Wednesday, July 26, 2017

There Is No Opioid Epidemic

Rachel Maddow has done solemn, suit-clad journalism
on the awfulness of opioid addiction
I'm sick of hearing about the "opioid epidemic." Repeating this claim has become a sure-fire way for media professionals to prove that they're serious about fixing the problems in American society today. Mainstream journalists like Dan Rather and Rachel Maddow have done somber think pieces about opioids, while humorists like John Oliver and Adam Conover approach the problem from a satirical, but still po-faced, angle.

There's just one problem. It's a bunch of crap.

Pause a moment and think about this: what do we call somebody who can't stop taking pain medication? Somebody who continues popping pills long after it's become measurably clear that their appetite for the medication drives a wedge between themselves and their family? Somebody who would rather pop pain medications than hold down a job, have a place in the community, or pursue constructive hobbies?

Modern medicine calls such people addicts. But I suggest another name altogether: patients. A person consuming pain medications with such dogged desperation, probably needs the pain to go away. Calling this person a moralistic name like "addict" implies the person has suffered a failure of ethical character, and we need to punish that person—an attitude which uses medicine and law to enforce moral values. Calling this person a "patient" lets us seek the root underlying pain.

We do need to distinguish here between addicts and recreational users. Some people take pain medication, mind-altering drugs, or prescription stimulants and steroids to enjoy the altered state of mind. Such people creep me out, but they aren't addicts; they just enjoy seeing the world from another perspective for a few hours, usually in the company of friends. As long as they harm nobody but themselves, stopping them feels pretty high-handed.

John Oliver plays the story for laughs, but
clearly has the same self-serious intent
But addicts have a completely different situation. They cannot stop taking whatever substance they're addicted to, because without it, they feel incomplete, pained... inhuman. Addicts don't want to feel good; they want to feel normal.

Consider what people become addicted to. Besides opioids, the most common addictive substances include alcohol, heroin, cocaine, and codeine. All of these are, or were at one time, prescription painkillers. Other addictive substances include nicotine, marijuana, and Valium, which all have anti-anxiety properties. Even lowly methamphetamine, the one drug I'd like to see permanently forbidden, began life as a prescription anti-anxiety medication, Benzedrene.

Besides substances, people can become addicted to behaviors. Psychologists have observed and treated people demonstrating addictions to gambling, sex, eating, work, and more. Each of these behaviors creates an internal reward system: the giddy rush of waiting for your pony to win, the sense of accomplishment from a job well done. They also give addicts something to think about other than the mundane, and possibly painful, circumstances of their day-to-day lives.

Opioid addiction, when considered in news or late-night comedy, seems inextricably entwined with two circumstances: medical trauma, or chronic unemployment. I've noticed a persistent trend of connecting opioids with West Virginia coal country, where declining revenues have forced many former miners, many suffering black lung and other work-related injuries, out of the workforce. The physical pain of illness, and the psychological pain of uselessness.

Journalist Nick Reding, author of Methland, correlates the most widespread consumption of methamphetamine with America's rural communities, where dwindling economic opportunities and declining wages make grasping at straws a necessity to get by. Addiction specialist Gabor Maté, based in Vancouver, British Columbia, notes how many of his destitute patients come from physically or sexually abusive backgrounds. Pain and addiction go hand-in-hand.

So God forbid we actually address the real problem.

The phrases "opioid addiction" and "coal country" keep coming up in the same news stories,
usually without any comment on the connection between addiction and despair


America's policy for dealing with addiction, largely unchanged since the days of Harry J. Anslinger, remains to jail offenders, regardless of their suffering. The isolation of prison, where prisoners lack social networks, meaningful work, or even sunlight, will only compound whatever pain got them addicted to begin with. Rather than helping addicts deal with their problems, our criminal justice outlook only doubles down on the underlying causes of addiction and other diysfunction.

Solemn, tedious think pieces about opioid addiction allow journalists to look engaged with America's diffuse suffering. But they exonerate a socioeconomic system that devalues humans and profits off their pain. Prescription pain meds cannot advertise on broadcast media, so blaming them doesn't hurt revenue. Media professionals thus excuse their own complicity in an economy that encourages resource hoarding, devalues labor, and treats humans as interchangeable parts.

And buying that crap lets us, the audience, off the hook for profiting from that system. Stripped of glitz, the problem is us.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Doctor Is Still In

Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth (current) Doctor
I have seen more people shaming the Doctor Who haters than I’ve actually seen Doctor Who haters. With the recent announcement of Jodie Whittaker’s nod to play the thirteenth (or fourteenth, or fifteenth) version of the title character in the BBC’s Doctor Who, social media has been alight with people mocking and belittling those tender souls who cannot stomach a woman in the role. Actual tender souls, however, have been rare and hard to find.

