Saturday, March 30, 2013

Equality = All, Not Some

I fully intended to start discussing something I've been meaning to post about for a while now - Sherlock and how his character is read as autistic. But unfortunately, life decided to continue its trend with my faith in the world being tested against humanitarian organizations I support. This week's was the Human Rights Campaign, otherwise known as the HRC. So I'm going to make one more post on humanitarian organizations that break my heart, focusing on the HRC and on Autism Speaks, which will lead segue into the Sherlock post I've been meaning to write. Also, I know I'm approaching controversial topics so if I say anything you think is wrong, ill-phrased, or you disagree with, please politely let me know and I'll fix it/talk about it with you.
First, the HRC. This is an organization I (until recently) wholehearted supported. I've donated money, I'm an HRC member, I've got three of their bumper stickers. They are a pretty mainstream organization (as mainstream as a group supporting gay marriage and equality for GLBT members can be in the US, I suppose) so I'm not surprised there is criticism of them - large organizations are bound to have that. However, the criticism I came across online after seeing allegations on Tumblr that the HRC is anti-trans makes me embarrassed to have given money now and upset that once again it's necessary to do research before supporting an organization that seemed really plainspeaking and sincere.

The criticism is pretty straight forward. For a group that's supposed to be for all GLBT members, they've drawn divisions between GLB members and trans members and have been accused of being transphobic, as well as failing to support homeless GLBT youth. You can read about these claims here and here and here and here and here. (Okay, so that looked far less bombastic when I was piecing all those "heres" together. Now that just looks said). I think that is more than sufficient enough evidence for me to feel guilty for supporting the HRC.

Not that I should blame myself, really. It's not my fault that I'm trying to support equality and I chose a well-known organization that's generally well-regarded but has some spectacular flaws not often discussed by those affiliated with the organization. What really bothers me about this is how, in the efforts of tolerance and equality, more intolerance and inequality is created. Why do we keep pitting one group against the other? All it does is keep real change from happening.

I'm not a member of the GLBTQA community (or whichever your preferred acronym is; I think QUILTBAG is actually the full one) and I can't speak for the people that are. It's time for people like me to stop talking and let other voices be heard - the ones who belong to these communities and no when the organizations like the HRC is not representing them. I'd hate to say that one reason the HRC has issues is because it's so mainstream (because that sounds too hipster even for me to utter) but I think it's popularity and its ease for allies to get involved (all you have to do is donate a yearly amount and boom, you're a member with a nice little card that says so which you can stick in your wallet and feel good about) allows for a lot of misunderstanding. Also, big organizations lean towards being more profitable and economically beneficial rather than being non-profit and focused on issues at hand.

Not saying that the HRC totally sucks... they're trying, at least, and they have made advancements in advocating GLBT issues. But I'm peeved that they're not really practicing what their preaching. And given the distrust towards organizations and institutions that I've laid out in my previous posts, it's a bit much.

Add this on to the post I was originally going to do this week and you can see why I get a little frustrated. Awareness of autism is a huge issue worldwide and one of the better known groups working on this issue in the United States is Autism Speaks. Not long ago, I thought there were a good group. And then I saw this post on Tumblr:
Hopefully you can read most of this. If not, definitely check out its original source. Also, this post from the same site and this post as well does a great job of describing what Autism Speaks is doing wrong. Which is a lot, actually. Failing to actually have any members on their board who have autism, addressing autism as a burden to families, treating them as an other... you get the idea.
For an organization who's motto is "It's time to listen," they certainly don't seem to be listening to people with autism. You'd think that a group evidently spending money to find a cure for autism would understand that autism is linked to genetics and doesn't have a cure (unless you can change the entire genome). But a cure is besides the point. A cure insinuates that people who have autism (who I've been told generally prefer to be addressed as "autistics" rather than "people with autism" as they see autism as part of who they are rather than separate from them) or who fit on the autism spectrum have a disease (ie: there is something wrong with them and it needs to be fixed). This sort of rhetoric is deeply troubling. Especially because it reinforces the idea that there is a state of "normal" (if there is one, would you be so kind as to tell me who and what it is, because what other people consider "normal" I find pretty strange) and that we should fit in this category of mental normativity. Oh, hello again, hegemony.

I wish I were better versed on these issues but I'm not. From my experiences, psychology is absolute crap at teaching about these areas (the fact that the class where autism, depression, and other "mental illnesses" are discussed is "abnormal psychology" is telling. Considering the prevalence of depression and autism, are these things abnormal? Really?) and I'd really like to see how they approach autism in classroom and especially in textbooks change. Though I lack psychology background on autism, I do have two close friend who have Asperger's (a "disorder" (sorry for the lack of a better word) on the autism spectrum) and being friends with them had greatly changed how I view autism/the autism spectrum and "mental illnesses" in general. There is nothing wrong with my friends, but they do see the world differently. Once I understood this, there was absolutely no problem. Sure, we had communication issues and misunderstandings, but everyone has communication issues and misunderstandings. Being friends with them really helped me empathize with people more and understand how unique people can be. And we've been friends since at least junior high, so, you know, I owe them a lot (You guys have put up with me for that long?! WHY?).

Awareness and education, is far more important than trying to find "a cure." This is not to say that autistics don't have struggles and issues of physical/mental health as well as definite challenges in the education system and society in general. But perpetuating the stigma attached to autism through the rhetoric used by Autism Speaks does more harm than good and reestablishes the issues related to education and society. "You are perpetuation ignorance," the annotator of the Autism Speaks letter has written. I'd agree. I'm certainly no authority on autism and I don't have autism myself so, like the HRC issue, I can't speak for them. But treating autism as if all of categories on the spectrum were the same and something shocking and abnormal really doesn't seem like a very good idea to me. People are different and their differences should be discussed and supported, not feared. There's this great quote I heard back in high school psychology (I think it's from Oliver Sacks, but I can't find it) that goes something like, "Treat the patient, not the disorder." It's important that people are not their "disorder." It is a part of them and a label that they will have various feelings about - some really identify with the label and are proud of it. But it is also important to remember that people are unique, that their experiences with autism will be different, and we cannot assume that autism is the same for everyone. I remember trying to read Look Me in the Eyes by John Elder Robinson one summer in high school and not being able to get through it at all because his experiences as an Aspergian were so different from what I saw my friends experiencing that I couldn't understand how they could be diagnosed with the same "disorder." But then again, what I saw my friends experiencing is probably very different from what they felt, so there's that very important note too. Also, the "disorder" it is not the only thing that makes someone who they are. They are still a person and if you only focus on the "disorder" (as I'd say Autism Speaks does) then you're not seeing them as a whole person. If there was one thing I wish psychology would discuss more often, it's this very issue. People are amazing and diverse and complicated but we're all equal and we all deserve to have our voice heard. It's time to start seeing advocacy groups that represent this, not ones that perpetuate misunderstanding.

Also, if you're interested in reading about how "mental illnesses" have changed in how society thinks about them and have your life forever ruined in regards to how we talk about these sorts of things, I strongly recommend The History of Madness by Michel Foucault. I've only read about half the book myself (and it's been sometime since I've picked it up; it's a huge tome) but it's fascinating and really effected how I think about psychology and the mind.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Take a Seat - Make a Friend

Unfortunately, I haven't quite had time this week to put together a full post. Also, I recently found out some rather negative things about the HRC (the Human Rights Campaign) thanks to the internet and have discovered that pretty much ever humanitarian organization I support has glaring issues. Awesome.

