Monday, December 27, 2004

A little googling shows that I'm a bit behind the curve on the "The Incredibles is quasi-fascist bullshit" thing. Let's just say that I hadn't heard it when I saw the movie, and I came to that conclusion on my own. So you know which side of the argument I'm coming down on.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

It is very difficult to post from my parents' house. For one thing, my parents have serious issues with blogging. They think people with blogs are, if not necessarily bad people, then certainly deeply flawed and a bit pathetic. Needless to say, they don't know about this blog. Also, they don't necessarily believe in privacy. For instance, the computer is located in the laundry room, and the door to the room doesn't close. When I'm on the computer, my parents like to wander in and read over my shoulder. They must find my email a lot more fascinating than I do. Have I mentioned that my parents are driving me a bit nuts?

Anyway, in an attempt not to drive each other up the wall, we have been seeing a lot of movies. Today we saw The Incredibles, which everyone in the world seems to love. Everyone but me, that is. To me, the movie's heavy-handed message seems deeply objectionable. It seems offensive and reactionary, even. Why am I the only person who seems to be bothered by this? Am I missing something?

Warning: spoilers follow!

So The Incredibles is about a couple of superheroes: Mr. Incredible, who is superhumanly strong, and his wife Elastagirl, who can stretch like a rubber band. When the action starts, they are young lovers about to be married, and they devote themselves to helping humanity and stopping wrongdoers. Because of this, they're worshipped by mere mortals, and Mr. Incredible is dogged by a non-superhero kid who is a member of his fan club and who wants to be his sidekick. But the kid doesn't have powers, so he just gets in the way, and Mr. Incredible sends him away. Because of this slight, the kid grows up to envy and resent superheroes. Thus is born our villain.

Meanwhile, the government decides that it's a bad idea to have superheroes roaming the cities doing good, so Mr. Incredible and Elastagirl are forced to enter the Superhero Relocation Program, where they must suppress their talents and pretend to be ordinary suburban citizens aptly named Mr. and Mrs. Par. When the story resumes, they are desperately trying to pretend to be normal, as are their socially-maladjusted but superhumanly talented offspring, 10-year-old Dashell, who can run really fast, and teenaged Violet, who can make herself invisible and create impenetrable force fields.

Enter the villain, the normal guy who hates superheroes because they're exceptional and he's not. He's grown up to be an inventor, and he's invented a bunch of machines that give him strength that rivals real superheroes'. He has concocted a dastardly plan to kill off the genuine superheroes, create a lot of havoc, pretend that he's a superhero, and then save the world, earning people's respect and gratitude. Then, he says, he will make his inventions available to the public, so that everyone can be a superhero. The Incredible family foils this plan, and in the process they redeem the public reputation of superheroes. They must be modest about their superiority to other people, the movie suggests, but it's also important that society recognize and give free reign to their superior powers.

The movie isn't subtle in its social criticism: it also takes potshots at the litigious society and uncaring insurance companies, for what it's worth. But fundamentally, this is a movie about the social role of talented people. I read a review today that said that it was a polemic against mediocrity, but I don't think that's right at all. The movie's real target is not mediocrity but equality. Some people, according to The Incredibles, are just born better than the rest of us. This superiority is innate and inherited: superheroes make up a kind of master race. The movie doesn't just suggest that it's destructive to stifle talented people; it also derides the notion that everyone has talents that should be celebrated, and it raises and dismisses the idea that ordinary people could make their way into the elect. You don't choose to be a superhero; you can't earn it through ingenuity or hard work. You're either born super or you're not.

An unstated but necessary corollary to the idea of an innately superior group of superheroes is the notion that they will always use this power for the common good. Otherwise, we might have to confront the pesky notion that powerful elites might use their strength to oppress others. It's not that it's impossible for ordinary people to become super-talented: with the help of his inventions, the villain becomes an equal match for any member of the Incredible family. The problem seems to be that it's unnatural to elevate people who are destined to be ordinary; it messes with the proper order of things. When given extraordinary power, normal people will be corrupted. Only those born superheroes can be trusted to use their powers for good. This movie says that powerful, hereditary elites are good for society not because they're more talented but because they're more moral. It's a nineteenth or even eighteenth-century version of how society should be ordered: it's a celebration of natural aristocracy and the concept of knowing your place.

Another unstated but clear assumption is that real, important powers are physical, not mental. The Incredibles' powers all reside in the body: they can lift, throw, contort, run, or disappear. There's no thinking involved. In fact, Mrs. Incredible tells Violet that in case of an emergency, she should not think. Thinking just trips Violet up, and she's more effective when she shuts her brain off and just acts. The villain of the piece, on the other hand, is depicted as that comic-book cliche, a genius inventor. His powers reside in his mind, and he is capable of creating machines that could give everyone extraordinary powers. This mental prowess, however, is not a super power. His ability to design and create makes him an imposter, not a superhero. His intelligence is a destructive force, while the Incredibles' bodily strength is a force for good. The movie suggests that the whole society should mirror the social hierarchy of your typical high school: the football players should lord it over the losers in the chess club.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that this movie is such a hit in the U.S. After all, our newly re-elected president is an anti-intellectual jock whose main qualification seems to be that he's a member of one of the most elite families in the nation. I guess it's a sign of the times. But I'm a tad disappointed that so many liberal critics seem to have been taken in by this reactionary garbage.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

I'm off to not celebrate Christmas at my parents' house, after which I'm going someplace warm and sunny with some friends for New Years. (Well, I hope it will be warm and sunny. At any rate, it will be warmer than here.) I will try to check in. If not, I will be back on January 3.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Still not sure what to get for the pre-schooler on your holiday list? How about this fun toy, an electronic timer that is designed to improve children's eventual performance on standardized tests. I say eventual because the thing is designed for kids as young as four. We're not making four-year-olds take standardized tests yet, are we?

I shouldn't mock this. I don't have kids, and it's easy for the non-parents to make fun of people's concerns about their children. And I've never understood the SAT-angst, because I'm good at standardized tests. (I'm not showing off by saying that: it's a freakish, meaningless aptitude, like being double-jointed or able to wiggle your ears. It just happens to be a stupid skill that has allowed me all sorts of unearned educational opportunities.) But I can't help thinking that this is disturbing. Parents have long bought boring educational toys for their kids, and kids have always managed to have fun anyway. But shouldn't parents be worried about their kids' actual education, rather than their performance on tests? And if you want your kids to ace the SATs, aren't you better off buying them a book, or better yet, taking them to the library once a week?

I have a fellowship that is designed, in part, to get historians (such as the one I hope soon to be) to comment on public affairs. Obviously, I comment on public affairs all the time, but I'm supposed to learn to comment as an "expert", informed by my scholarship. And to be honest, this makes me very nervous. I'm not entirely convinced that people who study the past in minute detail actually do have particular insight into the present and future. Certainly, I think people who study the present in minute detail know more about current events than I do. And I'm conscious of the ways in which the past can be selectively remembered and manipulated to suit political goals. My politics don't grow out of my engagement with the past: as with all historians, my interpretations of the past are informed by my politics.

With that disclaimer, however, I'm going to launch into two quick points about the debate over public celebrations of Christmas. Because I do think a historians' perspective might clarify some things.

First of all, when Americans first started arguing about religion and public life, the arguments were not between Christians and Jews, Christians and atheists, or believers and atheists. The parties to the debate were all believing Christians. Even when the overwhelming majority of Americans were Christian, this country was always characterized by extreme, potentially-divisive religious diversity. At least in the North, the impetus to ban prayer in public schools came not from atheists or Jews, but from fights between Catholics and Protestants. In the nineteenth century, there was no religiously neutral way to pray: Protestants held that the King James Bible was G-d's Word; Catholics held that was blasphemy. Catholics and Protestants had different versions of the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer. By the 1850s, militant Protestants were arguing that Catholic children should be forced to recite Protestant prayers, since America was a Protestant country and Catholicism incompatible with good citizenship; militant Catholics were arguing that the government should fund Catholic parochial schools, since public schools were being used as Protestant indoctrination centers; and moderates on both sides determined that taking prayer out of public schools was the only workable compromise.

These days, it's fashionable among right-wing nut jobs to suggest, in so many words, that there's a Jewish or atheistic conspiracy to deny America's Christian heritage by removing Christ from public life. In fact, we separate church and state in part in deference to the heartfelt beliefs of various kinds of Christians. Separating church and state is an outgrowth of America's Christian heritage, not an affront to it.

Second of all, people who advocate government acknowledgement of Christianity often suggest as a compromise that the government put up a menorah next to the public creche. There's only one reason that this seems like a viable compromise, and that reason is America's history of racist immigration policies. Until the middle of the twentieth century, Asians were not allowed to become naturalized American citizens. For much of the period of mass immigration, they were barred from even entering the country. Until the 1960s, there was pretty much only one minority religion in the country, because the vast majority of the world's Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists (and Sikhs, Jains, etc.) couldn't be American. In the middle of the twentieth century, the U.S. got rid of its racist immigration and naturalization policy, and the country became much more religiously diverse. To me, as a Jew, putting a menorah next to the Christmas tree was never an acceptable compromise: Chanukkah is a very minor Jewish holiday, and it fundamentally distorts my religion in order to comply with a Christian-centric calendar. But it's not even possible, in the context of contemporary American religious diversity, to acknowledge every religion or to find an appropriate wintertime holiday for every faith. As America's religious profile comes more in line with the rest of the world's, we're going to have to realize that the only way to keep the government religiously-neutral is to keep the government out of the religion business altogether.

Personally, I love Christmas, perhaps because not celebrating it takes off some of the pressure. I feel guilty about how much I love all the over-the-top lit-up houses: I know it's a waste of electricity, but it's hard to focus on that when the lights are so dang pretty. I adore listening to Christmas carolers. I think it's great when individuals, churches, clubs, and other private entities celebrate their most sacred holidays, either in public or in private. (Businesses are more complicated: it doesn't bother me, but it does piss off some of the more devout Christians I know. But that's a whole different issue.) But the government has to represent all of us, and we are too diverse for the government to acknowledge all of our religions equally. We need to look to our nineteenth-century forbears and come up with the same compromise: when there's no way to be religiously-neutral, just don't acknowledge religion at all.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Update on an earlier entry: "Investigators Consider Race as Possible Motive in Maryland Arson." At any rate, it's pretty clear that none of the suspects were environmentalists, so there was no "eco-terrorism" involved. Of course, the follow-up never gets as much publicity as the initial story.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Can someone please tell me why the meteorologist on the news thought it was a good idea to announce that there would be a "snow event" next week? Is there something wrong with saying "it is going to snow"?

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

So I've had the houseguest from hell for the past week. My former roommate, whom I like quite a bit, came to town for a week and decided to stay with me. For various reasons, including that she forgot to tell me she was coming before she showed up, this has been very annoying. But she has now left the country and claims that she won't be back until at least September, which is nice. And since her annoying nocturnal habits contributed to my insomnia, hopefully I'll be able to sleep now. I really like my former roommate, but she's kind of crazy.

Anyway, for various houseguest-related reasons, I wasn't able to watch the Amazing Race last night, so I recorded it and just watched it now. And I'm sort of not ok with the direction the show is taking. Actually, I'm really fucking furious. I watch the Amazing Race because it's the most entertaining, least sleazy reality show around, and also because it's serious travel porn. I do not watch it to get insight into the horrors of domestic violence. Jonathan and Victoria's relationship certainly seems abusive: if the guy berates her and raises his hand at her as she flinches in anticipation of a blow and shoves her in front of other people, on camera, can you imagine what he does when no one is around? As when the participant in The Real World drove drunk, the producers need to intervene. Otherwise, it looks like spousal abuse is just another plot development. So much for entertaining and non-sleazy.

Due to insomnia, I'm chiming in late about these posts regarding teaching high school students about justifications for slavery. (I should clarify that the fact that I'm chiming in at all is due to insomnia, not the fact that I'm late. Although maybe that, too: I might be posting more regularly if I weren't so tired during the day.)

I think of myself as someone who studies intellectual history. Some people would dispute this: the people whom I study are not generally considered intellectuals, and "intellectual history" has tended to focus on elite thinkers rather than popular ones. I think some people would call what I do "cultural history," since low-brow folks like my subjects are allowed to have culture but not ideas. But I think that's kind of bullshit, so I'm going to persist in calling myself a (wanna-be, budding) intellectual historian.

As such, I have taught a class on American intellectual history to mostly first-and-second-year undergrads. And I require my students to read defenses of slavery. If you're going to study the history of ideas, I think you're morally obligated to study the evil, disgusting ideas, too. And honestly, I wish more people read justifications of slavery. For one thing, my sense from reading pro-life websites is that pro-lifers make some weird and spurious analogies between abortion-rights and pro-slavery arguments, analogies they can only sustain because most Americans don't actually know anything about pro-slavery ideology. Also, I think it's reasonably instructive to show that really evil things can be justified as being benevolent and necessary for all involved. It gives one pause to realize that people don't always realize or acknowledge when they're being evil.

I have also used the debate format to good effect in intellectual history classes. It's really effective with undergrads: they understand an ideology better when they've been forced to justify it on its own terms. I've had them debate women's suffrage and protective labor legislation, not because I think there are two sides to those issues, but because it's one way to force them to grapple with the way people thought in the past.

I refuse to have students debate the legitimacy of slavery, though. A professor in my department used to stage a debate about slavery, and she warned me against trying it. For one thing, African-American students were understandably not ok with being required to justify the horrific exploitation of their ancestors. For another, non-African-American students were often uncomfortable being asked to voice racist sentiments, and more disturbingly, sometimes they seemed to enjoy being given permission to air those otherwise-forbidden views. Honestly, I don't think I would have been tempted to try it even if I hadn't been warned off. It just seems somehow distasteful.

Having said that, I'm a little weirded out by the implication in the posts to which I linked that students shouldn't learn about pro-slavery ideology. Obviously, there are many problems with the way that Carey Christian School appears to be teaching about pro-slavery thought. There's no excuse for using materials provided by neo-Confederate groups. There's no excuse for trotting out the old canard that many masters treated their slaves kindly. There's a creeping moral relativism in the "both sides of the story" rhetoric, and that's not the right way to think about this issue at all. You don't read pro-slavery rhetoric to get an equally-legitimate take whether it's ok to own people. And to be honest, from a modern perspective, abolitionist rhetoric isn't without problems, too. You read both to understand the past, warts and all.

I'm actually a little bit surprised that conservatives want their kids studying pro-slavery ideology. It strikes me that there are some troubling lessons there for the religious right. For Catholics, there's the highly inconvenient fact that the American Catholic Church pretty much across the board condemned abolition as a more dangerous social evil than slavery. (I'm planning to blog sometime soon on John McGreevy's fascinating Catholicism and American Freedom, which is particularly good on Catholic responses to slavery.) If the Church was wrong on one of the least ambiguous moral issues of the modern era, who's to say they're right on gay rights or abortion? Then there are those Biblical justifications of slavery to which the principal of the Carey Christian School alludes. If the Bible can be used to justify slavery, why shouldn't we look critically at contemporary political uses of Scripture? If you only read abolitionist thought, you could get the idea that religious authorities universally condemned slavery, and nothing could be further from the truth. If you take seriously pro-slavery thought, you also have to take seriously the ways in which religion has been used to oppress as well as liberate. That's a problem for people who argue for absolute deference to religious authority.

And with that, I am going to try to go back to sleep. Wish me luck!

Monday, December 13, 2004

Well, I'm clearly a moron, because it didn't even occurr to me that Kerik's nannygate scandal might not be the real reason for his withdrawal. Ignore the post below. There hasn't been a change in gender ideology. It's not about how the Republicans are eliding homeland security and immigration considerations. It's just that hiring an undocumented immigrant is a less-embarassing reason to withdraw than all of the other sleazy things that Kerik has apparently done. Kind of like how Mary-Kate Olsen claimed to have been hospitalized for anorexia, when the rumors have it she was really in rehab for a coke habit. (Don't sue! They're just rumors! I don't know if they're true!) It's embarassing to be anorexic, but not as embarassing as being a raging cokehead.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Contrary to popular belief, it is possible for men to get Nannygated. Bernard Kerik, President Bush's nominee for Secretary of Homeland Security, has withdrawn his nomination after revealing that he employed a housekeeper who was an undocumented immigrant and failed to pay employment taxes for her.

You may remember that the term "Nannygate" originated in the Clinton admnistration, when two female attorney-general nominees were forced to withdraw their nominations after it was revealed that they had hired undocumented immigrants to do domestic work and had failed to pay employment taxes for those workers. It's unlikely that they were the first cabinet nominees whose families had committed those crimes, and at the time, it seemed like these were violations that could only disqualify women. Domestic tasks are women's work, and if a woman isn't doing them herself, it's her, not her husband's, responsibility to oversee her substitute. And besides, a woman who is not cleaning her own house is already a bad, deviant woman.

(I should state that I don't agree with the Barbara Ehrenreich line that it is always wrong or exploitative to hire domestic labor. And as I'm very ambivilent about immigration control in general, I don't have a problem with hiring undocumented workers, although I am troubled by the many ways in which undocumented domestic workers are more susceptible to exploitation than people who are working legally. But I think it is categorically abhorrent to fail to pay social security and unemployment insurance. That stuff is about workers' fundamental rights to dignity and security, and that should be non-negotiable.)

It's possible that Kerik's resignation marks an improvement in gender ideology: men, as well as women, are now being held responsible for decisions about domstic labor. But I suspect this is really a symptom of something else. Immigration is increasingly being subsumed into the "homeland security" rubric, and hiring an undocumented worker is seen as an affront against the principals that it would have been Kerik's job to uphold. To me, that development is troubling. The Bush administration is committing wholesale assault on civil liberties in the name of "national security," and undocumented immigrants have already been vulnerable to arbitrary incarceration and other violations of what are, for the rest of us, basic Constitutional rights. By lumping undocumented aliens with terrorists, the government is just going to make it that much easier to oppress immigrants. I suspect that Kerik's withdrawal is a sign of the ways in which things are getting worse, not better.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

So someone burns down a controversial new housing development in Maryland, and the national news plays up the possibility that it was eco-terrorism. I have two quick thoughts about this.

First of all, while torching an environmentally-destructive housing development is clearly very bad behavior and something to be condemned, I'm not sure I think it really qualifies as terrorism. "Terrorism", to me, implies a desire to do more than just damage the object of your attack. The idea is to cause fear and influence behavior and policy more broadly. Assuming the motive for the arson was environmental, the point of burning down the development might just have been to prevent people from moving in. I think I'd call it "eco-sabotage," rather than "eco-terrorism." The word "terrorism" ought to be reserved for behavior meant to terrorize, rather than used as a catch-all for "politically-motivated crime."

