Friday, January 21, 2022

50 Shades of Grey: An Allegorical-Political Reading

Fifty Shades of Grey is a Marxist allegory, covering the development of the protagonist’s class consciousness, while tearing down, one by one, all non-revolutionary forms or resistance to capitalism generally, and in America particularly.  

Let’s start by looking at the names of our two main characters: Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey.  Anastasia is her given name, which is to say, the name her parents chose.  They gave her the name of a famous royal, a class to which they do not, and could not, ever belong, but nevertheless this is how they choose to think of themselves.  Yet the family name is Steele.  The associations between steel and infrastructure and manufacturing are obvious (she actually works at a hardware store), and we cannot forget that the labor movement in the United States grew in large part from the Pittsburgh steel workers.  Her name itself is an example of class unconsciousness, identifying with a class to which she cannot belong (further, it is a class which is not supposed to exist in America, and the particular royal was part of the family overthrown in the communist revolution).  Likewise, Christian’s given name presents a false front.  Obvious connections to the “protestant work ethic” and the prosperity gospel aside, Christianity promises a moral system, or some spiritual righteousness.  But his family name is Grey.  Shades of Grey refers to moral ambiguity, not certainty.  Grey is in fact unconcerned with morality, Christian or otherwise.  And of course the 50 Shades is a pun on 50 States.  Grey is the personification of American capitalism. (There is also some clever mirroring in the names.  Besides the obvious “steel grey” pun, Grey is the traditionally British spelling, which, if we consider America’s heritage as a royal colony, would mirror his family name with her given name.)

 The plot itself begins with Anastasia meeting Christian Grey for an interview on behalf of her university newspaper.  This is the first of a long line of examples of non-revolutionary means failing to prevent the exploitation of the workers.  Neither education nor journalism saved her.  Grey convinces her to sign a contract to be his submissive sex partner.  This contract dictates what she can eat, where she can go, etc. etc.  This may be so on the nose as to not need reiterating, but the capitalist convinces the worker to enter a relationship in which the worker is physically and emotionally degraded and has their basic life decisions curtailed.  Throughout the continuing degradation and domination, Grey insists that this is love, and the contract makes them equal partners, right?

Over time, Anastasia begins to doubt this parity, and Christian co-opts means of non-revolutionary dissent.  After the aforementioned failure of education and journalism, he woos her by buying her a first edition Thomas Hardy novel (thus co-opting art).  Christian breaks the contract without penalty (showing the futility of law). Perhaps the most dense example of this is the “Dom Jeans.” Blue jeans, invented by a Jewish immigrant for physical laborers during the California gold rush, became popular in counter-culture and youth movements in the post-war era.  As with much counter-culture, they were appropriated as a fashion commodity, eventually becoming banal and innocuous, becoming “Mom Jeans,” something suburban soccer moms would wear.  And thence “Dom Jeans.”  Even if it takes time, counter-culture just becomes another commodity for the capitalist class.

 Anastasia grows more and more uncomfortable with the relationship.  The novel ends with the two at an expensive and exclusive restaurant.  All food in the restaurant is made from locally foraged flora.  Food that was grown on public land with no effort or support from the restaurant is being harvested and commodified.  A public and private sphere cannot coexist without the latter ransacking the former.  It is at this meal that Anastasia breaks up with Christian.  In the allegory of the sexual relationship, she realizes that her devotion was unreciprocated and misplaced; their interests were fundamentally different.  She has developed class consciousness.

(If you find yourself taking the above seriously, please direct all comments to E.L James.)

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Coleman Cox Hates You and Other Observations

At a recent trip to a thrift store, I came across Straight Talk from Coleman Cox, a 1928 collection of the "witty sayings" of a Coolidge era sales manager.

Though advertising itself as containing "more than nine hundred thoughts," it really just contains nine hundred variations on "You deserve to be poor" and "get back in the kitchen, woman!" 

