Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Goodbye, Prof. Zinn

I saw Howard Zinn at PSU when I was a junior in high school. The room was packed, and security wasn't letting anyone else in. Determined to see the man whose book I'd just read, though, I found an opening, ducked past security, and sat down on the floor in the back of the lecture hall. He was a wonderful speaker. I'd read his book A People's History of the United States at the urging of my history teacher, Mr. Curry, who ranks as one of the four or five most influential teachers I've ever had. It was probably the fastest thousand pages I've ever read.

I didn't agree with everything Prof. Zinn said, but he was an immense influence. From him, I learned something about history and politics that has stayed with me to this day:

When people argue about history, they're not arguing about accuracy.

Historical arguments in the public sphere don't really have anything to do with the fine details of what is true. Professional historians may take sides on whether something was characteristic of a given time period or carbon-dated correctly, but public historical controversies aren't really about that. At that PSU lecture, Zinn gave the example of Columbus.

The historical record is fairly clear about what Columbus did and didn't do, and who he was. It's quite clear that he did not, in fact, prove that the world was round (that was already well known) and did, in fact, kill quite a lot of Native Americans. Columbus (and his crew) were professionals and kept records of what they were doing. The truth is, as they say, out there.

The perennial controversy every October 12th, though, isn't about the accuracy or inaccuracy of the historical record. It's not about whether or not those written records are accurate or not. Arguments about history are clashes between what people want to believe (the "truthiness" of something, if you will) and what is actually true.

Symbols, emotions, and cultural identifications all taint the way people evaluate history politics. It's about people wanting history to be cleaner and more idyllic than it is, and the practice of willful ignorance on the part of those who want simplicity rather than truth. When the truth that people know they can't fight, comes up against symbols and emotions, that's when controversy strikes. One may say something like "Yes, Columbus did kill many people needlessly but..." followed by an argument about why he should still be lionized.

This is hard even for me. It takes a certain amount of emotional fortitude for me to admit to myself that Lincoln and FDR, my two favorite presidents, did some fairly awful things. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, probably the most primal and basic of all legal rights. Roosevelt had Japanese internment, a program that destroyed my own hometown's Japanese community.

(MLK also committed plagiarism in college. It feels sort of uncomfortable to believe that, doesn't it? Too bad it's true.)

Being able to face these nasty historical truths, though, is not without a certain satisfaction. What's more, it makes the more positive aspects of history stand out with even greater dramatic effect. Zinn, though, taught me to not look for perfect figures or statuesque titans in the history books. The desire to see them as such led only to disappointment. The facts are there, the truth is out there, and longing for lionized cultural symbols only leads to controversy and argument. It is not an argument about facts that occurs every October 12th, but an argument between an emotional desire for unblemished heroes versus seeing history as-is.

Zinn taught me that history is riddled with blood, injustice, and unfairness. He made me realize that as much as one might admire an ancient city, one still has to think of the slaves who built it. History is full of those who were trampled underfoot and never given a chance, and to ignore that- to only focus on polished marble edifices of imagined ancestors -is to do a disservice to them and the truth. I didn't always agree with him, but he illuminated truths that needed telling.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

In Which it is Confirmed That I Am Not An Anarchist

Ursula K. Le Guin, now over eighty, looks even more like someone who could turn you into a newt. With her was Margaret Killjoy (who, much to my surprise, was a dude) the founder of Steampunk Magazine. The two were sharing the stage at Powell's to talk about anarchism in science fiction, and even though I'm far away from being an anarchist, the intersection of politics and SF has always been near and dear to my heart.

The room was full of people in boots and black jackets, and honestly I didn't look all that out of place, considering. Le Guin read briefly from The Dispossessed and Always Coming Home, only the first which I'd read. Even now she's still charismatic, and seems immensely comfortable in front of a crowd. The passage she read from The Dispossessed highlighted a character's dismay this his formerly anarcho-utopian society had reverted to capitalism. I wondered to myself how much of a real difference there was between anarchy and an unrestrained marketplace and thought, not much, really.

