Sunday, September 07, 2014

8.03: Robot of Sherwood, or He’s the Opiate of the Masses

Errol Flynn as Robin Hood

So, look, I need to get this out of the way. I am part of that crowd that hates Mark Gatiss and considers several of his contributions to NuWho to be among the show's very worst moments. I find his poorest episodes straightforwardly deserving of scorn and contempt in a way that is unique to him as a show writer.

Sandifer makes a claim in his review of this episode that it's not fair to criticize a Gatiss script for... being a Gatiss script, basically. This seems wrongheaded to me. If Gatiss is generally awful, or even if he's generally competent but his worst material is so ideologically poisonous that it taints the show, the obvious thing to do is not to hire him to write more episodes. That he's apparently a nice guy and buddies with the showrunner doesn't seem so much like a defense of keeping him around as it is mostly just some straightforward nepotism. I'd argue that the ideological underpinnings of The Idiot's Lantern, Victory of the Daleks and Night Terrors (and, accidentally, The Unquiet Dead) are so revolting on a basic level that they alone should be enough to get him voted off the island (so to speak).

I also think it's wrong to consider the reactions against him merely a function of the kind of story he's interested in doing. I saw Gatiss recently described as one of those writers whose stories are, inevitably, just cargo cult versions of Classic Who. That, as a concept, isn't something I necessarily rebel against. In the right hands, you can get a perfectly fine episode out of that (indeed, Gatiss himself has written a couple of of good episodes like Cold War and The Crimson Horror). I'm actually reasonably sympathetic to the general thrust of what Gatiss seems to be trying to do with his episodes. So, chalking up anti-Gatiss sentiment to simply not finding the kinds of stories he's trying to tell appealing seems off to me. There are specific ideological and aesthetic reasons to want him, specifically, to no longer write for Doctor Who.

All of which is to say that I actually liked Robot of Sherwood.

Was it a classic? No. But Sandifer, in his review, is exactly right that in this case everyone involved was on the same page that they were creating some fluff. And, on those terms, I actually think this time around Gatiss succeeds more than he fails.

The plot, such as it is, is fine and clearly a callback to Deep Breath from a couple of weeks ago. I'll admit, this got me a bit more interested in the season-long mystery than the previous appearances of Missy in previous episodes this season. But only a bit.

People keep saying this is the Doctor showing up in Errol Flynn's Robin Hood. Which is probably true, but I've never seen that movie so I can't speak to it. But the show certainly does an admirable and workmanlike job evoking our shared cultural memories of Robin Hood. It all felt instantly and comfortably familiar (like that classic part of the Robin Hood myth where he gets into a laser beam fight with robot knights). Tom Riley (Robin Hood) and Ben Miller (Sheriff of Nottingham) both play their parts with exactly the right amount of ham without overplaying their hands and Riley, particularly, does a nice job with the extra bits of character layering he's given throughout the episode. Everyone else in this week's guest cast plays parts that are fairly two-dimensional but they too do a good job making sure your sense of familiarity is evoked with their smaller roles.

As for the regulars, both Capaldi and Coleman are given enough to do in this episode to make it enjoyable to watch those two run through the story. Capaldi does particularly good work opposite Riley's Robin Hood. The dynamic between those two is part of the subtextual throughline that actually makes it's way into blunt text at the end of the episode: that these characters are legends and central heroes of their own stories, and so the antipathy they have for each other as each tries to usurp the other's place in what they consider their own adventure is surprisingly clever coming from Gatiss. This, of course, results in some broad comedy and a particularly goofy exchange in a dungeon scene where the Doctor's ego firmly gets the better of him and he temporarily loses command of his reason. I found that exchange fairly amusing and nice flipside of the Doctor's personality coin (or, er, something to that effect).

That same scene is also a a great piece for Coleman, and Clara is now quickly becoming one of my favorite NuWho companions. While Robin Hood and the Doctor are verbally sparring as a consequence of colliding into each other's legends, Clara is using the skills we've seen her draw on in the last two episodes to try to move the to so-called heroes to action and, absent that, figure out how to save herself. She quickly moves on to beautifully playing the Sheriff and generally being excellent with any character she interacts with throughout the episode. Her centrality to resolving the episode's conflict has a very Davison vibe to it, where the Doctor is largely relegated to the edges as others come in to do the actual resolving of the plot, Not a dynamic I'd like every episode (case in point: the Davison era), but this mode of operation for the Doctor has a reasonable history in the show and seeing it every once in a while is no crime.

Clara also properly frames the driving point of the story. One of the classic dynamics of Doctor Who is that the show "invades" another story and part of the pleasure of that dynamic is seeing how the Doctor and companions take to playing in someone elses world. Here, the Doctor invades the story of another legend who is firmly the equal of himself. The result is a story and world that just as much pushes back against the presence of the Doctor and tries to keep itself in the driver's seat. Clara realizes this all comes down to the nature of heroism and legend. Considering that she views both of these characters as heroes, she is able to properly frame these issues to both men so they can come to terms, at least a bit, with themselves and accept each other's place.

