Dogs (Two Different Ones)

>> Wednesday, January 21, 2015

If you have no capacity for violence then you are a healthy productive citizen: a sheep. If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath--a wolf. But what if you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens? Then you are a sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking the hero’s path. Someone who can walk into the heart of darkness, into the universal human phobia, and walk out unscathed.

Bleating and babbling we fell on his neck with a scream
Wave upon wave of demented avengers
March cheerfully out of obscurity into the dream.

Have you heard the news?
The dogs are dead!
You better stay home
And do as you're told
Get out of the road if you want to grow old.
- Roger Waters, "Sheep"

I haven't seen American Sniper; somehow I can't say I'm likely to--I think Clint Eastwood is a very capable director and all, I just find I don't care overly much for biopics in general and it at least seems like there's a kind of reactionary subtext to this kind of project that might be... well, irritating.  I don't mean offensive, necessarily, or that I can't enjoy a reactionary film; indeed, I have an inordinate fondness for another movie Eastwood was involved in a long time ago, Don Siegel's Dirty Harry, an ultra-reactionary opus that goes out of its way to take a piss on much that I hold sacred and dear (this is a movie, after all, in which the real villain isn't a serial killer, but rather the villains are all the civil liberties softies who allow a monster like that to walk free just because a dedicated public servant like Harry might have gotten a little rough with him while trying to save a poor innocent girl's life).  But as I get old and weary,  I don't see a lot of movies anymore, and when I do it's usually nice to see something with superheroes or spaceships or something.  Technically, this makes me part of the dumbening of America or something like, but what can I say?

Still, it was hard to pass up a headline like this one in Slate, "The Surprising History of American Sniper’s “Wolves, Sheep, and Sheepdogs” Speech" by Michael Cummings and Eric Cummings.  After all, American Sniper appears to be part of the cultural conversation, and who isn't interested in furry animals.  Wolves are cool, sheep are cute, and sheepdogs... well, I've always been fond of Chuck Jones' Ralph Wolf and Sam Sheepdog, though (for the record) it's just impossible to deny that Ralph is more-or-less indistinguishable from Wile E. Coyote unless you're paying special attention to their noses (coyotes, in the Jonesiverse, have black noses; wolves, red).  So I was curious.

What I learned was both horrific and comedic: it seems there's a speech in the movie where someone divides the world up into sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs, and that this speech is lifted from something someone named Dave Grossman wrote, linked to above, and that the whole point of the exercise is a justification of violence.  Grossman, you see, thinks the world can be divided into three groups:

If you have no capacity for violence then you are a healthy productive citizen: a sheep. If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath--a wolf. But what if you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens? Then you are a sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking the hero’s path. Someone who can walk into the heart of darkness, into the universal human phobia, and walk out unscathed.

At Slate, Michael Cummings and Eric Cummings do an excellent job of breaking down some of the moral problems with this notion--

...the analogy is simplistic, and in its simplicity, dangerous. It divides the world into black and white, into a good-versus-evil struggle that the real world doesn’t match. We aren’t divided into sheep, sheepdogs, and wolves. We are all humans.

--rightly observing, 

...this simple analogy is undone by an even simpler (and older) one: the wolf in sheep’s clothing. After all, all humans basically look alike. Faced with this problem, how can you tell a wolf from a sheep?

The easiest way is race.

They are, I think, far too kind to Grossman's metaphor.  It isn't just simplistic, it's actually a bit dumb.  Grossman acknowledges that the limit of his metaphor is that the animals he compares humans to are just animals, but that humans have choices and may elect to be sheep, wolves or sheepdogs, and goes on to add:

If you want to be a sheep, then you can be a sheep and that is okay, but you must understand the price you pay. When the wolf comes, you and your loved ones are going to die if there is not a sheepdog there to protect you. If you want to be a wolf, you can be one, but the sheepdogs are going to hunt you down and you will never have rest, safety, trust or love. But if you want to be a sheepdog and walk the warrior’s path, then you must make a conscious and moral decision every day to dedicate, equip and prepare yourself to thrive in that toxic, corrosive moment when the wolf comes knocking at the door.

The implication in Grossman's tone, naturally, is "Who wants to be a sheep?"  He's addressing "warriors" and suggests that we live in a dangerous world and choosing to be a sheep means choosing to let the wolves eat you and your loved ones.  But the problem with this formulation, aside from the wolves in sheep's clothing, is that if a sheepdog can choose to be a sheep, why on Earth is Grossman assuming sheep can't choose to be sheepdogs?

Or to remain sheep but nevertheless master the art of karate, as Roger Waters cheekily suggested in the Pink Floyd song "Sheep" on their 1977 record Animals.  Waters also divided the human species into three classes of animals, but he wasn't glibly doing so in order to give audiences a pat on the back and a sense of self righteousness: indeed, the point of the division on Animals is to suggest that the correct answer to the question, "Would you rather be a dog, a pig, or a sheep?" is "None of the above," all of them being nasty pieces of work in the end and the better answer being that we ought to try caring for each other a little better and taking refuge in one another (finding "shelter from pigs on the wing").

Waters' sheep are mucking around waiting for the abattoir, but the fact they're taken for granted makes them dangerous; Waters posits that they're just waiting around until they feel danger so keenly they'll rise up and trample the dogs (and, presumably, the pigs) and perhaps in true Orwellian fashion recapitulate the order they've thrown down (a la Animal Farm).

Grossman explicitly acknowledges the fluidity between his categories but apparently misses the logical conclusion; Waters only acknowledges the fluidity implicitly, but the conclusion is obvious and explicit: the revolution will come, the dogs will be run over, it will be ugly.  Why would you ever want to be a dog, then?  You will be hated and die bloody, because eventually people--er, sheep, I mean--will get tired of your shit and then where will you be?

Waters finds all this toxic and undesirable.  Animals is a great record, but the whole concept is really a bit muddled and doesn't really work as a sustained metaphor if you try to read it as a cohesive worldview instead of as a quartet of songs (one of the songs is split in half and used to bookend the album) loosely connected through their imagery.  Still: if there is any kind of coherence to the project, it's observation and caution: you should not like the things we show you, whether it's a whipped dog dying slowly of cancer, a grubby pig rolling in filth, or sheep turning into a bloodthirsty mob.

