Sunday, February 7, 2016

IT’S A TRAP! SPEAKING THEIR LANGUAGE PART I

The call:
This is a genuine question. This is a real question. If Bernie Sanders is the nominee there will be hundreds of millions of dollars spent to say every vote he’s taken, and to say he wants to raise your taxes. He just said the other night on the forum, honestly, I will raise your taxes.

And the response:

And there will be hundreds of millions of dollars spent against Hillary Clinton, and they will say the same thing about her. What Bernie Sanders can do, speaking with integrity and credibility and an authenticity that Secretary of State Clinton can’t, is marshal that political revolution even before he’s elected, which is to mobilize, and this will be an election of mobilization not persuasion, mobilize millions of people to ramp up their giving to him and be un-bought and liberated to advance bold ideas.

It’s a bit of a guilty pleasure watching Chris Hayes banter back and forth with other political policy wonks on his show, often playing devil’s advocate, pointing out the obvious elephant in the room. Listening to The Nation editor Katrina Vanden Heuvel respond to his question, I am struck by the utter simplicity of her initial point: the attacks will be the same regardless of who wins the nomination. I am reminded of this little nugget from a piece I wrote just after the 2012 election:

When the Bush tax cuts were originally supposed to sunset in 2010, the Republicans played their tried and true “tax and spend liberal” card to flip the switch and claim that allowing the tax cuts to expire was in fact Obama raising taxes. A clear majority of the country was not in favor of extending the tax cuts for the wealthy, but Bush & Co. were crafty enough to design the tax cuts as a reduction of rates across the board. The tax cuts for the lower tax brackets were a pittance next to the windfall for the 1%, but tethering the two together allowed Republicans to push the idea that Obama would be “raising taxes” on everyone.

The “tax and spend liberal” narrative that I mention above has been used in every single election cycle that I have witnessed. It isn’t particularly concerned with what or how much those taxes specifically are, or who it is that will pay them (or avoid paying them). The narrative persists even when candidates who have pledged not to raise taxes renege on their pledge, and – raise taxes. It’s a conflict narrative – liberals raise taxes, conservatives do not. Democrats expand government, Republicans shrink government. Vote for more taxes or less taxes, vote for more government or less. Of course, a little comparative research into how these two parties allocate our taxes quickly reveals that this who spends more narrative is nonsense. Republicans have even taken to attacking other Republicans for not being true conservatives, in a desperately cynical attempt to distance themselves from the “big government” crony capitalist policies of recent Republican administrations.

Grover Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge is a well known recent example of this narrative, but the mythos of it tracks all the way back to the Boston Tea Party: the quintessential anti-taxation protest that sparked the Revolutionary War, and the ideological anchor for the Tea Party movement. Here’s the thing: the “destruction of the tea” as it was referred to, was a “no taxation without representation” protest, not simply anti-tax. Colonists with no representation in the British Parliament were being taxed without their consultation or consent. The Tea Act of 1773 actually cut taxes on British tea with the objective of undermining the lucrative sale of smuggled tea by colonists, leaving only minimal (but highly symbolic) tariffs in place. Significantly more complicated than tax or no tax.

While the narrative has most commonly been employed as a Republican talking point to universally discredit Democrats, candidate Barrack Obama famously pledged not to raise taxes on households earning less than $250,000 during the 2008 election cycle. He was joined in 2008 by Hillary Clinton who has now doubled down on the pledge in 2016. During recent debates the narrative has been used to discredit Bernie Sanders’ policy proposals by insinuating that his policies would levy high taxes on the middle class. During the recent CNN Iowa Town hall, Anchor Chris Cuomo characterizes Bernie’s single payer Medicare for all proposal as “one of the biggest tax hikes in history” and goes on to question Bernie, not once, but three times (paraphrasing): “What about the idea that you’re bringing back the era of big government, and making it bigger than ever?”

Cuomo’s heavy handed initial formulation of this “question” even offers former President Clinton (with obvious implications) as a direct foil to Sanders:

Right. Senator, then the pushback becomes how you pay. Now, in this room, you’re preaching to the converted somewhat, right? These are presumptively Democrats. But, you will hear people say that your paying for it is actually punitive. You’re going to punish people who make money, you’re going to punish the financial district, you’re going to punish and wind up changing the idea of an open and free economy ’cause you’re going to punish them for speculating. Which means they won’t speculate as much, which means you won’t get as much activity. And, if you do a checklist of how you pay for everything, what you’re doing is amassing the biggest government ever, after President Clinton said the era of big government was over, seems like Bernie Sanders is saying, not only it’s over, I’m going to do it bigger than ever.

Wow. What a pile on. Sanders did an admirable job of responding to Cuomo’s long-winded commentary, but is there an alternative to speaking their language? “But just to be clear, you are going to raise taxes to do this?” “Yes, we will raise - we will raise the - we will raise taxes, yes, we will. But...” As Admiral Ackbar from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi famously exclaims, “It’s a TRAP!” The question is intended to draw Sanders into a narrative specifically designed to be beyond his control. While I applaud the Sanders campaign for coming at these issues head on, courageously redefining (or is it simply accurately defining?) and reappropriating terms commonly used to discredit and defame (socialist, revolution, electability, etc.), I do believe there could be more emphasis on the introduction of narratives that have not been pre-defined by the opposition.




For example: you get what you pay for. When the Kucinich campaign put forward a not-for-profit single payer Medicare for all proposal in 2004, the core of their narrative was to point out that the health insurance industry makes their profits not by providing health care, but rather by denying coverage. So the underlying problem is not simply cost, but that you are actually paying the insurance industry to deny you health care. You get what you pay for.

Rather than taking a defensive posture within a conflict narrative designed to constrain the dialogue, why not script a different narrative entirely? Maybe talk about Social Security (taxes) raided to fund emergency appropriations for the Iraq War, in attempts to validate a bogus privatization campaign by jeopardizing program solvency? Or how ’bout the majority of taxes allocated for research & development being used to subsidize the weapons industry rather than to find cures for cancer, aids, ebola, etc.? Or maybe taxes used to subsidize the destruction of food in order to stabilize market price, rather than as an incentive to feed the hungry. Taxes used to subsidize the fossil fuel and meat industries to perpetuate a myth of profitability, masking their true costs, both financially and in terms of the continuation of life on our planet. You get what you pay for.

I prefer this narrative (and this is just one possible alternative narrative), because it tracks back to the idea that taxes are supposedly collected in order to pay for something we want instead of defaulting to the idea that taxes are simply some kind of punitive measure forced on the citizenry, a penalty we pay for the privilege of living in the United States. Our government may currently operate like an oligarchy, a plutocracy, but it was clearly not intended to be a monarchy where we all pay fealty to some oppressive overlord. If our government is truly of the people, by the people, for the people, then we must be clear that our system of taxation should benefit us.

“I don’t see how you can be serious about raising working and middle-class families’ incomes if you also want to slap new taxes on them—no matter what the taxes will pay for.” I could give Clinton the benefit of the doubt here, and just attribute her rhetorical commentary to a lack of vision in terms of how
our system of taxation should benefit us. Maybe she actually can’t imagine how pooling our resources will reduce our individual costs, how standing together protects us from the predatory practices of the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries? If she really is as versed in the particulars of universal health care as she claims, I’m pretty sure she understands this. And this is why it is so disturbing that she cynically chooses to go with the “tax and spend liberal” narrative here.

Our government splits spending into two categories, mandatory and discretionary. So called entitlement programs (Medicare, Social Security, etc.) fall under mandatory spending, this money will be spent, it is not simply an option if it turns out we have enough cash on hand. The Republican (& Democrat?) personal responsibility narrative would have us believe that everything should be discretionary spending, on the budgetary chopping block. The government can’t spend money it doesn’t have. But this is ridiculous on a couple levels. One – our government is actually spending money it “doesn’t have” all the time. That’s just how it works. That is why we pay taxes – to give our  government money it doesn’t have. And two – this isn’t like an individual buying a flat screen TV or some fancy new shoes, we are talking about people’s lives here.