Perhaps that’s because I haven’t been looking for them. The Internet allows such fungal undergrowth to flourish beneath various rocks on Reddit and 4Chan, but unless one of their number gets elected President, few actually venture into the sunlight, knowing the general cultural trend has moved away from them. Their sexist, homophobic, bigoted attitudes belong to a long-gone era, and they know it. They have the common decency to stay away from us normal people.

Yet rather than let such attitudes fester and die quietly, members of the progressive call-out culture feel obliged to share, retweet, and otherwise publicly announce the existence of such attitudes. They qualify the shares with snarky comments or condemnations of regressive attitudes, which maybe gives such shares the vestments of sanctimony. But as working journalists discovered last year in sharing Donald Trump’s message, vocally refuting regressive attitudes doesn’t change the value of free media attention.

Every time some white, male yob claims that a female Doctor, female Ghostbusters, or female Jedi “ruined my childhood,” they get free publicity from those who purportedly oppose that position. I’d think having a childhood so brittle that you’re still hanging “No Girls Allowed” signs on your door, would be ruined without outside intervention. But by giving these self-proclaimed martyrs sunlight, my fellow progressives allow these attitudes to flourish and propagate, past their sell-by date.

Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor
Weirdly enough, while rewarding such conservative crybabies, progressives nourish their own crybaby culture simultaneously. I’ve witnessed liberals whining that the female Doctor doesn’t count because she’s too late, or because she’s white. In other words, progress doesn’t really matter unless it happens on my timetable. Besides being just plain arrogant, this attitude overlooks the commercial demands of media. Even a publicly owned resource, like the British Broadcasting Corporation, is still a corporation, beneath the surface.

Richard Walter, professor and chair of screenwriting at UCLA, writes that “American television seems to love last year’s— or last decade’s— controversy.” In other words, media won’t embrace a position until it’s safe enough to handle without getting burned. Hollywood refused to touch the anti-racist message of Broadway plays like Finian’s Rainbow until history had made the message essentially harmless. The BBC is British, yes, but it suffers under the same constraints as American television.

So yes, a character created in 1963 will carry the whiff of the white, patriarchal influences under which he (she?) was created. Though original showrunner Verity Lambert was a twenty-something woman, the character she oversaw was old, male, and white, reflecting the British power structure in her era. The Doctor didn’t get a black traveling companion until Mickey Smith in 2006, or an openly gay one until Bill Potts in 2017. Hispanic? Sorry, not yet.

But the show planted seeds for the Doctor’s more inclusive regenerations years ago. We saw our first on-screen Black Time Lord in 2008, two years after Black actor Patterson Joseph was briefly considered to play the Doctor. We saw a male Time Lord regenerate into a woman in 2016, demonstrating that such transitions were possible. (Don’t bring me Steven Moffett’s “The Curse of Fatal Death,” where Joanna Lumley plays the Doctor. Gag episodes don’t count.)

Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor
So. Progressives who’ve already seen that the Doctor will become more diverse in the future, complain that such diversity isn’t happening right now. Simultaneously, crusty back-numbers who want Doctor Who to remain a museum piece of their supposedly bucolic, girl-free childhoods, complain that diversity happens at all. The BBC must satisfy the largest number of viewers, so change has to happen, but it cannot alienate large audiences, so change happens slowly. That’s what corporations do.

Which is why I cannot take either side seriously. Calls to make change happen instantaneously, even when such change is legitimate and overdue, are as unreasonable as demands to forbid change and keep things static forever. The Doctor will become a non-white woman someday soon. Possibly even a gay woman. (I favored Sue Perkins for the role, after all.) Conservatives cannot stop it, but progressives cannot rush it. Corporations are slow, but change is inevitable.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Stephen King, Imperialist Ignoramus

Stephen King in 1977, the year he publishe
"Children of the Corn" and The Shining

Stephen King’s short story “Children of the Corn” pisses me off. There, I said it. King admits, in his collection Night Shift, that the story found him while driving through rural Nebraska: he found the miles and miles of corn, planted in ruler-straight rows, highly intimidating, largely because this clearly human landscape was seldom interrupted by anything as humane as houses. Note, he drove through Nebraska; he never mentions bothering to speak to actual Nebraskans.

I always dismissed this shortcoming as a fluke, though, an oversight by a busy, highly popular novelist who didn’t notice his own blinders. That is, until someone recently pointed out to me that, in King’s novel The Shining, the all-important Overlook Hotel closes for the winter. In Colorado. Let me repeat that: a hotel closes for the winter, during the peak of Colorado’s lucrative ski season. What the hell? That’s two states King gets wrong!

Thinking about this, I realized: in both cases, King projects Greater Northeast values onto the American West. In New England, where King lives, white colonial communities were deliberately planted within walking distance, because they were planted in the Seventeenth Century, when twenty miles was a time-consuming overland slog. Farmers lived in towns, and walked brief distances to their fields; human habitation is the norm, not the exception. (It gets more complicated inland, but not much.)

