Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Idris Elba, Mickey Rourke, and how race matters in casting

The Thor movie trailer has come out and, predictably, some fans are protesting that Idris Elba, who is black, shouldn't have been cast as a Norse god, all of whom are white. Elba as Heimdall is pictured below:

Thankfully, most responses have been supportive of the Elba casting. That said, a lot of them still miss the point of casting him. Take this summary of the issue by Monika Bartyzel at Moviefone:

At some point we all have to realize that changing the skin color of a fictional character is not an affront to anyone, and should be seen no differently than a different hairstyle, a modernized wardrobe or any of the other changes that fall on fictional figures...

Unfortunately, it's precisely this kind of fallacious "color-blind" theorizing that allows critics of the casting-decision to turn around and accuse the author of the Moviefone critique of being a hypocrite:

Could Bartyzel be any more of a hypocrite? She thinks it’s wrong to put whites in the roles of non-whites [she criticized a decision to cast Mickey Rourke as Genghis Khan in another film] but more than acceptable to put non-whites in the roles of whites. In fact she says it’s “racist” to object to putting non-whites in the roles of whites.

Which is a fair enough response - in spite of the fact that most of the arguments on the site are racist gibberish - given how terribly Bartyzel articulated the reasons for opposing the Rourke casting but supporting the Elba decision.

But Bartyzel is ultimately right, even if she goes about explaining it the wrong way. What it actually comes down to isn't color-blindness - as if that's possible or even desirable - but representation and power. We should support decisions like casting Michael Clarke Duncan as the Kingpin or Elba as Heimdall because a) actors of color are under-represented in Hollywood film and TV, and b) the source texts of comic book adaptations are often 50 or more years old, and so were made for all-white audiences and, predictably, feature all-white casts. (And, often, these are subtly racist texts that were produced for an explicitly racist audience. Reproducing those texts exactly, just for the sake of creating a faithful adaptation, means reproducing those racist politics or representation, too. Fidelity for its own sake is often a bad idea.)

Hollywood is full of these kinds of adaptations and full of films populated by exclusively or almost exclusively white casts. What Hollywood is not full of - aside from the films created by Tyler Perry and a few other films marketed specifically for black-audiences (films that often still manage to find space for white actors, mind you) - are meaningful roles for non-white actors.

I'll simplify it, even, and say that representation is power. It's empowering to see images of heroes that look like you, that you can imagine to be you, and disempowering to feel that you either can't identify with them or actively disidentify with the people who look most like you. There are plenty of white male superheroes, wizards, demigods, and so forth, and comparatively few black men playing similar roles - virtually none once you remove any that have been played by Will Smith.

Idris Elba isn't stealing from a scarce supply of white male fantasy roles, but he is contributing to a scarce list of black male fantasy characters. And that's valuable and interesting in a way that, say, Sam Worthington as Heimdall would not be.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Stealing a page from Pitchfork's book

If someone were to pay me to write a review of the Black Eyed Peas' "The Time (Dirty Bit)", it would probably go a little something like this:

Monday, December 13, 2010

Academic scandal and "political agendas": the controversy at U Toronto's SESE

My partner, Victoria, is a PhD candidate in the department of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education (SESE) at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. (It's a mouthful, yes.) Recently, it's gotten a lot of press here in Canada, most of it very angry.

The gist of it is this: a Master's student - Jenny Peto - wrote a thesis (one of those 150 or so page long essays that we don't expect anyone outside of our immediate family and committee will ever read) which - very basically - alleges that two "Holocaust education projects" instrumentalize the Holocaust in such a way as to "promote the interests of the Israeli nation-state." And someone blogged about it, which caught the attention of the National Post and Toronto Star, who promptly labeled her a self-loathing Jewish anti-Semite.

I don't want to talk about the thesis itself because I've only read the abstract. (That is, I don't know whether it is good or bad, though a friend of mine who has read it calls it "quite abysmal". And I'm saying that that's beside the point, anyway, for the purposes of what I want to cover here.) Hilariously, it's not clear that many of the commentators who have contributed to the discussion have actually given it a good look, much less read the whole thing themselves. Nor is it clear that they have any clear idea of the expectations that are attached to a Master's thesis - the demands for more interviews, research, etc. would turn this into the sort of massive, years-long project that no supervisor would approve and no MA student could complete.

The newest addition to this ongoing saga is a list of SESE's MA theses* that have been compiled by Werner Cohn, an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia. The list has been reprinted in the National Post, where Cohn claims that they are "so marred by political jargon and political preconceptions that they should never have been accepted." The theses, it seems, are "politicized" (whatever that means - what, in the study of sociology and equity, isn't politicized?), claims Cohn, and "consist of hate propaganda, possibly in violation of the Criminal Code of Canada."

(It behooves me, here, to point out Cohn's own possible biases and investment in the subject matter. If his personal website - which includes a lot of anti-Chomsky stuff, writings on Zionism, and writings on "Jews who hate Israel" - is any indication, he's probably one of the people who is politically implicated by Peto's thesis. This is an auspicious a key detail and its absence from his text in the National Post article is auspicious.)

Cohn claims that the abstracts he lists (because he didn't read 16 of the 18 theses - like i said, no one does) are "propound political agendas rather than detached scholarship" and "the politics of all eighteen are of one sort and one sort only: radical leftism", and that they "are so politicized that – again on a prima facie basis – I would not accept them as scholarly contributions". (To his credit, I suppose, he admits that it's possible - if unlikely - that he would change his mind if he actually read the things.)

Having read the list myself, I have a few observations to share, too:

If, on the basis of the abstract alone, this stuff constitutes "political agendas" and "radical leftism", then Cohn has either never read anything in the fields of equity and identity politics or else thinks that the fields themselves are not worthy of his attention. Some of the abstracts are pretty innocuous, except for the appearance of terms like "anti-racist", "Canadian colonialism", and the "white" Canadian nation-state. And regardless, this is not somehow a unique cross-section - this is typical of the work being done right now in sociology, race, and/or gender studies. My sense is that his problem is with the discipline, from which he appears to be professionally and philosophically detached. (And not "detached" in the somewhat problematic sense that one can ever be politically detached from necessarily politicized work, but "detached" in the sense of "he just doesn't know.") The National Post might as well have asked a mathematician to weigh-in.

Cohn uses the term "Neo-Marxist" dismissively on another blog, and I think it's a telling insult. Based on that article and the one in the globe - where he hides his own politics under the guise of "objectivity in scholarship" and "scholarly merit" (which he doesn't define - presumably, it is obvious to people like himself, who are ostensibly, if disingenuously, without politics) - my guess is that what Cohn is actually lamenting is his own obsolescence. At the risk of sounding too dismissive myself, Cohn's first published article is now 60 years old - presumably, he is made anxious by MA theses employing post-colonial and anti-racist frameworks that critique and reject what was once canon. That canon being the pro-Western, pro-white, masculinist, heterosexist sociological corpus that Cohn was trained with and - again, presumably - has contributed to. It doesn't matter what they were actually, specifically saying - he was probably ready to dismiss them simply for committing this sin.

