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Casualties were spectacularly high in units adjacent to the 57th Regiment Volunteer Blind Infantry

[ 256 ] September 8, 2013 |

So this story broke right as I was leaving work, and I didn’t have time to investigate it too deeply — my employers believe in not exploiting my labor, no matter how much I plead to the contrary, the damned communists — but I really am interested in investigating this issue further. Maybe it’s just the part of my brain that wishes I went to law school and had this issue raised on exams, but I’m really fascinated, especially by this part:

Unlike driving, which is considered a state-granted privilege, gun ownership is a constitutionally protected right. Preventing the blind from owning guns may not only violate their special protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but their constitutional right to bear arms. Whether they can carry guns in public, however, is not a clearly defined constitutional matter.

And yes, I altered that slightly without acknowledging the amendations, because I’m the Master of My Own Words, damn it.

BRIEF-AND-ALMOST-SIMULTANEOUS-UPDATE: It occurs to me that if Google ever comes up with self-aiming guns to match its self-driving cars, this would be a moot issue.

Now that we’ve solved racism, it’s time to tackle poverty.

[ 119 ] September 6, 2013 |

(This is a guest post from what should be a familiar face: Steven Attewell. He and I will resume our Game of Thrones podcast as soon as I get my shit together. I know, it does seem like I’ve been moving forever, you don’t need to remind me. In the meantime, enjoy!)

While I normally enjoy or at least tolerate the Washington Post’s Wonkblog on the grounds that at least they have more substantive policy discussions going on than the rest of the Post, it does seem lately that Dylan Matthews’ presence there is intended to fulfill some quota of center-right pseudo-contrarianism that’s hard-coded into the Post’s DNA. A recent provocation, this time on inequality, is a more quantitative gloss on why American poverty doesn’t matter:

What this is telling us is that in India and Brazil, the poorest people are among the poorest people in the entire world, whereas the richest people are either middle-class, globally speaking, as is the case in India, or are for-real rich, as is the case in Brazil. But if you’re in Russia and especially if you’re in the United States, the mere fact that you live there means that you are not (with some exceptions) poor in the global sense. The bottom fifth of Americans are still well above the middle of the world income distribution.

Matthews produces a number of charts from the chief economist of the World Bank that rank “ individuals’ position in their country’s income distribution” with “those individuals’ position in the world income distribution” to prove this. And indeed, Milanovic’s research does show that the purchasing-power-parity (i.e, equalizing how much it costs to buy the same goods and services across different countries) level of the poverty line is higher in the U.S and other rich countries than many incomes in other countries.

However, what Milanovic’s research doesn’t really talk about is how it’s more expensive to be poor in rich countries – not just because individual goods cost more, but because in richer countries you need a higher material standard of living to even be considered poor. Ownership of a car, for example, might not be part of the standard of living of the poor in rural India (where only 2.3% of households own four-wheel passenger vehicles), but it certainly is in the U.S, where 73% of low-income households own a car (in large part because 88% of Americans commute to work by car).

This is a big part of what is referred to as relative poverty – people do not judge (and are not judged) their social standing based on the absolute number of dollars they have or the specific package of goods those dollars can by, but rather by how their own standard of living stacks up to the standard of living of those around them. The key test of poverty shouldn’t be solely whether someone has enough dollars to keep body and soul together at an American price level, but whether they have the “modicum of economic welfare” needed to “live the life of a civilized being according to the standards prevailing in the society,” as T.H Marshall put it back in 1950.

The data on this relative poverty is less cheerful: as the same World Bank reports, “while the number of absolutely poor has fallen, the number of relatively poor has changed little since the 1990s, and is higher in 2008 than 1981.” Indeed, as economic development proceeds in poor (or formerly poor) countries, nations redefine both in official poverty lines and unofficial social conventions what counts as poor. This in turn changes the otherwise sunny picture of a world rapidly emerging from global poverty: the numbers of the relatively poor which totaled 2.5 billion in 1990 remained roughly flat at 2.7 billion in 2008:

I think this gets to why Matthews’ piece (and its use of Milanovic’s research) strikes me as disingenuous in a way that makes it not so different from conservatives’ arguments that the poor have cellphones, therefore they aren’t really poor (even though in 2013 America cellphones are no longer luxury items but necessities for people to get and keep jobs). At the end of the day, the fact that the poor in America have a higher income than the poor in India doesn’t really help them on a day-to-day basis when they still have to live in America rather than India, not just paying American prices for goods and services, but trying to scrape up to a standard of living that won’t make them ashamed to be seen in public by their fellow Americans. And this standard is a constantly-moving target, a target that moves all the faster in rich societies where constant innovations in technology define what constitutes “the good life” on an almost-daily basis.

