Thursday, December 8, 2016

Faked Out

What speaks to me about this tweet is how it takes the way we often describe the acts of people we consider to be between ignorant and completely insane and applies that to us as a nation. Sure, the "rifle-toting Americans" are the Army and Marines, but just as Edgar Welch is part of a larger community that suspects that Mrs. Clinton was up to no good to the point that running a child sex slavery ring out of a pizzeria made sense to them, the Armed Forces of the United States are also part of a larger community that had bought into the idea that President Hussein of Iraq was cleverly stockpiling weapons of mass destruction that he'd managed to hid from feckless United Nations inspectors. Of course, the analogy is far from perfect, but it is useful in any event.

Because in hindsight, I think that to people of the region, the United States does come across as something between ignorant and completely insane. It's been a decade and a half since the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, and far from standing up stable (let alone Western-style democratic) governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, we've managed to leave both nations in shambles, even as we spend trillions of dollars that many people concede could have been better spent - even if the reality is that we likely simply wouldn't have spent the money at all.

"Fake news" as the term is commonly bandied about today, operates on a very simple model - it tells an audience that their subjective perception of the world around them is accurate - and it uses that to sell them on the "facts" that it presents, rather than presenting genuine facts, and allowing perceptions of the world to flow from that. It's convincing because that's often how we judge the world. And for all that we tend to label that "closed mindedness," it makes sense. Otherwise, we would have to independently judge the veracity of every statement someone told us. Sure, Seattle winters are rarely as cold and snowy at other areas of the country that are as far North, but were you tell someone that it would be 80 degrees on Christmas day, most people who'd lived here any length of time would suspect a falsehood. By the same token a confident prediction that it would be dreary, gray, drizzly and 45 degrees would likely be taken at face value. The assumption would be that you picked it up from the Weather Service, or a meteorologist, because it makes perfect sense. Likewise, tell Seattle's famously (or infamously) liberal population that the disruption of a Bernie Sanders rally in the city had been perpetrated by Republican plants or the Hillary Clinton campaign, and you'd have some takers.

We're not immune to being deceived by people who tell us things that we want to be true, because they prove our perceptiveness and sensitivity, either as individuals, as political factions or as a nation. And the idea of weapons of mass destruction backed up what some of us wanted to believe - namely that the ideology that lead to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was widespread enough that nation-states were conspiring against us. Not because it made geopolitical or geoeconomic sense for them, but because we were Doing It Right, and that was unacceptable to them. To buy into the idea that "they hate our freedoms" one has to buy into the idea that our freedoms are both enviable and, to some, unobtainable. The idea that the Hussein administration wanted to use nuclear, biological or chemical weapons against us for refusing to surrender our exceptional qualities bolstered what people wanted to think they knew - that "here" was better than "there."

And when the weapons of mass destruction turned out not to be there, we didn't reexamine our assumptions, because in the end, we didn't have to. We simply decided that a war-mongering government snookered us all, and that was the end of it. People outside of the United States may have considered our culpability as a society, but we, generally speaking, did not.

The tweet at the top of this post judges us in the way we judge others, and I think that it realizes that it won't do any good in the end. Still, I appreciate the gesture. It never hurts to have someone hold up a mirror for you from time to time.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Split

Despite the hit to credibility that polling has taken in the past couple of months, the art form survives and pollsters are still phoning people and asking them random questions. One such enterprise is the Allstate|Atlantic Media Heartland Monitor Poll XXVII (the Roman numerals add a touch of gravitas, I suppose) which was last run on the 16th of November.

The Atlantic has posted an article on the poll, and this stood out for me: "Likewise, the share of adults who say [Donald Trump] will govern in a way 'that reflects bias against certain groups in society' is nearly as large as the percentage that says he 'will try to govern as the president of all Americans,' the poll found." What piqued my attention was the fact that one said "will" and the other said "will try." It struck me as an odd way to parse things, so I looked up the survey itself, and tracked down the question.

26. As you look forward to the next four years, which statement best reflects your view?

President-elect Government Style
Donald Trump will try to govern as the President of all Americans.
Donald Trump will govern in a way that reflects bias against certain groups in society.
There was a part of me that immediately wisecracked, "Do or do not - there is no try," but the difference in choices here is an interesting one. For starters, the two answers are not mutually exclusive - you could easily imagine someone believing that President-Elect Trump will try, and fail to govern as a President for all Americans and end up governing in a way that reflects biases against certain demographics.

Personally, I suspect that President-elect Trump won't turn out to be a President for all Americans, whether he wishes to or not (which is debatable), mainly because the people who voted for him likely don't sincerely want that outcome. America politics has become both tribal and moralistic, and the intersection of those two is often vindictiveness. Generally, what is required for an administration to server all Americans equally is its supporters being willing to hold it accountable for doing so, even if it means leaving some of the spoils of war on the table to shared with the vanquished. The past Bush and Obama administrations, however, haven't exactly seen the party in power being expected to share and share alike. And its unlikely that people who supported a Trump administration will be any less invested in seeing the other side get theirs.