Grossman isn't half so wise.  He's telling policemen and soldiers a story of how they stand outside the pack and save the weak from the ruthless, and letting them know that it's okay if they do some things that the weak don't care for if it's for their own good, and if they want to join the weak they can, but, you know.  It's a poisonous message, and a dumb message, because if the listener stopped to question it, he might realize that by putting himself outside of the flock as its superior and protector, he's really asking to be trampled by hooves when the flock gets ugly.  Or ripped to pieces when some or all of the flock decides to grow teeth and claws.  Either way, outside is not a good place to be, and mistakenly thinking it's a position of privilege instead of one of brief necessity--which is what Grossman seems to be about--is a tragic mistake.

It's not exactly surprising this message is making the rounds.  In many respects, it's not really even a new message: police officers have often had to deal with the isolating nature of their often dangerous and thankless jobs, and it seems like the military has become more insular in the years since the United States went to a volunteer military.  Those outside the loop need to be aware that this message is being passed around in this way, and those who are the intended recipients of the message ought perhaps consider whether they really want to think of themselves as dogs and those they serve as sheep.  All might consider the possibility none of us are sheep and dogs, that we're all humans muddling through as best we can.


George Stinney, Jr., Number 260, an update

>> Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Quite a number of years ago (2009), I wrote an entry here about juvenile justice in which I mentioned the youngest American executed in modern times, George Stinney, Jr..  George was executed by the state of South Carolina in 1944.  They electrocuted him, and he was too small to fit in the electric chair when they killed him.  That's George, to the right, inmate 260.  All 95 pounds of him.  Ferocious-looking, isn't he?  (Newcomers to the blog are advised that that's grim sarcasm.  In fact, the child looks like he'd have trouble hurting an earthworm he was going to bait a hook with down at the local fishing hole.)

The update this week is that George's conviction has been thrown out by a South Carolina Circuit Court judge.  Judge Carmen T. Mullen, reviewing a depressingly-but-unsurprisingly incomplete record of the child's trial, which took a single day to hear and involved only ten minutes of jury deliberation, granted a request for a writ of coram nobis on the grounds that few of the young man's rights weren't violated: his confession was most likely coerced, his counsel was woefully inadequate, he could not possibly have received a fair and impartial trial in that venue, and it was cruel and unusual punishment  to execute a child.  The whole opinion can be read here--the format's a bit annoying, but many thanks to Mr. Robert Joseph Baker for posting it nevertheless.

While Judge Mullen's opinion is obviously the moral thing under the circumstances, it's hard not to feel depressed by the injustice that occurred long before our time, and the delay that truly has been a denial.  All of George Stinney's surviving brothers and sisters are elderly now, and have been robbed of growing up with a brother who liked art and airplanes.  There's no faulting Judge Mullen here: it's hardly her fault she was born seventy years too late to avert an injustice that occurred when the legal profession had barely more regard for an accomplished woman with a law degree and extensive legislative and litigation experience than it had for an African-American child.  But all she could do really does feel like too little and too late, at least to me.  (It may be consoling to the Stinney family--I hope it's something, anyway.)

In my pessimistic, jaded frame of burned-out listlessness, I can't help observing that this update is in some respects bad news: the youngest child executed in the United States in the modern era is now a legally innocent child.  One injustice has been addressed as well as it might be: it doesn't appear that George Stinney ever should have been convicted, if all they had was a probably coerced confession (one that was recanted, no less, according to a witness at the coram nobis hearing) and no physical evidence; a probably coerced confession that frankly seems hard to believe when one considers that one of the victims matched little George in size and combined they quite likely would have outmatched him.  Another injustice is irredeemable: a child is dead, one who shouldn't have been killed in the United States of America even in the unlikely event he did do something terrible.

I don't believe in an afterlife, but if I'm wrong, I hope George forgives us, however unworthy we may be.


Everything old is old again

>> Wednesday, December 10, 2014

I think I've said this before, I guess I have to say it again: it seems to me that if you believe in the efficacy of torture as an intelligence-gathering tool, you must necessarily believe in magic.  Because we know from historical experience--in medieval Europe, in colonial New England--that people who are tortured will admit to practicing witchcraft, to being in league with the Devil, to being werewolves.  And if you want to update that data with more recent instances, we know, for instance, from all the horribly detailed records at Tuol Sleng that prisoners of the Khmer Rouge confessed in detail to being participants in seemingly-absurd joint conspiracies in which the United States was allied with the Soviets, Chinese and Vietnamese.

When I think about this, two hypotheses present themselves.  The first is that there are witches and werewolves, Satan is a real guy who lurks in the woods with a big black book that he gets recruits to sign their names in.  And nations that are mortal enemies on the brink of nuclear war can set aside their rivalries for the sake of persecuting a small, insignificant and bloody land.  The second hypothesis would be that most torture victims will, at some point, say absolutely anything they think their torturer wants to hear, no matter how absurd, incorrect, misleading, or contrary to basic laws of physics it is.

One of those hypotheses seems self-evidently ridiculous to me.

There's a usual rebuttal at this point, to the effect that this only matters if torture is the only tool, but that "properly" used, "enhanced interrogations" supplement other data.  This seemingly reasonable response disintegrates upon inspection: if you already know what your victim is telling you, all he's doing is confirming biases; at best, he's telling you nothing, but at worst he's reinforcing mistakes you're already making.

The witch-hunters of Europe already knew damn well Satan was afoot and making people and cattle sick, and causing all sorts of other mischief; torture wasn't their primary or sole source of intelligence, either, it was mostly being used to gather confessions with which to speed up trials and executions.  Without having read the Congressional report on torture issued this week, one assumes the CIA used torture--excuse me, "enhanced interrogation"-- to similar effect: a victim who disagreed with the prevailing wisdom and known knowns was subjected to further "interrogation" until he stopped "lying."  That's how it works, didn't you know?  Resistance is your excuse for torturing in the first place, it's a feedback loop: we already know x, so if the subject isn't telling us x, we add a few more pounds to his chest, we turn up the voltage, we put him back on the board.

Because Satan himself is abroad in the land.


