Monday, December 22, 2008

Search strings

I've been trying to get back into the swing of doing academic work - I'm still on strike, and have been for more than 6 weeks, now - but thought I'd try working myself back into the blogging habit by way of a frivolous posting: taking inspiration from Jen, here's a short collection of the funny and strange searches that bring people to my blog (which only brought people here once, unless otherwise noted):
  • "hetero man crush" (3 unique visits!)
  • "pictures taken of herself"
  • asshole kevin dicus
  • naked divas on play boy
  • politicization of teenage pregnancy
  • we are writing to register our displeasure and....
  • x-men rape (2 visits)
On a less funny note, there are also something like 50 different searches that include the word 'masculinity', which is something of an accomplishment, I think.

The most clicked on page on my blog? You'd think that the index page would be the obvious answer, but it isn't - due to Google searches relating to The Dark Knight and Google image searches for Heath Ledger's Joker, it's actually my hysterical joker/hobo batman posting. (My very first post on the Joker promo pictures is #4.) The top-five is rounded out by a blog about Miley Cyrus and the ridiculous expectation that pop starlets should be entirely asexual, and my most recent blog about Canada's coalition crisis - it's been getting about two direct hits a day, which seems impressive for a discussion of constitutional politics. (Some credit goes to Facebook for that one - I posted a link there, which was then picked up by at least one other person and recirculated.)

Monday, December 08, 2008

Canadian constitutional politics - an FAQ

Canadian politics have been interesting this past week or two - the newly re-elected Conservative party returned with a slightly larger minority share of the seats, but in its first few days rushed to present a budget that 1) could very well bankrupt at least 3 of their 4 major competitors, and so 2) was something that the majority of Parliament would never accept. It also offered basically no movement on the economy. (The funding was the first item dropped when it became clear that the budget wouldn't pass, but the opposition still pressed to defeat the governing party. For the cynical, the economy issue provides a good cover to reject the more important threat to party funding; for the idealistic, the refusal to move on the economy is reason in and of itself to reject the budget.)

But to make a long story short for those who don't follow Canadian politics... our Conservative Prime Minister invoked a power usually reserved to enter into recess after a session of many months, and will hold on to power at the very least until late January, when Parliament will resume with a new speech and budget that may or may not see the minority Conservative government lose the confidence of the other parties (a euphemism meaning that the other parties would vote to remove them from power) and either force a new election or compel the Governor General to ask the remaining parties to form a coalition and replace them. (In fact, it was a coalition agreement between two parties, and the signed support of the other, that made it appear that the Conservatives would be out of power at this very moment had they not prorogued Parliament.) And yes, that's the short version.

Anyway... the ridiculous amount of disinformation that's been flying around his past week made me feel that it's necessary to write some sort of Canadian Parliamentary Boondoggle FAQ, with a focus on the most popular and fallacious statements that are being bandied about by Conservatives and their supporters. This is decidedly unlike most of the stuff I post here, but it needs to be posted somewhere.

The key myths
The coalition agreement between the Liberals and NDP (with the signed but unofficial support of the Bloc Quebecois) that would see the coalition replace the Conservatives as Canada's governing party is illegal
The governing party in Canada's Parliament governs only so long as they maintain the confidence of the House - that is, when a majority of Members of Parliament vote to pass major pieces of government legislation. When they lose that confidence - when the other parties reject a major piece of legislation - the Governor General either dissolves Parliament and calls an election or asks the remaining parties if they can form a governing party that can garner the House's confidence. The coalition agreement that was signed anticipated a budget vote that would have seen the Conservatives lose confidence and was meant to indicate to the Governor General that yes, another governing party would have the House's confidence. It's not just legal - it's part of the procedure.
The coalition agreement is undemocratic
Given the amount of negotiation and political reorganization described above, this charge is more understandable. Insofar as it may distort the will of the people that elected these folks in the first place, sure. But given that Canadians don't live in direct democracy where our political will is directly accessed, the same complaint can be made of our entire system: our vote only elects a representative who may or may not follow through on his or her promises. A representative who might even leave the party they were running for when you voted for them and join one that you despise. Or who may decide to remain a member of their party but work with the members of other parties. That's just how the system works - and if the coalition is undemocratic, then so is the entire system.
The coalition agreement is unprecedented
It's rare, but not unprecedented. PM Borden ran a coalition government for a number of years during WWI, and a coalition government ran the country in the years immediately preceding the formation of Canada.
The coalition taking power would effectively be a coup d'état
I'd like to think that this sort of hopelessly idiotic remark could only come from someone who doesn't actually know what a coup is or means. Was the constitution violated by the proposed change in leaders? Was Parliament taken by force? Was the government ejected by self-appointed military leaders? No? Then it wouldn't be a coup.

The 'Parliamentary system 101' stuff
A coalition that would install either the Liberal leader (previously Dion; potentially Ignatieff) or NDP leader as Prime Minister is illegitimate because they weren't elected Prime Minister in the last election - Stephen Harper was
Strictly speaking, nobody but the voters in Stephen Harper's own riding voted for him. Like I said above, we don't actually even vote for a particular party - we only vote for our local representative. In turn, he or she typically throws their support behind their own party leader, which is why the party with the largest plurality within a minority Parliament tends to govern. (Again, this isn't necessarily the case - though European Parliaments serve as a far better example.) That said, those same representatives are the only folks who actually choose the Prime Minister, and they're entirely within their rights to change their mind.
The coalition has no moral authority to govern because the Liberals and NDP were rejected by Canadians in the last election
Well, given that no one party received even 40% of the vote, we can fairly say that every party was rejected by most people in the country. That said, the coalition rightly points out that, combined, they received more votes than the Conservatives. And since no one is actually able to vote against a party or its leader, that's all we have to work from in determining who was 'rejected'.
The coalition itself is illegitimate because no one actually voted for it
No one actually voted for any specific party - you elected a representative, who in turn is a member of a party. But they could switch allegiances and keep the seat that you elected them to, which is the surest indication that you didn't actually select a party when you voted. Members of parliament do this infrequently, of course, but switching parties or becoming an independent operates according to the same principle - your elected official decides to alter their allegiance, which in this case would see the NDP and Bloc members decide to select the Liberal leader as their Prime Minister rather than implicitly selecting their own.
The coalition itself is illegitimate and lacks moral authority because it can only function with the support of the separatist Bloc Quebecois
This point usually has to do with the Bloc being a separatist party that wants Quebec to secede from Canada - it suggests that a nationalist governing party should have no part in seeking support from a separatist party. That said, the Conservatives discussed working with the Bloc in 2004 to remove and replace a minority Liberal government, and recently admitted that they that they would accept Bloc support to protect the Liberal-NDP coalition from toppling them. So this is apparently only an illegitimate move if it isn't executed by the Conservatives. Which reveals that it's just contradictory bullshit.

