Saturday, October 25, 2014

A Night of Disappointments

Last night, Jill and I saw the finale of Project Runway Season 13. That was not the disappointment -- this was a good season and all four of the finalists were very likeable. I felt bad for Kini, who I thought was a little underappreciated by the judges all season, but based on the final collections I agreed that Amanda and Sean were the clear top two. And I also agreed with how the judges described the choice between them. Sean was more editorial, creative, novel, and high-fashion. Amanda, by contrast, has a very clear and authentic brand that she is creating. One thing I love about Amanda is how genuine she seems to be -- as a person and as a designer. A lot of times when a designer presents a clear point of view, it can feel concocted or performative rather than organic. With Amanda, it is very clear that she designs this way because this is who she is, which is part of the reason why I enjoy her designs (and respect the hell out of her) even though it isn't actually really my aesthetic.

So either one would have made a deserving winner. As I said, this was not the disappointment.

Following Project Runway, the natural thing to do was to watch Project Runway: Threads. I was genuinely excited for this show -- Project Runway! With adorable kids! Hell, we'd already seen this exact formula work great with Masterchef Junior! What could possibly go wrong?

Well, for starters, the show doesn't follow the Project Runway model. It's not one season-long competition, it's a series of self-contained episodes featuring three new kids each week. Which means I don't have time to get to know any of them, or care about any of them. The presence of their parents as "assistants" adds a lovely dimension of additional awkwardness (and giving the winner of the first challenge the right to use her opponents' mom as a helper couldn't possibly backfire). But all of that perhaps could have been forgiven were it not for the host: Vanessa Simmons. I don't know if I've ever grown to hate a television personality as quickly as her. Seriously -- it took about a sentence, two at the most. Even Zanna Roberts Rassi lasted longer. She's infantalizing and patronizing and just generally horrible. And the real victim here is Christian Siriano, who I think really could excel at hosting a show like this were it not just an all-around catastrophe.

So we turned off Threads after about 20 minutes and went on the prowl for something else to watch. How about the remake of As You Like It Much Ado About Nothing*? This is a clash of the titans, pitting something I love (Joss Whedon) versus something I hate (Shakespeare). And Whedon was backed up by a few more of my favorite people in the world (Amy Acker! Fran Kranz! Nathan Fillion! Reed Diamond! Sean Maher!). So I came in optimistic. But once again, I didn't last long. I don't mind modern adaptations of Shakespeare plays (Ten Things I Hate About You is a favorite), but when they actually use the vernacular it drives me bananas -- especially when it is set in the modern day. It's jarring and confusing and makes me work to understand what's going on even on the most superficial level. We lost patience about 15 minutes in.

Next came Call the Midwife. A few folks had recommended this to us, and since all British shows are interchangeable to me I'm like "1950s Downton Abbey! Sure, sign me up!" Now, Call the Midwife gets some credit in that we made it through the entire episode. And Jill actually liked the show on its merits, so there's that too. But for me, none of the characters left any imprint whatsoever. There's the main nurse, whose entire personality and emotional range can be summed up as "somewhat shocked middle class". There's, um, the crazy nun. And some other nuns. And some other nurses. I did love the bilingual family in the first episode, but I can't imagine they'll be too recurrent. Other than that, I could not tell you anything about anyone, including the main character.

So finally, I decided to play some Shadow of Mordor. I had beaten the main quest before leaving for DC, but I figured I could still clean-up on some side quests. And I'd now like to supplement my flash review. Nothing I said there is false, per se, but this is a very short game. It can be beaten quickly, and without much effort, and after that there is not all that much to do. By the time you win the game, your ranger is ludicrously overpowered -- there really weren't any opportunities to engage in the back and forth rivalries with orc captain and warchiefs that made the middle of the game so fun. So basically, I'm left with an Xbox One and nothing to do on it, at least until Assassin's Creed comes out.

* While this mistake is itself illustrative, I will point out that As You Like It was one of the few plays I recall semi-enjoying during the death march through the Shakespeare canon that characterized my middle and high school English education. So if anything, I was spotting them a few extra points.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Liberals (Mis)Theorize the Rural

A few years ago, Lisa Pruitt published an important article in the Utah Law Review entitled Toward a Feminist Theory of the Rural. The paper argued that feminists, typically situated in urban centers or university towns, had constructed women's experience in a way that generally did not encompass or encounter women who lived in rural areas. For example, "spatial isolation, lack of anonymity, and a depressed socioeconomic landscape" all are characteristic aspects of rural living that alter the efficacy of particular strategies for women's liberation. Moreover, the (sub)urban bias of dominant feminist theory generally does not engage substantively with cultural aspects of the rural that may be important to many women's identity.

