Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Book Review Round-Up



Daniel Woodrell’s The Bayou Trilogy counts as one novel or three? In my Goodreads days, I would have been concerned with making sure everybody knows that I read three distinct discrete novels. But those days are behind me, and my anxiety around the quantity of books I read has diminished, but not disappeared entirely. With this in mind, I read Woodrell’s Bayou Trilogy in three days, despite it being an omnibus (my favourite way to read a book, to be perfectly honest). Not only did I read it so quickly because it’s noir, but because Woodrell manages a level of technical skill that improves with each novel. Thus, it’s an enlightening experience to follow an artist’s development so closely so rapidly.

The Bayou Trilogy, consisting of Under the Bright Lights, Muscle for the Wing, and The Ones You Do, follow (ostensibly) Rene Shade, detective in small town Louisiana, close to New Orleans. All three novels were published long before Katrina irrevocably changed the metropolitan and surrounding landscape, but this does not mean the novels are innocent or naïve in the face of an oncoming storm. Rather, the trilogy is a series of hardboiled adventures that unflinchingly catalogue the worst the criminal sphere has to offer, while simultaneously observing the difficulty of recognizing the encroachment of that very sphere on “civilian” lives. If there exists a grand unifying theme, it’s the insolubility of differing public spheres. Rene’s childhood friends went on to be criminals, bartenders, snitches, enforcers, public officials, lawyers, construction workers, etc, but all mingle and communicate within the same geographic area they grew up in. This theme comes to a head in the last novel, when Shade’s drifter father returns to town, on the run from “the one guy you don’t want to fuck with.” Shade’s father stirs up the animosities previously buried and opens up old wounds.

The three novels, while concerned with these complicated feelings and histories, still retains that sneering attitude that all good noir has, along with a healthy dose of bracingly honest violence, similar to McCarthy’s depiction of action. The dialogue, probably the most important element of noir, absolutely sparkles with wit as well as verisimilitude. Woodrell manages to straddle the line between entertaining and honesty when portraying his cast of Southern people. There’s a risk with noir’s sneering attitude that Southern stereotypes could rear their ugly and unwanted head, but Woodrell achieves the difficult task of empathizing with the poor, the downtrodden, the stupid, the lame, while simultaneously managing to be entertaining. It’s a tough act, but Woodrell succeeds.

The first novel is the weakest, no doubt due to Woodrell’s inexperience. But despite this, Under the Bright Lights manages to be stronger than most debuts if only for Woodrell’s sense of haunting detail, of exquisite specificity to engage the reader. The novel suffers from poor pacing and a bit too much sneering; it’s unrealistic that a cop with Shade’s attitude would be given high profile cases considering his criminal family. However, things pick up immensely with the second, Muscle For the Wing. In this novel, a white supremacist group has been robbing the wrong poker games, and a hitman has been released into the town in order to dispatch these racists with Shade being inexorably drawn in. It’s a superb masterpiece of pacing and has some of the most visceral violence I’ve ever read, but without ever coming near the border of gratuitous. The third novel is, technically speaking, the best, as it grapples with themes and ideas better than the two previous novels, but it lacks the same energy and fails to grab this reader as strongly. Despite this, Woodrell’s Bayou Trilogy was an immense pleasure to read, enough that I quickly laid my hands on his other novels.


The Way Some People Die is my third Ross MacDonald, after reading two of them back in 2010. I’ll be perfectly honest — I don’t remember reading The Doomsters at all. I read both of my reviews for MacDonald, in light of finishing what was only his third novel, and frankly, I’m embarrassed by my poor critical skills. I chastised the novels for not matching my expectations, a not wholly fair criticism. The Way Some People Die, in many ways, improves on my experience with MacDonald while simultaneously fulfills my criticisms from two and a half year ago. By this, I mean that obviously my tastes have changed, but MacDonald hasn't  so it’s an interesting tension that I like this novel while not liking the others, despite them being practically the same. All three novels are so thematically and technically similar as to beg the question of why bother reading any other MacDonald? Of course, the answer lies in that the actual experience is pleasurable, similar to reading Elmore Leonard. Once you've read one, you've kind of read them all, but that doesn't stop you from reading them.

MacDonald’s The Way Some People Die is interested in representations of geographic space and its correlation with class status. Like all good California noir, the protagonist spends the bulk of the narrative traveling back and forth, negotiating differing social protocols depending on the class of the communicating subject. Marlowe and Archer, along with a multitude of other private dicks, are purposefully set outside these overlapping spheres in order to maintain a sense of objectivity. The protagonist’s outsider status allows him to observe, evaluate, and diagnose. The key difference between Marlowe and Archer is that MacDonald is more interested in the tensions between spheres rather than their impact on the protagonist. Archer is meant to be a cipher, compounding the outsider status, enabling MacDonald to observe more intricately the social classes. Superficially, this novel is about a missing daughter married to the wrong guy who stole something from “the one guy you don’t fuck with.” Archer traipses across coastal California, putting together an overly complicated scheme that ties a large cast together. The disparity of the social classes of the cast is what allows for the tension within the narrative.