The more obscure stuff
The PM's request to prorogue was legitimate and the Governor General had to agree to it
It was legitimate, insofar as it's within the PM's power to request prorogation at pretty much anytime. Conventionally, though, these sorts of recesses are only called at the end of a session of Parliament (usually lasting many months) or before an election. Certainly, requesting a prorogue after only a throne speech and before any legislation is actually passed is unprecedented. It's also unclear whether the request had to be honored by the GG. While a Governor General of Canada has never denied this particular kind of request, previous GG's have denied other sorts of requests - most famously in 1926, when the Governor General refused the Liberal Prime Minister's request for an election and instead inquired as to whether the Conservative Official Opposition could replace them as the governing party. This said, an unelected official's refusal to grant the requested of an elected official probalby wouldn't look good on that whole issue of 'democracy'.
The cut to the public funding of Canadian political parties was a legitimate cost-cutting measure
The cut would've amounted to about $30 million, or about 0.01% of the total budget. Tiny, targetted cuts of this sort are almost always self-serving or purely a p.r. move. The cut itself might be a perfectly legal one, but the underlying motivations were hardly pure
The cut of public funding of Canadian political parties was legitimate because taxpayer money shouldn't be used to fund political parties
In fact, nearly every Westernized country subsidizes elections with public funding - John McCain, for instance, used more than $80 million of it in the American election. The idea, naturally, is to allow any party with popular appeal a fair chance at electing members, rather than limiting access to political power to only those parties that can afford to hire people to fundraise - and who can only afford to hire them because their previous fundraising efforts were so successful, and so the cycle goes. Simply, the system of public funding rewards parties for winning support for their policies by translating every vote into money, where a system devoid of public funding would reward parties for being able to wring the most money out of the most people. I may be an idealist, but it's not hard to see where one system can easily go most horribly wrong.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Pop music divas, gender play, and empowerment

1) Beyoncé's "If I Were A Boy" (embedding has been disabled by Youtube, so I only have a link)

The video for this song, off of Beyoncé's new album, features an incredibly serious and surprisingly subtle inversion of typically masculine and feminine stereotypes. It then surprisingly inverts them near the video's end in a way that could rightly be criticized as heavy-handed or obvious, though I would suspect that it's also a case of Beyoncé understanding that her intended audience might need more than a mere hint to get the point.

One of the reasons that this point - a statement on male privilege, where Beyoncé takes her boyfriend for granted, cheats on him, and laughs off his concerns - might need the explicit twist at the end is because the video's inversion doesn't totally work. Rather than becoming "a boy", her masculinized self has had masculinity grafted or added on to her femininity rather than replaced it. The inversion works for the most part during the exchanges with the boyfriend, but falls apart in public (her attractiveness is still coded in typically female ways - tight pants, hourglass figure) and in her interactions with other men, who stand above and behind her in conventionally familiar ways. One imagines that even the masculinized Beyoncé would not be immune to charges of being a whore, as little sense as that may make in the context of her song, because her "boy" character might be just as easily read as "ice queen" or simply "bitch".

All that said, this stuff probably constitutes the least important details of the video. Part of the lesson appears to be price of becoming like the boys - namely, the double-standard that exists when you fail to transition from the rules governing girls to a category of rules governing boys and are instead trapped inside both, subject to adhering to both at once. And the sudden transition to a stereotypical relationship between the two characters near the end also goes a ways to illustrating the tentativeness of women's masculine power, too - that is, even if you can hold a degree of masculine and feminine power at once, it's an anxious balance that's easily stripped away by those who wield more, and more secure, holds on that same privilege. And so the video fails because it's an exercise in realism.

2) Britney's "Womanizer" (again, embedding disabled)

But even if we found more to dislike than like in "If I Were A Boy"... well, thank god for Britney Spears, who lends some perspective by reminding us that while Beyoncé's video is flawed it could have been sooooo much worse.

Britney's various characters are also asserting some sort of power, a sort of campy masculine domination over an ostensible "womanizer" that's wronged them. But it's a wholly fantastical power, as the video's cheeky delivery undermines empowerment of these women in its joking presentation. This is the sort of thing that women might dream of doing, but it's not the sort of thing that any woman would actually do.

It's even sadder when we consider that the video's version of this woman's fantasy actually seems quite a bit more like a hegemonic man's fantasy. When the womanizer is being mobbed, we could be forgiven for wondering whether we should actually feel sorry for him - at times, it's not even entirely clear whether his punishment (?) is sex or... well, I'm not entirely sure what else it could be. Throw in the shots of a gratuitously nude Britney, with the womanizer seemingly showering in the background, and the audience can only be reasonably left with one conclusion: fantasy or not, being a womanizer is hot.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Things I Don't Get

  • Pro-Lifers. I don't get why pro-lifers appear to value unborn human life more than, well, born human life. They seem to go to often ridiculous lengths to protect fetuses but, for the most part, are the same people who oppose a secure welfare net and reliable public health care system that would see those same babies safely into adulthood. Or maybe this is why they simply call themselves pro-life rather than pro-good life?
  • Lynda Barry. I find Ernie Pook's Comeek neither funny nor insightful.
  • Why no one does anything about price fixing. Everyone knows that the price of gas is fixed. Everyone knows that it's bullshit when they explain that it will take 90 days to refine, process, and ship the oil that is now selling for half what it was only a few months ago, and so we'll only see the price drop 3 months from now. But no one seems willing to point out the contradiction when, in advance of a storm that is merely expected to reduce production, the price of gas anticipates the next 3 months rather than waits for them to pass and jumps dramatically.
  • How to take a compliment from the other team in sports. I always think they're mocking me, even when they compliment me after I've done something good. I was traumatized as an undersized child, evidently.
  • Why the news - on TV, on the internet, in the paper - is incapable of staking out a critical position outside of the occasional editorial. A timely example: Now that Christmas is approaching, we're met with a barrage of tips about bargain-hunting and getting the best deal. Some even pretend to be exercising a pseudo-criticality by making token mentions of "the economy" and charity. But why is it that no one is will to critique the quest for "bargains" as an ultimately futile one, to note how short-sighted and self-defeating this strategy is when it encourages us to spend money on businesses that aren't locally (or even domestically) owned and whose profits leave the country, who don't buy or produce their products locally or invest locally (or, again, nationally), and who don't produce sustainable jobs at a living-wage and thus create the need to find "bargains" as a means of surviving on one's meager earnings?*
*This distress about news-discourse is also a more personal one that's connected to the media's inability to make sense of my union's positions throughout the strike - that, yes, continues. Once you start talking about 'restoring "real" wages to 2005 levels' and 'indexing increases to the benefit funds to membership growth', the media - and so the public at large - stop paying attention. In response, I've pushed the need to develop a strategy of 'sexy sound-bites'. I'm not entirely certain that it would work, but it seems that PR wars can't otherwise be waged through mass media.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


I've been on strike since the middle of last week, and it's sapped a lot of my energy - both physically, with respect to waking up at 5:30 in the morning to picket, and mentally, in terms of worrying about when it's going to end and about stressing out over its reception by undergraduate students. I have plenty of things to write about, but I've been lacking the desire to write about them. I'll try to remedy that some time soon.

Monday, November 03, 2008

"Hetero man-crush"

One of my very favorite expressions to use is "hetero man-crush", in part because it always gets a laugh from people who've never heard it, and in part because it's almost always perfectly apt. I use it to describe non-sexual-but-more-than-platonic attraction to other guys, though it seems to be used by most other guys to exclusively describe an attraction to male celebrities or other guys that they don't actually know. (I suppose it's somehow safer or less anxious if it's confined only to people you'll never meet?)

I can't recall when I first started using it or who/where I got it from, though the very oldest reference to "hetero man crush" (as opposed to simply "man crush") that I could find on Google is in August of 2005, which uses it "to denote a man that [one] admires, to the point of wanting to get to know that person more, admiring that person to the point of thinking about them often and wanting to be like them." In fairness, though, that definition seems to fit "man crush" more accurately than "hetero man-crush", the latter being a bit more ironic and cute about the way that it self-reflexively asserts the heterosexuality of the speaker/writer. (And, in that assertion, also winks knowingly at the anxious and tenuous construction of that heterosexuality.) There has to be some admittance that you want to be too much like them, that your fandom (in the case of celebrities) approaches a discomforting level or your interactions with them (in the case of people you know) are already ambiguously gay. No definition of "hetero man-crush" works without the inclusion of those levels.

