Homophobish

A year-old prose fart on Slate perfectly illustrates the difference between marriage equality and “gay marriage,” and exactly why it’s an important distinction.

One of the side effects of everything on the internet being archived indefinitely is that a blog post from a year ago can come out of nowhere and put you in a crappy mood for the rest of the day. In this case, the post is this steaming turd titled “The Dirty Little Secret: Most Gay Couples Aren’t Monogamous”, by Hanna Rosin on Slate’s “The XX Factor” blog.

Yes, Slate. As I was reading, I had to double-check the URL to make sure I hadn’t been spoof-linked onto Michelle Malkin’s site, because it’s full of the kind of equality-undermining language that made Malkin America’s sweetheart. (As in, “Sweetheart, go away and play by yourself. The grown-ups are trying to have a conversation here.”)

I should point out that on the “DoubleX Gabfest” podcast discussing the post, the discussion is less blatantly offensive and just more subtly gross. They celebrate the overturn of DOMA, and they acknowledge (somewhat) the distinction between an open relationship and infidelity. Still, the subtle grossness — treating gay relationships as equal but separate, combined with some old-school “Women Are From Venus” type BS — is worth drawing attention to. That’s the kind of attitude that will persist long after gay Americans — eventually, after an unnecessarily long legal process in state after state — have the freedom to marry.

But first, let’s go over again everything that’s awful about that original blog post.

Dirty Little Secret

To start with, the headline is a two-fer. First, the assertion that “Most gay couples aren’t monogamous,” which is based on “an old study from the 80s” (which is actually from the late 70s to early 80s, and which doesn’t mention sample size or diversity), and which makes no distinction between infidelity and open relationships. This gets the lede instead of the more recent and longer-term (but still “problematic,” for reasons I’ll get to in a second) study, which came to the conclusion that it wasn’t “most” but about half. That study also made the distinction between “sex outside of marriage” with the partner’s consent.

Which leads to the second problem with the headline, the “Dirty Little Secret” part:

In the fight for marriage equality, the gay rights movement has put forth couples that look like straight ones, together forever, loyal, sharing assets. But what no one wants to talk about is that they don’t necessarily represent the norm:
[…]
In writing about the subject, gay people emphasize the aspects of their relationships that sound most wholesome and straight-like, Steven Thrasher writes. They neglect to mention that, say, in Thrasher’s case, he met his partner for sex only once, and they ended up falling in love. The larger point being that gay couples are very different when it comes to sex, even if this is not the convenient moment to discuss that.

Again: not Bill O’Reilly; this was in Slate.

The idea is that in this bit of social justice theater that’s been given the politically-correct name “marriage equality” — earlier, Rosin calls it the “gay marriage experiment” — while the gay people have been asking straight people for permission to get “married,” we’ve been careful only to expose the relationships that’ll make us look normal and wholesome. That lesbian couple in their 80s who’ve been together for decades, the woman whose partner died before their relationship was ever sanctioned by the state. The shameful truth, of course, is that homos just can’t get enough of the d. A gay writer for Gawker, even, has to admit that his relationship was the result of a one-night stand. And no less than the intellectual progenitor of the gay marriage movement, Andrew Sullivan, met his husband at — gasp! — a “sex-and-drug filled circuit party”! [warning: Gawker link]

There’s so much wrong here, it’s difficult to know where to start. Do you go with the Gawker trademark of prudish scandal-mongering disguised as open-mindedness? (For example: we’re totally fine with the gay people, of course, but we’re still gonna out Tim Cook and pass it off as “why is he hiding?!”)

Or the idea that how a couple meets has anything to do with the quality or stability of their relationship?

Or the level of slut-shaming that’s required to assert that people must be hiding how sexually active they are, or how they met, because they’re ashamed of it?

Or the way Rosin casually treats open relationships and infidelity as if they were interchangeable? Which denies the entire concept of an open relationship, which sets up boundaries so that the commitment of the relationship is preserved without having to be looking for sex on the down-low?

Or the blithe ignorance/denial of the fact that these decades-long relationships started in an environment that treated homosexuality as if it were something shameful? That’s essentially the same “argument” that opponents of marriage equality have used since the beginning: of course it’s absurd that homosexuals should be allowed to “marry,” look at how immoral they are for having all that sex outside of marriage!

Or do we talk about the hypocrisy of suggesting that straight couples are inherently wholesome? Two of the things that neither Rosin nor Thrasher mention about that long-running study of gay couples: 1) They were all gay men, 2) They were all in the San Francisco Bay Area. We can all gauge our own levels of how much we want to call bullshit on making wide extrapolations about all couples based solely on a study of gay men; I definitely don’t ascribe to the straight-from-the-50s stereotype of men as constant horndogs, but I do believe that on the whole, women tend to be a bit more relationship-focused. Regardless, it’s tough to accept as a representative sample when there are no lesbians involved.

I have a lot more reservations about the “San Francisco Bay Area” part. There’s just no denying that this place is a bubble, and things are different here. I’ve seen a lot more unconventional heterosexual relationships in the bay area than I ever saw back east, and I have to call foul on any study that doesn’t consider gay couples in more conservative parts of the country like, say, Minneapolis, or even Atlanta.

So Like Us

The easiest response to a post like Rosin’s is pfft, as if straight couples don’t have issues with divorce and infidelity. And that’s valid, but too easy. Among other things, it’s a race to the lowest common denominator: gay people are no worse than we are!

It’s why, in what passes for “debate” online, we’ve always heard about Leviticus and mixed fibers and homosexual penguins and Britney Spears’s quickie Vegas wedding. It’s why a lot of people scream about being “heteronormative” as if gay people were dropped into straight society from some kind of alien asexual breeding planet. And really, in terms of baseline equality-as-recognized-by-the-state, that’s fine. Years ago, I saw a good quote on a message board, paraphrased: “I want to see a gay couple go to Vegas, get drunk out of their minds, have a quickie wedding, and then get divorced the next day. Then they’ll be equal.”

Opponents of marriage equality have always tried to disguise their homophobia by pulling in talk about procreation, child-rearing, gender roles, religious freedom, and “traditional” marriage, and never mentioning their “dirty little secret,” which is that their laws and bans are invariably nothing but anti-gay. Because if they really wanted to assert that marriage is all about procreation, they’d have to ban marriage for heterosexual people who can’t or don’t want to bear children of their own. And that will never, ever happen.

So the tactic for opponents of marriage equality is the same as with every gay rights issue: spin it around to establish that gay people have something to be ashamed of. “Prove to us why we should allow your sex-and-drug-fueled debauchery to be called a ‘marriage.'” And for the proponents, it’s exactly what makes marriage equality a no-brainer of a non-argument: gay couples don’t have any more or less to prove than straight couples do.

As a baseline for legally mandated equality, it’s fine. As a model for long-term, societal equality, though, it’s a hell of a low bar to set. “They’re not any worse than we are.” It comes across as a too-literal interpretation of “tolerance:” we’ll put up with the gays because it’s the right thing to do. It leaves people like Ross Douthat feeling anxious and afraid, just biding his time until we make it through this Liberal Nightmare of a society, and we can all once again be free to say what we’re really thinking.

It also stresses diversity over inclusivity, tolerance over equality. Because for the half of gay men in that study who “admitted” to having sex outside of their relationship, there’s still half that didn’t. Because presenting the struggle for gay rights as a well-orchestrated show of public relations — for which, at the time of this writing, with a majority of the United States still having constitutional bans against marriage equality, Andrew Sullivan is very concerned about whom gets the proper credit — there’s still the fact that two women had been together for decades, and one died before her marriage was recognized by her country. Yes, of course we should account for Dan Savage’s self-described “monogamish” relationship. But not as the representative sample of all gay relationships, and not at the expense of the relationships that are overwhelmingly, boringly, “traditional.”

Rosin puts forward straight relationships as the ones by which gay relationships can and should be judged. The immediate objection is that nobody should be judged on the basis of how “normal” they are or aren’t. But the better objection is that the notion of “normal” is largely bullshit. There are gay couples that fell in love in high school and have been committed to each other for years; there are straight couples that met during a one-night stand and ended in divorce. And every permutation thereof, regardless of gender and genitalia.

Even if you’re looking for trends, and even if you’re accounting for the fact that gay couples of “marrying age” have spent a big part of their lives in a society that treats them as if they were suffering from a mental disorder, there are still plenty of relationships that defy convention by being completely conventional. And a huge number of relationships that prove that what we think of as “conventional” is mostly fiction. How many stories about “unconventional” marriages do we have to hear before we all finally accept that Leave It To Beaver and Father Knows Best weren’t ever really the overwhelming norm?

And I don’t even want to get into the whole question of “sex outside of marriage.” People have been so intrusive and vulgar when talking about marriages of gay couples, that I’m wondering if I’ve been going to the wrong straight weddings all these years. Is it normal for the married couple to flash their genitals at the audience for verification? Is everyone else in the audience listening to all the jibber-jabber about “love, honor, and devotion” and thinking, “those two are totally doin’ it?” Have I just been missing the part where the couple parades the wedding sheets in front of the village, as proof of the bride’s maidenhead?

It betrays an almost Victorian prudishness, and a peculiar obsession with sex, to treat infidelity and open relationships as casually interchangeable as Rosin and Thrasher do, as lumped-together signs of changing moral standards and our diminishing desire for monogamy. An open relationship is almost the opposite of infidelity; it acknowledges that the relationship is entirely about trust, honesty, and commitment, and not just about sex.

PINO Egregious

Again, while I maintain that Rosin’s blog post is straight-up bullshit, the accompanying podcast is less objectionable. However, it trades the blatantly gross “gay people are lying to the country about their sordid sex-filled ‘relationships'” for the more delicately gross “aren’t gay couples just fascinating to us normal couples?”

The article that sparked the whole business was one in The Atlantic which asked, unironically as far as I can tell, what can gay couples teach us about relationships? On the podcast, they’re very pro-gay, and they’re celebrating the (very recent, at the time) overturn of DOMA. But they seem to be unaware that the tone of the entire discussion is distressingly similar to, “What can all of these talented African Americans teach us about rhythm?” or “We have so much to learn from the Asians about math and the martial arts.”

The tone of the podcast is that open marriages are fine for them — you go, gays! — but let’s keep straight marriages traditional. I’m not exactly paraphrasing, either: around the 13 minute mark in the “gabfest”, there’s the assertion that straight men would be happier with open relationships than straight women would be. (“Not all men,” because of course someone said “not all men.”) And then the thought that maybe this discussion opens up the opportunity for everyone to think about their relationships, an idea that one of the women shuts right down: “I kind of hope that gay marriages can function as gay marriages function, and that’s perfectly fine if it works for them, and I’m also okay with straight marriages being traditional. […] If there are no boundaries, it sort of makes me feel lost.”

This kind of thinking alarms me, because this is the kind of thinking that ends up with someone telling me, “We just want you to know how happy we are about your gayness. We got you this leather harness to wear at your foam parties!” It’s why I make a distinction between diversity and actual inclusiveness — thinking solely about “diversity” reduces individuals to demographics, assuming homogeneity based on one trait that may or may not define them.

It’s “Progressive In Name Only,” more concerned about a baseline level of tolerance than about actual equality, or the progress that comes from actual understanding. I don’t have any interest in casting aspersions on Dan Savage’s or Andrew Sullivan’s relationships, nor am I interested in looking down on people who wear leather harnesses or go to foam parties. I don’t even know if a leather harness is something a person would wear to a foam party. All I know is that it all gets lumped together as “gay stuff.”

A while ago, there was a motion in San Francisco to ban public nudity except for during special events (like the Folsom Street Fair, for instance). Even though it was about as reasonable as you can possibly get, there was a sizable outcry, with a lot of people insisting that such a ban would be anti-gay. As I’ve often wondered since I moved to the Bay Area and suddenly found myself a “moderate” instead of the “flaming liberal” I’d been in the southeast, I wondered if I was the only person who was having problems calling this a “gay issue.” I mentioned it to my barber — a man who’s been with the same man for 20 years and has chosen not to get married, incidentally — and was surprised that he was even more conservative about it than I was: ban it outright, none of this “special events” or “put a towel down before you sit your naked ass on a public surface” compromise. Two lessons learned: 1) Calling public nudity a “gay issue” assumes that gay people are all about looking at each other’s junk; and 2) There are lots of different types of gay people.

If you support “gay marriage” because you want the gays to be able to take their party drugs and meet each other at sex parties and then get tax breaks, then… well, good. You pass the baseline requirement for not being a bigot and understanding how America works. But I sure hope you like talking about social justice issues, because there’s going to be another few hundred years of it. We’ll keep having new decades-long debates on how these special interest groups fit into normal society without stopping to consider that we’re all special interest groups.

The Party of the First Part

The tragic hilarity that results when people take the term “social contract” too literally

Civilwarreenactment
Civil War re-enactment by dfbphotos on Flickr

At the beginning of the month, Ross Douthat had a piece called “The Terms of Our Surrender” published in The New York Times — which meant that at least one other adult actually read it and decided it was worthy to publish in the nation’s most revered newspaper.

I’ve heard the term “poetry slam,” but this was more like a “poetry tantrum.” Like the best poetry, he makes vividly crystalline the most abstract of concepts, in this case, “staggering lack of self-awareness.” And like the finest tantrums, he describes the plight of the hundreds of millions of people completely unaffected by marriage equality, comparing their sorry fate to that of ex-Confederates suffering through the Reconstruction.

For at least a few years now, various bigots, assholes, and bigoted assholes have, when called out on their bigoted assholery, responded with increasingly tortured attempts at self-martyrdom. When Muslim-loving liberals insist on removing Christianity from public buildings and schools, isn’t that religious intolerance and a violation of the First Amendment? When a man is deprived of his God-given right to be paid for a speaking appearance in which he compares homosexuality to bestiality, isn’t he the real victim?

Last night, a throng of perfectly well-meaning and not at all hypocritical social activists, presumably dressed as firefighters holding fire hoses that shoot confetti, all climbed out of their tiny car and took to the internet to express their outrage over a joke on Stephen Colbert’s Twitter feed, one that was horribly offensive to all people of color.

As much fun as it is to point and laugh at the silly self-described conservatives, pretending that they have consciences and ideals not motivated purely by self-interest, it’s important to see how all these are related. It’s the result of emphasizing words over ideas, getting hung up on how things are said instead of what is being said.

What we’re seeing now is nothing more than a travesty of what many progressives have been doing for years, acting as if there’s an explicit list of rules that define acceptable behavior, a literal social contract. And for some people, whenever you present them with a contract, they’ll immediately start looking for a loophole.

Getting to Negotiate

It’s worth remembering that the religious persecution that Ross Douthat is lamenting is the case of a baker who’s so filled with the Holy Spirit and message of Christ that he refused to bake a cake for a gay couple. (The comparisons to Joan of Arc, Christians in the Roman Empire, and Puritans leaving for the New World are, I hope, obvious). Douthat chooses to call this “dissent” instead of “being an asshole,” and he worries that the new dogma of the Liberal Gay Agenda is making unreasonable demands on these dissenters, completely vindictive conditions of surrender such as “people who run businesses have an obligation to serve their customers.” As he describes it:

…now, apparently, the official line is that you bigots don’t get to negotiate anymore.

Let’s completely ignore, as Douthat does, the actual principles at work here: this is a group of people who’ve spent the past two decades drawing a direct line between the love of two consenting adults and dog-fucking, but are now saying, “It’s just a cake. What’s the big deal?” So we won’t bring up some hysterical “slippery slope” example like a woman in a burkha being refused taxi service, even though we’ve seen tons of examples of actual religious persecution against Muslims in the US, such as refusing building permits to mosques.

But ignore all that, because it’s the word games that are interesting. The entire thing is such a marvel of cluelessness that you have to wonder whether Douthat deliberately chose terms like “negotiation” and “surrender” to align himself with the last few times that groups in the United States have had to surrender after losing a battle over the rights of minorities.

Part of the transcendent smarm of Douthat’s article is the way he comes right out of the gate trying to reframe the last couple of decades of gay rights issues. It hasn’t been a blatant case of a majority imposing its will on a minority, but an impassioned but reasoned debate between two equal and opposing viewpoints. The Supreme Court’s decisions against DOMA and Proposition 8 were completely arbitrary — “the logic of its own jurisprudence.” It’s not a question of inequality but of religious freedom. Opponents of marriage equality are not bigots, but a “dissenting subculture emphasizing gender differences and procreation.”

Now that the gays have won, says Douthat, it’s nothing more than petty vindictiveness for these “married” “couples” to be rubbing it in everybody’s faces. The Supreme Court says we have to pretend that these conscious couplings between homos are actual marriages, but they didn’t say we have to like it. That’s effectively thoughtcrime, and it’s surely not what Andrew Sullivan intended when he invented the concept of marriage equality. (No, seriously. Douthat actually calls Sullivan “gay marriage’s intellectual progenitor.” In the New York Times).

The terms we use to describe a concept can, over time, change the way we think about the concept. That’s something that Douthat and other proponents of genitalia-based marriage have learned over the years. Right-wingers spent years publicly decrying The Liberals’ absurd “political correctness,” while surreptitiously taking notes to take back to their volcano lair.

So, over time, they began to spin themselves as free-thinkers who could see through spin. They took one of the three fundamental branches of American government and tried to make it sound un-Democratic and un-American: “activist judges.” And they tried to make blatantly unfair discrimination sound like rational counter-argument by calling it “traditional marriage.”

Incidentally, recent attempts to change up the term “traditional marriage” are as good a sign as any that the fight for marriage equality in the US is mostly over, and all that’s left is an unnecessarily long and complicated process of cleaning up. (The people who were unaffected are still every bit as unaffected. They’re now free to whine about how their religious freedom is in danger, while leaving the actual clean-up work to the people who are still being kept from having their relationships recognized by a majority of the states). Some of the most outspoken opponents — mostly the ones who believe that the central tenet of Christianity is “#nohomo” — have started to use the term “natural marriage.” At that point, it’s clear that they’ve abandoned even their feeble attempts at pretending to have a rational objection. They’re simply falling back on the old standby: “Nope. Don’t like it. ‘Tain’t natural.”

I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

The problem, of course, is that these self-described conservatives don’t understand that the terminology isn’t arbitrary. It’s not a secret list compiled and maintained by a shadowy cabal of liberals, designed solely to manufacture outrage by catching them using the non-preferred term.

In our actual reality, the terms that get traction are the ones that are either more accurate or more inclusive. For people who lack the empathy to understand why some terms are preferable to others, using “Native American” instead of “Indian” or “Asian” instead of “Chinese” seems just as absurd and arbitrary as using “womyn.”

In the case of marriage equality, there’s a history of changing terminology. Proponents started using “same sex marriage” to draw attention to the fact that civil laws never take love or even attraction into account, but instead attempt to define marriage strictly in terms of gender. And “marriage equality” itself gets to the heart of the matter; it’s not some new concept (invented by Andrew Sullivan), but simply people demanding to have exactly the same entitlements that their peers have. Opponents, on the other hand, have used “gay marriage” and “traditional marriage” and now, “natural marriage.” Those aren’t designed to be more accurate or more inclusive; they’re just a bunch of variations on the same idea: this is bad because it’s not normal.

To a person who’s motivated by self-interest — for convenience, let’s call him “Phil” — he doesn’t understand that you’d use the term “African American” instead of “black” to acknowledge that someone else’s cultural heritage is more relevant than skin color. To Phil, it’s just some arbitrary term that some liberals made up so that they can yell at Phil and call him a racist. It’s all but completely irrelevant what the black person (or Latino-instead-of-Mexican, or Asian-instead-of-Chinese) thinks; all that matters is how it affects Phil.

It’s right there in the term “politically correct.” People couldn’t possibly be saying this stuff out of actual sensitivity, or because it’s actually correct. They have to be saying it to get some kind of political power.

One of the best recent developments in video games is the list of “social justice warriors to avoid,” compiled by frightened and angry message board posters and Tumblrers who are fed up with people suggesting that games be inclusive. The reason it’s got me happy is that people who are bothered by inclusivity always use the rationalization that they’re not bigots but free-thinkers: they’re just saying the things that everyone else is thinking but are too afraid to say out loud. Forming a list of enemies is digging their own grave; as the list grows and grows, it’ll become clearer that bigotry and fear of inclusivity isn’t representative of the audience at large, but nothing more than the desperate panic of a backwards minority.

I’m unlikely to get labeled a “social justice warrior,” unfortunately, but I did once get accused of being a “white knight,” and it was glorious. In real life, we so rarely get those climax-of-Perry-Mason moments, where someone just freaks out and reveals exactly what an asshole he is. Telling a gay guy that he’s only speaking out against misogyny in an effort to get women to sleep with him is the purest expression of gross selfishness. The only reason a dude would possibly call somebody out for harassing a woman is to make himself look good. He must be as sexually frustrated and intimidated as I am. There’s no other possible explanation.

The Naughtiest Swear

Achewood neatestpersoninheaven
So it’s been fascinating to watch as people whose entire philosophy is based on self-interest take the tactics of progressives and try to use them against progressives. It’s a lot like watching children learn to swear: They don’t understand what they’re saying, because they have no context for any of it. They just repeat the things they’ve heard before, testing again and again to see what kind of reaction they can provoke.

It’s resulted in all kinds of Bizarro World situations. For instance, all the desperately confused people treating the word “intolerance” the same way I treat the word “nonplussed:” using it to mean the exact opposite of what it actually means.

If I’m driven by self-interest, “tolerance” has nothing to do with you getting to live your life without interference, and everything to do with my getting to decide whether or not your life is acceptable. And if you take someone who doesn’t actually understand the concept of tolerance, and spend several years calling them out on their intolerance, they’ll start to believe that the word doesn’t have an actual meaning. It’s just a name you yell at people when you’re not getting your way. Shout “no” enough times and you can train a dog to stay off the couch, even if he has no idea why it’s bad for him to be on the couch in the first place.

When you see the world as a selfish struggle for power, then you’re always under attack. It’s never the case that we all win; if there’s a winner, there has to be a loser. Saying “Happy Holidays” isn’t an attempt to be inclusive of other religions or the non-religious; it’s an attack on your religion. We have to remind people that “it’s Freedom of Religion, not Freedom from Religion!” because there are atheists out there who actually believe that I’m as wrong as I know that they are! Bilingual signs aren’t an opportunity to learn a new language; they’re a threat because it implies there’s something wrong with me for only speaking English!

And in the case of marriage equality, much time has been wasted over the years trying to get opponents comfortable with the concept, by reminding them that they don’t lose anything if gay people get married. It was time wasted because in the opponents’ minds, they are losing something: the ability to say I don’t approve of this. If a homophobe has to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding, his problem isn’t having to bake the cake. His problem is not getting to express his disapproval. (This isn’t even a particularly insightful observation on my part; several times, opponents of marriage equality explicitly said they wanted it to be up to a popular vote so that they could say they don’t condone it).

Which leads to last night’s ridiculous mockery of progressivism, the “CancelColbert” hashtag. It would’ve been laughably absurd if it weren’t so transparently manipulative. It’s offensive to see something so crass use the language of racial sensitivity, and it’s depressing to see how many well-meaning people took the bait.

You’d think that there’d be absolutely no doubt that it had nothing to do with actual racial sensitivity, as soon as perpetually clumsy opportunist and professional disappointment to the human race Michelle Malkin jumped on the bandwagon.

But even if that were somehow not enough, it should’ve become incontrovertibly clear after you read just a handful of the messages, not to mention the instigator’s desperate grab for attention full explanation. Count the number of times the term “white liberal” is used. The only truthful thing in that entire post is that there’s no point trying to explain satire to these people. They obviously understand satire enough to recognize that Colbert is a liberal comedian, and that’s all that matters. Finally a chance to beat the liberals at their own game!

It has everything to do with political power, and nothing to do with race, tolerance, inclusivity, or even the nature of humor.

Which is a drag, because some of those tweets would’ve been hilarious. One said “I DON’T NEED A WHITE LIBERAL MAN TO TEACH ME ABOUT SATIRE,” which is like a perfect diamond. But made of irony instead of carbon.

Always Punching Up

Unfortunately, that’s not the end of it. When a kid drops an F-bomb, you can’t just suppress a laugh and then go on about your business. You have to ask, “where did you learn that word?” And in this case, the answer is, “From you, all right? I learned it by watching you!”

It’s still tragicomic to see self-described conservatives thinking they’ve finally hit upon the right combination of words and outrage to outwit the liberal menace once and for all, only to have it fizzle once it becomes clear they don’t understand the actual concepts behind the words. But when progressives do the exact same thing, it’s not funny at all. It’s unsettling.

My go-to example is an article on Jezebel.com a couple of years ago, in which writer Lindy West tried to describe “How to Make a Rape Joke.” (Which I’m not linking to, because Gawker). Shockingly, the post was longer than just the word “Don’t.” Instead, it was a depressingly belabored attempt at a wry explanation of why Daniel Tosh is just offensive while comedians like Louis CK are actually transgressive and genuinely funny.

And again, shockingly, the answer was more involved than just “Because Tosh is a hack.” Instead, it dragged in the topic of free speech, the old claim that it’s okay to punch up but never okay to punch down, the relative horror of sexual assault vs. accidents with farming equipment, and CDC statistics on the frequency of sexual assault. As if decent human beings need to consult actuarial tables to determine whether or not something is offensive.

Few of the ideas in the article were particularly new; for as long as there’s been a “counter-culture,” there’s been the same cycle:

  1. Somebody who considers himself or herself “politically incorrect” says something offensive.
  2. Outrage ensues.
  3. After the inevitable, flaccid arguments about freedom of speech and censorship, someone asks a question like: “How come it’s okay when Sarah Silverman says something racist or misogynist or anti-Semitic, but not when we do?”
  4. Instead of giving the correct answer to that question, there’s instead a tortured explanation about the transgressive nature of comedy and positions of power and being the social underdog and okay it’s because Silverman is a Jewish woman.

But the actual correct answer is “it’s okay because Sarah Silverman is saying racist or misogynist or anti-Semitic words, but isn’t expressing racist or misogynist or anti-Semitic ideas.”

To West’s credit, she doesn’t focus on gender or race, like so many others have. (It’s always depressing when you see someone who’s progressive in so many other ways still insist that there are certain jokes and certain words that only black people are allowed to use, and some that only women are allowed to use). But her post still overwhelmingly suggests that there does exist a set of rules describing who can say what without impunity, or as she words it, “feedback.” There’s a definite structure of oppressors and oppressed, and we must scrutinize our exchanges with other people to take into account not just what’s being said but who’s saying it.

The most telling part, I think, is her defense of Louis CK. He gets a pass because he’s spent years building a library of material in which the oppressors are always the butt of the joke, never the oppressed. Which I’m assuming doesn’t include the bits in which Louis CK calls his daughters “assholes.” But wait, she covers that too: “The point is, only a fucking psychopath would think like that, and the simplicity of the joke lays that bare.” Which I’m assuming doesn’t take into account that it would more accurately be a sociopath who thinks that way and that there’s a very real problem of judging the mentally ill instead of getting them the help that they need.