And, in the Northeast, resort hotels do close during winter. Partly, this reflects brutal Northeastern winters, where soil sometimes freezes solid, while blizzards isolate neighboring communities. But it also reflects the Northeastern tourist business, driven primarily by New Yorkers and Bostonians fleeing sweltering big-city summers. The Borscht Belt mainly offered tourists mild countryside temperatures. Even if people could visit tourist resorts during winter, they mostly don’t want to. Winter, in Northeastern cities, is almost pleasant.

Jack Nicholson in Stanley Kubrick's
adaptation of The Shining
King failed to understand that Colorado tourism derives from completely different drives. People band together through shared love of braving the cold to test their athletic endurance. In 1977, when King published both The Shining and “Children of the Corn,” inexpensive transportation was moving Colorado skiing from a regional pastime to a national destination. Formerly an agricultural state, Colorado was slowly transitioning to a tourist economy. Stephen King showed up right during that intermediary stage.

According to legend, which he propagated himself, King chose Boulder, Colorado, as the setting for his next novel by selecting a random location from an atlas. King and his wife spent one October night as the sole guests of the otherwise vacant Stanley Hotel, which inspired The Shining’s massive, sprawling, vacant halls. October is prime foliage-gazing tourism season in New England, where King lives; one wonders whether he even realized he’d chosen Colorado’s off season.

Thing is, if you understand Northeastern history, King’s Overlook Hotel makes perfect sense. He describes a run-down hotel of the 1970s that peaked during the Jazz Age. The building, basically a preserved museum of its heyday, is haunted by the ghosts of big-band musicians and bartenders passing liquor off the books. Jack Torrance stumbles into a tuxedo party and gets handed rotgut booze. The hotel King describes belongs not in Colorado, but the Catskill Mountains.

My memories of the Catskills are dominated by Cub Scout adventures, which is about all that happens there anymore. Ruins of grand hotels built between the world wars remain, but few still do business. Neither particularly tall nor unusually beautiful, the Catskills benefitted from being within driving distance of Manhattan and Boston; when plunging fuel prices before the Arab Oil Embargo made Colorado and Utah viable tourist destinations, the Catskills’ storied hotels fell into disrepair.

Steven Weber in Mick Garris's adaptation of
The Shining, with a script by Stephen King
Follow my reasoning: King can’t handle Nebraska because, in his mind, human habitation means towns; Nebraska’s spread-out human geography looks demonic to him. He can’t imagine tourist business that isn’t circumscribed by warm weather, or haunted by Jazz Age glory. In both cases, he projects regional values onto regions he doesn’t understand. Regions he can’t understand, because he doesn’t bother speaking with locals. If he did this to non-white people, we’d call him an imperialist.

I moved from California to Nebraska at age 18, so I understand the shock of transitioning to spaces sculpted by human activity, but vacant of people. It’s scary… for a while. But I didn’t have to live in Nebraska, near the Colorado border, for very long, to realize the circumstances King describes aren’t horrific. If he’d bothered meeting any Nebraskans or Coloradans, the horror would’ve worn off quickly. Instead, King looks like a world-class dick.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

First of the Texas Troubadours

1001 Albums To Hear Before Your iPod Battery Dies, Part Six
Townes Van Zandt, Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas

Townes Van Zandt was a notoriously unreliable performer. Before his death in 1997, audiences reported he had only two modes: an unbelievable clarity and rapport with the audience, coupled with sublime lyrical sensitivity, or an absolute drunken mess. Throughout his career, his attempts to numb his bipolar disorder with substances always undermined his performance persona. But for four nights at a Houston dive-bar in 1973, he produced something unmatched in the history of Texas music.

Country music fans may remember Townes Van Zandt as author of such classics as “Pancho and Lefty,” “If I Needed You,” and “White Freight Liner Blues.” He produced six albums in five years between 1968 and 1973, often working at a feverish pace made possible only by mental illness and cocaine. His songs bespoke a bleak pessimism that, paradoxically, gave his cultish fans great hope that they weren’t suffering alone. He became an underground legend.

As this prolific period wound down, Van Zandt played four shows at the Old Quarter, a venue co-owned by his friend and bandmate Rex Bell. Producer Earl Willis recorded these shows on a portable four-track system, apparently for posterity, never intending to release them. However, Van Zandt descended into a creative dry spell, corresponding, probably not coincidentally, with a healthy new relationship. Without his malaise, and the drugs,he lost much of his creative motivation.

The recordings feature Van Zandt, alone on stage with just his guitar, uncharacteristically sober and receptive to his audience. The recording, chosen from Willis’ crude recordings, involves such concert business as announcements about where to find the cigarette machines, and apologies for the broken air conditioning. But it also includes some of the most tender and insightful recordings a damaged genius ever put forward. The austere arrangements and clinking background emphasize Van Zandt’s lyrical complexity.