And this may be part of the driving force behind posing the question in a way that gives President-elect Trump points for trying, but doesn't necessarily expect him to succeed. Trump supporters were willing to make excuses for him during the campaign, even when they were the ones on the receiving end of what one might term "bias against certain groups in society," on part of candidate Trump, his staff and his supporters, and it's unlikely they they'll be willing to raise their expectations of him once he's actually in office. By the same token, it's unlikely that many people who didn't support him will expect him to make a genuine effort, let alone manage to be even-handed. While Presidents Bush and Obama were often considered to be openly partisan, neither of them showed the sort of willingness to directly go after people who challenged them in the way that Trump has with Boeing, to name an example.

A house that's willfully divided against itself cannot be forcibly unified, and as Democrats and Republicans have come, more and more, to view the other side as intentionally un-American to the point of being evil, unity of purpose has become less and less plausible. Only serious external threats have shown any ability to quell the bickering between the sides, and while a Trump administration may find it worthwhile to pick a fight with someone that ends in a shooting war, it's unlikely that his political opponents will view that as a reason to set aside their differences with him and rally around the flag.

In the end, Trump is, regardless of his intent or the effort that he puts into it, going to be a President for everyone. There simple doesn't seem to be enough support for it at this point. And I would be unsurprised to find the both sides are already pointing the finger for the failure. Sometimes, low expectations are the result of simply not thinking someone capable. But sometimes, they're simply the natural result of understanding the world on lives in.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Gifted

Witness this sadistic, mean lady who acts embarrassed and horrified and withholds her affection when her fella yells that he loves her, but declares her love when he gives her stuff. She is not to be trusted.
The Car-Sized Bow And Other Gift-Giving Lies Pop Culture Told Me
I've always wondered about this aspect of commercials - and how basically shows people at their worst. I remember seeing the particular spot referenced by Ms. Holmes back in the day, and thinking that the woman was shallow, and the man was a complete idiot. Either that, or she was the best lay on three continents. Most jewelry commercials on television seem to follow this basic model - that a woman's affections are primarily correlated to the perceived amount of money her partner spends on adorning her. It's hard to see who this serves - with the possible exception of women whose affections are primarily correlated to the perceived amount of money her partner spends on adorning her - assuming of course, that such actually exist.

But with another Christmas season upon us, I've been thinking about how we've come to equate the value of gifts with the degree of someone's love. Although "It's the thought that counts," is a popular saying, we tend to reserve it as a cover for disappointment, or the sorts of odd items that one receives from children who have been pushed to show off their facility with handicrafts. As the sort of person who dearly loves to give gifts to people, I often find myself wondering if I'm attempting to buy the positive feelings of others or to act on my own. (One way that I've gotten around this is to give people gifts anonymously, when I can get away with it.) In the end, I tend to be poor at giving gifts because I'm not close enough to the people I give gifts to that I have a intuitive understanding of what the best gifts (things that they want, but wouldn't buy for themselves) are. And so for me, gifts always come with a certain amount of guilt, because I always end up feeling that I should have given more of my time, and less material, to the person in question.

I've never met anyone who behaves in the way that people on television often do, and so I often chalk up odd behaviors, like that shown in television jewelry commercials, to artistic license. I also tend to see them as mostly harmless. After all, given that I never seem to meet anyone who actually behaves that way, clearly the commercials aren't all that influential. I suspect that Ms. Holmes and I aren't the only ones who look at television and find ourselves wondering, "Who does that?"

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Known or Should Have Known

Back in the day, I came across an article on Slate, entitled "Rescuing Fly." It's the story of a dog rescue. And early in the story, we learn the following:
Evidently, the farmer didn't realize that border collies aren't born knowing how to herd; it requires long, painstaking training before they'll go whizzing around on command. Pressed for time and money, farmers have little patience for creatures that have to be fed but can't be sold. But having paid $200 for Fly, the farmer figured he could at least use her as a watchdog. So, day and night, rain or shine, heat or cold, the dog lived out her life attached to a tree, barking and circling some of the time, lying down and staring at the road the rest.

The neighbor, disturbed by the sight, had actually called the police. But tethering was not illegal, the cops said. She was fed; she wasn't beaten; there was no crime.
The solution: Wait for the farmer to leave, then steal the dog, and place her up for adoption. The farmer may have had his name added to "a secret Yahoo list that collects the names of dog abusers, so that rescue groups can avoid them as potential adopters." He was placed under surveillance, of a sort; people checked to see if he'd reported the dog missing, and when he hadn't, it was assumed that: "He seemed fine with the idea that she was gone, and he would never hear another word about her."

These actions were justified, because even though the author assumed that the farmer was simply ignorant about dogs, he was a "dog abuser" who didn't deserve to own an animal. People who, according to the article were willing to spend thousands of their own dollars to help dogs couldn't be bothered to spend $200 to buy the animal from the farmer; or even knock on his door to tell him how to better treat his animal, or offer to trade for a dog that better met his needs. His culpability was determined in absentia and animal rescuers swung into action, so that Mr. Katz could have a new dog.