Gold is Fine, Thanks

That’s not (just) me trying to one-up politically correct speech. The point is that treating it in terms of a social hierarchy is what turns it into “politically correct” instead of just being “correct.” There isn’t a complex set of rules governing how we show basic human decency to each other. The rule is simply “be inclusive and empathetic.”

The feeble idea behind Tosh’s schtick is that you’d have to be a sociopath to think the things that he says, too. And he doesn’t need to have been working in comedy for decades to be given the benefit of the doubt; “not a sociopath” should be our baseline assumption about everyone until they prove us wrong. Tosh’s material isn’t funny because he doesn’t do anything with it. It’s just one example after the next of saying the most shocking thing he can think of and then grinning at his own naughtiness. It’s not transgressive because there’s no thought behind it. It’s just words.

Take that to its most absurd extreme and you end up with the “Cancel Colbert” nonsense. The instigators hoped that we’re gullible enough to believe that the context was irrelevant. The very act of a white male uttering the unspeakable words is horribly offensive.

The motivation for that, obviously, was a cynical power play. But I see no difference between that and the way that many actual progressives treat the exchange of ideas as if it were a perpetual game of Taboo. Whenever you find yourself saying, “You’re not allowed to say…” or “Intent doesn’t matter,” that’s a sure sign that you’re doing inclusivity wrong. You’re focusing on the speaker instead of what’s being said. If you focus on social inequality instead of making the baseline assumption that we’re all equal partners in a conversation, then you’re doomed to just keep repeating the same power struggle over and over again.

A couple of years ago at a Game Developer’s Conference, a few people were pleased with themselves for coming up with “The Platinum Rule.” The idea was that it’s not good enough to treat other people as you want to be treated; it’s much better to treat other people as they want to be treated.

I was alarmed that more people didn’t instantly see how horrible an idea that was, much less that they’d promote it as a feel-good symbol of inclusivity. It’s the opposite of inclusivity. It consigns us to always see each other for our differences, instead of acknowledging that no matter what our background, we all want the same things.

Ms. Representation

An objection to Strong Female Characters reveals how well-intentioned discussions of gender politics invariably become divisive and unproductive.

On one of the NewStatesman blogs, Sophia McDougall wrote an excellent essay titled “I Hate Strong Female Characters.” The basic premise: in an attempt to counteract decades’ worth of depicting women as weak or submissive, popular media has just replaced one stereotype with another. Male characters are allowed to be multifaceted, flawed, or neurotic, while female characters all have to be strong.

McDougall’s essay has some fantastic passages — my favorite is “…the film industry believes the world is more ready for a film featuring a superhero who is a raccoon than it is for a film led by a superhero who is a woman.” But really, each of her main arguments, on its own, is pretty self-evident.

On the topic of “strong female characters,” Greg Rucka wrote a post for io9 in 2011 that goes into more depth about his process and why it’s important to write realistic characters, some of whom are women. And McDougall’s other assertion, that we need to have more roles for women and more diverse roles for women in popular media, is something that many of us already accept as trivially true. At least, those of us who are in the audience for a blog post about “strong female characters.”

I think the reason McDougall’s essay is genuinely insightful is that she doesn’t simply say, “be aware of the problem.” She offers a suggestion as to why the problem exists and how to fix it. She takes two ideas that we’d otherwise just take for granted, and she explains how they feed into each other and how they result in a larger, more nuanced problem.

That, I believe, is what it’s going to take to get genuine acknowledgement that a problem exists and earnest attempts to try and address it.

Ten Shocking Reasons Internet Lists Are A Bad Idea

I feel obliged to point out that I don’t agree with all of McDougall’s essay. I think that much of it veers dangerously close to the level of shallow, divisive list-making that qualifies as “pop feminism” on the internet.

When talking about Captain America, she laments that the character of Peggy Carter is one of the best in any of Marvel’s comic book movies, but is still only one of exactly two women with speaking parts in the entire movie. That’s fine, but then for some reason McDougall feels the need to argue against a straw-man suggesting that there were no women fighting in WWII. Would anyone really ever make that claim, anyone worth listening to, anyway? The more reasonable counter-argument is that of course there were women in WWII, but few women in WWII comic books, which had little if anything to do with reality. And Captain America was obviously, shamelessly an homage to the feel of pulp WWII comics.

McDougall also complains that the character is depicted as over-the-top and cartoonish for shooting at Captain America out of jealousy. Again, though: comic book. Unlike, for example, X-Men or Iron Man or even The Avengers, I never once got the sense that Captain America was going for anything other than over-the-top and cartoonish.

She acknowledges that the two problems are related, though. And while I don’t agree with either of her observations, I think her conclusion is dead-on: any problems with Carter’s character are magnified because Carter is having to represent her entire gender.

Later on, I think McDougall falls into the trap of feminism-as-listicle, which treats quantity and quality as interchangeable. She shows three movie posters (and two movie trailers) of male-dominated casts with a lone female character, and concludes that the ladies are there to provide just enough of a feminine presence that we don’t think to object.

The problem is that the way each of those female characters is actually portrayed in each movie varies wildly. In fact, it’s exactly the kind of variety that she spends the rest of the essay claiming should be our goal. I’ve seen more trailers for Elysium than the one McDougall links to, and they all have Jodie Foster delivering lines, although they’re the same two-dimensional, mustache-twirling lines of any action movie villain. In Pacific Rim, Mako’s silence isn’t a stereotype of the deferential woman, but a stereotype of the reserved Japanese soldier — the idea that there’s a tumult of emotions roiling under her quiet exterior is key to her entire storyline, such as it is. In Inception, Ellen Page’s character doesn’t represent femininity so much as youth; it’s Marion Cotillard doing all the lifting as the movie’s Lone Female Presence. (Which isn’t to defend Inception as not being guilty of the problem, just that the poster is a terrible example of it).

Most dramatically, the same list includes The Avengers and The Smurfs. In The Avengers, Black Widow is given as much screen time as any of the “powered” characters, and she’s given several scenes dedicated to depicting her as strong, sexy, smart, and human. In The Smurfs, Smurfette is quite literally the prototypical example of “The Girl One.”

You could say a lot about the depiction of women in general and Black Widow in particular in The Avengers and its marketing. But to include it in a list with The Smurfs — or any of the other movies listed, for that matter — is easily dismissible, and it threatens to derail the entire argument. It reduces an argument about the quality of female characters to one simply of quantity.

Babies, Bathwater, and “THIS.”

The reason I’m pointing out my objections to the essay is because of all the times I’ve been forwarded a link to an article, and been left wondering how much of it I’m supposed to agree with, exactly. It seems like it’s impossible for any progressive issue, particularly feminism, to make it through the internet without having something objectionable attached to it.

The formula, as far as I can make out, is to start with a premise that’s so trivially true that your audience couldn’t possibly disagree. And then include as much offensive stuff in the rest of the piece as you can get away with.

So you end up with a blog post that asserts that we should never make assumptions about a woman’s capabilities, and then says that my white male privilege means I didn’t have to work very hard to get what I have. Or one that asserts how harmful it is when we trivialize sexual assault, and then goes on to say that all men think like rapists. Or one that decries the misogynistic excesses of a TV series, then speculates that it could be because one of the series creators is gay, and a lot of gay men hate women. Or one that talks about how comedians need to demonstrate respect for and sensitivity to their audiences, and then makes a sophomoric interpretation of human interaction as being about people coming from differing “positions of power.” Or one that purports to be about equality but reveals itself to actually be about reparations.

Every one is a case of a good idea buried under a bunch of bullshit. Fighting sexism with more sexism, racism with more racism, and doing everything possible to keep the discussion in terms of Us vs Them instead of basic human empathy. It’s polarizing, because it’s not designed to actually encourage discussion. It’s designed to encourage page views. You’re not supposed to say, “I agree with the premise but disagree with these points.” You’re supposed to just link to the article and say “THIS.”

And it’s self-perpetuating. Because writers are too eager to address the low-hanging fruit — the morons and troglodytes who spew out bile, harassment, and dismissive condescension — wasting time talking to the ones who’ve already demonstrated that they’re unwilling to listen, and ignoring those of us who are engaged. I’m not asking for preaching to the choir, but maybe at least opening the discussion to the choir. As it is, it’s a lot of preaching to the atheists while reminding the choir to check their privilege.

As a chubby guy who remained closeted until his early 30s largely because he could never identify with any of the gay men depicted in popular media, I’ve been told that I don’t understand what it’s like to have negative body image, or how important it is to have a diverse representation in the media. After seeing the same thing over and over again, getting more scattershot and offensive with each go-round, I’ve pretty much completely removed myself from caring about discussions of gender politics on the internet. There are too many people willingly behaving like characters in a John Irving novel, who were supposed to be over-the-top caricatures 40 years ago.

For the past six or seven years, at least once a year, I’ve read another piece from a writer lamenting that discussions of feminism and equality are invariably cyclical. Years ago — far too long ago for me to be able to find a link — I saw a cartoon that was meant to show “What Discussions of Women’s Rights on the Internet Are Like.” And it was one panel with a woman making some vague but reasonable argument, followed by a panel with a bunch of male idiots saying easily-dismissible bullshit. Kind of like Plato’s Dialogues, if one of the participants was a drooling moron.

Of course you’re going to keep making the same arguments, as long as you keep arguing to the lowest common denominator instead of addressing the more reasonable counter-points.

1:1

I’m sometimesoften dense about these things; in the past I’ve objected to the idea that characters be arbitrarily made female. And I still object to that idea. But then, it’s all in the wording: who’s to say what’s “arbitrary?” As was pointed out to me in the comments, the flaw was that I was still assuming that characters are male by default.

If you start with the assumption that characters in games are typically male, and that the way you get female characters is by removing a rib, adding a beauty mark and a bow, and removing half her costume, then it’s always going to seem as if making female characters is some arbitrary requirement to fulfill some quota. It was never conscious on my part; that’s how institutionalized sexism works.

That’s why I think McDougall’s essay is so interesting: she doesn’t just sermonize about two ideas that most of us would accept as trivially true, “Invariably ‘strong’ female characters are unrealistic” and “Women are under-represented in media”, and present them as separate concepts, that we should just accept as dogma. She explains how one feeds into the other. Maybe it’s obvious to other people, but it was kind of a new concept to me.

If you’ve got a male-dominated cast with only one woman, that woman has to be strong. She’s got to represent her entire gender on her own. None of your male characters are going to be interpreted as representative of all men, because their gender isn’t the aspect that distinguishes them.

McDougall says that she wants to see the ratio of male to female characters in film to go from its current level of 3:1 down to a more realistic level of 1:1. I still say that numbers don’t tell the whole story; one Black Widow is worth at least three Hawkeyes, and to me, Maria Hill was much more interesting than Nick Fury was.

But if anybody complains that it’s a case of instituting a quota, you can ask why their characters are so fragile that the whole story falls apart if the demographics are the same as that of the real world. Seeing as how women are over 50% of the population, it seems that you have to present a good argument to justify their exclusion, not their inclusion.

And if anybody complains that making a demand over something as arbitrary as gender is violating the creative process, you can remind them about the Strong Female Character. And point out that there’s nothing creative about spending years spitting out minor variations on Emma Peel that still aren’t as good as the original.

I still don’t believe that doing a simple gender-swap accomplishes much of anything — but then, look at Ripley in Alien. I said before that her character in Aliens was a lot stronger because they incorporated her being a woman into the story. I still think that’s true, but it doesn’t diminish the significance of Alien, having a female character who’s taking command of the situation instead of just being a victim.

And if anybody still doesn’t get how all these things are inter-related, and why better representation for women in the media is important, ask him to imagine a world in which every single male character in every movie and TV show is Tom Cruise’s character from Mission: Impossible. If he claims he’s not horrified by the thought, he’s not being honest.

Pity the Poor Oppressed Majority

How do you separate the art from the artist when the artist is such a flatulating asshole? Also: why the hypocrisy that makes me so angry might actually be a harbinger of oncoming poetic justice.

Over on The Gameological Society, there’s an interesting article by Bob Mackey, in which he talks about a recent Kickstarter campaign for a video game and ultimately, whether there’s any validity to the concept of separating an artist’s work from the actions and beliefs of the artist herself.

In this case, the artist in question is Doug TenNapel, creator of Earthworm Jim and designer of the newly Kickstarted game, which is a spiritual successor to 90s claymation adventure game The Neverhood. As promotion for the campaign built up, a writer for the GayGamer blog sent out a link to one of his own articles from 2011, pointing out some inflammatory anti-gay comments that TenNapel had made in the comments for one of his webcomics.

I was aware enough of TenNapel’s work to be able to recognize the name, and I had the vague idea that his political beliefs were diametrically opposed to mine, to say the least. I didn’t know much more, other than that a lot of people I respect were personal friends of his, and a lot of friends and co-workers were big fans. So for me, it was jarring to see my Twitter and Facebook feeds filling up with people excited about the Kickstarter and recommending that everyone back it, while on another page here was the guy comparing homosexual relationships to “letting a man take a dump in the ladies room.” I was incensed.

But in retrospect: should I have been so harsh? Those comments were from two years ago; do I want to be the person that holds every single thing a person says against him, indefinitely? I’m pretty certain I’ve never said anything as offensive as his analogy, but I have said a lot of things online in the heat of the moment; would I want to have those shoved in my face every few years? And sure, I’m reading his Tweets and every one of them is making my blood pressure go up a notch, but maybe he just gets defensive and doesn’t respond well to criticism? If he really were as loathsome as the impression I’m getting, why would so many people be giving him a pass on it? I know that before I came out, I was a pretty big homophobe, so I know from experience that attitudes can change drastically over time. How can I know whether he still holds the same views he expressed in that conversation?