So, to keep myself from letting this impact me too negatively about such things and because we could probably use a lighter, happier blog after some of the heavier stuff, I've been posting, here's a fantastic video I stumbled across a few weeks ago. Enjoy, and I'll be back with a longer post this weekend :D

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Helping and its Hindrances

To continue the discussion of Wednesday's post, I'd like to move on from discussing economic issues and their repercussions on class to talking about another sort of phenomenon involving celebrities and charity organizations. This post from Tumblr:

becomes even more complicated when compounded by the appeal by celebs for humanitarian causes.

But let me start even more broadly, with a trend in charity organizations that many in my field of studies rally against. Recently, it's become common for groups to sell merchandise or specialized products to provide aid for certain causes. Those wary of commercial culture, commodity fetishism, and conspicuous consumption (buying stuff to show off social status and economic power) dislike the use of products to promote causes, for a variety reasons.
One of these products are TOMS. TOMS are a trendy sort of shoe sold in various stores around the US (Urban Outfitters is where I've seen them) who are based on the idea that if you purchase a pair of their shoes, they will donate a pair of shoes to children in an underprivileged area. This is a sort of problem as this article points out:
the TOMS campaign...misses the fundamental point that not having a pair of shoes (or a shirt, christmas toy, etc.) is not a problem about not having shoes. It’s a problem of poverty. Shoelessness, such as it is, is a symptom of a much bigger and more complex problem. And while donating a pair of shoes helps shoelessness, it does not help poverty.... on a big-picture level, TOMS (and other buy-my-product-and-donate companies) are busy building the exploitative global structure that produces economic inequality, while on the other hand pretending that supporting them actually does something to fix it.
Ouch. But self-explanatory. TOMS doesn't really work to solve the cause, only treating the symptom, and continues to support a production system that likely continues this inequality. It also creates a badge or sort of logo of support, giving a visual symbol of caring and support about the cause, even though actually support can be pretty minimal. There are many examples of this (pretty much anything associated with breast cancer support - interesting that we glamorize products associated with cancer in organs that are sexualized in women, even though heart disease is far more common, the RED campaign, etc) and all have their own issues related to the issues they are trying to fix and the idea that buying stuff will help save the world, even though we as consumers really have no idea how much of the money spent on the products actually goes to aid and how much is just garnered as profit.

This stuff gets murkier. While rereading The Communist Manifesto for class, I came across this little gem from Marx and Engels: "Just as it [the bourgeoisie] has made the country dependent on the towns, so it has made barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilized ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West" (Marx and Engels 9). Considering that the issue with TOMS could be argued to precisely do this, this quote kind of bums me out. Which charity organizations do good and which just promote a vicious cycle? How do we know? Also, we're going to pretend that I never saw that episode of Wallander where Rupert Graves (*squee*) is a wealthy humanitarian with an organization that seemingly helps people in Africa, but (SPOILERS) actually steals their organs and sells them on the black market (yeah, I did not see that coming when I watched it. Thanks, BBC, for destroying my life once again). Being paranoid about aid groups... not helpful. Not at all.
While I'm destroying your faith in the world, I'd like to bring up a Tumblr post I came across, about a 15 year old boy from Zimbabwe who told Madonna to... well:
Dakarai Molokomme, a 15-year-old starving child from a small village in Zimbabwe, has just told Madonna, one of the most famous pop stars in the world, to go and f*** herself, the local media are reporting exclusively. “Yes, it’s true, I told Madonna to go f*** herself. Do you want to know why?” Dakarai asked. “It’s the same thing every time with these snobby rich Americans. Every once in a while they come to show us their support for the so-called eradication of poverty by adopting a child from a starving family, but they actually do more harm than good. Transracial international adoptions are part of the white savior industrial complex,” Dakarai explained. In further discussions with journalists from the media, the kid stated that “none of the children here actually want to be taken away from their family and friends so they can be displayed as some kind of trophy in the homes of self-righteous singers or actors who want to score some points with the media and Oprah.” “If they really want to help us, they should get Big Pharma to ship us some anti-retroviral drugs for the AIDS epidemic, or build schools and hospitals. If they don’t want to do that, then they can all go f** themselves!” the child told reporters. The 15-year-old also stated that he would say the same thing to any one of those American or European “faux humanitarian posers”, except for Bono, whom he said he would also kick in the groin. “Bono’s efforts to save the African savage from itself prove that the colonial imperative is alive and well,” Dakarai said as he walked with other village children collecting sticks to build a tree fort.