As for specific examples of my own? George Clooney as Danny Ocean is maybe at the top of the list, and I suspect it has something to do with both his overwhelming coolness and my love of Clooney's hair, given that I'm getting a number of grays and hope sincerely that my gray hair will somehow eventually be like his. It's incredibly unlikely, sure, but just maybe...

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

"Nick and Norah" and genre

I watched Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist with some friends two weekends ago. 15 minutes in I knew that it was going to make for an interesting discussion - not because the movie was particularly good or bad, but because it I knew it was distinctly cruder than some of the people I saw it with were expecting.

Briefly, then: two of our group found the film discomforting, with their main complaints relating to the unrealistic handling of Norah's drunk friend and Nick's ex-girlfriend's interest in Nick. Why, they asked, was the film so casual - or, rather, irresponsible - in its failure to address the risk of sexual violence posed to the drunk girl, wandering the bars and streets of New York, and to the ex-girlfriend, who Nick abandoned while she was stripping in a parking lot? And why the hell would the ex-girlfriend have wanted a nerd like Nick in the first place, much less want him back?

Good questions, both. And also, I countered, somewhat unfair. What they should have been critiquing, rather than the film, I suggested, was its genre - because Nick and Norah is a genre film in the now-familiar (well, evidently not that familiar to my two friends) American Pie/Apatow model in which young people do ridiculous and self-destructive things, discover important stuff about themselves, and rarely pay any sort of consequences. And it makes as much sense to criticize these films for their failure to address sexual violence as it does to criticize, say, an action film for misrepresenting the accuracy of handguns and failing to address the real danger of getting shot and bleeding profusely. (A la the old 'it's just a flesh-wound' joke.) There's a sort of apoliticism at work in both forms that seem to ask that we don't take them all that seriously, that we recognize there's a sort of fantasy at work and that it's not really like real life.

That's not to say, of course, that the absence of sexual violence in the former genre and death of the hero at the hands of gun-fire in the second is not problematic. Quite the opposite, in fact - that genre fiction of any kind misrepresents real life for the sake of narrative ease and intelligibility (I mean, we couldn't laugh at the movie or want Nick and Norah to get together if Nick's abandoning his girlfriend led to her sexual assault) is totally something that we should acknowledge and discuss. And if we start to mistake their genre fantasies for real life, well, that's also hugely problematic - which is why I go to the trouble of asserting Nick and Norah's genre-pic status in the first place. But is it ultimately fair to ask for that kind of self-reflexivity of a genre pic, to expect it to address these issues and asks these questions of itself? No more fair, I think, than it is to ask Die Hard to explicitly disclaim its own ultra-violence as needlessly sensational. It's not individual action films or romantic-comedies that ruin people - it's their refusal to see these films as action films or romantic-comedies.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Uncanny X-Men 503 and THAT scene

I wanted to write something else - less contentious, more literary - about Matt Fraction on the X-Men, so it's a shame that this has to be the first thing. See, there's a scene in the middle of 503 where Cyclops and Emma Frost are investigating the Hellfire Cult's warehouse, during which Emma dresses up in some bondage gear and, presumably, things get a little unprofessional.

The thing is, as we learn at the end of the issue, it's not Emma in the bondage gear. Apparently, I was the only person (on a message board, at least) who was immediately skeptical - "this is kinky even for you", Cyclops' mentioning that she's unnecessarily in his head, and the uncharacteristically glowing red eyes were pretty much a dead giveaway. Or so I thought. But there are other, rather obvious clues: the story arc's mystery villain, the Red Queen, is shown telepathically extracting information about Emma Frost's personality earlier in the issue, and Emma admits to having no idea what Cyclops is talking about when he mentions the scene at the end of the issue - after which Cyclops immediately sees the Red Queen, who he identifies as his ex-wife, Madelyne Pryor. So it's implied and not totally clear until the end, but it happened nonetheless: Cyclops was telepathically raped. (If you're still not with me, see my brief discussion of the issue of consent in the very last paragraph of his blog post.)

When I asked why no one was talking about this on the message board, it was suggested that it's a sort of comeuppance for Cyclops. During Grant Morrison's run, Cyclops and Emma had a psychic affair that the former dismissed as not disloyal to his wife because it wasn't physical, and so Maddie is sort've toying with that logic - that is, it must not be sexual assault because it was only psychic. And, going back to Claremont's pre-Inferno days, the same person suggested that the story element of tricking him into doing something without his informed consent is not unlike the process by which Madelyne was herself transformed into a villain during what she thought was a dream. Notably, Cyclops didn't accept this as an explanation of her transformation, nor did he accept any blame for the mental distress that led her to that point, much of which was his fault.

So to the extent that it seems to be invoking these earlier moments of Cyclops' hypocrisy and using it against him, it works. But there's something so incredibly distasteful about the suggestion of rape, here, that I just can't get past. Maybe it's just that sexual assault is so often sensationalized, and that instances of gender-reversal of his sort are so often handled poorly, that I'm having a knee-jerk reaction that will turn out to be unfounded. And maybe it's also because I have some affection for Madelyne's original character and didn't like her transformation into a villain in the first place - and so I find it additionally detestable that she's been reduced again, this time into a rapist.

[I should also note that this scene caused me to reconsider an element in the last Casanova story arc where something surprisingly similar happens, though it escaped my notice in the moment. In that story, Casanova is undercover as his sister, Zephyr, and has a sexual relationship with a male terrorist named Kubark - who, predictably, feels deeply betrayed and disturbed when he learns that Zephyr was never Zephyr at all. This fits all the same criteria for any legal or moral definition of rape - you can't give informed consent when someone is withholding information that prevents a full awareness of the consequences of your actions, ie. when they're lying about who they are or intend to do you harm. And yet I totally missed it - probably because Casanova is deeply apologetic and Kubark is totally evil, responding with homophobia rather than admitting any emotional pain. It's probably to Fraction's credit that he can do this twice before I catch it, and that it can work so well in the context of the story. But I still find it a troubling sort of trope.]

Saturday, October 18, 2008

God probably wanted me to write this

There were a couple articles in Time, recently, asking whether evangelicals telling folks that God wanted them to be rich or wanted them to get a house were to blame for the financial crisis. In short - if God wants you to get a mortgage that you shouldn't be able to afford, then he'll "make a way" and it's beyond you to question the logistics. It's easy to see that this road leads to disaster, in retrospect if not in the moment. Especially when you're encouraged to avoid looking down that road in the first place.

Of course, the market meltdown will hardly prompt a crisis in faith. I'm sure that people will find a way to rationalize God wanting them to suffer a crushing setback. (I'm also sure hubris will factor in, though not in the way that I would think to apply it.)

It all reminds me of one of my favorite religious paradoxes. Two sports teams meet in some sort of championship, and both extol their faith in God and assuredness that he'll help then win. And then one team invariably loses. They find ways to rationalize it, but it simply comes down to God not wanting them to win - which they deal with shockingly well, considering how sure they were that God wanted them to win beforehand. (Again, it was probably Satan-induced hubris, right? As opposed the Christ-induced confidence of the other team, I guess. Too bad we couldn't tell them apart beforehand and skip this whole thing.) But they never seem to make either of the leaps from there that, to me, seem entirely logical: 1) God just doesn't fucking care about whether you win a trophy when he has stuff like, say, natural disasters to concern him; and 2) maybe God just doesn't like you.

