Politics

Thoughtcrimes for $1000

Red panda
Any time there’s an attempt to hold someone responsible for his actions — whether it’s Orson Scott Card, Dan Cathy, Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty, Brendan Eich of Mozilla, or just some random jackass who refuses to bake a cake or take wedding photos — there inevitably follows a backlash, a debate on how far we’re willing to take this whole “equality” thing, exactly.

Debate is good. If for no other reason, it deprives the remaining hold-outs against progress of their last, feeble attempts to seed doubt that we’re making progress in the right direction: the claim that as conditions improve for minorities, the voice of the majority is getting silenced. Debating, without simply resorting to name-calls of “bigot” or “misogynist” or “racist,” will gradually reveal that it’s not enough just to have a voice. You have to be saying something worth listening to.

On the surface, it’d seem like these debates are over the exact issues we should be concerned about: genuine inclusiveness and equality. Conservatives can go on lamenting how their rights and values are being chipped away, thinking of society as nothing more than a never-ending, cyclical struggle that does nothing more than shift power from one group to another. Liberals are supposed to be better than that. We can’t just be concerned with lifting up minorities at the expense of everyone else; we have to make sure that everyone is treated fairly.

But the result is the opposite, because these arguments are always based on a false equivalence: that a disenfranchised group being blatantly and systematically deprived of the most fundamental institutions of society is no more severe than a rich person potentially losing a source of income as a result of his own decisions. I don’t believe it’s always done deliberately or even consciously, but regardless of intent, the outcome is the same. It says, “Yeah, of course I believe in equality… but there are people out there who are being severely inconvenienced!”

Just the Same

In the week following Brendan Eich’s resignation as CEO of Mozilla, William Saletan wrote a series of articles on Slate.com, defending Eich and calling out liberal hypocrisy. Without exception, they’re all variations on arguments that have been used to rationalize or justify Proposition 8, or to label the boycotts of Card or Chick-fil-a as nothing more than intolerance.

“Purge the Bigots” is an attempt at satire with all the nuance and insight of the Wikipedia entry for the Cliff’s Notes version of A Modest Proposal. In what he seems to consider an incontrovertible mic-drop of an argument, he presents several charts listing all the donations to Proposition 8 from employees of various different companies. In terms of arguments undermining gay rights, this one’s a two-fer: on the one hand, it says, “Lots of people voted for or donated to Proposition 8; if a majority of people were in favor of this thing, can it really be as objectively evil as some are trying to make it out to be?” On the other, it’s the same “defense” of Dan Cathy and Chick-fil-a that was raised and summarily dismissed dozens of times: “Why single this one out? I can’t possibly boycott every single company on the suspicion that it might have a bigoted employee.”

“Is Brendan Eich Queer?” is a link-baiting headline attached to the argument that maybe Eich is one of the “good ones.” By all accounts, he always treated LGBT people fairly. Isn’t it possible for someone to be a “social conservative” and not a raging bigot and homophobe?

The most frustrating, and the reason I started writing this post in the first place, is “Brendan Eich and the New Moral Majority”. (At the risk of stating the obvious: great band name). Saletan quotes three writers justifying Eich’s resignation due to his being a liability to the image of the corporation and being at odds with “community standards.” Saletan then exclaims, j’accuse, les homos! by pointing out how the exact same concerns over image and community standards have been used to justify firing or otherwise discriminating against gay employees. This proves that the public pressure put on Eich was nothing more than a blatantly hypocritical witch hunt.

At the end of the post, Saletan makes a passing concession to the idea that okay maybe it’s not exactly the same thing:

Losing your job for being gay is different from losing your job for opposing gay marriage. Unlike homosexuality, opposition to same-sex marriage is a choice, and it directly limits the rights of other people. But the rationales for getting rid of Eich bear a disturbing resemblance to the rationales for getting rid of gay managers and employees. He caused dissension. He made colleagues uncomfortable. He scared off customers. He created a distraction. He didn’t fit.

It used to be social conservatives who stood for the idea that companies could and should fire employees based on the “values” and “community standards” of their “employees, business partners and customers.” Now it’s liberals. Or, rather, it’s people on the left who, in their exhilaration at finally wielding corporate power, have forgotten what liberalism is.

Here’s the problem: it’s not that people on the left have forgotten what liberalism is. It’s that a lot of people on the left, right, and middle have apparently forgotten exactly what is at stake here.

The key issue justifying Eich’s resignation has little if anything to do with “community standards.” That is nothing more than bullshit moral relativism, the idea that liberal tolerance means that there’s no such thing as absolute morality. Liberalism doesn’t mean “anything goes,” nor does it mean that right and wrong are simply a matter of who’s in charge. There are still things that are objectively wrong. One of those things is donating a thousand bucks to make sure that your neighbors are stripped of their dignity and their opportunity to take part in the same institutions that every person is inherently entitled to.

It’s kind of a big deal.

Gay Marriage vs Marriage Equality and The Good Guys vs The Bigots

Saletan makes it clear — and not in the “I have lots of black friends” way — that while defending Eich, he’s still a supporter of gay marriage. None of us have any reason to doubt that; it’s not even in question. But I will say that while Saletan supports “gay marriage,” these pieces suggest that he doesn’t support actual marriage equality.

The distinction isn’t just a matter of politically correct name-wrangling, an attempt to shout “bigot” whenever somebody uses the “wrong” term. Instead, it defines how we think about the issue. “Gay marriage” is a special interest. It describes it as an attempt to create something that didn’t exist before, to redefine an institution, to encroach on something to which we were never entitled. Opponents of actual marriage equality have spent years using this artificial distinction for fear-mongering and as a stalling tactic. If they win, consider everything that you lose. It’s the kind of constant one-upsmanship that leads someone to say, for instance, that advances in gay rights have resulted in the left “finally wielding corporate power.”

“Marriage Equality” isn’t just more inclusive, it’s more accurate. It’s not a special interest fighting for dominance; it’s an attempt to guarantee that everyone is entitled to the same things. Rational people can still have differing opinions as to the advantages and disadvantages of introducing a new social institution; trying to argue against the equality of everyone will always be irrational.

