Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Coronations and Conventional Wisdom

The New Yorker magazine ran the cartoon above in January 2012. They meant it at a joke, of course—why, the very idea that, four years in advance, the election was already decided! Ha ha, who’d believe that? Except that, in the tone of the media then prevalent, many people apparently did believe that. Following the Romney implosion, the GOP had no clear vision, and its leadership had taken a powder during a key campaign.

Fast forward three years. When Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in the summer of 2015, only one day after formally joining the party, I admit I cheered. Hillary Clinton’s nomination, if not her election, had been a foregone conclusion so long, she’d visibly begun hibernating until the general election campaign. I liked Bernie simply because he forced a legitimate primary.

(Also I dislike the idea of political dynasties in democratic societies. Or do you think having Kennedy and Bush families hanging around for generations has helped the body politic?)

So when the Bernie Bros attempted to disrupt the Democratic National Convention this week, in manners ranging from coordinated shouting to simple street theatre, I wasn’t altogether disappointed. It means people cared enough about a cause, embodied in a personality, to put their names and party standing in jeopardy. It means people perceived the future of American democracy as something that mattered. Isn’t that good?

Not to hear some people tell it. The complaints from party loyalists and longtime Clinton supporters, have implied that taking a stand for Bernie is tantamount to voting for Mussolini. Especially after this week’s revelation that party leadership attempted to pre-pick the winner without consulting the base membership (and oh, look), the simple willingness to make some noise in defense of a principle has become, in Sarah Silverman’s words, “ridiculous.”

Interestingly, the people most eagerly willing to condemn the Bernie Bros for their disruption are, if my Facebook feed is typical, the same people who thought the loud disruptions from “Anybody But Trump” agitators were downright heroic. Whether the people willing to go down fighting are martyrs or villains apparently depends on who’s doing the asking. But in both cases, I see people who care enough about the outcomes to risk failure.

It’s easy to forget that political conventions weren’t always coronations for pre-selected candidates. A political convention hasn’t gone to a second ballot for its presidential nominee, or had its pre-written platform voted down, in three generations. Therefore, we’ve grown accustomed to lukewarm displays of balloon drops, smiling candidates with their spouses, and bland heartland rock from loudspeakers. It’s become a sleepwalk.

But what happens at political conventions used to matter. The famous “smoke-filled rooms,” secret log-rolling sessions, and under-the-table agreements that made national figures out of men like William Jennings Bryant and Alf Landon, happened because people believed conventions mattered. Debates happened; sometimes they descended into fistfights. And people fought because serious people believed serious causes.

In 1904, when the immensely popular Teddy Roosevelt’s re-nomination was such a foregone conclusion that the Republican National Convention risked running a day short, the party considered this an embarrassment. They needed that extra day, not to feed the 24-hour news cycle, but to create momentum for the actual election debates. Historian Michael Wolraich writes that party leaders manufactured a fake crisis, over the status of newly-conquered Hawaii, to keep the convention going.

Nowadays, when there’s a legitimate crisis at a convention, say over whether the Democrat really represents the party, or whether the Republican is a full-on narcissistic whackadoodle, we consider the protests unseemly. We want the scripted pablum, the room-temperature gruel of a coronation. We want the same pageantry in selecting our candidates that Britain put into Prince Charles’ first wedding, and for largely the same reason.

But at what cost? Though a hotly contested presidential contest gets decent turnouts, we already know getting voters into booths is difficult. Though a narrow majority of eligible Americans really do vote, a powerful plurality have opted out of our democratic processes. And poll after poll returns the same result when we ask non-voters why they stay home: because they think it doesn’t matter. Because outcomes vary little with personalities.

The booing during ritual nonsectarian prayer in Philadelphia this week is certainly unseemly. But it signals that true believers think this election matters. It tells Americans that consequences go beyond mindlessly pulling a lever. And while I’d prefer party loyalists honor the vote, I nevertheless cannot help thinking: thank God they care enough to make some noise.

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Power and the Glory, Forever

Julie J. Ingersoll, Building God's Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction

Christian Reconstruction doesn’t believe the Rapture is nigh. They don’t expect to escape Earth next Thursday; they plan to live among us for generations, centuries, or longer. More important, they have concrete plans to rebuild America’s core values according to Christian Gospel and Levitical law. Even most non-seminarian Christians haven’t heard of them, but their influence touches Christian homeschooling, anti-abortion activism, Quiverfull, conservative politics, and beyond.

In her introduction, Julie Ingersoll, professor of religious studies at the University of North Florida, describes her early upbringing in Reconstruction-affiliated conservative Christianity. She describes marrying into one of the movement’s leading families. She once fought for the cause, but eventually grew disgusted when the movement’s inherent violence became inarguable. Now she mixes scholarship, journalism, and history to expose a movement that specifically desires to change how you think.

Ingersoll traces Christian Reconstruction’s roots to RJ Rushdoony, Presbyterian pastor and son of Armenian immigrants. After Rushdoony’s passing in 2001, the leadership mantle passed to his son-in-law, Gary North. Between them, Rushdoony and North have assiduously created a matrix of thought and philosophy literally encompassing every aspect of life. Their thoughts are voluble, their knowledge vast if slanted, and their influence touches many Christians who’d ordinarily find their teachings weird.

Reconstructionist thought is firmly grounded in very old-school Five-Point Calvinism. Don’t worry if terms like “Five-Point Calvinism” sound opaque. Ingersoll writes for generalist audiences, and defines specialist terminology in vernacular English. She also defines very important words like “presuppositionalism” and “theonomy,” words she reuses generously. For our purposes, they mean: all knowledge comes from somewhere, and all authority derives from God. This matters for Reconstructionists’ all-encompassing philosophy.

Julie J. Ingersoll
For starters, Reconstruction’s critics often lambaste them with terms like “theocratic” and “patriarchal.” While critics mean these terms insultingly, according to Ingersoll, Reconstructionists actually embrace these terms. Since they believe all authority derives from God, and expresses itself in family, church, and state, we already have theocracy, they say; secularists just don’t recognize God’s authority. And yes, they’re patriarchal: a stern father drives all Reconstructionist social order.

Importantly, Reconstructionists deny political motivations. But unpacking their supposed apolitical leanings, we realize parties are just talking past one another. Here, as elsewhere, Reconstructionists use the same words outsiders use, but mean something altogether different. Because “politics,” for Reconstructionists, refers exclusively to state authority, which they consider limited, they believe they themselves aren’t political, although their entire philosophical structure is dedicated to the relationship between individuals and power.

When Christian Reconstructionists intend to rebuild American society along Christian lines, they don’t mean what I would. They don’t highlight issues of justice, feeding the hungry, and comforting the afflicted. They want to establish society, meaning specifically America, according to strict Levitical law. Most Christians today feel squeamish about Leviticus, and apply it selectively at best. But Reconstructionists want to apply Leviticus culture-wide, through power structures beginning with household patriarchs.

To accomplish these goals, Reconstructionists have established networks of Christian homeschoolers, political firebrands, and preachers who deliberately court problems with the state. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that every homeschooler, Tea Party sign-waver, and activist preacher is a Christian Reconstructionist. But the Reconstructionists have integrated themselves, often invisibly, into these circles. It’s impossible to pursue these goals without some Reconstructionism rubbing off on you.

Besides just scholastically describing Reconstruction from historical sources, Ingersoll dives into their world. She meets founders of Reconstructionist private schools, attends Reconstructionist conferences and gatherings (many of which tellingly have the word “Vision” in their titles), and dives into their circles. She records their motivations directly from their mouths, expressing how they want the world to perceive them. This sometimes includes telling society one thing, while doing another.

The world Ingersoll ultimately describes herein isn’t only religious, or political, or social. These words don’t convey the sweeping motivations that drive Reconstructionists. They literally believe they’re charged by God, from the Bible itself, to reorganize society according to God’s vision. They insist they’re only following the Bible literally, and everyone else is apostate, a common far-right Christian belief: they insist they’re only following God, everyone else is the problem.

Secular audiences will read this book and feel chilled. They’ll see the pervasive ways a little-known sect has permeated discussions that aren’t specifically religious. They’ll recognize the violence implicit in a Levitical system. But Christian audiences should feel horrified at this book too. Because what Ingersoll describes isn’t limited to fringe elements. This shockingly violent, authoritarian message has permeated mainline Christianity, often unseen. And it’s changed our discourse, possibly forever.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Bring Back Virgil Tibbs

When a tired, disgruntled sheriff’s deputy first arrests Virgil Tibbs, in Norman Jewison’s 1967 classic In the Heat of the Night, the police target Tibbs for one reason: because he’s a Black man, a stranger, carrying large amounts of cash. Because a white man was robbed and murdered just hours earlier, it makes sense to Sparta, Mississippi’s all-white police force that money in a Black man’s wallet is incriminating. One wishes this didn’t sound familiar.

Hollywood today likes to consider itself bold because it includes language, sex, and violence in liberal quantities. Yet in many ways it has become startlingly risk-averse. Not only is its business model reliant on blockbusters and star vehicles, leading to an endless array of lukewarm sequels, but it has become less welcoming to women and minorities. The desire for guaranteed mammoth returns, at levels that would make Mexican drug cartels blush, has undercut basic storytelling.

But Virgil Tibbs retains his timely qualities. As a quintessential outsider, a man unconnected to the town where he’s investigating a crime, or to the people with whom he must work, he reflects the dislocation Americans feel coming to grips with the fragmented, often adversarial qualities of modern culture. Targeted for his skin color, arrested on exceedingly circumstantial evidence, his plight touches not only Blacks, but anybody ever targeted on flimsy pretexts by police bureaucrats.

Seems Sparta, Mississippi, isn’t equipped to handle a legitimate murder investigation. So eventually, when police chief Bill Gillespie clears Tibbs—after an absurdly lengthy alibi check, dragged out to maximize humiliation—and discovers Tibbs is a decorated homicide detective, he asks Tibbs to join the investigation. Well, he doesn’t ask, since he dislikes Blacks, outsiders, and newfangledness. His boss, the town mayor, demands he bring Tibbs aboard, which Tibbs’ superiors approve. Talk about unequal yoking.

Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs
Sociologist David Graeber, currently at the London School of Economics, notes that in American crime dramas, we don’t celebrate police officers who follow rules. We don’t like police who honor the bureaucracy. Hero cops either have a casual disregard for rules, or else begin their narratives by quitting, getting suspended, or otherwise leaving the force. Because in America, on-duty police officers don’t really represent justice, they represent order. To be just, they must go guerilla.

Virgil Tibbs starts the story already off the force, on leave from the Philadelphia PD (changed from Pasadena, in John Ball’s original novel). Dragooned into the investigation by his own chief, at Sparta’s mayor’s request, Tibbs uses his best investigative skills. Apparently he never gives less than his best. But he never overcomes the angry, adversarial relationship with Sparta’s police department, whose members insist on calling him “boy” and treating him like an unwanted interloper.

Jewison’s movie, like Ball’s novel, is unstinting in its criticism of Southern American racism. Its depiction of the modern plantation system, in the form of local cotton baron Eric Endicott, doesn’t even pretend that it isn’t showing updated slavery practices. But Sparta, Mississippi, for all its shortcomings, isn’t exclusively opposed to African Americans. It simply hates outsiders; the deputy who first arrests Tibbs was trawling the local train station, assuming the thief would logically run.

By the closing scene, Gillespie does thank Tibbs and express the honor he feels having worked with such a fine cop. The smile shared between Sidney Poitier as Tibbs, holding his cardboard suitcase, and Rod Steiger as gum-chewing Chief Gillespie, is iconic. But one never stops wondering: would Gillespie have thanked Tibbs, or ever reversed his racist suppositions, if not forced to witness Tibbs’ investigative prowess? Probably not. His underlying racism probably hasn’t been resolved.

After a local bank robbery, police stopped me in a grocery store and questioned me, simply because my haircut resembled the suspect. I visibly couldn’t have been the suspect, who was older, shorter, and stockier than me, but because some suspicious neighbor phoned in about my hair, they had to investigate. I know, that’s not like being born into a permanent racial underclass, often systematically targeted by law enforcement. But ham-handed policing is painfully common.

That makes Virgil Tibbs a relevant character today. Not because his character faces a race-based struggle in 1967, but because the struggle he faces transcends race, place, or time. Chief Gillespie isn’t a bad chief because he targets Black men; he’s actually good at enforcing order, which is what he’s supposed to do. But he, like American police today, needs reminded that upholding the rules isn’t the same as bringing justice to America’s fractious streets.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Rain in Nebraska

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part 10
Francis Ford Coppola (writer-director), The Rain People

One sunny, undistinguished morning, at the crack of dawn, Long Island housewife Natalie Ravenna (Shirley Knight) throws a suitcase in the family car, leaves her husband a fresh pot of coffee, and drives west. She has no destination, no goal, and no map. She only knows she feels a profound restlessness, compounded by the new life she’s discovered growing in her belly. So she pursues a classic American road odyssey, surrounded by awkward Nixon-era alienation.

Since its release in 1969, Coppola’s third big-studio film, and his last before his commercial breakout with The Godfather, remains deeply influential with screenwriters and fellow filmmakers, but largely unseen by general audiences. It wasn’t released on DVD until 2009, and then only in on-demand format. But Coppola insists it remains among his top five favorites of his own films, probably reflecting the deeply personal story, which he wrote specifically for the three lead stars.

Meandering west, Natalie picks up a hitchhiker, Jimmy “Killer” Kilgannon (James Caan). A former college football star, Killer simply wants to reconnect with his college sweetheart. Natalie and Killer bond over his simple reminiscences while driving. But upon reaching his sweetheart’s family mansion, Natalie discovers why this former gridiron bonecrusher seems so gentle and uncombative now: a massive head injury on the field left him permanently childlike. His former college now lets him rake leaves.

This movie lacks what you’d call a conventional plot. Its episodic structure, organized around Natalie’s difficulty accepting polite Levittown domesticity, matches the rootless feel of America back then. The characters suffer massive spiritual chasms, left vacant by the retreat of postwar courtesy, and they all want something, though none can identify what. Until they find their respective quest objects, the characters embrace meaningless encounters, desperately avoiding opening up to one another, lest they see themselves.

The simplicity Natalie found endearing in Killer in small doses quickly becomes overwhelming. She finds his need for emotional validation burdensome, much like the baby she hasn’t quite accepted in herself, and quickly unloads him on an unsuspecting businessman. But, speeding away from the deeply awkward departure, she gets stopped by a handsome motorcycle cop, Gordon (Robert Duvall). When Gordon’s candid advances turn romantic, giddy Natalie accepts, not realizing she’s stepping into a beat trap.

Shirley Knight (left) and James Caan in The Rain People
Coppola, fresh off directing Finian’s Rainbow, a simple commercial musical, wrote this movie himself—persistent rumor says much of the script were improvised on-set, then written down to match Coppola’s strangely low-key direction. He wrote this movie for its leads, including burgeoning stars Caan and Duvall, housemates who’d later become Coppola regulars. He wanted something unconstrained by studio interference, which he largely got. But he lacked studio publicity, and this movie largely vanished to posterity.

Disgusted with Hollywood’s old-boy network, which meant most actors on Finian’s Rainbow were over fifty, Coppola took the unusual step of producing this movie with minimal time spent in Hollywood. The opening scenes, set on Long Island, were actually shot in Long Island. The production included lengthy sojourns in places like Weston, West Virginia, and Ogallala, Nebraska, unglamorous places that found themselves blindsided by Coppola. Nebraska hadn’t seen any feature film-making in over thirty years.

This unconventional film-making approach situates The Rain People securely in the “New Hollywood” tradition, an auteur-driven movement that, far from considering directors as hired staff, promoted them as more important than the moribund studio system. Critics generally regard New Hollywood as beginning in 1967, with Bonnie and Clyde, and achieving its commercial apotheosis in 1977 with Star Wars. (George Lucas’ first screen credit was on The Rain People, as “production associate”—basically Coppola’s personal factotum.)

New Hollywood films shared many traits: embrace of moral ambiguity, disdain for out-and-out heroes, lack of three-act structure, and often equivocal resolutions. Even Star Wars, the most clearly heroic and structured New Hollywood film, relied on antiheroes and frequently appeared to distrust Luke Skywalker’s “Golden Boy” image. The Rain People ends with the story still in progress, the actions not clearly resolved, though Natalie’s soliloquy, dragging a dying Killer, prove Coppola’s theme has been completed.