Matthews’ stance here isn’t that unusual; there is certainly a strain of putatively center-left people who argue that our moral concern and our activism should be directed only at the poorest of the poor, and that there is something immoral about engaging oneself in the struggles of anyone above that. We’ve seen this most recently in the responses of otherwise progressive people to the BART strike who argue that it’s wrong for BART workers to strike to preserve a middle-class standard of living when to do so would damage some poor people, but it goes back to putative liberals (Nicholas Kristof, par example) who argued that it was immoral for labor groups to oppose NAFTA and other free trade agreements which would benefit workers in poor countries whose standards of living were so low that sweatshops represent an improvement in their standard of living.

To this, I can only reply: Inequality matters all the way up and all the way down the spectrum. It doesn’t do any good to focus solely pushing up the very poorest in America while ignoring the merely poor and the almost poor, since this simply leaves people one rung up from the bottom but still in a precarious position, does nothing to prevent downward mobility and entrance into poverty from the rung immediately above the line of the “worthy” poor, and creates poverty traps by which public policies pull families out of the worst deprivation only to leave them stranded still outside of economic security. It doesn’t do much good to push for higher transfers to the poor instead of (rather than in addition to) attacking runaway inequality at the top of the income spectrum.

And internationally, it doesn’t help the absolute poor globally to downplay the existence of poverty here at home.

“That was a movie? I thought it was an unusually optimistic episode of Frontline.”

[ 186 ] September 6, 2013 |

Given how irrelevant the original proved itself to be — like Detroit would ever become a failed city ruled by a corporate-backed dictator — I’m glad they’ve decided to reboot RoboCop:

I’m especially excited with the way they’ve eschewed the awfulness of the original and just done blowed him up instead of executing him while we’re in his head. Wouldn’t want to the audience to be disturbed by lawless violence, now would we?

(Also, that’s quite a cast for what’s clearly a B-movie. I actually can’t think of a more talented one.)

The AV Club’s Internet Film School is open for business!*

[ 36 ] August 29, 2013 |

It’s the first day of class, and I’m starting really basic. As in really basic. That’s where the best courses begin.

Attendance and participation are both mandatory. I want to see comments from familiar faces in these new strange places. Because if it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have this new gig. Engaging with you lot made me want to investigate this mode of writing, so you owe me.

You owe me.

Now go make me look good in front of my new bosses. What? Really?

Fine—I also want to say thank you for all the encouragement over the years. I wouldn’t have this opportunity if it weren’t for you.

*Facebook title of this same announcement: “HOLY SHIT-BALLS-IN-A-CAN I WRITE FOR THE ONION.”

Remember that English pedophile who had sex “forced upon him” by his underage victim?

[ 23 ] August 27, 2013 |

It looks like they’ll be doing something about that “unduly lenient sentence.”

I’m shocked. Shocked, I tell you. Can’t you tell I’m shocked? Because I am. Utterly shocked.

[ 66 ] August 21, 2013 |

"Johnny Drama," as played by Kevin Dillion, brother of Matt. Both totally paid their own ways. Totally.

It is absolutely unfathomable that the august institution that employs this man would write this:

National Review is accepting applications for its fall internship in Washington, D.C. The intern will work in our bureau on Capitol Hill. He or she will primarily conduct research, but may also have opportunities to write and report … If you wish to apply, please send a cover letter and résumé (no writing samples needed) to mpeace@nationalreview.com by September 6.

An internship with a writing component that doesn’t require a writing sample? It’s almost as if they think they’ll be able to judge applicants’ worth solely on the basis of the school they attended or who their mother is instead as opposed to, say, talent or merit.

