Saturday, March 15, 2014

Politics and the Language of Hatred

One of the most exasperating things you can do on the internet is to look at the comments section of an article about any kind of political issue. If you had no political knowledge and came to any given article, there is a good chance you would come away with one of two prevailing opinions. One is that the Right are all ruthlessly selfish backstabbing cut-throat cackling moustache-twirlers who actively seek other people's suffering for the sake of their own profit. The other is that the Left are all deranged irrational zealots who want to never pay for anything and for everybody in the world to march in step. Neither of these are, of course, true. The Right no more desire to succeed at the expense of others than the Left wish to force a false sense of equality down our throats.
Perhaps it has always been true that a prevailing delusion exists among certain sectors of the population that whoever yells the loudest wins the argument. Yet I am not simply talking about an argumentum ad nauseam here, but rather the framing of political discourse in terms so vituperative and irrationally hateful that any actual development of thought is impossible. Politics, such as it is, depends on compromise - realistic politics at least, I would argue - but in some that temptation which encourages us to eschew all thoughts of compromise and stubbornly adhere to a "my way or the highway" attitude can be overwhelming. What is the solution, therefore? To denounce your opponents. The Left are Stalinists, they're commies (as if communism was objectively evil), they're looters and lunatics and scroungers, scabs and robbers. If it's a libertarian stance on a social issue, then they're perverts, sickos, they're putting the interests of a minority ahead of the rest. The Right, in turn, are usually Nazis or fascists, they're slavers, gluttons, elitists and pigs. If it's an authoritarian stance on a social issue, they're backwards, brainwashed, swimming against the tide of history. Beyond being offensive or otherwise, they're simply irrelevant. Here the argumentum ad hominem rears its head: attack your opponent personally, and better still, make generalisations about entire political stances. It's pointless nonsense.
Perhaps if we could put all political extremists in one place where they could yell and scream at each other as much as they want and let other people do the talking elsewhere then our discourse would at least be more purposeful. Yet the point at which we would draw the line would, I fear, be hard to define. Each of us has in ourselves that temptation to take an extreme point of view. It might be stronger in some than in others, as a matter of disposition or circumstance, but it definitely still exists. People may be reasonable on some issues and extreme on others. So how do we remedy the situation?
We have to assume, I think, that the worst extremists on either side of any issue are a vocal minority who, for whatever reason, struggle to accept the opinions of others. This is probably, in truth, due to deeply personal matters of self-esteem and insecurity not ultimately related to the political discourse which gives them shape. That aside, how do we improve things for ourselves? How can we encourage ourselves to be more reasonable and more balanced in our political discourse? Personally I believe that the solution is education. We need to educate ourselves first of all on the issues of the day from multiple sides, putting aside any extremist arguments. Synthesis is the core component of compromise. Of course there will be positions which cannot be resolved with one another, but I am thinking of citizens who, in general, have comparable codes of ethics and are able to separate politics from personal considerations like religion.
Yet I don't think it's simply a matter of people doing their research. I think it's a matter of the way in which we're raised to think and to learn. There are, of course, deep-rooted socioeconomic problems which prevent all the citizens of practically any country having equal educational opportunities, but I nonetheless believe that discourse begins with education, especially in the humanities. In Australia our curriculum as it presently stands makes efforts in that direction - although there are currently worrying movements in the government suggestive of that situation being changed - and of course our teachers in the overwhelming majority of cases, as far as I am aware, are trained in and support a synthetic approach to learning. My particular sphere is tertiary, but having friends, relatives and acquaintances at the primary and secondary level suggest to me that it is reasonably consistent: not that there is no right way or wrong way, necessarily, to approach specific tasks, but rather that learning is not unidirectional.
Education in this way does not refer to book smarts or high marks. I am talking rather of exploring different sources and regarding different views of history, culture and ethics. It's not about a 'higher' education per se, but rather focusing on a rounded, robust education and approach to learning which leads people to seeing the world in new ways. This is one of the advantages, I would argue, of not exclusively pursuing utilitarian approaches to education. Equipping young people for the future is not simply a matter, in my opinion, of them getting a good job, but rather having a healthy attitude towards the world in general. This is the kind of attitude that is going to get things done to bring about a society which is more rife with opportunity and more comfortable for all, one which is not influenced by fruitless extremism, and one which is not constipating endlessly over the same issues. Preferably the challenges we face in the future will be new challenges.
Educated people are more open to a variety of ideas and opinions. They are used to scrutinising different approaches to problems and, hopefully, theorising consistent solutions which criss-cross various perspectives. In historical or literary criticism, for instance, you cannot simply shout down your opponent. Diverse points of view become the foundation of more synthesised solutions. The only room for extremism in the educated mind is as a source of ideas which must be either dismissed as pointlessly exclusive or harsh, or extruded into more reasonable territory. There is no room for hatred or space for personal attacks or generalisations in this kind of learning environment. Educated discourse depends on explanation, evidence and analysis. It also, I would argue, agrees on a common humanity as the basis for communication.
The whole point of better discourse is to reach better solutions. We need to accept that we can be creatures of compromise or we can suffer. That's the nature of the choice. We need to prevent voices of hatred co-opting our discussion, because we need minds which are both rational and adult to make decisions. As individuals, we need to resist that voice which tells us to make generalisations, to ignore that tiny seed of fear which wants us to shy away from reasonable opinions which are different to our own. Above all, we need to communicate, deliberate and refine in matters of policy. To be able to do this, we need to take time to learn. We need to be well-informed, to approach problems from multiple angles, and we need to help others to do the same if possible, and if not possible to ignore those loud but ultimately meaningless voices. This may seem like an unexpected approach from 'Opinions Can Be Wrong', but politics can be a matter of life and death, of suffering or safety, and this is where reasonable discourse really matters. It will hopefully help us to find solutions to the universal truth of human problems. Nothing in the world is every really ideal, but our political discourse definitely can be better if we try.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Five Shows Which I Don't Watch But I Assume They Suck

