Liberals may not want to defend Tim Farron. We still should.

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Religion is not an excuse for discrimination. But that should not blind us to the fact that evangelical Christians are now a minority in the UK, whose rights liberals may need to fight for.

Part 1: What liberalism is NOT

To the surprise of essentially no one, Tim Farron has confirmed that he does in fact believe that gay sex is sinful. Equally unsurprisingly, this has led some to question his liberalism and whether he belongs in a party that espouses liberalism.

Writing in Prospect, the philosopher Julian Baggini explains the misapprehension this view embodies:

Suspicion of Farron’s equal rights credentials reflects a wider misunderstanding of the very nature of politics and its relationship to morality. Secular, pluralist democracy rests on the assumption that members of society have different, often very divergent conceptions of morality and the good life. It negotiates these differences by distinguishing between public and private space, allowing individuals to live according to their own consciences as far as that is compatible with allowing others to live according to theirs.

To be a liberal in such a polis is to be firmly committed to this principle of individual liberty of conscience. It doesn’t require actually having a liberal personal morality. A political liberal can be a moral conservative. What matters is not whether Farron believes that gays will burn in hell for their sins but whether he believes they have the legal right to secure their own damnation before rule passes from the human to the divine.

Part 2: the wages of Tim

Now, one can give Farron too much credit when it comes to separating politics and personal morality. As I blogged about back in 2015:

there does seem to be a pattern whereby Tim is lobbied to do something by Christian groups, does it and then on reflection realises he shouldn’t have.

And one of those instances does seem to be what initially provoked journalists to begin asking questions about what Farron thought about homosexuality. However, these infractions are generally minor. For example, instead of voting for equal marriage three times, he did so twice and abstained once. For that reason, I still feel comfortable endorsing the position taken by Jennie Rigg, acting chair of LGBT+ Lib Dems, that the two things that matter in this regard are:

1. How Tim Farron votes in parliament

2. How he treats people – LGBT+ people in particular – in everyday life

And that on both these matters he has a defensible record.

Indeed, it is striking how removed the discussion about Farron and his views have become from these concrete concerns. It may have begun with a discussion about how he voted on equal marriage, but it has ended with us parsing a purely psychological phenomenon, and seldom bothering to consider why Tim Farron’s views matter beyond the confines of his skull.

It would be different if he had used his public position to preach to his fellow citizens about what they should do in their private lives. But that was emphatically not he was doing. Indeed, he spent his entire tenure trying to avoid telling us his views on the matter – and on occasion claiming even to hold a wholy different view. Even now, his coming out and saying he thinks gay sex is sinful, seems to be less an attempt to convince others of his viewpoint, than to set right a moment of dishonesty on his part. Throughout, he seems content that his private views to remained private. It is his critics, who made them a matter of political salience.

Part 3: the wider issue

Now I am wary of taking this argument, where I am about to. I appreciate that many in the LGBT+ community would take umbrage at a straight Christian – even an LGBT affirming one – making a case that conservative Christians deserve to be seen as oppressed rather than oppressors anywhere close to the issue of gay rights. I completely acknowledge there are valid reasons for that, including but not limited to the fact:

  • In many parts of the world churches continue to perpetuate extreme legal and societal repression of people on account of their sexuality
  • That has historically been the case in the UK too
  • Nor has such behaviour in the UK entirely disappeared. Evangelical churches continue to be a major barrier to equal marriage in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, too many churches – even in the UK – continue to make life miserable for any young person unfortunate enough to grow up gay in their orbit.
  • When Christians make claims about their rights not being respected, they often do so in an overwrought, intellectually lazy manner that fails to show empathy for others. It often involves exageration, hyperbole, equating the inability to discriminate against others with being discriminated against oneself, making unwarranted connections between the challenges faced by Christians in the UK and indisputable instances of oppression in places like Saudi and North Korea, or making resentful comparisons with the supposed preferential treatment given to Muslims that manage to imply either that the predicament some Christians face is the fault of Muslims or that Muslims do not deserve to have their human rights protected.
  • Being fined for not baking a cake or being asked unpleasant questions by politics reporters are problems of a wholly different magnitude to being imprisoned or prevented from being married.

