F Word

fact or fiction or alternative fact

I am super into comics. I find myself trying to steer conversations towards them so that I can bring them up, and it’s a source of grief that the English department at my university has stopped teaching them. From my experience, one of the biggest barriers between people and comics is how insular the medium might seem.  I feel that most people think it’s all super-ripped white guys saving white ladies in short dresses, right?

Well, that’s not wrong.

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Marvel Comics

But now is the best time to be into comics. The industry is changing, slowly but surely, and we have reached a new golden age in comic storytelling. Kamala Khan became the first Muslim superhero in Ms. Marvel: No Normal (and if you’re looking for a place to start, I highly recommend starting there). Thor is a woman, Spiderman is Latino, America Chavez just went solo this month as a Latina LGBTQ superhero with two moms. There are some super exciting things coming out of DC’s Rebirth line. And Marvel and DC are the ones late to the party.

Image is probably the largest and best-known distributor of creator-owned comics. Creator-owned comics can get weird, but I find them generally much stronger in narrative than in re-hashed legacy characters. Creators can go where they feel the story needs to go, and they don’t have to worry about keeping the character alive for the next writer to pick up the character. This means they go places DC and Marvel can never go, and get downright nasty.

Bitch Planet was called a “feminist masterpiece” by the dude who taught the comics class I spoke of earlier. And it is. It’s fantastic. I ain’t even gonna lie.

Bitch Planet calls out all the teeny tiny patriarchal stuff that isn’t even supposed to matter in today’s society. We can vote, we can drive, we can buy our double-shot soy mocha-ciattos; women have nothing to worry about, right?

Wrong, says Bitch Planet. Wrong, wrong wrong. It is the Third Wave feminism that is skewered so often. The very industry that is so toxic to women I can’t even follow half of my favorite female creators on Twitter is the the same industry that produced this great feminist text. Let’s think about that a moment. Harassment is so bad for female creators that a great deal don’t even have social media accounts, yet women account for nearly 50 percent of comic readers. What’s going on here?

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Image Comics

Feminism is sometimes treated as a dirty word, or a kind of radical misandry. Some misandrists do masquerade as feminists- I’ve met them, so I can’t say they aren’t real. But at the same time, and perhaps this is the fault of all “ism”s, feminism is painted with a broad brush. All feminists are empowered women. All feminists want men in chains. All feminists this – all feminists that- an entire belief system, with branches and sub-sects and disagreements, reframed in whichever pundit’s or talking head’s convenient argument, for or against.

It then becomes a game of exceptions. “It’s okay if you’re a feminist, as long as you shave your legs.” “Being a feminist is okay, as long as you don’t fight over pronouns.” If, But, Except. There’s a line being constantly drawn and redrawn around the definitions of what feminism means and what’s the acceptable way to practice it.

Why is Bitch Planet great? Because of the variety of women portrayed. It is fearless in its advocacy that feminism is important and the need for feminism is real, but it’s also inclusive of many different types of women and what their idea of empowerment is. Women disagree on what’s best in this comic, and women disagree on where women should stand in society. Now, this is an inherently complicated idea, and people can easily become angry or offended in it’s discussion. I think it works in Bitch Planet because it shows all these different women working together for one goal and fighting against the same evil: patriarchy.

Feminism is awesome- and it’s awesome for different reasons to different people. When we play the game of exceptions, it turns the ideology into a game of acceptability. What is acceptable? Equality for all. Period.

Cardassia was never great

blog-header“Duet,” the 18th episode of Deep Space Nine, is often talked about as one of the finest pieces of television ever produced on Star Trek. To be honest, I was only humoring my boyfriend until this episode by watching Deep Space Nine.  I remember looking at him and him looking at me and us staring at each other, speechless, before turning back to the television.

The plot begins simple enough: Major Kira Nerys of Bajor thinks she has nabbed a war criminal from the Cardassian Occupation of her planet. And then it quickly becomes so much more complicated, in ways the viewer is not expecting. The episode is about dealing with a convoluted and painful past on both a personal and patriotic level. What will it take for Cardassia to admit it’s wrongdoings during the occupation? How will admitting guilt help anyone?

I watched this episode for the first time just weeks after Donald Trump was confirmed as the Republican Party’s pick for the presidential race. What incredible timing. Cardassia, in the show, has this conquerer-complex, in that it feels it must establish itself as a power within the Alpha Quadrant by colonizing other star systems. In this case, that meant Bajor. It was expelled, but only after forty years of occupation that was by no means peaceful or easy for the Bajorans. The whole, “Make America Great Again” slogan felt suspiciously similar to the Cardassian ideal of “retaking” what was once theirs.

So much of what the phrase “Make America Great Again” embodies isn’t just economic prowess, it’s also a twisted-kind of political pride. “Duet” is about the isolation that xenophobia and nationalism not only enforces, but creates. Major Kira practically hungers for retribution from her war criminal, so much so that Major Jadzia Dax, her best friend, starts to worry about her.