But, then, I don't really get any of this religious stuff.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

It's the same everywhere, depressingly

With elections underway both here, in Canada, and the USA, I'm subjecting myself to twice the normal dose of bullshit politicking. There are all sorts of examples, but the ludicrous spin-doctoring that's happening on both sides of the border is perhaps the most aggravating. For example:
  • An inquiry in Alaska found that Sarah Palin abused her power in attempting to have her brother-in-law fired from his job in law enforcement. The McCain/Palin team's response? It was "a partisan-led inquiry" whose findings can't be trusted. Which might hold water if it was a Democrat-led inquiry. Only it wasn't - the Republican members outnumbered the Democrats by more than two-to-one. So unless Palin's such a maverick that her own party would take a "partisan" position against her...
  • An FBI expert confirmed that the relevant portion of a controversial audio tape, where the current Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, can be heard confirming to a biographer that he offered a dying independent Member of Parliament a bribe for helping to bring down the former Liberal government, had not been tampered with and represented an unbroken conversation. But the PM, who claimed that his response and/or the question had been doctored, has refused to address the tape, and his legal team is arguing that the findings somehow vindicated the PM. Because, y'see, at some point afterward the tape was stopped and rewound a bit, and used to record another piece of the same conversation. Clearly, they seem to be implying, the biographer erased the part where Harper said "Just kiddin'!" by recording over it - and in the PM's presence, no less.
I have nothing of much substance to add. I voted in an advance poll and I'm taking my usual efforts to subtly influence people. But it's no wonder that people are made too fall so easily for misdirection and outright lies - there's so much of it that deception becomes the normative state of mass politics.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Sleep and irretrievable ideas

I really need to start sleeping with a note pad or something beside my head. Often, I'll lie in bed for half an hour or longer, thinking or theorizing about something that I had been reading or working on and a really good idea will come to me. Unfortunately, unless I get out of bed to write it down, I usually can't remember it in the morning. (It's the same way with my dreams - about 10 seconds after I wake up, all I can remember is that I had a dream.)

Case in point: I distinctly remember thinking last night that I had an idea that I should blog about. But all I can remember now is that I had
an idea. Of course, the caveat here is that if I can't remember the specific idea then I can't very well be sure that it was actually any good. Or that any of them are ever very good. (Almost-relevant Beatles anecdote: Paul McCartney often talks of a party where, in a drugged out haze, he told Neil Aspinall that he had discovered the meaning of life any Neil had to record it for him. When Paul woke in the morning he couldn't remember the meaning but recalled where he had put the paper. And written on the paper? "There are seven levels.")

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Meet the new library, same as the old library

For the first time, I decided to check out a book in electronic format yesterday - through NetLibrary - since it would save me the trouble of having to travel to the actual library. Now, you would think that the advantage of reading an eBook through the school's library is not simply the convenience of reading from home, but also the fact that you don't have to worry about someone else having already borrowed the book and leaving you high and dry.

And if you thought that, you would be wrong, since it's not uncommon to get a message like this: "This book is already in use. Please try again later."

Inexplicably, every library only gets one "copy" (?) of each eBook, and if someone is reading that copy, well you're shit out of luck. But it's comforting to know that someone took the time to examine the library's weaknesses and, having identified them, subsequently duplicated those weaknesses in an entirely different medium.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

I think I've seen this in a political cartoon-- Only this is real

So there's this unbelievably hilarious video, released by the opposition Liberals at an incredibly inopportune time for the ruling Conservative party, that shows then-leader of the opposition and now PM Stephen Harper giving a speech exhorting Canada to join the "Coalition of the Willing" for the war in Iraq. What makes it hilarious, though, is that he's shown alongside - at times, overlapping - then-Australian PM John Howard, (the Australians being a member of said coalition) who used the exact same words only 2 days earlier.

It's almost certain that Harper had no idea this happened and a speech writer just took a shortcut. And even if that isn't the case, it's plausible enough that I could at least buy that argument if it were offered. But it's really neither here nor there, in the end. Where it's damaging is with respect to Harper's most vulnerable point - his desire to 1) be more closely allied with pro-war interests in the USA and other Western nations, but 2) to do so while not seeming to follow them uncritically or appear to be their Canadian mouthpiece, one which simply parrots them. And with respect to the latter charge: well, that's exactly what he's doing in this video, isn't it?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Adventures in TAing, case 4 (in a ? case series)

This being my sixth contract as a University teaching assistant, and my ninth tutorial group overall, I've grown accustomed to what initially seemed an odd and even counter-intuitive trend among first-year undergrads. That is, whether you give them either 1) very narrowly defined parameters and few options for an assignment, or 2) a tremendous amount of freedom to chart their own course and sink or swim, they will invariably want the other option. That is, the students who are directed to choose one topic from a detailed, pre-defined list will complain about how oppressive the (lack of) options are, while the students who are invited to invent their own subject matter will typically demand as much guidance as I'm able/willing to offer. (Important caveat: While many in the former group who say nothing and just follow their instructions generally do turn in something competent - or at least readable - those in the latter group who remain silent and do whatever they please usually produce minor disasters.)

This leads me to only one logical solution, to be implemented on the day when (if) I get to design a course and syllabus of my own: if I want to be despotic and restrict their options to a set number of my own topics, I'll first give them total freedom and then simply wait to be asked to oppress them. (Of course, this blog would be pretty damning evidence in the event that I actually pull a stunt like this...)

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Electioneering: what's in a name on a sign

So we've all seen hundreds of those lawn signs that politicians put up when they run for office, right? It's a branding exercise, so it's not surprising that there are certain rules to the practice of making and displaying these signs - colors and designs that signal your party or political affiliation, and typically the big, bold display of the candidate's last name with their first name in smaller type above it.

In Canadian party politics, at least, these things are a given. (And in most American signs, too. With regard to the display of names: of the 74 signs in the first 8 Google Image search results, 8 featured only the surname, 5 sized the first and last name equally, and only 2 used a larger font for the first name.) So imagine my bemused surprise when, for the first time ever, I saw a sign for a candidate from a mainstream political party - the ruling Conservative party, in fact - that reversed that sizing convention and displayed the candidate's first name in larger type.

Which sounds pretty innocuous, right? But I don't think so. The candidate's name is Kevin Nguyen, and given the Conservative party's xenophobia - a candidate, Lee Richardson, recently suggested that most crime is committed or inspired by immigrants, and received no punishment or rebuke from the PM or the party - I would not be at all surprised if the larger "Kevin" is supposed to emphasize his Canadianness (and, implicitly, his appropriated whiteness) and distract from his last name. Unsurprisingly, then, his bio on the Conservative party website calls attention to how he appreciates Canada and its "freedom" and "opportunities." It's the sort of maudlin nationalistic sentiment that's required of someone whose connection to the country is perhaps too anxious for comfort and needs to be explicitly reinforced - especially when, as an immigrant from Vietnam, he could very well be one of those suspect folks that Lee Richardson warned us about.

I'm sure that this is too subtle for any mainstream media to pick it up, but it's not nothing. It's the only campaign sign that draws attention to the candidate's first name - Kevin signs appear alongside signs that read Sgro, Manfrini, and Capra - in one of the most non-white and poorest ridings in the country, one which has nonetheless had a counter-intuitive history of electing white candidates from the centrist Liberal party rather than people of color and/or the leftist NDP. It isn't simply blind, unmotivated racism at work in the branding of candidate Kevin - it's strategic, and it's come from someone with a very canny understanding of the racism(s) already at work within the community.

And while I'm admittedly a bit of a pessimist and already expect the worst of political parties, this just strikes me as a hopelessly and depressingly cynical way to play politics.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Leo Quintum is Lex Luthor

There have been a lot of explanations offered as to why and how All-Star Superman's benevolent super-genius, Leo Quintum, could also be its evil super-genius, Lex Luthor. I thought I'd collect and categorize the best clues right here - and, in doing so, I think I've inadvertantly compiled a pretty good argument as to why this series is so incredibly awesome.