Townes Van Zandt
He opens with “Pancho and Lefty,” his then-current single, about a Mexican bandit’s betrayal. Both Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson had hits with this track, but both embroidered it with radio-friendly flourishes highlighting their own celebrity. Van Zandt, playing solo, keeps focus on his lyrics, a mournful exploration of the forces with make a criminal into a folk hero. The idea that we need heroes only after their dead is poignant, coming from Van Zandt.

This track list reads like Van Zandt’s Greatest Hits. He plays several of his classics, like “Rex’s Blues” or “Tecumseh Valley,” with the unornamented authenticity of somebody producing work he loves. Between his own classics, Van Zandt also includes tracks by artists who influenced him, like Merle Travis, Bo Diddley, and Lightnin’ Hopkins. This remarkably inclusive set of influences goes heavily toward explaining Van Zandt’s unusual style, quirky songwriting, and widespread fandom outside genre circles.

Part-time fans and corporate executives long classed Townes Van Zandt as country music. This isn’t entirely unfair, considering how many of his songs have been covered by artists like Don Williams and Steve Earle. But like many artists most immediately impacted by his music, including Lyle Lovett and Gillian Welch, he fit poorly into country’s mold. The distinctive mix of country, folk, blues, and other roots genres has some fans speaking of just-plain “Texas Music.”

Because of its essential austerity, this album provides insights into not only Van Zandt’s influences, but also his artistic vision. His classic studio albums were larded with Nashville sidemen and sophisticated productions, presumably to create chart hits. But this overhandling not only produced no radio-friendly singles, it frequently pointed up Van Zandt’s weaknesses as a vocalist. Like Bob Dylan, Van Zandt had a vision, but wasn’t a pretty singer. What he had, was insight.

Van Zandt’s production team released this album in 1977, four years after it was recorded, five years after his last studio album. Basically, he needed the money. Though he’d pulled some songwriter’s royalties from cover versions, his period of happy inactivity left him functionally penniless. Van Zandt released only one studio album between 1972 and 1987. Unfortunately, his eventual return to the studio would result in more overproduced pablum, presumably to capitalize on increasing name recognition.

Standing between his career bookends, this album, the most stripped and honest he’d ever record, highlights not only Van Zandt’s artistry, but also the way he created a pinch-point of Texas music. Though others blended the state’s reach of country, blues, and folk before him, Van Zandt coupled that with raw poetry few peers ever approached. Without the studio crutch, this album makes plain his stylistic vision, and keeps his music alive for coming generations.

Monday, July 17, 2017

A Classic Comic Resurrection Beneath the Earth

Jon Rivera and Gerard Way, writers; Michael Avon Oeming, artist, Cave Carson Has a Cybernetic Eye, Vol. 1: Going Underground

Former spelunker and part-time action hero Calvin “Cave” Carson hung up his spurs and became a family man several years ago. But the excavation company that now employs him has ulterior motives for keeping Carson on a short leash. When a ghost from his past appears on his doorstep, Carson realizes his adventuring days aren’t through. But his employers won’t let Carson go so easily… nor his daughter, either.

DC Comics introduced Cave Carson in 1957, alongside other adventure-oriented titles, featuring heroes without superpowers, like Challengers of the Unknown and the Sea Devils. But Carson never got sufficient traction to become his own franchise; he fought alongside Superman, but always as a sidekick. Lead writer Gerard Way admits he needed to consult a concordance of obscure classic characters to find someone worthy of reboot for his Young Animal imprint.

Newly widowed at the start of this story, Cave Carson struggles to maintain connections with his college-age daughter. He goes through the motions of workplace diligence, but they mostly keep him around for nostalgia: he taught his followers everything they know about underground adventuring, before they eventually outgrew him. Now Carson has the kind of slow, melancholy conversations we recognize from action movies, right before everything hits the fan.

And fan-hitting does occur. One night, tired, frustrated, and alone in his formerly full house, Carson hears a knock. A loincloth-wearing emissary appears at his door. Seems the Muldroog, a lost civilization of mole people, are under attack, and only Carson’s late wife, with her panoply of ancient secrets, can save the underground. But with her gone, apparently a blood quantum is sufficient, because they’ll accept Carson’s daughter instead.

Original promo art,
click to enlarge
It’s difficult to read this graphic novel without recognizing the debts it owes older stories. Besides reviving an almost forgotten character from the Eisenhower era, and connecting him to characters borrowed from Edgar Rice Burroughs, the art suggests a combination of Peter Max and Astro-Boy. The story has hints of old EC horror comics, a tendency emphasized by sudden jarring images of amorphous fungus people savaging the peaceful natives.

Yet this obsessive borrowing doesn’t undercut the story. Like many serial science fiction franchises that don’t bother concealing their roots, like Star Wars and Doctor Who, this story’s connection to older pulp traditions gives it a sense of continuity. We aren’t just reading something generated last weekend like the transient comics of the 1990s that are largely unreadable today. This story connects science fiction’s past to his evolving present.

