Sunday, October 24, 2021

Literalism on the Left; or, Let Them Eat Squid

Alan R. MacLeod has done a lot of good work.  His book Bad News from Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting (Routledge, 2018) is an excellent expos√© of American and British elite media propaganda against Venezuela, and his articles for Mint Press News are a very useful resource.

But nobody's perfect.  Sometimes his Twitter posts sink into schoolyard humor -- not that I'm in a position to cast the first stone -- and today he misread a corporate-media op-ed in a way that he'd pounce on if the roles were reversed.

MacLeod's target was a Washington Post piece by Max Boot, whose right-wing hackery has often been dissected by Daniel Larison among others.  "How," MacLeod thundered, "could anyone watch Squid Game and think 'the message of this is that the system is working well?'"

The article is paywalled, and even my university library account couldn't get me past it, but I was able to sneak a look at the first two paragraphs.  Boot acknowledges that Squid Game is a dystopian satire of unrestrained capitalism.  His point is not about the content of the series, but about the corporate machinery and international policies that made it available to US viewers. I suspect that MacLeod wasn't able to read the entire article either, but he doesn't even have the excuse that he failed to read past the headline, which states Boot's point explicitly; he just read sloppily, and wrote dishonestly.
That's not a defense of Max Boot.  Without being able to read the entire piece, I can't analyze his argument in any detail, but "free trade" is not what made Squid Game available in the US; not even "globalization."  The process of bringing a Korean TV drama to English-only US audiences doesn't seem to have involved "trade" at all: Netflix is an international corporation, so like much of what is called free trade, Squid Game was simply moved around within the company.  Promotions had to be repackaged and of course English subtitles had to be provided, but this is normal; Netflix must also subtitle its US products in Korean, for example, for audiences there.  Most Korean movies and TV dramas get English subtitles for DVD release, even or especially those with no US distribution deal.  There have been fan-driven organizations which subtitle TV dramas in English and other languages, including Asian languages for access throughout the continent.  Korean entertainment is very popular in China, Japan, and elsewhere in Asia. This process involves negotiating the complications of international copyright law -- remember that copyright, though defensible, is anti-free-trade -- and a huge company like Netflix has a taxpayer-supported advantage there.
As for "globalization," that's generally as much of a misnomer as "free trade."  Dividing the planet up and selling it off to huge corporations is something else, more like the Pope dividing the American mission field between the Spanish and the Portuguese.  Too many writers on the ostensible left forget this, often distorting the issue and letting the Right frame the discussion in a pre-emptive surrender.  We need to do better.  I just wonder if we can.

Most of the comments on MacLeod's tweet followed his mistake.  That's not entirely the commenters' fault, since MacLeod led them astray to begin with.  But that doesn't excuse the person who wrote that "The show literally proves that money is poison to friendship, just to name one of the things it has shown".  Fiction doesn't prove anything, certainly not "literally."  This has been a peeve of mine ever since I was assigned to write in high school English about how Silas Marner 'proved' that Good always triumphs over Evil.  (That commenter blocked me for pointing it out.)
MacLeod wasn't the only person who was confused, though.  Another commenter linked to a German media report on a labor demonstration in Seoul, in which union workers dressed as masked Squid Game employees: "They said they identified with the characters in the dystopian Netflix blockbuster."  So they identified with the executioners?  This is like anti-imperialist protesters dressing as Imperial Storm Troopers from Star Wars, and declaring that they identified with them.  Seriously, some hospitals bring in volunteers dressed as Imperial Storm Troopers to walk with children cancer patients when they go to chemotherapy: that's tone-deafness on a similar galaxy-brain level.

Then there were the Netflix executives who dressed in green Squid Game jumpsuits -- which are worn by the player-victims in the game -- for a Zoom call.  It's like Marie Antoinette and her court ladies dressing up as milkmaids, with whom they also no doubt "identified."  I know that many proles identify with the rich and brutal, from Donald Trump to Bill Gates and Elon Musk, which is part of the problem.  Maybe some in Squid Game's audience do identify with the executioners, who knows?  Americans, even progressives, don't want to identify with losers.  On the other hand, everybody -- no matter how rich and powerful -- loves to identify with victims.

Some apologists for capitalism did try to twist Squid Game's content into a condemnation of communism, but that's not what Max Boot did (this time, anyway).  MacLeod's rhetorical question, "How could anyone watch Squid Game and think 'the message of this is that the system is working well'?" has an easy answer: No one did.  At least, MacLeod hasn't shown me any.