Saturday, December 30, 2017

New Year's Resolutions: 2018

It's time for New Year's Resolutions -- the only time of year half of you ever read this blog.

2017 edition is here. As a bonus, I've gone back to prior years' posts and added whether I met or missed (or "pick 'em'd") each resolution! This is a feature long requested -- work your way back and relive the memories (this is a work-in-progress).

  • Met: 1, 2 (borderline, but let's be glass-half-full), 3, 4 (just came out!), 5, 6 (JTA and Forward), 8, 9(!), 10, 11, 12, 14
  • Missed: 13 (kidney stone is gone, but we've got no clear idea of why it formed in the first place), 15
  • Pick 'em: 7 (I've been a decently consistent gadfly in the ear of my local ADL representative)

Solid performance! Now for this year:

(1) Get married to Jill. I'm feeling optimistic about this one. (Met!)

(2) Complete my prospectus. (Met!)

(3) Publish or have accepted for publication an academic article. (Met! And it's already getting citations!)

(4) Exercise a non-trivial amount. (Pick 'em -- but I'm proud of myself for even that much)

(5) Attend a conference I have never attended before. (Met -- WPSA!)

(6) Present a paper before the Berkeley Law faculty. (Missed -- but I'm scheduled to do something early 2019)

(7) Meet with all of my advisers at least once (prospectus defense excluded). (Met. I'm 99% confident this is true, at least over the course of the whole year)

(8) Buy new pants. (Met! And they're super comfy)

(9) Buy new shoes. (Met! And they're super stylish)

(10) Have a successful Bachelor Party. (Met! It featured Peking Duck and an Escape Room -- which we escaped from!)

(11) Find a new steak guy (RIP, former steak guy's cattle ranch). (Met! The old steak ranch reopened!)

(12) Finish a draft of "Doctrinal Sunsets" (title subject to change). (Met! It was a brutal slog too, but the draft got done a few weeks ago)

(13) Contact an elected official about something. (Missed? I think? I might have written an email once)

(14) Contribute to a new cause or charity. (Met! I donated to HIAS after the Pittsburgh massacre. And many of my friends joined me)

(15) Convert at least one undergraduate student to Political Theory as a discipline. (Met, and she's jumped in with both feet. It made me super proud!)

Thursday, December 28, 2017

2018 Holiday Interregnum Roundup

What do you call the period between Christmas and New Years, anyway?

* * *

The Huffington Post (H/T: Nancy Leong) profiles a group of Black gun owners -- getting their perspective on why they own guns, the racial history of gun rights in America, and their perspective on potential encounters with the police while carrying. Very interesting. I've blogged a bit on the intersection of race and gun ownership here and here.

Conservative intellectual Max Boot concedes that the anti-racists and the feminists were pretty much right all along about the presence of bigotry in America (and particularly the American right). Max was also the guy who wrote, in February 2016, that "I'm a lifelong Republican but Trump surge proves that every bad thing Democrats have ever said about GOP is basically true."

Rosa Doherty sees a woman she admires say something antisemitic. So she -- gently and privately -- brings it to her attention. It doesn't go well. "If messages sent in good faith, with the hope of deepening understanding, are rejected in favour of hysteria and hate, then 2018 will be as depressing as 2017 has been."

Scott Lemieux: "'Democrats Need To Run People Whose Policy Positions Are Identical To Mine In Every Jurisdiction,' A Useless Political Analysis Editors Love". Yes, yes, and more yes.

Houston imam "mortified" that sermon calling for Muslims to kill the Jews "is being seen as a call for" killing Jews.

"Cornel West Has a Jewish Problem." Even if you think headline is a touch provocative, this is a good column by Yishai Schwartz (I say this as someone who genuinely appreciated the volume West cowrote with Michael Lerner on Black/Jewish relations).

Speaking of Jews, trying to map "The Last Jedi" onto a debate about the virtues of Orthodox versus Reform Judaism strikes me as trying way too hard, but if you must indulge Jenny Singer clearly bests Liel Leibovitz.

This thread has it all:

  • Alt-right troll: "Let me list all the Jews who run the media!"
  • Jew: " You're antisemitic trash. Also, that list isn't even accurate, so you're not even good at making lists of Jews."
  • Far-left Corbynista: "Well they are all 'Zionists', so stop your nitpicking and show some solidarity with our allies in the struggle."

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Review: The Last Jedi

*Warning: Spoilers*

We saw The Last Jedi last night at a theater in Destin, Florida. Apparently, the goyim know about the "see a movie on Christmas" trick (I suppose they all could have been Jews, but we're on the panhandle, so I doubt it).

Overall, I thought the movie was very good. But before we go any further, I should probably address the issue that's at the foremost of everyone's mind. To wit: The Last Jedi decisively proves (as if there ever was any doubt) that Poe Dameron is no Wedge Antilles. By my count, Poe's impulsiveness and "I know best" arrogance ends up ruining carefully-laid Resistance plans not once but twice. Losing the bomber squadron may have been forgivable, but Vice Admiral Holdo's escape plan would have worked were it not for the infiltration plot that Poe decided he just had to try. Poe Dameron has the deaths of literally half the Resistance on his hands thanks to that stunt.