Returning to my initial point, I’m unsure if I like this novel more because I’m a better reader or if indeed this is a better novel than the previous two. The Way Some People Die is an excellent, if by the numbers, genre exercise. It doesn’t aspire to be great literature, but like all cultural artifacts, it does manage to say something about the world it means to represent. It is the responsibility of the cultural critic to observe, evaluate, and diagnose this action in motion.


Sometimes, the most frustrating novels are the ones that I hate and love equally. These are the ones I have trouble forgiving and have trouble recommending. Problematic novels that are technically perfect, gripping reads but with cardboard characters, uninspired dialogue with brilliantly realized imagery, these are the types of novels that I struggle with.

Guy Vanderhaeghe's The Englishman's Boy is one such novel. What starts out so strongly turns out to be an extremely frustrating read, not strong enough to love, and not weak enough to hate. The promise of the premise never lives up to the novel, but alas there are moments that threaten to raise the book from good to great.

The novel is made of two unequal halves. The primary narrative follows Harry Vincent, unimpressive and nebbish title card writer in Hollywood, 1923. He is hired by mysterious reclusive studio owner Damon Ira Chance to get the life story from a real cowboy, a real American, in order to produce a historical epic that elevates American cinema into the upper echelons of art. Harry is tasked with tracking down and then interviewing Short McAdoo, a renowned reclusive cowboy with a mysterious past who is secretly Canadian (irony!). The second, better narrative follows the unnamed servant of an Englishman who leaves his employer (dead of fever) to join a posse of cowboys looking to get back their horses, stolen from Indians. Thus, The Englishman’s Boy is a novel made up of a detective story and a Western. But what makes the detective story so interesting is that it investigates and interrogates the Western, while the Western half of the novel serves to problematize our Romantic notions of the cowboy and its correlative myths. The promise of this novel is that it will destabilize genre as well as questions of nationalism vis-à-vis the great American movie is built off the back of Canadian laborers.

What makes this novel so disappointing is the heavy-handed nature of the twin narratives. The current political paradigm in historical fiction is to expose traditionally hegemonic structures as corrupt or racist. Thus, it’s no surprise when the studio head and his underlings turn out to be frothing-at-the-mouth anti-Semites or that the gang of cowboys end up gang-raping a fourteen year-old Indian girl. In this novel, the bad guys are clearly marked by their hegemonic status while good guys are those sweating away under the boot-heels of stronger men. Shorty, the only interesting and complex character in the novel, challenges this paradigm by being a part of both narratives. It should be no surprise that Shorty is, in fact, the Englishman’s boy, and a well-developed, nuanced character. He’s done some terrible things, but not really, because he tried to protect the girl when she was being gang-raped. He lives with his past until Harry drags it back to the surface.

The metaphor is clear: the novel is revisiting traumatic moments in history in order to bring them to light, to refuse cultural amnesia, to remind us of our dark pasts. I just wish Vanderhaeghe didn’t have to deploy long speeches from characters in order to make this point. Harry’s Jewish platonic friend Rachel is disposed to making grand speeches chock full of meaty historical details in order to show that the author did copious amounts of research (a rather tedious habit of historical fiction writers). She name-checks dozens of famous Hollywood people from the early days and every time, it sounds flat and unrealistic. Almost every line of dialogue in this novel falls flat from the page, lifeless and obtuse. The speeches don’t stop with Rachel, either. No, the reader endures even longer, more tedious speeches from Chance, the racist studio head in order to demonstrate that structures of power control what information is transmitted through time. If I were a more generous critic, I’d think Vanderhaeghe was reaching for Ranciere’s distribution of the sensible, but I don’t think the author is that theory-savvy.

This is why The Englishman’s Boy remains so frustrating as an experience. There are lots of elements that are interesting, intriguing, and intelligent, but they are buried within obvious hysterical gestures so that the reader, any reader, will comprehend. I quite liked the beginning of the novel, as Vanderhaeghe takes his time with the setup, but once the plot slowly creaks to life, the next two hundred pages are a slog of repetition and speechifying. Only the bloody, almost McCarthy-esque ending recuperates the novel from awful to good. At no point does the novel ever achieve greatness, despite its stellar structure and complicated theorizing. I want to love this novel, but I just can’t. The Englishman’s Boy will always be a novel that I prefer talking about rather than experiencing.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Far Cry 3


As protagonist Jason Brody, I've killed 1132 during my first play through of Far Cry 3. Jason is not a super soldier or exceptional in any way, other than his appearance as a protagonist in a story. He's meant to be a traditional "bro" and yet through my play through of the game, as this "bro," this everyman, I murdered over a thousand people, almost 200 of which stabbed to death. The story juxtaposes this contradiction (bro versus mass murderer) as a journey of self-discovery, maturation, and matriculation to the role of warrior. It's unfortunate that the mechanism of maturation is ethnic cleansing on a giant scale.

