Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Far Right and Nelson Mandela

Amidst the outpourings of grief and respect that have followed the recent death of Nelson Mandela, you'd be forgiven for thinking that these tributes reflected a universal regard for one of the great figures of the 20th century. But sample a bit of what the right-wing news and blogosphere has to offer, and you'll find that some are happy to offer an unfashionable (read: incredibly ignorant) opinion. A great example is WorldNetDaily, where editor Joseph Farah seems to hold Mandela responsible for every violent act committed towards whites by anyone loosely involved in the resistance to apartheid.
He was not Martin Luther King Jr. He was not Mahatma Gandhi. And he was certainly not George Washington, as Barack Obama claimed.
(George Washington owned slaves, by the way, so he is right. Nelson Mandela certainly never did that.)
He was a committed member of the South African Communist Party. He was a leader of the revolutionary African National Congress, which he helped to radicalize into an organization sworn to armed, violent attacks.
Also at WND, Diana West attempts to nullify Mandela's legacy by pointing out his association with Communists.
If we attempt quantify the crimes of apartheid in brief, we can point to some 7,000 “political deaths” of South African citizens over four decades of white minority rule. The ANC struggle against apartheid, meanwhile, was sponsored by the Soviet Union, conservatively estimated to have killed some 20 million citizens to preserve its totalitarian dictatorship and to force Marxism-Leninism on the rest of us. This global movement, according to “The Black Book of Communism,” resulted in 100 million deaths.
( So just so we're clear, apartheid was only bad because of a few political deaths, rather than the systematic oppression of the majority of South Africans because of their race.) 

What jumps out at me from this quote is: the Soviet Union was a horrible totalitarian regime, yet they backed the struggle of black South Africans, while the freedom-loving United States did not. That is quite an indictment on the US. It's a common tactic in the US for the Right to use the word "Communist", "Marxist" or "Socialist" as a universal term to place someone in the box marked "irrevocably bad person". They've also done it with Barack Obama, and they're even doing it with the current Pope who has had the nerve to criticise the culture of capitalist materialism. 

It might seem obvious, but I'll point it out anyway: a LOT of people thought Communism was a good idea for a while, and most of them had no idea that some of its exponents in some countries were into mass murder. And for people who had to endure oppression under fascistic capitalist and democratic governments, it's not hard to see how Communism seemed like it might have been a better alternative. In any case, the kill count racked up by Christianity over the centuries is pretty damn high too, but most of us don't hold individual Christians responsible for that. 

As Salon points out, many more-or-less reasonable people on the conservative side politics have spoken favourably of Nelson Mandela following his passing, only to receive blowback from their supporters. At Renew America, Cliff Kincaid asks: "Is Mandela the biggest liar in history?" That's quite a challenge to throw down. How does one determine history's biggest liar, by the way? How thoroughly would Madiba's pants have to be on fire for him to win this one? 

Meanwhile, Rodney Atkinson, British political economist and embarassing brother of comedian Rowan Atkinson, says: “His legacy is a murderous one, comparable, in its racist and economic persecution of a minority, to the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews. And, like the Jews in Germany, whites, especially the young and well-qualified, have been leaving South Africa for years.” Of course in order to make the Mandela-Hitler comparison work, you would have to ignore substantial differences in death tolls (Hitler is up by around 6 million), and justification for their actions (I'm not sure whatever hardship those nasty Jews were inflicting on poor Adolph and his peeps was quite as bad as what black South Africans had to deal with). 

Now, you might have heard it said that "One man's freedom fighter is another's terrorist", and it would not be unreasonable to debate whether the non-violent philosophies of Gandhi or Martin Luther King were better or more effective than the armed resistance advocated by Mandela's ANC, at least for part of their history. But when it comes to the Far Right's condemnations of Mandela as a "terrorist" for engaging in armed resistance, bear in mind one thing: These are the very same people who constantly trumpet the right to bear arms, not merely for self-defence but as a safeguard against tyranny. Except the apartheid state was not sufficiently tyrannical in comparison to the very real spectre of tyranny that right-wing Americans face today under Barack Obama. I mean, socialist health care? The possibility of having to pay slightly higher taxes? Having to put up with gay people getting married? Having a black head of state whose name sounds kinda Muslim-y? If Nelson Mandela had fought against THAT kind of horrific oppression, THEN he might be considered a hero.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Pop singer dating Asian guy leads to teenage racist brain explosion

I know it's not entirely shocking that there are racist people on Twitter. And neither is it entirely shocking that teenagers can be horrible, superficial and judgement at times. So we shouldn't be surprised when these things converge, but this particular case is interesting because it tells you a lot about the racist attitudes that are prevalent in our society about Asian men.
For those of you living under a rock that is impervious to popular music, Lorde is a white singer/songwriter from New Zealand who has made a big splash globally with smart electro-indie-pop songs that are smarter and better crafted than would normally be expected from one so young (she's just turned 17). Lorde also happens to be in a relationship, if a few photos that have leaked over Twitter would suggest, and her boyfriend is a slightly geeky looking Asian guy named James Lowe.
Normally one would think this a fairly unremarkable fact, but not so. A legion of One Direction and Justin Bieber fans took it upon themselves to unleash a torrent of tweets calling Lowe ugly and making the most unimaginative of racial put-downs. The stimulus for this was apparently Lorde referring to Bieber and 1D as "ugly", although there is no evidence for this actually happening. Rumour was enough. Below are just a selection of the many, many tweets on the subject.

There are even some tweets that clearly mean well, and attack the racist bullying tweeters, yet display racist assumptions about the attractiveness of Asian men.

Note the equivalence of "Asian" with "ugly" in those above tweets.

First of all, by the standards of regular people, James Lowe is not ugly. He's sort of nondescript looking, and doesn't look like someone who could successfully audition to be in One Direction. If you saw him on the street or in a social situation, outside the context of him dating a pop star, you wouldn't think he was ugly at all. All of which is probably irrelevant anyway, since ugly or not, it's just possible that he's a really cool nice guy who is interesting to talk to and knows how to treat a girl with respect. But it's not like those are important qualities in a relationship, right...?

I'm not going to claim that Asian males are the greatest victims of racism in the world, but they do suffer from a particular kind of racism. A great many people view them as incapable of being sexy or attractive, and assume that every Asian man is a maths nerd. In the US, African Americans face worse racism than Asians, yet there is no shortage of black athletes and entertainers portrayed as desirable - Beyonce, Denzel Washington, Tyson Beckford, to name but three. Where Asians are concerned, Asian women are quite often portrayed as desirable, although there is frequently a fetishistic aspect to this. Asian men just do not register on the radar of popular culture in terms of desirability. There are no Asian leading men on American TV. When an Asian-American man did blaze his own trail into national consciousness through sports - basketball star Jeremy Lin - the small-dick jokes were not far behind.

 If you're thinking, "Yeah, but... Asian men just aren't all that hot", you are entitled to your opinion. But bear in mind that physical attraction has a great deal to do with cultural conditioning. Asian men are so invisible in popular culture that many people (such as many of the above) seem not even to have considered the idea that they might be date-worthy. By contrast, there are people in the world who might never have seen a white man in the flesh, but who could decide that white men are handsome based on the ubiquity of Brad Pitt or Justin Timberlake. Same goes for black Americans. If Westerners were constantly exposed to images of say, Godfrey Gao or Takeshi Kaneshiro or Johnny Tri Nguyen, there would be a huge change in perception. Sure, there are still a whole host of Asian guys out there whose physical appearance is underwhelming, but you could say the same about white guys too. No one has convinced me that Tom Hanks or Nicholas Cage are any better than average looking, yet they have played romantic leading men in countless movies.

By the way... since no one can actually find any evidence of Lorde calling either Justin Bieber or One Direction "ugly", it might be puzzling that the rumour could become so prevalent as to elicit this kind of response. But it's actually not so surprising. She has criticised some artists before, including Bieber, of whom she said in an interview: "I feel like the influences that are there in the industry for people my age, like Justin Bieber or whatever, are just maybe not a very real depiction of what it's like to be a young person." For the kind of fans who like Justin Bieber and his ilk, the physical attractiveness of pop stars is inseparable from whatever musical talents they have. No one got successful making teen pop without being conventionally attractive to some degree. So implying that Justin Bieber is not a very good artist may as well be the same as saying he is ugly, since his image is at the root of his appeal.

Bear in mind as well that the typical teenager is riddled with anxieties about their own appearance and how it compares with other people, so disparaging someone else for being "ugly" has a sort of cathartic effect, and enables the bully to feel a little better about his or herself by placing themselves slightly higher on the attractiveness hierarchy than someone else. I can't imagine it feels all that good for someone like James Lowe however, who has been vilified as an ugly freak by hundreds or strangers, all for the heinous crime of dating someone who happened to be famous.

Aamer Rahman on "Reverse Racism"

Melbourne comedian Aamer Rahman has been getting a lot of exposure for this one bit of his act about the concept of Reverse Racism. (As in, non-white people being racist towards white people). It's not necessarily the funniest thing you'll see today, but it's really nicely put together.