A Martyr In the War for the Sanctity of Our Bathrooms

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. Much like Beetlejuice, TenNapel will appear anywhere on the internet after his name is intoned enough times. And he won’t leave you wondering for too long exactly what his opinions are. And as it turns out, I’m left with the impression that I wasn’t harsh enough.

If you look through the comments thread for that Gameological post, you’ll see Mr. TenNapel leap in to attack the writer and make his case in response to the other comments. And it’s a non-stop parade of false equivalences, ignorance, bigotry, claims so false they’re nonsensical, and case after case of the tiresome, paranoid martyrdom of self-described conservatives who refuse to understand the concept of “tolerance.”

Among everything else, he says that his “take a dump in the ladies room” comment was taken out of context. If like me, you were wondering in what context it was appropriate to compare the loving relationship of two adults to taking a dump, then rest assured that TenNapel is just talking about how there are rigid exclusive sexual roles that everyone understands. He points out that he apologized for the comment in that GayGamer comment thread (and he did, more or less), and it becomes clear that he was apologizing for the “crassness” of the phrase “take a dump” itself. Actually comparing marriage to defecation is A-OK.

And not just defecation! At various points, he manages to compare homosexuality to Mormonism, Scientology, polygamy, and in a sense, Christianity. Don’t worry about the last one, in case it seems out of place; the comparison is only that they’re both belief systems that people are persecuted for. There’s really no point in treating any of it as grounds for conversation. If someone in the United States in 2013 is still unclear on the distinction between sexual orientation and sexual preference, he’s either never spoken to a gay person, or he’s been refusing to listen.

I’m more inclined to believe the latter, because throughout, he repeatedly insists that he’s the victim of character assassination from The Left. That the whole question of marriage equality (or “gay marriage,” since he’s still living in 2005 apparently) is nothing more than political theater, a culture war that secular leftists are waging on free-thinking, conservative Christians like Mr. TenNapel.

You really shouldn’t have to keep explaining this to a functional adult, but: if you get your way, my government denies me access to one of the most basic and fundamental of societal institutions. If I get my way, your life is not affected in the slightest. That’s not a political difference; that’s injustice. And what’s more, as loathsome as I find Mr. TenNapel, no matter how toxic his opinions are, or how opinions like his have made a travesty of American politics, or how much he’s corrupting my chosen religion by using it as a shield while refusing to hold to its most basic tenets of love, compassion, charity, responsibility and humility — even with all that, I’d never attempt to denigrate his marriage or deny him the ability to raise children. And that’s why I’m right, and that’s why I’m eventually going to win.

But, again. Nothing new. It’s so old, in fact, that I’ve been complaining about it for at least five years. The culture of victimization among self-proclaimed conservatives, who insist that there must be a leftist agenda setting traps for them in an attempt to control how everybody thinks. And all because they lack the most basic capacity for empathy. They insult or actively seek to harm people different from them, then cry “liberal intolerance!” and claim that they’re being repressed by people who think differently from them. All with no apparent sense of irony.

Just Business

The only reason I find it worth mentioning at all is because of the sheer weight of persecution that TenNapel has to bear, simply for being a conservative Christian who supports traditional marriage. I hope that that Kickstarter has a stretch goal of getting him a new Victim Card, because the one he has has been played so often, it’s in shreds.

In those comment threads and on his Twitter account (and presumably, elsewhere), he says repeatedly that sinister forces are smearing him and threatening his projects. (And still, somehow, they’re ultimately ineffectual because for every $1 he gets denied, someone else contributes $2 because they like to be able to think for themselves. But they’re still sinister and threatening the downfall of Christianity and ruining America). He went to the other people involved with the project and warned them that they’d get criticism from his involvement, but they stuck with him. All just because he’s brave enough to speak his mind.

And he’s not affected by any boycotts, but won’t we think of the poor homosexuals? His team is very inclusive, and it’s clear he doesn’t “hate” gay people because he works with many of them. Because, as we all know, gay people might not be good enough to get married or raise children, but at least they’re good enough to work to profit Mr. TenNapel. So when anyone boycotts the project because of TenNapel’s involvement, all they’re really doing is hurting all the innocent LGBT folks trying to make a video game.

Seeing that idea repeated over and over has finally clarified how I feel about the whole concept of “separate the art from the artist.” Since I’ve complained about this several times, as it relates to video games and comic books and chicken sandwiches, it might seem like I’d already made up my mind. But that’s not the case; I’ve tried to keep an open mind and tried to remind myself that some people just see a clearer line dividing a product from its creator.

But TenNapel’s repeated protestations make it clear that he wants nothing more than to shift all blame and culpability to other people. If you don’t back this project simply because of something he said, then you are hurting all the other people who worked on it. He warned everyone that there’d be this reaction because of other people who don’t like what he says. He’d be totally willing to remove his name from the project if it would help get it funded now that other people are raising a big stink.

Nowhere is there any sense of his responsibility. Nowhere does he make the connection “I say stupid shit about LGBT people, it ends up hurting this project that LGBT people are working on, maybe I should stop saying stupid shit.” Because that would be caving to the liberal agenda, and denying his commitment to Christianity on account of all that stuff Jesus said about marriage being all about genitalia.

Every single time something like this comes up, there are those who complain that boycotts create a chilling effect. And that’s bullshit. What they do is create a world where words and actions have consequence. Where people actually have to stop and think about how they’re affecting the other people they’re sharing the planet with. And you don’t get a pass for being a jack-ass just because you draw comics or wrote Ender’s Game or make delicious sandwiches.

(Incidentally, in the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that I was never interested in Earthworm Jim, and that I tried to play The Neverhood but didn’t get very far before I completely lost interest. That’s not meant to add to the dogpile, or denigrate anybody else’s enjoyment of them or excitement about the project; they’re just not my thing. I only mention it to admit that I’m not at all conflicted when I complain about this stuff. Every time I pass by a Chick-fil-a, it’s with a heavy heart, but I wouldn’t have backed this game regardless).

As far as I know, the game’s already gotten funded, several times over, in fact. I don’t have any particular interest in sabotaging it. But I do find it hypocritical to claim that it’s just business, that there’s anything mature or noble in enjoying one part of what a person puts into the world while ignoring the rest. It seems to me to say, “I’m going to remain free to say and do whatever I want, to give money to whichever cause I choose, without regard for whom it’s hurting. And you’re not only entitled but obligated to make sure that I’m not affected by my actions at all. Because to do otherwise would be petty.”

And it’s always pointed out that the people involved are wealthy or at least successful enough that they’re not impacted at all by a boycott. (But it’s still really bad that you’d suggest boycotting it, for some reason). That’s always designed to make it sound like your protest is pointless. To me, it just sounds like another way to try and denigrate the people who are protesting, to remind us that we’re powerless. My protest is a lot more valuable to me than the $10 pledge or $5 combo meal is to them. To paraphrase Mr. TenNapel: America has thousands of jerks unable to find funding for their projects every day. Take a number.

The New Closet

The real reason I’ve been thinking about this, though, is that I’m seeing a little bit of encouragement in the things that used to infuriate me. I’ve always been annoyed by comments that suggest we need to be patient before people are treated equally. That fairness takes time. I still don’t agree with that on the legal side; you shouldn’t need to wait for justice, and it’s still a travesty to put a minority’s rights up for popular vote. But on the social side, it’s heartening to see what a dramatic change has taken place just in the few years since I’ve been out.

I’ve always hated the hypocrisy of people in the majority claiming that they’re the victims. I get angry when they try to make it sound as if some cabal of Homo Leftist Atheists have constructed some Politically Correct PRISM program that monitors everything people say, just waiting for them to slip up and utter an un-approved phrase so that they can swoop in and attack. As America’s Sweetheart Ann Coulter once lamented, liberals have made it so that you can’t say the word “faggot” anymore without being sent to rehab.

And now, I keep seeing all these self-described conservatives simply overwhelmed with paranoia over Liberal Thoughtcrimes. They have to change all their terminology, so that bigotry becomes “tradition” and laws that break up families are called “family oriented.” They complain that their free-thinking ways are being oppressed by a society that hates them simply for being different. And they go absolutely ape-shit denying it whenever you call them a “bigot” even though honestly, girlfriend, please. It’s so obvious.

And it reminds me of how miserable it was to spend years watching what I said, afraid that I’d admit to liking someone it wasn’t socially acceptable for me to like, or that I’d use the pronoun it wasn’t socially acceptable for me to use. The constant everyone knows paranoia, the fear that I’d be shunned if anyone found out my terrible secret.

Except now, I can casually talk about my boyfriend, and admit to liking Russell Crowe movies for reasons other than “he seems like a pretty cool guy.” I was ashamed of something I never should’ve been ashamed of, and now the truly shameful behavior is being relegated to the closet. And I’m just petty enough to be enjoying the poetic justice of that.

My Problem with The Big Bang Theory

An analysis of inequities of power, income, social status, and issues of representation in the popular media. “Holy shit, get a life”

After some consideration, I have determined exactly what it is about The Big Bang Theory that makes me uncomfortable: It’s not funny.

Or more accurately: I don’t think it’s funny, while millions of other people — including many in my peer group! — absolutely love it.

And I think that’s ultimately the entire problem. There’s a blog post called “The Problem With The Big Bang Theory” that was passed around back in September of last year, and now for whatever reason has been getting a lot of circulation again in the past few days. In it, the author explains how the show doesn’t celebrate nerds, but simply continues to mock them. The character of Penny, the normal one, is the only character the audience is supposed to identify with; the others are supposed to be seen as weird and alien. Plus it’s a little racist, a good bit misogynist, homophobic, and it makes fun of people with genuine mental disabilities.

The only part of that post that I agree with is the one complaint that the author quickly dismisses: the show relies on lazy humor. It has references for their own sake, not as part of a well-constructed joke, or even to evoke a feeling of nostalgia and inclusion over a shared memory. The references just come across as pandering.

I wouldn’t be able to go into detail, since I’ve only seen a handful of scenes from the series and never a full episode; my opinion of the show sounds about the same as Angus T. Jones’s opinion of Two and a Half Men. But in one of those scenes, as the characters were fighting to be heard over the laughter, there was a whiteboard in the foreground covered with an Objective C class diagram. For those of us who roll our eyes whenever we’re subjected to ridiculous abuses of technology in CSI and the like, an accurate inclusion of something real computer programmers would actually use would seem to be entertainment nirvana. But in the show, it just sat there, inert. It might as well have had an arrow pointing to it, with the caption YOU RECOGNIZE THIS.

Turning It Off And Back On Again

You could contrast it with The IT Crowd, a series which inverted the power dynamic of The Big Bang Theory by making its nerds and geeks identifiable, and making its “normal” character the subject of mockery. You could say that, but you don’t have to, ’cause you got pronouns, you can say: The IT Crowd understood how to include familiar references without drawing attention to them. It made its references both more subtle and more absurd. The nerd-pandering EFF stickers and action figures and T-shirts (for which Graham Linehan requested recommendations on Twitter) are kept to the background and almost never explicitly acknowledged. The only episodes that were explicitly about technology were deliberately ridiculous, centering around Friendface or convincing someone that the Internet was a black box with a light on it.

While I think it’s true, more or less, that The IT Crowd flipped the predictable premise by making the nerds the heroes and making fun of the normals, I don’t think that says anything of merit. For one, because The IT Crowd wasn’t about IT any more than Father Ted was about Catholicism. And more importantly, because The IT Crowd didn’t choose sides. It made fun of all of its characters. It spent as much time making fun of Moss for being dysfunctional and weird, and Roy for being insecure, horny, and a little homophobic; as it made fun of Jen for being dense and shallow.

That blog post tries to compare Big Bang Theory to Community, and concludes that the latter is better, partly because the audience is meant to identify with Abed. I say that’s absurd; almost half the episodes showed how Abed is deeply dysfunctional. Community was meta-television — often self-consciously so — that made fun of the idea of protagonists vs. villains, identifying with any character over the others, and the entire premise of a situation comedy.

In fact, both Community and Big Bang Theory started with the same structure; Community presented itself as a fish-out-of-water premise with Jeff Winger as the normal guy surrounded by a bunch of crazies. It then dismantled that premise by making it clear that he was every bit as messed up as the other characters, but they all grew to depend on each other. That doesn’t sound so different from the first season or two of Big Bang Theory. The biggest difference is that Big Bang Theory focused on the old “Will They Or Won’t They?” storyline, while Community referenced it, mocked it, rejected it, and then repeatedly used it.

Nerd Blackface

All of that leads me to two conclusions:

  1. The whole “geek chic” thing is gradually turning into something malignant; and
  2. Don’t attribute to complex social dynamics and inequalities of power what can be more easily explained by inequalities of talent.

For the first part: I’ve seen The Big Bang Theory described several times as “nerd blackface,” which makes this all heartbreaking because I absolutely love that term. But the problem with it is that it results in weirdly defensive over-reactions, and it relies on simplistic assumptions that act as if Revenge of the Nerds were a documentary.

For instance, that blog post, in which the author feels obliged to establish her [I’m assuming, based on the rest of the blog] geek cred. It’s always a little sad to see someone feeling it necessary to establish themselves as a geek when their blog is full of animated GIFs from Buffy the Vampire Slayer; you’ve already made it quite clear you’re a nerd, and to be clear that is awesome. It’s like a few weeks ago, when the ridiculous “fake nerd girl” kerfluffle arose, and a lot of women responded by establishing themselves as legit nerds. Instead of doing the more sensible thing and simply pointing out that the entire notion of a “fake nerd” of any type is asinine and immediately dismissible.