I'm exaggerating a bit.  Some of his thoughts are just basic observations that he thinks are funny for some unfathomable reason.  Consider the very first entry in the book:

 A lot of jokes don't age well because the references become obscure, or sensibilities change, but this joke fails wholly on its merits, and the scope of that failure is undiminished over nearly a century.  It also fails as a useful, or even interesting, observation.  Some business partners don't get along!  

I want to provide a full unedited page to give you a good sense of how little this man has to say, and how proud he seems to be of saying it.

My first inclination would be to describe Cox as the poor man's H. L. Mencken, but Cox hates the poor.

His firm belief that wordplay makes wisdom is so unshakeable, that he doesn't even try to make sense half the time.  When he says "Traffic officers and not employers are the ones who caution young men against speeding up and trying to go ahead of every one," who is he complaining about?  Is he reprimanding the employers?  Does he think the young men should behave this way in business?  And what the hell is his problem in the last entry on the page?  Is he complaining about employees being busy?  Does he distrust the phrase "busy as a bee?"  I really can't suss out what he's trying to convey here. If you're wondering how this got past an editor, you might be shocked to find out there wasn't one.

Coleman's success as a writer came though self-publishing small booklets that he would sell to business owners, who would then distribute them to their employees.  As the blurb on the back of the hardcover puts it "Great executives have distributed millions of Mr. Cox's booklets of advice because they realized these friendly suggestions would help their employees work better and live better."

Fun stuff!

If you're wondering, does Coleman Cox have anecdotes that only a man completely lacking in imagination could find profound, then you're in luck!

I've found that people who greatly overestimate their own intelligence or perceptiveness tend to drastically underestimate the same qualities in others.  Does he believe that the meaning is so cleverly conveyed that the reader must go back to grasp it?  Does he believe repeating this common idea about perseverance will so rock his audience that they must pause and read it again once the shock has worn off?  Perhaps I'm being mean here.  After all, he's acknowledging that people who get thrown down can come back stronger, so maybe that's a sign of empathy?

Well, fuck you too, Coleman.  And in case anyone noticing the dialect in the above was wondering, yes, there are racist entries, but they're gross in a way that's not funny or interesting, so I'm not excerpting them here.  His misogyny gets personally revealing though.

The first question that comes to my mind is why is Cox going to these cabarets he finds so murder-inducing.  I'm also not sure who he's planning on murdering in this scenario.

There's something fascinating in a person who is so lacking in self-awareness and empathy.  Everything bad that happens to people is their own damn fault, and how dare my employees cause me to lose money.  

This book is, at its heart, marginalia from the side of the roaring twenties generally omitted when discussing American literature.  When we talk about the 1920s, the focus is almost exclusively on the authors of Lost Generation, Algonquin Round Table, or of those who shared similar cultural values.  But the flipside of the jazz and luxury was the gross exploitation that succeeded the Progressive Era, and the broad adoption of social darwinism and laissez faire by industry and government in this decade.  It's likely that the number of Americans who read Coleman Cox in 1928 is significantly larger than of those who read Ernest Hemingway or Dorothy Parker, despite his now complete obscurity.

Well, he has no one to blame but himself.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Tom Cantor Seems Like a Loser and a Moron

Earlier today, I received in the mail an unsolicited autobiography by Tom Cantor titled Changed, which is a recounting of Cantor's decision to accept Jesus (though he insists he's still a Jew and not a Christian).  There have been plenty of articles about people offended by receiving the book, but none that have really gone into depth about the content.  So, using examples from the book itself, I hope to prove three things. 