Cohn also criticizes OISE for the "political uniformity" of its theses, adding that "no thesis that, for instance, urged a conservative viewpoint, or a Christian one, or, Heaven forbid, Zionism". But this is a red herring if I've ever seen one - those "viewpoints" aren't there simply because they're not up to the task. Imagine a classically liberal - ie. conservative, in popular parlance - analysis of gendered microinequities in the workplace. Could it even admit the possibility? How would it go about collecting data in any meaningful way? What kind of horribly reductive and limited vocabulary would it be forced to draw on? Could it even account for the possibility of systemic discrimination? Just what the hell would that look like? (You might counter with the suggestion that a conservative thesis would challenge the whole idea of microinequities. In which case, frankly, it shows its uselessness that much faster.)

[* Victoria's MA thesis isn't among them, though the temporal scope of his selections aren't clear, and so it's possible that she just fell outside his time-frame.]

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The NBA, referreeing, and segue into Malcolm Gladwell

I don't remember hearing about this study, but apparently in 2007 some researchers found subtle racial-bias in the calls that NBA referees made from 1993-2003. And then, after being viciously attacked by the NBA for using faulty methodology, they used the data that the NBA supplied to refute their claims in order to confirm their findings. Cool stuff, and there's an article about the whole back story on ESPN.

The article references Malcolm Gladwell's Blink a lot, crediting him for popularizing the idea of implicit racism. (which, I'm guessing, was either derived from or unknowingly riffing on the idea of microinequity) I read the whole book, and I kinda hated it. There was no thesis, to speak of - he was writing about the power of implicit bias in the quick decisions that we make all of the time. Sometimes our bias is helpful, sometimes it isn't; sometimes we can retrain ourselves to affect it, sometimes we can't. If there's any central point, it's merely that these near-instantaneous, subconsciously-motivated decisions happen. And if one of my students had written this, I would have given them a poor mark for writing a 'grocery list' essay consisting of a bunch of vaguely related items that combine to make no larger point.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Adventures in TAing, case 9 (in a ? case series)

The exact process varies - sometimes I steal from Chuck Klosterman and use his "23 Questions I Ask Everybody I Meet In Order To Decide If I Can Really Love Them" - but I've always started the school year with introductions and some sort of ice-breaker question for my students. But I decided to be lazy this year (probably, in part, because this was the first time in 3 years that I had a one-hour tutorial rather than a two-hour one) and just do name and major.

Name. Major. That's it.

And in spite of this simple request, I probably got the most entertaining, aggressive, and bizarre introduction ever. (And I'm posting it here, now, only because he dropped the class.)

I'm _______ and I'm majoring in Business. And I want to get an A+ on the group presentation, because I got an F on one last year and my final mark in the class was a C+. But everything else was an A+ so they changed it to an A because I petitioned it. Oh, and my group hated me because I'm gay.

Added later: The student showed up once more and then dropped the class.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Two totally, completely, absolutely unrelated stories


This story about the (ex-)casting director of the Hobbit's already a couple days old, but I wanted to respond to one part of what's been the popular response. It comes in the headline on Salon, actually:

A woman says she was denied a job as an extra for not being light-skinned -- was it wrong or just authentic?

Clearly, "authentic" is being deployed problematically, here. First, this is a fictional myth, and so the standard of authenticity is highly interpretive. But more importantly, "authentic" shouldn't be used to cover-up or ignore the racist politics of the source text. And, headline aside, Salon gets this part right:

The kerfuffle over "The Hobbit's" tactless casting call -- with its obvious and utterly unnecessary skin tone limiting of would-be applicants -- serves an uncomfortable reminder of the not-so diverse realm of the Tolkienverse. [...] As my colleague Laura Miller says, 'There's a criticism that there's a crypto racial thing in the darker-skinned orcs and the southern men.'

My only disagreement would be with the "crypto" part. Really? "Crypto" makes me think that it's subtle and/or unintentional. And I don't think it's either.


This story, which is about the racialized casting of Victoria Secret models, is a bit older but hasn't, as far as I can tell, gotten as much play.

The Victoria Secret Fashion Show, which aired last night on CBS, opened with a complete line up of light skinned models.While dark skinned models were sprinkled throughout the show, they seemed to have lined them up so they could all be part of the “Wild Things” segment of the show [...] Yes, wild things… that included tribal dancers and all the models of color in the show.

I'm not aware of CBS or Victoria Secret's response to the complaint that dark-skinned models were uniformly exoticized - and that the white models were uniformly not - but I wouldn't be surprised if the same defense of "authenticity" were made.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

There's a joke to be made about probes and *probes*, here...

Back during the summer, Toronto hosted the a G20 summit. Predictably, there was rioting and some over-zealous (to put it kindly) riot police decided to variously round-up protesters who, subsequently, they were unable to place at the scene of the property damage or else just physically clear protesters out of areas that, to the best of the public's knowledge, had been declared Protest Zones. (As it turns out, this had only been 'proposed', and no 'official' designation had been given.)

Which means that people sitting on the grass at the provincial legislature, who were under the impression that they were allowed to do so peaceably without threat of violence, suffered injuries as a result of stuff like this:

Hilariously/pathetically, the Special Investigations Unit just released a report that identifies not one culpable officer in this whole mess. I had expected, at the very least, at least a few "bad apple" scapegoats who could be offered up in lieu of having to admit that the problem was systemic - that the police were poorly trained/prepared, that their orders and actions were misguided on the whole, that they just plain did a bad job. (Because we'd never get that kind of admission.)

Instead, we got stuff like this, as described by the Toronto Star:
  • "Officers declined to be interviewed for the SIU investigations, as is their right. That left the SIU in several cases unable to determine a specific officer at fault."
  • "Because the officers all wore identical helmets and uniforms, it was impossible to identify which one is responsible for causing a fracture below Nobody’s right eye, said Scott. Two officers were identified as having something to do with the incident, but exercised their rights, declining an interview with the SIU."
  • "'I did not think that it would be likely that police officers would come forward and identify themselves as having contributed to my injury,' [Norm Morcos, who suffered a fractured hand] said."
(There are other gems not listed in his article, like the problem of identifying officers who illegally covered up their badge, as the one in the picture above did. He can't be reprimanded even for breaching uniform protocol because, of course, he can't be identified. And that's that.)

Now over on Facebook, someone defended the right of the police involved to remain silent, since "
Everyone is allowed to remain silent. Basic right of all people."

But this is fucked up.

First of all, if this were a criminal investigation, the cops who refused to be interviewed with respect to the allegedly criminal conduct of their co-workers could be charged with obstruction or accessory - because you don't have the right to remain silent when you have evidence of someone else's crime. If I had witnessed one of my friends bash in someone's head, I would be subpoenaed and compelled to testify - why should the police be held to a lower standard?

Second, this isn't a criminal investigation, anyway - it's a
job review. And its purpose is to discern whether the people who we entrust to with our physical security - and who are given tremendous power and privileges to do so - are doing their job or else behaving in ways that are antithetical to it. And they can't. Because the people accused of bashing a fallen protester in the face with a baton, of refusing to let a one-legged man retrieve his prosthesis and instead demanding that he hop, or of kicking a sitting man in the back of the head - or, for that matter, the people who watched it happen - don't have to talk if they don't want to. And the SIU has no other recourse - if they don't freely choose to speak, the case goes nowhere.