The emissary at Carson’s doorstep warns him that his employers, EBX, committed the attack on his subterranean nation. So Carson doesn’t even bother bringing his bosses into the discussion. He calls his oldest ally, Wild Dog, an Uzi-wielding maniac who plainly copied his image from the first Quiet Riot album, and goes rogue. Getting off the grid proves easy for a scientist accustomed to caves. Bringing his daughter along proves harder.

Deep underground, the Muldroog have buried a secret for generations. Why else would a nation, apparently blessed by technology but attuned to natural rhythms, continue living in caves? Seems the Muldroog civilization is based upon a lie its people tell outsiders, a curse that keeps giving, provided nobody ever finds out. But what the Muldroog have spent centuries keeping locked up, EBX wants to make into a profit engine.

For all the sci-fi-adventure trappings, this story essentially isn’t about that. Cave Carson’s cybernetic eye, which sometimes goes unmentioned for several chapters, isn’t a driving force behind the story, it’s a metaphor for a man who’s seen things he cannot forget. Carson and his wife told their daughter lies to protect her from hostile reality. Now Eileen’s gone, Cave must bear punishment for those lies alone when truth rushes forth.

This book carries a “Suggested For Mature Readers” label. Please take this seriously. Besides violence, language, and very brief nudity, the themes of long-simmering family tensions shouldn’t be taken lightly. This story introduces themes that most grown-ups will recognize from their own families. Though we perhaps won’t discover our connection to forgotten mole-people civilizations, we all struggle to accept and understand our roots.

Cave Carson is only one among several classic DC characters getting reboot treatments from Gerard Way’s Young Animal imprint. Formerly lead singer of My Chemical Romance, Way’s recent reinvention as a genre writer has made visible several themes always implicit in his music. He admits his comics deal preponderantly with strained parent-child relationships. Well, this story ends in motion; it’ll be interesting to see where he takes these themes next.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Is Wonder Woman a Pro-War Superhero?

The group photo of Wonder Woman and friends that begins the movie

This essay contains spoilers.
Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman continues to enjoy mainly positive reviews, the first DC Extended Universe movie to enjoy warm reception. But not everyone agrees. Self-described Leninist author Jonathan Cook calls Wonder Womana hero only the military-industrial complex could create.” He backs this with something I thought common knowledge, that America’s security apparatus has leaned on Hollywood films before. But even by Cook’s own criteria, Wonder Woman would make very poor pro-military propaganda.

The term “military-industrial complex” comes from President Eisenhower, who warned Americans that a small cadre who got rich off violence would foment new wars as tickets for personal enrichment. Eisenhower primarily meant manufacturers of war materiel: the Lockheed Martins and Northrop Grummons of the world. But Hollywood has occasionally participated in the drum-beating industry. Illustrious directors like Frank Capra and David Lean have participated in creating frequently vile wartime propaganda. So have comic book publishers.

Yet this movie doesn’t support such interpretations. Consider a key sequence: leaving England, Diana, our heroine, watches soldiers returning to London with missing limbs and disfiguring scars. Nearing the front, she wants to rescue a wailing orphan, until she sees the refugee caravan. She feels for the refugees, until she discovers an entire occupied village. She liberates the village, but sees it destroyed by chemical weapons. She destroys the general who ordered the attack, and… noting improves.

This ascending pattern describes this entire movie. Apparently Cook believes that, because Jenkins depicts war in her movie, she perforce endorses it. But Diana, trained in single combat, thinks war morally vacuous and diabolical, hoping to uproot it altogether. Ultimately, Diana’s journey isn’t to defeat war; it’s a journey to discover war’s systematic nature. No one nation, army or general holds ultimate culpability for war. Rather, human power structures keep everyone fighting over diminishing scraps.

The real Erich Ludendorff, left, and Danny Huston as Ludendorff in Wonder Woman
Cook claims Wonder Woman positions the Allied leadership as virtuous and peace-seeking, compared to the murderously war-mongering Germans. Yet General Erich Ludendorff murders most of German high command when he wants the war to continue after they’ve lost hope. Meanwhile, when Steve Trevor warns that ignoring Ludendorff could cause thousands of soldiers to die needlessly, a British general, accustomed to leading from the rear, sneers: “That's what soldiers do.” Hardly the Manichaean dualism Cook purports.

Most important, the British and German leaders aren't negotiating for peace; they’re negotiating an armistice. A cessation of active hostilities, which would prove toxic. In reality, Ludendorff survived the war and proselytized the “Stab-in-the-Back Theory,” a leading intellectual justification for rising Nazism; see Christian Ingrao. The armistice didn't solve the underlying problem, it just punted everything onto the next generation. In the final reveal, the armistice serves supernatural war efforts; peace was never on offer.

Throughout the movie, Diana pursues Ares, the war god, whom she accuses of fomenting this violence. Cook takes this accusation so literally, I wonder if he actually saw the entire film. The climactic confrontation reveals that, while Ares put ideas in human heads, humans ultimately didn’t need supernatural incitement to war. Humans, Diana discovers, are a mixture of violence and kindness, of destructive and constructive capabilities. She could defeat war, but only by obliterating humanity.

