The New York Times seems to have caught on to what I have been saying all along: that candidate Hillary Clinton has a Lisa Simpson problem.
For those of us who watch The Simpsons, this rings true almost instantaneously. Lisa is brilliant, she’s insightful, she is tireless, she is optimistic. She can be relied on to come up with the most sensible plan. She’s always done the reading, she’s always hunting for the extra credit. She transcends the term kiss-ass because her interests coincide with the teacher’s, and she couldn’t give a damn what the teacher thinks because she doesn’t have to. She knows she’s right. Lisa seeks progress, not out of a need for self-aggrandizement, but out of love. She is, truly, surrounded by idiots.
This is also what makes her irritating.
Lisa courts controversy on the Simpsons not because what she wants is wrong. The problem is that she makes everyone else feel worse about themselves. She swims through their malaise unaware, their desire to pull her down to earth, to knock her down a peg, buoyed only by her optimism and goodwill. Everyone usually knows she’s right, and it isn’t the point. Her idealism isn’t just inappropriate, it’s irrelevant.
What they need from her isn’t a plan, what they need is for her just be one of them, to stop acting so high-and-mighty. This is Springfield,for God’s sake. There’s no room for greatness. What you must do, to survive here, is accommodate yourself to mediocrity.
Is this starting to sound familiar?
Here’s a favorite quote (heavily paraphrased):
Principal Skinner: “Finally, Lisa falls from her high horse!”
Lisa Simpson: “But, if I change the plan this way, we can still do what I proposed!”
Skinner: “Aaaaand up she climbs.”
Feels reminiscent of Clinton being bombarded by a non-scandal, doesn’t it?
This is what Trump understands. So long as he can keep her boxed-in to the role of the class nerd, he has half a leg to stand on, or at least, some ready roles that the audience understands. As Krugman puts it at the top,
“I still don’t fully understand this hostility, which wasn’t ideological. Instead, it had the feel of the cool kids in high school jeering at the class nerd. Sexism was surely involved but may not have been central, since the same thing happened to Mr. Gore.”
I tend to agree. The sexism that turned against Hilary Clinton was absolutely unmistakeable. But the core of the problem that she was made to bear wasn’t that she was a woman, it was that she was a nerd: out of touch, clueless, trying too hard, uncool. (She was also, variously, an evil genius, corrupt, a shrew, a harpy, a neoliberal hawk, and so on, given the variety and wide scope of the insults, probably all too much to cram into this metaphor.)
Trump, meanwhile, is the classic bully. Seeing him play the role of Nelson Muntz was obvious, without too much embellishment.
The question really is, which Simpsons character was Bernie Sanders?
I’m a longtime Daredevil fan. I liked the comic: “Daredevil: The Man Without Fear” in the 80’s and 90’s. It had ninja action, the ‘blind radar’ shtick, acrobatics, a dark, urban severity. I wanted to love Netflix’s version of it. In the end, I just liked it. Tepidly. As in, “Yeah, pretty much, I guess.”
Where did they go wrong?
How to Know You’re Dealing with a Comic Hero
Comics are mythological, and they follow certain very old patterns. Here are some ways to know you are dealing with a comic archetype.
Any good hero has a costume that protects his identity. The mask, a necessary staple, allows the hero to be more than the individual, and helps to cement their particular iconic language. If there is some other symbol or logo on their costume that can give them iconic significance, the mask itself can be superseded or minimized, as in the case of Superman or Green Lantern. Color also does a lot of work here, and Daredevil, while the interlocking DD of his logo is red-on-red, the entire costume is (in the comics) a very full red color. From a brand standpoint, Daredevil ‘owns’ the color red in the Marvel universe, the way Facebook ‘owns’ blue on a web page. Single-color costumes are rare, and the DD costume is the rare exception.
Another detail that almost always fails the transition to from comics to cinema is the comic convention of white eyes. Masked superheroes are typically drawn with no visible pupils or irises, whereas in their cinematic versions, eyes are shown as, well, eyes, with the actors possibly face-painted beneath the mask to soften the gap between mask and face. In DD’s case, they used red glass. The Daredevil of the comics series had another interesting detail here, as the mask was a single piece of fabric that covered his eyes, because he is blind. It was never well-explained why his enemies never seemed to catch on.
In the Netflix series, Daredevil wore a black ninja-like costume for most of season 1. Officially, he had no costume until the very last episode. Clearly, the writers wanted to hook the audience by making the process of acquiring it a plot-point, and part of me believes they felt they needed to lay the trap and get the audience committed before showing them a costume that a less invested audience might find stupid-looking or silly, knowing poor costume choices have sunk plenty of franchises.
As a plot-point, it works. The costume looks great, and it answers a question that the series in constantly asking itself, i.e. “how can this guy take another beating?” The answer: lightweight body-armor. But that also means they spend 90% of the first season not establishing the foundations of the iconography and visual palette that a superhero series needs.
This is critical. The way the hero fights tells us everything about his personal style. Does he fight hand-to-hand? With a sword? A gun? A boomerang? A shield?
In Daredevil’s case, his weapon is his billy club. Concealed as a blind man’s cane, the billy club is a multipurpose weapon. Its foundation is a multi-part staff: two, sometimes three separate staves. It also doubles as nunchuks, can be rejoined as a single piece to make a staff, it’s wired to a climbing grapnel, and seems to have retractable cording of varying length. It’s strong enough to be used as a climbing tool and block bullets, but light enough to be thrown, ricochet off of walls, spin, bounce and block. A versatile weapon that is also instrumental in getting around town. So far so good.
Once again, the creators of Marvel’s Daredevil apparently thought this could be withheld until the last episodes of the second season. I get what they are trying to do, but I’m shocked they as TV people thought they had that kind of time. Aaron Sorkin has observed that a play is the hardest entertainment to abandon, and a TV show is the easiest. And yet this seems like a decision that could only ever be made on a show the creators were certain people would binge-watch. What are you saving the ammunition for?