Thom Hartmann wrote a piece month’s ago pointing out that the question isn’t if we are going to spend the money on health care, it is how we are going to spend it, and who is going to get paid. This isn’t about personal responsibility or fiscal responsibility, and it’s not about hard choices and self-sacrifice, it’s ultimately about who is going to control our tax dollars and what we choose to spend them on. Do we want perpetual war (more than 50% of our taxes)? Do we want to continue subsidizing industries that are destroying our planet? Do we want to continue sinking our health care dollars into an insurance industry that profits from denying us health care? How ’bout a pharmaceutical industry profit model that prioritizes illness over wellness? Do we allow 1%, whether in Republican or Democratic guise, to continue dictating austerity policy to us with catastrophic results, or do we stand up and take back our government and our taxes?
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Related articles:
Hillary Clinton’s no-tax pledge is Republican policy sprinkled with Third Way politics
by Jon Green

These Quakers Are Asking Tougher Questions Than Many in the Press by Lee Fang
The Most Disingenuous Attack on Bernie Yet by Thom Hartmann

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

COUNT EVERY VOTE!

Looking at the results from Iowa, I am not at all surprised by the Ted Cruz victory. I’ve never really bought into the presumptive Republican front–runner’s reality TV inspired spectacle. I find it far more likely that this experiment in extremity is intended to make the Tea Party darling(s) appear reasonable by comparison... I am, however, quite surprised by the uneasy feeling of déjà vu I have reading the Democratic caucus results.

Watching the presumptive Democratic front–runner declare “victory” without declaring victory, hearing media trumpet definitive “victory”– currently defined by a margin of 0.2%, reading multiple accounts of delegates allocated through the flip of a coin; I am reminded of darker days when hanging chads and provisional ballots trumped the democratic maxim of one person, one vote. I am supposed to be reassured that Microsoft has democracy well in hand, and forget about those Diebold days of old. I am supposed to trust that the Iowa caucus process is free from the kind procedural manipulation I have witnessed more times than I can count. You say you aren’t familiar with Robert’s Rules? That’s ok, I assure you it will not affect the delegate count. Call the question. Can I get a second?

In 2000 and 2004, legal challenges to vote counts throughout the country were dismissed, claiming that vote discrepancies in individual districts were not large enough to individually shift the outcome of the national election. Of course, those were discrepancies between Republican and Democratic votes. I don’t suppose we are likely to see lawsuits filed between Democrats questioning the Iowa caucus results. Perhaps this is why it feels strangely surreal to me. One big happy Democrat family, with your best interests at heart (or is it head?). “After thorough reporting – and analysis – of results, there is no uncertainty and Secretary Clinton has clearly won the most national and state delegates. Statistically, there is no outstanding information that could change the results and no way that Senator Sanders can overcome Secretary Clinton's advantage.” So says the Clinton Campaign.




Sorry Hillary / DWS / DNC / IDP / Microsoft, but I just don’t trust you. I want an accountable and verifiable democratic process that doesn’t require me to trust you. I can still recall the “sore loser” narrative that was bandied about in 2000, and I can still clearly remember protesting the coronation in DC, but more importantly I can remember when 15 million people around the world said NO to the war that our stolen election enabled, only to have our (s)elected leader dismiss us as a mere “focus group.” You see, this isn’t really about who wins, it’s about democracy itself. It is about knowing that the voice of the people counts. And so in 2016, I say, once again – Count Every Vote!
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Related articles:
Editorial: Something smells in the Democratic Party – The Des Moines Register
Iowa Democratic party altered precinct’s caucus results during chaotic night – The Guardian

Friday, January 22, 2016

WE THE PEOPLE / WE THE PRESIDENT

So to those on Wall Street who may be listening to my remarks, and I’m sure there are many of them (laughter from the crowd), let me be very clear. Greed is not good. In fact the greed of Wall Street and corporate America is destroying the very fabric of our nation. And here is a New Year’s Resolution that I will keep if elected president. And that is, if Wall Street does not end its greed, we will end it for them.

Bernie Sanders recently gave a speech on Wall Street Reform and Financial Policy. Watching the speech it struck me how often Bernie uses the word “we” where another candidate might choose to use the word “I.”

My opponent says that, as a senator, she told bankers to “cut it out” and end their destructive behavior. But, in my view, establishment politicians are the ones who need to “cut it out.” The reality is that Congress does not regulate Wall Street…(crowd interrupts and chants “Wall Street regulates Congress!”) You got it! And you know what, as President we’re gonna end that reality.

As President we’re gonna end that reality. For more than a decade my political advisor and I have been talking about a paradigm shift in which the United States Presidency could be seen as something more than a singular office occupied by an individual decider. Our dialogue explored the possibility of electing a President who understood the potential of shared governance in addressing the challenges we face. This went far beyond the President seeking counsel from his cabinet on individual issues. I was working on the 2004 Kucinich campaign at the time and our emphasis on volunteer participation got me thinking about what it might be like to have a President who swept into office surrounded not by crony capitalist politicians looking for payback on their electoral investment, but by a group of the nation’s most brilliant minds from disciplines across the spectrum. At the time I was satisfied to imagine this group topping out at around 100 people, a sort of council of elders if you will, but without the minimum age requirement.

This kind of thinking goes way back for me. Growing up watching campaign after campaign, I could simply not believe that the chosen candidates were the best we could come up with (in a nation of over 200 million). I remember wondering why there were not more people who wanted the job? I was not yet aware of all the political machinations that figured into the process of selecting a candidate, but even then it was fairly obvious to me that running for President was a risky proposition. The vicious character attacks made on candidates could quickly and quite definitively end a political career. So then why put all your eggs in one basket to begin with? If one candidate was so terribly fallible, then why not expand the process, not just to multiple candidates, but to multiple people running to hold the office together?

Crazy idea? Maybe – but it gets at something that seems central to me: do we really need a patriarchal savior to keep the whole enterprise going, or can the American people govern themselves? Is our “leader” more qualified to represent our interests than we are? The more I hear candidates try and tap into our passions and frustrations, calling for peoples’ mobilizations and the like, the more I wonder if this hierarchical system we use to funnel our ideas up to our selected leader may itself be creating a lot of the conflict narrative scripts that keep us stuck. The duality of the two party system, the overt opposition to the President himself, etc. If the point of these structures is to be representative of the will of the people then why doesn’t the government actually do what the majority of us want?

But let me rephrase your question because I think, in all due respect, your expression, in all due respect, you’re missing the main point. And the main point in the Congress it’s not that Republicans and Democrats hate each other – that’s a mythology from the media. The real issue is that Congress is owned by big money and refuses to do what the American people want them to do.

The real issue is that in area after area, raising the minimum wage to 15 bucks an hour, the American people want it. Rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, creating 13 million jobs, the American people want it. Pay equity for women, the American people want it. Demanding that the wealthy start paying their fair share of taxes, the American people want it. The point is, we have gotta make Congress respond to the needs of the people, not big money interests.

Since the fourth democratic debate (which the above Bernie quote is from), I have read a spate of articles from the mainstream media, who it would seem have only now suddenly become aware that a Senator named Bernie Sanders is running for President. Many of these articles question the viability of running a campaign that aims to mobilize the public beyond the immediate objective of voting for President toward a sustainable involvement in the political process. Perhaps I am being generous here in my phrasing, so consider this quote from one such recent article:

Sanders’s version involves the mobilization of a mass grassroots volunteer army that can depose the special interests. “The major political, strategic difference I have with Obama is it’s too late to do anything inside the Beltway,” he told Andrew Prokop. “You gotta take your case to the American people, mobilize them, and organize them at the grassroots level in a way that we have never done before.” But Obama did organize passionate volunteers on a massive scale — far broader than anything Sanders has done — and tried to keep his volunteers engaged throughout his presidency. Why would Sanders’s grassroots campaign succeed where Obama’s far larger one failed?

When I wrote my conflict narrative piece I considered including a section about the “polarization” narrative. This is a self-supporting narrative that claims our government is so evenly split on two sides of each and every issue that no matter what the intention, the outcome is and will always be gridlock. The quote above, and the article it is quoted from, start with a tacit acceptance of this narrative.

I don’t buy it.

First, adherence to the polarization narrative is at its essence an argument against the viability of democracy itself. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Why should I vote for a candidate who can’t win? Why should I support proposals that have no possibility of becoming law? The people rise up and nothing changes, so why should I bother to get involved? Well, the short answer is: because that is how democracy works. The more people who show up and take action, the more representative our democracy is. Congress is not supposed to be a permanent residency. If our representatives don’t represent our interests, then it is up to us to replace them with representatives that do.

Second, drawing this kind of false equivalency between the mobilization around Obama’s campaign and the mobilization inspired by Bernie’s campaign fails to take several things into account.

