Archive for the Politics and Society Category

What Women Want – 50 Shades of Grey’s ancient pattern

Posted in Fiction, Politics and Society, Things You Should Hear with tags , , , , , on February, 2015 by melendwyr

For years, people have been gushing over the novel 50 Shades of Grey, and now that it’s a major motion picture people are gushing about that.  Praise or condemnation, it doesn’t much matter – either way, people are talking about it.  It might not be quite true that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.  For people.  For ideas, for memes, that seems to be the literal truth.

I’ve been monitoring how the book is discussed in various male-dominated circles, and my overwhelming impression is that the people claiming to explain the ‘true significance’ of the novel just aren’t getting it.

50 Shades is a combination of two kinds of fantasy: sex-without-guilt, which like the ‘rape’ commonly found in romance novels permits women to enjoy forbidden/tabooed sexuality without being responsible for breaking the social codes – basically having the cake and eating it – and the fantasy of having a man be so obsessed and emotionally tied to the woman that he can be induced to change his bad-boy nature.

It’s the same basic pattern found in lots of romances. The only difference between this and the standard bodice-ripper is that as more and more forms of sexual expression have been normalized, more extreme practices are needed to give people the frisson of transgressing what’s ‘good’. Go back far enough, and sex we’d consider tame and standard would be kinky and shocking.

Readers get to be titillated by the forbidden, then released from guilt about enjoying the forbidden by having it be treated as a shameful male crime – “It’s not my fault, he tempted me” – then given what they really want.

And what is that, exactly? The medievals knew perfectly well.

Go read Chaucer’s ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’.  Or better yet, go listen to Professor Corey Olsen’s Fairie and Fantasy lectures about ‘Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle’ and ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’.  And consider how the basic pattern of those works compares to the structure of 50 Shades.

The Self-Destruction of John Campbell

Posted in Comics, Politics and Society, Reviews, Things You Should Read, Weirdness with tags , , on March, 2014 by melendwyr

You may recall my earlier post detailing my sadness upon learning that one of my favorite webcomics, Pictures for Sad Children, had been deleted by its artist and creator John Campbell.

Upon learning that he had a Kickstarter project involving the release of his comics in bound and printed form, I concluded that perhaps he didn’t want the free online version of his work competing with his professional work.  Sadly, I have recently learned that the reality is much, much stranger than that.

As the bottom of that Wikipedia article indicates, in fact.

Campbell had gained a degree of notority for apologizing for purportedly “pretending to be depressed for money”.  Which is quite peculiar, but not nearly as weird as it would become…

John Campbell recently announced that all of the Kickstarter rewards which were going to be sent out had been, and that nothing else would be forthcoming – regardless of what had been promised or what people had paid for.  In fact, he released a video showing him burning printed copies of the book, one for each email he had received from people asking where their books were.  Along with the video was… well, a rant.

This might lead you to think that Campbell is staging some kind of avant-garde  performance art, which wouldn’t be incompatible with the style of his comic.  Possibly the whole thing is being faked… except for the vast number of people who haven’t received the work that they paid for and are beginning to become angry.

The rant itself sounds very much as though Campbell were sliding into depression, or schizophrenia.  Not quite at the word salad stage, but approaching it.  Faked?  Perhaps… not.  It’s really quite disturbing.  Campbell claims to have realized that he’s a transwoman, says that he has about $750 total, and has a lot of reasonably incoherent things to say about capitalism, society, and ‘privilege’.

Some people now claim they are working to scan the copies of the book and put them online.

I don’t know what the full truth behind any of this is,  but one way or another, it seems to be the end of John Campbell’s career.  Possibly the beginning of a number of angry lawsuits, although if the statement about the checking is correct I doubt there will be much of anything to win.


Strange in Context: Six Industries

Posted in Politics and Society, Things You Should Read with tags , , on March, 2014 by melendwyr

Okay, so Diane Duane posted an essay entitled ‘The Eyes in the Peacock’s Tail’.  She also posted a link to a The New York Times article by Mark Bittman.  Interestingly, she did so without further comment.  It is reasonable to presume that she intended to showcase it positively, though, since there’s not a word of displeasure, condemnation, or the slightest hint of disapproval.