Instead, we’re left with punch after punch after punch. Had Daredevil had this weapon to start, not only would we have been able to use the fighting style he’s known for, we would have been able to avoid a lot of the ‘bloody beatdown syndrome’ the show seemed to suffer from, and seen more of the way he is supposed to travel in the bargain.
Heroes travel in style. James Bond has his Aston Martin. Batman has the Batmobile. Spider-Man and Iron Man hit a double here by having their means of travel also double as an offensive weapon. On the topic of Spider-Man or Iron Man, their means of travel is also something they needed to master, and as their mastery is earned, becomes something the audience is allowed to share in the exhilaration of.
Daredevil’s means of travel is especially exhilarating, a mixture of aerialism and urban free running, in which he combines his cables and acrobatic maneuvers to make the cityscape into a personal obstacle course. He leaps from rooftops, vaults walls, flips from fire escapes, swings from water towers, and catches clotheslines and flagpoles. A typically dynamic Daredevil pose is one that puts him in an impossible, death-defying aerial maneuver, especially on the comic’s covers, which always raise the question, “how is he going to land that?”
Why was this not taken advantage of more frequently in the TV show? Obviously it is difficult to do, and some amount of special-effects will be needed. But this isn’t under-seasoned, it’s a total omission. With the exception of a car chase in which Matt Murdock follows a Triad car to a drug warehouse, there is essentially no acrobatics on the show whatsoever, except for the occasional Kung-Fu flip. This is a miss, and a huge part of what makes Daredevil, well, you know.
Any reason these guys couldn’t be put in a red suit for the occasional key stunt?
Daredevil never had the same clear essence as a lot of other properties. He’s often called Marvel’s Batman, so consider. Batman has already been done, and re-done. You’ll notice that each time Batman is re-imagined, a new aspect of flavor is drawn out. The original TV series was comedic, and had a rollicking, self-aware aspect with a ludicrous ‘rogues gallery’ of villains. The Keaton movies were self-serious, but ballooned, gothic, almost stagelike in their dark melodrama. The Schumacher versions were neon, toy circuses. The cartoons are timeless, intertwining classic cars and 30’s clothing with the elements of modern life, such as cell phones and the internet. The video games are high-tech, showcasing the slick weaponry and vehicles. The Nolan films are the most human-scaled, a moody introspection on a very troubled man named Bruce, who has this weird, obsessive thing that he does. Each incarnation takes a different vantage point, each makes a specific evolution with its times, and yet all of them are recognizably the same character.
Daredevil has a comic, a movie, and now a TV show, and only the comic has ever really managed to scrape the essence of something distinct and original, whereas the other media offer a photo carousel of snapshots we’ve seen before and better in other places.
For my money, the peak Daredevil era was the 70’s-80’s. Frank Miller gets a lot of credit for the Man Without Fear, but this was a rehash. I also have to absolutely point out the work done here by Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev’s, as well as Brubaker. If anything made him cinematic, ready for TV primetime, their work was it.
What is the flavor?
The Street. This is one area where he really has it down. Daredevil is Hell’s Kitchen the way Batman is Gotham. Hell’s Kitchen is fully realized, with its own history and backstory, supporting characters, bystanders. Ironically, it suffers perhaps from being too fully realized: since it corresponds to a real place, and that real place has essentially gentrified into history, the cables needed to suspend disbelief here show signs of strain.
Here’s a version that never was: Director Joe Carnahan’s pitch which places the story in 1973. Carnahan gave us a sizzle reel that encapsulates everything about the era that Daredevil was born into, and the flavor that he absorbed.
Seeing this really drives the point home that it’s possible that the character, at his best, symbolized a bygone New York that it’s just impossible to sell in a modern context, when Hell’s Kitchen is now called “Clinton” and the Manhattan of The Warriors, Super Fly and Death Wish is long, long gone.
The senses. Yes, Daredevil is blind. More importantly, however, all of his other senses are superior, and he has radar finely-grained enough to block arrows and bullets with his club. That means whenever we encounter a scene from his perspective, it should have a sound profile, a scent palette. It should be tactile and raise the skin. Is should happen, not bounded but peripheral vision and the direction of his head, but in a 360-degree, sonar-like totality, with no upside-down or right-side-up. He does not see the world in the way that we do, and this should present a director with constant opportunity for new creative executions.
This was, frankly, almost totally overlooked on the show. Aside from the occasions where the protagonist can hear off-camera antagonists, there’s a disappointing thinness to the sense-palette, which seems like an chance for any interested director to have a lot of fun. Whoops.
Ninjas. by ninjas I mean less oriental mysticism, which is really Iron Fist’s and Shiang-Chi’s territory, and more just what we can call ‘antagonists of phenomenal prowess.’ One of the most magical elements of Daredevil’s Hell’s Kitchen is that yes, there are secret Ninja societies like the Hand, but there are also vagrants with baseball bats who perform at a supernatural level (Wildboys), S&M Swordswomen (Typhoid Mary), Mafia assassins galore (Bullseye), government super-mercenaries (Bullet, Shotgun, Bushwhacker). These are the kind of fights that happen at hand-to-hand scale and are interdependent with his aerial skills. The crimes Daredevil solves are street crimes, not megavillains.
Sex. The Daredevil brand has always been more adult, compared to the infinitely-adolescent Spider-Man. The action on the rooftops of Hell’s Kitchen often gets hot, with love triangles and forbidden encounters and a near-infinite supply of Femme Fatales. Elektra, Black Widow, Typhoid Mary, Karen Page, Black Cat have all graced the rooftops of Hell’s Kitchen. Somehow, things never work out.