The Morrisonian: Grant Morrison absolutely loves two things: drug-induced epiphanies and time-travel. Luthor experiences the former when he ingests the vial that gives him Superman's powers, and it's no small stretch to imagine that he could have subsequently traveled to the past in order to do something about his new perspective, thus fulfilling the latter.

The Superficial: They wear very similar coats. They like to clasp their hands behind their back. Leo looks young, but uses a cane, which would seem to imply that he's possibly older than appearances suggest - or it functions to change his posture and disguise his body language. (The age issue is also tricky, of course, since Lex's reason for trying to kill Superman in issue 1 had a lot to do with Lex getting old. So maybe Leo looks younger because a redeemed Lex has actually reversed the aging process?) Quintum has hair and glasses, but this also makes sense as a disguise: hair and glasses are what differentiates Clark from Superman, after all.

The Merely Suggestive: In Quintum's very first appearance, he throws out a comment that is never revisited but seems mighty suspicious: "I'm trying to escape from a doomed world too, Superman... It's called the past." And when Superman gives Quintum his DNA later in the series so that he can build new Supermen when Clark dies, Quintum's reluctance is similarly provocative, as he tells Superman that "I could be the devil himself for all you know." Since Quintum doesn't eventually betray Superman, this exchange serves no purpose unless Quintum in fact is the nearest thing that the DC Universe has to the devil, albeit a reformed devil.

The Suggestive as Supplemented by the Pseudo-Scientific: Superman's response to Quintum's comment about being the devil is, just as interestingly, "Oh, I think I'm a better judge of character than that, Professor. This is how much I trust you, Leo." We could take Superman at his word, that he can separate the good apples from the bad, but recall that Superman had just used his x-ray vision to write out his own DNA sequence. The dude can read DNA strands. Again, if this exchange is simply an admission of trust in a character that we had never met before this series and have been given no reason to distrust, then it's not a particularly moving or necessary scene; but if Superman has read Leo's DNA and knows that he's Lex, it's a staggering and moving display of confidence in his former nemesis.

The Textual: Leo's line about maybe being the devil is additionally ironic because Lex, especially in this series, has often been compared to the Miltonic Satan. A self-deluded narcissist who squanders his considerable powers in petty efforts to prove himself superior to Superman, Lex - to quote Superman in A-SS #12 - "could have saved the world years ago if it really mattered to [him]". But like Milton's Satan, Lex is more interested in power and proving himself deserving of power than he is with saving the world - he'll even risk the world's safety by killing Superman in pursuit of his self-actualization. Additionally, Leo's last name has a more direct connection to Milton's Satan, as Macon Cheek has suggested that Milton actually produced a literary precursor to his Paradise Lost Satan in an earlier poem. And the poem was titled "In Quintum Novembris."

The Numbers: For those who look for clues in seemingly conspiratorial patterns of numbers, there's a lot here to play with. "Quintum", in addition to having a certain phonic relation to "quantum" - and quantum mechanics are related to time travel, to tie this back to an older point - quite obviously has the latin number five imbedded in it. But where else do we see that number? Well, Lex's focus issue is #5, his prison jumpsuit is 221 (2+2+1=5), and at his trial he's situated as the fifth truly evil personality in a line that includes Adolf Hitler and Genghis Khan.

The Thematic: Thoroughout the series, Superman is resolute in his belief that humanity is capable of doing everything that he has done, that they will be no worse off without him if only they believe in themselves. Though he tells Lois that he's the only person strong enough to lift the key that opens the door to the Fortress of Solitude, he also hopes that "One day some future man or woman will open that door, with that key." His fortress, he explains, isn't a "museum", but rather a "time capsule" - not a record of some past age of superheroes but an example for the one that is yet to come. And this lesson is all the more meaingful if Lex Luthor himself, as Leo, is seemingly on the verge of creating the new man or woman who will be capable of lifting that key. Further to that point, Cole Moore Odell suggests that when Superman admonishes Lex in the final issue for wasting his genius we should read it as a challenge rather than a rebuke - a request that Lex, having seen the error of his ways with Superman's super-senses, will refocus his efforts and actually save a world without Superman. And he'll even do it in the way that Superman suggested: "years ago." His reformation, then, is Superman's greatest triumph - a moral victory that manages to touch even the most cynical and skeptical of us. (Which is to say: it reforms the Lex Luthor in all of us.)

The Silly: So we've touched on nearly everything right? Except for why he named himself "Leo". It's similar to "Lex", sure, and it could simply be that Morrison wanted to drive home the fact that they're mirror-reflections by opposing Lex's "X" to Leo's "O". (Get it?) But there's somethign else - Leo Quintum isn't the only Leo in this series. In a blink-and-you-missed-it moment in issue 5, Lex briefly introduces his Superman-costumed primate to Clark Kent. Its name? Leopold. It's a connection that's at once hilarious and convincingly self-effacing: if Leo is Lex, then Lex has genuinely swallowed his pride in naming himself after a monkey. No wonder Superman felt he could trust him.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

All-Star Superman #12

I was recently at the Toronto Public Library's Merril Collection of Science Fiction, researching 60s Superman comics for a lecture I'm going to be giving in January. It's hopelessly hokey stuff, but I can sorta see what Grant Morrison was drawing from when he imagined All-Star Superman - a naive and hopeless optimism that was much-deserving of the mockery it's received in the past couple decades, sure, but one that has a certain charm nonetheless. And if that naive optimism could be lent some depth and recuperated somehow...

It's tough to know where or how to start whenever I have to reflect on each issue of this series - and it only gets harder with this being the final issue of the best Superman story I've ever read. (And yes, I've read "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?") Linking it to kitschiest bits of Superman and claiming that Morrison and Quitely have not simply embraced The Big Blue Boyscout aspect of the character but made it enjoyable, well, that's one way to do it. Another would be to note how the characteristic meta-moment Morrison slips into every ultimate battle scene is particularly effective here: Luthor, realizing that he's squandered his genius, stares out of the panel at us and explains that "it's all just us, in here, together. And we're all we've got." Hilariously, and poignantly, Lex precedes that revelation with "this is how he sees all the time, every day". "He" is ostensibly Superman, but could also be Morrison and/or Quitely or us. (Assuming, of course, that the reader is male.) And so what Lex, the would-be world conqueror, realizes is that he's a character in a comic book. (And maybe he thinks that he's "just" a character in a comic book. It's implicit that Superman realizes his fictional status, too, but he also seems to understand that he's not "just" a fictional character - that there's power in his existence - and that its fictionality doesn't necessarily diminish the meaningfulness of their battle. If Lex is made to feel insignificant by the realization, it's because he's a pessimist, a skeptic, and a megalomaniac.)

Perhaps the most impressive thing about this final issue is how Morrison and Quitely manage to meld the ubermensch, the proletarian, and the Christ into one figure - only to discard it. They deliberately invoked Nietzsche in issue 10, they give us this wonderful shot of Superman in the heart of the sun that I know is paying homage to a Communist poster that exists but that I just can't find**, and they have Superman die and be returned to life by his father to finish his job before finally ascending into the sun. And for all of this deification of the character, they tell us in the end that the world doesn't actually need Superman - that good super-geniuses like Quintum* already exist to oppose the evil super-geniuses like Luthor, and that humanity can achieve something super all by themselves. Further to that point, it's telling, I think, that the iconic image of Superman I described above is not the final page of the comic, but that Quintum gets the last word and the door to his Superman 2 project is the final shot of the series.

The "world without Superman" cliché has always indicated darkness and disaster when DC attaches it to company-wide events. But not so here. At the close of
All-Star Superman, it simply presents an opportunity for humanity to show that it was worthy of his protection in the first place.

