3 anecdotes that shape my thoughts on #GamerGate – Boy Scouts, a Cat in the Trash, and a Clockwork Orange

If you don’t know what #GamerGate is, you should be glad.  It’s awful.  Here’s a summary if you don’t know.

Here’s my TL;DR for you:

1. Over the last couple years, a few feminists have been pointing out that many video games perpetuate sexist stereotypes about women, and make little room for women in their stories and gameplay.  The locus of this conversation has been Anita Sarkeesian and her Feminist Frequency video channel.  When Sarkeesian decided to make a series of videos about women in games a couple years ago, some members of the “gamer” community lost its mind, and many members of it began harassing her relentlessly, triggering the Streisand effect and getting Sarkeesian far more money than she would have gotten originally (full disclosure, I pitched in $10 specifically because of this harassment).  The abuse and harassment has not stopped for Sarkeesian in the time since her project began.

2. Sometime recently, the ex-boyfriend of a game developer named Zoe Quinn posted a long rant about what an awful person he thought she was, and she suddenly became the object of all sorts of viciousness and abuse from the net’s most visible denizen of ne’er-do-wells, 4chan’s /b/ forum.  As part of this vitriol, accusations were made that Quinn used sex to advance her games and/or get favorable reviews from game journalists.

3. Hence, #GamerGate, a scandal about games journalism and corruption in game reviewing.  Supposedly.  Except that the hate, vitriol, harassment, abuse, and threats against women are inextricably linked with the people mad about how game reviews are written.  And the loci from which the discussions of the scandal spring are the same, so there’s no way an outsider could understand or see how the individuals inside those groups imagine them to be different.

My intent in writing this piece is not to argue the merits of game journalism corruption, nor to condemn the harassment of women in the gaming industry (which I do hereby condemn) but rather to think about the way the denizens of #GamerGate have handled the accusations that it’s a front for women-harassing assholes.  I have three anecdotes and a thought to share.

1. I was a Boy Scout as a kid, and I have a lot of fond memories of the organization.  But in the last twenty years, a conservative arm of the group has taken over leadership of it and made a number of terrible policies excluding gay leaders and scouts.  I find these decisions appalling, and not in keeping with either the spirit of inclusiveness that is supposed to be at the heart of scouts, nor with the non-demoninational morality the group claims to have.  Hence, because I disagree with these prominent choices associated with the group, I’ve withdrawn my support of it, and won’t be involved with it.

2. In 2010, when a lady was caught on video throwing a cat in a trash can, 4chan found and published her identifying information in less than 24 hours.  Apparently they sent threats and other horrible things her way while they were at it, but my point here is that when they’re angry, this roving group of nuclear id can bring powerful pain down on people they don’t like.  If they really cared about the individuals harassing women in the name of #GamerGate, they would self-police.  Send a threatening tweet? Feel the fury of 4chan.  They have shown themselves to be resourceful, active detectives of the digital sphere.  Failure to act against bad actors in their midst speaks volumes.

3. Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange features a third act (or fifth?  I can never tell which is which) that Stanley Kubrick left out of the film.  The narrator serves his time in prison and tries to return to his old ways, only to find that he’s outgrown them.  He finds that uncivilized behavior, while appealing to youth, creates a false present-hedonism that hampered his ability to be a human being as he grew.  It’s a moment of growth that’s missing from the film.  We learn that groups of young men are particularly good at getting one another to do awful things, but in the long run, those awful things undermine society and the very humanity of the people committing them.

But then I saw this comic (via @granitetide), and it sums up much of what the casual observer will think about #GamerGate.


A final thought:

As Ken White at Popehat has often written, the answer to speech we don’t like is more speech.  Individuals who use their power to try to stop other people from speaking should be opposed with all the strength we can muster, as hampering free and open dialogue cuts to the core of what makes America great.  But the constitutional right to say whatever you like does not mean such statements are ethical or moral. Words have meaning, and have an effect on the people at whom they’re directed.  To associate with people who are acting unconscionably is to endorse that behavior.  The #GamerGate label has been poisoned from the beginning.  It was always-already infused with women-hating harassment, and any attempt to claim a higher ethical purpose cannot be extricated from these roots.If you don’t like how games journalism works, write about games journalism.  If you don’t like the tale that Sarkeesian is telling about how games work, critique that tale.  But to threaten her and her supporters, to harass and frighten opposition across the web, and to demand that people join your worldview or face terror is to forego freedom for tyranny.

Archbishop John Nienstedt should be ashamed of himself.

"Hands together" by Danny Hammontree
“Hands Together” by Danny Hammontree
(cc licensed)

Archbishop John Nienstedt asked Jaime Moore, the longtime music director for St. Victoria parish in Victoria, MN, to resign after Moore married his longtime same-sex partner.  Nienstedt should be ashamed of himself.

We’ve long understood that the Bible is a hot mess of contradictions.  Aside from confusions introduced by its translation into other languages, there are clear contradictions between the new and old testament, or in which things we’ve decided are or are not still important to God. (See The Year of Living Biblically for a good discussion of this.)

But over time, as the secular, enlightenment understanding of humanity has evolved, we’ve come to see that the ancient view of “sin” was grounded in the specifics of the time those books were written, and that in order to properly understand why something is or isn’t wrong, we need to continually re-asses and explore that issue.  For a good example of how we’ve come to reinterpret, from a modern perspective, old “sins,” consider slavery.  (The Iron Chariots wiki is a good place to start.)  Miscegenation (the ‘mixing’ of the ‘races’) is another example, something whose position was first defended, then refuted by the religious faith people had.  See The Oatmeal for a scathing and hilarious comic rendering of this idea.