Dumb quote of the day, Pollyanna in ruby shades edition

>> Friday, December 05, 2014

"Here’s a problem, let’s go fix it," he said. "Put aside, you know, the ideological differences, let’s forge consensus around, this is a problem, how do we go from point A to point B to fix it."
- Jeb Bush, as quoted by John Dickerson,
"A Blast From the Past - Can Jeb Bush survive his own party?"
Slate, December 3rd, 2014.

Sure.  Yeah.  Okay.

I mean, look, he's not the only person who's genially spouted this kind of tripe.  Lots of well-meaning folks have, from both parties, and I'm not picking on Bush because he's a Republican or a Bush, I'm picking on him because he's the guy who said it this week and I'm irritable.  Hell, Jon Stewart, who I think is funny and smart, has said similar kinds of nonsense over the years.  So has the President, who I think is a pretty smart guy.  Friends have said this kind of thing.

It's the kind of thing lots and lots of people want to believe, and why not?  It sounds like the acme of reasonableness, of fairness, of moderation.  What kind of loutish partisan extremist could possibly object to the sacred kumbaya, the great coming together of hearts and minds that's part of the Great American Mythos in which we've somehow only recently become a nation in which the radicals have mucked everything up?  Surely we can get back to the start, back to the golden age of consensus and middle-American-ness and mainstreamosity that existed before the Leftists or Tea Partiers or whomever it was turned political discourse into a WWE wrasslin' show.

(Because, you know, nevermind the actual history that possibly the first, last and sole "non-partisan" American President maybe was George Washington, and after his second term the Democratic-Republicans and Federalists started waling on one another with the same vigor they'd gone at each other with during the debates over the drafting of the Constitution, and ever since then the parties have changed but the fury of the battle has rarely, scarcely calmed, whether it's Democrat-Republicans accusing the Federalists of being Secret Royalists, the Republicans accusing the Democrats of being Secret Commies, or whatever and so on, ad nauseum, the song remains basically the same they just change up the key and tempo and every so often.)

The reason the plea to moderation is so stupid, so inane, so hopeless is that it presumes there's some magical "consensus" out there, just waiting to put its head in a virgin's lap the minute the hubbub and furor dies down.  Which would be great, but you have better odds of getting a good holiday snap of Bigfoot palling around with Ogopogo on the sunny shores of Okanagan Lake in British Columbia than you do of getting people to agree what the problems are, much less how (if) they ought to be solved.

Take the matter of anthropogenic climate change: one party appears to accept that human activity is causing drastic, long-term changes to global weather patterns that will have dire effects on the environment, while the other party appears firmly committed to the alternative propositions that climate change isn't occurring, or if it is, humans have little to nothing to do with it, or if humans have some moderate effect on climate change it's not worth doing anything about or government shouldn't intervene since, if there is a problem, surely some entrepreneur will invent some clever way of stopping it, and besides, it's not like the people who might be driving climate change would do anything against their own interests (i.e. if it's a problem, the free market can handle it).  In short, you have one party that says there's a problem that must be solved, and another that says there's no problem at all.

Forge a consensus?  Go from point A to point B?  There's no consensus that the piece of paper you want to plot the points on even exists in the first place.

Racism in America?  One party says that racism is endemic, is an ongoing concern that demands some kind of solution; the other says that everyone would forget it's a thing if the other party didn't keep bringing it up in order to take advantage of people.  Sexism?  More or less the same thing, aside from one of the parties having a prominent and vocal thing that actually says sexism is a good thing, because, contrary to what hairy-legged, man-hating feminists and lesbians seem to think, men and women are fundamentally different and ought to remember their respective places and roles.

And then, of course, there are whole piles of issues that have the same kind of basic, inherent moral polarity that slavery had in the 19th Century.  Just as it was impossible for slaveowners to convince abolitionists that "just a little bit of slavery here and there" was ever okay, one must consider that either a woman owns her womb or a fertilized egg does, with "well, sometimes" simply being an untenable position.  (E.g. in Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court came up with a trimester system based on viability, evidently failing to consider that viability was and will be a moving target: we've moved the age of viability back towards the beginning of the second trimester and, trust me, it's only a matter of time before a fertilized egg can be extracted even prior to implantation and injected into some kind of artificial womb.  Might not happen in my lifetime, even, though I won't be the least bit surprised if it does.)

There are surely issues, boring issues, on which some kind of consensus might be wrought.  Maybe banking regulation, though the fact is that in our two parties we have one that appears to be dominated by people for whom "regulation" is a dirtier word than anything the FCC told George Carlin he couldn't say, while the other is prone these days to saying, "Well, maybe just a little bit, as long as it doesn't make me look too socialist," with the insecure daintiness of a dieter hesitantly flinching towards a plate of hors d'oeuvres.  Maybe tax code stuff, though, you know, again with one party tending towards treating the t-word as a foul obscenity and the other helpfully trying to think up sterile euphemisms for it ("Maybe we could call it a 'penalty'... or a 'fee'...?")

The problem there being, Rome may or may not be in the process of being sacked while we politely agree about things that probably, most of them, don't matter much.  Agreeing to a minor adjustment to the costs of filing some form isn't going to grapple with the fact cops are killing people in the street.  A minor amendment to a bill about the pay scale for Federal janitors that three people have heard of (two of them being its sponsors) is probably not going to do anything to reduce the likelihood of catastrophic droughts here and flooding there as a consequence of carbon emissions, even assuming that's a thing, and one party says it totally isn't and accuses the other of making it up for... I don't even know--for reasons, I guess.

I think regular readers know where my sympathies lie, or can guess from this post.  But, you know, leave that aside, and leave aside the question of whether certain things are even true: one way or another, one political party and the segment of America they represent is being unreasonable.  Whether you want to say it's the Republicans for ignoring scientific evidence of climate change, or the Democrats for fraudulently counterfeiting evidence of a nonexistent climate problem, doesn't really matter, does it?  One of those groups must be acting crazy.  Whether you want to say the Republicans are naive bigots for pretending race isn't an American crisis, or whether you want to accuse the Democrats of being cynical demagogues tearing away at a scab that healed forty years ago, same thing--one of these groups must be... well, one of these groups is behaving in a way you'd really have to call evil, wouldn't you, without necessarily meaning to be pejorative to perhaps otherwise good people doing a terrible thing.