That distinction is crucial, because it’s what keeps this a progressive issue as opposed to simply a liberal or conservative one. (Let’s not forget that the argument that stable, mutually respectful relationships are crucial to a healthy society is an inherently conservative argument). Supporting “gay rights” as distinct from civil rights dooms us to repeat the same decades-long struggle over and over again, every time some new special interest group decides they want to be treated like human beings. It means that the Civil Rights movement is distinct from abolition is distinct from the feminist movement is distinct from women’s suffrage is distinct from transgender rights and so on.

So “Eich isn’t all that bad a guy” might be true. But it’s irrelevant. Good people can still do bad things. Chick-fil-a does a lot of great stuff for the community; Dan Cathy’s attitude towards marriage equality is still dead wrong. I have little problem dismissing Orson Scott Card as an unrepentant bigoted asshole, and Phil Robertson’s speeches about homosexuals as perverts give me little hesitation at dismissing him as an ignorant bigot. But Eich, on the other hand, has made several statements about the importance of workplace equality, and he apologized for “pain he caused” (in vague terms, which I’ll get to later). That’s all fine, but only if you’re trying to assign some kind of D&D alignment to people, with the Lawful Goods against the Chaotic Bigots.

What Eich has never done, as far as I’m aware, is directly address one key fact: he donated $1000 to make sure that I couldn’t get married.

1k Memory

And I don’t think that it’s petty revenge or vindictiveness or an unnecessary witch hunt to remind people how seriously fucked up that is.

Saletan links to an article on Slate by Mark Joseph Stern, which attempts to remind people just how toxic and outright degrading the Proposition 8 campaign was. Saletan mentions it in passing, to give Eich a pass for having neither written nor approved the ads. Apparently he’s absolved of all responsibility because he only helped pay for them. Maybe the implications just weren’t made sufficiently clear as he was cutting the check: you do know that this is a movement to write blatant discrimination against a minority into our state’s constitution, right?

I’m not wealthy, and probably never will be since I’m terrible at negotiating salaries. (Maybe as a result of a lifetime being told there’s something irreparably broken about me, and I therefore don’t deserve the same things that “normal” people have? Who knows. It’s a topic I’ll be sure to bring up if I ever get a therapist). So I don’t know what life is like for rich people. As far as I know, once you do something like inventing Javascript, you just start automatically knocking the last two zeroes off any dollar amount. It’s possible that execs in tech companies can drop a thousand bucks on the sidewalk and not even bother to turn around and pick it up.

But for me, $1000 is still a pretty big deal. It’s the difference between opinion and personal conviction, and not coincidentally, it’s the point where I start to take it personally. When there’s been an earthquake or a typhoon, I’ve only been able to give about $100 to the Red Cross. So however much I wanted to see strangers recover from a natural disaster, Brendan Eich wanted to see strangers relegated to second-class citizen status ten times more.

Having to re-watch those pro-Proposition 8 ads is a reminder — at least for those of us who believe everyone deserves empathy, not just Eich — of what it was like to be told for thirty seconds every few minutes that your personal relationships were a matter of open debate and a crisis for our society. And their justification was the fear that they might have to explain to normal children that you exist.

Just to make sure our outrage scales are all properly calibrated: are we all still aware that this is being compared to a rich guy possibly losing a source of income, not as a result of who he is, but as a result of a decision he chose to make?

Saletan sarcastically suggests that by unfairly singling out Eich, we’re not doing our due diligence in rooting out all the people who financially supported Prop 8. With all due respect, fuck that. It was bad enough being assaulted with paid advertisements telling us “You are different and lesser” and “You’re corrupting our children” without having to seek that shit out.

And that’s where the idea of “community standards” comes back into play. Not in the sense, as Saletan suggests, that Eich is merely a victim of the changing tide of public opinion, suddenly finding himself persecuted for happening to be on the losing side of a culture war. I mean “community standards” in the sense that we’re all actually part of a community, secure in the knowledge that we’re all working together and all treating each other with mutual respect. You don’t have to be shouting “bigot” to acknowledge that it’s damaging to that sense of community to know that your neighbor, colleague, or worst of all, boss has actively worked to degrade and diminish you as a person.

All through the course of Proposition 8, it was a semi-comforting lie to believe it can’t happen here. It must’ve come from aggressive LDS church leaders in Utah, or some homogenous group of politically-manipulated conservatives down in the central valley, or some broad demographic in LA or San Diego who were manipulated by their church into believing that people getting married was somehow a threat to their religious beliefs. But in the San Francisco Bay Area? In an industry that’s inherently progressive? Impossible.

While we’re rending our garments in lamentation of how Eich has been turned into a social pariah, why not take just a second to consider what a shock it was for all the thousands and thousands of people to find themselves the victim of an orchestrated attack? To have their families put up for public vote? While we’re pointing to Mozilla’s vapid PR statements of a commitment to equality in the workplace, why not consider what it’d be like to have to wonder which of your colleagues and bosses are paying lip service to equality while simultaneously campaigning to intrude on your personal life?

It was bad enough seeing a bunch of people happily lining up to eat chicken sandwiches in honor of making sure I’d never have any hope of getting married. Why would I go looking for that kind of disrespect?

Believe me, I would much prefer not knowing. I’d prefer to go on thinking of it as some fictitious and faceless mob of Mormon-Catholic-Baptist farmers who’ve never actually spoken to a gay person, than to be confronted with the knowledge that my boss is saying, “Yeah, your job is safe because it’s legally required. But whatever you’ve got going on at home, don’t you dare call it a ‘marriage.'”

But after I do find out, then what?

I’m Glad That’s Over!

It seems that a lot of Eich’s defenders are walking away from the overturn of DOMA and DADT and Prop 8, wiping their hands after a job well done. While it is becoming increasingly clear that opposing marriage equality in the United States is a losing battle, the battle still isn’t over by a long shot.

A majority of states still have constitutional amendments banning marriage equality. And because of this insistence on “community standards” and moral relativism, each state is going to have to go through the same degrading process, with couples who’ve been together for decades having to explain why they’re entitled to the same things everyone else takes for granted. (All while the people introducing these constitutional amendments insist that it’s gay people who are “redefining” marriage. Even after all this time, the blatant hypocrisy still astounds me).

