Saturday, June 24, 2017

Grown-Up Problems

Writing at The Spectator, Lara Prendergast notes how a lot of the political commentary thrown about in recent years tends to cast things into terms taken from Harry Potter books and films. She points out that it's not particularly useful way of framing debate, and I think she's definitely onto something.

Throughout Twitter, Facebook political posts and sometimes online opinion pieces, there is no end to labeling President Donald Trump, for example, as Harry's evil enemy, Lord Voldemort. And that does exactly bupkis in addressing the real flaws with Pres. Trump's agenda and actions. His protection-minded trade policy is a serious problem with the one and his inability to shut off his damn Twitter is one with the other. Conservative or libertarian folks disagree with him on those matters and might find common cause with some liberal or progressive people in working against the president. But how do you work with someone who, instead of articulating a position, reposts a meme putting the famed orange mane atop a picture of Ralph Fiennes in full Voldemort make-up? How do you coordinate legislative strategy with people who plan on a mass mooning of a presidential motorcade?

This isn't new. Comic book artist Alex Ross painted a scene in 2006 showing then-president George W. Bush as a vampire biting the neck of the Statue of Liberty. Now, did the Patriot Act and other forms of post-9/11 surveillance need some talking about now and again? Of course. Regular review of a whole lot of government actions is a good idea, and especially of ones that hold so much potential for abuse. And you would not have to talk to too many conservatives before you find some who would enthusiastically support such reviews. Did Ross's painting contribute to that discussion in any way? Nope.

Prendergast closes by pointing out that the world is too complicated to be dealt with by a Sorting Hat. Bingo. Things like that trade policy misconception mentioned above will take some real work and real thought to be thwarted -- and neither Harry, Dumbledore or J.K. Rowling herself are going to be much help.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Put Down the Shovel

Earlier this year, Marvel Comics canceled a couple of titles written by some well-known political and cultural writers, such as Ta-nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay. At the time, a company official decided to demonstrate how easily he could place both feet in his mouth by saying that buyers simply weren't interested in the diversity-emphasizing titles that his company was publishing. I have no idea if that's true or not, but it's a dumb thing to say.

I wonder, though, if readers might have some more interest in Hispanic or African-American heroes if they weren't such obvious attempts to pander to a way of thinking that wants them. A lot of readers might be interested in a Hispanic hero, but are they really happy when that hero blows up years of continuity by taking on the role of Spider-Man? The diversity may or may not be a problem, but the obvious smell of a stunt storyline almost certainly is.

Which brings us to Captain America as a Hydra agent, a recent storyline that has turned Steve Rogers into one of the evil organization's top fighters. It involves time-travel and a lot of silliness, and it is almost universally hated. But the tone-deaf leadership of the company isn't finished with it yet, although it's trying to tease some kind of resolution to bring back the real Captain America -- sometime.

The problem? A lot of readers are just tired of waiting for the company to wake up to their mistake and fix it. The writer at The Mary Sue is a little on the snarky side, but I'm betting her complaint is widely shared: Stop teasing us by saying you might end this ridiculous storyline soon and just end it, because we're pretty close to not caring and not picking up the title once it gets back to where it should be.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Han's Older Brother, Chuck, Was Never Seen Again

For some reason, we're going to get a Han Solo Star Wars movie that shows Han's story before he meets Luke, Obi-Wan and the crew. It's a movie that has to clear a very high bar of "Why is this here?" to clear. Which means that the Lucasfilm/Disney people running it are holding some pretty tight reins, and among those people are Kathleen Kennedy and Lawrence Kasdan. Both of them have a decent track record of creating crowd-pleaser movies that are often high-quality as well.

Initially, the thought seemed to be to shake things up a bit by hiring the maverick directing duo of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. Lord and Miller have worked mostly on comedies, and it apparently their vision of the movie leaned comedic. Kasdan, who helped write Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back and is sometimes credited for saving the whole Star Wars franchise from George Lucas' excesses, felt the character was not comedic, but quite a bit more selfish and sarcastic. Push came to shove, and producer Kennedy backed her longtime colleague. Lord and Miller were fired this week. Ron Howard has been tapped to finish the movie.

Lord and Miller themselves have been professional and gracious in their on-the-record comments following being let go. A lot of reaction on some of the entertainment news sites is less so, as Howard is viewed as a "safer" choice than they were and less likely to test the Star Wars universe with something different. More than one writer lamented the change, with some equating the Lord and Miller Solo with Edgar Wright's aborted run on Ant-Man.

Now, I think this is a movie that has no reason whatsoever to exist, but that's because I'm not a Disney shareholder. Even though I'm a Star Wars fan and I enjoyed Rogue One, I'm still on the fence about whether or not I'll see any of these prequels in the theater. After all, "Star Wars" and "prequel" don't inspire confidence already. But we'll see.

In any event, I have to wonder about the complaints. On the one hand, we've got a director who's responsible for Splash, Cocoon, Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind, among others. On the other, we've got a duo who have directed four movies, one of which is the entertaining The Lego Movie but two of which are 21 Jump Street and 22 Jump Street. Nothing says Lord and Miller would have bombed or made an awful movie but at worst this is an even swap and is more likely a trade up. I'm still a lot more likely to wait for this to hit Netflix, but now I might not have a backup rental downloaded for the treadmill in case it stinks too bad to finish.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Present, Future, Past

I'll pay my irony fine first and note that I lean skeptical about the value of the internet in solving a whole lot of issues that face us in today's world. I hold social media activism to be almost completely ineffective -- it mostly seems to work as a way of bullying private citizens who've said unpopular things or done stupid stuff. I live and work in areas of my state that don't always have the latest and fastest zippadeedillion-MbPS connections and among people who were born way too early for the benefits the online world offers. I think the failure of Los Angeles schools' "buy every student an iPad" was the most instruction that superintendent had done in years.