Okay, that's out of the way. Overall, The Last Jedi is clearly better than The Force Awakens. If the latter was a shot-for-shot remake of A New Hope, the former is an amalgamation of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. But not only is it different enough from both of these films to not feel derivative in the way The Force Awakens clearly was, focusing on its original-trilogy predecessors distracts from the bigger influence on The Last Jedi: Rogue One. One of Rogue One's greatest strengths was how it started to turn away from the "one true hero whom everything revolves around" tenor of the series, in favor of a narrative equality between main characters and side players. Like Rogue One, this is a grim movie, and not only does not everyone get a happy ending, not everyone even gets a glorious, cinematic ending. In both major revelations and smaller, more subtle moments, The Last Jedi continues to reinforce a refreshingly egalitarian message that to my mind opens up more storytelling potential untethered to the "What are Luke/Han/Leia and/or their children/relatives/secret lovers up to" well.

Obviously, the big iteration of this is the strong implication that Rey is, in fact, nobody. Not a child of destiny, not secretly related to the Skywalker clan, just ... a nobody, who happens to be force-attuned. But for me, some of the most powerful moments in the film were where it made clear that every member of the Resistance has a rich inner life and story that (for them at least) is on par to that of any of the main characters. The knowing nod between two starfighter pilots as they prepare to take off -- only for both of them to be vaporized when a proton torpedo enters the hanger bay. The bombardier clutching her necklace charm as she desperately tries to complete what she now knows is a suicide mission (this was an effective scene even without the later revelation that she's another major character's sister).

None of these characters "matter" in the grand scheme of the narrative. But people who don't matter, still matter. They have their own lives, motivations, relationships, and personalities, and The Last Jedi does a very good job communicating that throughout the film.

What makes these sequences so effective is that they are not emphasized or given any special significance. Most directors don't bother to pay attention to such side players at all, and those that do often revel in accentuating the head fake ("Oh you thought so-and-so was going to be a main character? Surprise! Laser to the face!" Looking at you, Joss Whedon). By playing it straight, The Last Jedi reinforced one of the most powerful narrative themes there can be in a war movie: everybody has a story, everybody has a narrative, and so having a story and a narrative doesn't make you special and doesn't offer any protection.

From a fan-boy perspective, I appreciated some of the new tactical permutations that were shown in space combat. Getting to see B-wing bombers was pretty cool, and the "slice open the Star Destroyer by hyping through it" was a neat trick (though if that works, it's unclear why the Resistance wouldn't have used it more often as a Kamikaze tactic -- it is a brutally effective way of neutralizing the First Order's capital ship advantage). We can quibble with some details (has nobody invented autopilot yet?), but for the most part I was able to suspend disbelief.

Obviously, the newer iterations of Star Wars are light-years ahead of their predecessors in terms of gender equality. A slew of excellent female characters are well presented and fully fleshed out -- and again, what's most important aren't their presence among the leads (Rey and Leia, though they both are fantastic) but as integrated up and down the supporting cast. Plenty of action movies have one or (maybe) two Strong Female Characters surrounded by a sea of indistinguishable dudes. Rarer is the film wherein women are just a normal part of the universe -- occupying mid-level command posts, serving as infantry grunts, working as unremarkable technicians, and so on. The Last Jedi is exceptional along this front, and deserves much credit for it.

Overall, The Last Jedi was to my mind the best Star Wars film since the original trilogy. I don't really understand the backlash against it, and I do think it works very well as a strong second act setting up a potentially epic Episode IX. So well done Disney, and well done Rian Johnson. The Force is strong in this one.

Assorted bullet thoughts:

  • Where are all the aliens? If the Resistance and the First Order are finally gender-integrated, the conflict still seems strikingly human-on-human. Aside from Chewbacca, I counted one indeterminate alien starfighter pilot and one Sullustan (apparently Nien Nunb -- his fan club can rest easy). There actually could be something darkly amusing if this huge galactic conflict really was basically an intra-human spat and the other species of the galaxy just didn't care ("Humans ... there they go again"), but that doesn't seem to be the message of the film.
  • Captain Phasma continues to hold the "Boba Fett character who seems like a total badass even though she actually doesn't really do anything" award. The Praetorian Guard certainly made a good run at it, though.
  • I love the humor in The Last Jedi. All the major laugh moments do it for me, but the one that really killed me was when Rey "reaches out" to grasp the Force. Mark Hamill's eye roll game is on point.
  • Speaking of, I have mixed feelings towards how Luke is portrayed in the film. I neither love it nor hate it, but I do think that Mark Hamill gives it everything he has. His "brush your shoulder off" move is also on point.
  • Kylo Ren is turning into a pretty solid villain. It might have been interesting had he succeeded in turning Rey, though. Now that would have been a plot twist nobody would have seen coming.
  • I appreciate Vice Admiral Holdo is shown to be competent along all dimensions. Again, her escape plan would have worked had Poe not ruined it. And she also seized an opportunity to escape her captivity when it was presented.
  • Man, Jedi have gotten a lot more powerful in the past few decades. Remember when Yoda could impress us by lifting one starfighter out of a swamp?