As I said, at the end, that current that had been running as subtext throughout the episode emerges in the text of the final conversation between Robin Hood and the Doctor. In a bluntly metatextual moment, both characters discuss each other and themselves in the context of them as characters and legends. A sharp ending that helps retroactively raise the stakes a bit on the whole episode.

Politically, there isn't too much to be too offended by. The general conceit of simply valorizing the history of Britain is probably off-putting to some, but I found it difficult to get offended. Both Robin Hood and the Doctor get to talk a little Marx, but given Gatiss' past sentiments it's difficult to read that as anything other then him thinking it would be a bit clever. The story of the privileged person who goes rogue and takes up the cause of the poor and marginalized is, of course, part of the entire narrative of the show. It's also problematic, but it would also be unfair to particularly blame Gatiss or this episode for that since this story merely made explicit one of the basic premises this show operates under.

More annoying is that Gatiss still seems firmly disinterested in writing female characters who aren't the companion. Sandifer mentions the Bechdel Test, and Gatiss' dismal scores when the test is applied to his scripts. He could have easily beefed up the part of Marian in this episode and given her a bit more to do (and, hell, she could have even had a conversation with Clara) but it doesn't seem like Gatiss can be bothered with such things. So fuck him for that.

This episode was fine and enjoyable for what it does. I hope Gatiss never writes for Doctor Who ever again.

Obligatory Bullet Points:

-I thought the sword/spoon fight was funny. Showcased just how much of a fuck the Doctor did not give about the situation at hand.

-My partner-in-crime James thinks the Doctor wasn't written in character this episode, citing particularly the dungeon scene as the Doctor being written a lot dumber than usual. Maybe. Again, I attribute that primarily to his buttons being pushed just the right way by the mere existence of Robin Hood that his ego goes haywire. On most of the other stuff, I think it's tough to say if the scripts are truly writing Capaldi in character or not since we've only one other non-regeneration story to compare to.

-It's been mentioned by probably every other blogger out there, but that Troughton cameo was pure joy.

-A couple pieces of this story don't make a lot of sense. Some of it, like why an arrow made of gold is being given away, isn't really a problem because who cares. The biggest one is structural to the episode: for most of the episode, the story works on the audience assumption that this isn't real (siding with the Doctor) and makes scenes like the archery contest suitable goofy and implausible to heighten that suspicion. When it's revealed that Robin Hood et al. are, in fact, real (the show siding with Clara) it retroactively contextualizes the main conflict between the Doctor and Robin Hood but at the same time diminishes the mechanics of how a lot of the rest of the episode was portrayed (as, well, fake-y). Going one time through the episode, this isn't really a problem. But I'll be curious how the episode feels on repeat viewings.

-Wow, that trailer for next week. Tasty.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

8.02 Into the Dalek, or Victory is Yours, But it Does Not Please You?

Writer: Phil Ford and Steven Moffat
Director: Ben Wheatley
Airdate: August 30, 2014

Well, that was rather good.

It's an interesting question, whether merely being opposed to evil is sufficient to define one as good. After this, the Doctor doesn't seem to think so.

Of course, the point here is that the Dalek seeks out what it understands. At the end of the day, it found hatred and embraced it. It just happened that it got pointed in the right direction on who to destroy.

State capitalism is the death of morality and it is endless bloodlust. It is a power that claims a penetrating sovereignty over the individual body. It is necropolitical. It makes die and let's live.

Like Rusty, we are subject to the conditions in which we exist. In a system of oppressive hatred called capitalism, it must perhaps be enough to be defined by what we are not and to turn our hatred towards evil.

This machine kills fascists.

The Doctor is in an enviable position. He tries to be a good man. He is in a position of privilege. The privilege to strive for goodness that can only come from someone who has escaped the system of hatred that most of us exist in. I don't mean that uncharitably. We have seen his adventures. He has strived for this privilege, even as he was born into it in a way that none of the rest of this universe ever will be.

The antipathy towards soldiers was interesting, and right. Unlike the usual abhorrence of violence, this was built on the sturdier foundation of a loathing of obedience. I think most of us naturally understand that loathing. I think another good reason to not be keen on soldiers is that they are the strong arm of the vicious capitalist state. They protect our freedoms the same way banks protect our capital. Of course, soldiers too are subject to the restraints of the life they were brought into.

The Doctor has a biting line about how civilians communicate to soldiers with their tears. My guess is that, in the end, this is a setup for the Doctor (or viewer, or both) to learn a valuable lesson about the innate humanity of those who sign up to kill in the name of western democracy. But maybe these positions will be allowed to stand.

I thought about these kids when the Doctor said that.

Of course, no need to make it exotic. Like a country in a different part of the world. Or a rebel ship in the an asteroid belt. It need be no more exotic than the suburb down the highway. The militarized police in Ferguson sure make civilians communicate with tears. And rage. The unstoppable rage of those born into capitalism and finding their fostered hatred directed where it belongs.

This machine kills fascists.