So this blows my mind: if these police officers (and it's obviously problematic to focus on a few particular officers when the whole culture of law enforcement should be implicated, but still...) can't assure us that they're fulfilling their responsibilities, much less assure us that they're not acting in a criminally irresponsible way when they've been accused of doing so, how is it that they're even allowed to keep their jobs?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

I hate trying to sell stuff online

We're moving in early January, and are using it as an excuse to get rid of some stuff that Penelope has outgrown: to start with, a Fisher-Price barn-door that plays music, an uber-expensive bouncy seat that she never really liked, an outdoor slide and swing-set (the Swing-Along Castle), and - eventually, once we figure out how to replace a surprisingly vital coin-sized piece that fell off - her original stroller, which she outgrew much faster than we had thought she would. (At 22 months, Penelope is taller than many kids who are twice her age.)

This being a poor time of the year to do yard sales in Toronto, I've taken to trying to sell this stuff on the internet. The barn-door went quickly, but it's proven difficult to sell the other things. I thought that it had to do with the pricing - I started posting each item at half its original sticker price - but I'm starting to think that the problem might the people who I'm interacting with.

Near as a I can tell there are at least 5 distinctive types of Kijiji/Craigslist shoppers, and some categories overlap with others:

1) The no-reply
Of the last five people to contact me about the Swing-Along Castle, all of whom ask me where I live and when they can pick it up, (and, sometimes, whether it's even still available) only one has responded after I've politely shared the requested details. One person even emailed me the same inquiry twice, evidently failing to realize that s/he was contacting the same person regarding the same toy. And s/he still never actually followed up.

2) The geographically-illiterate
I would that think a) selecting my location as City of Toronto, and b) even providing my postal code (which produces an arrow on Google Maps that lands maybe a half-dozen houses down the street from my place) would be enough to allow people to figure out whether it's worth the trip to come here and get whatever it is that they're interested in. But no. People will ask me, for instance, whether I'm anywhere near Whitby. If, by "near", you mean within 50km and up to a one-hour drive during off-peak hours, then, yes, I'm "near" Whitby. But you probably should have been able to figure that out, right?

3) The illiterate-illiterate
To be fair, some of the emails read less like the writing of someone who's illiterate and more like someone who is texting. For example: "pls pm the best price you could offer, tkx". But seriously? Just on principle, now, I don't want to respond to you. And some people just violate the basic rules of internet netiquette and grammar: "I'M INTERESTED IN LEARNING FARM.
IS STILL AVAILABLE?" If I say 'yes', will you stop shouting?

4) The negotiator
It's not that I don't expect some negotiating. But I find myself annoyed by the way that people negotiate. One email was just a number: "50?" Like, not even a 'hi!' And the first example in the previous category fits here, too - the person can't even be bothered to make me an offer. (Granted, my reaction probably also has something to do with the fact that I'm selling my baby's toys. It's not that I want them to value my emotional attachments, but I don't want them to feel devalued, either.) But these are relatively minor complaints in comparison to...

5) The perpetual negotiating machine
When I first posted the bouncy seat, I listed it for $90 - half of its original $180 price. And I got a really quick bite, too. Someone offered $80, which was totally reasonable, and asked me to reply "asap" with my details. So I agreed, and I did just that. And then I got a response that amended the offer to $70. Arrrgh.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

My favorite pop song lyric of the moment

From Ke$ha's current single, "We R Who We R":
"And no, you don’t wanna mess with us/
Got Jesus on my necklace"
Reasons why this is awesome:
1) Jesus = ass-kicking power
2) She rhymes "mess with us" with "neck-uh-luss"

Monday, November 08, 2010

"Canada: Our time to lead: 8 Discussions We Need To Have"

The Globe and Mail, which fancies itself Canada's answer to The New York Times, has been running weekly features (the "8 Discussions We Need To Have" that are referenced in the title of this post) of ostensible national importance over the past month.

Luckily(?), these discussions are providing me with some pretty fantastic teachable moments for my students, who are learning about ideas of privilege, oppression, power, and politics. This is because the way the Globe is marketing this series is surprisingly (even shockingly) problematic: racist, sexist, classist... really, I'm just waiting for the inevitable homophobic discussion question.

The topics have been showing up on billboards throughout the city, and I've been writing them down or photographing them as I see them. Of course, I'm lazy, so I don't necessarily have those pictures in front of me as I type this. So with the caveat that I might get a word or two wrong, here's what's been discussed thus far, as captured on the billboards:
  1. "Multicultural mosaic or mistake?"
  2. "Do women need to leave Canada to be successful?"
  3. "Boys aren't failing. They just need lower standards."
  4. "Should our military be helping the good guys or killing the bad ones?"
  5. "Your weekend or your career. Choose one."
So when I showed this to my students, I asked "who is the 'we' who need to be having these discussions?" And I told them that they couldn't resort to the knee-jerk "it's Old White Guys" answer, which, while correct, is lazy - with this short list, you can actually prove that it's old white guys through deductive reasoning alone.

One other thing to note, here, is that the 'discussions' are actually 'problems'. So part of the task of identifying who is having the discussion is in identifying who the discussion is about - who or what is the problem that needs to be remedied, presumably by someone else?
  1. 'Multicultural mosaic' is a reference to Canada's framing of its officially policy on multiculturalism and immigration. Clearly, the people being addressed here are the people who would consider themselves neither multicultural nor immigrants, people who also feel entitled to decide whether Canadian immigration policy has been mistaken ('mistake' reads pejoratively, to me, as if to say that either assimilation or rejection are implicitly the other options). Only white, native-born, and English-speaking Canadians fall outside the scope of this discussion, so they're presumably the ones having it.
  2. And...
  3. ...both concern gender, and are far more revealing when taken together. As one of my female students asked, 'Why am I supposed to leave but we can fix things for boys?' The short answer is because boys are entitled to success, and expected to succeed, and women aren't. The long answer, though, would also have to consider that boys aren't failing in the first place - that, despite the fact that Canadian girls have performed better in school for over 30 years, Canadian men aged 25-40 still make 10% more than women of the same age. But to answer the "who's 'we'?" question, it seems like it's not boys or women, though boys would seem to be less of a problem (because their problem can be fixed) than women.
  4. While not obviously speaking to the -isms in the way that the first three and the last of the five topics do, the military question is no less problematic. First problem: Who's good, who's bad, and who gets to decide? Dunno, though, presumably, it's up to the white guys who were having the previous three discussions. Second problem: Arguably, peacekeeping has never been only about 'helping the good guys', and in its current incarnation as "peace enforcement" is now admittedly even less so. So one of the two options we're given doesn't exist, and probably never has.
  5. Is it even necessary to point out how ridiculously classist the question is? Just how many people even have "careers" at this point, and how many people can actually choose to not work on the weekend?
So the identity of the 'we' who need to have these discussions is, at the very least, as follows: white, non-immigrant, male, adult, middle-to-upper class. Like I said, it's the Old White Guys, but this way you can actually prove it.