It's something of a masterclass in explaining why not all racisms are necessarily the same. White racism has hundreds of years of baggage that makes it a lot worse in general than the racism of the assorted browns and yellows and blacks of the world. It may be a double standard, but it's one that is at least partly justified.

But I also think that this perspective on things is problematic as well. It's not easy to convince white people to take racism towards non-whites seriously, if they feel that no one takes racism towards them seriously at all. There is a large section of the left side of the socio-political spectrum who are hypersensitive to the pain or perceived pain of non-white people, often to the point of ridiculousness; yet the same people will make blanket statements about white folks which would be considered outrageous if they were made about non-white people. As I mentioned before, the double standard is justified... but only too a point.

I've seen Rahman perform a couple of times; I actually know him from my university days and he's a cool guy. White racism is the primary theme that runs through his act, but he definitely gets into territory that seems uncomfortably close to being actually racist to white people.

And at the end of the day, I have to wonder; does that help to bring us together, or does it merely divide? Most white people would feel alienated by Rahman's act, while non-white people may well leave feeling more contemptuous of white people than they did before. With the West experiencing deeply troubling divisions between white and non-white, Muslim and non-Muslim, I just don't know if all this stuff helps.

By contrast, someone like Dave Chappelle (to be fair, a very different style of comedian) makes comedy that constantly touches on race, and is also quite ruthless in making fun of white people and scathing towards racism. But I don't find it to be divisive.

It's important - no, essential - to identify and challenge those aspects of society and history that enshrine inequality. And the success of most Western societies cannot be separated from their legacy of criminal behaviour towards the people of the rest of the world, the extent of which most white people don't fully comprehend. They do need to be told. But there is a tipping point at which lecturing about the evils of white people simply becomes counter-productive. White and non-white need to work together if any kind of equitable and harmonious multi-ethnic society is to be achieved. This can't happen if non-white people live in constant suspicion about the motives of white people, and it can't happen if white people refuse to engage because they feel they won't be given the benefit of the doubt.

In an ideal world in which many radical anti-racists dwell, whites would cop to their privilege and properly make right the litany of injustices perpetrated so that they could enjoy the most advantageous position they enjoy in the scheme of things today. But since that's not really going to happen, I don't think that constantly telling white people how racist they are is going to reap the desired reward.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Must-see Indian satire of male excuses for sexual violence

You really have to watch this. It's from India, but most of it applies equally to any society, because you'll hear the same blaming of the victim no matter where you go.


It's really heartening to see an increased willingness to speak up amongst Indian women about sexual violence in their culture. I've seen comments from men saying that this video unfairly labels men in general, rather than men who commit rape, as the problem. But that would miss the point. In the words of male anti-violence activist Jackson Katz, "It takes a village to rape a woman". Incidents of rape are tied to the broader culture that surrounds them, that creates men with a sense of entitlement to have sex, a resent for women exercising their free will, and a hunting mentality rather than a sharing mentality towards the act itself. This is true in any country in the world, but South Asian societies tend to be some of the most patriarchal in the world.
Of course, it is possible to make the critique that the rate of sexual violence in liberal permissive societies such as the US is much higher than in places like India or the Middle East. But in the latter regions, that low rate has a lot to do with women's freedom being curtailed, either by law or by cultural mores. While it is probably true to a certain extent that women dressing very conservatively is one way to reduce the likelihood of rape, it also has the effect of removing the sense of responsibility from men. Focusing on women's dress and behaviour propagates the myth that men just cannot help but rape women if they get a bit too excited, which in turn perpetuates a culture in which rape is more easily excused and thus perpetrated.

Racist Movember

I used to joke that Movember was racially discriminatory, since as a person of East Asian ancestry it's just too hard for me to grow a moustache that is even remotely convincing.

But someone has actually written an article like that and apparently they are not joking. Arianne Shahvisi writes in the New Statesman that "The slogan is as misguided as its campaign: Movember is divisive, gender normative, racist and ineffective against some very real health issues."

Yep you heard right. To go into further detail:

For the most part, sponsored activities (day-long silences, sponge-throwing, public waxing) depend on the extreme, the outrageous, the ridiculous. Friends and family are, apparently, only willing to part with money to witness something odd, humorous or downright unpleasant. So what message does Movember convey to those whose moustaches are more-or-less permanent features? With large numbers of minority-ethnic men—for instance Kurds, Indians, Mexicans—sporting moustaches as a cultural or religious signifier, Movember reinforces the “othering” of “foreigners” by the generally clean-shaven, white majority. Imagine a charity event that required its participants to wear dreadlocks or a sari for one month to raise funds—it would rightly be seen as unforgivably racist. What is the difference here? We are not simply considering an arbitrary configuration of facial hair, but one that had particular, imperial connotation to British men of our grandfathers' generation and currently has a separate cultural valence for men from certain ethnic groups. Moustaches, whether or not “mo-bros” mean theirs to be, are loaded with symbolism. We often wonder how our fathers (both life-long moustached men) must feel each November, when their colleagues' faces temporarily resemble theirs, and are summarily met with giggles and sponsor-money. No doubt they draw the obvious conclusion, that dovetails with many other experiences of life as an immigrant: there are different rules for white faces.

One of the major weaknesses in the cultural Left is giving any shrift at all to articles like these; that focus on grasping at any possible reason to find some aspect of popular culture guilty of racism or other -isms. The "First World Problems" of anti-racism. And it takes something most everybody agrees is a positive thing - a movement that raises awareness and funding for prostate cancer - and tells us all how it is actually quite hateful.

Indeed, if you were a conservative and wanted to write a parody article highlighting Left-wing ridiculousness, you would probably write something like this.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

This week in racism

Charges pressed in the shooting death of Renisha McBride
Prosecutors charged a white man, Theodore Wafer, from suburban Detroit with second-degree murder on Friday, after he killed a young black woman with a shotgun blast to the face when she knocked on his door in the middle of the night seeking help after a car crash. Renisha McBride's death could easily be explained away as a tragic accident from a misunderstanding, but only if you were intent on overlooking what appear to be the two major factors at play: racism and gun culture.

It recalls the recent headline-making case of Trayvon Martin, but is also eerily similar to the case of Jonathan Ferrell earlier this year; Ferrell was also seeking help after being involved in a car wreck, but the woman in the house he went to for help called the police on him and they gunned him down. It's hard to fathom these situations unfolding as they did without a large segment of the population instinctively viewing black people as intrinsically threatening (and possibly viewing black lives as worth less than other human lives). And of course there are the guns. The US is far from the only country to have a high rate of gun ownership, but not all such countries have the same culture that celebrates guns but is also filled with paranoia of The Other coming to take your freedoms or possessions.

Richard Cohen's Gag Reflex

At the Washington Post this week, columnist Richard Cohen kicked off a shitstorm with a passing reference to interracial marriage which sounds a little bit racist as hell. Cohen writes, in the key paragraph (emphasis mine):

Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn't look like their country at all.

Holy shit, did he really say that? No wonder there's been a petition to have him sacked, and that the article is the topic of finger-wagging all over the internets.

Thing is though, it's weird... if you read the rest of the article, that one line sticks out like a sore thumb. In it's entirety, it's about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and why he's too moderate to succeed in the Tea Party-dominated Republican race for POTUS in 2016. Cohen doesn't say that an interracial marriage provokes his own gag reflex - he is having a go at the Right, and alleging that they represent a segment of the country who can't keep up with the pace of social change. And in a sense you could argue that aside from the dodgy reference to Bill de Blasio's interracial family, he's also being highly prejudicial towards conservatives. There's plenty of racism in conservative circles (sometimes well hidden, often not), but to present the idea that a substantial proportion of the population, even the conservative population, would frown at the idea of race-mixing, is wide of the mark. Slate's Matthew Yglesias points out that approval of interracial marriage is at about 84% among white Americans. And while I'd consider anything under 99% to be highly worrying, it still doesn't equate to "conventional" thinking among conservatives.

And in truth the shitstorm over the article really comes down to that one word - "conventional". When Cohen writes about "people with conventional views", does he really mean it the way most people would interpret it? Frowning on interracial marriage was certainly conventional in the 1950s, not so much today, even in Tea Party circles. Most of us take "conventional" to mean "normal", or "commonplace", but Cohen seems to mean something else. With better editing over at the Post, this would have been picked up and changed to something less ambiguous that better captured what Cohen was seemingly trying to put across.

This is something to ponder when we get all in a tizzy about language in articles that seems racist. Sometimes it's down to careless writing or insufficient editorial scrutiny, rather than actual racist attitudes, and it may be that this one of those cases. Trust me, I've been there myself.

Malay Neo-Nazis
Featured in VICE this week. No shit. Amazing. Yet, if you know the ethno-political tensions that are rife in Malaysia, sort of not that surprising.