That said, a real problem remains. We cannot ignore the extent to which secularisation has changed Christianity’s position within the UK. Those professing a Christian faith in an active manner are clearly no longer just a minority but a small minority. For some Christians – myself included – this does not pose an especially acute challenge. We are what Tim Farron would describe as – perhaps ‘dismiss as’ – ‘cultural Christians’. We see secular humanism not as a threat to our faith but an outgrowth of it. For us, its concern with equality and human flourishing, accord with the all human beings being made by God and loved by him. However, for others, no such harmony exists. As they see it, God has decreed there to be a certain order to things, and now humans are messing with it. That sets them against the values of the majority, and history suggests that in such a situation the temptation for the majority to act intolerantly will be strong.

As I have already mentioned, it is quite possible to overstate this danger. If you had to be out of step with the values of any society, you’d choose a liberal and humanist one because part of its essence is that it affords strong protections to minorities. Hence the authorities will not shutter churches, believers will hardly ever face prison, and the mobs they confront will be allegorical. That said it is also to understate the problem. Besides, what happened to Farron, there is also the case of the evangelical bakers fined by Norther Ireland’s equality commission for refusing to produce a cake with a pro-LGBT slogan on it and at least one case of the courts having to step in after someone was unlawfully dismissed from their job for posting to their private Facebook page that equal marriage was ‘an equality too far‘. I have on multiple occasions heard generally liberal-minded people using anti-Christian language like ‘God botherer’ or ‘Bible basher’. It is also worth considering the possibility that the changing demographics of the church-going population are liable to increase the possibility of anti-Christian discrimination. Black majority churches are growing whilst white ones contract. That creates the ugly possibility for racial and religious prejudice to align and feed off each other. In this context, the mixture of bemusement, derision and revulsion that characterise the reaction to Farron’s views on homosexuality, should seem like a warning sign of a minority in a vulnerable position, which should also be a call to action for liberals. That might feel uncomfortable because his opinion might seem abhorent, but that’s kind of the point. It is not the people who hold pleasing, widely shared views, whose right to hold them requires defending.

Conclusion

It is perhaps instructive to consider what would happen if the law allowed politicians to bring cases for unlawful discrimination against the electorate and the wider polity. [For clarity: I am not advocating that – this is just a thought experiment!] It seems pretty clear to me that if Farron were to pursue such an action, he’d likely win. The courts have previously recognised that for some Christians, opposition to homosexuality may be a manifestation of their religious beliefs. Given that, placing someone in a situation where they must affirm support for same-sex relationships or lose out on the chance for advancement at work (in this case leading a larger parliamentary party) would potentially amount to indirect discrimination, which is prohibited by the equalities act. It is possible to ‘justify’ indirect discrimination, if one can show a good enough reason why it’s needed. But could we as a body of voters? If it were necessary to defend the rights of LGBT+ people, then absolutely it would be. However, given Farron’s voting record it seems that argument would falter for lack of evidence.

Which brings me to what is the nub of the issue for me. Is stigmatising a man who voted for equal marriage, campaigned against section 28, tabled a bill to end the ban on gay men donating blood and pushed for the UK to take stronger stances on LGBT+ issues globally for thoughts he is reluctant to express, an effective way of promoting LGBT+ rights? Or is it punishing him for belonging to an outgroup that thinks differently from the majority of us?

When going home means leaving a home behind (Cable from Korea #15)

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And so, the end is here. This will be the last ‘Cable from Korea’. Tomorrow I leave this country for the UK. Friday was my last day at work. I intend to live elsewhere for the foreseeable future.

I am sure that this is the right decision but that doesn’t make it an easy one. The very thing I feel the need to move beyond – the rather cloistered existence of an Anglophone expat in Korea – could easily be seen as a blessing I am mad to forsake. What’s so bad about a well-paid job, that takes care of my housing, gives me lots of holidays, plenty of free time, (usually) low stress days at work, an inbuilt community of fellow expats, and many of the world’s best sites a short-haul flight away?

More than that, however, Korea now has a special place in my heart. That’s partly due to the people I’ve met here – both locals and expats – of which more later. But beyond that, this country is a remarkable one. I obviously admire it at a macro level. It shook off colonialism, civil war, invasion and military rule to become a prosperous, culturally-dynamic democracy. But that’s not what has really kindled my affection for it. No, that’s things like being able to hike to temples in the mountains. Or visit its myriad cafes. And leave my laptop and wallet on the table in one of them for hours, knowing that Koreans are so law abiding, I can rely on it being there when I return. Oh and the plentiful public transport that’s basically never late. Or how about the numerous idiosyncratic festivals? And of course, the food. I’ve been spoilt by it. I’m no so accustomed to being able to have delicious barbeque, bulgogi, bibimbap, bingsu, mandu, ramen, jap chae bap, tempura or soup pretty much whenever I want, that I’m not sure how I’ll cope without them. In short, while Britain may be my home, Korea (and for that matter Vietnam) also feel like home. And being away from them feels like a wrench.