Mr. Bittman asks whether children have the right to a healthy diet.  Couldn’t we just as easily ask whether children have the right to a healthy intellectual diet as well as a comestable one?  Or even a moral one?

Whether Ms. Duane considers her childhood to have been a healthy one with the benefit of hindsight isn’t the issue.  Nor is whether we happen to agree with her assessment.  Nor is even the retrospective opinion of her parents, if they were able and willing to have one, truly relevant.  What matters is that Ms. Duane’s younger self took the matter into her own hands and negated her parent’s (or parents’) efforts to keep her away from what they perceived at the time to be a danger to her well-being.

Under no circumstances am I questioning a parent’s right or responsibility to protect his or her children from danger.

Nonsense.  Her younger self rejected the concept of an absolute parental right, as does her current self.  As I do as well, as it happens.  I agree that trying to keep kids away from certain kinds of knowledge, trying to establish a ‘forbidden fruit’ that will dangle tantalizingly out of reach, is inevitably self-defeating and usually ineffective.  ‘The Eyes of the Peacock’ clearly establishes that Ms. Duane believes there are significant practical and ethical limits to a parent’s right to protect.  But that’s not the point.

I may advocate for giving people knowledge as they become capable of seeking it, but I don’t delude myself that there will never be negative outcomes from acknowledging the power of choice.  Some people will make poor decisions, and as long as it’s possible to be hurt, someone will choose paths that result in injury or harm.  And that applies as much to teenagers’ reading habits as to everything else.

I find it easy to grant for the sake of argument the teenaged Ms. Duane’s smarts and good judgment, and consider it most probable that her literary interests were healthy and harmless – at least, by my standards.  But knowing something about human nature, that will not always be the case.  Knowing something about teenagers – how their repressed drives towards self-determination tend to overcompensate when they steal a bit of freedom, how their relative lack of experience informs their choices, how their ancient genetic inheritance leads them to take risks that are unreasonable outside the perspective frame of Darwinism – makes the case even stronger.  Many people’s interests are neither healthy nor harmless, to themselves and others.

This is a particularly salient point in the case of Ms. Duane, whose website once included a chat room that had to be closed because too many young adults used it for chatter of a sexual nature.  And as she is a former psychiatric nurse, I cannot imagine that she’s not intimately familiar with the human ability to make poor choices.  Even more so in the case of teens.

So:  how is it that a person can so powerfully make the case for freedom of choice and the futility of restrictions, then turn around and either condone or approve of the exact opposite thesis in the slightly different context?

Is it merely that she doesn’t care about food as much as books?

The Eyes in the Peacock’s Tail

Posted in Politics and Society, Things You Should Read with tags , , on March, 2014 by melendwyr

I am a longtime fan of the works of Diane Duane.  Not merely her novels, which are frequently excellent, but in other genres as well.

She’s written a worthwhile essay called The Eyes in the Peacock’s Tail which she recently reposted to her Tumblr feed.  In addition to its inherent value, I think the points it makes are thrown into valuable relief by something else I saw in her feed a little while later.

Give it a look, and consider what it has to say.


Posted in Politics and Society with tags , on January, 2014 by melendwyr

I’ve heard many accounts of why groups of people will dwell on past incidents where they were oppressed, victimized, or made to lose, and generally the explanation is that it’s a sort of propaganda technique.  When people feel that they are in danger, or are being pushed down the status ladder, they push back.  If you want to motivate people to exert their strength, you need to create the perception that their strength needs to be exerted or else… something will occur.

What I realized, thinking about this a few days ago, is that if you look at people who are truly being kept down and oppressed, the rhetoric involved is truly different.  There’s a certain degree of overlap, of course.  But the emphasis on making people feel uplifted, courageous, and effective is much greater.  Rather than dwelling on fears of powerlessness, people seek to instill feelings of power in themselves and their listeners.