This isn’t an easy movie to watch. Coppola keeps even the most brutal confrontations pitched at a remarkably low-key level, forcing audiences to pay unusually close attention. He avoids clear narrative signposts, so audiences aren’t sure where, in the story, we stand. Viewers accustomed to passively consuming blockbusters from Hollywood dream factories will find this movie strange and bleak. But that’s its appeal. In an age where filmmakers lead audiences around, this movie trusts us.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Entering a New Era of American Law

Like countless Americans this week, I was profoundly saddened by events in Dallas. The shooting that killed five police officers, and wounded six others, besides two civilians, was a senseless loss of human life for no purpose. It reduced any possible discussion of peaceful solutions for a violent problem to duck-and-cover paranoia. And it gave lovers of peace and justice reason to fear protesting for their cause.

However, hours later, when word came down that Dallas police had killed suspect—suspect—Micah Xavier Johnson with a remote-controlled robot, new questions arose. There’s simply no precedent for deliberately strapping a bomb to the bastard offspring of a moon buggy and a Roomba, and deliberately wheeling it into position to blow up a human being. Not in peacetime anyway; this is clearly battlefield technology.

This is merely the latest example of civilian police departments stockpiling military weapons to “keep the peace” in America’s streets. The proliferation of IED-resistant vehicles, high-yield weapons, and SWAT teams, all represent translations of wartime technology into civilian law enforcement. As we’ve seen, such attempts generally end with civilians dead or wounded. They certainly don’t leave residents of embattled neighborhoods feel safer.

We associate these tactics with Cold War-era military dictatorships, with Peronistas opening fire into crowded plazas, or with Tiananmen Square. These aren’t law enforcement tactics. After all, when suspects are blown to smithereens, that precludes the possibility of arrest or trial. Micah Xavier Johnson will never get to mount a defense or face his accusers. No alternative theories will ever be contemplated. Johnson’s guilt enters history as a foregone conclusion.

Radley Balko writes, in Rise of the Warrior Cop, that such active militarization of American police is both cause and symptom of the shoot-first attitudes we’ve seen in recent news. Not only are those police detailed to Special Weapons and Tactics Teams more likely to answer insignificant challenges with violence, but those police detailed to more mundane tasks, like traffic stops, see violence as their first option. Which apparently happened with Philando Castile last week.

Defenders of the status quo will assert that police have a right to defend themselves—which only a churl will deny. Philando Castile admitted having a firearm on the same hip as the identification he was reaching for. Castile’s shooter has already asserted through his lawyer that the weapon, not race, colored his reaction. And supporters of the police love name-checking bereft families to defend lawkeepers’ right to forceful self-defense.

These fears aren’t entirely without justification. As journalist Paul Barrett writes in Glock: the Rise of America’s Gun, American police departments embraced the Glock, with its light weight and large magazine, following a handful of highly publicized battles where civilians, armed with arsenals worthy of Hezbollah, pinned responding officers into helpless positions. These gun battles often resulted in significant loss of life.

But Barrett, in the same book, acknowledges that such battles were outliers even when they had the benefit of high publicity. Most armed battles with police involve exchanges of three or fewer bullets. Rains of lead, like in the Amadou Diallo case, are very rare. Even on those occasions when police are on the scene quickly, as we learned in Columbine and Sandy Hook, they mostly form a perimeter.

Imagine if police, in confronting Micah Xavier Johnson, attempted some commando gun battle. On-scene reports indicate that witnesses couldn’t initially pinpoint where the fatal shots originated. Any attempt to utilize military technology would’ve created a free-fire situation that inevitably would’ve cost civilian lives, for which the police would’ve been liable. Military technology only works on a clearly delineated front line, as between opposing armies, or between police and protesters.

Police forces cannot justify maintaining their military-grade arsenals, which are very expensive and require constant servicing, without proving they’re necessary. Having an army requires using an army. That’s why Balko’s book involves some pretty horrifying descriptions of SWAT teams breaking up neighborhood poker games, and of police throwing flash grenades into private homes. The deliberate killing of Johnson, who should’ve been arrested and charged, now joins that list.

The Dallas shooting crippled the Black Lives Matter movement: no longer, when an obvious crank like George Zimmerman claims to fight the violence of the BLM movement can anyone claim to be baffled. But it also crippled police credibility when they claim to be protecting the people. Who is helped when the police can remotely detonate bombs on suspects just because “negotiations have stalled”? After last week, America’s police mentality is permanently tainted.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Living As a Ghost Of Yourself

1001Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part Nine
Terry Zwigoff (director) and Daniel Clowes (writer), Ghost World

Enid and Rebecca, classic high school malcontents, have finally graduated. They're ready for  adult life to start—but, like teenagers throughout time, they don't know what that means for them. They go halves on an apartment, and Rebecca gets a job, throwing herself into middle-class normality. But Enid isn't done being free-spirited and young. She attaches herself onto a nebbishy older fella who encourages her dangerous side. This hastens the rebellious teen's worst nightmare: change.