So, may I take this opportunity to ask you to pray or keep in your thoughts – whichever seems more right to you – a place that has become very dear to me. As you will be aware if you have seen any news lately, the peace and stability that South Koreans have worked so hard to build, is threatened by reckless manoeuvring in both Washington and Pyeongyang. More mundanely, now it has achieved its aspiration to be a wealthy exemplar of modernity and civility, it must decide what it aspires to be next. Oh and in the near future they have a show to put on: the Winter Olympics are coming to town. Please wish the Koreans well in all these endeavours.

As I already mentioned, the larger part of what makes any place special are individuals. And I would like to take the opportunity to publicly thank some people I met during my time in Korea. Under no circumstance, could I possibly thank everyone, I owe debts to. And I am writing this quickly, whilst in quite an emotional state, so am liable to have missed some people who really deserve a mention. Nonetheless, I thought it better to mention some people and risk missing others, than to not thank anyone. If your name should be here and is not, please rest assured I know what you did for me and that it is but a momentary lapse. With that said may I thank the following people:

  • My colleagues at Jeungsan elementary school, and Beomeo and Bogwang Middle Schools, as well as my co-teachers for the Interview English program. Thank you for the patience and tolerance you showed someone who doesn’t understand your language or how things are done in your country.
  • The students who took risks to improve their English. Especially those in my Interview English classes. Every time you did, you made teaching English seem worthwhile again.
  • The congregation at AIM, especially the Basic U fellowship group, and even more especially Kimberlie, Storm, Leanri, Chris and Dianna. I often had a rather semi-detached relationship with the church. But even as I put myself half-in and half-out, you made me feel 100% welcome.
  • Everyone at Socrates Café. Not only was debating and discussing philosophy with you, fun and informative, it was also just the mental workout I often needed after a week of (frequently) dry drilling simple phrases into students for hours on end. Stay reflective guys!
  • Wendy for providing a comfortable and welcoming space for foreigners like me. The paninis, shakes and dandelion tea were definitely a bonus too!
  • Aakansha, we didn’t get to spend anything like as much time together as I’d hoped, but I will forever be grateful for the time we did have. Stay yourself always.
  • Jenna Kang at KLIFF. Thank you for not only helping me with my Korean – which was definitely useful – but also convincing me that I could make progress with a language – even one as difficult as Korean – and that my putting effort into learning languages is not in vain.
  • Every non-Korean speaker in Korea must on a semi-regular basis turn to someone who does know the language for help. In my case that usually meant Hannah or Justyna. Thank you both for responding to my requests with such patience and being so generous with your time.
  • Everyone who went to Thursday Evening Bible Study. Your fellowship was invaluable, your very different perspectives were educational, and your friendship remains priceless.
  • Most of all, to my family during a time I was thousands of miles from my actual family: all my friends in and around Yangsan. Lauren, Ksenia, Tricia, Chris, Justyna, Bella, Jennifer, and, above everyone else on this list, the big sister I never had, Aaren. I miss you all already and can’t wait for the day I will see you again. I long for it be soon.

It was without a shadow of a doubt, worth moving half way round the world to meet you guys!

Best things I’ve read recently (the Last Jedi edition)

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Spoilers for pretty much everything in the Last Jedi and the films that preceded it

How the last Jedi lands so many big twists by Spencer Kornhaber (the Atlantic)

“What about Finn and Rose’s big moment? As the former stormtrooper goes to make like Russell in Independence Day and destroy the First Order’s big blaster in an act of self-sacrifice, he’s knocked to safety by Rose. It’s a classic, shmaltzy deus ex machina, and it allows Rose to deliver a lovely thesis statement for the Rebellion and plant this trilogy’s first romantic kiss. But I can’t think of any precedent in the Star Wars movies for this particular kind of sacrifice to prevent sacrifice, with individual love nobly winning out over the collective mission.

