Neo-Tokyo is about to extrude

Adventures in 3D Printing tokens for the game Godzilla: Tokyo Clash

Two unexpected side-effects of this extended shelter-in-place order: there’s more time for playing board games, and 3D printing is more practical since I’ve been at home to keep an eye long-running prints. Taken together, it’s been the perfect opportunity for a project to re-learn Blender and get more experience with 3D printing. (Which up until now, has seemed like more of a time investment than it was worth, unless it was for a very special project).

One pleasant surprise of the past couple of months has been discovering the game Godzilla: Tokyo Clash, published by Funko and designed by Prospero Hall. We first heard about it via a Watch It Played video, and before we even got to the ending, we’d already decided it was a must-buy. After some initial confusion over the rules — almost entirely the result of my assuming the game was more complicated than it actually is — we were able to enjoy it as a light-to-medium-weight beat-em-up game of kaiju flinging tanks and buildings into each other, and flinging each other into buildings. Giving each kaiju a mostly-individualized deck of cards with special powers adds just enough complexity and varies the pacing. A game really does play out like the last 20 minutes of a Godzilla movie, with monsters maneuvering into place and then unleashing a barrage of wrestling moves combined with atomic breath and then clubbing their opponent with a train car.

(Incidentally: Prospero Hall has been killing it with board game designs lately. They’re a Seattle-based design house that seems to focus on making licensed games that don’t feel like uninspired cash grabs. Disney Villainous is more interesting than a Disney-licensed game needs to be, their Choose Your Own Adventure games are a nostalgic take on escape room games, and the result is a ton of light-to-medium-weight games that are mass market enough to sell at Target, but interesting enough to actually get more people into the hobby. Plus their graphic design is flawless throughout. Anybody still just publishing yet another re-skinned version of Clue or Monopoly should be embarrassed).

Tokyo Clash has a 1960s Japanese movie poster aesthetic that is just perfect, and it comes with detailed well-painted miniatures of the four playable kaiju. There are also some simple but well-themed miniatures for the “large buildings” you can fling your opponents into. However, the game uses cardboard tokens for everything else. They’re fine, but they kind of undercut the atmosphere of seeing these monsters marching around a city, tossing things at each other. I decided to use it as an excuse to re-re-re-learn Blender — every time I dive back into the software to model something, I forget everything about how to use it within a month — and make 3D-printed replacements.

Continue reading “Neo-Tokyo is about to extrude”

One Thing I Love About Hamilton

We’ve been hearing such effusive praise about Hamilton for so long that I’m not surprised by how much I enjoyed it. But I am surprised that the ending had me ugly-crying.

The title photo is of the Great Gasp ride visible over the entrance to Six Flags Over Georgia.

For years, I’ve been hearing about how Hamilton is a masterpiece of musical theater. I’ve never had the patience or money to get tickets for a live performance, so I’ve just had to listen to the soundtrack and take everybody else’s word for it. I thought the music was good but nothing exceptional enough to warrant such universal praise, so I figured that there must be something spectacular in the live production — maybe Hamilton dodges a falling chandelier like Phantom of the Opera, or the founding fathers form a roller-skating train like Starlight Express.

Like much of the rest of the country, I finally got to see the filmed version on Disney+, and I think now I finally understand what all the fuss is about. In my opinion, the brilliance of the show isn’t dependent on any big moment of spectacle — to be honest, I had it running in the background and was only halfway paying attention as I was doing something else, so I completely missed the time-rewinding during Angelica Schuyler’s song, and I only heard afterwards that it was one of the most breathtaking moments of the play. And even only giving it half my attention, I still loved it, so I’m expecting to love it even more when I finally get to watch it without distraction.

The brilliance of the show is that it’s two and a half hours showcasing one standout performance after another, and it’s all a celebration of intelligence, wit, diversity, integrity, ambition, and the American ideal. It’s hard to describe how nice it was on July 3, 2020 to be seeing a bunch of phenomenally talented people all getting together to celebrate intelligence and integrity and diversity. Even if it was a relic of the Obama administration.

Part of the reason it feels so relentlessly intelligent is because it’s packed with meaning — on top of all the wordplay itself, there are layers upon layers of things that the play is saying implicitly. One of the unexpected advantages to first seeing after everyone else in the world has spent five years obsessing over it: the internet is full of interpretations and lists and even — ugh — “explainers” pointing out details that a first-time viewer probably missed. The speed at which characters rhyme indicates their mental state or their self-confidence, and even the way that they move across the stage suggests their character. It’s daunting to think that not only does the play have more words than most in sheer number, but that every single one feels meticulously planned and placed.

And even the casual viewer can pick up on the most obvious things that the play says implicitly rather than explicitly. The casting itself is brilliant. It’s relatively easy to see why a Puerto Rican from New York City would choose to empathize with and emphasize Hamilton’s immigrant status. It’s significant to cast a black man as Thomas Jefferson. It’s significant to cast women of different races as the Schuyler sisters. It’s significant to show how women’s roles were prominent in Hamilton’s story, especially since our most popular stories about the founding of the USA usually act like women didn’t even exist apart from Betsy Ross, or an occasional nod to Dolly Madison.

I admit that when I first heard about the play, I thought that the casting was a good move, but effectively little more than a stunt, like gender-swapping roles in a well-known story, or setting Shakespeare in a different time period. But after seeing Hamilton, I realize I was completely wrong. It’s not the fiction of theater to show a diverse group of people active in the formation of the country; the fiction has been the centuries-long lie telling us that only white men were making a difference. I already knew that lines like “Immigrants, we get the job done” got applause in the play, but I feel like the stronger statement is made as soon as the actors walk on stage. It asserts that the history of America belongs to every American on that stage. Not just the white men who’ve traditionally dominated the story.

(If I were ever to write a “One Thing I Love About All Narrative Art,” it would be when an artist is able to use the format of the storytelling to deliver more of the story than is told explicitly. When changes in voice or pacing suggest greater narrative changes, or when assumptions made by the audience are subverted to make them nervous or uneasy. I love that stuff, and it gets my highest respect when I find it in any work, from Psycho to The Hunger Games novel).

So I love all those aspects of the play, but that’s not the “one thing” I’m focusing on here. All of the wit, and intelligence, and knowledge of the history of the nation and the history of theater, and multiple layers of meaning, would all make for a great thesis and likely a very entertaining play. What pushed Hamilton from “excellent” to “sublime” for me is the ending. I’d already been weepy for most of the last act of the play, with its concentration on death and the legacy we leave to others, but the last moment had me ugly-crying. It took me completely by surprise.

I didn’t expect to be surprised by Hamilton, any more than I was surprised by Titanic. Even people like me, who can never remember history classes, can remember the “Got Milk?” commercial. And even if you don’t have that context, Aaron Burr gives away the ending in the opening number, and the play foreshadows the duel twice. The final songs do recount what’s known about the characters from the historical record, but they’re not about that so much as about the play itself, and the reason it exists. (Which is why criticizing the play for historical “inaccuracies” misses the point entirely). It is explicitly about stories, how they’re told, and why they’re told. Stories about the “founding fathers” are deliberately made semi-mythical and removed from everyday life, to encourage patriotism and loyalty to the Constitution: the battles fought and the words written by these brave and god-like men must never be sullied or diminished by your shallow, modern concerns.

But Hamilton is encouraging a different kind of patriotism. It humanizes these historical figures, not for their benefit, but for ours. It says that these stories are our stories; they belong to every one of us as Americans. A lot of mostly white people have spent many, many years trying to spin history to suggest that a decidedly anti-monarchist revolution brought about its own type of monarchy. Through battles or writing, they earned a kind of divine right, and were gracious enough to allow everyone else — women and people of color, purely coincidentally — to enjoy the bounty of the country that they created. Hamilton asserts that these people aren’t so different from any of us, and we have the right — and responsibility — to choose our own fate just as much as they do.

And again, that would’ve made for a perfectly moving and satisfying ending to the musical, earning the kind of blurb that Disney+ uses (and which I genuinely love), “the story of America then, told by America now.” But then Eliza, who’s outlived everyone by decades, and who’s told all of their stories, and who’s made so many contributions of her own, finally reaches the end of her story, and her very last moment is to look to heaven, and gasp.

I’ve heard from family members about what they saw or heard during their loved ones’ final moments. I’ll never forget it; it brought a kind of hope and comfort and wonder to something that could otherwise be fearful or sad. The moment in Hamilton is ambiguous, but I read it as rapture — a person unprepared to suddenly be met with so much indescribable beauty. Again: cue the ugly crying.

I found out from a Wired interview with the cast, of all places, that the gasp is not even in the original play. That stunned me, because it seemed the key to the final act if not the entire play. The end of the play is largely about death, loss, grief, and running out of time. They’re ideas well-communicated, but also communicated in a surprisingly traditional way, for a musical that fearlessly combines so many different musical styles and clever wordplay. The song “Quiet Uptown” repeats “have pity” on the characters who are going through “unimaginable” grief, which are both distancing. They suggest sympathy instead of empathy.

But that final gasp shows shocking empathy. It’s humanizing to show that the figures credited with founding America all had their own failings and their own personal tragedies. But while we may not ever fight in a war, or get in a duel, or be betrayed, or lose a child, there’s one thing that every single one of us will go through; the ultimate thing that makes all of us human. After seeing the other characters spending their lives obsessing over their legacy and their places in history, Eliza’s final song transcends all of that. Her proudest achievement isn’t her “place in the narrative,” or a monument, but her work to help people. It has little to do with “history,” and everything to do with how we live in the present. What’s great about that moment is that you can interpret it however you want. My interpretation is that she’s rewarded, not for her role in Alexander Hamilton’s story, but for her own life well-lived.

Museum of the Weird

Reading Rolly Crump’s book convinced me I’ve been wrong about Disney’s tension between originality and familiarity.

I just finished reading It’s Kind of a Cute Story, a memoir from Rolly Crump about his career as an Imagineer and afterwards. Even though I’ve been trying to follow the history of the Disney parks and their creators for years, there were quite a few things I hadn’t known before. One was that Crump was straight-up jacked. More significantly, though, I learned about an aspect of working for Walt Disney the man that’s gotten lost among the decades and the huge volume of work generated by Disney the company: Disney the company has gotten a reputation for safe, predictable, homogeneity; but Walt Disney himself was often a champion of the original and the weird.

In retrospect, this should’ve been obvious to somebody with even a cursory knowledge of Walt Disney’s career. But all my experience with the parks, cartoons, and TV series happened after his death. And according to every account of the company’s history that I’ve seen, including a mention in Rolly Crump’s book and an episode of The Imagineering Story, the period after Walt’s death was filled with timidity and aversion to any risk. Ironically, by making “What Would Walt Do?” the question that drove every decision, they ended up doing the opposite of what Walt would probably have done.

Still, that shaped my perception of Walt Disney as a conservative above all else. It cemented the idea that everything had to be on model, everything had to fit into an easily recognizable “Disney Look,” and it all had to be accessible and easily digestible: the most cynical interpretation would be that he hired some of the finest artists in the world to create art for the lowest common denominator.

