31 July 2011

If it was a snake, it woulda bit me

Matt Zoller Seitz perfectly explains something I didn't even realize should have an explanation.

Hollywood is a dream factory run mostly by and for raging narcissists with power and money. Its mass-produced dreams are overseen by people who want to be constantly reassured that they're talented, sexy, charismatic warrior-poet visionaries, and that you can absorb such invaluable knowledge by being around them that the abuse they heap on you is totally worth it. That's why the preferred dramatic configuration of ensemble TV shows is the ragtag band of eccentric professionals (read as: creative types), led by a well-dressed, middle-aged boss who reflexively needles and insults people and throws temper tantrums and sometimes puts on an expensive jacket and sunglasses, hops in his expensive car or on his expensive motorcycle, and takes off for parts unknown without warning, forcing underlings to wonder where the hell he is and talk about him nonstop until he reappears unannounced and provides them with the final piece of whatever puzzle they were trying to solve in his absence. These shows exist to kiss the asses of people who approve shows.

As always, the structure of an institution is reflected in what it produces. Of course.

Not that this will blunt my enjoyment of House, M. D..

23 July 2011

Terrorism and compassion

A Norwegian movingly responds to the terrorist attack in in his country.

He wanted to save the world from the muslim threat. He was afraid. Fear, fear, sickening fear permeates his writing. It is clever. He is well-read. It has all the good, rational ways of explaining a point of view. He is afraid. Nothing in his writing says it clearly.
....
I am proud of the fact that we arrested this murderer alive. How would that have played out in USA? Even in this situation, norwegian police was able to catch him alive. It is horrible to have to talk about this. If a sniper bullet could have saved a single life more, of course that would have been immensely much better. But somehow, he was stopped without being killed, and if that happened without risking any more childen's lives, yes, that is a good thing.

My bodily reaction was a sudden wish to have him torn apart by horses. But that is my feelings. Fear. Rage. Disgust. This rage for vengeance is not what makes us human. It is the victory of abstract thought, of faith, that makes us human. The faith that any human can be something different tomorrow than they are today. To him, maybe killing children gave him a physical reaction. For his own sake, I hope he is a complete psychopath, if such a thing exists. If he really did this just to bring attention to his thoughts, and he will now have to face it like a human being ...

I agree with him that the only thing that can truly defeat terrorism is compassion. Violence just won't do the job. A few were wise enough to see this from the beginning, but we remain all too few.

The Dark Knight Concludes

Like any good geek, I have a lot of love for Christopher Nolan's Batman films, and I eagerly look forward to the third and final installment of the series, The Dark Knight Rises.

Someday I mean to write something lengthy about Nolan's Batman as a response to Frank Miller's two hugely successful Batman graphic novels, Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns. Anyone familiar with Miller's books can see their influence on Nolan's movies, but I think a lot of folks miss how Nolan offers a commentary which does not look kindly upon his predecessor. Maybe this just reflects me projecting, but I suspect that Nolan has caught on to Miller's fascism and wants to critique it.

So I believe that Alyssa Rosenberg has it right in her reflection that Nolan might put Bruce Wayne in a wheelchair by the end of his movie, and that he should.

If Batman Begins was about the virulence of criminality, and The Dark Knight was about the limits of government institutions in the face of unspeakable evil, it would make sense for The Dark Knight Rises to be about the fragility of the superhero enterprise as a whole. Batman may be able to stop a small number of very dangerous criminals and terrorists. And society may be able to accommodate his violations of rules—such as bans on electronic surveillance—because he’s one man, and because he isn’t broadly challenging norms. But if Gotham can’t or won’t change its institutions in the name of building a safer, less corrupt city, and instead relies on one man with a limited license to break the rules, then the city is awfully vulnerable to that man’s destruction.
....
His Batman has been a fragile, limited bulwark against chaos, occasionally surprised by a flash of human goodness. If Nolan breaks Batman, he’ll provide a sharp rebuke to his fellow superhero storytellers. And he’d be the first among them to tell a truly complete story, to make a cohesive argument about superheroism, in the three movies allotted to him.