Which speaks to the yet-grander innovation of The Last Jedi: finding ways to complicate and deepen the good vs. evil dichotomy. We see well-intentioned missions end in failure and catastrophe (Finn’s arc). We see sharp and consequential disagreements between people on the same side (Poe vs. Holdo). We see intense explorations of what it means for light and dark to flirt (Rey and Ren). And the long-troubling notion that a person’s significance is simply a product of heredity is vaporized with the reveal about Ray’s junktrading parents, cemented by a coda that sees a force-wielding slave kid dreaming of rebellion.”

Star Wars: the Last Jedi – a spoiler-filled exploration by Ryan Lamble (Den of Geek)

“All of this serves to create a sense of shrinking rather than growing threat – a brave and slightly odd move for the middle chapter in a trilogy. The Last Jedi has unexpectedly sewn all kinds of plot threads up: Snoke’s gone, Luke nobly sacrificed himself, Rey has confronted her past. Yes, the Resistance’s numbers have been decimated, but the First Order has been dealt an even greater blow: its grand puppet master is dead, and in his place we have an aggressive hot-head and a military general so hapless that he could get his own sitcom (co-starring Adrian Edmondson, obviously). This raises the question: will the Resistance destroy the First Order, or will the First Order simply implode through mania and sheer incompetence?”

Toxic Masculinity Is the True Villain of Star Wars: The Last Jedi by Katyi Burt (Den of Geek)

“In the Original Trilogy, Han is presented as the ultimate dude. In heteronormative terms, he is the character every man should want to be and every woman should want to be with. In The Last Jedi, Poe is presented as a character who needs to stop with the mansplaining and learn from the more seasoned female leaders in his life.

That’s not to say that Poe isn’t likeable. Both the film itself and the characters within the cinematic world admire Poe’s character, but, and here’s the kicker, not as a leader. At least not yet.

Instead, the film supports General Leia and Admiral Holdo and their measured maturity over Poe’s machismo-driven exuberance. “She cared more about protecting the light than seeming like a hero,” Leia tells Poe about Holdo’s sacrifice, subverting the tired narrative trend of the alpha male hero as the only viable or best leadership choice. “Not every problem can be solved by jumping in an X-Wing and blowing stuff up,” Leia tells Poe before demoting him. Skilled X-Wing piloting is a solution to some problems, sure, but for Poe to think his is a skillset that solves allproblems is pure hubris.”

[MM: on a related note ‘Emo Kylo Ren‘ has redubbed himself as a Ren’s Right Activist]

Videos

Podcast

The Weekly Planet‘s discussion of the film is both funny and insightful. It also made me feel better about the ‘why didn’t Holdo just tell Poe problem’.

On Soundtracking, Edith Bowman interviews director Rian Johnson about what it’s like to work with John Williams. Short answer: very cool!

Tweets

https://twitter.com/rianjohnson/status/942651288570884096?s=17

If you look hard enough all history eventually becomes geography

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Black & blue: 2016 electoral results in Alabama. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

 

Here’s a curious angle on today’s glorious electoral upset in Alabama, courtesy of Quartz:

Black voters typically support the Democratic party, which is popular in Alabama’s middle districts. That vote shows up in electoral maps as a stripe running straight through the GOP stronghold: The black belt.

Contrary to myth, the “black belt” does not refer to the large African American population living in the area—or at least it didn’t originally.

“Black belt” refers instead to the quality of the soil of the area. Tanks to ancient marine deposits, the soil of that area is rich in nutrients, extremely fertile and, indeed, black. And there is a direct link between the color of the soil and the political leaning, too: Cotton.

As biology professor Allen Gathman shows by overlapping Alabama’s cotton production by county in 1860 (when the production was heaviest in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana) with the 2016 presidential election results, the areas with historically strong cotton cultivation, and therefore a historically large population of black laborers in the second half of 1800s correspond to Democratic votes today.

So, you can explain where Democrat support in Alabama is located in the present by looking at the race of voters. In turn, you can explain the racial makeup of the state by looking at the economy (and specifically where cotton production was located) more than a century ago. And that in turn is explained by the nutrient content of the soil.

These kind of geographic/geological factors tend to wind up underlying everything else. Indeed, the very first lecture of my history degree began with this map and the rather startling conjecture that it explains most of global inequality.

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The lecturer used it to illustrate Jared Diamond’s argument that:

Continents that are spread out in an east-west direction, such as Eurasia, had a developmental advantage because of the ease with which crops, animals, ideas and technologies could spread between areas of similar latitude.

Continents that spread out in a north-south direction, such as the Americas, had an inherent climatic disadvantage. Any crops, animals, ideas and technologies had to travel through dramatically changing climatic conditions to spread from one extreme to the other.