So you'd think that Andrew Keen's The Internet Is Not the Answer would be right up my alley. And although it's got a lot to recommend it, much of the complaint that Keen levels against the online world varies between snootery and lamenting the post-bovine exodus notice of the barn door position.

The first section of Answer outlines the creation of the technology and software that eventually became our modern internet, highlighting different milestones along the way such as the development of browsers and the interactive "Web 2.0" that allowed online retail to take off. Keen suggests the originators of the internet's "prehistoric" ancestors in the 1940s through the 1980s were motivated by Cold War concerns and desires to spread knowledge and information around as widely as possible. But most of the modern features of our online world have come from people who saw the potential to make a whole lot of money. Keen may not like this, but short of government ownership of the internet, it's hard to see many other ways it could have developed. And although the monetized internet presents several problems, it does in fact help solve a lot of others and allow more people to access more information and benefits than they ever have.

Keen also includes another lament against the way that modern technology has allowed folks to flood the marketplace with music, books, articles and such that aren't very good, drowning some of the better art and creativity in mediocrity. Video processing technology means that anyone with a few thousand dollars can pretend to be Steven Spielberg with a camera, but not everyone with a few thousand dollars has Spielberg's vision and gifts. A lot of these kinds of complaints amount to a lament that the barbarians are no longer at the gates -- they've bought the house next door and are decorating their mailbox with the skulls of their vanquished foes. But who is Keen to judge who are barbarians, who are not and whether or not that skull-sculpture is actually more interesting than whatever the community art collective stuck in the window of its subsidized downtown loft?

Keen's strongest points address things like way that many of these companies make immense profits from data we give them for free, and how the game is rigged against people who figure the company should pay them for the data. It leads him to suggest that, rather than an internet user Bill of Rights, we really need an internet entrepreneur's Bill of Responsibilities. But the success of the Volstead Act offers a pretty clear example of how easy it is to force or coerce people into being responsible. No, the internet isn't the answer. Until we get a clearer idea of just what question we're asking, though, figuring out any answer is going to be a tough job.
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Complaints against the modern university's production of weapons-grade balloon juice have been around for a long time, although they have mostly been the province of more conservative-minded folk. Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind gave respectable cover for people who would identify as liberal but who were seeing goofy ideas grab hold of their respective disciplines and render them inaccurate, distorted or in many cases, just plain silly. It's kind of interesting to look on some of those works some years down the line and see if their alarm was warranted.

The concepts of literary criticism and theory were beginning their inroads in 1997, when Australian history professor Keith Windschuttle published his The Killing of History. Although he would later move significantly rightward in his politics, Windschuttle was still a centrist when Killing was published. And like many moderate or leftist folks who have to confront views similar to their own taken to extremes, he seems somewhat at sea in parts of his argument.

Windschuttle's core claim is that folks who practice a broad range of politicized writing and study that's often lumped together as "theory" are exerting their influence on historical research and writing. His view as a historian is that such writing needs to communicate the central facts of its subjects in the clearest and most engaging manner possible. Writing about the Civil War as a whole, for example, needs to include things like major battles and some of the people and forces that played roles in them. A book focused on a diary of a poor farm family affected by Lincoln's 1863 conscription order lights up a small corner of that time, but someone who learns it backwards and forwards has not learned the history of the Civil War.

But the literary theorists and social critics were claiming that just that kind of change was needed to do "real history," and focus on the voices previously drowned out by the privileged few. Windschuttle acknowledges the gaps, but says reconstruction of the missing material is a job for a novelist, not a historian.

Windschuttle spends a lot of time explaining and exploring the roots of the theories that offer this new and to his mind, vague and often inaccurate form of history. He ventures into some very deep weeds in these sections, devoting a number of pages to critiquing, for example, the idea that Karl Popper's falsifiability model is useful for historical research. Some of these are far too jargon-rich for folks who don't work with history for a living, and Windschuttle writes in a mostly academic style that doesn't much leaven these pages.

More interesting to us in 2017 are Windschuttle's cautions against the ultimate result of history modified by theory and social criticism. When we see people insisting that statues be removed and building names be changed in order to wipe "unpleasant" history from our public view, we can see that although history ain't dead yet, it's got a pretty bad cough that it ought to see the doctor about.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Good Days Indeed

It occurs to me that in this mid-June, when we have the largest amount of sunlight available to us, we sports fans are also not distracted by basketball, football or hockey. We can therefore concentrate on baseball.

This seems quite appropriate to me, and worth enjoying.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Getting Closure

I am trying to figure out a reason not to shut Olympia, Washington's Evergreen State College down, burn the buildings, salt the earth and erect a memorial saying, "Here died free speech, common sense, the rule of law and Western civilization at the hands of thug toddlers, cowardly administrators and the fact that no one involved had a single damned clue."

I'm having a hard time doing so.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Happy Other D-Day!

In honor of Dad, who taught us many things.

Some of which he may regret: