Belittling Accomplished Women
April 15, 2019 § 2 Comments
Earlier this month, the algorithm developed by Dr. Katie Bouman, who was a Harvard post-doc and is incoming Assistant Professor at California Institute of Technology, helped to verify a supermassive black hole inside a distant galaxy. The photograph of her when this image, the first of a black hole, was processed, went viral.
Bouman acknowledged that the work was the result of a team effort, making it clear that this wasn’t only her accomplishment, on Facebook.
And then the belittling of Dr. Bouman began. On-line trolls, who can’t seem to believe a woman could do this, attacked her. It got so bad that even FoxNews noted this ridiculousness.
But perhaps even worse, the centre and left attempted to celebrate Dr. Bouman’s accomplishment, but did so in a belittling, embarrassing manner. I saw tweets referring to her as ‘a little girl.’ Others commented on her looks. But, perhaps the worst was from Occupy Democrats, a Facebook group. Occupy Democrats were attempting to give Bouman credit, but, oy vey, did it fall short of the mark.
This is a textbook example of how women are belittled. First, she is DR. Katie Bouman. Second, she is a young woman, not a ‘young lady.’ I don’t think it’s necessary to get into the issues with the term ‘lady’ here. She was indeed a grad student three years ago, but she was then a Harvard postdoc and now she is incoming Assistant Professor at Cal Tech. She also did not single-handedly pull this off, something she was very quick to acknowledge, as noted above. Finally, ‘Good job, Katie!’ Come on, man! Good job, Dr. Bouman.
Thankfully, someone has addressed this, fixing up Occupy Democrats’ meme.
But, you see, this is nothing new. I have been teaching at the college and university level now for over two decades. I am married to an academic. I cannot tell you how often I have seen this kind of thing, the belittling of women.
Students oftentime cannot process that their female professors have PhDs, and thus either call them Ms., or, perhaps worse, by their first names (as in ‘Good Job, Katie!’). Course evaluations include comments on the bodies of female professors. But this gets magnified by male colleagues who just watch this happen and stay silent. Studies show that female professors get lower evaluations from students than male colleagues. Male colleagues also belittle their female colleagues, especially successful ones, most notably with patronizing language. I’ve overhead colleagues debate which of their female colleagues they would want to see naked (it goes without saying I’ve heard this and worse about female students).
Ultimately, what the misogynist internet trolls and what Occupy Democrats did is infuriating. And yet, oh so not surprising. We need a better world.
The Real Problem the SNC Lavalin Affair Exposes
March 7, 2019 § Leave a comment
Canada’s media is beside itself right now over a case of politics within the cabinet of the Trudeau government. The problem begins with SNC Lavalin, ostensibly an engineering firm headquartered in Montréal. About a decade ago, it did some skeezy things in Libya. SNC Lavalin, however, is no stranger to skeeziness. The issue arises from something called a Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA), which, under Canadian law, allows the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PSSC) to essentially allow corporations to plea bargain their way out of a spot of bother. It would appear the the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) wished this current mess for SNC Lavalin to go away via a DPA, though the then-Minister of Justice and Attorney General, Jody Wilson-Raybould refused to do. She has complained that she felt pressured to alter her decision, which she refused to do. This has been denied by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s former Principal Secretary, Gerald Butts. And through it all, Trudeau has managed to keep his trademark calm, upsetting Canadians who want him to at least acknowledge some wrong-doing.
But, despite both the Canadian and the foreign media’s best attempts to make this look like something, the fact of the matter is, we have two versions of a process, and at worst, Trudeau looks like a jerk. Nothing illegal happened here. This is not corruption. What Wilson-Raybould described reads to me as little more than business-as-usual Canadian cabinet-level politicking.
But all of this obscures two, if not three, larger issues at hand here. The first is the dual portfolio of Minister of Justice and Attorney General in Canada. The two roles appear to be contradictory, as this person is both responsible for the Department of Justice as well as being the Chief Federal Legal Advisor. As well, this portfolio is ultimately responsible for legal enforcement at the federal level in Canada. In other Parliamentary democracies, such as the UK and Australia, these two roles are separate, and in the UK, the Attorney General is not technically part of the cabinet. While politicking of the sort Wilson-Raybould has, as far as I can tell from my own research, is part and parcel of Canadian government, the time has come to split the two roles.
Second, and perhaps the greatest problem is the influence of corporatism in our politics in Canada. The idea of a DPA, or an equivalent, has been part of American law enforcement since the 1980s. In the UK, DFAs have legally been in place since 2015; in France, since 2016, and Australia in 2017. In Canada, Bill C-74 became law in 2018. But, what this did was formalize an already extant option used by the PSSC. Legal scholars tend to prefer the idea of a DPA, especially in the case of multinational corporations and the difficulties of carrying out corruption inquiries on this level, to say nothing of the massive amount of money and resources such an investigation requires.
Taken on that level, of course, a DPA makes perfect sense. But, what this kerfuffle over SNC Lavalin currently shows us is how much influence our major corporations have in our politics and legal enforcement. It would appear that our Prime Minister, who is also the Member of Parliament for Papineau, a Montréal riding. And where is SNC Lavalin based? Montréal. So, the optics aren’t good. The PMO was lobbying for a DFA to protect SNC Lavalin from the cost of a conviction, which is a 10-year ban on federal contracts. And while it is not surprising that a powerful MP from Montréal would wish to intervene and save SNC Lavalin from prosecution. But, once again, the optics are not good when that MP is also the Prime Minister.
But there is this corporate influence. And it’s not like the main opposition party is any better. During the long nine-year reign of error of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, there were countless instances of corporatism, from selling out Canadian Crown Corporations to foreign corporations, to striking down oversight of corporate behaviour. And whilst our third party, the New Democrats (NDP) have never come close to forming a federal government, the party has been the government in several provinces, multiple times (in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario). Despite the NDP’s leftist claims, its behaviour in power shows it’s no different than the Liberals or Conservatives.
In other words, corporate influence in Canadian politics is real, powerful, and dangerous for our democracy.
And this leads me to our third problem: our media. Canada’s media is highly centralized, consolidated, and corporate. The daily broadsheet newspapers in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Regina, Saskatoon, Montréal (in English, anyway), and Ottawa are owned by Postmedia. Postmedia also owns the tabloid newspapers in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, and Ottawa. In other words, the newspaper market in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa is monopolized by Postmedia. Postmedia also owns nearly every small-town newspaper in the country. And finally, the company also owns The National Post, Canada’s second and largely ignored national newspaper.
Toronto’s major daily broadsheet, the Toronto Star is owned by Torstar, a major media company. Toronto is also home to the Globe & Mail, which bills itself as Canada’s national newspaper. The Globe is owned by the Woodbridge Company, which until 2015 owned the Canadian Television network, or CTV. Woodbridge is the primary investment firm of the Thomson family, one of Canada’s wealthiest families. The Globe is also the Canadian newspaper most closely aligned with Bay Street, Canada’s financial district in Toronto. The National Post,
The only major Canadian city that is served by a largely independent press is Montréal, where the two major French-language dailies, La Presse and Le Devoir fall outside of these larger Canadian firms. Presse is owned by a social trust. La Presse also no longer publishes a physical paper, it has been entirely online since 2017. Le Devoir is owned and published by Le Devoir Inc. But Montréal’s other French language paper, the tabloid Journal de Montréal, is owned by Québecor, one of the largest media corporations in Canada.
Québecor also owns most of Québec’s media, including the TV broadcast network, TVA. It owns Vidéotron, the primary cable, internet, and cellular service firm in Québec. TVA Publishing is the largest magazine publishing firm in Québec. It also publishes books under Québecor Media Book Group. And finally, it owns Canada.com/Canada.ca, a major on-line news site that covers the entire country of Canada.
Meanwhile, BCE Inc. owns CTV, as well as Bell, which is one of the largest cable/satellite TV providers in the country, to say nothing of cell services. It also, interestingly, owns parts of both the Canadiens de Montréal and the Toronto Maple Leafs, the two biggest hockey teams in the world. Rogers, the other major cable provider in Canada, also owns a cell service, one of the largest magazine publishing firms in Canada, a large chunk of Canadian radio stations.
In short, our media is corporate, deeply and widely, except for the newspapers in Montréal. We also have the state-owned broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, so it is technically independent, as it is arms’ length from the government. But the CBC’s problem is it tries to be too many things to too many different people. The Société Radio-Canada, the CBC’s French language service, suffers from many of the same problems.
And our independent news sites, outside of La Presse and Le Devoir, are essentially partisan outlets, preaching to the converted.
So, with our government beholden to corporate interests, many of which are the same interests which own our media, we have a very deep and serious problem. And, of course, this is not what our political parties are talking about. The Liberals, obviously this isn’t something they’ll touch right now. The Conservatives will, of course, score as many political points as they can off SNC Lavalin, but they’ve down the same thin in power and will do again. And, then there’s the NDP. This should be the chance for embattled leader, Jagmeet Singh, to take a stand and talk about the influence of corporations in our media and politics. But, nope. He and his party are too interested in scoring cheap political points from SNC Lavalin, which, of course, suggests the NDP would be no different in office.
Meanwhile, Canadian democracy suffers.
Louis CK is Still a Jackass
January 2, 2019 § 4 Comments
Eighteen months ago, Louis CK was one of the most famous comedians in the world, almost universally loved, devastatingly funny, and, apparently, a decent human being. And then came the scandal, which involved him being an incredible douchecanoe with women, intimidating them and performing sexual acts in front of them. And so, he disappeared from the public eye after apologizing for his behaviour. This was the right card to play and the appropriate response for his behaviour.
But now he’s back. And somehow, getting booked for shows. Last month at a comedy club on Long Island, CK attacked the survivors of the Parkland massacre. That in and of itself makes him an asshole, but comedy has long been the purview of assholes. That’s part of what makes comedians funny. But this was crossing a line, and he knew it. He had to. He’s a smart guy.
But then he went onto whine about his own ‘bad year.’ He complained that the sex scandal cost him $35 million. And he complained about finding out who his ‘real friends’ were, whining that:
People say that like it’s a good thing. That’s not a good thing. That’s a horrible experience. Who the fuck wants to know who your real friends are? I liked having a bunch of fake friends and not knowing who was who.
And then he went onto attack the ‘younger generation’ for essentially having no sense of humour about such things.
And so there we go. Yet another white dude caught being a morally reprehensible character who isn’t sorry for his behaviour. His apology means absolutely sweet fuck all now. Because he obviously didn’t mean it and he doesn’t care that his behaviour was boorish. He has become another Justice Brett Kavanaugh, attacking his accuser(s). And Kavanaugh is just another Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey. This is apparently what you do when you’re a white guy accused of being a dickhead, you mumble something about recognizing your behaviour was uncouth and then attack your accusers.
Fuck that. We deserve better.
Doug Ford: Ontario’s Populist
June 11, 2018 § 2 Comments
Canada is beside itself with the election of Doug Ford as the Premier of Ontario. Ford, the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, is not really all that qualified to be premier, I must say. The lynchpin of his campaign was a promise of $1 beer, and the rest was based on a basic message that the government of Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne was stupid. Well, he didn’t exactly say that, but it was pretty much his message. The centre and left in Ontario and around Canada has been wringing its hands as Donald Trump Lite™ has been elected to lead the largest province in Canada.
It is impossible to deny Ontario’s importance to Canada, it is the most populous province, home to the largest city in the country. And Ontario’s economy is the 8th largest in North America. And, of course, Toronto is also the most diverse city in the world.
Ford, for the most part, did not run on a racist campaign, like the American president, and he has generally not uttered racist comments. But, while he hasn’t, his supporters have. Like everywhere else in the Western world, racism is on the rise in Ontario, and Canada as a whole. The reasons for this are for another post.
The commentariat in Canada has been aghast, rightly so, at Doug Ford’s election. He is a classic populist, a multi-millionaire who pretends to be for the little guy, and mocks the élites for being, well, élites.
But, ultimately, Doug Ford’s election isn’t a rupture with Ontario’s political past. It is also not necessarily a sign of Trumpism coming to Canada. Ontario has a long history with populist premiers, dating back to the Depression-era leadership of Mitch Hepburn. But, also more recently, with the government of Mike Harris in the 1990s.
Mike Harris was elected premier in 1995. In a lot of ways, I think commentators have seen his election as a correction of sorts, after the province had shocked the rest of Canada in electing the NDP government of Bob Rae in 1990. Rae’s time as premier did not go smoothly, and so Harris’ election must be seen in that light. Harris, like Ford, was a populist, and ran on something he called the Common Sense Revolution. Harris sought to bring common sense to Ontario politics. This went about as well as you’d imagine.
Harris’ government cut the social safety net of Ontario something fierce. He also tried to introduce boot camps for juvenile offenders. Harris rode the crest of the 1990s economic boom, and once the economy crashed with the dotcom bubble, he resigned as premier (for personal reasons, I might add) in 2002 and the PC government of Ontario stumbled along with Ernie Eves as premier before getting trounced by the Liberals of Dalton McGuinty in 2003.
Harris’ policies led indirectly to people dying in Ontario. The most obvious example is during the horrible Walkerton e-coli crisis in 2000. There, due to the bumbling incompetence of the Koebel brothers, who operated the Walkerton water supply without any actual training, e-coli entered the supply system. Over 2,000 people fell ill, and 6 people died. Harris’ government was blamed for 1) Refusing to regulate water quality around the province via some form of supervision; 2) Related to 1), not enforcing the rules and guidelines pertaining to water quality; and, 3) the privatization of water supply testing in 1996.
And then there was Kimberly Rogers. Rogers was a single mother and was convicted of welfare fraud. Rogers had collected both student loans and welfare whilst going to school. This had been legal when she began her studies in 1996, but Harris’ government had put an end to that the same year. Rogers plead guilty to the fraud in 2001 and was sentenced to house arrest. And ordered to pay back the welfare payments she had received, over $13,000. She was also pregnant at the time. Her welfare benefits were also suspended; she was on welfare because she couldn’t find employment, even with her degree. The summer of 2001 was brutally hot in Sudbury, her home town, and she was trapped in her apartment with no air conditioning as the temperature outside crested 30C, plus humidity. She committed suicide in August 2001.
An inquest found fault with the government, noting that someone sentenced to house arrest should be provided with adequate shelter, food, medications. Rogers had the first, but not the other two. And while Rogers did break the law, the punishment handed out did not necessarily fit the crime, especially insofar as the house arrest went. And this was due to Harris’ reforms. Upon delivery of the inquest report, Eves’ government refused to implement any reforms, complaining to do so would be to tinker with an effective system.
Meanwhile, Toronto, the self-proclaimed Centre of the Universe, has embarrassed itself with its mayoral choices. The first time was when it elected Mel Lastman mayor in 1997. Lastman had been mayor of the suburb, North York, but Harris’ government had amalgamated Toronto with its suburbs, and so Lastman was now mayor of the new city. Lastman did a lot of good as mayor, that cannot be denied.
But. There was the time when his wife got caught shoplifting in 1999, and Lastman threatened to kill a City-TV reporter. Yes, the mayor of the largest city in Canada threatened to kill someone. He also cozied up to Hells Angels when they held a gathering in Toronto. During the 2003 SARS crisis, he groused on CNN about the World Health Organization, claiming the WHO didn’t know what it was doing and that Lastman had never even heard of them (as an aside, due to the WHO’s work, SARS didn’t become an epidemic). And then there was his trip to Mombassa, Kenya, in 2001 in support of Toronto’s bid to host the 2008 Olympics. Lastman told a reporter:
What the hell do I want to go to a place like Mombasa?… I’m sort of scared about going out there, but the wife is really nervous. I just see myself in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me.
Lastman, though, was just the precursor to Rob Ford, Doug Ford’s younger brother. Rob Ford ran on a similar campaign of populism. He wasn’t qualified for the job. But it was the larger circus of his life that was concerning. The police were called to his house several times on suspicions of domestic abuse. He also had problems with drugs and alcohol that included an addiction to crack cocaine. He had a habit of getting drunk at Toronto Maple Leafs games and yelling and threatening and abusing people around him. And he, of course, appears to have smoked crack whilst mayor with some gang members. Ford’s larger run as mayor was on the basis of populism, and attacking transportation infrastructure projects, as well as privatizing garbage pickup.
So, as we can see from the past 3 decades of life in Ontario, Doug Ford isn’t exactly the horrible rupture many wish to see him as. He is, instead, a horrible continuity of populism and dangerous politics.
The Problems With Polling
January 22, 2018 § 6 Comments
I was reading a scholarly article on polling and the issues it creates in terms of the democratic process last week. In the article, the authors note many of the problems with polling, and there are many. I worked for a major national polling firm in Canada for a couple of years whilst in undergrad. There, I learned just how dodgy supposedly ‘scientific’ polling can be.
My issues have less to do with methodology, where random computer-generated phone numbers are called. Rather, they have to do with both the wording of questions and the manner in which they are asked. I should also note that the rise of cell phones complicates the ability to do random sampling. Something like 48% of American adults only have cell phones (I have not had a landline since 2002, a decade before I emigrated to the US). It is illegal to use random computer-generated calling to cell phones in the US.
