Obscure film review: Shakespeare Behind Bars

Shakespeare Behind BarsHank Rogerson, USA / UK, 2005
Viewed on DVD, July 21

My former committee chair is still paying me for some research, and my latest project was to watch three films for her and report on them. She helpfully suggested that this might produce material for my blog a well! So far, I’ve just watched this documentary, and while trying to psych myself up to watch these cheesy-looking horror flicks, I thought I would go ahead and provide a much-modified version of the report I made to her.

This documentary covers a program by the same name, in which an oddball, long-haired guy who has been visiting this medium-security prison in Tennessee for the last few years (and continues to do so). While there, he good-nautredly cajoles the inmates, who are (surprisingly?) committed to the whole thing, to produce a passable production. The filmmakers draw their interviews and rehearsal footage from four or five key days out of a year in which The Tempest was the chosen play. The proceedings are captured on some not-so-high-quality video, perhaps more with an eye for television than for its minor theatrical release.

The rehearsals are interesting, and the director seems to have some reasonably solid methods for coaxing the best possible performances out of the inmate actors (he even seems a bit harsh at times). A few days before I watched this, I attended an amateur performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which the director had seemingly allowed most of his young cast to repeat everything in a jarring sing-song tone, and I thought the prisoners’ efforts at least compared favorably to that attempt. I was, however, a bit disappointed when almost none of the final performance made it into the film! Rather then hear their lines, we get brief snippets which have been compiled into a musical-montage, an unfortunate choice in my opinion. There are, however, several clips from the performance amongst the extensive “special features” section of the DVD. I have to admit that I didn’t actually watch them;  I suppose my attention span was already maxed out by the time the film ended.

This skittishness about actually showing us their play led me to question whether the documentary is even really about Shakespeare. The director encourages the inamtes to find parallels between their life experiences and their characters, and he heavily pushes the theme of “forgiveness,” which, I suppose isn’t exactly a stretch or a distortion of The Tempest. Even when speaking directly to the audience (on his way to the prison in one scene), he still takes the idea of Shakespeare as “mirror  up to [human] nature” very literally, which does seem a bit conventional; of course, I had to remind myself that it wouldn’t serve the inmates, or even most of the audience for this film, for him to be more “literary critic” with his analysis.

Of course, the inmates are very responsive to this theme, particularly because most of them seem to be coming up on parole soon (with one exception, we only learn the results of these hearings in captions following the film, while additional updates provided on the DVD automatically load after the film proper concludes). The inmates are generally interesting personalities,  committed to their work and enthusiastic about it (their greatest challenge comes when they try to inspire a new participant to the same committment). They are also all guilty of some heinous crimes (some more heinous than others), most of which might seem to be isolated instances, were it not for the fact that the inmates we meet also tend to be repeat offenders. The “least severe” crime you get is a revenge killing; these are not the guys who got put in jail solely for “victimless crimes” such as drug use.

In telling their stories, the director generally prefers to gather sympathy for them before revealing what they’ve done. Of course, they probably were reticent to explain the latter to their interviewer, but obviously the filmmakers still had full freedom when it comes to editing. This does seem to point to an agenda for the film (one I am not wholly unsympathetic to, as I am highly skeptical of how our prison system works), but ultimately this seems to overtake questions about the program itself. There is some talk about how the Shakespeare program brought focus and discipline to some inmates, but the idea of “forgiveness’ receives much greater emphasis in the film. In general, the filmmakers are unable or unwilling to make a case for any kind of structural reform, or at least for non-punitive, recuperatory corrections (like this program). Instead, they mostly attempt to create personal connection between us and the film’s characters, as if to say to the viewer, “hey, you like these guys, right? Don’t you think that you (the oft-mentioned “society,” an entity that perhaps only the prisoner has a right to speak of as distinct from himself) should forgive them?”

Ultimately, the film Shakespeare Behind Bars sells the titular program short by disconnecting the appeal for a change (and what would the change be exactly?) from its effectiveness, and by making the need for change contingent on this personal appeal. What if we meet an inmate who is thoroughly unlikeable, but also more fit for release? Have the filmmakers carefully managed the interviews to prevent their subjects from becoming unlikeable? (okay, there are one or two, but still) These questions lead me to conclude that director Hank Rogerson has merely provided the viewer with some interesting food for thought, but he has not succeeded in making the cogent argument he believed that he has made.


MirrorMask and Harry Potter 6: two sides of British fantasy

I’m trying to catch up on the films I’ve seen over the last week, in which I was a bit unavailable and therefore couldn’t blog. As it happens, both were British PG-rated fantasy films, but while I wasn’t crazy about both of them, one was, oh, a little bit more successful than the other.