And what’s remarkable is how I kept that simplistic and condescending impression despite tons of evidence to the contrary. It’s weird that he had a friendship and collaboration with Salvador Dali. It’s weird to make an animated film that’s nothing but artistic (and sometimes abstract) interpretations of orchestral pieces. It’s weird to build a successor to a hugely successful theme park and decide to focus not on the theme park, but on an elaborate planned city. Long stretches of Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros are just weird. There are plenty of other examples, but I somehow ignored them and continued to think of Walt Disney as the genius at safe, family entertainment who occasionally had an aberrant weird idea.

So it was interesting to read Rolly Crump’s book and see him give Walt so much credit for some of his own best and most memorable work with Disney. Crump is one of the rare Imagineers who’s managed to have his own style and influence stand out as recognizable, since it’s only recently that the company has begun giving more credit to individual artists and engineers. Pretty much everything he had a hand in designing is part of my favorite Disney attractions — the clock outside Disneyland’s it’s a small world, the Haunted Mansion, the Enchanted Tiki Room, and The Land pavilion at Epcot. According to Crump’s own account, he was encouraged by Walt and chosen to bring his unique style to projects, despite not being the studio’s most traditionally skilled artist.

It seems so odd compared to the popular (and likely over-simplified) perception of how creative businesses work today. The stereotype is of the artist with a unique vision who somehow manages to make something new despite the people in charge, never because of them. To use an example from Disney animation: I’d always thought of Sleeping Beauty as a case of Eyvind Earle’s wonderful art and design work being constrained to fit into yet another princess movie, with mostly traditional Disney character design, right down to the prince who’s all but indistinguishable from the ones in Cinderella and Snow White.

But after hearing Rolly Crump’s description of how Walt Disney would think about projects, I think I may have had it completely reversed. Walt wanted to make use of the outstanding artwork of Eyvind Earle (and Marc Davis, and a ton of other legendary artists), and he recognized that a commercial, family-oriented production was the best way to make that financially possible. I’m so used to hearing about the tension between art and commerce as the broadest, most simplistic dichotomy — it’s even baked into the Disney “mythology” that insists that Walt was the creative one while Roy was the money guy. But that makes it sound as if Walt was perpetually in “Blue Sky mode,” which I suspect does a disservice to the actual extent of his genius. Walt wasn’t interested in taking weird and original stuff and sanitizing it, sanding off all the rough edges to make it something safe and homogenous; he recognized that safe, homogenous, and predictable sold really, really well to a global audience. Making Sleeping Beauty meant that the entire world would get to see Earle’s beautiful work. Building a corporate-sponsored pavilion at the World’s Fair meant that millions of people would get to see Rolly Crump’s kinetic sculpture.

I realize that that’s probably just as over-simplified take as the opposite, and that there was likely as much commerce as art involved in every decision. But as a lifelong Disney fan who’s still well aware that “the Disney version” almost always has a negative connotation, I like reminding myself that originality and weirdness are an essential part of the company’s creative history, and not just one-off exceptions. And I like seeing more of that looser, freer originality making it out to the public. There’s more experimentation with art styles and character designs — the current Mickey Mouse shorts are brilliant, and I love that their place has been cemented in Disney history with a dark ride in that style. The new look of Duck Tales, weird and off-model concept art from the Toy Story movies, the varied and experimental art and animation styles in the shorts (and even occasionally the features, like Wreck-it Ralph), are all signs that creativity, originality, and weirdness can be profitable.

A More Perfect Union

Rejecting the idea that America is nothing worth celebrating right now.

I barely remember 1976, but whenever I do try to bring up a memory, it’s invariably dominated by some version of the American flag. On a button, on a patch, on clothing, in fireworks, on a parade float, in bunting hung all around town, in every advertisement, on every TV commercial. I wonder if people born after the bicentennial are really able to appreciate how the entire United States seemed to be obsessed with displays of patriotism.

Especially since for the rest of my life since then, patriotism has been decidedly out of fashion. For about as long as I can remember, and certainly for as long as I’ve been living in Northern California, I’ve been surrounded by people rejecting Independence Day — if not the entire notion of America — as simple-minded jingoism at best, a cruel lie at worst. This year in particular, I’ve seen so many comments saying that the 4th is nothing to celebrate, America is a failure and an embarrassment, we’re all doomed, etc, that I’d almost think I’d woken up in Iran.

But you know, fair enough. The USA is in a sorry state right now, what with a bunch of people giving the office of President to one of the worst people on the planet, and then spending years letting that racist moron and his moronic followers all set the tone of our national conversations to the point where we act like we actually have to defend the most basic of truths and our most basic decency. On top of that, we’ve got a lot of people who’ve spent the last few years wishing we could have Obama back to fix everything, having to come to terms with the fact that they’ve spent a couple of hundred years hitting the snooze button on meaningfully addressing the country’s history of systemic racism. It seems like a bad time to be shouting that America is a perfect shining beacon of liberty.

And really, there are few things as quintessentially American as saying “America sucks.” Dissatisfaction and revolution are what started the USA in the first place, after all. The part that seems to be a more recent development — at least “recent” in terms of my own lifetime — is the desire to just shrug and let it lie there. To interpret it as “America sucks, because America has always sucked,” instead of “America sucks right now, but we can be so much better.”

When I was a teenager, at the start of the Reagan era, a bunch of opportunists decided to waste everybody’s time for a couple of decades by inventing a twisted bizarro version of America and insisting that it was the proper one. One of the most prominent sentiments from that was “Love it or leave it!” which is, obviously, anti-American by definition — the entire philosophy of America is the idea “Love it or change it.” But for some reason, back when hypocrites like the “Moral Majority” and trash like Newt Gingrich declared that they were the true keepers of the American Ideal, everybody just kind of shrugged and rolled their eyes. We let a bunch of fools and garbage people decide what it means to be “American” in the public consciousness. Instead of just rejecting them, we decided to reject the whole notion of American patriotism. Maybe since it was the late 80s and early 90s, we felt like it was more fun to mock people than actually making an effort to stand up for something?

Whatever the reason, it’s left us at what I pray is the final death rattle of the Reagan era, surrounded by people who’ve taken that cartoonish version of American exceptionalism to its grossest extreme. It would be pitiful, seeing Sarah Palin or Tucker Carlson or Laura Ingraham or Donald Trump struggling to form coherent sentences out of the last 40 years worth of insipid GOP catch-phrases to defend things like systemic racism, police brutality, or the violent murder of school children. But I feel no sympathy for them, since they chose to reject the light, and they each deserve whatever is coming to them. The people that I do worry about, and I do sympathize with, are the well-intentioned people who let these hollow, evil, shells of human beings set the terms of what they stand for and what they stand against.

When I was writing about Splash Mountain and growing up in Georgia, I talked about the false version of “the South” that everyone grew up just taking for granted. I don’t think I sufficiently described why it made me so sad, though. It’s a feeling of being unmoored, as if having my history taken from me. Knowing that it was a false history doesn’t help that much. So I can easily sympathize with the people who feel a bit of panic at seeing Confederate statues being taken down, even if they know intellectually that that panic makes no sense. In my case, part of it comes from remembering how I consciously tried to get rid of my southern accent, because I didn’t want to be associated with the popular conception of southerners as under-educated, racist, rednecks. Now I don’t sound — or feel — like I come from anywhere in particular. Instead of just rejecting all the things that white supremacists and anti-intellectuals stand for, I let them co-opt “the South” and let them decide what it is to be from there. I thought I was rejecting them, when I was actually just giving up and letting them steal my home from me.

Obviously, I don’t have any patience or sympathy for the type of people who yell that America is the greatest country in the world while refusing to take any actual responsibility for living up to its ideals and making it great. But at the same time, I don’t have any patience for the people who just want to mope and declare “America’s not worth celebrating this year” and then leave it at that. I mean, protest all you want, but at the same time: bitch, get over yourself. Pretty much everything that’s wrong with America this year was wrong last year and the 200+ years before that. Just because you’re only just now finding out about the evils of capitalism doesn’t mean you get to lecture the rest of us who want to eat a hot dog and watch fireworks. Great people living in America have spent centuries accomplishing amazing things in spite of the systemic racism, sexism, xenophobia, and injustice towards native people. It’s astoundingly shitty — not to mention disrespectful to the people who’ve worked hard to make things better — to just throw up your hands and cede the country to a bunch of racist assholes. Especially since the only way those assholes seem to be “winning” is because they found a way to exploit our own apathy and complacency.

And for that matter: it’s been disappointing to see grown-ass adults throwing tantrums when their preferred presidential candidate didn’t get the nomination. I was extremely disappointed when Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the race, but there’s one thing I noticed: she got over it. And she got right back to work. A lot of people seem to think that the political process ends with the election of a President, which makes me wonder if a lot of people were paying attention in middle school Civics class. There’s this idea that we’re entitled to a President that satisfies every one of our demands, and that the process of finding one person to represent the needs of over 300 million people shouldn’t require compromise. That’s not just unrealistic; it’s downright stupid. Electing a President is the start of the process, not the end. They set the course for the administration, but it’s up to the rest of us to do what we can to make things better for everyone.

I really like the phrase “a more perfect Union.” Taken out of context, it implies a relentless pursuit of self-improvement: no matter how perfect things seem now, they can always be more perfect. I know that the 4th is ostensibly to celebrate the Declaration of Independence, but I’ve always been more a fan of the Constitution, anyway. Besides, stating definitively what you intend to do, and then spending a decade figuring out a plan to actually achieve it is another one of those things that feels quintessentially American. And that’s not some lazily cynical criticism, either; it’s praise. America is more than just a declaration or a list of ideals; it’s an ongoing process.

Maybe it’s the fault of the historians who insist on referring to America as a “grand experiment.” The intention was to remind us that the liberties we enjoy aren’t guaranteed, and that they’re by no means permanent or protected from collapse. But calling it an “experiment” implies a passivity that’s deadly for a democracy. It implies that we should wait and see what happens, instead of working to make it happen ourselves.

I’ve seen the suggestion that the Declaration of Independence is a sham and a lie, because it claims that all men are created equal, but was written and signed by slave owners and rapists, for the purpose of keeping for themselves land that had been stolen from Native Americans. But I don’t see what we accomplish by rejecting the idea as a lie or a failure, instead of seeing it as an aspirational ideal that we’re still, over two centuries later, working to achieve. It’s better to learn from history instead of just assigning a thumbs-up or thumbs-down review to it. And it’s no more accurate to ignore all the positive things a human accomplished than it is to ignore the negatives and present them as flawless paragons of humanity. You might as well say that Benjamin Franklin made all his contributions via a friendly mouse.

I’ve also seen the suggestion that rejecting the American right wing’s version of American exceptionalism requires us to admit that America isn’t at all exceptional. After all, there are plenty of other democracies around the world, plenty of strong economies, plenty of countries that promise the blessings of liberty to their citizens, and plenty of countries with a higher standard of living than ours. All of that’s true, but there is one thing that makes the USA exceptional, and that’s part of what we celebrate on the 4th of July. America is the only nation I can think of that is defined by its ideals instead of by its geography or by its ethnicity. That’s pretty remarkable, because it means that none of us are just working off a vague feeling of what the country means to us; we’ve got an actual template that we should be working towards. One of those ideals is that we’re a nation of immigrants. So if some asshole tries to run for President on a platform of fearing, persecuting, and driving away immigrants, we should all have enough damn sense to recognize that as inherently un-American.

