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Saturday, April 25, 2015

Letter to an advice column, rewritten

Dear Robin,

Our only child is getting married soon. My husband and I love his fiancé and are fully supportive of this arrangement-- last year, my husband and I committed to paying for the wedding.

Here's the problem: Turns out that both my son and his fiancé have different beliefs about religion than we do. As a consequence, their wedding will not cater to our religious beliefs, which we did our absolute best to instil in him while he was growing up-- seriously, we really drummed them into him-- but apparently didn't stick.

My husband and I take this extremely personally, to the point that we perceive our son's beliefs about religion to be somehow chosen specifically to spite us and our family, which we anticipate to be highly embarrassing to our own respective parents when they come to the wedding. And that's obviously far more important to us than respecting our son's identity (or his fiancé's).

My husband and I would, therefore, like to renege on our agreement to fund this wedding, because we are ourselves incredibly spiteful and petty people who don't have the faintest clue about the long term ramifications this would have for our relationship with our only child.

Recognizing that advice columns are all about seeking validation from some stranger in a public forum, we decided to write to one and see what reassurance we could get that we're actually good people. We didn't, however, understand that given our own situation and feelings, the only person who would've actually responded with such validation would've been Pat Robertson.

Oops.

Signed,

Future Mother-in-law

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The latest indignity

Dignity is a sort of agreement between people. A decision to grant that a person, or body of people, deserve respect. That they possess agency, the capacity and the right to make their own decisions. To determine their own lives.

America has agreed, implicitly, that poor people have no dignity.

If we as a nation could just acknowledge this, that would be something. But nope, because we are a nation firmly in the grasp of the just world fallacy, we can't. We have to insist that poverty is something people choose, a failure of character-- laziness or ineptness generally-- and/or that the poor are cheats, trying to take advantage of society's good will.

Which is really just another way of accusing them of laziness. The assumption is not actually that hard work leads to success (otherwise known as the American dream), but that success means hard work has already been done. In other words, that successful people must have earned their success, and as a corollary, so have the poor earned their poverty.

This is how a state representative came to think it was a good idea to propose legislation banning Americans from using EBT (electronic benefit transfer) cards to buy "cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood, or steak":
"I have seen people purchasing filet mignons and crab legs" with electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards, the legislator explained, according to The Post’s Roberto A. Ferdman. “When I can’t afford it on my pay, I don’t want people on the taxpayer’s dime to afford those kinds of foods either.” 
First-- lies. There is no way that Rick Brattin, Missouri House Republican formerly known for proposing that women shouldn't be allowed to get abortions without permission from their husbands unless they were raped, and it was "legitimate rape" (yes, he used those words), can't afford to buy crab legs and/or filet mignon at the grocery store.

Second--

Third--  if anyone's eating good meat and seafood, don't we want it to be poor people?! The cheapest food in America is also the worst for you. It's high-calorie-- if you go to the store with the goal of getting the most caloric bang for your buck, you will be best served by buying lots and lots of cheap foods which have loads of calories but are otherwise not very nutritious. Those calories will come from fat and/or some variety of sugar, increasingly the high fructose corn syrup kind.

A filet mignon is the leanest cut of steak. It's actually the only cut of steak I like, because frankly I hate the texture of fat (this is medium rare (har) case of the healthier food, at least in terms of my personal preferences, being the tastier one).

And yes, I don't buy it very often, because it's expensive. But it's not crazily expensive, And a big part of the reason it's more expensive is because it's cheap for farmers to produce fatty meat. Why? Because they're receiving welfare. Yes, it's called farm subsidies, and they are specifically geared toward corn and corn-produced products (such as the aforementioned HFCS), which make food fatty. And fatty foods are, in turn, cheaper for the consumer.

So yeah, that's how it works. A government which gives welfare to farmers to produce fatty foods which are cheaper for consumers wants to, in addition to thereby making the fattiest foods the most affordable, actively prevent the poorest of consumers from being able to afford less fatty foods.