Dave McKean, UK / USA, 2005
Viewed on DVD, July 19

McKean, as you may know, is a collage artist known for his work with Neil Gaiman, particularly the covers for the seminal, bookstore-favorite Vertigo/DC adult fantasy series The Sandman. Indeed, Gaiman wrote the script for this, McKean’s first, and so far only, feature film. The other collaborator you may be interested in is the Jim Henson Company, known for some 1980s dark fantasy hits. Unfortunately, I’ve never seen Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal, so I didn’t have my nostalgia goggles on for this one.

I did enjoy The Sandman, however, so I was a bit surprised to see the PG rating on this one. In fact, it’s not just the explicit content that’s gone from this film, but the complexity and sophistication as well. McKean and Gaiman seem interested in presenting a very basic fairy tale, by presenting ordinary actors on a bluescreened, digitally created world with no shortage of visual inventiveness.

In fact, I don’t know if I have anything really to add to the existing reviews, which emphasize the interesting visual aspects and the somewhat-lacking script and simplistic themes. It is interesting and worthwhile for the film to center around the girl’s relationship to her mother, unlike, say, traditional fantasy, where the mother doesn’t even seem to have existed, but I have to say that while MirrorMask held my attention throughout, I can’t recommend it, mostly because it ultimately betrays the promise of an exciting, well thought-out fantasy world.

Instead, most of the things the heroine encounters seem arbitrary, and by the time you get to the end, you’ve forgotten how things started out. The production strives for a “dreamlike” quality, as the heroine does in fact just seem to be dreaming, but despite some attempts to play with the nature of dreams and reality, I’ve seen better attempts to do so on television (“Restless,” the fourth season finale to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, comes to mind).

Lest you think I don’t appreciate pure visual style, let me just say that I am big fan of movies like Dark City, which was pilloried by most critics for being “style over substance.” That film may not have the greatest script, but it strives for, and achieves, much greater thematic consistency in its set pieces. You may enjoy this film if you are a fan of the collaborators, but on its merits, it probably won’t even entertain the children too much.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood PrinceHarry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
David Yates, UK / USA, 2009
Viewed on 35mm, July 23

You’ve probably of this one, right? I’m not even sure I can compare the two; it’s easier to watch in some ways, yet it’s also much more painful and more conspicuous in its squandering of potential.

The Star Trek series is infamous for its pattern of good even-numbered films and bad odd-numbered ones, but this pattern was decisively broken in 2002 and 2009. It’s just occurred to me, however, that Harry Potter has, at least in my opinion, become the latest mega-franchise to adopt this pattern.

I say this because I had previously attributed the quality of the films to the directors attached to them (Alfonso Cuarón equals brilliance, Mike Newell equals disaster), but just as Chris Columbus, hardly an auteur, managed to create a sense of wonder with The Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone before falling into an holding pattern with The Chamber of Secrets, David Yates, the only Potter director whose work I am otherwise unfamiliar with (in fact it seems that he doesn’t have a significant feature film career) struck gold with The Order of the Phoenix an exciting tale of adolescent rebellion against heinously oppressive “adult” forces, but mis-stepped considerably with The Half-Blood Prince.

But whose fault is that, anyway? I don’t blame Yates so much as I blame J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros. Pictures. Despite the surprisngly-positive reviews, I always knew this film would be trouble, if only because the book is possibly the worst of the series. Rowling isn’t exactly the greatest prose-writer in the UK, but book 6 is slack mostly because, unlike all the other books, she doesn’t  give Harry a quest to pursue in this one. Instead, he spends most of the book intermittently advancing his relationship with his love interest, magically witnessing flashbacks of the villain’s life story, and, eventually, attempting to pry some information out of a starstruck, weaselly new teacher. While the final sequence of the book certainly raises the stakes considerably, the problem is that it’s entirely set in motion by Dumbledore. Book 5 was about Harry trying to take control of his own fate to a greater degree than ever before, and although he made some terrible mistakes in the process, it’s nonetheless disheartening to see him as such a passive figure in this book.

For this to have been a good film, Yates and his screenwriter, Steve Kloves, would have to have been willing to do more than just cut scenes from book; they would have needed to rearrange it entirely, to the point of creating a new plot line for Harry. Of course, they were either unwilling to do so, or not permitted to do so by studio brass, so what we have is a film that is very heavy on the “young love” as Dumbledore puts it, and not much else. Sure, it’s amusing to laugh at (definitely not with) the characters as they fumble through their immature attractions, but it’s not something to hang a blockbuster on). Meanwhile, all but two of the flashbacks are mostly gone, and while that was probably a good decision, it just makes the remaining ones seem all the more arbitrary.

There is one other way in which this film could have been saved; by not making it. Books 6 and 7 together should have been, together, two films the most, perhaps even just one film. Rowling seems to have written book 6 merely as set-up for book 7, which is why it doesn’t stand on its own. They could make a movie entitled <i>The Half-Blood Prince</i> that included the few relevant events from book 6 and the first half of book 7, then made a movie entitled <em>The Deathly Hallows</em> to finish the series.

Of course, quality is largely irrelevant when the money is coming in like it is, and it’s hard to see what motivation Warner Bros could have to forgo that cash, especially when most of the critics don’t seem to even object. Instead, the studio has taken the opposite tack, deciding to milk every last dollar out of this cash cow. They’re making book 7 into two films, to be released in 2010 and 2011, which honestly ruins my hopes that the series will have a good end. Book 7 has an solid quest structure and an exciting finale (if you forget about the epilogue) but it also has a lot of downtime; with Yates at the helm for the last two films, one can expect that he and Kloves will continue to faithfully represent even more of the aimlessness that Rowling increasingly indulged herself in as the editors lost all power over her. It’s enough to make me start waiting for the Blu-ray the next time(s) around.

Is “racist” a slur? Only if you make it one

At the risk of turning this blog into an opportunistic, parasitical infection on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog, he’s been having some trouble with the white folk to which I strongly felt that I had to respond. However, when you are comment number 107, sometimes you might get more people to pay attention on your own space, which is in part why I have “double-posted” this response.

Unfortunately, he has been having some ongoing difficulty with what is, to me, an absurd argument:

There are a lot of posts below, not so much agreeing with Chris’ point that racist is “close” to nigger as an insult, but seeking to reformulate the argument to make it work.

Chris Bodenner made the original argument here, and Coates first addressed it here.

He goes on:

I am, in many ways, a bad fit for this job–there should be a black person here with a gentle-hand, willing to walk people through their differences step by step. There should be someone here who believes in conflict resolution. I have, after many conversations and arguments, concluded that some aspects of understanding are about information. But others are about will–people understand what they want to understand, what they believe is in their interest to understand.

My response, then, is below:

Ta-Nehisi, I have to agree with those who disagreed with your statement that you should “be a black person here with a gentle-hand, willing to walk people through their differences step by step,” as I think you have been in fact astonishingly patient. For you to respond any more patiently, or to expend even more time and energy by taking the “step by step” process, would I think be detrimental not just to you as an individual (black) man, but also detrimental to your white readers, who will become even less likely to learn where the line is.

I also want to say that I think the worst part of this discussion is the insistence on the noun “a racist” to the total exclusion of the adjective “racist,” particularly referring to someone’s thought or action rather than their personality. Hip hop blogger Jay Smooth had a great video where he recommended that if someone says something that is racist, you should tell them that they’ve said something that’s racist, not that they are racist (much less “a racist”) so that they can’t get all prickly about you insulting their essence or what not.

The sad part is, it doesn’t work, because white people choose not to listen. If I were to respond to some of my hyperdefensive fellow white people by saying, even more gently than Jay recommended, “the things you are saying, to me, carry connotations of a racially-motivated defense of white privilege,” they would, in all likelihood, immediately respond in a kneejerk fashion, “how dare you call me a racist?” If they won’t hear what I’m saying, they aren’t gonna hear what a black person says either.

I know that in some cases (how many is unknowable) individual people who are black do directly say “you’re racist,” in some cases with little-to-no justification and with a degree of cynicism and calculation. In fact, it happened to a white friend of mine, a teacher; she was cleared quite easily, and the student apologized.’

I would really love to hear an actual example of a completely blameless white individual losing his or her job due to an accusation of racism, because what I’m much more familiar with is hearing these claims dismissed summarily, even when there may be some kernel of truth to it that should at least be addressed in some way. Maybe by listening to each other? God forbid.

Lament for California

Lately NPR has taken to some smug smirking at California’s “budet woes,” as they are usually called. I can’t find the story any more, but there was one report that ended by the reporter cracking, “only in California,” her sneer practically visible. They seem determined to suggest that our problems are caused by our own moral failings as a group of people. They are, after all, located in the east.

Then, about a few weeks ago, someone in NPR decided to let former State Assembly Speaker Willie Brown have his say (the quotes are from the audio version of the story, not the written version):

California is burdened with a two-thirds vote requirement. California is burdened with something called term limits.

Already, you have more information than almost any of their analysis pieces. Next, he makes his case.

In a democracy, it works best it works best when people get to know each other, and when in some cases, people with superior information, and knowledge on certain subject matters, are in fact looked to for advice in counsel. You don’t have any of that in Sacramento.

And then when you have the additional item of requiring two-thirds votes, you leave the tyranny of the process completely to an irresponsible third of the people, and that can be destructive, as is the case in the state of California.

Eliminate term limits, get rid of the initiatives, do something about the two-thirds [requirement], and you will not have the stalemate that you currently have in the state capital.

Of course, the interviewer doesn’t try to refute this on the merits; instead, she goes on to accuse him of being corrupt, and I have to say, his response doesn’t really assure me that he wasn’t. To which I say, who cares? There’s no way that a corrupt-but-effective speaker could have cost us more money than what the current gaggle of inexperienced morons have with their inability to agree on anything.

One thing Brown only mentioned in passing was “the intiatives,” which actually brings me back to another subject, which is my frustration at seeing my friends lament on Facebook about how Iowans are more sophisticated, because they have legalized gay marraige. They are not. Once agian, people are making a structural problem into a human weakness.

Of course, Iowans are not more “progressive” than Californians, it’s just that their system doesn’t let them take majority votes on minority rights without the political elite deciding whether they’ll be allowed to. I was ranting to an old friend the other day and he accused me of drifting towards conservatism, but this shows a political ignorance; populism can be either left- or right-wing, and the same can be said about opposition to populism (which I guess is known as elitism). When it comes to this subject, my views have indeed shifted as I’ve gotten older

Even if you still think that populism is always inherently a good thing, consider that here in California, monied elites can determine singlehandedly what ends up on the ballot due to the low bar for signature requirements). The will of the people is being bought every time some another rich person or corporation throws another ill-advised or poorly written proposition onto our already over-crowded ballot.

The sad thing is, the people just shouldn’t be allowed to directly decide some things. The fact that someone gave the people of this state the right to do so doesn’t somehow indicate a moral weakness on their part relative to the people of other states. It just means that in many states, they’re being protected from making certain bad decisions. Which isn’t, of course, to say that the politicians don’t make plenty of bad ones on their own. It’s just that that happens with or without populism!

The UC budget crisis: you are still expendable

When those UCSD profs asked to shut down the “inferior UCs,” many of my soon-to-be former colleagues scoffed at the notion that UCSD was even worthy of considering itself an elite university (which led to musing on my part as to why it was them, and not our “true elite schools” who were out for blood). Well guess what, guys, some professors from your beloved UC Berkeley (specifically, Robert Cooter and Aaron Edlin, both apparently part of the law school) are out for your blood as well. I mean, what do you expect from an institution that, by presenting itself as “Cal,” clearly still fantasizes for the good old days of 1868 through 1916, where they were the University of California?

Their bloodlust is somewhat different, although their argument begins in the same way:

The University of California remains outstanding. By some rankings, three of its schools are among the top 20 universities in the world. But for how long?

Once again UCSD is allowed up there with the rest of them. Do you know it only because a UC in 1959? It’s not that old.

We also see that same appeal to the private sector, something I didn’t focus on in my previous analyses, but a point of concern for most people in my ex-department:

Across-the-board salary cuts are the simplest way to balance the budget, but they are rarely the best. In the corporate world, smart organizations more often choose layoffs than salary cuts. And with good reason.

You notice that they don’t even feel the need to justify applying corporate logic to the university! This is frightening, and it pretty much completely justifies the humanities grad student’s fear of privatization of the academy.

A crisis is a time to rethink what we do, how we do it and who does it.

This is known as disaster capitalism.

Consider what the proposed salary cuts would mean. With employees paid up to 20% below what peer institutions pay, the best will leave. Yes, even in this recession, the best people will leave for other jobs or retire or switch professions. And those who remain will suffer from low morale.

Actually, I heard a story on the public radio show Marketplace at least a month ago about the number of organizations opting for pay cuts over layoffs because the morale of those who stayed would be lowered by “survival guilt.” According to Cooter and Edlin, UC employees, particularly the faculty (I mean, are they talking about anyone else? Maybe administration), are in fact made of lower moral fiber than the typical corporate employee; lower pay would bring them down, but watching their friends and co-workers lose everything wouldn’t bother them a bit.

Growth has led to bloat at UC. The bloat and bureaucracy stifle creativity and productivity. The bloat is in unproductive workers and unproductive jobs. Many jobs have little to do with our core missions of teaching and research. Within jobs, there is task bloat — mission creep creates too many assignments of little import.

Of course, the five billion dollar question is, who do they consider to be expendable? Obviously, they have no motivation to be anything other than cagey about it, because their hope is that everyone will read this and say, “yeah, I know my job or unit is crucial, but those other guys are just taking up space!” If you are of this mindset, you may find yourself supporting this proposal right up until the moment you realize that it was you who they were able to portray as just “bloat.”