When people are outnumbered, when the odds are against them, they seek hope and affirmations of their power.  It’s only when people have power but aren’t motivated to use it does the rhetoric shift to emphasizing powerlessness – to create anxiety, and to convince people that they need to fight to maintain advantage.

“Remember the Alamo” isn’t a bad example.  Fighting forces which truly lacked the advantage (or at least perceived themselves to have lacked it) wouldn’t choose a defeat as a rallying cry.  They’d try to accentuate the positive.  Only a force which is secure in its power needs to be made less so, to induce people to fight harder with the advantages and resources they actually have.

This came up as I mentally reviewed some of the abolutionist / suffragist speeches I had once read, and realized how relatively little talk there was about how they were victimized.  Certainly it was a major thread – but it wasn’t exaggerated or as emphasized as political narratives so often are in the modern era.  I also considered some of China’s internal propaganda and its government’s tendency to bring up memories of past oppressions only when that nation is rapidly rising in power.

Powerless people need to be convinced of their power.  Powerful people need to be convinced not to be complacent.

I think this principle sheds a great deal of light on the political narratives of oppression I encounter regularly.

Cultural Norms

Posted in Politics and Society, Science Fiction, Weirdness with tags on November, 2013 by melendwyr

I’ve recently finished watching the sixth season of Doctor Who, which I highly recommend if you’re into that sort of thing.  (Watch the fifth season first.)

Alas, I tend to focus on subtext.  There are of course all the superficial ways in which a British science fiction / fantasy program will differ from an American one.  But then there’re the subtle ways, and the cultural differences are fascinating.

It’s supposed to be a “family show”, to the point where child characters are repeatedly reassured about their paramount importance to everyone, gunshot wounds aren’t visible, and there’s no blood even when people are neck-bitten by space vampires.  (Well, they’re not actually vampires, they’re something so awful that they prefer ‘vampire’ as a cover, but whatever.)  The companion program for the episode even has one of the special effects people talking about how important it is to limit the visible blood so that the censors won’t have a problem.

Yet it’s chock full of terrifying creatures and concepts.  And the vastly more sophisticated special effects in the regenerated show don’t help – children famously hid behind the sofa at first sight of the previous series’ villains, which were hilariously cheap props.  The new monsters are profoundly disturbing.

I’ve heard it said that Europeans and Americans chose opposing trade-offs between sex and violence:  we’re neurotically repressive / indulgent about sex and wildly indulgent in violence, they’re the other way around.  Maybe there’s something to that.  But there are surprising number of references to sexuality, from Rory causing a mishap with the TARDIS because he’s helping to adjust its hardware when his wife walks across the glass floor/ceiling wearing a short skirt, to the Thin and Fat Gay Anglican Marines.

That last brings up one of the weirdest points from an American perspective:  attitudes towards religion.  The primary villains of this season have hired the Anglicans as backup (it seems Christianity has developed in some interesting ways three thousand years in the future).  An episode monster is an obsolete god that has been put into a travelling space prison by the civilization that no longer needs it, and it feeds on the faith of selected victims.  There’s a religious order called the Headless Monks who believe the head is the source of doubt and the heart of faith, so they supposedly follow their hearts.  Well, they have to, because they’re decapitated and turned into undead killing machines.

This sort of thing isn’t new to SF.  What’s interesting to me is that these points aren’t being presented as an argument or a proposition.  It seems to be expected that the audience will see them as a sort of default.  And default or not, material which can be even remotely construted as a criticism of religion isn’t considered child-appropriate for basic family fare.  That is seemingly is in Great Britain to this degree is remarkable to me.

How many complaints does it take to ban Neil Gaiman?

Posted in Doom, Favorite Words, Fiction, Politics and Society with tags , on October, 2013 by melendwyr

Just one, according to Leah Schnelbach at

The text of Neverwhere had been accepted as part of the reading list for nine years… and, as a result of a single complaint from a single individual who never even met with the teachers involved, it was removed.

Leaving aside the issue of whether the scene in question is sufficiently objectionable to justify removal:  if they were willing to remove it after a single complaint, why did they approve it in the first place?  Did they find it offensive but decided it wouldn’t matter until someone complained?  That’s disturbing in one way.  Did they not find it offensive but were willing to remove it at the slightest hint of parental discomfort?  That’s disturbing in another.