Point about transracial adoption? Heard loud and clear. This is a huge issue and one that is not discussed enough and often the glaring issues with it get overshadowed by the misguided humanitarian intent. Also, I like Bono and I'd like to believe he does good, but I don't really know a lot about what he does. He does seem to be one of the most controversial celebrity humanitarians and one of the first to be labeled a "faux humanitarian poser." This is an issue with fame and aid efforts intermingling. Celebrity status allows for a certain ease and elevation in message - people listen to celebrities because they're role models and very influential. However, if they misconceive a message or don't entirely practice what they preach, it can be quite a problem. There's a push-back against celebrity endorsement right now given the recession because some people don't like being told to donate money by people who have loads of money. Sometimes there is a bit of hypocrisy between the action and the message (I remember the example people gave of Al Gore supporting a minimization of our carbon footprints, and then traveling around the country in a giant private jet).

But I have to believe that most of the time, the message is sincere and well-intended and coming from a knowledgeable point of view. Celebrity spokespeople have the time and the money to give aid, one or both of which many people don't have. I also don't think most of them are doing it for acclaim or to look cool. Supporting a charity group is a big commitment and not something that is just casually done (not if you're really going to be committed about it and really talk about the issues). There does seem to be a difference in rhetoric between spokespeople - I feel like Bono's comments (the ones I heard at a U2 concert I went to) were perhaps more general than those of the celebs who work for groups like Unicef. Yes, I know, I keep going back to Unicef, and maybe my fangirling over Ewan McGregor and Tom Hiddleston is preventing me from being more critical. But Unicef doesn't have seem to have the connotation of posers or the conspicuous consumption affiliation, and they know that treating the symptom is not the best remedy, but treating the cause to begin with. And while they do ask for money, they also ask for people to volunteer, something I'd much rather do (as money isn't enough to solve a problem; action is necessary). And yes, the fact that Mr. McGregor and Mr. Hiddleston continue to say wonderful things about the organization gives me faith in their cause:
Also, The Yes Men is another interesting action group that I've recently been informed exists and one that sounds fascinating (anything that's described as the "Jonathan Swift of the Jackass generation" is bound to be interesting).
So despite all the issues and controversy with political and humanitarian efforts for change, I still believe that it's worthwhile. Doing something is generally better than doing nothing and while money alone won't solve anything... well, it's bound to help a little, I'd hope. If we go in with attitude that nothing we do will make a difference, it probably won't. Maybe what worries me most is that people are unwilling to give or volunteer, partly because they don't trust many organizations (especially with controversies surrounding many popular American ones, such as the Salvation Army) or they don't believe their money will really go to the causes and will just become profit for someone working in the organization. This lack of trust makes people unwilling to do anything at all and it's hard to keep believing when so many groups seem corrupt. But they can't all be that way - at least, I hope they aren't. I'm convinced that time is better than money anyhow and hope to eventually have the time to commit to volunteering with a group. Until then, I can only donate and keep looking for and learning about organizations that promote the change for the betterment of those that need the help, not those who are providing it. While there may be no such thing as absolute altruism (oh how psychologists love to battle over this question), I believe it's important to makes sure that one is aware of privileged and the effects of certain actions in order to be as altruistic as possible. Simply put, caring is an advantage.

Citation from: 
The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.  Penguin Books, 2006 edition.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Great Divide

Today, I'm going to lambaste you with some economics and politics. Bear with me; there's a fandom root in it all; it's just going to take some build up to get there.

Some time ago, I wrote some thoughts on the Occupy movement within another blog post. My opinion is probably an unpopular one, especially given the fact that I agree with Occupy - and simultaneously don't.

I've been thinking about Occupy and wealth inequality again recently, for various reasons. One of them is because I reread an excerpt of The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels for one of my classes (poor Engels; everyone forgets about him and just focus on Marx). And then I came across this video via the interwebs:

And suddenly the Occupy movement starts to make a lot more sense. Given that this video gives sources at the end and sounds fairly reasonable, I'm more apt to believe this than some of the other videos made to explain the issue of the 99%. It's true that there are ridiculously wealthy people out there and that they likely aren't who we think they are. And the people who are wealthy are so ridiculously wealthy that we can't even really fathom it. For this reason, as a newscaster on one of the local channels in Minneapolis expressed this morning, one million dollars isn't as much money as it used to be.

Perhaps I like this video because of how different its rhetoric is. It isn't discussing a hate for the bourgeois or how rich people are to blame or how having money is a terrible evil. It's essentially just showing the disparity (though there is a rebuttal video called "What Wasn't Said in 'Wealth Inequality in America.'" You can watch it on your own but I won't discuss it here because I think it's a pretty weak counterargument. It suggests that this video doesn't discuss income/social mobility and that this data needs to be included. While I agree that this might be useful, I think this rebuttal misses the fact that income mobility will not solve anything here (ie: the middle class doesn't even exist anymore in the chart shown because the wealthiest members of society are so unbelievably wealthy) and also the data isn't suggested by this rebuttal. Yes, they provide a critique but they don't really tell us what this additional data might show or even what the data could be. Kind of a weak response, if you ask me).

Income inequality isn't new. It's been around since... well, probably since money became a way of buying stuff and in return paying people for their labor. While these ideas aren't new, I think recognizing that they exist in the United States is a growing phenomenon. Obviously social classes exist in the States. We've just been very good, in my experiences, at pretending that they don't. The US is supposed to be a land of equality, a place where anyone can make it, the American Dream is real, and it's possible to pull yourself up "by your own bootstraps." To see data that suggests that this may not be possible or doesn't mean what it used to deeply questions these notions and perhaps even poses the idea of what's even the point of trying if it isn't possible or doesn't mean anything.

That's at least the crux we seem to currently be in here in the US. To other countries, I imagine this seems a bit weird. Especially somewhere like the UK where class issues has been part of society for quite a while. I remember fondly the first time I read a novel set in Victorian England, where the upper class individuals looked with disdain down upon Americans who didn't seem to care about class and how marrying an American was a step down in the world. While this made me realize that class does exist in the States, albeit in different ways, it also made me realize how much I don't understand the class structure of the UK. With set positions such as lords and dukes and other remnants of monarchical structure, I honestly have a hard time wrapping my head around this. I feel as if it's ingrained in the American psyche to have a complete and utter disregard for the power complex associated with the hierarchies associated to monarchies. At the same time, "living like a king" is still aspired to and being the "king of your own domain" is idea tied to home ownership and design. Maybe this has a lot to do with current confusion about economic standing; it's never been clearly outlined in the US so trying to discuss and fix it is unclear. Though really it might help if we did think of these premises - we a former colony of Britain, after all, and I think despite my confusion and not knowing the nuances of British society, that perhaps the US and the UK has more in common than we might initially think.