Far Cry 3 is a racist video game. The premise of the game is that Jason Brody, his two brothers, his girlfriend, and a couple other people are vacationing in the tropics when they reach Rook Island, geographically and ethnically ambiguous. It's a jungle populated by Asian people as well as Maori people, some of whom have distinct Australian accents (and not New Zealand accents; I know the difference) and some of whom speak in stereotypical clipped "engrish." Brody and his friends are kidnapped by a group of pirates led by the insane, hypnotic, and captivating Vaas. After Brody's older, military-trained brother helps the two of them escape, Jason starts on "the path of the warrior" as the local tribe, the Rakyat, call it.

Once the traditional hero is eliminated (Jason's older brother), Jason becomes the only person with the wherewithal and endurance to withstand the vengeance and murder required to rescue his other friends. The Rakyat perceive Jason, a white upper middle class male, as their saviour from the occupying pirates and their engagement in human trafficking. In order to facilitate their freedom from oppression, they allow Jason to partake in sacred rituals designed to release the warrior within as well as modify Jason's body with tribal tattoos to further mark Jason as "other."

As many other critics have pointed out, Far Cry 3 is a game split in two: the hunting, scavenging, and traveling simulator which rewards patience, perseverance, and hard work and the murder simulator which asks the player to eliminate hundreds of POC. The former is a satisfying and immersive experience. The latter is casual and simultaneously aggressive in its racism. Of course, the obvious problem is that the game is unsuccessful in its bridging of the two halves.

What strikes the player as especially egregious in its racism is that for Jason, the journey to warrior does not simply include ethnic cleansing, but also an interior journey of self-discovery towards maturity and adulthood. The latter necessitates the former, compounding the racism.

At the halfway point of the game, Jason's rescued friends are ready to leave the island on a boat they've painstakingly assembled and repaired. Only Jason feels unsatisfied and opts to remain on the island in order to achieve vengeance on the pirates for the murder of his brothers. Jason's girlfriend says to Jason that he is going to leave her right at the moment she's been waiting for so long. The moment being, of course, his matriculation into adulthood.

Thus, as an object of art, Far Cry 3 belongs in the same category as Judd Apatow films (and imitating styles) as well as films such as Seth MacFarlane's Ted. In this style of narrative, the male is consciously stranded between the siren call of adolescence and the injunction to achieve maturity and independence. The tension is often not presented as economic, but speaks to the higher standard of living Americans enjoy, to the point where they can indulge in tropical vacations while still remaining emotionally immature and financially solvent.

For males (and to a lesser extent females), the cultural injunction to party is omnipresent and menacing in its ceaselessness. In economic boom times (such as the 50s), labour is the island between lakes of leisure. In our current era of precarity, leisure is the tiny island between vast oceans of labour. Thus the need to maximize that tiny island is all the more important. Leisure, when short in duration, is intensified in effort.

Fiction such as Ted, Knocked Up, and Far Cry 3 present the protagonist as negotiating the tension between the island of leisure and ocean of labour as the main drama. The shrill girlfriend, constantly complaining and threatening a break-up, represents the injunction to grow up. In Far Cry 3, the females have even less agency than in Apatow films — which is surely saying something about the patriarchy present in all facets of video game culture. Jason's girlfriend articulates the melancholy in Jason's desire to wreak vengeance when such a task is ultimately a sacrifice of his personality.

Thus, the game attempts to say something deep and meaningful about the loss of personhood in the pursuit of vengeance, but ends up trivializing the mass murder of hundreds of POC by implying it is a journey of maturity.

Racism in Far Cry 3 is so omnipresent that it permeates below the surface. Previously, video games indulged in a superficial racism, such as Call of Duty games which offer Afghan terrorists and Brazilian criminals as shooting targets, but always in the context of saving the world from nuclear destruction. Only Far Cry 3 is racist enough to contextualize ethnic cleansing as an Apatowian arc of maturation.

Far Cry 3 indulges in some of the most hoary and well-known racial sterotypes. The first assisting character that Jason meets is a Liberian expatriate that fulfills the magical Negro stereotype by kicking off the "path of the warrior" arc. Later, Jason meets Citra, the sister and nemesis of Vaas, who's accent, attire, and tattoos clearly mark her as "other." It should be no surprise that this Orientalist stereotype, oozing of sexuality and sensuality, tricks Jason into sex via hallucinatory rituals. Her motives are, in typically Orientalist fashion, inscrutable, as is her ethnicity and accent. It is not until the very end that Citra's motivation becomes apparent, and then the game descends (if possible) further into racism nonsense.

