Archive for February, 2011

Libertarianism rant.

Posted in nerdiness on February 13, 2011 by darryl zero

Point of clarity: I’ve gone all over in my life, from right-leaning moderate, family-influenced Democrat to ardent center-leaning Green party idealist to aggressive Socialist asshole, and have reached a point where no political philosophy clearly speaks to me anymore. In the interest of full disclosure, at this point all I can tell you is that I’m liberal in ideology and fairly conservative in practice. I don’t see a lot of benefits in capitalism, but I think reverting to an exclusively socialistic mindset would be both needlessly reactionary and ill-fated. If I had to break down my political philosophy and put it under the banner of a slogan–a name, if you will–I’d call myself a Social Humanist–that is, I believe in the usefulness of Statism in terms of providing cultural groups with a means of organizing and maximizing the quality of life of their constituents, but also understand the importance of the individual within the context of cultural growth. I think that, if there must be a capital-based economic system, it is not only the right, but the duty of the state to ensure capital does not become the determinant of cultural change, and that is not only the duty, but the right of the state to cultivate the physical and intellectual potential of its citizens. Reciprocally, I feel it is the duty of the citizen to maximize their understanding of themselves and all others around them while contributing to the social good–if they cannot find a way to do it themselves, they may choose avenues offered by the state. If any of this is vague, I’m sorry–I’m not an economist, nor am I truly a political scientist. I’m just a human trying to figure out his way in the world, just like anyone else.

And now, I’m going to needlessly conjecture some invective against Libertarianism.

I’ve tried very, very hard over the course of the past decade or so to try to ascribe some semblance of respectability to Libertarianism. There’s something inherently cute about it, naïve, even, a sense of idealistic wishful thought that I, as a man whose passions (if not overt political loyalties) lie hip-deep in Socialism can at least appreciate. However, with the Tea Party inexplicably attempting to establish a foothold in contemporary political discourse, and self-proclaimed Libertarians coming out of the closet en masse, I’ve been forced to actively examine it, partly to separate the real folk from the funk-fakers and partly to ascertain whether or not my gut reaction–“these motherfuckers are crazy”–is correct or not. My current frame-of-mind–I hesitate to use the term “conclusion,” as my thoughts on this subject will continue to grow and re-shape as my understanding of life and such matters does the same–is that Libertarianism is, like Anarchism, a really interesting idea, one borne of the knowledge of the existing limitations and processes of current socio-political and economic systems.

It’s also fucking terrifying, and here’s why:

1) Libertarianism within an economic context, assumes an economic “equal playing field” that does not exist.

White people in the Western world have championed the idea of equal opportunity arguably since the Industrial Revolution–in the United States, they even went so far as to include it in the Constitution. The problem being, for as noble as the notion of humanity’s equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of the capacity to own (substitution mine–I always thought “property” was as much a misnomer as “happiness”) may seem, history has suggested and continues to suggest that White, male, heterosexual rich people have the easiest track toward acquiring them. The easiest measure of this is, clearly, the presidency of the United States. Some people–idiots, I like to call them–point to the obvious example of Barack Obama’s election as the sign that things are different, to which I simply point to the 42 white guys before him and say “when America elects its 43rd Black president, then we can talk.”

The argument also extends itself to earnings and holdings, so I don’t put any stock in the idea that “well, people are earning a lot more” is worth mentioning. Sure, there are more minorities, homosexuals, women, etc. who earn more money–everybody‘s earning more money, because the amount of money in the economic system has increased with (but, sadly, not directly correspondent to) the increase in global population. That there are millionaires in the ranks of ethnic minorities now doesn’t mean we’re all equal, because there are still a shitload of people who have a tougher time achieving that bullshit fantasy known as “the American dream” because they had the misfortune of being born poor. The idea that a completely ungoverned “free” market is somehow the cure to economic disparity is complete bullshit–deregulating business and industry has never resulted in anything other than disaster, either from an economic standpoint (Cal Coolidge exacerbating the onset of the Great Depression) or an environmental one (do I really need to point this out, or can we all just agree that the Industrial Revolution essentially began humanity’s ultimate fuckery of the ecosystem?). Moreover, it’s been proven repeatedly that success in any market economic system almost invariably comes not as a result of quality-of-work, but by simply being able to outlast the competition–to rephrase, in Capitalism, you don’t usually “win” as much as you “lose least.” Barring some scorched-Earth scenario in which all the world’s richest families somehow completely go extinct, thereby dividing their assets into the larger system, even a so-called “free market” economy will still have a hierarchy based on existing capital, one that won’t be broken no matter who comes along.