Lily Allen Hates Black Women

British singer Lily Allen released her first single in 4 years, Hard Out Here, which despite lacking the catchy charm of some of her earlier stuff, still generated some buzz for its pointed critique of how women are depicted in contemporary pop music. The video contains some not-so-veiled jabs at Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus, who despite being obvious targets, certainly had it coming.

And then other people started noticing that Lily Allen is racist or something. For instance, Jezebel ran an article exclaiming about how brilliant the video was for its attack on sexism, then quickly ran another one condemning it for being racist. The accusation? "Using black women as props".

The article that seems to have been instrumental in kicking off this accusation is this one: Lily Allen's Racist New Video, which sums it up nicely:

in the end it just reduces itself down to elevating Lily Allen’s white female body and objectifying and utterly denigrating those of the black female dancers she deliberately surrounds herself with from start to finish.
You can judge for yourself if you think that's true. For mine, I don't see her as denigrating the black dancers at all. I think what she and the director are going for is showing how the artist and everyone else involved are being exploited for the male gaze. It's not having a shot at twerking, per se, but at the way the dance style is commodified for the appreciation of men. All the women in the video are disempowered in some way. In regards to the video "elevating Lily Allen's white female body" at the expense of the black dancers... given that Lily Allen is the singer of the song in question, she is clearly going to be presented as different to everyone else in the video who is not the singer.

Another blogger takes it even further - because finding new ways to accuse people of various -isms is a sure-fire cred-earner in the far-left blogosphere - and declares the video sexist as well.

My other issue with this video is that it’s still obviously made for the male gaze. It’s unclear which parts are sarcastic and which parts aren’t. Keeping the man in the video and the “banana blowjob” lesson from him is not an empowering message because she doesn’t kick his butt by the end of it. She lets her anger out in the lyrics, but she doesn’t directly rebel on screen. There is no retribution, and the men who treated her so badly don’t face any consequences. That’s ironic sexism.

This sounds like someone who only wants to watch movies that have happy endings.

The aforementioned Jezebel article sums up one of the big problems with all this logic (emphasis mine):
Lily Allen has responded to controversy around her new video by saying that its imagery — a fully-clothed Allen surrounded by scantily clad mostly-nonwhite backup dancers twerking — "had nothing to do with race, at all." Unfortunately for Allen, extenuating circumstances surrounding its creation don't get to dictate how art is perceived, and artists don't get to decide what is and isn't about race — the audience does.
In other words, it doesn't matter whether something is done completely free of racist intent. If it looks racist, or can be perceived as racist by the online community of people who spend their days looking for something to get angry about - then it's racist.

I'm not saying there's no room for critique of how race features in Allen's video. The problem is that there is so much sensationalism and lack of subtlety in these critiques. If someone wrote that the video (rather than Allen herself, since she didn't direct the video) veers into potentially problematic territory with its echoing of racial tropes that she doesn't explicitly challenge, then I could subscribe to that. But that's not the kind of critique we are getting. Something is painted as either racist or non-racist, and the determining factor is usually something that requires sociological degrees to work out. Regular people don't understand this shit and don't buy it, which means that when things they like are being labelled as racist for reasons they don't understand, it just seems like the race police of the intelligentsia are trying to spoil all the fun.

The end result is just greater division. An artist tries to make a positive statement that challenges the patriarchy, and people can't wait to take shots at her. This sort of thing makes many people in the mainstream go away thinking that racism is not really a problem, since so many stories about racism are really just agitators looking for drama where there needn't be. With the column inches devoted to this video, you'd think Allen was wearing a white hood and burning a cross, rather than merely imitating tropes from other videos (which are arguably racist and sexist) in order to satirise them.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Japanese TV wins again

Watch this. (Preferably not at work... it's not like there's any nudity as everything is hidden, but you wouldn't want anyone seeing you watch this at work.) You can thank me later.

The basic plot? Well, for some reason which no one seems to have explained, someone came up with the idea of having a samurai-style duel between a straight porn actor (who as a professional, has supreme control over his man bits) and a gay man who is evidently an expert in the art of getting a man off. While there's something just a little bit creepy about the whole concept of trying to make someone have an orgasm when they are trying really hard not to have one, that shouldn't stop you from finding this hilarious and also feeling a bit weird at the same time.

I should also point out that, in case you don't see the point of watching a censored sex act for 9 minutes, the hilarity is in the dialogue - the commentary and the banter between the two "combatants". It's sort of like Iron Chef but with (unseen) blow jobs.

Poko x Tate - Orgasm wars: AV actor Sawai VS... by jimakutv

Friday, October 25, 2013

"Chinese Food" is the worst thing ever in the history of things

No, not the food itself. Actual Chinese food is quite awesome. No, this song, which debuted at number 29 on the US Billboard chart, is just horrible in too many ways to name. (Ok, I'll name a few - it's Orientalist, it's brain-meltingly stupid, and it's annoying as fuck.)
It's made by the same people who brought you Rebecca Black's song Friday - the guy rapping in the panda suit is apparently the mastermind - and I use that term extremely loosely - behind all this. But Friday looks like a work of genius next to this piece of panda shit.

Which is worse? This, or Day Above Ground's excerable, creepy-fetishistic Asian Girl?

Monday, October 14, 2013

Who's misidentifying racism this week

I'm a firm believer that there's plenty of racism out there and thus it's important to point it out. But I'm also a firm believer that those of us who shout "racism" when none clearly exists are doing a huge disservice to their cause. It contributes to a culture of hyperbole and confected outrage in which nuance and context are lost in favour of unnecessary drama. It smears people who have not done anything wrong and thus creates a backlash against "political correctness" and thus fuels broader contempt for people who do point out legitimate racism. It also makes people care less about actual racism, since the label loses its meaning through overuse for things that are trivial. I could say the same about other labels like "misogyny", "homophobia" and so on, but let's stick to racism for today.

Below are two examples of how this happens, and for different reasons. The first is due to an overly earnest activist mentality that sees oppression everywhere, whether it exists or not. The second is an example of the media looking to generate controversy and therefore revenue by creating scandals where none need exist.

Lorde's song "Royals" is "deeply racist"

At Feministing, blogger Veronica Bayetti Flores talks about how Royals, the hit from 16 year old New Zealander Lorde, is all about shitting on black people. Yes, really. Most people have interpreted the song as a critique of the culture of consumerism, hedonism and conspicuous wealth that pervades popular music, but Flores is able to find the racist angle.
While I love a good critique of wealth accumulation and inequity, this song is not one; in fact, it is deeply racist. Because we all know who she’s thinking when we’re talking gold teeth, Cristal and Maybachs. So why shit on black folks? Why shit on rappers? Why aren’t we critiquing wealth by taking hits at golf or polo or Central Park East? Why not take to task the bankers and old-money folks who actually have a hand in perpetuating and increasing wealth inequality? I’m gonna take a guess: racism.
So not just a wee bit racist, or having a possible racist interpretation... but deeply racist. That's a pretty big call, particularly when just a few sentences later Flores acknowledges she is taking a guess. Here's my perspective: if you are going to potentially smear a public figure as racist, you have to do more than just guess. Except Flores says she is doing more than guessing; she knows what Lorde is thinking about (ie. black people), as do we all apparently.

Why doesn't Lorde write about Central Park East? Because she's from New Zealand and not New York, presumably, and is writing from her own experience with consumerist pop culture. To be sure, Lorde mentions three things that are stereotypically associated with hip-hop culture and black people; gold teeth, Cristal and Maybachs. Of course she also mentions a whole list of other things, such as tigers on a leash and trashing hotel rooms, which are not associated with hip-hop. It's also drawing a long bow to equate "rappers" with "black people". Since hip-hop has gone beyond being a strictly African-American art form, and given that only a tiny proportion of black people are actually rappers with recording contracts, critiquing what rappers say does not equal "shitting on black people".

Flores talks a lot about context, as you expect someone coming from a social science perspective to do. But she never thinks about context in terms of why Lorde would write that song. Her context is purely US-centric, assuming that a teenage girl from New Zealand automatically believes the same racial stereotypes that Flores would ascribe to Americans.

Too many of today's anti-racist and feminist activists are very quick to throw accusations around of sexism or racism, without a thought to the idea of giving someone the benefit of the doubt. If you are only guessing as to why someone writes something a certain way, shouldn't you be more certain of your facts before pronouncing them "deeply racist"?

Jack Wilshere the xenophobe
England and Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere sparked some kind of furore about nationality in football at a press conference this week. The context: Adnan Januzaj is an exciting 18 year old Manchester United winger who was born in Brussels, Belgium, of Kosovar-Albanian descent. He has been in England for 2 years, and under FIFA rules could potentially represent England if he lived there for 5 years.
Here's what Wilshere was asked about Januzaj and what he said:

Oliver Kay (The Times): "Jack, there has been lots of talk over the last few days about the lad Januzaj, who is at United, in terms of playing for England in the future … with players like you, Ross Barkley and Ravel Morrison all coming through what would your view be about playing with foreign players with England, or even watching them from the bench?"
Jack Wilshere: "No, for me if you are English you are English and you play for England. The only people who should play for England are English people. If you live in England for five years it doesn’t make you English. You shouldn’t play ... it doesn’t mean you can play for a country. If I went to Spain and lived there for five years I am not going to play for Spain."