In fairness, one of Cook’s criticisms holds water. Israeli model-turned-actress Gal Gadot has, as Cook writes, served in the Israeli Defense Force, and the IDF has a dismal human rights record. Working from known dates, Gadot probably participated in Israel’s illegal occupation of southern Lebanon. But Israel has compulsory military service laws; all Israelis, except ultra-Orthodox groups, must render two years’ service. Gal Gadot served in the IDF; so did Dr. Ruth Westheimer. So what?

This picture doesn't serve my theme; I just really like that it exists (source)

In my youth, I attempted (unsuccessfully) to join the Marine Corps. Later, after my views shifted, I waved placards in anti-war demonstrations. I’ve observed the military-industrial complex from the pro- and anti- camps, and friends, if Wonder Woman glorified war, violence, or nationalism, I’d say something. The events onscreen simply don’t justify any such interpretation. Throughout, we witness Diana’s dawning realization that violence, while sometimes necessary, never fixes humanity’s underlying problems. War is not praiseworthy.

Many movies have glamorized war, often at the expense of reality. From classics like The Longest Day to recents like American Sniper, Hollywood has often bought into myths of wartime glory, and peddled Security State drivel to unsuspecting young audiences. But Jonathan Cook’s accusation that Wonder Woman joins these ranks is so unsupported by onscreen evidence, one almost suspects Cook didn’t watch the movie, and reviewed other people’s rumors. Wonder Woman isn’t a pro-war movie.

Friday, July 7, 2017

The Samurai, the Chef, and the Sunset Strip

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part 20
Juzo Itami (writer/director), Tampopo

A pair of rough-hewn truckers in Stetson hats pull up to a local business and defend the proprietress’ honor. Pretty standard Spaghetti Western fare. Except these truckers are Japanese, the proprietress operates a traditional roadside ramen shop, and the biggest trucker gets his ass kicked. We know we’ve ventured off the high-minded track from art house cinema. But don’t get comfortable— you’ve entered a roller coaster of upended movie conventions.

Writer-director Juzo Itami combines boilerplates from cowboy action movies and samurai films with Monty Python-esque slapstick, to create a rapid-fire comedy that has all the heft we associate with the words “foreign film,” and none of the tedium. His combination of Westerns and samurai traditions isn’t necessarily unusual; directors have frequently remade films from one tradition into the other. Itami breaks the mold, though, with his distinctly western-friendly humor.

That local business is a roadside ramen shop, which sophisticated Japanese cities have like American cities have coffee shops. They provide loci of community, places where people get together, share stories, make friendships, and scheme revolutions. Japanese communities lacking ramen shops try to lure new ones in. But this shop is failing, and its proprietress doesn’t know why. She needs a savior, and the truckers need a mission. Hmmm...

The lead trucker, Goro (“bull” in Japanese, played by Tsutomo Yamazaki, an Akira Kurosawa veteran), has drifted through Japan inside his truck, alone and bored. Like the best cowboys or samurai, Goro thinks he needs only himself, until circumstances trap him in one location. Rough-hewn and westernized, Goro doesn’t fit into the ramen shop’s clean white surroundings. Yet he feels a call to rescue the pretty young owner.

That owner, Tampopo (Japanese for “dandelion,” Nobuko Miyamoto, wife of director Itami), has fallen on rough times. Recently widowed, she struggles to keep her family business active while raising a precocious son unaided. But the pressures overwhelm her; her kitchen is a haven of comically misplaced food, which she occupies in a manner all flying elbows and panicked screams. She seems lost behind the counter, until the badly beaten Goro reawakens her passions.

Described in prose, the plot seems formulaic. This isn’t coincidence. Itami deliberately satirizes cowboy and samurai movies, the ways their conventions still dictate modern Japanese gender identities, and how trapped modern people are in traditional roles. Goro and Tampopo glom onto each other because they must, because they perceive their reciprocal relationship entirely in terms inherited from glamorous movies. Toho Pictures and Hollywood Boulevard circumscribe our life choices.

Nobuko Miyamoto (left) and Tsutomo Yamazaki in Tampopo

But Itami also introduces sly elements ridiculing those who’d break from convention, too. Between long blocks of his main plot, Itami offers quick sketches, timed with Monty Python briskness, of people trying, and failing, to change. A schoolmistress teaches girls to eat noodles quietly, like Westerners, but gets undermined by a noisy, slurping American. A junior businessman incurs his employers’ wrath by simply trying to order his own dinner.

The longest recurring subplot involves a flashy Yakuza (organized crime boss) and his mistress. In a string of scenes, many wordless, these two find ways to make sharing food an intensely erotic experience. Japanese culture has deeply conflicted traditions surrounding expression of sexuality, so these scenes feel transgressive. We feel weird watching their food-based intimacy, but they’re so genuinely inventive, and so altogether earnest, we’re also comedically hypnotized.