It presumes that the Obama administration actually had the intention of mobilizing their 13 million volunteers to do more than fund raise and voice generalized support for ‘reform,’ taking their failure to do so as proof that all such mobilizations are ineffectual. It doesn’t consider the impact the demobilzation of OFA (Obama for America / Organizing for America) had on their disillusioned “army” of millennial volunteers, and how that decision relates to the rise of Occupy Wall Street. It certainly doesn’t consider the possibility that OFA (Organizing for Action, as it is called today) may be little more than a marketing campaign to keep us engaged, keep us busy, keep us quiet.

Perhaps most importantly it gives no thought to the clarity of language and purpose that makes the Bernie Sanders mobilization different from what we saw in 2008. During the run up to that election (and even long after), the rallying cry of “hope” and “change” had all but consumed the specific policy positions of Barrack Obama, leaving many of his supporters unclear what they were actually voting for beyond the President himself. This appears quite different from the policy positions that Bernie is happy to discuss at every possible opportunity, specific positions that actually resonate with his supporters because they share them with him.




And that brings me to the third thing: this guy Bernie himself appears quite different than what we have seen before. He calls for a “political revolution” (if you are not quite sure what he means by that – here is a good video to watch) citing specific goals that go beyond winning the Presidency. His unassuming, plain speaking, policy wonk legislative style provides us with a preview of what’s to come. He seems to be a truth teller, utterly disinterested in spinning the media to support any view point that runs counter to the good of the people. He’s got a record of finding common ground and moving legislation forward without giving away the house we all live in to do it. He knows he can’t do it by himself and he’s asking for our help.


 

That 100 person council of elders I mentioned earlier has expanded over the years, no longer restricted to a few representative experts or exceptional individuals, it encompasses something that sounds kinda like this political revolution that Sanders speaks of. Now, I’m not harboring any illusions that the Presidency is suddenly going to subvert its hierarchical structure in favor of a horizontal organizing model, but I do think it is important to recognize the opportunity here. Populism is perennial in politics, and using the Presidency as a bully pulpit to mobilize the American people in response to a particular policy is not new strategy. What is new here is that this particular mobilization may actually elect a President that is responsive to the mobilization as well...
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If you haven’t yet seen Killer Mike’s six part interview with Bernieit is brilliant!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

STAR WARS IN THE J.J. VERSE*

I’ve made references in other posts about hollywood movies, and entertainment in general, but I haven’t written a post about a specific film. I recently went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens at the beautiful Ziegfeld theater. With the language of conflict narrative fresh in my mind I couldn’t help but notice how this film handles its narrative differently than previous Star Wars films. With the new film quite possibly on its way to becoming the top grossing film of all time, I thought it might be interesting to share some of my insights growing up with the films, and my thoughts about how this new J.J. Abrams iteration compares with those of Star Wars creator George Lucas.

IF YOU DON’T WANT SPOILERS STOP READING NOW.

A couple things up front. I’m not a Star Wars fanboy (isn’t that right Boba Fett 12" figure standing on my desk?), but I have always been into science fiction (which some claim that Star Wars is not), particularly allegorical sci-fi. I’ve only viewed Force Awakens once. I considered seeing it a second time as research for this post, but I wanted to keep this to my first impressions. That said I did subsequently watch the prequel trilogy again despite its seeming lack of consequence to the recent J.J. Abrams reboot. I was moved to do so because it seems that much of what is so satisfying to the fan base is that there are practically no references to the prequels in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. You don’t have to be a hardcore Star Wars fan to know that the prequel films were an enormous disappointment to much of the original trilogy’s fan base.

Not familiar with the chronology of the seven films (go ahead and skip this whole paragraph if you are)? Star Wars, released in 1977, is now referred to as Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. The following two films The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V) and Return of the Jedi (Episode VI) complete what is commonly referred to as “the original trilogy.” Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace is released sixteen years after the original trilogy in 1999, followed by Episode II – Attack of the Clones and Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. These three films chronicling the origin of Darth Vader and the events leading to the rise of the Galactic Empire are commonly referred to as “the prequels.” The new film Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the seventh in the series and takes place approximately 30 years after the events in Return of the Jedi.

Ok – so let’s get started, as all Star Wars films do, with the opening crawl:

Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Luke Skywalker has vanished. In his absence, the sinister FIRST ORDER has risen from the ashes of the Empire and will not rest until Skywalker, the last Jedi, has been destroyed.

With the support of the REPUBLIC, General Leia Organa leads a brave RESISTANCE. She is desperate to find her brother Luke and gain his help in restoring peace and justice to the galaxy.

Leia has sent her most daring pilot on a secret mission to Jakku, where an old ally has discovered a clue to Luke's whereabouts....

The first thing I notice here is that the Galactic Empire and the Rebellion of the original trilogy have been replaced by the First Order and the Resistance respectively.

As a child watching Star Wars for the first time, I don’t think I was particular familiar with the term empire, but I had heard of rebellion in the context of the Revolutionary War in grade school social studies class. Seeing this group of Rebels rise up against an oppressive Empire was a pretty formative moment for me. While I wasn’t quite sure how the fighting had begun, it was pretty evident that the Empire were some bad guys. They had built a weapon that was capable of destroying whole planets, and they used it to destroy Princess Leia’s home world just to demonstrate its power. Now these Rebels on the other hand, they appeared to be quite the ragtag bunch, barely able to keep it together. Watching their tiny Rebel ship completely outclassed by the enormous Star Destroyer in the opening sequence, stormtroopers utterly overwhelming the Rebel soldiers as they board the ship, Darth Vader strangling the Rebel commander with his iron grip – clearly some desperate times. The opening crawl told me there was a civil war, but I didn’t really know what that meant. I knew that there had been a civil war in the United States, between the North and the South, but it didn’t occur to me that this implied the Empire and the Rebels had once been united in some fashion. And I certainly couldn’t conceive of the stormtroopers evolving from the existing army of that united body. More on that later.

Years later I would hear the term “empire” used in all kinds of contexts from historical colonization, to Reagan’s cold war, to recent wars for oil. And while I may have come to understand that there was more to empire than “evil,” the underlying meaning was there. And of course the antidote to empire? Well that would be rebellion – pretty radical politics for a Saturday matinee serial writ large.

So what do we get from the Force Awakens crawl? The First Order is sinister, instead of Evil (with a capital E). Well maybe that’s not such a bad thing. It’s more of a shade of gray, yes? And maybe that provides us with a more workable starting point if a galaxy far far away is going to work its shit out ultimately – balance the Force and all that good stuff.

But what is this First Order’s objective? Well they want to find that last Jedi and destroy him! Darth Vader was hot to get Luke on board with the Dark Side so they could rule the Empire together. This First Order doesn’t seem to have any subjects at all, only troops. I couldn’t help but wonder after watching General Hux’s rousing speech to his troops, does an army made up entirely of captured children “raised to do one thing” (Finn) really need a pep rally to get them to raise their fists (raised fists – really? Power to the people.)? Perhaps they just needed a little extra encouragement. When the time comes to test the new mega Death Star, the Order obliterates five planets all at once. I get that they are incapacitating their enemy in a single stroke, but without the prequel provided context of a Republic consisting of thousands of worlds, doesn’t this sequence play out as a mass execution of all the people they could potentially rule? So if not Imperial rule, what exactly is their motivation? We’re not given much to go on beyond some dialogue establishing General Hux and Kylo Ren’s obsession with order and power. Or maybe it’s all just about grandaddy’s melted helmet.

And what of the Resistance? Depicted as the bastard child of the Republic, they are a sort of independent special ops counter to the threat of the First Order. But if the Republic is still the ruling body of the galaxy, then isn’t the First Order also a resistance? Or perhaps this word is reserved only for the good guys? Empire and Rebellion meant something to me as a child watching Star Wars and they were concepts that I could reference later in life, I wonder how the less explicit First Order and Resistance will resonate with a new generation of Star Wars fans. It took three films to destroy democracy (the prequels), and three more to restore freedom (the original trilogy). I’m not sure when they lost it, but I look forward to finding out how they go about “restoring peace and justice to the galaxy.”

I can still clearly recall hearing the theater audience cheer when the 2nd Death Star was destroyed at the end of Return of the Jedi. I remember being deeply disturbed by this – hundreds of thousands (over half a million crew on the Death Star itself) killed in a war that was set up as the inevitable clash between the light and dark sides of the Force. What is the take away here as we wander back into the same conflict for a new generation?

The second thing that stood out to me: a stormtrooper with a conscience?

