Monday, April 18, 2016

On the Inherent Toxicity of Fandom

So I just read the stupidest fucking thing this year. America's bourgeois geeks and dweebs have found a progressive hero in the comic book and film hero who punches people while wearing the Stars and Stripes. He's a totally non-toxic manly-man, except for that whole killing foreigners thing.

That last point never appears in the article of course. Talking about the super leftists creds of a super-soldier only works if you forget the soldier half of the eqaution. You could maybe excuse the World War II escapades of the character, as long as you never look up the opinions of actual GIs, but you've got decades of imperialistic misadventures afterwards. That Chris Evans as Steve Rogers is filmed looking thoughtful and concerned about America building more and more superweapons doesn't change the fact said supwerweapons continue getting built - which only doesn't look supervillian-evil because there are nice two-dimensional alien invaders to worry about.

But that's getting off our main topic and dicking around in the muddy logic of the MCU, which only follows marketing logic anyway. Rather, the article's refusal to engage with the blood-soaked history of American foreign policy is what really makes it objectionable. The closest it ever comes is this swooning over an entirely fictional person:

Steve Rogers isn’t a warrior so much as he is a guardian. His first instinct is to throw himself into harm’s way in order to save others, regardless of whether he’ll survive or not. He quite literally threw himself on a grenade in order to save his unit during basic training. When it became clear that the only way to save the US from the Red Skull’s super-weapon, he rode that sucker into the ground in order to make sure that nobody else would get hurt. In fact, it’s pretty significant that Cap’s’ signature weapon is a shield, an inherently defensive tool... It doesn’t cut, it doesn’t thrust, it doesn’t penetrate, it blocks. It’s there to protect, not to destroy. And that shield is the symbol of Steve’s rejection of violence qua violence.

That all sounds nice and fluffy if you forget it was the exact character interpretation of decorated sociopath and racist Chris Kyle in the utterly forgettable American Sniper. Film-Kyle lacks the crude cruelty of the Kyle in his own autobiography, instead presented as just so concerned with protecting his fellow Americans... from the people whose country they invaded.

The various geek fandoms, whether superhero films or video games or whatever, never engage with these ugly realities. They can't as anything that breaks from the escapist value of the product will alienate potential customers. Not may, but absolutely will. You can't present an honest look at the world without upsetting someone, and that means one less source of revenue.

Geek cultural products may be creative, even inspired in rare cases, but they exist to serve a corporate bottom line. That market logic shapes them root and branch, and further shapes the fandoms surrounding them. An example: The Force Awakens is at best an adequate action movie, trading on nostalgia and the lack of Jar-Jar Binks to appear as something more grand. And also because something grand is what the fandom desperately craved, so anything not objectionably terrible was bound to be celebrated as "recapturing the magic."

That very magic was a fluke born of circumstances but it was a very profitable fluke, meaning many many attempts to do it again but built from a sterile marketing perspective rather than any imagination and soul. The MCU embodies this philosophy, constituted of two or three fun popcorn flicks and half a dozen snoozers - with more and more to come!

This is exactly what the fandom wants. Not just in films but in video games and comic books and the turgidly long fantasy genre that pretends to be real literature. Fandom is nothing more than consumption and brand loyalty, to which all artistic efforts are secondary concerns. Just because Superman isn't still telling you to "Slap a Jap" doesn't make him any less of a corporate pitchman. And just because the current movie incarnation of Captain America isn't bitching and moaning about liberated women doesn't change the fact he stands for the nation of pre-emtpive war and drone assassinations.

The fandom will not engage with this aspect of the character because it would go against the very nature of fandom: finding a safe place to hide from the scary world. That's the really toxic aspect of all these superheroes, the all-encompassing fantasy they promote. It's a reactionary brainwave that the fans crave, no matter how progressive they claim to be.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Philosophy in the Bathroom

Sometimes it helps to take a step back and consider the premises driving public life. Especially in America, where no one can ever speak the truth without endangering their ever diminishing career prospects. As I don't have a career to speak of, I can speak any truth that happens across my radar - namely that the current trans-panic over restrooms and other facilities is driven by delusion.