You know what people need to shut up about on the internet? Pretty much everything, but especially TV shows they like because they've been manipulated by exploitative corporations. It's like "Wow, you enjoy this incredibly popular TV show that every man and his dog claims to like? Do you want some kind of prize?" What's the deal with that? Anyway, let me completely take the piss out of myself by ripping into a selection of popular TV shows I've never watched but which almost definitely suck. If you're clever you'll notice that some of the images direct you towards old or current alternatives on screen - and some of them are just weak visual gags.

Yes, this mediocre spy show is better than Arrow.
1. Honourable Mention 1: Arrow
The reason this gets into the Honourable Mention category is because I watched the first episode out of curiosity and subsequently wanted to drill a hole in my head. Some of the worst acting I'd ever seen on television was crushed further under the weight of utterly generic "angsty" presentation, full of moody lighting and music and lame cod-emotional dialogue and some buff dude taking his shirt off a lot. Why do people getting their jollies and telling a story have to be intermingled? People go on about this show now like it's the dog's bollocks but I don't believe it for a second. This show stopped me dead after one episode, and I can't believe it actually gets any better, only probably "better" in the sense of more accomplished at tricking "geeks" into watching it. The first episode sucked, and he should have stayed on that damn island. 

2. Honourable Mention 2: The Walking Dead 
"Not very much."
This gets an Honourable Mention because I actually watched the first four episodes of the first season before I gave up because of how mind-numbingly boring it was. You watch forty-five minutes of show and about half a per cent of that actually involves zombies. The rest is all just a bunch of pretty actors with strategically-placed dirt marks on their faces having domestic dramas in the middle of the apocalypse. Maybe I could be accused of shallowness for wanting sweet zombie action, but Ramero made that into a profound statement about American society. You know what's equally, if not more, vapid? Characters having boring "dramatic" dialogue about their relationships and feelings and stuff. I could watch any dime a dozen drama if I wanted that. I wouldn't want it, of course. "Geeks" these days who watch this genre stuff are just the modern-day equivalent of soap opera buffs who put on false airs of speciality and uniqueness because their soap opera has zombies or aliens or whatever. It's crap. 