This sparked a Twitter war with Kevin Pietersen, a South African-born cricketer who represented England. It also made the back page of most major British newspapers, with lots of writers rushing to condemn him.

Thing is, many of them are putting words into Wilshere's mouth. Being an English person - what does that mean? Wilshere didn't say anything about having to be white, or to be born in England. In a later clarification via Twitter, Wilshere said he wasn't talking about people like Pietersen, or Somali-born runner Mo Farah, or Ivorian-born English football Wilfried Zaha. There is a huge distinction between being an immigrant who moves to a new country at an early age, and a professional athlete who moves to a country specifically to play professional sport and later wants to play for that country. This is not to say that athletes in the latter category should not be allowed to represent their new country, of course; but it has greater implications for the game.

Let's take Brazil, the powerhouse of world football that produces enormous numbers of professionals who play in leagues all around the world. So many decent players, most of whom will never be quite good enough to play for the national team, but could walk into many other national sides. Thus we have seen in recent years Brazilian-born players representing Croatia, Spain, Tunisia, Japan, Germany and Portugal. These are all players who have moved to their countries specifically to play professional sport. A similar situation occurs in long-distance running, with countries like Bahrain and Qatar being represented by Kenyan-born athletes. Does that start to become ridiculous at a certain point? Some would say yes - international sporting teams are ostensibly meant to represent something about each nation and its people. Yet you could also argue that professionals in a variety of fields migrate and transfer their expertise to their new country all the time. So why should sporting professionals be any different?

Wilshere was right to later tweet to Pietersen that he was talking about football, not cricket. Traditionally the only way to play at the highest level in cricket was in national teams; therefore it is understandable that someone like Pietersen might switch to England since he was not getting the opportunities he wanted in South Africa. (He's since become England's 4th highest ever run-scorer.) But in football, despite the glory of the World Cup, players can make incredibly lucrative careers playing in club sides. International football does not have the same incentive to change nationality as international cricket.

I don't know exactly where the line should be drawn between migrants representing their new country and what might seem like opportunistic citizenship; or indeed if one should be drawn at all. But it is a legitimate discussion. It's a discussion that is not served by news outlets whipping up controversy by creating straw-men arguments.

For example, how about these headline:

Jack Wilshere is right about English-born players for England team

Jack Wilshere is wrong - Mo Farah is proof we should embrace Britain's diverse society 
Midfielder is misguided to say only those born in England can play for England, London 2012 hero shows just why the FA should make the most of the available talent here

Except Wilshere didn't say anything about being born in England. He talked about "being English", which could mean any number of things but doesn't have to mean being born there. And Mo Farah is a completely different case to Adnan Januzaj. Farah was born in Somalia, but his father was born in Hounslow. He moved to England at age 8 and was a British citizen well before he was a professional athlete. Januzaj is a Belgian who moved to England to play professional football, and who the English FA are trying to convince to become English so he can play for them.

But this is all secondary to the need to generate a story through controversy.

Monday, September 30, 2013

The trickiness of catching of Indonesian taxis

In a country where the public transport system is generally quite poor, travellers to Indonesia frequently end up using the taxi as a way to get from place to place. And at least in Jakarta or the tourist meccas of south Bali, it's very easy as taxis are everywhere. Yet cab-catching takes a fair degree of street-smarts if you don't wish to get ripped off. The industry is full of slick operators who will try various ways squeeze you for some extra cash, some overt and some subtle.

Now I should state that getting "ripped off" by Indonesian taxi drivers is generally not a huge blow to the pocket of the average Western tourist. My quasi-socialist mindset tells me that paying the equivalent of 1 or 2 US dollars extra is not a whole lot in the scheme of things, while for an Indonesian it's worth a lot more. Which is why I try to stay vigilant, while still keeping a sense of perspective about these things; perhaps it's not worth getting worked up over a relatively piffling amount of money. But of course, it's the principle of the thing, and no one likes to feel like they're getting worked over. I have relatives who always ask how much I paid for a cab ride, since they expect as an outsider I'm a prime target for ripoffs. And it's always faintly embarrassing to hear them say that I paid more than I should have. So some personal pride is at stake.

And there's a scarier side to dodgy taxis as well. There are well-known stories about drivers who work in concert with robbers and thugs, setting up their passengers to get accosted. This is obviously an extreme case, but it's just one more reason why it's good to know how to separate good taxi companies from bad. More often, dodgy drivers use tricks such as meters that run faster than they should, or driving the long way to a given destination (easy to get away with if the passenger is not a local). The most common one is drivers trying to haggle for a fare rather than using a meter; again, something that works best on non-locals. It should be noted that in many parts of Indonesia outside the large urban centres, haggling for a fare is standard practice since there are often no taxi companies in operation there; just random guys with vehicles offering to take you somewhere. And there are no meters for Jakarta's bajaj (tuk-tuk) or Yogyakarta's becak (tri-shaw).

There are myriad different taxi companies in Indonesia's major urban centres, but one company is famous for it's commitment to being a trustworthy taxi service: the Blue Bird group. Lest this sound like an advertisement for this company, I'm merely repeating the advice that locals have always given me; if you want a taxi, look for Blue Bird first. Recently another company, Express, has risen to a similar level of respect amongst the taxi-catching public in Jakarta.

Blue Bird's secret is not especially innovative; in an industry with its share of shady characters, Blue Bird merely demonstrates a higher emphasis on not acting shady. That means drivers are courteous, always use reliable meters and don't try to inflate the fare, and have to maintain a high standard of vehicle cleanliness. This last point is not insignificant as drivers of all companies frequently sleep in their taxis - as you would too if you had to drive around Jakarta all day - but there's a difference between napping in a taxi and living out of it, which some do. Blue Bird is also sensitive to customer complaints; from what I understand, they have a points system in which accruing too many complaints means dismissal. New drivers need to stay complaint-free during a three-month probation period, or they are out. And well might they be stringent on this. When the primary factor that gives you an edge over your rivals is the perception of trustworthiness, any employee who fails the party line is doing severe damage to the brand.

I've heard recently that a number of other companies have responded to the market dominance of Blue Bird by mimicry; copying their colour scheme and even having logos that look superficially similar. I'm a bit confused as to exactly how true this is, because some of these companies (such as Cendrawasih, which is purplish rather than blue and has a bird of paradise as its logo) are actually subsidiaries of Blue Bird. But I've certainly had the experience of catching a taxi that by night appeared to be a Blue Bird, yet the driver wanted to name a price rather than use the meter; once inside the taxi it was clear that there was nothing with the Blue Bird branding.

From an economic perspective I find this very interesting. Since it is fairly obvious why Blue Bird has come to dominate the market, you'd think the obvious way for rival companies to compete would be to raise their standards to a comparable level. Yet, perhaps in a case of shady folks doing what shady folks do, they've mimicked the appearance of respectability without actually trying to earn it. Surely it is more cost-effective to enforce driver behaviour than it is to redesign your fleet? Or maybe it's not.

My experience with Blue Bird has not all been perfect. Like Indonesian taxi drivers in general, and Indonesians in general, their drivers do not tend to use maps to get around. And given that GPS is still out of the price range of most drivers and companies at the moment, they have to rely on road knowledge, either their own, their customers, or passersby, or even their associates. Having drivers stop on the side of the road to ask locals for directions is commonplace, and I've had one driver pull over three times, and get out and ring one of his fellow drivers for information about the area, when the locals couldn't tell him anything. All while the meter was running of course.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Robin Thicke vs Marvin Gaye: Is "Blurred Lines" a ripoff, legally?

R&B singer Robin Thicke has become a rather controversial figure of late. There was the release of the massive worldwide hit Blurred Lines, with its video of scantily clad women. (There have been suggestions that its lyrics are "rapey", but that's really a case of some feminists seeing what they want to see to make them outraged.) Then there was the furore over Miley Cyrus grinding against Thicke during a performance of that song at the VMAs, which is several minutes of my life I never wish to experience again.
Also in the news, the family of Marvin Gaye is suing Thicke for allegedly ripping off Gaye's 1977 hit Got to Give it Up. Except Thicke got in there first and is suing Gaye's family as well. Or something. I'm not quite sure how all this works, but Thicke apparently wants a judge to declare once and for all that Blurred Lines is an original work and thus prevent any claims to the huge amount of money he is making of the song.

(He's also taking the same step with regard to the Funkadelic song Sexy Ways, although it's hard to see any real similarity between those two songs at all, frankly.)
Thicke has openly said that Marvin Gaye was an inspiration for him, and he asked Pharrell to come up with a Marvin Gaye feel for the song.

So what's my take? First of all, it's obvious to anyone with ears that Thicke (and Pharrell Williams who produced it) has ripped off the Gaye song. Like, it's not even debatable.

