Sunday, May 29, 2011

Unlucky in the Force, Or, How Authority is Abused

When I was in high school, I was fond of wearing a long, black coat, and I only did this after checking the handbook and finding no rule against it. The only restriction on jackets and the like was that they were not to be worn between classes.

Eventually, the principal took me aside and asked me to stop wearing it, explaining that there was, in fact, a rule, but it was not in the handbook. This might have been a lie, but it doesn't really matter.

In high school, the time when we learn (or are told) how to think, we are taught that we are responsible for our actions by people who have a vested interest in keeping us from acting as if we were in the "real world," which leads to our skewed sense of how authority is supposed to work. The existence of the phrase "too big to fail" bears this out: a person with power can't fail, but he'll still foreclose on you. This, of course, is hypocrisy, but that's power for you.

What brought this to mind for me today was an article on about two students who were not only suspended, but barred from their graduation ceremony, for staging a lightsaber duel in their high school cafeteria.

I'm callin' you out!

The principal, despite all the people on Facebook who are supporting the students (because Facebook=moral rightness), is sticking to his guns. He says that since someone could have gotten hurt, they should be punished to such a severe degree.

At first glance, that makes sense. These two boys hadn't really considered that their lightsaber toys, approved for children eight and up, might so egregiously hurt a 17 year-old that that victim would have to sit out graduation. Well, fine. That works, since we are all punished equally for what might happen, but doesn't.

Oh. No. Wait, that would mean the principal isn't full of crap, but I can prove he is.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that, since most drivers disobey speed limits, so, too, has this principal. That doesn't, at first, seem like a big deal. You speed. I speed.

A reason for us all to speed.

Going a little over the limit isn't a big deal, but thanks to moral luck, it's actually a pretty dicey issue.

You've probably never run over a child while speeding. I haven't (and gotten caught). But if we were speeding and ran over a child, that would be a contributing factor. So, by the principal's logic, we should go to jail for manslaughter whenever we speed, because it could happen.

If you read the wiki article on moral luck, you will see the philosophical contention that a person who doesn't run over a child is just as blameworthy as the person who does, but the kid-killer should feel worse. This is the plot of the indie mope-fest Bella.

There is no argument for depression beards

The principal isn't going to ask to go to jail because he's sped, but since he's a person with power, he gets to take other people's freedom away for trivialities.

The rub is that this is how everything is run in our society: the wealthy and powerful can manipulate, steal and kill, but as long as it's done through "contracts, foreclosure and war" it's ok. I think it's about time we point out that children are being taught this is how the world is supposed to work.

By the way, that coat of mine? I guess the reason the teachers were so nervous about it is because they were afraid I'd bring a gun to school. I think they would only have worried if they gave me a reason, but that's neither here nor there. The point is, there was another student who violated the rule in the book and wore a windbreaker all day, every day.

He brought a gun to school.

Maybe if high schoolers were treated like thoughtful adults, we'd have more thoughtful adults.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Before he was Professor X... He was Doctoral Candidate X

Last night Allie and I went to see Priest. It's pretty much about a Catholic Jedi rescuing his niece from a trainload of vampires. It was just as cool and terrible as it sounds, which didn't surprise me.

What surprised me, though, was the US Army commercial beforehand. Nestled in-between the usual sugar water and car ads was the usual Army ad, because your average moviegoer, mallrat and high schooler have nothing better to do than join up with the military.

Those groups in Venn diagram.

I'm used to seeing these ads constructed with glamor shots of what you get to do in the Armed Forces: rappel, ride in helicopters, travel on a ship. You know, all the things you do on vacation in Australia. The audio will be some baritoned man telling you this is how you are going to make yourself a better American by going to interesting places and shooting interesting people.

The best ones are those cut with music videos. You could say 3 Doors Down is not the kind of band that would make you want to put your life on the line for your country, and I can understand that (I wouldn't want to die with "Kryptonite" stuck in my head). On the other hand, knowing Kid Rock got paid by the US government to tell you how awesome soldiering is makes me want to kill someone, and you can do that in the Army.

