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Monthly Archives: November 2011

The Miller Propaganda Machine (or why I Disagree with a Smart man Named Neil Gaiman)

One week ago today Frank Miller wrote the latest in a series of batshit crazy screeds. A number of people are reacting to this event with various degrees of shock and bafflement despite the fact that he’s been going on in this vein for a number of years. While Miller is not mentioned by name in the relevant tweet, Neil Gaiman posted a link to something he wrote in 2006 about why we shouldn’t refuse to engage with art just because we disagree with someone personally or politically.

Neil Gaiman is an intelligent, insightful man, with impressive hair, and a wardrobe that I envy. He even makes several good points in the above response. However, when it comes to the work of Miller he’s wrong, because the work of “art” in Miller’s case is the artist.

My initial response to all of this can be found on Twitter, in which I said: Not going to waste a blog on this. Frank Miller is racist, obsessed with hyper-masculine fascism, and not a very talented writer. #nuffsaid  A day later David Brin articulated a critique that outs 300 for the meretricious heap it is, and says basically the same thing I did in my tweet.

300 is also a good place to start precisely because of a quote from Frankie-boy himself in response to some critics (including Alan Moore) whom called him out for having the Spartans call the Athenians boy lovers, when forced pederasty (i.e. raping teenage boys) was an open fact of Spartan society.

If I allowed my characters to express only my own attitudes and beliefs, my work would be pretty darn boring. If I wrote to please grievance groups, my work would be propaganda. For the record: being a warrior class, the Spartans almost certainly did practice homosexuality. There’s also evidence they tended to lie about it. It’s not a big leap to postulate that they ridiculed their hedonistic Athenian rivals for something they themselves did. “Hypocrisy” is, after all, a word we got from the Greeks. What’s next? A letter claiming that, since the Spartans owned slaves and beat their young, I do the same? The times we live in.

Sorry, Frankie-boy, but using your characters as a mouthpiece for your own beliefs is also propaganda, but way to try and discredit those who disagree with your views without ever forming an actual argument (but then that’s how you roll, isn’t it?).

Frank Miller’s work has never been anything but a mouthpiece for his own views. Ever. One trend I keep seeing in the commentary about his latest nuttiness is the way his earlier work, particularly Dark Knight Returns is given a pass. Dark Knight is rather famous in the annuls of comics, and it’s almost as if people don’t want to see its reputation tarnished.

It is true that Miller used Dark Knight as a vehicle to take pot shots at Regan. Sorry, Ron Marz, but that doesn’t make the rest of DKR any less right wing. Batman, as depicted in DKR, is a violent, fascist thug. He isn’t interested in America being free; he’s only interested in it following his own ideology, and he’s willing to savagely cripple anyone who doesn’t conform to his worldview.

This trait is common to most of Miller’s protagonists. Miller has always glorified violence, and “heroes” who adopt a “If you’re not with me you’re against me attitude.” We are all corrupt, venial little sheep that need the manly men to keep us toeing the line (and remind us that women are all whores in the process).

All of these traits exist in Miller’s work prior to his public breakdown following the attacks of September 11th, 2001. All of it. Even his period of anti-corporate sentiment follows the black and white pattern of his thinking; the reason corporations were bad was because Frankie-boy felt that he was personally being shafted on deals. Once that was no longer the case he no longer had a problem with corporations; because hey, if it isn’t inconveniencing Frankie, it isn’t actually a problem.

I realize I’m being a bit disorganized, dear readers, so I shall try to sum up.

In his personal life, Frank Miller worships a pseudo-film-noir worldview of black and white that praises the hyper-masculine image of the tough guy. He’s also quite fond of reminding us that women are whores and evil temptresses, which again ties in to his veneration of the ideals of noir. These ideas are also present in Miller’s work. Not just the recent work that is almost universally panned (such as the racist joyride that is Holy Terror), but it has been lurking there since the very beginning. Dark Knight Returns is as much a work of propaganda for Miller’s worldview as his current works are; that it has been successful, and is considered influential on the development of modern comics does not somehow liberate it from this.

Of course for all his worship of hyper-masculinity, Miller’s only claim to being a tough guy is that he… wait for it… wears a fedora. He’s never been a cop, hasn’t served in the military, or done much more than spouting his limited worldview while demanding that everyone else man up and fight the good fight against the dirty Jihadists who are hiding under his bed (they’re there right now, Frankie – don’t turn out the light or a Muslim might get you!).