Kylo Ren gives an order to slaughter a group of villagers and a single stormtrooper, FN-2187, disobeys this order. The character appears to be in shock, his helmet marked with the crimson hand print of a fallen comrade. When the order is given he stands perfectly still while other troopers massacre the remaining villagers. We don’t know what is going through his head, is he consciously disobeying the order or is he simply not able to comply? It’s an important moment because in six films we have never seen a stormtrooper (or clone trooper) disobey orders. What is it that keeps him from killing the villagers? Revulsion? Compassion?

Later in the story this same character, now called Finn, tries to convince new found friend Rey to forsake the coming battle and head for the outer rim of the galaxy. Maz Kanata, this iteration’s new wise sage character (a reboot Yoda if you will) tells Finn “I am looking at the eyes of a man who wants to run.” Is this solely about self preservation? How does this square with the earlier scene where Finn disobeys orders? Is he risking his own safety in that scene? Is he being portrayed as a coward? Afraid to kill the villagers, but also too afraid to fight back? And how about now – perhaps Finn is just lacking faith that the Resistance can actually defeat the First Order? Or perhaps he is just trying to keep Rey safe? “You don't know a thing about me, what I’ve seen… we all need to run.” I am intrigued, not because Finn seems to be taking some sort of principled stand against the war, but because he is questioning it at all. Everyone else on the scene seems willing, ready and able to do what must be done.


Things quickly go south as the First Order attacks and Finn defaults to the one thing he has been raised to do (fight), facing off against Riot Control Stormtrooper (yes, that’s a thing). But he is fully drawn back into the conflict when he sees Kylo Ren carrying Rey’s body into his shuttle, Finn’s anger erupting in the way that we have become accustomed to in Star Wars. Luke must save Leia, Anakin must save Padmé, and now Finn must save Rey. The liberating moment has passed when this character might have chosen a different path, he will now do what is necessary, even if that includes killing other conscripted troopers who have not had his awakening.  

The third thing I notice watching Force Awakens is possibly the most challenging to address: the narrative surrounding Rey.

Long before the movie was released Star Wars fans were well aware of the new female lead character Rey. Watching the trailers it became fairly obvious that she was essentially the new Luke, which of course implied that she would also become a Jedi. George Lucas has said on many occasions that the Star Wars saga (the six films together) is the story of Anakin Skywalker’s descent into the dark side and his redemption through his son Luke, but for those of us who grew up watching the original trilogy, the central character is of course Luke Skywalker.

Rey is presented to us as a prodigy, exceptionally good at everything that she does, often to her own surprise (she even speaks Wookiee). This is similar to the way Luke or Anakin are depicted in the previous films, but there is an essential difference in these narratives. Both Luke and Anakin are introduced to the Force through a master, whereas Rey begins using the Force with apparently no training at all. Of course there is nothing inherently wrong with having a character discover her power on her own, and it does help the writers avoid a potential patriarchal pitfall having her learn from a male master; it does, however, create some narrative questions for me that I think may prove problematic. Is Rey infallible? Does she, can she, make mistakes/bad decisions?

Again I come back to the moment in Maz Kanata’s castle/cantina when Rey effectively joins the Resistance. What is her motivation here? What is the context of her decision? In the previous films it is the dialogue between master and apprentice/padawan that has provided us with this context. But with that missing here it appears that Rey is essentially going along with the decision that Han Solo has already made for himself. Perhaps this is to show us the implicit trust that she has for Han, but it provides us little insight into Rey’s character when she is making perhaps her most important decision in the film. This may not be an issue for original trilogy fans (who have been there with Han through thick and thin, carbonite and all), but how does this play to a new generation who will be inspired by Rey? Does it allow them to understand why Rey is willing to go to war? Practically two weeks to the day before the premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens United States Department of Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter announced the decision to open all combat jobs in the United States military to women.

Star Wars is quite literally filled with characters that go to war at the drop of a hat (it is, after all, called Star WARS), so why does this bother me? Well I think it is primarily because George Lucas has intentionally built a great deal of complexity into his grand myth. He has claimed repeatedly that he made Star Wars primarily with children in mind, going as far as to categorize it as a kind of mythmaking experiment to see how it might affect a generation of youth. With that in mind I have to wonder what, if any, mythmaking J.J. Abrams is engaged in with Force Awakens.

Star Wars warns again and again of the potential downside when good people are stirred to action through emotional response. This is of course central to our understanding of The Force as presented in Lucas’ films. Yoda’s explains to Luke:

Yes, a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.

Yoda famously clarifies this in The Phantom Menace:

Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.

But then maybe I am reading too much into this. Perhaps this isn’t lazy writing, basing the motivations of new characters almost entirely on the motivations of past characters. Perhaps it is the Force itself that is guiding Rey in her actions.

This brings me to my fourth point: is Star Wars at its essence about one really dysfunctional “royal” family whose problems cost the lives of millions throughout the galaxy?

Wasn’t there something along the way about seeking balance in the force? Why is everyone so hell bent on killing one another? Watching the original trilogy as a child the war seemed unavoidable. Dropped into the middle of it, it felt as reasonable, and vindicating, as a kid fighting back against a schoolyard bully – the quintessential David and Goliath story. But rewatching the prequels recently it became more apparent to me that the wars began as a distraction, a conflict methodically engineered to consolidate power in the hands of the Emperor (Senator Palpatine/Darth Sidious).

The clone army of the Republic, activated through emergency powers granted to the Supreme Chancellor (Palpatine at the time) to battle the secessionists (whose leadership was actually a cabal of corporatists, bankers and weapons manufacturers in cahoots with Palpatine), would become the Galactic Empire’s stormtroopers. As a child I was completely unaware that the Rebel Alliance in Star Wars was effectively fighting their own army.

This type of conflict narrative manipulation is common throughout the prequels. Queen Amidala, Luke and Leia’s mother, is manipulated by Palpatine (who is a Senator from her planet Naboo at the time) into calling for a vote of no confidence directed at the serving Chancellor, clearing the way for Palpatine to become Chancellor. He does this by creating a crisis on Naboo in which their citizens are under attack and then claiming that the serving Chancellor is beholden to those who are involved in the attack. Anakin Skywalker is also manipulated by Palpatine, claiming that only the dark side of the Force can save his wife (Padmé Amidala) from dying while giving birth, a fate Anakin has foreseen in nightmares. And of course we all know that Vader and Luke are eventually able to work through their conflict, but does this really count as a balancing of the Force or just a rejection of the dark side?



After watching the trailer for the J.J Abrams reboot, I commented to my partner that it looked like the new characters in the film were essentially fanboys (and fangirl in the case of Rey of course), in absolute awe of the heroes we have seen in the past films. Pretty clever in terms of drawing in an audience full of fans that have grown up watching Star Wars, allowing them to vicariously participate through the on screen awe/adoration of these new characters, but how does it play to a younger audience? There is something disturbing about a narrative honoring and celebrating the heroes of the war while simultaneously excising the political machinations that led to the war. What are they fighting for? Does it matter any more?
___

*Universe

Related posts on The Missing Point:

CONFLICT NARRATIVES AND THEIR POWER TO INFLUENCE
Are we courageous enough to face the why?
VISIONS OF PEACE?
SHUT IT DOWN II


Related Star Wars articles:
Corruption, Exploitation, and Decay: The Politics of Star Wars
The Empty Politics of ‘Star Wars’
Why Star Wars is a political Force to be reckoned with

In ‘Star Wars,’ politics is always personal
The Personal and the Political in “Star Wars”
Why I don’t care about the new Star Wars film
The Politics Behind the Original “Star Wars”

Friday, January 1, 2016

CONFLICT NARRATIVES
AND THEIR POWER TO INFLUENCE

It has been more than a year since I last posted on The Missing Point, a tumultuous year of rising passions and raised voices. There have been many breakthrough moments, many catalyzed by great suffering and loss. But “our” politicians and media rarely focus on breakthrough moments, choosing instead to present these stories stripped down to dualistic conflicts with little or no context. The resulting narratives, scripted to demand a rush to judgment and an escalation of the conflict, commonly equate dialogue with weakness to effectively lock the participants into a downward spiral. Even if they can individually see past the dualistic narrative, the sheer intensity of the conflict and the defensive posturing it engenders provide an effective barrier to meaningful dialogue.