Which leads me to my second point:

Libertarian economic theory naïvely assumes innovation is the engine of productivity, ignoring its culturally subjective origins.

I have to admit, most of my vitriol on this point stems from my recent discovery that the nebulous “they” have, in fact, made a cinematic adaptation of Atlas Shrugged, one of the most ridiculous fucking things ever committed to print. Lest I go off on another rant a-la my Watchmen dissection, I’ll simply assume you’ve either read the book or Wikipedia’d/Cliffs Notes’d it and skip to the thrust of the fucking novel: that the people who drive the engine of industry and the market economy are clearly the people with the best ideas, most knowledge, and are therefore deserving of the most power, and that all legislative regulation of business is somehow the evil collectivistic mono-consciousness hoping to sweep away all notion of individuality from Western society. Run-on sentences aside, I hope you were able to catch the scent of ideological bullshit. Since we’ve previously established that hegemony in a market economy is almost exclusively the province of people who have had resources from the get-go, the Objectivist argument clearly believes that the progenitors of said hegemony deserved the power in the first place, because they obviously had the best ideas, which is why their power became hegemonic in the first place.

I don’t consider myself to be all-knowing, or even all-intelligent. But the fact that even I’m able to see this as complete bullshit makes me wonder what the fuck the Austrian school and lasseiz-faire economists are fucking smoking to make them think there’s any logical merit to this. There’s no way anyone can look at the Objectivist economic argument and not see an obvious bias in favor of post-industrial Euro-American hegemonic power. So, basically, the economic systems used by the indigenous populations of the United States (or lack thereof where applicable) clearly deserved to cease to exist, because they weren’t useful to the Europeans who came over and clearly deserved to establish their dominance on their ancestral land. Maybe that’s looking at it too abstractly, but it still works within specifics, because the bottom line of any market economy is that it’s not driven by “innovation,” at least in the sense that it’s not always the most effective or most functionally capable product that succeeds. In fact, since humanity has basically run out of space to do anything other than use resources, the notion of the most useful invention being the most successful has gone the way of the Iroquois. White people even came up with a word that means “not actually the best product, but the easiest one to sell:” marketable. The notion that use inexorably determines usefulness is pretty ambitious and hopeful, but unfortunately depends upon definitions of “useful” that weren’t created with functionality in mind–ask any fan of Sega hardware. In fact, it is the pure subjectivity of the market that effectively repudiates Objectivism and, by extension, Libertarian economic theory. It’s what I mean when I say (as I always do) that there is no “free” market. It can be argued that Eurocentric white society killed the only “free” market there was, but lacking the practical and academic knowledge of indigenous American cultures, that would be both unfair and inaccurate. Not that it’s going to stop me from putting it out there, of course.

Which leads me, 1500-plus words in, to my next (and, for now at least, final) point: Social Libertarianism is too inextricably tied to the biases and systemic disparities created by market economics to be anything other than a means of unjustly enabling a select group of people to survive at the cost of others

I suppose I’m unfairly equating “libertarian” with “advocating the minimization of State influence, allowing the individual to determine the course of society,” but that seems to be the only real thing uniting all factions of libertarianism within the current U.S. political climate, or the only thing separating Libertarians themselves from logical-thinking people who don’t necessarily lump themselves into a clearly-compartmentalized philosophical category. It’d be nice to live in a society in which people truly had the right to do as they pleased without having to exist under the domain of a state. It’d also be nice to exist in a place in which there was an infinite amount of space and resources, in which there was an equal division of everything.