Oh, and I say units because that’s their work-around for canning tenured faculty: axing entire units. Who wants to take bets as to whether these old white (okay, I’m just guessing here) guys are just itching to drop Ethnic Studies, or other such departments?

The Fresno Bee ran an editorial in response to the “close UC Merced” proposal in which they stated that some people in the UC system clearly had a “Lord of the Flies” mentality. One wonders, with equal parts grim amusement and increasing alarm, how many more backstabbing proposals we have to look forward to.

The Uyghur minority in China: an uncomfortable reflection


In my experience, most Americans, including those of Chinese descent, are not aware that the Tibet is far from a unique case; in fact, just north of Tibet, an autonomous region known as Xinjiang, populated by a Turkic people called the Uyghurs. So why are Richard Gere and the Beastie Boys so concerned about Tibet, yet so ignorant of Xinjiang? I’ll let my girlfriend Megan, herself a Han Chinese, explain with some words from a political science paper she wrote last quarter:

westerners are more likely to consider Tibetan Buddhism as a mysterious oriental spiritual doctrine, and feel sympathetic to it. To the contrary, Islam is often condemned to some negative stereotypes, such as militancy and fundamentalism. Those images cause the majority of westerners to hesitate before supporting Uyghur separatism.

Ouch! I believe that she, as they say in Internet parlance, pretty much “pwnd” the West with that dry remark right there.

If you listen to a news outlet like NPR or BBC, however, you may be a bit more familiar with Xinjiang lately, as the ethnic unrest in that territory has forced them to pay attention to it. My jumping-off point happens to be a story by Anthony Kuhn that NPR ran last night, entitled “Unrest In China Highlights Plight Of Ethnic Minorities.”

The American narrative

The first part of the story uses the semi-anonymous testimony of a Uyghur man, Mohammed, to assert that Uyghurs are in fact second-class citizens in their own homeland. You see, Han Chinese are the 90% majority in China, it’s just that with over a billion citizens of the People’s Republic of China, there are still plenty of non-Han, officially classified as one of the 55 “ethnic minorities.” In the last few decades, the PRC authorities decided that they would “develop” Xinjiang (and Tibet) by importing Han people into those regions, because it worked so well when Great Britain imported Protestant English and Scots into Northern Ireland, right? These population changes, of course, ensure that the situation will remain intractable for some time, even in the currently-unlikely event of political independence for either territory.

Of course, Kuhn does not provide any of this background. He does describe the Chinese Communist Party’s approach to minorities as “hard-line,” but only offers one, somewhat peculiar, alternative:

But there is debate beyond the rhetoric. For years, critics have suggested a re-examination of China’s Soviet-style system of “autonomous zones” and affirmative action for Tibetans, Uighurs and other minorities.

Retired Nanjing University professor Wang Yingguo argues that these policies have actually made it harder for minorities to develop a Chinese identity.

“The general trend of the Chinese nation has been for assimilation. But the establishment of these autonomous zones has created an artificial separation between races and locked in their differences,” he said.

This is the point in the story where the American journalist starts to talk more about his own culture than the one he’s interviewing. I am going to be guilty of the same thing here, but I’m interested in articulating the parallels, as I think we can learn much more about the problem this way.

To identify, or not to identify

My theory is that when American journalists cover a story about minority unrest in China, there are really two kinds of reactions that they may offer. The first, and perhaps the most common, is to give one’s own country a good pat on the back and say “good thing it’s not like that here.” Commenter Jon gao, probably a PRC citizen and ethnic Han, reflexively responds to the story as if it was in fact written from that perspective:

Why these FREEDOM loving “journalist” never mentions that most of the killing was done by Uighurs terrorist to Chinese passerbys. They killed Han and Uighurs and Hui people. And while some “peacefully” rioting on main streets and public square, others started killing in the back alleys!

In fact, Kuhn’s story is not of this nature. He makes absolutely no claims as to “who started it,” preferring a studied ambiguity about the facts. In fact, this article takes the opposite position, which is to subtly acknowledge the feeling of familiarity. Ironically, Jon goa’s response evokes this feeling inadvertently, although I’ll have to return to that later. Kuhn’s sense of “recognition” comes out in his choice of Wang Yingguo as his expert. Wang helpfully explains that the problem of inequality among cultural and ethnic groups is caused by the very recognition of certain groups as distinct. If only we were to assert not only that there is one China, but that there is also just one type of Chinese, all the problems will disappear.

The fantasy of sameness

Why is this familiar? Well, in 2003, conservative activist Ward Connerly was able to get Proposition 54 on the ballot in California. Had it passed (it didn’t), the state government would have been prohibited from collecting any data on racial identity. Connerly, like Wang, posited that different racial impacts are in fact created by the recognition of racial difference.

