Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Columbine


Sometimes it's unnerving to read a history of something you lived through. Even more unnerving is when the principle characters in the history are roughly the same age as you. And when they're the same socioeconomic class, race and gender as you. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris and I share superficial aspects such as the aforementioned things. However, where we differ greatly is that I have never murdered anybody and I have obviously not committed suicide by putting a shotgun into my mouth. This doesn't make reading Columbine by Dave Cullen any less disturbing and heartbreaking.

Cullen's history of the Columbine massacre has a specific structure, with alternating chapters of "before" and "after". The pre-massacre chapters are heavily focused on trying to understand Harris and Klebold using their website postings, videos, journals, friends, family and official records. Cullen painstakingly documents and charts their every move and every thought if it's been recorded. Harris and Klebold are absolutely perfect subjects for a journalism project in that they self-documented to an unbelievable degree.

The "after" chapters follow the survivors, the parents of the killers, the lawsuits, the crass attempts at monetizing the tragedy, the principal of the school, an investigator from the FBI whose son was enrolled at the school at the time, and a whole host of other people. If the before chapters are meant to understand the killers and their motives, then the after chapters are a celebration of life in the face of extreme trauma and adversity. At times utterly heartbreaking, such as the public suicide of a mother of a victim or Patrick Ireland's first time water skiing after being shot in the head.

Cullen doesn't shy away from using emotional moments to incite the reader to feel something. There doesn't seem to be any self-awareness or guilt when the author deploys emotional manipulation. This lack of shame in Cullen's Columbine speaks to the sheer shallowness of the thesis of the book.

When reading any work of journalism, there is going to be bias and subjectivity, despite any and all efforts at objectivity. It's just a fact of journalism. However, the journalist can strive for the maximum level of equality and evenness. Cullen does not. The agenda is crystal clear almost from the beginning of Columbine. This is a work of journalism to dispel myths about the massacre and return the tragedy from the hands of the media into the hands of the ones affected.

The media does not emerge pristine from Cullen's history. They are presented as opportunistic, unfeeling, and hungry for more salacious and volatile information, even if it's conjecture or even outright falsehoods. During the actual massacre, some kids were unable to connect with 911 using their cellphones, and they ended up calling the media. Some outlets were smart enough to tell kids to get off their phone as the killers, whomever they might be, could be watching the news and thus receiving valuable information about locations of possible victims and movements/tactics of the police. Other media outlets did not think of this angle and it was left to the various law enforcement agencies to demand that the media get their noses out of the story until it was over.

Later, the media is presented as being driven by economic concerns rather than altruistic motives or journalism ethics. Any tenuous connection between the story and outside influences was repeated ad nauseum, such as the Trenchcoat Mafia, video games, Goth music and even bowling (as per the Michael Moore documentary's erroneous assertion that the killer went bowling before the massacre).

This is why Cullen's agenda is so obvious (dispelling myths) and also confusing. Cullen deploys a disconnecting tactic early in the book's introduction to separate himself from the rest of the story. He claims that instead of forcing himself into the story, he groups himself in with the media. This allows Cullen to presumably stand above the entire history and report on it in its totality. What this actually does is allow Cullen to escape culpability in his treatment of the media. By excoriating the media and not allowing himself to be a part of the story, Cullen distances himself from the media - despite asserting he is part of the media.

The effect is that Cullen's sensitive and emotional treatment of the history is privileged over the media's crass and shameless monetizing of the story. Thus, I'm not entirely convinced that Cullen's Columbine is an effective piece of journalism. While it's admirable that Cullen is adhering to standards of journalism by increasing objectivity and minimizing authorial bias, the entire picture does not emerge. Cullen claims that his coverage of the tragedy begins half an hour after the boys started shooting and that the coverage continues for the next ten years. It's implied that Cullen has been working on this continuously for ten years (despite the book's chronology effectively ending in 2006-7).

A more complete picture would include Cullen's story and why he was successful in his penetration of the community over the other elements of the media that end up looking like asses in Cullen's book. He excoriates any and all members of the media that indulged in rumour, theory and conjecture when the full picture wasn't available. He grasps at forgiveness when admitting that so many "witnesses" were providing conflicting information. But this is overturned when Cullen notes that much of the information the witnesses were circulating were fed to them inadvertently by the media, the very institution designed to minimize rumour and conjecture.

Why was Cullen so privileged over other journalists? Why did the Klebolds talk to Cullen over the other thousands of media figures? What made Cullen the man to write this book? Was it his sensitive and emotionally manipulative approach to the facts?