Director Terry Zwigoff collaborated with writer Daniel Clowes in adapting Clowes' Nineties-era "comix" novel into film form. Fans of the graphic novel took exception to the intrusion of a linear plot into Clowes' semi-autobiographical meandering: Enid's full name, never given onscreen, is "Enid Coleslaw," an anagram of "Daniel Clowes." But non-purists will enjoy the rich characters, dark humor, and saturated, hyperreal screen images. I've seldom seen a more realistic depiction of how teenagers really talk.

Enid (Thora Birch, American Beauty) and Rebecca (former child star Scarlett Johansson, in an early grown-up role) roam around town, glibly mocking popular culture and appreciating each other's shared superiority. Their playful cynicism carried them through high school mostly unscarred, and they see no reason it shouldn't continue forever. They use humor to keep reality at arm's length. But money, as it does, changes things. Hunger and past-due bills prove to motivate the girls differently.

On a whim, the girls answer a "missed connection" personal that leads them to a lonely man, Seymour (Steve Buscemi), who shares the girls' outlook. He collects old 78-RPM  records, pre-WWII toys, and other artifacts. Seymour idolizes the world he believes existed before his birth, and Enid considers him a fellow traveler. Rebecca, however, recognizes Seymour's quirks as attempts to flee the present, and contrives to separate them. Cracks begin surfacing in the girls' relationship.

Thora Birch (left) and Scarlett Johansson
in Ghost World
While Enid tries to find Seymour a date, she receives notice that she's one credit short of her diploma. To completely graduate, she must take a summer art course. Enid is a talented artist (with original drawings by Clowes), but her teacher demands art have contemporary political messages. Enid would rather flunk than compromise her vision. But a discovery among Seymour's menagerie might bridge the gap between her art and her teacher's weird, faddish demands.

Clowes and Zwigoff create, on one level, a nostalgic paean to adolescence, the kind familiar to generations of film buffs, from American Graffiti to Empire Records. Enid and Rebecca represent the dueling impulses common to many young people newly approved to adulthood, staying true to youthful dreams versus embracing adult responsibility. Adulthood requires compromise, but how much? Anyone watching their struggle will remember the day they got hungry enough to accept employment beneath their ambitions.

At another level, though, this film addresses the crushing disappointment of modernity. Work proves a trap that, rather than empowering Rebecca's dreams, squashes them. Enid is horrified to see her friend's ambitions start turning around savings and boys, but finds Rebecca doesn't want rescue. Seymour appears to escape modernity with his antiques, but at the price of awful loneliness. When intimacy does appear, it proves just as disappointing, and laden with conformity, as Rebecca's job.

Art looms large in this story. Enid creates art which her teacher belittles, despite its technical prowess. Seymour immerses himself in art, mainly music, and stands fast even when selecting the slicker, more commercial options would net him friends and women. In the end, compromise proves more costly than fighting through. This clash between artistic integrity and mass appeal gets investigated further in Clowes and Zwigoff's second collaboration, Art School Confidential, an altogether inferior film.

Zwigoff's camera work recreates the experience of a Clinton-era graphic novel, without being slavish to the picture. He saturates some environments with color, like the bright primary colors of Enid's bedroom, or Seymour's metallic-toned antiques. Other images look washed out. The job Enid briefly attempts looks overexposed, like it's as damaging to the camera as to the beleaguered souls working there. And the apartment Rebecca selects for them is painfully bland, Fifty Shades of Beige.

Altogether, this movie delivers a twisted comic nightmare. It backs Enid, and to lesser degrees Rebecca and Seymour, into corners where they must decide which form of disappointment they consider acceptable. As that looming monster, adulthood, takes characters one by one, we realize, for all its realism and humor, we're watching a horror movie, where only the unfortunate survive. When Enid escapes, we applaud, and wonder: is it too late for me to try again?

