Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Politics of Genocide

There's a huge billboard on the corner of 49th Street and 7th Avenue in Manhattan calling for peace and reconciliation between Armenia and Turkey. Paid for by the Turks because they realize they've got a hell of a public relations problem. Things were going fine for about a century but now everyone's very upset about all those poor Armenians killed off by the moribund Ottoman Empire in its final years.

Too bad for the Turks they're brown and Muslim, because otherwise no one would care.

If there is one unassailable myth in modern Western countries, it's that genocide is universally frowned upon. Clearly this is a trait only granted to the civilized white people, as ISIS and the Indonesian Army are still pretty fond of exterminating Yazidi and Timorese respectively, but everyone from the frothing Texas conservative to the mochaccino sucking Williamsburg liberal is supposed to agree that trying to murder a whole tribe is a bad thing.

And to their credit, they do - but only on a case by case basis. Your typical sullen majority cracker couldn't care less about dead brown people - probably thinks they're all Muzzies anyway and good riddance - and even the most bleeding heart in Berkeley would be hard pressed if asked about the Herero. The Germans may have practiced for Auschwitz and Dachau in Namibia but you won't see Witbooi's List sweeping the Oscars anytime soon.

The popularity of the Armenian Genocide demonstrates the only two ways you can get people to care about the extirpation of a minority tribe: the victims are white Christians and they have many surviving relatives in a safe place far from the bloodshed. It's why Holocaust movies are their own genre and it's why anyone in America even knows about this one instance of Ottoman mass murder.

It's certainly not the bloodiest crime of the Ottomans. That distinction belongs probably to Yemen, who were a basket case before the Brits even showed up thanks to the Sultans. But you won't get the middle-class middle-brows of the US and UK to care about some long dead Arabs. They're just not relateable as victims.

That's why the same Brits who love to get on their high horse about the evils of genocide (Turkey) and fascism (Russia) have few if any words for their own colonial victims. Their murder of hundreds of thousands of Kikuyu - well after they and all the other world powers had agreed to knock off the genocide - gets barely any mention. Same with the Malays and Tibetans and just read this old post already. You can fill a lot of mass graves as long as it's not with white folks, just ask the Antebellum South or their legions of modern apologists.

But even if you don't have the misfortune to be black or brown in this world, you really need that vocal lobby in the safe countries to get anyone to care about your genocided tribe. Cyrpiot Greeks, despite being at this very moment under Turkish occupation, don't get anywhere near the attention of the Armenians because 1) they can't muster the same PR and 2) the ECB has spent the past six years telling all the US and UK yokels that Greeks are to blame for everything wrong with the world economy. So despite having an even more pressing grievance than modern Armenians, all those non-Turks in Cyprus are just shit out of luck.

Turkey has the bad luck of their ancestors killing loads of the ancestors of identifiably white and Christian folks with expat communities in the First World. If not for those specific circumstances, #ArmenianGenocide would not be trending on Twitter, nor would you even know Armenia exists. It may be a kind of justice, getting recognition for one of the many horrors perpetuated by an empire on a minority tribe in history, but it's a very perfunctory justice. A tacit admission of "This is the best we can get." Because if there were real justice for all these past genocides then flying the Stars and Bars in the US would be a capital offense and England would be on fire. Forever.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Story on Potluck

Go read my short story on Potluck Magazine, "My Sexual Problem." It started from a single line of dialogue in Annie Hall.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

One Nation Under God: Get Your Ass to Israel

This is what Joe Biden actually believes...

"And the results are in," the old TV buzzed.

"Gramma, why do you watch this channel?" Eli asked, handing the old woman her tea.

"Because it's the news," she said in that old, wheezing voice.

"Yeah but they're so political. They're practically propaganda." Eli had this argument with her nearly once a month. And always with the same answer.

"I know that, boychik. I'm not completely gone up here yet," she said, tapping her forehead. "But they've got more actual news then the other channels. You just have to know when they're reporting and when they're just saying."

"All they do is 'saying,'" muttered Eli.

"Ah, you think they're all just saying," she said with a dismissive wave. "You only listen if it's on that interwhatever."

"Internet, Gramma," he explained, like he always did. "There's free and independent news. The kind that doesn't have to go through some corporate editor." "So you're saying they're misspelled?"

The same little argument every time. This time a spelling joke. Eli once considered writing out a transcript with her final line in multiple-choice format. She probably wouldn't appreciate it though, her sense of humor didn't run towards that sort of dry, meta-concept type. More of a Mel Brooks fan.

"I can't believe She ever got elected in the first place," Gramma said, shaking her head at the triumphant graphics on the screen. "The President, the highest office, and it goes to this nudnik who can't even answer a simple question."

Eli smiled. Some things they could agree on.

"Some argue the President won by such an unexpected margin because of Her support from 'values voters,'" the TV buzzed. "The President has been very vocal about Her support for religious liberty, as well as promoting legislation to protect the rights of religious believers."

Eli gave a disgusted snort.

"Now now," his Gramma said. "As much as we don't like Her, that is a good cause."

"Gramma, She's not trying to 'protect' anyone," Eli protested. "All those laws She pushed through were to enforce Christian ideas."

"Well, some of their ideas aren't so bad," she countered. "Charity and such, everyone agrees on that."

"She's trying to start a state religion!"

Gramma just waved him off. "She couldn't do that even if She were smart enough to. It's just not allowed in this country - that's what all that talk of 'religious liberty' actually means. You believe one thing, the guy next door believes another, and you don't bother each other with it." She sipped her tea. "We should especially appreciate that because we haven't always been given that courtesy." The corner of her mouth ticked up to an almost-smile at her own understatement.

"Oh, of course," Eli grumbled, adding sarcastically, "Now we just get deported."

"For the last time, they were not deported!" she said sternly, her voice uncharacteristically rising. "They just -" she stopped to breathe, recompose herself. "They emigrated, which they have every right to do."

"But why would they want to?" Eli pressed. "And why Israel? It's a war zone!"

"Maybe they have family there," she said. "Or maybe they always wanted to live in Israel and now they can, so they do. Maybe they take a little pride in being Jews, did that ever occur to you?"

It always came back around to that. Gramma could never get over Eli needing to work Saturdays, as much as they needed the money. He also suspected that somewhere, under her usual warmth, she was forever blaming him for her own daughter getting divorced and running off with that snooty poet to Montreal. Eli still got occasional postcards from his mother and couldn't bear her any ill will, even if he couldn't stand her boyfriend. After all, she'd stuck around and supported him until he finished grad school a few years ago. Like how he stuck around to support Gramma.

"There's not much to take pride in," he said, adding hurriedly, "In Israel, I mean. You know they've got more than half the population drafted into the army? Old men and women too? I tell ya, Gramma, that whole region is going nuclear and pretty soon."

She set down the now empty tea cup. She always seemed to finish it faster when they had these heated discussions. "Oy, the kids these days... You say there's nothing to be proud of?" She waggled her finger for emphasis. "Always in someone else's land, always someone else's laws, but that all changed in Israel. Jews made the laws - finally! And all those others finally had to obey us!"

Eli wanted to point out "those others" were getting bulldozed into mass graves every week now but knew not to interrupt Gramma when she got on a roll. "I thought about moving there myself but I'm too much American. This is my home," she tapped her foot on the old rug, "Just like over there is home for them - and even a few over here. Maybe that's just something you don't understand, being young and all."

Young. If ever she didn't want to argue a point further, Gramma just dismissed it as something Eli was too young to understand. One of those petty little annoyances of living with her he'd gotten used to. "As long as you're not going over there yourself."

She laughed, the tension melting from the room. "Don't you worry about that. It's enough work just getting down the block!"

They both laughed, the argument quickly forgotten. Just like every other argument they'd had since Eli moved in. Pressure would build from minor disagreements or differences of opinion, from the close proximity to one another in the small apartment, or mostly from the mix of gratitude and loathing Eli felt from Gramma. Then they'd have a quick row and all was forgotten for a time. It wouldn't last, Eli constantly told himself. The economy would pick up, he would find a better job, social security would get its act together and start sending Gramma her proper checks again. He told himself this more and more... "I was going to have some pie. Would you like some too, boychik?"

Eli popped up, "I'll get it, Gramma." He went back to the kitchen, squeezing past the table to the refrigerator, the table with the pile of mail he brought in earlier that Gramma had since opened. He never paid much attention, the only mail he ever seemed to get were notices from the student loan people, but out of the corner of his eye he saw something. A folded, official looking letter hurriedly tucked under some junk mail.

Curious, Eli plucked it out. Unfolding it, he saw the predominant Emigration Office seal and big fat "Notice of Emigration Letter," across the header. "Jesus!" he whispered.