It's difficult to imagine a way to more effectively deny the dignity of a group of people than to take every possible measure to prevent them from being healthy, and then say that if they're unhealthy, it's their own problem. As is, of course, their poverty-- which couldn't at all be unrelated to being unhealthy (Note: Obamacare also opposed).

This is an effort to humiliate the poor-- to deprive them of dignity.

It's also a double standard, as Washington Post columnist Emily Badger points out:
Sometimes these laws are cast as protection for the poor, ensuring that aid is steered in ways that will help them the most. Other times they're framed as protection for the taxpayer, who shouldn't be asked to help people who will squander the money on vices anyway.   
But the logic behind the proposals is problematic in at least three, really big ways. 
The first is economic: There's virtually no evidence that the poor actually spend their money this way. The idea that they do defies Maslow's hierarchy — the notion that we all need shelter and food before we go in search of foot massages. In fact, the poor are much more savvy about how they spend their money because they have less of it (quick quiz: do you know exactly how much you last spent on a gallon of milk? or a bag of diapers?). By definition, a much higher share of their income — often more than half of it — is eaten up by basic housing costs than is true for the better-off, leaving them less money for luxuries anyway. And contrary to the logic of drug-testing laws, the poor are no more likely to use drugs than the population at large. 
The second issue with these laws is a moral one: We rarely make similar demands of other recipients of government aid. We don't drug-test farmers who receive agriculture subsidies (lest they think about plowing while high!). We don't require Pell Grant recipients to prove that they're pursuing a degree that will get them a real job one day (sorry, no poetry!). We don't require wealthy families who cash in on the home mortgage interest deduction to prove that they don't use their homes as brothels (because surely someone out there does this). The strings that we attach to government aid are attached uniquely for the poor. 
That leads us to the third problem, which is a political one. Many, many Americans who do receive these other kinds of government benefits — farm subsidies, student loans, mortgage tax breaks — don't recognize that, like the poor, they get something from government, too. That's because government gives money directly to poor people, but it gives benefits to the rest of us in ways that allow us to tell ourselves that we get nothing from government at all. 
Political scientist Suzanne Mettler has called this effect the "submerged state." Food stamps and welfare checks are incredibly visible government benefits. The mortgage interest deduction, Medicare benefits and tuition tax breaks are not — they're submerged. They come to us in round-about ways, through smaller tax bills (or larger refunds), through payments we don't have to make to doctors (thanks to Medicare), or in tuition we don't have to pay to universities (because the G.I. Bill does that for us). 
Mettler's research has shown that a remarkable number of people who don't think they get anything from government in fact benefit from one of these programs. This explains why we get election-season soundbites from confused voters who want policymakers to "keep your government hands off my Medicare!" This is also what enables politicians to gin up indignation among small-government supporters who don't realize they rely on government themselves.
For further reading on the refusal to grant dignity to the poor, please see If Someone Ever Complains About Welfare Collectors, Show Them This. But only if you're okay with the rage it may inspire. May it be a productive rage.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

People being stupid about Zarya

Sigh.


Guys, Zarya is a character in a video game. Not a real person auditioning to be your girlfriend.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Zarya

Today at PAX East, Blizzard revealed two new playable characters for its upcoming FPS game Overwatch, announced last November at BlizzCon. You can see a video of the entire presentation  here.

The two heroes announced are a futuristic outlaw gunslinger called McCree, and a Russian "tank" soldier called Zarya. Game director for Overwatch Jeff Kaplan introduced them, speaking with obvious enthusiasm and affection.

"There's a hero out there for everyone, and we all have different fantasies," said Kaplan as he
introduced the new characters. "Our goal with Overwatch heroes is that there's fantasy fulfillment for as many players as possible, to really deliver on that promise of a very diverse heroic experience."

With that, he announced the game's first female tank character, Aleksansdra Zaryanova, AKA Zarya:
She is a dedicated and loyal hero. Her goal in life was to become a championship weightlifter, and she was right on the cusp of fulfilling that fantasy . . . then strife broke out in her village, and she put all of that aside to defend her homeland. . . She's lawful good; she's who you wanna be when you grow up. 
But there's some other stuff to talk about, too. We've been hearing a lot of discussion amongst players about the need for more diversity in video games. And that means a lot of things. They want to see gender diversity. They want to see racial diversity. They want to see diversity along the lines of what country people are from. 
But there's also talk about diversity in different body types, and not everybody wants to have the exact same body type always represented. And we just want you to know that we're listening, and we're trying hard, and we hope Zarya is a step in the right direction to show you that we're paying attention. 
Kaplan obviously had some notes to which he was referring in this presentation, but it didn't appear to be scripted.