This sounds like a rather small criticism of the book, but I'm focusing on it because Cullen's book is beginning to be regarded as one of the finest works of journalism ever. It's being taught in high schools and in classes on journalism. It's being held in a higher esteem than I think it deserves.

Part of its inflated reputation is due to the very subject matter. Any "balanced" and "nuanced" investigation of such an iconic and influential moment in history would be received in hushed tones for fear of upsetting the particular status quo. To paraphrase Noam Chomsky and Edward S Herman, the affected students, faculty and parents of the tragedy are "worthy victims". They are mostly white, affluent (or upper middle class) and in middle America. They are religious, seemingly without controversy and thus undeserving of the tragedy that befell them.

As long as Cullen didn't write an apologia for Harris and Klebold, this book would have been well received. It plays into a particular discourse of reverence for the past. Plus, the inscrutability of the killers themselves, the conflicting theories on their motives, add to the discourse. Only the Columbine shooting, not even close to the first school shooting of the 1990s, would garner an entire history unlike the Virginia Tech massacre (which had a higher body count).

Thus, the book was already destined to be well-received and its journalistic shortcomings ignored or forgiven due to the sensitive approach to the subject matter. Only a few people come out looking like idiots in Cullen's history of the many many many institutional failings after the tragedy. Law enforcement cover-ups, crass aspirations to monetizing the tragedy, and even the religious right exploiting the tragedy for their nefarious means are all handled in an even way. Thus, even the stupidest most ignorant people of Littleton, Colorado are treated with the same sensitive hand, despite Cullen's obvious agenda.

There's a paradox in Cullen being explicit with his agenda (dispelling myths and excoriating the media for their complicity in the exchange of rumour) and then avoiding pronouncing judgments on other institutions. Why does Cullen complain about the media but not about Misty Bernall's book She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall which propagates a fiction in the service of religion?

Cullen's Columbine is still a riveting and well-researched read. His approach to explaining the boys and their motives is a masterwork of interdisciplinary scholarship. He draws on copious amounts of research to explain, in laymen's terms, how two seemingly average boys could go about committing such acts. It's all laid out in a logical and systematic manner. Each recorded movement allows Cullen to connect the dots.

The pre-shooting parts of the book are the more successful parts of the book in terms of journalism, but the "after" chapters are more fascinating for their inspirational tone and their portrayal of victims and survivors coming to terms. It's hard not to get swept up in Patrick Ireland's struggle to walk, talk and lead a normal life. You cheer when he speaks at a Columbine memorial, defiantly telling the crowd that the shooting didn't create his identity. He's more than a victim. This is surely Cullen's other motive in writing this book: taking the tragedy from the media and giving it back to the victims. Unfortunately, Cullen is still part of the media, and this book's crude release date (purposefully timed to coincide with the 10 year anniversary) means that this is not entirely successful.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Hookup Culture

Previously, I've argued that the hookup culture growing in North American is primarily (but unconsciously) an economic decision. Relationships are emotionally and financially expensive especially within a job culture of increased mobility (globalization) as well as increased job precarity. However, many theorists, cultural critics, and journalists are instigating or reporting on a developing moral panic around the hookup culture. They argue that hookups cheapen sex, minimize intimacy and do not contribute to self-education on navigating more complicated relationships such as long term commitment or marriage.

This article from Slate called Sex is cheap is what really ignited my interest in hookup culture as a facet of contemporary youth culture. The article cites a concept called sexual economics in which the market price of sex is currently low as there are less males on campus than there are females. An oversupply of females tends to lead to a more sexually permissive culture. The men no longer need to compete with each other for the opportunity. The authors of this particular article then makes an egregious logical error without exploring the idea any further: the end of men. If men continue to have the sexual upper hand due to the sexual economy of their culture, then there is no imperative to avoid arrested development.

The error in this thinking is that the reality is far too complex. If we agree that men are far more likely to remain youthful, at least mentally, then the reason for this is not simply the sexual revolution. It's a far more complicated matrix of factors including the delay of adulthood due to economic reasons. Again, as with my central argument regarding the hookup culture, it all comes down to the increased affluence of contemporary North American culture. The richer the person, the less likely they are to procreate is practically axiomatic. Thus, the reason for arrested development isn't simply sexual economics, but larger economic factors that directly contribute to the delay of adulthood.

