Thursday, July 17, 2014

On Being Done With Writing On "Culture"

The other day WaPo's Alyssa Rosenberg wrote a nice essay about " how we talk about politics is influencing how we talk about culture." It was about some of her own observations about how she thinks the world of culture writing has changed since she started.

I guess I would agree in someways with her take culture and politics but using her example Game of Thrones as an example, I diverge in an important way. As a fan I am totally open to people criticizing aspects of the show and in no way treat it as some holy writ that's beyond anyone's critique. Indeed, where's Strong Belwas or Donal Noye? Those are great characters and it's too bad they got cut out. But what I do find annoying is criticism, that like the bloviating of various political pundits, goes off course and degenerates into what you might call "cultural partisanship."

So for some it's not enough to say "I didn't like this scene", or "I wish they did X." Instead we get people like The Atlantic's Chris Orr calling the show "stupid and offensive" or other critics labeling it "dangerous" as if it's going to warp our children's' minds like so many Judas Priest albums in the 80's. It's at that point where I feel I have to draw the line and dismiss such criticism the same way i think that saying is going to doom Obama's presidency, indeed liberalism itself, (serious political commentators made these very claims!) is ridiculous hyperbole and should be ignored.

And in my view this is a major problem because "cultural punditry" is becoming how a lot of people, especially younger writers, are approaching writing about culture.

A classic example occurred a few weeks ago when the New Republic published an article detailing how Lana Del Rey's new album is a "sad indictment of post-feminism" that also "can be dangerous" and can "send out a sinister message."

Here I was thinking that Ultraviolence was Lana Del Rey's second studio album, instead it appears it was a political argument that failed somehow and will surly cause people to run out and commit school shootings the same way Marilyn Manson's music did.

It's hard for me to respond to this kind of (poorly reasoned) argument because it's not really about art at all. Or at least about how I understand art. Instead it's about art as a political argument. And sometimes art can be that, but sometimes it really isn't. What's the social and political argument of Othello? Don't let your daughter marry a black guy? Kill your wife if you suspect her of infidelity? Don't trust your best friend? Men can't be trusted?

You can write an argument that Shakespeare is making these arguments, but it really doesn't hold up that well at all. After all the tragedy is driven by the fact that Othello is overly suspicious of Desdemona and too trusting of Iago. Othello is an outsider because of his birth and color, but still is one of Venice's best soldiers and gets to marry the daughter or a prominent Senator. Iago's motivations are famously unknown. Thus in Othello trust can be necessary and destructive, men can be dangerous (Iago) but women can be naive (Desdemona) etc. etc.

So no art doesn't have to be a political argument. It can be a lot more than that.

Indeed I'd argue that what great art does isn't tell you want to think, it makes you simply think about stuff. So trust can be an important part of a relationship, but blind trust can be foolish. So the world has it's share of dangerous liars who will try to deceive you like Iago, but also it's Emilia's who will help protect you. Thus Lana Del Rey's music isn't suppose to argue that having your boyfriend punch you is great, she's instead exploring different types of relationships indeed different ways of thinking about what love can be. Love that can make you very sad, love that can feel like being kissed when emotionally you are actually being punched.

These are pretty basic ideas here, it's a shame they've been ignored or forgotten.

In other words I'm open to arguments about why someone thinks King Lear is better than Othello. But I'm going to dismiss someone who calls Othello "stupid and offensive" or "dangerous" or "misogynistic" because Othello kills Desdemona. And why? Well because these plays aren't about politics in the second decade of the 21st Century, they are about a lot more than that.

Which is a long way of saying I'm not going to be reading much cultural criticism for a while. If I want to read about politics I'll read about important people like Hillary Clinton, not unimportant people like Lana Del Rey. And if I want to read about culture I'm more interest in reading about how Lana dodged the dreaded "sophomore slump" and made an even better second album than her first great one.

Also for what it's worth the lyric that "he hit me and it felt like a kiss" is a Phil Spector lyric from the 60's, performed by The Crystals. So yeah Lana isn't saying she likes getting punch by her boyfriend, she could just be referencing pieces of pop culture from previous eras (which she does a lot of). Or doing something else entirely. In fact maybe you should ask the artist her intent instead of making a "sinister" one up for her.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Poor Writing On Pop Culuture

Vox published a look back at how Seinfeld influenced television the other day. Some of it is quite good, for example their look at how Seinfeld moved the way sitcoms are shot from a multiple camera style where people perform on a stage with different cameras covering different angles, think Cheers, to a single camera style with long shots and close ups, more like a film. The piece's points about how the show changed sitcom writing were also pretty good.