This idea has come up in post after post on Missing Point, the specific language to define it evolving with each appearance. When I began to recognize the commonality, I used the term filter to reference it as a set of questions to apply to any given narrative. I found myself using these questions, though not in a specifically formulaic manner, to reveal the intent and motivation of those who script such narratives. The first question was generally some form of “who benefits from this narrative?” followed by the question “who benefits from my acceptance of this narrative?” I separate these two because it may not be necessary for the narrative to be accepted for it to be effective. Its very proposal is often enough to constrain the dialogue, which is more often than not the narrative’s underlying intent.

Recognizing these dynamics, and having the language to do so, can empower us to move beyond the scripted duality of picking a side and preparing for battle. I believe this conscious choice to liberate oneself from the constraints of these us against them narratives is a fundamental first step in shifting the society as a whole from a restrictive vision of what we don’t want to a dynamic vision of what we do. To be clear, my ultimate objective in writing this piece is to neutralize this methodology of manipulation and control by providing language to name it, expose it, and reject it. With this in mind I am proposing the widespread adoption and use of the following specific language:

Conflict Narrative – Any dualistic narrative that is employed as a method of manipulation and control in order to minimize, marginalize, and misdirect the legitimate outrage of the people away from those actually responsible for their common oppression.

The primary function of conflict narratives is to seize and secure all space that might otherwise be available for discovery and dialogue through relentless repetition of a single predetermined dualistic narrative. These narratives are scripted as win/lose scenarios, contests for survival, competitions where one side gains only at the expense of the other. Such narratives identify those involved solely through their opposition to one another, effectively silencing their individual voices. With the competition clearly defined, participants are now free to “choose” sides, establishing a shallow sense of belonging and purpose through this essential act of “choosing.” This “choice” between sanctioned options is intended to supplant any personal exploration and experience that might cause deviation from the narrative. The spectacle of impassioned argument from both sides is meant to seduce us into declaring our allegiance, but if we are to break free of these narratives there is one thing we must be clear on:

Those who script conflict narratives do not care which choice we ultimately make. They have provided two “choices” (rather than one) for the sole purpose of seducing us into declaring our allegiance and joining the fray.

Jobs or Environment. Freedom or Security. Democrat or Republican. Coke or Pepsi. Paper or Plastic. Conflict narratives often provide “choices” that are almost identical, but they can be equally effective tools of manipulation when the “choices” are actually different. Apples and Oranges. The phrase is used to reference two objects so completely different that their comparison is all but meaningless. But really though, which is better, Apples or Oranges? If you could eat only one for the rest of your life, which would it be? C’mon, you know you have a favorite! Viewing difference in the frame of conflict, as a contest for dominance, keeps us from realizing the benefit of having multiple options. Oranges may not make for good pie (Damn right – Apple Pie RULES!), but they make excellent marmalade (You got to be kidding – NOBODY eats that garbage!).

When we look back at the root narratives for so called western civilization we find the Greco-Roman hero on a great quest, courageously facing adversity and overcoming obstacles to manifest his destiny. “Choosing” Apples over Oranges may not seem like the stuff of which legends are made, but again, this story isn’t really about “choice,” it’s about the conflict itself. Not the conflict between Apples and Oranges, but between those who “choose” one, and those who “choose” the other.  So you’ve never had a taste for Apples? Not a problem so long as you really, really hate Oranges.

But the exclusivity of our allegiance need not end there. Pears, tangerines, and bananas, all suspect by association. Why would anyone eat those other fruits when they could be eating Apples instead? For that matter, how could anyone wise enough to recognize the clear superiority of Apples even harbor a desire to taste the obviously inferior Oranges? To do so would only show a lack of resolve and serve to ridicule all the great heroes who have sacrificed everything to make Apple their one and only choice.

This is the ultimate objective of the conflict narrative, not simply to discourage alternative experience, but to insure obedience through the systematic substitution of vicarious “experience” in place of first hand experiential knowledge.

It may seem strange that people would be involved with a conflict over things they have no personal experience with, but this dynamic is key to developing deference to, and dependence on, the authority of those who have scripted the conflict narrative in the first place. With no possibility of tracing the manufactured conflict back to their own personal experience, with all context on which to base meaningful dialogue stripped away, those who have been manipulated into joining the fray default to escalating the conflict. It is here that the narrative is most pervasive, where affiliation and identity begin to merge. There is no actual decision requiring thoughtful consideration, there is only the illusion of “choice” and the sense of identity that flows from that construct. This is the conflict narrative in its purest form, the so called “choice” exists as nothing more than a reflexive repetition of the conflict narrative itself.

Ok – so what kind of story would it be without the conflict? Would it be a story at all? English 101 instructs that a story has a beginning, middle, and an end. This is referred to as the three-act structure: Setup (exposition), Confrontation (conflict), and Resolution. Accordingly, the conflict moves the plot forward and fuels the reader’s interest. It is the central feature of the dramatic arc, building tension and leading to the climax of the story. Man against man, man against society, man against nature, man against self – this is our accepted model of narrative structure. No conflict – no story.

The conflict narrative takes this even further. It focuses in on the confrontation with as little attention to setup and resolution as possible, keeping us perpetually trapped inside of it. Hollywood films that feature an enemy that cannot be reasoned with, one that must be stopped at all costs, are big money makers at the box office. The emphasis is on entertainment, pure vicarious spectacle, two solid hours of perpetual conflict requiring no participation from the viewer beyond their passive consent.

So how does this relate to our Apples and Oranges metaphor? Well, this narrative model acts as a basic template for our understanding of the world around us. Instead of seeing Apples and Oranges as just two among a multitude of possibilities, we are likely to insert them into the roles of protagonist and antagonist, our champion and his foe, reflexively imposing a hierarchy on the fruits, making value judgements that set them in opposition to one another. Rather than simply enjoying both fruits, we insist on defining them through their differences relative to one another. We are so culturally conditioned to perceive any pairing as a contest, a competition, a conflict, that we can scarcely even conceive of the pairing as complimentary or simply coexistent. And this pattern, this story as it were, is imbedded in the narrative structure that we use to communicate practically everything.


I recently read a blog post that brought an example of alternative narrative structure to my attention – Kishōtenketsu. From what I understand this is a four-act structure: Introduction, Development, Turn and Reconciliation. The first two acts introduce and develop a situation/idea, the third act introduces a seemingly unrelated situation/idea, and the fourth act serves to connect the two, or to present them in a broader context that allows the reader/audience to make the connections for themselves. While the conflict narrative demands that we use relative difference as a basis for conflict, kishōtenketsu seems more concerned with how it is possible for these differences to coexist, how they may in fact compliment each other. Reconciliation in this context is not make up sex after the fight, it is the realization that seemingly unrelated situations/ideas can (and do) exist in tandem and conjunction among an infinite number of possibilities. The form invites us to consider the relationship between the ideas and how they fit into a larger context. Difference is not presented as a threat to be defended against, something to be converted or eradicated; it is instead presented as an opportunity for reflection and growth.
 
Survival of the fittest and similar tropes are often cited to encourage and justify our “participation” in conflict narratives. The term, coined by Herbert Spencer (often incorrectly attributed to Charles Darwin), is frequently used in place of Darwin’s natural selection to promote the argument that innovation arises only through competition. In a free market of ideas the best thought wins.

But natural selection is not actually about being the “best” or the strongest, it is at its core about variation and reproduction of that variation. If a new trait enables an organism to survive and reproduce then that trait is passed on to successive generations, becoming more and more common over time. “Survival” in the context of natural selection doesn’t even necessarily equate with longevity, it is simply being around long enough to reproduce. “Fittest” in this context is a reference to how well an organism is suited to the multitude of variables that comprise its existence, not the number of repetitions one can do in the gym. Kind of like a puzzle piece being introduced into an existing puzzle, a tiny variation (resulting from genetic mutation) may improve the fit.

The variation here isn’t a “choice,” nor is it a function of defeating the competition, it just is. But just is doesn’t provide the value judgement necessary to perpetuate the struggle for scarce resources that we have been conditioned to believe in. Just is doesn’t provide a mechanism for control, and its not particularly useful for securing and validating power over others. It needs to be replaced by something more hierarchical – something that frames difference as dangerous, rather than the key to our evolution.

Conflict narratives are employed as divide and conquer strategy to dismiss, disempower and delegitimize social and political movements, to break down existing unity while simultaneously preventing new bonds from emerging. Throughout my years of activist organizing I have seen this dynamic play out again and again, with devastating results. A central focus of my writing on The Missing Point has been to address this dynamic not simply as political strategy, but with the understanding that it is a central tenet of American (as in USA!) cultural identity. The cultural propensity for judgement is visible at all levels of our lives. The punitive nature of our culture has us policing one another at work and at home, in our social circles and political affiliations, in our backyard and around the world. Everything is fair game. What you wear and how you do your hair. What job you do and how well you do it. Where you were born and how you live. What you believe and how you practice... it’s all so endlessly entertaining!