Technologies such as gunpowder were able to migrate 6,500 thousand miles from China, where they originated, to Western Europe, where they reached their apogee, in a matter of centuries. The wheel, on the other hand, developed in southern Mexico, never even managed the 500-mile journey south to the Andes.

This generally isn’t what we like to focus on when we contemplate history. Individuals and movements are more relatable. However, it pays to be aware of the context in which individuals and movements operate and how powerfully that is shaped by geography.

Without Charles Dickens there probably wouldn’t be a galaxy far far away

Star Wars and the pleasure of serials

As I strategise how to see the Last Jedi on the day it’s released, as well as going to Bible Study and…ya know…work, now seems a good time to ponder the appeal of serials.

They are so ubiqitous that it is easy to forget that they not only constitute a genre in their own right, but a genre that had to be created. Amongst the people who did that, this video from Nerdwriter argues that Charles Dickens was pre-eminent:

I must confess a love for serials. Far from being the cheap art form snobs sometimes suppose, they are precisely a case in which investment and deep engagement with material is rewarded. Serials give the audience an expansive world and lots of space for characters and plots to develop. One positively has to spend time with and pay attention to a serial to appreciate it properly.

That’s to say nothing of the fact that  there is the added bonus of the pleasurable anticipation of awaiting the next instalment!

 

Also worth reading:

Vulture’s account of the choreographing of the Phantom Menace‘s climatic lightsaber fight AKA the only good part of the movie. Unsurprisingly, it appears that a prerequisite for its success was George Lucas’ benign neglect.

Vietnam: optimism nation

HT: Forbes

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This tallies with my own experience. While I would prefer to live an already rich but slow growing country like the UK rather than a poor but rapidly growing one like Vietnam, there are definitely advantages to being among people who are generally confident that their lives are improving. An air of positivity is pleasant.

Related posts

Besides being unusually optimistic, the Vietnamese also stand out for being – ironically given its history and system of government – especially pro-capitalist and pro-American.

Nerds are thinking about a Disney/Fox deal the wrong way

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The possibility that Disney may buy part of Fox – including crucially in this context its movie studio 20th Century Fox – has excited the attention of the geekier parts of the internet for one specific reason:

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For those of you who are not familiar with the landscape of superhero movies, let me recap quickly. Both the X-Men and the Avengers were characters that originated in Marvel comics. However, you do not see them on the big screen together because in the 1990s, Marvel was losing money and to stay afloat it sold the movie rights to its most popular characters. Fox bought the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, and has been making movies featuring those characters ever since. Then in the 2000s, Marvel began producing its own movies based on the characters it hadn’t sold the rights to. Against the odds these second-tier hereos like Iron Man, Captain America and Black Widow proved to be the basis for the most profitable franchise in movie history. Then Disney bought Marvel. The result was that the movie versions Avengers and the Fantastic Four wound up owned by two different companies, each making its own movies, set in its own fictional universe. If one company attempted to use the other’s characters in its movies it would be sued for breach of copyright.

However, this would all change if 20th Century Fox became part of Disney. The problem is – as Scott Mendelssohn of Forbes – notes is that it would also change a lot of other things and not necessarily for the better:

Last year, Walt Disney had a jaw-dropping 26% of the domestic box office while Fox had 13%. With Fox and Disney combined into one entity, it’s plausible to see Walt Disney’s theatrical output controlling close to 40% of the theatrical business. With that kind of hold, the Mouse House could essentially rewrite the rules for how its movies are seen in theaters (higher ticket prices, higher percentages back to the studios, exclusive auditorium control, etc.) in a way that wouldn’t remotely help the likes of Universal or Warner Bros.

Disney has already gotten heat this year for somewhat more draconian terms for domestic theaters planning to show Star Wars: The Last Jedi (because it knows that much of the money isn’t going to come from the overseas business). It justifiably got torn to shreds for blacklisting Los Angeles Times journalists from Thor: Ragnarok press screenings after the paper reported unfavorably on Disneyland’s tax-related relationship with Anaheim. While Disney relented quickly, arguably because Coco needed the critical buzz more than Thor, such a move could well be solidified with that much control of the market.