Another example: this honest, heartfelt, and probably well-intentioned post (in Gawker-friendly list format!) by Annalee Newitz called “Six Good Habits I Learned From Being Bullied as a Geeky Kid.” Sincere kudos to Newitz for putting herself and her experiences out there, and it’s always welcome to see a reminder not to let yourself be driven by what other people think of you. But the whole thing seems to be predicated on the old ideas that nerds are somehow more discerning than the mainstream; and that the best revenge is being successful while seeing the people who bullied you fall to obscurity and realize that their best days are behind them.

The first idea is belied by The Big Bang Theory. It’s a Chuck Lorre television series, which almost by definition means it’s mainstream. And a ton of nerds love it, to the point of buying the merchandise, identifying with the characters, and naming scientific discoveries after catch phrases from the show. Plus it’s a mainstream television series that must have a sizable percentage of nerds on staff, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to have whiteboards full of Cocoa Touch class names. (Or for that matter, have frequent guest appearances by celebrity nerd hero Wil Wheaton).

That Tumblr post specifically calls out Wheaton, Sara Gilbert, and Jim Parsons for being more or less Uncle Toms because of their participation in the show; I say that’s absurd. Their participation should be a clear sign that the whole notion of Jocks vs. Nerds is simplistic and exclusionary. “Nerd” isn’t some homogenous group — even if you try to subdivide it into geeks, dweebs, and geeky dweebs — everybody’s into weird stuff and has had their own experiences of feeling rejected or feeling like an outsider, to some degree. If that were in doubt, I’d think the revelations that Rosario Dawson knows Klingon and Vin Diesel plays D&D would’ve laid waste to that tired old notion. But still, I frequently see people trying to martyr themselves and put forth the idea that nerds are somehow The Chosen Ones, suffering nobly until their time in the spotlight. In fact, what they’re doing is anything but inclusive; it’s building an internet treehouse and attaching the sign “No Pretty People Allowed” out front.

The most blatant example of that is The Guild music video “I’m the One That’s Cool”, which I find disturbing in at least a dozen ways. How is it that a bunch of actors wearing unflattering hair styles and accentuating their overbites is not as much a case of “Nerd Blackface” as anything on The Big Bang Theory? Is it because actress and producer Felicia Day has firmly established her geek cred, while a Jewish television writer — who ends every episode of every series with a wall-of-text vanity card only legible to those who record the show and pause it — is one of those beautiful people jocks? (And while I’m at it, one of Lorre’s high-profile privileged early jobs was writing for Roseanne, just like another television series creator who never earned his geek credentials).

Even more important than the question of “who’s this coming from?” is whether it’s a good message to be sending at all. It ignores the fact that some of the biggest bullies I’ve ever encountered were nerds who themselves got bullied when younger and were trying to over-compensate for it in adulthood. Or that if you’re an adult and still complaining about the jerk who pantsed you in high school, that means you haven’t really gotten over it and moved on.

“Nerd” or “Geek” isn’t a protected class, and it shouldn’t be one. Some of the most awful people I’ve run into have been at nerd conventions, and some of the friendliest people I’ve encountered have been at board game conventions. The stuff nerds like isn’t necessarily any better or smarter than the mainstream; for the record, I don’t personally like The Guild at all, either, but I’m glad that it exists and that there are tons of people who can enjoy it. If the thing that unites a “community” of nerds is that they’re really, really invested in the stuff they enjoy, then shouldn’t that be the focus, instead of bitterness over the people who don’t appreciate it?

So essentially, I’m saying: Get off the 20-sided dice, we need the plastic.

How Not To Tell People How To Make A Rape Joke

And then there’s the attempt to attribute the problems of the show to some imbalance of power between Normals vs Nerds, or Gays vs Straights. That’s a lazy trend that I’ve been seeing more and more of lately, and it’s worse than just a Geek Pride debate because it actually intersects with genuinely serious issues.

A couple of months ago, there was an internet controversy when Daniel Tosh insulted a heckler with a stupid and insensitive comment about rape, and hundreds of people were tripping over themselves to be the most vocal to condemn it. There was a post called “How to Make a Rape Joke” on Jezebel — Internet go-to site for shallow social analysis — that correctly called out Tosh for being a moron, but then went off into straight-up BS territory by trying to establish what’s offensive vs. what’s acceptable, and trying to explain to readers how exactly to tell an offensive joke. The author insisted that it’s about context, that sexual assault is more statistically likely to be sensitive to more members of the audience than other horrific events, and that it is ultimately about making jokes from a position of power mocking those with less power. She concluded by trying to explain why when Tosh makes a rape joke it’s offensive, but when Louis CK makes a rape joke it’s funny: it’s because Louis CK has spent 20 years making it clear that he’s on the side of good, and that he’s against rape.

Which is bullshit. What makes one offensive and the other funny is that Tosh is an opportunistic hack, and Louis CK is actually an extremely talented comedian. Lindy West’s claim that there’s some kind of hierarchy of offensiveness, where sexual assault trumps cancer, AIDS, industrial accidents, and infant death, is just plain ghoulish. And her tortured attempts to explain it in terms of actuarial tables based on CDC data is 100 kinds of wrong-headed bullshit. The only difference between Tosh’s comments and Louis CK’s joke is that the author thinks one is stupid and the other is funny.

And she’s right, but for all the wrong reasons. Louis CK has built a career out of being an awkward misanthrope, and he’s made fun of women, men, rape, race, politically correct language, and repeatedly called his children little shits. A huge part of his stand-up material depends on shock value. Tosh’s depends on shock value, too. To imply, as that Jezebel article does, that Tosh actually believes what he’s saying, and he hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt because he may actually be in support of sexual assault and complicit in “rape culture,” is ludicrous. Louis CK didn’t spend the last 20 years earning the right to not have audiences automatically assume he’s pro-rape. Unless you’re a writer for a blog that makes ad revenue off of links to controversy, you should automatically assume that no one is actually making light of rape, until they prove otherwise.

What Louis CK spent the last 20 years doing is learning how to construct a joke. Louis CK’s joke that West quotes depends on shock value just like Tosh’s comments; the difference is that one was cleverly constructed, while Tosh’s comments are the shallowest version of “wouldn’t this be shocking?” possible. Tosh’s whole schtick is firing a shotgun blast of every racist, misogynist, homophobic, or otherwise offensive thing he can think of — and from what I’ve seen, I’d guess it’s literally every single one he can think of — and grin through the whole thing because he’s being naughty and subversive. There’s little cleverness or originality to it, and he almost never takes it any farther than the initial shock value. (I’ll admit that I’ve laughed at some of Tosh’s material on the YouTube clip show, but always when he takes the joke to an absurd extreme, instead of just going for the obvious “old joke about Mexicans/blacks/gay people/asians/women”).

A lot of people have defended Tosh by pointing out that he makes fun of everything and everyone, which is something that West acknowledges and then dismisses. She tries to counter by explaining how there are things that are appropriate and inappropriate to make fun of, which is missing the point entirely. The defense, such as it is, isn’t that Tosh is making fun of the wrong things. The defense is that by making fun of everything, he’s in reality making fun of nothing. It’s simply crossing the line for its own sake. Contrast it with, say, Sarah Silverman, whose stand-up routine is a similar uninterrupted string of offensive, shocking things, but who’s a lot more clever about making it clear whom she’s mocking. To put it in Big Lebowski terms: Silverman is clearly opposed to conservatism, misogyny, racism, and anti-Semitism. Tosh believes in nothing.

What’s most heartbreaking is that the Louis CK joke that West quotes in her article isn’t really a “rape joke” at all, but instead makes fun of and dismisses her entire argument. The entire shock value of the joke comes from the initial implication that there’s ever an acceptable excuse for rape, or in fact that there are degrees of acceptability when talking about horrible things. It doesn’t depend on context at all; it’d be funny no matter who told it, because it only requires the audience to know the difference between right and wrong. Please, bloggers, if you’re going to take it upon yourselves to explain jokes to people, at least take a few minutes to study how jokes actually work.

Everything I Know About Human Interaction I Learned From Buffy the Vampire Slayer

And “how jokes work” gets back to why I’ve got a problem with that attempt at analyzing of The Big Bang Theory. It tries to drag in issues of social inequality, popular culture’s representation of women, and homophobia when the better explanation is that the jokes simply don’t work for some of us.

I blame Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Or really, the fact that popular entertainment started getting really good around the same time that self-publishing in the form of blogs became really viable. It meant that “low art” like Buffy — which was designed to be as easy to pick apart as any good parable or fairy tale — got analyzed and over-analyzed, to the point where self-apparent interpretations were accepted as genuine insight. Back when colleges first started offering courses that gave literary analysis of Watchmen, or discussed Buffy in the context of feminism or folklore, people commented on how unusual it was. But it quickly became accepted as commonplace. That, along with Oprah and TV psychologists, meant that pop psychology or social studies came to be seen as on the same level as academics.

And anyone who thinks I’m being overly dismissive of “low art” or pop culture is free to read any of my long dissertations in defense of pop culture. In brief, though: my defense of “low art” and rejection of “high art” is not that low art is as nuanced or as complex, but that art is about communication, and there’s no inherent superiority of obscurity for its own sake. A piece of entertainment that is intended to be “easily digestible” — e.g. how Buffy the Vampire Slayer used the supernatural to intensify the trials of adolescence and young adulthood — can be every bit as valid as something that invites multiple interpretations.

In any case, and whether that’s the actual cause or whether I’m full of it, the result has been a glut of shallow interpretations of media and popular culture passed off as more complex and insightful analyses. For example, using cultural context and background to determine the right way to make light of sexual assault. It’s similar to how some feminist blogs explain their use of the word “bitch;” or Dan Savage’s stunt attempt to “take back” the word “faggot;” or the people who twist themselves into knots explaining exactly how and when it is or isn’t appropriate to use the n-word, based on the race and cultural background of the speaker and his or her audience. In reality, though, it’s all much more simple: the n-word (and for that matter, the c-word) is fucking irredeemably hateful and offensive, and no one should use it, ever.

In the past few weeks, I’ve seen the same type of false logic used to try and explain how the game Cards Against Humanity is “problematic,” how certain scenes in American Horror Story are objectionable while others are fine as lurid entertainment, and why the violence in Tomb Raider is more objectionable than the violence in any other video game. With the first two, at least, it’s a misguided attempt to establish a “do not cross” line with something that exists entirely to make the “line” irrelevant. And all of them to one degree or another assume that modern audiences are primarily made up of sociopaths, unable to distinguish fantasy from reality, unable to tell even the difference between right and wrong. And yet, somehow able to discern what it is that makes death from AIDS or the Holocaust somehow less sensitive than sexual assault or racism. It assumes that the audience is actually reveling in or making light of the horrific, and then compounds that by suggesting that there are degrees of what’s horrific and what’s appropriate fodder for comedy.

Even worse than that, it makes discussions about actual issues spin out of control and descend into unproductive noise. It’s how “you don’t understand a joke” gets interpreted as “you can’t take a joke.” Or “your analysis has no merit” gets interpreted as “your premise has no merit” and then “racism/misogyny/homophobia don’t exist.” And why people so often get infuriated to hear “You’re over-thinking it,” when the actual complaint is “You’re making an easily-dismissible mockery of what is actually a serious but ultimately simple issue.”

Which is the most roundabout possible way of explaining my accusation: that article about The Big Bang Theory is over-thinking it. That’s not to say that smart, tech-savvy women aren’t grossly under-represented in the media. It’s not to say that homophobia is no big deal. It’s not to say that it’s okay to make fun of people with mental disabilities, and it’s not to undermine the damage caused by being bullied or socially ostracized.

All I’m saying is that you don’t need to mention any of that to explain why the jokes in Big Bang Theory feel uninspired and clumsy. Or if you do use that as your justification, then you have to explain why it’s okay for The IT Crowd to make fun of nerds and gay people, Community to make fun of the mentally disabled, and The Guild to pander to an audience of self-described geeks, but not okay when Big Bang Theory does the same thing.

Instead of trying to come up with a tortured explanation involving in-groups and outsiders, traditional inequities of cultural power, gender roles and role reversal, and institutionalized sexism and racism, the simplest explanation works best. All require people to be able to laugh at themselves, some people are simply better at writing jokes than others, and not everyone is going to find the same thing funny.

All The President’s Bad Dudes

My opinions about the “enthusiast press,” the relationship between game journalist and game developers, and a muddled blog post based on a faulty premise.

BaddudesYesterday in Penny Arcade’s news post, Tycho delivered a pretty outstanding smack down to a misguided op-ed piece on Kotaku. That article was “Gaming’s Biggest Problem Is That Nobody Wants to Talk” by Jason Schreier.

There’s plenty wrong with that op-ed, and it’d be pointless to try and go over every objectionable aspect of it.

But I’ll try anyway. First is that the justification Schreier uses vacillates between camaraderie and antagonism like a join me or die! villain at the end of an action movie. Here, it’s Information wants to be free! The people have a right to know! Publishers, tear down this wall of secrecy! There, it’s Hey, it’s all good! We just all want to get excited about your game! The truth is neither: he just wants to get the Hot Scoops.

Schreier starts right off the bat mentioning Kotaku’s exclusive leak of info for Modern Warfare 3. Was this a shocking expose of information that The People needed to know? Hardly. So then it must’ve been simply a case of drumming up excitement for a much-anticipated title. But if that’s the case, then why make such a big deal about making it exclusive, releasing it before the publisher was ready, and making sure that Kotaku was first on the scene? The answer, obviously, is ad revenue. It’s frankly offensive to see someone trying to pass this off as some kind of public service.

Then there’s the recurring theme of the op-ed: I want PR divisions to do my job for me, even more than they already do. Here’s a choice quote that was already pulled out for us to ponder:

Square Enix wouldn’t even say how many people worked on one of their games. Even though I can just go in and count the credits.

