Saturday, 13 April 2019

Game of Thrones: a pre-Season 8 thoughtdump

Jon Snow

Crossposted from Dreamwidth

To get this out of the way first: a large proportion of my family and close friends don’t watch Game of Thrones for various reasons. I gather this makes them feel a bit left out of some online conversations, since Game of Thrones has pervaded pop culture so thoroughly by now. I can relate. When I was a kid at primary school, we were the only household that didn’t have a TV. For context, in 1980s New Zealand there were exactly two TV channels, of which only one had children’s programming; so every day, every kid in the school had seen the exact same TV the previous afternoon, which made it ideal fodder for conversation icebreakers and small-talk. Every kid, except us. At the time I blamed this fact for the social difficulties which later turned out to be autism.

...annnd I’m already getting sidetracked in the first paragraph. What I was going to say was, I know how something just being popular with other people creates social pressure, even if it’s unintended, for you to join in and pretend you enjoy it as well. And honestly Game of Thrones is not for everybody. I’m going to be talking about its merits quite a bit, so I want to be clear from the get-go that if it isn’t your thing then it isn’t your thing and that’s fine. (Though I should warn you that I’m assuming my readers are familiar with the series, so this post will be both confusing and spoilery to those who aren’t.)

Indeed, you’ll notice as we go through that I’m not doing comparisons with the books very much, and the reason for that is that the books aren’t my thing. I’ve kind of skimmed through them and occasionally browsed a page or two in bookshops, but I haven’t read them properly, and that’s because I can’t. I understand (and I’ll get into) the reasoning behind the “any character can die” dynamic, and it works onscreen for me, but on the page I don’t get the intended effect. My emotional brain basically goes “Well, if I’m going to be punished for caring about these characters then I’m not going to care about them any more.”

I’m not entirely sure what difference the transition from page to screen makes. I used to think it was because the TV characters had faces and I couldn’t help empathizing with them, but the characters on The Walking Dead have faces too and I gave up on that a couple of seasons ago because I was disengaging from the characters for much the same reason I do with the Game of Thrones books.

Ahahahaha. Yes, yes, I mean the A Song of Ice and Fire books, A Game of Thrones being the title merely of Book I (roughly equivalent to Season 1 of the show). In this instance I’ll grant the book purists the point: A Song of Ice and Fire is a much more appropriate title for the series as a whole.

Whilst most fans as far as I can tell are loving the way things have developed in the later seasons, there’s also a dissatisfied contingent who argue that the whole thing started to go downhill as soon as the showrunners got ahead of George R. R. Martin’s published material. They seem to particularly dislike the way the characters have now fallen into some pretty solid coalitions of people who mostly trust each other, leaving behind all the politicking and betrayals and whisperings and jockeying for power – the game of thrones – that characterized the earlier seasons.

Not to be overly snarky, I think these people are missing the entire point of the series from start to finish. (This is as good a point as any to cut for spoilers.)

Sunday, 24 March 2019

The challenge of weeding out racism

Our Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern wore hijab to speak to grieving Muslims

Like many New Zealanders, I was inspired by our Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s declaration in the wake of the terror in Christchurch that “This is not us.” I took it as a signal of our intentions for the immediate future. From now on, from this day forward, this is not us. From now on we are vigilant for the early warning signs of white supremacist violence. From this day forward we reject every expression of racism and hatred and stop it in its tracks. To this promise we pledge ourselves. So say we all.

Taken as a statement of New Zealand’s past and present – the comfortable bubble we were all living in up until that Friday – I’m afraid it was inaccurate, as many other New Zealanders have sad cause to know intimately. We are a nation where cries of “Go home!” follow brown-skinned people down the street. We are a nation that elects anti-Muslim racists to Parliament and appoints their party leader to the second-highest position in the land. We are a nation whose primary political divide in our most recent election was between those who were racist against Māori and Pacific Islanders and those who were racist against Asians.

I happen to have the tremendous good fortune of being a white man; the only racism I’ve had come my way was a couple of the half-dozen occasions when I’ve been mistaken for Jewish. And yet even from this position of privilege I’ve seen plenty of racism directed at others. How much more visible must it be to those on the pointy end?

(Content note: If racism in New Zealand is the last thing you need to be reminded of just now, I’d advise not reading any further.)

There was the guy in the supermarket who yelled “Come on, [racial epithet]!” when a South Asian worker, busy arranging trolleys, briefly got in his way. There was the guy who expressed regret, in tones of deep distaste, at how his country was being “taken over” by “persons of a yellow persuasion”. There was the guy on the bus who hypothesized that the East Asian owners of the internet café next to the bus stop had taken down the bus timetables to fool potential customers into parking there. There was the guy who, having come off his bike to avoid a car rounding the corner, shouted not “Watch where you’re going!” nor “I’ve got a right to use the road too!” but “Bloody Asians!”

I’ve heard people yell at the television “You’re not Māori!” when a commentator claimed otherwise who didn’t look Māori enough for their judgement. I lived through the time when Ardern’s party (before she entered Parliament) blocked Māori customary property claims to the foreshore and seabed while allowing commercial ones, and sold this policy to the nation as “the Māoris want to stop you going to the beach” (to complete the irony, the Māori claimants more often wanted to ensure public access to beaches). I heard people then joke, since by then our laws had abandoned the racist blood quantum criterion for telling who counts as Māori, that maybe they would still be able to go to the beach if they “feel Māori”. It wasn’t that long ago. New Zealand is still pretty much the same people now as it was then.

Once, conversing about my job with a social work lecturer after class, I happened to mention that in my dentistry classes there was a high proportion of Asian students. Insofar as I had a point it was to puzzle over why so few Pākehā students were going into dentistry (the paucity of Māori and Pacific Islanders in the health professions is, alas, less mysterious). But the lecturer – whose inclusive attitudes I had until that point admired – took me to be saying something quite different. “Yeah,” he said, “they shouldn’t let them in to take those places off our people, should they?”

Friday, 15 March 2019

The Ides of March

Today I saw the best and worst of what people can be. The best, first-hand; the worst, mostly via Facebook. I live in Dunedin, which is about a five-hour drive away from Christchurch, southward down the coast. I’m going to start with the bad thing, even though it happened later, so that I can end with the good thing. Quite apart from the fact that the good thing deserves the attention more, I believe that’s the way the world is going; courage is, gradually, conquering hate.

Today New Zealand got in the world news for about the worst possible reason. Our decades-long run without a public mass shooting has been broken, and the number of people killed in political terrorist acts in the entirety of our history has gone up from three to over 40. In Christchurch, this afternoon, during the Friday prayer, a white man walked into the Al Noor Mosque in Riccarton in the central city, sprayed the place with bullets, and fled. Soon afterward, a white man walked into the Linwood Islamic Centre a few kilometres across town, and began shooting.

Co-ordinated attacks by two shooters, or did the Riccarton shooter get in his car and drive to Linwood? I’ve heard both, and at a time like this I think it’s especially important to be mindful of the limits of one’s knowledge. The police also found at least one car bomb and defused it. The number of people killed is currently estimated to be in the 40s. Several of them are known to be refugees from the war in Syria, some of them children. One man has been arrested and charged with murder. Three others have also been arrested; last I heard, one had been released and the other two were being questioned. Presumably the police cordoned off the area and took in anyone who happened to have a firearm in their car.

I gather the shooter livestreamed the attack, and also published a manifesto online, just in case anyone was in doubt that the main motive for terrorism is notoriety. I understand that the local internet providers have been working to take them down, and good on them. Let me copypaste a Facebook post by a friend of mine who’s seen the manifesto:

Here’s a few quick facts from this shooter’s manifesto that he published online, so that you don’t have to read his pathetic excuses and unintelligent hate-speech.
  • He isn’t even a Kiwi. He’s an Australian citizen who was here temporarily. A little ironic considering he’s anti-immigration.
  • He originally planned to attack the mosque in Dunedin, because of a video on Facebook that he saw from the Otago Muslim Association.
  • He was most influenced by Candace Owens. I really hope that she faces the consequences of her disgusting rhetoric over this.
  • He supports Trump’s nationalist and anti-immigration stances.
There’s literally nothing else of value. Don’t read it.

I have not seen either the video or the manifesto. I have seen the shooter’s name. It will never cross either my mouth or my fingers. May it be swiftly forgotten.

Now for the good thing. I didn’t hear about the shooting until this evening because, when it was happening, I was regretfully heading back to work after attending the Dunedin branch of the School Strike For Climate. It was astonishing. I’ve been in many protests in my time, helped orchestrate a fair number of them, and I have never, ever seen one as well-organized and inspiring as this. I’m pretty sure I have, at times in the past, tutted and waxed superior over the maturity of teenagers, for which I humbly apologize. I won’t do it again. I think the last time I saw George St filled like that was when they threatened to take away Dunedin Hospital’s neurology unit, and before that the war on Iraq. And this was put together by high school students.

For all that pundits make money touting this or that existential threat to civilization that we all need to be shaking in our shoes about, climate change is the only one that’s both real and imminent. (Nuclear war is a genuine danger but a remote one. Peak Oil is a secondary consequence of the same institutional stupidities that are causing climate change. Nothing else qualifies.)

It’s already begun; New Zealand has had a “hundred-year flood” every year for over a decade now, two of them right where I live and two more just out of town on the Taieri Plain. I knew when last winter was unseasonably mild that an unprecedentedly hot summer was on its way; I even went around telling people there were going to be big bushfires in Australia. I didn’t predict they would come as far south as Tasmania, and I certainly didn’t count on them hitting New Zealand as well, but both things happened. These events are a tiny foretaste of what is to come if we don’t take drastic action.

New Zealand doesn’t account for much of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, but because of our small size we’re a good location for experimental social changes that the world can then scale up from. After both our major political parties embraced neoliberalism in the 1980s, neoliberals elsewhere in the world pointed at us – prematurely, it turned out – as a success story. A decade ago we got the opportunity to lead the way as developers of smart green technology, and we squandered it and hung our economy on milk instead. Can’t we please be world leaders again?

It’s easy to fall into despair over the magnitude of the problem, and that despair is a major contributor to the political inertia that has caused it. That’s why today’s demonstration brought tears to my eyes. Today I saw teenagers with a better handle on grassroots political organization than my generation ever had. Today I saw where the political will can be found to solve this problem. Today I know there is hope.

On this day 2062 years ago, a determined posse of political activists, deeply concerned for the integrity of the Republic of Rome, publicly murdered the man at the hub of the changes that they feared, and so brought about the very crisis they had hoped to avert. Their act fell short, however, of the ineffectuality of terrorism, because Julius Caesar was a genuine centre of power. Terrorism by definition strikes at the powerless; it is the epitome of cowardice. And it never succeeds. Mohandas Gandhi in India eschewed violence, and India broke free of the British Empire. The IRA in Northern Ireland embraced violence, and Northern Ireland remains a British province. The numbers across history bear out the lesson of these two examples; violence, even against legitimate targets, reduces a political movement’s chances of success by over half. Terrorist violence guarantees failure.

So, out of the action today that deserved the world’s attention and the action that hijacked it, I know which one I believe represents the future. I stand for courage, I stand for truth, and I stand for hope.

Friday, 8 March 2019

Captain Marvel: movie review

Captain Marvel movie poster, showing Brie Larson as Carol Danvers, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, and Jude Law as Yon-Rogg

Crossposted from my Dreamwidth blog

Just for fun, how many movies do you imagine fulfill all the following criteria?

  • Based on comic books, or about superheroes, or both
  • Released in cinemas
  • The title consists solely of the protagonist’s name and/or hero pseudonym
  • The title protagonist is female

Well, I can’t be bothered tracking down movies from every country in the world. But on Wikipedia’s lists of American movies there are, as of the release of Captain Marvel earlier this week, exactly six. The other five are, in order of release: Tank Girl (1995), Barb Wire (1996), Catwoman (2004), Elektra (2005), and Wonder Woman (2017). The 1984 movie Supergirl apparently was British, not American, but you can go ahead and include it if you like.

By contrast I count about 49 American movies which fulfill all the other conditions but have a male title protagonist. That’s being conservative, because I chose not to count titles containing epithets that refer to their heroes but aren’t their actual names, like “The Dark Knight” or “The First Avenger” or “Man of Steel”. If I had chosen to include those, that would have added at least another half-dozen to the male list and exactly one to the female list: My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006). I also didn’t count sequels even when the title was just the character’s name and a number (e.g Deadpool 2), which would have lengthened the male list by another dozen or so and the female list not at all.

You could argue that manga should be counted as comic books, which adds exactly one more American movie to the female list, namely Alita: Battle Angel, again released only weeks ago. And if you want to include movies named for more than one character, that brings in things like Batman & Robin and Batman v. Superman on the male side, and one lone female character taking second place in the title of last year’s Ant-Man and the Wasp.

The YouTube comments on trailers for Captain Marvel are full of remarks like “Ooh, a strong female character, how novel” and “I don’t go to Marvel movies for the politics.”

Mind you, having now seen the movie, I can tell you there’s another strain of YouTube comments that’s even more ironic: the kind that go “I don’t need to see the movie now, they put the whole thing in the trailers.” The trailers are almost entirely taken from the first half-hour or so. The rest of the movie then takes the premise set up in that half-hour and unabashedly flips it upside-down to lie waggling its legs undignifiedly in the air.

Spoilers both great and small below the cut.

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Did I always know I was bisexual?

I am bisexual
Reposted from my Dreamwidth blog

How long have I known I’m bisexual? A simple question with no simple answer. Someone passed a meme around on Facebook last week saying “It’s fine if you haven’t always known,” which prompted me to reflect.

I have accepted it for seven or eight years, I suppose. But was it a matter of learning something about myself I didn’t previously know? Or was it just that I started to be honest with myself about something I’d always known? Neither of those sits quite right with my memory.

I didn’t come out to anyone but my partner for several years after this realization. Even now, although I openly identify as bisexual online, you wouldn’t guess it from my life in physical space. Primarily, of course, my partner and I were and are in an exclusive relationship and already had been for years before, so I’m not seeking romantic or sexual partners of any gender and have no intention of doing so.