And while Walt Disney is a publicly traded company and not a charity, this wouldn’t necessarily be good for the overall industry. Fewer major studios mean fewer places for artists to pitch their work, and thus potentially a less diverse slate of movies and television shows. Less competition could also drive down compensation for said artists, and Disney would be powerful enough to (if it chose to) essentially set the status quo for compensation for the next round of union negotiations. But at least we’d get a decent Fantastic Four movie, right, guys?

To this list of worries, I would add a concern that a larger Disney would have more political power. Given the company’s role in, first, turning American copyright law from a useful system for incentivising creators into a means for large companies like Disney to monopolise the use of valuable characters for generations, and then, lobbying for trade treaties that globalise this perversion of the system, that’d probably be a malign development.

Besides all this, I’m not even sure the massive superhero team-up fans want is really desirable. The MCU seems to be going along fine. Fitting the X-men and mutants in would require a lot of – probably detrimental – crowbarring. Better to let Fox try and make its properties work in isolation. Logan showed that can lead to interesting results.

Best things I’ve read recently (06/12/17)

The tough situations at work edition featuring harassment, emotional labour and when tattoos become a matter of life-and-death.

Sexual harassment: You too? by Eduardo Reyes (Law Gazette)

“In resigning as secretary of state for defence, Sir Michael Fallon observed that what might have been acceptable 10 or 15 years ago is clearly not acceptable now. Or did he mean 110 or 115 years ago –when Irish nationalist Constance Markievicz grabbed and held aloft the wandering hand of the older man sat beside her at dinner. ‘Just look what I have found on my lap!’ she declared.”

Politeness isn’t enough; we now demand friendliness. And it’s destroying authenticity by Olivia Goldhill (Quartz)

“It can sound miserly to complain about being friendly, but the implications can be quite harmful—especially for those who are experiencing strong negative emotions. Recently, when I had a major physical trauma and significant psychological fallout, I became increasingly aware of and distressed by the insistence on happiness. It felt profoundly wrong to buy food in between hospital visits, say, and be told to have a great day. Other demands for gregariousness were more relenting. In an Uber from my therapy session, for example, the driver repeatedly tried to make pleasant conversation. This was a time when I could barely talk to my closest family, and I was simply incapable of making chitchat with a stranger.”

Unconscious Patient With ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ Tattoo Causes Ethical Conundrum at Hospital by George Dvorsky (Gizmodo)

“Typically, DNRs are formal, notarized documents that a patient gives to their doctor and family members. Tattoos, needless to say, are a highly unorthodox—but arguably direct—means of conveying one’s end-of-life wishes. That said, this patient’s tattoo presented some undeniable complications for the hospital staff. Is a tattoo a legal document? Was it a regretful thing the patient did while he was drunk or high? Did he get the tattoo, but later change his opinion? On this last point, a prior case does exist in which a patient’s DNR tattoo did not reflect their wishes (as the authors wrote in this 2012 report: “…he did not think anyone would take his tattoo seriously…”).”

Tweet of the week (2):

Amusing video of the week:

HT: Nerdist

Cute video of the week:

HT: Also Nerdist

Podcast of the week:

Alphachat’s three part epic on the sociologist Albert O. Hirschman, who seems to be one of that exceptionally interesting generation of European political thinkers, who stared into the abyss of world war and totalitarianism, and came up with profound visions for a humane alternative.

Justice is served lukewarm

I suppose I should post something about Justice League. I mean, I write a blog of which commentary on superheroes films is a staple. It would seem like a missed opportunity not to, but dear reader I struggle to muster the enthusiasm. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the film. I did. Indeed I can’t improve on Scott Mendelson’s summation that it’s “a bad movie but a great time at the movies.”

The problem is that anything that requires me to think about Justice League more, leads to me liking it less. Even passing contemplation makes it apparent that it should have been more impressive than passing fun. Even judged simply as a simple diversion, the very act of judging shows it, reveals what a flimsy edifice it really is. Everything from the VFX, to the plotting, to the soundtrack feels rushed and unfinished. It does a good job of matching cast to characters, but then takes these potentially interesting depictions nowhere. Ponderously set-up story points – from both Justice League and its predecessors – are paid off with a whimper. It all seems like a rote recitation of the Marvel formula, only without that studio’s flair or willingness to experiment with that formula. The result is that it feels more like a generic Marvel movie than any actual Marvel movie. With a $300 million budget, decades of backstory, and some of the most iconic characters in the world as inputs, Justice League is a truly meagre output.