Now of course, race, ethnicity, and all such things are more than a little arbitrary, especially from a biological standpoint, but it’s a fine trick to ignore what has beome the historical reality of difference and of different treatment. Were we to stop tracking the different outcomes that ethnic groups experience, people who support efforts like Prop 54 could claim that those different outcomes had been eradicated, while those who suspect otherwise would no longer be able to prove otherwise.

Personally, I believe that ignoring the problem does not constitute a solution, whatever else you might say about it, but it’s hard to deny that these ideas have a certain popularity in the white American populace, especially the more right-leaning variety. So, in choosing a solution that is so familiar to us, Kuhn ultimately identifies the white majority in America with the Han majority in China.

Idealizing the victim

He’s not the only one who does so, in fact. What commenter Jon gao, quoted above, doesn’t realize is that when I read his comment, that sense of entitlement deja vu just got stronger. I imagine it’s quite likely that he is not simply “making things up.” I don’t know if this is a worldwide tendency, but in the West at least, we have an unfortunate need to hold blameless a group that they recognize to be the subject of unjust treatment; for instance, some white liberals and leftists fall into the trap of idealizing people of color as saintly victims, rather than acknowledging them as complicated, flawed human beings like themselves. Some Uighyurs may well have committed atrocities; what this reminds me of is a report I read about Tibetan violence (subscription required, alas), alluded to in Kuhn’s NPR story, in The Economist, which made me one of the few Westerners aware that last year’s violence between Tibetans and Han authorities was two-way and not merely top down. Recognizing that things are not clear-cut might help us Westerners not look so hypocritical to the Han folks. On the other hand, the Economist report was so rare because that journalist was, by coincidence, one of the few foreign journalists lucky to be on the spot before the CCP authorities closed off access. When the Tibetan exile groups are freely talking while the PRC government tries to act like nothing’s happening, it’s clear that it’s not just Western bias that might have led to lopsided accounts! This clearly is not an isolated problem.

Erasing historical context

That said, his reaction is familiar because that’s where it stops. Some “minorities” committed violence, that’s all we need to know. Their actions are described without context, while the reactionary individual, with his dominant perspective, sees his own group as blameless… perversely, forgetting the crackdowns of the past justifies the need for new, harsh crackdowns.

Is this familiar? Well, we haven’t had “riots” on this scale in a long time. Instead, our racial conflict usually plays out on a more complicated stage. In the United States, racial hysteria is constantly used to pass new “tough-on-crime” laws that lead to mass numbers of black men being incarcerated, devastating entire communities. Questioning these policies means that you are soft-on-crime, a bleeding-heart liberal out of touch with reality.

Affirmative action?

Interestingly, this leads into one (but hardly the only) key element in which the Chinese and American situations are quite different. You see, China has both a neo-imperial attitude of exploitation (Megan told me that growing up, she was told that the minerals were taken from the Uyghurs, who didn’t need them, and given to the Han in the east who did need them, something that at least made sense to her as a child) and an affirmative action policy! (Surprisingly, Kuhn didn’t give Wang a chance to rail against that). This seeming contradiction is baffling… at first. My research on this subject led me to a surprisingly thorought and insightful article from Knight-Ridder Newspapers, the core of which is this:

But just as in the United States, China’s affirmative-action policy is controversial, divisive and, some argue, unsuccessful.

It is also, to Western eyes, flawed. That is because the policy is not based on any philosophy of equality, or any desire to “celebrate differences.”

Instead, the Chinese people, for the most part, remain completely at ease with racial stereotypes. Affirmative action here does not mean re-evaluating the Han belief that all minorities are “backward, primitive barbarians” who need the help of their “Han older brothers” – to quote some cliches.

China’s policy is purely pragmatic. The idea is to give the minorities just enough power, education or economic success to keep them quiet. As opposed to empowering minorities, it is meant to encourage assimilation and the creation of a peaceful, unified and essentially Han country.

Once you understand this, it all starts to come together, even this entirely bizarre, and for an American, particularly counterintuitive “doctrine” (with the caveat that I haven’t entirely been able to verify it)

a government mandate in 1984… says: “for criminals with minority backgrounds, insist on ‘catch fewer and give less capital punishment (than their Han counterparts), and in practice, practice more leniency towards them.” (5th mandate from the Chinese Communist Party, 1984) (中共中央1984年第5号文件:”对少数民族的犯罪分子要坚持’少捕少杀 ‘,在处理上一般要从宽”。)

The blogger who brings this up, identified as berlinf does so in order to “prove” that actually the majority Han are second-class citizens in “their own” country, a sentiment that might also sound familiar to Americans (but more on that later). It shows, at least, that our governments use very different strategies to further majority interests at the expense of the minority; carrying out crackdowns through the criminal justice system would be somewhat redundant when “real” crackdowns, of the type that our government likes to avoid in order to keep its “human rights” rep (the source of so many accusations of hypocrisy from nations like China), are a viable option.