Off the top of my head, this is.  I mean, what's the compromise on gun control?  On healthcare?  On protecting endangered species?  On whether to frack for oil?  On building the Keystone XL pipeline?  (Maybe we can just build half of it!  Compromise achieved!)  On handling ISIS?  On government surveillance?  On net neutrality?  These are largely issues where there's not a common middle ground that everyone but the radicals and extremists and bomb throwers quietly agrees on and why can't the parties come to the center with the vast majority of everyone--these are largely issues (dealing with ISIS may be the exception I shouldn't have included) where one side (pick one) is right and the other is wrong, and there's not a lot of overlap.

The problem in American politics isn't extremism at the expense of centrism.  The problem is extremism at the expense of truth, whatever the hell the truth might happen to be.


No justice, no peace, no hope

>> Tuesday, November 25, 2014

There's no justice, no peace.  I don't goddamn know.  I just don't know.

A tragedy for you is that grand juries are terrible at indicting cops, but the legal system's pretty damn good at incarcerating African Americans.  So I guess what happens now that a Missouri grand jury has declined to indict Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown, leading to riots in Ferguson, is the courts out there can get back to doing what American courts do best.  And they've got plenty to work with, I reckon, with those riots.

I don't want you to get me wrong.  If I had a kid, and he got shot while he was bent over on the ground, unarmed, I'd want to break shit.  I don't have to worry about this, not because I'm childless, but because I'm white, and that makes me special in this country for no good reason except the awful history of this broken and bloody land privileges whiteness.  But if I had to worry about that, and four hundred years of misery and injustice while a nation patted itself on the back for being oh so classless and free curdling underneath, yeah, I'd want to break something, and maybe I would.

No, I'm commenting on the sad irony.  The justice system, such as it is, has no idea what to do with a cop shooting a black kid in the street because cops, because black kids; but it has a pretty good idea what to do with a black person who breaks a window or sets something on fire, even if they've got a few hundred thousand reasons to be pissed off, and reason hundred-thousand-and-one was just the final straw (or the latest final straw, anyway).  There will be prosecutions galore for the shooting of Michael Brown after all.

I don't know.  I don't fucking know.  The grand jury is supposed to stand as this bulwark between the abuses of power by the state and the feral wildness of the mob, and here it is, yet again, failing to do anything right.  I don't know what the answer is because the grand jury shouldn't have indicted Wilson just so there could be a trial for the (justifiably) angry friends, family and neighbors of Michael Brown, but I don't really understand how those shots to the head when the kid was down in the street count as a reasonable use of force any more than I really understand any of Darren Wilson's story about being attacked in his car at all.
It's a lousy system, anyway.  I don't know what it does, what it's supposed to do in the meaningful sense--that is, I can tell you the history and why it seemed like a good idea at the time, I just can't tell you what the grand jury does in application.  Or that's not right, either: I can tell you that what the grand jury does in application is lets cops off the hook and feeds black people to the meat grinder.  Yeah, it does that.  Doesn't actually grind them, it's more like the hopper up top you pour the raw flesh into before it's turned into sausage.

Thinking about this makes me sad and angry.  Did you notice that already?  And being sad about it makes me angry and being angry about it makes me sad.  And wasting my life here inside the inner workings of a meat grinder makes me sad and angry, and not having any answers makes me sad and angry, and when I say there's no peace and no justice I don't just mean in Ferguson, I mean in my own goddamn heart, I mean here's just what I don't have to offer you.
I don't have it in me to read all the documents NPR has posted, but the grand jury evidence is there if you want to pick through it; it was enough for me to confirm that the kid was shot in the top of the head towards the back of the skull, and in the central forehead with an exit wound in the lower jaw and secondary wound from the same bullet in the upper chest, which means the young man was shot at least twice in a bent-over or possibly crumpled position.  I don't know that this information is especially new to anyone, but I needed to take a look at if for myself.  I'll invite you to draw your own conclusions as to whether that sounds like a reasonable use of lethal force--I know there are some lovely people who have concluded Brown was bent over to charge or something like that.  These folks probably have an explanation as to why Wilson decided not to stay in the car until backup arrived, why his vehicle was no longer adequate protection after a shot fired at Brown from within the vehicle went through Brown's hand and wrist, and other sundry nonsensical and baffling matters; I'm one to think all eyewitness testimony is shit because memory is a mangy dog, but science is good and noble and will tell us the truth--nobody ever remembers where they were when and what, but entrance and exit wounds are faithful and honest storytellers.  I think I understand what they whispered to me, and what it says to me is that Michael Brown was going down or was down when he was killed.  Stooped over, or on his knees.  And stopped; whatever he was doing or had done, he was stopped.

I don't have the heart to say anything else.  I feel bad for all those people in Ferguson who had their child, friend and neighbor gunned down and will go to jail as a result of it.  I feel bad for this sad, sick country that was founded on a festering sin that hasn't yet been redeemed and on days like this feels like it won't be. 


Oh By The Way... The Endless River

>> Friday, November 14, 2014

If they could have released this album in 1994, it might have settled a lot of stupid arguments about who was Pink.  But I doubt they knew how.  I don't think they had it in them; no, specifically, I don't think David Gilmour knew he was allowed to do a largely instrumental album before he did Metallic Spheres with The Orb in 2010.

Sounds stupid: he's a big rock and roll god, richer than Croesus, thirteen (now fourteen) studio albums under his belt as the voice and guitar of Pink Floyd, three solo studio records, tours and tours and tours, too many production gigs to count, guest spots on other artists' records galore.  No, I don't think he knew how to do this, didn't know he was allowed: this was the problem with Pink Floyd ever since The Dark Side of the Moon, know that.

Did you know they wanted to follow Dark Side with a musique concrète record, a bunch of found noises, banging on tables, running their wet fingers round the lips of wineglasses, twanging rubber bands?  A perfect follow-up, would have been, to Atom Heart Mother, would have been, but Atom Heart Mother was 1970 and Pink Floyd a cult band with a loyal quiet following who toked up and politely applauded when the band had tea parties on stage, and this was '73, '74, in the wake of an album that would spend fourteen years on Billboard's album charts and Pink Floyd a dinosaur stadium gargantuan act with loud drunks screaming, "Play 'Money'!" from the pit; no, you needed to do a record with actual songs and everything on it instead of something artsy-fartsy and odd.

