Combating Dystopia.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Have You Tried...NOT Being a Mutant?

Say what you will about comic books as a medium (because I'm whistling while you do that and pretending you're cooler than you are), but there really are moments where, through use of metaphor, comic book story telling gets it right.

Case in point? Allow me to extol the virtues of Marvel Comics' X-Men franchise: The put upon minority you've all been socialized to "fear and hate" because they've got qualities that make them "different"- yeah, they saved the universe a few times while you weren't looking. They look great in spandex, have fascinating powers, tend to be beautiful, doomed and fabulous...oh wait, it sounds as though I'm describing Twilight. But yes, there's angst, intolerance and a lot of fighting killer robots while romantic quadrangles develop. There's a cast of hundreds (seriously, you'd think you were watching Game of Thones) and a wondrous Hogwarts for Mutants in which mutant children are trained for superhero greatness (or usually trained to avoid being killed immediately...which is a topic for another post altogether).

What other mediums not aimed purely at adults adress issues like racism, diversity, civil rights activism and clearly display how to rise above petty bigotry and contribute to the greater good? I couldn't think of any either.

What I find consistent about the X-Men brand, is that even when it descends into cliche- and any comic book series thats been around 50 odd years can fall prey to this- is as follows:

1.) Diversity training- Without a doubt, the X-Men are one of if not THE most longest running diverse super hero themed comic books of all time. Not only did Giant Size X-Men #1 remedy the cookie cutter white bread "All-American" rosters of the original 5 X-Men (and similarly the original Avengers, Justice League and so on and so on). The second group, under uber-writerChris Claremont , boasted a Canadian misanthrope, a blue skinned German acrobat, An Irish ex-con, a surly Native American, an even surlier Japanese man and a Kenyan Goddess. Granted, the "All New All Different"recruits (as written by Claremont) were guilty of some incredibly hokey and frankly cringe worthy stereotypical dialog. How else would we know that the big Russian guy was so if he didn't shout things like "By the White Wolf!!!" when he was surprised? How else were we to know that Nightcrawler was German without him sprinking "mein freund" after every sentence? (But the Ah's and Mahs of Sassy Southerner Rogue and hell, half of the things Irish born Banshee said were just wrongness given voice). Many of the characters developed considerable depth over time that extends well beyond the sub-cultural window dressing (such development varies depending on the writer), so the tone and the treatment of minority characters has greatly improved. Still, the X-Men are some of the only places to see minority characters of any stripe do anything of note continually.

Later incarnations of the X-Men boast openly gay french Canadians, Formerly "evil" nazi holocaust survivors and (interestingly but sadly underused) Muslim teens from Afghanistan.
This fits well with focal character Professor Charles Xavier -who is arguably an analog of MLK at least with his peaceful protest/activist approach to mutant rights- integration and co-existence to Magneto (Malcom X) 's "by any means necessary".

2.) Ladies First- Another boon to X-Comics many others cannot attest to is that while radioactive spiders and cosmic rays disproportionately grant men super powers, genetic mutation affects men and women equally. Therefore, there are scads of super powered, bad ass women in the X-Men, far more than most other super hero books. Storm has the distinction of being not only the first black woman to take a leadership role in a comic, as well as being the first black character to be prominently/regularly featured in a comic series. Suffice it to say that the number of important women in the X-mythos adds a great and needed balance to the bro-code many comic books seem to perpetuate.

Another interesting point here when it comes to gender inclusiveness, the X-Women tend to exist as characters in their own rights, full fledged heroines and identities that aren't analouges of male characters. (There's no She-Cyclops...though sadly, there is a she-verine) Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk and Spider-Woman? Feminized versions of male counterparts. Storm, Emma Frost and Rogue aren't characters that were reliant on other (patriarchal) forces to imbue them with power and purpose. Its an interesting theme that furthers the point of gender equality.

3.) Intolerance for Dummies- Mutants are openly, actively discriminated against. So much so that the government in many cases displays some fantastic racism towards this minority group. (Sure, lets sick homicidal robots on a school and see what happens!) To underscore this point, there was recently a story arc where legislation from a right leaning conservative group was pushed forward to attempt to ban mutants from procreating. It was called Proposition X. Note any real world similarities?

What makes this unique to the reader is that Mutants can be born from any social class, ethnic group, gender or orientation, making your average 14 year old's angst over having pimples and feeling misunderstood both poignant and welcome. Sure, it evidences worst case hypothetical intolerance scenarios, but it makes clear for the readership the constraints and consequences of blind hatred, and the costs of being part of a disenfranchised minority group. There's little more heroic than being the perpetual underdog, fighting to protect people who really would rather you "kept your power to yourself", or stayed away from normal people.

When you have "villains" who were victimized during childhood in concentration camps, and more aggressively seeking to protect those "normal" humans fear and persecute, it makes for compelling somewhat more complex motives when the "good guys" come to their aid...and still don't get any thanks for it. No good deed really does go unpunished when you're a mutant.

Beyond that, the metaphorical comparisons to LGBT rights ("Have you tried...not being a mutant?", and the sort of "passing" or "closeted" aspect of being "discovered to be a mutant") , as well as antisemitism, the 60s civil rights movements make the significance of being a mutant, and being quasi-heroic in the face of it all the more winning.

As far as those of you curious about a few great story arcs to guide you into X-Men reading, I'll suggest a few brilliant reads:
  • Joss Whedon's "Gifted" Arc of Astonishing X-Men is sleek, witty and has some of the most gorgeous art and conflicted character dynamics the series has seen since the 80s. A definite return to fighting form, and a series that sets the bar for X-Men comics very very high indeed. There's an equally astonishing motion comic about the arc "Gifted" that makes me grin every time I read it its so perfect. You can scope it out on Netflix. (Heck, the entirety of Whedon's Astonishing run lives up to its name and is well worth reading, but Whedon's takes on the characters of Cyclops and Emma Frost are beyond compelling.)
  • Matt Fraction's been doing a ton of fascinating things with the X-Men. So many clever ideas that it boggles the mind why the put upon mutant community wouldn't have moved to San Fransisco, cut out the "good v. evil" in fighting and become an actual community decades ago. Under his run, he (wisely) brought Northstar, Psylocke, Dazzler, Namor and Magneto to the ranks of the X-Men, no longer are they a fragmented aggregate, now they're a unified army. His work on Uncanny X-Men of late featured an ingenius take in 'Quarantine", which has a super flu incapacitate the mutant population just in time for a genetics firm to rip off their brand (imagine, the very thing that makes you hated and feared-and special- suddenly being exploited by the uber-wealthy fanboys). Interesting concepts about identity and "what makes a people a people" here. Couple it with some brilliant dialog and you've got a winner all around. Fraction's Utopia arc takes Cyclops (a character I felt was wooden and despicable once upon a time) yet another level of badass.
There are a plethora of storylines and character arcs that are worthy of honorable mention, and of course I'm merely touching the tip of the iceberg with my analysis here, but there's a lot of brilliance in these ideas and these characters. One of the underlying reasons I'm the left leaning, sociologically minded politico I am today is that X-Men comics adhered to my dormant worldview, taught me about inequality and moral fiber, the ability to be more than what people see of you, better than what they think of you, and do good despite the idea that they might not deserve it. Pretty good life lessons at the cost of a few dollars a month, I'd wager.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

If This Doesn't Stimulate the Economy, Nothing Will! (Oh wait)

House passes measure to ban funds for teaching abortion techniques in health centers - The Washington Post

This is ridiculous. As a student that spent a great deal of time at a state university with a med school of some renown, I can't tell you how detrimental even the pretense of this measure is. Half the town I went to was employed by the University, the other half? By the state of the art hospital guessed it, was and is funded and staffed by the University's med school. Teaching medical students to be LESS professionally viable because some fundies have their pearls in a perpetual clutch is not a social good. Much to the contrary its likely to make med school programs in the US less competitive and thinking back to my sleepy southern college town, mean a lot less money to trickle down to the locals via housing, resteraunts and over priced textbooks. Luckily, and with good reason, the odds of passing the Senate aren't the best. I submit for the record another in a very rapid line of Tea Party "shots across the bow" idle threats that do NOTHING but score political points with their increasingly rigid constituency.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Look to the Skies: Bioshock Infinite

BioShock Infinite Video Interview Video - Xbox 360 - IGN

Look on this and be amazed. I won't gush about how much I love the concept and themes at play in Bioshock (much), but needless to say I'm eagerly anticipating Bioshock:Infinite. Which is in some ways a prequel (?) and some ways a bold continuation of the exploration of socio-political ideology through video games. (Yay!)