(Edit: The sixth discussion is phrased thusly on the billboard: "Money can buy anything. Unless you have a lump in your breast." So we're going the classism route, again.)

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

A quick post-American-mid-term elections post

A voter in Virginia, quoted in the New Yorker:

"I'm a constitutional conservative and I do not ever approve of distribution of wealth, and I am not a socialist, this country is not socialist, we are founded on Judeo-Christian principles. I will riot in the street if I have to. I have never been so ashamed of the way Obama has diminished the Presidency. He calls certain people enemies. He doesn’t dress properly. He talks about certain networks. He is just what he is — a Chicago agitator."

1) "He doesn't dress properly."

He's too snazzy a dresser, I guess?

2) "I do not ever approve of [re?]distribution of wealth, [...] this country is not socialist, we are founded on Judeo-Christian principles."

What was it that Jesus said, again? "Greed is good. Greed is right. Greed works"? That was him, right? Not someone else?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

How NOT to sell your anchor

The above picture has been plastered on billboards around Toronto since the end of the summer, announcing the new host of the national news on Global TV in Canada, Dawna Friesen. And it is a terrifying choice. Let me list the reasons:
  1. Anyone who's ever told ghost stories around a campfire, or watched someone do it on TV, knows that it's scary when someone's face is lit from below. And the strongest light source, here, is coming from below.
  2. Friesen isn't smiling. One end of her lips is upturned, yes, but the other is still. She's sneering.
  3. Her pupils looking unusually tiny and her irises look like blue steel. Her eyes just look cold.
  4. I don't know exactly how to explain it, but she reminds me of Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns...
  5. ...or a vampire. (Though that conclusion, given my first three observations, is probably easier to understand.)

Sunday, September 05, 2010

The Scott Pilgrim movie

Thankfully, I liked the Scott Pilgrim movie more than I have the books. Some quick thoughts:
  • Kieran Culkin as Wallace steals every scene that he's in.
  • The recurring bed gag is great. (I'm not sure whether the bed actually increases in size every time Scott wakes up and there's another guy in it, but it certainly seemed like it did.)
  • I'm not sure that Scott himself is more likable, but he's certainly less unlikable. In Wright's effort to streamline the story, he's dropped most of what made Scott seem like a directionless jerk (his personal life outside Ramona is effectively reduced to him being in a band, but in the movie a) the band is good, and b) so is Scott!) and compressed the timeline significantly, which makes him seem like less of a loser for never learning or growing - it's only been a few weeks! But this Scott clearly does learn and grow, even if the proof in the final battle scene is a bit precious and too explicit. I think Wright is also cashing-in on Cera's own in-built nice-guy type. But anyway... he's still a bit bland, but I actually want this Scott to win.
  • The major goof, I think, is that Envy is built up to be this major nemesis, but she appears, she plays, she and Scott have a moment, and then she's gone for the second-half of the film. Weird. Would it have been too much if she was also under Gideon's control at the end, and was also part of the fight with Ramona and Knives? Maybe.
  • Wright's version of the Nega-Scott battle - its foreshadowing, its placement, its hilarious and wholly appropriate resolution - is faaaaaar better than O'Malley's.
  • I had trouble with the film's grammar in places, which wasn't like a comic nor was it much like a movie. There are spots where the scene and time change rapidly from shot to shot, to show that Scott is in a daze, but it left me completely disoriented and confused. Which was maybe the point, but I found it aggravating rather than appropriate.
  • And it was nice to see my hometown in a movie without it being passed off as some other city.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010


It's occurred to me a few times that the UFC and So You Think You Can Dance have followed bizarrely parallel paths:
  • Both started as hybrid formats where specialists in one area competed against specialists from another, with neither necessarily having any familiarity with the other's form (boxing vs. karate, hip-hop vs. ballet, etc.); as a performance it could be ugly, but its unpredictability was part of its charm.
  • Both were quickly dominated by specialists whose training made them particularly adaptable in countering/performing the styles of others (jiu-jitsu and contemporary)
  • Both have evolved (?) to a point where particular specialities have taken a back-seat to a broad-based training in multiple disciplines (the single-specialty folks are a rarity, and are pretty much doomed to fail - the boxer on the last UFC card, the breaker in the last season of SYTYCD); the athletes are undoubtedly better, but they're characterized by a sameness that has eliminated a lot of the fun and all of the novelty.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

'It's just a game'

My team lost our semi-final game in softball, last night, under some dubious circumstances.

We overheard one of the players on the other team (the only player not in uniform, no less) ask one of his teammates whether sliding was allowed. This was strange, because a) it's a semi-final, and you should know this rule by now, b) sliding is not allowed, and it's treated as a pretty big deal, so it's an easy rule to remember, and c) it's a playoff game, and not knowing the sliding rules suggests that he's a ringer, the use of which is supposed to earn your team an automatic disqualification. And so, after we learned his name I used an iPhone to look up their official roster list on the league's website - and, sure enough, he wasn't on it.

Long story short, our team decided to not report our opponents. I felt obliged, though, to let them know that we knew what they were pulling, even if we weren't going to officially call them on it. (Admission: This was not meant to be wholly selfless. Or mostly, even.) And, so, I got an angry response about how they didn't actually use the website (that's why the one player didn't appear there, evidently) and "it's just a beer-league", anyway.

I hate that response. The people who resort to lines like "it's just a beer league" or "it's just for fun" never actually mean it. And we know that they don't mean it because that statement is never followed by "...and so if it means so much to you, you can have the win". And that's because they're lying.

What "just..." actually means - implicitly, if not explicitly - is that they want to ignore or disregard the rules at will. The problem, here, is that the rules constitute the bare minimum in terms of what we can expect of one another: I can't expect you to be a good sport, but I can expect you know that you shouldn't slide. Except that for the "just..." people, particular rules - and which particular rules is unknown to us in advance - can simply be ignored. And that's the key bit: that we don't know you're ignoring a rule ahead of time. (Which seems like it should be obvious enough, and yet...)

Ironically, in the four years I've played in this softball league, no one who's deployed some variant of "it's just a game" has ever conceded the point that's being argued, much less the game. (If it's "just" a game, you wouldn't know it.) Even more painfully, it's always used exclusively where the arguer is pushing for some sort of advantage - to ignore a rule that would penalize them, rather than one that would reward them.

It's like the person in an argument who announces that they'll be the bigger man/woman by abandoning the fight and not having the last word. And, so, manages to grab the last word. I hate that guy.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Representing 'Evil'

Erin has written this fantastic post on, well, evil in films that ties together Chigurh (from No Country for Old Men), Hannibal Lecter, and black widow spiders. You should read it because, like I said, it's fantastic. If the line "It takes a man to style himself like a seven-year-old girl" doesn't have you wanting to read it right now, then nothing will.