Sacrifice. Characters in Daredevil die. Sometimes they are broken before they die. Karen Page’s character in the comics undergoes one of the most Requiem for a Dream-like descents of any modern comics character, as the Kingpin has her strung out on drugs and performing in porn for drug money before she contracts AIDS and ultimately dies from an overdose. Matt Murdock suffers, and the people around him suffer, too. This was something the TV show didn’t shy away from, although they wisely kept Karen Page’s character in-play, as one of the lighter elements in an otherwise heavy show. Curiously, the Ben Urich character does not die in the comics, whereas in the Netflix show, he does.
Righteousness. Daredevil isn’t one of those heroes who suffers from too much introspection or crises-of-clarity. He sees a problem, he punches it. He will always do what he sees as “the right thing” even when it isn’t the heroic thing. He once pointed what he thought was a loaded gun at the Punisher and pulled the trigger. He became the King of the Hell’s Kitchen underworld in a misconceived attempt to reduce crime. He has a very, very well-developed sense of right and wrong, especially so long as what he intends to do is what he thinks is ‘right.’ So far as I know, Daredevil is the only hero who has had other heroes stage an intervention to tell him “you’re out of control, chill the hell out,” to which be basically told them to screw themselves. This isn’t a guy you want getting his hands on Sauron’s ring. He will (and has) turn NYC into Hell on Earth if he thinks it will reduce muggings. It is not a coincidence that Daredevil is loaded with Catholic iconography, and that the character Matt Murdock is himself Catholic. Self-doubt isn’t the issue, here.
As to these characteristics, With the exception of the sense palette, I tip my hat. The Netflix series actually really nailed the rest of the elements. However, they are out of balance. The resulting product is too dark.
The magic of Daredevil relies on the interplay between excitement and dread. Exhilaration– as expressed by weightlessness, aerialism, daring, unbounded physical restraint– against dread: the bureaucratic confinement of the legal system, the will of the powerful, the terrorizing, the Kingpins. That victory against all odds– even for the poorest, the underdogs from the wrong side of the tracks, the handicapped and underestimated– victory is possible if you have the heart, the will, and the fearlessness. The show delivers on its fair share of dread, but unfortunately, where the counterbalance of exhilaration is called for, they deliver mere violence instead. The result is, disappointingly, more weight. One of these ingredients is overpowering, and the other, the other seems to have been almost totally forgotten.
There’s plenty to thrill here, and accolades the fight scenes have received are well-deserved. But as to whether anyone has yet quite captured the essence of what this character was at his best, unfortunately that note still hasn’t been struck. There’s still season 3. I guess.
Recently this piece in The Guardian caught my attention. In it, Alan Moore, notable author of Watchmen, V for Vendetta, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and all-around high priest of counterculture and geekdom, is attributed the following incendiary quote on the state of the comic-movie supercomplex:
“To my mind, this embracing of what were unambiguously children’s characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence,” he wrote to Ó Méalóid. “It looks to me very much like a significant section of the public, having given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in, have instead reasoned that they might at least be able to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite ‘universes’ presented by DC or Marvel Comics. I would also observe that it is, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times.”
While I find Moore’s premise to border on melodramatic, there’s no denying he’s on to something. To any faithful observers of the genre, we need to know that we are approaching Peak Superhero, and fatigue should set in, perhaps sometime before this summer.
As of this writing, we have the following movies currently playing or approaching this summer:
Batman Vs. Superman (DC)
Captain America: Civil War (Marvel)
X-Men Apocalypse (Marvel)
Suicide Squad (DC)
While audiences will continue to fill seats, odds are some of these are just going to fail. Audiences loved Deadpool. It had fresh elements: it broke the fourth wall, showed irreverence to the studio properties, with loads of sly winks, Easter eggs, sex, violence and SFX and relentless action. It was notably given an R rating for this reason, and the director of Guardians of the Galaxy quickly followed up with a plea that the studio not try to copy its success, for predictable reasons:
“Over the next few months, if you pay attention to the trades, you’ll see Hollywood misunderstanding the lesson they should be learning with Deadpool,” Gunn wrote. “They’ll be green lighting films ‘like Deadpool’ — but, by that, they won’t mean ‘good and original’ but ‘a raunchy superhero film’ or ‘it breaks the fourth wall.’ They’ll treat you like you’re stupid, which is the one thing Deadpool didn’t do.”
Great. That said, let’s not pretend that Deadpool presented us with a anything resembling an answer to Moore’s challenge. Deadpool was light, it was fun. It was witty. No, it didn’t tell us anything about the Way We Live Now, like Watchmen or V For Vendetta, Moore’s best-known properties, did. Moore’s accusation stands. (UPDATE: All of these movies have now arrrived, with Suicide Squad opening this weekend. Its reviews are in, and surprise, it sucks.)
I loved comics well into my teens, and lapsed sometime around college. I rediscovered what was happening in the Marvel Universe on my iPad, and spend hundreds of dollars amassing collections to back-fill the gap. I’m what Marvel’s marketing plan calls a ‘lapsed reader,’ which is to say an adult, gainfully employed, who can be hooked via the Tablet experience with some preview titles, and pushed via clever marketing to re-enter the brick-and-mortar comic stores and make the purchases that keep the delicate symbiosis of the industry moving.
While many comics fulfill Moore’s label of being ‘adolescent entertainment,’ at least as many do aspire beyond. Image comics’ The Walking Dead was the last great comic series I’ve seen, mainly because it isn’t a comic series in the traditional sense, and fastidiously broke every rule those genres have to offer, killing each of its darlings in turn, and presenting us with the bleakest possible view of the present alongside the most hopeful possible backdrop. What could be worse than seeing your family killed by being eaten alive on one hand, or beaten to death on the other? What could be more hopeful than the task of rebuilding civilization?
This kind of recklessness-in-service of a message is what audiences reward in these peaceful times, and I submit that it is no coincidence that the other great success of this book-to-TV era is Game of Thrones, a series that follows, and breaks, the same rulebook. Credibility is gained in these pieces by a willingness to be so honest with the audience that anyone can die at any time. This is simultaneously exhilarating and contrived.