Ceci n’est pas une annonce

[ 23 ] August 21, 2013 |

Matt Zoller Seitz has an article on Vulture that helps answer a question many of you have asked me: “Where can I can find more stuff like the stuff you do?” Here’s MZS:

It’s customary to decry much TV writing, recaps especially, as plot summary plus snark; I’ve done it myself. But as television criticism has evolved, this catch-all insult has started to seem as lazy and out-of-touch as cinephiles writing off the whole of television as an idiot box.

Even those sites that adopt a lighter touch—such as previously.tv, the new site from Television Without Pity’s original founders—invest snark with imagination and a sense of play. Tara Ariano’s “Schraders vs. Whites” chart and Newsroom recaps, the “watch/skip index,” and “Ask the Experts” are all riffs, but not just riffs; the site’s a welcome reminder that most people watch TV because it’s fun. (Though they do get serious on occasion: see Sarah D. Bunting’s appreciation of Tony Soprano as a prototypical Jersey dad.) Pajiba’s Joanna Robinson does the most visually inventive recaps I’ve seen, using GIFs and screenshots as rimshots. At Lawyers, Guns and Money, Scott Eric Kaufman’s detailed breakdowns of composition and editing liven up the recap with a dash of film theory.

Look beyond the writers who churn out thousands of words a week, and you’ll find many insightful, sometimes powerful one-offs, such as Aura Bogado’s piece accusing Orange Is the New Black of being unthinkingly racist even as it strives to enlighten. Bogado’s target isn’t just the show, but the complacent white liberal point-of-view that dominates criticism in every field, not just TV.

Tom and Lorenzo’s style-oriented approach and Molly Lambert’s Grantland pieces—on Mad Men, especially—are a breed apart. They’re not recapping, exactly, and I don’t know if they’re reviewing or criticizing, either, but they’re definitely feeling and responding, and noticing, and at their best, they make art from art. Tom and Lorenzo’s coverage adopts an outside-in approach, looking at the clothes, architecture, colors, and textures, and then finding their way into the drama, but they do more straightforward criticism as well, and it’s often dazzling.

Yes, I see what I did there too. But soon I’ll be able to provide another answer: “At The Onion AV Club’s ‘Internet Film School,'” which will be me. I’ll provide a link when it goes live in the next week or two. In the meantime, enjoy the bounty of links MSZ provided. (I’m not saying there’ll be a pop quiz, but neither am I saying there won’t be.)

!EM NO DAERT TNOD

[ 53 ] August 20, 2013 |

One of the most difficult aspects of my new job is dealing with images. I know. I should be great at that. It should be my thing. And I should have a little sympathy for the folks at Breitbart when this happens:

!EM NO DAERT TNOD

But given the long history that Tea Party groups have with images, I simply can’t stand above the fray. It’s—to use a word that briefly appeared in the last story I wrote yesterday—too “fravelous” an opportunity to pass up. I neither know what “fravelous” means nor what word (or words) I actually meant to type.* Something related to an unnecessary vacation? Don’t know. But I will use this opportunity to point out that I did write something I wanted to title “Spokeswoman indicates Ted Cruz will not renounce Canadian citizenship,” which would have been technically true yesterday, but not today, so it’s probably best I didn’t. I also wrote at length of Mayor Bloomberg’s concern for the plight of hypothetical black and Hispanic children, but the best thing on the site yesterday was written by Megan Carpentier, a.k.a. the woman whose job it is to keep my fravelous prose in check. I wager Loomis would agree:

I have “met” Greenwald on the Internet. It was, to put it mildly, not exactly a pleasant experience. Insults and straw man arguments mixed wildly with what might otherwise have come across as legitimate critiques, complaints were lodged, high dudgeon was evinced, grudges were held, distance was kept (and much of this was mutual). Anyone who has mixed it up with Greenwald online—and this is a vast universe of people, let us be clear—would likely agree that their interactions follow much the same pattern …

But, yes everyone, let’s argue about how Greenwald is an asshole.

For some reason, she had some fucking asterisks where the esses in “asshole” should’ve been. On SEK blog SEK edit you.