In a less morbidly economist way of thinking, this particular article from The Atlantic called Boys on the Side explicitly refers to the hookup culture as a "delay tactic". Hanna Rosin writes:
The most patient and thorough research about the hookup culture shows that over the long run, women benefit greatly from living in a world where they can have sexual adventure without commitment or all that much shame, and where they can enter into temporary relation­ships that don’t get in the way of future success.
Keeping in mind the increased job precarity and the increased mobilization of jobs, then we see that young people have less leeway to make a mistake. The job market is increasingly less forgiving of any settled individual with ties. The cost of making a mistake is far too great, as the increased affluence comes with a price: its seemingly temporary nature. Class mobilization works both ways, unfortunately, as the individual can easily slide from one class to the next just as quickly. The speed of class ascent is part of the American Dream, after all, as I've previously argued. But with the current economic status of North America, the media is saturated with tales of woe, tales of unlucky individuals who have lost their job and are unable to acquire another.

This article from Nerve called "How My Boyfriend's Unemployment Brought Us Closer Together" is totally representative of the difficulty of maintaining commitment in the face of economic adversity and job precarity. While the article is more positive and ends on a hopeful note, it's interesting to observe that if the author was not in a committed relationship, the ease of exiting this particular situation would be greatly increased. If she had immersed herself in hookup culture, her boyfriend's job loss would not have affected her economically or emotionally. She could have just walked away.

Many women in Rosin's article for The Atlantic (linked to above) cite selfish reasons for the desire for island-living, if I might call it that. They would prefer to hang out with friends, or not get involved due to the emotional cost of a relationship. Some said that they wanted to study, which is less selfish than pragmatic. Especially considering the cost of some sort of mistake. But this selfishness can be extrapolated to encompass not just hookup culture but the general selfishness of North American culture.

This is a book called "Generation Me" that argues there is a decline in civic engagement and concern for others in the past four generations, stretching back presumably to the Baby Boomers sometimes called the most selfish generation. The researchers of the Generation Me book found that while volunteerism appears to be on the rise, it is due to school systems enforcing mandatory volunteering for degrees and diplomas. It's also, in a crude economic sense, good business. Individuals who maintain an appearance as community-oriented and altruistic are far more attractive as a hire than a selfish one. But the data shows, the researchers argue, that there is a shift away from "intrinsic values such as developing a meaningful philosophy of life towards more extrinsic values such as being well-off financially".

Now we come to the chicken or the egg problem. Has the economic situation, ostensibly the rampant consumerism of late capitalism, created the circumstances for an increased on selfish behaviour or is it that selfish behaviour contributes to the success of uncontrolled consumerism? No doubt the answer is both, in a self-perpetuating cycle of production and purchase.

In order to maintain the efficiency of the late capitalist system of uncontrolled consumerism, relationships between individuals are minimized or ignored altogether for the sake of purchase power. It's a crudely simplistic equation: the less fiscal ties one has, the more available capital there is.

One can even demonstrate this in terms of income tax. In Canada, a married couple is entitled to certain tax credits, but as one individual unit. Two people not married but living together (not common law) are entitled to tax credits each, thus maximizing their power to purchase and move up the class scale.

Is there a need for the ensuing moral panic? Yes and no. I would argue no, as Rosin does in her article because "women have vastly more control over their actions and appetites than we have been led to believe" as well as the " dramatic decline of rape and sexual assault. Between 1993 and 2008, the rate of those crimes against females dropped by 70 percent nationally" (Rosin). Women are more engaged in the economic reality of the world, which is surely one of the great success stories of feminism, or even any ideology.

But I would also argue yes. Except with a different formulation. Instead of igniting or reporting on a moral panic relating to the hookup culture, there should be an increased focus on what rampant consumerism and late capitalism have contributed to in terms of personal relationships. As far as I'm aware, there are no other journalists or critics making a correlation between late capitalism and hookup culture. It seems to me that the correlation is exceedingly obvious and if we are going to clutch our pearls about something, it should be how capitalism is decreasing intimacy in relationships.