* (Added 9/25: In the comments, james provides a link to an excellent discussion of Leo Quintum, which parses some obscure textual clues that would seem to indicate that he's Lex Luthor, having reformed and traveled back in time. And this revelation only makes an incredible story even better. I won't repeat everything the article says or add much else - it probably deserves its own post - except to say that I'm going to have to re-read the whole thing with that in mind.)

** (Added 9/26: A post at Comicboards' Superman MB suggested a similarity to Soviet artist Evgeniy Vuchetich's "Let us Beat Swords into Plowshares"
, which is displayed at the UN in New York. There's a certain similarity, though I'm not sure it's what I had in mind. The sentiment, though, totally works.)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Revisiting Dallaire's legacy

Back in May of this year, Canadian celebrity-general and current senator Romeo Dallaire publicly compared the actions of the USA and Canada in Iraq and Afghanistan - especially with regard to their prosecution of alleged terrorists and Omar Khadr in particular - to the actions of the people they were fighting. Just as terrorists "don't play by the rules", Dallaire argued to a governmental committee in Ottawa, the USA and Canada are "operating on a law of their own". Some of his comments, though, were not nearly so subtle: "The minute you start playing with human rights, with conventions, with civil liberties in order to say you are doing it to protect yourself […] you are no better than the guy who doesn't believe in them at all."

Needless to say, Dallaire would end up walking straight into a trap. When a Conservative MP asked him if he was equating the actions of Canada with those of al-Qaeda, Dallaire was all too willing to play that game and provide the "black and white" answer that would surely end his political influence: "You are either with the law or you are against the law [...] You're either guilty or you're not."

Dallaire is, of course, absolutely right to suggest the absurdity and hypocrisy in chastising the ostensible bad guys for resorting to unethical and illegal modes of warfare when the supposed good guys are only too willing to respond with criminal gestures of their own.* But it's also not surprising that his party quickly moved to distance themselves from such a politically poisonous remark - there is no room for ambiguity when it comes to issues of us and them, after all. No one would bat an eye when Dallaire's successor, Rick Hillier, would reduce the Taliban simply to “detestable murderers and scumbags.” If you're going to speak simply, the lesson seems to be, just make sure you don't muddy the established good-evil divide. (Interestingly, though, Liberal leader Stephane Dion implied that Dallaire would face a punishment or reprimand of some kind. To my knowledge, that never happened - publicly, at least.)

When this first happened, I delayed in commenting on it because I wanted to see what else would develop. The answer, it seems, is nothing - Dallaire still does humanitarian work and serves on the Senate, but my guess is that he won't see any more committee work. His professional political career was over the moment his lived actions compromised his symbolic power as a national hero. The government still needs that symbol, so the living man will just have to be muzzled.

Dallaire also provided the following quote, which is interesting for all sorts of reasons that are close to my research interests and work: "It [the aforementioned illegal war activities] makes us look like a damn bunch of hypocrites, nothing less. It emasculates all of us who are Canadian, who are trying to work in areas like eradicating child soldiers." I'm reminded of how Sherene Razack conceptualized the Canadian peacekeeper as "anti-conquest man", a figure who tried to walk the delicate line between war-maker and war-victim and was constantly at risk of becoming one or the other - depending, in part, on whether the anti-conquest man becomes the emasculated or the emasculator. Just another reminder that we can never underestimate the tremendous caché (legitimacy?) that ownership (and the ability to distribute, which is implicit in Dallaire's remark) of military masculinity carries.

* I realize that terms like 'unethical', 'illegal', and 'criminal' in this context are loaded and deserve to be better unpacked. I'm using them in the same sense that Dallaire and the UN would - with reference to UN conventions that govern the legal and ethical process of making war. Which is, I know, kind of fucked-up in and of itself - but I won't actually tackle that in this space. That's a discussion for another time.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Wikipedia's curious visualizations of fetish porn

So sexual fetish porn is incredibly racialized and gendered*. This shouldn't come as a shock to anyone. But what might come as a shock is the usually very reliable and politically self-reflexive Wikipedia's participation in the production of these, uh... representations. (I'm trying to be subtle because it's all a bit discomforting. You'll see what I mean.)

Here's one, and another, and one more.

It's not that it's weird for Wikipedia to attach R- or X-rated images to its entries. It seems pretty sensible for an encyclopedia to do that when they're covering porn or sex and they do it in quite reasonable ways on other pages. What's weird is that in cataloging the porn fetishes, they manage to also perpetuate those most problematic aspects of them. And that's just not cool.

Now anyone want to tackle the implications of these images being cartoons? (And quite realistic, though still obviously fake, cartoons?)

*And they're racialized and gendered both simultaneously and connectedly, since those racialized roles of fetish-play are always assigned gendered (masculine, feminine) values. Or you could read it in the reverse - that the gender roles in hetero fetish-porn are implicitly raced. Anyway - the point being that they're inextricable and mutually implicated.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Chuck and me

When one of my students this past summer told me that the way I talked in tutorial reminded her of Chuck Klosterman, I wasn't sure whether I should be entirely flattered. Chuck Klosterman has a quite amusing and acerbic wit about him, but he's also a bit of an incorrigible and apolitical - or at least politically incoherent - asshole. (But the kind of asshole that you think secretly hates you but pretends to like you, rather than the kind that you're afraid will punch you in the face.)

But I've been reading Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs little by little over the past couple weeks, and I've come to realize that, whether I should feel flattered or not by the comparison, this student may have been on to a little something. For instance:
  • Chuck and I find the kids in Trix commercials to be needlessly* cruel to the rabbit.
  • Chuck wears black-rimmed, geek-chic glasses; I sometimes wish that I did.
  • Chuck and I both sometimes suspect that we're the only people in the world who liked Vanilla Sky.
  • Chuck and I both hate the emphasis that music critics put on the cleverness of lyrics. But for different reasons: he prefers lyrics that are immediate and relate-able, while I'm w(e)ary of cleverness-for-its-own sake because it's usually bereft of a meaningful or coherent politics
  • Chuck and I are both one trick-ponies in our writing on pop culture. Despite the packaging, every essay Chuck writes about a pop cultural text can be reduced to a "this is actually a metaphor for real life"-style thesis; despite the packaging, everything I write about a pop cultural text can be reduced to 1) the ironic swerve, and 2) the politically oppressive message that it's secretly spreading. (But I'm probably giving myself too much credit and Chuck too little - for all its pomp, my two-part reduction is actually just a fancier, cynical version of "this is a actually a metaphor for real life".)
* Well, maybe not "needlessly". Chuck describes their interaction as a metaphor for how 'childhood cool' works. I just thought they were jerks.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Some comics...

I haven't done a lot of comic book blogging in the last few weeks (months?), in part because I've been buying trades and graphic novels almost exclusively, but also because a lot of the monthlies I've bought haven't done much to hold my interest.

Uncanny X-Men 502. I think that I might kinda like this story if it weren't for Greg Land's art. There's something very mid-80s Claremont about it, what with the composition of the team, a New Mutant, a Hellion, and the Hellfire Club all making appearances. I don't know what it's all supposed to add up to, though. 501 seemed to be playing with nostalgia - we get the Sentinels and Magneto in that first issue, but as a tasteless art installation and with imitation powers, respectively. This Hellfire Gang seems like an unimpressive twist on the Club, but maybe it needs time to go somewhere. As for Land, his visuals are stiff and flat, the transitions between panels are awkward or incoherent (I shouldn't have to look back and forth between them to figure out where someone came from or how they could have possibly moved like that), and his faces are just... freaky. What kind of expression is Pixie making on page 5 and why is she making it as she gets her head knocked in by a baseball bat? And why does Cyclops always have a completely ridiculous and entirely out-of-character shit-eating grin?