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Victim Blaming vs. Not Being a Victim

A beloved friend became outraged at her parents recently. Well into her twenties, she assumes she’s in control over her life; but this week, Mom and Pop emailed her, warning about the risks of jogging around campus alone. “There is so much wrong with what they are implying—the sexism, the victim blaming,” she writes on Facebook. “They think my day to day decisions... are derivative of some impossible innocence that twenty-six years of life wouldn't choke out of a woman.”

I have every sympathy with my friend. What adult would want, at 26, their parents second-guessing their basic sense of self-preservation? Surely they can see her experience, living away from home (far away, as it happens, studying internationally), can protect her from serious threats. And even if it can’t, who wouldn’t feel outraged to hear somebody suggest the consequences are their own fault? That isn’t how adults talk to one another.

Except, the longer I considered my friend’s situation, the more I circled back to Mia Zapata. Lead singer of a Seattle punk band, The Gits, Mia Zapata was massively influential in her area, without ever signing a major label contract. Though she never gained mainstream fame, she enjoyed notoriety in Seattle, and spreading outward, for writing songs about taking control over her life in ways men had long taken for granted. Later musicians have cited her influence over the 1990s-era Riot Grrrl movement.

Around 2 a.m. on Thursday, July 8th, 1993, Mia Zapata, age 27, left a club and started walking home. Her actions subsequently remain shrouded in mystery. Only one fact remains clear: an hour later, a woman’s screams alerted neighborhood residents, who ran to find Mia Zapata’s body in the street. She’d been beaten, raped, and strangled, her body left on a sidewalk. Her killer left little evidence, and her murder remained unsolved until a fluke DNA match to a complete stranger a decade later.

As my friend writes, it’s arrogant to assume Zapata was at fault for the circumstances surrounding her death. Nobody wants to die on the cusp of mainstream breakthrough, leaving a legacy unfinished and friends mourning the senselessness. Nobody asks to be murdered. It’s churlish to say the victim bears responsibility for the events surrounding her violent, untimely death.

Mia Zapata
Nevertheless, Zapata’s death had wide-ranging consequences beyond the music community. The Riot Grrrl movement, based on women becoming invincible by simply claiming their right, suffered a mighty blow when they discovered that a woman’s confidence doesn’t make her literally invulnerable. The Seattle music scene, riding high on runaway acts like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, shuddered at its peak, and never really recovered. Zapata’s death sent a spasm of fear through women nationwide.

It’s incorrect to blame women for violence they suffer. But that doesn’t mean women bear no responsibility for their safety. Sure, anybody can make a mistake, and opportunistic attackers will exploit any opportunity, so complete safety is never guaranteed. And when violence happens, fault always lies with the attacker, never the victim. We can agree upon that. But willfully risk-taking behavior carries the implicit possibility that risks will fail.

Consider the Brock Turner case. Turner attacked his victim because she made herself vulnerable. His actions were so heinous, the only witnesses were said to weep while giving their statement. Only a vulgar, reprehensible person would imply that Turner’s victim bears blame for his actions.

But her testimony reveals that she drank beyond her limits, a risk compounded, by her own admission, by no longer knowing what her limits were. Drinking alcohol among strangers is always risky, for anyone. That’s why victimizers notoriously ply targets with drink, to lower inhibitions and drop defenses. Turner’s victim isn’t at fault, but that doesn’t mean she never took irresponsible risks.

Mia Zapata walked Seattle’s downtown streets at an hour patently risky for anybody, man or woman, to walk alone. The old dad-ish saying goes: “Nothing good happens after 2 a.m.” Though she didn’t invite violence upon herself, she took an unnecessary risk. A skydiver doesn’t invite a failed parachute either, but takes the risk knowingly. Any liability lawyer would concur.

My friend shouldn’t have to live in fear, avoiding exercise because risks exist. But violent people really are out there, undeterred by law or retribution. If threatening bad people with jail, guns, or worse really worked, life would be beautifully risk-free. But they aren’t, and it isn’t. And it isn’t victim-blaming to say anyone, man or woman, shouldn’t accept needless risks when safe alternatives exist.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Hastings Entertainment and the Chain Store Implosion

The Hastings storefront in Lawrence, Kansas—my home away from home
When news emerged last month that Amarillo, Texas-based chain bookstore Hastings Entertainment had sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, I had mixed feelings. Hastings, having dominated the books and entertainment market in my town for decades, has successfully squeezed all competitors out. If Hastings fails, the only bookstore in my town will be a local start-up specializing in remainders. That and WalMart.