And it means that they’re ideals that we shouldn’t dismiss as nothing more than an accident of our birth. When I see someone going on Facebook and saying that “they’re not feeling the fourth of July this year,” I think about the hundreds of people who’ve subjected themselves to cruelty and indignity to give their families the chance at the life that could be so carelessly taken for granted by someone else. And when we call for social justice, we’re not calling for constant struggle, but for a world in which no one has to struggle for the same things that we take for granted. And where we don’t have to see someone being murdered by the police turned into just another one of your callously insipid memes.

So if I’m this grumpy and sick of seeing such performative cynicism playing out throughout the country, I can’t even imagine how frustrating it must be for the people who’ve worked so much harder than I have to make the USA a place that lives up to its ideals. I imagine it requires a level of sympathy that I lack. I so often find myself saying, “If you really don’t have the hope that we can improve, then why are you still inserting yourself into the conversation? Step aside, shut the hell up, and make room for the people who actually want to make a difference.”

We need to have an America that’s defined by the best of its people instead of the worst. We need to acknowledge that optimism and positivity may be corny, but that doesn’t mean that it’s any less realistic or inauthentic than relentless negativity. We need to stop dismissing the aspiration to improve ourselves as being a worthless endeavor simply because we haven’t achieved it yet.

America is joining a gym membership on January 1st, even while people tell you that you’ll just give up and it’s a waste of money. America is buying an acoustic guitar and pledging to learn how to play it, even though you’ve got an assortment of musical instruments lying around the house that you were never able to learn. America is trying to learn a second language just for the sake of learning it, even though people tell you it’s too hard. America is always working to become the most perfect version of yourself, rejecting anyone who tries to control you via fear or via misplaced nostalgia, but also rejecting anyone who tries to ruin you with despair.

I hope that this year brings change, and next year is one that we can all feel less conflicted about celebrating. But we can’t just fall back into our old patterns of complacency, looking for quick fixes from the government, or easy-to-identify villains to whom we can administer the sickest of burns and most devastating owns, as a substitute for actual civic engagement. Any of us who are embarrassed to be American need to snap out of it and recognize it’s our responsibility to make America a place where intelligence, integrity, decency, and mutual respect are honored. It’s up to us to define what America is, and we shouldn’t trust the definition to a bunch of idiots and self-interested maniacs. It’s up to us to appreciate dissent and uncertainty and realize that it’s all part of the effort to turn America into the place it’s always aspired to be.

Everything is Counterfactual

Changes to Splash Mountain reveal how a Disney-loving southern boy came to have false memories of his childhood

Yesterday, Disney announced that they were going to re-theme the Splash Mountain ride to The Princess and the Frog instead of Song of the South. Nobody can honestly claim that the announcement is all that surprising, but to hear it in 2020 still makes me profoundly sad.

To be clear: it’s undeniably a positive move in the long run. The Princess and the Frog is an excellent movie that pays homage to the entire history of Disney animation. It’s better representation for a ton of children who haven’t seen enough characters like them. It’s better business for Disney to have marketing tie-ins with a property they can actually continue selling. If I were any other adult Disney fan, I’d only have two complaints: First, that the movie, and the character of Tiana in particular, could be better served by a new dedicated attraction instead of a re-skin of an existing one. (But it sounds like this is set after the movie, which is a good sign that it’ll be more a continuation of the characters, like Mission Breakout, and less a pleasant-but-decade-too-late retelling of the story, like Voyage of the Little Mermaid). My second complaint is that I don’t really like any of the songs from the movie. Even the strongest, “Dig a Little Deeper,” is nowhere near the memorable classics that “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah” and “How Do You Do?” are.

But this post isn’t me writing as an adult Disney fan. This is me writing as a guy who grew up in Georgia in the early 1970s, and who has a ton of early-childhood memories associated with the animated sections of Song of the South. Those characters are my earliest memories of Disney movies. (Along with the Chip and Dale or Humphrey Bear shorts that were shown at Fort Wilderness). The beginning of “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah,” with Uncle Remus walking through a field that turns into a cartoon, birds flying all around him, Mr Bluebird landing on his shoulder, was the quintessential Disney image for my childhood. (At least until The Rescuers and Pete’s Dragon came along). And those memories are all tangled together with my “sense memories” of the Tales from the Okefenokee ride at Six Flags over Georgia — I don’t actually remember specifics except for a scary dark drop, and a character warning “Don’t go into the swamp!”

Because it reminds me so much of my early childhood, it can’t not remind me of my mother. When I was young and she was mock-scolding me or my brother, she’d imitate Brer Bear saying “I’m gonna knock your head clean off!” When I was a little older, she taught me about Joel Chandler Harris and The Wren’s Nest, since she was so interested in the history of Georgia and Atlanta in particular. It always comes across as condescending to say that “things were simpler then,” but I can honestly say that in the 80s, I never got any sense of “appropriation.” It just felt like an attempt to preserve the folklore of my home state.

So for years, riding Splash Mountain has brought back very special and very specific memories. It felt as if they’d already found a way to save just the good parts and present it divorced from anything negative. The thought of having to get rid of Brer Bear and Brer Rabbit and the singing possums feels like having to destroy part of my childhood.

Good riddance to Song of the South, though. We shouldn’t entertain the idea that it’s ever been a good movie. No doubt the message boards are already full of people making the predictably tired complaints — “it’s political correctness gone mad!” ad nauseam. But the movie on the whole is not a cherished classic, and it’s definitely not a new phenomenon to recognize that. Even in the 40s, people recognized it was, to put it mildly, “problematic.”

But I do have to wonder how many people have strong opinions of it despite never having seen it, or based on faulty memories of it. Even my own memories of it were selective. It’s been unavailable for so long that the first time I saw it as an adult was around 2000, and even then only as a bootleg recorded from a Japanese laser disc. It was almost nothing like I remembered it. For one thing, I’d forgotten almost all of the live action parts, which actually make up the majority of the movie. And I must’ve forgotten how much I disliked the main character, because I felt an instant, almost irrational hatred of him and his little velvet suit and with its lace collar and his tendency to cry about absolutely everything. Even as a somewhat delicate and precious white boy myself, I must’ve been able to recognize him as the personification of white male fragility.

I’ve seen people describe Song of the South as “shockingly” racist, but I’d disagree — I reserve that for stuff like the crows in Dumbo, or the maid in Tom & Jerry cartoons, or all the cringingly awful moments in Warner Bros and Disney shorts where a character converts to blackface after an explosion. Song of the South’s “tar baby” would qualify, which is why it was replaced in the Splash Mountain ride with Brer Rabbit getting caught in honey from a bee’s nest. (I’d personally never heard that used as a slur, so I imagine it was already outdated by the 1970s). And Brer Fox’s voice work could be interpreted as a racist caricature in the 21st century, but unlike some of the most egregious examples in the history of animation, it sounds to me more like a genuine attempt to capture a dialect.

But if it were just individual cases of insensitivity, or dated references, or tone-deaf attempts at “humor,” those could’ve been explained a way with a disclaimer, and the movie could’ve been kept in the library. The problem with Song of the South is that it’s not so blatantly, overtly racist. Instead, it’s inherently, inescapably rooted in white supremacy. It presents a fantasy version of the Reconstruction in which slavery seems to have been nothing more than a bureaucratic oversight — and now that it’s been fixed, everybody has gone back to their pre-war roles in which black people and white people all happily work together, all for the benefit of white people. That can’t be dismissed away as a relic of the past, since it’s a lie we’re still being sold, almost eighty years later. We’re still saddled with this idea that we should close our eyes and wish for a “post-racial” society, and that’s all that’s required to make everybody free and equal. “I don’t see race.” “All lives matter.”

The other big lie of Song of the South is that the fantasy world it presents is the essence of “The South.” It’s all white plantation houses with all white people in elaborate suits and dresses lounging around complaining about the heat, while poor but honest, magical black people use their gifts of storytelling to make white people feel better. Americans have had centuries to come up with an image to represent the south, and over and over and over again, they’ve chosen one rooted in segregation and treason. For my entire life, I’ve seen people trying to present tortured justifications for the Confederate flag or Confederate memorials as if they were symbols of our “heritage” instead of symbols of racism. Of course it’s bullshit, but I can’t put the blame entirely on them — for generations, they’ve been told that this shallow, segregated fantasy was their entire identity.

I’m part of a generation of southern white men who were born over a century after the Civil War, but we’ve still spent our entire lives being saddled with a white-washed, propagandized version of it as our only “legacy.” Lately I’ve been seeing odious videos on YouTube from New Yorker-turned-country-boy-impressionist John Schneider, talking about filming The Dukes of Hazzard (in my hometown!) while just asking some casual questions to give you something to think about, like was the show really all that racist? Did people intend it to be racist in the late 1970s to make a shamefully faux-populist TV show about a car with the Confederate Flag painted on the top and named after a Confederate general? And while he’s at it, what is all this “division” getting us, anyway? Aren’t things just fine without a bunch of rabble-rousers stirring them up? I’d bet that Schneider’s main incentive these days is to help pay off his alimony, but the sentiment is the same today as it was in 2000, as it was in the 1970s, as it was in the 1950s, as it was in the 1930s, as it was in the 1900s, as it was in the 1880s — to keep the right kind of white people in power, by convincing other white people that racism and rebellion are the bedrock of their culture. We can mock the people getting upset at seeing Confederate statues torn down, and many of them are stubborn fools if not outright racists. But they’ve also spent their entire lives being lied to, told that the only connection they have to a larger history is one failed insurrection.

And even though southerners have been practicing racism for so long that they’ve gotten to be experts at it, it’s by no means a purely southern phenomenon, even though it’s the one that’s sold as an essential part of their identity. I’ve said before that I grew up trying to get rid of my accent and any affiliation with being a “redneck,” and then as an adult moved to Marin County, the most segregated place I’d seen in my entire lifetime. In fact, I’d say that the newly-energized civil rights movement of the past 5-10 years has been the result of America spending a century and a half telling themselves that their problems with racism were all safely sequestered in one corner of the country. After all, Song of the South wasn’t intended to play just in the southeast, and The Dukes of Hazzard wasn’t only a hit in Georgia. Tell people that systemic racism is a uniquely southern thing, and they can “not my problem” it out of existence, convincing themselves that all the incidents they see across the country are weird one-off aberrations, instead of signs of a deeper problem.

The Princess and the Frog is, obviously, another fantasy presenting a “South” that never actually existed. But it’s the kind of fantasy that I’d rather see being perpetuated for another century or two. It’s got actual magical black people, and it has wealthy whites and working-class blacks living together in harmony, and it’s likely taken all kinds of liberties with actual religions with its mishmash of generalized Disney-esque magic and voodoo. But much like the real New Orleans, there’s more a sense of a mixture of races, cultures, and religions, instead of a fixed and segregated social structure. One of the most subtly clever things about the movie is that it takes a very European fairy tale and “appropriates” it for Disney’s first African-American princess story. It’s a synthesis of all its disparate influences, which builds on its past, instead of being beholden to it.