According to this interview Levine et al seem committed to offering the gamer more choices still. Elizabeth looks like a compelling and endearing ally and I think this story, set amid the backdrop of 1912, American Ultranationalism, American Exceptionalism and Xenophobia (which seems particularly timely - if memory serves Bioshock: Infinite was announced right around the time the State of Arizona introduced its "immigration" bill justifying profiling). The propaganda posters littering the streets of Columbia seem pretty jarringly demonizing of would be interlopers, but we're talking about a steampunk reality springing from the initial salvos of the cold war (1912) so it makes sense thematically. Its a wonder how little society can change in 100 years. A post for another time, perhaps.

(Above is the 10 minute demo for the game for your pixel porn viewing pleasure)

Still, Bioshock Infinite looks thought provoking, gorgeous and immersive
and I cannot wait to get my mitts on it. More on this as it comes.

UPDATE: just did a keen post about Bioshock: Infinite's (intricately crafted) propaganda. Observe here. Also? I'd prefer to buy vigors that are "proven against hooligans". How this concept astounds.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Absolute Blackness (of Souls, Skin and Intent).

Joe. My. God.: Fischer: Herman Cain Is Authentically Black, President Obama Isn't

Well, two dizzyingly bigoted screeds from the man in the same day. And here I'd thought one couldn't stoop to levels of putridness this often consecutively. The man does like to outdo himself it would seem.

So here's the jist: Because the President of the United States is visiting Ireland (much to the pleasure of the Irish themselves, the fanfare is pretty endearing) and honors and respects the ancestry of his grandparents- who raised him, he's less convincing as "a black person". Fischer then goes on to trumpet the new GOP darling, who...apparently is somehow more black because he's allegedly of "purer" black parentage?

Interestingly enough, I'm willing to bet Fischer and his ilk categorize President Obama as black every other time it serves their purposes. To now go out of one's way to use the idea that he's "not black enough" to be authentic is...both galling, and a troubling line of thought that has permeated African-American culture for generations.

Thats the funny thing about "blackness" (tm). Its subjective. Blackness (much like jewishness or being hispanic) can be ethnic, racial,or some variation inbetween, as I can consider myself black, merely because my ancestry is denoted as such, or because I ascribe to various cultural norms associated with the group. People often associate norms of an ethnic group with the belonging to the racial status. I am black by proxy of having black ancestry. I'm also a suburban brat with a vocabulary on steroids, musical and literary tastes that verge on the grungy/indie rock and seldom conform to the more generic of the sub-cultural cliches we're told are valid if we're to act the part. People very annoyingly remark that I don't "act black" or "sound black"...and that I somehow need to convince them that I am. Its funny, whenever I'm in environments where the likes of Fisher feel comofrtable I'm always ACUTELY aware of how black I am, regardless of how I act or speak. One is punished/judged for belonging to the "deviant" outgroup of black WELL before performance of blackness even comes into play.

Brian Fischer is likely as disconnected about racial issues as he is about gender and sexuality, make no mistake, but what he's done here is beneath contempt. President Obama is the antithesis of everything Christian Conservatives stand for (regardless of them sharing a religious vantage- despite how loathe most conservatives are to admit this)and the rejection out of hand is seldom merely just about political divides. To conjure this argument that a white old conservative can be the arbiter of "blackness" is no different than it was in the antebellum south when the house and field slaves were routed into distinct classes, with one having more "privileges" than the other. In order to simplify the act of judging what place to put black folk in, the "One Drop Rule" became the rule of thumb for "determining" how strictly, how rigidly to stratify an individual under scrutiny. One drop of "black blood" (however this was measured in the early days of the 1900s)was enough to banish you to seperate-but-equalville. Many a fairer person of African-American ancestry have experienced the ethnicity v. racial complexity of blackness in the act of "passing" during more despicable periods of Southern history. The film "An Imitation of Life" deftly explores the concept; the marginalized tragic mulatto internalizes a world of contempt and comes to reject the family that cannot renegotiate their racial identities similarly. Under normal circumstances, white powerholding arbiters of racial hierarchy favored the "white makes right" ideology, currying incremental favors upon their biracial slaves while still holding them at arms length vis a vis the one drop rule.