Killjoy was actually and extremely engaging speaker. Very funny, very active, and utterly confident. I'll confess that I found him charming, even as I found him hopelessly naive. He named various writers who, at one time or another, expressed an affiliation with anarachism and waxed rhapsodic on the joys of statelessness. I was not convinced. I don't find any utopian vision all that convincing, really.

More cynically, I wondered how many of the audience hadn't even bothered to read a single word of political theory, and just liked wearing black and the idea of disorder. Quite a few, probably.

Utopias always remind me of a particular episode of South Park, wherein a crowd of hippies decide that they are going to create a new model of living. "We'll have one guy who like, makes bread. And one guy who, like, looks out for other people's safety."

"Like a baker and a cop?" says one of the children.

"No no, can't you imagine a place where people live together and like, provide services for each other in exchange for their services?"

"Yeah, it's called a town," says one of the children.

I have my own issues with Trey Parker and Matt Stone's politics, but in this instance they're spot-on. Utopias reimagine what already exists, but with a certain kind of simplicity and straightforward innocence replacing complexity.

Now, don't get me wrong- the reason that renouncing anarchism is difficult for me is that there's a lot about it that is appealing. I do think that self sufficiency has a lot of merit, and there are plenty of things that the government should stay out of. When it comes to social issues I'm more or less a libertarian. But, there are certain things, like public education and urban planning, that I'm unwilling to do without. When I look at my beautiful hometown of Portland, OR, when I ride its bike lanes and zoom among its multi-use buildings, I know I'm experiencing the benefits of a government that has done something very, very right. Anarchism seems to rail against militarism and oppression, but fails to realize that smashing the state means getting rid of the bike lanes. That's just unacceptable.

Bringing down civilization doesn't appeal to me. I love civilization, despite all of its very real problems. When I think of an ideal world, I don't think of anarcho-syncadalist communes. I don't imagine bucolic local communities. My ideal world has high-speed rails connecting continents like iron spider webs, megalopopli teeming with urban populations. I imagine cures for cancer that everyone has access to and nicely funded educational systems. Does that mean that some people are going to have jobs they don't like and taxes they don't want to pay? Absolutely- and I have no problem with that. When I think of my ideal world, I don't imagine a cessation of suffering.

But, despite that, I still look forward to the future, and I know that a utopian ideology, any kind of utopian ideology, cannot deliver it.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

And Now, I Yell About Geography!

I have a problem with Europe. Not that I've ever been there or dislike European people or anything. That's not it. My problem is that I just can't accept it as a continent.

I mean, really! The word "continent" refers to a big continuous landmass, something like Australia where you can look at it and say "Yup, that given landmass has easily described natural borders. Guess it's a contient! Yee-haw!" Europe, though, does not have that.

It is a peninsula attached to a much larger landmass, namely "Eurasia" which is a fucking continent. The only reason there is an idea of Europe at all is that a bunch of stuffy white people who were drawing maps at the time probably had a conversation like this:

"Oh my, we seem to be occupying the same major landmass as the Mohommedians and heathen Chinese! Goodness me!"

"Well, we can't have that, can we old chap? Here, let's make our own landmass. The Ural Mountains can be the boundary. There we go! We're all alone now!"

"The Ural Mountains? That would be like dividing North America using the Rockies!"

"Dividing America? That's silly! Why would anyone want to cut up an obviously continuous geographical area?"

"But you just..."

"I know! We'll call our new continent 'Europe' after the unit of currency we'll all start using in hundreds of years!"

And there you have it. That's how Europe came to be known as it's very own magical and special continent.