In the big-comics world, multi-issue storylines that cross titles are called ‘story arcs.’ The last great stroy arc I read to come out of Marvel was Civil War, a story arc that seemed to be a direct response to 9-11. It’s absolutely worth mentioning that Civil War went completely differently in the comics than in the films. In the comics, a detonation by a super-villain causes a mega-death event in Stamford, Connecticut, provoking a Superhuman Registration Act that uncannily follows the Patriot Act of the early 2000’s.
Civil War is now about 10 years old. They’ve done a lot of okay work since then, but that was one that seemed to really take a hard look inward, most especially on Thunderbolts, which took a dark turn unlike anything seen in the superhero comics since Watchmen, and likewise making a statement of intent by killing or maiming old heroes like Jack Flag. The Thunderbolts’ job is to enforce the Superhuman Registration Act, and they are all villains turned government agents, essentially Marvel’s answer to Suicide Squad. The hook is, of course, that they hunt heroes, some of whom they kill. It was a high watermark of invention and storytelling at Marvel, but I’m sorry to say I haven’t seen its like since it was written.
The point I’m making here is the cultural elitist in me wants to agree with Moore’s prediction, and I feel the palpable sense of exhaustion that the genre is starting to bleed from it’s pores. Can we really watch Batman’s parents be killed one more time, in one more way, the way we were treated to at the beginning of Batman vs. Superman? Is Avengers; Infinity War going to have something really new to show us? Spoiler Alert: No.
And yet, the genre has proven incredibly resilient. Part of this, in my estimation, is that they let the comics lead. Comics are published monthly, they are cheap, and the decisions made in them are remarkably impermanent. Superman has been killed, only to return as all heroes do, with new costumes and new powers. Batman has been maimed. There are something like six different Spider-Men running around. The comics can take extraordinary risks that, if they don’t pay off, have lower commercial consequences than a failed summer movie. Moore himself once observed that he had never learned to write rough drafts, the punishing pace of the industry simply didn’t leave time for it.
The comics have a barometer for the risks the studios are willing to take, and are now written with that expressly in mind: the costs to get on the board publishing a comic are well worth it, when you can tell a studio acquisitions head that you have an audience of 50,000 loyal subscribers who have already validated “Squirrel Girl” in the marketplace. A Squirrel Girl movie is under discussion, by the way. Squirrel Girl.
These gambles pay off, and, alongside the fact that comic writers are some of the most liberal-minded people in America, they have been notably present at the forefront of society’s hard conversations, tackling issues that are right on time. It was Green Lantern and Green Arrow that were first in the industry to talk about the shame of heroin addiction, X-Men tackled Civil Rights head-on, presenting us with the Martin figure in Professor X and the Malcolm X, in Magneto. Alpha Flight had the first out Gay character, the X-Men had the first gay wedding. And now they are dead-center in the culture wars again. Lady Ghostbusters? Nonsense, here’s Lady Thor. The role of Ms. Marvel is now held by a Muslim teenager, Kemala Khan. Iron Man is passing the reins to a female, black MIT student. These changes are obvious, they are appropriate, and they reflect the changes of Marvel’s diversifying audience. But let’s not kid ourselves that they aren’t risky. Every one of these moves easily deserved its own tense editorial staff meeting, and every one has generated its own tweetstorm of recrimination from the not-so-remote corners of the internet. And every one of them could be course-corrected in a month, if they didn’t work out. The risk is simply lessened. Yes, the comics are the creative engine, but they are also now an incubator for film, TV, and toys. The business has reshaped itself completely to be cinema’s farm team, the NCAA to 3-D Digital Surround IMAX’s NBA. Some would say that’s where the most vital games are, have always been, played.
As a consequence we have seen spacemen, raccoons, squirrels, talking trees, diverse representation, an embrace of digital, a globalist perspective and an ongoing grapple with ascendant militarism, paranoia, and post-911 anxiety.
Is this not “a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times?”
I wrote a blogging application sometime around 2004 or 2005. Prior to launching it on our Social Media site, my boss at the time asked me, what should we call this? A lot of people are calling these ‘Weblogs’ or ‘Blogs.’
Now, this term was perfectly well-known at the time, if not in fully common usage. There were popular blogs that were clearly ‘weblogs’. I was a dedicated reader of Suck.com. The term, however, was still somewhat ill-defined– if enthusiastically received by early-adopting-marketing types who were all too eager to be on the ground floor of finally making ‘fetch’ happen.
“That’s ridiculous. I call these Journals. Get it? Because they are like a Journal.”
“I don’t think so. Journals sounds dull. Blogs is gaining steam. I think you might be wrong about this.”
“It sounds like desperate internet marketing. Journals is what they are. Not diaries, not Blogs. Journals.”
(To his credit, we went with Blogs.)
So: another example of my being on the wrong side of history, yet again.
Given the recent Trump phenomenon, the political-correctness backlash, and the counter-charge that liberals routinely and unfairly deploy the accusation that conservatives are racist, I wanted to take minute to grapple with this one, and make a few prescriptions from a rhetorical perspective.
Short answer: no, conservatives are not intrinsically racist. And less and less. There is a new generation of ‘lite’ conservatives that will have a significant market position if they can successfully inhabit an racially/ethnically/LGBT* inclusive platform, while keeping other traditional republican positions. If successful, this group will also pull center-right democrats from the herd. This will be a space to watch.
But there’s still a divergence here that’s easy to spot. Let’s start with, “what do liberals and conservatives mean when they talk about someone being racist?” Because there appears to be a nontrivial difference.
Many liberals, and most anyone who attained a liberal arts degree after 1995, have a pretty good vocabulary to talk about the particular permutations of American racism. They might know about Jim Crow laws, the history leading to the 60’s, they may have some background about the Civil Rights movement, Brown v. Board of Education, know the forms of housing discrimination, banking discrimination, redlining, predatory mortgages, and can talk with some base fluency about structural racism, or know what is meant by ‘white privilege.‘ There is exhaustive scholarship on this, and to deny it in this day and age is to row against history. The classic, magazine-compact summary of a perfect storm of these factors is still Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article about Chicago housing: The Case for Reparations .
So liberals educated in the discipline have a vocabulary they can deploy to describe racial events in a scholarly way, much like philosopher can point to something and say, oh, that’s empirical, that’s phenomenological, we can say, oh, that’s redlining. Or, that’s discriminatory. We can identify these events in-the-world. There is a discipline that describes them. While there are some conservatives really up-to-date on this stuff, these ideas are so left-centric that knowing them or having them is almost enough to make you a liberal, though I wish this weren’t true.
The conservative vocabulary for forms of racism isn’t as nuanced. Conservatives rarely acknowledge the structural elements at play in what is called Institutional Racism. It’s quite possible to benefit from a racist society, and have no idea that it is working to your benefit, indeed, and critically, if it’s working properly you aren’t supposed to. Many liberals believe this to be the case, and many conservatives do not, and this is a main point of divergence. Either you believe white privilege (for example) is something that happens, or you don’t.
By contrast, the conservative storyline takes hard work, grit and most importantly, personal responsibility as the elements that carry the day. Outside factors, like those listed above, are disadvantages (if you acknowledge they exist, many conservatives don’t), but hey, everyone has disadvantages, even if they aren’t applied equally. It is the process of your story to apply discipline and perseverance to surmounting these obstacles. Then you’ll be, oh, paid what you’re worth, a Self Made Man, a Maker Not a Taker, and so on.
So if, according to the conservative storyline, the only events that befall us are those that arise from our choices, the only real way to be a racist is to be a cognitively committed racist, which you might even state openly, whereas to the liberal mind, it’s possible to be acting in a racist way simply by being insufficiently self-aware of one’s role in a racist system at any given moment.
This means for liberals, you might not think of yourself as a Klansman, but can take a racist step, and be acting in a racist way that– to your own misfortune– you did not even intend.
To the conservative, that doesn’t happen. If you are racist, it took a certain level of cognitive intention to get there. Somebody telling you that you have done a racist thing is typically a case of someone just being too sensitive, too ‘politically correct.’ I am not committed to the idea of inequality of the races. I am not a Klansman, ergo, I am not racist. Indeed, I believe in justice and fairness. I judge people individually.
(Now is a good moment to say not all liberals or conservatives think this way. I’m not painting with too broad a brush, but this is definitely a fat magic-marker. There are some, albeit few, conservatives who are deeply concerned and up-to-date with racial justice discussions, and plenty of otherwise liberal racists, to say nothing of liberal overcompensators who see the actions of structural racism at play in their cup of coffee. Not the point I’m making.)
The good news for the liberal method is that one is not cornered, and can usually revise their behavior if they so choose. This may involve momentary humility, but otherwise not too much ego-driven dissonance. Phrases like “check your privilege,” while deeply irritating, are a nod to the kind of quick reassessment that is possible in the liberal view. Liberals rarely think of themselves as racists, but feel attuned to its latency, and when they are, they feel pleased to think that they are at least capable of changing. Racism isn’t a terminal point, it’s a process that we need to be alert to, an ongoing negotiation with our psyche. We were all fed the same bad programming, and we have the tools to evaluate it. Indeed, sometimes no change will be necessary. The bad news for liberals is that this also means they toss around a word with an academic meaning in a way that devalues its social meaning, which is akin to an insult. Sometimes, confrontation is needed. Politics, however, is a science of persuasion.
The conservative method breaks but does not bend. Because racism is perceived as a commitment to an idea that they don’t feel they hold– you can’t accidentally wander into it. Accordingly, as a logical matter, it’s quite difficult for a conservative to ‘be’ racist, they can only be ‘a’ racist. That is, if I say I’m not, that would have to be the end of the discussion. My intentions, my responsibilities, aren’t accidental.
No wonder that the liberal accusations of republican racism don’t land, because they make conservatives feel cornered and unfairly tarred, and thus call the whole observation into question. It pushes too hard, if only because liberals don’t know how hard they are pushing. That flexibility is part of the worldview liberals think is shared. It’s not.
The Trump phenomenon also draws from this well. People can only feel cornered so many times before they are compelled to back to the corner and hold the position. To have the target of the critique come to identify with the critique out of exhaustion or confusion is exactly the last outcome anyone should want.
Conservatives now take the idea that they may be engaging in racist demagoguery, for example, unseriously and wear the criticism as a badge of pride. They call this ‘not being politically correct.’ It’s a clean way for them to defang the critique without having to change, and it does the job. The message is extremely successful. You don’t need to change to meet the world, it promises. This was done to you. You haven’t done anything wrong, have you? (No!) Well, OK then.
Liberals will have a part to play, here, not because we’re wrong, but because we want to be effective and get the message through, and the message isn’t about Trump the man or the next demagogue to come along. The message is what qualifies as acceptable and unacceptable behavior, and reaffirming what our values are. Standing for something is what gets people activated, not knocking down a target (although that’s hand-in-hand).
We are trying to persuade, not accuse. So our strategy has to be to use language that is procedural, process-oriented, changeable, and focused on our ability to identify him by his deeds, not our ability to read his heart. Being critical of deeds triggers less ego defense, besides which, being a racist isn’t a permanent condition and should have as many exits as possible. This flexibility is the enduring advantage of a liberal mentality. If you’re not right, get right.
The final point here is that confronting the man-as-message instead of the content of the message leaves the field open for the next person to come along with the same message, repackaged and calling the last instance an unexpected aberration. Neither Ted Cruz’s stance on immigration nor Marco Rubio’s are an improvement, in case you haven’t been paying attention.
Trump the man isn’t the problem. American animus, and the way he plays it, is the problem.
So: Trump isn’t “an” Islamophobe. Trump “takes an Islamophobic step” by suggesting policy proposals that assume all Muslims share the same intentions toward the United States based on the actions of a few and collectively punishing them all.