The authors of the study I read commented on the manner in which questions were worded, and the ways in which this could impact results. For example, last year during the great debate about the repeal of Obamacare, it became very obvious that a not insignificant proportion of Americans did not realize that the Affordable Care Act, or ACA, was the legislative act that created what we call Obamacare. So you have people demanding the repeal of Obamacare, thinking they would still have their ACA. Obamacare was originally a pejorative term created by (mostly Republican) opponents to the ACA. They figured that by tying the legislation to a president wildly unpopular amongst their constituency (if not the population as a whole), they could whip up public opposition to the ACA. It worked.
But now consider a polling question concerning the popularity or unpopularity of Obamacare/ACA. Does a pollster ask people about their thoughts on Obamacare or on the ACA? Or does that pollster construct a question that includes the slash: Obamacare/ACA? How, exactly does the pollster tackle this issue? Having worked on a team that attempted to create neutral-language questions for a variety of issues at the Canadian polling firm, I can attest this is a difficult thing to do, whether the poll we were trying to create was to ask consumers their thoughts on a brand of toothpaste or the policies and behaviours of the government.
But this was only one part of the problem. I started off with the polling firm working evenings, working the phones to conduct surveys. We were provided with scripts on our computer screens that we were to follow word-for-word. We were also monitored actively by someone, to make sure we were following the script as we were meant to, and to make sure that we were actually interviewing someone taking the poll seriously. More than once, I was instructed to abandon a survey by the monitor. But the monitor didn’t listen to all the calls. There was something like 125 work stations in the polling room. And 125 individuals were not robots. Each person had different inflections and even accents in their voices. Words did not all sound the same coming out of the mouths of all 125 people.
When I had an opportunity to work with the monitor to listen in on calls, I was struck by how differently the scripts sounded. One guy I worked with was from Serbia, and had a pretty thick Serbian accent, so he emphasized some words over others; in most cases, I don’t think his emphasis made a different. But sometimes it could. Another guy had a weird valley girl accent. The result was the same as the Serbian’s. And some people just liked to mess with the system. It was easy to do. They did this by the way they spoke certain words, spitting them out, using sarcasm, or making their voice brighter and happier than in other spots.
Ever since this work experience in the mid-90s, I have been deeply sceptical of polling data. There are already reasons, most notably the space for sampling error, which means that, with the margin of error, most polls are accurate within plus or minus 3%. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but the difference between 47% and 53% is significant when it comes to matters of public policy. Or support for candidates. And more to the point, the media does not report the margin of error, or if it does, does so in a throwaway sentence, and the headline reads that 47% of people support/don’t support this or that.
But, ultimately, it is the working and means of asking that makes me deeply suspicious of polling data. And as polling data becomes even more and more obsessed over by politicians, the media, and other analysts, I can’t help but think that polling is doing more than most things to damage democracy, and not just in the United States, but in any democracy where polling is a national obsession.
Rough and Rowdy in Rural Appalachia
January 19, 2018 § Leave a comment
Rough and Rowdy is a form of amateur boxing native to West Virginia. It appears to me to be the grandson of the 18th-19th century Southern backwoods fighting style known as Rough and Tumble, or Gouging. It was so-called because the ultimate goal was to gouge out your opponent’s eye. There were very few rules involved in Rough and Tumble and, while it wasn’t exactly prize fighting, winning was a source of pride in the local community.
The men who fought in Gouging were backwoods farmers, it was common in swamps and mountain communities. In other words, the men who fought were what the élite of Southern society called (and still call) ‘white trash.’ As an aside, if you would like to know more about the plight of poor white people historically in the US, I cannot recommend Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America enough. Nevermind the fact that the story is not untold, historians have studied and published on poor people for a long time, but that’s what publishers do to your book, they create silly subtitles to sell more copies.
I digress. The West Virginia Rough and Rowdy is a continuation. The Guardian produced a quick 7 minute documentary of a championship tournament in West Virginia, you can watch it here.
I have some serious problems after watching this. The first is the behaviour of New York City-based Barstool Sports, led by Dave Portnoy (a Massachusetts boy, I might add, from Boston’s North Shore). Barstool bought up the rights to the tournament, and, according to the documentary, stood to make $300,000 on it. The winner of the tournament wins $1,000. The fighters are getting nothing out of this, other than glory or shame, depending on who wins. Portnoy is walking away with the profits. He wants to make this the new MMA, to take Rough and Rowdy nationwide. But he profits,the fighters don’t. He doesn’t have a problem with that, of course, because he figures they’d be doing it anyway.