Second of all, I'm confused about why the national media has been so quick to assume the arsonists were motivated by environmental concerns. It's true that environmentalists objected to the development; it's also true that most of the people who had bought houses there were black, and that most of the residents of the surrounding area are white. The Washington Post has been less willing to suggest a motive, raising the possibility that it was the work of the Earth Liberation Front or some such group, but also reporting that the homeowners suspect the crime was racially motivated. When the story was reported on NPR this morning, though, that possibility didn't even come up.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Ok, so is it just me, or is there something really weird about this article from the New York Times about non-Jews who use the Jewish dating website jdate? The article's author confesses that she's one of the goyim who uses the site, and maybe that's why she doesn't seem to understand the essential sketchiness of the entire phenomenon. She mentions that some Jews might object because they oppose intermarriage, but she doesn't seem to grasp that the real problem might be that there's really no un-creepy reason that a non-Jew would specifically seek out a Jewish partner. I mean, Jewish women will take control? Jewish men know how to treat women? It's just a load of anti-semitic crap dressed up in slightly flattering language. Ick.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Over Thanksgiving, I read Friday Night Lights, H.G. Bissinger's chronicle of a high-school football season in football-obsessed Odessa, Texas. I haven't seen the movie, and now I'm intrigued, because I can't imagine that Hollywood would make a sports movie as grim as this book. I'm not sure whether Bissinger set out to write an indictment of American sports culture, the Texas educational system, or red state "moral values," but that's how this book came off to me.

Bissinger's Odessa is a town that values football vastly more than academics: the high-school English department has a budget of $5000 for supplies, Xeroxing, books, etc., but the school spends $20,000 to charter a jet to fly the football team to a single regular-season game. The so-called "U.S. history teacher," who is really an assistant football coach, plants his students in front of a video of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid so he can go to his office and do his real work, reviewing plays for an upcoming game. It goes without saying that nobody expects football players to do any schoolwork, even though none of these kids can expect a career in football.

Odessa is also shockingly, horrifyingly racist. Bissinger recognizes that girls are disadvantaged in all sorts of ways at Permian High, the school he profiles, and he hints at an ugly, violent strain of homophobia. But since this is a book about an all-male football team, and none of the players or coaches gave any indication of being gay, those issues stay in the background. Since several of the players are black or Latino, racism gets a lot more attention. The mostly-white backers of the football team blame Permian's poor academic performance not on their own skewed priorities, but on racial integration, something they managed to stave off until 1983. (That's not a typo. 1983.) They eventually welcomed integration, though, once they realized that the city's black community might provide some gifted football players. If football obsession trumps racism, however, it certainly doesn't overcome it. Black and Latino football players are embraced as long as they play well, but if they are injured or lose their touch, they are demoted to the same status as all other racial outsiders. This is most obvious in the story of James "Boobie" Miles, a gifted running back whose hopes for the pros are ended by a knee injury. Bissinger tells it thusly:

On other occasions, some whites offered another suggestion for Boobie's life if he no longer had football: just do to him what a trainer did to a horse that had pulled up lame at the track, just take out a gun and shoot him to put him out of the misery of a life that no longer had any value.

"What would Boobie be without football?" echoed a Permian coach when asked the question one day. The answer was obvious, as clear as night and day, black and white in Odessa Texas, and he responded without the slightest hesitation.

"A big ol' dumb nigger."

Lovely, that. I wish Bissinger had the guts to tell us which coach.

The thing is, none of the players really seems to benefit from playing big-time high school football. None of them ends up in the pros. The guys who get college scholarships mostly fail to graduate. Football doesn't seem to provide opportunities for run-of-the-mill excellent high school players, and it doesn't seem to build character in ways that serve them later in life. The main beneficiaries seem to be the fans and boosters, for whom Permian football provides an identity and a social life. For a recovering high-school nerd like myself, conditioned to resent the jocks who ruled my school, it's a little sobering to realize that those kids might have been as exploited as they were unfairly privileged.

Anyway, it's not a perfect book. The writing is pretty awful, with lots of dramatic repetition and overwrought metaphors. But it's an interesting glimpse into some really sick aspects of American society.

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