Which brings us to the modern moment.  Gay rights in the U.S. have reached a tipping point where, as John Oliver suggested, it’s not about which state will legalize gay marriage next, but rather which will be the last to do so.  And so even the Catholic church has begun to wake from its slumber, like Smaug hearing Bilbo stumbling around in the gold pile. Last spring, Pope Francis said:

“Rather than quickly condemn them, let’s just ask the questions as to why that has appealed to certain people.” and “We shouldn’t marginalise people for this. They must be integrated into society.”  (The Telegraph)

This seems to me the moment for leaders of the Catholic church to join the rest of us in the 21st century (hell, the last two decades of the 20th century).  They ought to take a deep look at the past issues of human rights (particularly race relations and slavery in the U.S.) and ask themselves how this issue is different.  Even if they still understand homosexual acts to be sinful (but gleefully eat lobster), the supposedly inclusive message of Jesus and the recent comments by the Pope would suggest that this is the opportunity for the church to respond not with shaming or shunning (or marginalizing), but with love.

Instead, Archbishop Nienstedt chose not to stand with right, but to stand with tradition only.  For shame, sir.

Full disclosure — I was raised Catholic but am now Unitarian Universalist. My mother attends St. Victoria parish and our family been lucky enough to count Mr. Moore among our friends for more than a decade.

Too long for a bumper sticker, but awesome anyway.

From one of PZ Myers’ recent posts about gender equality:

Here’s the deal, Fox News. The world is changing. It’s not getting worse, it’s getting different, and I know that’s the kind of thing that makes bitter, cranky old conservatives weep into their scotch and water, but deal with it. Besides, you’ll be dead soon and won’t care any more.

And it’s not just getting different, it’s getting better — those women in the workforce are more independent, more free, and living more fulfilling lives that matter. Welcome it. And hey, how about getting off your privileged butts and making sure that they get paid the same as men, so those families and children you’re so fucking concerned about can get by? (Oh no! Equality!)

Damn right.

Evil Dead (2013) – Rants, Delights, and Picking nits

Having written my review of Evil Dead yesterday, today is the rants, delights, and nit picking session.  Needless to say, Spoilers ahoy!

Demon lady in the basement
This cabin comes with a trap door convenient to store deranged and possessed sisters

I will hand it to Alvarez and Sayagues that they didn’t fall into the stereotypes as deeply as one might expect.  This isn’t Cabin in the Woods.  But leave it to the hipster science teacher to open the book and read the forbidden words.  He tries to make amends, but that’s a lost cause fairly early.

I like the barely-there premise that the demon might only be able to spread through blood–the kind of zombie virus that emerges in the [REC] series (specifically, [REC]2).  This would have been a very interesting movie if they had gotten rid of all the door-slamming and other things that make the possession stuff stand out and had the possession work more subtly, giving Mia the murderous moments herself.  It would have been a much darker movie if the grotesquerie hadn’t been so pronounced.

I liked all the nods back to the original, from the trap door and demon below it to the infected hand, the chainsaw, and the car in the yard.  The one-liner at the end of the movie harks back to Evil Dead 2 as well.

I also enjoyed the brief nod to Ash at the end of the movie.  There are numerous discussions around the Internet about the idea that they will bring his character back in a sequel, which would be interesting and enjoyable.  But I’m unsure how the new style of the film would gel with the older ones — does Ash become less goofy, or does the series shift toward humor more?

Now a few rants:

  • My biggest problem with the Evil Dead has always been its confusing mythology and logic.  What determines when/how the demons can possess someone? Why is it hard for them to get the main character when they seem to possess everyone else with blythe ease?
  • This movie reinforces the idea that human beings can take an incredible amount of damage without falling over dead.  In particular, whole limbs are severed and tourniquets are NOT applied and the individuals continue hobbling around like it’s a skinned knee.
  • I couldn’t help but wonder where the people who wrote the book got all this detailed advice about dealing with the monsters.  And if the words in the book are the evil words that summon them, and the book is about how to get rid of them, Why write them down in the first place?  This is one time I’d say security by obscurity is a good strategy.
  • When is the ceremony at the beginning of the book supposed to have taken place?  I assumed decades previous, but the cats were still rotting in the basement.  And if you were part of the anti-demon cult (the ones who wrapped the book in barbed wire and a hefty bag), wouldn’t you, oh I don’t know, bury the book or something?
  • It also occurred to me that barbed wire is a difficult medium to use to hang dead cats from the ceiling.  What’s wrong with twine?  Maybe they were DEMON CATS.
  • Why did David think he could bring Mia back after he buried her?  How come death isn’t part of the sacrifice needed to quell the monster?
  • Why did the evil monster at the end rise?  Which “five souls” had it feasted on?  Did it have Mia’s soul even though she was brought back to life?  Perhaps the five were the four friends from this movie plus the MOTHER whom the girl at the beginning of the film was purported to have killed.

For me the creepiest part of the movie is the audio recording playing at the end of the film.  Yeesh.

Two thoughts on the Boston bombing and related events

First, the coverage of the Boston bombing on Popehat has been amazing.  The gang over there have been doing a bang-up job writing from new angles about the event.  My two favorite are:

security theater, martial law, and a tale that trumps every cop-and-donut joke you’ve ever heard” in which Clark wrote about the enormous waste involved in shutting Boston down for a whole day (except, apparently, Dunkin Donuts, which was explicitly asked to stay open to provide the police with food).

and “Richard Jewell Cannot Accept Our Apology” which reminds us of the famously maligned hero from the 1996 Atlanta bombing and the way the media and pretty much everyone else blamed him without reasonable proof.  Patrick wrote this the day after the bombing:

If the FBI, and CNN, and NBC, and the New York Post, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and All Of Us, could get the Atlanta bombing so tragically wrong in 1996, they, and we, can do it today. In the days to come, it would behoove All Of Us to take what the FBI, and CNN, and NBC, and the New York Post, and their ilk, have to say about suspects and motives with a grain of salt.

Lest we find outselves owing someone a Richard Jewell-sized apology.

Perhaps the best apology we, All Of Us, can give to Richard Jewell is to be a little more skeptical of what we’re told by the FBI, and CNN, and NBC, and the New York Post, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and their ilk.

It will do Richard Jewell no good whatsoever, but it will make All Of Us better citizens.