The community where this takes place is an impoverish borough in West Virginia, in former coal-mining country. All of the social problems of Appalachia can be found there, from deep, deep-seated poverty to drugs and everything else. It is easy to dismiss the people who live there using whatever term you want. Portnoy calls them rednecks. He also argues that they would call themselves by the same term. After living in Southern Appalachia in Tennessee, I would think he’s right. But THEY call themselves that. I did not think it was my place to use the same term, given its pejorative meaning in our culture.
Essentially, while it is true that this tournament existed before Portnoy came in, he is exploiting a poor community, with a sly grin to his viewers on the web, about the fat rednecks fighting for their entertainment. The fighting style of most of these men is poor, if you were to look at it from a boxing or MMA perspective. Of course it is, they’re amateurs, they don’t have training. They fight as if they’re brawling in a bar. And that’s what Rough and Rowdy is: amateur fighting. It is not professional boxing.
The comments on the YouTube site are exactly what you’d expect. Commentators mock the fighters for their lack of boxing style. And, then, of course, come the stereotypes. The documentary centres around one young man, George. George has recently lost his job and he wants to win the tournament and give the $1,000 to his mother. He’s a confident in his abilities before stepping into the ring with a man a full foot taller than him, and who must have at least 60 pounds on him. Not surprisingly, George loses the fight. But the comments mock him. One commenter says that George died of a meth overdose three weeks later. And so on.
And therein lies the problem. Too many people seem to think that mocking the poor white folk of the Appalachians is easy. They’re dismissed as stupid, idiotic, as rednecks and white trash. And worse. This is universal, too. This is not a conservative/liberal thing. The poor white people of Appalachia have been abandoned. Completely. They’ve been left to their own devices in hard-scrabble areas where there are no jobs. The coal mining companies pulled out. What industry existed there has also pulled out. Most small Appalachian towns have little more than a Dollar General and a gas station. People get by, in part due to family connections and grow what food they can on their land. They scrounge for other things, like roots and scrap metal, that they can sell for next to nothing. They use food stamps. And sometimes they just go hungry, or worse.
JD Vance’s insipid Hillbilly Elegy has added to this, and has re-shaped the conversation nationally. Vance argued that the plight of Appalachia is the fault of the Appalachians themselves. He blames ‘hillbilly’ culture, argues it has engendered social rot, and has dismissed poverty as secondary. Put simply: Vance is flat-out wrong. He simply seeks to continue in the long American tradition of blaming the poor for their poverty.
That’s not how it works. Appalachia has been struggling for the better part of a half-century. Politicians, including the current president, continue to ignore it. And then turn around and pull a Vance and blame the poverty on the poor. That is a lazy, self-centred, immoral position to take.
The Moral Ambiguity of The Man in the High Castle
January 17, 2018 § Leave a comment
I’ve been binge-watching The Man in the High Castle. It is truly a TV show for our cynical times. There are no heroes in this show. Everyone is deeply compromised. Some are even horrible people. For those who don’t know, the show is set in a dystopic 1960s in the United States. The Allies lost World War II, and the United States is split in three. The eastern seaboard is the American Reich. The West Coast is occupied by the Japanese, and there is a dodgy, moral vacuum in the middle, the neutral zone, a lawless respite from both.
The main character is Juliana Crain, who is a spoiled, horrible, selfish young woman. She betrays nearly everyone she meets, and leaves a body count behind her. Ostensibly, she’s trying to figure out what happened to her half-sister, Trudy, a Resistance fighter killed by the Japanese security forces. Her boyfriend, Frank, is the closest thing to a hero in this show, as he is drawn closer and closer to the Resistance in the wake of Juliana’s multiple betrayals.
But otherwise, the show gets intimate and personal with Obergruppenfürher Joe Smith, a former American soldier, and his family, creepy as they are. Smith, not surprisingly, is a murderous, horrible human being. And he’s a Nazi. We do get a sense of honour from Japanese Trade Minister Nobosuke Tagami, whose loyalties are never entirely clear. But he is an honourable man who works for a violent, brutal dictatorship. Then there’s Kampeitei (Military Police) Chief Inspector Takeshi Kido. He’s about a milimetre short of being a psychotic killer, so determined is he to make sure law and order is maintained in the Pacific States, and in San Francisco in particular.
The remaining characters are all deeply flawed, morally vacuous, and horrible.