Obviously, I'm not making any judgments on hookup culture. My usual caveat is that whatever I observe is neither a good thing nor a bad thing, it's simply a thing that exists. Would I argue for the end of the hookup culture? Absolutely not, but then again, nor would I argue for the continuance of it. Instead, we as a culture need to examine the dangers of uncontrolled and unrestrained consumerism and how this is affecting our personal lives. There have been books about this, but I'm not aware of any that make the connection between sexuality and consumerism. Perhaps this is the book I will write.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Whatever Works


Every time I watch a Woody Allen film, I remark (aloud in typical Allen style) that I love Woody Allen. Then I forget about him and his films and then coast along, usually for a year or two before I end up inevitably watching another one and repeating the cycle. Whatever Works is a film that when it came out was not terribly well received. Despite this, I decided to watch it based on my residual goodwill for both Larry David and Evan Rachel Wood. Say what you will about Woody Allen; at least the man can cast.

It's a rather small romantic comedy in his usual vein, and there isn't a lot to recommend outside of that. If you enjoy loquacious intelligent characters who still make bad decisions and fall in and out of love while engaging in witty banter, then you'll enjoy this film. Larry David plays a misanthropic genius who ends up married to a Southern belle of less than considerable intelligence. They make it work until his pessimism and her optimism force them apart in true entropic fashion.

Along the way, Wood's mother (Patricia Clarkson) shows up, loses her "red state" shell and becomes an avant garde artist living simultaneously with two men, one of which is Larry David's good friend. Ed Begley Jr plays Wood's father and he shows up and realizes in a rather funny scene that he might actually be gay (a two minute scene leads to a predictable but hilarious punchline).

In the end, Larry David tells the audience directly that they should filch or provide whatever happiness they can find because life is short and cruel. Nothing matters so why not be happy while it happens. He tells them to find happiness in whatever works.

I'm not really going to delve too far into this film and its musings on quantum physics (Allen uses Wood's simpleton character to mangle some of the scientific concepts but it's all in service of the themes of the film) or into the metafiction aspects or even the bizarre Larry David as Woody Allen angle. I just want to say that I enjoyed this film. I thought it was charming, funny, tender in moments, and offered a reasonably good time for 90 something minutes.

Perhaps the reason why the film wasn't so well received at the time is because it's so standard. It's a romantic comedy that Allen has made time and again. There's nothing particularly modern about the film (even the typeface used for the credit evokes an earlier film aesthetic) or about the screenplay, which as it turns out is an old one Allen never used. However, the film, if existing in a vacuum, would entertain. I was entertained. Sometimes that's all you need from a film. Allen manages to create an emotional connection between the film and myself and for that reason, Whatever Works succeeds.

Apologies if this wasn't the 2,500 word return to form you were hoping for. I'm tired and reading mostly nonfiction so there isn't a lot I can review.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Sexting

Let's talk about sexting. Or rather, let's talk about the more visual aspect of sexting, which is the nude picture. Gawker is reporting today that Reddit and Photobucket have been working together to shut down the subreddit called " r/photobucketplunder" which has users post pictures from private albums on Photobucket to Reddit. Most of the time these private photos are just that - private. As in, the photos are either nude or semi-nude or explicit. Gawker writes
R/photobucketplunder may have gone dark, but a new subreddit made up of the same core community has already sprung up, using the name r/photoplunder in an effort to scrub all references to Photobucket from the site. Even with a new name, it's business as usual.
For many people, this is a nightmare. Earlier this week, Gawker posted a story written by a woman who's family found out about her nude pictures on the Internet. Hers is just one story in literally thousands of jilted lovers, spurned advances, acrimonious splits and then simple shits and giggles. The access of information that the Internet prides itself on has a dark consequence: the info you don't want to get out there is surely the info that will get out there.

Here are some stats culled from various sources. According to a study published in Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 28% of surveyed teens have sent a naked picture of themselves to another person. According to Microsoft's anti-sexting study, an astounding 91% of teens have forwarded or shared a sexually explicit message. In 2010, CNN reported that 15% of teens received a sexually explicit message. In 2011, MTV and the Associate Press reported that "30 percent of young people report having been involved in some type of naked sexting". If we agree that forwarding sexts is a form of harassment or abuse, then "more than half (56%) of those surveyed say they have experienced abuse through social and digital media, up from 50% reported in the 2009 MTV-AP digital abuse survey". In terms of pictures, "21% have received naked pictures or videos of others".

Now, this is limited to teens, mind you. The numbers are probably the same for adults, but there is more data relating to young people and sexting than adults. The question is, of course, why? Well, the short answer is that sexually explicit pictures of minors constitutes child pornography, and the media is littered with reports of seemingly innocent teens being put on sexual offenders' lists due to a seemingly innocent exchange of nude pictures with significant others or individuals hoping to be in a relationship (either sexual or dating).