(This is something people sometimes misunderstand, so in case this concept is new to you: no, that doesn’t mean I’m not really bisexual or that I’ve “chosen a side”. I’ve chosen a person.)

But it took years for me to summon up the courage to come out at all, even online. I’ve never taken part in any Pride event, publicly or otherwise, nor any other LGBT-related social activity. Last year a friend invited me to a “coming out stories” session as part of a campus LGBT awareness week; I chickened out.

I grew up Evangelical, which in New Zealand isn’t quite as tightly bound to conservative politics as it is in the US, but on some issues there is definitely a Godly side and a Satanic side, and at least back in the ’80s and ’90s sexual orientation was one of those issues. Meanwhile in the secular culture which I encountered at school, to be gay was the very depth of loserdom, the nadir towards which lesser losers such as geeks and nerds and the arty-farty were presumed to be drawn.

Once I entered an environment where I had to justify moral positions with reasoning, I quickly accepted (intellectually) that there was no justification for opposing same-sex relationships. With a personal history shaped by Evangelicalism and Kiwi-bloke toxic masculinity, however, my emotional reactions took over a decade to catch up – and indeed, acknowledging my own bisexuality was a late stage in that very process.

Nowadays my only contact with the Evangelical community is through my family and some old friends, and if they’re any indication then the norm seems to be shifting. But that’s only a few people, and those few might just as easily be drifting away from the norm as drifting along with it.

Anyway, my single biggest reason for delaying coming out publicly was that I felt a bit presumptuous suddenly identifying as a member of a community which I knew very little about and had a history of being uncomfortable with.

There existed in my teenage years a movement which called itself “Gay” and “Queer” – yes, “Queer” – with its own symbols and aesthetics and its proprietary words, including “bisexual”. This movement seemed entirely alien to everything that was familiar to me, and of course both sides of my cultural background actively encouraged that alienation. I didn’t see any connection between the rainbow flags and the pink triangles and the fishnets and sequins, on the one hand, and my own developing sexuality on the other.

Saturday, 12 January 2019

Why nudity is worth defending

Riders in the 2009 World Naked Bike Ride pause in front of the White House

Nudity ought to be legal and accepted everywhere it is physically safe. The fact that it is not is a societal injustice. I know most of you aren’t going to agree straight off the bat, so let me lay out my reasoning and see what you think.

Admittedly, it’s not a major societal injustice. There are other injustices with more dire consequences for more people, that more deeply undermine our ability to trust each other and are more urgent priorities. Relatively few people share my autistic sensory aversions to clothing, and those aversions don’t usually rise above the level of mild discomfort unless it gets very hot or the clothing in question is wet. (Swimming-togs feel like knives cutting me.) But most of the time, I think, struggles against different injustices help rather than hinder one another. Raising people’s awareness of one injustice makes them more alert to other injustices, not less. It isn’t a competition.

First point: People deserve a degree of respect simply on account of being people. That includes being able to go about one’s daily business without harassment from one’s fellow citizens. There is no amount of clothing one might wear or not wear that would make one deserve to be yelled at, ogled, pelted with rubbish, or chased off the streets. It is therefore unfair to yell at someone, ogle them, throw things at them, or chase them away because of what they might choose to wear or not to wear.

Second point: Injustice is fundamentally the same thing as unfairness. We just tend to reserve the weightier word for when there are graver consequences, such as when discrimination is enforced by the police or when it prevents people from participating fully in society. Therefore, if people are threatened with arrest or prevented from participating in society due to what they are wearing or not wearing, that is an injustice. If the law allows or prescribes for it, the law is unjust.

Third point: People are in fact harassed, arrested, and ejected from public places if they go nude. We’ve just agreed that this would be an injustice if it happened; well, it does happen, and therefore it is an injustice.

Finally, this particular injustice is enforced by society as a whole, not just by officers of the law. That makes it a societal injustice. The fact that nudity is not legal or acceptable is a societal injustice. There you go.

Somehow this is easier to see when the body taboo in question is that of a culture that isn’t our own – when it’s Arab police forcing women into hijab or French police forcing them out of it, Victorian missionaries imposing Western clothing on Pacific Islanders or that one group of Pacific Islanders (the Kwaio on Malaita in the Solomons) who impose toplessness on Western visitors. But an injustice is an injustice, and it is in the nature of societal injustices that they feel like ordinary common sense to enculturated members of the societies that enforce them. Which would include ours. Which means that just because wearing clothes feels like ordinary common sense to us, doesn’t mean that it’s not a societal injustice.

Now, how serious an injustice is it? Is anyone seriously hurt by having to wear clothes (obviously not counting us autistics and our autistic sensory issues which make us, as we are reminded daily, such a nuisance to normal people)? Well, there are a couple of problems that I think are bound up with it.