Oy vey! Buy my book!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Punisher: Working Class Superhero

Recently, I re-read the savage takedown Eileen Jones wrote of The Dark Knight Rises. It's still worth a read, just for the way Jones points out the ridiculous anti-99% themes shot through the film, but also how it highlights the starkly fascist undercurrents of all superhero fiction:

We all know who’s “good” in The Dark Knight Rises, no matter what their tiresome human frailties are. Batman/Bruce Wayne, Commissioner Gordon, the “angry orphan” who sees himself in Batman (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), John Blake aka soon-to-be-Robin, Batman’s faithful flunkies Alfred (Michael Caine) and Lucien (Morgan Freeman), and all the cops who fight on Batman’s side, upholding law ‘n’ order no matter what.

Batman, despite his huge popularity on the internet, has been and always will be a fundamentally fascist fantasy. A man who inherits wealth and privilege and uses all of that to overcome his deep psychological scars following the murder of his parents by dressing up in a gimp suit and assaulting poor people.

The Dark Knight surpassed the usual reactionary storytelling of the superhero medium thanks to the performance of Heath Ledger and Christopher Nolan heavily cribbing from the Michael Mann masterpiece Heat. The Dark Knight Rises suffers not only for a lack of Ledger but also being saddled with the duties of a trilogy - tying everything back to the B grade first half of Batman Begins. And if that weren't enough, they had to go and try to crib from the Charles Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities where the long suffering French peasantry are portrayed as bloodthirsty monsters by "a master of lurid melodrama [Dickens] who was all for incremental social change but got very, very squeamish about revolution, no matter how necessary and justified…"

So let's take a look at Marvel's black-clad vigilante, The Punisher. Like Batman, he targets strictly human criminals and their organizations, but unlike Batman he just plain shoots 'em. This usually makes him a "darker" character among comic book fans, since they have all the literary tastes of a third grader, but what really makes the character more mature, and less of a power fantasy, is his own tragic biography. Frank Castle returns from three tours in the Vietnam War to witness his wife and children shot to pieces in front of him. Deep institutional corruption and the meager means of a retired soldier leave Castle no other way of seeking justice but his own ingenuity and lax American gun laws.

In this way, The Punisher is not only a much more realistic costumed hero - Who really thinks they can take on armed gang members with bat-themed boomerangs? - but also something of an insurgent hero. From his first appearance in the 1970s to the celebrated MAX imprint, The Punisher has targeted one organized crime syndicate after another. The mafia, the yakuza, the Irish Mob, Jamaican Yardies, even Albanian human traffickers - all "bad guys" who thrive by exploiting the disadvantaged on one hand and striking backroom deals with established power structures on the other. In the 1970s, the mob was considered untouchable thanks to their ties to the New York City government, a subtext of the very first Punisher storyline.

Wealth and privilege in service of acquiring more wealth and privilege at the expense of the powerless. And The Punisher kills them.

This makes him a murderer and a criminal. Other costumed vigilantes, like Batman and fellow Marvel third-stringer Daredevil, technically break the law in their crime fighting but they always deliver their enemies to the authorities - authorities who routinely extract confessions from innocent people, when not just murdering them in cold blood. The Punisher reflects these realities with his simple decision to bypass a broken system. Revolution is not pretty but when change cannot be achieved through traditional means it becomes necessary.

And ultimately, Frank Castle does what he does because the world has left him no choice. Bruce Wayne can throw aside his cape and cowl, go running off to the Riviera with a dozen lingerie models, and nothing will stop him. Frank Castle, who served his country faithfully only to see his whole life shattered in an instant of random violence, has absolutely nothing to live for except his personal war. He can't buy his way out of being prosecuted himself for his vigilantism, nor can he find a livelihood with only a soldier's skills - supplied by the same state that declares him a villain for killing wealthy white people as opposed to poor Vietnamese. The contradictions of a capitalist system leave him with no options but to fight or die.

Though teenage boys will disagree, you would never want to be Frank Castle. Ray Stevenson, who played the character in Punisher: War Zone, explicitly described him as a tragic, even broken individual. For all his guns and skulls he is not a power fantasy but a grimly logical necessity in a world that cannot adequately police the predations of either black markets or the more legitimate kind. This makes him unique among costumed heroes, the norm being colorful bullies for the status quo: He may not be the hero American comics want but he is certainly the hero they need. And deserve.