Saturday, May 23, 2015

some tentative thoughts on mad max: fury road

Just saw Mad Max: Fury Road and still processing what I think about it. For starters, it lives up to its name. It's non-stop action from the word go, most of it taking place in, or on, nitrous-fueled hot-rods of terror in a bleak, repressive, post-apocalyptic world of scarcity and barbarism (likely the result of nuclear holocaust and/or environmental degradation due to 'end-stage' capitalism). But in this action-packed world, it's the class and social issues that really take centre stage.

The main plot involves the escape of five women from the Citadel, the base camp of a group of brutal, war-worshiping neo-Vikings. The women are part of Immortan Joe's harem, the leader of this wasteland stronghold. Through a cult of personality and control over a seemingly abundant source of water, Immortan Joe controls the people. And in this male-dominated world where women are mostly treated as property and 'breeders' (except for Furiosa for some inexplicable reason), death in battle in the service of Immortan Joe guarantees a place in Valhalla.

In A History of God, Karen Armstrong argues that religion is in many respects something we create for ourselves, and for it to survive, to be useful, it must be practical. In this twisted world, however, the faith of Immortan Joe's War Boys is one of war, violence, and slavish devotion to the state and an ideal, both personified in Immortan Joe, who holds the means of their material reproduction (natural resources) and their spiritual salvation in the palm of his hands. It's a faith not unlike that of today's Jihadist suicide bombers or the bushido of Japanese soldiers during WWII.

But just as Armstrong demonstrates that, when one idea of God is no longer tenable or useful, it fades away to be replaced by one that does, a reformation/new ideology emerges due to the struggles of a band of unlikely and, initially unwilling, revolutionaries. Through their struggle, they not only take on and defeat patriarchy, but a ruling class that accumulates and hordes resources while the masses survive on the scraps thrown to them from above.

One of the things that I liked about this movie is that Furiosa, not Max, is the main protagonist. She's the real star of the show; and her mission, to free these enslaved women and bring them to the safety of the "Green Place," her childhood home, is the main focus of the story. In that sense, I think, this can be seen a feminist movie: it's the story of one woman trying to free other women from the oppression of patriarchy; and Max, rather than being the hero, is merely one of two reluctant male allies swept up in that struggle.

That doesn't mean the movie is without its flaws. Max's character is flat, as is Tom Hardy's acting. There are huge plot holes and unanswered questions (e.g., how did Furiosa get to be one of Immortan Joe's lead general in the first place?), not to mention cliches, throughout. And the five wives of Immortan Joe are thin and scantily clad, catering to the 'male gaze' no doubt. But I find it encouraging in that such a message found its way into an action-packed blockbuster, the stronghold of cinematic male chauvinism. In some ways, I see it as a more action-packed version of Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

rape is a tired trope that needs to be put to rest

After last Sunday's episode of Game of Thrones, the New York Times asks, "'Game of Thrones' fans: How do you feel about the show's depictions of sexual violence?" That's a good question; one I think needs asking.

I'm to the point where I can't stomach any rape scene, regardless of the context. I've seen arguments recently re: Game of Thrones, however, that lament the rape scenes but don't seem to take issue with the vast amount of other forms of violence, from murder and mutilation to psychological abuse, which I find somewhat disturbing for a number of reasons.

My issue with one-sided arguments aside, as a quasi-period piece (loosely based on the War of the Roses), Game of Thrones mixes fiction and historical realism, and from that point of view, sexual violence isn't out of the norm. Our history isn't necessarily a pretty one. But the continued and often graphic inclusion of, and in some cases focus on, rape bothers me. Why do we have to continually have movies, music, literature, etc. that vividly perpetuate this form of violence, especially against women? Is it needed? More importantly, is it wanted? I certainly don't think so.

An argument can be made that, at least in the past when they first started showing rape scenes on TV, it was bringing to light an issue that existed was but never talked about. As one person put it:

[Rape] was basically an unreported crime because women were afraid of being branded as unfaithful and 'encouraging' it. Sexism in action. The women that did, and stuck through the criminal litigation were often deemed encouraging and proved the scared women right. In the 70's, Elizabeth Montgomery made a 'made for TV' movie about a housewife who was raped twice by the same attacker and the struggle that she went through to prosecute the man. Those scenes had a 'purpose.' It also brought awareness to the general populous that rape really existed and was a problem for 'nice women.'