The long answer is that there is a moral panic occurring over the advent of sexually explicit pictures, technology, ease of access, and the ubiquity and speed of the Internet. Once a picture is posted online, it's practically permanent. In fact, if it's a sexually explicit picture, the odds are that it's permanent and circulated constantly. Go on /b/ and check out their incredibly detailed "Facebook sluts" meme, in which they identify girls by their nude pictures and juxtapose the explicit with the Facebook profile.

The moral panic comes from the fact that we see this is as violation of privacy. Many people in the thread linked to above, the Gawker story about Photobucket and Reddit are arguing and debating the ethics and they always do.

Does one blame the girl for taking the picture? For knowing or at least being aware that the receiver of the picture will no doubt recirculate it? Does one blame the recipient of the picture for recirculating it? What if he or she shares it after a rather acrimonious split?

Taking a brief detour from the idea of blame, I want to explore the idea that sharing the pictures or uploading them to a website might be due to an unhealthy breakup. The other week, the Associated Press reported that Boston public officials have funded a program in which counsellors and professionals enter high school and literally coach teens on how to break up with their partners with the least amount of acrimony. (USA Today is the one I linked to, but many other periodicals and media outlets are reporting on it with various levels of detail. Click here for the Google results.)

There's something fundamentally disconcerting that teens are being taught how to break up with their partners from an outside source. There are many factors to why this exists. Let's take a look at them and finish with the big one that links this tangent into the idea of sexting. Firstly, let's assume that the constant turnover in relationships in the current era is a huge factor in this. Previously, divorce wasn't so common. When you married someone, you often stayed together forever, or until one of you died. The oft-quoted stat that the divorce rate is at 50% can be extrapolated to relationships. According to a large study here, men and women are having on average, 20 and 6 sexual partners respectively. This study makes the claim that the average woman will date 24 men before "settling down". Thus, we can agree that there is a high turnover rate in relationships among unmarried people now.

A second factor in this is the rise of the blended family, which we can define as a family that isn't the "mother-father" dual unit. The blended family includes stepparents, stepsiblings, etc. Here is an amazing chart from the Canadian government that shows the rise of the blended family:


Thus, if there is a high turnover rate in relationships, the data shows that blended families would be on the increase. What does this mean for children? Studies have shown that divorce tends to affect children in different ways. More pertinent to this idea is this study which claims that children of divorce are more likely to cohabit without marriage and to leave home due to friction.

That is to say that children are having more relationships, but are not learning about stable relationships from the previous generation. Obviously, I need to do copious amounts of research to actually prove this, but I think it's an inevitable conclusion of the ways things are going.

The third, and most relevant factor here, is the tendency to share. I'm not the only cultural critic to look upon the current state of affairs and conclude that there is a compulsion to share, a type of narcissism that says, "I'm interesting and important enough to necessitate other people's attention." Yes I'm fully aware of the irony of observing this while writing on a blog.

Here's a rather interesting article that helps my argument. A Harvard graduate student said, "We were interested in why people engage in self-disclosure so seemingly excessively. The hypothesis we wanted to test was whether or not this behavior provided people with intrinsic or subjective value -- did it feel good to do it." The conclusion is going to be painfully obvious: "As it turns out, it feels so good, our brains responds to self-disclosure the same way they respond to pleasure triggers like food, money or sex." Their methodology being the MRI to show this particular facet of human experience.

The fact that the brain derives pleasure of sharing is clearly not an effect of the 21st century. Evolution just isn't possible at that speed. Thus, the sharing-pleasure dynamic can be assumed to be old enough. Thus it is the Internet's ubiquity and effortless ability to share information, through a matrix of media (Twitter, Facebook, etc) that reinforces the sharing-pleasure dynamic.

The public humiliation and the Facebook-style breakups that the Boston health officials are coaching against are the very things that create acrimony in relationships. If we didn't have the media to share the details of breakups, who would listen and how would we derive pleasure from it? The brain constantly seeks the same stimuli, so feeding it pleasure through sharing means it wants more of the same.

Sharing details of our lives, sexts, explicit pictures, all the details that add up to a portrait of a relationship is simply an effect of the Internet Age. One could argue that the seeming epidemic of sharing explicit pictures is simply an indulgence in a new technology or a new medium and that it will correct itself in time and stabilize. I'm torn on this particular conclusion, but it is quite persuasive.