Hands up, all of you who have used a public toilet designated for the opposite sex. And that should be everyone reading this who isn't a Mormon as there is a time honored tradition of practicality trumping propriety in the dive bars of this Great Nation. I know I'm not the only one to skip the line for the Men's room and go into the unoccupied Lady's when I've had a couple beers and you're lying right now if you say you haven't. Or you're really boring.

But that's admittedly a low bar as so many bars don't differentiate their two restrooms that much. Some places just have two identical closets with a single toilet, a sink, and usually a lock on the door. The more economical establishments will have a single head, with men and women using it without any anxiety.

A large public restroom is another issue entirely - or it is if you never ask why that's so. Gentlemen, do you worry a trasman might check out your junk at the urinal? How is that any different from every other time you've taken a piss in public? Maybe I haven't seen every possible layout but in my experience there ain't a whole lot of space between those things.

The same question holds for the women who worry about a transwoman primping in front of the mirror with the rest of them. How is it different from the norm? And how could you tell anyway, check to see who pees standing up? That might say more about you than you're ready to admit...

This fear of boy's in the girl's room and girl's in the men's room loses whatever flimsy rationalization it had once you account for homosexual desire. Getting back to urinals, a dude can easily check out another dude - if he's a creeper - and no state legislatures are fretting over that scenario. If the legislators themselves are any indication, it's already a common occurrence.

Which brings us to the subject of high school locker rooms, and all the Victorian malakas begging us to think of the children. Does a transgirl's right to use her preferred room trump a cis-girl's right to not potentially see a penis? I didn't know teenage girls were in the habit of going commando in front of each other enough for this to be an issue, which is probably why it's phrased much more vaguely. "What if it makes the other kids uncomfortable?" ask people who have clearly forgotten what it's like to be a teenager.

You know what else can make kids uncomfortable in a locker room? Everything! From body image problems to the still socially normative homophobia to just wearing the wrong brand of sneakers, kids will never feel safe around each other. That's a reality every American over the age of fourteen has experienced first-hand, and yet it never enters this conversation.

So what's the solution? You could just not give a flaming toss - that's my view and the view of everyone else with more important things to worry about, like a paycheck or utility bills. A law restricting your access to a toilet by what it says on your birth certificate is less enforceable than SOPA, so go forth and crap freely. And if you're really that invested in the anatomy of the person in the stall next to you, you have problems no state laws could ever fix.

UPDATE (04-16-16)

 Predictably, one of the men responsible for the bathroom bill has been creeping on thirty-four women. Jeremy Durham joins Larry Craig and Mark Foley in the august collection of Republicans who personally need legislation to keep it in their pants.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Unsung Classics: Olivia Manning

White Americans love St. Patrick's day and not just for the happy hour specials. Today is the one day of the year white people are permitted an ethnic identity that isn't tied up in slavery and empire and basically every bad thing of the past three or four hundred years. In fact, since Irish history is full of invasion and oppression, it can give comfortable crackers that much coveted victim status they're always striving for!

But more importantly there's the literature. Irish writers have had an influence on English-language literature far greater than their meager numbers and you've certainly seen all the respectable publications posting lists of classic and newly classic novels from folks with names starting with "O" and "Mac." The lists might even appear novel to the illiterate hoi poloi but if you dig reading, you know all the heavies already. Joyce, Flann O'Brien, whichever Roddy Doyle novel the listicle author likes that isn't The Commitments...

So instead, the good people and gnomes here at VectorPress are gonna learn you about the magnificent Olivia Manning!

Technically Anglo-Irish, her unmoored upbringing was quite typical of those born just before the revolutions of the 1920s. As was her "sense of belonging nowhere" following Irish independence from the British Empire. Elizabeth Bowen wrote from a similar place, though much more bitterly. Manning stands out not just for her output - six novels on World War II alone! - but also for how she manages to convey a crushing normality in the middle of the biggest geo-political restructuring of the 20th Century.

Manning writes what she knows across both The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy. And what she knows is the dull ridiculousness of expat existence, first in Romania and later in Athens and Cairo. The Balkan Trilogy begins just as everyone thinks the Iron Guard ends, though it soon returns as fascism was just so darn popular in Europe prior to 1945. Though across the first two novels, there is only ever one proper battle and it doesn't even get as violent as a Baltimore protest against police brutality. The war is always something just on the horizon, even in The Levant Trilogy once the main characters have washed up in Cairo, injecting an anxiety into the humdrum domestic drama of Guy and Harriet Pringle.