On the other end of the spectrum, judging the authentically of blackness are those of the African-American community who would disdain members who don't neatly conform to the expectations established by other arbiters. To be deemed "not black enough" is to be judged unworthy of membership in the group because of a performance not up to snuff. The problem becomes being scorned by racists within the dominant culture, who will gladly write off black people merely for being racially "other", and being treated as suspect by the minority culture you belong to for not prescribing to cultural adherents. To be seen as insufficient by the group others are punishing you for being part of, ironically. A lifetime of otherness.

It reminds me of an experience I had in high school, where a pithy girl I once knew asked with a wry smile on her lips if I felt "any less black for living in the suburbs." The implications stung me and I found myself both saddened and angry. I thought on it a bit and turned to her and said "No, I still get called a N***** enough on the off chance I was to forget." And the truth of such ignorance is the sorrier thing. We are whatever race we've been parceled into by accident of birth and social prescription. The cultural and much of the behavioral are environmental factors, that when it comes to blackness we begrudge when people don't meet the standards (usually low) we expect of other black people. I act like a boy from the suburbs with overly cerebral parents, and I've never once forgotten myself. Why would I? Much like President Obama there are scores of people out in the world that are more than willing to remind us, should this come to pass.

the Big Bad Gay Nazi (and other baffling disconnects with reality)

Fischer: Gays "just like Nazis" : Dispatches from the Culture Wars

I don't have enough time to articulate how many ways I think Brian Fischer is a demagogic fool with a penchant for distorting "social science" to suit his rather flimsy case about "them evil homosexuals". What I CAN say about the man in the positive is that his dedication to fearmongering and dehumanizing gay people is unrelenting. If one could harness his outright venom in this regard and use it as a source of fuel we could power the world on it. And yes, monitoring his hate chatter is tedious merely because its so vast. It would seem he spends all day every day ranting about gays, conflating Muslims with terrorists and being the mouthpiece of the Christian right.

Also? Its fascinating how quickly he invokes Godwins Law. How Fischer speaks here, of the imminent threat of the Gays robbing fine Christians of their rights, and "doing what the Nazis did in Germany" is ironic and amusing in its own right; I wonder if he's aware of how highly regarded men perceived as gay in Nazi Germany were...

I think this is actually more telling when you think about the projection some on the linked site (the perpetually clever "Dispatches from the Culture Wars" blog) touch on. Fischer and people like him are feeling more and more marginalized by this sea change on the issue of homosexuality. The days where its acceptable to lobby bigotry from the comforts of one's pulpit without accountability are fading. This man tirelessly pushes far worse than homophobia (its not fear, its outright hatred) and for quite a while it was a platform that made him credible. Now it casts him in an increasingly negative light. Anyone who seeks to change the narrative, or forces him to veer from his hateful dogma is "persecuting, controlling or violating" his "freedoms". For the first time in perhaps his life he's being forced to justify his bigotry with more than a few scriptures and its simply not holding up. Its a win for equality, and his tantrums about his rights to discriminate based on religion being infringed upon are as fascinating as it is an act of desperation over the perceived loss of power.

Progressive States- Politics and President Obama.

I haven't had the opportunity to sift through this recent snafu regarding Prof. Cornell West (and buyers remorse as we could best put it), but its something I think we'll see resonate moving forward.

Professor Glade breaks down this scenario very well. It seems both about ego and about the buyers remorse a fair number among the progressives have experienced regarding the centrist "uniter" and not addressing the disenfranchised. I find the latter part of that too valid a critique to ignore outright. These rumblings I've seen firsthand among some of the more politically marginalized (gay liberals, black independents) from the infancy of President Obama's administration. The President seems to be making headway with the former, with the impending repeal of DADT, and the recent decision by the Department of Justice to cease its defense of the "Defense of Marriage Act". The latter? I'm not seeing much in the way of quantifiable improvement for...More on this later. Any thoughts, gentle readers?