1. Tom Cantor is a loser.

As far back as Saint Augustine, the Christian redemption narrative has featured a recitation of the convert's depravity before finding Jesus.  This trend continues today.  Ben Carson tried to stab someone and Mike Lindell was a crack addict.  According to the synopsis on the back cover, Cantor was "expelled from schools" and "broke through the boundaries of morality and plunged into sexual defilement."  Sounds saucy.  Let's start with the expulsions.  Cantor was expelled from a private military school at the age of eight.  What did he do?  Well, he was told not to touch the fire alarm, and frequently did so anyway.  One time he accidentally set it off, and his fellow students quickly gave him up. By his own account, he only intended to touch the fire alarm, and setting it off was an accident.  This is enough for him to caption a picture of his seven year old self as "Trouble Maker in Disguise" and cite this incident as proof of his underlying perversity.  "Accidentally pulling a fire alarm" is the least bad thing someone could do to get expelled. If Saint Augustine stole pears he didn't need, Tom Cantor touched a pear at the supermarket and accidentally knocked it to the floor.  This is the first of five bad things Tom Cantor does in his life.  Or rather, the ones he treats as bad things.  See section 2 for the actually shitty things he does, but never seems to acknowledge are awful.  The next horrible, sinful act he perpetrates is when he gets caught shoplifting records at the age of 15.  Yes, despite describing himself as a died-in-the-wool terror, there's a seven year gap until the next thing he finds worthy of mention.  The result of this arrest?  Daddy sends him to a boarding school in Switzerland.  The third bad thing happens on the boat there.  He was "so loud and annoying to the other passengers that the Swiss Police...picked me up by the ear and told me that I was a guest in their country."  How does this rebel without a spine react?  He behaves himself for the rest of the trip.  He was loud, and was told to quiet down, and did.  This is proof of his "rebellious nature."  

His fourth bad thing is probably the worst. After being in Switzerland for a couple months, he got caught being drunk and getting into a fight, which leads to expulsion and finding a new boarding school.  Is this good?  No.  Is this shocking for a teenager sent halfway around the world (or who has friends with a parent out of town)?  Also no.  We're talking about a man who, as a senior citizen, recounts accidentally pulling a fire alarm when eight years old as one of the worst things he's ever done.  This is not a rebel or a trouble maker.  This is a loser who is desperate to think of himself as having a bad streak, and briefly being loud on a boat hits his top five bad boy moments.  This is someone who desperately wants a cool redemption arc, despite being Milhouse's lamer older brother.

But hey, maybe the fifth moment is a doozy.  We still haven't come to the "sexual defilement" and whatever can be found on the other side of "the boundaries of morality."  It's 1960s Switzerland, who knows what freaky stuff he could get into. Maybe BDSM, prostitution, orgies, consensual sex with women who weren't truly in love with him ah shit it's consensual sex with women who weren't truly in love with him isn't it?  Here, in its entirety, is the sexual defilement of Tom Cantor:

        "During those trips my sexuality woke up. I hoped that sexual intimacy would fill my emptiness and bring me peace and happiness.  I turned to women looking for comfort and love.  But, the women I turned to were not looking for love, they were were only looking for a new passing excitement.  Those sexual encounters not only left me feeling emptier, but, worse, they made me feel filthy inside. I FELT DIRTY INSIDE!"

Tom Cantor managed to hook up with a random girl and was shocked, shocked I tell you, that she wasn't in love with him.  Him, the bad boy who tried and failed to steal motown records from a supermarket!  The dashing bandit who briefly bothered some transatlantic passengers, and would have kept doing so had he not been asked to stop! But the unnamed, undescribed, totally real European girls didn't fall for his dangerous allure, or his inflated ego, or his almost certainly clammy hands (even though they once accidentally pulled a fire alarm). 

After this, he feels so dirty that he takes a hot shower!  with soap!  for two hours!  But this doesn't cure his terminal case of feeling icky! 

2. Tom Cantor is a terrible partner

Tom Cantor moves back to the US to go to college at Miami University in Ohio.  After trying a shower once didn't cure his sense of defilement, he decided that he needed a "girl that was wholesome and pure" to "cleanse" him.  So he goes to the library to "hunt for that serious student."  He discovers that the study rooms each "had a square window that I could look into." He describes his reaction to this discovery as blurting out "Pefect! Window shopping!"  This alone is worse than any of the things Tom Cantor has actually felt bad about.  He sees a girl he likes, and then proceeds to lie to her, first claiming there are no other rooms available.  He presents her as believing this to be true.  "Appearing to be sorry that there were no booths available, she agreed."  He then finds out she's studying French, offers to evaluate her accent, then has the clever idea of negging and lying to her again.  "Seeing an opportunity to spend time with her I told her that her accent was terrible and that I could help her with her accent even though I knew I had a terrible Swiss accent."  He doesn't present this as a bad thing he did that he now regrets.  He just lied to this woman he didn't know with the hope of seducing her so she could cleanse him of sin.