Guy, you see, is an idealist. A strident Marxist, supporting Revolution despite his vocation as literary lecturer for the cruel British Empire's many far-flung posts. He takes this commitment all the way to opening his own home to every tramp and con man - like the charmingly parasitic Yakimov - who should happen to pass through his life. Loved by all and viewed as possessing the highest moral character, all while making his wife Harriet miserable.

Harriet is of course the sympathetic one in this narrative and it serves as more than just an indictment of her shallowly political husband. Rather, Guy's starry-eyed view of the human condition - and by extension the radical leftism of Manning's time - is contrasted with Harriet's very practical concerns of how the two of them are to live and avoid becoming a statistic in a war that doesn't show any sign of stopping. Repeatedly called a reactionary for her indifference to first Greek and later Egyptian poverty, Harriet still comes across as the practical and even-minded of the pair simply because she does not seek to save everyone.

Not that saving anyone is really an option. Manning presents a harshly naturalistic world, where death comes without warning and often without reason. A foreign office functionary is gunned down on the road from Budapest, a sensitive boy is disappeared twice for the crime of being rich more than for being Jewish. And then there's the fate of poor old Yaki...

Really, Yakimov is the star of The Balkan Trilogy. An impoverished White Russian aristocrat, he keeps up a churlish yet endearing Bertie Wooster shuffle from his first appearance in Budapest to his sensless finale in Athens, always with a witticism or a charmingly self-deprecating story or just a petulant pleading for one more round of drinks. He'll pay you back, old sport. Just as soon as his remittance comes through.

Manning's talent is making you feel compassion for dull if not outright contemptible people. When Guy thinks Harriet has died in one of the many impersonal attacks of the war, he regrets taking her for granted and grows just enough as a character to easily snap back to his old habits once she shows up alive. The venal mediocrities who burrow into the good professorships at Alexandria, who are just trying to survive like everyone else. And Guy never pursued his own interest as Harriet encouraged him, trusting in the natural goodness of humanity which the events of his life should have long since disproved.

Then there's the singular experience of Simon Boulderstone in The Levant Trilogy. A British Army officer deployed to the North African theater just as Rommel is starting his famous blitz, he crosses paths with the Pringles while looking for the promiscuous girl his elder brother had claimed as a girlfriend, Edwina. He befriends Harriet mostly because she's there, much as she befriends him, and the young officer's half of the narrative provides a look into the actual fighting. Like the private lives away from the front lines, it's just as mindless as confused. Nearly dying a few times in stupid and preventable ways, Simon still always finds his way back to Cairo and the fantasy of Edwina. Simon's motivations are more than just platonic and the girl might even have taken him up on it had she no better prospects - much as the Romanian gal Sophie flirted with Guy blatantly in front of Harriet in the hopes of getting a British visa through marriage. Again, people just trying to survive while the world loses its marbles.

Harriet remains the one constant throughout all these schemes and hysteria. Not because she can exert any control over her own situation. Far from it - Harriet is buffeted by circumstance and her own self-defeating impulses as much as anyone else but she retains a self-awareness the others lack. Sophie and Edwina truly believe they love their meal tickets, just as Guy truly believes he is helping to uplift the common man against the bourgeoisie by teaching young men poetry and directing the occasional Shakespeare play. Harriet counts her victories much more realistically and humbly, like cajoling an extra bit of meat or cheese out of a shopkeeper already hurting from the wartime rationing.

Control is the one thing all the other characters seek and never really find. It's a notion likely born of Manning's own sense of lacking control as she had such a mixed up - and often plain missing - ethnic identity at a time Europe was destroying itself over which ethnic identity was superior. That sort of atavism is still alive in the world - as ISIS and the "I'm one fifths Irish!" white American demonstrates - making Manning's epic exploration of absurd misery all the more pertinent.

And it's just a cracking good read.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Liberals for Empire

It should come as no surprise a self-proclaimed "Goldwater Girl" thinks the Contras were keen. To paraphrase Ted Rall, Hillary Clinton never met a war she didn't like.

What should come as a surprise is all the card-carrying liberals trumpeting her neocon bullshit as the latest victory over Sanders and his movement for common human decency. Should come as a surprise - probably does for some of you dear-hearts - but really doesn't. As I mentioned last time I commented on this bummer of an election, American liberals love blood and violence when it's their own team pulling the trigger. Hell, I'm guilty of it myself!

And Democrats really do have a history as good imperial managers. Much like the British, who raped everyone and everything they could find below the equator for a century. Just because they're good at it doesn't mean it's not objectively terrible.

But that raw ugliness and evil of global empire is still a foreign concept to Americans of every political persuasion. This is to be expected with the Tea Party and the Trumpers, as their entire raison d'etre is spite and hatred for life. But it's still a bit shocking to see the folks who still kvetch over Bush's wars turn around and advocate for basically more of the same.

Rather, it would be shocking if this hadn't been going on for the past decade. At least.

[T]he real responsibility for the Iraq war lay not with Bush but with the Lettermans, the Wolf Blitzers, the CNNs, the New York Timeses of the world -- the malleable middle of the American political establishment who three years ago made a conscious moral choice to support a military action that even a three year-old could have seen made no fucking sense at all.

A so-funny-it's-sad way of paraphrasing the position of the US media and political class on the Iraq war is "We shoulda invaded on Thursday instead of Tuesday." And that simplistic We're The Good Guys notion is shared by many of the rank-and-file liberals who marched and protested and all turned very silent once a black Democrat was commanding the exact same drone executions as a Texas dipshit.

This goes back decades, well before Reagan but let's start in the '80s anyway because it was the worst era ever. Also because Sanders is getting flak for not disavowing the Sandinistas, who are now the Bad Guys for the liberal press because reasons. Reagan's financing of the Contra death squads who targeted the FSLN gets most of the attention but it was really just SOP for the US at the time in every sovereign nation south of the border. Like El Salvador:

When she heard the screams, Rufina, who together with her children had been sitting on a bench with her back to the front wall of the house -- the wall facing the church -- climbed up on the bench so that she could look out a small window high up in that wall. Through the window she saw soldiers leading groups of men from the little whitewashed church -- blindfolded men whose hands were bound behind them. Each pair of soldiers led five or six men past the house of Alfredo Márquez and took them out of the hamlet in various directions. After a time, she saw her husband in one group, and as she watched, along with young Cristino, who had climbed up next to her, eager to see what was happening, they both saw him -- Domingo Claros, twenty-nine-year-old woodcutter, husband of Rufina and father of Cristino, María Dolores, Marta Lilián, and María Isabel -- bolt forward, together with another man, in a desperate effort to escape the soldiers. But there was nowhere to run. The men of the Atlacatl levelled their M16s and brought both men down with short bursts of fire. Then the soldiers strode forward to where the men lay gasping on the ground, and, unsheathing their machetes, they bent over them, grasped their hair, jerked their heads back sharply, and beheaded them with strong blows to the backs of their necks.

The El Mozote massacre was conducted against suspected Marxists, just like hundreds of others. All with the tacit approval if not active support of US intelligence and special operations. Stan Goff provides some excellent snapshots - including the bumbling alcoholics from the State Department overseeing all this horror - in Full Spectrum Disorder. But to see how things really don't change, you have to read his first and arguably better book, Hideous Dream: A Soldier's Memoir of the U.S. Invasion of Haiti. It recounts his time with 3rd Special Forces ODA 354 in the first Clinton era, trying to do an invasion and occupation humanely so as to relieve his old and battered conscience - and just how doomed his efforts proved to be:

Are you anti-FRAPH?
They're a death squad network.
According to the task force command, they're to be treated as the legitimate political opposition.
They're still death squads. Were we ordered to work with them, too?
No, you weren't ordered to work with them, but it sounds like you harassed them.

There's more in the book of that bureaucratic double-think. So much more, but it's not what got Goff brought up on charges that "were either silly or pure bullshit, but a couple of them were true..." It was his own team, his comrades-in-arms who were just as indoctrinated to the American fantasy of Good vs. Evil as Salon knobs like Amanda Marcotte. Not one of them would ever self-identify as liberal - a few were anticipating race war in the bucolic Clinton years and are likely strident Trump supporters today - just like no Hillary Men or bourgeois feminists consider themselves on the side of death squads. Except maybe this guy.