Be all you can be, kids.

But even compared to the absurdity of some rich hillbilly singing that I should sacrifice for his freedom, last night's military fetishism/thing kids like mash-up had to be the weirdest I've ever seen: between the derring-do of our people in uniform we saw clips from Matthew Vaughn's upcoming X-Men: First Class.

At first glance, this might make sense. The military has stealth jets, the X-Men have a stealth jet (although, in the movie, the Blackbird hasn't been painted and is a... white bird, I guess.) The X-Men have uniforms, the Army has uniforms. The X-Men and Army both get intelligence through sometimes questionably ethical channels.

Just like the Patriot Act

But then I considered the differences. In the trailer for First Class, you can see the heroic Prof. X (or maybe, since it's a prequel, Grad Student X) trying to talk Magneto into not killing humans. The Army seems pretty pro killing humans.

In fact, they're probably more so than Magneto. Magnus won't kill humans willy-nilly; I saw him divert missiles from what I think was the coast of Cuba. Or America. Either way, a country in which he wouldn't be free.

The Army, on the other hand, uses "Freedom isn't Free" as a carte blanche to kill all sorts of people different from us Americans.

These are only dissimilarities though, and metaphors are never perfect, otherwise there would only be tautology. That last point, though, presents the most egregious difference between the X-Men and the military: the military keeps the mutants down.

I know, I know, I'm comparing our actual military to a fictional, multiculti superhero team, but think about it like this: how many Americans were killed by communists in America during the Vietnam War?

And how many by soldiers?

The commercial use of a deeply (and heavily-handed) subtextual franchise asks us to call the mutants and soldiers "good," and that doesn't always work. I think we need to question if "X-Man" and "Soldier" are equal values, which will make us ask what kinds of violence we justify.

And what fashion sense

Friday, May 27, 2011

He Asked, No, Demanded I Punch Him

I feel relatively safe in Chicago. I bike under the assumption that no driver wants to
  • dig me out of their grill
  • wrench my bike out of their axle
  • go to jail
... but I still wear my helmet.

I also don't worry too much about the occasional gangland executions in earshot of my apartment. While I know these events make everyone less safe, not being in a gang myself, I'm less likely to get shot in a gang war.

Even so, I don't leave the house at these times (well, mostly. I did step out with my roommate the first time, but that's because I wanted to make sure she would be ok).

I'm worldly enough to know, and this is partly from watching No Country for Old Men a few too many times, that violence is partly random.

And looking sad at it won't make it stop

So I work out, study the martial arts and have developed a disdain for those who would hurt me or others. I wouldn't say this disdain has reached a crazy level, but one that I think has balance the fear I naturally have of being hurt with the anger that someone would try. Which, again, I don't think makes me crazy.

Being Rorschach makes me crazy.

So, like in Watchmen, I had an experience which amounted to, "he tried to [rob me]. I mean, can you believe it?" Ironically enough, it fell squarely into my passive, non-target defense style.

My wife and I were getting onto the train (Blue Line, if you're curious) and I had my yoga mat sticking out of the top of my backpack. I wasn't too worried about it, since it was fairly secured and I figured the kind of person who boosts your stuff on the train don't do yoga.

He's stressed out 'cuz he hasn't done no Savasana.

As I was getting onto the train, I felt my mat getting pulled up. I turned, my first thought being to apologize for bumping someone. My gaze was met with an angry look and that's when I pieced together what happened. I returned the look.

I guess the guy expected me to back down or something, which is why he got up in my... grill? Is that what the kids call it these days? Yes? Well, that's what he got up in and started asking me if I thought he was "rolling" one me, if I was (*ahem*) [screwing] with him and the like.

I assured him I wasn't screwing with him, but that's when he said something I didn't expect. He told me to "start swinging. Swing [insert nasty word here]! Swing!" I didn't, but I also didn't back down. At his behest, I let him on the train and assured a concern-expressing fellow passenger that I still had my wallet.