After coming back to college after visiting family for the summer, he proposes to Cheryl, who tells him that she had been raped and was now pregnant.  This is terrible news.  For Tom.  Yes, Cheryl has PTSD and nightmares and sinks into depression.  But that's not the most important thing here. 

 "Impure, she was no longer better than I. No longer could she rescue me from my  own impurity.  What was worse [sic] about the rape of Cheryl and the pregnancy was that it forced me to be reminded of my own sexual defilement.  Her pregnancy was a glaring reminder of my own acts and defilements." (emphasis added)

To be clear, according to this man, the worst thing about the woman he loves being raped and impregnated, was it reminded him of the time he had emotionally unfulfilling consensual sex as a teenager.  Fuck this guy, right?  This is sociopathic.  This is worse than pulling a fire alarm on purpose!  But of course Tom Cantor doesn't see it this way.  The rape of the woman he claims to love is a tragedy, but mostly because it makes him feel bad. 

Even if we put aside how morally atrocious this is, how much of a moron do you have to be to actually put this in a book about your come to Jesus moment?

3. Tom Cantor is a moron.

Ostensibly, the purpose of sending this book to random Jews is to convert Jews.  And yet, in an 85 page book, he feels he needs to stop and explain what a moyle is.  Yes, he spelled mohel "moyle."  He also needs to explain what Yom Kippur is, what Baruch Atah Adonai means, etc.  He also does not seem to understand anything about how the world or any religion works.  If you're wondering how someone can accept Jesus as their personal lord and savior, but still consider themselves to not be a Christian, Tom Cantor explains his reasoning. 

"I had always been taught that people who were not Jewish were either Christians or Moslems...  I knew my three co-workers were not Moslems, they must be Christians... Right in the middle of them talking about their extra-marital relationships, I announced, "You fellows need Jesus Christ."... I was trying to find out if being Christian meant having Jesus Christ... From their response, I learned that a person could be a Christian and not have Jesus Christ or, expressed differently, I learned that a person could have Jesus Christ and not be called a Christian." 

Completely putting aside religious faith, this is quite possibly the dumbest thing I've ever heard.  This is grown man from a major city in the twenty-first century, and his entire argument is predicated on only three religions existing.   Even if we agreed with his conclusion that his coworkers were Christian and didn't have Jesus (after all, they're not Muslim or Jewish, so there is literally no other option), the reverse isn't automatically true.  Everyone who isn't a doctor is a lawyer or an accountant.  My acquaintances aren't lawyers or accountants so I will assume they're doctors.  I asked them if they have residency at a hospital.  They said no.  Therefore, a doctor does not need to have residency at a hospital or, expressed differently, a person can have residency at a hospital without being a doctor.


Look, I grew up in a pretty Jewish area.  I'm not super well-versed in the New Testament.  But Tom Cantor is either bafflingly ignorant or hamming it up for effect.  

"The first book in the "New" section was a book called "Matthew." What became obvious to me was that this was a book about Jesus.  This book was all about Jesus, Jesus, Jesus... As I came to the end of the book of Matthew, I was shocked to read of how Jesus was hated, betrayed and tortured to die a slow, agonizing death on the cross.  I felt so disappointed that the person I hoped could help me was now destroyed."

According to Tom Cantor, he, as an adult, began reading the new testament and was surprised to find out that it was about Jesus Christ.  We were all impressed when people went months without spoiling Infinity War, but Tom Cantor managed to go about 20 years without finding out about Jesus being crucified or resurrected!