Yet  they still ended up with Wish You Were Here anyway, in spite of that.  Forty minutes of instrumentals, but there were songs and structure.  There were things you were supposed to do if you were Pink Floyd.

And I think in 1994, what you were supposed to do if you were Pink Floyd was, you were supposed to release an album of songs, songs that sounded like Pink Floyd and songs that showed you didn't need old what's-his-name who used to be in band (not the first guy, the other one).  And don't get me wrong, good songs, I like, maybe I love that record.  But I don't think you were allowed--I don't think you knew you were allowed--to do a record of instrumentals.

I think if you were David Gilmour, you didn't work that out 'til you were hanging out with a couple of electronica/ambient guys and saying, "Hey this is kind of cool."

I think everyone wondered why the 20th anniversary box of The Division Bell seemed so thin on features, no Immersion edition, no outtakes and features even though everyone knew there was a whole Big Spliff of material in the vaults waiting to be rolled up and lit.  And it turns out the reason is Messrs. Gilmour and Mason were secretly working on the record they could(n't) have done in 1994.

They were working on Richard Wright's eulogy, turns out.

Because this is the other reason they couldn't do The Endless River twenty years ago, sad to say but I think it's true: he was right there in the room with them and easily taken for granted, someone to argue with, someone who was fired from the band for a bit and it took legal wrangling to get him back in, someone who maybe was even a little bit of a mascot when he first came in, "Look, Roger, of course we're Pink Floyd, we have Rick, don't we?  Three out of four of what the fans would call the classic lineup, two of the founding members and we fired the other one who wasn't you, in 1968, remember?"

Fuck cancer.

Richard Wright was in Gilmour's touring band in '06, right?  When Gilmour was promoting On An Island.  And--I never got to see this in person, I just saw it on the DVD and heard it on the bootlegged shows--and Gilmour would do the band introductions towards the end of the set, and the audience would clap for Phil Manzanera and Guy Pratt and everybody, but when he'd get to Rick Wright, a standing O every night, the crowd wild with love and affection and just joy that he was onstage with David Gilmour.  I'm reminded of this bit in the old Star Trek episode "City On The Edge of Forever" where Edith Keeler, this lady running a Great Depression-era soup kitchen who Kirk and Spock have run into traveling through time to keep history from changing, says she doesn't know where Kirk belongs but she can tell Spock belongs at his side; well, it was kind of like that, Richard Wright being onstage with David Gilmour, if you get what I'm trying to say.  Oh, and this was a year after Live 8, when Pink Floyd reunited with Roger Waters and that was a tear-jerker for an old fan, possibly for anyone, seeing Rick and David and Nick with Roger for a short set.

And then in 2008, he went away.

But there was that music in the vault.

The Endless River is Rick's record, really.  In the sense that there's so much of his work on the keys, that's the foundation and point of the whole thing.  And in the sense that this is a record about him, in much the same way Wish You Were Here is a record about Syd.  Richard Wright driving the bus on every track, and the whole thing is about the Rick-shaped hole of his absence.

And there's David Gilmour doing great David Gilmour things, and Nick Mason doing Nick things.  It's a beautiful Pink Floyd record, the one that says who Pink was--turns out it wasn't Roger (at least not for writing a lot of lyrics), and it wasn't David, it turns out Pink was always--strike that, was often the guy who isn't there (I guess solely in that regard, Roger was Pink insofar as The Division Bell, with all its songs about miscommunication and absence and getting past anger and growing up already, is an album about Roger; and I'm sure Gilmour would say it isn't about Roger Waters at all, notwithstanding the most obvious way to take "Lost For Words").  At some point, the answer to "Which one's Pink?" ends up being that Pink is the shadow on the wall, he's the guy we picked up the phone to call up only to remember he's not answering, Pink is on permanent holiday, Mr. Floyd sends his regrets.

Right now, Rick is Pink.

It's a beautiful Pink Floyd record, so I'm not sure anyone will like it.
There were people recently congratulating Roger Waters for it, I'm not making this up, and he's now been an ex-member of Pink Floyd for longer than he was ever in the band.  I think twice as long as he was in the band if you count back to '66 or '67 when they stopped being various assorted not-Pink Floyd band names and stuck with the one you know, unless my math is even more useless than I think it is.  I'll bet those people are already complaining it's too pretty and not snarky and mean enough.

And then I won't be surprised if there's a lot of people who won't think it's very interesting, because it's dreamy and sleepy and purposely goes out of its way to remind you of old songs, old days, of memories.  So it isn't fast and loud, and it isn't some cutting-edge blaaatttting that's meant to force you to confront your musical prejudices.

It's pretty, and comforting and sad.  I miss a keyboardist I never met, who I never knew but for the records he made and the fights he was subject of that I read about in interviews and memoirs and band histories.  I Wish He Was Here.  I think The Endless River has a good chance of being a record I go back to again and again; I don't know that I can honestly say it has a chance of displacing The Dark Side of the Moon or Meddle or Wish You Were Here, because, hey, those are masterpieces.  Or of displacing Animals, because I've known Animals nearly as long as I've known my parents.  Or Atom Heart Mother because, goddamn, every time I listen to that record I realize how much better it is than its makers ever gave it credit for being.  But a go-to record, a credible comfort and solace, a spiritual communion with the missed and beloved.  I've only listened to it once, now, but I think I will love it.  I think it will be dear to me.

I think I will go put on Broken China.


Talkin' about character, talkin' about ethics (yes, the "#gamergate" post)

>> Thursday, October 16, 2014

I'm talkin' about friendship. I'm talkin' about character. I'm talkin' about - hell. Leo, I ain't embarrassed to use the word - I'm talkin' about ethics.
- Johnny Caspar, Miller's Crossing (1990).

One of the sly running jokes in Joel and Ethan Coen's Miller's Crossing is that the only character in the film who explicitly worries about the ethics of criminality is a mentally unstable, erratic, violence-prone moron.  In a film stuffed to its gills with sociopaths like Eddie Dane and Bernie Bernbaum, one in which the protagonist is a seemingly amoral antihero who initially appears to be playing the same vicious game played by the protagonist(s) of Yojimbo and its remake A Fistful of Dollars,  Johnny Caspar is possibly the most psychopathic of the miserable lot.  He's such a rotten apple, his most sympathetic personality trait is that he's an easily-manipulated fool who's oblivious to the machinations and real agendas of those around him, possessed of a fundamental incompetence running so deep you could nearly feel sorry for him--a trap the Coens cannily avoid falling into by including a scene where Caspar slaps the shit out of his own son (a hapless adolescent who appears to have inherited the worst traits of his round mother and idiot father).