Trying to keep the Tardis free of such things is probably a sound idea. The nature of state capitalism is that it is insatiable. As it penetrates the body, demanding sovereignty in a grotesque expression of patriarchy, so too it penetrates all culture, soon enough. Eventually, even the most measured critiques are met with the violent rage of oppressor. An Anita Sarkeesian never had a chance. Not when the might of an entrenched power structure has to defend itself against even the most mild inquiry.

Eventually, the social violence will just become violence.

Into darkness. That's where the Doctor went this week. The most dangerous place in the universe was the inside of a Dalek, but it may as well have been the inside of a board room. Same difference. So what else is there?

The innate morality of Clara is something that is important to believe in. I don't know if it's real (I would wager that it is not), but it is important nonetheless.  Hobbes wouldn't like it, which is a point in its favor. Most of us are probably more like the Doctor though, trying.

And that, as Clara says, may be the point. It may have to be.

Obligatory Bullet Points:

-Maybe I'm just a bit of a doof, but that proctologist joke really was pretty funny.
-It all looked rather nice.
-And the acting was solid-to-excellent across the board. Capaldi and Coleman continue to impress.
-One dalek really is more compelling than a whole bunch of 'em.
-Oh, right. The slap. Well, as I said on Tumblr:
The problem, in the main, with Clara slapping the Doctor is that it didn’t go far enough. Why settle on slapping a man when you can rupture the time vortex and use it to eliminate the very existence of men? The mind boggles.
-Gatiss next week. Fuck me.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

8.01: Deep Breath, or Then It Just Goes Haywire

I can't be the only one using this screenshot, right?
Writer: Steven Moffat
Director: Ben Wheatley
Airdate: August 23, 2014

So, that Peter Capaldi, eh? Daaaaaaaaaaaaayum.


Okay, let's try that again. What we watched this weekend, of course, is one of those peculiar entries in the Doctor Who canon (such as it is) that has a fair bit of history but also no one seems to quite know what to do with. That would be the category of the regeneration episode (although a case could be made for "episode featuring dinosaurs where they turn out not be the real threat in the story." A category featured in the program only slightly less often than the regeneration tale). The point has been made elsewhere, but these regeneration tales tend to be a bit light on the particulars of the monster of the week and whatever mad plot is in need of stopping and instead are often showcases for the new Doctor to go a bit goofy and to get introduced to  a new companion and dynamic. And, well, this episode is pretty par for the course here. And for much of the episode, the regeneration of the Doctor takes on a sort of secondary importance to the other regeneration happening: the one that Clara is undergoing.

The common complaint I'm seeing pop up about this episode - and it's one that's certainly fair - is that the entire first chunk of the story is filled with a lot of the Doctor not getting on and becoming the Doctor and basically a lot of Clara and the Paternoster Gang flitting around and being funny (or "funny" if you're not inclined to be charitable to what you're seeing on your screen). And, well, fair enough. You won't hear me argue against the idea that Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax have worn out their welcome at this point. But, of course, what's really happening here is that Moffat & co. are taking he time to reintroduce Clara to the audience. And to carefully lay out the turmoil she finds herself in after the Doctor has regenerated into someone who doesn't even recognize her for a time.

That's a bit that threw me at first. At first blush, I wasn't on board with the idea that Clara would have that much angst over the Doctor regenerating. She has, after all, interacted to some extent with every single one if his incarnations and had a relatively recent extended adventure with three of them. At the end Smith's tenure, one thing I had been looking forward to was a dynamic where the companion would not only have a good idea of what the heck is going on with the Doctor regenerating but would actually potentially be in situation to potentially have more knowledge than the Doctor depending on how mixed up he got. That didn't really happen here, but what we got satisfied nonetheless.

Let's step back a moment and consider Clara's character and position: yeah, she has an abstract understanding of regeneration and how the Doctor continues on in different forms and with different twists on his identity. But in her past interactions, the Eleventh Doctor - "her" Doctor - was always in sight, either to guide her along or as a person to save. The reality of having that version of the Doctor getting wiped away to make way for someone new is nothing she's had to engage with in more than an academic sense. And yet here we find her, not only with a new Doctor but one that seems so different that he actually doesn't recognize her at first. In Clara's shoes, getting freaked the fuck out would be a pretty understandable reaction. Even to the point of questioning whether you really know the person standing in front of you anymore.

And that's always been central to Clara's character (at least, when Clara's character is getting defined at all. Something that sadly hadn't happened as much as it should). In past episodes where Clara has shined - Cold War and The Day of the Doctor, for instance - her character has never acted so much from the Strong Female Character (TM) position of utter fearlessness in any situation so much as a character who does react with fear, grapples with that fear and uses her reactions to make herself a stronger person. Nowhere is this character trait more evident than when she has to try to escape the cyborgs, gets captured and then has her confrontation with Half-Face Man (and, in a nice touch, we see a flashback to her time as a substitute teacher and how her past life experience gives her insight into how to handle the situation in front of her). Seemingly abandoned by the Doctor, in a terrifying situation she is visibly affect by, Clara uses her intensely understandable reactions to the immediate events to muster up the strength to defy the Half-Face Man and, in a turn that proves that for all her concern she still really does understand the Doctor, anticipate the Doctor's reveal onto the scene.