*Sometimes when editing large image files my computer can’t keep up with my typing and things like this happen. But I wasn’t editing a large image file at the time. I just wrote “fravelous.”

“Madame Secretary of State has been drunk a while, correct. What the fuck is that to you?”

[ 47 ] August 20, 2013 |

At the Corner, Andrew Johnson thinks it’s great news for Hillary that CNN’s film division hired Courtney Sexton:

After the RNC voted the network from hosting future presidential debates if it follows through on plans to produce a Hillary Clinton documentary, the network’s films division has announced it will bring on film executive Courtney Sexton, who has a long history of working on left-leaning flicks.

Deadline details that Sexton’s past works include Al Gore’s climate-change documentary An Inconvenient Truth, as well as 2010’s Climate of Change, which “focused on the efforts of everyday people all over the world who are making a difference in the fight against global warming” …

“Any concerns the Clinton team had are all gone,” RNC communications director Sean Spicer told Politico in an email in reaction to the announcement. “This puts the ‘p’ in ‘puff piece.’”

Talk about punting the story. Sexton worked on Deadwood. If we use Johnson and Spicer’s deterministic logic, that means we’ll soon be seeing a completely different side of Hillary:

ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE: BE BRIEFED!

HILLARY: BE FUCKED!

Or:

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Hillary, your presence at the UN Commission on –

HILLARY: I don’t drink where I’m the only fucking one with balls.

Can’t say I’m not looking forward to this.

Some interpretations are fascinatingly wrong, others just plain.

[ 74 ] August 18, 2013 |

Grant Morrison went on Kevin Smith’s radio show and, as he dedicates his life to doing, blew your mind with his wholly original interpretation of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke:

No one gets the end, because Batman kills The Joker. […] That’s why it’s called The Killing Joke. The Joker tells the ‘Killing Joke’ at the end, Batman reaches out and breaks his neck, and that’s why the laughter stops and the light goes out, ’cause that was the last chance at crossing that bridge. And Alan Moore wrote the ultimate Batman/Joker story [because] he finished it.

Putting aside the fact that Morrison is the perpetually whining junior party in a feud with Moore, the idea that Moore “finished” the story of Batman and the Joker in The Killing Joke requires you misunderstand not only the structure of the book itself, but of the entirety of Moore’s structurally obsessed early work. Consider, as proof, a single page from Watchmen in which Moore accomplishes in nine panels more than Morrison did in all the pages of his magical masturbatory experiment in narcissism combined. But we need not even go there, because The Killing Joke fundamentally refutes Morrison’s contrarianism: the point is not that the story is “finished” but that it never can be. Even the dialogue circles back on itself:

That’s not the Joker, but a substitute with a painted face; the dialogue, however, is the Joker’s. After twenty-three silent panels, we have words. Moore frames The Killing Joke by floating the premise without the punchline in the first non-standard panel in the book, but it’s actually uttered in the last non-standard panel in the book:

This is because the books folds in on itself. The conflict between the Batman and the Joker is circular: it begins and ends in a “lunatic asylum,” and the non-diegetic words in that first panel are actually spoken aloud by the Joker in the second. Also significant is that they’re about the place they’re not spoken in, which happens to be the place the Joker will eternally recur inevitably be returned. But it’s not just the Joker whose words are eating their own tail:

As demonstrated in the post I linked to earlier, the central panels in Moore’s work at this time are inherently important, and this is the central panel of the fourth page of The Killing Joke. But it’s not just its placement in the structure of the page that’s significant — the structure of the panel itself is. The Batman and the Joker are presented here, center-page, as mirrors images of each other. Their faces are identically shadowed, their hands identically held. The slight perspectival asymmetry chops Batman’s fingers off at the knuckles and introduces a hint of uncertainty into an otherwise impassive panel. The only problem is that that’s not actually the Joker, but the Batman doesn’t know that yet, so he’s delivering an obviously prepared soliloquy in which all the dialogue is doubled: “Perhaps you’ll kill me. Perhaps I’ll kill you.” And it’s doubled in a way that makes literary critics swoon: in the service of overcoming a tired binary. The point of all those doublings is singular, because the Batman wants to avoid the inevitable “just once.”

Just once he would like what cannot happen to happen, so it’s not without a little irony that this dialogue reappears later:

Minus the “just once.” Just as the Joker’s words from the end of the book are superimposed on the beginning, the Batman’s speech — which the Joker’s never heard, because that wasn’t him in Arkham — so too are the Batman’s words from the beginning of the book superimposed on the end. The absence of “just once” is a self-undermining irony. That the caption bubble is a box indicates that they’re not the Batman’s thoughts. He’s not thinking about the speech he gave, Moore is re-presenting them as an echo. He’s reminding the reader that Batman’s trying to escape the cycle of violence, incarceration and escape in which the pair are locked. Only they can’t escape each other, because they’re damaged in the same way.

This should be a familiar argument to anyone who watched The Dark Knight, but Christopher Nolan castrated the pathos of Moore’s argument. In The Killing Joke, the Joker has a definitive origin that — go figure – mirrors the Batman’s: the accidental deaths of his wife and newborn child break him just as the murder of Wayne’s parents broke him. They both had what the Joker wants to impose on Gordon when he shoots his daughter Barbara: “one bad day” centered around the loss of family members. The whole book is a reflection upon the damage done by “one bad day,” and in the end it valorizes Gordon for not responding to his bad day by dressing like a flying rat or serially poisoning the water supply. But the point is that this book is about the relation of past to future, a chance …

I’m not going to harp on the language, visual and actual, of mirrors and reflections and doublings in the b —

– ook. But it sorta won’t let me n —

— ot. It’s just asshole like tha —

— t. Like that. I mean, the final fight takes place in a fun house in front of mirrors that distort their respective reflections, which means that in that second panel above, they’re not only distorted reflections of each other, their reflections are distorted reflections of their distorted reflections of each other. (Moore clearly values structure over subtlety at this point in his career.) For one to kill the other would be a kind of suicide neither are willing to commit.

They’re both the damaged products of “one bad day,” endlessly reflected in the fun house mirrors they stand between. That each reflection further distorts the other into infinity is kind of the point of the book.

The man in the fetish bat costume isn’t any healthier than the clown in the purple suit, and the more they interact, the sicker they become. Each reflection is a further distortion. Their interlocking stories always begin and end the same way, but along the way they inflict a little more damage on each other. You’d think one of them would snap eventually, but the point of Moore’s exercise is that neither ever will. Both responded to their “one bad day” with an excessive commitment to the willed necessity of their new identities: they differ from ordinary men only in their strength of will.

Morrison’s brilliant and wholly original idea — which has been floating around so long it’s been addressed in the introduction of one reprint and the conclusion of another — is an ignorant misreading that cuts against all the other grains in the book. It only seems plausible if you ignore the abundant evidence of its wrongness, including the first three panels of the book:

And the last:

Which combine in way that summarizes the story of the Batman and the Joker: on a dark night and rainy night, the Joker does something the police can’t handle. The Batman is required. His headlights in the book’s third panel announce his arrival. The Batman subdues the Joker, who can then be contained by the police again, hence the sirens announcing their arrival in the third-to-last panel of the book.

On a dark and rainy night.

Don’t make me mention that those panels are distorted mirrors of each other.

Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so very, very heavy

[ 26 ] August 15, 2013 |

SEK is drives to HIS IN-LAW’S to check something on the Internet before heading to Baton Rouge to reclaim all his worldly possessions from THE AWESOME HISPANIC MOVERS.

THE ROAD: I AM FULL OF DEER!

SEK: !?!

THE ROAD: FULL OF DEER!

SEK: !?!

THE ROAD: DEER DEER DEER!

SEK: SHIT SHIT SHIT! [slams on brakes] You could’ve said something.

THE ROAD: !?!

Having survived THE ROAD, SEK arrives in Baton Rouge. However, somewhere between California and Louisiana, the AWESOME HISPANIC MOVERS became GIANT ANGRY TATTOOED BELARUSIANS.

SEK: You can just put all my worldly possessions in this perfectly normally storage unit on my friend’s property.