Kira says, “As far as I’m concerned, if he was at Gallitep [ a labor camp ], he is guilty. They’re all guilty. His punishment will let Bajor feel some… satisfaction.” She directly addresses her planet’s need for reparations. The occupation ended some time ago, but it still rebuilding from more than forty years of suffering.

Dax, the eternal voice of morality and long-term-consequences, says, “It sounds like you’re trying too hard to believe what you’re saying. You already know, if you punish him without reason, it won’t mean anything. And you already know, vengeance… isn’t enough.”

The war criminal isn’t who he says he is. In fact, he’s just a lowly file clerk, who worked for the infamous war criminal. He has surgically altered himself specifically for the purpose of being arrested and convicted in a Bajoran court. He feels the guilt of his inaction during the occupation, and sees the Bajoran need for closure.

We see Kira grow and understand that reconciling the two planets isn’t as simple as killing off a few war criminals. Instead, she tells Marritza to go back to Cardassia and be a voice for Bajor there.

“Make America Great Again” to me seems like a message of nostalgia. It also seems oversimplified. In “Duet,” Kira and Marritza together realize that to make a difference and heal their own country’s scars they must acknowledge their wrongdoings and aspire to a new ideal. Both cultures, of Bajor’s anger and Cardassia’s refusal to admit fault, need to change in order for both move on.

This is a powerful message of not only forgiveness, but the kind of galvanization that can’t fit on the brim of a trucker cap. It’s not black and white, or a matter of pretending nothing ever happened. What needs to happen between the fictional places of Bajor and Cardassia is much more complicated than that. So I can only imagine how difficult it would be for someone that’s real, like us.

Your Ticket Out of Here

snowpiercerThe middle class is stagnating. 2015 was the first year when the middle-class didn’t make up the largest economic demographic in America. It was a big part of the campaign for both sides, with Trump wanting to “bring back the jobs” and Bernie Sanders advocating for a minimum wage of $15. It is more and more difficult to climb that ladder and more and more expensive to buy a piece of the American Dream.

Snowpiercer, the movie, is about a train in a post-apocalyptic ice-world. The passengers’ stations in life are designated by their ticket. There is no advancement. There is no moving between train cars.

Mason, the frigid mouthpiece for Conductor says: “In the beginning, order was proscribed by your ticket: First Class, Economy, and freeloaders like you… Now, as in the beginning, I belong to the front. You belong to the tail.”

One of the biggest ideas in America is the ability to move up in the class system. It’s not Jacobian Europe, where someone has to be born into the middle class. And yet, it’s obviously not a perfect system either. Money buys good schools and good schools mean more money. Those without the advantage of a private school or a very good public school have to work a little harder. That’s the basic essence of privilege, a term I’m sure we’re all familiar with. This doesn’t mean that life is easy for those who go to a good public school or private school, because life is always hard. But it’s a way to acknowledge that certain chances are statistically more likely to happen to those of a certain income bracket. They can afford intangible things like gap years or second chances. Not necessarily an easy ride, but a ride with safety nets and airbags.

Snowpiercer is more than a story about class, it’s about class mobility. The protagonists have to literally fight their way to the front of the train, dying off one by one until only one man remains to meet the conductor. It’s not even as if the people closer to the engine of the train believed the people towards the back deserved to suffer and starve. They simply believe those in the back of the train are freeloaders, and are lucky to get what they have. They eat bug-jelly made in vats that the “middle-carriage” people supply the poor. The “last carriage” people live by the grace of others. Resources are scarce. The train can only support so many people.

In the end, the protagonist who reaches the end of the train manages to destroy it. He judges that society doesn’t deserve to perpetuate itself if others must suffer under such circumstances. Talking to other people who had watched the movie, some were confused and angry. The characters were presumably the last people on Earth, so surely such suffering was necessary? Though the fact that the system needed to be destroyed and be rebuilt I imagine the writers and director intended this as a metaphor

I think this is a very absolute view of a very nuanced problem. It’s not a simple matter of “haves” and “haves-nots,” it’s also a matter of “wants” and “shoulds” and “needs.” The fact that the middle class is stagnating is a very disturbing problem, but it’s one we need to approach with a flexible mindset. The story of Snowpiercer is, after all, pure fiction.

It was All a Dream

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The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “Far Beyond the Stars” tells the story of a struggling black science fiction writer (Avery Brooks, who usually plays the captain of the titular space station). He sells stories to a local magazine with the caveat that his characters are always white. They have to be, in order to sell. Breaking his usual form, “Benny” (usually “Ben” on his space station) writes a story about a future in which a black man is in charge of a space station. This is, incidentally, is his actual “future” in the sense that he is actually writing the story of Deep Space Nine. However, the magazine won’t publish it because his main character occupies a position of power and isn’t white. Eventually the magazine changes the story to have been the day-dream of a shoe-shine boy, “Dreaming of a better life.”