The liberal interventionists have just as much blood on their hands as the neocons. They used to try and hide it but with Sanders showing he can win, they've all lost their marbles and wouldn't even blink at a Clinton-Kissinger ticket come November. 'Cause there are bad guys to kill, dontcha know.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Good Riddance

Antonin Scalia is dead. Rejoice :D

I'm not going to pretend for one second that I'm not thrilled this crooked monster is dead. And he was a monster - whatever rationalizations he and others offered over the years, Scalia's raison d'etre was always an opposition to all possible joy and happiness in human life.

Much is already being written on Scalia's influence on jurisprudence or his philosophy of the Rule of Law and it's all absolute bullshit. These are words Scalia used to justify his own petty malice: from anointing George W. Bush president in 2000 to dithering over hypothetical federal broccoli mandates, his motivations have always been to cause the most harm to the most people. Whether his monstrousness was a means to self-validation or just an end in itself is a question left to historians but the results are all too apparent.

Imagine how many people would still be alive if George W. Bush was not president on September 11th, 2001. Imagine how many countries would not be invaded, how the surveillance state and a unitary executive might still remain in the realm of the theoretical. Imagine an electorate that wouldn't have spent the past decade soaking in that poshlost which has now made Donald Trump a viable candidate for Commander in Chief of the world's largest nuclear arsenal.

And that's just one decision! Drill down into Scalia's history on the Supreme Court and you find not just a contempt for the rule of law when it conflicts with his own limited interests, but an actual hostility to anyone not blessed with inherited wealth or the conscience of a used car salesman. His dissents on everything from marriage equality to race relations to state executions shows not a reasoned or even reasonable approach to jurisprudence but rather a bitterness that others might find peace in this world, rather than suffer from birth to death.

Even Clarence Thomas found him unconscionably cruel: "He loves killing unarmed animals."

In this, Scalia followed his patron Reagan. Often credited with making Americans feel good about themselves, if impoverishing them for a generation, Cowboy Ronnie famously opposed everything from public education to trees not for any nuanced philosophical reason, but for a simple disdain of anything good and beautiful. And in keeping with that anti-life maxim, Scalia's last act before returning to Hell was to accelerate Climate Change.

Obama can nominate the blandest, most middle-of-the-road twerp to fill Scalia's place and it won't matter. Scalia himself was such a blight on humanity that his death alone is more liberating than a dozen Supreme Court cases validating the liberal cause du jour. And speaking of American liberals: Any and every one now shedding crocodile tears over Nino is a fool, an enemy, or both.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Sanders Question

Do not ask if Bernie Sanders can win. He can. He has more popular support than Clinton and anyone in the GOP Clown Car. He's gone from 0 to lightspeed in an election everyone expected to be the sole domain of Hillary Clinton since about 2013. He's not only got the support, he's got the political savvy to convert it into real electoral victory and maybe even into some desperately needed policies.

Rather ask: Will Bernie Sanders win the nomination?

That's a much harder question to answer, less because of the fickle electorate and more because of the forces of traditional power arrayed against Sanders. His bottom-up campaign looks all the more impressive when you look at how the very party he is running for is determined not to have him.

By April 2015, over half of the Democratic Senate caucus had already backed [Hillary Clinton's] bid for the nomination — far more early endorsements than any candidate in either party has gained in this century. To date Clinton has won the backing of 38 of 46 Senate Democrats, 148 of 188 House Democrats, and 12 of 18 Democratic governors.

In contrast, Sanders has two House Reps and many many many people whose only influence is the ballot. If he can win against his own party he's certainly passed the ever crooked "electable" test so often used to weed out dissident voices, so why would a Democratic Party that actually wants to hold on to the White House still oppose him?