I find it interesting to be watching a TV show that humanizes Nazis, and attempts to play on my sympathies with them. For example, Smith’s son, Thomas, is a teenaged boy who, it turns out, has muscular dystrophy, which comes from his father’s side. The Obergruppenführer’s brother had it as well. As per Nazi ideology, he was liquidated. And that is what Thomas must be too. When the diagnosis is delivered to Smith, he is at a loss as to what to do. He is the most powerful man in the American Reich, though he lives a pretty typical suburban life at home on Long Island (New York City is the capital of the American Reich, as DC was nuked during the war). He must, he knows, kill his son. And yet, surprise, surprise, he cannot. In order to protect his family, he instead kills the family doctor, who delivered the diagnosis. I know, a shock. A Nazi being a nasty piece of work.
Smith’s protegé is Joe Blake, who Juliana kind of falls for. He’s a Nazi undercover, sent to find Juliana, who has knowledge of the secret films of the titular Man in the High Castle (played brilliantly by Stephen Root), and, more than that, has the actual film(s), which Trudy had given her right before she was killed. He finds her first in the Neutral Zone and then follows her back to San Francisco. Meanwhile, Juliana has cozied up to the Resistance herself, and appears to be a member of it as she tries to find out what happened to her sister. She is supposed to lead Joe Blake into the hands of the Resistance. But she doesn’t. Instead she betrays the Resistance and Blake makes it back to New York City.
The summary of Episode 5 of Season 2 notes that Juliana will have to betray someone close to her. By this point in the show, I am left wondering who is left for her to betray. She has already betrayed Frank. And the Resistance, leading to at least three of her erstwhile colleagues being killed. And she seems to have no moral qualms about this.
And this is the thing about the characters of this show. There is no moral compass. Each is an actor entirely interested in her/his own fate. Occasionally there is co-operation, but mostly there is a collection of atomistic individuals who will stop at nothing to get what they want.
And, of course, this is completely compelling TV. I can’t turn away from it. And yet, I can’t help but think there is something deeply wrong with being engrossed in a TV show that humanizes Nazis (whilst still showing what horrible people they are). It would seem to me that perhaps Nazis are beyond the pale. And yet, they’re not. I’m not sure this is a good sign for our culture and society.
Staging the Civil War
October 26, 2017 § Leave a comment
‘Everyone is a literalist when it comes to photographs,’ Susan Sontag wrote in Regarding the Pain of Others. She has a point, sort of. We expect photographs to represent reality back to us. But they don’t, of course, or they don’t necessarily. For example, she discusses an exhibit of photographs of September 11, 2001, that opened in Manhattan in late September of that year, Here is New York. The exhibit was a wall of photographs showing the atrocity of that day. The organizers received thousands of submissions, and at least one photo from each was included. Visitors could chose and purchase a laser printed version of a photo, but only then did they learn whether it was a photo from a professional or an amateur hanging out their window as the atrocity occurred. Sontag talks about the fact that none of these photos required captions, the visitors will have known exactly what they depicted. But she also notes that one day, the photos will require captions. Because the cultural knowledge of that morning will disappear. 9/11 is already a historical event for today’s young adults.
So we return to the veracity of photos, our expectation of a documentary image of the past. For me, the first time I was seriously arrested by a photograph was in my Grade 12 history textbook, in the section on the Second World War. There was a photograph of an American soldier lying dead on a beach somewhere in the Pacific. I don’t remember where or which battle. I don’t remember the image all that well, actually, I don’t think the viewer could see the soldier’s face. I remember just a crumpled body, in black and white. And for the first time, I understood the devastating power of war and the fragility of the human body.
Later, in grad school, I read Ian McKay’s The Quest of the Folk, about how Nova Scotia’s Scottish history was carefully constructed and curated by folklorists at the turn of the 20th century. At the start of the book is a photograph of a family next to their cottage on a hard scrabble stretch of land on the Cape Breton coast. McKay plays around with captions of the photo, both the official one in the Nova Scotia archives in Halifax, and alternative ones. I realized that photographs are not really necessarily a true and authentic vision of the past.
And so, in reading Sontag’s words I opened this essay with, I thought of the fact that we do like to think of ourselves as literalists when it comes to photography, we expect a ‘picture to say a thousand words,’ and so on. Just prior to this comment, Sontag discussed Francisco Goya’s Disasters of War, a series of plates that weren’t published until several decades after Goya’s death. The disasters were the Napoléonic invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 1808. These plates are vicious. And Goya narrates each, claiming each one is worse than the other, and so on. He also claims that this is the truth, he saw it. Of course, they aren’t the documentary truth, they instead represent the kinds of events that happened. That does not, however, lessen their power and brutality. But they are also not photographs.