Fair point. But I don't think that's the case today; and I question whether there's a need, or even a good reason, for the prevalence of sexual violence against women in pop culture. I also question whether there's an actual demand for it from consumers or if it's being gratuitously dumped on us from above by execs, writers, etc. (most of them male, I'd hazard to guess). They say sex sells, but even if that's true, rape ≠ sex. It's a violation, an act of domination and control that's often meant to hurt and instill fear as much as give the offender (and us 'voyeurs') pleasure.

We don't have to pretend like it doesn't exist, but we don't have to make it an intrinsic part of our pop-culture, either. This, of course, naturally brings up the issue of censorship. People really seem to hate the idea of censorship, but they also seem to fail to realize that things are censored and edited all the time, either directly through editors or indirectly through public opinion. Editors edit articles and books. Studios change movie endings if they don't test well. And even in our own lives, we censor others. Parents censor their kids. Partners censor one another. The list goes on.

In this case, I'm not simply arguing that we need to censor Game of Thrones, but I'm strongly suggesting to all those who wonder why so many people are complaining about these rape scenes and the prevalence of rape scenes in general that they don't have to include such graphic scenes of sexual violence; and they certainly don't have to try to talk their way out of by saying things like 'it's sort of consensual' (i.e., the scene with Jaime and Cersei). You can criticize rape, patriarchy, or whatever without graphically depicting rapes and/or trying to eroticize sexual violence against women.

It seems like more and more people are starting to say, "Hey, I'm getting tired of this. Just stop already, please"; and it's my hope that writers, producers, musicians, etc. will start to listen. I think it's high time we all start to say fuck rape, fuck rape culture, and fuck the perpetuation, even 'artistically,' of sexual violence.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

colour me impressed, pope

While I'm skeptical a two-state solution is viable given the history and logic of settler states, I'll admit to being pleasantly surprised by the news that the Vatican is expected to officially recognize Palestinian statehood soon. At the very least, Palestinians are being put back in the spotlight in an arguably positive way, and their cause given further international support with this announcement—a good thing, in my opinion.

On a related note, I also read that the Pope helped facilitate the US-Cuba deal, which may allow US researchers access to a potentially-effective lung cancer vaccine developed at the Cuban Center for Molecular Immunology, as well as offered this gem to a group of students, parents, and teachers recently: “When we see that everything revolves around money — the economic system revolves around money and not around the person, men and women, but money — so much is sacrificed and war is waged in order to defend the money.” Colour me impressed.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

god doesn't have to be a 4-letter word

Just finished reading Karen Armstrong's A History of God, which goes well with this article I think. In it, Armstrong explores the history of "God" — a word that we come to discover packs a lot more meaning than simply some celestial Big Brother in the sky — particularly how ideas about God have evolved in the three main monotheistic religions throughout the centuries, and how those ideas have influenced religion, art, science, philosophy, and culture in a dialectical way.

Throughout the book, Armstrong routinely steers away from God as an objective reality or being, focusing instead on the role of God as a subjective experience in our collective lives, the product of the creative imagination, much like music, poetry, and art. From her point of view, God, or spirituality in general, gives expression to certain ideas, feelings, and experiences that we all tend to have, and it's likely not a coincidence that, "When people try to find an ultimate meaning and value in human life, their minds seem to go in a certain direction. They have not been coerced to do this; it is something that seems natural to humanity" (394).

She continually stresses the symbolic nature of these ideas, however, since the full reality of the absolute can't be put into words, stressing again and again that they become dangerous when taken too literally and clung to in a fundamentalistic way. Religion is always at its best when this is understood. Our ideas about God, the universe, or anything else for that matter, constantly grow and change, which in turn revolutionizes the way we perceive and interact with the world and one another. She demonstrates that, when one idea of God is no longer tenable or useful, it fades away to be replaced by one that does, illustrating an evolution of consciousness as we expand our understanding of the world and ourselves.

One idea I found especially interesting is that, since the philosophical death of God that's come about in the last couple hundred years, there's been nothing to take its place, leaving a void in our psyches. Armstrong suggests that we create a faith for ourselves to cultivate our sense of the wonder and ineffable significance of life, but "the aimlessness, alienation, anomie and violence that characterize so much of modern life" seem to indicate that that's no longer the case (397-8). We need to create a new focus of meaning, however, not fall back onto fundamentalism, apocalypticism, and 'instant' charismatic forms of religiosity that are currently prevalent in the US and other parts of the world.