It's not his foreign policy - the biggest point of criticism among his Leftist detractors. Which do indeed exist. While not voting for the Iraq War, Sanders is just as pro-Israel and pro-Empire as every other D on Capitol Hill. This would do nothing to hurt his "electability" either as rank and file Democrats - whatever their protestations in the latter half of the Bush II presidency - are just as eager for war as the Republicans they post snarky memes about on Facebook. War may be bad for children and other living things but plenty of American liberals can find a way to rationalize it as long as one of their own pulls the trigger.

Just look at that Kenyan Islamo-Socialist, Barack Obama. Mister Hope and Change may prefer drone warfare to boots on the ground, but the results are much the same. Drones make good cold, imperialist logic but it's still a far cry from the radical peace based foreign policy advocated by Kucinich in 2008 and the Green Party today.

And as gross as it may sound, being a peacenik really would make Sanders unelectable. The Cruise Missile Liberals want America to kick ass just as much as the muzzie-hating conservatives, they just want it done humanely - as if humane war is even possible! - and their rhetoric isn't as obviously racist. These two factions have never been as opposed as the culture war noise would have you suspect, as they've always been little more than feuding sides of the same white middle class family.

It's not his conventional foreign policy that has the party brass so scared, but rather Sanders's economic priorities. He calls himself a democratic socialist but his proposals are little more than reheated New Deal policies. That's still too far to the left for history's second biggest fans of capitalism, whether out of fear of change or because it would drive away the corporate money that post-Clinton Democrats use to win elections. That they haven't done anything very liberal since the New Deal doesn't stop people from arguing about the importance of their winning elections.

Which gets to the very heart of opposition to Sanders: He challenges the fundamental assumptions of American elections. His economic populism has already crossed the usual Red versus Blue divide, uniting working whites with urban people of color. That's something very new and very frightening to a party that thought it could run on the fear that a Republican would overturn Roe V. Wade indefinitely, much as Karl Rove thought the GOP could run on the false promise of doing just that.

Sanders, like Occupy, has re-oriented the political dialogue to the basic needs of the citizenry - prompting Hillary Clinton and her daughter to disparage any notion of universal healthcare with rhetoric straight out of Mit Romney's campaign. That blue collar Christians, atheist vegan programmers, and black nurses all think it's a good idea doesn't matter because there is no business support for such an unprofitable venture.

And this is what Election 2016 comes down to. A test not just of the Democratic Party but of American democracy in general. If a popularly supported insurgent candidate like Sanders is defeated by money and privilege, what chance do the rest of us little people really have?

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Dictatorship of the Yuppies

I have never used Uber.

Let me put that in context. I am a white guy with decent income residing in Brooklyn, I am between the ages of 25 and 35, I have a smartphone, and I have never used nor felt the need to use Uber. I know plenty of other New Yorkers who can say the same and I live and ride the subway with even more non-members of the much talked about "sharing economy" of which Uber is so often Exhibit A.

Unlike many of these same New Yorkers, I grew up far away in the Commonwealth of Virginia, where a service like Uber would be hard pressed to even get off the ground. It's a frequent joke that the town I grew up in only exists because people on I-95 ran out of gas. Cabs are for DC and the airport, which makes them a rarity even among the upper middle class DOD employees - more often, it's taken as a given you can drive yourself or get a lift from someone. This arrangement has never been viewed by anyone as a problem and there is nothing in the transportation system to "disrupt" other than the HOV lane.

All of this leads to the conclusion that Uber - and by extension the sharing economy in general - is simply a non-issue outside a very limited, urban, and well-to-do demographic.

It just so happens that the same demographic contains the primary writers and readers of the New York Times, the Atlantic, and every other respectable publication - to say nothing of the narrowly focused tech publications.

So a narrowly urban yuppie service like Uber ends up getting a much larger share of reporting and commentary than, say, the toxic water of Flint Michigan. Despite reports for more than a year, it's only been in the last few weeks that anyone remembered Flint even existed. And then they looked at the hashtag and asked "Is Michael Moore making another movie?"

Because social media is a product of the same insular, upper middle class culture as Uber users and as such is simply not engaged with the majority experience in modern America. Instead, we get a closed system of materially secure yuppies arguing over an app-based utopia that only they will ever experience.

That's what the sharing economy and all the other "internet of things" dithering comes down to: a gated community for people residing in America's urban coastal enclaves. A community many of them don't even want, but they don't have the guts to leave.