At the end, once Jason has defeated the paramilitary organization that marks the second more difficult island, he returns to his friends' hideout to find them all missing. He finds out that Citra and the Rakyat have kidnapped them. After a hallucinatory walk, Jason finds himself holding a knife to his girlfriend's throat. It turns out that the only way to become a true warrior is to sever all connections with the past. The game offers Citra as a barbarous native unfamiliar with the more civilized Western way of doing things. The player can choose to either rescue his friends or kill them. I chose to rescue them, but either option has the same results: the blood staining Jason's hands is too much and he decides to stay on the island.

In either case, Jason fulfills the colonial fear of "going native" by engaging in barbarous behaviour, beyond the call of vengeance. Just like Uncharted 3, Far Cry 3 makes the mistake of asking the player to think critically about the actions of the protagonist. How much blood is needed to balance the scales of justice? The major difference is that Jason's mission is not fueled by a sense of pride, but by vengeance.

There comes a moment at the halfway point of the game when Jason is asked to lead the Rakyat on an assault against Vaas. This might be my favourite mission of the game, but it's also the most deeply problematic. Citra requests that Jason lead them to victory, and he turns to the assembled fighters and provides a rousing speech about how victory over Vaas is imminent. He fully accepts the role of saviour at this point, fulfilling the white saviour complex that Teju Cole writes about here. The difference between the morons at Invisible Children and Jason is that Jason gets to ruthlessly gun down those pesky misbehaving ethnic people.

It is my favourite mission because of the mechanics of how to storm his bunker, and how the game reacts with manageable waves of enemies of increasing difficulty until the final confrontation with Vaas. It's the most frustrating mission because of the "white bro leading POC" and the previously implicit comparison made between Vaas and Jason is made explicit.

Vaas is the character pictured at the header of this post. He is, without a doubt, the most interesting character in the entire game. Michael Mando, a fellow Canadian, voices the imposing Vaas with a mixture of insanity and amusement. Vaas is always taken aback that an untrained immature bro could achieve so much in so little time. However, Vaas is presented as the dark mirror of Jason, not only through Vaas's dialogue, but the game's sparing use of quotes from Through the Looking Glass. Vaas is the man that Jason might become if he succumbs to blood lust. Of course, it is no coincidence that Vaas is "othered" through his name, his accent, his facial scar, his tattoos, his attire, and his adherence to a unhinged worldview, totally dissimilar to Jason and his friends' "normal" Western worldview. During the final confrontation between Jason and Vaas, a hallucination of course, figures of Jason strobe into Vaas and vice versa, making the comparison explicit. The great danger is that Jason will go fully native, go to the "other" side, and never return.

The possibility of going native always presented in a negative light. The island is without discernible borders between urban and jungle, an anxious proposal for urbanites, and the island is crawling with predators without any concern for those blurred borders. Even small enclaves of "civilization" is presented in racist tones: Badtown is a shantytown, the kind seen in infomercials to save Africa, and the other major centre has free-wheeling, fun and fancy-free idiots dancing to vaguely tribal music, obviously echoing minstrel stereotypes. Why would any civilized white person want to stay there, unless they were crazy or "othered" in some way?

Insanity plays a large part in the themes and plot of Far Cry 3. The CIA man that helps you with a couple quests is presented as the paranoid company man jumping at shadows and the main antagonist is a slaver from what sounds like South Africa. Of course, no white American would partake in that totally wide spread phenomenon of human trafficking. Only "othered" whites would stoop so low. The link being made implicit is of course between "otherness" and insanity.

An Australian man, Buck, instigates some of the missions in the first half of the game. He appears unhinged right from the get-go, but he asks Jason to find some mystical compass (of course) that leads to some mystical knife necessary for the path of the warrior (of course). While this part of the plot is tedious (mystical object! because foreigners are always magical unlike us urbanites), the climax of the arc is interesting. It turns out that Buck is actually holding one of Jason's male friends, and the game heavily implies that Buck has been repeatedly raping him. Jason rescues the friend who then asks Jason not to mention anything to the girls.

Male rape panic aside, it's hard not to see that Jason's journey of murder is also a journey of reclaiming his manhood from odious ethnic types. It's a journey to take back and bring together the man with his phallus. In Far Cry 3, the phallus is the knife that Jason uses to dispatch the main enemies (and kill numerous henchman) by penetrating them. While the "othered" characters threaten or commit rape, only Jason's figurative rape is acceptable, and this is surely due to his asexuality as a Westerner. When dirty foreign types rape, it's so gross that the game cannot even address it explicitly, but when Jason penetrates a bunch of ethnics, it's acceptable.

