Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Javiera y Los Imposibles – "Eyes Without a Face"

A cover by a Chilean band of one's of Billy Idol's more intimate, evocative songs (which takes its name from a French horror film).

Sunday, January 27, 2013

International Holocaust Remembrance Day 2013: Train

Last year, we looked at the Nazi-era board game Juden Raus, so it seemed appropriate this year to look at Brenda Brathwaite's unconventional game, Train.

The Wall Street Journal gives a very good introduction with its 2009 video and interview, "The Board Game No One Wants to Play More Than Once":

The entire interview is short and worth reading in its entirety, but here are some key sections:

Not all players have the same experiences. I understand that someone who played the game compared it to “Halo”?

Yes, that has happened only once, and it was incredibly surprising to me, to the other players and to the people watching. It is not a common experience. The woman later told me she felt guilty about it, though. I think her callousness was an incredible learning opportunity for all of us. Some people approach the game and see it for what it is immediately, and their reaction is no less visceral than those who play the game. There are those who play all the way until the end and then realize where the trains were going – and it is such a steep drop. People become nauseated. Their faces flush. People have cried. There is always a one-hour period of discussion after (or two hours at MIT).

With that singular “Halo” exception, no one has ever wanted to play again. There is then the second experience, one of watching the game being played. I have watched it dozens of times now, and it still nauseates me when people put the passengers in the cars. I am fascinated when one player figures it out – puts it together – and suddenly stops his or her progression toward the end and instead works diligently to thwart everyone else. This player will often immediately request the rules wondering how he or she can subvert the system to save everyone. The dynamics of the experience are fascinating, moving and emotional for everyone, me included.


Why do you think games are a good medium for approaching difficult periods of history such as the Holocaust? I’d imagine some could argue that making a game trivializes the subject matter.

They could and have argued that, but it doesn’t. It makes it extremely powerful, and I haven’t shown the subject any disrespect. I’ve created an experience through interactivity, much like museums have created an experience through the use of image and sound and space. I think games are a good medium for approaching any subject, particularly difficult ones, because by their very nature, they are abstract, invite interaction and allow us to confront and question things… particularly rules that we may blindly follow.

A game is all I know. I don’t work in another medium. I saw the power that it had when I used a game to teach my daughter about the Middle Passage. So I don’t see it as something that trivializes. Rather, I see it as the medium finally reaching a new potential.

Do you think the public has a narrow definition for the term “game”? I’d assume most people associate the term with having fun.

We’ve learned that game = fun. So, yes, we have a narrow definition for it, but I believe that definition is expanding. As an artist working in this medium, I want it to expand. Imagine if someone said all books or movies or paintings had to be fun? A game is an interactive experience which has goals, a clear end and a set of rules. I think anyone who considers the systems that are presented in my series will see the full potential of games to explore the human experience. If you consider something like Risk seriously, how fun is that? It’s only fun because we’re able to abstract the domination and destruction. In Train, that’s nearly impossible.

As a note, I never once refer to Train as a game in the rules, and I also never refer to the participants as players.

This TED video doesn't have much on Train itself, but explains a great deal about its genesis and Brathwaite's mindset:

She also discusses Train starting about 27 minutes into this hour-long talk at the Game Designers Conference, including her conversations with a rabbi, and the positive and negative reactions to Train. (The whole talk relates to the game, though, and is worth watching.) As she mentions, Train is intentionally designed to allow "rules-lawyering," so that the players have choices, and can also become complicit.

The Board Game Geek entry has a little more, Sande Chen shares her interesting reflections on the game, and Ben Crair at The Daily Beast also wrote on it. Brathwaite has presented her work at the Games for Change Festival, among other venues.

It's very important that the board game component is always followed by a discussion (usually up to an hour, although the MIT session was two hours). The discussion is an essential part of the experience. "Playing the game" can stir up some uncomfortable feelings (some participants cry), and it would be irresponsible not to allow the participants a chance to process and reflect on it all. (In several ways, Train reminds me of the Milgram experiments.)

I've read a few criticisms of the game, for instance that it doesn't capture the mindset of Germans sending Jews and other Holocaust victims (political opponents, homosexuals, gypsies/Roma, etc.) to the death camps, in that key Germans weren't unaware of what was going on. That's true, but I'd also suggest that that reaction misreads the intent of the game. I haven't "played" Train, and if I did, couldn't do so from a point of innocence. Still, I can imagine one's natural competitive instincts turning to horror. Given the iconography of the game, I suspect I'd guess the references; Brathwaite has recounted that some people get it at first glance, and furthermore, that even an explicit refusal to "play" on that basis actually does constitute "playing" the game. The object of certain artists is to jar the audience out of their everyday thinking (Beckett and Brecht come to mind). Train is aiming to do just that, and has apparently been fairly successful at it.

Consider the genesis of the game, and Brathwaite's story about her young daughter talking about the Middle Passage without really understanding it. The point of it all isn't about capturing the German mindset; it's about jarring the participants out of theirs, to shock them out of blithely recounting events without really thinking or feeling about them. If during the debriefing, a group of participants and observers choose to discuss (among other things), the mindset of Germans, they're perfectly free to do so. The explicit rules of Train and its game mechanics are intentionally simple, but how the participants actually play the game, and what they choose to discuss afterward, both allow for a great deal of freedom (again, intentionally).