Goro and his boyish sidekick Gun (played by Ken Watanabe before his career got Americanized) gradually rehabilitate Tampopo’s restaurant, turning it into a gleaming citadel of home-cooked goodness. But the effort of rebuilding the business domesticates Goro; he becomes accustomed to sleeping in the same bed and having hot meals nightly. Like cowboys and samurai throughout film history, he both loves and fears the changes domesticity forces.

We spend the entire movie wondering whether Goro and Tampopo will ever escape the prefab roles they’ve fallen into. One moment, we think they’ll show some identity, then the next, they grab onto the familiar like a life preserver. Much of this movie’s comedy comes from these characters’ complete inability to know themselves. Life dangles happiness before their eyes, but they can’t imagine their lives different from anything prior.

With its mix of Western and Japanese elements, and its casual, conversational dialog, this movie has become a staple of college-level Japanese language courses. Though dubbed versions exist, please watch it in Japanese. The actors’ remarkably understated performances and deadpan delivery make this a comedy classic transcending language barriers. Its metaphors of food and relationship resonate, whatever language you speak.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The American Armageddon Factory

Betsy Hartmann, The America Syndrome: Apocalypse, War, and Our Call to Greatness

The United States traditionally traces its foundations to the Mayflower Pilgrims of 1620. But schoolbook histories often overlook the Pilgrims’ apocalyptic beliefs. Even before the ship made landfall, William Bradford exhorted his followers that humankind’s eyes would focus on Massachusetts as the Pilgrims constructed the New Jerusalem promised by God on American shores. The Pilgrims literally saw themselves enacting the Book of Revelation.

Betsy Hartmann, historian and activist, sees this as the beginning of the America Syndrome, a sort of social delusion that we’re always, somehow, living in the End Times. True believers constantly see evidence of imminent Apocalypse, which only American ingenuity and resourcefulness can avert. It’s the “last best hope” myth, placing humanity on a coin flip between extinction and salvation. And somehow, America’s always prepared to rescue humanity from itself.

Hartmann divides the America Syndrome into five broad categories: religious apocalypses, utopian social engineering, Cold War fears about atomic destruction, fears of Malthusian overpopulation, and misplaced climate change fears. Some of Hartmann’s categories are surprising, like utopians, whose superficial optimism concealed deep Second Coming tendencies. Others, like climate change, need explanation, lest readers find Hartmann’s position misleading.

Though William Bradford claimed his Pilgrims were building God’s kingdom in America, that fervor eventually got diffused; inside eighty years, American apocalyptic Christianity got sidetracked onto witch hunts and woman-shaming. But the religious mentality crops up periodically, in various Great Awakenings and Moral Crusades. Somehow, the language of Revelation always matters more than the Gospels. Religious zealots persistently see the end of Creation as their final vindication.

Betsy Hartmann
Unlike Pilgrims, utopians saw humanity having a future. But their messianic language revealed their deeper reasoning: they believed fixing society’s shortcomings would hasten a vaguely defined age of prosperity and peace. Shakers, Transcendentalists, and other churches had spiritual motivations; but even the most secular utopians believed in some form of salvation, in this life or another. And elements of ministry and evangelism reached across religious denominations to drive utopian thinking.

Nuclear paranoia encouraged End-Times behavior, like purging impure thinkers from the community, and demanding loyalty to abstract ideals. But surprisingly, so did fears of global overpopulation—what Hartmann calls “the Church of Malthus.” Conservatives latched onto nuclear fears, while progressives still claim overpopulation will destroy the Earth tomorrow. In both cases, fear of complete destruction steers a hugely complicated network of political and social agendas, often heedless of the cost.

Even global warming, the one fear actually capable of imminently destroying humanity, gets treated in bleak apocalyptic terms. Supposedly rational scientists pitch doomsday scenarios as proven fact, which they presumably intend to spur action, but which actually provoke feelings of helplessness and malaise. Linking climate change to national security results in using the military to practice social engineering on foreign soil. Doomsayers pitch climate change’s effects as brown-skinned and Malthusian.

Apocalyptic philosophies share some characteristics, beyond simply believing the end is nigh. They demand absolute devotion, and tend to treat skeptics like heretics. They see circumstances in bleak terms: if you don’t believe Earth is violently overpopulated, for instance, then obviously you’re with the despoilers actively destroying humanity’s future. Apocalyptic preachers can’t see it’s possible to see a problem that needs addresssing, without racing headlong into Prophets Of Doom territory.

Worst of all, apocalyptic thinking, which Hartmann calls the America Syndrome, encourages moralistic thinking. Population, climate change, and global war aren’t problems that need solved; they become demons that need slain. This prevents sober consideration of causes and consequences. Everything stops being a knowable fact, and becomes monstrous, Satanic. Then we clothe military interventions, Presidents, or America itself in sacred robes and congratulate ourselves on saving the world from, well, something.