While I've stressed so much that this is a thoroughly racist video game, down to the smallest degree, I haven't really talked about how much I enjoyed this game. I love Far Cry 3, despite the numerous problems. It's at this point where I should introduce Social Justice League's How to be a fan of problematic things. I've struggled previously with how I should enjoy something so racist or sexist, but Rachael provides a way of negotiating this tension. She writes
Liking problematic things doesn’t make you an asshole. In fact, you can like really problematic things and still be not only a good person, but a good social justice activist (TM)! After all, most texts have some problematic elements in them, because they’re produced by humans, who are well-known to be imperfect. But it can be surprisingly difficult to own up to the problematic things in the media you like, particularly when you feel strongly about it, as many fans do. We need to find a way to enjoy the media we like without hurting other people and marginalised groups.
She goes on to list ways that we can approach the problematic object without ignoring or denying the problematic elements therein. The first part is to acknowledge the aspects that are troublesome and to not excuse them or justify them. This derails the conversation and limits what can and cannot be said in conjunction with the object. By this, Rachael is referring to the "don't read too much into this" or "it's just a video game" defense that many people take. This trivializes or dismisses the various readings that people take out of a text. Forcing somebody to engage with the text using your interpretation is not conducive to an open dialogue wherein problematic aspects can be brought to light, or discussed.

In the case of Far Cry 3, I opened up this review by framing the video game as fundamentally racist. I wanted to acknowledge this fact head on and provide the evidence for my interpretation of the text (which is widely agreed upon, apparently). Despite this approach, I still had a great time with the game. The mise-en-scène is strong enough that pop-up text and even the mini-map are practically useless, the combat is imminently responsive and fluid, there's a deft balance struck between stealth and assault, the hunting is fun and useful, the side quests are interesting and not terribly repetitive, and the god-like feeling that comes with shooters like this is immensely palatable.

None of this exculpates the game or even me. It's still a problematic object, but acknowledging it, talking about it, disseminating the idea that this is not okay is part of the labour of changing things. The unfortunate part is that the 60 dollars I paid do not go to Ubisoft with a note explaining my misgivings. Unfortunately, justice is not blind, but money is. The makers of this game won't know that I found this game equally entertaining and troublesome.

Ultimately, the discourse surrounding the game seems to highlight the inherent racism. I have yet to read a review that doesn't address the game's both casual and aggressive racism. There's an interview with one of the makers in which he defends the game using the "you don't get it" defense but this fails. Even the most guarded racists must realize how deeply problematic this game is, even if it's an entirely fun murder simulator. When everybody starts to discuss how problematic this game is, perhaps this is a step towards addressing greater cultural problems such as the prevalence and banality of rape culture as well as the sexualization of violence against women.

Oh wait.

Goddamnit, video game industry. You're making it extremely difficult to be a fan.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Masculinity and I


0.

I hug my male friends frequently and they hug me frequently. We touch each other in non-intimate ways. We care for each other and when somebody is feeling down, we listen and try to help. We put our arms around each other's shoulders and two of us have been mistaken for a couple. My friends and I are not the most enlightened men in the world, and we still have a lot to learn about feminism, equality, rape culture, privilege and race, but I'd like to think that this new strain of masculinity is a step in the right direction.

Masculinity is not a simple proposition. It is not a measurement of toughness or of power. It is not an equation of physicality and aggressive heterosexuality. Unfortunately, our culture circulates and perpetuates an ideal image of a man that is tough, silent, strong, and almost exclusively depicted as heterosexual.

The very fact that my friends and I are comfortable enough with our masculinity to touch each other and care for each other is a challenge to an outmoded and terrible form of masculinity. In this post, I want to explore one of the greatest gifts my father ever gave me: the idea that masculinity isn't defined by culture but by one's actions.

1.

X, Y, and myself are at a local karaoke bar. We had played guitar and sang at X's house previously and wanted to hit up the karaoke bar. We had no intentions of "picking up chicks" or even socializing. We went for the explicit purpose of singing some songs and having a couple beers. The night ended strangely.

After about an hour of being there, a girl with a cute punk haircut (shaved on one side, the long part dyed blonde) began giving Y and I "the eye" — the eye that meant, "I'm interested in you; please come talk to me." She was clearly drunk, as she wavered and wobbled across the room when moving. As aforementioned, we weren't terribly interested in socializing, so neither of us did anything about the "come hither" look. At this point, X is fairly drunk and also wavering and wobbling when in motion. I took it upon myself to keep an eye on X as well as maintain sobriety in order to accomplish the first goal.

X goes on stage to sing a song and Y goes out for a smoke. Right away, the girl walks by the table and smiles at me, a sexy smile that is clearly an invitation to have a conversation with her. Or more probable, to initiate the complex social protocols of casual sex. The smile is broad, warm, and almost menacing in its unwavering confidence. This is a girl who clearly knows what she wants. She maintains eye contact with me to signal this desire.

Now, she comes to the table and sits down in Y's chair. She continues to hold her smile and eye contact. I try to start conversation but she's too drunk or not interested in engaging in dialogue. I tell her my friend is singing and she nods. She provides a few half sentences. Y comes back from his smoke, sees the girl, turns around and walks to the bar. It's becoming awkward, this girl and her menacing stare of sexual invitation. X comes back from singing and he and the girl have a bizarre dance, and both are so drunk that awkwardness increases exponentially.

Somebody starts singing a Talking Heads song, and the girl says, "Oh my god, do you know what movie this is from?" This is the first full sentence she has spoken. I say I don't know and she shouts, "Revenge of the Nerds!" I respond that I hadn't seen it and she gets frustrated by that.