See, that’s the thing about libertarianism that gets me the most: it relies upon the notion of all things being equal and reduces the ills of society to be exclusively within the will of the people committing those acts that constitute said ills. This is how you can tell where the concepts of American libertarianism comes from: it accepts that “coercion and violence” exist within American culture and recognizes the need for an overarching authority to protect citizens from it, yet doesn’t acknowledge exactly what makes people violent and coercive; sure, there are a fair amount of fucked-up, evil people out there commit crimes just because they can. There’s going to be a number of people in any society who do that. But there’s an even larger amount of people who do fucked-up shit because they either a) lack the education to know better than to do it, or b) are made desperate by desperate situations. To phrase it another way: a Libertarian assumes a mugger is a mugger because he doesn’t want to be a businessman, or a drug dealer is a drug dealer because he doesn’t want to be a police officer, when the reality is the average mugger has neither the investment capital nor practical knowledge to be a businessman and the average drug dealer has figured out they can more money selling drugs than working their way up through the ranks of a so-called ‘honest’ profession. I’m not trying to excuse violent or criminal behavior; I’m just pointing out that Libertarians are quick to paint those who commit crimes as people who don’t deserve to be in society because they take advantage of the rights society gives them. That is, of course, unless it’s a right they believe in, and then all of a sudden the individual motivations of a criminal become chiefly important. And you can say what you want about Libertarians ostensibly being against the U.S.’s ridiculous drug laws, but they seem to care a whole lot more about the right to carry weapons than legalizing marijuana.

Because, really, the substance of American Libertarianism can be summed up in three words: “Unless It’s Mine.” The government shouldn’t intervene on behalf of anyone’s rights–unless it’s my right to own a gun or establish a company. The government shouldn’t intervene in business or industry–unless it’s my property that’s being taken away from me. The government should allow the private sector to create and manage infrastructure–unless the private sector from decides it wants to create and manage infrastructure where mine currently happens to be.

I suppose it’s important to mention that I do think certain aspects of Libertarian philosophy do make sense, and ought to be examined and, in a moderate way, practiced, but those tend to fall more under the lowercase libertarian ideology, the kind people in places other than U.S. tend to think about when they think of the term. Furthermore, my beef is not with Libertarians themselves…I suppose.  There are people I know whom I think consider themselves Libertarian whose opinions I actually respect and value.  But I can’t trust American Libertarianism on the whole, because it’s so tied to the notion of a “free” market, completely overlooking things like white privilege and hegemonic influence, or the fact that much of what they consider to be their divine right was obtained through the machinations of a strong central government. In turn, I can’t fully respect those who wholeheartedly and myopically embrace the movement, because they are, in essence, trying to say the past 400 years didn’t happen, while embracing the results which are proof that it very much did.

Just a thought.

my headache and I were having a discussion

Posted in Uncategorized on February 9, 2011 by darryl zero

I tried to find an excuse to call in sick this morning as I deliriously rolled around in my bed, enjoying the warmth and the fact that I wasn’t upright or required to have a functioning sense of judgement or social propriety. Moments like that are so disgustingly rare in a life spent code-shifting between occupational paradigms, I’m starting to realize what people meant all those years they told me not to work myself to death. Life is too short to deal with any of this shit.

Yesterday, for the first time in my life, I put my hand on a pregnant woman’s belly and felt a baby move. The benignness of the act itself masked the complete fascination I had with it. I usually make a point of avoiding touching pregnant women, knowing what it’s like to have people invading my personal space, but she invited me to, probably knowing how baby-crazy I’ve been as of late. I never really bought into the notion of pregnancy and childbirth being “magical”–pushing a large object out of a small opening is remarkable, but hardly so unique that it doesn’t happen every minute somewhere else.

The alienness, though–the idea that a body, an incredible machine in its own right, could create and incubate another, smaller version of that machine, and that said smaller machine could develop its own set of reactions to stimuli, all while gestating inside the mother machine…I know it’s corny and stupid to say it, but it’s fascinatingly beautiful. And ugly, I suppose–but isn’t that what a baby really is: a grotesque caricature of humanity, gradually leeching resources from a host until instinct or accident forces it through a contorted biomechanical entrance into a cold, uncaring world, whose only support structure is the very people from whom it will suck the energy and will to survive?

(Note to self: don’t look at H.R. Giger paintings before bedtime.)

this was written back in march of 2009.