What’s truly tragic is that everyone else, even the student body, seems to have enjoyed the book.  It’s been many years since my horrific journey through the American educational system, but as I recall dimly through the mists of time, enjoying the act of reading was uncommon, and enjoying reading assignments was even rarer.  Removing something that the students liked is a serious loss, both to the kids and to the people whose responsibility it is to educate them.

And why?  A few F-bombs and some light petting.

Let’s bring up the obvious re: Edward Snowden

Posted in Politics and Society with tags on June, 2013 by melendwyr

The vague suggestions that Edward Snowden is actually a Chinese spy have become something more, as government officials now claim to fear that he will defect to China.

Here’s the thing:  regardless of whether his claims are true or not, they’re clearly credible enough to do damage to the US spying program.  So every time someone questions his credentials, motivations, and qualifications, it makes the people who put him into a position where he was capable of inflicting so much damage look that much worse.

If his lack of schooling is noteworthy now, why wasn’t it sufficient to keep him out of an analyst position?  If he’s being courted by  China,or was turned while he had access, whose bright idea was it to let people who could be so bought be placed in such potentially vulnerable places?

And if he was recruited by China *before* being put in place… Well.

If he’s already working for them, he’s already where he’s safe.  If he’s not, perhaps trying to arrest, extradite, and Bradley Manning him might just drive him into the arms of the Chinese.  It wouldn’t be very good for his message, admittedly, and would give the US a sort of limited plausible deniability.  Or at least a distraction to keep the public from focusing on what’s happening (and I’ve already heard many suggestions that this scandal is being used to take attention away from immigration concerns).  So if Snowden’s motivation is what he’s said it is, it wouldn’t be his first choice.  But sufficient personal fear tends to induce people to make less than optimal choices, isn’t it.

It will be very, very interesting to see what Snowden releases next, as he claims to plan to.  At this point, I’m not sure whether it matters much whether he’s a Chinese operative, now or in the past.  The revelations about ‘our side’ are worth learning even if they come from erstwhile enemies.

The Government has your phone records

Posted in Doom, Politics and Society with tags , , , on June, 2013 by melendwyr

No, really, they do.  It’s  not a paranoid fantasy.  And they’ve probably been doing it for years.

Since many of the sites reporting on this will not even be looked at by the sort of person I’ll be having to force this information on, I’ll just link to the BBC‘s version.

Let’s review:  without a warrant, the NSA has given a court order for Verizon to turn over the phone metadata – that is, all of the information about a phone call with none of its content – of millions of people.  And forbade anyone involved to say anything about it to anyone.

Under the banner of fighting terrorism, the records of millions of people – who cannot be considered to be suspects or even suspected of assisting terrorism – are being examined by the US government.  And as it’s suspected this is a regular event stretching back years – all the way to the passing of the PATRIOT Act.

So who’s this Ron Ace guy anyway?

Posted in Doom, GIGO, Politics and Society with tags , , on May, 2013 by melendwyr

I’ve suddenly been bombarded with emails about inventor Ron Ace and his announcement that he’s come up with some revolutionary way to utilize solar power.  Despite not having a prototype, or anything other than calculations, newspaper articles are being published and republished all over the place – and it seems like lots of them are being forwarded to me.

See here.  It’s pretty typical of the stuff I’m getting.

Does no one remember cold fusion?  And that involved actual experimental error – as in an actual experiment, being performed.  There’s no such thing here,  no prototype, no testing.  Just a filing of a patent claim.

I’ve been told that the Patent Office regularly gets applications to patent systems of lights to indicate which way vehicles intend to turn.  And then, of course, there are all the perpetual motion machines, which they don’t even bother to look at any more.

I fail to see how this is different.  Why would anyone write a report about this, much less copy it and republish it over and over?  Are the people running our newspapers and news organizations less capable of figuring out what’s actually newsworthy than the people who forward ridiculous email rumors?

We’re being ‘informed’ by morons.