Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Reason for the Season

At a Menorah lighting in Springfield, Massachusetts, a local city councilor has a message:
“Jesus is the reason for the season."

“I thought it added something to the service, it didn’t take away,” [Bud] Williams, who is not Jewish, told MassLive.com on Tuesday night.
Williams went on to say that his message was not meant to be one of "dominance".

I almost can't be mad, because, let's face it, Jesus is the "reason for the season." As it stands, a goodly portion of secular Jews are in some ways more invested in not celebrating Christmas than they are in celebrating the Chanukah (or any other Jewish holiday). I know of a great many Jews who have long since ceased setting foot inside a synagogue, but who take great pride in grabbing Chinese food and a movie on December 25th. We certainly have Jesus to thank for that. More importantly, Chanukah, as every good Jew knows, is a minor holiday that received a battlefield promotion because we needed something to compete with Christmas. If it wasn't for Christmas, Jews wouldn't care (much) about the Festival of Lights.

Then again, as any good historian knows, the reason we celebrate Christmas on December 25 is due to its resonance with various pagan winter festivals. So in reality, the reason for the season is Roman celebrations of the Winter Solstice.

Power Story

The New Yorker has a fascinating profile of Samantha Power, currently America's ambassador to the United Nations. As a longstanding SP admirer, it makes for a good read. Incidentally, browsing through that last link resurrected this gem, wherein Frank Gaffney predicted that Obama was gearing up to invade Israel. I must have slept through that one.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Ranking Assassin's Creed

Assassin's Creed is one of my favorite video game series of all time. It is probably the only series which I constantly preorder, I believe starting from Revalations. I've also played all the console games except Liberation and Rogue (the latter I want to get, but I already switched from a 360 to an Xbox One and it's hard to motivate myself to revert). In any event, those titles won't be on the list. But that still gives us seven games to rank in order. And who doesn't love ranking?

Enough with the preface! Let's begin:

7. Assassin's Creed: Unity

I thought very hard about whether I'm underrating this because I'm playing (and being frustrated by) it right now. But I honestly don't think I am. What clinched Unity's bottom ranking for me is that I largely haven't experienced all the technical glitches that plagued the game's release, and I still have found it inordinately annoying (in fact, the technical glitches worked to me benefit -- Ubisoft promised all of us Season Pass holders a free copy of Far Cry 4 as penance! Advantage, David). First of all, the multiplatform elements (computer, iPhone, etc.) are nothing short of infuriating. They're not fun, they break immersion, basically, they turn what was normally a nice set of mini-game diversions into a giant chore. And if we restrict ourselves to the game proper? Major problems there too.

A lot of basic gameplay mechanics seem to have been eliminated -- what happened to the "whistle" function? And what's there often doesn't seem to work: I gather I'm supposed to attract guards by having them see me and provoking them to give chase, but that basically never works (particularly if you want to stay in stealth). The "cover" system is a disaster under the best of circumstances -- the percentage of cases where "press A to enter cover" has actually succeeded in doing so is well under 50 -- but it borders on farcical once you find out that you can't round a corner while hiding. You need to get up, wander around aimless in plain site for awhile, probably accidentally hide behind the same corner you started in at least once ... it's jaw-dropping. And while I feel like I've said this for every AC game, I could swear that the controls are stickier and less responsive this time around.

To be sure, it isn't all bad. Arno is an average protagonist -- worse than Ezio or Edward, better than Altair or the wretched Connor. I genuinely enjoy the Helix Rift mini-games. Also, I recognize that -- as someone who never plays multiplayer -- Unity may not appeal to my style of gaming (and I do appreciate that they allow the co-op missions to be done single player, so I don't feel like I'm missing out just because I lack gamer friends). But even some of Unity's supposed strengths don't work for me. A lot has been said about the incredible detail that was put into Paris and, in particular, the sheer number of NPCs wandering (or rioting) throughout the city that makes it feel alive. And while I can appreciate that on an aesthetic level, on a gameplay level the main function of all those crowds is to make it really annoying to get from place to place. This is compounded by the decision to have certain common classes of enemy always recognize you, so you're always one step away from being dragged into a fight. And the combat is a drag: I mocked Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor as "Assassin's Earth: Shadow of Arkham", but UnitY only wished it had that games' combat system. In particular, the sharpshooters are wildly overpowered; often times it seems my combat choices are "be sniped while engaging in a sword fight" or "be sniped while running away."