I particularly like her point about the advantages of telling one big story with the trilogy. No less an expert than the greatest English-language comics writer of all time, Alan Moore, tried to tell the DC Comics editors this very thing twenty-five years ago:

As I mentioned in my introduction to Frank's Dark Knight, one of the things that prevents superhero stories from ever attaining the status of true modern myths or legends is that they are open ended. An essential quality of a legend is that the events in it are clearly defined in time; Robin Hood is driven to become an outlaw by the injustices of King John and his minions. That is his origin. He meets Little John, Friar Tuck and all the rest and forms the merry men. He wins the tournament in disguise, he falls in love with Maid Marian and thwarts the Sheriff of Nottingham. That is his career, including love interest, Major Villains and the formation of a superhero group that he is part of. He lives to see the return of Good King Richard and is finally killed by a woman, firing a last arrow to mark the place where he shall be buried. That is his resolution--you can apply the same paradigm to King Arthur, Davy Crockett or Sherlock Holmes with equal success. You cannot apply it to most comic book characters because, in order to meet the commercial demands of a continuing series, they can never have a resolution. Indeed, they find it difficult to embrace any of the changes in life that the passage of time brings about for these very same reasons, making them finally less than fully human as well as falling far short of true myth.

The reasons this all came up in the Dark Knight intro was that I felt that Frank had managed to fulfill that requirement in terms of Superman and Batman, giving us an image which, while perhaps not of their actual deaths, showed up how they were at their endings, in their final years.

I cannot imagine that Nolan has not encountered this argument.

Let me add another speculation to Rosenberg's. I notice that Nolan makes a point of showing that Batman requires more than just Bruce Wayne in a cape. We can see his Batman as a conspiracy of tough old guys. Without Gotham cop Jim Gordon, technical whiz Lucius Fox, and right-hand man Alfred Pennyworth, Batman cannot function. Plus, Nolan's Bruce Wayne regards Batman in a very instrumental way; he sees Batman as a tool for fixing Gotham City.

Contrast that with Frank Miller's Batman. While working on Dark Knight Returns, Miller said:

Bruce Wayne is Batman's host body. Bruce Wayne died when his parents got blown away. He really loves fighting crime.

Nolan gives us a completely different Bruce Wayne. He does not want the job but he feels compelled to do it. Unlike Miller's Batman, who cannot retire, Nolan's Wayne wants to. Maybe a crippled Bruce Wayne will look at the world without Batman and decide he likes it better that way. Maybe the tough old guys can do the job at least as well without him. Maybe Nolan won't just have Bruce Wayne relieved to hang up the cape ... maybe he will make us feel the same way.

21 July 2011

The Secret Origin of Captain America

An extra thought in honor of the Captain America movie: John Seavey's wonderful speculation that Steve Rogers must have been a red diaper baby.

Update: Steven Attewell at Lawyers, Guns, and Money elaborates, directly calling shenanigans on Mark Millar's misreading of Steve Rogers. (Update: More from Attewell.) And I have some fun imaginings of the way that could play out in stories. Plus Infamous Brad observes that this explains why Steve Rogers and Tony Stark do not get along.

(And while we are here, I also have a moving little reflection from theumbrellaseller about why Stark and Banner are Science Bros.)

Captain America

So being a geek, I've enjoyed the embarrassment of riches in superhero movies this summer. Thor was good fun and Asgard looked great. Green Lantern was kind of hokey and soulless, but impressed the heck out of my nephew. X-Men: First Class was, despite a few false notes, terrific.

But the one I was excited about opens tomorrow.

A few years back, in the pages of Marvel comics, Captain America took an assassin's bullet and died. (Don't fret; being a comic book superhero, he eventually got better.) A friend who isn't geeky—but knows that I am—asked if I could shed a little light on what it signified, but I couldn't think of anything to say. Cap has never been a character I've cared much about. Save for his memorable guest appearance in Daredevil's “Born Again” storyline, as written by the unstoppable Frank Miller, I've not felt much interest in him.

The one idea I do have about Captain America didn't do me much good in that situation, but the nifty trailer for the movie sold me completely, because it demonstrated that the filmmakers obviously have been thinking the same thing.

Captain America has a terrific arch-nemesis. Possibly the best.

Those are strong words, because the quality of your opposite number is a big deal in the superhero business. Many comics fans would say that I'm wrong about Captain America having the best foe, since the Joker obviously takes the prize. Surely Joker is an all-time great: he's the common sentiment Clowns Are Scary, made into supervillain form. Plus he plays well opposite Batman, which is important. Thanks to Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight film, you don't have to be a comics geek to know about this symbiotic relationship between superhero and archnemesis; when Joker says to Batman “you complete me” it's scary and funny, but most of all it's uncannily true, and you can see how it cuts both ways. Batman ain't Batman without the Joker to fight, and vice versa.

