18 April 2005

Who's Afraid of the Phoneme Fricative?

Some people obviously are. The problem is not their fear; anyone is entitled to choose the kind of entertainment he/she partakes of. The problem is when those individuals start to recast creators' visions to be "more compatible" with their own version of "family values." The real problem is the multidimensional intellectual dishonesty that goes with these programs.

The obvious objection is that these efforts harm the artistic vision. Its obviousness by no means makes it invalid. It's one thing entirely to fast-forward through the commercials, or flip the channel during wardrobe malfunctions. It's a second, and harder, question to tell others that they should do so. It's a third thing entirely to mangle somebody else's work so that it is consistent with one's own preconceived notions, then sell that mangled vision as if it somehow represents the original work. I don't need to get into copyright law, the nebulous fair use doctrine, trademark rights, or anything else here; it's purely a matter of intellectual honesty outside of legal doctrine. The legal doctrine that all shrieks against such misuse just adds weight.

More subtly, though, there's the point that sometimes the world is a horrible place. Removing Oskar Schindler's extramarital affairs from Spielberg's film—a film that has already edited out so much horror that it has been rightly criticized as being perhaps too idyllic—completely changes the point of the film. Oskar Schindler was a deeply flawed man. He didn't begin his enamelware factory with the idea of saving Jews; he began it with the idea of making money by paying less for labor. Only as he began to see his laborers as individual human beings did the thought of saving them for themselves begin to creep in. This is one of the aspects of the various rescue experiences largely masked by Spielberg's film. The "edited" version only further undermines it, by making Oskar Schindler closer to a saint; it implicitly says that only saints can do good or stand up to evil. As most of us (rightly) don't view ourselves as saints, that removes Schindler's ultimate heroism from something that we can conceive of doing ourselves. <SARCASM> Of course, if Oskar Schindler had instead saved a group of fundamentalist Christians, there might be less objection to the film. </SARCASM>

Artistic vision is a nasty little concept. It is inseparable from, but somehow distinct from, the fascination with storytelling. Perhaps it's some kind of conjoined twin. My jaw dropped when I saw a story on hoaxes perpetrated against Michael Chabon's tall tales. I mean, really, now: This is a man who trumpeted pulpish comic books as a means of accessing reality, he unabashedly claims his narration is unreliable, and he is to be criticized for embellishing his stories by someone who previously did the same damned thing? What's that old quotation about battles between writers being so vicious because nobody else cares?

Speaking of nobody else caring, it's rather surprising that the NYT gave so much prominence to a story on the appointment of Lan Samantha Chang as the new director of the Iowa Writer's Workshop. Whether this is a good thing remains to be seen; the notorious disjuncture between MFA programs and the reality of literature, the reality of publishing, and the reality of making a living as a writer is perhaps best illustrated by Chang's own resumé—which is neither "bad" nor atypical of MFA instructors. Too few MFA instructors have or do make it as full-time writers outside of academia; the MFA programs simply refuse to ask themselves why. There's plenty of blame to go around—blindness and incompetence in the publishing industry being an obvious candidate—but the reality of the marketplace really needs a great deal more emphasis. When six different MFA programs parrot the same thing—"We don't want to distract our writers from their writing by giving them too much discouring information on the publishing world and fraud within it"—and two of their "graduates" end up as my clients after being ripped off, I start to get concerned.

Last, as an aside, Becker and Posner are currently commenting on nation size at their joint blawg. There is a lot of airy economic speculation in there that fails to note three factors: That every nation that "split" into substituent parts has a strong past of authoritarian rule and contempt for one or more major ethnic groups in that former nation; that all of the "successful" small nations have carved themselves niches within nearly federalist communities of nearby nations and would not be self-sufficient without those communities; and that civil war usually doesn't lead to economic prosperity. All of that said, the question of "optimal" nation size is worth asking; I just don't think that concentrating on such illusory measures as the proportion of GDP arising from export trade does much to answer it.