In the aftermath of the violent gunfights involved in capturing the current suspects, it seems likely that at worst, the Boston PD and FBI have succeeded in getting dangerous people off the streets–people we presume to be the bombers as well.  The father of the boys is claiming they were framed, which seems bizarre given that they shot at the police and threw explosives, but if you were going to frame someone for this kind of attack, it would make sense to pick someone with a cache of guns and homemade explosives.

Second, in a similar sentiment to the one Clark expressed about the bombing, I’m surprised that the Texas fertilizer factory explosion hasn’t gotten FAR more coverage and raised FAR more concern than the bombing.  Because at its core, the bombing is an unavoidable part of living in free society–you cannot prevent bad people from doing bad things if they’re committed enough. It will happen.  But regulating industry so that careless accidents don’t happen? Hell yeah you can prevent that.

But our media seem much more interested in the unavoidable tragedy than the avoidable one.  I would prefer to see the media mania focused on the factory and the ramifications of our gutted regulatory bodies and their inability to enforce strong safety and environmental regulations rather than so much attention on the criminal act and its actor.

Call to the Lazy Web: Virtual Library Shelf

I’ve often lamented to my classes that the Internet has not yet come up with the electrate equivalent of the library shelf.  Denizens of the library recognize the collectors’ delight in the surprising find, the book that’s near the one we wanted but not directly related to it.  It might be two shelves up, or it might be at the beginning of the aisle.  The new interfaces haven’t found a way to replicate that mode of book browsing yet.

So I hereby issue a call for an interactive library that functions like Google maps, rendering a dynamic collection of available books as if they were shelved.  The user could scroll through the shelves, zoom in and out on particular places, see gaps where checked out books ought to be, etc.  Since this is a fantasy, I’ll also stipulate the books should be rendered in appropriate sizes with spines in the right color.  This could hook into Google Books and allow the user to page through books that pique their interest.

I realize this sounds like a cranky call for old modes.  Why does Teevee need so many durn channels!? but we’ve lost hold of an aesthetic, intuitive mode of discovery as we’ve organized our book collections by keyword and shared-interest algorithms. (I love the “other people who bought this” function on amazon, for instance, but it doesn’t come close to the satisfaction of browsing books at a bookstore.)

Commentary on “Link Sausage”

Fair warning: Thorough research for this post may take you a few minutes, as you have some link-reading to do.

Background: Brandywine books is the blog of novelist Lars Walker and a couple of his friends (or just one?, hi Phil!).  Walker reviews books at a prodigious pace (faster than me) and writes about a variety of issues Norwegian, Viking, Minnesota, and Conservative and Evangelical Christian.  On all but the last two, I find the posts generally enjoyable.  On these, it’s one of the few places I’ve found where people with whom I vehemently disagree are willing to engage in civil dialogue about the issues, which has kept me reading and occasionally commenting.

Usually I just post over there, but today I had comments on all three of Walker’s links, so I thought I’d post here and give you, dear reader, the benefit of my bloviation. (Bonus! I just had to teach my spell check the word bloviation.  I love teaching the spell check new words.)

1. Lets get to it.  First, Walker comments on the fact that the Boy Scouts of America recently re-upped its policy barring homosexuals from membership.  Walker comments (sarcastically):

When will this benighted organization understand that a boy’s life is forever blighted if he misses the opportunity to spend a night in a tent with a homosexual?

I am an Eagle Scout, but my son will not be.  As someone who places great value in what the Boy Scouts do, it made me very sad (when this kerfuffle started) that the BSA took the position it did, for two reasons.  First, I believe they’re wrong, morally and ethically.  But I know I’m not going to convince Walker on that point today.  Second, and more to the point regarding the BSA itself, they’re violating their own tenets.  To whit, the Boy Scout law (typing from memory here) tells boys to be: Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent.  Of these values, only the last can be even remotely related to the issue of homosexuality, as some religions disallow it.  But not all do — in fact, many do not.  So instead of embracing the fact that people of different creeds gather to share a love of the outdoors and good-spirited camaraderie, the BSA leadership has declared that one particular religious perspective takes precedent over others.

I also find really irritating the smug notion that:

The vast majority of the parents of youth we serve value their right to address issues of same-sex orientation within their family, with spiritual advisers and at the appropriate time and in the right setting,” Mazzuca said. “We fully understand that no single policy will accommodate the many diverse views among our membership or society.” (link)

That’s because anyone with strong views on the issue has left the organization.  It’s like saying “We don’t welcome anyone with brown hair” for ten years, and then justifying the policy by saying “Most of our parents agree with the no-brown-hair policy.”  That’s because you’ve built yourself an echo chamber.

Don’t get me wrong–it’s a private organization that can do what it likes and I would not advocate any kind of government intervention. (Though it does irk me that this openly discriminating group still gets strong concessions from governmental organizations like cheap rental of military land for jamborees.)  But to my mind, this policy not only fails to teach boys that different people have different beliefs (a core part of the Reverent tenet), but the policy also distinctly fails to teach boys aspects of being Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, and Kind.

2.Next, Walker affirms the points made by Dennis Prager’s “A Letter to Young Voters,” which argues that 1) generally people recognize that as we grow older, we gain wisdom, 2) people get more conservative as they get older, so 3) why do young people think being idealistic is so great?  Walker puts the point to liberals, writing:

This seems an excellent point to me. How do you answer it if you’re a liberal? Either it’s false that people get more conservative as they get older (which utterly defies all experience) or it’s false that people get wiser as they get older (and try telling that to the Boomers, even the liberal ones).

My first thought was to look up whether people really do get more conservative as they get older.  My instinct was that it’s complicated — that people become more conservative in some ways and liberal in others.  An article on Discovery news (the top hit on my search) suggests that demographic studies complicate this old chestnut.

So, going with the caviat that I don’t accept, as a blanket statement, that people become conservative as they get older, I will go with it for now because I too have that instinct.  I’ll admit that I had many of the responses Prager dismisses in his piece.  First, I agree that people get fiscally conservative because they become more concerned with their personal welfare.  He tries to rebut this by saying that older people are more generous with time and money than young people.  Again, I’d like to see verification of this.  I also look at the things that make it difficult for me, right now, to engage in that generosity, and I see children.  My inclination is that my generosity will change significantly as my kids grow and engage with the world as adults in their own right.  But I also dispute Prager’s basic concept, that the this conservatism comes from being burned by “big government”.  He asserts as universal ideas that appeal to him.  I know my mother, a peer of his, would argue with every point he makes.  And she’s certainly wise.