GIANT ANGRY TATTOOED BELARUSIANS: We cannot do that.

SEK: Why not?

GIANT ANGRY TATTOOED BELARUSIANS: We do not do that.

SEK: !?!

GIANT ANGRY TATTOOED BELARUSIANS: Here is what you do, I tell you. You rent U-Haul, we meet in parking lot. You move your stuff to U-Haul, drive to home and costs you only one hundred.

SEK: To rent a U-Haul for a day?

GIANT ANGRY TATTOOED BELARUSIANS: For us to unload alone. Fifty if you help.

SEK: Am I not already paying you a —

GIANT ANGRY TATTOOED BELARUSIANS: You pay company, we are here. You want us unload, you pay us.

SEK: Just so I have this right: I pay for a U-Haul, we meet in a parking lot, I hand you cash, and then I have to unload everything myself later?

GIANT ANGRY TATTOOED BELARUSIANS: Fifty you help, hundred you don’t.

SEK: I’ll help.

GIANT ANGRY TATTOOED BELARUSIANS: Please to be sure. For two hundred we walk on grass even.

SEK: I WILL HELP.

SEK then is to be unloading a U-Haul by his lonesome, waiting for VERY STRONG GODCHILD and HIS VERY STRONG GODCHILD’S BROTHER to make finish with swim practice and become UNPAID CHILD LABORERS.

I’m a fraud!

[ 172 ] August 13, 2013 |

I don’t want to steal anyone’s thunder or appear to be piling on, but one aspect of Hugo Schyzer’s “confession” strikes me as especially problematic, especially at a time in which the humanities are under assault from well-funded conservative forces: his claim of academic fraudulence.

He’s clearly not a fraud in the traditional sense, i.e. he didn’t falsify his credentials or publish papers on data he knew to be cooked. He claims that when he was in graduate school, “there was no such thing as porn studies,” so he lacked the credentials to teach it. Which, I suppose, is technically true. But he also claims to have “do[ne] the reading,” which in practice is all that’s required of scholars who work in a field that didn’t exist when they earned their doctorates.

The other “fraud” he believes he committed is that he spoke about feminism but “never published in any serious academic journal [because he] wanted to write for a popular audience.” Anyone familiar with the current state of academic journals knows about the incestuous nature of “blind” review: your name’s not on your submission, but if you’ve spoken at a conference or to another scholar in the field, you’re a known quantity. Your work whispers your name to the person who reviews it and that, as much as any independent factors, determines whether it’ll be published. (Why yes, I am that cynical.) But I haven’t come here to bury humanities journals—their “style” secures them a place in the deepest recesses of empty libraries—only to note that failure to publish in a discipline or subdiscipline doesn’t disqualify a person from teaching in it if they’ve done the reading. That’s all that’s required. If Schwyzer convinced his colleagues that he’d done the reading, he was qualified to teach a course in whatever it was he’d read.

Does this system require trust and lend itself to abuse? I suppose. But as someone who spent 13 years teaching at one of the best universities in the country, I can assure you that when you stand in front of a classroom of bright, motivated students you always feel like a fraud. You’ve never read enough, and you never will have. Your shelves will always be lined with books you should’ve already read. You feel like a fraud because you’ve only read thirty books on X, but your students consider you an authority for the very same reason.

Was I a hypocrite when I taught a literary journalism course after only having casually read Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, and John McPhee? What if I told you I’d also had a subscription to The New Yorker for a decade? How much literary journalism did I need to read to be able to teach it? How familiar with its style and conventions did I need to be? I can’t answer those questions, so instead I’ll say what every teacher knows to be true: I wasn’t qualified to teach the material until I’d already taught it a few times.

That doesn’t make me a fraud—it makes me a teacher.

Here’s a hypothetical: an academic writes a dissertation about, say, evolutionary theory in fin de siècle American popular culture, but later starts reading and writing about a subject in which he’d received absolutely no graduate level training. I don’t know, like film theory. He reads the seminal texts, then writes about it online, for a popular audience instead of an academic one, for the better part of six years. Would this academic be qualified to open an “Internet Film School” at the Onion A.V. Club? Would he be a fraud if he did?

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