One category Hartmann doesn’t address, I consider an oversight: why no chapter on pop-culture apocalypses, from The Terminator to Left Behind? These mostly aren’t social movements, Hartmann’s domain of expertise, and perhaps she considers literary analysis of pop culture beyond her skills. But I’d consider these important, since these cultural phenomena keep populations geared toward apocalyptic thinking. Maybe someone like me, someone more literarily minded, needs to write that book.

It’s easy to point fingers and blame somebody else for the America Syndrome. Obviously Trump’s rosy-eyed nostalgia, or Bernie Sanders’ economic utopianism, is the real problem, and I’m innocent. But Betsy Hartmann encourages readers to understand, the entire American enterprise is founded on delusions of imminent Armageddon. The situation isn’t bleak; she offers alternative views on America’s persistent problems. But until we overcome apocalyptic thinking, the underlying problem will just keep happening.

Monday, July 3, 2017

A Brief, Unscientific Economics of Fireworks


It sounds like the Baghdad Green Zone outside my window now. The closer we get to July 4th, the longer the firecrackers explode. It starts around eight, when it’s still light outside, because it gets dark so late in midsummer that children can’t stay awake that long; but once adults take over, it continues, only mildly abated, until nearly midnight. I can handle it, but my cat looks traumatized.

Living across from a complex of subsidized apartments, I’ve noticed many recurrent characteristics. I’ve noticed the police patrol the parking lots without being called, and distribute tickets for penny-ante parking violations, ensuring disadvantaged residents keep distrusting the law. I’ve noticed children being high-spirited, noisy, energetic, sociable—in short, kids being kids—tax overworked parents’ ability to supervise. And I’ve noticed who discharges the most fireworks: children and the poor.

The pattern has become predictable over the years. Children on the brink of puberty start discharging fireworks when the heat and humidity accumulate enough to become truly oppressive. Usually this means around eight, though this year, which has been hotter than normal, this has meant as early as six some nights. Presumably they want the sensory stimulation of blowing things up when the stimulation of running loose becomes too difficult.

Because bedtimes become unreliable during the summer, the fireworks duration is inconsistent. Last week, we had several cool, cloudy afternoons, and kids pooped out and went inside relatively early. But a clear, hot weekend encouraged them to keep firing their explosives until dark, after 9:30. Their energy is apparently contagious, encouraging one another to light cherry bombs, laugh, test cusswords they haven’t completely mastered yet, and generally be kids.

Around the time children’s energy peters out, parents come home from low-paying jobs, still relatively energetic but lacking focus and attention span. Kids stagger indoors to watch some TV, drink fizzy drinks, and collapse, recharging for the next day. Parents then take over. Because their options continue into twilight and beyond, adults prefer brighter colors. Whizzers and snakes give way to catherine wheels and roman candles.

Since I’ve recently started walking wherever it’s feasible, to the grocery store or dinner, I’ve observed half this pattern applies as I get further from the subsidized apartments. Children and teens discharge age-appropriate fireworks in the evenings, even when I’m down relatively middle-class streets. But no matter the hour, it seems, the better-off the neighborhood, the fewer adults indulge in fireworks. It’s like the well-off don’t enjoy blowing shit up.


From this I’ve derived that two groups most like fireworks: children and the poor. My observation is completely non-scientific, certainly. There’s some racial correlation here, since some groups, like Hispanics, have a more thorough fireworks culture than white Americans. But in my largely working-class town, with its service economy, it’s mainly children and the poor, the two groups with the least autonomy, who most prefer commercial low-yield explosives.

It’s dangerous for (relatively) well-off white people like me to generalize. Not only do we have less information, we also have a tendency toward broad, ill-informed moralisms. In observing that children and the poor love explosives, I already hear some plush blue-nose sniffing that clearly, the poor think like children, and their immaturity proves they deserve to be poor. That’s not what I mean at all.

Rather, children and the poor share the a lack of control. Both schools and hourly wage-paying jobs share a tendency to create arbitrary rules and harsh punishments. Both require people to be there certain hours, whether they’re accomplishing anything or not. Both require the people forced to attend to go where they’re told, and do what they’re told, regardless of whether they truly understand why. Schools and jobs circumscribe autonomy.

So when kids and workers get home, they want to assert themselves however they can. That’s why kids love yelling as they spill, pell-mell, off school buses, because they’ve been forced into constrictive circumstances all day, and need independence. The bright lights, loud sounds, pretty colors, and skittering motion of typical fireworks, give children and workers the sensory stimulation, and self-determination, they lack in schools and tedious jobs.

My middle-class friends cast moralistic aspersions on poor people discharging fireworks. “They’re just setting money on fire,” someone recently said. But in America, we associate fireworks with celebrations of national independence, so why not accept that they also represent personal independence? People want to control something, anything, which school and work deny. Blowing shit up seems counterproductive, but let’s give people their freedom.