There is something particularly disturbing to me about this. It’s not just the ease with which we are swept up in conflict narratives, but our tacit acceptance of their use throughout our culture. I wonder why we don’t reject wholesale this cynical manipulation, why we don’t simply refuse to “participate.” Perhaps the next time you find yourself reflexively picking a side and preparing for battle, you will ask yourself “who benefits from this narrative?”
___

Related article:
The significance of plot without conflict by Still Eating Oranges

Friday, August 14, 2015

PLEASE SUPPORT MISSING POINT

I have just set up a Patreon page to support the writing I do on Missing Point, to seek out assistance in promoting the blog and expanding the readership. If you have enjoyed reading the blog, and you would like to see the ideas I write about reach a larger audience, please consider becoming a patron. You can also make a one time donation using the Donate button on the sidebar. Thank you for your support!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

POLICE SELFIES

On Monday President Barack Obama called for $75 million to equip 50,000 protestors across the nation with body cameras intended to track their interactions with police officers. Using the multiple simultaneous camera angle sources, as well as other high tech gadgetry and training that the three-year $263 million spending package will provide for, protestors will now be able to recreate any recorded event in virtual three dimensional space, similar to the popular Google Map “Street View” feature.

No – not really. The cops get the cameras.

Obama is proposing a three-year, $263 million spending package to increase use of body-worn cameras, expand training for law enforcement and add more resources for police department reform. The package includes $75 million to help pay for 50,000 of the small, lapel-mounted cameras to record police on the job, with state and local governments paying half the cost. AP Article

How bizarre it seems to “record police on the job” by having them wear cameras that will only show what they are facing and not themselves. I suppose if you are at a protest that is surrounded by police then individual officers could inadvertently film each other in action, but if the interaction is between a single police officer and an individual, it is highly unlikely that the officer will get any face time.

I became aware of this proposal reading an article titled “President Obama Is Doing the One Thing That Will Prevent More Fergusons.” What constitutes “more Fergusons” here? Will this “one thing” prevent more shootings of black youths? Will this “one thing” prevent more protests in response to the shooting of black youths? Will this “one thing” prevent more stories of injustice from being heard? The headline does not consider any other option that might put the decision making power into the hands of the people rather than the police (and those that control them). Recording the interaction between a police officer and an individual does nothing to change the existing power dynamic, it is still ultimately up to the officer to decide whether or not to use force. And as we have seen over and over, recording (documenting) abuse of power, while important in and of itself, does not necessarily ensure accountability.

The issue here is not the cameras themselves, as I point to in my opening, it is access and control (as well as the allocation of public resources). Who will have access to the footage that will be collected by officers wearing body cameras? Who will decide how the recordings can and will be used? Who decides where the officers are deployed and what gets recorded? Will this policy amount to yet another fishing expedition in communities that are already profiled by the police? Along similar lines, should your attendance at a political demonstration be taken as your consent to be recorded by the police? In New York City there was something called the Handschu agreement set up to regulate police behavior with regard to political activity. Beyond taking legal action after the police have chosen to disregard the specifics of such agreements, what recourse is there? Who will police the police?

I attended an event last week that involved several artists performing work inspired by George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Afterward the audience participated in a discussion with the artists. Surveillance was a major topic of discussion. The use of body cameras by police was brought up by someone who spoke of the importance of the act of witnessing in connection with justice. One audience member responded to this by declaring that surveillance was not intrinsically good or bad as long as we were aware of it. This reminded me of the common refrain if you haven’t done anything wrong then you have nothing to worry about. I wrote a recent post about how people seldom realize what freedoms they actually have and do not have until they attempt to exercise them. I said something to the group about how the information that is collected may seem inconsequential until you decide to run for public office and quickly find yourself discredited through a false narrative based around some small bit of that collected data. Many simply responded by laughingly exclaiming that they would not be running for President anytime soon. But there is more to it than this. Individuals & activist groups are commonly discredited through this process, their potential effectiveness neutralized. Entire segments of the population are demonized through smear campaigns anchored on some small piece of “evidence” taken out of context or even outright staged so as to validate the narrative. We see this same type of logic playing out in the courts as well, where victims of crimes are discredited in order to derail prosecution of the assailant.

I have seen a number of folks questioning the meaning and the use of the terms “looting” and “riot,” perhaps looking to redefine the narrative. I’ve referenced the term “looter” in earlier posts – from my post DAYANIŞMA / SOLIDARITY

Diren Gezi is Gezi Resistance. Taksim (Taksim Gezi Parkı) is the park that is being occupied in Istanbul, Turkey. Not to be confused with Tayyip (Recep Tayyip Erdoğan), who is the Turkish Prime Minister. Tayyip Istifa! is a chant for him to resign. Çapuling is chapulling. If you are unfamiliar with the word chapulling, that is because it is a new word. Tayyip (remember him?) has taken to calling the demonstrators ayyaş (alcoholics) and çapulcu (looters). Rather than defend against this, the demonstrators chose instead to reappropriate the term çapulcu. The urban dictionary defines the term as “to resist force, demand justice, seek one’s rights.” The term “looters” shouldn’t be unfamiliar to us here in the US. We have heard it and other similar terminology used time and again to dismiss the legitimate concerns of people in need and those that rise up against social and economic injustice. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina the US news media was rife with stories casting desperate victims of Katrina as marauding bands of “looters.”

And from MAN UP

In my previous post I noted how the term “looters” and other similar terms have been used time and again to dismiss the legitimate concerns of people in need, to vilify those that rise up against social and economic injustice. Those who struggle against oppression must be cast as a malevolent force in order to make a defensive response seem reasonable. If they can be successfully cast as a threat, then their oppression appears warranted - the narrative presents this action not as a choice but as a necessary defensive response. When faced with the dualistic framework of fight or flight, there really is only one acceptable option encoded into our (USA) culture - to stand your ground. The mass incarceration of young black males fits into the “self-defense” narrative as a strategy to keep blacks off the streets and off the voter rolls. But it is an offensive strategy as well, generating enormous profit through prison development and maintenance, while supplying cheap labor (less than a dollar an hour) to participating corporations. Are these young men being sold into slavery?

While watching a livestream of the protests in Ferguson the night the grand jury decision was announced I could clearly hear a voice repeatedly announcing that if you were in the street it was unlawful assembly and you would be subject to arrest. Then the voice would simply say loudly “Do it NOW!” Is this a matter of legal rights or solely a matter of compliance? Let me be specific here – are these people in the street (if they are actually in the street) doing something illegal? Or are they being threatened with arrest solely because they refuse to obey an order that has no legal basis? It got me thinking about how the law can be used as a validation of injustice. An example: when the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel cited a law that he claimed the teachers were in violation of. Doing a bit of research I discovered that this law was passed the previous year, likely for the express purpose of preemptively criminalizing the action so as to cast the teachers in a negative light. This kind of legislative suppression of democracy has been happening all over the country with ever increasing frequency. This isn’t a new idea of course, the laws governing free speech and assembly have been effectively rewritten through all sorts of local, state and federal legislation. From the Patriot Act and NDAA, to H.R. 347 – the “Criminalizing Protest” law. Local restrictions abound on exactly where and how many people can assemble through permit processes that clearly conflict with First Amendment protections. The wholesale privatization of public space further blurs the line between assembly and trespass, casting those who are simply exercising their rights as “law breakers.As with surveillance, the issue here is not necessarily what you have done wrong, rather it is that anything you do can be made wrong for the purpose of your control. 

An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

But what if the law has been written specifically to remove any opposition to the injustice, if your imprisonment (or indefinite detention) is the actual objective? When those in power have free reign to ram through laws criminalizing any action they deem threatening to their authority – do we still call it democracy?

As I am writing this I read that a New York grand jury has cleared NYPD officer Daniel Panteleo in the death of Eric Garner, this despite the officer’s use of a chokehold prohibited by NYPD policy, seen in a video recording of Garner’s death captured by bystanders.
___

Excellent report on Democracy Now concerning Ferguson and the proposed $263 million spending package.