Although I know there are many who'd strongly disagree with me on this, I'm inclined to side with Armstrong's assessment. While I think it's important to try and liberate society from its suffering and alienation by changing the material conditions that support it, which includes building on our scientific understanding of the world, I also think there's a spiritual dimension that needs to be addressed. Religion, then, isn't just some kind of spiritual painkiller; it can also be part of the cure.

Friday, May 1, 2015

may day 2015

May Day has been an important day to me ever since participating in my first May Day rally back in 2009, an experience that truly helped to ignite the sparks of my political consciousness. It's a day that unifies the struggles and celebrates the victories of all working people, as well as highlighting the specific struggles of those who are victims of additional forms of discrimination and oppression within our socio-economic system, e.g., immigrants, people of colour, women, the LGBT community, low-wage workers, etc.

I met up with my friend Molly at PSU around 3pm, and together we walked to the South Park blocks to join the May Day rally. I ran into a number of people I knew, including my friend Joe, activist extraordinaire Cameron Whitten, Rebecca, one of my co-workers, and AFSCME Council 75 president, Jeff Klatke. While we were milling about and listening to the speakers, Molly, who volunteers with VOZ, a workers' rights education centre, had me write a short letter to the city council encouraging the allocation of much needed funds for local Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) programs in Portland.

At about 4:30pm, the march began with the addition of hundred from the Don't Shoot PDX that began at PSU, and we set off towards our first stop, the Justice Centre. We stopped there for a long time, and there were a number of speakers, although I was too far away to hear what they were saying. I'm sure that immigration issues and the death of Freddie Gray were at the forefront. From there, we set off again, but there seemed to be some confusion as the throng of protesters decided which way to go. As it turns out, a smaller group was trying, and eventually succeeding, to divert the march away from its planned route.

When I realized what was happening, I followed the lead of those who wanted to blaze their own trail through the city, disrupting traffic, including Max lines, because I saw it as a powerful message — that the city is our city; that our strength is in our numbers and our solidarity; that these issues are important and people need to take notice; that we, the working people of the world, have the power to shut shit down in simple yet powerful acts of defiance — the rationale being that the inconvenience to a few commuters for one day pales in comparison to things like the struggles of immigrants or the lives of people of colour (as well as the homeless and mentally ill) routinely taken away by law enforcement. A popular chant was, "All night, all day, shut it down for Freddie Gray!" A black lady on one of the stopped buses was hanging out the door, high-fiving passing marchers.

The march eventually made its way towards the Burnside Bridge, with many of a mind to take the bridge. The police were ready, however, and lined up in the protesters' way while firetrucks were used as blockades. Most of the protesters held back and watched, unwilling to challenge the line of police. Riot cops quickly converged and used pepper spray on a small group that may have tried to break through. I was near the front right, and I saw the riot cops charge in and spray some of the marchers, which sent others running, but couldn't quite see what, if anything, instigated it. I did see a group wearing ski masks near the front, though, who may have played a role in that.

I retreated into a bar to use the restroom and down a quick shot of whiskey before returning and finding Molly. I saw one of the protesters, a young girl, having her eyes flushed with water, a victim of the pepper spray. After a somewhat tense and lengthy standoff, marchers started heading north, making their way to Naito Parkway and up Morrison before finally converging in front of the Wells Fargo across from Pioneer Square. On the way, I ran into Hyung, a local high school teacher, activist, and all-around incredible person, who was unhappy with the unplanned route and confrontations with police. He made a great point, which was that it not only endangered the large number of illegal immigrants participating in the march, but it'll possibly discourage them from participating in future actions and rallies.

In front of the Wells Fargo, a frequent target of ire during May Day protests, a group led chants and songs blasting the lack of justice for people of colour and the need to fight social and economic inequality. I ran into my union local's VP, and we chatted a bit before both he and Molly left as things seemed to be dying down. I stuck around as a separate group of marchers converged on Pioneer Square, joining up with ours. I left a little before police used flash grenades on protesters to, in the words of @PortlandPolice on Twitter, "allow police to safely withdraw from violent #MayDayPDX crowd."

In many ways, I think this May Day was a success. There was a great turnout, a lot of support from passersby and people stuck in traffic, and I think that it was a much-needed outlet for the frustrations of many, particularly people of colour. But because of several encounters with police and the inconvenience it caused some people, it may potentially scare away immigrants and others from future protests because they may feel unsafe, not to mention that it'll almost certainly generate a fair amount of negative press and sentiment among those who fail to understand why worker solidarity and direct action is so important.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

re: baltimore: if you don't get it, educate yourself

Some people just don't get it. They see an eruption of violence in places like Baltimore or Ferguson and criticize the protestors rather than the socio-economic inequalities that condition them. They say things like, "I don't get it. Violence is counterproductive."