One could argue that Europe should be its own continent because it's culturally distinct from the rest or Eurasia. But if Europe gets distinction based on geography, than Central America should, too, as well as the Middle East. Come to think of it, India ought to be it's own thing, and central Asia isn't really Middle Eastern and isn't really Asian, so the various "-stan" countries should form their own region and call it Stanistan. Brazil is linguistically distinct from the rest of South America, so it should really be separate. The Caribbean is also pretty different from the rest of Latin America, so it can be its own deal. Japan, according to some Japanese douchebags, is the most magical and special place in the world, and, besides, it's an archipelago, so Japan is now a continent. Greenland doesn't really belong anywhere, so it should just be its own thing, and given the differences between northern and subsaharan Africa, we should probably divide it, too.

Also, Papua New Guinea can be it's own deal. It's not really Asian and not really Oceanic.

Did I miss anything?

The continents, I suppose, are meant to be purely geographic forms, kind of like "mountains" and "lagoons." Putting cultural distinctiveness into what is supposed to be a purely physical description is, quite frankly, sort of retarded.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Hooray For Context!

First: "Why can't you just enjoy it for what it is?" this has been a common complaint levied at me and other people who get overly analytical about popular entertainment. My father said precisely this when he complained about my comparisons of Avatar to Dances With Wolves. He contended that movies need to be viewed as separate, independent entities. (This was also something I heard a lot from an ex who liked fluffy romantic comedies.)

Second: "All it has going for it is character recognition." This was a gripe by a member of a book group I go to. He said it in reference to two things. The first was Fables, a comic book series about fairy tale characters in the modern world, and then about the new Star Trek movie. "If you were to present these stories without their popular characters," he said, "they wouldn't work."

In both of the above examples, it seems that people want to experience art or entertainment as singular and unrelated to the cultural context around it. Each thing must be taken on its own merits without prejudice or stereotype, seen on its own terms. This attitude is oddly noble but ultimately impossible to realize.

This attitude of experiencing art and entertainment as singular and context-less is noble because it is open-minded, and wishes to find the potential good of a given work. To attempt to see something without context or connections is often an attempt to see it as something intrinsically good. Or, in the case of my book group companion, it is to demand intrinsic goodness only in a work. In either case, there is a deeply held belief that cultural objects should carry some spark of inherent awesomeness, and that spark must be searched for without prejudice.

To some extent I think that is a good thing, and abandoning prejudices about art and entertainment is often a good idea. However, one cannot really abandon context and really see cultural objects as singular. Ask yourself: Could you have gone into the new Star Trek movie and pushed aside all of your visions and notions regarding Kirk, Spock, the Enterprise, etc.? Could you have seriously said "For the next two hours I will forget all of the reruns I saw as a kid, all of the movies, everything I know about Star Trek"? Unless you have a pathologically selective memory, the answer is probably no.

Good artists and entertainers know this. When they know that an audience will see everything in context of everything else, they will play with that and use that. Star Trek was great because it used audience expectations effectively, exploiting the feeling of recognition and connection to wonderful effect.

Two entirely different examples of artists exploiting context for effect are Psycho and Scream. Both of these movies placed prominent actresses, Vivian Leigh and Drew Barrymore, front and center on their movie posters, precisely where you would expect the main character to be, flanked by supporting casts. In both of these movies, though, the top-billed actresses are killed off before the major action takes place, confounding audience expectations. Would the shock in either of these movies have worked if the audience hadn't seen the movie posters or didn't know who the actresses were? No, but they didn't really have to. Hitchcock and Craven knew what people would be expecting because of ad campaigns and movie conventions, and exploited those expectations for effect.

(Tangentially related: My enjoyment of Inglorious Basterds was greatly hampered by the difference between the movie's trailer and the film itself. I was expecting lots of fun violence a la Kill Bill, but got a spaghetti western. A pretty good spaghetti western, yes, but I kept waiting for the grand guignol promised by the trailer.)

