McDonald's [that] serves as a mecca for affluent young Muscovites. They arrive in Jeep Cherokees and Toyota Land Cruisers, cell phones in hand." In the New Russia at that time, the average monthly wage, when actually paid, was about sixty dollars, and falling [16-17].
It's more or less the same for American media covering American people: the rich and fabulous are the real America, the other ninety-nine percent or so don't count and barely exist. So why not take the same approach when covering China or the former Soviet Union?

Yu Hua doesn't care to forget the rest of the population, so he won't let you, or his Chinese readers, forget them either. But then he's not one of China's New Class of rich people, though the New York Times claims that, because his novels have sold well, he "has gone on to receive an ample share of the fruits of capitalism" (Yu alludes to this interview in China in Ten Words). He benefited from the cultural openings of the 1980s to become a writer, but he also benefited from Chinese political and economic egalitarianism:
In China during the 1980s, a doctor wasn’t any richer than a worker. The doctors then were all poor bastards. They were given fixed wages by the government. So I gave up being a dentist to work at a cultural center without suffering any stress either emotionally or economically. On the contrary, I felt so happy I nearly woke up smiling. I turned from being a poor bastard who worked his ass off every day into a poor bastard who had a jolly good time every day. I was still a poor bastard, but a poor bastard in the cultural center who had every minute to himself.
And Yu has no illusions about capitalism any more than he did about communism. He told the Times interviewer, "These young nationalists have no sense of ambivalence, no idea of life’s ambiguities. But when times are hard, their attitude will change, become more mature, and because capitalism in this form cannot go on in China, it has to end, those hard times will come soon." For most Chinese, they never went away.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Shamelessness of the Powerful

From Lenin's Tomb:
We understand the sheepishness about speaking of violence in social movements. It is not a comforting or politically sympathetic thought that popular violence has been productive; that without it, unjust systems would not have been overturned. Yet, aside from the fact that the automatic assumption against violence is actually an assumption against popular violence, the intriguing thing is how easily it shades into an assumption against disruption as such. For example, following a recent direct action at UC Berkeley, the Chancellor complained: "It is unfortunate that some protesters chose to obstruct the police by linking arms and forming a human chain to prevent the police from gaining access to the tents. This is not non-violent civil disobedience." In fact, linking arms and obstructing police is precisely an example of non-violent civil disobedience. If there was a textbook, this would be in it. The elite arbiters of protest ethics, who are always assuring us of our right to peaceful protest, conveniently forget what "civil disobedience" actually is. At the same time, what is often truly regrettable about what is called violence (usually small scale property damage) is its tactical implications. Sure, there is a moral case against anticapitalist protesters spraypainting graffiti or breaking windows. One could certainly apply similar standards retrospectively to striking miners and steelworkers who made US history in frequently violent struggles that went well beyond property damage. However, as someone once said, every morality presupposes a sociology, and in this case the moral argument implies the point of view of the ruling class. The point of the exercise of disruptive power is not to empathise with the ruling class, but to gain leverage over the ruling class.
Another point that confirms Richard Seymour's analysis here is the way that the corporate media and those who quote them always speak of police violence as if it were the protesters' doing: "protesters clashed with police" is a soundbyte that could be applied (and probably has been) to the pepper-spraying of the students at UC Davis: what it means is that protesters' heads "clashed" with police batons, or protesters' faces "clashed" with police pepper spray.

For more doublespeak, see UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi's response to calls for her resignation. Glenn Greenwald wrote today that Katehi
went on Good Morning America and explained why she should not resign or otherwise be held accountable: “we really need to start the healing process and move forward.” On a radio program in the afternoon, she expanded on this view by saying: “We need to move on.” So apparently — yet again — the only way everyone can begin to “heal” and “move forward” is if everyone agrees that those in power with the greatest responsibility be fully shielded from any consequences and that their bad acts be simply forgotten. I wonder where she learned that justifying rationale?

As an added bonus, Greenwald also quoted Dick Cheney's endorsement of Obama's foreign policy, with this "gracious" expression of Cheney's "gratitude for being fully shielded for his crimes."
I was very upset when we had talk by the Justice Department about prosecuting the intelligence professionals who’d carried out our policies in the enhanced-interrogation area. They’ve backed off that since. That’s good.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Literally Literate