The tyranny of the minorities?

But what about “the Han as oppressed people”? This blogger is not the only one who feels that way. Back to the Knight Ridder article:

A Han-Chinese Ningxia government official, China’s version of America’s angry white man, complained of watching minorities with less experience and “less talent” leapfrog over him to better, more prestigious jobs because of their minority backgrounds.

“Of course it is frustrating,” said the official, who asked not to be named. “I can’t move up even though I am very qualified. Sometimes the Hui who are promoted aren’t qualified at all, but I have to listen to their orders.”

It’s somewhat surprising that the article makes the parallels quite so explicit. One note: the Hui are actually a group ethnically similar to the Han, but with a traditionally Muslim culture. Mentioning them may in fact muddy the waters, as Megan tells me these folks have much better prospects than the denizens of the “autonomous regions.” Yet the blogger who mentions the criminal justice “favoritism” has no problem muddying the waters, proposing that unfair treatment of the Han has somehow led to the conflict in Xinjiang.

How to explain this? Well, I have a crazy theory.

Orchestrating resentment

As you probably know, in the United States, affirmative action was created by the left, but exploited by the right in order to stoke white resentment… actually, a more accurate statement would be that it was stoked in order to create a new justification for white racial hostility, specifically by endowing them with a sense of victimization “routine” that would replace (or augment) the sense of open, and justified, racial dominance.

But what about China? Could it be that the government there actually instituted affirmative action policies, at least in part, in order to add just a tint of racial resentment to the existing feelings of racial superiority in its own majority Han populace? Was this done in order to squelch any chances of all but the slightest minority of Han feeling any doubt as to the rightness of the oppression brought down upon its most “recalcitrant” minorities?

It seems ridiculous, but consider the reactions to recent events; many Han respond to Western critical reporting of the Xinjang situation by asking, in effect, how can we be oppressing them when the law is written to benefit them and (since race is a zero sum game) therefore punish us?! This is what berlinf says, and as stated, he’s not alone. A Han commenter from Urumqui, the Xinjiang capital, declares this on a New York Times blog:

Everybody knows that China has one Child per Family policy. Well, that only applies to Han Chinese. For Uighur, Tibetan, and ALL other minority group, this policy does not apply. Obviously, there is NO equal opportunities for the majority Han Chinese. I hope this is what you intended to say.

And so on.

Conclusion: broader insights

I imagine it can never be proved that the CCP did this deliberately, and in fact, it’s not necessary to. The point is that the PRC can continue to exploit the Uyghurs while using every possible strategy to convince an already-receptive, dominant Han populace that such efforts are unavoidable. Meanwhile, in ways both more benign and more insidious, white Americans follow similar paths of logic to condone the exploitation and oppression of blacks and Latinos by the police and the justice system. Even those who have an unproblematic investment in the status quo can’t help but inadvertently allude towards the similarities.

Han Chinese (and probably not just Han) often regard Western coverage of their “internal problems” as unfair and biased. This is complicated in that they are often both right and wrong, in that they may be defending wrongs that should not be defended, yet they are right to criticize the Westerners for only seeing the wrongs commited by others. The parallels may not be perfect, and I may have strained them a bit here or there, but my goal is to set a basis for acknowleding our own shortcomings without letting that become an excuse for the shortcomings of others.

Who ya gonna call? Not the feds…

Ivan Reitman, USA, 1984

I finally decided, after seeing it “sweded” in Be Kind Rewind and hearing so much about the latest video game adaptation, to watch this mainstream comedy “classic” once more, as my childhood memories of it (from a home-recorded VHS, possibly a censored broadcast airing) were vague at best, the better to be renewed by checking out the brand-new Blu-ray release, which looks great, grain and all. It’s hard to really make a unified comment on this film, so I will just take it piece by piece. There are some spoilers, in case you haven’t yet seen the film, or have forgotten it as I did and would like to see it again before being reminded about everything.

The movie works, but only despite itself. The structure is quite haphazard. Their first attempt to capture a ghost is shown in a very long sequence in which the Ghostbusters cause massive, unnecessary property damage due to their terrible aim. This leads to a montage of magazine covers and appreciative crowds watching them carry traps; apparently the effects budget did not allow for any further ghost-catching sequences until the “final battle,” which is itself a different animal. This is sloppy at best, but of course, as a kid I never noticed any of this; the disjointed nature of the “plot” may actually appeal to children.