At the same time, Prager doesn’t at all address the question of social conservatism.  Thomas Kuhn’s arguments about paradigm shift in science apply to moral advances in society as well, to my mind.  Kuhn argued that the significant changes in science that allowed for widescale shifts in perspective (like the heliocentric theory replacing the heavenly spheres theory) occurred only as the older scientists who grew up under the old paradigm began to die off.  In that regard, I feel that the moral advances this country has seen (as in, say, the issue of racial discrimination) is tied strongly to the aging population.  I feel like there’s a similar trend in the issue of gay marriage.

So to sum up, I think the idea that “people get more conservative as they get older” is a hollow one that doesn’t help illuminate what it means to say people gain wisdom, and may not be as true as we think.  But I do acknowledge that a naivete and idealism inherent in youth gets worn away by experience.  The lessons learned by the past must indeed be remembered by the next generation, or we all sit and spin.  But we need to remember that young people will likely introduce the new ideas that allow us to advance, and we must be careful not to mistake nostalgia for wisdom.

3. Walker echoes writer Mitch Berg in complaining about an initiative to close a street to car traffic.  The internal politics of the piece are complicated, as the traffic has been diverted by a light rail project, etc, etc.  My response is twofold: First, it’s long been established that traffic patterns defy “common sense.” (C.F. Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities).  So trying to use common sense rather than scientific study to predict or explore them will always fail.  One side effect of these studies has been that more roads create more traffic.  (Having said that, the common sense demonstration of this is Atlanta, where they build more and more roads, and the traffic grows to meet it.)

Second, why do cars get precedence over bicycles?  Don’t the bicyclists have just as much right to go to work?  It’s indisputable that cars take up more room and cause more pollution than do bicycles.  While it’s not the city’s place to demand that people stop driving into the city, it’s also not incumbent on them to bend all life and space of the city to automobile traffic.  If anything, public transport and bicycles should be encouraged because they use fewer of the common resources (space being the premium in the city).  Sure, you can drive, but it should be a hassle because you’re taking up more room.  Berg’s lament seems to forget that convenience for one person almost always means inconvenience for someone else in the context of a limited resource.


Wasn’t it always a tax?

One of the Planet Money podcasters mentioned, a while back, that the American people are really dumb about how we understand taxes and spending (my words, not his).  Some of us complain when the government spends money by collecting it and then disbursing it, but few of us complain when the government spends money by not collecting it.  They call it spending through the tax code (my biggest benefits via that route? Mortgage interest deduction and two child credits).

But this is beside the point.  All the people complaining about the insurance mandate are buttheads.  Unless we’re going to go to a draconian system that literally refuses people without insurance from getting medical care (and I don’t see anyone except nutcase Libertarians arguing that), we must have a way to make sure everyone pays, otherwise free riders will bankrupt the system, as is happening right now. (Because they run up bills that they can’t pay, they go bankrupt, and the system has to absorb the costs.)  We all pay for the uninsured in higher costs and higher premiums already.  We’re already being taxed, it’s just by big corporations whose motives extend to serving shareholders instead of by gov’t bureaucrats who are supposed to serve the country (in whose hands power gets corrupted in different ways, certainly).

To people against the mandate, I’d ask how they think we should deal with this:

The definition of Pre-existing condition
The definition of Pre-existing condition

A Ranty Rant about Snow White and the Huntsman

Snow White and the Huntsman poster
Snow White and the Huntsman

Snow White and the Huntsman

I’d normally save this up to do a double review, but I have a lot to say about this movie, so here goes.

First, the positives.  This is a pretty movie.  It looks GREAT.  The costume designers, set designers, FX artists, and cinematographers did an amazing job.  I love the concept of the mirror as a creepy reaper figure, though he ended up looking a bit like a sparkly Dementor.  Charlize Theron tears apart the screen with glorious scenery chewing and yet brings pathos to the dark scenes, while Sam Spruell plays her emasculated sadist brother perfectly, rocking the frightening bowl cut almost as well as Anton Chigurh did.  (Creepily, IMDB informs me his name is Finn. Yikes.)  Chris Hemsworth does a decent job with the limited role he has, doing his best to bring believability to the sudden love he has for Snow.  That’s about it.

Now, the negatives.  I know it’s trite to say that Kristen Stewart isn’t much of an actress, but this film doesn’t give you an opportunity to judge that, as she mostly stands still and looks pretty.  I’m reminded of an anecdote I heard about a film I can’t remember.  If I had to guess, I’d say it was about Ninotchka, Greta Garbo, and Ernst Lubitsch.  If any film folks out there can confirm or correct, I’d appreciate it.  Anyway, the film ends with Garbo looking out over the railing of a ship, mourning the sad state her life has left her in.  Lubitsch famously instructed her to “think of nothing” in order to get the perfect look.  Throughout the movie, I felt like that had been Stewart’s acting instruction.  The only scene that gave us a glimpse of her acting was the “rousing battle speech,” which failed for me on every level.  Stewart just alternates between speaking quietly and shouting.  The story itself has a rather low story arc as well, and the final scene, meant to be monumental, looks paltry (which may be more realistic as far as actual medieval battles were concerned, but still).

Now, the rant. Needless to say, Spoilers lie ahead.

I wonder if she gets whey in her crown?
I wonder if she gets whey in her crown?

I love the look of this film, until I try to understand it.  What the heck was that milk bath thing? It wasn’t milk, because milk doesn’t stick to you like latex.  Was it supposed to be cream?  I suspect the original script called for blood, which would have been amazing, but this had to be PG-13.  Jenny suggested that much of the imagery was included just to make an excellent trailer–I agree, because in the context of the film, it doesn’t make sense at all.  Like the shard soldiers that she creates — why are they such ineffective warriors?  It takes them minutes to kill four or five people.