I had already my decision, fairly quickly, that I didn't want to have sex with her — not because she wasn't attractive but because I was sober and she was drunk. I made my decision known by my body language. She figured this out, and as her friends were leaving, she grabbed my face and kissed me. It was the worst kiss of my life: slobbery, wet, and cold. When the kiss broke, she giggled and playfully slapped my face, as if to say, “You’re a fool for missing out on this.” Apparently, she thought this lesson need to be reiterated so she kissed me again, followed predictably by the slap. I was taken aback of course. What a strange turn of events.

As she walked away, she realizes she left her purse. We are now at maximum awkwardness. She turns back, grabs her purse, giggles and slaps me a third and final time, of course.

For the next hour, I struggled with what had happened. I was thinking that this was an opportunity for me to have sex, and that I had passed it up. I was thinking that my friends would repeat the story and emphasize how I didn't have sex with this girl. I was thinking that it was sort of my duty as a young male to capitalize on moments of sexual opportunity. I was thinking that I would regret this decision.

I was also thinking that if I had taken this girl up on her intoxicated offer, I would have completely overruled my own ethics, my own beliefs. I would have been guilty of rape. The girl would no doubt not have made the same actions if she had been sober. Her judgement was impaired, but mine was not. Thus, I made the right decision.

2.

I woke up the next day, resolutely believing I had made the right decision. However, I do not want to be congratulated for this. At all. I shouldn't be congratulated or lauded for having basic human decency. I didn't take advantage of a girl, and nobody should award me a medal for not doing so.

So instead of telling this story to feel good about myself and to recuperate the feelings of regret and frustration, I'm telling this story to explore the complex feelings I experienced during the moment. Specifically, the feeling that I should have done this in order to be perceived as a man.

"Men don't let sexual opportunities pass them by" is a lesson that culture repeats over and over. A recent example of this is 2011's Crazy Stupid Love starring Ryan Gosling and Steve Carell. The latter character goes through a divorce, so Gosling takes it upon himself to teach Carell how to seduce women. The presented equation is rather simple: Carell's manhood is at stake when divorced by his wife (emasculation) so in order to reassert his masculinity, he has sex with strangers. Male power is expressed through virility and fecundity.

Thus for a few moments, I felt my very masculinity being threatened by "feminine" thoughts of ethics or moral responsibility. By turning down so naked an opportunity, I was allowing myself to be feminized, to be emasculated.

Of course, without a doubt, this is absolute bullshit.

My masculinity was not at stake if I had decided not to rape an intoxicated girl. Rather, by being a responsible and decent human being, I asserted empathy and self-awareness, neither of which are specifically gendered. My masculinity was not diminished by my ability to make a decision so obvious that it's painful and embarrassing to think that I had even considered the wrong answer.

3.

My father taught me that I could be whatever person I want to be. This sounds trite and small, but like David Foster Wallace said in a commencement speech.
the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance.
What my father taught me is worth untangling from its banal bindings. He never said I could do anything I wanted to, if I set my mind on it. He never said I could have anything I wanted if I worked hard at it.

Rather, I was taught to be and act the way I would want to be. My father meant that if I wanted to be a person who operates with positive ethics, then nothing was stopping me but myself. I could be an ethical person if I so choose.

He also taught me that, in his implicit way, that I didn't need to be whatever anybody else told me. He meant that I should follow my passions and not let anybody dictate what was appropriate or valuable. By this, he was referring to my dislike for sports, cars, war, and other things boys should be interested in.

To me, this is the ultimate sacrifice my father made: a man who loves sports so intensely raised a child with enough agency to choose something else. I've always assumed that my lack of sports knowledge and interest was a source of disappointment for my father, but he repeatedly assures me that it doesn't matter; he loves me regardless. My father is masculine not because he's interested in sports or cars, but because he is loving, supportive father.

Thus, he taught me that I could be masculine without resorting to essentialist gender norms. I could be whomever I wanted to be and I chose to be myself.

The implications of this are obvious: if I had been gay, he would have loved me; If I had been trans, he would have loved me.

4.

Hanna Rosin, a journalist whose interests coincide quite neatly with me (vis-a-vis the culture of hooking up), recently published a book called The End of Men about the "rise" of women in contemporary Western society. Recently, she published this article on Slate about the rise of gender neutral toys. She writes
boys pay a higher penalty for diversifying. No one looks twice when a girl plays hoops or drives a toy race car; in fact it’s probably considered pretty cool. But a boy with a doll is still almost as alarming to many parents as it was in 1970. One classic study on peer pressure at SUNY Binghamton, for example, showed that boys were twice as likely to avoid exploring the typically girl toys if another child was sitting in the room.
Cultural norms, and thus peer pressure, exert an immense pressure on boys and girls. This is why for moments, I regretted my decision not to have sex with the cute punk girl. It was expected of me, and I was worried about cultural pressures.