Of all the games in the series, this one might be the only one I've affirmatively not enjoyed. And that makes it the easy choice to place on the bottom of the list.

6. Assassin's Creed

This was a very tough game to rank. Objectively speaking, the original Assassin's Creed had a lot of problems. An unlikeable protagonist. Repetitive mission design. Repetitive level design. You get the idea. If you had me play the original Assassin's Creed and Unity right now, I'd probably enjoy Unity more. There's just so much development we've become accustomed to in this series that the original game lacked. There's a reason it's been described as "proof of concept."

But what a concept it was. When Assassin's Creed came out, there was nothing like it. It was a true open-world, go-anywhere-do-anything game like nothing I'd ever seen. And the way it was located in this neat alternative-history-cum=sci-fi setting was awesome. In a sense, there isn't much to say about Assassin's Creed because it just set the stage for its successors to outshine it. Which they did -- but still, what a stage it was.

5. Assassin's Creed 3

We all knew that Ezio couldn't last forever, but what a comedown from him to Connor. AC3 had a lot of potential, and I give it credit for genuinely trying to be new. The frontier-forest setting didn't really work for me -- it felt empty instead of open (what's the big difference between one tree and another?). Like the space in between the towns in the original game, I didn't really get the purpose of the AC3 frontier. And the oh-so-trendy crafting dynamic was wildly overdone. The American Revolution setting didn't live up to its potential, but that's more the fault of the surrounding elements -- I still think it was a good setting for the game. One problem with moving the series to the colonies is that 18th century America lacked the grand, sweeping architecture of Renaissance Europe. For a series so dependent on verticality and exploration of crumbling churches, this was a dramatic shift and one I personally didn't like.

There's one thing that saves AC3 from falling further down the list, and that was its introduction of naval combat. That was a blast, and forgives a lot of sins. It's no accident that the sequel was naval-focused, nor is it any accident that the sequel was brilliant. In a sense, Assassin's Creed 3 was a lot like the original: a lot of innovation (and an obnoxious protagonist) that maybe didn't work perfectly on its own merits, but definitely shone a path towards something great.

4. Assassin's Creed 2: Revelations

As far as I'm concerned, the top 3 and bottom 3 Assassin's Creed games are indisputable, which means it is likewise indisputable that Revalations is very obviously in the middle. The only one of the Ezio games which was not great, which is to say, it was still very good. People who were complaining about how the series had lost its edge in Revelations got a bitter shock when AC3 came out. In any event, I liked this game. It provided a satisfying resolution to Ezio's story arc (and he remains the only protagonist in the series I actually cared about). The gameplay was not particularly innovative, but since it was based off the near-perfect system developed in AC2 and Brotherhood who cares? We got an early warning of Ubisoft's trend-obsession with that wretched tower defense minigame, which was really the only truly foul note in the game, and Constantinople was clearly inferior to Italy as a setting. But other than that, it was pretty straightforward: fun protagonist, fun story, fun gameplay = fun game.

3. Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag

This was Ubisoft learning from its mistakes (and its triumphs). It took the best element of its predecessor (the naval combat) and made a whole game out of it. It also remember that we don't want whining brooders as our protagonist and instead gave us Captain Jack Sparrow Edward Kenway, who was a lot of fun. Certainly, Black Flag was the most different AC game to come out across the series' history. The naval orientation was like nothing that came before, and it became immediately clear that yes it could support an entire game. The game took full advantage of its shipboard dynamics and really made them work beautifully. Building up my pirate fleet was a great joy, as was storming forts. I actually felt like a sea captain. Oh, and I should also say that the modern-era story in Black Flag Was arguably the strongest yet in the series.