It leads me to wonder how the queen’s magic works.  First, she turns young people old when she sucks the life out of them, but later she kills people doing the same thing.  Then, when she dies after having used up the youth/magic she stole, why does the youth return to the ones she turned old?  She expended that magic trying to keep her creepy brother alive.  She also uses up that magic at an astonishing rate — no wonder she has such a voracious appetite for castles.  And how is it that the queen was able to survive many of Snow White’s attacks, but not the last one?

And what’s going on with Snow White’s connection with animals?  Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea that her beauty and goodness bring the opposite force to the world that the queen’s evil does.  But instead, Snow’s magic really means that she has bird friends and gets to pet a deer with ridiculous antlers (is that the king of all deers?) who can turn into a flock of doves when it feels like it.  (I’m reminded of the Simpsons joke that filmmakers use painted horses in lieu of cows because the camera plays tricks on the viewer.  “What do you do if you need a horse?” Lisa asks.  “We just tape a bunch of cats together.”)  When she stopped the rampaging troll and just looked at him, I couldn’t help but think of Paul Hogan in Crocodile Dundee, wiggling his hand at a yak and getting it to lie down on the road.  And then, at the end of the film when she brings the warriors to the castle, she doesn’t use her powers or her life force.  She attacks with an army, and tries to kill the queen with a sword.  I would have loved to see the life force of the land following Snow.  Imagine the charging horse scene accompanied by a wake of greenery and animals — waves of songbirds and sprouting grass fanning out behind the princess.  Swarms of bees descending on the castle, cats and rats surging in to overwhelm the queen’s soldiers.  That would have kicked ass.

Instead, we have the most poorly strategized castle raid in the history of cinema.  I love me a good medieval battle scene. The best part about Braveheart is the ingenuity he brings to the fights, turning the expectations of his opponents against them.  This is what I expected from the battle sequences in Snow White and the Huntsman.  After all, they’re going up against a queen who can produce a magical army of stone soldiers, who can turn herself into a flock of birds, who bathes in cream, for God’s sake.  Instead, Snow leads what looks like a couple hundred guys on horseback charging across a beach at an essentially impregnable castle with no siege equipment and no plan other than “The portcullis will be open.”  (To be fair, I just realized the battle plan was essentially the same as that of the rebels in Return of the Jedi, but Jedi had the pressure of the Death Star closing on the moon of Endor.)   It really makes you wonder how Duke Hammond survived all that time, if he’s so foolish as to risk all his cavalry on a suicide charge at the castle.

Fortunately, for a queen who has supposedly conquered and held many kingdoms, Ravenna has pretty shitty strategy and security.  First, Snow White after escapes through a sewer vent, thus revealing a clear and obvious gap in their castle, Ravenna’s forces proceed to do nothing about it.  Thus, when the dwarves want to get into the castle, they just climb right back in.  Metal gate guarding the hole? Nope.  Second, who drew up the duty roster for castle defense?  This is an extraordinarily secure castle, being on peninsula with tall walls.  Its only weak point is a single (?) portcullis.  You’d think, given the importance of that part, that you’d have more than one or two guys guarding it.  Or perhaps you’d lock the door to the room with the controls.  Nope.  And when your opponents arrive at the portcullis and mass around it, fretting while they wait for the portcullis to rise, do you dump boiling oil on them and set them ablaze?  No, you wait until the main force has already entered the castle, then you dump it on a few of the stragglers, the poor bastards whose horses couldn’t gallop the two miles down the beach.

Menacing Finn and his blonde bowl cut of evil
Menacing Finn and his blonde bowl cut of evil

And when did the Huntsman fall in love with Snow?  During their hike through the Fire Swamp Dark Forest (during which they encountered, depressingly, zero ROUSes) he doesn’t really get to know her, and then the rest of the time he’s just fighting or watching her pet animals.  Then suddenly he loves her as much as his beloved wife.  Bah!

So there are lots of things to gripe about in the film.  It looks wonderful, so it might be worth seeing on the big screen to admire the milk bath scene and the Dementor mirror, but you’d be better off watching Braveheart or The Princess Bride again.

New Directions in Popular Culture Theory

The most invigorating and lively panel I attended was the Professional Development panel chaired by Bob Batchelor on Saturday morning at 11:15.  Four of us presented to a packed house, offering ideas and explorations of the current pop culture landscape and considering how Pop Culture studies and Theory could interact in the future.  Quick summaries of my co-panelists:

  • Brian Cogan spoke first, offering ten thirty-second nuggets of wisdom and prophecy about popular culture studies and the future of theory.  He reminded us that the study of Popular Culture was the study of everything, even nonPopular culture.  Cogan reminded us that Ray Browne saw the field as a kind of meaning making, the exploration of the ideas of cultural capital.  He championed our “now”ness — the fact that our field studies texts as they emerge, and thus takes a greater risk than those who wait to study texts until they’ve entered the canon.  Finally, he mentioned two Japanese words, which I’m sure I’ll spell wrong here,otaku meaning geek, and amaru meaning mutual responsibility.
  • Sarah MacFarland-Taylor spoke next, offering a critical theoretical exploration of the relationship between religious studies and popular culture studies.  She discussed how both explore the resonances of the primitive/civilized split, how Popular Culture itself operates as a kind of religion (Ed note: Echoes of Ulmer here: Orality = Religion; Literacy = Bureaucratic Government; Electracy = Entertainment), and how the classic opposition between work and play becomes upended by popular culture.
  • Then I spoke (see below)
  • Bob Batchelor closed the initial five-minute talks with a proposal for Popular Culture Theory 2.0.  Batchelor described how Browne’s original vision saw theory as a hindrance to Popular Culture, that it allowed scholars to perpetuate the elitism of the academy, that it was undemocratic.  But, Batchelor suggests, now we’ve got a moment where we can embrace some of the theoretical strategies to explicate meaning and understand our context.  He urges us to be omnidisciplinarians, a practice that has been part of Pop Culture study as Browne always envisioned it.  We should shape our writing for a global audience.