But the author really missed the boat when it comes to looking at the characters. He tries to do it through the lens or contemporary liberal writing about race and I think really misses the boat. For example he claims this about George:
George essentially believes he deserves to have sex with a beautiful woman because he's a white guy living in modern America, and when he doesn't succeed (but Jerry or Kramer do), he grows ever more petulant. He doesn't particularly want to strive to succeed. He just wants life handed to him on a silver platter. 
I think that really get's the character, and the show in general, wrong.

George doesn't "believe" that he "deserves to have sex with a beautiful woman because he's a white guy living in modern America..." he's a pathetic loser who really wants to have sex with beautiful women, not because of "white privileged" or anything but because he's a greedy person. Since he has neither looks, nor money, nor status, he is forced to go through all sorts of contortions to try and achieve his goals. And since he is so shallow and greedy hilarity ensues.

Hence George willing to pretend to be a famous neo-nazi author in "The Limo" as long as he can use it as a way to be able to date tall, blond, aryan-looking women. George doesn't care about the racial or ethical implications or what he's doing, he just wants to get the blond, hence pretending to be a neo-nazi while sitting next to his Jewish best friend no less! These aren't the actions of someone who thinks their race or nationality "deserves" anything, they are are the actions of a shallow person trying scam their way by hook and by crook into what they want. Another example would be George pretending to be an architect or marine biologist to try and impress women.

But it's not just George that is lazy and wants things handed to him. Kramer famously doesn't have a job and mooches of Jerry for almost everything. But even Elaine, the strong female character or whatever, isn't any better put together than any of the others, she's just better at hiding her dysfunction. Sure she has better jobs than George, but once she get's her big break with the J. Peterman catalog she screws it up with idiotic ideas like the urban sombrero.   

This is what makes Seinfeld's comedy about things like race or sexuality so good, and so potentially offensive to some people. George and the gang only address questions about things like race or sexuality when it directly affects them or how they could appear socially. Hence George and Jerry work frantically to try and prove to the world that they aren't gay, while also stressing, "not that there's anything wrong with that!" Meanwhile Jerry get's upset when another man asks his gay acquaintance out on a date while Jerry is sitting next to him. Jerry get's offended when someone doesn't assume he's gay and then goes back to trying to prove to journalists that he's not gay! Or more bluntly George wants to date a woman from Senegal because she doesn't speak English and hence he doesn't have to worry about what to say to her. Or he's excited to date a woman in prison because she is locked up and thus can't boss him around.

In short these characters only address these issues when there's some sort of social advantage to gain or faux pas to avoid, otherwise it's completely irrelevant to them due to their shallow narcissism. That's what made the show so funny.

But the biggest problem of the piece is that they forgot the fact that so much of the show was about pushing boundaries and making reference to themes that normally wouldn't be discussed on network TV. They did this by oftentimes talking about it in an opaque manner, like in "The Contest", but that was one of the biggest legacies of the show and it's a shame Vox missed that point.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

How Not To Write About The Iraq War

The Atlantic recently published a long expose about how terrible Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki is. It's not very good and frankly you can tell they've really missed the boat from their story's subhead, "How America empowered Nouri al-Maliki—and then failed to keep that power in check."

On a basic level that is correct. The US hasn't been able to control Iraqi politics. But the implied assumption in the subhead, and that runs throughout the piece, is that it was totally possible for the US to control Maliki or someone like him if we just did a few things a little differently. Personally I think it's interesting to think about what possible evidence could disprove analysis like this. Imagine a hypothetical scenario where a leader is picked who is destined to be a diaster. After he screws everything up you could always write this kind of piece saying "look at all the mistakes that were made!" And of course there would have been mistakes, what would a destined to fail but well run political regime look like?

Simply put when you set out to do something unreasonable or course terrible things happen along the way. It was always unreasonable to assume that the political reality in the Middle East was simply clay in the hands of the West, ready to be changed and molded as we see fit. The Bush Administration spent years trying to tear down the Palestinian Authority so something better, more American that is, would rise in it's place. Instead they got Hamas taking over Gaza. American presidents have pressured the Saudis to open their country to democratic reforms since the 70's, it hasn't worked. Name me one Middle Eastern country whose politics have been successfully controlled by Washington?

So yes Maliki was a terrible choice to lead a secular, democratic, liberal, and multicultural Iraq. But that doesn't mean there was some hypothetical better one out there that could have done it. How do you have a secular and multicultural democracy when most people vote for conservative Islamist parties that identify along sectarian lines? Indeed if eight years of occupation and a trillion dollars spent couldn't shape Iraqi politics they way we wanted, why would have Obama complaining to Maliki or "fewer missteps" have done any different.

This should be a pretty simple idea for most people to get, apparently they haven't learned that lesson yet at The Atlantic.