Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The New American Radical

(older writeup from last year)

In November 2008, a rebuke was given to the American conservative movement, one that had been building amid anger at an unpopular War in Iraq, a new recession, and displeasure with Bush and his fellow Republicans. The rebuke came in the form of a Democrat held Congress and President. It was, by all appearances, the biggest blow to the conservative movement in decades, and the remaining Republicans tried in vain to distance themselves from Bush and the old guard.

Nobody said it was the end of the conservative movement in America, just perhaps the movement as we knew it. The Rush Limbaughs, the George Bush's, the time of the brash and at times obnoxious conservative was being replaced by a more moderate, humble one. One that would work together with Democrats to get things done, one that could swallow their pride and admit they or their party was once wrong.

But strangely enough, something different happened. As the recession lingered, people began to turn their focus to the Democrats and Obama. For better or worse, they were tied inexorably to the economy; see a recovery, and the party would continue to win elections, see it falter more, and prepare to be voted out. Even if the actual power of the Democrats over the economy was somewhat limited, it could both be their saving grace, or their doom.

The GOP has long had a history of out talking the Democrats. Even in the worst of times, the party has long been held as the gold standard of promoting their own interests.

So, as 2010 plowed forward, with the economy still in the dumps, and a Democratic legislative and executive branch ratcheting up the national dept, the GOP realised that their return to glory was at hand.

Yet, it wasn't about being moderate or humble. It wasn't necessarily about actual public policy either. It was about being angry. Angry at spending, angry at health care reform, angry at a still bad economy.

So, what did the conservatives do?

They drifted. Even farther to the right. As one political pundit said, "moderate Republicans are dead."

And indeed they are. As the Tea Party makes strides and gets representatives elected, and conservatives run on the old dialogue of cutting spending and cutting taxes, they are catching on. A Tea-Party candidate got elected to run for Congress in Delaware, a liberal, or even generally moderate conservative state. The fact that O'Donnel, said Tea-Party representative, and one who has previous ties to witchcraft, and religiously driven MTV anti-masturbation campaigns, tells you all you need to know about the state of the American conservative movement.

And yet, the movement gathers steam. Everyone in the country is angry. Most voters don't really understand exactly what that the Tea-Party stands for. Everybody is "mad" though, and the idea of voting for the anti-establishment guy or gal is emotionally attractive. As one political pundit put it:

"If you polled Americans about whether they want to abolish the Department of Education, which includes the incredibility popular PELL Grant system and subsidized college loan program, most Americans will tell you no.

If you polled senior citizens (which make up a disproportionate share of off year elections), and asked if they want to privatize social security, most will tell you no. Same with Medicare, or National Parks. These are tenets of Tea Party candidates.

What voters HEAR though is that TPers are against Bailouts and Federal Spending. Well sure, that sounds good! When you dig into it though, you'll find support for policies that are outside the American mainstream."

And yet, people like Rand Paul of Kentucky, a representative running for Congress, has said that the Departments of Education and Energy need to be eliminated. Another extreme right winger, Alaska's Joe Miller, has said on national TV that unemployment benefits are unconstitutional. Marco Rubio of Florida has campaigned almost solely on one issue; repealing health care reform.

One has to wonder where the Tea-Party was when Bush skyrocketed the national debt. Nary a single protest was seen or heard about his spending from the party, because it didn't exist until Obama came about. Perhaps it is because, while preaching small government, many of these same Tea-Party supporters are those wishing to increase the role of faith in the government, as is Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, and end things like abortion and the gay rights movement. Small government doesn't seem to apply to areas of personal life with them. They can't touch your money, but they can stick their paws into your personal life.

This November will mark another rebuke of the politicians in Washington, and anti-incumbent fervor for both Democrats and Republicans is running high. The Republican party though has found a new way to enlist the masses, and is riding sky high on polls and studies that indicate their fall from grace is over and done with. It may be the end of conservatives as we know it, but instead of moderating, we are left with something much, much scarier.

The new American radical.

Man's End

(this is now an old post that I'm not sure reflects my point of view. I feel this post still might be a bit too gendered or binary or some such. I can't even really read it, anymore. Long story short, skip this post and destroy all men)

No, not the end of Man or anything like that. Rather, the end of man. The end of "the age of testosterone" as one writer put it. The end of socially created and accepted male dominance. It's a long, slow road to equality, with a lot of work ahead of us, and to say that men and women are on even or nearly even footing is false, but progress is in steady motion.

For thousands of years women have been repressed. Dating back to religious stories where women were at fault for Man's fall, and even before that, female representation and equality has been missing.

But now, that world of alpha male breadwinners and "manly" men holding all the keys is ending.

Decades from now, the leaders, the breadwinners, the famous researchers and policy makers will be made up of more women than men.

In some places, that change has already happened.

Earlier this year, women, for the first time ever, made up the majority of the workforce in the US. This population shift has been accelerated by the recession; 75% of jobs lost were held by men. It should come as no surprise; areas in which men typically constituted the vast majority of workers; construction, manufacturing, etc., have been hit the hardest.

Men still hold the cards at the very, very top, most notably CEOs and politicians, but even that is slowly changing. Female CEOs largely receive higher pay and greater bonuses than their male counterparts. A recent study of 1,500 top US companies from 1992 to 2006 revealed that companies with women in higher positions performed better, particularly in positions or firms where “creativity and collaboration may be especially important.”

Similar trends continue elsewhere. Clinics that offer sex selection for children in the US are reporting across the country that demand for boys is at an all time low, a stark change from a time as recent as 1985, when half of all women said they “must have a son." That number is now only 15%.

Physical strength is no longer the barometer of success that it once was, and slowly but surely not accepted to come only from men. Communication and thinking are the prime motivators of success. No longer are jobs as restricted to one gender or the other by societal roles.

The OECD Gender, Institutions and Development Database reveals that countries that have more power held by women are doing better, with very fex exceptions, economically. Pirates and climate change? Perhaps, but striking nonetheless. Countries that are lagging behind in women's equality in the workforce are losing out. The 2007 Economic and Social Survey by Escap came to the conclusion that the Asia Pacific region is losing as much as 47 billion dollars a year because of restrictions on women’s access to employment opportunities.

Predictions are saying the same thing. 13 of the 15 job positions predicted to see the most growth over the coming decade are held primarily by women. For every two US men who get a college degree this year, three women will get one.

As women continue to pass men in areas of employment and education, it is perhaps ironic that the very thing that hampered them is now hampering men. After years of discrimination and secondary roles, women were taught to be adaptable and receptive to change. Men held a much more comfortable, less dynamic roll. Head of the family, no ifs, ands, or buts. As the equal rights battle rages on and equality gaps start shrinking, that adabtability for women has proved crucial. That's not to say sexism was a net positive for women; far from it. But it is an interesting twist.

Even in media old trends are breaking. Gone are the days of movies like The Expendables being released once a week. Gone are the tough, brawn over brain, non-introspective lead roles. Up in the Air even managed to make actor George Clooney, long a representative of male sex and strength, portray a broken man "too old to be attractive," as rebuked by one coworker in the film, and merely a pawn in another women's affair. This postmodern breakdown of "man" is representative perhaps of many men who are uncomfortable being a househusband, or making less money than their female spouse. Many are seeking identity in a changing world.

This is not a cry for female superiority. Indeed, modern third-wave feminism's closest thing to a rallying point is the end of gender roles. And while feminists fight for the end of gender roles in regards to women, they'll be glad to tell you they also want them ended for men. Women have been down the road of inequality for thousands of years, and know it's not sustainable or right to try to "flip the tables," so to speak.

While there are certainly physiological differences between the two sexes, and we still grapple with the idea of nature vs. nurture, neuroscience has demonstrated that experience can change brain structure and function. Early experience can completely and permanently change the chemistry and function of genes inside of cells, causing significant effects on behaviour, as reported in a recent special issue on the male and female brains in Scientific American Mind. The article states that gender differences and roles are often exaggerated and flamed by society and culture, not innate predisposition.

Perhaps if society stopped with silly rules stating that men should never cry and should be less apt to emotional display, we could foster more attuned, compassionate, sensitive, and expressive men.

It may be increasingly a woman's world.

But that doesn't mean men can't contribute too.

Bang: Sessions 23-26

I have long maintained that the last four episodes of Bebop might just be the best sequential four episodes of any anime I have yet seen. But after recently seeing episodes 23 and 24 of Bebop, for what has to be at least the 7th time, I am inclined to say that it just doesn't get any better, and might never.

Warning: Before you go any further; this post contains heavy, heavy plot revealing, and world ending spoilers for Cowboy Bebop episodes 23-26, and subsequently, the end of the series. I also wrote this with the assumption that you will at least know the characters I reference. You have been warned.

One of the first things I find interesting about episodes 23 and 24 is that, on a show often predicated on action, these two episodes are almost entirely action free. Episode 23, for all intents and purposes, is.

For those who need a quick brain jog; episode 23 - or should I say Session 23 - is Brain Scratch. Let me begin by posting the opening dialogue, a statement by one Dr. Londes.

"What is a physical body? The body is merely an object. It is an existence all too impure to store the gods within us called souls. Now you will remember. The blood stained history! Material desire. Hunger. Sexual drive. Desire to dominate. Desire for fame. As long as there is a body, desires will be born. As long as there is desire, human ego will not disappear. Humans will continue to fight to fulfill their bodies' desires, and it will never end. At this rate, there is no future! Now awaken your soul! Now be rid of that filthy body!"

Cowboy Bebop is a lot of things; classy, sleek, well-produced. But it is rarely anything more than a really, really well-done space western. Brain Scratch changes all of that, for at least one 24 minute segment.

Dr. Londes is modeled in part after Marshall Applewhite, the, for lack of better ways to describe him, batshit crazy founder and leader of the Heaven's Gate cult that led to the mass suicide of 39 people in 1997.

I don't want to paint a black and white picture here, and neither does Cowboy Bebop. Dr. Londes, in this session, is the leader of a religious cult that seeks to essentially "digitize" the human brain as data and upload it to the internet, allowing the human soul to exist forever, free of the confines of the human body. He is not exactly a role model. But while Marshall Applewhite is totally batshit crazy, Londes has moments where you can sympathize... almost. Maybe.

Being a Japanese animation, and considering the influence Buddhism has had on Japanese society, it's easy to see some carry over. Notice the reference to "human ego" in the opening statement by Londes. Portraying desire as flaws. While the latter is not exclusively Buddhist, the idea of an unchanging ego mostly is. Buddhism holds that an unchanging ego (Ä€tman) is a direct result of ignorance. Ignorance is, in turn, a source of suffering. An enlightened person, one who's ego or self is highly developed, is no longer at the mercy of desire; desire being another root cause of suffering.

And yet, there is also something deeply humanist about the SCRATCH cult Londes founds. Mortality is something we all have to face at some point, and the idea of transcending it is incredibly appealing to many, many people. Uploading a person to the net is something that was also explored in later anime, like Ghost in the Shell. It's an interesting study in what makes us human; could we theoretically take our brain - memories, experiences, thoughts, etc. - and "code" it in a way so that it can be downloaded again?

In this day and age, it's also easy to seen some comparisons to Scientology; the aggressive recruiting, the steps taken to be admitted, etc. But I don't think that SCRATCH is as crude or criminal. To an extent. When Dr. Londes is asked about why so many members of SCRATCH are committing suicide, he falls back on the argument that he is not forcing anyone to do anything. And he isn't. But it doesn't take a PhD to recognize the persuasive power of religion on people (later on, we do learn that he has essentially murdered people in an unrelated case, which basically casts any sympathy for him aside).

This is a wonderful episode though, and the technology aspect is great too. The "brain uploading" I alluded to earlier is done through, of all things, a brand new virtual reality gaming system. But this is one that directly "taps" into your brain; you are in the game, your thoughts control it. This is something we have also seen in other works, perhaps most famously in the realm of cyberpunk literature and "Snow Crash." It is something that we are, in real life, aggressively pursuing, so that we can remove the need of the somewhat clumsy controller that works as a bit of a barrier to a fully engrossing experience.

The mix of internet recruiting, video games, and savvy marketing of SCRATCH portrayed by Cowboy Bebop seems way ahead of its time, considering the show is a 20th century production.

Londes is also a bit of an odd-one... well, duh. But his SCRATCH group has a couple statements on various religious beliefs:

"What lies beyond that [death]? Heaven? Hell? Reincarnation? Such things cannot possibly exist. Those are mere excuses..."

"Why do you think people believe in God? It's because they want to. It's not easy living in this rotten world. There is nothing certain while living on in this world. Do you get it? God didn't create humans. Humans created God."

Londes' biggest beef is actually, though, television, which he claims has become a religion. His rant about television isn't particularly new or revolutionary, but it's just one part of Londes. And, considering the end, it becomes a facet of a complex case.

You see, Dr Londes isn't "real." That is, he is not a person. He never was. Dr. Londes is the creation, or dream, of a 15 year old boy in a constant vegetative state for two years after a medical accident, a former hacker who was hooked up to a brain reading device much like the aforementioned video game. He then used this to create Dr. Londes and put forth his ideals through the creation of SCRATCH.

Dr. Londes is eventually "shut down," screaming for life, ironically, as his existence is erased.

Session 23 ends up being an incredible mix of religion, technology, mortality, self-doubt, and some good old fashioned soul searching. It evolves Bebop, for a moment, into a much more reflective, introspective show.

Sessions 24-26 are a remarkable example of character investment. They are conclusions; conclusions to a story that is nearing it's end. Session 24 once again forgoes action, but packs an emotional punch, with a satisfying end to Ed's story. And that's about it. Really. Faye Valentine begins to wonder where she belongs. As "Call Me, Call Me" blazes out from the speakers, you can't help but feel a deep sadness well up when Spike and Jet look on at Ed's "Bye Bye" message. Ed is one of my favorite characters of all time; a goofy, original antidote to sexualization and stereotypes, a tomboyish girl, sometimes a boy, with a flair for technology and hacking. Her leaving begins the somersault of emotions that is the end of Cowboy Bebop.

But, it wouldn't be Bebop without one last bit of class. Let's fast forward to the final Session. Spike is telling Faye that he has to go to Vicious, the head antagonist of sorts. Both Spike and Faye know that Spike will likely die. There's a tense moment of dialogue where both characters are standing close to one another, face to face, discussing it. If this was Hollywood, Spike would instantly grab Faye and make out with her, as trumpets blared from the soundtrack and tears welled up in her eyes. But it's not. So he simply walks away, and Faye, frustrated, shoots her gun into the air. We never really know what, exactly, was there. Was it love? Friendship? Simple self-interested worry? Spike is, afterall, part of Faye's family now, one that's already lost now Ed.

So, we're left with Spike, seeking to end Vicious and start again with his long lost love, Julia. He's searching for something he once had, something that he has lost. Maybe he is doomed to fulfill this life of searching and illusion, of endless pain (perhaps tying in to Buddhist philosophy again). It is an action packed, guns blazing charge into Spike's eventual demise. And yet, as the blood sprays, the body count rises, and Spike makes one last fight for his life, we realize that Bebop was never about the action, or the technology, or the martial arts. Those may have been parts of the show, but it was always, always about the characters and the lives they lead. At the heart of the science fiction western is the beat of a character study or slice-of-life so successful, that it is impossible not to feel something at the end. I recall when I watched Bebop for the first time, going into it completely unspoiled, seeing the last Session unfold before my very eyes. As Spike hit the ground, saying "Bang," near the end of the final Session, and the camera started to pan up, I knew it would cut to the Bebop; with Spike in bandages, a faint grin on his face, as Faye and Jet ribbed him for almost losing, as they flew away into the distance, happy forever.

But it never did. There was no happy ending, no family reunion of sorts, just one lone star blinking out of existence.

That is how I felt when Cowboy Bebop ended; we lost a star, and there's something sad about knowing that we may never see these characters again.