Concerning Gay Billionare TechBros and Hulk Hogan

There’s a lot of dumb, bad discussion on the internet. A big part of what makes said discussion dumb and bad is the confidence with which one or both parties to the conversation state their claims. In the bowels of the gargantuan, rage-filled paragraphs with which these digital combatants typically bludgeon one another, it is often difficult to find a single sentence inflected with self-doubt. Everyone is an expert, and everyone’s opponents are drooling idiots.

And in American internet discourse, on no topic are Americans more confident than – well, aside from sports and movies – and television and video games, I suppose, and religion, and parenting, and specialty diets, and jet contrails, and vaccines…

Well, this rhetorical framing isn’t working at all.

*tape rewinding sound effect*

…And in American internet discourse, We the People are confident about many things, but particular, we are very, very confident about What Our Constitutional Rights Are. This, taken as a whole, is a very, very good thing. A free people should think about their liberties often, and be rightfully skeptical of policies which would infringe them. Fierce debate over where to draw lines when rights conflict is an essential element of good governance in a system of government like ours.

But the unfortunate side effect of this laudable hashtag fierceness is that people and pundits will often frame assertions about their Constitutional rights in the following, overly simplistic way:

Continue reading “Concerning Gay Billionare TechBros and Hulk Hogan”

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Are Differential Wages for the Disabled Discriminatory?

Today, The Atlantic ran an article on workers with disabilities and the sub-minimum wage.

Honestly, before reading it I didn’t even know this was an issue. In a nutshell:

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), section 14(c) allows employers who hire individuals with disabilities to pay them less than the minimum wage. According to the article, 14(c) was originally designed to provide an incentive for companies in industrial sectors to hire disabled veterans after the First World War. Today, the program is used to employ individuals with a range of disabilities who might not otherwise be able to hold down a traditional job.

However, organizations such as the Disability Rights Network and the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network argue that paying these workers less than minimum wage is an antiquated idea which demeans people with disabilities and creates perverse incentives to exploit their labor.

Hillary Clinton recently called attention to the issue on the campaign trail:

When it comes to jobs, we’ve got to figure out how we get the minimum wage up and include people with disabilities in the minimum wage. There should not be a tiered wage, and right now there is a tiered wage when it comes to facilities that do provide opportunities but not at a self-sufficient wage that enables people to gain a degree of independence as far as they can go. So I want us to take a hard look at raising the minimum wage and ending the tiered minimum wages, whether it’s for people with disabilities or the tipped wage….When people talk about raising the minimum wage, they don’t always talk about the legal loopholes that we have in it and I want to get rid of those and I want to get rid of that for people with disabilities too.
At first, I reacted to this article in roughly the way I think its author and the advocates quoted within it wanted me to – with outrage and empathy. However, once I did a few minutes’ research on the regulations surrounding the sub-minimum wage and talked to a few friends with experience on the issue, a more complicated picture emerged.
In my opinion, this article is misleading, and it and Secretary Clinton are advocating for the wrong solution to a real problem.

Continue reading “Are Differential Wages for the Disabled Discriminatory?”

#OscarsSoWhite Misses the Mark

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Gotta say, I just can’t get behind the #OscarsSoWhite thing. For a few main reasons:

First, it’s a bad use of statistics. Year to year, in a profession which is still overwhelmingly comprised of white actors, and hundreds of performances are considered for a handful of awards, there is a fairly good chance that a person of color wouldn’t be nominated even if they were randomly selected. Saying that the Academy is “regressing” without statistical rigor is really just another form of shallow horse-race politics.

Second, the focus on the race of Oscar nominees is a bad proxy fight for larger diversity issues in our storytelling entertainment. As noted above, its methodology of diagnosis is suspect – as a result, its proponents seem disingenuous to the unpersuaded, and lose credibility as a result. Why are we focusing on Oscar nominations? Other advocates such as the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA have done such great work looking at diversity in Hollywood that doesn’t rely on weak, click-baity analysis.

Third, clamoring for merely greater minority representation in media ignores the fact that the quality of that representation also matters. Hattie McDaniel may have made history by being the first black woman to win an Oscar, but she also won it playing “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind.” Octavia Spencer was amazing in The Help (and won an Oscar for it in 2011), but ultimately she was still playing “the help”. For a long time now, advocates for actors of color have been pushing not just for more roles but better roles, where minority actors aren’t simply playing stereotypes, even when they win awards for it. Focusing on having more Oscar nominations neglects this critical part of the conversation.

Fourth and finally, the #oscarssowhite focus ignores the fact that nearly every Best Picture nominee this year centers on liberal-associated issues and cultural tropes. Let’s go through the list, shall we?

Continue reading “#OscarsSoWhite Misses the Mark”

On Empathy for Baltimore

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There’s an article by Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic that’s been making the rounds lately. And I’ve seen many friends from both law school and college cite it in an attempt to manufacture moral justification for the violence that erupted out of peaceful protests against police brutality in Baltimore this week.