My talk:
I’ve included my PowerPoint slides below.  I’ve noted when each slide would start.  Please note: this talk was given extemporaneously from rough notes, so the content here differs slightly from what I said on 14 April.

Welcome.  I’m Brendan Riley, an Associate Professor of English at Columbia College Chicago.  My talk today is a bit of a polemic, so I apologize in advance if you were expecting something erudite.  I’ll be talking today about how Popular Culture scholars can, and must, take the lead in helping the Humanities tell its story.
  I’m drawing my talk today from a couple premises.  The first is that Higher Education is on a bubble.   I believe Higher Education is in the same situation today that Travel Agents faced in 1995.  We’re perched on the verge of a major upheaval in the way people pursue higher education: with decreasing government funding for higher ed and rising tuition costs, the nation is beginning to shudder at the debt burden we’re putting on students.
  From below, the rising tide of online education threatens the model under which we’ve been conducting education for ever.  I hate to say it, but given today’s date, this seems apt.

My goal here today is to talk about how the Humanities can do our best to be on the lifeboats if the ship goes down.

  My second starting point is that the Humanities in general has not done a very good job of telling its own story. 

In Zachary Karabel’s What’s College For?he argues that academics have a distinctly different idea about what higher education should and does do than pretty much any constituency from students and parents to senators and employers.  And worse, when anyone outside academia tries to have a conversation engaging with this question, academics often refuse to listen.

If we don’t engage in the conversation, Karabel argues, it will be held without us.

And there’s a lot to say from our perspective.  The study of culture brings to students a critical perspective far more flexible than any career-specific training they might receive.  So why do we have trouble telling this story?

  Which brings me to my title, this slide, and my central anecdote.  A friend of mine used to tell this story:

In his first semester teaching film studies, a conventional University of Florida frat-boy approached him at the end of the first class.  With a skeptical look on his face, the young man asked,

“Is this the kind of class where you teach us that JAWS is about Communism and stuff?”

For me, this anecdote is symptomatic of two larger currents in our culture:

First, it reinforces the anti-intellectual perspective that the Humanities involves a ridiculous semiotic slight of hand with little or no value to the outside world.

Second, it highlights the skepticism these same anti-intellectuals have toward the study of popular culture instead of the canon.

   It’s in solving these last two problems that Popular Culture scholars are among the best positioned to help tell the story of the Humanities in a way that will help people understand why what we do is important.

This is where Theory comes in, for Popular Culture scholarship has long been victim to the hermeneutic trap, the tendency to produce close readings without considering the import of our work beyond the walls of academe.  In the same way, the jargon-laden writing of theoretically-minded scholars suffers from a similar fate: its exclusivity stands in the way of its transportability into the larger culture.

Hence, we scholars of the everyday have an opportunity.  By writing about the practice and experience of the everyday in compelling, theoretically robust ways that also aim for an educated general reader, we can tell the story of the work we do to the people whom we serve.

   This activity falls under the umbrella, of course, of public intellectualism.  So it’s here that I join the Bob Batchelor bandwagon; I echo his call from the Ray Browne Popular Culture conference last Spring for we scholars to step out of our cloisters, to engage in public debate, to remind people why they should value what we do.

Because if we don’t tell our story, who will?

Thank you.

A couple quick complaints about the birth on BONES

Bones Baby
The cleanest newborn ever.

Tempe Brennan just gave birth on Bones last week, and I was annoyed by a couple things:

  1. No way she would be pro-home birth.  The clinical and scientific research shows a significant risk in giving birth at home, and I just find her character too scientific to act the way she was acting.  Lame.
  2. Pregnancies, especially first pregnancies, take hours.  She goes from walking around to “I’m in labor” to “I’m having the baby and we don’t have time to drive ten miles so we need to have the baby on the floor of a barn.  What a load of crap.
  3. Booth would be WAY more messy than he was after occupying the catcher’s position like he did.  And so would the baby.  They just smeared a little strawberry jam on its forehead and called it a day.  Lame.

That said, the episode overall was enjoyable and fun.


Sometimes I realize I just don’t understand people

This happened last week.

I was on my way into the restroom at work, following about three steps behind a hipster wearing a knit hat and a backpack.  As I rounded the corner, I could hear one of the sinks going full blast and could see that no one was standing by them.  The man ahead of me walked toward the sinks while I headed for the toilets.  While I went about my business, the man walked over to the sink area, stepped up to the other sink, washed his hands quickly, dried them, and left the bathroom, the water in the other sink still roaring. If he’d gone to the toilets ahead of me, I would have stepped over and turned off the sink before I did anything else.  Why hadn’t he just turned off the water?

As he was leaving, I couldn’t help but wonder What’s going on? Here are some of the thoughts that followed:

  • I found myself really irritated with the guy.  In pondering the episode, I realized I was more irritated with the guy who didn’t turn off the water than the person who left it on.  The person who left it on is clearly more in the wrong than the guy who didn’t turn it off, but I only know the circumstances of the latter.
  • Why might someone leave the water on like that? Perhaps spite? They’re so jaded about my college, and feel so powerless, that their only recourse is petty resource squandering.
  • Or germophobia?  They washed their hands and then didn’t want to touch the handles again.  I find this the most reasonable, though one could always use the back of one’s hands, surgeon-style, to close the taps.  There’s also an anti-bacterial hand sanitizer dispenser just around the corner, something any good germophobe would know.
  • Perhaps the water was a clandestine signal?  When the man ahead of me arrived to find the water, he learned that his secret contact (perhaps a fellow agent plotting some hipster happening during the upcoming G8) had sensed trouble and bolted. The running water was a calling card, left to let his compatriot know their cover was blown.  This would explain both why G8 has been moved to Camp David–the secret service frowns on the idea of some knit-hatted tree hugger dusting Obama with glitter–AND why the water was left running.  It raises more questions than it answers, though.  As the man who turned off the water, am I now being followed by agents of the Treasury? Or has the other man marked himself by ignoring such an obvious social cue as running water?  (And if I’m the one suspected of mischief, will this blog post make it better or worse?  Come to think of it, perhaps my recent blog-hacking can be traced to NSA hackers underground in Langley.  Here’s hoping I don’t find myself in an Enemy of the State situation.  I’m not as athletic as Will Smith.)

    still from Enemy of the State, captioned "You should have left the sink running!"
    "You should have left the water running!"
  • Or maybe the water waster was washing something down the drain, like grease (though why someone would be getting rid of grease in the Men’s bathroom at my college is another mystery for another day) or some kind of cleaning fluid.  My second-most persuasive supposition is that the custodian left the water running for some reason and just happened to be gone for the two minutes I was in the bathroom.