Embracing context and expectations, though, is wonderful. Instead of seeing a pile of things not judged on their own merit, one sees a grand interrelated network of things. Every action movie is related to every other action movie. Comedies are connected to other comedies, horror flicks to other horror flicks. Cognates, similarities, and variations abound. One can see the same convention tweaked over and over again, sometimes badly, sometimes well. Embracing context means that you like synthesis and variation, you accept that things combine and mutate. One can never really see something "on its own terms," and I, for one, have no problem with that.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Ferngully in Space!

I approached Avatar not only with skepticism, but with a certain amount of hostility. As pretty as the movie was, one could tell exactly what the plot was going to be just from the previews. It's a tired, tired story that's shown up in Dances With Wolves, Ferngully, Pocahontas, The Last Samurai, and, to some extent, District 9. Namely, a guy who is first pitched against an indigenous population joins their ranks, becomes their leader, and leads them in battle against his former comrades. (This excellent blog post talks about how steeped in white guilt this whole narrative is.)

Avatar's story, sadly, is utterly predictable. At no point did I feel myself especially involved in it, or doubt how the movie would end. With the exception of Sigourney Weaver's scientist character (whose Stanford tank top and attempts at empathy with the indigenous population recall Peace Corps volunteers) none of the characters were worth caring for. The soldiers were soldiers I had seen before, and the Na'vi familiar noble savages. The main character was far too much of an empty suit for me to care about him.

Fortunately, the movie is massively pretty. The animals and plants of Pandora abound in hallucinogenic beauty, trees and vines shimmering with a view that makes you realize what an amazing phenomena bioluminescence is. The scenes of the Na'vi riding through floating mountains on hippie-colored pterodactyl-dragons are amazing and exhilarating, and I confessed smiling immensely during the movie's wholly satisfying climactic battle scene. Mech walkers, hover planes, guns, arrows, and exotic alien beasts all assembled to kill each other in what is probably the best action sequence in theaters right now. But, I don't think it was enough.

Avatar has grand ambitions. It is clear that Cameron longs for it to be mentioned alongside Star Wars, Aliens, Blade Runner, and The Matrix in the pantheon of great blockbuster SF movies. Because of its amazing visuals, it perhaps has a place, but it has no Han Solo or Obi-Wan, nothing as terrifyingly iconic as an Alien chestburster, no quandaries about reality or thought. As much as I enjoyed it's action sequences and set pieces, I still wanted more. I enjoyed it, but do not admire it. It has beauty, that is all, and beauty alone is never enough.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

You Know What Doesn't Stand Up to Logic? The Book of Genesis.

Addendum: Seph has corrected my reasoning in this post in the comments section. Turns out the probability does not actually reach one. I shouldn't try to post about math, but I still think that it's utterly unreasonable to assume that a set of humans, over an infinite amount of time, wouldn't try to do something interesting.

There are lots of things that bug me about the Bible. Lots of things. (And yes, this atheist has actually read every single word of the New Jerusalem edition that resides at my parents house. I was a precocious teenager...)

Today's Dinosaur Comics reminds me of a particular annoyance of mine: Adam and Eve are essentially in a no-win situation in Genesis. Setting aside issues of Biblical literalism and evolution for the time being, the math just doesn't work.

Here's the problem: At this point, Death hasn't been introduced into the world, yet, so Adam, Eve, and everything around them is immortal and can exist for an eternity. Also, the Tree of Knowledge is just sitting right there, and every day there's the chance that they might eat it.

So, we've got a system where every moment there is a probability that something might happen, as well as an infinite amount of time. Within an infinite amount of time the probability of anything (except zero) become one. Therefore, over an infinite amount of time it is a mathematical certitude that one of them will eat the fruit. (And it does just say "fruit," in the text, it's only an apple by tradition.)

Think about it- if you roll a six sided die an infinite amount of times, the probability of rolling a four at some point becomes certain. Over an infinite amount of time, the probability humanity being expelled from the garden also becomes certain.

In conclusion, religion is kind of silly. One could point out things like this all day, but that would just be kind of cheap and misanthropic.