Every time a boycott is proposed or a controversy is brought to light, there’s the sentiment that people aren’t really interested in equality; they want reparations. It’s not enough to secure equal rights for gay people; we have to persecute anyone for even believing that homosexuality is a sin. As our friend Ross Douthat whined: “the official line is that you bigots don’t get to negotiate anymore.” Liberals have gone from fighting for equality to forming posses to root out throughtcrimes.

It’s clearly bullshit. It’s an argument based on the idea that everything is about winning or losing, and not about everyone being treated fairly. And I’ll reiterate to Mr. Saletan: being fired for who you are is nothing like being pressured to resign for something you’ve done. If someone’s mugging me, we’re not having a difference of opinion as to who should own my wallet; I’m being attacked. It’s not petty vindictiveness for me to hold the attacker responsible and do whatever I can to make sure I’m not attacked again.

I don’t have any interest in pointing a finger at Eich and shouting “bigot;” even if he were an outright bigot, there are way too many of those to point at. Any deeply-held personal grudge I’ve got against Eich has a lot more to do with dynamic typing than anything else. But that doesn’t mean he should be given a pass. He did a shitty thing, and he responded to it in a shitty way.

There’s been the argument that Eich’s donation to Prop 8 was completely irrelevant to his job. You could make a convincing case that that’s true for the CTO of a tech company, although again, consider going into work knowing that your boss donated his personal money towards invalidating your marriage. But it’s absolutely absurd for intelligent adults to suggest that it’s irrelevant to being the CEO of a company. Company image and vision is what CEOs do.

And it’s the CEO’s job to respond to things like this. Again, to my knowledge, Eich has never directly addressed his support of Proposition 8. At first he said nothing, then he tried to act as if it weren’t anyone’s business. He gave some vague, meaningless comments about equality. Eventually he said he wanted to “express his sorrow at having caused pain,” in an apology which was enough to convince Sullivan. (But then, Sullivan is the one who admitted to weeping at Obama’s non-committal politically convenient flip-flop, which only happened after Joe Biden “gaffed” by displaying actual conviction). There’s little reason to doubt the sincerity of Eich’s apology. It still doesn’t answer the question.

I think people are entitled to an explanation. That’s part of why we respect the secret ballot but insist that financial donations are public. It’s why opponents of marriage equality always want the issue settled via referendum instead of by so-called “activist” judges — because judges are obliged to explain themselves. I want to know exactly why Eich supported such a blatantly discriminatory proposition, and what’s to keep him from doing the same in the future.

If Saletan’s “not such a bad guy” argument is to be believed, and there’s a wide gulf between someone who yells about “faggots” and someone who’s just a social conservative, then it’s even more pressing. Because if that’s the case, then in Eich’s mind, supporting something as obviously wrong as Proposition 8 was not at all contradictory with his public claims about equality. That’s the kind of thing his employees deserve to know. He needs to either support his decisions, or recant them. If he can’t handle or refuses to address this issue, then he has no business being CEO of such a visible company.

When I started writing this post several days ago, I was going to use Dan Cathy of Chick-fil-a as a counter-example. I still think Cathy’s an asshole, but I was going to say that at least he took a stand that Eich never did. He ended years of speculation about Chick-fil-a’s financial donations by saying, directly, this is what I believe and this is why we did it. A company that sacrifices sales for the sake of staying closed on the Sabbath is, if nothing else, a company that stands by its convictions. So, because Cathy apparently exists solely to foil me at every step, he cowardly back-pedaled on that. He tried to give a folksy, “I’ll just leave that to the politicians!” quote and reversed the only thing he did during that whole fiasco that would’ve earned him any respect at all.

Cathy believes he can scurry back into hiding, believing that the problem isn’t the harm he does, but people finding out about the harm he does. Eich had the opportunity to address this issue head-on, but felt as if he didn’t owe it to anyone. He felt that his political opinions aren’t any of our business, even though our relationships are totally his business to dissolve and deride.

Any discussion about social justice or civil rights will inevitably trend towards hyperbole, so there are plenty who think this is much ado about nothing. That completely undermines how shocking — crushing — it was to find out that Proposition 8 had passed. (And on the same day Obama was elected, because somebody in control loves poetic irony). It had seemed impossible. There was a lot of heated rhetoric, and of course it was demoralizing to go through a nasty campaign season having so much hatred directed towards you, but there was no way it could actually pass. Not in California, of all places.

Something that blatantly discriminatory doesn’t pass just by virtue of a state full of Phil Robertsons and Rick Santorums running to the polls. Yes, there are tons of outright bigots and homophobes, but you don’t win an election with just one end of the bell curve. It takes the support of all the people who can rationalize what they’re doing, who can say that it’s not blatantly discriminatory, that it’s justified, that it’s necessary, that they’re the ones who are being attacked.

To prevent such a gross violation of justice as Prop 8 from happening again, and to overturn it in the majority of states where those gross violations are still in effect, you have to hold people accountable for what they’re doing. You have to dispel their bullshit rationalizations and justifications and address it in simple terms of right and wrong. You don’t do that by telling them that their opinions take precedence over someone else’s freedom. You don’t do that by pretending that their inconvenience is just as bad as the actual degradation they’ve inflicted on others.

Standard
Television

How I Spent My Decade

HIMYMAirport.jpg
When the series finale of How I Met Your Mother ended, I felt as if I’d just watched someone do the trick where they pull the tablecloth out from under a complete table setting. I wasn’t awestruck, but more impressed that they were able to pull it off at all.

The more I think about it, though, the more I think it was bonafide magic.

This was a finale of a series that has “the ending is a surprise” built into the entire premise, so of course everything that follows is a big spoiler.

How I Met My Sponsor

If there’s a single episode that sums up the entire series, it’s… well, of course it’d be the one where Marshall picks up Lily at the airport during a snowstorm. But for the point I’m trying to make, the definitive episode is the one that was a shameless ad for Microsoft.

The reason it’s definitive is that the series regularly took stuff that absolutely, positively should not have been able to work, and then somehow pulled it off. It was corny, gimmicky, and prone to stunt-casting. It often seemed inordinately pleased with itself. It took each of its characters and gave each of them a flaw that made them genuinely unlikable. It took running gags and ran them deep, deep into the ground. And it constantly vacillated between raunchy and unabashedly sentimental.