In the case of this last idea, the custodian was disappointed, as I used the sink and then turned it off when I finished washing my hands.  Regardless of the unrecoverable circumstances surrounding this miniature water-gate, it has definitely proved that I just don’t understand people.  I can’t comprehend why someone would leave water running in the bathroom, and nor why someone else would fail to turn it off.  I suppose they wouldn’t understand why I would write 656 words about it on my blog.

Why I’m Not a Libertarian

Keep Gv't OUT of Medicare
Keep Gv't OUT of Medicare

Libertarianism–at least as I understand it and Jillette seems to agree–takes as its central premise that it’s unethical for the government to coerce anyone to do anything.  The government should only provide protection to its citizens in the form of a limited police force and a military.  Everything else should be resolved in the free market.  Among the problems with this approach are:

  1. It assumes everyone starts with an equal chance.  When the system allows some people to start with lots of money and power and other people with hardly any, then the opportunity the latter have is severely restricted, and the power structure maintains control for its masters.  (This in part comes from Capitalism’s inherent inequality, though I still think a tempered Capitalism is the best economic system we’ve come up with so far.)
  2. While it might work on a small scale, the bigger the system gets, the more opportunity there is for bad actors to abuse the commons on which systems of trust succeed.  The result is that you have to invest more powers in the police and then you drift away from those essential freedoms.
  3. Libertarianism presumes economic freedom should trump all other kinds, so people at the bottom have less access to essential services (like health care) that should be part of the basic right of humanity.
  4. Finally, Libertarianism doesn’t really recognize or have a mechanism for preventing the Tragedy of the Commons.

In case you’re wondering, I tend to lean toward a system of Capitalist economy with a progressive-tax-based Socialist system making the bottom standard of living humane, with a Libertarian approach to as many laws as possible.  My argument for progressive tax can be summed up in these two arguments:

  1. If you make $100 a week, $10 is a lot to you, and significantly impacts your quality of life.  If you make $1000 a week, $150 is still a lot to you, but you still have $850 with which to pursue your happiness.  If you make 10,000 a week, $2,000 is annoying to you, but you still have $8,000 with which to buy gold toilets.   This difference in “ability to pay” makes it clear, to me, that a flat tax is unethical.
  2. Social services, with a minimum standard of living, is a social vaccine against bloody revolt.  When the gap between the wealthy and the poor gets too big, that’s when social morale, opportunity, and order decay.  By building a system in which the wealthy must pay to maintain an ethical minimum for the poor, we insure that inequality doesn’t get so out of hand that order itself falls apart.  (My glib answer to any asshole who calls progressive taxation “class warfare” is to suggest that class warfare is when the poor drag the wealthy out of their mansions and behead them–progressive taxation is a reasoned response to the inequality inherent in capitalism.)

My thinking about Libertarianism about social laws is thus: We should hold individual liberty as one of our highest values.  Other than our obligation to basic social maintenance (see progressive taxation), we should have personal liberty of thought, expression, political action, and socialization.  This means that there should not be laws governing our behavior  except where absolutely necessary, and even then we should be wary.

I think, for instance, that seatbelt laws should apply to children, but once you’re over 18, you should have the right to drive or ride without a seat belt if you prefer.  At the same time, I think your insurance should not be held liable for any injuries you receive while driving or riding without a seatbelt.  The problem, of course, is what we do with you if you have no money and get injured.  Do we let you die?  I don’t think we should, but then this means the lack of seatbelt laws allows for individuals to abuse the system (the Tragedy of the Commons) again.  Thus, I think these kinds of ethical and moral quandaries are not as easily answered as the Libertarians would have us believe.

Works without Faith

"Candles of Prayer" by Werner Kunz
"Candles of Prayer" by Werner Kunz

Two conversations I had in high school, with friends of different Christian sects, would stay in my mind a long time, becoming a crucial part of how I understood my own relationship to religion for years.

  1. Driving to some group outing (I want to say bowling, even though this was not part of our usual routine), I chatted with a friend from a fairly conservative Evangelical church in which I learned about the notion of “taking Jesus as your personal savior.”  I don’t remember how we got into it, but the salient moment was when she explained why missionaries were so important: because all those people in Africa (to our suburban high school minds, a homogenous wild place that we’d seen in Sally Struthers commercials) who died without accepting Jesus went to Hell.  My internal conscience revolted, upset both at the idea that God might condemn people to an eternity of suffering for being born in the wrong place and that my friend could believe such a thing so fervently.We Catholics, you see, had been lawyering the Bible for years.  At the time, I didn’t know about the doctrine that unbaptized babies go to purgatory, nor the liberal idea that people unschooled in Christianity could still be saved because they held close to the tenets of Christianity.
  2. Sitting around a camp fire another evening, I remember debating with a much less conservative friend about the nature of religion and Christianity itself.  In the midst of some good-natured ribbing between the Catholics (or Popies, as they liked to tease us) and the Protestants, we debated the core idea of salvation through faith versus salvation through faith and works.  It seemed absurd to me that faith in itself would be enough to be saved.  I offered the classic utilitarian objection: “Couldn’t you just live a terrible life and then repent on your deathbed?”
    “Yes,” my friend replied, “but if you really believed, you wouldn’t want to.”
    I thought it sounded fishy at the time, and still do.