I'm honestly shocked to see such a frank acknowledgment that the desire for greater diversity in playable characters has made an impact on design decisions for this game-- and not just "diversity," but body diversity. In a game about futuristic heroes which features robots, a genetically manipulated gorilla, and more cyborg-esque augmentation than you could shake a stick at.

I think most character designers for video games might take pause at the idea of constructing
characters with special consideration to cosplay, but here are a couple of basic facts about cosplay:
  • It's an integral element of geek public life, omnipresent at cons, the foundation of many a livelihood, and the basis in which some practitioners find their best creative outlet, and also
  • There is a relentless and entirely understandable urge for cosplayers to have characters which look somewhat like themselves to use as inspiration. 
Zarya would make for some really fun cosplay. It's kind of funny how she's no less an example of physical perfection and beauty than any of the other female characters, but yet she's sexy and powerful and not bizarrely dressed for her role-- she looks like a futuristic soldier.

See? It's absolutely possible.

Props to you, Blizzard. We're watching, and appreciate it.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Oversexualize? Overnope.

Last November during BlizzCon, I wrote a post critiquing the design of some of the female playable characters as compared to the male characters in the newly revealed but not yet released FPS game Overwatch. In it, I addressed the following comment made by Blizzard senior vice president Chris Metzen:
Specifically for Overwatch over the past year we've been really cognizant of that, trying not to oversexualize the female characters. I don't know if we oversexualize the male characters. But it's something we're very sensitive to.
I boggled at the idea of not knowing whether you oversexualize the male characters in your games, and concluded: No, you definitely are not.

Yesterday on that post, a commenter named "blank" asked:
My question to you is, how would YOU oversexualize a male character?
Here's my answer to that question: I can't. It is impossible for me to oversexualize a male character in a video game.

Here's why:

Obviously I am not any sort of game designer, specifically not a character concept artist for any video game, but let's pretend that I am.

Let's pretend that I have both unlimited funding with which to produce a video game, and unlimited creative control over its content. Let's imagine that having all of these resources and control, I decided to make the most sexual game possible involving male characters.

In order to maximize the sexualization of the male characters in this game, I would leave out female characters altogether. I would, effectively, make a gay porn movie in video game form.

In this gay porn game, because we're talking about the design of fictional characters here, I would exaggerate all of the sexual characteristics of these male characters far beyond what is possible in real life. I would exaggerate their secondary sexual characteristics as well, so that not only would these be the most well-endowed male characters ever, but they would also be the most unquestionably male. And they would be doing...well, what you'd expect to find in a gay porn movie turned video game.  That is the greatest extent to which it's possible for me, personally, to sexualize male characters.

(Would I then want to play this video game? Eh....no thanks.)

But that doesn't answer the question. The question was regarding what I would do to oversexualize male characters, and, as already stated, I can't do that.

That's because in this case, the "over" in "oversexualized" refers to frequency.

A trope is a device in story-telling which appears frequently. In today's usage in pop culture, it typically refers to such a device being used so frequently that it becomes hackneyed, cliché. That's the sense in which Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes v. Women in Video Games series is named, something which I've noticed seems to be all too often lost on its detractors. "She totally misrepresented the game mechanics in Hitman!" they will complain, as if such a gripe is devastating to the point of a video series dedicated to pointing out repeated use of depictions of female characters over time and throughout the industry, and discussing how the near-ubiquity of such depictions is bothersome and even harmful.

When Tropes v. Women says that women in video games are oversexualized, that's the kind of "over" it's talking about. Compared to that, my exaggerated gay porn video game would be a drop in the proverbial bucket. Maybe the non-proverbial pond, lake, or sea.