So, as a character we find Clara getting fleshed out in a way that she really hasn't been. It's not a visual regeneration but it's still a transformatively new direction for the character. As we see the mystery of the "impossible girl" stuff shed in favor of bringing up character beats that were getting drowned out in the static. The trepidation with this new Doctor is what encases this transformation, but it's ultimately a bit of a feint to suggest that's the true conflict here. It's more the narrative skeleton that allows Moffat to write a bunch of more interesting stuff in the guts of that development.

In fact, it seems pretty obvious that the trepidation is anything but the genuine conflict. The meta-text here is useful. Sure, there's a bit if a pulse in the story to make sure that the audience is comfortable with this transition of lead actors, but the context in which this story airs screams defiantly against Clara being a true audience surrogate in this regard. Think of the timing of this episode. There has been plenty of time and hype between the transmission of Deep Breath and The Time of the Doctor. The changeover to Peter Capaldi was the driving force between a massive international publicity push for this new series and the choice of Capaldi has been, for over a year, celebrated nearly universally as one of the show's all time great casting achievements. No, Clara's concern over this new face isn't meant to reflect and reassure the viewer. The aim here is to give the viewer the same relationship with Clara as we have with the Doctor in this episode: mainly, that we know more than they do and are waiting for them to catch up. For Clara, this is reflected in us knowing what a brilliant turn Capaldi is going to give in the role well ahead of any episodes actually airing. For the Doctor, it's knowing about these clockwork enemies from a previous story and having to wait as the Doctor catches up and starts remembering his own past as we do.

And so that brings us nicely to the Doctor. Capaldi here - as expected - is brilliant. His Doctor is, yes, "darker" for whatever that's worth. But, equally, he's already playing against expectations by being quite funny through much of the episode and in the closing moments showing a genuine honest vulnerability and concern that I wouldn't see coming from any of his previous NuWho incarnations. Everyone is making a big deal out of his confrontation with the Half-Face Man - and it was indeed a shining moment for Capaldi and Example #1 of the "darker" side of his character - but it's how Capaldi worked following Smith's cameo that is the great moment for the character this episode.

Having Matt Smith reprise his character for a moment was a bold move. If the new Doctor was anyone but Capadi, it would have overshadowed and drowned out the new Doctor for the audience. Here, it acted as a rather nice coda to Eleven and Clara's relationship while giving something for Capaldi to immediately play against. And he does. The moments following Eleven's phone call stand out as some of the best interaction between the Doctor and a companion since the series revived in 2005. It's in those moments that the Doctor and Clara finally catch up to the audience and find themselves ready to go on more adventures.

And I, for one, certainly look forward to the ride.

Obligatory Bullet Points:

-I enjoyed how Madame Vastra seemed to be the mouthpiece for a certain segment of fandom that had been critical of all the "relationship" stuff. I think this was Moffat both accepting some of that criticism and rebuking other parts. The result was, to me, a nice capper on some of what both worked and didn't in the last few years of the show and a seeming promise for a breath of fresh air. I found it interesting that Moffat chose to make Vastra the vehicle for that conversation, playing a bit against the common critique that those mainstay characters are really just mouthpieces for the writer. In this case, the beloved-by-writer Vastra is also the avatar of his chief critics of the last several years. Go figure.

-The direction was generally good and reached "exceptional" during Clara's attempted escape and showdown with the Half-Face Man. But, as always, the action sequences left something to be desired. The show could do with hiring a real choreographer. Or sticking to the kind of action the show does best: running through corridors and occasionally blowing stuff up.

-The best critique of the Paternoster Gang, and Strax particular has been made by Jack (because of course it's been made by Jack). I'm hoping this is largely the last gasp of this particular group of recurring characters. I get why you'd use them here (who else are you going to have Clara play off against given the arc of the story?) but their utility going forward is minimal at best.

-Similarly, Sandifer has written an exceptional pro-episode review here. He brings up the parallels to Robot. I'd add that it felt fairly similar to Rose as well, with the importance of the companion character taking central stage and the return of an old villain for the Doctor to play against.

-I don't have a strong opinion on the new theme and title sequence, but apparently it's been a bit divisive. I for one liked this suggestion from Sandifer's comment section that it all may be a subtle tribute to Joe Meek. I'll sign onto that.

-Also pointed out in some comment section or another and a comment I liked: with the bit at the end on getting to "Heaven" and the Next Time trailer promising a trip into "Hell," this may have been the first time the trailer for next week deliberately played off the closing of this week's episode.

-Also, ROFLCOPTER at folks who are already suggesting Missy is the Rani. To very loosely paraphrase Taylor Swift: We Are Never Ever Getting the Rani Back on Television.

-I'm going to see this in the theatre tomorrow night. I may revise/add/update to this semi-review if I have additional thoughts after that. In any case, I'm looking forward to seeing this on the big screen.

-Capaldi really is awesome.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Bad Laws Are Made to be Broken!

It's December, and if you're in the western world that means you're being inundated with the month-long cultural ritual known as Christmas Season. If you're like me, you spend some time during Christmas Season thinking about its attendant cultural signifiers. Here's something that's been rolling around in my head: "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" - the song - has always had a taste of the fascist to it. The 1934 song could just as easily be some weird paean to the NSA with it's lines about knowing when you're sleeping and whether you've been a bad, bad citizen kiddo.

So that makes it extra striking that the 1970 Christmas Special of the same name is basically Santa Claus for Anarcho-Whovians. The Rankin/Bass special, featuring the vocal talents of Fred Astaire and Mickey Rooney, presents a counter-cultural rebel intent on bringing down the established order and creating a culture that rebels against the Cult of Productivity. And frankly, the whole thing plays like a Troughton-era serial of Doctor Who, with Mr. Claus himself in the role of the Doctor.

Going through the story, moments stand out. The villain - the head of the state in the hamlet of Sombertown - Burgermeister Meisterburger, finds an orphaned Claus on his doorsteps. His solution is to send the child to the state-run "Orphan Asylum" which we're made to know is a wretched fate displaces the burden of helping those in need from the community and instead shifts that burden to an uncaring, unfeeling institution. Luckily, nature intervenes and whisks the baby Claus off to the Kringle family, who raise him up to follow in their profession of toymakers.

As Claus gets older, he makes his return to Sombertown. This is shortly after Burgermeister Meisterburger vindictively passes a series of laws banning toys from the town. So not only does the film portray the apparatus of the state as bad - who would send a kid to Sombertown's Orphan Asylum? - but the political leader is also stupid, cruel and has the ability to use the power of the state to maliciously enforce his bad laws on a disenfranchised populace.

Seeing the oppression taking place in the aptly named Sombertown, Claus cannot stand by idly. As he meets two children and the local schoolteacher, Miss Jessica, he knowingly and deliberately begins distributing toys in direct violation of the law of the land. His is not a simple act of ignorance, but willful defiance of an illegitimate authority. Like the Second Doctor dropping into an oppressed society, he agitates for revolution while playing a bit of a clown figure (he also softens some of the most sketchy lyrics of the song the film's title is based on by making the lines a natural reflection of his personal disposition rather than some weird behavioral program).

Of course, Claus is caught by the Burgermeister and his state lackeys. As the Burgermeister praises the way the lack of play or toys will discipline the local children and make them productive members of society,* he runs into Claus and his toy distribution scheme. The Burgermeister explicitly refers to Claus as a "nonconformist" and "rebel." In classic Troughton-esque style, Claus acts in a casually disarming manner while fully embracing the role of antagonist to the powers that be. After a brief confrontation, Claus escapes the police and goes on the run.

*Presumably, given that this was released in 1970 this is supposed to be some kind of commentary on foreign totalitarianism (the Burgermeister is German, but the drabness and focus on efficiency and productivity feel a lot like a swipe at the Soviet Union). It's astonishing how well the Burgermeister and his view now reflects Capitalist orthodoxy and the new thinking of how public education is supposed to produce an army of well-trained, docile workers to be thrown in the maw of consumer culture.

On the run, Claus meets the Winter Warlock and melts his heart. Like the Doctor, Claus brings companions on board his adventure and they have transformative experiences where they become better people for their time with the Doctor. The song that Claus and the Warlock sing together - One Foot in Front of the Other - is particularly striking. It posits that the ability to change oneself comes from within, and echoes a sentiment from Leo Tolstoy that I've referenced regularly, particularly in how I think it get to the heart of what Doctor Who can be about at its best:
There can be only one permanent revolution — a moral one; the regeneration of the inner man.
The scene with the Warlock and Claus specifically sees the Warlock "regenerating" from his bad old appearance to his friendlier, wizard personality. I've always been primarily a fan of an anarchism that is deeply personal and focused on the betterment of oneself, and the strive to change one's manner of thinking and way of engaging with one's fellows. This hews closely to all that, and sets the stage for some of the closing scenes of the film.

Claus also finds that Miss Jessica - who was persuaded of the rightness of Claus' anti-authoritarian position - has followed him. She gets a song where she essentially has a moment of self-reflection and comes to better understand her own value system and motivations. It's great because the entire sequence is insanely trippy. There's really no other way to look at it except as the enlightenment that comes from an acid trip. The self-actualization narrative and the visuals all reflect the kind of stuff that was coming out of the 60s counter-cultural movement. In fact, it reminded me nothing so much as Doctor Who's The Krotons which similarly embraced the counter-culture of the time and the drug component of it as well. With this sequence, the film further aligns itself to an anti-authoritarian position and entrenches itself as a weird echo of Doctor Who.

The narrative goes on to explain that Miss Jessica becomes Mrs. Claus and the two get married on Christmas Eve. By this time Claus is on the run from the authorities and has become an outlaw hiding in the forests and mountains. There's a bit of a deal made in the film of how Claus and Jessica marry in the forest as they've been turned away from towns due to their outlaw status and being married before the eyes of God or somesuch. What's really interesting here is how the Winter Warlock, stripped of his power in an earlier scene, calls upon God to grant him some power to due some lighting tricks at the wedding ceremony. To be sure, this is not a staid, orthodox view of God.

