August 2019

Jessica Kiang reports that after the Venice screening of Joker, director Todd Phillips “asserted his belief that while movies mirror society, they do not mold it”. But since in society the mentally ill are not the cause of violence, and are in fact more likely to be the victims of it, his movie is but a funhouse mirror distorting society, not merely reflecting it. If his movie reinforces that dangerously stigmatizing idea, it will in fact be helping to mold society, for the worse.

On the other hand, perhaps Atlas’ physical fade from the ledgers of cartographic relevance is fitting. Atlas has always set the precedent for navigability, as it should: one intersection, two highways, straight lines all forming a nearly perfect “X” here near the navel of the United States. Like a train porter, it wills everyone away in all four cardinal directions. West out of Atlas holds the promise of the Mississippi River, north out of Atlas will get you to an interstate, south takes you to my hometown, and east takes you up out of what used to be the river’s basin and into endless flat plains. Like an atlas you can hold, it presents itself as mere possibility, all the way up to the margins.

From On Google Maps, a Town Called Atlas Keeps Disappearing by Avery Gregurich

Mark Hughes misconstrues, I think, the concerns over whether or not something about Joker is toxic. Or, at least, he doesn’t seem to recognize that there are different kinds of concerns about this, not all of them about whether the film somehow glamorizes the character. That he chooses only that concern to address is revealing, because, honestly, it’s an age-old pop cultural debate, and the lowest-hanging fruit.

For my part, having now read a number spoiler-filled reviews, I safely can say that I have precisely the same concerns as I had before: that the character is a sad white guy with mediocre talents who is angry that the world hasn’t given him what he feels he is entitled to, and because he’s also mentally ill he satiates his anger through cruelty and violence on the world that hasn’t given him his due.

There are people out there talking about this film as if somehow it’s brave or daring or dangerous. Given the moment we are in where the President of the United States, the National Rifle Association, and the Republican Party are trying to scapegoat the mentally ill rather than deal with the actual causes of so much gun violence and mass homicides—those being the toxic masculinity of fragile men, and their access to guns—the above suggests that the only dangerous thing about it is reinforcing the popular notion that mental illness is the cause of mass violence.

That’s what’s toxic about Joker. Audiences have shown for a long time that they can handle arguably “sympathetic” portrayals of a problematic character without somehow becoming cultish stans inflicting that character’s will upon the real world. That’s not the issue here.

Arguably, a truly brave and iconic choice for Todd Phillips to have made would have been very deliberately not to make Arthur Fleck mentally ill. To film instead a portrait of a sad, pathetic man raging against a world to which he felt entitled. One who, surrounded by so many other sad, pathetic men who nonetheless managed to fail upward, lashes out not from sickness but purely by choice.

That’s frightening. It’s also real.

To do what he’s done instead isn’t brave or daring, and it’s only dangerous to the many mentally ill Americans who already are being scapegoated for mass violence by people like the President, who only just recently said it’s time to start putting them into institutions again.

That makes this movie little more than just one, long, sick joke, and one played on the wrong people.

ETA: Jim Lee calls it a “cautionary tale” but is “beware the mentally ill or they will murder you” a great or true cautionary tale? Owen Gleiberman’s review in Variety is like a thesaurus of derogatory words for mental illness.

ETA: Matthew Sozsa called the movie out back in April: “It is a trope that leads to real-life stigmas that affect people with mental illness — and it’s one that really, really needs to go away.”

ETA: Jenna Busch shows that fears about stigmas the movie might reinforce are not unfounded when she suggests that “we’re looking at that guy with a devastating mental illness who we didn’t say hi to that one time”.

“People from the blogging world of the 00s are now in positions of great prestige, wealth and authority,” writes Dave Winer, and then there’s those of us on SNAP and Medicaid and depleting their family’s financial resources as we painfully try to pivot from a lifetime of employment trouble due to Autism Spectrum Disorder that went undiagnosed until our forties.