“But this will gut the story,” another writer from the magazine says in protest.

“I think it makes it more poignant,” offers another.

“Benny, what do you think?” the editor asks. Benny assents to the change in the story.

The story is literally ripped off the presses, and the owner of the magazine fires Benny.

The episode ends with Captain Sisko, the one we’re used to- not Benny, waking up. The Prophets (long story) have been playing with his “neural transmitters” again and have been sending him visions this entire time. It was all just a dream.star trek ds9 sisko far beyond the stars benny russellstar trek ds9 sisko far beyond the stars benny russell

Most people dislike the “it was all a dream” ending. There are good reasons for that dislike. It does delegitimize the entire experience the viewer just watched and it probably does take away from the meaningfulness of the story. However, I think in this case it offers up an interesting point of conversation. Does making Benny’s struggles into a dream invalidate the lessons we learned?

During the episode, I found myself thinking of the Black Lives Matter movement. BLM activists have often been criticized not for their goal of addressing police brutality but about their particular brand of protest. They are often associated with the less-than-peaceful  demonstrations that rocked the cities of Boston, Charlotte, and the town of Ferguson. Critics say their protests grow too violent; their goals are too nebulous. Of course, this stems largely from the fact that BLM is a very large, segmented movement. There is no one “leader” and there is no one “set of rules.”

I’ve always felt there’s been this underling message of, “Go back to capital hill and make your difference there, like those before you did.” However, BLM activists maintain that this only just worked for their forefathers. They say the system is still broken.

Danielle Fuentes Morgan writes on Al Jazeera, “They are physical proof that respectability politics are invalid and that the system was never built with black people in mind.”

Coincidentally, a character named Jimmy from “Far Beyond the Stars” argues the same thing. He’s shot by police ten minutes later in the episode.

Benny protests his circumstances by writing a story about a strong black character. Other black characters in the episode try to dissuade him from doing so, arguing that white people will never publish a story about a black man. Instead, Benny’s girlfriend is trying to buy a diner and become a business owner.  One of their friends is a major baseball player in the city. The unspoken mentality is, If we can keep our heads down and just take what they’ll give us one step at a time, we’ll get there eventually. The only opposing voice is Jimmy, who is portrayed as suspect and a thief. Jimmy’s character stands for the, They won’t give it over until we take it from them mentality, most like BLM. And we know how he ends up.

So which is the most effective way to make a difference in the world? Is it not a matter of attitude, but a matter of technique? The civil rights activists of the 1960s were considered revolutionary for merely sitting in a public place marked ‘Whites Only’. The BLM movement is decidedly less passive. I think few would say their cause is a useless one, but they are endlessly associated with the more negative effects of their protests. Does the pushback actually harm their cause, or does BLM need to be loud and proud to make a difference?

“Far Beyond the Stars” poses the question of valid protest through the trope of It Was All a Dream. Captain Ben Sisko takes his lessons learned in his visions seriously, but the audience is left to decide for themselves. Did the episode have a point if there are no actual consequences from story, because it was all a dream? But how far can we go to make a point, before the lessons learned become too preachy, or the methods used to get there too extreme?

Is it even possible to have protest that makes a difference when there are no consequences from a protest? Could sit-ins even work today in the 24-hour news-cycle that is our societal consciousness? That is, do we learning anything from “Far Beyond the Stars,” even though it was all a dream? I think it’s possible to. I also think it’s possible to disagree. I personally believe it’s impossible to have one uniform set of rules for protest throughout all of time. What worked for fictional aliens probably wouldn’t work for us.

Threats Both Foreign and Domestic

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District 9 re-imagines the classic alien invasion as a refugee story. It’s a powerful movie, directed by Neill Blomkamp and produced by Peter Jackson. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, including best picture. District 9 tells the story of a government worker who is accidentally transformed slowly into the aliens he’s supposed to monitor. The aliens have landed after ostensibly fleeing from their own home-world. After a brief celebration it quickly becomes clear that all those other movies skipped over the part where the aliens need resources and documentation. They are, after all, refugees, and who wants to deal with some few thousand of those?

I am constantly reminded of Disctrict 9 in today’s migrant politics. And it is its own breed of politics. From those who brave the Mediterranean to those who cross mountains at night, safe soil might as well be galaxies away and yet they go. On the weekend of January 30th the president passed a law that immediately prohibited those of certain countries and immigrant statuses (which was quickly recalibrated by the Defense Department) from coming back into the States. The #muslimban quickly went viral. His administration has also assured the public that the infamous “border wall” is really happening, and it looks as though the American taxpayers will foot the bill.