Naturally, as a violent and not-at-all-bright gangland boss, Johnny Caspar's grasp of "ethics" is, well... interesting.  It's not necessarily that he's wrong, it's just that even if he's right, it doesn't change the underlying fact that he's a clueless, murderous jerk.  You really can't undersell just how dumb and violent Caspar is.  But he has "ethics".  And loads of advice about getting a really clean shave.

Dumb, violent jerks who rant about ethics have been in the news a bit lately, especially if you're a geek or nerd who has an interest in, oh, I don't know, let's say you're interested in videogames.  Some of you already guessed where this was going, didn't you?  (Yes?  No?)

We would be talking about an assault on women in the gaming industry by a small but extremely noisy group of misogynistic malcontents that lately includes terrorist threats against professionals and critics (the word "terrorism" is not used lightly: a lecture by a prominent media critic that was scheduled to occur at the University of Utah was cancelled over public safety concerns after the school received an e-mail threatening "the deadliest school shooting in American history") that has been given the unfortunate label "Gamergate" because "gating" a word is how we Americans purport the land is awash in scandal again these days.

The tl;dr version would be that a sad little man-boy got his feelings hurt and a bunch of Johnny Caspars decided to launch a crusade about "journalistic ethics" that was really a not-particularly subtle attack on all the girlfriends in the world who are Ruining The Band1.  Which would even be funnysad but for the fact that the attack has gone beyond pissing and moaning about how ooky girls are and how much it sucks things have changed and to the aforementioned terror threats and doxxing (the posting of private details of someone's life online; which can be bad enough even when unaccompanied by explicit and implied threats of violence--and I'll give you one guess as to whether these asstards have been making violent threats); along with some other offensive and tacky misbehavior like slut-shaming that is meant to make people feel bad (but just shy of actual criminal conduct, though much of it is obviously tortious if any of these choads could be nailed down by a civil suit).

The sad little man-boy is a guy with the improbable name Eron Gjoni, and he makes an old man out of me.  See, back in my day, when a girl broke your heart, what you did was, you got yourself a bottle of Scotch, or maybe bourbon, and you drank the hell out of it until your buddies came around and took you to a bar and agreed with you while you bored them to tears with the sordid details of how this girl--who you loved, man, you really, really loved her--was a heartless bitch who--how could she do this to you?  How could she do this to you, you really loved her and how could she do this?  And your friends kept you from drunk dialing her and possibly tried distracting you with a strip club and made sure you got facedown onto the couch without picking up an impaired driving charge and surely were incredulous behind your back that you were such a pissy little whiner.  You possibly wrote a bunch of overwrought songs about how shabbily you were mistreated that nobody ever heard unless you were a member of Fleetwood Mac ca. 1977.

Apparently that's not how These Kids These Days do it.  Apparently these Millennials--the idiot Millennials, at least--write long blog posts about it and publish them online for the world to gawk at.  Which, I'll confess to you Dear Reader, I went by and gawked at it myself because sometimes the voyeuristic urge to look at the photos from the wreck at the rail crossing overcomes good sense and decency.  Old people, anyway, who fail to resist the urge to look at somebody's wreckage, will read Gjoni's groaning, self-pitying angstwank and shudder to imagine themselves in their childish twenties, and send a silent shoutout to their old brothers and sisters in arms who put up with their crap back in the day (to those of you reading who put up with my shit: thank you; to those of you reading whose shit I put up with: you're welcome).

May I digress and tell all you kids that if this is how you do it these days, plastering your juvenalia all over the Internet, that you're doing it wrong?  No, seriously, I mean, you're really, really doing it wrong.  Instead of boring your friends with what an emotional fetus you still are, you're turning it into a public spectacle that will be stored on servers forever and ever and ever until some vast interstellar EMP wave lobotomizes our collective intelligence or we global-warm ourselves into extinction, whatever comes first.  For centuries, ever since the invention of distillation, getting shitfaced and blubbering all over the people unfortunate enough to be on a first-name basis with you has been the approved and satisfactory solution to dealing with heartbreak, precisely because the lack of record means later everyone can pretend they've forgotten about it.  Leaving permanent digital records of when you were immature, shallow douchetards for all posterity to shake their heads over?  Not smart, kiddos.  Not smart at all.

Of course, it's possible that Mr. Gjoni has no idea how shitty and stupid he's going to feel when he's forty, and even feels some kind of misplaced smug self-satisfaction because what happened was that this girl who supposedly broke his heart (and he loved her, man, he really really loved her!) just happened to be a prominent rising force in videogame development, and there was already this vocal contingent of cretins who are having a hard time dealing with women doing just about anything (it's a subgroup of the misogynistic residue that's been grappling with the role of women in American culture since the 1940s), and they seized upon Gjoni's childish missive to the world as an excuse to yet again target the poor woman for various crimes against mankind ranging from existing to enjoying sex, along the way stumbling into an allegation that maybe she used her sexual wiles to seduce a freelance journalist named Nathan Grayson into writing nice things about her, making this a matter not just of Girlfriends Ruining The Band, but a matter of Journalistic Ethics!

I'm going to go ahead and call attention to something you may have just noticed.  I've called out Eron Gjoni by name.  I'm telling you that the journalist who allegedly slept with the game developer is a guy named Nathan Grayson.  But I'm not naming the game developer.  I'm doing that very much on purpose, and not to demean her in any way: quite the opposite, because this isn't a post about what the developer purportedly did to "deserve" being a primary fixation of a bunch of gynophobic trolls.  This would ultimately be a post about how the gynophobic trolls out themselves by focusing on a woman they're trying to victimize and hound out of their precious little world and paying scant attention to the men involved: ironically, while there's a larger issue at stake about the role of women in society, this isn't actually a post about what women do, it's a post about men.  So we're naming men.