So is the size of the team working on a game relevant, or even interesting to anyone other than the HR and accounting departments of Square Enix? Again, I’m skeptical. But assuming that it was: why didn’t Schreier just go in and count the credits?

Professional Trust or Corporate Lapdog?

Of course, “someone wrote something kind of dumb on Kotaku” is hardly news. The only reason it’s worth mentioning at all is because the op-ed, while dismissible, does reflect this image of games journalism that’s pervasive among writers, readers, and developers.

Tycho’s response nails the most salient point: getting information from game developers and publishers requires having a relationship of trust that comes from mutual benefit. Games journalists rely on publishers to get review copies and information about upcoming releases. Publishers rely on games journalists to get word out about their game. There needn’t be anything antagonistic about that as long as both sides are professional.

But Schreier starts his own op-ed with examples of how his site’s violated that trust. He dismisses the severity of the Modern Warfare leak by saying that the game sold well regardless, as if that not only makes it okay, it’s something that the publishers should be happy about. That just shows a tremendous lack of respect for the team that spent months (if not longer) developing a PR campaign for the game. With rare exceptions, the people running PR departments aren’t stupid. And even when they are, they know the value of controlling what information is released and when. Kotaku obviously knows the value of it, too, or else they wouldn’t be slapping EXCLUSIVE on their articles and going to great lengths to be the first to release it.

Publishers and developers know what happens when screenshots get released. A single pre-release image from a game can spawn huge message board or comment threads full of people making wild assumptions based on the smallest detail of a UI element. Once that starts, it becomes gospel, and anything that the publisher says in response will be summarily dismissed. Word of mouth can kill interest in a game even before it’s released, or on the flip side, have people extrapolating wild ideas and then being disappointed when the reality doesn’t live up to that. (Take the XCOM first person shooter as just one example).

He goes on to mention the leak of Valve’s proprietary source code with another dismissal of “no harm, no foul!” I don’t know what’s worse: if he’s actually that ignorant of the economics of game development and how much money went into developing that code, or if he’s disingenuous enough to try and convince readers that it doesn’t matter.

All of it leads to the same conclusion: he’s got no respect for the time, effort, and money that publishers put into developing and promoting their games. If his site is showing the publishers and developers so little respect, why should they show any more than the barest amount of respect to him as a representative of the site?

Of course, when you describe the relationship between developers and journalists in those terms, the response is invariably the same: You’re saying that games journalists should become corporate lapdogs for the games industry, reporting only what the publishers tell them to and when, abandoning any pretense of journalism and just becoming extensions of publishers’ marketing departments!

And that sucks, because even if you don’t take it to that extreme, the idea is still so prevalent that it makes the relationship between developers, journalists, and readers needlessly antagonistic.

Enthusiast Press or Investigative Journalists?

The problem is not recognizing the difference between the “enthusiast press” — games journalists and tech/gadget journalists are the two areas I’m most familiar with — and the traditional press. There is a difference.

And right there, I bet I’ve already alienated several of my acquaintances who work as games journalists. Because there’s this pervasive idea that if there’s a difference, that necessarily means that one’s better than the other. I must be saying that games writers aren’t “real” journalists.

That’s absurd. If anything, professional games writing (and general tech writing) is a superset of traditional journalism, at least in breadth if not depth. Obviously, you’ve got to be familiar with the subject, no matter what you’re writing about. But especially with games, you’ve got to be entertaining in addition to just being informative. You’ve got to be insightful and not simply objective.

Unless you work somewhere that has rigidly divided departments, you’ve got to be able to handle previews of upcoming releases as well as reviews of existing ones, and you’ve got to understand how they’re different in tone. You might be writing something based on nothing more than a press release and your knowledge of the industry. You might be writing an op-ed or a feature, and even that is further divided into writing about the social/economic side of games, or writing about the creative and technical side.

And, of course, at some point you’re going to be doing investigative journalism. Writing about working conditions in the industry, discrimination in hiring, discrimination in subject matter, the financial health of companies, studio closures, hirings, firings, and the state of games journalism itself.

That investigative journalism is part of the job. And it is, quite simply, different from the other types of writing that the enthusiast press is going to be doing. I think a lot of readers and writers believe that making such a distinction harms objectivity. It doesn’t. It simply requires developers and writers to be professional enough to recognize the differences.

And it requires readers to maintain enough of a tie to reality so as not to be crying foul at every imagined lapse of journalistic integrity, the moment a writer doesn’t demonstrate exactly enough skepticism over a press release or isn’t quite critical enough of a quote.

Keeping Them Honest

The traditional press has a responsibility to keep the public informed on the issues that affect them. Obviously, it’d be a shitty journalist who just repeated without question anything and everything a politician or corporate representative said to them. A traditional reporter has to be always on the lookout for a hidden agenda.

Here’s a super-secret exclusive bombshell, reported first-hand by a 16-year games industry insider: game companies want you to give them money. There’s no hidden agenda. With few exceptions (reports of Bobby Kotick’s secret kitten-blood-powered doomsday device funded by profits from the Call of Duty series are strictly hearsay) they are blatantly obvious in their motivations: they would like it very much if you would get excited about this game and then pay them for it, and in the case of MMOs, keep paying them for it every month indefinitely.

Mis-representing financial reports? Layoffs? Manipulating review aggregators or online comments? Unfair hiring practices? That’s news; that’s the kind of thing that the public “needs” to know. The plot of an upcoming first-person shooter? No.

And one of the many things that Schreier’s op-ed fails to appreciate: that’s the kind of thing that you’re not going to get from a company’s PR department anyway. See the above bit about wanting people to give them money. Trying to take a Woodward & Bernstein “the people have a right to know” approach to them is just lazy. If you’re doing investigative journalism, the first step is to try investigating. Ask the PR department for a response, obviously. But don’t just leave it there and complain that you’re blocked by a wall of impenetrable silence.

You’re never going to get everything you need for an investigative piece simply by talking to PR. So for everything else: why insist on such a suspicious, antagonistic relationship? You’re working towards a common end. You want information about a game, they want people to have enough information about the game to want to buy it. You don’t have to be skeptical that they’re trying to sell you something, because everyone is fully aware that they’re trying to sell you something.

Even more than that, they’re selling you something that you’re already interested in. If they weren’t, then you wouldn’t be putting up with the unfairly low income that games journalists are stuck with.

Hardball

There are lots of things that games publishers and developers don’t want you to know about. Some of it is because it affects their bottom line or their shareholders. Some of it is because they’re simply not ready to show it yet. A professional is going to be able to tell the difference between the two. An unprofessional or unethical writer is going to treat it all the same.

And really, games writers should just know this from experience. They’ve played review copies of games, so they’ve seen first hand how often games can be an absolutely unplayable mess right up until the last couple weeks of polishing. They’ve seen how many hits a site can get for having exclusive info about a game, so they know how and why embargoes work to keep things fair among review sites. (And how much it sucks when a publisher gives one site an exclusive at the expense of others). These sites know the importance of timing and exclusives, so why act like it’s simply arbitrary when publishers put so much value on their own timing and their own withholding of information?

There’s this insistence that if a journalist has a mutually respectful, non-antagonistic relationship with a publisher, then that compromises the journalist’s objectivity or integrity. That unless you’re always playing hardball with publishers, then that means you’re in their pocket. Nonsense.

As I mentioned, I’ve got a friendly relationship with several games writers (or at least, I did before I wrote this). Most of them have written stuff that’s been critical of my work, or of the companies that I’ve worked for. It’s not just that that’s okay; I wouldn’t expect anything less. It’s professionalism. My job was to make games, their job was to report on the games. The thing that we all have in common is the thing that makes this “enthusiast” press: we all love games.

Of course you’re always going to find some developer getting butt-hurt when a critical review bruises his ego, or a publisher threatening to pull review copies from sites that don’t meet the meteoritic average for a game, or a journalist writing an amateurish attack piece on a game or a developer, or thousands and thousands of readers crying “bias!” whenever they read a review that isn’t 100% glowing of a game they love. But those should be considered the exception. We shouldn’t just assume that that’s how things are supposed to work.

(For the record, I have done a pretty good job over the years of alienating certain gaming sites. But in my mind, at least, it was never the result of negative coverage. It was the result of lazy or unprofessional coverage: going to a press event and talking about nothing but the booze; accusing the studio of cutting corners or being lazy; accusing the writing of being racist or xenophobic; and comments to the effect of “the writers/animators/whoever should be fired,” which is irresponsible for a message board, much less a paid review).

If you’ve got a political writer who seems unnaturally chummy with a politician, you have a right to be suspicious. But when you’re talking about game development — not the industry side of things, but the games themselves — it’s just plain counter-productive to insist on suspicion instead of professionalism and mutual respect. It’s a shame a piece like Schreier’s insists that we’re all on the same side, but then goes on to make it clear that we’re only on the same side as long as it ensures link-baiting exclusives and scandal pieces for the site.

Because I think we are all on the same side. If it’s not clear by now, I love hearing myself talk, and I especially love hearing myself talk about games. I like being able to pick them apart and see what works and doesn’t work. I like writing about the thought process that went into certain decisions. I like being able to write about stuff I’ve worked on and speculate on how it could be better. I like being opinionated about them, and calling out what sucks and what’s awesome. I like being able to go on message boards and get into it with equally opinionated, long-winded players.

So far, obscurity and long-windedness have kept me relatively safe. It’d be even better to rely on simple trust. To know that even if you’re not one of the “unfirable” people that Tycho talks about, you can still be open and transparent without the fear that you’re going to get quoted out of context in a post somewhere, or that someone’s going to take something that you’ve said and try to turn it into news — or worse, a scandal — instead of just asking you directly to clarify. I’ll stick with obscurity, thanks.

So basically what I’m saying is that everybody needs to chill the fuck out. Unless you’re working for a company that cares more about profits than about games, or you’re working for a site that cares more about page views and ad revenue from exclusives than about games, then we’re all united in our love of something that’s ultimately inconsequential.

A Thousand Points of Light

Distraction-free entertainment is totally L7 to the max, Daddy-o! The kidz are all about the texting these days and you just have to get on board with the program!

ImchatmillerscrossingIt’s a time-honored rule that for any headline that asks a question, the answer is always “No.” That doesn’t apply to “Is It Time To Let Movie-Goers Send Texts During a Film?”, where the answer is “Oh hell no.”

Actually, in this case, the old rule about New Yorker cartoons applies even more. “Christ, what an asshole.”

It’s fun for those of us prone to internet rage to get tossed a slow pitch every once in a while. Occasionally a response can knock it out of the park. Instead of having to think about actual issues that really are controversial and require a careful deliberation of the merits of both sides, we can all stand behind the idea that you’re a selfish jackass if you insist on turning on a bright light in a dark room full of people who paid to be there and aren’t cursed with your own irreparably shattered attention span.

In my day, we understood how light works!

Well, most of us can stand behind that, anyway. The only thing that’s worth commenting on at all is the lengths people will go to in order to rationalize bad behavior. Here’s an article about a similar proposal, this time in regards to the legitimate theatertheatre, that tries to pin the blame on the invention of the electric light and then make the claim that being an inconsiderate asshole is a time-honored tradition stretching back to the earliest days of live performance.

I remain disappointed that they didn’t take this to its logical conclusion, and propose that all concessions be replaced with maggot-laden legs of roast mutton.

After all, aren’t we being awfully short-sighted? How can we possibly expect a 17-year-old raised in the age of interactive entertainment to stay focused on the ponderous, Terence Malick-esque existential ramblings of the 21 Jump Street remake? In a world where teens and young adults have constant access to social media, isn’t it just selfish of us in the less-lucrative demographics to just demand that we can escape that for 90 minutes? When people have instant, personalized access to virtually every movie ever made, with the ability to start and stop it at will, while simultaneously updating IM, Twitter, and Facebook accounts, doesn’t it just make good financial sense for theaters to remove the only remaining aspect of their experience that makes them unique?

We’ve already learned that in the brave new world of digital distribution, the whole notion of “being paid enough money to keep producing content that people want to watch” is laughably outdated. As soon as all of us old farts still clinging to 20th century notions of propriety will die off already, the old concepts of “stealing” and “not behaving like an over-entitled shit stain” and “showing a basic level of respect for your fellow humans” will be revealed as the anachronistic, imaginary fantasies that they are. The one surviving multi-national media conglomerate will show $500 million productions free of charge, and audiences of the New Generation will talk to each other and send text messages to people not in the theater as a beautiful display of communal engagement and interactivity. And it will be glorious.

Being Katniss Everdeen

If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention! The internet’s preeminent Hunger Games fan and the bold battle against real racism.

Being john malkovich
Man, I just can’t get a break. I was just recovering from the discovery that I’m a horrible misogynist-slash-“white knight” pseudo-feminist, and now I find out I’m a racist? If I’m this much of a jackass without even realizing it, I shudder to think what kind of damage I could be doing intentionally.

As it turns out, I got started on my path to white supremacy simply enough: I read The Hunger Games quickly, and I didn’t remember that one of the characters was described as being dark skinned.

I know now just how awful that is, thanks to the tireless work of the author of the Hunger Games Tweets tumblr and corresponding Twitter account. The account’s been keeping up the good fight by “expos[ing] the Hunger Games fans on Twitter who dare to call themselves fans yet don’t know a damn thing about the books.”

The reason I’ve seen dozens of people linking to and commenting on that tumblr is because of a post about it on Jezebel.com. Jezebel fulfills the “Give Me Something to Be Angry About” requirement of Gawker’s media empire, and they hit pay dirt on this one. In the two days since the post was published, I’ve seen at least two dozen links to it and comments on it, just from people I know. And they’ve found it “jaw-dropping,” “nauseating,” “depressing,” “abysmal,” “heart-stopping,” and it made them hate humanity.