In fact, nothing in the film really suggests a traditional, Christian view of a higher power. "God" is fairly nebulous and all that's said about the significance of Christmas could just as easily apply to any of the pre-Christian holidays that went on at that time of the year. Indeed, the film explicitly links any concept of a higher power with the pagan magic of the Winter Warlock. Rather that representing an authoritarian deity, the film seems to treat questions of faith in the sort of cosmic sense we might find in 60s counter-culture or the Doctor Who scripts of David Whitaker.

Eventually, Claus becomes the Santa Claus we all know today. The brilliance is that he "beats" the Meisterburger simply by changing minds and attitudes. There is no formal revolution (so, un-Troughton-like in that sense) but instead a follow-through on Tolstoy's call for the permanent revolution. The people of Sombertown realize they simply don't need the laws in place and so go on with their lives ignoring them. Santa Claus is free to embrace his chosen life regardless of what laws may be on the books and the people of Sombertown seem to get on just fine without a Burgermeister figure to rule over them.

A brief coda follows, where the narrator explains that some folks still just don't get Christmas. While one of the "examples" is a store clerk who is clearly just tired of having to take the brunt of abuse from the consumer capitalist side of the holiday, and thus a rather unfortunate target to pick on, the fascinating inclusion is the industrial businessman spouting platitudes about how silly it is celebrate Christmas with so much suffering in the world. Of course, he probably supports a Burgermeister-esque vision of molding people into compliant workers and the suffering he's referring to is caused largely by the economic system he propagates and profits from. I think the film cleverly sets this character up: we're supposed to read the bullshit in his feigned concern for the poor. Now that we're at the end of the film, we as viewers have the tools to recognize that the company boss is simply another burgermeister in need of a good toppling.

A triumph for anarchists and Doctor Who fans alike. Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Fight for Your Right to Party

Jill Filipovic at Feministe recently put forward the thought experiment:
Would you limit abortion to 12 weeks if it meant getting a full range of other reproductive health benefits?
And then went on to answer in the affirmative, using France as an example with such a system that has produced relatively positive results. It's a thoughtful article, and worth reading.

Unfortunately, it's also ultimately the wrong question and posed in a thoroughly useless way. As far as it goes, it's almost a meaningless thought experiment (I use that term instead of hypothetical since the entire conceit is - as the author admits - beyond the realm of plausibility). Of course given a choice between two extremely sub-optimal options, you go with the one that will produce the best results. If we're limiting rights either way, best to go the route the causes the least suffering, duh. That's not a particularly clarifying result.

In fact, Filipovic's hypothetical has the most in common with the false choice presented by sweat shop apologists, which always goes something along the lines of "well, sweat shops are better than all of those people being jobless and starving to death." Well, yeah, when you restrict the options in front of you to those two results, sweat shops look like the best thing on the table. But, of course, the basic underlying framework that the sweat shop apologists promote is fundamentally flawed: it's a choice that makes assumptions about the basic validity of property and wealth distribution schemes as promoted and enforced by the international Neo-Liberal ruling class. There are lots of other alternative choices that would be even better than the two presented by sweat shop apologists: labor capturing and controlling the means of production being just one alternative that should be considered and advocated for.

So it goes on the body rights question. Would you limit one set of rights in exchange for broadening of another set of rights? Well, set aside for the moment that I passionately reject the very idea that the state has any business limiting the human rights of anyone and let's consider the harm caused by restricting the question in such a way. Filipovic short circuits the possibility of advocating for the expansiveness of all rights, something that advocates should generally be striving for. She also short circuits the possibility of addressing the underlying structural issues in play here, i.e. what I had just said I would set aside but apparently won't: that the state has no business restricting any of these body rights in the first place. Filipovic's question - like the sweat shop apologists - tacitly accept the frameworks of the ruling class by accepting body rights (especially female body rights) as something non-essential to be traded for other (apparently-not-really-) rights.

In the daily grind of policy making, trade-offs are often required to produce least-bad outcomes. No one disputes that. But the vantage point of ethics- and rights-free advocacy has moved out of lawmaking territory and come to infect the intellectual framework of advocates and activists. When you accept the underlying structural limits that the ruling classes have imposed on the rest of us, you limit the horizons you can strive for.

And when feminist advocates push for limiting abortion rights for women, they don't create a space for other rights to be expanded (as the author says they won't), they just provide more cover for those who would seek to limit the rights of others to go on with their terrible business.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Free Nelson Mandela

Jack Graham has already gotten the ball rolling on properly assessing the legacy and life of Nelson Mandela, who passed away last week. Here's his basic takeaway:
Let's mourn the passing of a fighter against racial discrimination, who endured decades of suffering (on a level that I can't even conceptualise, let alone imagine myself tolerating) for his principles. But let's not lose ourselves in lachrymose sentimentality and forget the real history of post-Apartheid South Africa.
And was that post-Apartheid history. Jack starts pointing us in the right direction with a pair of articles. The first is from John Pilger, who interviewed Mandela shortly before he died. The most salient grafs:
Few ordinary South Africans were aware that this “process” had begun in high secrecy more than two years before Mandela’s release, when the ANC in exile had, in effect, done a deal with members of the Afrikaner elite at a stately home, Mells Park House, near Bath. The prime movers were the corporations that had underpinned apartheid.

