Who’s That Lady?

Doctor Who fans, the time (heh) is nigh!  After months of speculation, we’re approaching the announcement of the actor to play the 12th Doctor.  There has been plenty of talk about who will play the Time Lord’s next incarnation, and, as tends to happen every now and again, there’s been lots of speculation and rumor-mongering about the possibility of a female 12th Doctor.  Heck, the possibility has been teased by several of the show’s actors and even the show-runner himself.  All of this, of course, has given some really annoying Whovians a chance to throw idiot tantrums online about why a Lady Doctor would ZOMG RUIN THE SHOW FOREVER ARRRGGHHHH BUTTHURT!!!!!!!

Seriously, if you were to find a random message board/blog/news article about Doctor Who that references the possibility of a female Doctor, you will be treated to a long parade of people offering their arguments for why this would be the Worst Thing Evar.  And while I have no problem per se with somebody who doesn’t want a female Doctor, I get deeply annoyed by people who present stupid arguments in defense of that position.  So here’s a collection of the most popular arguments against a female Doctor, all of them lightly paraphrased from actual arguments made repeatedly in different corners of the Whovian regions of the web.  Let’s see how they hold up, shall we?

 

“I’m not sexist, but…”

They always start like this.  “I’m not sexist!”  Always with a hint of indignation, too, like how dare those PC bleeding hearts accuse them of being sexist?  All they’re doing is loudly asserting to anyone who’ll listen that their very favorite show of all time would be completely destroyed by a change as minor as starring a woman instead of a man.  What’s so sexist about that?

 

“The Doctor is a Time Lord, not a Time Lady!”

Yeah, OK, the Doctor is a Time Lord, and when he regenerates into a woman, he’ll be a Time Lady.  Boom.  Problem solved.

Oh, I get it, they think the two are somehow mutually exclusive; like, because he’s a Time LORD, he can’t regenerate into a Time LADY.  Never mind that gender-changing regenerations have been established canonically.  And also never mind that genders aren’t fixed or binary even in our dull real-life Universe, let alone in crazy sci-fi land.  Guys, when you don’t have a firm handle on either the real world or your chosen fictional alternative, it’s maybe time to take a break and let the grown-ups sort this one out.

 

“It would change the whole dynamic of the show!”

Yeah.  And?  If you want to watch a show that never changes, watch some old episodes with your favorite Doctor.  Most of them still exist, and I can pretty much guarantee you they haven’t changed much since you last watched them.  Go give “Blink” or “City of Death” another go while the rest of us move on to new things.

 

“I’m a woman, and I think the Doctor should stay a man!”

Um…OK.  I’m a dude, and I think the Doctor should be a lady.  That makes us even, right?

 

“Well, would you make James Bond a woman?  Or Superman?  Or Captain Kirk?  Or…um…Abraham Lincoln?”

Yeah, ’cause Bond and Supes and Kirk and (sigh) Abraham Fucking Lincoln are all Time Lords.  They all regenerate periodically and assume new physical forms and new personalities.  That’s a thing they do, like, all the damn time.  It would totally make exactly as much sense for one of them to become a woman as for the Doctor to do so.  That’s an excellent argument.  I’m so glad you could make it.  Hey, look!  I have a toy firetruck!  See how shiny and red it is?  Wanna play with it?  Sure you do!  Have fun, Sport!

 

“Maybe it would work if it was just one episode, or in a parallel universe spin-off in a comic book, or something.”

So you’re saying women should get the one-shot “alternate” Doctors, while men get all the “real” Doctors?  Yeah, OK, Separate But Equal always works out well.  You’re sure you’re gonna stick to this “I’m not sexist” claim?

 

“But I’m NOT sexist!”

Yeah, whatever.

 

“Well what if they bring back Romana or Jenny rather than change the Doctor?  Or introduce a new Time Lady character?

I love this one, because it suggests that people who think a change of gender would utterly destroy the show have no problem with a major retcon of one of the most firmly established elements of the new series (i.e., the Time Lords [and Ladies] are all dead and time-locked).

 

“But…but…the Doctor is married to a woman!  If he became a woman…well…you know…it would be…you know…”

Please go on.  No, seriously, tell me more.  I want to hear all about how there’s no room for gay characters or relationships on Doctor Who.

 

“Well, if they do get a woman, they should get someone who can actually play the part, rather than just hiring someone because they’re female!”

Oh!  You don’t say!  They should hire a talented performer to play the lead in their international hit TV show!  What a novel concept!  You must work in the business!  You should have your agent call my agent, we could work out a deal for you to GO FUCK YOURSELF.

No, really, I would take this idea of “hiring someone who can play the part well” more seriously if it wasn’t coming from people who wanted to arbitrarily discard half of the available talent pool.

 

“If you make him a woman, why not make him American?”

Doctor Who is a British show.  It is an iconic part of the country’s history and culture.  I can understand wanting to keep the character British, even if it makes no real sense for a space alien to have a British accent.  But the show isn’t designed for or associated with a single gender (or race) in the same way.  Keeping the Doctor British is just respecting a history and tradition that’s deeply associated with Britain.  Keeping the Doctor male is just excluding a bunch of (British) women for no good reason.

 

“Little boys don’t have enough intellectual, non-violent role models!  Don’t take the Doctor away from them!”

This actually comes dangerously close to being a reasonable argument.  Yes, it’s a problem that so many role models in entertainment are violent rather than thoughtful.  But if that’s your issue, go complain to the people making those shows and movies and comics; you don’t actually “solve” this problem by keeping the Doctor male, because there are still very few like him.  Meanwhile, it’s also a problem that so many female role models are either damsels in distress or underdeveloped love interest.  And this whole “I’m not sexist” thing would carry a bit more credibility if you were as worried about the lack of good female role models as you are the lack of good male role models.