While we're on the subject, Batman also benefits from a deep bench of second string enemies, including supervillainous versions of a Sexy Catburglar, Earth First!, not just one but two Insane Psychologists, and many more, all contributing to Batman's general superheroic coolness. Similarly, Superman has a big rogues gallery helping to make him super, and his arch-nemesis, Lex Luthor, is great fun because he's basically Supervillain Thomas Edison.

A good enough villain can elevate a mediocre superhero into the big leagues. Nobody cared about Daredevil until Frank Miller gave him Kingpin, The Capo of All The Mafia In The World, as his nemesis, then topped that with Elektra: Your Psycho Ex Girlfriend Has Become The Deadliest Ninja In The World. (Miller is both a terrific writer and a sexist creep; Elektra remains an excellent character, nonetheless.) Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four is made much more interesting by having as his nemesis Victor von Doom, whose story is “I have lived out every damned trope in the entire Gothic literary tradition, we were best friends in college, and I have conquered an entire Eastern European country as the first step in my plan to kill you.” Superhero fans reading this may want to argue that Galactus, who is sort of Supervillain Jehovah, is Reed's greatest foe, but I think we have to reserve him as nemesis for the Silver Surfer ....

Point being, to be a superhero, you should have a cool supervillain to foil.

So who is this arch-nemesis for Captain America, who beats out the Joker, Lex Luthor, Galactus, Doctor Doom, and all the rest?

Comics fans are probably rolling their eyes reading this, because Captain America's nemesis is generally accepted to be a guy called the Red Skull, who is your basic evil megalomanic with endless cannon fodder minions and one plan after another to conquer the world. You can see him in the trailer, if you know to look. The Skull is pretty cool, but he's not in the very top tier. But I submit that Red Skull is just a stand-in for Captain America's real nemesis: Adolf Hitler.

And I don't know about you, but Lex Luthor, Darth Vader, and the kid who took my lunch money in 5th Grade can all get in line; in my fantasy life, there's nobody I'd rather punch in the face.

The people who made this film obviously know that. So count me in.

20 July 2011

Politics

Timothy Burke, in the middle of struggling with why we should even talk about politics at all, says a bunch of things I think:
I think individuals, institutions, communities don’t always or even often just defend their particular self-interest. I don’t think they often accurately understand or clearly express their interests, any more than I believe human psychology or agency is well-described by the sketch version known as homo economicus. I think political agency, whether expressed narrowly in the drafting of policy or broadly in the mobilization of resources and constituencies, frequently leads to unanticipated or surprising consequences, some unexpectedly good for almost everyone and others terrifyingly destructive even to the agents who initiated a particular course of action. I think it’s intellectually possible and morally desirable to understand people unlike yourself, even people whose aspirations and worldview are genuinely antagonistic to your own. I think totalizing ideologies and totalizing social philosophies are intrinsically ill-suited to explain the human past or set a course for the human future. I think language isn’t just a framing device or an instrumental apparatus for the production of consciousness and subjectivity. I think every imagined alternative to liberalism and modernity ends up reinstating both of them under the table as well as using both of them to generate complaints about their shortcomings.
Yeah, pretty much.

11 July 2011

Yes, Minister

Yes, Minister is one of the funniest, cleverest television shows ever made. It's also a work of political propaganda.

To espouse the ideals behind public choice theory, Sir Anthony Jay began writing Yes Minister. Once you understand the philosophy behind it, it becomes impossible to view the show in any other way. The public servants, as exemplified by Sir Humphrey Appleby all work to thwart the government where it tries to break down the barriers preventing social progress. But even though the politicians express a desire to help the people, they ultimately end up only serving their own interests as well. The only real difference between Humphrey and Hacker is that Humphrey is at one with his selfish nature, where Hacker cannot admit it to himself. This lack of self-awareness allows Humphrey to easily manipulate him. Most of Hacker’s noble plans are shelved because Humphrey either shows or engineers it such that to pursue the noble policy would damage Hacker’s own self interest.

I first learned this through the amazing Adam Curtis' long documentary The Trap, which I cannot recommend highly enough.

