Thursday, December 31, 2015

Star Wars, The Mornings After

A handful of mostly unrelated thoughts on the latest Star Wars installment after reading a number of essays online:
  • The Discontents Of Star Wars-Land: Christopher Orr in The Atlantic takes on critical reversal on Star Wars: The Force Awakens (which includes Peter Suderman's meh review, something I touched on briefly here), and earns his paycheck with this one sentence:
    Even George Lucas has gotten in on the act, complaining that the movie is all recycled ideas, and that his experience of selling the franchise to Disney was akin to selling his children to “white slavers.” (Which mostly raises the question: Who’s worse? White slavers, or the person who sells his children to them?)
    Ouch. Thanks, George. You're now allowed to buy a small tropical paradise and disappear from our cultural landscape. (I guess he must have gotten a call from someone at Disney.)
  • Mary Rey? In the context of such a play-it-safe approach, it seemed likely Rey would be held up as a feminist icon, Abrams having already addressed "will the fans embrace this episode?" questions. The issue of whether she is a sort of Mary Sue has come up in multiple corners, with Charlie Jane Anders at io9 wrestling with definitional problems:
    “Mary Sue” is one of those terms that had a useful meaning in fan culture at one point, long ago, and has now become both vague and toxic. Originally, a “Mary Sue” was an author surrogate, inserted into fan-fiction. The “fan fiction” thing is important, because part of the fantasy of the “Mary Sue” was the fan-fic author getting to live at Hogwarts or travel on board the U.S.S. Enterprise. And this thinly veiled copy of the story’s author is incredibly good at everything, to the point where all the established characters marvel at her (usually it’s “her”) wonderfulness.

    The “Mary Sue” is a very specific wish-fulfillment fantasy, in other words. It’s about getting to hang out with Harry, Ron and Hermione, and having them admire you. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of fantasy—we’ve all had it, when we get especially invested in a particular universe—but the term acquired a pejorative meaning because people felt it made for bad stories. Fair enough.

    Over time, the term “Mary Sue” has broadened until it means “any female character who is unrealistically talented or skilled.” Which is insane for a couple of reasons: It makes this “trope” so vague as to be meaningless, and this is also purely a way at tearing down female characters who are good at stuff.
    Rey isn't perfect — she manages to get captured (conveniently!) by Han Solo and Chewbacca — but she's plucky and resilient. Rey is indeed many things female fans have longed for since the opening trilogy — a heroine in her own right in a heroic story. Nevertheless, the familiarity of the arc leads us to wonder just how much of her story isn't Luke Skywalker in drag.
  • Whose Feminism? The Atlantic's Megan Garber takes on the broader subject of feminism as it appears in The Force Awakens. There's a great deal that's positive to be said about Rey's handling of herself; as Garber writes,
    Rey’s feminism does not protest too much. It is not insistent; it is not obvious. It is, instead, that most powerful of things: simply there. Rey, tellingly, is not an archetype, but rather a fully realized character, subtle and nuanced and human. She, as a character, luxuriates in her own subjectivity.
    I'm not entirely sure what Garber's trying to get at with "luxuriates in her own subjectivity", but it sounds like writerly fan service. Yet Rey as a new feminist model can only come too soon. As with Miss Piggy, whose martial arts exploits go underappreciated, it would represent a step up from many of the modern acolytes operating under that label.
  • Slave (Leia) To Fashion: I guess it was inevitable that Carrie Fisher would catch a bunch of sniggering about her 30-years-older visage, since the last time we saw her in the series, she was wearing a metal bikini. Consequently, awful people are on Twitter (and elsewhere) saying awful things about her appearance: Fisher apparently had a fairly ambivalent relationship with her role as a sex symbol in the series, on the one hand warning Daisy Ridley, "Don’t be a slave like I was… You keep fighting against that slave outfit." Simultaneously, she recently mocked people objecting to the bikini as failing to see the whole picture (which is that she was about to kill the "giant testicle" that had imprisoned her). Live by the sword, I guess.
  • Laurie Penny Is Still A Horrible Person: Witness what limitless self-pity and identity politics yield:
    This isn’t just about "role models". Readers who are female, queer or of colour have been allowed role models before. What we haven’t been allowed is to see our experience reflected, to see our lives mirrored and magnified and made magical by culture. We haven’t been allowed to see ourselves as anything other than the exception. If we made it into the story, we were standing alone, and we were constantly reminded how miraculous it was that we had saved the day even though we were just a woman. Or just a black kid. Or just - or just,whatever it was that made us less than those boys who were just born to be heroes.