"I must apologise for not being here to greet you personally."
3. Honourable Mention 3: True Blood
I gave up on this after season two because clearly all it really cared about was guys taking all their clothes off. Hey girls (and gay guys, and anyone else, I guess), if you want to look at naked dudes, do a Bing image search for it. I assume now the situation's even more egregious. Jessica is cute though. Nonetheless, this show can piss off.  I don't even know if this show is that popular, but I still wanted to rip into it.
The List Proper
1. The Big Bang Theory
Probably the only TV show ever made which has a reasonably realistic
portrayal of geeks. No, The IT Crowd doesn't count.
This almost qualifies as an Honourable Mention category because I've actually watched a few episodes of The Big Bang Theory - like, literally, about three - but I don't remember anything about them beyond the fact that I found Sheldon vaguely amusing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people have compared me to Sheldon in the past, but Sheldon is clearly way too non-critical of the puddle-like integrity of modern geek culture to really have too much in common with me. As for the rest of this show, it's basically one of those things where the audience members bark like seals every time a character so much as opens their mouth, and as far as a portrayal of geeks go it's woefully inept. That whole "Blackface for Geeks" comment someone made was a horrendous trivialisation of Western culture's history of racial prejudice, but at the same time The Big Bang Theory is from my limited knowledge basically just a bunch of lame references cobbled together and an incredibly outdated depiction of "geeks". I mean c'mon, they're all scientists? Oh, one is an engineer - which is basically like a scientist who builds stuff. Firstly, modern geeks in my experience are far from being academically minded or intellectual people, as a general rule, a lot of them are barely educated, and secondly the idea that "all smart people are scientists" is an utterly effortless depiction. Couldn't one of them at least have a qualification in the humanities instead? 

Help, we've caught a fish.
2. Community
I know literally nothing about this show. Well, isn't it set at a community college? I think there are two particular characters that people really like, but honestly I'm not entirely sure. The point of this is not to look anything up, so I'm going to remain blissfully ignorant. Oh, I know there's a parody of Doctor Who in it called "Inspector Spacetime" and I remember finding a clip of that kind of amusing, although it of course has its own fanbase now writing weak pastiches of every existing Who story and the actor trying to actually make a web series out of it, thus killing its positive side completely. Other than that I know nothing about Community beyond the fact that it has a hard core of fans who seem to think it's really funny, and yet nothing I have ever heard about it has ever made me remotely interested in watching it. 

Just so you know I don't only like old stuff:
I honestly think that before Jeph Loeb ruined it
this was one of the best superhero cartoons yet made.
3. Adventure Time
I feel bad for ripping into a kid's show, but on the other hand, it's just a kid's show. I mean, I get that like any good kid's show there's stuff in there for adults to appreciate, but that doesn't mean it needs to be portrayed as some kind of masterpiece of animated entertainment. The whole suggestion of a post-apocalyptic scenario sound vaguely interesting, but also deeply played out in innumerable sci-fi works, and while John DiMaggio is generally good value that's not really enough. Sorry Adventure Time, but for the (adventure) time being I'm going to have to assume that your most vocal adult fans are overselling it in their desperate bid to pretend that they have an identity. 

I can't think of a Fantasy TV show
I've watched, let alone liked.
Next Gen will have to do as sci-fi/fantasy.
4. Game of Thrones
The book sucked, I'm not going to watch the TV show. Well, that's somewhat unfair, the book, or at least the first one, was incredibly middling pulp of the aforementioned sort where some genre framework is placed around boring, predictable stab-in-the-back political drama so that the "geeks" who watch it don't have to feel all square like they're watching mainstream TV. When did geeks become the people of high status in pop culture that have to be pandered to? Anyway, people on the internet also act like this show is one of the best things ever, but I honestly can't believe that. The argumentum ad populum tells us that it's fallacious to argue that a proposition is true (the proposition here being "Game of Thrones is good") just because many people agree. I'd take it further: if many people like something, it's probably exploitative of the majority of the population who lack well defined critical faculties, and therefore probably sucks. 