For a mainstream film, the comedy is actually quite understated (I guess I’m used to the cameo-ridden affairs that are produced today, in which each walk-on tries to steal the show). Bill Murray is really the only person who is funny in this movie, as Pauline Kael noted (although she seems to think the sequel was better, an opinion that apparently no one else holds). The problem is that although his persona involves a certain laziness, Murray himself seems to only really wake up about halfway through the movie. At the beginning, he’s lifeless, but by the end, he’s finally quite funny.

Murray doesn’t only distinguish himself by his comedic skills, however. While Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis portray sexless nerds (Stantz and Spengler), the one childish and the other deathly serious, Murray’s character, Venkman, is a raging pervert, who, in the film’s first scene, is thwarted in his deceitful seduction of a blonde undergrad by Stantz’s juvenile enthusiasm at a ghost-sighting. Quite inexplicably, Stantz is much later interrupted while sleeping by a female ghost, who unzips his pants and performs oral sex on him. Huh?

Venkman’s greatest moral triumph comes when Dana (Sigourney Weaver) discards her previous, entirely understandable reticence and offers him sex, but only because she’s been possessed by the demon that Venkman failed to stop, largely because he was more focused on getting her to sleep with them (although this, like many things, is not entirely clear). In turning her down, Venkman turns out to have some kind of sexual ethics after all, although it may be more of a self-preservation thing (would she kill him after they were done, for instance?). That said, once the Ghostbusters have somehow saved the day, Venkman awkwardly kisses Dana, who gives us a vague feeling that, now that she owes her life to him, she feels that she is no longer entitled to say no.

The demonic villain, Gozer, is terrible, as she looks like a reject from a David Bowie video, and herself is dispatched quite easily (sorta). The iconic Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man is cool but often poorly animated, especially when his foot seems to turn transparent as he attempts to step on someone. (by contrast, the pre-digital laser effects and stop-motion animated demon dogs were sometimes quaint, but mostly effective). Indeed, I believe that the true villain is the EPA agent Peck, played by William Atherton. It did not at all surprise me that this film, in 2008, was officially sanctioned by the conservative movement, or at least the business conservative branch of it (obviously, the religious right would not be amused… or would they? hard to say)

you have to like a movie in which the bad guy (William Atherton at his loathsome best) is a regulation-happy buffoon from the EPA, and the solution to a public menace comes from the private sector.

Yup, this was enough to declare the film number 10 in the list of “The Best Conservative Movies of the Last 25 Years” I mulled this aspect of the film over with my friend Tanner, and he said that I shouldn’t place so much importance on plot decisions in what is obviously a disjointed comedic film. Actor and screenwriter Harold Ramis agrees:

Well, it seemed logical, like who would be involved in regulating the Ghostbusters? I think we actually picked it because it was so counterintuitive, because we think of environmental protection as such a good thing, which it is, but the Environmental Protection Agency is not always the most efficient. Here we were dealing with a completely new area. It wasn’t so much that the EPA was the bad guy. There was a bad EPA guy, who was the bad guy.

(For the record, Dan Aykroyd, the other screenwriter, also identifies himself as “a died-in-the-wool Canadian liberal.”)

The problem is, not only is the face-off with the “bad EPA guy” the arguable climax of the film (everything after they defeat him becomes more and more dreamlike and arbitrary, but the conflict with him is very clear-cut), but the Ghostbusters triumph over him by appealing to the mayor of New York City. The superiority of local government over federal government is a key article of faith in right-wing ideology, and the notion of “environmental protection” is one of the things they hate the most. I’m just going to imagine that Aykroyd and Ramis, in spite of what they remember, got swept up in Reaganism (tons of Democrats voted for him, after all).

It just shows that you’re not always in total control of what you write… on the other hand, it’s tempting to say that the EPA guy was right in spite of himself (clearly, he’s motivated by petty revenge and hidebound skepticism more than anything). You see, the apocalyptic event was itself triggered by the opening of the containment unit, ordered by Peck, but if the Ghostbusters had never placed all those ghosts in one place, it’s not clear that the event could have been triggered otherwise. Of course, the film never acknowledges this, and one gets the feeling that we’re not supposed to notice, but with such irresponsible characters, it’s inevitable that the contrivances which get us from point A to point B also inadvertently raise the question of their own complicity in the catastrophic events that occur.

My last thought is that, in some of the throwaway lines about the demonic apocalyptic threat, I feel like the seeds were planted for the many “library scenes” in the early seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There seems to be a common thread in the kind of overblown demonic rhetoric they find in their texts, combined with the nonchalant fashion in which they respond to it. Of course the two works might share a common inspiration instead. I might look into this further.