Eddie Glaude on Cornel West and "The Obama Deception"

Sunday, May 22, 2011

This is Rapture. (Video Games and Objectivism)

The affairs of men: Politics in games- Destructoid

An interesting piece from Destructoid on the role of political movements in video games. I clicked the link hoping they'd cover the use of objectivist political ideology in Bioshock and happily was not disappointed.

The author criticisizes the fact that Rapture is, upon the player's arrival, a dystopia. Where all the lassies-faire capitalism and self interest ultimately led to the fall of one of the most prosperous utopias in "existence". Rapture fell because corporate greed and personal interest in genetic splicing without checks and regulations so changed the otherwise brilliant population of thinkers, enterpeneurs and artists that they morphed gradually into homicidal maniacs. All of this socio-political intrigue painted against a backdrop of an undersea metropolis comprised of lavish art-deco stylings and steampunk trappings and made for a truly troubling, effecting atmosphere in which to explore the game's world.

Whether or not the story so artfully told in Bioshock's narritive is meant to be a cautionary tale, its narrative is one that is unique for both a first person shooter (which are so dime a dozen with their gritted teeth and space marines its slipped well past cliche) and a modern console game in that it creates a game atmosphere so steeped in story and so lavishly detailed that it is difficult to disconnect from it and "just shoot stuff" the way one would a Halo game. Rapture is a crumbling, yet fascinating world I found myself wondering about even while anxiously exploring its nooks and crannies, peopled with a majority of mad citizens its difficult not to pity as they shout incoherent jibberish and try to take your life. Very few of the characters encountered are even remotely sane by the time you stumble upon Rapture, very little of the city salvageable. And so many of the more fascinating characters display their ability to navigate the moral ambiguity of the world they've come to for profit and prestige.

Brigid Tennenbaum is one of the more (rare/sane) morally centered characters in the game. Contrast with the idea as a child in WWII concentration camps, she was introduced to genetics/science and found her calling (even if it was at the expense of others in the camps). Tenenbaum found a profitiable procedure that could allow for genetic augmentation, which came at a cost. And Rapture's children were ultimltely turned into soulless scavengers in the pursiut of ADAM, the genetic fuel which drove such augmentation. Her guilt and revulsion over what her research had done to otherwise innocent girls drove Dr. Tenenbaum to redeem herself by liberating the girls of their condition. It is here where the player gets confronted with one of many moral delimmas in the game. Liberate the innocent at a cost, or profit and become powerful and end the girls lives. Depending on how one internalizes objectivism, the player can just as easily exploit and benefit the way the figurehead who created Rapture envisioned. Saving the Little Sisters earns you their gratitude and the occasional assistance, but the game is notably more difficult sans the additional ADAM not sparing the children affords.

It of course speaks to my touchy feely politics that I could never bring myself to harvest the Little Sisters and was hobbled (somewhat) by it. Bioshock is successful because it connects the player to this ethical delimma- profit or protect but at a horrible cost. It dances with the idea that one can be a powerful self made man, on the backs of or at the expense of others, and dovetails some of the more unfortunate implications of this philosophy.

Many would in reality break with the idea of profit if it meant literally ending the life of an innocent child, but in the altered states of video gaming its a murkier and easier thought exercise to navigate. One Bioshock crafts exceedingly well. Sure, the people of Rapture are deranged, and the once gleaming city beneath the sea has become a tarnished fantasy, a failed scheme that the entirety of their culture has had to pay for with their sanity and lives- but its an incredibly thought provoking and meaningful game. The likes of which we rarely see amid all the plasma grenade launching gratuity of roided out Space Marines.

Below is just about the most hauntingly somber scores I've ever heard in a game. I used to choke up whenever it played during my first play through. Aptly named "Empty Houses" after the gorgeous ruined homes the increasingly mad abandoned.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Mauve Alerts and Awkward Conversations.