This led me to Alexander Gardner, the pre-eminint photographer of the US Civil War. In fact, war photography in general owes a huge debt to Gardner. Gardner worked for the more famous Mathew B. Brady, but it was Gardner who took the majority of the more famous photographer’s photos. Gardner shot some of the most iconic images of the Civil War, including the dead at Gettysburg. His most famous is this one:
This photograph is staged. Gardner and his assistants dragged the body of this dead Confederate soldier from where he fell to this more photogenic locale. They also staged his body. And yet, given our insistence on literalism in photography, the viewing public took this photo for what it’s worth and accepted it as a literal representation of the Battle of Gettysburg.
It was over 100 years later, in 1975, when a historian, Willian Frassantino, realized that all was not as it seems. Of course, what Gardner, et al. did in staging the photos of the Civil War seems abhorrent to us, unethical, even. But it was not so in the mid-19th century at the literal birth of this new medium of representation.
Nonetheless, what is the lesson from Gardner’s photograph? Do we dismiss it for its staginess? Do we thus conclude that the photos of the Civil War are fake? Of course not. Gardner’s photos, like Goya’s Disasters of War, are representations of what happened. They are signifiers that things like this happened (I am paraphrasing Sontag here). It does not make these representations any less valuable. Young men did die by the thousands in the Civil War. They died at places like Gettysburg, and they died like the staged body of this unfortunate soul. The horrors of war remain intact in our minds. We have a representation of what happened, and this one in particular (like Goya’s Disasters) has been replicated countless times since 1863, we have seen countless other images like this, including for me, the one in my Grade 12 history textbook when I was all of 17 years of age. The image is still real.
On Photography and Filtering
October 24, 2017 § 5 Comments
A few weeks ago, I posted this picture on Instagram. Immediately, my more smart-arsed friends began to chatter. I used the hashtag #nofilter, meaning that I did not use an Instagram filter. Not good enough for the commentariat, though. They commented on the mental filters, frame filters, and so on as I framed the photo and so on. They’re not wrong. (The photo, if you are wondering, is of a creek about a mile from my home in Western Massachusetts).
Of course this photo was filtered, from the way the creek caught my eye as I walked the dogs, to the way I framed the photo as I took it, choosing what to get into the photo and what to leave out. All photos are filtered and framed. Duh. I’ve been mulling over this since.
Then I saw the obligatory article in the Washington Post about where to go to see fall foliage colours. The first photograph in the article is from another locale in New England, Albany, NH. It’s a stunning photo of rushing water and brilliant reds. Meanwhile, my friend Matthew Friedman has been running around New York and New Jersey with a real camera of late, taking some absolutely stunning photos that he develops himself, as he is a man of many skills. Taken together with my apparent addiction to Instagram, a lightbulb went off in my head when I posted this picture in my feed:
This is a heavily filtered and edited photo showing the brilliant autumn colours on my street. But notice how the oranges and yellows and greens, and the auburn of the dead leaves, pop in this photo. Not unlike the reds of the leaves and the white of the rushing waters in the photo from Albany, NH, in the Post article.
The differences between the heavily edited and filtered photo I posted and the original are striking, I think.
This is still a beautiful shot, I think. But the colours aren’t as gripping, they don’t pop. And the lighting is much darker than in my Instagram post. So what did the original of the Albany, NH, photo in The Post look like? I presume Jim Cole, the AP photographer, shot it with a digital camera and ended up with an original that looks like mine. But then he edited it with editing software until the reds and yellows of the leaves and the white of the rushing water and the blacks of the stones in the river popped like that. The photo is glossy. And it’s beautiful. It’s an arresting image, and it is no surprise it is the lead photo in the article.
Photography as we think about it is filtered and edited, oftentimes heavily. It is often also staged. Or consider the fact that Robert Doisneau’s famous photos of lovers kissing outside Hôtel de Ville in Paris was staged. This is one of the most iconic photos of all-time, and has been used for any range of purposes, almost all of which have to deal with the romanticization of Paris. But these were not two lovers. They were two models Doisneau hired for the day. Does that lessen the impact of the photo? No. It doesn’t. In fact, Doinseau was unapologetic, noting that he did not photograph life as it is, but as we wish it to be.
So, yes. Almost ALL photos are filtered, beyond the mental filters and the framing of the photo. They are filtered via the production process, whether in a darkroom as Doisneau and Friedman work, or digitally, as Cole and I have done.
Kind of obvious, no?