I think TNC is just in his call for empathy towards rioters – we should all try to imagine ourselves in the shoes of West Baltimore’s people. We should look at the statistics and numbers, so that we can begin to reach to understand what this community goes through every day under the thumb of the BPD. We should stand with West Baltimore in its call for reform and for justice.

But the problem with the article is that it assumes every plea for non-violence is a request for submission to authority, and it sees every actor making such pleas as merely one part of a monolithic state oppressor. The reality is much more complicated.

Yes – some of those asking for peace have compromised their moral authority by allowing or encouraging the BPD to brutalize poor and black communities for decades. But among those pleading are politicians trying to preserve political will for reform. And activists, fighting and organizing for a better future. And parents and preachers who just want to keep their children safe. Can anyone say with a straight face that all of these people are agents of persecution?

The second problem is one of the underlying ideology that my friends adopt when they use this article to justify violence. It’s a “my way or the highway” kind of mindset. For some, this means that in order to be on the “same side” as oppressed communities, that you must be on board with whatever action members of that community take. Others go further. They believe that true solidarity is the exclusive possession of those willing to endorse radical, potentially violent action against the oppressor.

I find this kind of thought to be pessimistic, closed-minded, and in some ways, even hateful. By rejecting the legitimacy of non-violence as a form of protest – in labeling all its critics the enemy (or complicit with it) – in eschewing nuance for blind, raging tribalism, this kind of thinking reveals its self-righteous blindness.

In my opinion, this mentality closes itself off from love. It rejects agape, the unconditional love for all our fellow human beings that is the foundation of non-violent resistance. And because it is not motivated by a desire for peace, I believe it is an ideology that can never achieve it. But according to some, my voice doesn’t count. By preaching nonviolence and decrying its opposite, I am the enemy, whatever my motivations. I’m on the wrong team – and whatever “side” I’m on is overwhelmingly more important than the substance of what I believe.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is right to ask us to try and understand why these riots are happening. And he is right to point out how the disrespect many feel for “hollow law and failed order” has its roots in legitimate grievance and is a response to real, often fatal, persecution. But he is wrong to broad-brush all pleas for non-violence as the con of state authority. And my friends are wrong to use his over-generalization to justify violence and perpetuate a toxic political ideology.

“Django Unchained”: Artistic Iteration and our shared Racial Conscience

This Tumblr post has come my way via Facebook recently. I understand and am highly sympathetic to the anger the blogger reacts with in this post. As someone who spends a lot of thought-energy contemplating the way that Asian men are emasculated and humiliated in modern media, I totally get it. Finding developed, full-bodied, truly human minority characters is often difficult in film, and when a filmmaker (in this case Tarantino) builds upon media tropes with a racist history in such an ostensibly flagrant way, anger is completely understandable.

However, we must make sure that our anger does not overcome our rational judgment, nor our ability to judge a work of art on its merits, and the way the structure of that art might be messing with our expectations. I saw this film just a couple days ago, and I have to say I don’t agree with some of the factual assertions made about the film in this post.

The first issue to address is the notion that Tarantino has somehow set out making a chronicle of slavery, and the inherent assumption in the article that Tarantino’s choices as a filmmaker construct “Django” as a piece of film meant to have each of its elements interpreted literally.

The first thing to recognize is that as a Tarantino movie, the film is appropriating huge amounts of genre tropes and regurgitating them in unexpected combinations. In “Django”, he’s mixing the spaghetti western with blaxsploitation with Norse mythology. The combination is the kind of parodic and intensely self-aware experience that is typical of Tarantino – his refusal to obey the dicta of a single genre liberates his characters, I think, from the kind of lazy blanket interpretation we’re so used to making in film. Part of the brilliance of his films is the fact that he uses our rich (and often dark) cultural history in order to subvert our expectations and create rich characters that defy the boxes we, with our trained media consciousness, want to put them into. I appreciate and am sympathetic towards the critique that the comical ultraviolence makes a cartoon out of a very real, unambiguous, and sadistic institution. However, I do think there is an alternate interpretation.

One aspect of the film that the Tumblr post does not recognize is its essential nature as a homage to the spaghetti western. As such, the author of the post also fails to recognize the long history of the spaghetti western as a vehicle for trojan-horse social criticism. I could try and write about this on my own, but this article from New York Magazine does a much better job of explaining the genre than I can:

…[D]espite their reputation as a vehicle for cheap thrills and badly dubbed Eastwoodian one-liners, many spaghetti Westerns turned the iconography of the American West inside out and revealed it to be full of lies. Nobody should be surprised that Django Unchained, in its homage to this most subversive of genres, fully adopts its revolutionary spirit and moral outrage.