So, anyway--where were we?  Ah yes: a bunch of cretins began flogging Gjoni's bitching, seizing upon the claim that one of the people his ex, a game developer, supposedly slept with was Nathan Grayson, who is a journalist who writes about video games--scandal!  This, the wankers said, was evidence of deep corruption within gaming journalism, a breach of journalistic ethics that warranted countless nauseating pixels about what a horrible person Gjoni's ex-girlfirend--a game developer, not a journalist--is and what ought to be done about Gjoni's ex-girlfriend--a game developer, not a journalist.

And now we hit upon a funny, funny thing that happens when you're dealing with assholes whose real agenda is at wide variance with what they're actually doing.  You see, we're at the point in this mess where the natural and instinctive thing to do is to point out that the cretins' version of the story was severely wanting from what you might call a factual perspective: from a strictly factual perspective, Nathan Grayson wrote less than one entire sentence about the game developer and the game she was working on, and only wrote about the game developer at any length in a single article about a group of game developers who were treated shoddily by a reality show about game developers--an article that was published before this particular game developer and Mr. Grayson began dating.

The thing is, these particular facts, while inconvenient for the trolls, don't really matter with regard to the claims they claim they're making.

Let me seemingly-sidetrack for a moment into an ethics issue I happen to have a professional (but, thankfully, not a personal) interest in: attorney ethics.  Specifically, North Carolina's Rule of Professional Conduct 1.19:

Rule 1.19 Sexual Relations with Clients Prohibited
(a) A lawyer shall not have sexual relations with a current client of the lawyer.

(b) Paragraph (a) shall not apply if a consensual sexual relationship existed between the lawyer and the client before the legal representation commenced.

(c) A lawyer shall not require or demand sexual relations with a client incident to or as a condition of any professional representation.

(d) For purposes of this rule, "sexual relations" means:

(1) Sexual intercourse; or

(2) Any touching of the sexual or other intimate parts of a person or causing such person to touch the sexual or other intimate parts of the lawyer for the purpose of arousing or gratifying the sexual desire of either party.

(e) For purposes of this rule, "lawyer" means any lawyer who assists in the representation of the client but does not include other lawyers in a firm who provide no such assistance.

Thou shalt not sleep with your client.  Pretty clear-cut ethical rule.  But please notice the obvious point: the ethical rule barring a lawyer from having sexual relations with a client says nothing about a client being prohibited from having sexual relations with a lawyer.

The difference?  The difference is that if a lawyer and a client have sex, and the North Carolina State Bar gets wind of it, they don't investigate the client.  They may talk to the client to obtain information about what the lawyer did, but they're not really interested in the client's part of it beyond that.  The client will not receive a mean and nasty formal letter from the State Bar, the client will not be sanctioned, the client will not risk being prohibited from the practice of law, the client isn't in any trouble at all.  Clients can sleep with whomever the hell they want to.

While I'm not in the medical profession, my understanding is that the rules are quite similar.  A patient who sleeps with their psychiatrist doesn't get a letter from the licensing board informing them they can no longer visit psychiatrists because it's substantiated they slept with their current practitioner.  The onus is all on the professional.

There's a reason we talk about attorney ethics, medical ethics, and, yes, journalistic ethics.  As opposed to client ethics, patient ethics, subject ethics.  When we're really discussing those things, there's only one participant (or group of participants) whose (mis)conduct matters: the professionals who are subject to the rules.

Even if they're informal rules.  Journalists don't have ethics.  (That's sort of a joke.)

But seriously: there aren't licensing bodies that can take away a writer's right to write (boom!).  Journalistic ethics are completely self-imposed and self-enforced; if someone like Stephen Glass invents sources, quotes and entire stories, for instance, the only thing that stops him from being a professional journalist is that editors and publishers will stop paying him when the embarrassment he causes is a bigger loss than whatever a publication gains from publishing him. Glass could still be a journalist today if he could find a willing outlet.  (And nothing keeps him from making a go at self-publishing his reporting, were he to choose to do so.)

If a journalist has a conflict of interest, there's an understanding amongst writers, editors and publishers that the conflict ought to at least be disclosed and perhaps should bar the writer from covering the subject.  As best I can tell, there's a good-faith effort among those players--or at least among the most serious and committed of them--to self-enforce that rule.  But whether or not they do so (or succeed), the key thing here is noting who those players are: they're the writers, editors and publishers.

So let's suppose a game developer, any game developer, does have sex with a journalist, any journalist, in quid pro quo, straight-up, tit-for-tat exchange for a favorable article.  A breach of journalistic ethics, perhaps, but if so the game developer isn't the one who's done anything wrong.  Maybe, I dunno, it's "unbecoming" or something, but it isn't an "ethical scandal" for the subject of the article.  It's a scandal for the writer who failed to disclose a conflict of interest and thereby may have mislead their editor and/or the reading public, or perhaps a scandal for the editor who should have chosen to pull the story if they knew about the apparent conflict, or perhaps for the publisher who failed to maintain an appearance of objectivity and integrity for the publication-at-large.  But for the subject of the article, the game developer?

You know, when considering how competitive the field is, one can frankly sympathize with any developer or game publisher, from the pseudonymous app coder in a basement somewhere to a corporate dinosaur like Electronic Arts, doing whatever it takes short of murder to bring attention to a title.  (This isn't unique to the games industry, either.2)

In other words, if you really care about journalistic integrity, the bête noire these Caspars yammer on about, you care about what a journalist does, and who he does it with is kind of immaterial.  They slept with someone they were writing about and failed to tell anyone they had a special interest in the subject?  Any sin wasn't in the sleeping.

But who--and this is the point, folks--who are the Gamergating trolls calling out for ethical lapses?  Ninety, ninety-five percent or more of their ire is directed at a game developer, who just happens to be a woman they have a history of disliking and directing nerdrage towards.  (What a co-in-key-dink!)  Sometimes they'll remember they're supposedly concerned about journalism, and drop the name of Kotaku, the gaming website Nathan Grayson contributed to, and that has cleared Grayson of wrongdoing.  But how often do they hound Grayson, d'ya think?  Who supposedly, allegedly committed the breach of having an undisclosed conflict of interest?

Not much.  At all.