The Police in America Are Becoming Illegitimate by Matt Taibbi

Seen It All Before: 10 Predictions About Police Body Cameras by Robinson Meyer

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

AFTER THE MARCH

If there is one missing point that I would like to share with everyone after the many wonderful interactions I have had these last few days, it is this:

Mobilizing to get the government to respond to the will of the people and do something about the corporate decimation of the world is based on the idea that the government and the corporations are separate entities, that corporations only influence those in government. Please consider for a moment how this strategy works (and if it works) if they are NOT two separate entities. If the government is filled with people from these industries then they are not in fact influenced, and likewise will not be swayed by demands from the people. They are acting in their own interest and that action includes first and foremost silencing the voices of those who would expose them. If there is any capitulation on their part, is it only to appease and pacify the people – to allow them a sense of victory specifically to lessen their resolve? For example, if the Keystone XL Pipeline is stopped will it be a victory? I imagine it will be celebrated as such, but will this victory serve to roll back the climate crisis or just keep from making it that much worse? No steps forward is three steps back... Manufactured crisis is seductive strategy – desperately chasing every new threat can distract from the larger issue. I have heard this issue roundly referred to as Capitalism – I’m just going to call it profit.

 
At the People’s Climate March on Sunday I heard a few chants directed at President Obama. The next time you hear/watch the President speak I invite you to imagine him as a used car salesman, attempting to sell you the same lemon that the last President/salesman tried to sell you. Now swap that car showroom with one overflowing with American Made high-tech weapons of war. There he is wheeling and dealing weapons to the Saudis (and practically every country in the Middle East and North Africa) that they buy with money we pay them for oil. So when you are at the pump are you buying American Made weapons for the Saudis? Do you think the Weapons Industry wants you to stop buying oil from the Saudis? When you consider the chaos that we see across the world today, please remember that the military solution we reflexively deploy in every crisis, from war on terror to hurricane relief to policing our streets, ALWAYS has an underlying profit/power motive. The more chaos and conflict, the more weapons sold. And this in turn provides the rationale for further militarization and security control. If this man in the White House is not the community organizer, anti-war progressive that many “hoped” he was; if he is in fact just a fantastically charismatic mouthpiece installed by the banks and industries he serves – what then?

You can stage this type of salesman scene substituting any politician you wish to see how well they can play the role. When I was at Flood Wall Street yesterday I found myself imagining the morning call our new Mayor may have received from his new police commissioner:

“What’s the word today Mr. Mayor? Oppression or Not Oppression? Thank you sir we understand.”
 ___

While we were marching – BRAND NEW IN THE SHOWROOM 
Dennis Trainor’s video coverage – Save the Climate or Save Capitalism?
___

Related posts on The Missing Point:
THE END OF THE WORLD
Chemical weapons don’t kill people…

PAYING FOR WAR
 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

“FUCK IT UP A LITTLE”

Originally posted at Forth Position Design

When I walk into a gallery, I prefer to look at the art without first reading the provided curatorial blurb or even the titles of the works themselves. This is my design eye, always looking to understand the work without the assistance of the written word. Does this work speak to me? Does it tell me its story without the accompanying critical analysis? Do I provide the context or is it provided for me? That said, I do love art that incorporates words and typography – Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, John Baldessari, On Kawara, Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer... But the artwork that has had the most profound impact on my process often has no plastic manifestation, no tangible artifact in the traditional sense. When I first learned about DADA, I really didn’t know what the hell to make of it. Every single artist involved seemed to be doing their own thing – where is the essential cohesive visual statement? When I experienced FLUXUS, I could clearly see the relationship between the two movements. The emphasis was not on producing precious artworks, but on inspiring (or inciting) the would be audience to action so that they too become participants in the creative process. This blurring of the line between artist and audience, between art and life, this irreverent disregard for the hierarchical categorization of all things artistic delights me to no end. There is a playfulness to the “work,” a fleeting timelessness centered on the ever present now. The compulsory this or that duality fades as the “artist” releases control of the process and invites everyone to join in the fun. My writing on The Missing Point over the last two years has focused on expanding the dialogue in a similar manner, so that we may move past the dualistic (conflict) narratives we are provided. While the content on Forth Position will likely continue to be primarily visual, I am going to have some fun breaking through my own this or that duality, and post some (perhaps even a buncha) words here.




I have written previously about the many factors that contribute to the production and replication (or “regurgitation” as a professor of mine once termed it) of design that is tried and true rather than design that is... well... Design. Design with a capital D - as in innovation, creation, and communication. I recently participated in a class titled Design + Psychology at the Pratt Free School. Our graduate student professor brought up the aphorism there’s nothing new under the sun (everything’s been done before) to launch into a discussion about how creativity is a process of synthesis, taking two things and combining them into something new. It got me thinking about what that “new” actually is. Is it new if I have never done it before, even if someone else already has? Would my version of this already done thing not be different as a function of my creation, born of my unique perception and understanding? Is there no value in experiencing it, doing it yourself, if someone else has done it before you? Is it not still a creative act regardless? Take dance for instance – a dancer may move in ways that we have seen before, but we still recognize the creative act of dancing. Even when a dance is choreographed, isn’t it essentially different each time it is danced by a new group of dancers? It would seem that dance is not limited to an exploration of newness as the essential creative act. Expression, experience, and freedom itself all come into play. Time and circumstance, the element of chance, all of these factors are there. Over this last year I had the opportunity to explore these concepts with my students teaching a course called Motion Design: Graphic Design at Pratt Institute. As a first time professor, it was challenging to unpack such a comprehensive subject and format it in a way that would build progressively over the term. In preparation, I spoke with the many professors I know in motion, design, and other related disciplines, and researched the methodologies of numerous others. I share this bit of my experience hoping it will provide some insight (and enjoyment) to educators and designers and those interested in such things.

On the first day of class I have my students do a little peer to peer interview to initiate our class dialogue. They break out into pairs taking about 5 minutes each. They take notes and present one another’s answers. When there is an odd number of students one of them gets to interview me (!). The questions are simple enough, what is your name, where are you from, what’s your favorite food, what do you like to do, and the last one - what is motion design? Answers to that last question vary. There are some general answers like “graphics that move,” and “4D design” (the extra dimension being time). There are more theoretical and technical answers like motion design is about creating the illusion of motion from a series of stills, or it is about using specific programs to make your illustrations move. Their answers provide a reference point for us to begin a dialogue that will continue throughout the semester (and beyond). I ask them if there is a difference between motion graphics and motion designtaking the opportunity to laugh with them about the inevitable conversation where your mom asks “what exactly do you do?”




We watch a video titled “What is Motion Design?” after which I inquire “what do you think of that?” This is a common refrain in the class. It’s about developing trust and respect, letting the students own the dialogue so they can recognize the value of their individual voice. When I ask them what applications there are for motion design they each have the the opportunity to chime in, to experience the importance of their input to our learning process. I write their contributions on the board as they call them out. My notes include a dozen – they come up with a dozen, including one I forgot. I add my single remaining contribution to the list to seal the deal. We’re all in this together now – this is our list. The class is not a competition – we are all here to learn. As Paolo Freire writes in Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

“Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students. This solution is not (nor can it be) found in the banking concept. On the contrary, banking education maintains and even stimulates the contradiction through the following attitudes and practices, which mirror oppressive society as a whole: (a) the teacher teaches and the students are taught; (b) the teacher knows everything and the students know nothing; (c) the teacher thinks and the students are thought about; (d) the teacher talks and the students listen—meekly; (e) the teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined; (f) the teacher chooses and enforces his choice, and the students comply; (g) the teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher; (h) the teacher chooses the program content, and the students (who were not consulted) adapt to it; (i) the teacher confuses the authority of knowledge with his own professional authority, which he sets in opposition to the freedom of the students; (j) the teacher is the Subject of the learning process, while the pupils are mere objects.” 

In my first term the student who interviewed me summarized my what is motion design answer as, “Thomas thinks that motion design is EVERYTHING!” Quite the ego huh? What I was getting at is that everything in life can be a potential source for motion design. Design doesn’t happen in a vacuum after all. Communication is based in common language and cultural coding, and this common language goes much deeper than the sounds we utter. When we have a story to tell, we don’t actually have to connect all the dots. I have found that it is more effective to let my audience make these connections themselves, engendering a more personal experience based on their specific perceptions, not just the ones I provide for them. This doesn’t mean I leave the page blank, however, simply that I allow the space for my audience to participate in telling their story. The destination is less certain but the experience is more lasting.