So it’s ultimately a positive move, especially since as an attraction re-design, it’s being creatively led by black women. If we want to believe that we are getting better painfully slowly, instead of just repeating the same cycles over and over again, that’s a sign of progress. Kids being able to see themselves represented in movies and being inspired to make more stories to share with an even wider audience. No doubt there are plenty of cynical dismissals of it as nothing more than “optics” or public relations, but that’s missing the point entirely — when the issue is so closely tied to our perceptions of ourselves and each other, and what we’re all capable of, then showing audiences the right images is crucial. When the problem is representation and visibility, “optics” are important.

In any other year, I’d probably be better able to be excited about it and look forward to the changes. But this is 2020, a year filled with death and loss. It’s hard not to think of it in terms of loss. So many happy memories of my childhood, my formative Disney experiences, my mother’s love of history. Even a vague sense of southern identity that wasn’t completely ruined by the Confederacy. But ultimately, none of that is real — I shouldn’t overstate my love of Song of the South, since I never really liked the bulk of the movie and only actually remembered the “good parts.” There were plenty of Disney movies I liked better, and the source material was already a white man’s interpretation of African American folklore for white audiences. My mother’s interest in history was more about Native Americans, the founding of Savannah, and the histories of Atlanta and my hometown than some simplistic Gone With the Wind-inspired fantasy version. And my pleasant associations with the south aren’t the kind that can be co-opted and ruined by white supremacists: good food, cicadas, hot and humid summers with amazing clouds, people being polite to each other. In every case, the reality is so much more interesting than the over-simplified version.

Splash Mountain exposes the limitations of “The Disney Version,” trying to the best parts of something out of its original context and presenting a sanitized, family-friendly interpretation of it. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that — I don’t need The Little Mermaid to learn her lesson, and having been to the real Venice just made me better appreciate the one in Epcot. But whenever you remove the context and try to keep just the good parts, there’s always the risk that you’re left with something hollow. Like a ride from the 1980s based on a movie from the 1940s based on the works of a writer in the 1880s re-interpreting stories from the early 1800s. The core of the original stories, and especially the people telling them, was completely lost. The Princess and the Frog is a much more solid foundation for people to be building memories on.

Disney Blasphemy Featuring IPCOT

Second-guessing some truths that Disney fans hold to be self-evident.

This month I’m encouraging people to donate to and/or get involved with Black Girls CODE, an organization in the Bay Area working to encourage girls of color to become innovators and leaders in STEM fields.

I have to admit I can’t spend very much time on Disney parks-related forums or — even worse — Twitter, because I just don’t have the patience for it. I get all kinds of anxiety when I see adults screaming at each other over which is the most magical novelty popcorn bucket, or starting discussion threads to ask whether the parks are an insultingly hollow shadow of what they used to be, or if they’re just a disgraceful insult to everything that Walt stood for.

And it’s a shame, too, because I have irrationally strong opinions about the parks. If it sounds like I’m mocking the kind of person who goes online to scream about the evils of FastPass, I’m not, because I am that kind of person — we just differ in magnitude. They all seem to be operating at around 15, whereas I’m usually around 11 or 12.

But there are some things that all Disney fans, no matter how obsessive, can agree on… or can we?! There are some ideas that I’ve seen for years treated as just common knowledge among fans, but I disagree with, because I am a rebel and an iconoclast.

Horizons was just okay.

Yeah, I’m coming out guns blazing. Horizons is widely considered to be the best of original EPCOT Center, a masterpiece of “old-school” Imagineering, and the soul of Epcot’s Future World. I definitely don’t think it’s bad, but I’ve never understood the reverence for this attraction over, say, Journey Into Imagination or World of Motion, both of which blew my mind as a teenager.

As someone who went to EPCOT Center quite a few times in the early years, my main memory of Horizons was that it was never open. There seemed to be a ton of preview buzz around it, and it had the coolest park icon and a neat-looking building, so I was pretty excited. The “space” ending film is iconic, and I seem to remember seeing it before I was actually able to go on the ride, so I was already hyped for a senses-shattering simulator experience that probably wasn’t even possible in 1983. But I feel like at least a few years passed before I was finally at the park when it was open and not down for refurbishment.

I have to think that part of the reason I was underwhelmed by the attraction is because it always felt like a survey course in “Intro to Epcot Center Future World 101,” instead of a deep dive. I felt like I’d already seen everything from the ride, in one form or another, in Carousel of Progress, If You Had Wings, World of Motion, Listen to the Land, The Living Seas, Spaceship Earth, and Journey Into Imagination. It was like trying to get excited about the greatest hits album when you’re already at the concert.

The Adventurer’s Club was only really fun for people who love improv.

The Adventurer’s Club was another one of those things that I got hyped about for years before actually seeing it. My family weren’t enthusiastic about bars or nightclubs, so it wasn’t even really an option for me until I went back to Disney World as an adult, by myself. By that point, I believe I’d already heard rumors that it would be closing within a few years, so I went two nights in a row to make sure I got the full effect.

In terms of decoration and theming, it was outstanding, of course. You could try to describe it as “kind of like Trader Sam’s, if it were extended across multiple floors and multiple rooms and actually had enough seating,” which sounds perfect. And the idea of characters walking through the space, interacting with guests; and a drunken, possibly insane old adventurer puppet acting as host of the evening and leading everyone in a toast; and a room full of masks that talk to you and tell stories — it’s all wonderful in theory. But in practice, I’ve got to say that it was corny AF.

It’s here that I should talk about something that’s been a problem for me for as long as I’ve been going to Disney parks, which is literally my entire life. And that’s Improv People. I know many, many great people who love improv and find real joy in watching and/or performing it, and it genuinely makes me happy to see them enjoy it. But in general, people who love improv just cannot understand that not everyone enjoys improv. For some of us, it’s like torture.

When I’m in the audience and a joke bombs, it almost causes me physical pain. I can’t stand those moments of dead time and the look of manic desperation in a performer’s face when they’re trying to come up with the next thing to say. Even when it’s going well, I have the feeling of being trapped in a car going 150 miles an hour and knowing that it could crash and burn at any moment. If I could try to describe what watching, listening to, or ::shudder:: performing improv feels like to me: imagine you’re standing naked on a stage, with your arms tied behind your back, and a spotlight is shining directly on you. Right behind you, someone is standing with his mouth just a couple of inches away from your neck, and you can feel his hot, damp breath on the skin on the back of your neck and behind your ear, as he exhales, “hh-h-h-he-heh-heh-help me.”

People who work in themed entertainment and “immersive theater” tend to be unable to accept that not everyone loves improv as much as they do, so I tend to be put in situations where I’m dragged screaming out of my comfort zone. The Star Wars hotel has me torn between my lifelong love of Star Wars and my intense anxiety at the thought of being trapped in a two-day-long non-stop immersive theater performance. With the Adventurer’s Club, a can’t-fail theme and setting that might as well have been designed specifically for me, still weren’t quite enough to compensate for being surrounded by people who at any moment could assault me with family-friendly “yes, and…”s.

Also, the drinks weren’t any good.

The Grand Fiesta Tour is a criminally underrated delight.

When the Mexico pavilion opened at Epcot, there was a boat ride called El Rio del Tiempo. It used a lot of the same tricks of other modestly-budgeted rides of the time, and it was perfectly pleasant even if you weren’t quite sure whether the market vendor scene was really racist but suspected that it probably was.

With the Grand Fiesta Tour overhaul, it was improved ten thousand times. It added characters and music from The Three Caballeros, which is a no-brainer, and updated all the gags to feature Donald Duck instead of real human Mexican actors and dancers. Somehow, that makes it both more contemporary and also timeless.

I haven’t actually ever heard complaints about replacing the original — which is surprising, since every time they replace an original ride, they get complaints, even with a ride that no one actually liked unironically, like Maelstrom. But there’s rarely a wait for it, and people for the most part call it “cute” instead of acknowledging that it’s a must-see at Epcot.

I would rather ride a Guardians of the Galaxy roller coaster than an hour-long advertisement for fossil fuels.

When Disney at the D23 Expo last year announced that there was going to be a massive overhaul of Epcot’s Future World, my reaction was that I was surprised I wasn’t more upset about it. I’m as eager to throw a tantrum about Disney ruining my childhood as the next guy, but in this case the changes for Future World were at least 10 years overdue.

The big complaints I’ve seen are people calling it “IPCot,” for basing everything on Disney-owned intellectual property, instead of basing everything on original characters and concepts.

I want to be more sympathetic here, because most of my favorite Disney attractions are originals — Space Mountain, The Haunted Mansion, Expedition Everest, most of the original Future World. When Epcot first opened, Imagineering was pretty adamant about distinguishing it from the Magic Kingdom, which meant no attractions based on Disney movies and none of the familiar characters in the park. You eventually got Figment from Journey Into Imagination as your cartoon mascot, and you had to be satisfied with that.

Except guests weren’t really satisfied with that, and Epcot developed a reputation for being boring “edutainment” instead of a fun theme park. Even as someone who loved the original Epcot, I think fans (and some Imagineers) can be a little too precious about the “purity” of the experience; I don’t think it’s particularly shallow or dumbing things down if someone on their vacation would rather ride roller coasters than pay to hear corporations talking about the wonders of industrial agriculture or our not-at-all-worrisome dependence on fossil fuels.

Now, I’ve softened on this one a little bit. At first, I assumed that people complaining about trading corporate sponsorships for Moana and Guardians of the Galaxy themed attractions were just being unrealistically nostalgic. But I did see a friend explain his take: as a lover of World’s Fairs, he appreciated that Epcot uniquely had the feeling of a permanent World’s Fair. Part of that is the optimism of corporations working in the public interest; the presentations weren’t just crass advertisements, but sincere excitement over the things that could be made possible. I do like that idea, and I have to concede that these changes will leave Epcot feeling less like a unique place, and more like, say, California Adventure. Not so much of an overarching theme anymore, except “Disney also owns all of these properties, too.”

But I’m not completely sold on it. As a teenage insomniac who never missed Late Night, I idolized David Letterman. And I took his anti-corporate stick-it-to-The-Man schtick to heart (even though in retrospect, it’s almost offensively phony and insincere). So I think that the rotating screen display of the original Universe of Energy pre-show was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen, and the dinosaur section was such a fantastic homage to/extension of classic Disney and the Disneyland railroad, and the Ellen’s Energy Adventure version is still one of the cleverest and most charming ways of presenting educational material that I’ve ever seen. But it’s still an Exxon ad. Even with the best of intentions, Disney presenting pavilions dedicated to promoting Nestle, Kraft, General Electric, or Exxon in 2020 would just come across as really tone deaf.

