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.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Film festivals and celebrity stalking...

irony: refers to incongruity between the intended meaning of an action and the actual or perceived meaning of an action

During the Toronto International Film Festival, crowds of people will gather outside theatres, on the sidewalk(s), to catch a glimpse of movie stars as they walk the red carpet. And this can sometimes be unintentionally hilarious. Case in point: a crowd of people stood along the sidewalk opposite the Elgin theatre on Yonge street and as we walked behind them on our way to dinner we passed two of the ostensible objects of their interest: Geoffrey Rush and Ben Kingsley (and his family). And because their backs were turned to watched the theatre entrance, the celebrity stalkers totally missed them.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Guilty displeasures, part 2

In a discussion about "guilty displeasure" with Omar Karindu below, he wrote that "the aesthetic involved in guilty displeasure is, I think, a way of mediating/deferring a larger ethical-aestehtic judgment -- one that would properly be rooted, as you say, in a more nuanced or complex analysis".

I wrote in response that "A blog is really the ideal venue for guilty displeasure, then, isn't it? I can defer (endlessly) a more complex ethical-aesthetic judgment and excuse my own lapses because this is only a blog." The guilt of guilty displeasure, I added, riffing off of Omar's earlier comments, seems to be in the purposeful refusal of the guiltily displeased blogger - who, for the most part, still considers him or herself a critical thinker - to engage in any extended or nuanced critique: the blog captures an immediacy that often precludes scholarly depth, and just as often those initial comments will never be revisited. And the blogger is typically okay with that - it is, as I noted above, "only" a blog.

And on that note, I'm renaming the blog "Guilty Displeasures". Not because I'm only going to register guilty displeasures, but because I'm too amused by the idea that blogging is itself unavoidably a guilty displeasure to not use it. (And besides, "Neil Shyminsky's Blog" was hardly an awesome title.)

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Jumping into the Sarah Palin brouhaha...

It's rare that I agree with the Globe and Mail's Margaret Wente on pretty much anything, but her critiques of the Republican vice-presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, seem dead-on. Palin stakes a lot of her reputation on her relation to Family Values and to invoke Family Values is, naturally, to expose yourself to loads of criticism when you start to look hypocritical. Wente notes, and I agree, that the hypocrisy isn't in the way that she's proposing to juggle five children, one a baby, and this job* or in Palin's failure to properly educate her pregnant teenage daughter**, but rather in the way that Palin "couldn't bear to say no to her country when it needs her - even if it meant sacrificing the privacy of her 17-year-old daughter to the global media machine." Her daughter, Bristol, at this point, is probably hoping that the Republicans lose - it's the only way she'll escape constant scrutiny and a marriage that we can't possibly be sure she wants***.

* Sincerely, if she can be governor of Alaska - whether that involves chops for foreign policy or not - then she can juggle both commitments.
** Snarkily, I should add that I think this is more of a failure to govern than to parent - Palin instituted "abstinence only" sex ed in Alaska, and her daughter is the beneficiary of that 'education'.
*** Neither Bristol nor the baby-daddy have been interviewed, so we'll have to take simply accept that Palin is being wholly truthful when she says they want to get married. Though it doesn't really matter whether they do or not - for her mom's sake, they have to get married. (Or at least say as much until she loses. Assuming she loses.) Nothing says Family Values like a Shotgun Wedding.