The other conclusion is that the line between private and public will be irrevocably blurred. Many very smart thinkers have been writing and studying the Internet and interrogating that very thin line that seems to shrink with every year and every new technology that enables the shrinkage (increases in phone camera resolution, etc). Facebook's utter colonization of the Internet is due to, in part, the removal of privacy from the equation. Your Facebook profile becomes a representation of your self, your subject. Here's a study that explores in detail this very thing: "Socializing and Self-Representation online: Exploring Facebook".

People carefully and willfully control their Facebook profile as if it was their own face. Pinker, in his book about the decline of violence in civilization, writes that humanity developed very quickly the ability to detect lies in other humans. Immediately, humans engaged in a "lies arms race" in which the detection of the lie, and the detection of the detection of the lie and the detection of the detection of the detection of the lie and so on and so forth become a tool in the careful manipulation of the persona one presents to other people in order to serve their own interests etc.

An explicit picture turning up represents the violation and the destruction of the careful public and private persona that the individual has generated. Thus, it is the ultimate invasion of privacy because the work involved in maintaining a public persona, unconsciously calculated to maximize pleasure from sharing while minimizing dangerous revelations. This is why people are so upset about revealing and sharing explicit pictures.

It's a slight spectrum with close but steep graduations. At the beginning of the spectrum, where sharing the most intimate details about the self receives the maximum amount of pleasure (due to the perceived intimacy), to the middle of the spectrum in which pleasure is mediated through an awareness of uninvited individuals into the intimacy, to the end of the spectrum in which no pleasure is derived from sharing as too many people are on the receiving end of the intimacy. This is the spectrum, or discourse that individuals are navigating every time they post a naked picture of themselves on the Internet with the explicit purpose of being for an individual rather than a wider audience. That is to say that webcam girls and other individuals who derive pleasure from the maximum amount of audience is outside the purview of this particular exploration of sexting.

So, returning to the vital question of blame, is it the recipient of the picture who shares it that is ultimately to blame as violating the trust, or is it the person who takes the picture, probably aware at some level that the recipient will share it, as that is the ultimate purpose of the picture?

Julie Kristeva, an amazing critical thinker, wrote an important and relevant essay o abjection. There is fascination with the abjected object, a compulsion to return to the abject over and over again. Kristeva was working off of Lacan's theories, so it shouldn't be surprising that this compulsion idea turns up.

I'm not saying that people who take explicit pictures of themselves are doing so in order to derive pleasure from the pain of the picture being shared. That's possible in some cases, but I think in general, it's not the norm. I'm also not saying that we should blame the people taking the pictures.

However, I am neither blaming the recipient for sharing the explicit pictures. Or rather, I'm not blaming the general tendency to share. On the individual basis, each person should be smart enough to know that sharing the picture is an essential and egregious violation of privacy and trust.

But in the greater cultural discourse, this is totally normalized through the repetition of the act. People are watching more pornography, as they have more access to it than ever, and more people are sharing information instantly. Digg, Stumbleupon, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook are examples of services that are designed explicitly to quickly and efficiently share memes or packets of information. All of the major sites on the Internet are explicitly designed to disseminate information at the highest possible speed.

Why should it be surprising, if the compulsion to share information is totally normalized, and if pornography is normalized, then people are sharing the intimate details other people share already? The public and the private persona are blurring drastically so why is it so surprising that individuals are having a hard time separating the two when making decisions regarding the sharing of information? The Internet totally normalizes and demands that you share as much information as possible (hence my blog) so why should any other packet of information be taboo? If we're asked to share intimate details about ourselves in surveys, on Facebook, on Twitter, then why should other people's information not be part of that. After all, people on the Internet are just names, not faces.

What then does the future hold for the sext? Obviously it's not going away. The data seems to show that it's increasing. But taken with the idea that teens need to be taught by external forces other than their parents (they are not learning from the people closest to them) that the public airing of dirty laundry is unnecessary says something fundamental about our compulsion to share. At what point do we stop and figure that we've shared enough? When do we say to each other "hey, T.M.I.!"

Friday, August 17, 2012

Brief thought


I haven't had the energy to write anything substantial as nothing has really piqued my interest enough. However, I have a brief thought to share.

I'm currently halfway through Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish, and of course, I'm loving it. I read a bit of his stuff earlier in 2011 and wrote a paper about the Department of Homeland Security's use of the panopticon. What attracts me to Foucault is that once you read his basic stuff, you tend to frame the world his way. I look at institutions and discourses in a Foucauldian way.