Also, I think the Mission Breakout overhaul of the Tower of Terror in California Adventure is phenomenal. The original ride at Hollywood Studios is one of my favorite things that Disney’s ever done, so I’ll be complaining if they ever mess with that one. But the California redo is better in every possible way (except for the outside of the building, which is still weird). It’s relentlessly fun, a perfect use of the ride tech — since it was never really a “free fall” ride, this has it hover up and down at each scene — and feels like it should’ve been this way all along. Plus the details around the queue are fantastic, and the character shows with Peter Quill and Gamorra leading dance-offs outside the ride are fantastic. So Disney knows how to make Guardians of the Galaxy attractions, and a show-heavy spinning coaster can’t not be fun.

Besides, the lines are going to be so long after the parks open back up and the ride opens, it’ll be a few years before any of us get a chance to ride it anyway.

Epcot embracing its theme parkness isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I would like to see Journey Into Imagination redone in the spirit of the original. But Disney’s had a pretty strong run of movies for several years now, with more hits than misses. If it became a Zootopia pavilion or something, it’d be disappointing but still far from the worst thing to happen to that attraction.

Galaxy’s Edge is the right way to do Star Wars in a theme park

This isn’t that controversial, really, since people liked Galaxy’s Edge, and Rise of the Resistance seems to be universally loved. (Early noise about Galaxy’s Edge being a “failure” seems to be a combination of clickbait wanting Disney to fail, and judging it in comparison to unrealistically high expectations). There are two pretty consistent criticisms I’ve heard:

First, that there aren’t enough droids and aliens wandering around. I agree with that. It’s all done so well that it’s actually jarring to be reminded of what’s missing. It’s noticeable that the droids and ships are trapped behind fences. It seems like there need to be aliens in the cantina. Especially considering how the land is practically “defined” not by its rides but by the walk-around interactions, it seems like an especially good investment here than it would be elsewhere.

The second criticism I hear often is that they should’ve set the land during the time period of the original trilogy, and on a familiar planet like Tatooine. I don’t agree with that at all. I mean, if I were just being consistent, I’d say that Imagineering shouldn’t be so precious with its “world-building;” just like people in Epcot and Animal Kingdom wanted to see Mickey Mouse, people in Star Wars Land want to buy T-shirts that say “Star Wars” on them. But I honestly believe that this is one of the rare cases where the “normal people won’t notice it” level of detail is actually noticeable in the end product.

Star Wars hasn’t been a sustained hit over 50 years; it’s been a cycle of six or seven years of intense popularity followed by long stretches of not many people caring. The fandom is all over the place — the animated series, video games, comics, novels all have their own super-fans. Any attempt to recreate a fan-favorite location is automatically going to miss the mark for a ton of people, and it’s inevitably going to feel like trying to hit a moving target.

Creating a new location, and having it reference the existing ones, give it a much longer life and just make the universe feel like it has more potential. I can remember being a Star Wars-obsessed teenager watching Return of the Jedi the first time in 1983, and when the opening crawl said that they were going back to Tatooine and to the Death Star, it felt like such a cop-out. A galaxy that seemed infinitely expansive with limitless potential for stories now seemed comically tiny and unimaginative.

For me, “Batuu” has just the right amount of familiar details, while still feeling like it’s a new place where new stories can happen. It doesn’t need to look like Mos Espa, it just needs to look like Star Wars. That has a ton more potential, because it establishes that Star Wars isn’t any one particular existing “thing;” it’s more a style. I may not be able to define exactly what makes something “Star Wars,” but I know it when I see it.

ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter was irredeemably awful.

It was mean-spirited, humorless, and like so much of the 1990s, it was a desperate attempt to be “edgy” and “extreme.” It was completely tone deaf for the Magic Kingdom, and the attempt to “soften” it from being too scary just made it an attraction that was too scary and had a crappy, nasty opening that fried a cute animatronic for laughs. (Muppetvision 3D showed the right way to do that gag, several times over). It’s well known that it was originally intended to be an Alien-themed attraction, but it completely ignored that Alien had an actual hero in the form of Ripley. So it ended up just nihilistic and pointless.

Those were dark days, when Disney was trying to play to the lowest common denominator, making fun of the simplest and most obvious criticisms of Disney to make it seem like they were in on the joke. It seems like those days are gone, but I guess as the theme park industry stays competitive, there’s always the risk of falling back into bad habits. I hope Disney keeps thinking of sincerity, happiness, and a childish belief in “magic” as assets of the brand, instead of a liability.

Hail to the Chaff

It’s no exaggeration to say that Trump is a genuine threat to American democracy. But I think a lot of us are responding in the worst possible ways.

I recommend supporting Stacey Abrams’s Fair Fight organization, which is working to ensure “free, fair, and secure elections.”

I also recommend listening to the Majority 54 podcast hosted by Jason Kander, which is devoted to this topic and ways we can effectively engage with politics like responsible cooperative adults.

For as long as I knew her to be vocal about politics, my mother was a steadfast, Rachel Maddow-watching Democrat. Even as the rest of the state shifted from blue to red — or, if you include Atlanta, purple — she remained convinced that the Republicans were on the wrong side of most issues. And she was definitely not a fan, to put it mildly, of the fetid sack of garbage currently calling himself president of the United States. (My words, not hers).

But she was also adamant about one thing, which was that she refused to let someone that awful get in the way of what was important.

And that’s the idea I’ve been trying to keep forefront in my mind. As we see “politics” get more and more divisive; pundits continue to spew increasingly indecent nonsense; common-sense issues of basic human decency continue to be treated as if they were somehow controversial; online discourse filled with nonsensical noise and blatant lies; and political “leaders” continue to show themselves to be belligerent, shameless, and classless; it’s difficult not to feel like the country has been overrun with millions of degenerate people, every one of them complicit in selfishness and evil.

But I try to always ask myself: who’s profiting from my feeling isolated and angry? When I see people who’ve been treated far worse than I have still able to spread a message of unity and hope, what right do I have to feel despair? And ultimately: why would I allow people for whom I have absolutely no respect get in the way of my relationships with the people that I do respect?

It’s a quandary that a lot of people have been wrestling with over the last three years: the man who’s acting as president just straight-up sucks. It’s no secret. There’s no denying it. So how could so many people vote for him?

I mean, let’s just agree to stop humoring the idea that there’s still any question of whether he’s racist, misogynist trash. We knew he was in the 1980s. We knew it in 2015. It’s not as if there were any mystery before the election, so acting as if his behavior in office has been surprising is insultingly disingenuous. And now, any accusation of “he’s gone too far this time!” is nothing but performative nonsense, since he’d already done a dozen inexcusable things that should’ve made him unelectable long before he even became the nominee. It’s hard to believe that anyone is still wasting our time denying that he’s racist, considering he started his political “career” by accusing the first black President of not being born in the US. Nobody should act like we didn’t know he was trash, especially since he was caught on a live mic during a presidential campaign, bragging about sexual assault.

Still, people have spent the past three years trying furiously to normalize it. We’ve all heard various attempts to offer a rational explanation for something that should never have happened. For a while after the election, the media tried to convince us of the “economic anxiety” story — we were sold an image of strong, hard-working Americans in coal mining towns and farm towns throughout the heartland, who’d all spent years being ignored by Clinton-era elitist Democrats. The only problem was that these stories just didn’t hold up to the facts. The actual demographics of Republican voters didn’t have much in common in terms of economics, but a lot in common in terms of race. But it’s not tactful to just admit that millions of people voted for a racist piece of shit to be president of the United States, so we’ve been expected to pretend that it’s all reasonable and normal.

In the 10,000 years since January 2017, it’s been a never-ending cycle of the White House doing the stupidest, most corrupt, most irresponsible thing; pundits and Russian troll farms making increasingly batshit claims to defend it; news channels pushing click-baiting video clips with their pundit delivering some devastating take-down of someone who should never have been given a national audience in the first place; late night shows building a new industry of comedy-outrage, asking “can you believe what he did this time?!” as if any of us are still capable of surprise at this point; and the rest of us left wondering what happened to all the sane grown-ups in the country. And in my case, wanting to get some kind of justification from his enablers to explain why they chose to put us through all this.

But they just shake their heads and lament that “we’re more divided than ever,” even though they’re the ones who voted for someone who led racist pep rallies chanting about building a wall.

This week, after seeing the colossal, inexcusable failure of this despotic clown car of an “administration” in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and then the police brutality protests — protests not just in all 50 states but around the world — I think I’ve finally got a theory: this whole time, I’ve had it backwards. They don’t enable him; he enables them.

In case that seems shallow for a life-changing epiphany, hear me out. I feel like a lot of the assumptions I’ve been making over the past four years have been exactly backwards.

What prompted my “wait a minute… we’re in The Bad Place!” moment was seeing that in the middle of this complete vacuum of leadership during multiple crises, he’d ordered peaceful protestors to be tear gassed so he could stand in front of a church and wave a Bible around in front of a bunch of cameras. I was livid. Almost without thinking, I found myself back on Facebook, posting a link to it with my thoughts. I wanted to ask “can you believe this?!” I wanted to find someone who’d voted for him, and I wanted to rub their nose in this. After all, this had to be the turning point! How could anyone possibly see this and endorse it? How can anyone support this blasphemous perversion of everything Christ taught and still call themselves a Christian?

Keep in mind that this was after I’d already pledged about a dozen times over the years to stop giving him any attention. Stop fanning the flames and instead, help starve them of oxygen. Instead of indulging in more performative outrage, concentrate on doing something that will actually make a difference. I don’t know if the blatant pandering worked on his “base,” since even though I keep hearing about his “base,” I haven’t actually seen them in person. I have no idea how many of them there actually are. The only thing I know for sure is that it worked on one person: the guy who got so angry that he went on Facebook to complain about it.

I could’ve acknowledged that we’re at what feels like an unprecedented turning point in America, in which we finally recognize our responsibility to each other and begin making actual changes to dismantle centuries-old systems of white supremacy and unjust law enforcement. Instead, I chose to complain about the one person in the country least capable of and least willing to actually make a difference. As he threatened to send the military to attack American citizens, then ran to his bunker to hide, it was clear to everyone that there’s a leadership vacuum at the federal level. But really, it’s not simply a vacuum, but a black hole. It destroys everything it can, absorbing everyone’s hate and outrage and despair.

Now, people have been warning us constantly about the “distractions” of this administration. But it’s always taken a form like “While all of you were distracted by some outrageously offensive thing, what was really happening was some sinister new policy.” There are a few problems with that:

  1. It’s pompous and condescending. It’s almost as infantilizing as when liberals suggest that Trump voters were “tricked” into voting for a con artist. No, most of them were adults who knew what they were doing, and they should take responsibility for it.
  2. It ignores the fact that we can be upset about multiple things at once. A real President is more about policy but sets the tone for public discourse. So when this asshole goes around spreading conspiracy theories, making up stupid and/or racist nicknames for his opponents, and lying on the public record, that’s actually harmful and shouldn’t be dismissed as pure spectacle.
  3. It assumes an agenda that is far too competent to come out of this administration. Sometimes people talk as if Trump is secretly a mastermind for absorbing the attention of the media, but I’ve seen zero evidence that he has any actual skill or talent at anything at all.