This is why I think Neil Gaiman is wrong, at least as concerns someone like Frank Miller, or Orson Scott Card, or the racist dipshit responsible for something like The Turner Diaries. It isn’t that these people have views I don’t agree with. It isn’t even that their work expresses views I don’t agree with (Plato having been a totalitarian douche doesn’t stop me from reading Plato, it just informs my critique of his work), it’s that what these individuals are producing isn’t art, it’s propaganda. It isn’t designed to challenge us or make us think. It doesn’t present anything resembling an actual argument. Frank Miller’s only goal is to show us how manly he is, and how the rest of us should be grateful he’s willing to put his foot on our throats and show us the error of his ways. The work of Frank Miller is about as worthy of consideration, and possesses roughly the same level of intelligence, as the average George W. Bush soundbite.

Postscript: Why yes, I did recently write a critique of the “Occupy” movement. Unlike Miller I didn’t do it by claiming people who disagree with me are rapists, and then going off on a tangent I’ve been harping on for years. More to the point, I haven’t made an entire career out of beating the same damn drum in everything I’ve ever done.

 
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Posted by on November 14, 2011 in Comics, Philosophy, Pop Culture

 

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An Unjust man of Just Reputation

A while back I talked about how one of the themes in Garth Ennis’ The Boys is a platonic reflection on how it is better to be an unjust man with the reputation of a just man than to be a just man with the reputation of an unjust one. Unfortunately, the real world has served us up a rather disturbing, and disgusting, example of exactly this. I speak of course of Joe Paterno and his firing from Penn State.

For those who have remained blissfully unaware of the events, a man by the name of Jerry Sandusky is accused of molesting children over a period of approximately 15 years. At least two of the incidents are said to have happened on Penn State property. In at least one case, a graduate student, a former football player who worked for Paterno, is said to have walked in on Sandusky in the act of molesting a child. This graduate student did not intervene; rather, he left the room, called his father, and then called Paterno. Paterno is said to have kicked it up the chain of command, which according to his defenders somehow absolves him of blame.

“Joe Pa” was aware of the accusations. He was aware that the administration of Penn State elected to keep quiet about them. The graduate student who did nothing not only continued to work for Paterno, but received promotions in exchange for his silence.

If Joe Paterno was a good man, he would fired the graduate student. If Joe Paterno was a good man he would have told the administrators of Penn State to go fuck themselves, and taken the information to police and prosecutors himself. If Joe Paterno was a good man he would have done these things even if they cost him his job and his reputation.

However, Joe Paterno is not a good man. He is not a humble man. He is not a man worthy of respect or admiration. Because to him, protecting his reputation, and the reputation of Penn State and its football team, were more important to him than doing what was morally right. He is an unjust man with the reputation of a just man, and that reputation has benefited him greatly. One merely has to look at the people leaping to his defense, frantically searching to place blame on anyone but their beloved “Joe Pa.” One merely has to look at the money he brought in for Penn State, and for himself.

Are the trustees and administrators, the graduate student, and anyone else who was aware of this also to blame? Of course. I don’t defend them in the slightest. Yet none of that absolves good ol’ “Joe Pa” of what he has done. For those who have made the claim that we can’t judge the man without knowing him: yes, we can. Because this cruel, calculating man has shown the world exactly who he is when you take the reputation for being a just man away; Joe Paterno is a man who allows allegations of child molestation to go univestigated for the sake of preserving his “good” name.

 
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Posted by on November 10, 2011 in Philosophy

 

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Lies that Speak Truth to the Human Heart; Fiction, Imagination, and Empathy

If there is one thing I can count on the internet for, it’s that when a discussion of a video game, comicbook, television show, novel, movie, or whatever form of media floats your boat comes up, someone, somewhere, at some point will likely respond to criticism of it with some variation of, “It’s just fiction.”

At first blush that certainly seems like it has some validity to it, doesn’t it? After all, something that is fictional is by its nature not true. It likely even meets Kant’s definition for being an analytic statement; that is to say it is a statement which contains its own definition without needing supplement (bachelor being one of the more commonly used examples of an analytic statement; it contains in itself the meaning of “an unmarried adult male”). The word’s place in a Kantian schema isn’t terribly important, particularly since further elaboration would require me to listen to a Kantian without entering a catatonic state, and I fear I’m simply not up to so Herculean a task.