I wrote a comment on Erin's blog, and wanted to repeat myself here, just a little bit. In comparing these three, Erin labels them "creature[s] of nature", though she rightly qualifies and complicates Hannibal a bit - but, at least in Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal has no history, and this is just as good as being a creature purely of nature. She also notes that it would be unsatisfying to 'explain' Chigurh, just as the origin provided in the novels set chronologically before Silence of the Lambs only seem to damage Hannibal's character. It seems as if art's most persuasive and frightening villains are diminished in being understandable - in being made human.

For instance, from the pilot of Family Guy, we get this 'origin' for Adolf Hitler:

It's particularly absurd, but I think it manages to express, in 10 seconds, what was wrong-headed about trying to 'explain' where Hannibal Lecter comes from. No matter the explanation, the origin will always be too banal and too mundane, even too relatable or too sympathetic - nothing short of showing Hitler emerging from Hell itself will be satisfying, because we don't want our villains to be explicable - we want them to be exceptional.

And this expectation and satisfaction is horribly problematic. Because this is exactly how politicians and pundits get away with constructing The Terrorists as evil entities that exist somehow outside politics and history. Because our art teaches us that we shouldn't want to know where evil comes from, and that in any case it emerges directly from nature and is merely acting on that nature, like a black widow or a tornado. We don't need to know why a suicide bomber is a suicide bomber anymore than we need to know why Chigurh kills - they just do.

I don't remember where or when, but Geoff once made the comment on his blog that there was something in the hypervisible misogynistic violence of the Sin City film that he found appealing, and it was a bit troubling because it was so gratifying as a film experience and obviously disgusting as a gender politics. And I feel the same sort of unresolvable ambivalence about these evil characters in No Country for Old Men and Silence of the Lambs.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Shit and $#*!

In news that absolutely everyone already knows, the Twitter feed Shit My Dad Says has become $#*! My Dad Says in its new iteration as a sitcom. And it stars William Shatner and it will incorporate actual lines from the Twitter feed, which means that, at the very least, Shatner will be hilarious.

But that's not why I'm writing this. I'm writing this only because of the title. Because that has got to be the best-ever use of bleep symbols to spell out exactly what they're supposedly obscuring. (Though I have to wonder who at CBS or the FCC actually thinks that there's a meaningful difference between 'shit' and '$#*!')

[Bizarrely, this post has been referenced on The Book blog, a mostly baseball blog which I read regularly. And it's bizarre because, as far as I know, no one who runs it actually knows that the Neil who writes this blog is the same Neil that posts there. Follow the link to see me argue the merits of using *! over !+, grammar mistakes and all. (I don't really proof-read this stuff.)]

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Rihanna has made some strange (dumb?) choices

Rihanna is mostly famous for two things, and not necessarily in this order: "Umbrella" and being assaulted by then-boyfriend and fellow pop-star Chris Brown.

So it's a bit baffling to reflect on some of her recent song choices:

* From the first single following her break-up with Brown, "Russian Roulette":
And you can see my heart beating
You can see it through my chest
And I’m terrified but I’m not leaving
Know that I must must pass this test
So just pull the trigger

* From her recent duet with Eminem, "Love the Way You Lie":
Just gonna stand there and watch me burn
But that's alright because I like the way it hurts
Just gonna stand there and hear me cry
But that's alright because I love the way you lie
I love the way you lie

At my most optimistic, I could maybe see that the first song is trying to celebrate her survival - she's stronger for having had the relationship. (But it feels more like she's rationalizing what happened, almost trying to excuse his behavior, as if in 'testing' her he was ultimately helping her. I think it's fucked up.)

And the new song? I can't see anything remotely redeemable in it. If I'm trying to be optimistic, the best I can do is suggest that she's a masochist. But there's nothing more here that's even remotely recuperable.

Rihanna, though, disagrees: "He pretty much just broke down the cycle of domestic violence and it's something that people don't have a lot of insight on. [...] The lyrics were so deep, so beautiful and intense. It's something that I understood, something I connected with."

"Broke it down"? If she means that it's a wholly uncritical stream-of-consciousness first-person account of the ways in which misogynists explain and excuse their behavior, then yes, he did a good job of showing just how an abuser can twist things to try and make their behavior sound reasonable. But to call it "deep" and imply that he shows "insight"? No. There's none of that here. I mean, for fuck's sake - the song is about a guy who hits and threatens to murder his girlfriend, a woman who is seemingly okay with it because she "likes the way it hurts". Who "connects" with that?

(The video is even worse because it a) makes the abuse sexy and b) tries even harder to implicate both of them in the violence. "Deep" and "beautiful", indeed.)

Monday, August 09, 2010

Adventures in TAing, case 8 (in a ? case series)

[In a preemptive effort to stave off boredom, and save you from having to read punishingly bad grammar and spelling, the following has all been paraphrased.]

What the student wrote:
'I didn't understand the assignment and I talked to 5 other people from our tutorial who didn't understand your expectations. 1) Do you want us to give our opinion or to tell you what the authors of our texts say? In my other courses, where I get grades like A and A+, they don't want me to just repeat the people we read and are more interested in my opinion.' 2) You say that you want me to develop my discussion of 'power' and I know a lot about the topic, but do I have to use course texts or can I use other texts that I've read?'

How I responded:
'I'm sorry that you found the assignment so difficult, but if you refer to the list of topics online, you'll see that the professor addressed your questions. 1) "Your evaluation is based on your answer to the question and your knowledge of course readings", meaning that while your argument might represent your own opinion, it must be supported by references drawn from course readings - and more references than the two quotes that you used. 2) "No outside sources are permitted", since, as I mentioned before, you're supposed to be demonstrating your knowledge of our readings and a familiarity with the issues that we've covered.'

How I wanted to respond: 'If you can't read the directions that are printed at the top of the essay topics list - all seven sentences of them - you are screwed. Get out of university. Now.'

Sunday, August 08, 2010

The LOST epilogue

Assuming that it hasn't been taken down yet, (as a lot of these clips have been, at ABC/Disney's request) this link should bring you to the complete 12 minute epilogue to LOST. In summation - it's a cute (maybe overly cute) bookend that wouldn't have worked as a part of the final episode but is unlikely to ruin anyone's appreciation of the show. Which is to say that while it doesn't make any substantial contribution to LOST's lore, it's entertaining.

*spoilers ahead*

The first act, which is about 8 minutes long, shows Ben-as-Hurley's-no.2 and, story-wise, is the lesser of the two acts. Ben serves as 'the show', here, to the two Dharma Initiative employees who are 'the fans'. It's part information-drop (for instance, an official explanation is offered for why women can't get pregnant, though I a) don't know why this was necessary, since it was easy to guess, and b) think it creates an additional hole in the writing, since it seems like we're supposed to assume that Ben knew this but he clearly didn't when he recruited Juliet. but anyway...) and part meta-commentary.

This is the part that's probably too cute by half. But at least if the show is telling us to let go, again, it's in a wholly ironic way, as opposed to the too sincere delivery of the same message in the finale. In the finale, the light had all the (ultimately unknowable) answers; in the epilogue, we're teased with Ben's binder of DVDs - a far more appropriate LOST version of the suitcase from Pulp Fiction.