SGM Seeks LTR in NYC: JT vs. Bigotry in Many Forms! | News & Columns About Gay & Bisexual Men, Best. Gay. Week. Ever |

This is a brilliant article by JT Riley about American culture and polite society dealing with casual bigotry. Its an article and issue eriely resonant with my life experiences in sleepy college towns in rural North Carolina. I feel like half of my adult life has been spent arguing with southern baptists and aging parents and people who "don't know any better" about "well, you know". And it makes me tired all the time. A conversation for another time, however.

Reiley's sparring with his mother's friend (about "the Jews", "the gays" etc) reminded me of the alarm and disapointment I experienced last week at my cousin's wedding. It was a very afro-carribian "jump the broom" affair, and I was rather pleased at having decided to make the 9.5 hour drive to North Carolina to do so on the account of everyone looking so lovely and everything being just so. It had begun to rain, so the ceremony was cut short and we'd all gathered, roughly a hundred handsomely dressed black folks, dodging the rain in a gorgeous building off the park for the reception.

It was then I got cornered by my uncle, who by all accounts was the eccentric mildly-sociopathic blowhard of the family (I suspect I'm growing into my generation's version). I'd always operated under the assumption that he was a bit of a radical in his day and ultimately meant well.We started talking about the President, whom he feels isn't black enough for his tastes. This I immediatley bristled to, because as I always say when the topic veers to the idea that someone's idea of "blackness" makes everyone else be measured by this arbitrary standard (a box to unpack another time). Then he started defending Kadafi as though he has every right to opress people and deny them self-governance simply because he was "a brown man". Then he started in on "the Jews". I felt paniced. Why hadn't anyone ever TOLD me my uncle was an anti-semite?! Most people just rolled their eyes and nodded and sparred with him lightly, and being on the better end of the mason dixion line for such a long while, I'd never had the luxury of discovering this awkward truth.I steered the conversation from defamation and pointed out problems I had with the nation of Isreal's policies and practices towards Palestine; a topic safer only by degrees, I'm aware. I was blindsided, amazed that I couldn't have seen something like this coming, and disappointed that one of the most socially minded people in my family could get it so utterly wrong. I vowed to continue the conversation, but my father shot me a withering glare that told me it was futile. People ought to warn others when they're about to be cornered by unwitting monsters. We need to tie bells, or have some sort of early warning system (mauve alerts, maybe) to inform us of how to properly engage with people who are so desolatingly disconnected from the important work of living in the now.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Defending "marriage" From Ruined Vantages

Meet the Many Divorced Politicians 'Protecting Marriage' By Banning Gays From Marrying | Gay Blog, Gay Friendly, Gay News

An incredibly smart article on Wisconsin's local GOP gang. As far as marital sanctity goes, this group doesn't seem to practice what it laboriously preaches. The sum up at the closing of the article? Succinct perfection. One really cannot make this stuff up.

Nice. So marriage is being “protected” in Minnesota by a deadbeat dad, a woman attempting to force people in abusive relationships to stay married to their abuser for life, and a man who seems to have at one point considered shooting a woman at Planned Parenthood.

I had thought that the "woman attempting to force people in abusive relationships" sounded familiar. In fact this incident was done by Rep. Goodwin, who in an attempt to inform her colleagues what institutional discrimination looked like, tried to legislate heterosexual divorce the same way. A clever, if futile exercise, sadly. One that shouldn't lump her with the villains of the piece whatsoever.

Injustice Leagues.

Nashville business leaders met secretly with religious right to plot demise of gay/trans rights law

A continuation of the excellent coverage I referenced at Americablog yesterday by John Aravosis regarding silent killing of anti-discrimination laws in Tennessee.

For the record, the list of cohorts in this Injustice League? :
FedEx, Nissan, AT&T, Comcast, DuPont, Pfizer, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Caterpillar, KPMG, Whirlpool, Embraer, Alcoa, and United HealthCare.

Whether or not this goes forward with success (and it rather looks like it will), the Christian Conservative set has slipped in another great monkey wrench into the work of equality. As though it seemed a heroic move to skulk through shadows... More on this as it comes.