10 July 2011

Federal deficit

Conservatives consistently talk about reducing government spending. Lately we've been hearing a lot of talk from them about the evils of deficit spending. Fundamentally I agree; we cannot rely on running a deficit year after year without screwing up the economy.

(Actually, economists I respect argue that if the economy is growing, modest deficits are safe and even healthy; I won't quibble. And I vigorously believe in the Keynesian argument that temporary large deficits are desirable in deep demand-failure recessions like we're in right now. But my point is that you cannot run big deficits year after year indefinitely.)

But in understanding what's going on with this conservative rhetoric, one must look at both the past and the future.

The past: Throughout Bush's administration Republicans held the House. Four out of eight years they held the Senate as well, and the other four years the Senate was exactly split between the parties. Republicans were steering the bus. They turned the balanced budget from the end of the Clinton administration into rising deficits. And no, we did not hear conservatives talking about how the deficit was bad.

Now that we have a Democrat in the White House, conservatives are talking a lot about deficits. This pattern arouses my skepticism.

The future: I was inspired to write this post because a conservative was telling me that conservative commentators promise to hold Republicans' feet to the fire about the deficit ... which they want to see addressed only through spending cuts, not by raising taxes.

This tells us that the deficit itself is not the priority. If it were, tax increases would be worth discussing. Combine this with conservatives' silence about the deficit during the Bush administration and I conclude that conservatives are insincere with their concern about the deficit. The point is cutting spending, the deficit is just rhetorical support for that project.

Well okay, conservatives are unmistakably consistent in talking about cutting spending. But most conservatives and practically all Republican politicians are evasive about what spending they would cut. Saying they want to eliminate “waste” and the Department of Education isn't enough. What will it take?

Federal spending consists of four roughly-equal major chunks:

  1. Military
  2. Social Security
  3. Medicare/Medicaid (and miscellaneous other health insurance stuff)
  4. Everything else (embassies and the FBI and maintaining the interstate highway system and NASA and farm subsidies and federal prisons and keeping the lights on in Washington DC and the immigration and naturalization service and the CIA and on and on ....)

The deficit is currently about 30% of total expenditures. So you have to cut two of those in half, and then some, or eliminate one of those entirely and sweat something else down significantly. If you're sincere and serious about cutting spending then you have to say which of those it's gonna be.

But conservative commentators and Republican politicians don't do that, because most Americans are in favour of Items 1, 2, and 3, and if you cut significantly into Item 4 you can count on hitting something they care about there, too.

So: What's it going to be? What are you going to cut? Until you answer that, I say shenanigans.

I'm sincere and serious, so here's my plan:

  1. Fix the weak-demand recession with as much deficit-funded stimulus spending as Paul Krugman says we need. This is a temporary measure, so it should focusing as much as possible on one-time infrastructure investments.
  2. Cut the military in half.
  3. Raise taxes on income over $100k to fill the gap.
  4. Switch our broken health insurance system to Medicare For Everyone so we start working on long-term cost controls. (No, this doesn't have to cost more money; most rich countries with universal government health insurance spend no more per capita than we already do.)



Update

Since people get confused about what these numbers are, checking Wikipedia I see that the Federal budget for 2011 was $3700 billion. That breaks down to $835B for Medicare/Medicaid, $725B for Social Security, $700B for the military (or about $1000B or even more, it depends on how you count), and $1340B (or $1000B) for Everything Else, including $225B in interest on the outstanding debt. Note that this is on $2300B in revenue, leaving a deficit of $1400B. (Note also that Social Security payroll taxes brought in $820B, so that program is almost $100B in surplus, which is set aside to pay for rising expenditures in benefits for retiring Boomers.)

Note also that the $1400B deficit sounds pretty scary until you realize that total GDP for 2011 was $15,000B. No, we cannot tax all of that out of the economy — that would leave nothing for people to buy shoes and pay for groceries — but it means that the country isn't “broke”. We can pay for everything in the Federal budget now if we really want to.

09 July 2011

The Jerusalem of our imagination

David Shulman at the New York Review of Books blog offers hope that the Arab Spring is inspiring Arab Palestinians.

A Mediterranean variant of Gandhian-style mass protest has by now taken root among Palestinian communities in several parts of the West Bank: Ma’asara, Nabi Saleh, Dir Kadis, Na’alin, and Bil’in, to mention only a few. There is by now a clear awareness among many that non-violent resistance is far more likely to be effective against the Israeli occupation than violence; and these days the humane principles of Gandhi and Martin Luther King are frequently and clearly articulated in Arabic by grass-roots Palestinian leaders.