Attributing any conscious motivation to Trump’s outrage-absorbing properties is a bit like, well, attributing a motivation to a virus. I’ve seen the suggestion that since Trump is too incompetent to be an actual leader, he’s more of a puppet figurehead for some Cheney-esque shadow government. Except puppet Presidents are supposed to be charming and not so blatantly awful; even George W Bush understood how to be civil. And puppet Presidents aren’t supposed to throw so many people under the bus before they’ve had the opportunity to profit from their corruption — poor James Mattis had to be complicit in the evil of this administration for three whole years, and now he’s got nothing to show for it except multiple book deals. If Trump were a construct of the right wing, he seems less like a puppet and more like ED-209.

As far as I can tell, no one actually likes Trump, and it’s mutual. Nobody supports his ideology because there really isn’t one other than trying to destroy as much of the progress of the Obama administration as possible. I suspect that the chaos is the whole point. Selfish and evil people can keep taking advantage of the system to do whatever they want to do, and as long as Trump is absorbing all of the attention and the outrage, they don’t have to worry about trying to keep it secret.

That’s what’s happening on a grand scale, and I think it’s happening on a personal scale as well: Somebody’s frustrated that people keep yelling at her for saying the wrong thing? Trump gives her a pass to complain about “political correctness.” Somebody’s frustrated that they pay taxes and never see visible results, and then they hear about bureaucratic waste? Trump gives them an excuse to assume that all taxes are wasteful, and so it’s not selfish to want to pay less. Somebody’s frustrated that politicians never seem to get anything done? Trump gives him an excuse to say the whole system is corrupt, so it’s not lazy to just throw up your hands, call yourself a “realist,” and say that nobody else genuinely wants to fix the system, either.

So when I start to wonder, “how could so many millions of people support Trump?” I have to remind myself “they don’t.” From what I’ve seen — and I’ll admit I could just have an extremely skewed and sheltered impression, but I doubt it’s that far off — very few real people are actually cheering on or even defending this guy. I don’t see millions of Americans rallying around a trusted leader; I see a bunch of people using a loud, attention-grabbing asshole as their own Portrait of Dorian Gray. He absorbs their flaws, so they don’t have to confront them. He’s not just the president for white supremacists and self-interested multi-millionaires; he’s also the president for the type of people who said just between you and me, don’t you think the Obamas seem a little preachy and full of themselves?

Maybe that’s an even more cynical take on the state of America, but it actually gives me a bit of optimism. For one thing, because it’s the first explanation that makes any sense to me. I tend to assume the best of people, but even so I think I can recognize the difference (eventually) between sincerely good people and rotten people who are just putting up appearances. And it’s never made sense to see people — who I know are good people — choose to support putting children in cages, or mocking disabled people, or disparaging women, or undermining the free press, or any of the other 10,000 inexcusable things this jackass and the rest of the national Republican party have done. I’m not going to be so condescending to say that they were “duped,” but I do believe that they mistakenly thought they were choosing the lesser of two evils and never believed that it could get that bad.

In other words: I can’t even imagine being a responsible adult in 2016 and choosing to vote for Trump. But what I can imagine is a couple decades without seeing much change in local politics despite Democrats or Republicans being in charge, or all the promises of “Hope” at the beginning of the Obama campaign turn into years of impasse and obstruction, and being convinced that federal politics just don’t matter all that much. And if the counter-argument is my liberal relative posting photos on Facebook comparing Trump to Hitler, I’m probably not going to be swayed by that. (Even if this is one of the rare cases where Godwin’s Law isn’t actually that much of an exaggeration).

The other reason it gives me hope is because I can see parallels in my own behavior. I’m so often tempted to use “Trump supporter” as a litmus test because it’s just simpler, faster, and easier than the alternative, which is waiting for them to actually cut through all the qualifiers and excuses and “I don’t defend Trump, but…”s and “I’m not racist, but…”s and actually explain their views. There are so many people who are just making noise, arguing nonsense as if it were a rational position, refusing to argue in good faith, and just wearing us down until we’re too exhausted to care anymore. We may think that it’s easy to spot troll posts or propaganda — and it often is — but it doesn’t need to be convincing on its own. It just needs to be loud and pervasive enough to wear us all down and make it difficult to distinguish signal from noise. So I want to have a shorthand to use, so I’m not caught wasting my time trying to engage with someone who just wants to waste my time.

If I can say “you might not be racist, but you’re complicit in racism,” and use that as grounds to cut somebody off, it’s a real time- and energy-saver. And to be clear: that is absolutely, 100%, a valid stance for some people to take. We’ve seen repeatedly how systemic racism is about more than just the overt white supremacists, but is perpetuated by people who prioritize their own needs and their own comfort over social justice. But we’ve also seen how social media — and especially attempts at activism via social media — will repeatedly show us the violent, unrepentant white supremacist, and the clueless or careless person caught saying something inappropriate in public, and present them to us as equivalent. Some people are just trash, and there’s no point wasting our time on them. But most people are pretty complex and generally try to do the right thing but inevitably screw it up sometimes. For whatever reason, social media hates that kind of ambiguity, and needs to have a shocking exposé that proves somebody was a latent asshole this entire time, we just knew it. Everybody’s got to draw their own lines, and I don’t know what the answer is. But I’m positive that false equivalencies and “cancel culture” isn’t it.

I should be clear that I’m not in any way trying to undermine or belittle the damage the Trump administration has caused to the country. To be clear: this has been, objectively, a disaster. And I genuinely believe that Trump being re-elected would mean an end to American democracy as I understand it — that’s not exaggeration. Even if you don’t include the lives unnecessarily lost to a disease they initially dismissed as “no worse than the flu” although they had ample proof otherwise; even if you don’t include the environmental protections that have been arbitrarily and vindictively rolled back; even if you don’t include all the civil liberties and basic human rights violations committed against immigrants; even if you don’t include the blatant attempts to undermine the free press and replace it with state-run media; Trump’s actions would be inexcusable. If only for the degree to which they’ve lowered our public discourse, destroyed our trust in each other, and degraded our belief in America. You don’t have to be one of those pretentious historians who describes American democracy as an “experiment” to recognize that this is a violation of the ideals we’re supposed to stand for.

I should also be 100% clear that I’m in no way suggesting that we excuse, forgive, or ignore casual racism or continue to treat it as inevitable. Anyone who was disgusted by the murder of George Floyd, or Ahmaud Arbery, or Trayvon Martin, should be forced to acknowledge that these aren’t just one-off events, but the inevitable result of centuries of white people treating black people as “less than” or even “other,” and slowly building systems into our society to reinforce that. I’ve no doubt that at least 90% of the people responding with “All Lives Matter” aren’t saying it in good faith, but instead are using it as a time-wasting deflection. Still, I’m sure that there are people who do genuinely believe that we’re close to living in a “post-racial” society, because they’re not forced to confront it every day. That should be something we can fix. We should all be forced to acknowledge that we’re not one community yet — we can be, but we will never be until we make a real effort to overhaul the thousands of ways our community works to make sure that non-whites are at a disadvantage.

So my goal isn’t really to excuse, explain, or forgive Trump supporters at all. Because that’s really not my job. If people were actually gung-ho about voting for this fool, there’s not much we can do about that now. Let other people decide for themselves how they feel about 2016, and let’s devote our energy to moving forward and figuring out what we can do now to actually fix things.

I don’t know what the answer is — but I can link to smarter people than me who are trying to make things better. And the first step is to reject any notion of despair, laziness, or division. Don’t act like good people are outnumbered in the US. Trump was already lying about how much support he had on inauguration day. We have been shown over and over that both US political parties and foreign “agitators” have been creating loads of fake online accounts to make it seem like offensive, nonsensical ideas have more support than they actually do. We’ve seen that he was impeached, and is only still in office because of 50 self-interested senators, few of whom would even make a statement defending him. We’ve seen that there is no genuine loyalty among Trump and the people he enables, and they turn on each other and abandon each other the moment it’s politically convenient. We’ve seen Trump get increasingly hysterical, spreading increasingly outlandish bullshit via platforms owned by white billionaires who profit from the controversy — these are not the actions of a party that’s “winning” and has genuine grassroots support.

The thing to remember is that Trump not only lost the popular vote in the 2016 election, he lost by a lot. Greater than the populations of Wyoming and Vermont combined. By almost as much as the entire population of the United States when the electoral college was introduced. And not only did he lose, he came in third. Second place went to Hilary Clinton. First place was a tie between apathy and complacency.

We’ve already seen that Americans — especially white Americans — put too much emphasis on “we’ve elected a black President!” as proof that we’d moved into a new post-racial age. Now we’re seeing some Americans insist that it was all a lie, and that we’re no better now than we were before the Civil Rights Act. Obviously, neither of these are true. Even after three and a half years of an incompetent racist president, things are better now than they were 50 years ago. Better than even 20 years ago. It’s inexcusable how slowly we’re advancing, but we are advancing. Just like voting for Obama didn’t fix everything — ask all the gay couples who had to wait for his opinions on marriage equality to “evolve” — voting out Trump isn’t going to fix everything, either. It’s an essential first step for us to survive at all, but it’s still just the barest minimum a responsible human being can do.

Biden was my second-to-last choice for President, but he doesn’t have to be President just for me, but for about 330 million other people too. Of the 10,000 things that make the Trump “administration” illegitimate, one of the most damning is one of the least directly harmful: he doesn’t have any sense of obligation to serve anyone who doesn’t keep him in power. Even Republicans should recognize that that’s not how America is supposed to work. A system where Democrats get their own private President for 8 years and then Republicans get theirs for 8 years is not sustainable and is definitely not progress. It’s been disheartening to see so many people who are ostensibly progressive talk as if any dissent were betrayal. As if reducing the needs of 330 million people down to a choice between two candidates were ever going to be anything other than a compromise.

It’s understandable that in an increasingly noisy environment, where malicious actors are spouting extremist nonsense that no decent human could actually agree with, that we’re all wary of sacrificing our integrity. Few of us want to be unwittingly helping perpetuate a system that periodically promises progress and then does nothing. But I feel like healthy skepticism often gets corrupted and turns into apathy — where someone actually believes that the whole system is corrupt, and the people trying to do good are just as bad as the people openly abusing and exploiting the system — or it turns into its own kind of absolutist self-righteousness — where someone actually believes that dissent and compromise are the enemies of progress, instead of the tools of progress. When I heard that Pete Buttigieg was running for President, I expected that a well-educated gay Christian from the midwest would meet with a lot of resistance. What I didn’t expect was that the most virulent attacks on him would come from people claiming to be Bernie Sanders supporters.

There’s a meme going around that says, paraphrased, that we can have political disagreements about things like tax rates, zoning, appropriations for schools; but not about questions like “are gay people human beings?” and “are Nazis bad?” and “are black people bad?” It seems straightforward enough, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve spread it or similar in the past. But if you think about it for a minute, it’s not really saying that much — all you’ve done is pledged to reframe the way you treat other people around the most extremist, and likely most deliberately divisive, way to describe important issues. I’m a strong believer that the easier it is to say something, the less valuable it is to say it. So if you find yourself arguing for a statement that should be trivially true, you should consider whether that’s actually the argument that’s being made. It doesn’t do much good to yell “racism is bad!” to someone who doesn’t believe they’re being racist.