However: in legal terms, that might not pass muster. The two songs don't share a melody, there is no direct sample, no shared lyrics.

One thing that makes this an interesting case is that Got to Give it Up is quite a unique song. Rhythmically, it's quite different from anything else he recorded in his significant body of work. And speaking as someone with a fairly encyclopaedic knowledge of 70s black music, I can't think of a single other song by anyone that uses the same type of rhythm. The bass is rubbery and sparse, the drums are quite basic, but what gives the song its propulsive element is the hyperactive percussion (I think it's a cowbell), accompanied by some more subtle but bouncy electric piano. It's a unique souvenir of the era, a great dancefloor tune that seems to be busy while simultaneously not doing that much, all capped off by Gaye's signature falsetto.

It's partly the uniqueness of the song that makes it easy to hear it in Blurred Lines. People have been borrowing liberally from Marvin Gaye's sound for years; you could easily make the case that Midnight Star's Curious is similar inspired by Sexual Healing. But you could also see that as a case of two prominent artists operating in a similar era, and experimenting with the new technology that was available and which came to form a dominant sound of soul music at the time; those are not the only songs around that time that have that sort of sound. But with Blurred Lines, there is absolutely no question that Got to Give it Up is its rhythmic blueprint, because there is just no other song that sounds like that.

The key elements of Got to Give it Up's rhythm are all present in Blurred Lines - sparse bassline, bouncy electric piano, hyperactive percussion - but they have been changed just enough from the original to make it legally murky. And from what I understand about copyright law as it pertains to sampling and copying music, they have changed it enough for it to classify as an original work. It's the "feel", but not an actual melody. Even the distinctive cowbell rhythm is slightly different.

So legally, Thicke might be on some solid footing here. But morally, I think this is pretty distasteful, and here's why. There are at least 4 other Robin Thicke songs where he samples, borrows or interpolates elements of Marvin Gaye songs. Being "inspired by" an artist is one thing - and as one of the all-time great soul artists, Gaye has inspired many - but Thicke really needs to get some original ideas. Thicke is a decent singer, but a decidedly middling artist, and he's getting fame and fortune basically by being a white guy selling lower-quality versions of Marvin Gaye's music to a generation who's not very familiar with Marvin Gaye. Thus I have little sympathy for him and he should pay up.

I've heard that Gaye's family have now rejected a six-figure settlement offer from Thicke's people. Which means this could get very interesting. It's a risky but bold move on their part. Now that Blurred Lines has become one of the years biggest hits, the Gayes clearly think there is a lot to be made out of the song, and it could cost Thicke a lot more than if he had got the sample clearances out of the way before releasing the track, as most hip-hop-related artists do these days. But it's a rather murky and ambiguous territory to wade through in today's environment, in which virtually every RnB, pop and hip-hop song is biting a piece of something else.

Weird Japanese thing of the week

Tremendously entertaining and Japanese. Though I have it on good authority that the dinosaur is not actually real.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Thai dude playing "wall drums" - pretty cool

This is worth watching at least once. You'll have to listen to 5 minutes of Christian rock, however, though by the standards of the genre it's not too bad. I wouldn't be surprised if Jesus is somehow indulging in some highly effective stealth marketing with this one.
The drummer is a music teacher named Weerachat Premananda.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

More on the Reza Aslan interview: Fox News doubles down

After Fox News' jaw-droppingly stupid interview with Reza Aslan on his book about the historical Jesus achieved viral status, the station has predictably backed itself and congratulated interviewer Lauren Green for doing a great job. Brent Bozell of the conservative Media Research Centre is drafted in to tell us why. And again, it's a superb illustration of just how much the religious right fail to get it.
 One of the funny parts is where Bozell decries the fawning interviews from the liberal media that never press Aslan on what Bozell thinks are serious errors about what Jesus did or didn't do. It's funny because Green, in the Fox interview, doesn't do that either. She spent almost the entire time questioning his right as a person who happens to be a Muslim to write about Jesus.

To be fair, if that question came up once in the interview, there would be nothing wrong with that. Something like, "Mr Aslan, some critics have claimed that as a Muslim, you do not have an objective position on writing about the key figure of the Christian religion. What do you say to that?" But when that question is the only one being asked in the interview, albeit in various different guises, it's clear there is a prejudice at work. It's a great, clear example of the Christian Privilege that operates in America, at least in conservative circles. In the same way that white people are the "default race", Christianity is the "default religion", which means that Christians can talk about both their own religion and others, without their objectivity being questioned. But someone like Aslan who ascribes to a different religion must clearly have an agenda; particularly when his religion is Islam, which is out to destroy America and Christianity. When Aslan says he's an academic with four degrees who just happens to be a Muslim, this doesn't make sense to much of the Fox audience, because (a) being Muslim alone is enough to be suspicious, and (b) the idea of anyone being able to take an objective academic perspective on one's religion is a foreign concept. (The line from Bozell that "he's not a very good Muslim" is reflective of this... one cannot be both a "good" religious practitioner unless you unquestioningly accept everything that the religion tells you.)

The other interesting part of the interview with Bozell is this bit:
"There are also all kinds of holes you can poke in this man's very, very biased and very, very one-sided book.... He also makes the point—and this is something as a Catholic I take great offence to—he says 'there is a very big difference between the historical Christ and what the Catholic church has done to create a mythical Christ.' No there isn't." 
 In other words, if an academic's view of history clashes with what has been written in the Bible, clearly the academic is wrong. Why? Because the Bible = God's word, and God is always right. Except Bozell doesn't see that to be a purely religious view; he thinks it's objective reality, because he knows the Bible to be correct. You'll note earlier that Bozell implies that Aslan cannot be both a good Muslim and objective on religious history. Then couldn't we say the same about Bozell? He can't be both a good Catholic and objective about religion? Well, you can... but only if you follow the "right" religion.

Ask yourself this question: If you wanted to analyse Scientology, would it be wise to only listen to the opinion of people who are part of the Church of Scientology? Would you trust them to give you an unbiased opinion? Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and other religions are no different.

Monday, July 29, 2013

FOX News becomes a parody of itself: Reza Aslan edition

This is quite something. Eminent religious scholar Reza Aslan releases a book about the historical Jesus Christ. You'd think the FOX crowd would be interested in that, since they are all about Jesus on the "fair and balanced" network. But instead, Aslan is subjected to a 9 minute interrogation about how and why he could possibly write anything about Jesus, since he happens to be a Muslim.

 I have to say I found that hilarious, and it's a credit to Aslan that he persists with the interview, even if he does feel it necessary to talk as if to a child.

FOX also published an article slamming Aslan's book by John S Dickerson, an author and evangelical pastor, which is of a similarly breathtaking stupidity. Read it here.

The logic appears to be that you cannot trust a Muslim to write objectively about Jesus, since the Muslim religion is opposed to Christian teachings. Which of course implies that you cannot trust an atheist or agnostic either to write about Jesus either, since their rejection of Biblical doctrine is a form of anti-Christian hostility. So who can write objectively about the historical life of Jesus Christ? Well, I guess that just leaves Christians.

Monday, July 22, 2013

What German sounds like

I came across this via Facebook, here. It's quite amusing, if obvious, but what I found even funnier were the comments on Facebook about it.

Two common stereotypes about Germans are (a) they don't have a good sense of humour, and (b) they are angry. Cue hundreds of comments from indignant Germans saying "This is false! We don't sound like that!"

I'm not saying that this proves (a) and (b), but...

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

America killed Trayvon. Zimmerman only pulled the trigger.

George Zimmerman was today acquitted of all charges relating to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Did the jury make the right decision? Yes and no.

(Update: it's been revealed that one of the six jurors believed Zimmerman guilty of second-degree murder and two thought him guilty of manslaughter. For what it's worth, I think manslaughter would have been the correct verdict... but I don't live in Florida.)

With the information presented to them, within the context of the legal system of Florida, and the US more broadly, perhaps they made the only decision they could make. That is not the same, however, as justice being served. Zimmerman appears to have acted in a way that is fully in accordance with Florida law. So the real question is: What the hell is wrong with a state, or a country, that deems this to be legal?

While the exact details are disputed, here's what most of us can agree on in the case:

Zimmerman sees Martin walking through his neighbourhood, and believing his behaviour to be suspicious, follows him. Zimmerman is armed. Martin becomes aware he is being followed, quite understandably freaks out, and probably attacks him. Zimmerman shoots Martin as he feels (justifiably or otherwise) that his life is being threatened.

Of course, the same logic could be used to apply to Martin; if he attacked Zimmerman, it was because he felt threatened, as a teen, by an older man following him down the street. In other words, we have two people defending themselves against each other. I don't know if that is an actual thing.

Guilty or not, this incident could not happen without two highly problematic pre-existing conditions: the assumption that a young black man is by definition suspicious and threatening, and the right for a person to bear a deadly weapon and use it whenever they feel threatened.

It has been pushed by certain sections of conservative America that Trayvon Martin was indeed a dangerous thug, who probably was looking to rob a house in that neighbourhood, and whose attack on Zimmerman was in line with his thuggish personality. These are things we cannot know.