I'm very fortunate that my father raised me to be self-aware and to — always — question what on prima facie appears to be the status quo. If someone says, "this is the way it is and that's why" my immediate reaction is to keep asking questions. Thus, instead of fundamentally compromising this girl and myself, I made the right decision and this does not make me less of a man.

This piece has the flavour of a mea culpa, but there is no error here. I am not rationalizing or excusing my behaviour, and I refuse to be congratulated as such. Rather, I wanted to explore why I'm able to display physical affection with my friends, display empathy and sensitivity, why I am comfortable enough with myself as a person to resist essentialist gender norms.

I don't want to say that perhaps my friends and I are the future of masculinity, but perhaps we are one step closer to a world of gender equality by combating restrictive and proscriptive cultural expectations. My father's father would have never showed physical affection with his friends. My father resisted this and I'm enjoying the fruits of this: comfortable in my own skin, enough not to rape somebody because culture and society tells me I should.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Media and Tragedy


1.

Helicopters beat noisily over the air, hovering over the school in Monroe, Connecticut. Their cameras, attached to the side, pensively peer downwards, capturing onto digital film and broadcasting to millions the images of children crossing the police barricade. Yesterday was the day elementary schoolchildren return to a pale imitation of a regular life, as the school in Monroe, about seven to eight miles from Newtown, was set up and decorated like Sandy Hook in order to welcome the students. The first day was probably arts and crafts, or music, or anything light and participatory. Parents were welcome to attend, as today was not just about returning children to normalcy, but helping parents let go of their little ones, back into the relatively safe arms of the school.

Today was ostensibly about returning children to a normal routine, back to their regular lives. But how could this be successfully accomplished when the helicopters film their arrival at school, when they film the police barricade, when the TV personalities on the ground are searching for somebody — anybody — to provide some information on feelings. As if the parents feelings weren't painfully obvious.

In Sandy Hook, nothing like this had ever been seen before. In living memory in the United States, nothing like this had been seen before. Thus, there is no "playbook" or set of protocols to deal with tragedies on this scale. However, one can say with some confidence that part of the healing process does not include having a microphone and a camera shoved into one's face.

The secondary lesson to learn from this school shooting (the first being the US's outrageous ease of access to fire arms) is that the media needs an overhaul. Already journalism is in a precarious state due to the death of print media, newspaper closures, and a paradigm shift that moves the focus from news reporting to confessional memoirs and personal essay. Thus, journalism needs a new paradigm, or better yet, a return to an era when fact-checking, objective reporting, and moral responsibility are paramount.

2.

The catalogue of things that the media got wrong during the month after Newtown's tragedy is a long one. From the very beginning, the media reported breathlessly on misidentified shooters, the amount of victims, the motives, etc. They also, without any self-awareness at all, posted pictures of children being led out of the school, their hands clasped to their faces. They posted pictures of anguished family members. They posted pictures of police officers, EMTs, teachers, and other figures to visually represent the chaos and tragedy that was unfolding.

I resolutely refuse to re-post the pictures from that day, or any other picture from Newtown. I refuse to partake in a type of journalism that outright profits from the "if it bleeds, it leads" psychology of journalism.

Major news outlets were reporting almost instantaneously that the 24 year old brother of the shooter was involved [I refuse to write the name of the shooter or his family]. This is possibly due to the social media style of journalism that the market has created. In order to keep audiences, to report first on things, outlets are willing to risk truthfulness. They are willing to gamble credibility in order to maintain viewers and readers.

Journalism holds specific ethics in mind at all times: report the truth, protect the source, do not compromise, and above all, maintain credibility in order to report the truth. By compromising their credibility, the major outlets succumbed to a fever of profitability over reputation. In order words, with the 21st century, journalism has finally become a fully fledged victim of neoliberalism, the hysterical need to maximize short term profits even with the risk of long term damage. Only immediately actualized capital is accepted; all else disturbs the shareholders.

3.


Gawker reported that an ABC reporter reached out to a Connecticut resident for an interview during the most chaotic time. The reporter was rebuffed with a terse "eat a dick." This exchange perfectly captures the buzzard-like propensity of the news outlets to get a story, any story, when newsworthy items occur. The current paradigm of the media is never satisfied until the carcasses of people have been picked clean, until the bones of human beings sparkle brilliant white.

Nadine Shubailat, the reporter in the above exchange, is no more to blame for this style of journalism than a US soldier is personally guilty of imperialism. Both are simply individuals in a particular discipline in which anybody could be replaced with another and achieve the same reprehensible behaviour. It's not Shubailat's fault that she needs to pin down a source, to get an interview, to get any information. In fact, that's basic journalism. However, it is the system's fault that Twitter is being ruthlessly exploited for callous interviews with people who are still searching for their loved ones.

Do we really need to interview 9 year olds who were at the scene? What possible information could they give that outweighs the trauma of "psychological debriefing" via interview. In a cost-benefit ratio, surely, the interview costs more than the meager info the 9 year old could possibly provide.