5. Breaking Bad
You're not the boss of me and you're not so big.
So some bald dude gets a terminal illness and becomes a drug dealer. Or a drug maker. Am I supposed to care? People talk about this show as if it's some kind of divine blessing from on high. It sounds to me like the usually gritty shit that people love to lap up when they have their spoonful of gravel every morning so that they can feel edgy. Is it bad to make assumptions about people's insecurities based on what kind of shows they watch? Anyway, at least Breaking Bad is over now and people are talking about it less. Seriously though, some bald guy who cooks drugs in the desert? Why the hell should I care?

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Sherlock is Overrated

"Nothing ever happens to me, because we're
too busy making jokes and crying."
As one of the few people on the internet to think that Sherlock is highly overrated at best and a big bag of shit at worst, I feel the need to express this sentiment in a few succinct paragraphs for the sake of any fellow travellers out there who might be wondering what mass delusion the television viewing public falls under when the scowling face of Benedict Cumberbatch swims onto our screens for three weeks every two years. But of course that's just my opinion. I don't give a shit if you like Sherlock or not. Fair play to you if you do. Sometimes I wonder, would it be nice to be as easily entertained as so many people seemingly are? Then I think, no, I'd rather think stuff was shit than enjoy stuff that's shit and think it's not shit. Not that I'm saying Sherlock is objectively shit, I just don't like it. My point is, I'd rather have my own tastes than someone else's because I feel like it makes actually enjoying things all the sweeter. I feel like being uncritical and liking every other show, film and book I encountered, probably because I'd fallen into a marketing trap of manipulated expectations, would be like having sweets for every meal. It'd take the zest out of life, eliminating all those other flavours that make up a tasty meal, and you'd run the risk of getting entertainment diabetes. I sometimes see people who can't handle criticism of what they like going "Why would you be miserable and not enjoy things when you could be happy?" Well, for a start, I believe we don't choose our own emotions. Sartre claimed that we do, but that's bullshit. I believe we do have a measure of conscious control over our emotions, but it's more complex than that. Secondly, what would be the use of being happy all the time? I'm not saying it'd be great to be in constant mortal terror, to be abused or to suffer any kind of horrible ill treatment that people even in "Western civilisation" (oxymoron fnar fnar) suffer every day, but that being happy all the time is just a bland, shallow existence like the World State in Huxley. What kind of life would that be? Maybe a life of promiscuity and drugs appeals to you, but it doesn't appeal to intellectually masochist stuffed shirts like myself. Anyway, let's get onto my summary of the problems with Sherlock. I have five main categories.

Just pull the trigger and then we never have to see
the New Who Master's stupider little brother again.
1. It's imbalanced
Sherlock is too concerned with character at the expense of plot. In Series 3 in particular, a full two of the episodes were more about character drama than about crime-solving. I've seen people say "Sherlock is a detective show about the detective, not about the detection." The implication is that you can throw on a Jonathan Creek or Castle or something if what you primarily care about is fanciful detective cases with surprising twists and astounding feats of deduction. But isn't the whole point of Sherlock Holmes that he's the man that people call in when they themselves (or the police) are utterly baffled and they need a particular genius for investigation? It seems like every other instalment of Sherlock's pitifully small number of episodes is more concerned with one of the following questions: Despite being a bit weird, is Sherlock Holmes a relatable character? Or, What is the nature of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson's relationship? And you know what the answer is, every time? In the former it's "Yes, he definitely has a human side to him even if he doesn't fit society's arbitrary rules" and in the latter is "They're very good friends." They've made their point. Do they have to make it again every two years? Do they think we've forgotten or something? Of course the real answer is the viewing public laps up "human drama" at the expense of everything else. "Human drama" is fine when it's part of a balanced diet of exploring other issues in our society. Making a show about a genius detective and then purely focusing on the human drama element isn't exactly making the most of the opportunity at hand. This leads me to my second point.