Likewise, some on the left have pushed the idea that Zimmerman had a racist grudge against black people. Again, I don't think that's something we can really know.

But let's ask this question: if a white male teenager was walking through that neighbourhood, stopping occasionally to look at houses, would Zimmerman have deemed it sufficiently threatening to "tool up" and pursue him?

That's debatable of course. But the big question for me is this:

If Zimmerman was not armed, or does not live in a nation under the sway of the gun lobby, does he even confront Trayvon Martin at all?

I say no. The gun George Zimmerman carried played a larger role that merely defending its holder. It defines the whole episode.

The gun gives the courage to play big-game hunter, and stalk the young man who he deemed to be threatening. The gun means that Zimmerman is more brazen about his pursuit than he would have otherwise been; he is indiscreet enough for Martin to spot him and confront him. And the gun means that when Martin confronts or attacks Zimmerman, Zimmerman does not feel the need to defuse the situation, or turn and flee.

Unfortunately, both lived in a place that gives legal justification for vigilantism, in a way that other Western nations do not. In any other Western country, someone worried that there is potentially dangerous teenager - so scary as to put you in fear of your life - roaming through the neighbourhood does not go confront that teenager, alone.

George Zimmerman instigated a situation which he had no business being in, then resorting to deadly force as soon as the situation looked bad for him.

Florida allows this kind of thing. Below is Florida's self-defence statute (emphasis mine):

A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

No duty to retreat. That passage makes it different from most other self-defence statutes around the world, which tend to treat violence as a last resort, to be used only after all other reasonable options have been exhausted or impossible.

Just say I'm in Florida, I'm armed, and I have the confidence that comes with carrying a gun, knowing that I can pull it out if I ever feel threatened. Where is the disincentive for me to avoid conflict with anyone I could potentially have a disagreement or altercation with?

This is an extremely dangerous legal precedent, especially now that this case has acquired so much publicity.

If you don't think there's something sick about the US justice system, have a look at these recent cases:

Jury acquits Texas man for murder of escort who refused sex

Florida mom gets 20 years for firing warning shots

Thursday, July 11, 2013

This kid is amazing.

Don't quite get what's going on in Egypt? 12 year old Ali Ahmed breaks it down for you.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Johnny Depp plays Tonto in "The Lone Ranger". Is it just me, or is that a bit f*cked?

The remake of The Lone Ranger is out, and this picture tells you all you need to know about why I'm not going to see it, and why you shouldn't either.

I have nothing against Johnny Depp. He's a fine actor. However, Tonto is specifically a Native American character, and Johnny Depp is not Native American.

If this were a movie made in the 1950s, you could look back today and say, "Yeah, that's kinda racist and stupid, but that's just what it was like back then, just like how they got John Wayne to play Genghis Khan and so on." But this is a movie coming out in 2013. I cannot believe that no one involved in the making of this movie did not see the huge problem with this.

"Oh, but he's part Native American," I hear you say.

Listen, the dude is maybe 1/16 Native American or something. Maybe. He thinks his great-grandmother was Cherokee. I'm not an expert on what qualifies someone as Native American, but fuck it, I'm drawing a line - Johnny Depp is not Native American.

Now, hypothetically if Native Americans were some sort of extinct race of people like the Neanderthals and thus we had no Native American actors alive capable of representing what a Native American looks like, then I'd say fine, why not, let Johnny Depp play a Native American, 1/16 is about enough.

But there are a lot of Native Americans still out there, and some of them are actually actors trying to make it in the business. In that context, no, he's not sufficiently Native American.

Yes, there are Native American actors out there. None of them are big names on par with Johnny Depp. But then again, when they can't even get roles playing Native Americans, how are they meant to become big names?

There were a whole bunch of dudes in Twilight who would make a decent Tonto. I'm not talking Taylor Lautner, because his Native-ness is about as dubious as Johnny Depp's, but sheeeeet, he at least kinda looks the part so I'd even take him and his washboard abs at this point.

There's also Benjamin Bratt (Law and Order, Miss Congeniality), who's part-Peruvian rather than Native North American, but that's still a whole lot better than Johnny Depp. Plus he's kinda hot.

"But the film needs a big star," I hear you say, "and there's no Native American actor who is a big star comparable to Johnny Depp."

Hold up, the titular role in the movie is being played by Armie Hammer. Who the fuck is that? I had to google him, and it turns out that he's been in one movie that anyone's ever heard of (The Social Network). No disrespect to him, I'm sure he's a good actor. But let's keep it real here: no one, apart from those within Hammer's circle of family and friends, is going to be all, "Oh snap, we gotta go see The Lone Ranger, because Armie Hammer is in it!"

So think on this: the producers of this movie would be happy to give a huge break to a relatively little-known actor in the title role of The Lone Ranger, yet were not willing to give a similar break to a Native American actor in the other lead role.

You want a big star? Cast Brad fucking Pitt or someone like that as the The Lone Ranger, and give a Native American actor who people haven't really heard of a breakthrough role.

"But Johnny Depp is a great actor," I hear you say, "so shouldn't it be about who can give the best performance, rather than race?"

In that case, imagine if they gave the role of Abraham Lincoln in the movie Lincoln to Chow Yun Fatt, or Morgan Freeman, rather than Daniel Day-Lewis. Sure, that would be ridiculous, but those are two pretty fucking awesome actors right there, and that's all that counts, right? Right? But everyone just accepts that only a white guy is going to play Lincoln. And I totally agree with that, not just because Lincoln obviously was a white guy, but the whole narrative would not make sense if he was played by someone who wasn't white. Even if they pretended to be white by use of makeup and traditional white clothing.

In racial terms, there are two types of roles in film: ones where the race doesn't matter, and ones where race does matter. You could take the movie Flight and replace Denzel Washington with Tom Hanks, and it wouldn't really make any difference. But you couldn't get Tom Hanks to play the lead role in Malcolm X. (Though let's be honest, I'm sure someone in Hollywood would try.)

The role of Tonto is pretty much defined by him being Native American. Casting a white guy - even a slightly exotic-looking white guy with distant Native ancestry, maybe - is downright insulting.

There are very few roles available to Native American actors in the movie business as it is. No one is asking that any such actors be elevated to Will Smith-status if they don't deserve it. But in the one blockbuster flick in pretty much forever to feature a Native American lead character, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski had the opportunity to do something that wasn't even boundary-pushing, just logical... and they fucked it. With a stick. So fuck them.

So that's why you should not go and see this piece of shit movie. That, and the fact that it's got a 22% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

By the way, if you think the questions in this argument are ones that I just imagined, go read the comments here.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Is "Game of Thrones" racist and sexist?

With the huge (and largely Piratebay-assisted) following that the HBO series Game of Thrones has gathered, has come increasing critique across the interwebz about its problems of representation. Namely, that it is racist, misogynist, and I've heard homophobic thrown out there as well. How justified are these criticisms?

The first distinction that has to be made is between the TV show, Game of Thrones, and the book series by George RR Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire, on which it is based. 5 books have been released, there are allegedly 2 more left to come, and the TV series has ended its 3rd season somewhere in the middle of the third book. I should state that I'm an avid fan of both show and book, so perhaps I take a biased view of these things, but so be it.

It's perhaps a cop-out for book fans like myself to respond to any criticism of the series by smugly stating, "You need to read the book, then you would understand". But it's simply a reality that show-only viewers have a more superficial understanding of what's going on in the GoT world than book readers, and it's common to read critiques from people whose interpretations are at odds with what is actually suggested by GRRM's writing. Many of those criticising the show are doing so from a somewhat limited perspective. They don't have access to characters' internal points of view as written by Martin, and they don't have access to the two and a half books worth of details that the show has not covered yet. Which is an important factor given that scenes and story lines can be interpreted in different ways.

But at the same time, the show needs to stand on its own merits as an artistic creation, not as merely a supplement to the books. So it is entirely valid to critique how certain issues are portrayed on the show without ever reading any of the books; when talking about certain kinds of people are represented, how it comes across is as important as how it might be intended to come across.


Many of the feminist criticisms of the story return to the theme that by portraying a fantasy world that is so rife with sexual violence and other forms of misogyny, ASOIAF and/or GoT is therefore misogynist itself. As one article puts it,
I also recognize that there’s a difference between displaying sexism because it’s the time period and condoning said sexism. But this IS a fantasy, not history, meaning the writers can imagine any world they wish to create. So why imagine a misogynistic one?

or from this article,
Well, yes, 14th century Europe wasn’t a lot of fun if you were a woman, but nor did it have, for example, dragons, or magical shape-changing witchy-woo assassins. Westeros does, because Westeros is a fantasy world. If the creator of a fantasy series can dream up an army of self-resurrecting zombie immortals he can damn well dream up equal marriage rights, and if he chooses not to do so then that choice is meaningful
The world Martin evokes in his books is a brutal one, in which the poor, weak and powerless are constantly vulnerable to the predations of those whose power comes from noble birth, or physical strength, or strength of numbers. It is these dynamics which drive the whole narrative. So in such a milieu, would "equal marriage rights" and 21st century progressive liberal values really be a good fit?