Trump isn’t “a” racist for suggesting that most of the Latinos coming across the border are murderers and rapists. He “makes a racist argument” by doing this. None of us know what Trump thinks, indeed some of us suspect him to be a cynical manipulator who could care less about Latinos one way or the other. But we sure as hell know what he’s saying, and we aren’t having it.
Were I younger, a hardliner, I’d find this an insufficiently muscular approach to confronting a reckless proponent of dangerous ideas. I’ve come to see this as an error of perspective. This isn’t a military engagement and victories are not won in an instant. This is democratic persuasion, which almost never happens in real-time, but gradually. We need the tent to be big and our ideas clear, so we can draw some of his supporters back to the light, or, at least, out of the abyss. We don’t need to be the best at insulting our opponents, or shoving them out. We need Trump to lose, yes. More to the point: what we need, is to win.
Her eyes narrowed like a cat’s. “You won’t be removed. I have it on good authority they find you too valuable to take out of the game entirely. But you will be reallocated, probably to site-manage an emerging markets facility. Bangalore. Tbilisi. Timor.”
“I suppose that should come as a relief.”
“I know things about this rebellion, Mark. It’s out of your hands. It’s over your head. I also know that Ava won’t consider the possibility of not going when they punt you. She’ll follow you there, or anywhere. I picked a good one for you. But read the signs. Obviously you were set up. You were beaten. Cut your losses and go home.”
“Where are you going with this, Katie.”
“I’m telling you you don’t get the girl this time. Leave her behind. When she offers to pack up and follow you, you aren’t going to let her. You’re going to leave her here and I promise I’ll find someone else for her. Another shooting star.”
So, that was it: she was hedging her bets. Ava still might be worth something to her.
I’ve published my classic story, “A Company Man”, on Amazon today. This is for Kindle users and is a scant 22 pages (plus/minus). Priced for a buck and a half, it’s easy to read, cheap to buy.
Another week, another shooting, another month, another mass shooting, another quarter, another particularly startling mass shooting. I’m actually writing this at the end of a week where we managed TWO mass shootings. [Edit: actually, there was another one the day I published this.
So, let’s take an updated look at some spurious claims:
Gun-Free Zones Endanger Civilians
Gun free zones aren’t intended to provide a force-field against rage shooters. Where they are most effective is when they protect the rest of us from legal gun owners that lack common sense, safety precautions, and decency, like open-carry groups at Target. There are simply enough examples to show that loaded guns in public are unsafe, whether you are shooting yourself in gun safety class, shooting yourself in the movies, or the gun accidentally goes off. It’s just a boneheaded thing to be doing.
Gun-Free Zones also mean the public doesn’t need to be qualified to do on-the-spot security assessments if we or professional Law-Enforcement Officers (LEOs) see someone open carrying in the mall. We can all safely know to run away and call the cops.
Other famous no-weapon zones: Dodge City, Tombstone, Deadwood, Ancient Athens, ancient Rome. In Athens, the belief was that it was disrespectful to the democratic project to open carry in the city area, and that the intimidation created by open-carrying “inherently undermined civic equality.” Frankly, this seems both obviously true and obviously why most people open-carry: to confer an unearned advantage in any conflict. Imperial Rome allowed citizens to own weaponry in the suburbs and rural areas, but they were forbidden inside of the urban center. It’s also worth pointing out that these weapons had very little chance of being mishandled in a way that injured someone nearby. A gladius doesn’t just ‘go off’, stabbing bystanders accidentally. Further, a stabbing rampage is both a) identified and moved away from and b) dispatched quickly by any equally- or partially-armed group of larger size. We see again and again that stabbers have limited body count because people run away. In the most deadly cases the victims are confined or children. A mass-stabbing is actually pretty difficult to pull off, unless you’re in an elevator.
Regulations Don’t Deter Criminals (e.g. Chicago)
Chicago has that many shootings despite stern gun regulations because as we now know, most of the guns are purchased outside of Chicago. The regulations are working and pushing that illegal commerce to the margins.
The unfortunate truism here is that the security fence is as strong as its weakest link. Given this context, if you absolutely must purchase your gun in Chicago, this will have nontrivial cost implications on the black market (if you can find it, which may be more difficult for a maladjusted 16-year old wannabe-school shooter to do).
I don’t think this makes Chicago’s laws useless, but it does imply that they would work best if everyone else had them. This brings us to an important bias we need to correct for in this discussion: we don’t need everyone to do it to see an improvement.
A common tactic on the pro-gun side is to point out weaknesses in any gun law in order to demonstrate them as totally ineffective, needlessly restricting legal gun owners’ rights. But they don’t need to be totally effective: we aren’t trying to cheat death or stop all crime, any more than vehicle safety regulations ended all vehicle accidents. Nonetheless, thousands of lives were saved by these regulations.
This brings me to my last point on this issue. We need to stop underestimating the effect of small, incremental and meaningful changes. If you believe in broken windows policing, lean startup methodology, or ‘Moneyball,’ you already know that small meaningful improvements aren’t part of the game– they’re the whole thing. We now have research to back this up, as far as crime is concerned. So sayethThe New Yorker:
“the central insight of the modern study of criminal violence is that all crime—even the horrific violent crimes of assault and rape—is at some level opportunistic. Building a low annoying wall against them is almost as effective as building a high impenetrable one.”
Committed actors will always find a way. But the spur-of-the-moment shooting can become (almost) a thing of the past.
Gun Controls Are Spurious Over-Regulation (or, the cars-and-pools-are-more-dangerous and spoons-make-you-fat-so-why-bother Defense)
If a poorly handled spoon could explode, making someone else fat, you better believe society would and should make you eat your soup with a straw. I’m beginning to feel debased by having to respond to such nonsensical fallacies, but someone always wants to make them. Let’s please not talk about cars or swimming pools after this, but one last time:
Most gun control activists would be delighted with an outcome on firearms comparable to that of cars. Imagine what fantastic data we would have on our firearms if, like cars:
1. We had to register each weapon and re-register it annually, whether we intended to fire it or not.
2. We had to subject any weapon to yearly inspection to verify its suitability for use, and it was a misdemeanor to otherwise operate it.