Pruitt's article is in many ways a simple extension of similar criticisms and extensions other outsider-groups had leveled at feminist scholarship for decades. Early feminist constructions of women's experience resonated with a particular type of woman who shared a social strata with the authors -- generally white, middle-class suburban women. These women could relate to the barriers facing women who wished to work rather than stay at home as housewife, or who experienced the "cage" of puritanical sexual norms. But poorer women scoffed at the notion that there was anything radical about women working -- they had been doing so for years. Likewise, Black women whose bodies were considered property of White men and whose sexuality -- far from an image of pure White maidenhood -- was constructed as hyperactive and unconstrained related very differently to the movement toward sexual "liberation".

I was thinking about this when reading the reports of a rural Nebraska school district which is allowing its seniors to pose with guns in their senior yearbook photos. There is a lot of liberal snickering over this policy -- Jezebel is typical -- that I think deserves a prized spot in the dictionary for urban elitism. Jezebel's stock photo, which looks like the poster for a femme fatale action movie, fails utterly in its portrayal of how gun ownership and usage is situated within the community in question. The locals who support this policy note, accurately, that hunting and sport-shooting are important parts of the local culture, and for many of the students these activities are as central to their identities as being a soccer player or trombonist. The school board guidelines block photographic poses which are threatening or sexualize violence (more than one can say for Jezebel's photo -- though incredibly, they turn around and accuse the district of being backwards precisely because it is guarding against the toxic combination of sex and violence). And there's little evidence that the students in question have any interest in incorporating guns into their photos except as an expression of their heritage and cultural practices.

In short, the image of guns is very different where I grew up than in many rural communities. In Broken Bow, a teenager holding a gun is not culturally associated with an imminent school shooting. Citing to the threat of such atrocities suppresses the particularities of rural experience into a "general" (really, specifically urban/suburban) outlook on guns that would be quite foreign to their experience. Importing our own cultural meanings onto rural communities is no different than any sort of hegemony. I don't want folks from Broken Bow dictating how urban-dwellers in DC relate to guns, and I have no intention in doing it back to them.

I'm not personally an enthusiast of guns. I certainly didn't grow up in a gun family; I've shot a gun once in my life (at a range, and not very accurately -- I think I nicked the paper once). My dad swears that in Coast Guard Basic Training he never passed riflery. I support a variety of regulations to ensure guns are kept out of the hands of criminals and to minimize the risk they pose to the American populace. I've co-authored briefs on this score while in private practice, and I even at one point contemplated working for the Brady Center. Yet I've never considered myself "anti-gun" per se. Guns are dangerous and that justifies careful regulation and control, but they're also an important and legitimate part of many people's culture and heritage. Communities, particularly rural communities, have themselves often developed norms of healthy gun ownership and usage which are worthy of respect. Put simply, guns have a different cultural valence in Broken Bow, Nebraska than they do in San Francisco, California or Chicago, Illinois. And that's okay! There's space for pluralism in firearms culture. This doesn't mean there will never be policy disputes over guns, and I think plenty of common-sense gun regulations impose minimal burdens on reputable gun buyers and sellers. But the point is that these debates should not ignore cultural context, regardless of whether that context is Chicago or Broken Bow. This whole discourse risks of making fun of the bumpkins, and it should sit very uncomfortable.

Her Approval Fills Me With Shame

Now I've seen everything. Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin -- maybe you've heard of her -- has endorsed the fusion Independent/Democratic ticket in the Alaska governor race; snubbing incumbent Sean Parnell (Palin's former Lieutenant Governor). The source of the fight seems to be Parnell's decision to dismantle a Palin-era program that had resulted in more progressive taxation policies against oil and gas companies (yes, really). Palin fought hard to overturn Parnell's decision and restore the tax program (every sentence I write is more and more absurd to me), but ultimately fell short in a ballot referendum earlier this year.