Around the same time, Mandela was conducting his own secret negotiations. In 1982, he had been moved from Robben Island to Pollsmoor Prison, where he could receive and entertain people. The apartheid regime’s aim was to split the resistance between the “moderates” that it could “do business with” (Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Oliver Tambo) and those in the front-line townships who were leading the United Democratic Front. On 5 July 1989, Mandela was spirited out of prison to meet P W Botha, the white-minority president known as Die Groot Krokodil (“the big crocodile”). Mandela was delighted that Botha poured the tea.

With democratic elections in 1994, racial apartheid ended and economic apartheid had a new face. The Botha regime had offered black businessmen generous loans, allowing them to set up companies outside the Bantustans. A new black bourgeoisie emerged quickly, along with a rampant cronyism. ANC chieftains moved into mansions in “golf and country estates”. As the disparities between white and black narrowed, they widened between black and black.

The familiar refrain that the wealth would “trickle down” and “create jobs” was lost in dodgy merger deals and “restructuring” that cost jobs. For foreign companies, a black face on the board often ensured that nothing changed. In 2001 George Soros told the World Economic Forum in Davos, “South Africa is in the hands of international capital.”
This is less an aberration of contemporary economic policy or simply a twisted echo of Apartheid, and more the bread and butter of modern Death Capitalism. Naomi Klein gives a full analysis which should really be read in its entirety, but here's a bit of it:
Some commissioners felt that multinational corporations that had benefited from apartheid should be forced to pay reparations. In the end the Truth and Reconciliation Commission made the modest recommendation of a one-time 1 percent corporate tax to raise money for the victims, what it called "a solidarity tax." Sooka expected support for this mild recommendation from the ANC; instead, the government, then headed by Mbeki, rejected any suggestion of corporate reparations or a solidarity tax, fearing that it would send an anti-business message to the market. "The president decided not to hold business accountable," Sooka told me. "It was that simple." In the end, the government put forward a fraction of what had been requested, taking the money out of its own budget, as the commissioners had feared. 

South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is frequently held up as a model of successful "peace building," exported to other conflict zones from Sri Lanka to Afghanistan. But many of those who were directly involved in the process are deeply ambivalent. When he unveiled the final report in March 2003, the commission’s chairman, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, confronted journalists with freedom’s unfinished business. "Can you explain how a black person wakes up in a squalid ghetto today, almost 10 years after freedom? Then he goes to work in town, which is still largely white, in palatial homes. And at the end of the day, he goes back home to squalor? I don’t know why those people don’t just say, ‘To hell with peace. To hell with Tutu and the truth commission.’

Sooka, who now heads South Africa’s Foundation for Human Rights, says that she feels that although the hearings dealt with what she described as "outward manifestations of apartheid such as torture, severe ill treatment and disappearances," it left the economic system served by those abuses "completely untouched"—an echo of the concerns about the blindness of "human rights" expressed by Orlando Letelier three decades earlier. If she had the process to do over again, Sooka said, "I would do it completely differently. I would look at the systems of apartheid—I would look at the question of land, I would certainly look at the role of multinationals, I would look at the role of the mining industry very, very closely because I think that’s the real sickness of South Africa. . . . I would look at the systematic effects of the policies of apartheid, and I would devote only one hearing to torture because I think when you focus on torture and you don’t look at what it was serving, that’s when you start to do a revision of the real history."
And some numbers:
After more than a decade since South Africa made its decisive turn toward Thatcherism, the results of its experiment in trickledown justice are scandalous:
  • Since 1994, the year the ANC took power, the number of people living on less than $1 a day has doubled, from 2 million to 4 million in 2006.
  • Between 1991 and 2002, the unemployment rate for black South Africans more than doubled, from 23 percent to 48 percent.
  • Of South Africa’s 35 million black citizens, only five thousand earn more than $60,000 a year. The number of whites in that income bracket is twenty times higher, and many earn far more than that amount.
  • The ANC government has built 1.8 million homes, but in the meantime 2 million people have lost their homes.
  • Close to 1 million people have been evicted from farms in the first decade of democracy.
  • Such evictions have meant that the number of shack dwellers has grown by 50 percent. In 2006, more than one in four South Africans lived in shacks located in informal shantytowns, many without running water or electricity.
And let's not forget the time that Mandela, as Walter Glass puts it, "invaded a tiny country to crush a popular protest and take their water":
In recent years, the SADC — dominated by South Africa since the demise of apartheid (the South African economy is three times bigger than the economies of all other SADC countries combined) — has had another reason to want a pliant regime in Lesotho: the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP).