But then it somehow absorbed it all, commented on it, and used it to its advantage. Starting out, it was kind of insufferable; it assumed the cast was way more charming than it actually was. (One episode in the first season had Ted & Marshall staging elaborate sword fights in their apartment, which is a big part of why I didn’t start watching regularly until the second season). Then as they got more confidence to do running jokes (like the slap bet), it made the sentimental stuff hit harder because it seemed like such a surprising contrast, and not just unearned melodrama. Over time, the characters’ quirks became genuine annoyances, if not outright sociopathic behavior. But then “Spoiler Alert” based an entire episode around that, then resumed course. And “Three Days of Snow” ended on a completely contrived bit of made-for-TV romance between two characters who call each other “Marshmallow” and “Lilypad,” but the last scene still makes me cry every single time.

As for the Microsoft episode: How I Met Your Mother was never at all interested in subtlety, but this was completely over the top. Windows logos all over the place, Maury Povich picking up an Xbox 360, all of it taking place in an alternate universe where anyone referred to Bing as the default search engine, and that’s without even mentioning how the characters had explicitly been shown using iPhones in previous episodes.

But it actually worked. It was another gimmick episode, but it was still pretty funny. And not just in spite of, but in defiance of the product placement. The show had been around for over 100 episodes by that point; it was pretty ludicrous to believe that a bit of network-driven brand promotion was going to destroy its integrity, at least any more than the years of aggressive marketing that CBS had been inflicting on the series in the form of Barney Stinson “bro”-themed books and Robin Sparkles merchandise. They ended up just using the advertising as part of the absurdity, but also using it to make an otherwise unremarkable episode memorable. Now it’s “the one with all the product placement.” On a series that’d been running for that long, being forgettable was a much greater danger than selling out. Plus it made this guy from Cult of Mac absolutely livid, which is of course a huge part of what makes it so delightful.

And more than that, it seemed to be in defiance of the idea that “selling out” was even relevant. The idea that genuine artistic integrity is actually based on anything that shallow.

Recognizing that is genuinely subversive. I always got the impression that I was at least 10 years older than the target audience for the series — but then, it’s hard to tell, because the show has guys ostensibly born in the 80s who are absolutely obsessed with Star Wars the way that only sitcom show-runners born in the 70s could be. And I grew up in an era where everyone was still getting an idea of how counter-culture worked after nobody was sincere about anything any longer. An era in which David Letterman mocking GE on his long-running NBC series was considered “subversive,” as was going on the cover of Rolling Stone wearing a T-shirt that said “Corporate Rock Still Sucks.” It didn’t take long for it to became clear that all of that was just posturing, and it ended up feeling all the more artificial because of its impotence.

How I Met Your Mother side-stepped that by acknowledging that its running gags, stunt casting, corporate marketing tie-ins, its formulaic sitcom format, even its deliberately post-modern premise, were all just window dressing that would never make or break the series on its own. They set themselves up with the problem of how to tell an earnest, unabashedly sentimental and hopelessly romantic story to an audience that was so self-aware and jaded that it had already spent a decade getting tired of being jaded.

How I Fixed Your TV Show

At least, that’s the show that I’ve been watching for years (and recording-and-meaning-to-watch for the past few years). It’s probably a mistake to assume too much self-awareness of an audience, though; some people just want to be calmed by the colors and moving shapes of insipid non-challenging network television and jump up on their sofa and clap whenever the funny gay man says “Legendary.”

Okay sure, it’s generally bad form to start insulting people who have a different opinion of a TV show. But I’ve got little patience for the kind of arrogance that makes somebody on the internet say, “Uh, yeah, we fixed your show for you. You’re welcome.” Even less when the “fixed” version is so, so much stupider.

To save everybody the trouble of watching it: the “fixed” version is just a few minutes of the last half of the finale episode, helpfully sanded down to remove anything at all surprising, challenging, unconventional, or that could be mistaken for a sign of actual story development or any kind of purpose to the preceding nine years of television.

It actually ends with Ted saying “and that’s how I met your mother,” cut to credits. I imagine the bright yellow umbrella was a big help as well, since anyone who thinks that that’s the “kind of sappy that totally jives with everything HIMYM viewers should have come to know and love” is someone who’s still amazed by object permanence.

Elsewhere on The AV Club, Todd VanDerWerff concedes that the finale didn’t retroactively invalidate the entire series, but that the show-runners were “shitty long-term planners” who painted themselves into a corner early on and were just too incompetent to pull themselves out of it. Which is not just colossally incorrect, but baffling and arrogant. It’s disturbingly reminiscent of the people who complained that the movie A.I. turned to shit as soon as the “aliens” showed up. It says “because my assumption turned out to be incorrect, you failed.”

Here’s the point where VanDerWerff’s take goes completely off the rails:

This is all well and good if the story the series is telling is that of the show’s title. But it’s not. The story the series ultimately settled on was that of not just how Ted met Tracy (and told his kids all about not just that but also several seemingly unconnected adventures) but also how his kids told him to get out of his own head and start fucking Robin again after his wife had been dead for a socially acceptable period of time. And this isn’t something Bays and Thomas pulled out of their ass to give a series that ran too long a happy ending!

Can you see the problem? It’s a word that starts with “f” and ends with the assumption that Bays & Thomas had less understanding of how American episodic television than the average message board poster. It assumes that the series was never anything more than a raunchy mainstream comedic soap opera; Friends for millennials. That there was never any “message” to it apart from “Who gets to fuck Robin now?” Which itself ignores the immature and misogynist attitude that people take for granted as acceptable in romantic comedies, and assumes that this long-running and popular sitcom couldn’t possibly have been commenting on that.

It assumes that How I Met Your Mother was ever really about how Ted Mosby met his kids’ mother. Worse, it keeps assuming that even after the series suggested several times over, and the finale definitively proved, that that could never have been the case.