So there you go -- Palin and I, united in Alaska politics. Who would have ever thought?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Blowing the Senate from Sharron Angle to Pat Roberts

Once again, Republicans are agonizingly close (I assume it's agonizing regardless of whether you're a Republican or a Democrat) to gaining control of the Senate. The last time we were in this position was 2010, when what seemed to be a clean shot at wresting control of the chamber was the victim of a series of bizarre primary decisions by GOP voters enamored with the far-right. Sharron Angle in Nevada -- by far the most extreme candidate the party could have put forward in that swing state -- was an opponent even a badly-damaged Harry Reid could beat. Christine O'Donnell knocked off popular moderate Mike Castle in the primary, then became possibly the first Senate candidate to have to declare "I am not a witch." Ken Buck was similarly tagged as an ultra-conservative that allowed a fractured Colorado Democratic Party to hang onto Michael Bennet's seat. In 2012, the same thing happened -- Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana costs the Republican Party easily winnable Senate seats, once again allowing the Democrats to maintain their majority. The conventional post-mortem was simple: the only reason Democrats are in charge is because the GOP could not rein in its extremists.

Now it's 2014, and once again the GOP is knocking on the gates of a Senate majority. I'm not saying they won't get it this time -- indeed, polls suggest they're favored to finally burst through. But in the event they don't flip the chamber, a lot of attention will be placed on one man: Senator Pat Roberts. In a year where Republicans are competing well in quintessential purple states like Colorado, Iowa, and North Carolina, the idea that blood-red Kansas -- Kansas -- could once again keep them in the minority must be absolutely maddening.

Unlike the names listed above, though, Roberts is no Tea Partier. Indeed, he turned back a tea-flavored challenge from physician Milton Wolf in the primary. So, if Roberts does lose his reelection bid (and cost the GOP the Senate?), would that be demonstrative of an opposing conclusion from that drawn from 2010 and 2012 -- that it would be insufficient conservatism that would be to blame for another Republican shortfall?

I see the appeal of hte argument, but I'm not convinced. For starters, it cannot explain the similar struggles conservative hero Sam Brownback is experiencing in attempting to keep his gubernatorial seat. The real answer lies in the internal dynamics of the Kansas Republican Party. Outsiders who only know Kansas' rock-ribbed Republican tradition are often unaware of the ongoing civil war within the state party that has been raging for years now between moderates and conservatives. The fight has gotten so bitter that it is fair to say Kansas is a three-party state -- the conservative Republicans, the Democrats, and the moderate Republicans (who have often worked with the Democrats and have lined up behind Democratic gubernatorial candidate Paul Davis). Fratricide amongst Republicans is dragging their whole ticket down -- pretty much any candidate will be reviled by some important constituency.

Roberts, for his part, seems to suffer from being neither fish nor fowl. He's certainly not known as a conservative firebrand, and thus inspires no great love from the tea party set. On the other hand, in national Republican politics there really isn't much space for a Senator of the style emblematic of the rump "moderate" wing of the Kansas GOP. So Roberts lacks a strong base of support in any part of his base -- a problem no doubt compounded by his having essentially abandoned Kansas (he gaffed that he returns to the state "every time I get an opponent").

In any event, this will all be moot if either (a) Roberts wins or (b) the GOP seizes control of the Senate in spite of his defeat. But I wanted to go on the record in advance, because good political commentary doesn't erly on 20-20 hindsight.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Negation of the Jew

Shlomo Sand's latest project is to "cease considering myself a Jew". Hey, as far as I'm concerned, all power to him. While his arguments bear an alarming resonance with those of "proud self-hating Jew" Gilad Atzmon, Sand's rationale for why he wishes to disavow his Jewish identity also sound as extensions of his prior scholarship (The Invention of the Jewish People). There, as here, Sand takes general characteristics common across a variety of different cultures and ascribes at worst a uniqueness, at best a special virulence, as applied to Jews. Sand's desire for a universalist identity may well be sincere; I don't pretend to know his heart. But I can say with confidence that he is chasing a fool's errand. The type of unmarked universalist human identity Sand claims Jewishness stands in fundamental conflict with (and should ask here what makes Jewishness, amongst all of the other identities humans claim to possess, so special here) is chimerical; it does not exist. I understand its allure, but its practice has long since been revealed to be a mask for the dominant culture -- those who have dominated the conversation for so long that they mistake the sound of their own voice for silence. If Judaism stands out as a distinct chord, that is nothing but a function of its backdrop.

Some folks have been responding to Sand's missive by declaring that no matter what he might prefer, anti-Semites will never stop considering him to be a Jew. I think that probably depends on the anti-Semite -- apostates can be very useful, after all. But while Sand may succeed in ceasing to be a Jew, he will never stop being an ex- Jew. The fact of his former Jewishness will never cease being part of how he relates and is related to global conversations; whether it is as the irredeemable traitor who followed the well-worn path or as the bold rebel who speaks truth to Jewish power. In this respect, Sand will remain marked, remain partial, remain "special" -- for the rest of his career. More than a little poetic, if you ask me.