Which brings me to today, in which I am a Unitarian Universalist, a covenantal (rather than doctrinal) religious faith that draws on many traditions but turns on the essential notion that we don’t know what comes after this life, so we’d best concentrate on understanding the life we do know about and making it the best we can, for ourselves and others.  Call it Works without (a specific or required) Faith.  It’s a religion that can work without compromise, because we need not explain our way around particular passages in ancient books, we can draw on wisdom from around the world, and we can include everyone without the stigma of believing some of them will go to Hell.

But having found this position, it helps me understand the connection between conservative politics and conservative Christianity.  Despite all of Jesus’ teachings about the poor being his ambassadors on Earth and the dangers of inequality and the importance of loving one another, the prominent leaders of the conservative parties do not court the Christian vote by promoting social welfare but rather by promoting prayer in school, anti-abortion statues, and other divisive doctrinal issues.  It’s because, to them, faith matters more than works.

If faith is the key component to salvation (and the core of their religious teachings), then the imperfect (and aren’t most of us in that category) members of the religion will fail to emulate Christ in all things, but will still believe in him (and thus be saved).  But if believing is enough, what obligation do they have to do his work in the world?  As a college student, I always hated the busy-work of quizzes or written responses to homework; as an instructor, I’ve learned that if I do not require some response to the homework, people often skip it.  It’s human nature.  Salvation through Faith Alone is a giant loophole in God’s syllabus, leading to all manner of social injustice in our culture, as self-righteous politicians wave the Christian flag while endeavoring to do nothing to help those Christ would have been ministering among.

Thus, I found myself having an epiphany last month, as Rev. Alan Taylor spoke about prominent Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, an early 19th Century abolitionist whose fiery rhetoric and calls for activism derailed his ambitions for a place in Boston society.  The epiphany was the answer to the question that has haunted me for years: How can Evangelicals, who claim to follow Christ’s admonitions to help their fellow man, vote for politicians whose economic policies are aimed at maintaining or advancing the upper class?  Faith over works.  While I concentrate on the real impact those politicians have on individual lives, the “vote religious” crowd focuses on the public demonstrations these individuals make of their faith.  After all, if salvation comes through faith, we need to elect someone with a visible faith.


  • Numerous Christians don’t fit this schema for various reasons.  Of course, many Christians elude my descriptions above for many reasons, but there is a growing strain of Evangelicals who believe strongly in social justice.  C.F. Jim Wallis and his folks. (Also, my friend Christopher LaTondresse over at Recovering Evangelical)
  • One powerful force still driving many Christians to vote Republican is the abortion issue. While I don’t agree with their position, I can understand that if you’ve got a conviction that abortion is murder, that might be the deciding vote every time.  Alas, such voters usually do not endorse or pursue other means of reducing abortions (such as sex ed), which makes me think it’s not really about abortions, but about being loudly faithful.
  • I’m sure there are many Christians who hold other views that fall on the conservative side of the divide for whom the Christian thing is a nice bonus, rather than the deciding factor.


Ethos, or Stay Classy

I recently sold a futon/bunk bed on Craigslist, pricing it relatively low so as to get rid of it quickly.  I had a number of nice inquiries, but I also had this one:

Date: Tue, 6 Dec 2011 14:10:45 -0600
Subject: Futon couch/bed with twin bunk above - $50 (Forest Park, IL)
To: sale-grnau-2738549139@craigslist.org

** Avoid:  wiring money, cross-border deals, work-at-home
** Beware: cashier checks, money orders, escrow, shipping
** More Info:  http://www.craigslist.org/about/scams

U sell futon


This message was remailed to you via: sale-grnau-2738549139@craigslist.org

A bold, straightforward inquiry, to be sure.  This person may have been telling me what I’m doing, as in the imperative You sell futon!, but I suspect he was asking a question with an implied subject: Will you sell this futon to me?  So, being the polite futon salesman you’d expect, I replied as follows:

Date: Tue, 06 Dec 2011 15:09:19 -0600
From: Brendan Riley <briley@curragh-labs.org>
To: xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
Subject: Re: Futon couch/bed with twin bunk above - $50 (Forest Park, IL)


Sorry, it's spoken for.  I'll keep your email just in case the sale 
falls through, but there are several people ahead of you.


I was aiming to let him down gently, but reassure him that I would contact him if things turned around.  His reply expressed his disappointment tersely:

Date: Tue, 6 Dec 2011 15:10:48 -0600
Subject: Re: Futon couch/bed with twin bunk above - $50 (Forest Park, IL)
From: xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
To: Brendan Riley <briley@curragh-labs.org>


What interested me about this email is the personal ethos this person reveals in his correspondence.  What does it say about him, if anything, that he sends one or three word emails?  Is he emailing from a mobile device?  Does he disdain archaic niceties of asynchronous communication?  Regardless, it shows poorly on him, I think.  Or perhaps I’m being too judgmental–why should it matter whether he sends several sentences asking about the bed, when three words with no punctuation got the message across just as well?

Either way, the choice to swear in his later response was the worst of three choices, rhetorically.  Consider his options, keeping in mind that he got a fully formed email letter from me, with punctuation and a signature.

  1. No response.  None was expected from my note, I thought.  It’s safe to assume I will contact him if the bed swings to him.
  2. Polite regret, along the line of “Thanks anyhow.”  This would be my choice, and likely to be an even more positive interaction, unlikely to be a negative, likely to be a positive.
  3. Profane regret.  At best this is a neutral, as the I might be comfortable with such language.  (Not true, a peer might appreciate the profane reply, but from my response, this man could not have guessed how I feel about such language).  There’s also a significant portion of the population with whom this would be a definite turn off, something that might insure even if his turn were to come up, I would pass him over in favor of someone who stuck to email conventions.

Such is the problem with Ethos — it works on many levels that the speaker may not have considered.  Our society certainly associates articulate communication with respectability, so the correspondent who writes politely will be more likely to persuade me to do business with them.  But as Charles Ponzi and his spiritual descendants remind us time and time again, the ability to speak eloquently does not automatically correspond to ethics in business transactions.