With so much noise and so many people acting in bad faith, it’s especially worthwhile for us to take a minute before we respond to anything we see. Are we responding to a real person, or are we being fooled by a troll and just adding more noise to the conversation? Are we responding to actually share some information or shut down something genuinely harmful, or are we just trying to get in a sick burn of a takedown? And most importantly: is the person actually saying what I’m accusing them of saying, or have we just both reduced each other’s viewpoints to the most absurdist and extremist shorthand? Are we actually making progress, or are we just playing into a long-running attempt to keep us focused on all the things that divide us, instead of all the things that bring us together?

There’s a reason I started this post the way I did. Back at the beginning of the year, I realized that we’re in the world for way too short a time to be wasting any of that time on the things and people that don’t matter. And I realize I keep letting my perception of what matters get skewed by spending too much time in an environment filled with performative, divisive noise. At a minimum, I need to pledge — hopefully for the last time, until it’s time to help drum up the vote in October — to stop giving any attention to Trump. We need to be listening to competent people with actual answers, and a genuine desire to help us get through this pandemic and work towards real social justice, and any time spent being angry at an idiot is just a waste of time. And after that, I need to remember that disagreements aren’t just unavoidable, but necessary for a democracy to function. Instead of concentrating on our differences for the sake of preserving my imagined “integrity,” I need to concentrate more on the things that we all have in common. There are a lot of people who want to tear everything down and keep everything for themselves, but there are a lot more of us who genuinely want to make things better, and simply disagree on how to do it.

Old Man Yells at Cloud Services

Social media was a mistake.

Actual interactive World Wide Web hyperlinks to some organizations that I think deserve our support:
NAACP Legal Defense Fund: https://www.naacpldf.org
The Obama Foundation: https://www.obama.org/get-involved/
Campaign Zero: https://www.joincampaignzero.org

As I get closer to 50 (and look closer to 60), I find myself getting more and more annoyed when I see the internet blatantly going off in a direction that I did not intend or anticipate. It was bad enough to see the disgrace of a UI that was the Snappitychats, but it fills me with genuine anxiety when I see it spilling into things that are actually important.

To skip the preamble: Instagram is not a good channel for important information. For what it’s worth, I don’t think Twitter and Facebook are, either, but I can at least recognize how stubborn people make it work. The problem with Instagram isn’t just that I think it’s a frivolous app used mainly for selfies and casual snapshots — and to be clear, I’m speaking as someone who is straight-up addicted to Instagram and got irrationally depressed when I had to go without it — it’s that it’s designed to be a bad platform for anything other than snapshots.

Facebook keeps introducing stuff — like “stories” and live video — intended to turn Instagram more into Facebook, and each one has its own bunch of baggage and interface paradigms it brings with it. But surprisingly, most of the core “features” of Instagram have been allowed to remain. Those features are the ones that make the platform unique among the major social media platforms:

  1. You can’t share just text, there must be a photo.
  2. You can’t share someone else’s content, the equivalent of a “retweet” (except in Stories, or with a third-party app).
  3. Except for the one link in your profile, which isn’t intended to change that often, you can’t share links except as text. Even if you do share a link as text, the reader has to copy it and then paste it into a separate web browser to follow it, which makes it deliberately inconvenient.
  4. You can link to other users’ accounts, but only the account itself and not an individual post.
  5. You can also link to hashtags, which can be almost any arbitrary string of text and which is inherently decentralized, meaning that it can’t be owned or controlled by any one user.

The reason this is at all relevant right now: on Monday night and early Tuesday of this week, there was a meme for Instagram users to post nothing but a black square to our feeds for all of Tuesday. The idea, as I understood it, was aimed mainly at those of us who aren’t black and aren’t subject to discrimination and police brutality, to show solidarity with people leading the Black Lives Matter movement and protests. We were being silent to keep from dominating the conversation. We were paying respect instead of filling our feeds with frivolous, mundane stuff as if everything were normal.

People immediately started complaining about that, because it’s the internet. It was dismissed as a meaningless gesture — which, I mean, no shit it was just a gesture. It’s Instagram. There were complaints that we had a responsibility not to be silent, but to “amplify black voices” on a platform that specifically discourages sharing other people’s content. One celebrity posted a wall of text with a self-import lecture to be mindful of how we use our “internet real estate.” Some “influencers” were deluged with comments scolding them for not speaking up quickly enough, or speaking up at all — people who make make-up and recipe videos either have a sacred responsibility to disseminate information that is literally everywhere else; or they should never mention the real world at all, or it’s insincere virtue signaling. Tons of people insisted on posting lengthy rebuttals to “All Lives Matter,” over and over again, as if there were anyone left in June 2020 who was still saying “All Lives Matter” in good faith, instead of as justification for selfishness, or deliberately wasting people’s time. It all turned into a huge jumble of noise, assigning far too much importance to a platform that simply cannot be and should not be mistaken for an effective a tool for activism.

Most obviously damning, in my opinion, was the outpouring of comments — and think pieces on various websites — scolding people for posting a black square with the “blacklivesmatter” hashtag. They said it was blacking out an important movement. People following the hashtag to try and find out more information were instead just seeing a screen full of black squares, as if the movement were being silenced or censored. I started to see some people suggesting that it was intentionally redacting crucial information that people needed to see in a crisis — I saw one screenshot of an uncredited tweet suggesting something about AT&T being behind it, at which point I decided it was long past my bedtime and I should just turn the phone off.

And that’s the reason that I think this is more than just an annoyance or an unfortunate internet flare-up, but something that actually makes me very nervous: if a platform for information is so fragile that a bunch of well-meaning people can block out an important movement, then you’re using the wrong platform. If it’s that susceptible to being overtaken by well-meaning people, then what defense do you have against malicious people trying to exploit it?

There are a lot of things that I despise about Twitter, but it’s easy to see why it’s so tempting to think of it as a good platform. Unfortunately, almost all of the things that might make it useful are also what make it horrible: it’s immediate, which means that you get news as it’s happening! Which means it hasn’t been verified or placed into any meaningful context. It’s open to everyone, which means that there are no corporate or political gatekeeprs! Which also means that there are no fact-checkers or people ensuring that posters are acting in good faith, or are even real people. It’s brief, which means you get just the important information, without excessive editorializing! But you get no nuance or balance; it has to be the most polarized take possible. And people still insist on making these excruciating “We need to talk about… 1/10,000” threads to try and weasel around the limit.

There are even more limitations on Instagram, and in my opinion it becomes jarring when they’re abused. If you post a wall of text as an image, it’s inert and deprived of any context — I can’t copy or paste it, and I can’t conveniently get to the surrounding text or the larger work. It also becomes uneditable; I kept seeing entreaties to donate to the Minnesota Freedom Fund long after they’d already started asking people to stop giving to them and instead donate to other causes. If you just post a copy of someone else’s image, even if you credit them (and people are rarely credited), then I have to go through their feed and find the relevant image to see what they said about it. If you post a bunch of URLs, I have to enter them manually, which not only makes the process prone to typos, but just adds a bit of resistance that’s not necessary. And again, the Minnesota Freedom Fund reported false accounts posing as them, but off by a few letters.

And then I see people posting screenshots of Tweets to Instagram, combining the worst aspects of each platform while removing any of their advantages, and I’m all like what the hell, man?! We’re trying to build a society here.

And all those problems are assuming that you’re working with the best intentions. With especially sensitive topics like civil rights violations, police brutality, and a political party that is actively trying to suppress dissent, it makes it even more important to take the time to properly vet images, video, and claims that are being made.

Over the past few days, I’ve seen the expected assortment of hoaxes, and mis-captioned, mis-credited, mis-leading, or dated images and video. But disturbingly, there was also plenty of lazy vigilante BS, posted by people who should know better. Pictures were being posted of supposed agitators along with identifying information, with absolutely no citation or vetting — just the claim that it must be real, because it was taken by “someone at the scene,” and verified by “other accounts,” even though these platforms by design allow for one person to be behind multiple accounts and use a false identity to post. That anonymity is fine when all you’re doing is posting snapshots; but if you’re using that to dox someone or indirectly get them fired or worse, then that’s just plain mob mentality.

There were, by multiple accounts, agitators at several large protests who were deliberately provoking violence and looting, almost certainly with the goal of discrediting public perception of the protests. That seems to make it more important to present an accurate version of what’s actually taking place at the protests, instead of rushing to be the first one. If you can’t verify where a video is coming from or who created it, and you can’t find any other protestor videos corroborating it (when these protests are being exhaustively recorded on protestors’ phones), then you should be treating it as unreliable, and asking yourself if you’re doing more harm than good by sharing it.

I would bet that everyone reading this has been fooled by a scam on social media before. I know the person writing it has. Luckily, it’s most often harmless, even though it’s being used increasingly to sow division and fear, to make us believe that the people we disagree with are people we hate. But when the subject gets more important, our skepticism and restraint should increase. Instead, the desire for immediate information and the satisfaction of having quick answers makes our skepticism and restraint decrease.

I’m sympathetic to anyone else who’s also feeling helpless and wanting to make a difference. I think in addition to voting, and donating time or money as we can afford it, we have a basic responsibility for what we’re putting out into the world. It should be fair and accurate, and not just “first.” Any source of information that’s so easily manipulated and so poor at providing context or identifying sources, can’t be considered completely reliable.

Or in other words: instead of freaking out about the use of hashtags or whether or not token gestures are appropriate during a crisis, I’d suggest we all take a deep breath, count to 10, and direct people to platforms that are better suited to serious topics.

Do or do not; there is #nohomo

More spaceships and laser swords, less snogging.

Whenever Star Wars comes into contact with the internet, dumb things happen. One of the most annoyingly dumb things recently has been the insistence that the new sequel trilogy is a perfect stage for better LGBTQ representation, but Disney overlords have kept it from happening.

The kiss between two women at the end of Rise of Skywalker is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it example of tokenism, they claim, kept short so it could pander to liberals but still be easily cut for less gay-friendly foreign markets. And of course the characters of Finn and Poe were obviously well-suited to be a couple, until skittish Disney execs insisted that they each be paired off with hetero romantic interests.

As a red-blooded American white male gay nerd, I’m calling that a bunch of nonsense.

Of course I’d prefer it if a company as large as Disney would choose to stand its ground. Release the movie with its completely innocuous kiss between two women, and let the market decide. (Retaining the arbitrary and unearned kiss between the trilogy’s hero and villain is a lot more offensive, anyway). But then they’d get accused of cultural insensitivity, so I guess there’s not one easy solution. At least the Huckabee family has to see it and get angry about it, so that makes me happy to think about.

But as for making it a more significant beat in the story, my question would be: why? What do you hope to get out of it? These aren’t stories that do a great job with romance in any case; the most successful one in the entire series is still insufferably corny in places. If it’s just a question of representation — which is absolutely important — then I think showing two secondary characters kiss during a happy moment is a great way to handle it.