I wonder if Foucault was ever aware of this irony. If knowing is power, the logical outcome is that I would have power over Foucault's writing because I understand it and can execute it. However, there's a more subtle and probably more real effect here. Now that I understand Foucault's discourse, I am part of his very discourse. He has shaped and altered my thinking well enough to have exercised power over my intellectual body. If everything I read, I put into Foucauldian terms, then truly, Foucauldian discourse has fully absorbed me and indoctrinated me.

Anyway, Discipline and Punish is an amazing read. I'm just getting to the good stuff now. Certainly, I'm already thinking about a paper on Batman, his use of terror, and Foucault.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The 9/11 Wars and The Crusades

If you go onto Expedia.ca and try to look at flights to Aleppo or Damascus in Syria, you won't be successful in booking a vacation. The website doesn't even acknowledge that Aleppo or Damascus even exists, as if disavowing their existence will help curb any desire to visit Syria. The reason, of course, is due to increasing violence in the area. Just yesterday, Aleppo was shaken with constant bombardment. One of the oldest ever-inhabited cities in the entire world, and bombs fly casually, murdering people indiscriminately.

With Syria and the Middle East constantly in the news, or rather, constantly as asides in the mass media in North America, I thought I would do a little self-education and learn about the crisis in the Middle East. But it's disingenuous to call it "the crisis" when it is a complex series of concurrent and nonlinear crises happening in various states across a small area of land that fits neatly into Canada with room to spare.

With the awareness that attempting to understand in totality the problems in the Middle East, I read two books that would serve to provide helpful background information: The 9/11 Wars by Jason Burke and The Crusades: An Authoritative History by Thomas Asbridge.


The 9/11 Wars, written by a journalist embedded in the area for almost twenty years, examines the conflicts and skirmishes resulting from the September 11 attacks in New York City. Burke starts with the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in March 2001 and ends with the Arab Spring in 2011.

Right from the beginning, Burke warns that the text will not and cannot be comprehensive in just over 700 pages (with 200 pages of notes and sources!). Despite this claim, Burke manages to provide enough background detail on the world pre-9/11 to make sense of the complex reality born after September 11th.

The result is, as Burke himself characterizes it, "a complex matrix of history, local specificity and globalization". In other words, my hypothesis that "the crisis in the Middle East" was too complex and fractious to understand in totality holds true. From Pakistan to Afghanistan to the United States to Europe, the world's evolution in a highly rhizomatic direction speaks to the utter intricacy, almost fractal nature of these conflicts.

Using long labyrinthine sentences (form meeting content), Burke manages to take the reader through the lives of the primary protagonists on the ground as well as offer anecdotes of unimportant people in the middle of these conflicts. He draws on a wealth of governmental sources, studies undertaken by academia, studies done by profit-minded corporations and first hand reportage in order to come to a - what else? - complex matrix of conclusions about the outcomes of the 9/11 Wars as well as the future of radical Islamist or Arab Nationalist groups.

The primary conclusion, and I would argue the thesis of the book, is that a fundamental failure by the West to understand Islam not only caused 9/11 but contributed to the relative failure to stabilize the Middle East in the shadow of 9/11. Event after event, Burke details how poor intelligence and poor comprehension of local specificity enabled Islamist groups to resist Western forces or imperialism, depending on who you ask.

In one telling anecdote, MI-6's department for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda totaled 6 or so junior analysts before 9/11. After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the number of linguists whose expertise in the myriad local dialects was still completely below the amount required for the population of English speakers in the area.

Lest the reader thinks that The 9/11 Wars is some apologia for Islam resistance groups, rest assured that barely anybody comes away from the text unscathed. From bin Laden himself to top men in the Western coalition, every single person is excoriated for their failure to provide and protect the very people they swear to represent. Burke ends the book with a disheartening examination of the casualties resulting from the 9/11 wars. His authorial voice seems resigned and disappointed as he lists the possible thousands of deaths from these conflicts. As if a proper understanding of Islam and radical groups could have possibly prevented or at least minimized the bloodshed.


With this in mind, I decided to go back 1,000 years to the Crusades, something I've always been interested, but never enough to read something. Thomas Asbridge's history of the Crusades, published in 2010, claims to be authoritative and comprehensive, as much as could be in 700 pages. Asbridge, a medieval historian out of the University of London, previously published a "new history" of the First Crusade.