Obviously, this is a lie.  It's a very stupid lie that serves no purpose.  He mentions travelling around Europe; was he confused by all the buildings that had a big letter "t" with a dude nailed to it?  Did his Christian girlfriend who happened to be carrying a bible with her when they met just never mention it?   When people tell obvious lies and expect to be believed, they either think their audience is dumb or foolishly think they themselves are exceptionally clever.  Tom Cantor is the latter.  That's the reason I'm treating this as evidence that Tom Cantor is a moron.  It fits a pattern we see in the book, where he acts real self-satisfied about convincing people of obvious lies.  His entire story of meeting his wife is just a series of lies that he recites as if it were proof of what a clever wooer he is.  He has no sense of his own limitations.  The purpose of this book is to convert Jews, but show me one of us who doesn't know that the New Testament is about Jesus.  Show me one who hasn't heard that Jesus gets crucified and [spoiler alert!] resurrected.  Not only is this a dumb lie, it directly hinders his goal.

Based on this book, Tom Cantor doesn't seem to understand Judaism, Christianity, Islam, the fact that those aren't the only options, syllogisms, how lying works, how empathy works, the fact that your girlfriend being raped isn't all about you, that Dennis the Menace isn't history's greatest villain, the definition of "defilement," or that an 85 page book shouldn't have 31 chapters. 

Tom Cantor is a loser, a terrible partner, and a moron.


Monday, December 10, 2018

Everybody's Dystopia: The Ambivalent Politics of The Hunger Games

You've probably seen the meme that's been going around for a couple years, generally some variation on a particular idea: This generation was raised on Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, of course they're not going to stand for Trump's authoritarianism.  Whatever the generational political demography may be, there is a problem with this claim.  The politics of The Hunger Games (and Harry Potter, and others that I have little knowledge of) are almost studiously ambivalent on political issues.

In The Hunger Games, any political perspective beside outright totalitarianism can be projected onto Katniss and her compatriots.  The world of Panem is one in which the wealthy exploit the labor of the poor by demanding unwavering patriotism and convincing oppressed peoples to distrust each other.  They demand cultural and ethnic homogeneity. A reluctant hero becomes a symbol of a resistance movement, aiming to convince the population to overthrow the ruling class and establish a more equitable society, though it turns out the leader of the resistance is just as bad as the old leader.  Also... The world of Panem is one in which a centralized state power enslaves rural populations by disarming them.  They demand that everyone work without hope of personal advancement.  A reluctant hero becomes a symbol of a militia aiming to overthrow tyranny and establish a fair society, though it turns out the leader of the militia is just as bad as the old leader.  Both of these descriptions are perfectly accurate.  What's more, the coding in the books and films are just as ambiguous.  The denizens of the capital dress in a fashion reminiscent of European aristocracy and adopt the gilded age's condescending attitude towards the poor. (So it's a class issue!  Get the guillotines! ¡Viva la revolución!)  At the same time, they're effete urban elites who control the media. (See, it's a government issue!  Can't let them gubmint bastards boss us around!)  Katniss herself (See!  A female protagonist! #Resist) is ambivalent (See! She just wants to protect her family, as any good woman would! #FamilyValues) about the political aspect of her role as spokesperson of a resistance movement, and ends up more or less opting out of having any role in the development of a new society.  This is generally true of Harry Potter as well, though we tend to forget that given J. K. Rowling's frequent political statements.  Harry Potter is more explicit politically, the parallels between the Death Eaters and Nazis being so evident that denying them is downright silly, but, as strange as it is for me to have to type this, outright denouncement of Naziism was less politically controversial ten years ago than it is today.  A running gag in video game communities of the time held that there were five types of enemies you could kill without any controversy or guilt: Aliens, Robots, Zombies, Terrorists, and Nazis.  Only moral reprobates (of which there are disconcertingly many) wouldn't side with Harry and his pals. Still, it is only the outright Nazi beliefs of the Death Eaters that qualify one as a villain in this series.