To ask how I would oversexualize male characters in video games is akin to asking how I would make America heterophobic. How I would make the country overly concerned about ending poverty. How I'd render the world's hungry overly fed.

It's funny to imagine, isn't it? But yeah, that kind of "over" is not gonna happen.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Nothing more spectacular about him

The BBC has a profile on Omar El-Hussein, the man who carried out Saturday's killings in Copenhagen. He apparently was assisted by two other men, who have since been taken in police custody. They were charged with providing El-Hussein with weapons and helping him escape after the attacks.

We know El-Hussein was not an immigrant-- he was a native Dane. He first attacked a gathering of people discussing free speech and blasphemy, and then a synagogue, in what looks like a clear attempt to emulate the Charlie Hebdo masscre in Paris in January (Charlie Hebdo offices in that case and then kosher market). Lars Vilks told the AP that he believed the Charlie Hebdo attacks "inspired" the shootings in Copenhagen.

According to the BBC, El-Hussein had in fact just been out of prison for two weeks before Saturday's attacks. He sounds like a rabble-rouser and anti-Semite:
El-Hussein told psychologists he had a happy childhood and a good relationship with his parents and younger brother, according to a report obtained by Danish broadcaster TV2, but he failed to graduate from school or win a place at university. 
Classmates who spoke to the Ekstra Bladet newspaper (in Danish) remembered a loner with a hot temper who loved to discuss Islam and the Israel-Palestine conflict. He was not afraid to voice a hatred of Jews, said one. 
As a young man he was a criminal rather than a radical - reportedly arrested twice for possession of cannabis but let off with a warning. 
He took up kickboxing and began to smoke cannabis heavily. He was arrested once in a Copenhagen nightclub with a knife, and another time with brass knuckles - earning him a night in custody, according to Ekstra Bladet. 
But things took a much more serious turn in November 2013 when El-Hussein stabbed a 19-year-old man on a subway train. He evaded capture but was arrested by chance two months later in connection with a burglary, the Politiken newspaper reported (in Danish). 
He escaped an attempted murder charge, convicted instead of grievous bodily harm and sentenced to two years in prison. 
I'm sure the response by many Americans to this would be that El-Hussein just didn't sit in prison for long enough, but short prison sentences (compared to in America, that is) are normal in Denmark, and it has worked out pretty well for the country so far.

Rather, some people are arguing that the problem-- at least, I hasten to say, concerning last weekend's killings-- may have been that he went to prison at all:
Prison guards in Denmark fear Hussein, 22, was the latest case of prison radicalization — in which criminals become devotees of militant Islam. 
Union leader Kim Østerbye said that Hussein had been housed in Copenhagen's Vestre Fængsel alongside extremists including convicted terrorist Said Mansor, who had previously tried to radicalize other inmates. 
He said many young Muslim inmates at the facility were openly anti-Semitic and cheered in happiness at news of the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris in January. He said they often chanted and called for the execution of cartoonists who depict the Prophet Muhammad. 
The prison service would not comment on the claims when contacted by NBC News. 
A reporter who covered Hussein's assault trial told NBC News that the young man had seemed liked "just a hardened criminal" rather than an Islamist extremist before going to prison. 
"Omar, at the trial, didn't seem religious at all. Almost the opposite," Jesper Braarud Larsen said earlier this week. "He just seemed like a callous, hardened criminal … nothing more spectacular about him."
Interesting phrasing there, when "religious" in this case means "interprets his Muslim faith to justify murdering Jews and blasphemers." That isn't the opposite of being a callous, hardened criminal at all, is it? That's being a callous, hardened criminal whose choices of worthy targets of crime have shifted to focus on perceived enemies of religion.

Or maybe it wasn't that much of a shift? The passion for Islam was already there. The anti-Semitism was already there. I can't seem to find any further details about the identify of the 19 year old man El-Hussein was imprisoned for stabbing, but if he had also been a blasphemer or Jewish (or both) it wouldn't exactly be incongruous with either El-Hussein's previous character or his post-imprisonment terrorism.