Reading The Crusades: An Authoritative History in the context of the current problems in the Middle East frames the history as some sort of progenitor of the conflicts. However, right from the beginning, Asbridge warns against "crusade parallelism" as he dubs. Drawing on copious first hand sources as well as hundreds of other historians, Asbridge presents his history of the Crusades as authoritative because he spends time demonstrating why other historians have got it wrong.

Admittedly, most of my knowledge of the Crusades comes from film (including Ridley Scott's impressive but historically inaccurate Kingdom of Heaven) so I am not in the position to judge whether or not Asbridge's dismantling of previous histories is successful.

Judged as a historical narratives, Asbridge's book is compelling, captivating and utterly illuminating. He wisely spends time sketching out the character of various protagonists of huge importance while skipping over unimportant details of lesser protagonists in the long and complicated history. Considering the Crusades lasted over 200 years, there are a lot of people to name and remember, and Asbridge judiciously chooses which person to present in full.

Obviously, Saladin and Richard the Lionheart feature prominently, with Saladin appearing over the course of 300 pages, making him, in terms of word count, the most presented figure in the entire history. Just like Burke's chronicle of the Middle East, Asbridge does not fully commit to a judgement of the history. Instead, he presents Saladin not as simply either a conqueror or a hero, but as a complex man liable to failures and defeats as well as trying to consolidate the various histories and biographies (and hagiographies) of the man in a more complete and fair way.

In this sense, Asbridge's framing of the history is similar to his framing of the people. Instead of being simply an invasion of the Middle East in the name of religion, the Crusades end up being a complex matrix of history, local specificity (eg. differing tribes and organizations on either side) and the nascent globalization. Asbridge refutes the myth that the Dark Ages were one of stagnation. Instead, the Middle Ages' evolution mirrors the organic development of the very idea of crusading. What starts out as one thing (war for atonement) becomes something else entirely by the end. As urbanization increased, as languages mixed freely, and as trade increased on a global scale, the Crusades become a product of very very early globalization.

Mostly, Asbridge refuses to say that the Crusades were an inevitable "clash of civilizations". He explicitly warns against this conclusion, and demonstrates that crusade parallelism deployed as rhetoric to justify the inevitability of a cultural clash.

In a great bookend to the two reads, Asbridge uses the end of the book to bemoan the state of Crusades-awareness in the cultural discourse. He details various times in the 20th century when politicians, opportunists and radicals have deployed crusade parallelism in order to further their own political agenda. He concludes that it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the medieval conflicts when comparing them to the complexity of the current conflicts.

Thus, in both books, the authors warn against a reductionist approach to the various wars in the Middle East. Any oversimplification of the true matrix of factors could potentially lead to another crisis on the same level as 9/11 due to misunderstanding the intelligence. Of course, it's reductionist for me to stack Asbridge's The Crusades against Burke The 9/11 Wars considering Asbridge warns against this particular avenue. In his view, I am guilty of crusade parallelism as much as Bush or bin Laden.

However, Burke's approach to parallelism is not nearly as dogmatic. While never explicitly referring to the Crusades, Burke does warn against ignoring the long stretch of history behind 9/11. In order to understand the future of Islam, it's vital to comprehend how it's arrived at its current place in the world. It's the most aphoristic of maxims relating to history, but it nonetheless holds true: how do you know where you're going if you don't know where you've been?

Both books are absolutely riveting reads that demonstrated to me, quite completely, how little I understood about the Middle East. This, of course, has simply fueled further curiosity into how the world works. Since I am unable to get on the ground in Syria and in other countries (no thanks to Expedia), it is left to histories and political science to help teach me. No doubt, I have still have much to learn.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Batman and Math


The blast radius of the neutron bomb is said to be 6 miles. Batman must fly the bomb over the bay six miles in order to save the city. He has two minutes on the clock. How fast is The Bat flying in order to save the city?

6 miles / 2 minutes : x miles / 60 minutes
2x = 360
x = 180 miles per hour

Helicopter speeds average somewhere between 120 knots (222kph / 138mph) and 140 knots (260kph / 161mph). But, one helicopter, called the Lynx managed to hit 249 miles per hour. If we assume that Lucius Fox's "Applied Sciences" department invested in high end military grade vehicles and equipment, it stands to reason that The Bat would be a little bit more high end than the average copter.

Thus, it's possible that Batman can fly a neutron bomb into a harbour within two minutes. But if he hadn't spent all the time making the giant bat-symbol made of gasoline (or other accelerant) he would've been able to have more time.