To them, I’ve got a couple of questions:

1) How much of that Tumblr did you read?

I got about eighteen pages into it. And when you start reading, yes, it does look like page after page filled with disgustingly racist messages from people both hostile and clueless. And there are several of those. I counted about 15 before I stopped digging.

But there’s a lot more of this. And also this. And this. This too. Also this. Plus this. And of course this too, which I guess isn’t racist because it’s making fun of an Asian name.

In other words, a lot of people saying “she doesn’t look like I pictured” followed by trollfaces, “deal with it” animated GIFs, and treatises about exposing a significant social ill. In other words, a tumblr.

2) What internet have you guys been using?

Because I want to start using that one. I like the idea of being so stunned at the sight of someone saying something stupid and racist that it makes me want to vomit. The internet I’ve been reading has me seeing at least one disgustingly racist comment every morning before lunch. The internet I’ve been using lets actual white supremacist groups have websites.

Yes, any one of those genuinely racist tweets and facebook messages would be gross enough to be worth calling out. It’d be good to see any one of those tools held responsible for what he or she writes. And like I said, I counted 15 of them.

But at the same time, I kind of already knew that there are at least 15 racist people on the internet.

Why is this getting such a disproportionate level of outrage?

May the Click-throughs Be Ever In Your Favor

A huge part of it, of course, is the perfect combination of opening weekend for a hugely popular movie franchise based on a hugely popular book franchise, and the internet’s favorite hobby: complaining about stuff.

Casting for The Hunger Games was announced a pretty good while ago, and that twitter & tumblr account have been around for at least a month, as far as I can tell. It’s an amazingly fortuitous coincidence that Jezebel ran the story this week.

I can only imagine the fight that went on at Jezebel headquarters: a crass young copy editor and webmaster a few weeks ago, saying “We’ve got a story here! Let’s run it now!” Then the writer of the post turns, measured in tenor but still barely able to contain the swelling rage — I am of course picturing a stately, distinguished white man playing the part in the movie, maybe Alec Baldwin or Sam Waterston overdubbed with Morgan Freeman’s voice. And then that writer says, “I don’t know how long you’ve been here, young man, but I’ve been here long enough to know that the name Gawker Media means something. It means honor. It means integrity. It means responsibility. And it means holding onto this goddamn story until we’re sure we have all the facts!

And finally, after the story was given time to grow and season, and coincidentally The Hunger Games had a successful opening weekend, it was ready. That writer took a moment to gaze out the window at a city in turmoil, a city whose demons had to be set free so that healing could begin. And the writer picked up a phone and said simply, “It’s time.” And then hung up without saying goodbye.

The internet needs sites that give people something to be angry about. It’s what drives social media sites in the first place. Gawker Media happens to have achieved perfect vertical integration — you can read Gawker.com to make fun of women, and then Jezebel.com to be outraged at people making fun of women. Personally, I get my daily outrage quota from ThinkProgress.org, and there Alyssa Rosenberg delivered a convenient two-fer of things to piss us off: the racist and sexist things that have been written about the movie.

(The misogynistic comments in reviews are legitimately awful, since a) they’re written by people who should know better, not clueless twitterers; and b) there’s no way they’re meant to be deliberately provocative, so it’s possible the writers aren’t even aware how gross it is to be complaining that a thin actress is too fat).

I’m all for a good open shaming of people being assholes. I just feel better about it when I know it’s sincere. Not just an attempt to ride the coattails of a young adult franchise from people still pissed off that Twilight was too Mormon to have significant non-white characters.

Thoughtcrimes

Those tweets and facebook messages are plenty gross, but the tone of much of that “Hunger Games Tweets” tumblr is just as toxic. They’re both fueled by ignorance, but now one’s running on a sense of righteousness and an awful lot of media exposure.

Mean-spirited but harmless “his name is Gale not Gail lol” stuff is what fuels significant portions of the nerd internet. Give it a cause and an audience, though, and it turns nasty. And a dozen genuinely repulsive messages get turned into a Significant Social Problem That Affects Us All. (That we will write a post about and then completely forget as soon as we stop getting internet traffic from it).

As I said, I’m one of the people who didn’t remember the description of Rue & Thresh as being black. Or of Katniss and Gale as being “olive-skinned,” for that matter. I also can’t remember the hair color of any of the non-Katniss characters, or whether they might’ve been left handed or homosexual. I didn’t remember because I didn’t care. It was never relevant to the story.

When I’m reading a book, I’ve got a default picture of everybody in my head. And it’s white and male until I read something that suggests otherwise. That’s not because I’m racist and misogynist, it’s because I’m white and male. Most books look pretty much like the parts of Being John Malkovich inside Malkovich’s mind, except instead of John Malkovich it’s a 50/50 mix of myself and, for some reason, Scott Adsit. It’s weird.

When a description becomes significant, I remember it. The relevant parts of the description of Rue — the character people are making the most fuss about — are that she’s young, small, stealthy, clever, and she reminds Katniss of her sister Prim. None of that has anything to do with her being black.

But now there are legions of outraged bloggers tripping over themselves trying to assign more significance to “I didn’t picture her as black” than is there. I pictured both her and Prim as looking like a younger Dakota Fanning, myself. So what? Why so eager to put a value judgment on that? They’re going to have their work cut out for them if they want to put a stop to people making assumptions. At best, it’s impotent internet rage — I’m using animated GIFs to make a difference! At worst, it’s accusing people of crypto-racism.

To be fair, there are a few glimmers of awareness, like saying that if the mentions of race aren’t relevant to the story “It really doesn’t matter.” But there’s really only one thing on that tumblr that I do agree with completely: “The outrage makes no sense.”

Winter is Coming! Direct to your home! For a new low, low price!

Even making generous guesses at the amount of revenue available from switching from a subscription model to an a la carte one, the numbers still don’t add up.

This began as a response to an interesting comment on my post about threats to pirate the Game of Thrones series. I got carried away, as I tend to do, and the comment became too unwieldy for the comment form.

I hope it’s clear that I’m not trying to call anybody out or dominate the conversation, but that I think this is a genuinely interesting way to talk about the topic. It’s at least more interesting than watching people contorting themselves into knots trying to come up with a rational-sounding counter-argument to “People shouldn’t steal stuff.”

All the quoted sections are from comments by Tom Coates.

Why are you paying HBO $240 a year to get to see True Blood and a couple of episodes of Game of Thrones. If you think that’s genuinely what it’s ‘worth’ to see those shows, I think that you are—bluntly—wrong.
[…]
Is your argument REALLY that people should be paying $240 a year for True Blood? Because that just doesn’t sound in any way plausible. Not one bit.

No, that’s not what I’m saying. That’s why I no longer subscribe to HBO.

My argument was that for at least a year, HBO was getting (at least) around $240 from me for watching True Blood. So I was a more valuable customer to them than the guy who says “I don’t want all that; I’ll give you $40 for it. Deal? No? Okay, then I’ll steal it.”

My argument was also that there are millions of people like me who do subscribe to HBO and pay for their service. So when MG Siegler says that if he doesn’t like the terms, he’ll just take it for free, he’s not just hurting some faceless corporation. He’s taking advantage of stuff that millions of other people are paying for. It takes some mighty big stones to expect any sympathy from the people who are paying companies for stuff that he gets for free.

Ratings

I’m guessing a lot of other people out there are NOT prepared to pay $240 a year to get to see True Blood, and that—frankly—many of those *would* be prepared to pay $40-60 to get to see the Season via iTunes when it’s broadcast. So you need (say) eight of those people to download for every one who buys HBO. That seems *entirely* plausible to me, frankly.

I’d be in that group of people who’d be prepared to pay $40-$60 to get the Season Pass on iTunes. The point of that blog post is that it’s unlikely that’d be enough.

I do think it’s being needlessly combative to dismiss all the actual numbers as being completely unknowable. It’s not that I agree with the claim that piracy numbers significantly equate to potential sales. I think it’s “needless” because even by doing the simplest, back-of-the-envelope calculations, the economics still don’t make sense.

Ignore the 8:1 ratio, and make it even simpler. Let’s say that Game of Thrones (instead of True Blood, just for the sake of keeping the conversation consistent) goes on iTunes the day after broadcast, for Siegler’s suggested figure of under $40 for an HD season pass. And HBO is actually $16/month on DirecTV, not $20. So one year’s HBO subscription is $192. $192 / $40 = 4.8, which means that you’d need a 5:1 ratio of iTunes season pass sales to HBO subscribers.

(Obviously, that ignores Apple’s cut, along with whatever deals it gets from DirecTV or Comcast. But it also ignores the fact that HBO doesn’t make all its money from selling one TV series through one source. So for simplicity’s sake, let’s call it even).

If a ratio of 8:1 is plausible, I’m assuming that you think 5:1 is plausible as well. But can you name any other TV series — or for that matter, any other product — that has seen a five-fold increase in ratings simply by lowering its price? I think that’s the part that’s completely implausible.

According to Entertainment Weekly, the finale of Game of Thrones (the highest-rated episode of the season) had 3.9 million viewers in the first night of broadcast. (The article goes on to say that the show averages 8.3 million viewers when you account for repeats, DVR, and on demand). This report puts it at 3.04 million viewers.

Are we supposed to believe that making the show available on iTunes would suddenly turn Game of Thrones ratings from 3 million to 15 million? Or even more unlikely, that you could convert 8.3 million viewers to 40 million? That assumes 15 million viewers would be interested in an epic fantasy series at all, much less that they’d be willing to pay $40 a head (no pun intended) for it.

A couple of obvious counter-arguments: this assumes that it’s either all subscriptions, or all iTunes season pass sales, and not a combination of both. It assumes that if HBO made its programming available same-day (or day after) on iTunes for $40 a season pass, that they’d lose all their subscribers. Obviously they wouldn’t lose all of them, but it’s clear to me that they’d lose a huge portion. There’d be very little incentive left to subscribe, unless you were one of the rare viewers who watched every series on the channel and you just couldn’t get enough of Kung Fu Panda 2.

Profits

And the even more obvious counter-argument: even by the generous, over-simplified example, they’d need 15 million viewers on iTunes + season passes to make the same revenue they get from 3 million viewers on subscriptions alone. But would they need all of those 15 million just to be profitable?

Obviously not, but it’s not as clear-cut even in the simplest calculation. Take that one estimate from The Hollywood Reporter that it cost $60 million to produce the series. Every discussion of Hollywood that I’ve ever seen says that a feature film has to make double its production cost in order to become profitable, because of marketing and distribution. For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume that it’s significantly less for TV series than it is for movies, and assume it’s 1.5 times the production cost. That would mean that GoT has a “break-even” point of $90 million.

I don’t know what Apple’s cut for TV shows over iTunes is, either, but just assume that it’s the same as for apps: 30%. That would mean that for every $40 season pass to GoT, HBO gets $28. By those numbers, a season pass of GoT would need 3.22 million season pass sales to break even.

That seems reasonable, right? They got 3 million viewers just in one night via subscriptions. But that’s the problem with directly equating ratings to sales: again according to Entertainment Weekly, the sales of GoT DVD sets are “through the roof” and broke all kinds of records. That record-breaking value: 350,000 units over 10 days.

That’s a much better indication of how many people are actually willing to pay for the whole season. I don’t know how to get the number of iTunes season pass sales for the same season 1 set of GoT, or if that information is even available to the public. No matter how much more convenient it is to buy stuff over iTunes than to pick up a physical DVD set, I’m pretty sure that that convenience doesn’t translate into ten times more sales. I would be stunned to learn if it’s even twice as many (700,000 units, still a good bit short of 3.2 million).

But that’s for a TV series that’s already a year old, and has had its big events long since spoiled all across the internet. Of course there’s going to be a drop in sales. How much do the sales increase if you reduce the time between broadcast and season pass/DVD set availability? I don’t know how to estimate that, other than to say “less than 2.5 million people.”

On the one hand, you’ve got a known market of 29 million subscribers, paying you $192 a year. On the other, you’ve got a demonstrated market of 350,000 customers, paying you around $30 a year. Somewhere in the middle, you’ve got the iTunes market.

We do know at least that MG Siegler and the guy from The Oatmeal have pledged to chip in $80 towards our $90 million estimate. Counting the actual bankable value of that, that leaves: $90 million.

If it’s silly for the RIAA and MPAA to directly equate piracy numbers to lost sales — and it is silly — then it’s every bit as silly to claim that those numbers significantly equate to potential sales. A company simply can’t make projections by treating torrent download figures as actual sales. A company can only make projections based on what people actually buy. I can’t imagine a TV exec would last very long if he could promise ratings would double or more, simply by opening the show up for download.

What I can imagine is that execs would be eager to do it if they had ample evidence it would actually work. When even a rough estimate fails to hold up — even though it’s based on numbers completely pulled out of my ass and still altered to make them more generous — I don’t see how the actual numbers could work.

A Word from Our Sponsor

Moreover, frankly, the world changes, and people’s business models have to change too. If all the other broadcasters think that they can make money by selling on iTunes the day after broadcast for a certain amount of money, then of COURSE expectations will be set for shows on HBO to be similar. And people will justifiably start asking ‘why am I paying so much for this’ or ‘why can’t I get it at the same time as I get all my other shows’.

And to those people, you point out: “all your other shows are subsidized by advertising.”

If anyone is paying $40 per season to watch Mad Men, which is broadcast with commercials on AMC, and is still confused as to why he can’t pay $40 per season to watch HBO shows immediately after they’re broadcast, then I’d suggest he’s not paying enough attention to Mad Men.