Now, even though I first read (and essayed about) "Rescuing Fly" back in 2005, this tendency, to presume that people who do things that we find to be unacceptable are being willful about it, persists. I came across a blog posting today about a tabletop gaming project that didn't include any women in its list of writers. The author of the blog post noted that the person in charge of recruiting didn't make diversity a priority, that they didn't speak to enough women authors; that in the end, they weren't making the effort. But he doesn't suggest any names of people he world have added, he doesn't post the link to the company's calls for contributors. He simply determines the company's culpability and starts to criticize.

There is an assumption that I feel people make at times, and it works something like this: For a given situation, the "right thing" to do is not only self-evident, but it is utterly foolproof, to the degree that an unacceptable outcome is defacto proof of lack of appropriate effort. It's a sort of begging the question that presumes that the crime is the motive. And for all that I understand that, I think that we should be less willing to ditch the presumption of good intent.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Geek Lust

Now that geekery has become mainstream, geeks, no longer united by the disdain of society in general, have separated themselves into a bewildering array of different camps, some of which now seem to derive as much enjoyment from antagonizing each other as they do from their chosen hobbies. One particularly vocal subset of geekdom has devoted itself to crusading against the depictions of women in speculative fiction (including interactive fiction, such as games and the like; and simply artwork). And one of the new targets has become "boob armor." While a precise definition of boob armor is more or less non-existent, in general it refers to any personal body armor, worn by women, which is specifically shaped around a woman's breasts individually; although some usages appear to also take issue with more or less any armor that is shaped around the bust. While for some commentators, armor that appears to place more of an emphasis on sex appeal than protection is the target, for others, the whole concept is offensive, and needs to be stamped out.

Have fun storming the castle, gang!

Not that I think that the common use of women in speculative fiction as sex objects is at all helpful. Don't get me started on the shopworn trope, typified by Red Sonja, of "the Sexy Swordmaiden;" I'm trying to avoid going off on rants. But I think that seeking to eliminate particular depictions of women in specific media are unproductive, because that's not where the issue lies.

Boob armor is a symptom of 1) a marketing strategy that uses depictions of unlikely (although perhaps delusional is a better word) versions of the female form to draw in an overwhelmingly male demographic by appealing to a desirable (and of course, out of reach) fantasy life; and 2) the idea that most, if not all, of a woman's appeal resides in two glands (and perhaps some underlying fat) that rest on the wall of her chest. After all, we are talking about the "Tits" in "Tits and Ass." It's no coincidence that no matter how otherwise naked you depict a woman, certain parts of those two areas must be, ahem, "left to the imagination," unless you want it rated NC-17.

1) Is easily dealt with. It simply takes better material on the market. Generally speaking only pornography relies exclusively on sexuality as a marketing tool. More mainstream games, books, art, movies and other media typically are selling something else. They haul out the sex when they're either doing it poorly, or aren't sure that they can break through the clutter to make a big enough splash. If we presume, for the moment, that an original video game with decent gameplay and an engaging storyline doesn't need to fall back on T&A to the same degree as a lower-grade game, if at all, then the easiest was to push most of the openly exploitative stuff out of the market is to create more original, user-friendly and engaging video games. Will it keep people desperate to break into the industry from trying to drum up sales with naked sexuality? I suspect, after a while, that it will. After all, buggy whips are difficult to come by these days.

2) Is more pernicious, as it is a broader social issue. The sexualization and objectification of women in geek culture is a symptom the sexualization and objectification of women in the broader culture. I understand the idea of wanting geeks to be ahead of the curve on this one, as they often are in technology, but I don't know that the society as a whole is taking its cues from geek culture

"Sex sells," we hear over and over again. Which is true. Sex, however, isn't the only thing that sells. But if you're otherwise peddling crap, it doesn't hurt to have it as a fallback position. And to me, that's a side effect of the vaguely puritanical society that we live in. I can create a television show aimed at second-graders and load it up with all sorts of "fantasy violence," but I have to avoid open sexuality. Of course the issue isn't simply limited to children's programming because our attitudes around sexuality isn't limited simply to children. While it's often said that men are "programmed" to want sex, it's just as easy to say that men are expected, if not socially obligated, to want sex. I still remember discussions with peers where I found myself needing to defend a disinterest in someone I was "supposed" to want to go to bed with. Couple this with a standard of feminine beauty that seems to rely almost entirely on a combination of unlikely genetics, photomanipulation and outright delusion, and you have a recipe for dysfunctional attitudes towards sexuality. And we haven't even started on the infamous stereotype of the geek's discomfort around women.

In the end, geeky discussions of the portrayals of women in speculative fiction are going to have to be folded into the mainstream discussion of the roles of women in media and the purposes of various media forms, given that this isn't a geek thing. It's unlikely that geekdom will ever shed its reputation for sexism. But it may be able to compartmentalize it.