When I was growing up watching these movies, I would’ve been happy to see any acknowledgement that other gay people exist, and that they don’t need to be primarily defined by or driven by their sexuality. In a series that doesn’t tend to focus on the personal lives of any of its secondary characters, devoting more time to those characters’ relationship would inevitably feel shoehorned.

The one that I feel a lot more strongly about is the business about Finn and Poe. With that, I can’t be as sympathetic to the call for representation, because I think it’s actually a huge and disappointing step backwards. In modern American entertainment, it’s getting increasingly common to see representation of two men in a romantic relationship. What’s still disappointingly rare, though, is to see two men in a supportive, affectionate relationship that isn’t romantic or sexual.

I’m sure that the people pushing for a Finn & Poe romance (including Oscar Isaac himself) believe they’re pushing for open-mindedness, but I think it just reinforces the kind of toxic masculinity we’re already overwhelmed with. It sets a limit on how much two men can show they care about each other before it turns gay. They hug, they’re concerned about each other, they even share clothes — now let’s see them kiss!

Believe me, nobody wants to see Oscar Isaac kissing another dude more than I do, but I think the better and more valuable representation — which could impact more of the audience than just the people who identify as gay — is to show men being caring and supportive of each other without having to be romantically linked. If for no other reason than it reminds all the guys in the audience who don’t identify as gay or bisexual that being affectionate isn’t a threat to their sexuality or their masculinity.

Now, the obvious issue with The Rise of Skywalker in particular is that they introduced Zorii Bliss as a character whose presence in the movie is at least 75% to give Poe Dameron somebody to mack on. I think they handled it well for the most part, seeing as how she’s portrayed as a bad-ass who’s able to show she cares about someone while still not being just a sexual object. And it gave the movie one of its best moments, when Poe turns on the full smolder, and she shoots him down immediately. But there’s no denying that it’s hella heteronormative.

Since that whole character relationship was already loaded down with the kind of corny, when-do-I-get-that-kiss “romance” that already exists in Star Wars, I say the “best” LGBTQ representation would have been to have Zorii Bliss open the helmet and reveal another man. (Like, say, me. I’ll do it. Just call me). It would’ve felt every bit as shoehorned in, but it would’ve at least been somewhat novel.

But let background characters stay in the background, and let Finn and Poe just be friends. It’s not progress to push for gay characters at the expense of telling men that they can’t be straight and give another guy a hug.

The Rise of Skywalker: The Last Gatekeeper

It’s partly true. Some of it.

This post is full of spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker.

While I was psyching myself up for seeing The Rise of Skywalker, I said I was bracing myself for either the rush of The Force Awakens or the disappointment of The Last Jedi. As it turns out, I didn’t really feel either.

I definitely felt none of the exhilaration of the first movie. The Force Awakens felt like the gasp of new life after someone plunged a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the franchise — (Note: I don’t know if that is actually a thing outside of Pulp Fiction. Please consult your doctor) — but this story was full of bad decisions that they couldn’t just lightspeed-skip over (like, say, an over-long discussion of thermal oscillators or a weird repetition of “kanjiclub”).

At the same time, even as I was shaking my head and mouthing the word “no” over and over, I didn’t feel the miserable deflation I did while watching the bad decisions play out in The Last Jedi. I’ve grown into a begrudging acceptance of that movie — and honestly, it’s a more ambitious and more daring movie than The Rise of Skywalker — but watching it felt like the cold touch of a Dementor was draining me of my renewed enthusiasm for Star Wars.

I think ultimately, JJ Abrams is too talented a filmmaker to make something I can’t enjoy in the moment. I’m hesitant to assign authorship to something as complex as a feature film — especially a blockbuster with as many invested parties as this one — to one person, but the constant through every JJ Abrams project I’ve seen is that they’re all full of charm, momentum, and seemingly boundless potential. Beautiful, charismatic people exchanging snappy dialogue while doing intriguing things. The stories rarely end on a satisfying note, though: starting with the mindset that the story can go anywhere and literally anything could happen means that all that potential energy gets used up quickly. Once it’s run out, the end result tends to either evaporate into meaninglessness, or land with a baffling thud.

Maybe it’s appropriate that watching The Rise of Skywalker felt to me like watching The Return of the Jedi. I left that movie feeling like they’d taken something great and somehow made it silly, overwrought, and nonsensical, to the point of making me wonder whether I’d “grown out” of the franchise altogether. But then I remembered how rad the speeder bikes were!

The Rise of Skywalker is like that, multiplied by ten. I started Return of the Jedi disappointed that they’d only made two movies and were already repeating themselves with Tatooine and another Death Star; this movie brings back a dead villain with no explanation, and then he also has 1000 Death Stars!

To be clear: I’m still 100% on board with the idea of bringing back the Emperor. He’s a great, over-the-top bad guy who could’ve served as the source of all evil across all nine movies. And I still think it could’ve worked, had it been made the driving force of the plot of the last movie, built up to a climactic reveal and final showdown, and tied into all of the events that led up to it. But here, it was introduced in the first line of the opening crawl. And of all the hundreds of questions that could come from that reveal, the least interesting one to explore was “Okay, how do we get there?” But that’s what they chose to focus on.

It’s so bafflingly arbitrary that it retroactively makes the rest of the final trilogy seem smaller and sillier. I’d been able to justify the First Order and Supreme Leader Snoke as building on the idea that The Return of the Jedi was a conclusive happy ending for the galaxy. I thought that The Last Jedi gave it weight by asserting that restoring the Old Republic without fixing its problems would just cause the cycle to continue indefinitely. Now, suddenly re-introducing Palpatine with little convincing explanation just makes it seem like they simply didn’t think you could tell a Star Wars story without bringing back the Empire and the Emperor. (I want to be charitable and use the common defense of repetition in the Star Wars movies by saying “it rhymes,” but there’s a part of me that only thinks this rhymes with “schmack of schmimagination.”)

I was left wondering whether the stable boy shown at the end of The Last Jedi now has to be revealed to be a long-lost grandson of Obi-Wan or something. Most disappointing is that Rey’s story has been robbed of all its potential energy built into the last two movies: the focus shifted from “who are you?” entirely to “who were your grandparents and the long line of now-dead heroes who are entirely responsible for your importance in this story?”

Ever since The Last Jedi came out, people have been calling it a case of filmmakers petulantly refusing to “yes, and…” each other. I never bought it, before. Despite my problems with the movie, The Last Jedi didn’t feel like it was arbitrarily throwing away ideas built up in The Force Awakens, so much as turning the story in a new direction to give a counterpoint to the previous two trilogies. But many of the changes in The Rise of Skywalker feel so arbitrary, even petty, that it just makes it feel like watching a bunch of preposterously rich people fighting over a box of Star Wars toys and refusing to share.

The Hollywood Reporter has an interview with co-writer Chris Terrio that makes me think it maybe wasn’t as clear-cut or arbitrary. (Or petty). Perhaps the major problems that I had with the story weren’t ones of intent, but of execution. They were trying to build on ideas from The Last Jedi, for the most part. But it sounds as if they had a very narrow interpretation of what The Last Jedi was trying to say, felt an obligation to honor a bunch of other people’s interpretation of the franchise (including George Lucas), and then had to deal with the thousands of things that always happen over the course of making any blockbuster, especially such a high-profile one that has to act as the conclusion of nine movies.

The biggest difference between my experience watching The Return of the Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker is that this time, I knew that Star Wars isn’t over. There’s no sense that it’s time for me to put away childish things, since I’ve got a huge media company pumping out millions of dollars worth of more stuff or me to enjoy at a steady clip.

If you’d told me that my favorite interpretation of Star Wars would be by the guy who was largely responsible for Swingers, I — well, to be honest, I probably would’ve said, “yeah, that checks out.” But it’s still great to see that Disney seems to have taken the best part of the MCU model — giving creators who grew up loving the material the chance and the resources to realize their own interpretation of it —and applied it to Star Wars. I don’t love the extended comedy beat at the beginning of the last episode of The Mandalorian, for instance, but I do love that it was instantly recognizable as Taika Waititi’s unique contribution.

That allows me to focus on The Rise of Skywalker’s speeder bike moments, the parts that it does well:

  • It was great that they put so much focus on having all the main characters going on an adventure together.
  • Although the story felt overstuffed with characters, I did like that their presence was kept character-driven — hinting at a stormtrooper revolt with Jannah, and the scoundrel-with-a-heart-of-gold story for Zorii Bliss, to emphasize the idea of “regular people” across the galaxy all standing up to the new Empire.
  • I loved the propulsive energy of the first act that kept things moving (even if I felt they were chasing after the wrong things).
  • I still love the inherent charisma of Daisy Ridley, who manages to make an unwaveringly good character still seem interesting and relatable.
  • I loved the scene with Han Solo and the clever repeat of “I know.”
  • I appreciated that they kept at least a trace of the “democratization of the Force” idea alive, with Finn’s growing awareness that he’s Force-sensitive.
  • I loved Adam Driver’s performance after his transformation back to Ben Solo — after two and a half movies with not much to work with other than “really intense,” he made that character so appealing, with relatively limited screen time and just an “ouch” and a perfectly-delivered, Han Solo-esque shrug.
  • And I loved that they did build on the idea of a unique connection between Rey and Ben, incorporating it into two key moments in the plot. It was a great counterpoint to the iconic moment in The Force Awakens in which she takes the light saber from him, to see her give it back.

Ultimately, I just can’t see the point in getting too upset about the disappointing parts of a movie that was this entertaining. That doesn’t mean I’ve “outgrown” Star Wars, or that I need to retroactively dismiss or downplay its importance to me — I’m still one of the guys who got engaged in Galaxy’s Edge this year, and I’m still considering the feasibility of having a wedding ceremony inside the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. It just means we no longer have to settle for what one person’s interpretation of what Star Wars “is.”

While we’ve spent the last decade or so besieged by reboots and re-interpretations and re-imaginings, it’s often seemed like we’re in a cultural death spiral: everyone lacks imagination or ambition, and they’d rather play to nostalgia instead of creating something new. But there’s something uniquely wonderful about the thrill I felt seeing The Force Awakens, or even seeing The Mandalorian deliver a live-action version of a forgotten toy. Dismissing it as nothing more than nostalgia makes it sound completely selfish, instead of acknowledging that it’s more like a shared cultural moment. They’re not simply showing me the things that I used to love; they’re acknowledging “I understand why you love this, because I grew up loving it, too.”

There’s value in telling stories in these shared universes. And of course, there’s nothing stopping creators from using the money and/or industry clout from these shared universes and applying them to make their own original murder mysteries. I can put references to Harry Potter and Pulp Fiction into my opinions about a Star Wars movie, and we all get it because they’re all cultural touchstones that we share. Not narrow-minded fandoms that we’ve got exclusive ownership over. Take the parts of it that you love, don’t get too upset over the parts you don’t, and go on to enjoy — or make — new stories.

Back in middle school, I heard that Star Wars was planned as an epic trilogy of trilogies, and I tried to imagine all the different ways that such a long, huge story could play out. Now, though, limiting it to only nine stories seems remarkably unambitious.