Go read the article – it lists a huge number of American and Italian-directed Westerns that subversively critiqued the era they were set in, making poignant statements against majority-culture soapboxes of the time. Spaghetti Westerns have spoken against McCarthyism, shown solidarity to Irish Nationalists, and, always, poked holes in the nostalgic libertarian paradise that is the whitewashed vision of the Wild West. As such, when considering “Django Unchained”, its status as, essentially, a spaghetti western with blaxsploitation elements should give the literalist critic pause – Tarantino may be shameless and sadistic in aspects of his filmmaking, but he’s not dumb, and above all he is an acolyte of film as art and a devoted student of its history. As such, it would be unfair, I think, to look at the elements of the film individually and judge the intent of the filmmaker without considering these contextual elements.

In addition, Tarantino’s cameo as an Australian slaver and even Calvin Candie himself can be read as Tarantino’s self-criticism, as his acknowledgement of the charges leveled against him, and his admission, to a certain extent, of sacrificing moral sentiment at the altar of artistic expression. His cameo character is quite literally an ignoramus who profits from the material exploitation of white racism, such as people like Spike Lee have often accused him of being. And the most evil character in the film, the sadistic Candie, has elements of this self-criticism as well – he makes several monologues justifying his racism by having been “surrounded by black faces,” a rather obvious reference to Tarantino’s earlier justifications for, for example, his infamous scene in Pulp Fiction. Whether this self-critique exonerates him in any way is debatable, of course, but it’s worth pointing out that the film is more nuanced than the article gives it credit for.

The article also draws conclusions from what, I think, are factual inaccuracies about the prevalence of black characters and the nature of the relationship between Cristoph Waltz’s character and Jamie Foxx’s.

First is the idea that Django himself barely says anything for “90% of the film.” This is simply factually untrue. The whole first 2/3rds of the film revolves around the friendship between Django and Schultz, and is developed through extensive, long dialogue scenes between the two. The last third of the film focuses on Django himself exclusively, and, well, there’s so much action that there’s barely any dialogue anyway, and when there is Django is the camera’s focus.

Second is the idea that Kerry Washington’s “damsel in distress” character is a “mute and helpless” one. While it is true that the character is not possessed of a particularly progressive feminism, you have to take into context the idea that Django’s whole quest is a paradigm of the Norse myth of Siegfried and Brumhilde. Brunhilde (Washington’s character) is being held captive in a circle of hellfire (the plantation) and guarded by a dragon (Candie), who Siegfried (Django) must pass through and defeat in order to win his bride. And then that classic mythological narrative is spun through the lens of the spaghetti western setting and the “revenge on the man” blaxsploitation theme. Brunhilde is, until Django is reunited with her, presented as a vision and a dream. The reason she doesn’t say hardly anything for most of the movie is because, in the plot, they are literally not in her physical vicinity.

Speaking of which, the post also doesn’t mention Brunhilde as the utter rejection of the usual angry, violently vengeful black female from the blaxsploitation era, which I thought was interesting.

Finally, vis a vis the “comic” violence towards black people and the “lightness” towards the KKK alleged in the film, I think it misses the boat entirely on the substance of the film.

None of the most brutal violence depicted towards slaves in this film is played comedically, at all. It is horrific, meant to be so, and becomes precisely Tarantino’s hallowed revenge motive as almost all of his recent films have. I literally cannot think of a single time in the film where the torture of slaves is played for laughs. Is the violence gratuitous? For some people, certainly. For me, as someone whose cultural history is also glossed over in media in terms of the violence visited upon my ancestors in the railyards, it was in a way refreshing to understand how utterly dehumanizing and sick the institution of slavery was. It is a direct and brutal response to the “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With the Wind” zip-ee-dee-do-dah characterization of slavery, and it’s tremendously effective. It is decidedly not played for laughs.

The scene with the “KKK” (technically not, since they did not form until after the Civil War), is not a “light” treatment of the lynch mob, but an evisceration of their power – it takes the tool of fear, the white mask, and inverts it as a comic spectacle. He quite literally shows how racism blinds people to rationality and truth by constructing an entire scene full of people complaining how the white hood restricts their ability to “see” properly. To suggest that the lighter tone of the scene somehow props up white supremacy as “not that bad” is baffling. Yes, it is a comic scene, and it is funny precisely because it injects the small problems of organizing large groups into a normally serious context. However, the effect is not to make the mob seem nicer or less vicious, but rather to rob them of their power of fear. It is an antagonistic stance from Tarantino, not a sympathetic one.

Oh, I forgot to talk about DiCaprio’s performance. This point is the weakest of all in the tumblr post. I simply don’t understand how an actor creating an extraordinarily effective performance can be reasonably interpreted as “being a convincing racist,” when that is the character’s entire purpose. By this measure, any actor who plays a believable villain can be accused of secretly harboring the vice and evil their character possesses – this strikes me as rather silly.

Sorry for the length, but I think the film deserves a more nuanced critique than the article suggests. I understand the arguments against it and appreciate them, but generally dismissing the film (with factual inaccuracies, no less) without even considering the nuanced ways in which it attempts to escape the confines of its genres is, I think, intellectually and morally unsatisfying.