It's tempting to say that Larsen, the reporter, was valorizing religion-- claiming that religious people are somehow by definition not criminals-- but I think it's more likely he meant that they are not petty criminals. That "spectacular" Islamist extremists are a fundamentally different sort of person than thuggish pot smokers who carry brass knuckles to clubs.

I'm afraid-- really, this thought frightens me-- that they're not. That's the banality of evil for you.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Brief summary and context of yesterday's violence in Copenhagen

Yesterday a symposium to discuss blasphemy and the meaning of free speech was held at a cafe in Copenhagen called Krudttønden.

In attendance at this meeting was Lars Vilks, a 68 year old Swedish man upon whose head the Islamic State placed a $100,000 bounty for his 2007 depictions of Islamic prophet Muhammad as a "roundabout dog" (As a dog, basically. An Invasion of the Body Snatchers-reminiscent creature standing on four legs with a human head, bearded, wearing a keffiyeh).

According to the BBC,
A description of the event asked whether artists could "dare" to be blasphemous in the wake of attacks by Islamist gunmen in Paris last month against satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. In an indication of the threat faced by the cartoonist, a note was included on the website saying there was always "strict security" whenever he spoke in public.
Inna Shevchenko of the Ukrainian feminist group FEMEN was reportedly speaking when the shots were fired. She said later:
I was talking about freedom of speech. I said that sometimes one has the illusion of being able to take advantage of this freedom, but it is an illusion and it is at this moment that we heard a burst of gunfire. 
 According to Jenny Wenhammer, who was in attendance [roughly translated]:
Gunfire when Lars Vilks Committee today held an international meeting in Copenhagen on "Art, blasphemy and freedom of expression". During the Femen International's leader Inna Shevchenko's speech for two hours, then were fired 20-40 shot outside the doors and all started running. The French ambassador was also there to discuss Islam. Vilks was able to escape into a cold room, and Inna fled with others out through the back door.
The French ambassador, Francois Zimeray, tweeted during the attack that he was "still alive in the room." One attendee, however, was not. The shooter reportedly fled the area in a black Volkswagon Polo while pursued by police, leaving behind one murdered civilian, Finn Norgaard, and three wounded police officers.

The shooter, identified later as 22-year-old native Dane Omar Abdel Hamid el-Hussein, wasn't finished.

A few hours later and some miles south in Copenhagen there was another murder outside the Krystalgade Synagogue, of a 37-year-old man called Dan Uzan who was a member of the local Jewish community and was guarding the synagogue while a bat mitzvah was going on inside. Two additional police officers were shot and wounded in their arms and legs.

Copenhagen police reportedly killed el-Hussein last night after he opened fire on them in the Norrebro district. The officers had been staking out the address they had identified as his, and when he returned home he pulled a gun and fired on them. They returned fire and shot him dead.

Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt did not hesitate to call el-Hussein's acts terrorism, saying
We will defend our democracy. When the Jewish community is attacked, the whole of Denmark is attacked. The Jewish community does not stand alone. We don't know the motive for the attacks but we know that there are forces that want to harm Denmark, that want to crush our freedom of expression, our belief in liberty. We are not facing a fight between Islam and the West, it is not a fight between Muslims and non-Muslims.
My friend and former colleague Anders Lisdorf, who lives and works in Copenhagen, had this to say:
Our company office is 100 meters away from where the "terrorist" apparently used to live and was shot. I have lived and worked in the area for 10 years. I like the neighbourhood a lot, so first of all I can tell you that most people are not terrorists, but in general very nice and decent people, so I am not afraid to go there tomorrow. 
I can also tell you that you cannot walk in peace with a jewish Kippa there, because you will be harassed by certain Muslim residents and violently so. The Mosques in the area have been known to preach a less than tolerant agenda. It is a poor neighbourhood with the typical problems of such a neighbourhood. The attacker was also involved in gangs and illegal gun possession. 
These problems are everywhere. In Norway it was a fundamentalist nationalist who was the terrorist (Breivik). The real issue is not the west versus Islam, I agree, but to protect tolerance and fight racism. We have to take issue with racists no matter whether they are Western Nationalists, Christian, Jewish or Muslim.