Psychological debriefing is a specific treatment that emphasizes on-location, immediate counseling and interviewing in order to offset post-traumatic stress disorder. Normally performed by trained therapists, debriefing occurs when the media asks interview subjects to re-experience trauma by externalizing it. Numerous studies have found that psychological briefing, either immediate or afterwards, lacks in efficacy and does not deter PTSD. In some cases, as in meta-analyses of 9/11 counseling show, individuals wouldn't have developed PTSD without debriefing. Thus, the evidence for the efficacy of debriefing is sorely lacking.

Thus, it's not hyperbole to say that by interviewing subjects so soon after a traumatic experience, journalists might actually be contributing to post-traumatic stress disorder by exacerbating or even developing the very conditions. Then, this violates one of journalism's very tenets of ethical behaviour: protecting the source.

4.

Of course, the prevalence of misinformation, poor interviewing techniques and naked opportunism are all related to the confusion and chaos surrounding such a complicated event. Such things are almost inevitable when so many news outlets, so many individuals, and so many complex factors are engaged. The more complex a system, the more likely are anomalies. However, there is a line of acceptability in terms of the aforementioned slips.

It is the responsibility of journalism to report on such events, and I would be insane to think otherwise. But I would be remiss in not pointing out that helicopters filming children on their way to the first day of school does not contribute to the attempt at normalcy in which the school is engaged. It is the responsibility of journalism to get the facts straight, and if law enforcement at the scene is providing the incorrect name of the shooter then perhaps this could be forgiven. However, the source didn't tell the media to report that the shooter was definitively this person or that person. The media could have — and should have — couched that identity in language of possibility.

The media did not need to take photos of the children as they marched out into the waiting arms of the police. And if they did take that photo, it didn't need to disseminate so breathlessly, so gleefully.

It's hard not to get the impression from the current paradigm of journalism that they welcome and hope for tragedy. After all, the "if it bleeds, it leads" is an old habit that becomes intensified when the competition for a reader, any reader, is so high stakes. There are fewer journalists working now because newspapers are collapsing, outlets are being downsized. Their jobs have become lost due to the imperatives of free market capitalism: profit or die.

It shouldn't be outrageous to make the claim that journalism shouldn't be entirely about profit. Journalism should be about reporting the truth, protecting the source, and policing institutions, keeping them honest.

5.

Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky wrote an incredibly provocative book called Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media in which they argued that journalism has become a tool of the US government, due to the rapacity of neoliberalism and the rise of corporatism.

Their argument is simple, really. The government is a large and reputable source. It serves journalism to employ governmental sources. Journalism is owned by large conglomerates that have contracts and business deals with the government. Thus, the conglomerates need their properties (newspapers, TV stations) to avoid upsetting any future business deal by upsetting the government. The obvious conclusion is that there is too much money at stake to report on news that will irritate the government, so journalism reports only on things that keep the state happy.

This book argues rather convincingly that this has been the case since the early 1960s, when the US government's foreign policy was at its most aggressive. By reporting positively on US client states and negatively on US enemies, the mass media has already traded in their credibility for profitability.

Thus, it should be no surprise that the current paradigm of journalism is so utterly reprehensible.

6.

The question remains, what do we do about the current state of journalism, a discourse that focuses on capital over truth? The answer is built into the premise of the question. We need to de-emphasize capital in the equation of journalism. No longer should newspapers and media outlets be primarily (and sometimes solely) motivated by profitability. Of course, the outlets are not focused on maintaining solvency will collapse, sink, or dissipate due to the rigors of free market capitalism. Only by reporting on that which sells, at the fastest speed, at the lowest cost, will a media outlet survive. This is capitalist realism at its finest.

It's impossible to imagine a new paradigm of journalism because the greatest trick capitalism ever pulled was to convince everybody that there is no alternative. We can't imagine a mass media that doesn't ruthlessly exploit the imagery of tragedy, the victims of tragedy, and the compulsion to return, over and over, no matter how damaging the hovering helicopters might be.

Thus, we must look to the great wilderness of the Internet for the future, where news outlets aren't limited by word counts, by size, or even by imagination. Anything is possible and anything can be reported. By responsibly using a matrix of social media, traditional sources, governmental sources, Internet journalism could succeed in accomplishing the lofty goals of institutional responsibility.

Unfortunately, Internet journalism is subject to the same type of fevered desire for profit. Page counts are religiously tracked in order to entice advertisers. In order to increase those page counts, Internet journalism traffics in the same tactics as traditional.

Due to capitalist realism, we might have reached the end of journalism. Its malodorous corpse will forever remain stagnant at the end of history. Until a paradigm shift is imminent, we'll be forever bombarded with images of tragedy that need not be circulated, with names of shooters that don't deserve to be repeated, with cringe-worthy moments of naked opportunism, with helicopters, beating constantly against the waves of credibility.