 

Mind you, that’s not to say there’s anything inherently wrong with not wanting a female Doctor.  There are legitimate reasons to be wary of that sort of change.  Whether we like it or not, it would alienate a lot of the fan base, and thereby risk endangering the long-term viability of the franchise.  It would be seen by many as a cynical publicity stunt.  And this would all serve to make the role unfairly challenging to any actress; she would need to pretty much be the best Doctor ever to really be accepted by the majority of the audience, if even then.  Of course, these aren’t really reasons the Doctor shouldn’t be a woman, so much as reasons a female Doctor wouldn’t work, within the cultural context the show has to exist in.

But let’s not forget that there’s a real dearth of female creatives behind the show right now.  Even if a woman was playing the Doctor, she still might not be safe from sexism.  Just look at the history: Rose and Martha, for all their great qualities, were largely defined by their romantic feelings for the Doctor.  Amy Pond spent much of her tenure being defined by her role as a wife and mother.  Clara was basically just a poorly-defined vehicle for the “Impossible Girl” plot line.  And even River Song, as awesome and badass as she often is, was capable of being reduced to a lovesick sociopath when it served the plot.  Maybe, before we worry about having a lady Doctor, we should worry about having a lady showrunner, to make sure the show is really capable of properly supporting a female lead.

Legitimate Rape

Since news outlets and Anonymous thrust the Steubenville rape case into the spotlight, there’s been an international discussion on rape and what causes it. Despite some truly horrific reactions to the rapists’ convictions, some activists and advocates for human rights have gained public attention as well. My favorites so far are this awesome panel discussion with political analyst Zerlina Maxwell on MSNBC and this article by the razor sharp British journalist Laurie Penny. Rather than restate anything they and others have already said better, I want to discuss something I have yet to see thoroughly examined.

Lately, anytime rape is discussed, one argument seems to play out over and over again:

A: Women can avoid being sexually assaulted by staying alert, not leaving their drinks unattended, going to bars/parties in groups, etc.
B: Don’t teach women how not to get raped, teach men not to rape.
A: That’s ridiculous – criminals will never listen and women need to know how to protect themselves from bad people. Would you tell someone not to lock their doors just because we should be teaching people not to steal?

This conversation is problematic for about a thousand reasons. First of all, the theft analogy. Let’s take it to it’s logical conclusion with another hypothetical conversation:

Y: I’ve been robbed!
Z: Wait, are you sure?
Y: Yes, I had $50 my pocket last night and now it’s gone!
Z: Well, are you sure it’s been stolen?
Y: Huh?
Z: I mean, maybe you just gave it to someone last night and now you regret it?
Y: Fuck no, it was stolen!
Z: I’m just saying, it’s not like you’ve never donated money before…
Y: God dammit I was robbed!
Z: Well, why’d you have so much cash on you in the first place? What did you think was gonna happen?
Y: …
Z: Seriously, next time use credit.

Now, there are several reasons this conversation has never happened in real life. First off, when most friends tell you they’ve been robbed, you believe them. This may contribute to why most thefts get reported while less than half of sexual assaults are. One of the most common reasons rape survivors say they don’t go to the police or even their friends is because they fear being disbelieved, judged, or accused of wrongdoing themselves.

The next issue is the “criminals will never listen” bit. I’m pretty sure the meaning of “criminal” here is “disheveled meth addict hiding in the alley with a discarded stiletto for a weapon.” Y’know, probably a gang member or repeat offender, too desperate or evil to operate within the boundaries of the law or normal society. This does not jive with the fact that that at least 1 in 4 women will be sexually assaulted while in college and more than 70% of all sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone known to the victim. Maybe colleges just need to stop matriculating so many switchblade-wielding felons?

Finally, we come to the “Don’t teach women how not to get raped, teach men not to rape” argument. Now, I mostly agree with this – rape is usually about power and control, but there’s a lot of evidence that most teenagers and college kids have no idea of what consent even means. This suggests that sexual education which includes thorough information about healthy relationships and consent might go a long way to eliminating a portion of sexual assaults. There’s more to the overall problem, of course, and Zerlina Maxwell lays out more ways to help reduce instances of rape here, but generally I think that preventative measures aimed at potential perpetrators is the most logical course of action.

However, I’m not convinced that a woman who followed the “stay alert, go to bars/parties in groups, etc.” suggestions would not reduce her chances of getting raped by a total stranger (which, again, happens in less than 25% of cases). I don’t have any statistics on the efficacy of these popular safety tips, but I personally know someone who was unharmed after being roofied by a stranger at a bar only because she was with a group of her friends who noticed she was acting weird and took her home. I have no idea if this anecdote is commonplace or exceptional, but the point is that these suggestions on how women can avoid being sexual assaulted actually work some of the time. That doesn’t mean that our first line of defense shouldn’t be teaching men what they need to be doing to stop rape, or that we shouldn’t be talking about why our culture is so depraved that a woman will probably have her human rights violated at many bars, just that telling someone to carry mace isn’t necessarily the same thing as victim blaming. To me, it’s recognizing that we live in a horrifying world, which is important because we have a long way to go before anything gets better.