The important takeaway from the above is not the Kantian digression, but the fact that most adults upon hearing the word fiction will understand it to mean that we are speaking about something which is not true. Bertrand Russell would certainly agree with this sentiment; in his tendentious, torturous essay on why ordinary language is insufficient for  the doing of philosophy, Russell talked about if I say something like, “The current king of France is bald,” said statement is meaningless largely because there is not a current king of France. Which is why despite admitting it would render ordinary communication impossible, Russell insisted we needed to make a language specifically for the doing of philosophy, so that shenanigans could be avoided.  This particular point of view would underlie (and undermine) the ideas of logical positivism (the forerunner of analytic philosophy). (I will interrupt with a brief confession. Russell did do some good work, and I’ve always wondered if the essay I mention here wasn’t done as something of a joke; written in a deliberately obtuse and obstructive style in order to illustrate his point. Regardless, the moves in philosophy that Russell describes, and which became profoundly influential, were also moves that helped direct contemporary philosophy away from usefulness and toward academic circle jerking. Moving on.)

We, as a species, have something far more important than a language of logic or a factual king of France; we have the ability to think abstractly, and to imagine. There does not need to be a current king of France for me to conceive that there is, or could be, and that this nonexistent king is in fact bald. I would even go so far as to say it is easier for me to understand what the statement out a fictional king of France being bald is representing than it is for me to properly understand the distances involved in something like a light year; while the light year might be a “factual” unit, the scale of what it represents requires significantly more imagination, because most of us have no experiential referent to compare it to.

So on at least a literal level, fiction isn’t nonsensical or meaningless. Common sense would tend to tell us that, because if the nature of fiction were nonsensical we wouldn’t engage with fictional materials; not because we would be wasting time, but because we simply wouldn’t be able to comprehend them. In fact, the potential meanings carried in fiction have been a concern of philosophy going back to its “official” beginnings.

Plato, in his Republic, goes off on a digression about the hypothetical ideal city. He blathers about the various castes that will make up the city, and other details that have made the Republic the only book to ever put me to sleep twice in the same day. However, among his natterings there is one class of folks that Plato is quite clear will have no involvement with the ideal city: poets. Plato was not fond of poets and artists, because he was terrified by the possibilities of mimesis; those naughty, fictional doings, and reproductions of objects could very well lead us deeper into the cave so that we never saw the light of Plato’s imaginary forms. If fiction was incapable of conveying meaning, and meaning beyond that which it takes to simply be comprehensible, but rather the kind of meaning that informs and shapes our way of being in the world, why would Plato be so worried about? And if fiction is incapable of conveying deeper meanings, why did Plato choose to present his work as fictional dialogues?*

Clearly, fiction is not nonsensical, and is capable of conveying meanings on a level beyond a surface engagement of entertainment. Part of it is that we are beings of abstract thought and imagination, and we can be affected by things that are not “real,” an idea which I have talked about previously. If you didn’t believe me there, it turns out that neuroscience is (finally) catching on to what some philosophers have been saying for at least a few hundred years. Yet I don’t think that this capacity fully explains the ways in which we can, and often do engage with fiction. I suspect that it is not only our capacity for abstract thought and imagination, our ability to dream as it were, but also our capacity for empathy that allows us to immerse ourselves into fictions as we do. I don’t agree with everything in this video. I don’t think that our capacity for empathy comes from an understanding of mortality, particularly since some animals do seem to display empathy, or something similar, and as of yet we’ve no reason to presume that they understand/conceive of death in the same way that humans do. I also have a few other quibbles with the information presented, but again I digress.

When we willingly suspend our disbelief and engage with a work of fiction we connect with the worlds and characters we experience. Much as with dreams, visions, etc. they in way become real to us. Even without visual triggering of mirror neurons these fictional characters and events can make us laugh or cry; they share part of their lives with us, and in doing so evoke our emotions. While it’s by no means a good thing, it’s small wonder then that some people might come to confuse an actor for the character they portray; to those of us who experience the results of their work at home the actor him or herself is a cypher. We do not know this person. Yet the character they portray, or portrayed in the past, is someone with whom we have established a rapport. In activating our capacity for empathy these characters have become part of the narrative of our own lives, all without ever being “real.”