I wanted to do a post on this subject before, but I think I'll sneak around on it from the back, briefly. I'm reading Conversations with Octavia Butler, one of the University Press of Mississippi collections of interviews with a wide range of writers. It includes a transcript of a joint appearance by Butler and Samuel R. Delany at MIT in 1998 (which, happily, is also available online). The main topic they address is literacy, from a variety of perspectives. One person in the audience explains:
I'm in the computer entertainment industry. In the computer entertainment industry, literacy has vanished. Whereas in 1984 about one-third of the best-selling game programs were text-based games, by 1986, there were none--zero--on the market. And, in fact, I've just read a couple of interviews with John Romero and Ken Williams where they're asking, "How can we get the rest of the text out of the games. How can we get rid of these text-bubbles?" And there are still people writing text-games, but it's sort of goes on by samizdat; it's underground. And the thing is that the people playing these games are very literate; they're not unable to read. They don't want to read.
I was mildly annoyed by the misuse of "samizdat" and "underground" here. "Samizdat" means "self-published," but it originated among dissidents in the Soviet Union who copied forbidden material and circulated it hand-to-hand. When I read about it in the 70s and 80s, it involved typing the material on typewriters, often with as many carbon copies as possible (which meant a lot of barely-legible copies circulated). According to Wikipedia the practice extended "to printing on mainframe printers during night shifts, to printing the books on semi-professional printing presses in larger quantities." In any case it was illegal and dangerous for the people involved. "Underground" has similar origins. As far as I know, there are no laws against, nor any official suppression of text-based adventure games; the game manufacturers simply decided not to produce them any more.

Also annoying is the claim that "literacy has vanished" in the game industry. It's like saying that "literacy has vanished" in the movies since the advent of sound.

I never was very good at the text-based games, but I spent more time on them than I ever have with their all-graphics successors. As the speaker told Delany and Butler, the trend was toward "graphical violence games that introduced this concept of running around and killing everything you see and watching its blood spurt ... And I thought, 'This is interesting. This is the kind of thing that he wants to do and the kind of game he wants to make.'" This was socially acceptable as the US became an increasingly militarized garrison state that didn't mind if young males think of war itself as a video game.

Still, I think there were other issues involved. A popular buzzword at the time of this discussion (1998) was virtual reality, born partly of cyberpunk science fiction that imagined jacking in, direct brain-to-computer link that used the brain as both input and output device. Instead of a game controller, you used your thoughts; instead of a monitor, the visuals were generated in your brain, in your literal mind's eye. A year after this conversation, the Wachowski Brothers released The Matrix, which used these concepts to advance a postmodernist Gnosticism, though most of the fans didn't get it and just wanted to be able to do all those cool stunts.

Having already been infected by the heresies of various computer skeptics, I always viewed claims for this technology critically: as usual with computers and science, the claims always far outstripped anything that was actually possible at the time. I once had a funny conversation with an undergraduate who was thrilled by the possibilities of virtual reality. He didn't realize, and strongly resisted grasping, that any virtual reality can only be as "real" as the data that the programmers put into the host computer; he seemed to think that it would grow in there by itself somehow. I have some friends and relatives who play a lot of video games, so I've been able to sample the current state of the art; it's pretty impoverished, even worse than 60s TV sci-fi shows. I'm even less tempted to get one of these things than a smartphone.

Anyway, I think the reason why so many game programmers wanted to get rid of the text-bubbles (and I get the impression they haven't quite succeeded yet) was less hostility to literacy than a desire to engineer virtual reality: you wouldn't need a text-bubble to tell what is over the next hill, or what you're smelling or tasting or how many coins you have in your money pouch; you'd perceive it directly through your senses. If a guy who just wanted cooler 3-D blood fountains happened to be a talented game designer and programmer, so much the better, though of course it was convenient that he was in touch with the mindset of potential players and the Reagan/Rambo zeitgeist.

Another related topic that came up in the MIT discussion was "hypertext." The World Wide Web was touted at first as the advent of hypertext, and though it fulfilled its promise a little better than virtual reality, hypertext isn't the buzzword it used to be, for similar reasons. Delany pointed out, though not quite explicitly, that hypertext too is only as good as the links you put into it. He mentioned a few "hypertext novels" that he'd found interesting, but went on:
All texts, in a sense, are hypertext. You come to a word you don't understand, so you look it up in the dictionary. You read a passage and you stop and you think about another book; you may even put it down and go get another book off your bookshelf and read something about something else. Texts are not linear. Texts are multiple and for anybody who really reads and enjoys reading, it is an interactive process.
What hypertext and the interactive material do is make that a much less energy-intensive process; as such, on the absolute scale, they are less interactive than the ones we've got now because in order to interact with the ones you've got now, you have to put out more energy. Now I think something is gained by having the interactivity require less energy. It becomes a medium in itself that's interestingly exploitable.
But not only do you limit the amount of interactivity, you also limit the places you can go. So the interactive text is not an expansion of what we've got now; it's a delimitation of what we've got now. If you read, as I was doing a couple of days ago, Walter Pater's "Plato and Platonism," I stop every two pages or less and have to go read a section from Heidegger or read a section by Derrida where he's talking about Plato. "Is that where this idea came from? Oh! Why is he using this word 'parousia'? Didn't I see this word?"
Just bear in mind that the interactivity in the new different interactive art is less energy-intensive and there are less places that you go within it. It's fascinating, and it's lots of fun, but it's not more interactive than what we had before; it's less interactive.
Much of this linking is serendipitous. The writer of the text doesn't know where the reader will go from material the writer has put into the text, but the range of possibilities is much greater for just that reason. As Delany also said,
It's the same thing with the physical books on the shelves. Anybody who does actual research in a library knows that you look on this shelf and then you turn around and you look on this thing, it's not related alphabetically; it's not related subject-wise; it just happens to be the book you need. And if you don't have the physical propinquity of the way the books are arranged, you're going to miss out on this opportunity, and this limits the kinds of research gems that can come up.
This has happened to me many times. Something similar can happen when you follow a link to another page, which also contains links to some "related articles" generated by software. The possibilities of computer searching are also great -- I love the ability to search a book online for a word or idea that otherwise would take hours to find, if I found it at all -- but we need both virtual and physical libraries.