An eloquent statement of the philosophy and method was delivered on June 5 by Bassem al-Tamimi, one of the leaders of the Nabi Saleh protests, at his trial at an Israeli military court for organizing demonstrations. Al-Tamimi’s text will, I am sure, someday be taught in schools, maybe even in Israel; it is remarkably reminiscent of Mahatma Gandhi’s famous statement to a now forgotten British judge in Ahmedabad in 1922, when the judge sentenced him to jail for six years.

Non-violent resistance is also the official policy of the Palestinian government in Ramallah.

He isn't fooling about the statement from Bassem al-Tamimi. It's good stuff.

I organized these peaceful demonstrations in order to defend our land and our people. I do not know if my actions violate your Occupation laws. As far as I am concerned, these laws do not apply to me and are devoid of meaning. Having been enacted by Occupation authorities, I reject them and cannot recognize their validity.

Despite claiming to be the only democracy in the Middle East you are trying me under military laws which lack any legitimacy; laws that are enacted by authorities that I have not elected and do not represent me. I am accused of organizing peaceful civil demonstrations that have no military aspects and are legal under international law.
....
Regardless of how just or unjust this ruling will be, and despite all your racist and inhumane practices and Occupation, we will continue to believe in peace, justice and human values. We will still raise our children to love; love the land and the people without discrimination of race, religion or ethnicity; embodying thus the message of the Messenger of Peace, Jesus Christ, who urged us to “love our enemy.”

The example of the Arab Spring presents a great opportunity to break the tragic deadlock in Israel and Palestine. May we, for once, miss the opportunity to miss the opportunity.

04 July 2011

Independence Day

Today is Independence Day in the United States.

Independence Day is the High Holy Day of American political identity. If you think about it, the Fourth of July is a strange choice of date. Consider the French equivalent, Bastille Day, which commemorates the storming of the Bastille and thus the event which demonstrated that the French monarchy was over. By similar reasoning, we should be celebrating when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown on 19 October, the battle of Lexington & Concord on 19 April, or (my favorite, with my soft spot for lefty activism) the Boston Tea Party on 13 December.

But we don't. We celebrate the day that a bunch of guys signed a piece of paper.

I've posted before about how the American veneration of documents in our political culture reflects our Enlightenment conception of the nation as a human creation, composed of ideas, rather than any essential volkish link from country to nation. Nowhere do we see this more strongly than in our choice of the Fourth of July, the day men signed the Declaration of Independence. The nation was born not when people used force of arms to secure the nation, either for the first time or the last time. Rather the nation was born when the idea of the nation was first named clearly.

It's easy to forget what a rhetorical achievement the Declaration really is. The world of 1776 was a world of kings, and finding a way to think and talk about a political order without kings was very, very hard.

Here's David Hume working to name a moral theory for equality, taking pains to say that there's nothing special about a king.

Whatever actually happens is comprehended in the general plan or intention of Providence; nor has the greatest and most lawful prince any more reason, upon that account, to plead a peculiar sacredness or inviolable authority, than an inferior magistrate, or even an usurper, or even a robber and a pirate.

Here's John Locke trying to talk about individual human rights, taking pains to say that this makes sense if you think about it carefully.

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.

Now here's Jefferson summing it up in the Declaration, asserting that these things are obvious givens.

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness — That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes; and accordingly all Experience hath shewn, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security.

There you go. There's the fundamental principles of human rights, democracy, state legitimacy, and revolutionary action, rolled up in two hundred and three words.

I'd like to say that you couldn't improve it by changing a single one of those words. It's very, very close. But—forgive me getting feminist for a moment—those two uses of the word “Men” really stick out. I'm prepared to forgive Jefferson that one; he was a man of his time. He knew that the principles he describes meant that America was engaged in a terrible evil in the form of slavery. Check out his rough draft of the Declaration in which this is the longest complaint against the King of England.

he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

So I believe that Jefferson understood the radical implications of the idea that all people are equal, but didn't think to fit it into the language.

I gave you the best part, but hey, you really ought to take a few minutes in honor of the day and read the whole thing — it's really good stuff.


Bonus posts: