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Batman: America’s Right-Wing Vigilante

I’m launching a new blog on Tumblr called Punching Up. It’s a culture blog focused on art, music, books, movies, thoughts, and humor that favors the underdog over the powerful. Luckily, most art already does this, so I’ve got like, an insane amount of material to pull from. But in honor of the blog’s launch, I’m repackaging my piece on America’s favorite right-wing superhero: Batman.

When I first watched The Dark Knight Rises, the final installment in Christopher Nolan’s epic and awesome Dark Knight trilogy, the thought crossed my mind that the terrorists in the movie voiced a rhetoric that sounded eerily similar to that of the the Occupy movement.  The thought passed, and was quickly followed by “OH MY GOD, LOOK AT BANE’S MUSCLES.”

But since then, I’ve realized that this wasn’t a fluke. Batman, probably our country’s favorite superhero, is a right-wing wet dream. In a country where all superheroes a wee bit troublesome for the left, Batman is like a Koch Brothers/Ted Cruz level of troubling. The dude is a counterrevolutionary defender of the one percent. In fact, the only thing that keeps him from being marginally different from other vigilantes is a hastily tacked-on rule (read: plot device) that he doesn’t kill. Which, as College Humor so helpfully pointed out, is patently ridiculous.

The political leanings of superheroes are usually pretty far to the right.

The political leanings of superheroes in the movies are never made particularly explicit — there are a few exceptions in comic books such as in Watchmen or in the character of the left-wing Green Arrow, but for the most part, writers choose to let a character’s politics play out through the story rather than through the characters words. The rule in storytelling is show, don’t tell, and superheroes are a perfect vehicle for this.

Image: Comic Vine

Image: Comic Vine

Superman, for example, is inherently anti-communist.  His name is stolen from the Nietzschean and proto-fascist concept of the Übermensch, which literally translates into “Overman” (or “Superman”) from German. The first Superman comic — before Action Comics #1 — was called “The Reign of the Superman” and featured a villain using telepathic powers to take over the world. Jerry Siegel, one of Superman’s creators, later said that it was directly inspired by Nietzsche’s Übermensch.

The Superman that took off as America’s first superhero was a bit more cleaned up. He’s benevolent, and he never does anything wrong. He’s for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. The distinction between the original Superman and the established one is thinner than it sounds though: an all-powerful man serving the established order could be a good guy or a bad guy, depending on who you’re talking to (Alan Moore referenced this more explicitly in Watchmen, when the all-powerful Doctor Manhattan is tapped by the U.S. government to murder the entire Viet Cong Army).

So Superman doesn’t need to talk about his political views.  They radiate off him in waves. And he was the prototype for every superhero that followed.

Batman, Member of the Benevolent Elite

The origin story of Batman is that his alter-ego Bruce Wayne is born into a family of benevolent billionaires. What Wayne Enterprises does is almost absurdly broad — they have an oil division, a construction division, a weapons division, a tech division, a manufacturing division, and even a record company. They are — to put it mildly — “job creators.” Forbes estimates their net worth as $31.3 billion, but that seems absurdly low, given the breadth of what they work in.

Since Gotham is a mess, they are philanthropists, too. In the Nolan movies, they are portrayed as struggling valiantly against organized crime and institutional corruption by building a public transportation system that turns out to be a boondoggle, a plot device which conveniently knocks public works projects and excuses the Waynes for not using their money towards more effective ends (like politics which they could totally buy into and reform if they wanted) at the same time.

Bruce’s parents are killed by a desperate thief anyway, and traumatized Bruce grows up, decides to skip the boring politics of poverty reduction and police reform, and fights crime his own way: as a masked man who doesn’t use guns and doesn’t kill.

Batman the Reformer

Now, while the movies and comic books portray Wayne’s unwillingness to give up on Gotham as a belief in the goodness of people, it can also be thought of in another way: In his A People’s History of the United States, historian Howard Zinn suggests that the New Deal — Roosevelt’s massive economic reforms in the midst of political and social upheaval — was not, as many progressives like to portray it, a dramatic socialistic restructuring of the economic system to be more fair and equitable.

Zinn writes:

“…the New Deal’s organization of the economy was aimed mainly at stabilizing the economy, and secondly at giving enough help to the lower classes to keep them from turning a rebellion into a real revolution…

Were the New Dealers-Roosevelt and his advisers, the businessmen who supported him-also class- conscious? Did they understand that measures must be quickly taken, in 1933 and 1934, to give jobs, food baskets, relief, to wipe out the idea ‘that the problems of the workers can be solved only by themselves’? Perhaps, like the workers’ class consciousness, it was a set of actions arising not from held theory, but from instinctive practical necessity.”

We might assume the same of Bruce Wayne: he’s a man attempting to fix a system that is obviously broken, but is also instinctively preserving the system that other activists think should be scrapped because it has been very good to him. In doing this, Wayne chooses the path of the progressive rather than that of the radical: he is looking for reform, not revolution.

Batman the Vigilante

But Batman was a progressive in a weird way. He chose possibly the most theatrical but least effective way to affect change possible. He chose to put on a costume and single-handedly fight crime in a city of 30 million people. It smacks of personal catharsis rather than a genuine desire to change things. And his crime-fighting approach is weirdly one-sided: it just has to do with pummeling criminals. Why not use his billions to fund schooling in poor neighborhoods? Why not fund drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs? Why not donate to social service programs? Why not fund anti-corruption campaigns and work to mediate the relationship of the police with the people they were supposed to protect? If he was serious about ending crime, it seems weird that he would have done zero reading into how crime is actually prevented.

One explanation is that Batman is traumatized and slightly-unhinged, and is able to get away with it because he’s richer than God. Another is more insidious: the Batman story is an attempt to maintain or justify the status quo.

Batman vs. Anarchy

Part of the problem with the Nolan Batman story is that the ideological villains he fights against (and note: they’re all ideological, with the possible exception of Scarecrow) all believe really dumb, half-baked versions of their ideology. Take, for example, the Joker.

For the record:  the Joker is an anarchist. He’s not a socialist. So the image of Barack Obama wearing Joker make-up with the caption “Socialism” is utter nonsense. It’s important to point out that the Joker is a terrorist as well.  It obviously would’ve been boring if the Joker was a more typical granola-and-tweed Noam Chomsky style anarchist, so it’s no surprise that Christopher Nolan made him a terrorist, but it was not inevitable that he be an anarchist.

The one thing Nolan gets right about his anarchist Joker is that the Joker is very interested in the Propaganda of the Deed. This is basically an old anarchist maxim that actions speak louder than words, so commit an attack, and it will inspire like-minded people to commit similar attacks. It’s less used by anarchists today that it was a century ago, but it is most definitely used by terrorists of other stripes. The emphasis in the Propaganda of the deed is on spectacle.

But ultimately, his Joker is a straw man. The reason this Joker is not a real anarchist is in the final, climactic scene, when he puts bombs on two ferries, one filled with civilians, one filled with criminals. He also gives each ferry a detonator for the other ferry’s bomb, and says if one of them doesn’t blow up the other, he’ll blow up both. It’s a nice, touching scene when one of the convicts throws the detonator out the window, and the passengers on the other ferry can’t bring themselves to do it despite having their kids on the goddamn thing, but it’s not particularly realistic.

And I don’t mean that it’s impossible that this would happen: I mean it’s impossible that the Joker would only leave one detonator on each ship.  He would’ve put one under every seat, like Oprah.  “You get a detonator, you get a detonator, you all! Get! Detona-KABOOM!” Different story, different ending. But the focus of these movies is on the power of the individual, not the collective, and the whole “weakest link” argument doesn’t come into play.

The Joker, even though he’s pretty much the best movie villain of all time, becomes just another example of why we need benevolent rich-people crime fighters to protect us.

Batman vs. Socialism

Weirdly, in the Wayne’s fight against poverty and crime, there doesn’t seem to be any mention of income inequality. There’s plenty of mention of them being philanthropists, but most of the Robber Barons were philanthropists: it didn’t end the structures that perpetuate poverty.

The only people that mention income inequality are Catwoman and her Occupy friends.

There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.

But Catwoman isn’t interested in Occupy’s Robin Hood rhetoric of taking from the rich and giving to the poor: she’s only interested in taking from the rich and giving to herself. And given that her compatriots are mostly depicted as criminals and looters, it’s not surprising that the flock so quickly to a savior promising a new socialistic era and an end to the reign of the elites. That man, unfortunately, is Bane.

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There we go. Still stupid, but at least accurate-stupid.

The implication in the final movie, The Dark Knight Rises, is that people who speak of economic injustice and redistribution of wealth are either criminals or are actually planning on tearing down society as a whole. Ayn Rand couldn’t write it better herself. So while Bane is at least more ideologically consistent than the Joker, the facade he puts on for the public is a lie.

This implication, by the way, is not solely in The Dark Knight movie trilogy. One of Batman’s most famous writers is Frank Miller, the right-wing comic book artist who wrote books like Sin City, 300, and two of the Batman storylines that Nolan borrowed from heavily in his scripts: Batman: Year One, and The Dark Knight Returns. Miller once called Occupy protesters “louts, thieves, and rapists,” “pond scum,” and “losers,” and even attempted to write an anti-Muslim Batman story called Holy Terror, Batman but eventually changed it to a non-Batman story.

Political dissidents are generally not treated well in superhero comicbooks, often portrayed as druggies, leeches, or malcontents, but in the Batman stories, they are even less likely to be portrayed sympathetically because they are oriented against the hero of the stories.

So the final movie sticks pretty closely to the right wing’s narrative about the left: that they are moochers and criminals being guided by a much smarter übermensch who is simply manipulating the masses for his nefarious ends. This is once again a battle between individuals. The collective means nothing.

Batman the Decider

The final point I have about Batman’s weird right-wing, fascist leanings I’m going to hand off to my friend Paul, who commented on this original post:

Bruce Wayne held in his hands, the one energy source that could cheaply and efficiently render most fossil fuel, wind, solar, thermo, and fission energy sources obsolete; potentially providing energy needed to heat/air condition homes, run businesses, hospitals, schools and non-profits; enough cheap power to reduce the costs of economic development, industry and science, and to slow and/or reverse the ever-present threat of climate change posed to all of the island-states and costal regions. 

The Dark Knight pocket vetoed the cheap energy needed to provide countries with rapidly depleting water tables like Yemen with the vast power necessary to desalinate water (the resourse likely to replace Oil and mineral wealth as a source of conflict). 

The Caped Crusader, decided all on his own, that the danger of fusion technology outweighed its benefits. The danger being, it could be used to make a 4 megaton thermonuclear weapon…

“hmmm,” said Wayne, “I could fix a shit ton that’s wrong with the world economy, but it could- potentially- maybe- one day- be used by the US and other governments to develop a weapon that they have known how to build for 60+ years, and has 1/10 the yield of previously tested thermonuclear devices, at probably 10X the cost. Ehhh, better not risk it.”

What a dick.

And another thing, if he didn’t want it weaponized why did he dump all that extra money to miniaturize a reactor? A reactor, that in all likelihood would require a giant magnetic field to contain-something that in its prototype-stage or even first and second generations would probably need to be housed in a building the size of a few football fields.

Batman: Vigilante Defender of the One Percent

The obvious argument against everything I’ve said is, “Dude. It’s just a comic book movie.” And while that’s true, I would point out this: The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises are both in the Top 10 highest box office returns of all time. And stories do matter. Your heroes say a lot about who you are, and if you were to ask, “What would Batman do?” as, say, a cop, you might decide to take action outside the law because it’s “right,” or you might imagine that you yourself are an übermensch, and thus have the right to make choices that can seriously affect the lives of others.

And none of this is to say that I don’t love these movies and, to a lesser extent, Batman comic books (I like them less because the crypto-fascist element tends to be a bit stronger in the comics). Batman’s mythology isn’t what it claims to be: he is not a Robin Hood. At best, he’s ineffectual and traumatized, at worst, he’s a deliberate attempt at maintaining the right-wing status quo by drawing the public’s attention away from ineffective governance and inequality that requires political action (and likely wealth redistribution) by fixating on the crime that is symptomatic of the systems his family helped create.

Featured image by JD Hancock. And hey, check out my new Tumblr Blog, Punching Up.

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No, Duck Dynasty guy, “atheist” does not mean “amoral”

This week, audio came out of the Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson graphically detailing the murder, rape, and castration of an atheist family, and why that atheist family wouldn’t be able to be upset about it. Here’s a little peak at it from Talking Points Memo:

“I’ll make a bet with you,” Robertson said. “Two guys break into an atheist’s home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him. And then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot them and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And then they can look at him and say, ‘Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged? Isn’t it great that there’s nothing wrong with this? There’s no right or wrong, now is it dude?’”

Robertson kept going: “Then you take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be something if this [sic] was something wrong with this? But you’re the one who says there is no God, there’s no right, there’s no wrong, so we’re just having fun. We’re sick in the head, have a nice day.’”

“If it happened to them,” Robertson continued, “they probably would say, ‘something about this just ain’t right.”

I’m sure the atheist community will be briefly up in arms and outraged about this statement (before moving on to something else), but I for one am not particularly annoyed — I’ve been an atheist for around 10 years now, and I’ve had this conversation (sometimes with just as violent language coming from the other side) countless times. It’s a major part of discussing my beliefs, and it’s actually kinda fun to constantly rip this type of thinking apart.

That’s not how any of this works

It comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of what atheism is, and it’s something that, for whatever reason, a lot of non-atheists refuse to be corrected on. The misunderstanding is this:

Atheism is not a philosophy, and it is not a replacement for religion.

That’s it. That’s all. Atheism is non-belief in the existence of a God or Gods. And every atheist defines what they are differently. Some are agnostics (they aren’t sure). Some are anti-theists (they are fairly certain the God of a certain definition doesn’t exist, they think that conception of God is objectively bad for humanity, and they are willing to fight against that idea). Some are agnostic-atheists (they aren’t certain about anything, but tend to think a human-oriented idea of God probably doesn’t exist).

Atheism is a single belief, and you cannot formulate an entire philosophy from a single belief. I was recently talking to a friend who is a Catholic, and we got onto the subject of the current Pope. “I really like him,” I said. “I don’t agree with everything he’s said, but for the most part, his beliefs are stuff I can get on board with.”

My friend asked, “So why aren’t you still Catholic?”

That requires a much longer answer, but I just said, “I just don’t believe in God.”

The Venn Diagram of beliefs between the Pope and myself would probably have a lot of overlap. But belief in God is not in that overlap. Visually, it would be a little sliver of circle just near the edge, a sliver that basically only includes “No God,” “Birth control is okay,” “homosexuality is not an aberration,” and “it’s okay to not have kids.”

Atheist does not equal amoral

I’m not mad at Robertson. He just doesn’t have any real sort of point to make, because he doesn’t understand that atheism isn’t a philosophy, but is a single belief (or non-belief) in an entire constellation of beliefs and non-beliefs that have to make up a person’s personal philosophy. And the look of that constellation changes from person to person.

Some atheists are nihilists, but they are pretty rare. Some, to an extent, believe that in some cases, morality is relative. Others have extremely rigid moral viewpoints, or adhere to elaborate and complex philosophies like humanism. I have yet to meet an amoral atheist, though, or, for that matter, an amoral believer. Amorality, it turns out, is pretty damn rare.

Recent research suggests that parents raising kids without God are doing just as well as parents who raise their kids to believe. For those of us who are atheists, this isn’t surprising: we’ve known for a while that compassion, forgiveness, kindness, and being fucking rad aren’t moral principles that require the existence of a God to make sense. So please, to Mr. Robertson and everyone else, let’s focus on what we have in common and not on the one tiny little thing we disagree on.

Featured photo by Gage Skidmore

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The tricky linguistic politics of telling this winter to suck a dick

IT’S HARD HATING WINTER as much as I do and expressing it in a way that’s consistent with my values. I have no moral objection to obscenity, profanity, or even graphic sexual imagery, but I worry that telling this winter to “suck my dick” is in some way homophobic or misogynistic: is telling something to “suck your dick” as an insult a way of degrading those that do suck dicks? Or does it imply that the act of sucking a dick, which is, if we’re being honest, a favor of the highest order, is actually an act of sad submission?

I can’t say “go fuck yourself,” because honestly, “go fuck yourself” has always seemed like a pretty mild thing to order someone to do. “Hey!” I’m basically saying, “Go touch yourself in a way that makes you feel incredibly good!”

No. I don’t want this winter to feel good. I want it to feel the cold I’ve felt. I want it to see the world in only three colors: black, white, and sludgy brown and feel vaguely lifeless because of it. I want this winter to slip endlessly on hidden ice and twist its ankles. I want it to take something that it values as much as I value the gorgeous beach on the edge of my town and cover it in gross, brownish-white snow drifts. I want it to have to dig a tiny, no-wheel-drive Honda Fit out of a 6-foot snow bank 4 times in a month using nothing but a discarded beer pail because its landlord is too negligent to buy a communal shovel. I want it to get fucked.

But no. That’s not quite it. If you’re getting fucked and not enjoying it, then that’s basically rape, and I don’t condone that at all, nor would I want to make light of it through my language. I would love — love – to call this winter a cunt. But no: there’s no equally offensive word for men, and thus, the use of the word is unfair, derogatory, and unnecessarily paints being a woman as an extremely negative thing.

I know a lot of people would say I’m being too PC. But the type of people who can dismiss taking care with your language as “Political Correctness” are the type of people who delude themselves into thinking that words don’t matter. And I’m not on board with that. So I have to keep slogging through my internal insult dictionary, much like I slogged to the bar through an atrocious, disgusting wintry mix last night, in order to find the adequate words to appropriately express how much I hate this winter.

Maybe I can flip the script and insult this winter like it’s a dude. It’s certainly fucked me over in a billion different tiny ways. It’s pissed on my plans, made me look bad, made me feel shitty about myself, and has sent me spiraling into a minor depression. It’s like the high school bully of seasons. It’s like the dumb jock of annual meteorological intervals. It’s like the patriarchy of Earth-to-Sun axial tilt orientations.

Okay. Let’s try that: Fuck you, Winter. You peaked too early, and now everyone is just going to remember you as a sad, ugly, cautionary tale. No one liked being with you, winter, not really: it’s just that they had to given the circumstances, since you absorbed so much of the attention and had the ability to make life living hell for those who didn’t want to play your shitty games. You’re just going to slowly fade out of people’s memories as they go on to bigger and better things, while you’ll be stuck in your singular moment in time, reliving the times where you briefly, mildly impressed the people around you, and then lost their interest when they realized what you really were. You’ll watch, impotently, as Spring slowly takes your place, and you’ll realize at the last that your power was fleeting, and that you were never able to truly inspire love through fear.

You’re going to be forgotten, winter. You left a trail of destruction in your wake, but all tyrants must die. Now go fuck yourself.

Featured photo by Alex Szymanek.

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Aliens made of fart gas might be a real thing

I’ve been reading science fiction for a really long time, but I’ve read it almost exclusively for the fiction, as I have zero understanding of science. But it has always struck me that, when scientists imagine other life forms, they assume that they would be carbon and water-based lifeforms like the ones found on earth. This has always struck me as strange. In an almost infinitely huge universe, shouldn’t there be a nearly infinite number of bases for life to form from?

Like, couldn’t life theoretically form from sentient evil? Couldn’t a particularly stinky cheese eventually gain self-awareness? Could not a fart learn how to play a piano?

This is why I am not a scientist. But this week, all of my dreams came true: scientists discovered that fart aliens could theoretically exist. I Fucking Love Science, a site that is infinitely smarter than this one, explained it thusly:

Nearly all living organisms on Earth have water-based structures around their cells called phospholipid bilayers. These keep water in (or out), and they shelter the insides of our cells from the rest of the world. Now, according to a study based entirely on computer modeling, small molecules in oxygen-free environments may be capable of forming compartments that resemble these lipid membranes. The findings, published in Science Advances last week, suggests that life—but “not as we know it”—is possible on worlds without oxygen. They just have to be comprised of methane-based cells.

It is here that I want to note that methane gas among humans who are not chemists or scientists of any stripe (i.e. me) is most commonly noted as one of the main gases present in flatulence — indeed, methane is a greenhouse gas, and cow farts are one of the worst contributors to climate change. IFL Science continues:

Astronomers looking for signs of extraterrestrial life (and places where mankind might colonize one day) focus on the habitable zone, a narrow area around the sun where liquid water can exist. However, if cells weren’t based on water but on methane—which has a much lower freezing point—could “life” exist in extremely cold worlds like Saturn’s moon Titan? The giant moon is spotted with seas of liquid methane and has no oxygen available for the formation of a lipid bilayer membrane.

There you have it: just a few planets away is a moon that is covered in fart-based lifeforms. Yes, I know it’s a jump from “theoretically they could exist,” to “FART ALIENS! EVERYWHERE!” but to paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcolm: “Farts will find a way.”

Let’s all take a moment to appreciate what a spectacularly diverse and weird universe we live in. And, for the inevitable oncoming war of colonization between our planet and their moon, let’s begin investing in a GasX-based defense budget.