It is quite shocking to see Khal Drogo force himself on a sobbing teenage Daenerys after their wedding; many would find it just as shocking that they later fall in love. How could any woman ever fall in love with a man who rapes her? Yet, we are applying 21st century values here; in a great many cultures, women were considered chattel and had little power to make choices about how they exercised their sexuality. Still today in many parts of the world, women and children are married off against their will, and thus the concept of sexual consent as we know it goes out the window. Yet despite that, many such couples probably do come to love each other, even if it could be considered a kind of Stockholm Syndrome. Of course, if what happened to Daenerys happened today in our society it would be an outrage and a crime, yet for much of human history it was just business as usual. (I should mention that in the books, their first sexual encounter is a bit more consensual, although it still wouldn't really pass muster in a contemporary court of law.)

The threat of rape frequently hangs over the heads of many of the other female characters too, while even those women in positions of relative power are merely treated as pawns, to be married off against their will to cement alliances. Sounds rough. But it's also one of the more accurate depictions of the the lot of women in medieval life that you will ever read in the fantasy genre. In any society engaged in war or civil war of the old-school sort (see the Balkan conflict, or civil struggles in Sudan, Liberia or Congo), women are raped in great numbers. Likewise with any society without strong rules of law. Women walking around dressed however they like and remaining mostly unmolested is something that is just not possible in most parts of the world. And even in the most advanced and ordered nations in the world, women still curtail some aspects of their behaviour because of the threat of sexual violence. So while some claim that GoT seems to celebrate sexual violence, I would argue that it's just being realistic about what goes on in lawless and war-torn places.

Yes, it's different to most other series and movies that you will see, which is why I think a lot of people find it so shocking. But that's because most other dramas and fantasies take place either in modern states, or stick to the more well-known cliches of medieval fantasy - noble knights of valour and so on.  The Lord of the Rings had a dichotomy between good humans, elves and dwarves, and evil orcs and goblins, but Martin's world has only humans (mostly). Yes, there are dragons and magic in his world, but compared to most medieval fantasies, those elements are very much in the background, at least at the start of the story. It's far closer to its HBO siblings The Sopranos or The Wire than it is to Merlin; it's a story about people and how they are shaped by power, violence, loyalty and self-interest. While some characters are clearly "good" and some clearly "evil", many don't adhere cleanly to either category. To quote Jorah Mormont in A Storm of Swords (book 3), “There is a savage beast in every man, and when you hand that man a sword or spear and send him forth to war, the beast stirs.” Protagonists inflicting violence upon each other is a staple of the genre, but few fantasy works offer an exploration of the violence inherent in human nature the way Martin does.

Feminists have been trying to tell us for years, quite rightly, about how oppressive and ever-present the spectre of male power and violence is towards women. I actually think Martin should be commended for reflecting this in his books, despite some feminists seeing the books or show as misogynist. To his credit, he creates numerous compelling female characters, some of whom struggle within the roles they are born into (Cersei, Catelyn, Sansa, Daenerys), and some who break out of the bonds society places on them (Brienne, Arya, Daenerys again). Around half the major (POV) characters are female, which is noteworthy in a genre that tends to be male-dominated. And as these are women and girls in a world beset by war and turmoil,   it would be unrealistic to avoid mentioning the threat of sexual violence.

Portraying a misogynist world entails depicting misogyny, but that does not equate to an endorsement of that perspective. And I fully get that for some people, that's just not going to make for pleasant viewing or reading, and thus I can't blame anyone if they decide it's not for them. As a male, perhaps my assessment of the existence of sexism is only worth so much; but I am yet to be convinced that anything in Martin's writing indicates or promotes an unhealthy view of women.

The show, however, is a different beast. The amount of nudity and sex on display is in my view excessive. I've had this argument with some other book-readers who say it is in keeping with the sort of world Martin has created, but I think they've pushed it too far. Martin's books are certainly not lacking for sexual content and bawdy language, but the writers of the TV show have seriously amped it up, perhaps in order to attract the lucrative "horny male" demographic. Which is why the SNL sketch poking fun at the nudity in the show is particularly hilarious.

I don't have a problem with sex and nudity when it's in context. But when the writers invent entirely new scenes (the ridiculous scene with Gendry and Melisandre sticks out for me), or modify scenes from the book, seemingly just to find an excuse to fit some exposed breasts into the shot, it's like they are channelling the teen sex comedies of the 80s.

Given the rich source material the show's creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have to work with, I think their penchant for portraying naked women is one of the drawbacks of what is otherwise a very good series; it's not like they need to use boobs and bums as a way to distract from a non-existent plot. As mentioned before, I don't have a problem with the show's portrayal of rape as a common phenomenon; but when this intersects with frequent rather pointless nudity, I can see why some people think it is eroticising sexual violence. The story lays bare the ugliness of patriarchy, but the visuals scream "Look! Check out the naked ladies!"
Trying to have it both ways doesn't work.


The GoT world centres on the continent of Westeros, which is based on western and northern Europe, particularly Britain. But the story arc of Daenerys Targaryen, a princess exiled in the Eastern continent of Essos, raises some issues about how the show represents non-white people. Essos is something like the Eurasian landmass; the Free Cities of its western coast seem reminiscent of Greece, while the  Southern coast (Qarth and Slaver's Bay) is similar to the Middle East in many ways. The Dothraki, whose warlord Drogo is gifted Daenerys as a wife, are clearly based on Central Asian pastoral peoples - the Huns, Turks and Mongols.

 Dany's story arc has a smell of four ugly racial tropes that are very common in popular culture.

1. Coloured people always viewed through white eyes: The story or storyline that is set in a non-white culture, yet it has to be told through the eyes of a white person, since the audience presumably can't relate to something that is only about non-whites. Examples are Cry Freedom (about the white friend of South African activist Steve Biko) or The Last King of Scotland (about Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, yet the lead character is a fictional white doctor).

2. Barbarians and proud warrior races: The non-whites are defined as "barbaric" or "primitive", rather than regular people with a range of normal motivations and feelings (this is in too many movies to count), and often belong to a "warrior race" which prizes strength and fighting prowess as the only way to earn honour and respect. See the Klingons in Star Trek (who tend to be played by black actors) and the title aliens of the Predator movies. Even within that series there are humans from warrior races too; Predator and Predators respectively have a Native American guy and a Japanese guy who stop fleeing and stay back to take on the aliens in single combat with a bladed weapon. (Of course they die, but at least they were "honourable".)

3. Mighty whitey: Taking the white-centric story even further... the white person finds themselves amongst a strange exotic culture, yet learns their ways and eventually manages to become respected by them, often becoming their leader or most awesome warrior. Examples include The Last of the Mohicans, The PhantomAvatarDances with WolvesThe Last Samurai, and Tarzan.

4. White man's burden, or white saviour: In which white people, out of the goodness of their hearts, save non-white people from the terrible situation which they couldn't have got out of themselves. Examples are The Help, The BlindsideGran TorinoDangerous Minds, and the sitcom Different Strokes.

While you could argue that all tropes are at play here, I think it's also a little more complicated than that. To address those point by point:

1. Coloured people always viewed through white eyes: Danaerys is Westerosi, but has grown up around the Free Cities, and then her journey takes her further east into cultures she has never experienced before. All the cultures are presented as strange and exotic, and we never really get any insights on the inner life of these people, despite spending a lot of time around them. The focus is all about the white princess. They are permanently "Othered".
Except that the series is not really about them. Like it or not, the story is primarily about Westeros, and the people of Essos are very much a peripheral feature. This makes it different to Cry Freedom or The Last King of Scotland, which are films about black people, but told from a white viewpoint for no apparent reason.
The way Martin structures his narrative - each chapter presented from the point of view of one of the main characters - means that any other culture will seem strange, exotic and perhaps barbaric. The show to an extent has to reflect that. Daenerys is a young woman sold off against her will into a culture she knows nothing about that is very different from her own. To portray the Dothraki, Qartheen or the Ghiscari as being "just like regular folks" would not make sense in this context. In contrast to the Westerosi who speak the Common Tongue (aka English), most people on the show from Essos speak imaginary languages (Valyrian, Dothraki, Ghiscari), which again clearly defines them as different not only from the Westorosi characters, but from us, the viewers. But this is unavoidable, really, unless you want everyone in the show to speak made-up languages, which is just not feasible.

2. Barbarians and proud warrior races: The Dothraki are horse nomads who seem primarily occupied with fighting each other and plundering the settlements on the edges of their plain. They are referred to everyone else as barbarians and savages, and many of their customs celebrate violence and seem primitive by most standards. They like having sex beneath the open sky, only like doing it doggy-style, are quite frank about raping as one of the spoils of war, and consider it good entertainment when deadly brawls erupt at weddings.