How I Met Your Mary-Ann


I’m absolutely not claiming that I saw the ending coming. In fact, a few years ago I read that interview with Jason Segel, where he mentioned the idea of the entire story being told after the mother’s death, and I promptly forgot about it. It just seemed like tone-deaf, hipster posturing: Screw you, viewers, she was dead the whole time! Boom, edgy! That’s what you get for getting emotionally invested in a dumb old sitcom!

A couple of episodes ago, when they all-but-explicitly said that the mother was dying, I was extremely pissed off. If they did that, it would retroactively destroy any love I ever had for this series. The reason was that I didn’t see any way they could possibly make it work. It would only ever be a manipulative attempt at pathos instead of the genuine sentimentality the series has always excelled at. And worse, it would’ve violated the entire premise of the series. “Kids, as we sit in honor and remembrance of your mother and the one true love of my life, let me first spend hours telling you about the years I spent having sex with other women.”

But that’s the only way the series ever could’ve ended. I’ve read a few people say that the show-runners painted themselves into a corner when they recorded the kids’ final scenes for the finale, sometime at the end of the first season. That’s not true. They painted themselves into a corner the moment they said, “Let’s make an American ongoing television series called How I Met Your Mother.”

It has what’s probably the most contrived premise for a television series since Gilligan’s Island. The thing that the show’s ostensibly “about,” the thing that all the characters are striving for, is the one thing that can never be shown without the series ending. In fact, if you wanted to reveal the title character at all, you’d have to significantly change up the format of the entire series. Like, for instance, making the entire last season a compressed-time version of a single weekend that was pivotal for all the characters’ relationships.

The format of the show has always carried with it an implicit joke: Ted Mosby’s the world’s worst storyteller. Not only has it taken him years to get to the point with all his various distractions, but he’s spent a year telling his children about all the sex he had before he met their mother. But as meta-observations go, that’s about as insightful as pointing out that Mystery Incorporated are never chasing actual ghosts, or everything in Three’s Company was based on a simple misunderstanding. Not only did the HIMYM team make the above video for Comic-Con in preparation for the final season; they’ve made the joke in the series itself. As soon as it was revealed Stella wasn’t the mother, an episode had her walking in on the story with two blonde-headed kids, asking, “Is your dad still telling that story?!”

They did a lighter-touch, sincere version of it this season with the aforementioned saddest episode, when we learn that Ted and Tracy have learned all of each other’s stories, and she warns him not to get lost in his stories. The finale says it outright: Ted insists that he kept the story short and to the point, after his daughter points out that the story was hardly about Mom at all.

The credits sequence hasn’t changed since the second episode of the series. It’s always been a bunch of snapshots of Ted and his best friends hanging out at the bar. As if to suggest that those memories were the entire focus of the series all along. Finding his wife was the framing story for those memories, not vice-versa.

Throughout the season, they establish Ted as an unreliable narrator, for instance with a character named “Blahblah” and the running gag of using sandwiches as a stand-in for pot. Which could’ve been nothing more than a stylistic flourish or television gimmick. Or more likely: a constant reminder that Ted was telling these stories, and there was a reason he was choosing to tell these stories in this way.

And there are all the finale’s callbacks to the show’s pilot episode: showing the cast in their first appearances, and ending on the iconic scene with the blue french horn. VanDerWerff (whom I usually agree with to an uncanny degree) spends several paragraphs missing the point — and again, that in itself isn’t the problem, since I already confessed to getting the same clues and freaking out at the idea that there wasn’t going to be a purely happy ending with The Mother. The problem is seeing an artist pretty much explicitly tell you what he’s doing and why he’s doing it, and still insisting that it was clumsily or poorly planned. He writes:

But think back to the wonderful ending of the show’s pilot, to the moment when Ted’s kids realize the woman he met was their Aunt Robin, not their mother, and think about all that has been lost in the quest by Bays and Thomas to write themselves out of that moment, even when several viable alternatives presented themselves. The series finale of How I Met Your Mother insists that life happens to you, like it or not, that the bad things can’t be swept away in a single moment. It’s a pity that the men writing it tried so hard to stick to those guns once it became evident how far the show had trended away from their original plans.

He describes it as a desperate attempt to “write themselves out of that moment,” when the entire series has been five good seasons and four meandering ones attempting to deliver on that moment. I just re-watched the pilot, and the ending, which is indeed wonderful, is essentially a line-for-line prediction of the knee-jerk reactions to the series finale. The daughter’s upset that Ted promised to tell them the story of how he met their mother, but instead went into detail about how he first met Aunt Robin. And then when he’s asked how long it’s going to take to tell this story, he says, “long.” They might not have known it was going to be ten years long, and it frankly shouldn’t have been ten years long, but they were fully aware that episodic television means you’re not going to get a straight line from A to B.

More than that, it sets up the theme from the beginning; it’s not some retcon that came out of left field for the finale. At 27, Ted was already a hopeless romantic, so impatient to find The One that he described his perfect wedding to one first date and said “I love you” on another first date. He was contrasted with his two best friends who’d each already found their one true love in college, and his other horndog friend who was vehemently against the idea of “one true love.”

How I Met Your Step-Mother

A lot of viewers — myself included — believed that meant we were watching a romantic comedy series about a man’s mis-steps and false starts on the way towards finding the love of his life. What we got instead were several seasons with the story arc of incurable romantic Ted believing he’d found The One, having his hopes dashed, giving up on the idea, and then being encouraged to find the next The One.

All the while seeing his commitment-phobic friend lecturing him on the arcane rules of dating and manipulating women for sex (the kind of attitude that says stuff like “start fucking Robin again after his wife had been dead for a socially acceptable period of time”), but gradually growing into the kind of man who could have a mature honest relationship with a woman as an equal.

And simultaneously, Ted was seeing his other friends start at the end of any romantic comedy, the “and they lived happily ever after” part of their lives. Over time, they went through adversity, questioning their ideals, balancing their dreams with reality, and learning not to take their love for each other for granted and doing the actual “work” of being a married couple.

Which is why the shallow interpretations of the finale have me annoyed enough to go off on a tirade. There’s something defeatist if not outright elitist about it, an assumption that because the story takes the format of a formulaic sitcom, that’s all it can ever be. It’s all stunts and catch phrases and running gags and gimmicks and sex jokes, with the occasional sappy moment we all know and love. And all of those other stories are just killing time until Ted gets his happily ever after.