Featured photo by Mibrant2000

 

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Dressgate Sends Blogger to Brink of Despair

LATELY I’VE BEEN READING some pretty bleak shit: The Conspiracy Against the Human Race by Thomas Ligotti, (which was the philosophical basis behind the incredibly misanthropic, pessimistic character of Rustin Cohle in True Detective), and a lot of H.P. Lovecraft, the nihilistic writer who created the Cthulhu Mythos, a literary universe which focuses on humanity’s cosmic insignificance (True Detective arguably is part of the Cthulhu Mythos, both in terms of its tone and in its references to staples of Lovecraft’s universe like the city of Carcosa and the so-called “King in Yellow”).

Point is, the shit is bleak, and it has one particularly annoying side-effect: it makes it difficult to be an internet writer. The internet runs on memes — brief, passing trends that the internet collectively picks up, examines, analyzes, jokes about, and then tosses aside — and for an internet writer, an attunement to these memes is essential. Good internet writers are able to take these memes and use them to address the broader themes of their work: it’s why that Kim Kardashian butt pic was able to turn into a discussion of racial politics.

It’s a classic bait and switch: while a million people are looking at something, you try and get them to look at this other, tangential thing. It’s why the news site Mic constantly uses the headline, “This one Tweet perfectly sums up [why vaxxers will inevitably cause the spread of the zombie virus/America’s prejudice against people with bunions/Obama].” It’s like snapping your fingers and waving around a Beanie Baby next to the camera lens to get the crying child to look in the right goddamn direction so you can have at least one fucking decent family picture.

The Goddamn Dress

As a writer, though, this can get exhausting, especially when your interests are super broad. “Okay,” you say, “What sociopolitical lesson can I extract from this white and gold/blue and black dress?”

Ah, the dress. If you’re reading this and it’s not Friday, February 27th, you’ve already forgotten about it. It’s a dress that someone took a picture of, and apparently it’s black and blue, but in the picture it looks white and gold. Optics!

Slate’s coverage was the most comprehensive, but Buzzfeed really made it take off after the dress got some traction on Tumblr. People had debates! #TeamWhiteAndGold was trending! So was #TeamBlackAndBlue! Listicles formed! Quizzes formed! Science sites broke down the optics behind the dress and why it was one while appearing to be the other!

When it hit last night, I was dicking around on my computer playing Civilization V. I usually play it for like, two hours straight. When I closed the game, my Facebook feed was entirely about the dress. I looked at it. It looked white and gold to me. “What can I do with this?” I thought, “What deeper message about humanity does this debate have to tell me?”

Photo by KAZ Vorpal

Photo by KAZ Vorpal

If I hadn’t just been reading The Call of Cthulhu a few hours earlier, I might’ve said what my friend Cory said, that it was a good thing that people were actually questioning how they perceive things. But I had been reading The Call of Cthulhu earlier, and so the lesson I took was this:

Rather than coming to terms with the horrors of the universe and our ultimate impermanence — both as individuals and as a species — in it, the world had decided to distract itself from it’s oncoming destruction and annihilation with endless debate about the color of a dress. But, I then thought, if the color of this dress is a meaningless debate and is just trying to distract us from our inevitable oblivion, then isn’t every other debate we’re having equally meaningless? Are our meager attempts to forestall climate change simply an act of prolonging the inevitable? Are our furious, angry ideological debates really just smokescreens for the bleak, angry nothingness that awaits us just beyond the moment of our death?

It’s at this point, as I sit in my easy chair and rant to Steph about the meaninglessness of everything, that she patiently walks over, kisses my forehead, and says, “Well, we love each other, and that means something.”

Well… fine. Okay. Fair point. The dress looks white and gold to me. It’s good to be reminded to question my perceptions. I can probably get a blog post out of that.

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The Tragedy of Penn State and the Dickishness of Olbermann

I went to Penn State from 2005 to 2009, so I had left before the Sandusky sex abuse scandal was a thing that most Penn Staters knew about. I was never that gung-ho about Penn State in comparison to most of my classmates, so when it came out that Joe Paterno had been negligent in reporting Sandusky to the police (and possibly complicit if not active in a cover-up), I was in favor of his firing.

This is not a common or popular opinion amongst alumni, but a mere 10 years earlier, I had been an unenthusiastic Catholic, and had seen the exact same scandal happen within my church. So I knew that any defense of those at fault was more about self-preservation than justice, and that this self-preservation instinct would ultimately backfire on the people who loved Penn State, just as it did with the Church. In both cases, it gave me an excuse to sever myself from a culture that I didn’t connect with in a particularly meaningful way. But I’m still sympathetic to my friends who have remained Catholics and/or Penn State fans. It’s tough to deal with fallen Gods.

Paterno, the Tragic Hero

I’m not being flip, by the way, by referring to Joe Paterno as a “fallen god.” Penn State culture is largely built around the football program, and it has all the trappings of a religion: chants, songs, rituals, myths, and a moral code. The moral code is especially prevalent in Penn State football, more than in other teams I’ve been a fan of: Penn State has always put an emphasis on the integrity of the brand, and Joe Paterno was the cornerstone of that ethos. He was one of the first college coaches to place an emphasis on the “student” of “student-athlete,” and he was known for being both generous to his community and for having a moral code. He was like an old, Italian, Omar Little.

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Unfortunately, what was hidden behind the moral code, the integrity, and the generosity was an obsession with legacy. He liked being so well-respected and revered, so when a possible blemish to that legacy — the sexual abuse of children under his care by one of his coaches — came out, he didn’t do what he should have. His pride was his downfall.

Yeah. There’s nothing remotely religious about that story at all.

The story of the fallen god is a common one, but less told is what happens to the god’s worshippers after the fall. Penn State’s response feels pretty similar to the Catholic response: long-term denial, scapegoating of certain figures who “had it out” for Paterno, the “few bad apples” speeches, and a willful obliviousness to the systemic nature of the problem. There were even riots when Paterno got fired.

From the outside, this response looks delusional, but if you, like me, have a foot in and a foot out of the culture, you can see what it really is: a desperate scramble to salvage something that has become immensely important in your life. There’s a lack of self-awareness to the response, yes, but this reaction happens whenever a worldview collapses.

Keith Olbermann wins the righteousness Olympics

Keith Olbermann, as everyone knows, is a strident commentator who seems to enjoy feeling morally righteous. One of the easiest ways to feel morally righteous is to position yourself against the sexual abuse of children. No one’s going to fight you on that. But on Monday, when a Penn State alum Tweeted an article at Olberman, he responded thus:

The correct response to “We Are!” in PSU world is “Penn State!” and the students had just raised $13 million for cancer research — which is what the woman had been cheering. She was baiting Olbermann, who has gotten his righteousness jollies from Penn State in the past, and Olbermann made the mistake of not clicking on the link, or of just being a dick.

Olbermann said he was targeting Penn State students in general, not kids with cancer, but as the AV Club put it in their coverage, “let’s face it, if you have to clarify that you’re not insulting kids with cancer, the conversation’s gotten away from you.”

So yeah. Olbermann’s a dick. We knew that already.

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Incidentally, though, THON is just as much a part of the Penn State culture that produced the football program. Like football, the culture around THON cannibalized the time and resources of other on-campus organizations. While at Penn State, I was the president of the campus’s chapter of Amnesty International, and there were many times that potential new members would skip our group because of a lack of involvement in THON. “Fighting cancer in children is a great cause,” I would tell them, “It’s just not particularly relevant to human rights. Unless you consider healthcare to be a human right, in which case we should be organizing politically to get the government to fund this research rather than doing it ourselves…” at which point the conversation usually ended.

Blaming the Culture

Student activism in any real sense was not encouraged under Graham Spanier (the President who would eventually be fired during the Sandusky scandal for his involvement in the cover-up). Spanier also liked to complain publicly about the lack of student activism, while simultaneously refusing to meet with student activists and, eventually, having them arrested. One of the ways of sucking energy away from groups that Spanier and the administration didn’t like was putting all of the emphasis on THON. And it’s really hard to argue against a cause that’s donating to child cancer research, even if it takes the form of a 48-hour pep rally that is mostly put together by the frats and sororities. So while Olbermann’s an asshole for painting the entire Penn State campus as Sandusky and Paterno apologists, he wouldn’t be totally wrong if he was seeing in THON some of the same culture that gave us Penn State football.

My guess is he was just being a dick, though.

The interesting thing is that if Olbermann wants to blame Penn State students and culture — as I believe he justifiably could — as providing an environment where Sandusky’s abuse and the subsequent cover-up could happen, then he would also have to place some of the blame on his network, ESPN, which has played no small role in making college football into such a massive money-making institution that, in the mind of people like Spanier and Paterno, would have been too big to fail. If you want to blame a culture, you have to blame the whole culture: the institutions that support it, the values it prioritizes, and the economy that guides it.

It’s important to point out that Penn State is barely the only school with this culture. Any other school could have been unlucky enough to have a predatory pedophile on staff, and could have had the confluence of factors (a too-mighty football program, unscrupulous administrators, cowardly coaches) that led to Penn State’s downfall. I grew up in Ohio, and I know that Ohio State’s football culture is similarly fanatical. It could just as easily have happened somewhere else.

But it happened to Penn State, and the people who knew nothing about the scandal when the events that caused it were actually happening became the ones scrambling to pick up the pieces of their culture after the scandal had blown through.

Blaming a culture for a crime usually seems unfair — this is why people tend to put so much emphasis on personal responsibility — but cultures set the conditions for crimes. Jack the Ripper, for example, was ultimately the man who eviscerated London’s prostitutes in 1888, but he would not have gotten as far as he did if Victorian England hadn’t had such extreme poverty that the entire East End of London was basically a brothel where misogynistic exploitation and violence could thrive.

Similarly, a sporting culture that values profit and apolitical coverage above all else is going to eventually to brush pedophiles, abusive husbands, and serial cheaters under the rug. Penn State’s culture is America’s sporting culture, and if Keith Olbermann wants to condemn one, he has to condemn both, or else be a bit of a hypocrite.

And a dick. Did I mention he’s a dick?

The “Penn State Experience”

When my friends would come to visit me at Penn State, my roommate would always try and give them the “Penn State Experience.” This involved football, lots of drinking, lots of parties, cheap pizza, high-quality ice cream, and a tour of the beautiful campus. His tours were always suffused with pride: pride at belonging to such a fun, happy community, pride at going to a pretty great educational institution, and pride at being able to show it off to friends from outside.

The cracks were already there, just beneath the surface, so when the cracks finally turned into chasms, it was easy for chronic non-believers and pessimists such as myself to sigh knowingly and to move on. But for my roommates, for my friends, and for my classmates, the collapse of their King was incomprehensible.

We’re used to the story of fallen Gods. But we’re used to the story from a distance: we’re used to the collapsed pedestal of Ozymandias buried in sand centuries later. We can see the collapse through the perspective of the God as he falls, undone, off of his pedestal.

But we cannot imagine the view from among the adoring crowd as they watch, horrified, as their god falls. Penn State is more than its football. It’s more than the Sandusky scandal. But Penn State culture is too busy trying to recover from its collapse to fully appreciate the former, and obtuse outrage junkies like Olbermann are too busy shouting to acknowledge the latter.

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Bad news: ISIS is actually more progressive than the United States on something

Today, the Atlantic published their cover story for next month about the ideology behind ISIS. I read it because until very recently, I thought ISIS was the name of the spy agency in Archer.1413034195030.cached
It’s worth reading on its own — ISIS is absolutely loathsome, but its ideology actually follows a weirdly consistent if murder-y fundamentalist logic — but here’s a bit of it that stood out:

…Abdul Muhid, 32, continued along these lines. He was dressed in mujahideen chic when I met him at a local restaurant: scruffy beard, Afghan cap, and a wallet outside of his clothes, attached with what looked like a shoulder holster. When we sat down, he was eager to discuss welfare. The Islamic State may have medieval-style punishments for moral crimes (lashes for boozing or fornication, stoning for adultery), but its social-welfare program is, at least in some aspects, progressive to a degree that would please an MSNBC pundit. Health care, he said, is free. (“Isn’t it free in Britain, too?,” I asked. “Not really,” he said. “Some procedures aren’t covered, such as vision.”) This provision of social welfare was not, he said, a policy choice of the Islamic State, but a policy obligation inherent in God’s law.

I mean, goddamn it, America. There is a single fucking thing that ISIS is more progressive about than us. Although one has to wonder why not-cutting-heads-off or burning-prisoners-alive doesn’t fall under God’s healthcare scheme and vision and dental do.

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#LikeAGirl is Sweet, But it’s Still Just Trying to Sell Maxipads

I was watching the Super Bowl from NBC’s live streaming last night, and they lied to me. They told me the live stream included the commercials, which is around 70% of the reason I watch the game, and it didn’t. It only included like, four of the commercials. So I had to follow the commercials on Twitter. When everyone got all worked up about Nationwide killing a 9-year-old boy, I had to YouTube it. When everyone got all touched by the Always #LikeAGirl commercial, I had to YouTube it.

Maybe it was because I was grumpy at missing out and watching all the fun vicariously through Twitter, but the response to the Always commercial kind of annoyed me. The commercial itself didn’t bother me — it’s got a great message, and it’s far preferable to the shitty sexist ads that all the other brands used to do (and which Carl’s Jr. still does) — what bothered me was all the praise being heaped on Always.

Always, which you wouldn’t know from the commercial, sells maxipads. They’re a necessary hygienic product, so there’s nothing wrong with what they sell nor, as far as I know, is there anything unethical about their work or product, but they don’t deserve credit for airing a progressive commercial. Because at the end of the day, what their ad department does not care about is improving the self esteem of young girls. They care about selling maxipads. Progressive commercials are just a means to that end.

This campaign could very easily have been put together by a misogynist like Don Draper who has his finger on the pulse of the internet’s feminist blogosphere, and on the increasing trend in American culture towards treating women like equals and not like subordinates. It was probably thought of by more of a Peggy type, but that’s beside the point: advertisements for corporations that double as PSA’s are still advertisements first. They chose to air that commercial because they believed it would connect with their target audience. And they were totally right.

Instead of giving Always praise they don’t deserve for creating a feel-good commercial that virtually anyone who isn’t a piece of shit can get behind, give it to the people who created a culture where feminism can finally be a marketable ideology.

Give credit to internet personalities like Lindy West and Anita Sarkeesian who are outspoken about feminism and, as a result, expose themselves to rape threats and attacks by internet trolls literally every day of the week. Give credit to sports stars like Martina Navratilova or Billie Jean King who had to endure tons of sexist abuse (not to mention homophobic abuse) while being better than their male counterparts. Give credit to Gloria Steinem, Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth or literally any other feminist ever before you give it to an ad for capitalizing on the world they created.

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When Criticizing Islam isn’t “Punching Up”

When I was at LSE, there was an anti-Islamophobia measure up for a vote in the Student Union. The measure had come about because some shitty things had been shouted at Muslim students on campus, a few racist things had been posted in online forums, and, in the LSE Atheist, Secularist and Humanist (ASH) Society private Facebook group, someone had posted a copy of the comic “Jesus and Mo.”

“Jesus and Mo,” if you haven’t read it, is a pretty mediocre atheist comic that is broadly anti-religious. The two main characters are Jesus an Mohammed, so obviously, it’s controversial because it depicts the prophet. I’ve never found it to be racist or explicitly anti-Muslim, I’ve just found it to be a pretty boring representation of the typical atheist arguments against religion.

But the new anti-Islamophobia measure would have made it illegal to post the cartoon online, and that’s what the ASH Society wanted to push back against. I’m an atheist and a writer, so I agreed that they should be allowed to post the comic, and I decided to help out with the messaging. The campaign culminated in a rally outside of the Houses of Parliament that was headlined by no other than famed atheist Richard Dawkins. After the rally, we all stuck around to talk to him. After five minutes, my stomach had totally left the fight.

Dawkins, it seemed to me, was an old school British colonialist and racist. He actually referred to Muslims as “backwards people” while talking to us. I have no doubt that he’s a genuine atheist, and I still think his arguments against religion are solid, but I no longer believed that his motivation against religion was coming from a place of pure rationalism.

As an aspiring satirist, I was horrified by the Charlie Hebdo attacks. I am unfamiliar with their work, but even if they were far-right – which they aren’t – I would be horrified. Satire and humor should be totally untouched by violence. They can and should be criticized, but the proper response to language is never violence. So I don’t mind jumping on board the “fuck those murderous assholes” train, and I get super irritated by the victim-blaming that came from much of the left after the attacks: “Well, if you publish purposefully provocative cartoons, what did you expect?” No: fuck that. No matter how offensive the illustration, there is no justification for murder.

With all of that said, there is an oft-unfollowed rule in comedy and satire that asks that comedians “punch up.” The idea is that if you’re going to make jokes about a controversial issue, the right thing to do is to attack the party with the most power in the issue. Always side with the victims and the oppressed. So if you’re going to make a rape joke, target the rapist, don’t target the victim. If you’re going to make a joke about race, target the racist, not the oppressed minority. It’s basically a rule that’s designed to make comedy less about supporting systems of oppression and more about defending the underdog.

The problem with cartoons of the prophet Mohammed is that the creator usually feels they are targeting people like the murderous, misogynistic assholes in ISIS, Boko Haram, or the Taliban. They are “punching up” at the violent thugs who shoot little girls who want to go to school, or at the assholes who massacre defenseless villagers.

But in reality, these cartoonists live in Western societies where Muslims are often the discriminated-against minority. Muslims in France have to deal with a rising extreme right wing, led by the racist fuckwit Marine Le Pen, and Muslims in the United States have to deal with police surveillance, right wing hysteria over the placement of their cultural centers, and violent attacks by racists. Since the Muslims who actually live in these countries are the ones who actually have to deal with anti-Islamic sentiment, they are the actual – if not the intended – targets of anti-Islamic satire.

None of this is to say that ISIS, Boko Haram, and the Taliban don’t deserve mounds of ridicule. But the ridicule should target the groups themselves, not the religion that the groups nominally belong to. Attacking Islam for something a small extremist Islamic sect is doing is like nuking a city to kill a single person. It’s lazy humor, and it’s targeting the victim more than it’s targeting the oppressor.

And this type of satire or language can be coopted by the racist or colonialist forces that the left supposedly wants to fight against. Look at Christopher Hitchens: the famous atheist spent his life speaking out against dictatorships and religious fundamentalism, and later in his life, he became one of the left’s biggest supporters of the Iraq War. His moral justification was that the West should be active in bringing about the downfall of dictatorial regimes and fundamentalism in the Middle East. It was a justification that was cynically used as a moral cover by an administration that had much different reasons for invading Iraq.

If we were really interested in fighting fundamentalism, we would start at home – targeting our own racists, misogynists, murderers, and sectarians – and then we’d enable our allies within other countries to do the same. It’s pretty much impossible to “punch up” when you’re not even in the system or culture, so we should leave that job to Muslim comedians, satirists, and journalists instead of stepping on their toes by ham-fistedly trying to do the job ourselves.

Here’s a place to start: Raif Badawi is a Saudi blogger who is being imprisoned and flogged a thousand times because of a website he set up. Write a letter to the King of Saudi Arabia and tweet your support for Raif here.

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Satire is Insanely Important

I write for a living. And with that as my job, it’s easy to get lost in the drudgery of the day-to-day: editing, working through writer’s block, coming up with new ideas, trying to convince myself to turn off Netflix, etc. It’s not often that I think to myself, “This shit matters.”

With the attack on the leftist and anti-religion satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris and the recent hacks on Sony over the release of The Interview, though, it’s hard for me to think otherwise: Satire — and writing in general — is insanely important. Language is the only true magic in the world, the only tool we have with which we can truly change another person’s mind, or to get masses to act as one, or to destroy and humiliate bloated demagogues or systems of power and oppression.

Alan Moore, the famed comics writer, believes that our concept of magic came about as soon as we discovered language. “Magic has quite a lot in common with fiction and with fantasy,” Moore says. “We almost get into the notion that the two are pretty well interchangeable.”

“The idea of a grimoire — a book of spells. Grimoire is simply another way of spelling ‘grammar.’ According to [famed occultist Aleister] Crowley, to cast a spell is simply to spell.”

In the movie A Knight’s Tale, (yes, I’m quoting A Knight’s Tale), Geoffrey Chaucer, the famed English writer, says to a couple of thugs who cheated him out of his gambling money, “I will eviscerate you in fiction. Every pimple, every character flaw. I was naked for a day; you will be naked for eternity.”

Satire, then, is the only true curse. Never mind the quality of the satire: I haven’t seen The Interview yet, but my guess is that it’s not great. What matters is that Kim Jong Un was made to look ridiculous, like his father was in Team America: World Police. Satire sticks. It stays with us for eternity. Their legacy is eternally tarnished by a pair of silly films that they weren’t able to quash.

The same can be said of the attack on Charlie Hebdo: the type of people who would attack a satirical magazine are the type of people who realize what a threat humor and satire is to their fundamentalist vision of life. Never mind that there’s a simple counterspell to the satirical curse: all you have to do is laugh at yourself, and the curse harmlessly flits away. No one remembers a simple self-deprecatory joke, especially if it’s taken in a good-natured manner.

Our written words always outlive us. But by killing the satirists and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, the terrorists have guaranteed that they will eternally be villains. They are tarnished forever. And in that sense, the murdered satirists have won.