In the rear-view mirror

That it is so generic is especially galling because when this franchise began it did have a distinct vision. In Man of Steel, director Zack Snyder and his collaborators were trying to create a version of Superman with credibility, much as the Nolan brothers had done with the Dark Knight trilogy. In Batman v Superman, this was allowed to congeal into sullenness that was so self-conscious it became absurd. But for the first instalment of the DCEU that meant telling Superman’s story not as the tale of a superhero, but as a piece of science fiction about an alien raised as a human, who must choose whether to save his original or his adoptive people. When superpowered aliens do battle in Man of Steel it doesn’t seem like two actors in spandex having a punch-up, but a horrific conflict that leaves behind rubble and collateral damage. That was a lot for some people to take. Many never forgave Man of Steel for not being an updating of the Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve films. But we’ve already seen that film – it was called Superman Returns – and frankly it was boring. It was a good call on DC’s part to aim for something more interesting than a retread.

It didn’t quite work. Problematically for a film aspiring to a naturalistic note, the cast seemed stiff and uncomfortable in their roles. The story was also a tad convoluted and reliant on co-incidences. And once the full destruction of third act was unleashed, Snyder never really found a way to modulate the sound and fury. But these were all problems with execution not with the fundamental vision.

Indeed, one of the advantages of making films as part of a franchise with an in-built audience is that there is an opportunity to fix errors. If the first instalment of a franchise doesn’t quite work out, future outings for the same characters can serve as something of a do-over. The MCU emphatically does this and as a result improves over time. There was no inherent reason Warner Brothers could not do the same with the DCEU, taking Man of Steel and improving on the formula it provided until they had something special.

Done right

In fact, if you look around the Superhero genre, you will see a number of movies that succeeded where Man of Steel failed. Using superhero franchises as a framework in which to deliver genre movies has become the norm. The MCU has now has comedies (Guardians and Ragnarok), a political thriller (the Winter Soldier) and a high-school coming of age story (Homecoming) that happen to have protagonists with superpowers. Fox is – if anything – more reliant on this strategy. Logan is essentially a pastiche western, whilst Deadpool is a frat comedy living inside a parody of the superhero genre.

Perhaps even more saliently, Warner Brothers proved themselves capable of making a film that realised Man of Steel’s potential. It was called Wonder Woman. It also told the story of a non-human with incredible powers living amongst humans, discovering our species’ good and bad sides, and ultimately deciding to save us despite our flaws. Despite the story beginning on a mythical island, once it moves to WWI era Europe, we see a serious attempt to show us – somewhat realistically – a character raised in a harmonious society contending with a world riven by the direst conflict. And in so doing, it moves into a particular genre: the war film. It is not a film like Captain America: the First Avenger, that happens to take place during a war. It is about war. Armed conflict defines each character’s struggle, embodies its themes and drives the plot. The most pivotal moments happen on battlefields. Apart from Themyscira, virtually every set looks more like something out of a war film than a superhero film. It seems to consciously eschew not only anything futuristic but also any steam punk. That serves to keep out any element that is not true to either the WWI or Ancient Greek setting. Myriad aspects of the film from its pacing to its colour palette are more like a war film than the Avengers. Heck, the antagonist is actually war himself (AKA Aries AKA Mars)!

Back to the beginning but worse

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Sadly, the kind of rich, interesting yet entertaining filmmaking that Man of Steel hinted at and Wonder Woman exemplified have largely been missing from the rest of the DCEU. Warner Brothers response to the underwhelming reaction to the franchise, was to heavy handidly correct a series of very specific mistakes, while leaving the broader issues untouched. Audiences complained about civilians being killed in Man of Steel’s violent finale. Therefore, Batman v Superman belaboured the point that its fight scenes were happening in deserted areas. Audiences complained that Batman v Superman was morose. Therefore, Suicide Squad was packed with pop music and jazzy graphics. Audiences complained all of these films were too dark. Therefore, Justice League looks like someone has stuck a colourful Instagram filter over it. Notably absent from these efforts was any sense on Warner Bros part that they needed to slow down, consider carefully the story they were trying to tell, the kind of films they wanted to make and the director they were relying on to set the tone.