To be clear, I'm not trying to criticize YA series, but rather point out that most of the political content we see in them is projected.  I really don't want to get into a long screed about the efficacy of counter-hegemony so I'll just end the post here.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

"Assassination Vacation" and the Reliquary of the Damned

Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation (2005) is part pop-history and part travelogue.  Vowell sets off to visit the places associated with the Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley assassinations, from Ford's Theater to the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, where you can see a piece of Charles Guiteau's brain floating in a jar.  Vowell argues that the almost obsessive devotion to maintaining and visiting these sites is like a secular version of Catholic pilgrimages, that the shards of Lincoln's brain or the ominously vague "Piece of John Wilkes Booth," serve a similar function to the relics of saints.  Overall, I recommend the book, as a good introduction to the aforementioned assassinations in general, and for a wealth of detail on the tangential or minor figures attached to the event. But I have some thoughts of my own regarding her claim about the relic-like nature of the artifacts of assassination, at least regarding the assassin.  

While the fallen leaders and their belongings may possess the qualities of relics, we still have to wonder why there is such a draw towards the killers.  With maybe the exception of Pontius Pilate, there isn't much lasting interest in individuals who kill holy figures.  And yet, Charles Guiteau is nearly as famous as President Garfield, and most Americans can name only one 19th century actor: John Wilkes Booth.  What makes these men so alluring, not ideologically or morally, but nevertheless drawing our attention?  Why do I know more about Leon Czolgosz than every member of McKinley's cabinet?

The power of religious relics lies in their connection to the divine, while historical relics draw their power through their connection to History.  Even if we know this to be ontologically untrue, we can't help but feel that an object's proximity to some great historical moment or personage imbues that object with some essence, preserving some tether across time and space.  We have a sense of History as an actually existing entity.  We see its motive power as "trends and forces" or "great men" or some combination thereof.  In the way that, for a pilgrim, a saint represents a closer connection to the divine forces that they believe underlie our world, a historical figure has a closer connection to natural forces that we believe underlie it.  One cures a leper, the other cures polio.  But assassins are usually the opposite of great men, and the killing is often the only notable thing about them.   They represent an unnatural disturbance of history.

In her book, Vowell describes the assassins as overturning the will of the electorate.  The trends and forces that got the person elected and the future actions of a great man are swept aside by one brief and violent action.  While our society has a prurient interest in crime and violence, the assassin is of a different class from the rest.  We hold Booth and Oswald and James Earl Ray in a different class than Al Capone or Jack the Ripper.  Because an assassin doesn't simply kill a person, they impress their will on history itself.  Booth didn't just murder Lincoln, he switched the tracks of American history. Of course, who knows how society would be different if Capone hadn't existed, or if one of the Zodiac killer's victims would have gone on to prominence.  But while we don't know how Reconstruction would have been different under Lincoln, or whether Robert Kennedy would have won the presidency in 1968, that history would be substantially different if they hadn't been killed is a certainty.  For most assassin's changing history is not just an effect of their actions, but the intent.  And the fact that someone, often a loser or a lunatic, can so drastically affect the world at large, can overturn the will of the electorate, is frightening, because it shows our beliefs in the logic and comprehensibility of history to be unfounded.  Whereas the relics of the great figures connect us to the ebb and flow of history, the assassins' connect us to the chaos, the absurd truth that history is not a river, but countless individual incidents, and that the current we feel is just a post facto generalization, a desire to add order to something that has none.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

On the True Origins of the Conspiracy Theorist

The common explanation for how otherwise reasonable people end up believing in conspiracy theories is straight-forward and easy to empathize with, only having the fault of being completely wrong. According to common wisdom, some people, when faced with a shocking or upsetting act of violence (e.g. the Kennedy assassination, 9/11, any mass shooting), are unable to accept the chaotic violence of the world and buy into a conspiracy theory as a coping mechanism. After all, isn’t it more comforting to pin all the blame on some shadowy organization that we can fight? This is comforting for us non-conspiracy theorists, with the added bonus of being subtly patronizing towards CTs (i.e. conspiracy theorists. I don't feel like typing it a hundred times). This explanation means that, deep down, they realize the same chaos we do, but they’re just really bad at coping, the poor dears. That it doesn’t make sense has been no obstacle to it becoming commonly accepted. The argument that CTs find this conspiracy-haunted world comforting is identical to the claim they make about those of us who don't buy in to their grand conspiracies, that it must be nice to live in a world where individuals are responsible for the bad things they do, and we can trust our institutions, etc. Further, our explanation absolutely fails to address things like, say, 9/11 truthers. 9/11 wasn't a lone wolf assassinating a president or some freak accident. What emotional need is satisfied by shifting the blame from Al-Qaeda to the Illuminati/New World Order/etc.? It's much easier to fight Al-Qaeda than a shadowy secret organization that nobody believes to exist.