Trump is reviving an earlier, more white-supremacist era of American imperialism, one that cost countless lives, led to a horrific global conflict, and almost undid itself. He and his crew are doing that because, deep down, they are dedicated to conquest for its own sake—because of how it makes them feel, and the personal profits they think can be gained.
You can see it in Trump’s destructive racism toward Puerto Rico and his neglect of the Virgin Islands, old stanzas of colonialism lifted like faded scraps from a segregationist Supreme Court. The same instinct fuels his sudden lust for Greenland—the “manifest interest,” as Cotton called it, knowing exactly the allusion he was making.

From Islands in the stream by Jonathan M. Katz

A black bear at the Oregon Zoo sleeps a sound sleep in the enclosure’s viewing window, having slept right through a recent rain shower.

A black bear sleeps with head on a pillow.

This is going to be sloppy but I also can tell that if I try to clean it up, I’ll never get around to it. Earlier today on Twitter, Matthew Dowd pointed out that “the goal of the press should be the truth, not balance”, and it sparked a thought, which I’ll get to in a moment.

Separately today, Jay Rosen noted that often in the institutional press “pushback from readers is not a signal that something may be off, but a confirmation” of their approach. Criticism is seen as proof that they actually are on the right track. It’s every bit the convenient dodge and excuse as is “if both sides are angry at you, you must be doing something right”.

Whenever questions of journalism come up, inevitably I turn to Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel and their “elements of journalism” (alternate version), the first two of which are that “journalism’s first obligation is to the truth” and “its first loyalty is to citizens”. When instead of these you combine in the institutional press a preference for balance over truth (because sometimes the truth inherently is imbalanced) and an equation of criticism with validation, you end up where we are today.

(Not for nothing, but their Elements speak of needing “accurate facts put in a meaningful context”, and context is the glaringly-missing ingredient in “balance”, and we know from other, well, contexts here that I’m big on the idea of context right now.)

What I suggested after Dowd’s tweet was that this is how we end up with the Overton window moving so far to the right as to invite the creeping fascism which is bearing down on us.

As I’ve said before, for at least forty years Republicans and the right in general have been acting in an increasingly unreasonable manner, in increasingly obvious ways. But the institutional press’ fetishistic obsession with balance meant an increasing disregard for reporting the truth.

Bit by bit, year by year, conservative movement by conservative movement, the Republican Party became more callous, more cruel, and more cynical, and for the institutional press, “balance” required them to report this as a reasonable position, as if the mere existence of these things in the halls of another institutional power itself was all the validation it, and they, required.

So, years from now, presuming we come out of the constitutional and cultural crisis of creeping fascism, and the institutional press tries to stake its claim at writing the “first rough draft of history”, remember that they were complicit in getting us to this point to begin with.

Daniel Harvey examines the tools of propagandists and says something at the end that I think might dovetail into the ongoing discussion here about the sorts of engagement social media platforms are coded to encourage if not enforce.

Everything we’ve talked about is signal boosted across social media. The fundamental business model of many of these platforms is advertising revenue. And that revenue is predicated on daily active users. Sadly outrage outperforms happiness by leaps and bounds — we click more when we’re angry. We no longer live in an attention economy but rather an outrage economy.

What I wonder, and I further wonder if in fact this has been studied, is whether and/or to what degree coding our social media platforms to direct people toward indication and excitation rather than interaction and expression simply is more conducive to outrage than attention. When it’s all about feeding engagement numbers as rapidly and often as possible, are we inherently feeding into our worst tendencies instead of fostering our best?

The Trump administration this month decided it would no longer protect from deportation adults and children who have come to this country seeking life-saving medical treatment. About a thousand people a year are given “deferred action” as a form of humanitarian relief. Well, that relief is gone, and indeed, the administrations’s decision to end it is, if you ask me, the moral equivalent of murder.

From ‘It means killing people’ by John Stoehr

This week saw an Ask MetaFilter thread about “old-school bloggers” who still are active, and today old-school blogger Paul Bausch (who used to run a fantastic directory of Oregon weblogs) scraped all the links for easy browsing, adding: “The personal web is a beautiful thing and it’s still out there.” To quote David Weinberger in a similar conversation, “It’s time to unroll the Blog Rolls again.”