Astonishing X-Men 26. I read this maybe two weeks ago, but I seem to have retained virtually none of it. I remember the villain being slightly creepy and the plot trudging forward at a snail's pace. (Flips through it very quickly.) Ah, yes, and his head explodes or something at the end. And there's a really long discussion about whether the X-Men should kill which is, again, not terribly interesting because it's a discussion that they've had dozens of times and they should all be quite sure of where each other stand on the issue. They couldn't fit in a B-story or something? I'm starting to be of the mind that it's better to be explicitly bad than it is to be boring - and this is boring.

I also picked up the first issue of Omega The Unknown, because I had read a bit about its background and it sounded interesting. And that first issue, at least, wasn't disappointing. Maybe I just need a break from mainstream superhero stuff.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Adventures in TAing, case 3 (in a ? case series)

So i'm sitting in my office (and by "my office" I mean the office that I share with multiple people but which I occupy by my lonesome for one hour every week) at York University before teaching tutorial on Tuesday afternoon. It's the same office I had for the 07-08 school year, but better. Unlike most offices in its building, one wall has an embedded window to the hallway, which allows me access to the windows to the outdoors and real sunlight. The better part, though, is that I now have the computer to which I've always been contractually obliged but declined because I prefer the sunlight to four concrete block walls. Which is just fantastic.

I'm at this table with the computer, doing some blogging with the door open. And then The Weirdness happens.

This lanky dude wanders slowly past my door, stopping to read a post-it note affixed to the office window. (You're all assuming that he must be white because I didn't immediately racialize him and white guys tend not to notice the whiteness of other white guys. Ha! Actually, he was black.) It says "So-and-so's office hours: this time to this time on Friday". And it should take 5 seconds to read. But he stares at it intently for at least 20, which is why I notice him.

He's holding a magazine in one hand, and he taps on my door very lightly with it. I ask him if he needs help with something, and he just looks back at the note and gestures toward it with a shake of his head. I make a confused look and he gestures again and takes a couple steps into my office.

"Are you busy?" he says.

I ask him if he needs some help again. He walks toward me. (Don't worry - it was totally non-threatening.)

"Are you busy?" (2)

He didn't really answer my question, but I'm just going to assume that he needs help with something because these are the sort of brilliant deductions I'm capable of making on the spot. "Well, what do you need help WITH?"

"Are you busy?" (3)

I'm not freaked out (yet) but I'm wondering what his deal is. Because he can't possibly be solely interested in knowing whether I'm busy. Even I'm not interested in this question, and I have a vested interest in myself and what I'm doing. "Uhh... not really."

"Are you busy?" (4), this time a bit more emphatically.

Evidently, he didn't like my answer, which I thought was actually rather adequate.
I notice that in his non-magazine holding hand he's holding a Political Science textbook and a syllabus that belongs to a course that is not the one I TA. So assuming that this guy's secret motive is very likely related to another class or the Poli Sci program or something else that I probably don't know anything about, I say "Do you have a question about Humanities 1970? [This being the course I TA, for which I have been given office space and time.] Because if you don't then I probably can't help you."

"Are you busy?" (5)

This time I don't even say anything. I just sorta arch my eyebrow and let my jaw go slack. I have no idea what's going on or how to respond anymore. It's like that two-second moment when you first realized that Kevin Spacey is Keyser Soze and you're so amused and surprised by the realization that you're momentarily stunned into paralysis. Only replace "amused" with "bewildered" or "mildly horrified".
He sighs and rolls his eyes.

"Are you busy?" (6)

Now I'm getting a bit pissed off too. "I don't know what you need help with!" (I've thrown in an exclamation point for emphasis, not volume. I'm dropping my voice, rather than getting louder, so as to sound more authoritative and masculine. Because that's just how authority rolls. And because I'm wearing a gray and pink sweater vest that otherwise undercuts my masculine authority.)

"Are. You. Busy?" (7)

He clearly thinks I'm an idiot, but I don't know why. I silently wonder: am I being filmed? Am I going to be a reality TV star twice over?
"How do you even know I can help you?"

"Are you busy?" (8) Yeah, he's very clearly using the 'I think I'm talking to a moron' tone. Which is appropriate, because, at this point, so am I.

But this is getting old. And it's getting unbearably annoying fast, so I start to get snarky. "You know, usually you start by introducing yourself or saying hello when you walk into someone's office. And then you ask your question."

He sighs audibly, throws his hands up into the air and stomps out of the room. And sensing that I have about one second to say something clever and biting before he walks out the door and I never see him again, I say, "Dude, you are weird." Seriously. I'm in my ninth year of higher education and that's the best I could come up with.

He turns the corner of the doorway and disappears just momentarily. Then he takes a step backward, leans his head back into the room and says - remarkably - "You too."

Note: It's very possible that there was another one or two "Are you busy"s in there. It was hard to keep track in the moment.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The curious coverage of election promises

We have elections in full-swing, now, both north and south of the 49th parallel, and I'm always struck by the ridiculous tax-cut-happy bias displayed in media coverage of campaign promises. A candidate or party can propose a tax cut with hardly anyone asking where the correlative spending cut will occur, but they can rarely propose new spending without explaining - immediately - how they'll raise the money to cover it. It makes sense that both should be subject to the same degree of scrutiny, right?

Naturally, this is a fundamentally Bad Thing for the parties whose promises are staked on new social or cultural initiatives, rather than on reducing the tax load. In the Canadian election, the two major parties find themselves hilariously separated both in terms of their ostensible spend/cut philosophies and their transparency: but while the Liberal party has been, to my mind, quite explicit in explaining how they'll balance the new taxes with the new spending, little attention has been given to what the Conservative party will have to cut in order to meet their tax cut promises.

Take, for instance, a proposed cut to the diesel fuel tax. It'll remove a not-insubstantial $600 million from the piggy bank, but the Conservatives didn't even bother to suggest where that $600 will be struck from their spending. And no one asked.

I'm also amused by the underlying assumption that more fiscally conservative governments will necessarily be more fiscally responsible. The largest budget deficit ever posted by a Canadian government was posted by the Conservatives in the early 90s. (Which is, in part, attributable to a larger recession, but has also been blamed on PM Brian Mulroney's disastrous "zero inflation" economic policy. The Liberal government that followed him turned it into a surplus in less than 5 years, though at high cost to government services.) Likewise, the Reagan and Bush #1 years saw a combined $3 trillion dollars worth of debt and Bush #2 posted a record deficit in 2004 of $415 million. (Clinton's last year, by comparison, saw a budget surplus of $236 billion.) So where does this myth of conservative budgetary savvy come from, anyway?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Paglia on Palin

Camille Paglia thinks that Sarah Palin is a feminist. Camille Paglia is wrong.

Conservative though she may be, I felt that Palin represented an explosion of a brand new style of muscular American feminism. At her startling debut on that day, she was combining male and female qualities in ways that I have never seen before. And she was somehow able to seem simultaneously reassuringly traditional and gung-ho futurist. In terms of redefining the persona for female authority and leadership, Palin has made the biggest step forward in feminism since Madonna channeled the dominatrix persona of high-glam Marlene Dietrich and rammed pro-sex, pro-beauty feminism down the throats of the prissy, victim-mongering, philistine feminist establishment.

In the U.S., the ultimate glass ceiling has been fiendishly complicated for women by the unique peculiarity that our president must also serve as commander in chief of the armed forces. Women have risen to the top in other countries by securing the leadership of their parties and then being routinely promoted to prime minister when that party won at the polls. But a woman candidate for president of the U.S. must show a potential capacity for military affairs and decision-making. Our president also symbolically represents the entire history of the nation -- a half-mystical role often filled elsewhere by a revered if politically powerless monarch.