However, Hastings’ recent business choices have seemed counterproductive for years. Four or five years ago, they removed the comfy chairs and benches that made their stores welcoming places to meet friends. A handful of stores have tried selling coffee, but it was attempted only limply chain-wide. Most stores have reduced space dedicated to core products, like books and DVDs, redirecting the space to toys and tie-in merchandising.

The Hastings business model has always focused on middle-sized towns. They select communities ranging from roughly twenty-five-thousand to a quarter-million people, too small for superstores like Barnes & Noble, then import their mixed-product marketing structure. Like most big-box stores, Hastings has no interest in local culture. Communities accept its prodigiously bland content marketing and beige decor in exchange for access to diverse, nationally marketed media products and services.

When I first encountered Hastings in 1995, the same year first went online. While Amazon took years to break even, Hastings was already an established name. While visiting Kearney, Nebraska, a friend directed me to Hastings, telling me “they have everything.” Back then, e-readers didn’t exist, and music downloads were illegal and massively time-consuming. Hastings’ selection of books and CDs made this media junkie’s eyes sparkle.

Equally important, the store seemed inviting. Kearney back then had independent book and music stores, both located in the city’s mall, but space was at a premium, not uncommon for locally owned businesses. Aisles were relatively narrow, making people turn sideways to pass between shelves. Hastings, by contrast, not only had spacious aisles, it had wide arterial corridors, like a department store, and benches for sitting. It felt comfortably public.

All that remains of the once-proud Hastings store in my hometown,
in Kearney, Nebraska, is this ugly mall-based toystore
I returned to Kearney in 1999 for my education, and found a local economy transformed. The independent book and music stores had failed, leaving Hastings and WalMart to split the media market. With Amazon still somewhat marginal, this meant a starkly narrowed marketplace. And though Kearney entrepreneurs have since opened new book and vinyl record stores, those remain largely hobbies. Chain stores still dominate the media market.

Different communities will handle Hastings’ reorganization different ways. My second home of Lawrence, Kansas, has a large Hastings store, so it’ll feel the pinch, but it also has three independently owned bookstores, and a vinyl record store with a sideline in CDs. Lawrence can accommodate one store’s closure. Without serious competitors in Kearney, Hastings’ closure would blow a hole in our town’s economy.

But arguably, that’s the point. Throughout the latter Twentieth Century, massive chains increasingly dominated America’s market in almost everything. Subsidized by the Interstate Highway System, which made just-in-time resupply patterns possible and inexpensive, stores from Hastings and WalMart, to Sears, McDonalds, and Petco dominated regional markets. They made American culture uniform, but they also concentrated decision-making authority in a dwindling number of out-of-town hands.

The Internet retailing revolution was supposed to drive the final nail in independent American retailing’s coffin. Instead, national chains like Gottschalk’s, Osco, and Circuit City have all vanished since 2008, and one quarter of America’s largest malls have failed in the same time. I’d contend the Internet has proven less equipped to vend goods, than the static blandness chain stores once peddled. Hastings, diverse but bland, has joined that choir.

Hastings petitioned for Chapter 11 bankruptcy—short-term protection from creditors during internal reorganization. Thus the situation needn’t be terminal. In recent years, Chrysler, Texaco, and Pacific Gas & Electric have passed through Chapter 11 and emerged resilient. But Enron and Lehman Brothers didn’t. Hastings has announced its intent to sell itself out, but will close if no buyers arrive. Chapter 11, right now, is a legal limbo where corporate souls await judgement.

Chains like Hastings, Circuit City, and Tower Records achieved market dominance by squeezing smaller competition. Capitalist cheerleaders applauded, because victory is everything. These chains, some said, won on prices and selection, which small competitors couldn’t provide. But chains couldn’t respond to local demands; their supply chain was too long. When even bigger, blander rivals pinched the market, the chains folded.

Failing chains like Hastings temporarily narrow the market. But they’ve narrowed it for generations. I’ll miss my local Hastings, but it merely fell victim to forces it once manipulated to its own advantage. And it proves why the market matters more than the capitalists who have sucked it dry.