2. It wastes time
"I'mmm going to say something in a looong, drawn out manner
to increase my limited sssscreeeentime."
As of my writing this there are precisely nine episodes of Sherlock in existence which have been made over the last five years. Even by the standards of British television, that's not many. Sure, each episode is ninety minutes in length, but that's hardly out of the ordinary for a lot of British crime dramas. So let's put ourselves in the place of Mr Steven Moffat and Mr Mark Gatiss. You've got the job writing a modernised TV adaptation of one of Western popular culture's most famous and significant texts. You've got three ninety minute episodes to work with, and your two leads are fairly hot property who are in and out of Hollywood on a regular basis. What are you going to do? Are you going to write a bunch of filler, set pieces, pointless comedy scenes and angsty melodrama, or are you going to crack out a script that's like a well-crafted wristwatch, precise and necessary in every detail? But then the realisation crashes down on you that you're actually a sitcom writer accustomed to producing thirty minutes of silly characters making knob gags and insulting each other, and so you realise you'd better plump for the former option, writing the only thing you know that isn't sitcom scripting, the thing that's given you attention at the BBC outside the world of comedy: writing Russell T Davies brand Doctor Who. That's all Sherlock is, really, except instead of the Doctor it's Benedict Cumberbatch and instead of some woman who wants to sleep with the Doctor it's Martin Freeman, and so people crack loads of gay jokes which is precisely what would happen in New Who if the Doctor ever travelled only with a male companion. Consider the opening of "The Sign of Three" which features "Holmes" interrupting a high-stakes arrest just to get advice for his best man speech, or those bits in "A Scandal in Belgravia" he's walking around Buckingham Palace with no gear on. What's the point of all this dead air? This was exemplified in "The Empty Hearse" when they offer multiple explanations for Holmes' survival, but made clear as early as "The Blind Banker" where they go to that magic show. Then again, that episode was just racist. My point is that the episodes are flabby, and the writing tries to tie everything into the half-hearted plots using a few glib remarks from Benedict Cumberbatch at the end to make it seem like it wasn't all a complete waste of time.

Wall-running in the Sherlock video game.
"Based on something we imagined Conan Doyle
might have imagined if he'd lived today, maybe."

3. It's self-obsessed
You know that bit in "The Empty Hearse" when Holmes gets all excited about putting his trademark jacket back on? That's exactly the problem I want to explore in this point. Why is this show so in love with itself? It's like the bit where Watson says something about Holmes' "cheekbones", which is just pointless self-referential nonsense basically involving them all saying "this show is popular and successful, we're so brilliant." Maybe if it was justified, but it isn't, because Sherlock is shit! But that's just my opinion. My chief issue is how utterly unsubtle they are about everything, as if the writers are saying "look here, didn't we write something clever." It's like Moriarty going on about how he and Holmes are so unusual, or Holmes describing himself as a "high functioning sociopath" or Holmes, Watson and "Mary Morstan" having a big argument about Watson's preference in friends. The show is constantly yelling from the rooftops that it's done something unusual, that it's drawn up these unconventional and edgy characters, completely overlooking the fact that this is just taken from stuff written by a Victorian gentleman over a hundred years ago. In the same way the show is incredibly smug about the lip service it pays to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original work, through puns on original story titles and Benedict Cumberbatch slapping a deerstalker onto his curly-haired bonce. This is a show that's so self aware that we can't possibly be expected to take it seriously. When Holmes appeared to make the leap in "The Reichenbach Fall" we know he isn't going to be dead because, as Gatiss and Moffat themselves said, part of the Sherlock Holmes story is that he seemingly died and later returned. This is a show that doesn't believe it has to try because it can get by on reputation alone, and that's what makes its writing and characterisation so frustrating.