Paglia's making the exact same mistakes that I listed in my earlier comments on this same topic of Palin's ostensible feminist credentials: she doesn't realize that it's problematic - and decidedly unfeminist - to suggest that a woman needs to become a masculine-feminine hybrid in order to succeed when a man need not be anything buy masculine, nor does she seem to realize that Palin's rise, while undoubtedly important for its symbolism, confirms her exceptionalism rather than her exemplariness.

For this reason, the Madonna comparison is an unexpectedly good one - Madonna is so singular and unique that she strikes us as very nearly unreal or artificial. She's a woman that has built a career out of projecting a future-woman or counter-cultural sexuality rather than reflecting the mainstream. If this is Palin's metaphorical match, then she hardly proves Paglia's point.

Madonna also offers the mainstream a sort of cultural catharsis - having allowed her threaten the center with her saucy lyrics and cone-shaped bras, conservative media bodies can point to their acceptance - even promotion - of Madonna as proof of their tolerance. And this is especially effective when we try to judge the sort of material effect that Madonna has produced: sincerely, now, what sort of socio-cultural change - beyond those to high-fashion or the producing and selling of pop music - has Madonna actually managed?*

And Paglia's implicit suggestion, that getting a woman to the president's office is somehow de facto feminist, is also totally wrong-headed. And not just because Palin is not a feminist. As an example: A woman, Kim Campbell, became Prime Minister of Canada for six months in 1993 and every Canadian got to pat themselves on the back for their increasing tolerance and sensitivity to gender inequality. And Canadians have been so impressed with themselves that in the 15 years since only one woman has even had the chance to lead one of our four major parties. (And she never had a realistic chance of winning control of Parliament.)

Some powerful symbolism offered by those six months in 1993: they allowed us to go back to excluding women from the boys' games without having to even admit that we were doing so.

*I fully expect that my casual dismissal of Madonna will get me in trouble with someone at some point in the future, and I'm probably be unfair in failing to consider all of the people that she's inspired. Granted. But I do think it's important that there hasn't been a Madonna-like figure since Madonna - that 25 years after Madonna's debut, no one has arrived to take the pop-feminism crown from her and run with it.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Thoughts on "Fringe"

J.J. Abrams newest show, Fringe, debuted tonite, an X-Files-meets-Lost kind of show that - rather than causing you to marvel at the cleverness of such a combination in a "why didn't anyone do this before?" kind of way - instead leads you to the realization that those shows were not quite dissimilar to begin with.*

I have to lead off immediately by drawing the Lost comparison because, as Victoria pointed out to me 5 minutes into the show, I fear that I might have enjoyed the pilot solely because it reminded me so much of Lost - my obsession for Lost being a matter of public record. For instance:
  • The show begins on a plane that's suffering through a particularly rotten patch of turbulence, which seems like a deliberate allusion to Lost (which, though it doesn't begin with the crash, is overdetermined by that sort of TV-plane-disaster imagery)
  • The guy that plays the authoritative, mysterious, and ambiguously bad guy Matthew Abaddon in Lost plays the authoritative, mysterious, and ambiguously good guy Phillip Broyles in Fringe
  • The score is nearly identical. The same crescendo builds and suddenly stops before every tense reveal or commercial break.
  • I swear, one of the photos that Broyles shows to Olivia when he tries to recruit her to join his team had a Dharma logo on it. Or some close approximation of it.
  • The show uses a variation on an early swerve that was supposed to happen in the pilot of Lost. In that early draft, Jack (who, as the name implies, should be the everyman) would be set up as the main character only to die half-way through and cede the protagonist's role to Kate. In Fringe's pilot, Olivia and John (same rule applies) are set up as our co-leads, only for John to fall victim to an explosion 15 minutes in. In a bit of a new twist, John lives long enough for us to learn that he's actually a low-level villain - and Olivia is installed as the main character, just like Kate was supposed to be.
So yeah - maybe it's actually quite bad and I'm blinded by the associations with Lost. It features Joshua Jackson, and I'm not sure that I can ever see him as anyone other than Pacey Witter. And there are certainly some silly and seemingly unnecessary moments - Jackson's character is introduced brokering some deal for oil in Iraq for no obvious reason and Broyles seems too free with information about "the pattern" when he tries to recruit Olivia, (especially when we earlier learned that the mere existence of "the pattern" was a classified matter) as if the speech was more for our benefit than hers.

But no pilot is perfect, right? (Except for the Lost pilot, maybe...)

* This is not the sort of work that a good "Show-X-meets-Show-Y" cliché should accomplish, of course. The combination should be wacky or unexpected, and typically draws its material from different genres, if not different planets. For instance: my friend Claudio, in an interview to get into a University program many years ago, was asked a question to the effect of "sum up your dream film project". He responded with five words: "Citizen Kane meets American Pie". Which is perhaps a needlessly absurd example, but serves as a nice counter-point, anyway. (But I won't let you know whether the answer worked.)

Selling Sarah Palin: on post-feminism and the misuse of "feminist"

This isn't so much a complaint about Sarah Palin as it is about the media that is supposedly vilifying her and the fast-and-loose way that people now deploy the word "feminism". Namely, it's a complaint about the insistence with which some media types (and bloggers) sincerely push Palin as a feminist - often, as in these examples, her feminist credentials are posed as a question or debate, though the angle is always a sympathetic one - or at least present her political ambitions as an achievement made possible by feminism and representative of its success.

The first suggestion is, to anyone who knows anything about the broad philosophy of feminism, total bullshit. Feminism is not a politics that aims for the exceptional and symbolic advancement of a single woman, nor can it be reduced simply to the success of women - their ability to perform masculinity while preserving a recognizable femininity - in a man's world. Rather, a feminist and feminist politics are oriented toward gender equity and equality, and accomplishing that 1) by recognizing larger social structures and institutions that produce and reproduce this "man's world", and 2) doing something to change those same structures and institutions. Palin's politics are in no way feminist for the simple reason that she fails to recognize her exceptionalism as a woman who can play the boys' game, and so makes no effort to change that boys' game in order to make it inclusive. (Contrast this with Obama, who acknowledges historical and systemic race barriers - even if he can't explicitly call the USA "racist" - as well as his own good fortune to have been able to access systems of power that are only rarely available to other black men in the USA. Sarah Palin disingenuously describes herself as just a "hockey mom"; Obama would never reduce himself to just an "Afro-American dude".)*

The solution to the problem of the second argument is less obvious - which is merely to say that it's not completely fucking clueless - but equally misdirected. Marketing Palin as the end product of feminism or as a woman who will usher in a "new" feminism is actually a post-feminist position. Hillary Clinton got it right when she, like Obama, marketed herself as a pioneer - her run at the president's office was not indicative of feminism's success, but of its continuing gains and potential to succeed eventually. Conversely, Palin's nomination to the vice-president's office is seen by Republicans as just another reason to declare feminism dead and the feminist movement irrelevant - if a woman can be one step from the highest political office in the country, then surely gender discrimination is a non-issue. (And if you need me to tell you how and why this opinion is woefully misinformed, then you probably realized that I'm one of those self-hating feminist men and stopped reading this a long time ago.)

In fact, the ways in which pundits describe Palin's feminist achievements actually serve to illustrate the persistence of gender inequality. Note how Palin is lauded for her ability to balance family and work - as if she could not be "feminist" if she focused on only one. Conversely, male politicians are rarely celebrated for their ability to be both good fathers and good leaders, nor are they decried for their perceived parenting failures. In fact, it's not really expected that they should have to parent- it's a mostly unspoken expectation that primary parental responsibilities will fall to their spouse, to whom most of the child-rearing questions are directed by the media anyway.