The point is not to discuss the various injustices, but about what this says to the people on the other side of the wall.

District 9 ends with Christopher, an alien, stealing away the mothership and leaving. Because it is a “found footage” movie, talking heads analyze the situation before the credits roll. People are frightened now. The aliens haven’t been treated well, but now that one of them has left and ostensibly gone back to alert the rest of the aliens, who’s to say he won’t come back with an actual invasion in a few years? The aliens have been persecuted and now, for the first time since they’ve landed, they have the capability of revenge.

The biggest idea behind the #muslimban and the wall is that our country is ostensibly under attack from migrants, and it must be protected from them. As the online edition of the New York Times said that weekend, “Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, said Mr. Trump simply did what he had promised on the campaign trail and would not gamble with American lives.”

They must be contained, for the safety of both our peoples and theirs. A few but prominent conservative politicians would even argue that their core values come into direct opposition with Western values, the same way aliens are portrayed in District 9. They are too strange, and dangerous to anything that stands in their way, so it’s best to have the authorities make the big decisions and keep everyone as safe as possible.

The aliens in the movie are criticized for their drain on the South African economy and their use of resources without giving anything back. It’s not discussed whether integration in the government committees assigned to the aliens or in the workforce have ever been tried. I don’t think that’s the point Neill Blomkamp was trying to make.

The unwillingness of humans to change is what created this mess in the first place. No one wants these aliens, no one wants their drain on resources, no one wants them endangering their families. However, because they are kept separate there is a lot of suffering going on. And that backfires.

History has taught us time and time again that screwing over an entire peoples just because you have the power to will eventually come back around. Rome was sacked by the Visigoths who came to the Roman countryside as refugees and were starved and turned into slaves.

That doesn’t make it right, of course. This isn’t a game of “getting even.” But it does introduce the danger of someone stealing away a mothership, and coming back to us with an armada. Is that a risk we can take?

 

Fact or Fiction or Alternative Fact

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The English professor who teaches the science fiction class at the University of Missouri defines the genre as a “thought experiment,” A way to see how something might play out, given time, or way to examine alternative solutions to a problem we face. It is a creative exercise and a problem-solving technique. Science fiction is an expression of culture but also cultural problems. American science fiction in the 1950s was about the importance of individualism (read: communism). American science fiction in the 1970s is about colonialism (read: Civil Rights and the Vietnam War). I’ve always been fascinated by how our deepest fears as a society come out in stories about aliens and starships. Even Frankenstein’s Monster, the first science fiction novel, is often thought to express the fear of science without religion.

Most science fiction stories, by that thinking, are psychological horror stories. It feels like an accurate description of today.

 

 

George Orwell’s 1984, written in 1949, is a staple for high school English classes. It’s got symbolism, it’s got overtones of communism, it’s got an identifiable protagonist and antagonist, and it values individualism and knowledge. It is a classic American sci-fi novel, with all the trappings and messages that high school classrooms want to push onto students. Until a few days ago, that’s all it was, before Kellyanne Conway offered Sean Spicer’s “Alternative Facts.” Now it’s topped Amazon’s best-seller list for the first time in years.

1984 introduced the pop-culture ideas of “doublethink,” the ability to have contradictory truths, and “Newspeak,” the narrowing and defining of a conversation. Hell, it was 1984 that originated the term “Big Brother.”

During CNN’s show “Reliable Sources” Washington Post reporter Karen Tumulty said, “It just immediately reminded me of doublethink, and war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength. There’s really no alternative to the facts.”

“Unless you can have pretty much everybody agree to precisely what the truth is and what the reality is, it really – it’s hard to imagine a situation where people then can sit down and negotiate and figure their way towards solutions.”

It’s also a problem if the government can feel it can define the narrative, rather than public media sources. Sure, it’s always tried, but I feel as if other administrations have been more subtle about it.

Conversations on the internet have been bringing up other books that discuss problematic constraints on knowledge, such as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

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via Penguin. Cover design by David Pearson. 

An important thing to note in 1984 is that Big Brother wins. Love and hope is vanquished by the protagonist’s own fear and dependency upon his government. In the end, it wasn’t so much that “Newspeak” or “doublethink” persuaded the protagonist, it was that he knew other truths and greater knowledge and was conflicted on what to believe. He had been conditioned to doubt himself and his experience, and that is how he lost.

But most importantly, Orwell wanted to express with his book the importance of language and how language can define not only attitudes but control thoughts themselves. Orwell wrote this novel specifically to warn against totalitarianism in the West. In a way, he’s succeeded in putting the specter of “Big Brother” and “doublethink” into national consciousness, but he failed to account for the news media gradually becoming more untrusted, public apathy, and how quickly things can change.

The protagonist lost because he couldn’t even trust himself anymore. So if we look at Kellyanne Conway’s gaff from the perspective of 1984, who will be the real danger to democracy?