    The people who get angry that Hermione is black, that Rey is a woman, that Furiosa is more of a hero than Mad Max, I understand their anger. Anyone who has ever felt shut out of a story by virtue of their sex or skin colour has felt that anger. Imagine that anger multiplied a hundredfold, imagine feeling it every time you read or watched or heard or played through a story. Imagine how over time that rage would harden into bewilderment, and finally mute acceptance that people like you were never going to get to be the hero, not really.
    The sense of entitlement involved in telling others how they need to tell the stories you want in the manner you want and with the characters you approve of — STFU. Really, what this is about is whether you get to operate the machines of culture while forcibly annoying others.

    Update 1/1/2016: It occurred to me that Penny here embodies a great deal of what's wrong with modern feminism: it's not enough to simply enjoy a movie with a strong female hero. A good bit of Penny's enjoyment comes from sticking it to men. There's no small irony in that, given who Rey is and what Penny is not. In Penny's telling, patriarchy is a suffocating conspiracy to suppress women like Rey. Rey is about doing; Penny is about kvetching, a permanent, dull narcissism that rejects even the idea of empathy between the sexes.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Tamir Rice's Preordained "No True Bill"

With the Christmas season upon us, I missed a few things, but it was no surprise when I learned yesterday that Tamir Rice's killer in a blue uniform had a "no true bill" delivered (i.e. insufficient evidence to prosecute on murder charges) against Timothy Loehmann. Scott Greenfield had already predicted this outcome back on December 16, when the presentment was sent to the grand jury:
McGinty doesn’t want an indictment. McGinty is too much of a coward to take the responsibility of his office to say so, and instead is engaging in a grand jury charade to soothe the public’s anger about the murder of Tamir Rice while assuring the desired outcome.  And as this description of what happened in the grand jury shows, the prosecution is making damn sure that there will be no indictment.

This shouldn’t happen. Prosecutors do not attack, ridicule, smirk at and mock their own witnesses, except when they are doing everything possible to guarantee the result of no true bill.  And they are doing this solely to pretend, after the grand jury refuses to indict, that they’ve been fabulously fair. It’s a lie.  The difference this time is that we know of the lie before the outcome.  We’ve got the details in hand.
Which is to say, it was exactly the same sort of dog-and-pony show the district attorneys in the Eric Garner and Michael Brown cases trotted out as a legal Potemkin village substituting for real adversarial proceedings. There were signs Timothy Loehmann was incompetent to begin with: he had effectively been fired (he quit, in fact, but circumstances suggest he was pushed out) from the Independence, Ohio police force:
After five months on the job, Loehmann quit the police force of the Cleveland suburb of Independence, Ohio, in December 2012, days after a deputy police chief recommended his dismissal. The deputy police chief based his recommendation on a firearms instructor’s report, obtained by NBC News, that Loehmann was experiencing an “emotional meltdown” that made his facility with a handgun “dismal.”

“They put a police officer in this situation who had a history of mental health problems,” said Michael Benza, a criminal law professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “It may not have been ‘reasonable’ for him to shoot given his mental issues.”
Or it may not have been reasonable that the Cleveland PD should have ever hired him.  Claims of menace backed up his preordained exoneration, eagerly accepted by juries grand and petit, not to mention police:
In one experiment, a group of 60 police officers from a large urban police force were asked to assess the age of white, black and Latino children based on photographs. The officers were randomly assigned to be told that the children in the photographs were accused of either a misdemeanor or felony charge. The officers overestimate the age of black felony-suspected children by close to five years, but they actually underestimated the age of white felony-suspected children by nearly a year.
California lately has signed into law a bill forbidding the use of grand juries in police shooting cases, SB 227.  It could be a step in the right direction, depending on how it's implemented; state attorneys at least wouldn't have a grand jury to hide behind, anyway.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Surprising Polling Results On Stricter Abortion Controls In The UK

Why do so many more UK women than men favor further restriction on abortion on demand? It's frequently taken as axiomatic by a number of social media memes and bumper stickers implying that, because legislators tend to be male that this reflects who, generally, wants to control abortion. (The idea's origin appears to come from an expression coined by Florynce Kennedy, "If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.") The reality is the opposite, at least for certain questions and in certain places; broadly, in the U.S., Gallup reports a more conventional view, with men self-labeling as "pro-life" 51%-44% and women skewing the opposite way, 50%-41%. But it's not a huge gap, and given the UK polling covered much more specific proposals, one wonders how that would go if you started asking detailed questions.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Instant Review: Star Wars Episode VII [Spoiler]

The first three are two and a half good movies; to that, we can add this one, which expels George Lucas from the management of his brainchild to the franchise's apparent betterment. J.J. Abrams has, somewhat unexpectedly, managed to produce the third best Star Wars film. It's unsatisfying in ways already outlined by Reason's Peter Suderman (incoherently, at Vox):
... as much as I enjoyed the acknowledgement, I also found the movie’s near-total reliance on elements recycled from the original somewhat disappointing. At times it felt like I was watching the cinematic equivalent of a very polished Star Wars cover band — playing all the old favorites, but without adding anything beyond a few clever riffs.
Tascha Robinson in Vox argued that Rey's arrival means we've already reached Peak Strong Female Character, which, having seen her, wasn't the annoying, Didactic character I figured she might be, given the itch To Teach All Of Us About Strong Female Characters. Other remarks:
  • Somewhat surprised to see Carrie Fisher in this one; she looked terrible, like a bad combination of botox and obvious plastic surgery. I would have preferred she keep herself honest.
  • Harrison Ford pulled the escape chute to get out of future episodes, with Han Solo dying in this film, and just as well.
  • So it's interesting that the two actors with, shall we say, shallow resumes since Star Wars concluded have both the possibility of future roles within the franchise. Good business move.