Let's not forget: the people who are the obvious inspiration for the Dothraki (Huns, Turks, Mongols) made their mark on history through conquest. These are warrior cultures. Of course they weren't entirely that; throughout most of history, Central Asian nomads probably spent their time with rather un-warlike pursuits such as taking their livestock to graze, and making fermented horse milk beverages.  But these weren't what led to them conquering everything from China to Baghdad and Hungary. The nomads were brilliant at the art of war, and also employed tactics that were considered utterly foreign and frequently dishonourable by the "civilized" nations they fought against, and were renowned for their cruelty and terror. And unlike Europe of the time, the nomads lacked the stratification between warrior, peasant and artisan classes; most able-bodied men became soldiers in times of conflict, and thus the warrior ethos was more prevalent throughout their culture. It's also come to light recently that 1 in 200 men in the world have some genetic link to Genghis Khan and his family; let's assume this is more likely to have come through rape than Genghis being some kind of Casanova.

Martin does exaggerate these "savage" elements, to be sure, and the show does so even more - the line "There is no word for thank you in Dothraki" takes this too far as far as I'm concerned. But should a  fictional people based on some of the most feared and ruthless armies in history be treated as more well-rounded? I'm not sure, considering that they do not actually play a large role in the story. If not for their fierce war-making ways, they would have no place in the story at all since Daenerys' brother would have no need to offer her to them in exchange for an army. And at the end of the day GoT is not really about the Dothraki. If you want GoT to be about non-white people, of course you will be disappointed, but it doesn't claim to be that. Instead, go watch something like Sergei Bodrov's (admittedly impressive) 2007 movie Mongol, which portrays Genghis Khan as a great fighter, leader and romantic with no nasty side whatsoever. Martin writes from his own area of expertise - medieval Western Europe - and those outside that milieu are have only fringe roles to play. I think wanting to see a bigger and better-explored non-white presence in this story is a bit like wanting to see equal marriage rights and gender equality; that's just not what this world is meant to be about. It's like criticising The Sopranos because it didn't have any main characters who were Chinese. If you want to read that story, then maybe you need to go and write that story yourself.

Their portrayal as "savages" also depends on who they are being compared to. As mentioned previously, Westerosi society is portrayed as incredibly oppressive and cruel. To be sure, it professes nobler values, much as the West does today. Rape is regarded as a heinous crime... yet unguarded women are never safe. Slavery is considered an abomination... yet most of the nobility treat peasants like property anyway. The character of Sansa Stark seems to represent the readers' belief in the traditional fairytale fantasy notions of chivalry, charming princes and noble knights, until she is dealt a hefty dose of reality. Westeros has its own white "barbarians" too... the Iron Islanders, loosely based on the Vikings, do take slaves, and define their existence through their love of rape and pillage. They are actually worse than the Dothraki, since cities in Essos can mostly avoid Dothraki attacks by paying them in gold and slaves; the Ironborn's whole culture revolves around killing. And let's  not forget that in the same episode which introduces the Dothraki, we see Dany groped by her brother, and Jaimie Lannister push a child out of a window after being caught in the act of boning his sister. If the most shocking thing you get from that episode is how "primitive" the brown people look, maybe you are paying attention to the wrong things.

Also regarding the Dothraki; I've read some criticism that rather than being portrayed as a homogeneous population, they seem to be played by "miscellaneous brown people", which might encourage the view that all non-whites are basically the same? For example, while the book-Dothraki are described as having copper-coloured skin and almond-shaped eyes, Jason Momoa who plays Khal Drogo is Hawaiian, while the rest of the Dothraki look mostly like they are from the Middle East, while there are even a few people who are clearly of African origin in there as well.

What struck me initially as a lazy misstep is actually quite plausible on reflection. The Dothraki population absorbs a lot of slaves acquired from cities on the fringes of their domain, and many of those cities themselves acquire slaves from other regions. Even the Central Asian populations on whom the Dothraki are based were far from homogeneous. Given that the nomad way of life spanned such a huge swathe of the Eurasian continent, and was by definition likely to spread into new territories, the empires that arose incorporated a mix of East Asian, European and Southwest Asian phenotypes. A look at the people in modern Afghanistan or Xinjiang reveals this diversity. So while I don't know if it was by design or laziness, the casting of Dothraki as "miscellaneous brown people" is not as odd as it might initially seem. In any case, Jason Momoa as Drogo looks exactly as a Dothraki should, to my mind.

3. Mighty whitey: In some ways, Daenerys does fit this trope; as she travels through the foreign cultures of Essos, she acquires an army of non-white followers who revere her as the Mother of Dragons. But unlike Avatar or Dances with Wolves, she never really becomes accepted into any of the cultures she interacts with. She becomes khaleesi of the Dothraki, yet is abandoned and threatened with death after her husband dies. Indeed, everyone who doesn't become one of her followers seems out to kill her for the destruction she wreaks everywhere. Those who do follow her are mostly outcasts and freed slaves who don't have a lot of better options.

4. White man's burden, or white saviour: The final scene of season 3 did come off as clumsy - the lily-white Daenerys being hoisted above an adoring crowd of swarthy freed slaves. Real white saviour stuff; saving all those brown people from the other brown people, it was the sort of thing Americans who advocated invading Iraq and Afghanistan would be proud of. To me it was a major misstep, but again it brings us to a difference between show and book.

The books make clear that the slaves in Yunkai are drawn from all over the world, and are white, black and brown skinned (inspired by the slave trade of ancient Rome and the Middle East, which took slaves from anywhere they could). It doesn't look that way in the show. Logistically, one can understand why; most scenes in Essos are filmed in Morocco, thus the extras would be expected to have a fairly North African look. But even then, they seemed darker than I'd expect from Morocco, and it can't have been too hard for the directors to round up some white folks from the crew to diversify the crowd if they'd wanted to. At to that the drab brown clothing of the slaves, contrasting with Dany's pale skin and hair and blue outfit, it just doesn't look good.

Which makes me wonder if it was deliberate move by the producers, because for them to see that scene and not see what's wrong with it either means they are oddly deluded or they want it to be that way. Anyone who has been following the show knows that George RR Martin likes to subvert the traditional cliches of fantasy fiction, often setting up premises only to knock them down. The first season sets up a typical righteous hero, Eddard Stark, as the main character, until he is beheaded; a huge shock to the audience who presumed he would escape. Logically, we expect his son Robb to seek vengeance, which seems inevitable... until he meets a shocking end at the Red Wedding. So is it another case of the show's writers setting up a cliched premise (the white saviour) that we've all seen before, only to knock it down? *Mild spoiler alert*  For those who haven't read the books, things don't all go to planned after Dany liberates the slaves of Slaver's Bay. In fact, the Iraq and Afghanistan analogies are not far off. In many ways, it's an argument against well-meaning foreigners meddling in a country's affairs.

Another key point for me is that the "white man's burden" trope also relies on the white saviour being "good". No doubt Daenerys is one of the most popular characters, and she is seen by many followers as having the qualities of a just ruler that have been so lacking in Westeros. But is she a morally "good" character? Certainly, she tries to stop the Dothraki warriors from raping women, and becomes embroiled in the politics of Slaver's Bay due to her compassion for the masses of slaves. But at the same time, the trail of death and destruction she leaves behind is comparable to the legacy of Tywin Lannister (who is definitely not a "good" guy). Mirri Maz Duur understands the potential cost of Dany's ascendancy, and takes steps to prevent it; Dany burns her alive, proof that she can treat those who cross her with a ruthlessness that would do Tywin proud. And all this in order to satisfy her massive sense of entitlement (she constantly reminds everyone how she is blood of the dragon, and demands they respect her), in regaining the throne her father lost because he was an insane murderous tyrant. She no longer has any right to the throne (she's never even been to Westeros), if you consider that the Targaryens once took power by force and eventually had it taken from them by force. I think readers and viewers are smart enough to see that despite Daenerys' beauty and awesome girl-power appeal, she's someone who is motivated primarily by self-interest.

But whatever the intention, the show certainly peddles an image which is at very least racially uncomfortable, and not truly in keeping with what is suggested in the books. Reading them, I didn't get the feeling that there was some stark ethnic difference between Daenerys and the people she encounters in Essos. But fiction is like an ink-blot test in many ways; how we read it often says something about our own perspectives.

The deeply cynical view of human nature espoused by Game of Thrones is a hard one for a lot of people to handle, especially those who are used to more traditional fantasy. Humankind's capacity for cruelty in the quest to attain power is the central theme of the story, even if it may play out in different ways in different cultures or have varying degrees of openness. The raider-cultures (Ironborn and Dothraki) are fairly open about their penchant for sexual violence and slave-taking, while the urban/agricultural societies claim a higher set of values yet do not keep to them. To me, it's reminiscent of how we define the difference between our "Western" values and everyone else's. Our values are, at least in theory, more progressive and modern than we believe most of the world's to be, in the same way that the Islamic world, for example, sees its values as morally superior to the decadent West. But is either belief system any more than a thin veneer that masks all people's capacity for both nobility and brutality?

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