Because so much of the open Caribbean map was water and small islands, the game's cities did sometimes feel a little small. That didn't really impact my enjoyment, but it did certainly cabin the gameplay a bit (and Black Flag was noticeably weaker when it did take you ashore). But still, pirate ship! Cannon fire! Ghost ships! If only I could have gotten my crew to stop singing those damn shanties....

2. Assassin's Creed 2 and 1. Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood

I don't put these two together out of laziness. I think these two are obviously the pinnacle of the series, but I have an irreparable bias. The debate over whether AC2 or Brotherhood is better is primarily philosophical, depending on whether you favor the game that introduced all the best elements of the series and demonstrated how wonderfully they could work, or the sequel which tweaked, fine-tuned, and sanded down what few rough edges remained to produce a truly perfect (albeit by necessity less original) experience. My problem is that I played Brotherhood before AC2, meaning that for me Brotherhood was the best of both worlds: it was novel and innovative while also being fully rounded and improved. So for me, it's obviously the best of the series. If I had played them in order, would I still think so? I don't know -- I go back and forth between Might & Magic VI and VII along precisely these lines.

So I'll just group them together as the clear one/two. Ezio was a great protagonist; he was suave and funny and didn't take himself too seriously. Really, he ranks as one of my favorites across any video game series. The gameplay was well-nigh perfect, combining puzzle/exploration in crumbling ruins with stealth/combat to brilliant effect. The alternative history shone, helped along by great antagonists in the form of the Borgias. Really, these games are what sold me (and, I dare say, the world) that this was a series that had staying power. I've yet to meet anyone who did not think these games were amongst the best they've ever played.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Because We Can

I'm a big proponent of D.C. statehood, in part because I'm a local but mostly as part of a larger commitment to ensuring that all American citizens on American territory have the same democratic and self-governance rights as any one else. Washington's unique position, unfortunately, makes it a particularly tempting target for meddling congresscritters who have objections to how the city's denizens want to run their own affairs. The latest skirmish in this never-ending debate is over marijuana, where a contingent of Republicans wants to block a recent decriminalization law passed in the District:
The situation leaves Republicans in an awkward position — not only contradicting their long-standing philosophical views that the federal government shouldn't meddle in local affairs....
Hey, hey, Politico. This is a serious issue. No need for mockery.

That being said, it is incredible that these GOPers feel no need to even play lip-service to the ideal. Here's Maryland Rep. Andy Harris:
“That’s the way the Constitution was written,” Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) said in an interview Wednesday. “If they don’t like that oversight, move outside of the federal district to one of the 50 states that is not covered by the jurisdiction of Congress as a whole.”
Haha! Being able to control local politics is a privilege for other people. Way to show 'em, Andy! Who else is adopting the "because we can!" line?
“They may have a say, but not the complete say,” argued Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, referring to voters in D.C.
Conservative Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, the House majority whip, said this when asked about reining in D.C. pot laws: “It’s a constitutional responsibility.”

“Washington, D.C. has a lot to offer,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). “Recreational marijuana shouldn't be one of them.”

“Congress oversees the D.C. spending, and that was an item that we felt was appropriate,” said Rogers, whose Eastern Kentucky district has had its own problems with prescription drug abuse over the years.

Asked about interfering on a matter enacted by a huge majority of voters, Rogers said: “I’ll refer to my previous answer.”
To be sure, other congressional Republicans (e.g., Rand Paul, Dana Rohrabacher) The thing about principles is that they aren't worth much if you only adhere to them when you have to. If you actually believe in them, then you follow them even when given the option not. For example, I don't refrain from murdering folks because there are laws forbidding it -- I actually genuinely believe in the principle that murder is wrong. As for Andy Harris, well, I wouldn't plan a trip to Yellowstone with him is all I'm saying.