4. It's exploitative
"I need to get naked for no real reason?
Oh right, forgot Steven wrote this one."
As I discussed in my review of "The Empty Hearse" the original Sherlock Holmes narratives were written primarily in the Victorian Age where strong emotions were usually not the business of everyday people apart perhaps from fainting women in rooms full of settees. Modern-day Sherlock, however, is constantly being "emotional", which is to say twee, mawkish, sentimental and melodramatic. There are regular shots of characters staring into middle distance, and moody music playing in the background. It's a cheap trick to keep people engaged by making them cry or feel sad or what have you. It's the most trivial form of storytelling imaginable, manipulating your audience's emotional gullibility to get them invested in the show at the expense of a sound or consistent plot. A good example would be Holmes' big freak out at Watson in "The Hounds of Baskerville" when he goes on about how he doesn't have any friends. But we know of course that they're going to kiss and make up at the end, and of course it's all pointlessly subverted when Holmes traps Watson in the lab with the fear gas just to be a dick. This is a show that doesn't care about actually doing its job as long as it gets its viewers sobbing into their hankies or laughing so hard that they need to post quotes about it on social media. Emotionality is not and never has been the heart and soul of nor the entire purpose and basis of drama, and it's the domain of trash like soap operas. This is not a show that cares remotely about exploring how the issues surrounding "Sherlock Holmes" might fit into a modern context, and this leads me onto my fifth and final point.

"You know what's really going to fit into our edgy modern-day Holmes?
A guy who looks like he's out of Disney's Aladdin wielding a scimitar."
5. It's irrelevant
You know when it made any kind of sense beyond a commercial one to write a series of novels and short stories about two middle-class white dudes who fight crime in London? In the 1890s, when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was writing "The Adventures" and "The Memoirs." The world in which Holmes functioned and which gave rise to him was killed stone dead by the First World War. Why would it be even remotely relevant to British society a century later? That whole Victorian world: colonialism, Anglo-Americanism, masters and servants, it barely existed by 1918. What Sherlock really needed to do was clue itself into the vestiges and replacements of those ideas in the 21st century: the subordination of British power in the West to the United States, modern capitalist heirarchies, race relations and changing class divisions. In Sherlock, however, "Britain" is Mark Gatiss in a three piece suit with an umbrella talking about the Queen, the London metropolis is under threat by the diseased, the foreign and the insane, and the West needs defending from the evil terrorists who want to blow us all up in the name of causes we're too politically correct to divulge. This attitude made sense in Victorian Britain, but it was already starting to show its age then. It's utterly, laughably antiquated now. You might as well do an adaptation of Plato's Politeia and still have it fixated on Athenian cultural anxiety after the Peloponnesian War. As a historical exercise it might be interesting, but what's the point of the adaptation? What, indeed, is the point of adaptations at all? Instead of changing someone else's text for your own time, maybe you should come up with your own characters and stories. They can make it relevant, but then it won't really be Sherlock Holmes anymore, or it can be irrelevant, but it still isn't really Sherlock Holmes. So choose your poison. Benedict Cumberbatch and his supporting cast of overwhelmingly white, predominantly male, exclusively middle class characters saving Britain from terminally ill people, Chinese people, Irish people, empowered women, non-specifically "European" people and so on have absolutely no purpose or relevance in modern culture. It's backward-thinking, redundant and out of touch. This is Sherlock's biggest problem. It doesn't achieve anything. It doesn't need to exist.

Cumberbatch upon discovering Opinions Can Be Wrong.
So there you go then. Agree? Disagree? Good for you, go tell/complain to your friends about it. I thought I could make a point about the show having annoying fans, but that isn't really the show's fault, and all fans are annoying when you get right down to it, so I might as well have said that Sherlock Holmes is predominantly but erroneously depicted wearing a deerstalker cap for all the original information I would have been conveying. I suppose I ought to be grateful that this show isn't a bigger presence in culture due to its very sparse schedule, but that doesn't mean I can't complain about it. I think people are out of touch, which is to say, that you can't have watched that much TV if you really think Sherlock is that special, or if you have it must have been shitty TV. But again, that's just my opinion. You know what you shouldn't do if you like Sherlock? Take this as a personal attack, because I don't know you and can't judge you. You're safe. You're not going to die if the bad man on the internet doesn't like your favourite crappy show.