Karin Wulf takes to The Washington Post to crew the barricades of the war on disinformation, extolling the footnote—or really the power of citation in general, of which the footnote is centrally emblematic.

But nothing could be further from the truth. More than ever, we need what this tool provides: accountability and transparency. “Fiddling with footnotes” is the kind of hygienic practice that our era of information pollution needs — and needs to be shared as widely as possible. Footnotes are for everyone.

Footnotes, Wulf writes, “show how knowledge is a collaborative production”, “teach us how to be active and knowledgeable citizens”, and “enable readers to dive into a topic”. They promote “contextualized information”, and, yes, there’s that magic word I’ve uttered a lot here lately: context, and as Wuhr states, “the digital world makes this easier”.

On the web, our footnote is the humble inline hyperlink. When we left blogging for social media, we abandoned that powerful piece of citational context. But it’s still there, or, here, and all around us. We just have to stop merely “liking” things and start talking about why and how we liked (or disliked) them.

Brendan O’Connor’s look at “the antifascist question” for The Baffler is full of lots of good stuff but it’s also more than a little bit weird that O’Connor goes out of his way more than once to credit the Proud Boys for their “unusual discipline”, apparently having “acted strategically” in their “newfound ability to act as an organized collective” yet only glancingly mentions the “broad coalition of left-wing organizations, unions, and some liberal NGOs”.

It’s strange to mention that only in passing, almost an afterthought, given that O’Connor’s piece is about “the antifa question” not “the fascist question”, and especially when he goes on to list the things he thinks antifa needs to do in order to have broader success as a movement. How can you lecture antifa about what it should be doing without taking at least a paragraph or two to view that through the lens of what it is doing, for better or worse?

To read O’Connor’s rendition of August 17, you’d have no idea that Portland’s antifascist community was every bit as disciplined and organized as he credits the Proud Boys for being, or that they did so with a crowd three times larger than the Proud Boys managed to bus into town. You’d never know that the so-called “Spectacle” consisted of far more than “the kind of street-based antifascism that invocations of “ANTIFA” usually conjure”.

I’m not sure what, exactly, O’Connor was going for with this perspective that fluffs Proud Boy discipline but ignores the success of Portland’s “everyday antifascist” organizing, but if nothing else his article certainly helps the journal it in which it appears live up to its name.

However, if the dynamic of autistic burnout really is related to spending more resources coping than one has, I’m not sure the real leverage in avoiding burnout resides with the autistic person alone. Especially because a number of the strategies people have to avoid or recover from burnout involve being able to act more autistic, being accepted as autistic, and getting support and accommodations–all things that require the cooperation of others. So we need to also be looking at ways to make neurodivergence more accepted and less stigmatizing, as well as ways for services to become more inclusive of supporting autistic people who appear to be “functioning well.” Knowing you’re on the spectrum, alone, isn’t, in my opinion, going to fix this.

From Autistic Burnout: An Interview With Researcher Dora Raymaker by Fergus Murray and Dora Raymaker

Democracy allows you to test those ideas in the public forum. If you want to submit your beliefs to the American people and get their reaction, please be my guest. Keep this in mind, though. Thousands and thousands of young Americans already voted with their lives to ensure that this same message of intolerance, death, and destruction would not prevail – you can count their ballots by visiting any American cemetery in North Africa, Italy, France, or Belgium and tallying the white headstones. You can also recite the many names of civil rights advocates who bled and died in opposing supporters of those same ideologies of hatred. Their voices may be distant, but they can still be heard.

From Comments on recent Ohio cases involving political violence by U.S. Attorney Justin Herdman

And I’m done. Not with blogging, but with engaging Inquiry any further. I knew it was a risk, since I’ve written before (as early as June) about the disturbing degree to which they see other human beings as “lesser”, but since we’ve reached the point where my honest acknowledgement that there are real and dangerous imbalances both in power and in threat that are systemic and institutional has been oh-so-blithely called, with predictable inevitability, “virtue signaling” (the modern-day variant of the equally illegitimate term “politically correct”), I am, as I said with my first words, done. As noted by Baltsar Gracian (via Tim Chambers), “You cannot treat with the ruined.”