Not that Grayson, in point of fact, committed a lapse.  I want to be clear about that.  And there are further some points about this that are worth bearing in mind:

  1. He's been cleared of committing the breach: he wrote a single longform piece about a subject concerning the developer in question (the article wasn't even about her--it was about a television show she was to appear on) prior to having any kind of personal relationship with her;
  2. Even if he had committed an ethical breach (he didn't), that breach would have been a failure to disclose a possible conflict of interest: the rule isn't that you can't sleep with someone you're writing about, the rule is that you ought to let people know if there's a reason your piece might not be properly objective;
  3. Which, incidentally, also means that it's probably perfectly okay to write about someone you're sleeping with as long as you're perfectly clear about any effect it's having on your work; indeed, writing about your relationship or about a subject in the context of your relationship can be a quite valid and informative form of writing.3

Every time one of these "Gamergate" trolls says this is about "journalistic ethics" and they mention a specific game developer, you know they're lying.  Flat-out.  Straight up.  Nope, that's not what they're about.  Because if they were worried about journalism, they'd talk about journalists.  And every time the game developer they mention happens to be a woman, you see what they're really about.  Who the fuck still cares about who a sober female person above the age of consent has had sex with in this day and age?  Prudes, savages, moral infants, the intellectually-undeveloped, reactionaries, cretins, fools and jackasses.

You know, the Johnny Caspars.

1I wanted to avoid notes, but one of the things happening here is a variation on a very old meme.  Remember The Beatles?  And remember how Yoko Ono broke up The Beatles?  With some help from Linda McCartney?  Because the breakup had nothing at all in the whole wide world to do with the actual members of the band.  The Beatles didn't break up because John Lennon and Paul McCartney grew up and, once they were no longer teenagers, discovered like so many teen-friends do that they no longer had the same interests in music, politics, lifestyle, etc..  The Beatles didn't break up because George Harrison felt his contributions to the band were being neglected (which, incidentally, in addition to getting the artistic shaft, also meant he was getting cut out of album songwriting royalties, which can be a demoralizing symbol even when you don't actually care about the money; see also Floyd, Pink).  The Beatles didn't break up because Paul had a real love of performing live but George was a little stage-shy and didn't like performing in front of screaming throngs who couldn't even hear his playing.  The Beatles didn't break up because Paul's artistic ambitions had evolved just a little ahead of Ringo's (frankly underrated) playing to a point where he was secretly re-recording some of Ringo's drum parts and hiding it from Ringo only Ringo found out.  Nope, The Beatles' breakup had nothing at all to do with the diverging interests and goals of the guys who were actually, you know, in the band and everything to do with women not sticking to their place.  It's always about the girls ruining everything.  Bros before hos and all that.

2Consider Larry Harris' entertaining memoir of his time at Casablanca Records, And Party Every Day.  One can find fault with the journalists, editors, disk jockeys, sales directors, program directors, promoters, etc.  who were willing to compromise themselves in exchange for entrance to cocaine-fueled parties with famous people, but you can hardly blame someone like Harris for exploiting their willingness to put a fun weekend ahead of their professional responsibility--in fact, it's his job to use any tool at his disposal to sell his label's records.  Even if some of those tools seem a little amoral or, strictly speaking and from a purely technical point-of-view, involve violations of Federal and state drug laws and/or a broadcast professional violating FCC regulations.

Quite seriously, Harris wasn't the one at fault: just because you tell a station manager that you'd love to fly him halfway across the country to go to Studio 54 and maybe Mick or Andy will be there (and do you need to even mention all the fun things you can put into orifices at Studio 54?), and by the way has he heard the new Donna Summer record, just phenomenal, why, you just happen to have a copy right here--well none of that means he has to take you up on it, much less ever get around to playing the record, right?

I don't know if Harris ever considered exchanging sexual favors for airplay (I don't recall mention if that in the book), but if it ever crossed his mind: hell, you'd have to give him credit for a cheaper solution to his problems than plane tickets and coke, wouldn't you?

3Aha!  Caught you, VanNewkirk!  So what's wrong with Eron Gjoni publishing a poisoned essay about his ex-girlfirend?  Ha!  Winning!

Well, no.  I didn't say what Eron Gjoni did was unethical.  I basically said it was stupid, ugly and tacky.  And that he's a pathetic, sad little whiner.

What he did was also (presumably) hurtful to another person, and gratuitously doing hurtful things is probably immoral.  (I think so, anyway, but I'll grant you that Philosophy majors may have arguments about this in their dorm rooms at three a.m..)  He was being petty and vindictive and trying to publicly embarrass someone, all of which is bad.  In the context of journalistic ethics, it bears pointing out that Gjoni's poor widdle broken heart isn't newsworthy; in other writing contexts, publishing a piece about your ex's love life... well....

I mean, nobody who knew anything at all about the private life of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes had any doubt who some of their poems were really about, even when names weren't named.  And everyone knows about how Rumours is a document just crammed full of angry brokenhearted back-and-forth sniping.  To cite but two exemplars.

But Sylvia Plath and Lindsey Buckingham were/are artists, in that they made/make art things, and their work (whether or not it appeals to you) is artistic work.  Eron Gjoni's sad little poor pitiful me routine isn't even trying for art: it really is nothing more and nothing less than one of those post-breakup rants you'd inflict on your friends between lap dances at the titty bar.  A laundry list of grievances and second chances, how badly he was abused and if anything was his fault it's only that he loved too well but too unwisely.  It doesn't even rise to the level of Tommy Wiseau's The Room: at least Wiseau had the minimal decency it took to turn his angstwank about the real-world "Lisa" into a stage play and then (when that failed) into a bizarre piece of cinematic outsider art.

In short, Gjoni may have outed himself as a pathetic loser, may have proven he isn't a gentleman, may have demonstrated that he has poor judgement and no self-awareness, and may have done something cruel and awful in a vicious attempt to lash out at someone he was mad and sad at by publicly humiliating her--but these aren't ethical lapses.  They don't make you corrupt, they just make you an asshole.  One whose most noteworthy accomplishment to date is something that isn't as good as the worst motion picture ever made by an incompetent hack.

Perhaps a better human being, or at least a slightly more mature one, would have written a song called "Chloe" and posted it to YouTube, maybe even recorded a concept album about it; or perhaps penned a book of sad poems.

See the difference?


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