But this was, from the start, a sitcom that wanted to do more. It wanted to show that Ted was growing up and learning from these experiences too. That being an “incurable romantic” actually means having a juvenile idea about what relationships are actually about. VanDerWerff says that by spinning everything back to Robin, that both Ted and the show are guilty of “oneitis,” being so focused on one person at the expense of someone else who’s a better fit. That’s a complete mis-read; Ted’s story, from the pilot to the finale, is a rejection of the idea that you only get one.

(There’s even a foreshadowing of that in a running gag, deliberate or not: Barney’s constant insistence that Ted call him his best friend instead of Marshall, when nobody else cared to make the distinction).

Ted did find the love of his life. If my math is right, he and Tracy were together for as many years after their first meeting as the entire length of the series. And one of the many brilliantly-handled aspects of the last season was that we only ever saw that their relationship was perfect. She blended perfectly into the group. She wasn’t just “Ted’s girlfriend” but someone who genuinely changed all their lives. Their meeting was genuinely charming, as if the writers had saved up all the wit and romance caught in the drip pan of nine seasons and put it into one scene. We never saw their fights, only the years of happy memories that Ted had. Even during “the worst times,” we didn’t see ay of the suffering, just the acknowledgement that they were completely in love. One of the most perfect details was that they didn’t get married for years, not until after they’d had two children, and it was in small ceremony with their best friends. Ted’s perfect, fairytale wedding never happened, because all his abstract plans for his perfect romance stopped mattering as soon as he found the real thing.

Contrast that with the “fixed” ending up above, and you can get an idea why it’s annoying that anyone would call that superior. It’s not just that it’s an insipid, juvenile “happily ever after;” it undermines the entire series. It says that Ted was right all along, and he just needed to kiss enough frogs before he found his princess. It trivializes this relationship by setting up that she’s essentially just “the one after Victoria, and Zoe, and Stella, and Robin…” and also trivializes those relationships by setting them up as essentially practice runs from which he learned nothing. It ends with all the characters essentially unchanged from the pilot episode. And it just ignores the most obvious problem: we’ve been spending all this time hearing about everyone except the mother.

The ending that we got, however, owns that and puts the entire series in context. It doesn’t matter that the story barely has the mother in it, because we got everything we need to know: she was perfect, and she’ll be forever perfect in his memories.

And Ted’s story doesn’t stop the moment he meets Tracy, either. The thing that broke he and Robin up the first time was that they wanted different things from their lives: he saw himself having a fantasy wedding and settling down to a life in the suburbs with a perfect wife and two kids; she saw herself traveling around the world at a moment’s notice and had no interest in settling down. And in the seasons that followed, they both learned that it’s worse than futile to try and form a plan for the rest of your life while in your 20s, since you end up comparing everything that actually happens to that unrealistic plan.

Ted discovered — in what, in retrospect, seems like one of the most poignant storylines — that the house was just a shell, and he was still impatiently putting together aspects of his ideal life instead of letting life happen to him.

Robin discovered that the things she’d always assumed weren’t important turned out to be hugely important to her — in her most poignant storyline, she discovered she couldn’t have children and had to figure out why that was so devastating to her. And while the will-they-or-won’t-they back-and-forth with Barney was most likely an attempt to squeeze a few more seasons out of the series, it ends up fitting in with her story just as well. Barney was a cartoon version of the kind of no-strings-attached, whiskey-and-strip-clubs, complete freedom of being able to drop everything and do something completely reckless that she’d always believed she wanted. The wedding wasn’t a distraction; it was a process of the both of them growing up and learning what real commitment and selflessness was. And importantly: they were genuinely in love, and they continued to be in love after the divorce.

It’s fitting that she broke up with Ted because of their “expiration date,” her fear that she’d be tied down to one place and lose what she thought was her freedom, but then found herself thirty years later in the same apartment in the same city, still surrounded by her dogs. Both she and Ted got what they wanted, at least for a few years, but then the complication is that their story kept going.

There’s a reason Ted’s story — and therefore, the series — started with his meeting Robin. It wasn’t to set her up as the first in a line of failed relationships until he found the successful one. It wasn’t to say that the kids’ mother was fine but it was always Robin that he truly loved. It was to show that Ted at the beginning of the story is a different person than he is at the end, even if he doesn’t realize it until his kids point it out. (Yet another example of why the “fixed” version is so lousy: the framing story just becomes inert, an acknowledgement that everything interesting that happened is in the past). It’s because that relationship is one of the most important relationships of his life, even though it wasn’t — or maybe because it wasn’t — a romantic one. It’s because telling the story makes him realize everything he got from the relationship, while at the time he was always comparing the relationship to what it could be.

There was an excellent episode in the last season called “Sunrise,” in which Ted finally gives up on his one big final romantic gesture and symbolically steps down as an obstacle between Robin and Barney. Robin finds out, and she and Ted spend the night on the beach, talking about their relationship up to this point. In one of the simultaneously corny and beautiful scenes that HIMYM always did so well, Ted finally lets go of Robin and sees her floating away, like a child’s balloon. It’s one of the scenes that the finale puts in a new context, making the obvious interpretation seem shallow. Even if they both thought so at the time, Ted wasn’t really letting go of Robin, so that she could go on to marry Barney and he could go on to meet Tracy. Ted was finally letting go of his childish version of Perfect Robin. The version that was keeping him forever focused on what he thought he could have instead of appreciating what he had.

After the finale, that blue french horn stops being just a prop for the big Say Anything moment in a shallow, “One big gesture and my quest to win the girl is complete” romantic comedy. It becomes an acknowledgement that they’ve had a long history together. Everything has an expiration date, the worst thing you can do is let worries about the future stand in the way of enjoying the present.

And of course, it solves the problem they set for themselves in the pilot episode. If you want to tell a love story for adults that still builds to a climactic moment when one runs to the other and delivers a big, sweeping romantic gesture, you want it to be with a character we love and have gotten to know for longer than a season. There’s no one perfect story. You don’t have to choose between love at first sight and the depth of understanding that comes from knowing another person for a long time. You can have both.