That fellow later congratulated me for handling the situation as well as I did.

The next day, my father (who was a police officer and works in a prison) explained the behavior as one of being tough and expecting me to apologize for the whole thing--I had no intention of being a bitch. This plays into Allie's surprise that he was, you know, asking a superhero to punch him.

Lucky for him my parents are alive.

Even if he had known all that, would he still have been all... fronting on me? Probably. It's like the King and Duke in Huckleberry Finn, or the guy in Sandman: Season of Mists, the one who says Hell is only possible to bear because someone else is punishing him: we can't forgive ourselves, and we meet that inability with anger.

I did that very thing this morning: I got angry because I felt like I ruined plans Allie and I had made. I didn't, but I got angry at myself, and by extension her, which exacerbated things. When I calmed down, I realized that this was the same thing that thug on the subway tried on me, and, like Roy Batty, maybe that's the reason I didn't hit him. Maybe I saw that, deep down, that thief and I are more similar than either of us would like to admit.

Though being like me would be trading up.

(PS: BATMAN, BLADE RUNNER and NO COUNTRY all in one post! Woo-hoo!)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Reading Things on Things

I just saw an ad for Barnes and Noble's Nook. It's an e-reader, named a bucolic epithet to put it in direct competition with the Kindle. If you were to use both at once, you would find your favorite reading perch is, in fact, a Thomas Kinkade painting, so homey would be your e-usage.

I knew this thing existed and haven't given it too much thought. I own books I haven't read, others I'll reread and others still I just like having around, and they all have a feature the new Nook proudly totes: they are all touch-controlled.

I was surprised to find the Nook didn't already have this function, as I supposed it was the obvious thing to do. The Nintendo DS had a touch screen years before the Nook, Kindle or Hearth (or whatever the next one will be called) existed. The technology was there, but a device created to ape the effect of holding a book didn't have a book's number one feature, one an old .45 record told me to do in my youth. That is, *ding dong* turn the page.

There are plenty of things to like about e-readers, enough that I would accept one as a gift, should the opportunity arise. As Neil Gaiman has pointed out, they make any book large type with the push of a button, they are often more portable than bound volumes (Perdido Street Station is a monster of a book) and you don't have to go to the pesky library to get another one. The last one may seem like my trademarked tongue in cheek humor, but you haven't met some of the Chicago librarians. Seriously, they're not even eccentric about being stuffy; they're just kind of mean.

My favorite thing about the e-reader, though, is what it will do to books themselves. Every e-book feels the same, its texture and tone that of your Warm Blanket or Tree Shade, but a book like The Yiddish Policeman's Union has a feel all its own, with distressed pages and fold out covers (even in paperback!). It's sort of like the introduction of the PSP's competition made the DS get off its duff. Similarly, the printers' monopoly on printing is at its end.

But for all the good points of an e-reader, they're one step-backedness seems to work against the people who make them. You're a large bookseller, with stores across the country, stores which you are staffing with people who you get to pay below what their English degrees deserve, but still you pay them. You're paying utilities, property taxes, kick backs to the mafia, all those niggling fees to exist, yet you decide to sound your own analog death knell by entering the digital sphere. With the advent of your Patch of Sunlight (wait, no, that's where cats relax, not where people read. Sorry.), you have effectively ended your support of books made out of trees.

I understand the desire to diversify, but I also think giving people a reason to not come into your store is questionable business. Seems to me, I come out with the Umbrella-Protected Beach Blanket or the Grassy Knoll, I start selling my stores like mad and let the artsy-fartsy people careen to their doom on their Gutenberg raft.

It's not that I don't think both platforms will survive, but Barnes and Noble, Borders and that half-aisle at Wal-Mart can't really spread themselves too thin and still compete with libraries and independent booksellers, especially when they're working against themselves. Seeing as how e-readers offer less of the book experience, maybe it's just time for the big boys to pack up and let people have their readin' the way they want it.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to flip through pages just because I can.