The answer to how people come to believe in conspiracy theories is pretty simple: The same way as they come to believe in anything else. Let's take the Kurt Cobain murder conspiracies as an example. When a person is faced with new information, that information must be assimilated. If that information fits in with the things you already know, it's a smooth process. (N.B. I'm using the words "know" and "knowledge" to mean statements that one holds to be true, regardless of their factual accuracy.) This is why there aren't as many conspiracy theories about the deaths of Jimi Hendrix or Amy Winehouse. Even their fans know that they both did drugs and that drugs can have tragic consequences. In regards to Cobain, one of the frequent claims made by those who believe he was murdered is that he wasn't suicidal. They know how suicidal people act, and they know that Cobain wasn't acting that way before his death. When this knowledge is contrasted with the knowledge that Cobain died in the way he did, some piece of knowledge must change so the new information can be assimilated. Maybe suicidal people act differently than I thought they did? Alternatively, the new information must be denied. Cobain didn't commit suicide. A more recent theory is that Cobain faked his death, though the prominent theory is the Courtney Love had him killed. But how do we get from "Kurt didn't seem suicidal" to "Courtney Love had Kurt killed?" The steps are pretty easy to trace. If Kurt didn't commit suicide, then he must have been murdered. One of the earliest theorists was a public access host who got footage from a window outside the crime scene and noticed much less blood than he would expect from a shotgun blast to the head. The host, and those who agreed with him, knew how much blood to expect. Also, if one accepts that Cobain was murdered, someone else must have written the suicide note. After all, the note doesn't look right. Which is to say, it doesn't look the way you'd expect it to. And everyone knew Courtney Love was only in it for the money and didn't really care about Kurt.

My point here is that conspiracy theories and theorists don't start with a full-fledged master plan. To give one more example, consider the various Shakespeare authorship theories. Typically, people just write them off as snobbery, but the reason is a bit more complex. It also shows that the types of things we "know" aren't always as concrete as in the Cobain conspiracy. The lack of contemporary documentation about Shakespeare isn't unusual, as even many Oxfordians, Baconians, and Marlovians will acknowledge. The real problem is that what we do have shows Shakespeare to be, well, boring and occasionally unpleasant. As James Shapiro shows in Contested Will, it was not Shakespeare's class that dismayed early CTs, but the fact that the few things we know about him show his stinginess (e.g. suing a neighbor over a small debt), and that he retired to his estate in Stratford rather than continue writing in the last six years of his life was unacceptable. Everyone knows that the greatest literature in the English language must have been written by an equally great spirit. Even we who accept Shakespeare of Stratford as the author of his plays feel this disappointment, yet it is a disappointment based on our assumptions about the way the world works. Most of the supporting evidence for these conspiracies are based on accepting certain unproven premises (e.g. the sonnets are autobiographical) which can be construed to prove nearly anything, or by misapprehensions (e.g., there are no records that Shakespeare went to grammar school, therefore he did not. However, there are no grammar school records of any of Shakespeare's peers, some of whom went on to attend Oxford). But the reason there are conspiracies about Shakespeare at all is the belief we have about the personal qualities of a great artist.

We can see in the given examples how conspiracy theories arise logically. Logically, if not reasonably. They are logical in the sense that they take a set of given conditions (this is how suicidal people act, this is what a great artist behaves like), and then apply logic. If he didn't kill himself, who wrote the suicide note? If vaccines cause autism, why are doctors saying they don't? If these people standing outside a mass shooting aren't behaving how survivors behave, then who are they? To bring it back to my initial point, what's comforting about believing that your favorite musician's killer is still at large, or that the government is dispersing toxic chemicals from airplane jets?