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on February 9, 2011 by darryl zero

Perhaps the most telling thing about Watchmen the film is that, in introducing director Zack Snyder, the trailers immediately hail him as the “visionary director of 300.” That the producers of the film entrusted one of the most emotional and cerebrally intense storylines in comic book history to a man largely known for his visual flair at the helm of some of the most intellectually and emotionally shallow films of all time tells you a lot about what kind of audience for which the film is intended. In fact, the trailer, if nothing else, provides the first spoiler for any discerning viewer who wasn’t aware Snyder had been tapped to direct: you’re going to get something that may be visually faithful to the source material, but under the guidance of a man unafraid to capitulate to studio desires for something commercial. In short–before even walking into the theater, you knew Warner Brothers, well aware of the long, storied history of failed attempts to make Watchmen, brought in someone with just enough art cred to appeal to the fanboys but enough box office cachet to put the average ass in the seat.

To that end, the results do not disappoint. Watchmen is, at times, a startlingly visually-faithful rendering of what was, even at the time, a deliberately straightforward (I hesitate to use the world “realistic”) piece of sequential art. However, even for as aesthetically pleasing as it is at times, it falls victim to the chief weakness of so many “visionary” film directors past, present and (especially if this film is to be any indication) future in that it forgets that film is a bi-sensory experience. In short: Snyder forgets that we hear a film as much as we see one, and every second of this film seems to prove this mistake. This isn’t Snyder’s only error, however. While this reviewer freely admits to being one of those devoted fanboys who hates when cinematic adaptations deviate from their printed counterparts, I’m more-than-willing to accept if if those changes both a) add to the richness of the plot and b) are well done. The first two Blade movies, for example, completely re-created an existing character for the cinematic universe; and the Hellboy and Nolan-directed Bat-films not only took liberties with canonical interpretations of the characters, but they established their own comparably-impressive continuities in their own right.

In Watchmen‘s case, however, the continuity changes seem to be made for no reason; that the film so readily attempts to visually recreate the comic only makes these changes seem more-noticeable and more arbitrary. The film’s opening scene, for instance, abandons the comic book’s character-building and expository dialogue, choosing instead to invent a lengthy fight sequence that not only seems out-of-character for one of the combatants, but frankly just seems to exist for the sake of having a fight scene–lest, perhaps, the film lose the attention of Snyder’s usual audience of 300-inspired neo-fascist mouth-breathers by including a shred of intelligence before the bloodshed. In any case, the scene sets the tone for the entire film, in that it looks damn pretty–complete with a set of shots obviously lifted directly from the source material–but it manages to capture damn near everything about the comic except for the most important thing: its soul. The opening credit sequence cements this failure even more concretely–for the most part, it’s a compelling (albeit condensed) account of the massive backstory that undoubtedly made graphic novel so ostensibly unfilmable, but with some needless focus paid to a minor character, barely mentioned in the original story, but given screen time simply as an excuse for Snyder to show two women kissing. Granted, this occupies mere seconds of screen time, but in a film in which every second counts, even this indulgence is an unacceptable error.

Because it is just that–indulgence–which cripples every Snyder film, be it through the inexplicably-fast zombies of Dawn Of The Dead or the blatant racism of 300, or here–in Watchmen, with Snyder’s obsession with his own visual ability. Repeatedly, Snyder ignores crucial elements of what makes the source material so compelling in favor of making things look pretty. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that Snyder’s inability to direct actors is on par with that of George Lucas, another “visionary” whom Snyder equally-obviously attempts to ape; most of Snyder’s theoretically-talented cast shows little ability to deliver any lines with any semblance of convincing emotional simulacra, most egregiously Malin Akerman, whose admittedly-phenomenal physical assets do absolutely little to distract from her awfully wooden line-reading. It wouldn’t be hyperbolic to suggest Akerman’s dreadful performance (in the role of a character supposedly so emotionally crucial and affecting as to resurrect the dead emotions of a living god) is reason enough to ignore the film entirely; how she manages to drag the likes of the normally-impressive Carla Gugino (excruciatingly unconvincing and abysmally miscast as Akerman’s mother) down with her is a secret perhaps only Snyder knows. Granted, most of the remaining characters are so horribly miscast that they can’t help but seem out-of-place–particularly Matthew Goode, who delivers a valiant attempt at a convincing Adrian Veidt, the story’s resident über-mensch whose scheme serves as the driving force of the plot, but whose reedy physique only makes him look like a teenager playing super-hero in Schumacher nipples.

To be fair, the film’s sole strengths come from some of the rest of the principal cast. Patrick Wilson’s Dan Dreiberg (aka Nite Owl II) adds some much-needed humility and believability to the film; he somehow escapes the vacuum of Akerman’s acting, and manages to anchor most of his scenes with a sort of gritty logic that rescues much of the film from Snyder’s masturbatory visuals. As the aforementioned living god, Billy Crudup’s Dr. Manhattan is serviceable in what is little more than a glorified voice-over job for a largely computer-generated animated character; slightly more human is Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s performance as The Comedian, whose death opens the film, but appears considerably in flashback. Perhaps the cast’s greatest success, however, is in its most unexpected source: Jackie Earle Haley. Haley’s Rorschach is a gleaming bright spot of the film, a character he realizes in a performance so heartfelt he actually comes across as believable, whether he’s battering bad guys (among them Matt Frewer, smartly cast as ex-supervillain Edgar “Moloch” Jacobi) or squaring off with his so-called allies, who seem to trust him even less than his enemies. That Haley, a former child actor whose career seems to be quietly resurrecting itself (check out his performance in Little Children, also featuring Wilson), manages to eke such a compelling, charismatic performance out of such a difficult character and successfully makes a racist, homophobic, misogynistic proto-fascist character so likeable is entirely a testament to his ability, seeing as Snyder manages to bungle the job with just about everyone else.

And, truly, it is Snyder who is to blame for the film’s failings, because David Hayter’s and Alex Tse’s script culls so much from the original comic book that, had he not disowned the film (and with good reason), the comic’s original creator Alan Moore truly ought to have received a screenwriting credit for it. Snyder’s repeated failures as a director are such that even the colossal screenwriting fuck-up of changing Moore’s climax, which featured Veidt’s grand plan of creating global harmony through fabricating a nonexistent extraterrestrial threat, to a far-less-risky plan of creating global harmony through fabricating a nonexistent threat from Dr. Manhattan, takes a backseat to the myriad of plotholes Snyder ought to have caught before committing them to film. These holes range from the minor (a prominent “Obsolete Models a Specialty” sign in front of an auto-repair shop, despite the fact that, unlike the world of the comic, the majority of the world’s automobiles still run on internal-combustion engines and are not, in fact, obsolete) to the lazy (The Comedian’s active role in the JFK assassination, from a vantage point that would have actually been seen on the camera that filmed it) to the patently fucking ridiculous (the ending of the film, in which the viewers are shown that the universally-untrusting Rorschach has sent a crucially important package to a magazine without having been given a reason why Rorschach would do such a thing). For that matter, the most awkward thing about the changed climax isn’t the weak, needless story change, but an out-of-character exchange in which Veidt, previously established as far beyond Dreiberg’s ability to best in physical combat, allows the latter to beat him bloody for no clear reason. Even worse is the dialogue in the scene, grossly changed from that of the comic book so that it explicitly states what is originally merely implied.

Really, it is the last detail which proves definitively why Snyder was chosen to direct the film: he is unafraid of dumbing-down the material so that even the most obtuse of viewers can understand it, not realizing that doing so completely obliterates what made the comic book so groundbreaking and, well, visionary. It’s easy to dismiss such criticism as the rantings of an angry nerd; however, when such nerds constitute the core element of the audience for which Watchmen was (and, with apologies to the less-discriminating tastes that may be reading this, is) intended, there really is no excuse for such failures. For that matter, auteurs like Christopher Nolan, Stephen Norrington, Guillermo Del Toro, and Jon Farveau have managed to take iconic comic books and make films that deviate from the source material without sacrificing the soulful elements that made the comics so iconic (with Batman Begins/The Dark Knight, Blade, Blade II/Hellboy/Hellboy II, and Iron Man, respectively). There’s no doubt, at least in my mind, that in the capable hands of directors like them, a great film could have been made from Moore’s comic; however, after this, it’s unlikely such a film will ever exist. With Watchmen, Snyder has created a barely-watchable film, one which, instead of proving the comic to be ultimately filmable, ultimately proves the comic will never, ever, truly be filmed.