The second, shorter act features Ben's rescue of Walt and a super-brief cameo from Hurley, now seemingly settled into his new role and ready to offer Walt a job - as Hurley's apprentice, presumably. (If I'm being pessimistic, I might ask whether Walt is the best person for the job, given his somewhat malevolent powers - whether he's better suited to be the next Man in Black than the next Jacob.) This is the lore bit of the epilogue, which is nice even if it isn't strictly necessary - the mission doesn't end just because Jack, Jacob, and the Man in Black have died, and it won't ever end - but wouldn't have worked in the finale, and so is perfect as an epilogue for the DVD. It's the lead-in to the Further Adventures of Hurley, Ben, and Walt series that will never happen.

And if it doesn't make you smile, you probably never liked the show in the first place.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Checking out early reviews of the Scott Pilgrim movie

The early reviews are largely good at Rotten Tomatoes - though only 3 'top critics' have weighed in so far, two disliking it and one ambivalent - but here's a negative review from the Hollywood Reporter. And it repeats a lot of my complaints about the characters in the book series, which isn't a good sign:

What's disappointing is that this is all so juvenile. Nothing makes any real sense. The "duels" change their rules on a whim, and no one takes the games very seriously [...] Certainly Cera doesn't give a performance that anchors the nonsense. His character sort of drifts, not really attached to any idea or goal other than winning the heart of an apparently heartless woman...

So, yeah. Doesn't sound like Cera or Wright has tried to do much to address the great big black hole that is Scott's character. Or that the latter has tried to limit the magic realism/fantasy in any way that makes it reasonably consistent and not wholly nonsensical.

My favorite of Damon Lindelof's hate-tweets

"You're a dirty liar. You never knew, you made it all up, you betrayed us all. You betrayed me and I hope you rot, motherfucker."

-J.J. Abrams tweet to Damon Lindelof, following the LOST finale.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Avengers movie

I realize that it's early, and that there's a very good chance that they're not done putting the team for this movie together... but really? Marvel has already cast 8 people for the Avengers movie, and only one of them - and he's not even an actual member of the team - is not white? And only one of them is a woman? There have been something like 100 members of the Avengers, and you couldn't find room for, like, Luke Cage or Warbird?

And when they realize this and start adding more women and non-white people, it'll look like blatant tokenism and/or an afterthought, since they've already made their priorities and key players clear. My guess? They'll go the route of The Ultimates and kill two birds with one stone by casting an Asian woman as The Wasp. (Cynicism Win.)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Bechdel Test

I can't believe that I had never heard of this before: http://bechdeltest.com/

In short, it's a quick little test to assess a) whether women are actually present in films, and b) whether they are given a purpose outside of their relationships with men. It sounds like it should be easy enough for film studios to pull this off, right? And, yet, it's amazing to see how many films - especially the stuff that's not explicitly marketed at either men or women, and so usually taken to be gender-neutral - fail it miserably. (Just check out the link.)

Now, it's super-important to add that passing the test doesn't indicate that a film is feminist and failing it doesn't make a film misogynist. Nor does a particular result make a movie good or bad. It simply does what it purports to do - measure the presence of women in our movies.

The test has three questions:
1) are there at least two female characters with names?
2) do they talk to each other, and not only men?
3) do they talk about something other than men?

It's not the most rigorous criteria, and my memory isn't perfect, so there's bound to be some room for disagreement. But let's run the test on the last 10 movies that I've either seen in a theater or rented:

The Kids are Alright
The Lovely Bones



The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
(I can't recall whether the teenage girls ever talk to one another)
The Messenger
A Serious Man (do the mom and daughter ever speak?)
A Single Man (though only Julianne Moore speaks, so it could just as easily be a 0)

Crazy Heart
Inception (imho, I don't think that Mol counts)

Fyi, if I changed the test to measure for men, every film would get a 3 out of 3.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour is decidedly not

There's a moment toward the end of the final book in the Scott Pilgrim series when Stacy asks where Scott, Ramona, and Gideon disappeared to during their battle, adding, "What was that all about?" Scott provides a rapid-fire response that sounds nonsensical (because, frankly, the battle was nonsensical), and his friends give the only appropriate response - silence, and a quick change of topic.

They might have been reading my mind - between fights on the astral plane, characters dying and then returning to life via free lives accessed in some space of purgatory, "the glow" on the subspace highway, swords being pulled from chests - twice (but in the real world, not in a psychic one), and Gideon's "cryogenic chamber", it's hard to tell whether there are any rules in the world of Scott Pilgrim. But it's a telling moment, too. Like the cliché says, when the characters seem to be complaining about the plot...

I've made it known that I haven't liked the last few issues of Scott Pilgrim. And I'll go on record in saying that this one is easily the worst - it is, as the kids (ie. me, when I'm pretending to be cool) say, a hot mess. But it didn't have to be. So, at the risk of repeating what I've already written elsewhere, I'll restrict myself to three complaints - two of which encompass the series as a whole, and one of which is the new detail that makes this book the poorest of the series. (My apologies in advance for poor spelling and wonky grammar - this entry seems to be more error-laden than most. That's what I get for not re-reading these things in their entirety.)

Complaint the first - Scott

Okay, I get it. Scott is supposed to be a cipher for the (presumably) nerdy and emotionally-stunted target-readership. He's purposely shallow because it allows us to project ourselves on to him. Because we also realize that we're our own worst enemy (Nega-Scott was a nice touch, though the set-up was awful) and we all want the mysterious hot girl. This is why people see Judd Apatow movies - the lead is usually a loser and a bit of a dick, but there are millions of young guys that find that relatable and want to believe that they can be dickish losers and still get the hot chick. But managing a good approximation of hetero-male-geek wish-fulfillment does not good writing make. And cipher or not, he's also the main character in a 1200 page story. I need something more than wish-fulfillment.

Because Scott is a dick. I was complaining about his character arc to some people yesterday, and said that he gets less likable as the series progresses - and then corrected myself because, in fact, it's more accurate to say that he gets more dislikable. He doesn't just squander the naive-lovable-loser charm of the first book, (or maybe it would be better to say that he tries to hold on to it well past the expiration date) he actually transforms into a willfully ignorant and insensitive prick. When Scott begins shouting at Knives about having casual sex, I want to reach into the comic and punch him in the face. He was a jerk to her when he dumped her in the first issue, but it was at least somewhat forgivable - or, rather, though he handled it badly, I wanted to forgive him. He was torn between his girlfriend and his dream-girl and, while he screwed it up, it seemed like he did it as well as he could have. These are, after all, the sorts of awkward break-ups that one stumbles through in their youth and is supposed to learn from.

Instead, Scott's come-on in the new issue takes insensitivity to new heights - knowing that Knives has never stopped loving him, that he hurt her horribly, and that everyone knows he's still hung up on Ramona, he asks her to sleep with him. That makes him an incredible douchebag, and not someone that I want to root for. At all. (Granted, this is when he has been separated from Nega-Scott, and I think we're supposed to understand that this is also responsible for his douchebaggery. But, a) that's not at all clear at this point in the story, which is a problem, and b) using a device from out of left field in order to undercut the emotion in the intimate personal exchanges that constitute the entire first act of the book is deceptive and annoying.)