Instead, they waited for Zack Snyder to step aside of his own volition after a personal tragedy. And began trying to force his version of Justice League to become the Avengers. Even going as far as hiring the director of the Avengers to finish the project after Snyder’s enforced departure. But whereas you could really feel the love and care that went into the MCU’s first big team-up, Justice League feels rushed, shoddy and above all unimaginative. I really struggle to think of anything that feels fresh or novel in the whole film. Its most blatant borrowing is from the Avengers, from which it takes its premise, structure, style of humour and – let’s not mince words – its plot from the Avengers. However, you spot elements of other films along the way too: ‘oh, that shot is a reference to the Burton Batman films, that one the Nolan ones, that battle sequence comes from Wonder Woman, that reminds me of Watchmen and it’s slow-mo like Days of Future Past’. These elements pilfered from other superhero films are thrown together to form a creation that rather ugly and hard to love, but does still lurch forward rather effectively.

In one sense, this takes the DCEU back to where it started. We’ve passed the low of Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad and the high of Wonder Woman, and returned to the kind of serviceable 6.5/10 movie-making we got from Man of Steel. But while in and of themselves, the first and the most recent instalments may be of about equal quality, Man of Steel hinted at future potential, which Justice League lacks. My concern is that now Warner Bros have a template for making serviceable entertainment that avoids Suicide Squad-esque disasters, it’s will become what the DCEU will be like from here on in. Justice League there by represents the franchise finding its voice only to have it say “honestly…we also wish this was a Marvel movie.

Would I recommend Justice League?

If you were walking around thinking ‘I’m bored and have nothing to do for the next two hours’ and at that moment the breeze blew a ticket into your hand, then I’d say go for it. It’s kinda fun. If you have to sacrifice actual money and time you could be doing something else to see it, it’s probably not worth bothering with.

The best advocates for migrants are migrants

In July 2015, Angela Merkel was speaking a town hall style event on the “Good life in Germany” at a secondary school in the coastal town of Rostock, when:

Reem, a Palestinian, told Merkel in fluent German that she and her family, who arrived in Rostock from a Lebanese refugee camp four years ago, face the threat of deportation.

She said: “I have goals like anyone else. I want to study like them … it’s very unpleasant to see how others can enjoy life, and I can’t myself.”

Dr Merkel is indisputably a very skilled politician. However, in this situation she floundered:

…saying she understood, but that “politics is sometimes hard. You’re right in front of me now and you’re an extremely nice person. But you also know in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon are thousands and thousands and if we were to say you can all come … we just can’t manage it.”

Not unsurprisingly this answer reduced Reem to tears, and Dr Merkel was left stroking the crying girl’s shoulder, whilst lamely reassuring her that she had presented herself ‘extremely well’. As well as being a bad look for the Chancellor, it seemed to affect her personally.  Less than a month later, she made the momentous decision to open Germany’s borders to over a million Syrian refugees.

This incident came to mind as I was reading a column by Simon Kuper in the FT about how cosmopolitans can stop losing the communications battle to populists. Among his suggestions is that we:

Don’t use elite spokespeople. The gay-marriage campaign — a rare liberal persuasive triumph — showcased ordinary couples in love. Likewise, the best spokespeople on migration may be ordinary integrated immigrants. On issues of migration, more Britons would trust a migrant who has been in the UK 15 years than would trust any party leader, reports British Future.

Immigration activists in the US have quite explicitly modeled their approach on the equal marriage movement:

Gay-marriage campaigners have long favoured unthreatening, often grey-haired monogamous gay couples as spokesmen (the “lesbians next door” gambit, as a study of the cause dubbed it). Immigration reformers promoted Dreamers: young campaigners named after the DREAM Act, a proposal to offer fast-track legal status to migrants brought to America as children, as long as they go to college or into the armed forces. Advocates such as Mr Sharry credit the prominence of wholesome, college-bound Dreamers with helping reshape the national debate.

Perhaps for that reason, the Obama administration’s first major action was to protect Dreamers from deportation. Despite the Trump administration’s hostility to immigration, even it was hesitant to rescind these protections and dithered before doing so. That decision proved unpopular even with some generally pro-Trump Republicans and it seems possible/likely that legislation will eventually reinstate those protections.

We have also seen this approach used in the UK. For example, the I am an Immigrant poster campaign:

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Immigration advocates have to wrestle with powerful preconcieved notions. The combination of our inherent prejudices against the unfamiliar and years of conjuring by tabloid bile merchants has created a powerful, emotionally resonant negative image of immigrants. Trying to slay these monsters with a stream of counter-vailing information seems likely to backfire. A better way to show voters the reality of migration is to show them real migrants. As Angela Merkel discovered, it is hard to defend our inhumane migration when face-to-face with an actual decent human being it’s hurting.