Conspiracy theories, by their nature, have a tendency to broaden their scope. Let's say you start with the knowledge that the US intelligence agencies are close to omniscient and that middle eastern extremist groups are unsophisticated, and then came to the conclusion that 9/11 was an inside job. On the one hand, this would need to implicate a lot of people not directly associated. If you 'know' how a building would appear when it collapses, and countless structural engineers say differently, then they must be lying. On the other hand, this would tie into other conspiracy theories already held. If you believe that there is a Jewish plot to control the world, you'd find a way to tie 9/11 to that.

Understanding why people believe in conspiracy theories, and how those beliefs develop is important. I hope it's already understood that most conspiracy theorists are not violent or bigots. But as online communities continue to supplant physical ones, we have to take a few things into consideration. First, groups like Stormfront (the white supremacist forum) have a history of trying to recruit from places like reddit's conspiracy page, not because the groups targeted for recruitment are necessarily racist, but because if (as the neo-nazis believe) there are shadowy Jewish groups controlling everything, why not try to make your case to people who already believe there is a shadowy group pulling the strings? Second, many of the views espoused by conspiracy theorists are socially unacceptable. (In the cases where they accuse innocent people, entire ethnic groups, or survivors of tragedies of unspeakable crimes, I'd say this unpopularity is justified.) Online communities are still communities, and fulfill that need. Communities form identities and protect themselves from perceived threats, even if that means protecting bad behavior within a community. Third, there is still a general feeling that online is not real, not just in terms of community but in terms of actions. As such, harassment of people accused of complicity in a conspiracy has become a serious problem, since there are so rarely any actual consequences for the harassers, even when their activities are clearly illegal.

There have always been and will always be conspiracy theories. What needs to be discussed is not how to stop them overall, but how prevent harm to innocent people caught up in them, whether we're talking about the anti-semitic results of "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," the careers destroyed by McCarthyism, or the harassment of bereaved parents after a school shooting. On the part of conspiracy communities, the answer is better self-policing, primarily in regards to preventing co-opting by hate groups and, as a community, establishing a clear sense of opprobium for harrassment. On the part of broader society, we need to take online actions seriously. Criminal harrassment and death threats must not be consequence free simply because they are carried out online.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Review: Mr. Holmes (2015)

Director: Bill Condon
Runtime: 104 minutes

I finally got around to watching Mr. Holmes on Netflix. The film, based on Mitch Cullin's 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, focuses on an elderly Sherlock Holmes struggling to come to terms with senility.   Holmes retired from the detective business decades prior to the events of the film, and has decided to write the true account of his last case, the one that drove him from London to a quiet life of beekeeping.  Unfortunately, his memory is fading, and he has trouble remembering details, though he is helped along by the housekeeper's precocious son. 

I've always found Sherlock Holmes fascinating.  Not the character, per se, or even the Doyle stories. I have a soft spot for metafiction and the crossover between pop culture and history (cf. my review of Dan Simmons's The Fifth Heart, where Sherlock Holmes teams up with Henry James), so this seemed right up my alley.  I was underwhelmed. 

Without divulging too much, the central mystery of the film (what were the details of Holmes's last case, and why did it cause him to quit for good) doesn't have a satisfactory resolution.  The resolution is unambiguous, but unconvincing, for while I can understand Holmes's distress, for a man who is routinely involved with murder and espionage, this isn't nearly enough to justify his response.  Meanwhile, Holmes's relationship with the housekeeper's son Roger is touching, but not something that we haven't seen a million times before, even if the acting, from both McKellan as Holmes and Milo Parker as Roger, is above average.

As a Sherlock Holmes story, it's uninteresting.  As a story about aging and mortality, it's sweet but unoriginal.  As a comment on the Sherlock Holmes mythos (of, as the poster says, "the man beyond the myth") it's a real letdown, as it doesn't really add anything except to point out that well-known misconceptions (e.g. the deerstalker) are misconceptions, or to ask "what if Sherlock Holmes were old?"