This US$8 billion, four-phase mega-dam project is jointly funded by South African capital and the World Bank. It is one of the largest infrastructure developments in the world and construction is to begin soon on the scheme's second phase.

The LHWP was dreamed up by the apartheid regime in 1986, and accepted by Lesotho's military regime recently installed by Pretoria.

The aim of the project was to pump massive amounts of water to South Africa to meet its agricultural and industrial needs. South Africa consumes 80% of southern Africa's water, yet has just 10% of its water sources. Studies have shown that without new sources of water, South Africa's fresh water resources would be fully used up by between 2025 and 2030.

Both Botswana and Namibia would benefit from the project. Lesotho, on the other hand, would be compelled to pump water to South Africa even in times of drought.
The picture painted here is of a great, revolutionary man and party ensnared by the forces of Neo-Liberalism. Whether the motivation was self-interest or a genuine belief that abandoning economic policies that would help the poor and disenfranchised would be offset in the long-run by the garnering of political power is beside the point. The levers of power are designed primarily to benefit elites, that some new elites can enter their ranks at the expense of the vast seas of the marginalized is no great victory.

On a related note, it's been disgusting see a week of the American news cycle breathlessly slobbering over Nelson Mandela, not for his truly courageous revolutionary period, but for his post-prison positions and policies. Besides the unfortunately usual grotesqueness that is seeing old, powerful, rich white men like Tom Brokaw reminisce with a barely constrained glee about how it was his imprisonment that made Nelson Mandela a great man (because no black man could be great if it weren't for the actions of his white betters, eh? Shades of the imperialist claptrap that is Richard Attonborough's Gandhi), there was the added insult of seeing talking head after talking head declare that it was Mandela's commitment to reconciliation and moving away from his past "divisiveness" that made him a paragon of virtue. Unfortunately, what the overhelmingly white, corporate class calls "reconciliation" folks like Pilger and Klein astutely recognize as the abandonment of policies of economic equality and the embracing of top-down class warfare.

It's tempting to lay blame at the feet of the ANC, or perhaps if we're feeling particularly cynical, at the feet of Nelson Mandela himself. But doing so would requiring disregarding the genuine courage and moral rectitude that characterized so much of Mandela's life. Instead, the lesson here is one of how structures of power imbalance tend to use people to perpetuate those structures, and not - as is popularly imagined - a sort of reversal where a person can come in and change the system from within. Nelson Mandela found that out, and so did we, when he was absorbed into the body of the state and its relentless drive towards neo-liberalism. As Kevin Carson puts it:
The state, in its essence, is a tool for exploitation by an economic ruling class. You’ll never end exploitation by putting “revolutionaries” in control of the state. You’ll just create a new ruling class.
After witnessing the rise of Nelson Mandela, I'm inclined to agree.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Aaaaaaand back!

Wow. Dusting off the cobwebs here. I've decided I want a place for more "serious" writing and whatnot than my Tumblr was really conducive for. Expect a total overhaul of this place as I make it fit for habitation again.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The Times They Are A-Changin'

I started this blog way back in 2005. I was in college and thought I had a lot of Interesting and Important Things to Say About Life and Politics and Culture. I remember I was visiting my friend Davin's house in Virginia when I signed up and started blogging. I've been doing it off and on here (and occasionally elsewhere on the side) ever since, although my bursts of posting have been fewer and fewer over the years.

The reality is that I'm not the prolific writer that I was (or thought I was) in college and, while I'm still a voracious reader of the politics and the music and the sports and the culture, my comments tend towards the sarcastic and the pithy as opposed to the more long form style I associate with a blog like this.

So what does this mean? Well, I'm not taking this blog down and I'm not calling it Officially Retired or anything. I may have a hankering to post something that I think would fit well here, and I want to leave the door open to do that. But, for the most part, I think my internet habits have shifted past the traditional personal blog format as such.

Instead, you'll be able to find me in a couple of other spots on the internet. For starters, in case you hadn't noticed the sidebar, I'm pretty active on the Twitters. So, be sure to follow me or whatever if you are so inclined.

Second, I'm opening up a Tumblr blog and going to start posting there. This is sort of an experiment, to see if the Tumblr format increases my activity when it comes to blogging.

And, as I said, I may still decide to post something here occasionally. But I'd be sure to link to it from my other internet digs if I did.

So, sayonara. 'Til we meet again.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Christmas Music That Doesn't Suck: Rush Coil - 8-Bit Christmas

Sorry for the super-late entry today. This is, well, 8-bit Christmas music and it is spectacular. I've always believed we needed to spit Christmas music out of my NES to really usher in the holiday season. Wish granted.

Here's "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" from the record:

Anyways, grab the album here or here.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Christmas Music That Doesn't Suck: Various Artists - A Boston Rock Christmas

A long out-of-print EP featuring some great early 80s Boston bands. Includes one of my personal favorites of early 80s hardcore: SSD. Hip Christmas has a nice review of the album here.

Here's SSD's "Jolly Old Saint Nick" from the record:

Anyways, grab the album here.