Django Unchained – My Review

There are many things I enjoyed about this film. All the performances were excellent, my personal favorite being Samuel L. Jackson’s, who played an intense bastard of an Uncle Tom. The dialogue was sharp and funny, particularly that of Christoph Waltz’s character and one hilarious scene about proto-Klansmen fussing with their hoods. Tarantino was also brilliant with his use of violence, making the brutality against the white slaveholders satisfying to the audience while the similarly graphic pain inflicted on the protagonists and the innocent sickening and upsetting. However, I have a few issues with the story of DJANGO UNCHAINED. In order to explain what I mean by this, there will be spoilers. So, SPOILER ALERT

In DJANGO UNCHAINED, our hero Django (Jamie Foxx) is purchased by bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) for the purpose of identifying his former owners, The Brittle Brothers, who are wanted criminals. Schultz agrees to free Django after finding and killing the Brittle Brothers; he keeps his word and, at this point, Schultz offers to teach Django to be a bounty hunter. Django agrees to work together over the winter, after which Schultz will help Django find his wife Broomhilda, who’s still a slave. After finding the plantation where she is being held, Schultz and Django con the plantation owner Calvin Candie into selling them Broomhilda. Their rouse is discovered and a bloodbath ensues where both Schultz and Candie are killed. Django surrenders and is sold back into slavery, only to trick his new white slavers into untying him, allowing him to kill them and head back to the plantation. He rescues his wife and blows up the plantation’s main house after shooting the white residents and severely injuring Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). Django and Broomhilda ride off together, happy to be reunited and free.

Now, before I continue, I want you to think about KILL BILL and INGLORIOUS BASTERDS for a moment. Imagine that KILL BILL had been the story of Beatrix Kiddo being found by a kindly assassin right after she’d come out of the coma caused by the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad’s vicious assault, when she was at her most weak and emotional. Imagine that this man trained her and helped her find those who’d hurt her, so that she could become a bad ass by the end of the film and kill Bill. Or imagine that INGLORIOUS BASTERDS had included the story of Shoshana (the Jewish French movie theater owner) as that of a child found by an undercover American agent right after she’d escaped the Nazis who murdered her family, when she was terrified and alone. Imagine that this man trained her and helped her keep an eye on Nazi activity, so that she learned to out-think the Nazis and successfully trapped and killed Hitler at the end of the film.

Basically, imagine that these horrifically wounded characters had to be saved and transformed into strong people by an outsider before the idea of taking a stand against their enemies even occurred to them.

That, right there, is my biggest issue with DJANGO UNCHAINED, both because I think it makes for a weak revenge story and because I think it’s (at best) patronizing to black people.

See, to me, the main reason revenge stories are enjoyable is because we like seeing those who’ve been tortured and humiliated rise up in spite of (or because of) this abuse to brutally defeat their antagonists. We like seeing power taken away from someone who doesn’t deserve it (i.e. Bill, Hitler) by someone who does (i.e. Beatrix Kiddo, Shoshana, the Basterds). So, when you introduce an outsider (i.e. Schultz) who has to train and encourage the persecuted main character (i.e. Django) to take action against their oppressors, you weaken both the protagonist’s motivation and lessen the injuries they’ve suffered. This makes for a less compelling story.

I especially find it disconcerting that Tarantino chose this plot for a black character, as it reinforces our cultural narrative that the systemic oppression of black Americans ceased only because peaceful civil disobedience made white Americans see the error of their ways. While it’s of course true that the tactics of Martin Luther King Jr were incredibly important to the success of the Civil Rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s, this version of events completely ignores all the instances in our history where black Americans stood up and demanded to be treated like human beings, whether it was in the form of slave rebellions or the Black Panther party. By omitting these aspects of our history, we take away the agency of black Americans and perpetuate the idea that they were given basic human rights only because white people allowed it. This ideology helps define black people as lesser beings who need white people, which contributes to both the passive and overt racism that black Americans face today.

To me, a better story would have been a fictionalized retelling of a slave rebellion (like the Nat Turner Rebellion), both because it would be compelling in the same way as KILL BILL and INGLORIOUS BASTERDS were and because it would work against this destructive cultural narrative. Imagine watching a group of downtrodden, abused slaves organize and rise up to exact bloody vengeance against their cruel owners. It would’ve been glorious and, in the Tarantino universe, a successful slave rebellion could’ve inspired others around the country and ended up being what started the Civil War. How bad ass would that have been?

Instead, DJANGO UNCHAINED felt like a missed opportunity, despite its great performances and dialogue.

Confessions of a Fitness Evangelist

Sometime over the weekend, perhaps when I was trying to wrangle people together for a Krav Maga class, I realized I’ve become one of those people again. You know the ones. A breath on a hair trigger is all it takes to make them launch into a lengthly description about their gym, their workout regimen, their favorite diet program, and, of course, the merits of different kinds of protein supplements.

Having had sporadic access to gym facilities over the last ten years, I’ve fallen out on both sides of this conversation. I have both preached and been preached to. I have felt both the exasperation  of having someone insist that a little exercise will change my life, and the overwhelming drive to share what you’ve learned from working out with other people.

In fact, I’ve seen more people waffle back and forth between extremes on this one subject than on any other. I blame it on the endorphins that seem to turn me into a bizarro version of myself.

Fortunately, my nerd tendencies keep me from going too far in support of any one method of diet or exercise. I’ve combed through what likely amounts to thousands of pages of research on diet and exercise strategies, only to find myself in the same place I was in before. There is so much out there, and for everything you find that seems promising, there is generally an equal number of studies suggesting that it’s really no more promising than anything else. The result is that, when it comes to fitness proselytization, I’m more like the Unitarian workout enthusiast than the Mormon showing up at your door to tell you that you should only eat between the hours of noon and six, and should totally stick to deadlifting.

With that in mind, I have managed to learn a few things in the last six months of really pushing myself.

  • I feel better when I do stuff. This is general on purpose. I’ve found that it doesn’t really matter what you do, as long as you do something. Even if its brief and not very strenuous, it all helps.
  • The best diet or exercise regimen is the one you will actually do. Don’t worry too much about the raging debates about how and when to eat, or how and what to lift. It could be the most effective program in the world, but if you can’t manage to stick to it, it’s not going to be the right one for you.
  • Be reasonable with yourself. Set reasonable goals. Compromise where you need to. Also, be honest, and learn how your brain works. I know if I set a goal to work out or be active three times a week, it’ll come to Thursday and then I’ll tell myself “well, ok, I’ll start next week.” If I say I’ll exercise six days a week, then I have less wiggle room mentally, which usually results in me actually going to the gym. For some people, the opposite may be true.
  • Find ways to make it fun. This is especially important in the beginning, when you haven’t found other, more practical things to motivate you. I love Fitocracy, because getting points and leveling up gives me more drive to keep doing things. Also, the people and groups are great, and one has me training for the zombie apocalypse.
  • Remember that anyone who is in it for the right reasons will never feel the need to comment on how you go about your fitness quest. Don’t get me wrong, people will comment, but it helps for me to remember that I’m doing what works for me, and if they have the time and energy to criticize me, then they’re doing it wrong. The overwhelming number of people I’ve met throughout this process have been really encouraging, even when I have a different methodology than they do.
  • You can only do what you can do. This is an important thing to learn. I broke my toe a few weeks ago, so I’ve been severely limited on what I can do. I could sit there and say “Well, I’ll just have to wait until this heals”, but that is self-defeating. No, I can’t do the workouts I did before I broke it, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t do anything at all. If you wait to start until you are ready for a marathon, then you’ll never be ready for that marathon, and you’ll  be saying “I’ll do that when…” forever.
  • Either don’t weigh yourself at all, or keep track of other things as well, like how you feel, your measurements, your body fat percentage, etc. Your weight and BMI are notoriously poor indicators of how well you’re doing. There have been so many weeks where my weight has gone up while my measurements continued to drop or my body fat percentage has gone down.
  • You can make progress doing stuff in the gym, even if you only use the weight machines. A lot of people will sneer at using the weight machines, and I won’t pretend they’re the best option, but they will get you going. That said, I’ve learned that the more I actually move my body in novel ways, the stronger I feel, so I’ve incorporated body weight strength training exercises (I use the You Are Your Own Gym app, but there are others out there), dance, hula hooping, and (hopefully soon) martial arts. Find things you actually like doing.
  • I’ve exercised before, but I’ve never pushed myself this hard, and it’s totally turning me into a masochist. I find myself looking forward to the muscle soreness I get the day after a really good workout. It feels validating, somehow. I attribute this to mental illness.

 

Life, Liberty, and Rape Jokes

*****TRIGGER WARNING*****

 

Much has been said and written lately regarding comedian performance artist freedom-fighter überdouche Daniel Tosh and his usage of rape jokes (and by “rape jokes”, I of course mean, “mentioning rape and expecting everyone to find it automatically hilarious because OMG THAT’S SO WRONG LOL!!!”).  By now you have probably read the big talking points from his defenders: It’s just a joke and if you don’t like it don’t listen and we should be free to joke about anything at all and he’s an equal-opportunity offender and if you don’t like offensive humor don’t go to comedy clubs and GOD, stop being so whiny and PC!  And that’s not even getting into whether or not she was heckling.

So let’s get this out of the way right up front: everyone should have the freedom to make rape jokes.  OK?  We are ALL ABOUT freedom over here, and if you think people criticizing rape jokes want to ban them, or whatever, you are all sorts of missing the point and you should probably spend more time listening and thinking and less time missing the goddamn point.  No, the issue here isn’t CAN anyone tell a rape joke, but SHOULD anyone tell a rape joke (SPOILER ALERT: probably not.  But more on that later).

Now, a lot has been said and written about rape culture and rape jokes and it’s all important and valid and worth reading, but there’s a lot more about this issue that kinda bugs me.  Like what it says about comedy and comedians (e.g., most of them are assholes).  See, where I come from, comedy is about making people laugh.  But for some rape survivors, rape jokes aren’t so much “funny” as “triggering“.  And a PTSD-related panic attack is about as far from laughing as one can possibly get.  That’s kind of like offering someone a cupcake and then curb-stomping them.  While everyone around them eats cupcakes and sings a cheerful I-Am-Eating-A-Cupcake-And-Still-Have-All-My-Teeth ditty.

And yet a lot of the Tosh-defense seems to center around the notion that people who don’t want to be “offended” shouldn’t go to comedy clubs.  This is kind of bullshit for two reasons: first, being triggered is not the same as being “offended”.  If I light your shirt on fire, what you are feeling is not “offense” it is “freaking the fuck out for a totally legitimate reason”.  And if my reaction is to tell you not to be offended and to call you over-sensitive, then I am a gaslighting (so to speak) asshole.

Secondly, since when does comedy necessarily demand offensiveness?  When did this become the rule?  Sure, it’s sometimes important and necessary to use offensive material to properly make your point, just like it’s sometimes necessary and important to add seasoning and spices while cooking to get the proper flavor.  But pouring someone a dish of paprika doesn’t make you a goddamn chef, and just being crass and mean-spirited and offensive and “edgy” doesn’t make you funny.  Anyone can push buttons and get a reaction.  A fucking toddler can do that, when they figure out that saying “fuck” will make Mommy and Daddy bug out.  Why do comedians act like doing so is some sacred art form that must be protected at all costs?  Abbot & Costello’s Who’s On First was far from edgy or offensive by today’s standards, and it’s pretty hilarious.  Same with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner’s 2000 Year-Old Man bit.  Or Bill Cosby’s Dentist routine.  Or Kermit The Frog and Fozzie Bear’s “The comedian is a bear!” sketch.  Steve Martin’s Fun Balloon Animals included the phrase “God damn it” and made passing reference to STDs and chigger bites, but that’s only slightly more “edgy” than an episode of SpongeBob.  Jim Gaffigan’s Hot Pocket routine doesn’t get more offensive than a few white trash/trailer park/NASCAR mentions (And he does four and a half goddamned minutes!  On Hot Pockets!!).  Even Strong Bad (for those of you old enough to remember who that is) managed to be pretty funny without getting “edgy”.  Holy Shit!!  How do these people manage to make folks laugh without being aggressive and mean-spirited and breaking taboos and giving people panic attacks???

Well, by being good at their fucking jobs.  Because being “edgy” is basically a shortcut to laughs for people who aren’t clever or creative or insightful or FUCKING FUNNY.  And not to be a downer or anything, but it really makes me sad that we’ve come to the point where enough people go in for that sort of thing that Being Daniel Tosh is actually a lucrative career (so far).

But fuck it.  Let’s forget about how funny one can be without being offensive.  As I said, sometimes being offensive is what you need to do to Get The Job Done.  But when you make your little joke, and someone complains or gets offended, don’t hit them with “it’s only a joke” or “don’t take it so seriously”.  If you don’t think jokes are worth taking seriously, why do you think jokes are worth your fucking time?  I make jokes BECAUSE I understand how serious and important they can be.  Jokes can be social or political or philosophical commentary.  They can make people laugh while influencing the way we think.  And let’s be frank, if you’re the type of person who thinks you’re Hot Shit because you make rape jokes, you probably look up to George Carlin or Bill Hicks or Lenny Bruce, guys whose thoughts and opinions and values were ALL OVER their material, and they’d probably deck you if you told them their work wasn’t meant to be taken seriously (and if they were still alive).

Making a joke doesn’t mean you’re just shooting words into the ether that immediately dissolve and are never thought of again; making jokes means that you’re making people laugh, and, if you’re GOOD at it, you’re also making them think.  And that combination is not something to be taken lightly.  If you don’t want people to think about what you’re saying, just fart and slip on a banana peel.  But if you’re going to delve into socio-political subjects (race, gender, or, I dunno, RAPE), take it fucking seriously.  Say whatever you want, but whatever you say, OWN IT.  Be prepared to discuss it and defend it and stand by it through thick and thin.  If you’re not ready for that, stick to uncontroversial subjects; otherwise, you’re a child with a shotgun, in way over your head, with no appreciation for the power and significance of what you’re wielding.  If I make a joke about, say, Catholicism, and somebody is offended because they think I’m implying that their religion is irrational and immoral and corrupt, I don’t tell them to chill the fuck out and be less sensitive.  I tell them, “Yes, that’s exactly what I fucking think, and I’m happy to have a discussion about it, if you like.”  I OWN what I’m saying.  Likewise, if you make a rape joke, you should own the fact that you are comunicating one of two messages: 1) “I understand that, if my audience includes more than 5 women, there is, statistically, an excellent chance that I am telling a rape joke to a rape survivor, and that (s)he may well have a seriously traumatic reaction to said joke, and I’m totally OK with that.”  Or: 2) “I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about my dumbass jokes.”

Seriously.  If you tell a rape joke, you are saying one of those two things.  Whether you want to or not.  So either choose to take that responsibility, or tell a different joke.

That’s really the bottom line: think about what you say.  Own what you say.  Be responsible.  Understand that your words mean things.  Be a goddamned grown-up.  Remember, comedy is a one-way street: when the oppressed make fun of the oppressors, it’s a powerful tool for freedom and justice and humanity; when the oppressors make fun of the oppressed, it’s just bullying.  If you want to be a bully, that’s your deal, but don’t get shocked and indignant when people call you a fucking bully.

So, yeah, make rape jokes if you must, but be aware that, if you haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about what your rape joke means, and whether you should make a rape joke at all, you’re probably not ready to make a rape joke, just like a chimp isn’t ready to drive a tank.

The thing about rape jokes

[TRIGGER WARNING]

Comedy is one of the only forms of entertainment where people are allowed to freely voice taboo subjects, and I fucking love it. No comedian should shy away from making provocative jokes because, sometimes, people need to be shocked into paying attention and thinking about things that aren’t acceptable to discuss in polite company. Plus, jokes about blowjobs and ass-cancer are hilarious.

Comedians also shouldn’t avoid making jokes about horrible things, such as suicide and rape, in part because humor helps us deal with how fucked up life can be and in part because anything can be funny. This doesn’t give comedians free reign to be tasteless or absolve them of their responsibility for their words, but thoughtful humor and offensive humor are not inherently mutually exclusive. That being said, jokes about rape are different from jokes about murder, abortion, and other heavy topics in one major way – most Americans don’t have a fucking clue what rape is.

I’m being completely serious here. Most of my fellow countrymen definite rape only as a violent sexual assault in a dark alley, prison, or Lifetime movie plot. And while it’s absolutely true that when a monstrous, racist puppy-kicker violently penetrates a virginal damsel in distress while she fights with all her might to stop him, it’s rape, that scenario is as extreme as it is uncommon in real life.

What’s more likely? A sexual assault where the victim fought back the first time, but not the second or third or fourth time because they knew they couldn’t win, only to be too afraid to tell anyone what happened because they knew they’d be judged and second-guessed for “consenting.”

Or an intimate situation between lovers where one said “I don’t want to have sex” and the other responded “I don’t care,” so the first lover held still and didn’t argue because they felt obligated out of love.

Or sex where one person initially consented and later said “Stop, it’s starting to hurt,” only to be ignored because their partner thought that consenting at the beginning of sex was the same as signing a binding contract.

Those of us who understand that all of these scenarios are rape, just like any other time when one person does not or cannot agree to the sex that is happening, regardless of whether it’s violent or if the people involved are married, in love, strangers, etc, tend not to find most rape jokes funny. This isn’t because rape jokes can’t be funny – George Carlin and Sarah Silverman are great examples of comedians who make me laugh about this topic – but because most people who tell rape jokes think of rape only as the absurd Evil Sex Beast vs. Virgin scenario I described above. When you honestly think that that’s all rape is, than all rape jokes are just as innocuous and hilarious as genocide jokes. However, for those of us who actually know what rape is, most of the jokes told by boring untalented “edgy” comedians come across like Mitt Romney’s comments on poor people – clueless at best, dangerous at worst.

Why dangerous? Some would say because, considering how many Americans have been sexually assaulted, these jokes are likely to cause flashbacks and/or panic attacks in some of the audience members. While that’s true, it’s not what I’m getting at. Others would say that rape jokes are dangerous because they reinforce rape culture1, but I personally feel that they’re a symptom of rape culture rather than a cause or contributing factor. To me, that is the problem.

Rape jokes like the ones I’ve described, and the overwhelmingly positive reaction to them, are the product of how little progress we as Americans have made regarding this issue. I’m not just talking about the dweeby sense of humor, I’m talking about the fact that we live in a country where not all states will prosecute someone who raped their spouse because the victim consented at the beginning. Or the fact that we live in a country where a County Attorney can refuse to prosecute a rape case because the accuser was bipolar and fell into one of the “nonviolent” categories of rape that I outlined above. The examples of this sort of thing go on and on.

My point is that stupid rape jokes, rather than funny ones, are the result of a nationwide misunderstanding of an issue that, as a society, we just don’t care to deal with. This is the real danger, but these bad jokes come from that place of ignorance and apathy. Any comedian who buys and feeds into that nonsense doesn’t deserve an audience and, frankly, would have served society better if his daddy had squirted him into a tissue.

1 Rape culture is when a society’s prevalent attitudes, norms, practices, and media normalize, excuse, tolerate, or even condone sexual violence. Examples of behaviors commonly associated with rape culture include victim blaming and trivializing rape.

Economists’ hate-hate relationship with rent control

Don’t believe anybody who thinks that rent control is simple. In the July episode of Apparent Reason, we’ll be diving into data on rent control and stabilization in New York City. Why rent regulation? How does it work? And why does it have economists in such a lather? I’ll also be speaking with Sam Stein of Tenants and Neighbors, which does organizing, education, and lobbying on behalf of New York’s rent-regulated tenants; he’ll provide an on-the-ground perspective on the political and social dimensions of rent control that he’s encountered during his advocacy and organizing.

The goal is straightforward enough: we want our cities to be open to all. This means helping poor people, the elderly, and members of minority groups to not get squeezed out of the city, or out of a sustainable livelihood, by rising rents in their neighborhood. Controlling the pricing and maintenance of housing can help shift the power dynamic away from the landlords and in favor of these vulnerable populations.

Non-specialist economists simplify away the realities of modern rent control

Economists and libertarians love to bash rent control. Many introductory economics classes and textbooks, including the one I took at University of Colorado, love to use rent control as an example of a “price ceiling”—the maximum price that something can be sold for. This textbook reasoning describes how limiting the price means that there is a shortage of housing relative to the demand for that housing; normally the price would simply adjust upwards, driving away some of the demand, until you had an equilibrium between supply and demand. Since the price hits the maximum, this can’t happen in this vision of rent control, and so you have landlords not able to charge what they want which means that they have to adjust by lowering their maintenace, trying to push rent-controlled tenants out, setting this unprofitable unit on fire, worshipping Satan, etc.

Otherwise quite intelligent economists like Paul Krugman fall for this argument, to the point where the great international trade expert feels like he can huff about the “predictable” consequences of San Francisco’s rental regulations while apparently doing very little research beyond digging up the oft-quoted figure that a 1992 American Economic Association poll found that 93 percent of its members agreed that “a ceiling on rents reduces the quality and quantity of housing.”

Just one problem: that’s not really what modern rent regulation is like, especially in NYC. Housing lawyer Timothy L. Collins, who was the Executive Director/Counsel of the New York City Rent Guidelines Board from 1987-1994, points this out (pdf, page 10). It’s not a price ceiling: there’s a huge amount of flexibility for increasing rent prices and getting rewarded for maintenance improvements. Anybody quoting that poll of economists thinking that this is a condemnation of rent control is living on the fantastical alien world of Introecon that we visited last episode (which was, ironically, inspired by a Paul Krugman quote).

Unfortunately, I think that Collins is wrong that economists are not knee-jerk against rent control: it seems to be a part of the indoctrination process. But that doesn’t mean that what the average economist thinks is actually very relevant. Economics is a huge field, and rent control regulation is a complex subject in one subfield; I’ll trust Krugman on rent control about as far as I’ll trust an astrophysicist on string theory. Economist Richard Arnott takes pains to explain that modern rent control is not at all like the introductory economics stereotype in his article “Time for Revisionism on Rent Control?” in The Journal of Economic Perspectives.

But, there are some powerful concerns about the overall social cost and effectiveness of rent control measures.

Economists who have actually studied the issue closely come to a range of more nuanced conclusions about several of modern rent control’s effects and impacts in US cities, according to a lengthy literature review by Blair Jenkins for Econ Journal Watch. But she generally concludes that the preponderance of the literature shows that rent control has substantial negative effects.

I’m still wrapping my head around the complexity of rent control and its effects, which I’ll be diving deeper into as I prepare for my conversation with Sam Stein. Yet two things do seem to pop out for me right now: rent control is very poorly targeted (landlords still get to choose who lives there), and it quite probably raises rent for everybody else (because the limited supply in the unregulated market absorbs the extra demand in the regulated one). These two factors mean that the rent control regime probably hurts vulnerable populations who are not lucky enough to live in a regulated apartments. Yes, rent control definitely is a lifeline to some of the people who are in the system, but I’m not convinced that their benefit outweighs the harm to those outside. This is a central issue I’ll be thinking about when I dive deeper over the next weeks.

Image © Bosc d’Anjou, Creative Commons BY

On Starlite and Graphene

I’m finally going to get around to answering D’s question from a few months back:

What is your take on Starlite? Fact or Science fiction pipe dream? Everyone knows Graphene is the 21st century’s wonder material, but this stuff makes it look like a sissy…

I’d never heard of Starlite before, so I turned to my good friend Wikipedia. Now, Wikipedia gets a bad rap, largely because of the unfortunate habit of students to list it as a source on bibliographies and research papers. As an actual source, Wikipedia is terrible. It’s not that you can’t find good information there, it’s that it’s too easily edited and tampered with.

No, Wikipedia’s value isn’t as a source itself, it’s in finding a whole slew of other sources, all in one neat little location. Anyone remember years ago when you had to go to a library to do research? And then you had to not only look it up, but you had to wander around in the library looking for what you’d found? And pray it was actually relevant? Those were dark times, indeed.

So lets look at the entries for Starlite and Graphene. The reason for comparing them is fairly obvious. Both materials have been credited with amazing properties, from Starlite’s purported ability to resist massive amounts of heat, to Graphene’s amazing strength, ability to conduct heat and electricity, light weight, and impermiability.

The difference between the two is pretty stark, however, when it comes to research and evidence. With around 200 sources cited, many of them from actual scientific journals, the information available on Graphene is extensive. Starlite, on the other hand, is mainly represented by an article by The Telegraph, and a blog created by Maurice Ward that features grainy images and videos, and a colorful, multi-fonted summary Ward wrote listing tests he claims have been performed on Starlite. A search of the greater internet doesn’t yield much more: a youtube channel, some message boards debating the merits of Starlite, most of them linking back to the same Telegraph article.

If I were doing research for a dissertation on Starlite, this is about the time I’d start experiencing the strong urge to bang my head against the nearest hard surface.

I’ll admit it, reading the Telegraph article, watching the videos, looking at the pictures, it’s very tempting to buy into the hype surrounding this material. Some of the videos are clearer and easier to believe, even. And note that I am not saying that Starlite can’t really pass these tests, either. This video of the egg test seems pretty solid, and I don’t note any jump in the video from when the burner is pulled away to when the egg is cracked. I’m also not a video analyst.

But none of that really matters, in point of fact. Whether Starlite is complete and total bullshit, or really a material that could save countless lives and make everyone a little safer, the reality is that Maurice Ward has since passed away, and while his family reportedly has the formula to make more Starlite, it doesn’t look like they’re in a big hurry to share it with the world, so it can’t be put to use. And if that formula never gets out, not only will it never get used, but we’ll never be able to study it, learn why it could do such amazing things, develop it into a better product, extrapolate from the things we learn to make other amazing materials, etc. It’s a scientific dead end.

Graphene, on the other hand, may be a bit less impressive, but at least all of the claims made about it can be tested and either substantiated or refuted. It can be put to use, and it can increase our knowledge of chemistry and hopefully help us to create better materials in the future.

And really, that’s how science propels us forward. Not by some person making an accidental discover by throwing ingredients into the mix and then holding on to their discovery, but by scores of people testing and retesting, climbing onto each other shoulders and reaching for greater discovery.

Team America

So every now and then, I try to understand the mind of the modern American conservative.

See, I’m not an unreasonable guy.  I’m not interested in needless conflict.  I’m a pragmatist, interested in finding the best solutions to our country’s problems, regardless of political allegiance or ideology.  If it works, it works.  Great.

But, seriously, I don’t understand how the conservative mind works.  Like, at all.

Take Julia.  Conservatives hate her.  A lot.  Who is she?  Well, she’s not real.  She’s fictional.  Now, it’s not particularly weird in and of itself for conservatives to get bent out of shape over fiction, but this one is particularly puzzling and unsettling.

Julia is a new feature on Barack Obama’s website, designed to compare how Obama and Romney’s respective policies affect women throughout all stages of their lives.  Take a look; it’s brief and colorful.  Still with me?  OK, so far, so good.

Now look at what people are saying about Julia over on Twitter (warning: get your boots on, ’cause there’s a lot of bullshit here).

Let me guess: you saw a few misogynist jokes, a few people noting that since she shares a name with a 1984 character Obama must obviously be a totalitarian dictator, a few complaints that she had a kid out of wedlock, one or two incoherent comparisons to Sandra Fluke, and a bunch  (seriously, a metric fuckton) of people complaining about the horrors of her lazy, entitled, cradle-to-grave government-dependant do-nothing life.

This is where they lose me.

See, I could totally dig what they were saying if Julia was the story of a woman who dropped out of high school and spent her life sitting at home eating junk food while she collected $4000 a month in welfare benefits.  And, if you were to go by what some people say, that’s exactly what it is.

Except, y’know, it isn’t.

Julia goes through public education (hardly a radical idea at this point), her family gets tax credits and grants to help her pay for college (nothing more conservative than working families paying less in taxes, right?), she enjoys the benefits of being covered by her parents’ insurance through college (paid for by her parents, not the government), gets paid the same as men when she gets a job (kind of the opposite of living off the government), pays off her student loans on time (helped out by Obama keeping the interest rates low), has her birth control and, eventually, prenatal care covered by her health insurance (which, again, she paid for), sends her kids to a well-funded public school (again, pretty old-hat in modern America), gets a loan (not a gift, a loan) to start a small business, thus creating jobs and economic productivity, and, in her twilight years, becomes eligible for Medicare and Social Security (both popular and well-established programs that Julia paid into her whole working life).

Through it all, it’s implied or outright stated that Julia works hard, pays her taxes, pays her bills, pays her debts, and, in all likelihood, pays at least as much into the system as she gets out of it.

Some others might take issue with the effectiveness or economic feasability of some of the individual programs or policies described in the tale.  OK, fair enough.  Let’s talk about that.  That’s a conversation worth having.

But they lose me when they say Julia is a sponge, or a welfare queen, or whatever the fuck they’re calling her now.  Granted, I’m a dumbass godless socialist wingnut liberal, so maybe I’m missing something, but to me, the moral of the story is, if you work hard and play by the rules, a progressive government will take steps to make your life suck a bit less, making it easier for you to succeed, and that your success will, in turn, provide opportunities for others to succeed, thus improving things for everybody and broadening the next generation’s tax base so we can maybe start to pay down this debt that conservatives sometimes seem so upset about.

Right?  Am I missing something?  Seriously, tell me if I’m missing something.  I want to know.

But somehow, lots and lots of people see this story of an educated, hard-working, tax-paying, job-creating woman as a story of living off the proverbial government teat.  Which leads me to one of two conclusions:

1) Conservatives are either unable or unwilling to read, or

2) Conservatives are ideologically opposed to the idea of government actually being useful or helpful to anyone (except, y’know, zygotes)

Now, I know conservatives read, because Ann Coulter keeps selling books, and there can’t be that many coffee tables in America with one leg shorter than the others.

So I have to wonder.

I mean, yeah, I get that a lot of people place a premium on rugged individualism, and want to believe that they can be self-reliant and successful without outside help, and everything.  I know that in the ideal conservative version, Julia would raise herself in a log cabin in the woods, personally pave the streets on which she walks to school (uphill, both ways), work her way through college (but not as a stripper, because Family Values), and work her entire life, able to save up her own money for health care costs and retirement because she doesn’t have to pay any of those nasty, nasty taxes.  Yeah, I get it, I think.

But is the alternate scenario Obama posits really that much worse?  Like I said at the outset, I consider myself a pragmatist: if it works, it’s good.  If it doesn’t, it’s bad.  And by my count, this “Every (Wo)Man For Themselves” thing doesn’t really work.  Sure, it would be nice if none of us needed any outside help.  But everyone needs help sometimes.  And is this idea of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps really so crucial that any other scenario is automatically just trash?  Or, to bring it back to Julia: is her entire hypothetical life of hard work and achievement really completely invalidated by the fact that a few government policies work in her favor?  Is Julia really automatically a worthless mooch because the government is occassionally on her side?

Really?

Really???

Well, apparently yes, if the folks on Twitter are any indication of mainstream conservative thought.

As far as I can tell, some of the haters are annoyed at the implication that they might need to receive this sort of help.  Others seem annoyed that they might have to give it, via their taxes.  All of them seem vaguely miffed at the implication that we, as citizens and as human beings, might all be in this thing together.

And so this brings me back to a concept that I’m confronted with over and over again in my ill-conceived efforts to become The Republican Whisperer: some people seem deeply offended by the idea that we’re all on the same team.

When did it become obscene to think that maybe we should be working together, rather than looking out only for ourselves and letting everyone else sink or swim?  When did it become so offensive to think that maybe a society where everyone does well is is better than a society where some do well and everyone else can go fuck themselves?  Why is the party who’s usually trying to shove their Jesus down my throat so much more inclined to have their government drop bombs on brown people than help out its own citizens?

I still don’t get it.  Granted, as noted earlier, I’m a dumbass godless socialist wingnut liberal.  Maybe that’s why I’m not getting it.  But give me time.  I’m sure I’ll figure it out.

Osama bin Laden is dead, so what?

One year ago, my country assassinated Osama bin Laden, founder of the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda. This was – and is – a powerful symbol of strength and achievement and Victory Over Evil for most Americans, but that’s all. It was completely meaningless in almost every way that matters.

Now, before I continue, let me make a few things crystal clear; I believe Osama bin Laden was a horrible human being and that violence can be absolutely necessary when combating evil. I’m not disputing the morality or legality of assassinating Osama bin Laden, only pointing out that it accomplished next to nothing.

Did his death weaken Al-Qeada? In some ways, since bin Laden was such an important figure and charismatic leader, but it’s worth pointing out that he was immeadiately replaced. Also, it’s seems that our drone strikes had been crippling Al-Qaeda for years before the assassination. And, while Al-Qaeda’s attacks on Muslim civilians had been making the organization increasingly unpopular in the Arab World, bin Laden’s death has created sympathy for his movement in places like Pakistan more recently.

I’m sure none of this sounds “meaningless.” What I mean is that killing Osama bin Laden was not special – it was a normal, predictable part of a cycle of global violence.

We went after Osama bin Laden, at least in part, in retaliation for 9/11. This was followed by a series of retaliatory attacks in Pakistan by the Taliban. We expanded our use of drones, leading to the deaths of innocent Pakistani civilians. When we eased off on using drones in Pakistan at the end of last year, the Taliban and other related groups took the opportunity to retaliate.

And let’s not forget the violent protests that erupted in Afghanistan earlier this year. While their trigger was of course our soldiers burning of the Koran, the volitle demonstrations were mainly a reaction to the killing of civilians (sometimes for sport) by NATO and our troops, not to mention our humilation of their dead.

In light of these things, I don’t see how assassinating Osama bin Laden improved or accomplished much of anything. Killing him seems no different from any other death in this cycle of retaliatory violence. It wasn’t a victory, it was business as usual.

If we really wanted to do something exceptional, we should end our use of drone strikes (I don’t care how effective they’ve been against Al-Qaeda, they’re sloppy), hold our soldiers accountable to the highest standards, use our power to influence rather than shield Israel when it violates human rights, improve and strengthen our relationships with our allies in the Arab World, etc. People consider me idealistic when I mention these things, but, honestly, I’m being practical.

Victims have long memories – much longer than aggressors1. We in America tend to ignore history, but as long as we avoid confronting our past crimes against the Middle East and continue to perpetrate new ones instead of mending these relationships, we are destined for another 9/11. And, frankly, I’m not sure if our nation could withstand that, financially or psychologically.

1There’s a great blog post that helped me understand this here.

Featured image copyright of Surian Soosay, Creative Commons.