I'd like to use the idea of class issue in the UK as a jumping off point to express some of the confusion I've been experiencing on my Tumblr dashboard, where one moment I can see a video like the one posted above and the next see people's dreams for lives of glamor and wealth. That's a bit jarring but more so is seeing a series of photos of your favorite celebrities and then seeing a text post like this:
Which is a little awkward, because....
Er... yeah, this is awkward. Actors like Mr. Hiddleston and Mr. Cumberbatch are often attributed to the sort of quotes that come under the scrutiny of that Tumblr text post. And I utterly agree with their positive views. Maybe it's because I never cared about money - and this isn't because I didn't have to care about it. I grew up believing that my parents' income was less than it actually was and thought we were poorer than we actually were. We did have some financial instability, but mainly our spending habits were just tighter than the other families around me. This continued on until... well, until I started college and I realized that my ideas of social class were a bit off. Regardless, my idea of my parents' income never affected my career plans. I always wanted to do something because I wanted to do it not because of monetary gain. "Find what you love and then do it forever" never seemed like something that would be easier had if I were wealthy. Money can't buy me love and it can't make my dreams come true. Of course, I'm still speaking of a space of privileged - I've never been really hungry, never had to worry about whether or not there'd be food on the table. I'm just as worried that I can't imagine what it's like to be in the wealthiest 1% as I am that I can't actually fathom what it's like to be in the lowest economic bracket and to never actually have the opportunity to do what I love because I simply don't have access to it.

It gets more awkward. Mostly because I really like this song by a punk group called the Jam:

I heard this song on the Current (a Minneapolis radio station) and they gave some interesting background on it. It's a protest song about class issues in the 1970s in England, discussing the "Eton Rifles" (not a real group, according to Wikipedia), a sort of military group at Eton school fighting with working class boys. From what I understand, it's about a privileged class picking on the lower classes and, more generally, hypocrisy. However, I have mixed feelings about Eton. It's always been represented as a positive, respected school so seeing a counterpoint to this is interesting. But I also feel like Eton gets a bad rap these days. Partly because it's no longer the 1970s and I'd really like to think things have changed since then (though it doesn't help when David Cameron misses the point of this song - Wiki this if you want more details), partly because I think universities have equalized somewhat (I'm pretty sure I can get just as good of an education at my university as I could at Harvard, thank you very much), and a couple of my favorite actors went to Eton (*cough* Eddie Redmayne and Tom Hiddleston *cough*) and because they appear to be level-headed, down-to-earth individuals, the whole idea of Etonians being absolute asshats sounds like crap to me. Just like the idea that everyone who went to Harvard is either a) elitist, b) a super genius, or c) a lawyer is also wrong. Or that everyone who went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison is a frat boy or that everyone who went to University of Minnesota-Twin Cities is pre-med. Schools tend to garner certain perceptions and labels and the general public likes to use them as a certain heuristic or stereotype. Which is kind of a problem. Because guess who doesn't like labels as absolutes? This girl.

On that note, every once in a while, the internet throws something my way exactly when I need it and that's precisely what I found today. This article came my way - it's from the Daily Mail (*cringes*) but it looks as if it's a better written article for once. It's an interview with Tom Hiddleston and, lo and behold, he discusses the concept of labels:
‘But I’m wary of labels,’ he says. ‘As an actor, the labels that are so easily attachable to me – like Old Etonian or Cambridge graduate or Rada alumnus – are, in a way, the least interesting things about me. I’ve had to do a lot of work taking off those jackets. The last thing I ever want is to be pigeon-holed.'
(My apologies to Mr. Hiddleston and Mr. Cumberbatch for always being the examples kn these posts. But when you both say such clever, useful things so... I'm actually not that sorry.) Before you jump the gun and criticize about how being labeled an Etonian has a far different effect than other, more negative labels (which is a valid critique), I'd like to approach this from a different angle. Something about this 99% rhetoric still bothers me, and I think I'm beginning to latch on to what it might be, from my perception, at least. Underneath all of this critique of the upper classes and certain labels is the idea that the upper classes are still better off, and are, overall, better. A lot of the hate towards the upper classes comes less from wanting to equalize them I think and more of a jealousy of wanting to be like them. Because if we really wanted equality, would we be showing such hate and disdain towards them? Maybe I'm being way too Hufflepuff about this, but I'm failing to see how hating on the rich is really any different than hating on the poor. Isn't judging people based on how much money they have - no matter the amount - reinforcing the same principles of money being the only marker of success in society?