Bullety Things

  • File Under: Enough Rope Dep't: Clare McCaskill's Late Show appearance really must be seen to be believed; no competent politician tells, even in jest, one half of their audience to "shut up" unless they are a remarkable idiot.
  • Obama, Destroyer Of Worlds: Ashe Schow reports on Obama's amazing carnage to the Democratic Party. "913 lost legislature seats. 11 lost governorships. And a partridge in a pear tree."
  •  We Always Knew Who Was Rooting For Ellen Pao Anyway: Sure, the WaPo wants to ignore Ellen Pao's gross incompetence at Reddit, but their annual roundup of Internet hatefests is sure to raise a knowing eyebrow at who they might mean by "[m]ost mainstream commentators and Redditors".
  • Okay, We Get It, Tina, You Hate Being Old: Remember Tina Fey and Amy Schumer's "Last Fuckable Day" sketch? Yeah, awkward, so Fey decided to hook up with a different Amy, Poehler, and make one just as stupid and obvious. Short course: yeah, sorry women in Hollywood have shorter careers; write, produce, or whatever, but don't expect you can make a living in front of the camera because of your fabulous good looks. You're fighting male mating preferences, which are locked and loaded for young women at the peak of their sexual maturity, liable to get pregnant and bring a child to term. Don't like it? Shall I mention how male on-the-job death rates outstrip women by a 13:1 ratio? Men's lives are less valuable than women's.

Friday, December 11, 2015

It's Only Funny When It Happens To Trump

Chris Cillizza in the Washington Post reprinted an absolutely epic trolling letter sent to Donald Trump in response to a cease-and-desist letter the Trump campaign sent to their client.
Late last week, Donald Trump attorney Alan Garten sent a cease and desist letter to a wealthy Florida businessman named Mike Fernandez. Fernandez had paid for an ad in the Miami Herald that described Trump as a " narcistic BULLYionaire." Garten threatened legal action against Fernandez -- a letter he also sent to James Robinson, the treasurer of Jeb Bush's Right to Rise leadership PAC. On Wednesday, Charlie Spies, the D.C. based counsel to Right to Rise, sent an absolutely amazing response letter to Garten. It, in all its glory, is below.
It's an exceptional, fantastic response, which you really should read in its entirety, including gems such as "Should your client actually be elected Commander-in-Chief, will you be the one writing the cease and desist letters to Vladimir Putin, or will that be handled by outside counsel?" and "Although your client may think he is above the law and be accustomed to using lawsuits to bail out his failed business deals". But the part I really wanted to focus on was this passage (emboldening mine, as usual):
In addition, although RTR has no plans to produce any advertisements against your client, we are intrigued (but not surprised) by your continued efforts to silence critics of your client's campaign by employing litigious threats and bullying. Should your client actually be elected Commander-in-Chief, will you be the one writing the cease and desist letters to Vladimir Putin, or will that be handled by outside counsel? As a candidate for President, your client is a public figure and his campaign should, and will, be fact-checked. The ability to criticize a candidate's record, policies and matters of public importance lies at the heart of the First Amendment, as courts have repeatedly recognized. If you have the time between bankruptcy filings and editing reality show contracts, we urge you to flip through the Supreme Court's decision in New York Times v. Sullivan. If your client is so thin-skinned that he cannot handle his critics' presentation of his own public statements, policies and record to the voting public, and if such communications hurts his feelings, he is welcome to purchase airtime to defend his record. After all, a wall can be built around many things, but not around the First Amendment.
Trump, you see, is not the only candidate to have problems with the First Amendment. Hillary Clinton has this thing about the Citizens United decision that completely tracks the Donald's problem — yet we hear not one word about it, because "corporations aren't people" or whatever fatuous excuse the left has for censorship this week. (In fact, she intends to make it a litmus test for future Supreme Court nominees, which would mean New York Times v. Sullivan was wrongly decided.) It's no surprise that Clinton's friends at the New York Times and its old-school print brethren have been so opposed to Citizens United; they got their carve-out that made them immune to McCain-Feingold, thus enabling a form of press cartel. It's exactly the sort of thing that will help keep a major party candidate on-message, limiting the number of outlets that can publish anything during an election cycle.

Trump is a dangerous fascist — and so is Hillary.