I realize that, in real-life, people don't grow linearly - we change, we regress, we grow, we relapse. But books aren't beholden to these requirements, and most would be horrifically boring if they were. That Scott doesn't become a better person - and, in fact, seems even less self-aware and more malevolent - does nothing to recommend this book.

Complaint the second - magic realism/fantasy

When Scott Pilgrim's more fantastic elements are at their best, they're working with the more mundane elements of the story and not against or in-place of them. My favorite stuff is the most dream-like and ethereal magic realism - warp doors and Legend of Zelda dreams that lend atmosphere and depth, respectively. When they're at their worst, they suffocate the story and re/displace it - not magic realism at all, but magic absurdity. Magic nihilism, even. (On Geoff's blog, Dan suggests that it magic so totally overwhelms the realism that the book fully crosses over genre-lines and into fantasy. And so, rather than the magic sometimes encroaching on reality, as in the early books, the book features "realism encroaching on fantasy". I think he might be right, too.)

Take the Save Point from book 3 - faced with an unavoidable and horribly awkward meeting with his ex Envy Adams, Scott looks around desperately for an out of some kind. When Scott's supporters call him relatable, this is the kind of scene that they have in mind - one in which we've been forced into an uncomfortable situation and wish that we could have saved in advance, because a) we know it's going to go badly, and b) we wish we had a do-over. So the Save Point, while seemingly silly and random, is actually wholly appropriate to the scene - it enhances the pathos of Scott's situation and it increases our nervous anticipation, because we are keenly aware that Scott doesn't have a do-over. (And this is important, too - the Save Point 'exists' but Scott isn't able to use it. He, like us, wishes he could, but he can't - because the damned things don't exist!)

But the magic is the story in this final book: from Nega-Scott appearing seemingly out of nowhere to Gideon's cryogenic chamber to Scott's return to life from death to the psychic battle in Ramona's head... the book isn't grounded in recognizable human drama, much less remotely realistic settings. Which, I suppose, I saw coming because the series has tended increasingly toward absurdity and fantasy - so I shouldn't be surprised. Where the clever subtlety in the first book was in using the magic realism to represent what we couldn't have, that subtlety is deployed for wholly different ends, here: instead of failing to reach the Save Point, Scott uses a Free Life to return and fight Gideon again. Magic realism functions as deus ex machina with all the subtlety of a sword to the torso - Scott is killed and ends up in some Purgatory-like space (why? dunno.) where he meets up with Ramona again (how? dunno.) and uses his Free Life. (well, at least that wasn't pulled out of a hat - it was set up several books ago, as O'Malley reminds us.)

And, despite this, I actually don't mind the fight scenes being ridiculous and fantastic - because, at least in the earlier books, it works. But I would like for that ridiculousness to be somehow internally consistent, beholden to some set of self-defined limits, and contained. When it isn't contained, it threatens to turn the entire exercise into some snark-filled, self-reflexive, post-ironic joke.

Take, for instance, the narrator's increasingly explicit presence. Early in the book, Scott has a particularly awkward scene with Knives outside the Cameron House. When Knives and Scott kiss, we can tell for ourselves that it's awful and that they've made a mistake and feel terrible for it. Why the narrator has to tell us this, and tell us in as obnoxious a way as possible, I'm not sure. To undercut its emotional impact, certainly - because it's a painfully uncomfortable moment.

I'm wondering, actually, whether O'Malley's narrator is a sort of reaction to the author's earlier stuff (including Lost At Sea) after finding it, in retrospect, a little too emo, a little too precious. How else to understand his increasingly incessant need to assert ironic distance from the material, to undermine its emotional resonance and make fun of damn near everything? When the narrator appears in book 1, it's to cheer Scott on - to say 'Way to go' when Scott and Ramona kiss the first time; when he appears in book 6, it's to depress us and poke fun - to say that Scott and Knives' kiss was horrible "for everyone" and "that includes you". The problem, here, is that O'Malley isn't just poking fun at his characters - he's also poking fun at me for wanting to be invested in the characters and their feelings. And so it just feels mean-spirited.

(That really wasn't just one point, was it? It kinda veered into a point about self-reflexivity and irony. But there's a connection there, right? Ah, well.)

Complaint the third - Ramona

In my blog on the last book, I said that Ramona had clearly supplanted Scott as the central and most interesting character in the book - and had probably done so a long time ago, too. Ramona is mysterious and seductive where Scott is superficial and obvious. (This is not with the potential for problems, too, though - as Sara suggests on Geoff's blog, Ramona represents "[p]robably exactly how 20-something hetero men (and beyond?) feel about [women]. Complex, interesting/alluring/scary etc... but... vague." She's not really a real person, but more a projection of what a hot girl should be.)

So, clearly, this inequity had to be redressed. The obvious answer would be to elevate the hero, Scott, somehow - to have him grow, make him worthy of his dream-girl. That doesn't happen, though. Instead, O'Malley takes Ramona down a notch. When Ramona is asked, near the end of the book, where she's been the past four months, she says that she's been "dicking around" by watching The X-Files and playing on the internet. Nothing mysterious, no - she's been just as aimless as Scott, doing equally banal things instead of trying to fix her life. And we know that she's been dumbed-down to Scott's level because all the other characters sigh and sarcastically ask when the wedding will be. Here, it feels like the readers are being flipped off, again: "Oh, you guys! You thought that Ramona was all mysterious and deep, but she's not - she likes the internet and X-Files and dicking around and SHE IS JUST LIKE A DUDE."

The thing is, we didn't need Ramona to be reduced to a joke in order to understand that she's flawed. We already know that she's frightened of commitment, that she has a pathological need to drop her entire life when it grows too comfortable and start a new one elsewhere, and that she doesn't particularly like herself very much. This is the stuff of a tragic heroine, and the above reservations aside, Ramona is easily the deepest character the series has (though maybe this says more about the dearth of deep characters in the series...) - why squander that so needlessly?

And lastly

Despite these complaints, I actually have some hope for the movie. Because part of my problem is that Scott has something like 1300 pages within which to stagnate, and O'Malley had 6 years over which his dreamlike magic and precious optimism slowly turns into fantasy-overload and cynical irony. The shorter run-time of a film should make Scott more bearable, even if he similarly learns nothing, and the briefer turnaround of the movie project should at least bring some thematic and stylistic consistency, even if it is consistently absurd and cynical. But that's a worst-case scenario.

Sorry for ranting so long, and probably sounding so grumpy. Was it clear that I was disappointed? Because that's the short version of this review/critique/essay: I was disappointed.

Friday, July 09, 2010

World Cup rules and fitting the penalty to the infraction

Unless you've been deliberately avoiding the World Cup, you've probably heard that Ghana was eliminated from the World Cup a week ago when they should have advanced to the semi-finals. With minutes left, the presumptive game-winning goal failed to count because Suarez, a Uruguayan player who is not the goalkeeper, jumped and batted it out of the air with his hands just before it crossed the goal-line.