3. We needed liability insurance for each weapon.
4. We needed to take a course and be licensed by a specialist instructor before firing a weapon.
5. We had a state registry of every extant weapon, and each carried three to five distinct ID marks, with two known only to manufacturers and law enforcement, and a set of easy procedures for interstate identification
6. Improper storage or display could get you a ticket.
7. Sale or transfer of a weapon involved an exchange of title.
8. We kept our weapons stored and locked.
9. There were additional taxes on bullets.
While many firearm libertarians will no doubt see any regulation as an unjustifiable intrusion, I actually see this as a missed opportunity for the gun industry, even though many of these apply in certain states already. If the car market is any indicator, there are tremendous business possibilities baked into the system here, in the regulations, the market and aftermarket, and more opportunities for customer touch-points. You can only lead a horse to water, I guess.
So, yeah– the car comparison is apt– and my side would be happy if it applied. It doesn’t.
What seems less obvious is that pools are statistically only dangerous to their owners and their families. If you could bring a pool to the mall, or sneak it into the movies in your jacket, we’d be having a very different conversation about externalizing risk. A pool also can be secured many simple ways that dramatically reduce the exposure to danger. It IS dangerous. But it’s statistically dangerous to you, the owner.
Finally, as Adam Gopnik points out, at this moment in history the proverbial pool of gun violence is overflowing with the bodies of neighborhood kids. Sometimes having a pool is nice, but with this many dead kids floating in it, we’d have to be monstrous not to have it filled.
Spoons Make You Fat
The pro-gun movement often advances the argument that guns, as inanimate objects, don’t cause mayhem any more than spoons make you fat. This appears to be an attempt to create a reducto ad absurdiam, I hope.
It’s just a stupid thing to say, and you are stupid for saying it.
Guns Don’t Kill, People Do (and Mental Illness is the Culprit)
Actually, people mainly just injure, unless there’s a gun in the picture. It’s really hard to reliably kill someone without a gun in the same amount of time as you can do with a gun. They’ll always find a way to do it, it’s just that guns remain the BEST way. Or as David Frum put it: “Every mass shooter has his own hateful motive. They all use the same tool.”
Mental illness is indeed a culprit. Also, sometimes carelessness, temporary depression, poor judgment due to alcohol and drugs and just generally being the kind of dipshit that points a loaded weapon at someone is the culprit. Crazy happens. Stupid also happens– ask how many people in prison are there for something they did while drunk or high (spoiler: most).
There is no reason that a solution that addresses mental illness can’t work alongside a solution that reduces access to weapons in the first place, and that kind of cross-disciplinary solution is the only approach that is going to work with an issue of this complexity. That said, too often in this debate, mental illness is brought out as a tactic to distract from the core issue.
Here’s a statistic we never talk about because we can’t talk about it: the amount of killing/suicide that was averted because the household didn’t own guns. This seems impossible to reliably prove, and yet our intuitions can readily extrapolate that given how many guns deaths we already have given x gun supply in y houses, how much of a spike are we looking at, given a gun in all houses? Certain countries (e.g. Switzerland) endure this already, and have extremely strong controls around the legal usage and transport of the gun. The ammunition supply is audited. The gun is kept locked in storage. The weapon is envisioned for use in defense of the nation, not to protect the household. This is a non-trivial distinction and constrains the likelihood of accidents.
Growing up, I knew kids whose parents had guns. Every one of them thought of themselves as responsible gun owners (one who I will not name was an executive in the NRA). And every time, EVERY TIME, that gun eventually came out, and about half the time, was fired, usually behind the parents’ back. So, I’m not surprised we see this kind of shooting. I’m surprised we see it so little. (Incidentally, the NRA kid actually defended his house from a home invasion. That ended with him cutting the robber, who was probably looking for a TV but would have found the mother lode of guns, quite badly with a samurai sword. The man of course, was trying desperately to escape when he was cut, so my friend didn’t need the gun in two different ways).
Having spent more that 15 minutes on the internet, you’ve been danger-close to stupid opinions. We’ve all had the uncanny experience of watching a close friend, whose experiences and judgment we thought we respected, say something flabbergasting or outright boneheaded publicly on social media, and felt the disorientation and reevaluation that follows that.
Sometimes this can feel like an outright betrayal. At others, it’s just embarassing, but still draws a line in the sand. Recently I had to block an acquaintance whose preoccupation with contrails was so distressing that I was unable to manage the shame I felt not calling him out on it. I don’t have any explicitly racist friends (as an example) that I’m aware of, but I’d probably have to block them too, it would just be too exhausting– I can’t keep fighting the last war. We all have to draw our lines, have our unique thresholds of disgust. That inverse feeling, the surprise discovery of like-minded travelers and new so-called friends is the upside of this devil’s bargain. You’re gonna get both.
At bottom, I consider myself, if not a progressive, someone who comes from the left, but with a flexibility and openness to all points of view. Sure, I find liberalism challenging in many regards (and especially at this moment in history), but the current state of tea party-dominated conservatism is just an abyss, and unworthy of intellectual energy or attention. That said, I prefer to talk to classic conservatives on a host of ideas, because it’s reliably stimulating to have your ideas worked on, and to understand the rationales of opposing points of view, especially now as we are increasingly insulated from points of view we find challenging or distasteful. A principled opposition is almost always interesting. Conversations with people I agree with, by contrast, tend to end in head-nods, and on to the next thing.
So a game I like to play in the spirit of testing my ideas is a game called “what would I have to believe?” This is basically a role-playing exercise where I need to migrate my opinion to a place where I discover what would need to change for me to hold an opposite opinion. I’m so very sorry to say, I know far, far too many people who apparently never play this game. It’s really simple, and works like this:
Encounter an idea you find challenging or intriguing, or are opposed to at a gut-reaction level. It’s especially interesting if you find it mildly threatening.