And anyone who underestimates the impact of advertising should consider this: an episode of True Blood a while back had two male vampires having sex with each other followed by one ripping the other’s heart out. The series regularly combines the “nudity,” “graphic violence,” and “adult language” warnings not just in a single episode, but in a single scene. HBO does have a standards and practices department, I’m assuming, but a significant part of the reason producers go to HBO is to be able to make content that’s not beholden to advertisers.

There’s Right, and then There’s What’s Right

And one way or another, whether it’s moral or reasonable or not, people are going to start moving to either other shows or they’re going to torrent it. Because it’s easy and it works.

Is that right? No. Is it basically inevitable? Yes. Does that mean that their existing business model might be under threat? Yes. Is that fair? Bluntly, that’s an irrelevant question.

If the question is irrelevant as to whether it’s unfair to HBO, then why is it relevant whether it’s unfair to customers? Why should HBO — or any of us — care whether or not Siegler is stamping his feet and complaining that he doesn’t get to watch Game of Thrones exactly when and how and for how much he wants to? He’s already demonstrated that he’s not a guaranteed source of income to HBO, and he’s already demonstrated that he’s willing to take advantage of those of us who do pay for what we get. If fair is irrelevant, then why should I care what he says?

Saying “fair is irrelevant, this is business” is always the position that’s presented as if it were the most pragmatic one. But in fact, it’s so short-sighted as to be completely unrealistic. An economy where one party in every business transaction is treated unfairly is unsustainable. If someone can’t even speculate on a business model that doesn’t end up with HBO losing money, then that’s not saying “I want HBO to make its content more widely available.” That’s saying “I want HBO to go out of business.”

I don’t want HBO to go out of business. Not for HBO’s sake, but my own, so that I can continue to watch vampires having gay sex and ripping each other’s hearts out.

Sermons vs. Stupidity

And meanwhile, a whole bunch of people actually are moving away from cable completely, because it’s an expensive standing cost each month that they don’t need to pay and they don’t want to pay. They want to own the shows and be able to watch them when they want to. Again, if HBO’s business model doesn’t stand up under those circumstances, and other people’s models do, and if HBO isn’t prepared to find some way to change, then — and surely this is obvious — HBO will fail.

Again, there’s a difference between what is fair and reasonable and what is going to happen. We’re in a transitional period here. Obviously the possible viewers buying things from iTunes is likely to grow massively over the next ten years. And the desire to be able to buy bespoke, just the things you want, to watch when and how you want, is not going to evaporate. So, I’m afraid, one way or another, HBO are going to have to find some way to adjust to it.

HBO has been adjusting to “transitional periods” quite profitably for most of my lifetime. Before the rise of VHS and DVD, they distinguished themselves by being the most convenient way to watch movies at home. Then they distinguished themselves by being the only way to get sex & violence on TV. Then they distinguished themselves by being the channel that produces highly desirable series and shows them without commercial interruption. It’d be an enormous mistake to talk as if HBO is run by idiots who can’t tell which way the wind is blowing.

And the “whole bunch of people” who are moving away from cable aren’t yet enough to replace a subscription model. If the market were there, they’d be milking it for all it’s worth. But the market just isn’t there.

People keep acting as if my posts and comments are “moralizing” about piracy. But piracy doesn’t offend me nearly as much as stupidity does. When Siegler and others say that HBO can provide the same thing that ad-supported channels do, and that HBO’s resistance to do so is purely out of greed or artificial scarcity, that is a gross display of willful ignorance. The facts simply don’t support it.

When Siegler and others say that piracy is their only option, and that it effectively sends a message to the production companies, that’s just insultingly disingenuous.

It’s entirely plausible that yes, “over the next ten years,” the market will be such so that people will be able to buy their programming a la carte. Assuming it happens, that’ll be great! But that doesn’t change the fact that Siegler is saying willfully stupid and disingenuous things right now.

NOW how much would you pay?

How to stick it to The Man. Step 1: Display a complete ignorance of how media companies work.

Skepticaltyronlannister
Boy, do I feel foolish! For two years now, I’ve been paying anywhere from $60-$90 a month to a satellite TV provider, for hundreds of channels I don’t ever watch. I’ve been doing it to pay for the shows that I do watch, and I just had no idea that there was a better way.

Fortunately for me and millions of stupid people like me, M.G. Siegler’s got it all figured out. There are these things called “torrents” that let you download television programming from the internet for free, sometimes even before it’s broadcast in your area! All you have to do is:

  1. Download a BitTorrent client for your system.
  2. Find the torrent file for the show you want to watch.
  3. Tell yourself that you’d be perfectly willing to pay for the show if those damn media companies would only let you.
  4. Download and enjoy.
  5. Don’t put any additional thought into it, apart from rationalizing it on the internet.

Siegler’s devoted a lot of deep thought to this moral quandary:

The problem is that I’m not an HBO subscriber. Believe me, given the quality of their programming, I would love to be. Unfortunately […] You cannot give HBO your money directly. They will not accept it. They are fully in bed with the cable companies and are not going to get out of that bed anytime soon, because of what they get paid to perform their unnatural acts in that bed. A lot of money.
[…]
Because of the aforementioned naughty cuddling deal HBO has with the cable companies, they also cannot (or will not) offer up their content via a legal means, such as iTunes, in a timely manner.

Clearly, it’s HBO’s fault. They’re wallowing in cash from their dark dealings with the cable and satellite monopolies, and they’ll be damned if they’re going to give up any of that profit just for the sake of Doing the Right Thing.

It’s a tough decision, and Siegler is being extremely bold by being the first person on the internet to admit that he’s pirated media.

It brings me no great pleasure to do it, and I’m not technically sure that I’m allowed to say this, but I’m going to because HBO has left me no choice: I’m going to be pirating season 2 of “Game of Thrones.”

I’m going to be forced to scour the shady underbelly of the Web to find the show.

[…]

Again, I’d gladly pay for it. But I have no way to do so, outside of forking over an obscene amount of money on a monthly basis to a cable company, and/or waiting a year. I’m just not willing to do that. My hand is being forced.

And when someone posts a link to the webcomic The Oatmeal that said exactly the same thing as his blog post does, and which was forwarded to the Facebook and Twitter feeds of every single person on the internet a few weeks earlier, Siegler makes it clear why he’s writing: it’s “worth putting it into words again and again and again and again, until something changes.”

It’s clear: there is no other option.

Except, well, being patient and waiting for it to come to iTunes. Like adults without an over-inflated sense of entitlement do. That’s basically the approach that Andy Ihnatko suggested, in his post “Heavy Hangs the Bandwidth That Torrents the Crown”. That was one of the most perfect articles ever written about the topic. At least, it was before Ihnatko felt the need to qualify it with an addendum about how media companies force people into piracy. Apparently the notions of personal responsibility and “two wrongs don’t make a right” are too nuanced for the internet to be able to process.

Oh right, I forgot that there is one other option: paying for it with cable or satellite service and a subscription to HBO, like millions of other people do. But Siegler thinks that’s outrageous:

Why would I pay upwards of $100 a month for something I have no interest in? I just want HBO.
[…]
When I watched the first season of “Game of Thrones” this past week, I watched it through iTunes, where I happily purchased the entire season for $38.99 (in HD).

So as he repeatedly makes clear, Siegler is perfectly happy to pay for his television programming. Well… up to a point, anyway.

Let me see if I can piece together the terms of this transaction: it has to be less than $40 for the entire season. He has to be able to download it to his computer and watch it anywhere. And he shouldn’t have to wait any longer than HBO subscribers in any time zone in the world in order to watch it. If profit-hungry HBO doesn’t agree to those terms, the only recourse for the consumer is to download a torrented version.

Why is HBO being so damn unreasonable?

At The Onion’s AV Club, Todd VanDerWerff posted an article called “Patience and piracy: Why helping yourself hurts good TV.” It’s got more rational thinking and insight than a hundred Oatmeal strips stacked end-to-end. But, because of all those troublesome words and ideas, it didn’t go viral. (And because it didn’t have “Piracy” and “Game of Thrones” in the title, like Siegler’s post, it didn’t do as good a job of link-baiting. “I’m being forced to pirate Game of Thrones against my will!” is a much more internet-friendly title than “A Winter of Piracy is Coming.”)

Here’s where things get a little tricky. And speaking as someone who watches a lot of television, I have special insider knowledge of how media corporations do business that Siegler, a partner in a venture capital firm, couldn’t possibly be privy to. So excuse me for getting technical here, but bear with me: an epic fantasy series consisting of dozens of hours of footage filmed in various locations with several prominent Hollywood film stars is not an inexpensive production.

Whew, sorry to blow your mind with all that jibber-jabber. Let me dumb it down a shade:

We all know how TV works — you watch it for free or download a season pass for around 40 bucks on iTunes or Amazon. But then, this isn’t TV. It’s HBO. And over a decade ago, HBO responded to the decreased demand for their feature-length movie schedule by putting the spotlight on well-produced, innovative, quality original programming, and also Hung. And it’s not just the case that they produce “tentpole” series like Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, and Rome — television series with feature film budgets. They also produce stuff that probably wouldn’t be feasible elsewhere, like Deadwood, Bored to Death, and even True Blood. (Which isn’t an epic production like the others, but still straddles the line between lowbrow enough for broadcast TV but still too raunchy and too niche for broadcast TV).

That model isn’t cheap. And I’m sure that HBO appreciates the thought, Mr. Siegler, but your generous contribution of 40 bucks before Apple’s cut isn’t quite enough to cover it. For that matter, your $15 a la carte subscription to HBO wouldn’t cover it, either. What covers it is that “naughty” relationship HBO has with the cable companies. It’s kind of like that $600 smart phone you bought for $300 plus a cellular contract.

Except there’s even more to it than that. HBO can afford to produce shows like Game of Thrones because HBO has established itself as a company that can produce shows like The Sopranos (and Rome, Deadwood, etc). People will pay for HBO because of the programming that they can only get on HBO. That exclusivity is baked into the value of the company, and therefore into the cost of its programming. They’ve sneakily hidden this fact into their shady deals with unscrupulous cable providers and by making it the tag line of an entire marketing campaign: “Only on HBO.”

If you can spend $2.99 for an HD copy of the latest episode of Game of Thrones at the same time as a cable subscriber who’s paying over $95 a month for his cable and HBO subscription, then there’s no incentive for him to keep subscribing. And then there’s nothing to separate the digital release of Game of Thrones from that of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, even though two of those series are subsidized by advertising and one isn’t. And there’s no incentive for HBO to keep funding weird, original, expensive, commercial-free television series.

None of this is really all that complicated.

But in this case it’s different, because Siegler and others like him really want to watch Game of Thrones and nothing else that HBO offers. Well, a couple of years ago I really wanted to watch True Blood and nothing else that HBO offers. What I did was I torrented an episode, and I felt like an asshole about it. Then I paid $20 a month for an HBO subscription. So please don’t anybody try to present a confession of “I didn’t feel like an asshole about it” as a battle cry of “I’m taking a stand against Big Media!”

Would I prefer to pay $40 or less to get a season pass of just the series I want to watch? Of course I would. But I was cursed with a conscience and the nagging tendency to think about things for more than a half second. And I quickly realized that paying for the stuff I don’t want to watch helps pay for the stuff that I do want to watch. And that the stuff I watch for “free” has been paid for with advertising.

(Incidentally, the next time I read anyone suggesting that digital versions of print media like books, comics, and magazines should of course be cheaper than the print versions, because the cost of printing has been removed, I’m going to devote all my energy to perfecting my slap-someone-over-the-internet technology. Don’t say you weren’t warned).

And am I suggesting that DirecTV and HBO are just barely scraping by with subscription fees and DVD sales? Of course I’m not. Both NewsCorp and Time Warner are doing quite well for themselves, last I checked. But I missed the day of ethics class where they told us that it’s okay to take stuff without paying for it as long as I was taking it from rich people. And unfortunately for me, their financial success doesn’t obviate my personal responsibility.

Personal responsibility is what it all comes down to, because that’s the part we actually have control over. Marco Arment, someone I usually agree with about everything except coffee, wrote a post (with diagrams!) called “Right vs. Pragmatic” in response to the Oatmeal cartoon and Ihantko’s blog post. And for most of that post, he’s right. The response to piracy from “big media” has just been bone-headed. All the litigation and legislation against piracy on behalf of the RIAA has been a failure both financially and in terms of PR, and now the MPAA is making all the exact same mistakes. The DMCA sucks. And it’s stupid to hold onto an outdated business model when there is still plenty of money to be made providing content through more accessible channels like iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, etc.

But in that entire post, there’s one very important point that Arment fails to emphasize: Responsible, grown men should not be throwing their fucking trash on the floor in the first place.

If you want to really make a stand, instead of just talking about it to make yourself feel better, then actually take a stand. Don’t buy TV from HBO if you don’t like the way they do business. Don’t help advertise it, either, by posting big pictures from the series on your blog and using the title in your post title and talking about how the show is so great that you’re willing to steal it. And if you like the show and would like it to be available on iTunes, then buy it on iTunes. If you want the show to be available on iTunes sooner, then buy a show you like that’s already available, and make it clear that there’s a demand for television through that channel that’s greater than what they’re seeing from cable or satellite subscriptions.

HBO execs have about a 0.0000% chance of reading a post on your website. They have a slightly higher chance of seeing your download of the torrent file in the logs of a pirate website years from now when the site gets threatened for shutdown. They’re guaranteed to read the income statements from Apple.

All that said: everyone should check out that Oatmeal comic one last time, and give him the final say. Scroll to the bottom of the page, after the big chunk of ads that help pay for his bandwidth, and read the last three words.

“Please don’t steal.”