Of course you don't get it. You're probably not black (or homeless or living in abject poverty). You're probably not subject to racism on a daily basis. You're probably not a constant victim of racial profiling. You're probably not afraid that every cop you see is going to kill you. You probably don't have to do twice as much to prove that you're deserving of the same opportunities as someone with a different skin colour. You're probably not living in the omnipresent shadow of social inequality and oppression that's haunted your ancestors since they were forcibly brought to this country as slave labour.

They say that violence isn't the answer, that it's counterproductive, but they seem to fail to realize that riots are merely a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. As one friend of mine put it, "I hope that the disorder in Baltimore ends soon and that no one is hurt, but if this is what it takes to get people to start to look closer at a serious problem our nation is facing, it's our fault as a society for letting things get so bad in the first place." It's not like people haven't been trying to bring these problems to light in nonviolent ways since the early abolitionist movements of the late 1700s.

It drives me crazy how much of the criticism is directed towards the protestors and not the people (and system) that initiated the protests in the first place. Police across the country routinely engage in racial profiling and kill unarmed blacks, the mental ill, and the homeless at an alarming rate, and it's always the protestors who are accused of violence, as if murder isn't violent enough. And it's not just police brutality, but the underlying dynamics of oppression, including things like institutional racism and social inequality (yes, they exist), that are helping to fuel this anger.

I wish those people could see past their little slice of the American Dream™ and see the world through the eyes of a Freddie Gray, a Walter Scott, a Justus Howell, a Philip White, a Michael Brown, etc. Maybe then they'd understand what MLK Jr. meant when he said:

But at the same time, it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation's summers of riots are caused by our nation's winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.

Monday, March 30, 2015

indiana's rfra act

This kind of nonsense makes it hard for someone like me to be religious:

What Makes Indiana's Religious-Freedom Law Different?

I consider myself a religious person. I love Buddhism. I love going to mass at Catholic and Orthodox churches. I'm interested in the poetry and mysticism of Sufism. I find that religion enriches my understanding of life. But the intolerance and oppressiveness of many who call themselves religious makes it hard for me to fully immerse myself in my spirituality and to be open about. I'm embarrassed, frankly, to be associated with people who think being gay is a sin and/or try to restrict women's reproductive rights.

Another thing that really annoys me is how many religious people in the West, particularly Christians, complain about how they feel persecuted, saying that it's hard to be openly religious these days because of growing secularism. Sure, there are a lot more people who are vocal about their issues with religion these days; but can you blame them? Just look at our history. If anyone is persecuted and oppressed in our society besides the poor (and Native Americans), it's the non-religious, women, and the LGBT community. And most of the persecution the religious do experience usually comes at the hands of other religious (e.g., Protestants vs. Catholics, etc.).

This country is still predominately a Christian nation. According to Pew, 78% of people in the US self-identify as Christian. The evidence is everywhere. It's on our money. It's in the Pledge of Allegiance. It's witnessed in the National Day of Prayer and every law banning same-sex marriage and restricting women's access to abortions and contraception. And despite their actions, most politicians profess to be Christian because it's damn near political suicide to be anything else (especially atheist). From a 2010 ABC News article:

[A] 2007 Pew survey found that 45 percent of Americans said they would be less likely to vote for a Muslim. 61 percent said they would be less likely to vote for an atheist. Only 25 percent said they would be less likely to vote for a Mormon candidate. Sixteen percent said they would be less likely to vote for an Evangelical and 11 percent would be less likely to vote for a Jewish candidate.

The fact is, it's almost always those of religious faith who try to impose their ideas and morals onto the rest of society, not vice versa. Nobody's trying to force those against it to enter into a same-sex marriage; but those against it feel it's perfectly OK to impose their beliefs about marriage onto the rest of the country through gay marriage bans (and anti-sodomy laws before that). Nobody's trying to force religious people to have abortions or use contraception if they're against it; but it's religious people and institutions who are actively trying to limit women's access to both.

Don't get me wrong, I believe that a person should have the freedom to practice their religion as they see fit so long as it doesn't infringe upon the rights and freedoms of others. I want to be free to explore and express my faith (or lack thereof) in whatever way I choose. But let's face it, these kinds of laws are more about legalizing discrimination than protecting religious freedom. Instead of more Religious Freedom Restoration Acts protecting religion from society, what we really need is a Freedom From Religion Act to protect society from religion.