On a more cynical note, I have long believed that elites consider literacy dangerous. They'd love to limit it -- ideally, by direct intervention into the brain so that readers could only look for, read, or understand, approved texts. That's because elites need the rabble to have minimal functional literacy in order to serve elite ends; but once you teach someone to read, it's hard to predict or control what she'll read next. This is why schools teach reading and writing so badly, in order to get a few fluent readers and writers, and many who just stumble along, regarding text as something vaguely unpleasant. I'm not saying that someone sat down and consciously decided to do it that way; but our current, traditional approach works well enough for official purposes, to produce enough literates to do the necessary work while leaving the rest only half-taught. The ongoing drive by corporate and government elites to censor the Internet might just give a boost to physical print, though: the forbidden, as Butler pointed out in connection with slaves' great desire to learn to read and write, automatically becomes attractive.

And despite all the handwringing, the Internet hasn't killed literacy yet, and I see no danger that it will: people still need to know how to write so they can leave bigoted and misinformed comments on Youtube and their local newspapers' websites, after all.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Know Your Place and Like It

Some songs give me the creeps. This one, for example.

I liked Johnny Cash when I was a kid, but I never heard this song until the 70s or 80s. It didn't make me hate him, and I still like a lot of his music, but it took me aback. The little shoeshine boy is never said to be black, though he exhibits some minstrel tendencies: big wide grins and natural rhythm are a traditional part of white stereotypes of blacks in this country. But that's not what bothers me about "Get Rhythm"; the boy could be white, and it would make no difference.

Dealing with the public in your work can be pleasant. It's never been the main part of the jobs I've had, but it's often been part of them; mostly I've enjoyed it. Putting on a smile is just good customer relations. It may lead to bigger tips, but it also makes the time pass more easily. And it's true, physical work goes more easily if you find a rhythm for it.

The thing is, though, work is still work, even when it's relatively pleasant. Many customers want to forget that. They'd like to think that the friendly server or salesgirl or shoeshine likes them, and wants to be their friend. (I'm still haunted by the memory of a middle-aged man in a record store who asked a young store worker if they had a certain recording in stock. He then held forth on the virtues of different performances at great length, as the boy looked more and more uncomfortable. Finally a coworker noticed, came over and asked the boy to help him with stocking or something elsewhere in the store. The older man disengaged, and once he was out of earshot I overheard the kid thank his coworker for the help. I inwardly swore a bloody vow never to do that to a hapless worker; now, of course, I have this blog as an outlet for my garrulity.)

People of higher social status also like to think that the lower orders like their situation, that they don't mind being poor and working hard from dawn to dusk, that they were born to be hewers of wood and drawers of water, and they recognize the superiority of their betters. Indeed, they are eager to serve, to give good homely advice that helps the better-off to forget their own troubles.
He stopped once to wipe the sweat away
I said "You're a mighty little boy to be-a workin' that way"
He said "I like it" with a big wide grin
Kept on a poppin' and he said again:

Get rhythm when you get the blues
Come on, get rhythm when you get the blues
It only costs a dime, just a nickel a shoe
Does a million dollars worth of good for you
Get rhythm when you get the blues
When I hear people talking about the days when schools taught, when an education meant something, when children were given more demanding work, I always remember that those were the days of child labor, of kids who dropped out of school and went to work in the second grade. True, there were more ways for unskilled workers to earn a living in those days, but then you have to remember that the shoeshine boy in this song probably is supposed to be black, and his prospects were limited no matter how many years of schooling he got. But then, the same was true of most poor kids, regardless of their color. I often remember how lucky I've been: if I'd been born a generation earlier, I'd have grown up in a much poorer, limited society; if I'd been born a generation later, I'd have grown up in a society in which an education was good for becoming a shoeshine boy.

Yeah yeah, I know, it's only a song. The infectious rockabilly beat sticks with me, which is why I'm still thinking about it hours after I heard it on the radio today. Most people don't even listen to the lyrics, but I'm a words (as well as a music) person. Even leaving race out of it, "Get Rhythm" exemplifies a romanticizing of poverty that is all too common in popular entertainment, and that a lot of people don't want to get rid of, not quite yet.