The Middle Passage game improvised by Brathwaite made her daughter personalize the playing pieces and families; similarly, the excellent Holocaust museum in D.C. asks each visitor to the permanent exhibit to take a card that contains a name, photo, and biography of a real person who lived during the Holocaust. Visitors carry the card throughout the exhibit, and can research more about their person afterward. Meanwhile, Art Spiegelman's Maus uses both a distancing effect and meta-narrative techniques in recounting the tale of his father, a Holocaust survivor. At one point, Spiegelman prints a photo of his father in his concentration camp uniform, and it's intentionally and effectively jarring to see this photo of a real human being who has been heretofore presented to us as a cartoon mouse. It makes us think, it makes us reconsider all we've read with a greater weight. It's probably pointless to try to "rank" Train against other Holocaust art and pedagogical materials, but it seems to be in very good company in being thought-provoking in an beneficial way.

(Thanks to reader Ursus for the initial tip.)

Monday, January 21, 2013

MLK Day 2013

This year, I wanted to pass on two thematically-appropriate pieces on the Civil War era.

The first is an intriguing story from Avis Thomas-Lester in The Washington Post, "Civil War Hero Robert Smalls Seized the Opportunity to Be Free":

He sat at the conference table next to Frederick Douglass as they tried to convince President Abraham Lincoln that African Americans should be allowed to fight for their own freedom. He served five terms in Congress. He ran a newspaper and helped found a state Republican Party.

But first, he had to win his freedom.

To do that, he conceived a plan that struck a blow against the Confederacy so significant that he was heralded across the nation. Carrying out his mission required bravery, intelligence and precision timing — attributes that many whites at that time thought blacks didn’t possess.

Robert Smalls proved them wrong and changed history in the doing.

Follow the link to read the rest.

Meanwhile, American Experience on PBS is showing a three part series on the Abolitionists. The first two parts can be viewed online, while the third will air this upcoming week. (Seeing Lincoln made me long for a good Frederick Douglass biopic, and PBS delivers a taste of that.)

For the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. himself, check out the MLK archive or a number of other blogs today.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Trolling America

Earlier this week, Rachel Maddow presented a fantastic segment analyzing the bulk of conservative discourse as trolling:

A key portion transcribed:

Trolling is a key part of the conservative entertainment slash media business model. These guys say stuff all the time that they do not intend to be persuasive. They’re not trying to explain something, or bring people along to their way of thinking – they’re just doing something to attract attention, and hopefully condemnation and outrage from the mainstream, and particularly from liberals. They want to offend you. They seek to offend you. That is the point.

They want the attention, and they really want the condemnation. Because, hey, attention's attention, and clicks are clicks on the website, right? Bad publicity is still publicity. But more importantly, the key part of their base audience that they are trying to monetize, likes anyone who gets condemned by the mainstream. It's a badge of honor. So it makes people sign up for the Daily Mega-Ditto-Buy Gold Newsletter! or whatever. And pay their, 9.95 for "I used to be on TV, but now I'm on the Internet," right, "Sign up now for exclusive content that you won't find in the lamestream media that hates me!" It's a shtick, right, it is a shtick that pays… and it pays big dollars to big name conservatives, and it pays small dollars to others…

Trolling definitely fits in that "pissing off liberals" is a key motivator for conservatives, and certainly is a key method for conservative fundraising. It also fits in that the bulk of conservative statements are not really aimed at advancing the discourse or solving problems; they are point-scoring, or aimed to derail productive conversation. It's the natural outgrowth of an ideology that is hostile to the very notion of government, and thus the ethic of responsible governance. Conservatism has always been reactionary in nature, but in its contemporary, dominant form, it is petulant and selfish, and at its worst, nihilistic. (See "The Four Types of Conservatives for more.)

While some conservatives are utterly sincere when they spout crazy shit, for others such as Ann Coulter , it's all part of the grift. Rick Perlstein breaks down the dynamics in his excellent piece, "The Long Con: Mail-order conservatism." Or consider this pop-up ad for right-wing magazine The American Spectator; it features Mark Levin, one of the angry cons in Rachel Maddow's segment above:

Give us money, because it will piss off liberals. Conservative leaders can't offer their marks better policies, better lives or a better America, but they can offer spite, and that's been a successful and lucrative approach for conservative leaders since at least Nixon and the Southern Strategy.