UPDATE: DC residents have begun flooding Rep. Harris' phones. And while some of them are complaining about the marijuana business, others have just accepted Rep. Harris' stewardship and want him to fix other things. You know, trash, parking tickets -- the sort of local issues that apparently can't be left to folks not living in one of the 50 states. I have to say, this is by far my favorite mode of DC political protest.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Deeply Rooted Response

One of my current projects involves exploring the "race card" response to claims of racial injustice. A large part of why that interests me is because it seems to the retort of choice when faced with any -- and I mean any -- allegation that racism might be an issue. Consider the conservative response to President Obama's statement that "deeply rooted" in America. That's a statement that seems banal, bordering on trivial. It doesn't call any specific person racist. It doesn't attack his political opponents as racist. It just acknowledges, in a vague, general way, that racism is significant problem in America and it won't be solved in a day.

And a good portion of the right went ballistic.

"Playing the race card more overtly than ever before" screams Breitbart.

"How many ways can he insult Americans?" demands the American Thinker.

"So much for that post racial America promise," sneers Gateway Pundit, linking to a speech where the President, um, promised no such thing.

In theory, the "race card" complaint should be reserved for situations where a claim of racism is so patently incredible that the only reason one could bring it up is as a distraction. I'm skeptical that, even on those terms, the "race card" response is ever appropriate because I'm skeptical of our pre-discursive intuitions regarding what sorts of racism claims strike as credible or not. But this response illustrates that the issue is not with particular claims, it's with there being a claim at all. Folks like Breitbart complain about the "race card" almost as a matter of reflex; it's the response of first resort no matter what type of claim is being made here. If it can deployed in as innocuous a case as the one at hand -- a general, even platitudinous acknowledgment of the ongoing power of racism -- there's no circumstance where it won't be deployed.

Monday, December 08, 2014

#JewishPrivilege

On Twitter, "Independent Journalist" Rania Khalek mocks a Jewish college student as "paranoid" for fretting about "tropes about Jewish privilege and domination." After all, who could object to innocent graffiti alleging that "Jewish men run the CIA", or Marx's identification of capitalists as "inwardly circumcised Jews", or the claim that "All Jews run Wall Street. They take over all of the banks. It pisses me off." The real problem, Khalek says, is that we don't discuss the ways in which Jews enjoy "Jewish privilege" (apparently something distinct from the privilege some Jews may enjoy as White, male, heterosexual, etc.).

So to oblige her, I've trying to promote a #JewishPrivilege hashtag (the associated photos are not my own, though they do make wonderful illustrations). Entries include:

* "People think I can summon tsunamis w/my mind #JewishPrivilege"

* "I have the #JewishPrivilege of being only the *2nd* most common victim (per capita) of hate crimes in the US."

* "I have the #JewishPrivilege of being blamed for any global calamity. Seriously: ANY calamity."

* "My mere presence can make even the most committed leftist forget what 'intersectionality' is. #JewishPrivilege"

* "Maybe my #JewishPrivilege is the ability to tirelessly explain the 'buffer theory' of anti-Semitism."

Feel free to add in your own contributions of all the reasons why being a Jew in the world is the cat's meow.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Things People Blame the Jews For: Volume I REDUX!

The very first entry in the "Things People Blame the Jews For" series was the Fukushima disaster. If I recall correctly, the original entrant suggested that Jews had sabotaged the nuclear power plant. But Richard Koshimizu has stepped up -- his claim is that Jews caused the tsunami itself. A right-wing Japanese newspaper issued an apology for advertising these books in its pages.

How, I wonder, were we even supposed to be able to set off a tsunami. I mean, while it is true that the Elders are holding Aquaman in an undisclosed location, it is for his own safety. It is libel, sir, to say we'd ever use his powers for evil.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Requiem for a TNR Dream

When Chris Hughes bought a majority share of The New Republic two years ago, I tolkd folks to "count me as a supporter." This may not have been one of my best decisions.