Fiction also has another great power; it can tell us unpleasant truths, while hiding from us that it is telling unpleasant truths. By moving things into the realm of fiction, we can deal with them a step or more removed. If I simply tell someone that religion is a lie, or that they are embedded in a racist society whether they consider themselves racist or behave in an overtly racist manner, there is a fairly good chance that this person is going to feel as if I am attacking them and respond defensively. While it is certainly not a foolproof method, and it is entirely possible this person (and others) would miss the point I was making, or would still feel as if I was attacking, by wrapping this issue in a fictional coating I can present to them the same argument, the same truths in such a manner that it is perhaps not such a bitter pill to swallow.

Trying to dismiss something as just being fiction is, at best, disingenuous. Fiction might well not have a single grain of fact in it, but that does not mean that it is “false.” Plato certainly knew this, and knew that the ideal city would have to ban poets for fear that the fictions they told might undermine the tyrannical party line. Like our dreams, fiction is capable of touching us in the same manner as the “real” world; it can be as much a part of the intersubjective web in which we are immersed as other people, or the physical objects we interact with on a daily basis.

The things I talk about in this blog and elsewhere are examples of that; artifacts of popular culture that are also artifacts that enable philosophical engagement. Perhaps it is time that more philosophers follow in the footsteps of Camus, Sartre, even Nietzsche, as well as such primarily “literary” personalities such as Hesse, and understand that we needn’t speak a convoluted language of dead white guys to speak philosophically about, and to, the world. There is no reason that we could not speak a language of lies that tells the truth.

*(I have heard some make a great deal of the fact that one of Plato’s statements in his Republic is that the philosopher ruler is “…a lover of truth and a hater of lies,” yet at several points the philosopher ruler lies to the people. Also, if Plato was so down on poets and tellers of tales, isn’t he contradicting himself by using fiction? The answer is no, because he clearly admits to the acceptability of fables; fictions that might not be true in fact, but that teach an important moral truth. The lies of the philosopher ruler, and the fictions of Plato, were not deceptions of malice or mimesis, they were the kind of moral instruction one might offer to a child. What that might say about Plato’s opinion of others is for you to decide, dear readers, but there is no contradiction in respect to this particular point.)

 
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Posted by on November 7, 2011 in Comics, Geekery, Philosophy, Pop Culture

 

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“Remember, Remember…” that you too must bear the Blame

Remember remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot…

Today is the fifth of November. Across the pond in ol’ Blighty at least some people will be celebrating Guy Fawkes’ failure to blow up the House of Lords in 1605. I imagine that even as I type this, many have seen their Facebook walls spammed with various quotes from V for Vendetta – in particular with quotes from the inferior film version. I’ve talked before about how people frequently seem to miss a point that Moore was making, and in honor of Guy Fawkes I am going to do so again, albeit as relates to a slightly different point.

I have lost count of the number of times I have read V for Vendetta for both academic research and personal pleasure. It would not be unfair to say that the scene central to today’s discussion is a large part of what made me focus on comicbooks as my primary locus from which to start philosophical discussions. The scene in question comes to us from Book Two (“The Vicious Cabaret”), Chapter Three (“Video”) of V for Vendetta. For those of you who might like to refresh your memories, or reread the relevant section before or after this post, it occupies pages 108 – 117 of the tradepaperback edition of V.

This particular chapter features V taking over the state controlled video station and broadcasting a message to the people of London. It was this message that transformed me into the Comicbook Philosopher, as upon reading it I recognized in its words a paraphrasing of the work of Jean-Paul Sartre. Which is all well and good I hear you say, dear reader, but what is the content of this all important message?

Couched in the mask of a dismissal from one’s job, V informs the viewers of fictional London, and by extension we the presumably non-fictional reader, that we share as much blame for the state of the world as those directly responsible for Norsefire. Not because we approve of Norsefire’s pogrom to cleanse the impure from society. Not because we are actively part of the machinery which allows the wheels of state to function. Rather, our blame lies squarely with our refusal to take responsibility for the culture we created, and the world that gave birth to.