Sometimes, the grifters grow to believe their own bullshit (they start using their own product). In the Maddow segment, Mark Levin angrily sputters, "Since when the hell do we Americans believe in separation of church and state?" Levin sells himself as a conservative intellectual, and likes to tout a nickname, "The Great One," bestowed on him by his buddy Sean Hannity. For Levin to actually believe what he's saying, he'd have to be as ignorant as Rick Santorum about the founding of the United States. Obviously Levin knows what he's saying will sell to his audience, but does he actually believe it? Either he believes it, or he knows it's ridiculous… or he has come to believe it over time. In 2005, Dahlia Lithwick wrote a now-classic, scathing review of Levin's book on the Supreme Court:

I use the word "book" with some hesitation: Certainly it possesses chapters and words and other book-like accoutrements. But Men in Black is 208 large-print pages of mostly block quotes (from court decisions or other legal thinkers) padded with a foreword by the eminent legal scholar Rush Limbaugh, and a blurry 10-page "Appendix" of internal memos to and from congressional Democrats—stolen during Memogate. The reason it may take you only slightly longer to read Men in Black than it took Levin to write it is that you'll experience an overwhelming urge to shower between chapters.

In 2010, the debate about "epistemic closure" among conservatives heated up when conservative Jim Manzi at National Review eviscerated the account of global warming in Levin's book Liberty and Tyranny, writing:

It was awful. It was so bad that it was like the proverbial clock that chimes 13 times – not only is it obviously wrong, but it is so wrong that it leads you to question every other piece of information it has ever provided.

Manzi went on to provided detailed examples of Levin's shoddy arguments. Levin reacted furiously, as did many other conservatives, arguing the Levin's work was solid and serious and how dare Manzi, etc. The most entertaining defense came from conservative Ross Douthat, who wrote that "the only way to defend a book like “Liberty and Tyranny” against Manzi’s critique is to argue that Levin should be judged primarily as an entertainer, rather than as a rigorous political thinker." In other words, the best defense that Douthat could muster was to say that Levin knew he was completely full of shit. Levin was trolling. (At a certain point, Levin and other conservatives might not know the difference.)

This brings up back to the old question of stupid, evil or crazy. At a certain level, it doesn't matter. Bad policies still need to be defeated. Regardless of what terms one uses, unfortunately modern conservatism and the Republican Party have very little of value to offer America.

The question remains as to what requires a response and what that response should be. Maddow's definition is that trolling is speech designed to provoke outrage rather than to persuade, and in the context of right-wing media, that trolling is speech designed to raise money. Maddow is right that, in some cases, it's wise not to rise – or rather, stoop – to the bait. Specifically, she's correct that getting angry in the way the troll intended, and ceding control of the conversation to the troll, is rarely if ever effective. That said, there are cases where the trolling is so prominent that ignoring it doesn't work, and it has to be addressed. Alternatively, if "punching down" is an essential part of Maddow's definition of responding to a troll, surely there are harmful arguments from conservatives that require "punching up." Extreme conservative discourse can push the Overton window over time in a bad direction if there's no pushback whatsoever. And conservatives can overreach in their desire to provoke outrage, or by expressing their true craziness, and thus generate backlash – see Rush Limbaugh on Sandra Fluke, or the NRA on Obama's daughters, or Alex Jones on guns. There's also the utterly sincere and ignorant Republican rape caucus, which helped the Republican Party lose several elections in 2012.

Representative Allen West, featured in Maddow's segment, offers another great test case. West definitely trolled for money during his election, and has trolled for money since. His outrageous, baseless remarks about communists in the Democratic Party were strongly criticized by many, including Bill Moyers in a video essay, "The Ghost of McCarthyism." Should West's comments have been ignored? I would argue that, in his case, since he was an actual congressman versus just another shouting head, he could do actual harm if left unchallenged. Rush Limbaugh is more powerful as a commenter than he could be as an elected official, but at West's level, congressman was a step up in power. West was indeed able to fundraise off of 'liberal outrage' over his comments, but his remarks were also so extreme that shining a light on them turned off some mainstream voters and helped him lose the election. (If someone has more detailed analysis of the West race, feel free to pass it on.) The best response often may be situational. Maddow's correct that responding knee-jerk to a stunt, and getting into a shouting match with a troll, gets one nowhere and only helps the troll. But some extremist conservative statements do require serious discussion, or exposure, or ridicule. Perhaps more importantly, some statements require action, in terms of opposing bad legislation and bad candidates. (Bill O'Reilly can rage about the decline of the white establishment all he likes, as long as his movement is losing elections.)

This brings us to a major problem with America's national political discourse. Liberals don't get to choose what statements are taken seriously by the mainstream media. It's fine to try to ignore fringe trolling, but the corporate media consistently validates crazy conservative ideas as legitimate. If and when a crazy, right-wing idea gains this sort of power – for instance, that it's perfectly respectable to choose not raise the debt ceiling and destroy America's credit rating, or to pledge to an unelected figure never to raise taxes ever, even in the fact of Armageddon – the option of "ignoring" no long exists. The same goes for the inane, almost inevitably wrong Beltway conventional wisdom issued by Very Serious People, for instance on the national debt. There's more than one way to troll. To quote a post from last year:

Basically, saying "both sides do it" is a form of trolling. In almost every case, when a Very Serious Person says "both sides do it," "both sides are to blame" or any of its variants, it is to shut down discussion, not to bring it to a deeper, more nuanced level.

Right-wing trolling intended to outrage is indeed a problem, but so is faux centrist concern trolling – and the latter sometimes excuses the former.