Unlike in the NHL, where a non-goaltender's illegal stop of a near-certain goal results in the awarding of an automatic goal, FIFA awards a penalty kick - which Ghana missed. Suarez was tossed out of the game and earned an automatic suspension, but the move was a no-brainer. If he doesn't stop the ball, his team is ejected from the tournament - sportsmanship aside, (and it seems like there's very little value placed in sportsmanship during the World Cup) there was no reason that he shouldn't have had it in his mind to stop the ball by any means necessary.

Over at The Book blog, which is largely a baseball analysis blog but it occasionally covers other sports too, a commenter named Greg Rybarczyk wrote that,

the game has rules, and with respect to those rules, there are violations, and for those violations there are prescribed consequences/penalties/sanctions. [...] If one is outraged at the fact that the Uruguayan player used his hands to stop a goal (which is agianst the rules, and has a prescribed consequence), where is the outrage when a player intentionally kicks the ball out of bounds (which is also against the rules, and also has a prescribed consequence)?

I wrote in response to Greg, and wanted to write here, too, that Greg is wrong because he doesn't account for the degree of the infraction - is it likely to directly affect the score/result? - and whether the penalty to the guilty player/team is of a similar degree - if it is likely to affect the score, does the penalty/reward adequately redress that affect?

Giving possession of the ball to the opposing team when it’s kicked out of bounds in soccer seems like a totally appropriate response - the team awarded the throw, by virtue of gaining possession, has almost certainly improved their chances of scoring. A quick look at the World Cup stats tells me that teams typically turn the ball over about 150 times per game - and if they're averaging about 1.5 goals per game, that means they only score on about 1% of their possessions - so we're talking about an improvement in scoring likelihood, in most cases, that's under 1%. Conversely, the team that committed the infraction has taken a small penalty - not a significant one, given how easily and often the ball is turned-over in soccer, (and even only 70% of throw-ins are successfully corralled by the team throwing the ball in) but it wasn't a significant infraction in the first place.

But the 'penalty' against Suarez, and the kick awarded to Ghana, doesn't make sense when we apply the exact same logic. While the illegal stop was made against a ball that was 100% likely to score, the 'penalty' given to Paraguay was a penalty kick for Ghana that’s only about 80% likely to score. That's a huge difference - clearly, since it led to Ghana's eventual elimination - and should be an obvious indication that the penalty is not appropriate to the infraction. To say that Ghana was 'awarded' a penalty kick or that Paraguay was 'penalized' is euphemistic, at best - in taking a 20% hit to their chance of scoring, Ghana was effectively penalized for Paraguay's cheat. That's just twisted.

Quick update: FIFA has apparently said that they won't review this rule, which is asinine. But they will review goal-line technology of the sort that would have awarded a goal to England when they were eliminated by Germany. One has to wonder whether the rule would be reviewed if Ghana and England were each in the other's position, and England had lost certain victory due to a handball...

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Gandhi and 'Terrorism and Espionage'

I wrote just a short while ago about how media coverage in the lead-up to the G20 had likened protesters to animals, non-Torontonians, and, just generally, the Other. I didn't write about it on my blog, but I also noted on Facebook that CTV news used the descriptor "known activist" in a clearly pejorative way, as if it meant the same thing as "terrorist".

But this isn't exactly new or unique and news media is just reflecting wider-held attitudes. Case in point: my friend Sue was at a bookstore - Chapters, at Richmond and John in Toronto - and was looking at their 'Terrorism and Espionage' section. She found Che there, which is unsurprising given his violent opposition to American-backed dictatorships - he fits, and is maybe even a model for, Western images of what a terrorist looks and acts like.

A bit more surprising was Frantz Fanon, who is implicated, I guess, because of his writing on decolonization and his association with the revolution in Algeria. (But Fanon is still primarily a theorist, a thinker and writer - not a revolutionary leader or guerilla-figher like Che. One wonders why Marx doesn't somehow make it into this section, too.) Clearly, though, there's evidence here of a major slippage between a particular sort of revolutionary and terrorism. And to the extent that a difference exists at all, then these guys end up in this section because they're not white and their interests are opposed to those of capitalism.

Because, certainly, the grounds for making it into this section had nothing to do with the advocacy and/or exercise of violence - how else to explain why and how Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi were included in the 'Terrorism and Espionage' section? Seriously. Are there any more famous activists than these two? And they're catalogued under the heading of 'terrorism'? And do we need any further evidence that activism - especially non-white activists - and terrorism are being effectively collapsed into a single entity?

It's no wonder that the casual public has so little sympathy for activists who take their cause to the streets, and for the hundreds of activists who were beat up and jailed by police during G20, only to be released without charge. They were terrorists, after all, weren't they?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

A break from politicized posts...

We've lived just on the edge of Toronto's Greektown for almost a year now, and I only just noticed something strange about the strip-mall at the end of the street.

Conventionally speaking, the strip-mall runs north-south. But since it's on the west side of the street, the strip-mall 'reads' from south-to-north. And so the combination of the restaurant on the far left and the one of the far right is suspiciously unlikely and geographically appropriate.

The extreme left/south:

...and the extreme right/north:

What California or Florida have to do with places that serve mostly Greek food, though? I have no idea.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Constructing 'the protesters'

"protesters...are beginning to flood the downtown core" (Toronto Star)

"protesters descend on the city" (CTV)
"Feeding the protesters" (Toronto Star)

I was talking to my students last week about how the G20 protesters are figured as people on the fringe, non-Torontonians, and, implicitly, non-Canadian. The first two quotes make the non-Torontonian and non-Canadian claims, I think. The protesters, who we know to be a menacing collective because the media's occasionally using the definite article ('the'), are not from 'here' because they are flooding or descending from some shadowy place of anarchy to transform the ostensibly safe-haven of Toronto into a zone of danger. (Euphemistically referred to as the 'security zone', of course, because Toronto cops surely aren't prone to violence, and dropping thousands of cops into an urban setting to quell protest has always had a calming effect. Clearly.)

The bit about feeding them also reinforces the sense that these people live dangerously on the margins. 'Feeding the protesters' not only frames a benevolent act of community as somehow brutish - it immediately recalls 'feed the animals', as in 'do not...' - but reminds us of the poverty (and all the things that poverty connotes - laziness, criminality, etc.) that characterizes many of the people who are protesting.

"Dress like a militant protester, you run the risk of being tear gassed" (Toronto Star)
"What the demonstrators are saying" vs. "What the public is saying" (Globe and Mail)

These distinctions also reinforce the split between protesters and the mainstream media's implied audience - non-protesters who are voyeurs and might have a perverse interest in the protesters, but can't possibly identify with them. The first article playfully infantilizes the protesters by reducing them to fashionistas ("militant and fabulous") who can be imitated as if they were Halloween costumes, while the second is even less subtle in drawing a clear distinction between the law-abiding citizen-readers and the fringe.

Because, clearly, one cannot oppose any aspect of the G20 Summit while also being a law-abiding citizen who reads the Globe and Mail or watches the CTV news.