Yes, yes, I admit that for the sake of space and simplicity, in my last analysis of V I presented us as innocent victims caught between V’s actions and a repressive government. With the exception of our innocence, what I said there remains true; yet just as V is not unambiguously heroic, we are not unambiguous victims of his campaign.

If the world ended in nuclear fire, V tells us, it is because we elected the governments that brought us to that point. Even though we might turn our eyes, a single, dramatic crocodile tear rolling down our cheeks as the undesirables are lead away to the camps, we are the ones who allowed this situation to come about.

In the world outside of the comic page, V is indicting not merely the banks and the governments who colluded with them for the state of the economy; he is demanding that each and every one of us take responsibility for the world we helped create. He is reminding us that if corporations are building sweatshops in some third world country it is because we were more concerned with our Nike shoes,  and iPods, with our cellphones, and watching the disintegration of Kim Kardashian’s 18 million dollar marriage, to say no before the fact, preferring instead to offer token protest only after we have allowed others to pay for our conveniences.

We might not be responsible for the day-to-day running of corporations and governments. We might cry out at the actions those corporations and governments take, but as much as we might deny it, these are actions done in our name. V tells us that with our refusal to take responsibility for our lives, to take proper stewardship of the world, we are all responsible the results.

It isn’t a pleasant message to hear, which is why I suspect so many prefer the unambiguous illusion of the film. Yet V reminds us that refusing to accept this responsibility means not only a failure to move toward authenticity, but that these events will simply repeat themselves.

We can spout quotes from V all we like, and rage against the Powers that Be so loudly that the heavens shake. Yet what Moore as the existential V, as Sartre’s mirror, is reminding us of is that the world will only change when we change ourselves, and that our continued refusal to accept responsibility only makes the road to get there that much longer.

 
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Posted by on November 5, 2011 in Alan Moore, Comics, Philosophy

 

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The Ethical Dilemmas of Activism

Anyone who reads this blog on even a semi-regular basis likely knows that I am not a big fan of the status quo, and that I advocate for social justice. I see the world as it is, and want to replace it with the world as it could be. Sometimes a course of action is pretty clear, such as when someone is discriminated against for being the “wrong” color, or the “wrong” sexual orientation. Yet is it always so simple as standing up and saying, “This shit is wrong, and must end immediately!”?

Let’s take a quick  look at agribusiness and the food industry, and see if that can get us anywhere near an answer.

Agribusiness, as currently practiced, is for the most part some horrible, horrible shit. Animals are treated in inhumane, torturous fashions. Fertilizer runoff causes algal blooms which create hypoxic zones and causes die-offs among marine life. Safety conditions for both workers, and consumers, are, to put it mildly, suboptimal. The United States government has long since caved to the pressure of lobbyists and made it almost impossible for the FDA to do a thing about any of this.

All in all I think most people could agree that the situation in the food industry is disgusting. Our methods of food production and consumption are unjust and unethical. So we should shut them down, right?

….

Now that you’ve shut down food production what do you do? Buy organic? First, you should probably make sure that your product isn’t produced by one of the companies you just shut down; because it has proven profitable, many of the big business involved in the food industry have been expanding into the organic market. Also, are you certain you can provide enough of it to meet people’s needs. I don’t mean demands, I mean needs. Did resolving the ethical injustices of our current food production methods cause a lot more people to not have enough to eat?

How are all the people who are now out of work going to support themselves? Can your new “organic” farms provide jobs for them all? Because it isn’t just corrupt CEOs that are out of jobs now. It isn’t even just the people who worked directly in agribusiness; what about all the companies who rely on the products of agribusiness, or who sell their products to agribusiness? Is each and every person who is involved in the process and product of agribusiness, no matter at what level, deserving of uncaring sanction? If so then don’t forget to include all of us who consume its products, as we’re as guilty as anyone else.

I freely admit that this is just a short list of examples. I also want to make it clear that I am not in the least bit discouraging activism. When shit is wrong we should address it. My point is that we should never address injustice reflexively. We most certainly should act on those things which outrage us, yet acting without though can be as harmful as not acting. As with our lives, we should always address our activism in a reflective fashion; meeting ethical injustice with ethical injustice is not the answer.

 
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Posted by on November 3, 2011 in Activism, Philosophy

 

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