08 July 2020

Nondiverse Link Sausage Platter

If there's one common spice across this platter, it is reflections on a lack of diversity and how that's self-defeating.

  • From the Department of Ignoring Inconvenient Facts, consider this piece on the "novel of ideas" as a gimmick. (In that magazine, "ignoring inconvenient facts" is rather an editorial requirement.) Dr Ngai's article attempts to treat the "novel of ideas" as sui generis, ignoring the inconvenient histories of the utopian/dystopian novel, the Continental satire epitomized by Voltaire, and similar factual predicates long preceding either "the last decades of the nineteenth century" or any of the examples actually cited in the article, with the exception of a passing reference to Tristram Shandy. What really gives away the game, though, is the not-quite-acknowledged redefinition of the "novel" to mean a "realistic" work; this is immediately apparent in discussion of Broch's Elizabeth Costello and the veiled disdain for the "supernatural" elements in Mann's The Magic Mountain. All of which explains the absence of magical-realist works from the discussion, but that's for another time.

    The real problem with this magazine piece — and I have not read the book in question, as it's not exactly easily available in lockdown for a casual read — is that the editorial work probably disserved Dr Ngai's book. The mid-article "section break" appears to mark omission of critical transitional and contextual material… quite possibly in service of The Paris Review's from-day-one hostility to prose unbounded by naturalism and realism, as exemplified by the magazine's reviews (when they have been printed at all!) of works even verging upon the speculative element — all the way back to the 1940s and as recently as three years ago.

  • Much more overtly concerning a lack of diversity, AMPAS is adding a more-diverse new set of members. What AMPAS is not doing, though, is constraining the publicity-and-marketing branch, which is both the least-diverse branch and the most hostile to diversity. This is the branch that demands that women stop working in front of the camera in major roles between 35 and 50 because it's harder to market them as sex-thingies instead of, say, real people; that whitewashes through its efforts to make things more "broadly appealing" (usually on the phone or in other ways to avoid taking the blame for that pressure); that values doing it brand new but all over again (just bigger this time). It also gets to vote on the Oscars despite having no legitimate role in the film production process.
  • Or you could just consider the dubious science and history of population genetics and its founder. Doing so in an intelligent fashion, though, might require some knowledge of actual genetics… and Stalinism (Lysenko was a symptom).
  • Ponder this remarkably tunnel-visioned piece on the lack of major superhero films being released during COVID–19 restrictions that never engages with three fundamental flaws in the superhero narrative. The common superpower of virtually all superheroes is independent wealth. Virtually all superheroes substitute naked physical force for actual problem-solving, all too often focused with laser vision on symptoms and not problems in the first place. Worst of all, superhero stories rely upon the passivity and impotence of almost everyone who is not a superhero concerning the problems and/or symptoms forming the narrative McGuffin in the first place. And too often, superheroes are just playground bullies (but they're our bullies, so that's acceptable… sort of like supporting banana-republic dictators who proclaim that they're anti-communist, and how well did that work out in, say, Iran?). There are occasional exceptions on one axis, rare exceptions on two axes, but the comics world — and, with rare exceptions, superheroes are embedded there — doesn't presently allow denying all three (at least to my imperfect knowledge, but not for lack of looking). This lack of imagination in a literature of the imagination is rather frustrating.

    Some day, some enterprising sociology dissertation is going to study this sort of thing, looking at not just the superhero stories themselves but the creators. Look! Free dissertation fodder! I've done my public service for the day!

  • Sometimes literal translations aren't good enough; it's impossible, for example, to accurately translate schadenfreude into English without, at minimum, a paragraph or so. Denotation is relatively easy; connotation, not so much. And thus we come to a headline like „Der Präsident liest!“ which is remarkable for its implicit answer to a question not asked. The reporter's question turned on whether Drumpf did read the briefing materials that described "bounties." This quotation, though, implies that the Press Secretary was affirming that he could read the briefing materials… a disturbing counterpoint, perhaps in a minor key, to the implications of Dr Mary Trump's book.
  • Last for today, but far from least: It's a good day to be a religious bigot, based on today's Supreme Court opinions. The problem is not with these particular litigants, or at least not so much with these particular litigants; it is with the implications of saying "Religious Doctrine Is Special" and excuses discrimination in employment of non-policy-making teachers (PDF) and imposing religious orthodoxy on all employees for their health needs (PDF), not just on these facts but as core doctrine allowing much worse actors to evade law and justice.

    This, again, comes down to a lack of diversity. There are no members of the Court (and, to my knowledge, never have been) who are not Judeo-Christian, let alone outright atheists; and virtually no scientists (although in that regard the Court differs little from the judiciary in general, and even the Bar as a whole). The few immigrant members of the Court in its history have had no experience living in (or being professionally involved with) theocracies, and thus have no visceral or direct experience to draw on in understanding how theocracy is just another brand of totalitarianism (and thus inimical to the Constitution). And more to the point, the Court and its jurisprudence have elided any distinction among "religion," "religious doctrine," and "religious hierarchy and governance," a rather interesting and disturbing pretense. It's an argument I've lost, long ago; I regret perhaps most of all that it's an argument almost never considered.

    One problem here becomes more-easily discussed when considering less-emotional clashes. What right would a Jewish or Muslim business have to object to a bacon-curing plant next door that had successfully passed all environmental requirements — even was a model plant? More directly, here, would that Jewish or Muslim business have a right to fire one of its employees who chose to marry an employee at (or even the owner of) that bacon-curing plant? My point here is not to equate the (without any semblance of contemporary scientific basis) doctrinal dietary restrictions with any (without any semblance of contemporary scientific basis) doctrinal sexual and/or contraceptive restrictions; it is to point out that doing so is a matter of theology and therefore not for the courts. However, Little Sisters II in particular doesn't just tolerate that intrusion — it requires it, unless one accepts that religious doctrine (as opposed to individual faith) has independent standing and basis for noncompliance with laws of general applicability (that do have contemporaneous scientific basis). That, I'm afraid, is something that a long line of cases stretching back for a century denies, either directly or implicitly.

    The danger here is not in a Catholic school system's desire to have its teachers (even those who teach no, or virtually no, religious material or doctrine) be "role models" for students, or in ensuring that a sub-sect's interpretation of doctrine regarding health insurance is "respected" by secular authorities whose purpose is different (and arguably orthogonal). The danger here is in the return of overt discrimination justified by "religious" doctrine. Little Sisters II and, even moreso, Morrisey-Berru are steps away from actual neutrality, for a very simple reason: The faithful must live in the world and accommodate their actions to it, and that has a price. "Free exercise" does not mean (and cannot mean) "free of charge," particularly in light of the rest of the First Amendment. More succinctly, freiheit ≠ kostenlos — especially when externalizing those costs.