How We Blew Your Rambaldi-Device-Finding, Cylon-Discovering, Island-Escaping Mind

I’ve spent years poring over the details of Lost, trying to put all the pieces together and predict what was going to happen. For a long time, I believed Battlestar Galactica was going somewhere and that the opera house dream would make sense. It seems weird to me now, but I even put a good bit of effort into trying to figure out Alias.

When I started reading people’s responses to the How I Met Your Mother finale, my first thought was that they were treating it as if it were just some kind of mystery story, or a puzzle to be solved, instead of letting themselves get genuinely invested in it. But really, it was a pretty neat mystery story. It used flashbacks and flash-forwards better than a conventional sitcom really needed to. It was exciting to get clues like the Econ class or the yellow umbrella doled out, like the episodes of X-Files that unpredictably dipped in and out of the larger continuity.

And just thinking about the finale in the context of the other episodes, and how it re-contextualizes the other episodes, has been interesting. Obviously, not all of it is deliberate, and a lot of it really was nothing more than a half hour of goofy television. But I’m impressed by how much of it fits. It really does seem as if they announced their intentions with an unconventional pilot, and then spent the next decade carrying it out. Of course, when your theme is “unexpected stuff happens,” it’s a little easier to say after the fact that nothing was a tangent.

I’ve been interested in long-form episodic television storytelling since the first time they showed The Smoking Man. I never would’ve expected that the first series to pull it off successfully would be a silly little formulaic sitcom that often could made me cry. If they’d gone for about three seasons shorter, and if the gang had ever made any black or Asian friends, it would’ve been about perfect.

Standard
Politics, The Internet

The Party of the First Part

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.

Standard
Disney, Movies

The Curious Case of Tow Mater

Empire Strikes Back ending shot
Everybody knows that sequels are always worse than the originals.

Except, of course, in the multitude of cases where they’re better (in order of universally regarded as superior, to this one writer’s opinion, which also happens to be objective fact): The Empire Strikes Back, The Wrath of Khan, X2: X-Men United, The Dark Knight, Toy Story 2, Aliens, Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness, Monsters University.

The reason I’m mentioning all of those (two of them Pixar sequels) is because of the announcement of upcoming sequels to The Incredibles and the Cars series. From what I saw, there was a wave of excitement — Incredibles 2 — followed by a backlash of Emperor’s new clothes — Cars 3. I saw several people say roughly the same thing: Why is everyone celebrating more creatively bankrupt cash grabs? If Pixar had remained semi-independent and hadn’t been bought by Disney, they’d still be focusing on original titles instead of churning out franchises.

I’ve been guilty of the mindset that “of course original content is always better, and there’s always an element of creative bankruptcy when sequels or licensed properties are involved.” But now I believe that that’s superficial. Having an adamant “no sequels” policy is at best being overly precious about The Muse, at worst extremely arrogant. Not to mention ignoring the fact that actual geniuses are capable of making something amazing even from a faithful adaptation.

(I should probably point out that my entire career in video games has been essentially that of a professional fan fiction writer. Sequels, spiritual sequels, or video game adaptations, all working with other people’s stuff. So I’ve put quite a bit of thought over the years into the topic of “original IP” vs. licensed content and sequels).

It’s understandable that people would be skeptical, considering that Disney spent several years making uninspired direct-to-video sequels of classic movies. And calling them “uninspired” isn’t a criticism of them in the same way it would be with a real movie, since at no point in the process were they intended to be creative works.

Of course it’s different when you’re talking about real feature releases. On that front, it seems to me that Pixar is just staying the course: sequels to Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Cars 2 have been announced, and so have two original projects. People are cautiously optimistic about Finding Dory, somewhat excited about The Incredibles 2, and calling Cars 3 an unsurprising cash-grab.

But look at the Cars movies. They are:

  1. The worst Pixar movies. (In my opinion. And of course, “worst Pixar movie” still means that they’re technically flawless, have striking concept work, and several clever moments, but are ultimately just “entertainment” instead of instant classics).
  2. The most profitable Pixar movies, by a wide margin.
  3. By all accounts the result (at least the first one) of a very personal, passion project by John Lasseter.

Which suggests to me, as an outsider, a less superficial and more realistic idea of how Pixar works. Any time a studio or production company is presented as a haven for tortured artists to get the resources they need to bring their artistic visions to reality, that’s probably bullshit, coming either from marketing or self-promotion or cynically idealistic fans. What’s a lot more likely is that like any creative business, you get the most success by being able to balance creativity, accessibility, and profitability.

My Singular Artistic Vision would’ve said that casting Larry the Cable Guy as a wacky sidekick in a Pixar movie was the epitome of the cynical marketing-driven cash grab. As it turned out, though, he’s a really good voice actor for animation, and he helped make a genuinely memorable character. Which shouldn’t be that surprising considering that his entire public persona is a fictional character, but still completely counter-intuitive when conventional wisdom said it should’ve been a disaster on the scale of casting Jeff Foxworthy. It still hurts me down to my soul to hear “Git R Done!” in a movie, or anywhere really, but give credit where it’s due.

I used to believe that LucasArts had the perfect can’t-fail business model: have the titles based on a ludicrously successful license which make your money and fund your original, creative titles that build your brand as an independent studio. In retrospect, though, that doesn’t make sense. Instead of being so precious about originality, why not apply creativity and imagination to titles that won’t be mediocre selling critical darlings? The balance got completely out of whack at that company, resulting in 100 variations of the Hoth battle or the Death Star trench run, but something like 1313 seemed to be the right idea. It just came too late to be realized.

Ultimately, if you’re arguing in favor of the creative process, then you have to acknowledge that creativity can come from anywhere.

It’s possible that this really is the beginning of the end for Pixar, their days of cranking out one classic film after another are over, and now that they’re wholly owned by Disney, they’re doomed to start cranking out movies like Planes. I’m extremely skeptical, after seeing not just the talent still at the studio, but seeing Wreck-it Ralph and Frozen. Anything’s possible. But if it does happen, then it won’t be just by virtue of putting out sequels.