My experience as an organizer has taught me that people are more likely to mobilize around ideas that they feel passionate about. For that mobilization to be lasting the people must feel that their efforts are more than a means to an end, a demand that will be granted or denied; there must be an intrinsic sense of fulfillment present in the mobilization itself. If we are only concerned with outcomes and goals then the mobilization will be constrained by whether these goals are deemed to be achievable, and ultimately judged on whether they have been achieved. This product over process approach is self defeating in that it generally emphasizes the problem rather than the development and exploration of alternate possibilities. Asking how to solve a specific problem is quite different than asking the people how they actually want to live. Within education there is a similar emphasis on goals and results. There are many extrinsic motivators for student performance – good grades, the recognition of other students, the promise of employment, etc. But these motivators can also act as detractors, setting up a dependency in students on external factors that they do not control. Helping students to ask questions and value their own responses can lead to an exploration of what they feel passionate about. The emphasis here is on dialogue and discovery, on enjoying the journey rather than on arriving at a predetermined destination. My hope is that this process provides my students with an experiential model they can reference throughout their lives, one that helps them establish the sense of self-worth required to prioritize work that they enjoy over work they do not.

A major part of that first day lesson plan revolves around a comparative analysis of the opening titles from Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, and Se7en. While prepping the lesson for class I sought out online versions of the opening titles to show. It was easy enough to locate the Saul Bass titles and those for Se7en on Art of the Title, but the SOTL titles were harder to find. A smallish video on YouTube (with a hungarian V.O.) inspired me to pick up the DVD at the library before class. When I dumped the DVD into my class computer, it demanded that I assign a region to the DVD player (apparently the first time anyone has projected a DVD for a class in the lab). Of course I couldn’t do this without an administrator password, and none of the ever helpful student techs working the lab knew this password… Ultimately the DVD had to be played on one of the other iMacs in the lab. So now Hannibal is making faces on a screen (the DVD menu) across from one of my students. As we begin class the student asks “what are we going to see in that movie?” I respond that we are going to look at the titles from the film. She asks “opening or closing titles?” “Opening.” Then she and another student start talking about how they don’t remember the titles from the film and anticipation starts to build… Hannibal continues to make faces throughout my lesson. I really couldn’t have planned it better myself. By the time we got to the SOTL titles, the students’ curiosity had peaked and they were fully engaged, likely expecting some gorgeous mo graph opus. It really grounded the whole point in a way that I could not have anticipated.

First we view the titles for Vertigo and Psycho, both by the legendary Saul Bass. “What is happening here? What can you tell me about the design?” I ask. My students note that the Psycho titles seem more frenetic, that Saul Bass uses stripes to animate the type on and off, that there is no photographic element as in the Vertigo titles. The typeface is a little different from one to the other (slab serif vs. sans serif). The Psycho titles are black and white while Vertigo has color. The students point out that the music is a major factor in both sequences, but that it seems more clearly related to the animation in the Psycho titles. After my students have made their observations I add “One of the things I notice when watching the two title sequences back to back is that most of the Vertigo titles have a centered layout, whereas the Psycho titles seem more unpredictable in their layout. He seems to be following a similar sort of grid here, but I can’t quite place where the type will land from credit to credit. Is this a conscious choice? Why do you think he makes this choice?” This leads to a bit more dialogue about how Bass builds tension, establishing a grid and repeatedly breaking it to a create a feeling of anxiety before the film even begins.





We move onto the Silence of the Lambs titles (thank you Art of the Title for posting these). Commentary from the class starts with one student saying quietly “why is the letter-spacing so bad?” As we continue watching the students moan, groan and laugh, pointing at the screen to locate the flaws in each consecutive title card. Kerning, leading, justification, every rule is broken with even a couple in camera type gags to boot. The critique culminates with another student saying “even with all the obvious problems, I don’t mind the titles and I think they work with the subject matter of the film.” I wait until they all come to a consensus around this thought before letting them know that the credits were produced by one of the most influential design firms of the time ( M&Co. ) and that the design is intentionally “bad.” It’s not a function of typing into After Effects at the default settings (or simply the limitations of the technology of the time as another student astutely brings up), it is a conscious choice. My students can see that the titles are successful in conveying a feeling; their odd, off kilter unpredictable alignment and letter spacing keys us into the unpredictable nature of the film itself. The outline type appears oddly similar to the type used in Vertigo, but here the painstakingly “random” placement of the type, with its solid black fill, “haphazardly” blocks the shots rather than completing a thoughtfully designed composition. There is some hierarchical type scaling as in the Saul Bass titles, but any semblance of regular pattern is subverted the moment it appears. The appearance of unpredictability increases exponentially with ones understanding of the intricacies of typography and design, but as I mentioned earlier – all the dots don’t need to connect. Something is going on here – and the semblance of logic, of a language that we don’t fully understand, is enough to set us on edge.






The good design/bad design duality is one of the most if not the most commonly used/abused critiques in design. Tibor Kalman expands the dialogue by questioning what these terms actually mean, making a case for undesign / anti-design – another beautiful design in a sea of beautiful designs is invisible, and therefore its ability to communicate is neutralized.

“Every curatorial decision, every convention, every rule about what is good design and what is bad design works to narrow your perceptions. You become blind to most of what’s in front of you. Every rule about what is appropriate narrows what’s possible. Appropriate design is design that pleases the largest number of people. Appropriate design is normal design. It’s about keeping things more or less the same. Inappropriate design is a way of confronting taste. Inappropriate design is a way of making people think about why they like what they like and how they learned to like those things. It’s a way of making people unlearn what they were taught in design school. Unfortunately, schools teach students to design by imitating what the professionals do rather than developing their own approaches. And the schools turn out legions of graduates who believe that their best bet for success is to have a portfolio filled with layouts that look like the layouts in everybody else’s portfolios, portfolios of professionals.”

We’re Here to Be Bad – Tibor Kalman and Karrie Jacobs

As a segue I play a short segment from a Charlie Rose interview with Tibor where he actually mentions the titles from Se7en. I ask my students if they have all seen the Se7en titles, calling attention to the important place they occupy in the evolution of motion design. After we watch the titles I again ask, “What is happening here? How do these titles relate to the others we watched?” It is easy to see that while Kyle Cooper, Tibor Kalman, and Saul Bass each have their own approach, the three are dealing with similar themes. Kyle Cooper takes the common themes of madness and obsession one step further with titles that appear to have been made by the killer (John Doe) himself. When an actor plays a part, they may seek to fully immerse themself in the character they are playing, reacting to each new situation from the perspective of that person. In a sense this is what Cooper is doing, asking what would these film titles look like if John Doe made them, or perhaps even more importantly, how would he make them? The metaphorical design coding of the SOTL titles is replaced here by a more literal approach, each design decision a direct extension of the underlying story. Kyle Cooper goes on to revitalize title design through Imaginary Forces and now Prologue, expanding the field and creating demand that was simply not there before his contribution.







What is most important to me about these three designers is that they are all doing something different, breaking with convention, each of them a vanguard in their field and an inspiration to those who follow. Rather than simply finding their place within the existing field, each of them evolves the field through their own individual design voice. It has been nearly 20 years since I first saw the titles for Se7en in a theater that has since vanished from Times Square. Adobe had recently acquired After Effects from CoSA and I was just starting to explore the possibilities. Having written about the consolidation of media in college, the accelerating cultural shift toward the market driven model wasn’t really surprising, but it was pretty alarming. Today the integration of media, culture & politics is so complete that it is practically impossible to see where one ends and the others begin. We can assist our students in navigating this uncertainty by encouraging them not just to do “good design,” but to do work they love. Allowing them the space and the support to tell their story, to discover and develop their individual voice – this is essential. The need to secure employment, to make a living, to have some measure of stability, to pay off that education debt – these concerns are real, but they are also distractions. Similarly, the idolization of newness is a market driven distraction meant to keep us scrambling from one trend to the next, picking from convenient options, but never really making a conscious choice. And therein lies the irony, the pursuit of newness in design manifests as a never ending race to keep up with market driven trends. There is no dialogue in this, there is no participation, there is no individual voice – only repetition of that which has already been deemed acceptable and profitable.  Listening to my students revisit the what is motion design question at the end of the term brings tears to my eyes (keep it together Gallagher), no longer simply static answers to fill the form, but passionate testimony to their continuing exploration and their limitless potential.
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“Fuck it up a little” – Tibor Kalman quoted in Michael Bierut’s piece Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mentor, Or, Why Modernist Designers Are Superior