Construct your own opposition. What’s the basis of your objection? What legs do you have to stand on? What’s your gut reaction? “That’s racist.” Et cetera. Warm up in your typical, shoot from the hip reaction.
Assuming you understand the opposing argument, do the reverse. What would it take for you to believe the opposite argument were true? What scaffolding would need to be erected? What assumptions would need to hold? This is best expressed as an act of either addition or subtraction: what propositions might you need to believe that you don’t believe now, or conversely, what beliefs that you hold now would have to be jettisoned to hold the proposition? Ideally, this should be done with the least number of ‘moves’.
(Remember, you are not yourself here, and so you have no recourse to your personal history or ego. Just, ‘what would you have to believe’ for the argument you dislike to work for you? What transformation is needed?)
Now the hard part: Without any change in your core values, could you be migrated to the opposing position?
Basically, this is what the reactionaries of the left and right would call “flirting with” bad ideas, which I don’t accept. I don’t actually want to flirt with them, I want to make out with them, with tongue, and then be free to choose my mind a few minutes later and try another idea. We are talking about real intellectual promiscuity, here.
Transformation is the key. Because the good part is, you aren’t obligated to accept your new explanation. But it does open up a moment of compassion where insights are gleaned. And frankly, it will help you to understand the foundations of your own objection. This ability seems increasingly rare.
This roleplay is a variant on what Daniel Dennet calls an “intuition pump”, a mental lever that allows you to grasp at bigger ideas. An example would be the concept of “percentage,” incredibly useful, and, speaking as the parent of a seven year old, actually conceptually difficult to grasp. But once you’ve got it, you can move quantities.
So, let’s play: As an example, Marriage equality.
My opposition is this. Generally speaking, I’m for it, or am indifferent enough to it that I find the idea of preventing anyone from having a marriage to be cruel and immoral. This comes from my sense of justice, of public law and of personal experience.
Additionally, my opposition is based on the fact that I know enough gay people to believe that the idea of choice in their sexuality wasn’t an option for all of them. Meaning, if someone is just born that way, withholding their access to happiness is immoral.
However, I’d probably still feel that way if I knew very few gay people. My basic stance would be “why prevent what brings someone joy and is basically without cost to deliver?”
Conversely, role-playing the opposite becomes “why allow it?”
What would I need to believe? Were I a religious person and believed the permission for marriage came down from divine authority, I could see the loss-aversion that would be raised by letting just ‘anyone’ have access to this sacrament of marriage, although in that case atheists would probably also need to get so-called ‘civil unions’. Letting people who lived in clear opposition to Church doctrine have it would indeed be galling– although atheists having it would probably be worse, so as a side-note, I’d probably be opposed to atheist marriage as well but feel that horse was well out of the barn.
This is, at base, the same argument for why a Priest may not perform the marriage of someone outside their own religion.
In that world, I would feel the dilution of my traditions to be something akin to a very slow emergency, and indeed, marriage equality, or gay marriage wouldn’t be the worst of it, but possibly the most symbolic of that slide, at this moment in history. So, there’s the first pillar: I would probably need to be religious. I don’t know any other basis for opposition that comes quite so well pre-packaged.
There seems to be a lot of latent loss-aversion baked into this, so that’s another pillar. I’d need to feel not that someone was gaining something, which I don’t think I’d care about, but that my team was losing something. My team, in this case, being the custodians of a fragile moral code being trampled on by the excesses of the day. What are we losing? The definition of something that matters. I’d have to see marriage as something sacred by definition, that not just anyone can have.
Finally, I mentioned earlier that I thought in many cases being Gay is not a choice like putting on pants, but an orientation. If I thought it was a choice, would that matter? Probably not too much by itself, but coupled with these other two notions, it does produce a position that I can see people defending, i.e. given that you can choose not to live this so-called lifestyle, why don’t you choose not to live that way when you know the prerequisites of your religion?
A few ideas are emerging, here. A big one is, it’s apparently pretty hard to hold these kind of beliefs without the underlying support of some kind of religious doctrine. Definitely possible, but religion is providing my most powerful (and predictable) lever. I only feel the loss aversion if I feel this ritual or sacrament ‘belongs’ to my tradition. This seems significant. It’s frankly hard to get worked-up over otherwise. I could say “it’s gross”, or “it was always done this way,” but it doesn’t seem like there’s much in the way of strong comeback to the assertion “well, we’re doing it this new way from now on.” (It’s probably worth re-stating these are beliefs I don’t actually hold– that’s the point– but I can imagine someone holding them). Another example: I have been told in certain countries like Russia and parts of Africa there is no distinction in common usage between ‘pedophile’ and ‘homosexual’. This would also be a powerful lever to make someone against something, but this brings me to an exception: this is a total factual misapprehension. The purpose here is to try to find entrance points into contrary arguments, not take on others’ factual inaccuracies, so while I understand how that would work to make me against the topic, it also ends the game right away– sure, I would be against this, if I were wrong and closed to correction. Where would that end? Again, it’s a lot more interesting based on principles as opposed to simple misunderstandings.
It seems the lesson here is not that Gay marriage is wrong, but certain religious beliefs carry some extra baggage that emerges in unexpected places. I could just drop them, or, drop the less useful parts. On the other hand, making an argument to a religious person that does not address these misgivings would be to miss what they see as the point. Another important lesson.
That’s the game. If it feels Socratic, that’s because it basically is.
Radical compassion is possible, even in the face of ideas that you are hostile to. But one must remain open to change. I prefer to deliberately seek out ideas opposed to my own because, as the saying goes, “steel sharpens steel.” We are now in the 21st century. Good ideas, and bad ones, can come from anywhere. We have no license to be intellectually lazy, or to not pay attention. We are bombarded by information everyday. Choose wisely.