I haven't been a regular reader at TNR for awhile now -- Jonathan Chait was my must-read author and he's moved over to NY Mag. But I am a regular irregular reader, if that makes sense, and so I do feel invested in its success. My own relationship with The New Republic echoes that of many of the folks I've been reading over the past few days. As a high school debater I found it lively, engaging, and unpredictable -- all qualities I aspired to myself. It certainly was a "formative influence" on me -- for good and for ill (I can certainly attribute my pronounced hawkish tendencies that persisted through most of my college years to the magazine). And at least some of my blogging style -- most notably how I title my pieces -- was very consciously modeled off of my TNR reading. While I don't exactly identify with it, I can't help but give a nod to how Michael Lerner described his college-age self (I'm paraphrasing from memory): "I was a New Republic reader -- I saw through a lot of bullshit, but I didn't really have any interest in the broader structures of power and domination in the world."

Aside from being comfortably ensconced within the mainstream liberal tradition, TNR's most notable quality was its contrarian streak. This was a blessing and a curse. At its best, the magazine challenged its readers to take unexpected and controversial ideas seriously, and created a forum for debate and argumentation that was unrivaled anywhere. At its worst, it elevated genuinely mediocre ideas to a prominent platform with a smug grin about how it was "provocative". The magazine often took great glee in poking its own coalition; so much so that it sometimes didn't matter whether the poke was justified.

Unfortunately, as you may have noticed, The New Republic appears to be in a state of chaos following a mass exodus of upper-level staff and contributors. The instigating event appears to be the departure of well-respected editor Franklin Foer, who was replaced by former Gawker chieftain Gabriel Snyder. That Foer heard about his replacement through external sources added insult to injury (though it did allow him to announce his resignation rather than being fired). Longtime literary editor Leon Wieseltier joined Foer in exiting, and soon a majority of TNR's upper-echelons (and a large quantity of their contributing editors) jumped ship as well.

My first reaction to this was that everybody seemed to be overreacting. To be sure, my first exposure to the breaking story was in Gawker's nyah-nyah post "White Men Upset Wrong White Man Placed in Charge of White-Man Magazine." Aside from the obvious partisanship, this seemed more than a bit cherry-picked (did Julia Ioffe, Hillary Kelly, Rachel Morris, Judith Shulevitz, Anne Applebaum, Ruth Franklin, Sacha Scoblic, Helen Vendler, and Jennifer Homans all get sex-change operations?). But my next thought, of course, was what could possibly be such a big deal as to be prompting this torrent of "RIPs" for the magazine? Everybody seemed to be overreacting. I like Franklin Foer well enough (I've never met him, but How Soccer Explains the World is an enjoyable read), but editors come and go. How we moved from "a leadership shake-up" to "the death of an American institution" eluded me.

The other half of this story appears to be boiled-over discontent at the way Hughes and his minions have been running the company -- basically a blizzard of nonsensical biz school jargon and tech-speak that evinced a conscious disrespect for the magazine's tradition and the value of genuine long-form journalism generally. The nightmare was that Hughes was going to try to convert TNR into a Buzzfeed lookalike with content reduced to a blizzard of attention-grabby but contentless niblets. That the magazine's new CEO reportedly complained that he got bored if he had to read more than 500 words in an article is certainly enough to give any TNR loyalist an aneyurism.

I want to be hopeful. After all, despite its rep Buzzfeed (and Gawker) have actually been moving towards interesting long-form journalism of the sort TNR long exemplified. There seems to be a convergence in the industry, and TNR might be well positioned to exploit that convergence. Yet some epistemic humility on my part is in order. I'm not a member of the media industry, and I don't have any inside information on the magazine. The people who do? Are panicking, and fleeing the magazine in droves. When two-thirds of your masthead cuts ties in the space of a few days, that's a genuine red flag. And it's not clear if TNR's rump staff will be able to right ship.