For my part, I’m optimistic about Incredibles 2. The first is a movie I’ve always wanted to love but couldn’t. The art direction is amazing, every single environmental design is taken directly from the Book Of Stuff Chuck Likes, and the scene where drones chase Dash around the island is, without exaggeration, one of the best scenes in any movie ever made. If I can get all that without the creepy, didactic, bizarrely defensive, Objectivist message, then that’d be perfect.

Standard
Music

If I Can’t Show It, You Can’t See Me


The song says that this is no time for confessing, but if I’m going to be talking about St. Vincent (or for that matter, St. Vincent) I’ve got to make a couple of confessions:

First is that while I consider myself a huge fan of St. Vincent, I really only like about 50% of her music. The songs run hot and cold with me, and I’m usually indifferent to at least half the songs on any particular album. But the songs I like, I adore. Actor is my favorite of her albums, even though at this point I treat it as a 5-song EP — but since those five songs include “Black Rainbow,” “The Strangers,” and “Marrow,” that ranks it as one of the best albums ever recorded. And if I’m being honest, I really only like one song from Strange Mercy — but it’s one of my favorite songs ever:

My second confession is that I never really “got” David Bowie, even though I’ve always wished I could see and hear what everybody else seemed to. My first exposure to him was Let’s Dance, and I just didn’t (and still don’t) see the appeal. And then when Labyrinth came out, it was already established that he was some kind of superstar. It really wasn’t until Seu Jorge stripped the songs down in The Life Aquatic that I could appreciate how many really good songs he’d written. Of course by that point, I’d already missed all the years of being exposed to his Persona, which is as much a part of the show as his music.

I mention the first part because St. Vincent is an outstanding album by any measure. Actor is still my favorite, but St. Vincent is probably her best. Most of the reviews, and Annie Clark herself, mention that the album’s more confident and self-assured. Usually I dismiss that kind of thing as meaningless music review talk, about as meaningful as the language used by wine connoisseurs. But it really comes through here. St. Vincent sounds like someone who doesn’t have anything to prove.

She’s an excellent guitar player, and it kind of became her schtick, undoubtedly because of the novelty of it: a beautiful young woman with an angelic voice suddenly pulling out an electric guitar and just wailing on it. I don’t think she ever used it as a crutch; it was never like early Van Halen albums that’d just screech to halt for the sake of “Eruption.” But each song still had the sense of and here’s the guitar solo. (And don’t get me wrong; that’s a big part of why “Black Rainbow” is still my favorite of her songs). But the new record feels as if she said, “Okay, I’ve pretty much got the guitar covered for what I want to get out of it.” Now it’s part of a new sound consistent throughout the album: a drum kit, minimoog, and guitar with none of them drawing too much attention to itself.

In an interview with NPR’s All Songs Considered podcast, Clark described the sound as taking analog instruments and processing them to sound digital and artificial. Actor experimented with a thematic (almost diegetic?) sound as well, and it’s why I love it — my crush on St. Vincent was sealed the moment she described making a rock/pop album inspired by the music in Sleeping Beauty — but I also have to admit it’s a little bit “on the nose.” Take something sweet and melodic and put a dark twist on it: paint the black hole blacker. St. Vincent feels less like an intellectual exercise.

But what really makes St. Vincent work as a complete album is one song: “Regret.” Right at the point when the album could run out of steam and have me reaching for the controls to jump back to “Birth in Reverse,” she launches into a second half that feels as if it has the potential to go anywhere. She’s never been at a loss for a good hook, but dropping everything down to just her guitar and a drum kit instantly evokes Houses of the Holy for me. Then “Bring Me Your Loves” works better than it has any right to; is this turning into a Moog-rock dance album? Apparently not, since “Psychopath” tumbles backwards through 80s pop and then “Every Tear Disappears” turns it into a Berlin record. Combined with the visuals of the “Digital Witness” video and the album cover, it all seems to exist as part of a late-70s sci-fi movie (Clark described the look as “near-future cult leader”) that’s predicting the 90s nostalgia for the 80s, transmitted into 2014.

Which is why I mentioned the second confession: St. Vincent makes me feel like I’m getting the 70s art-rock experience that David Bowie’s fans got but that I missed out on. It’s not as explicit as anything that, say, Janelle Monaé’s doing (or Ziggy Stardust, for that matter) but it does all feel like a concept album. Finally I get glam rock I can call my own!

Best of all, it seems as if my favorite songs from her earlier albums were just a kind of prologue for what’s coming up. They were displays of talent with frequent flashes of genius here and there; this is a burst of creativity. Pulling in disparate influences, experimenting with all the different things she can do with her voice (she doesn’t sound the same on any two songs, much less the same as she did on Strange Mercy), and combining a good old-fashioned hook with an art-rock high concept.

And the whole thing’s got her sense of dark humor running throughout. There’s a laughably defensive article on Buzzfeed saying that the album’s fine and whatever, but St Vincent just doesn’t get the internet, man. (“…extremely condescending toward the diverse range of people who regularly use social media.”) It’d be silly enough because “Digital Witness” perfectly describes the always-connected loneliness for those of us who watch movies or listen to albums while simultaneously trying to come up with clever blog post titles, or now judge every memorable sight based on whether it’s best suited for Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter. It’s even sillier when you combine it with “Huey Newton,” which — according to Clark, since the lyrics are kind of impenetrable — is about being in a hotel tripping on Ambien and falling down an Internet browsing rabbit hole.

That sense of humor and self-awareness is what bumps my admiration into shameless fandom. There are plenty of artists whose work I love but would never want to meet them in person; Annie Clark, on the other hand, seems like she’d be fascinating to meet. Hear her talk about guitar technique and pedals and her artistic influences, and it’s clear she knows what she’s doing. Watch her in a video or a live performance and she’s straight-up weird, putting everything into the creativity of a performance. Her teaming up with David Byrne was a surprise to me but seems natural in retrospect: if there’s anybody I can see putting on a giant suit and twitching and shuddering across a stage, it’s St. Vincent. But then she effortlessly turns it off. In interviews, and even between songs, she comes across as completely devoid of pretension or any sense of self-importance. Not as a persona but as a person.

I’ve already listened to the new record more times than I can count, and it’s got me excited about what’s coming next.

Standard