(Meta moment: I would like to check my privileged again because I'm hyper-aware of social justice bloggers who probably want to skin me right now. Also, I can't get the line "Is this only a game for rich young boys to play?" from Les Miserables out of my head. Not that I'm rich. Or a boy. But the fact that I'm able to blog about this at all asserts a certain kind of convenience and stability. So yes, I am aware of this.)

We use Eton as a certain marker of success and create attitudes about people based on this, much in the same way we use technical colleges or blue-collar work for the same. While there are clearly more nuanced things going on here, often these nuances get oversimplified by the labels we create and even the discussion about the 99% seems to miss out on this. That's not to de-legitimize any anger that might be felt towards upper classes - I myself have felt my own fair share of jealousy and anger; it's something I think that's inherent to the way our desires around wealth work. I think its incredibly important to be aware of the jealousy and how it operates, though. Because, when it comes down to it, do I want to be wealthy? In the past, the answer would have been yes. Now, I don't know. Why? Because it just doesn't matter to me that much. Maybe because I don't have to worry about it. Maybe because I'm too focused on this aspect than an actual set position:
This is one of my favorite propaganda slogans to come out of the blacklisting and witch hunts associated with Communism. Unfortunately for whoever make this, it's far more of a compliment than a warning about artists. Damn straight we mix with different social classes. And you're problem with that is....? Therefore, I'm going to take this confusion I feel about liking both the song by the Jam and liking Eton as a school and the awkwardness all of this has created as a good sign. Social classes are being pitted against one another and maybe, just maybe, refusing to play this "us vs. them" is a better strategy. Especially if that income inequality video is correct and the wealthiest of people make several times more than what the those we usually think of being wealthy do, in which our hatred might be a bit misplaced.

What then do we do about income inequality? Great question, so glad you asked - I have no idea. The only thing I can suggest, not being an economist, sociologist, or anything of that nature, is to keep talking and keeping an open ear and mind. Maybe then we'll come up with a solution.

This post was initially supposed to incorporate a segue into discussing role models and celebrity endorsement for charity, but clearly that didn't happen. So, that'll be Saturday's post. Until then, adieu dear readers and thank you for putting up with my ambiguous political ramblings.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Peanut Gallery: The Hunger Games
I've only been meaning to write this post for about three months, so it's probably about time I get around to it. Last semester, Robin (the professor with whom I worked on my Sherlock fandom directed study) taught The Hunger Games in his Intro to Cultural Studies class. I, being the geek that I am sat in for these class meetings. After realizing that I could probably write a dissertation on these books, I settled upon something I already knew after rereading the first novel - I really, really, really liked Suzanne Collins' trilogy. I liked the movie. But the franchise around it gave me weird feelings.

More about that later. First off, my personal experience with The Hunger Games. There was a girl in one of my classes last spring that loved the books a lot and my friend Sarah's sister also loved them. Thinking that Susanne Collins name sounded awfully familiar to me (and then realizing she wrote Gregor the Overlander which I'd enjoyed as a kid) and because they were super popular and I wanted to know what the heck was going on, I bought the first one. I was disappointed after reading it. I was expecting more somehow, especially given all the interest in it and I just didn't really care about the characters. So I put it aside, a bit let down, and moved on. Last summer, I saw the movie when it came out on DVD and really enjoyed it and thought to myself, "Okay, wait, no, that book needs another read." So I reread it. And was hooked. This was the completely opposite reaction I'd had with Twilight and it has a lot to do with the language and rhetoric.

The first time I read The Hunger Games, the language threw me off. Sure, it's a kid's novel, but I was expecting something less stark and simplistic. I had a hard time imagining what the country of Panem looked like (considering my mention of fantasy novels having maps in the previous post, The Hunger Games has no map of Panem. It's entirely up to you to decide where the districts are through the hints given along the way). On the second reading though, I realized that's entirely what makes this book - the simplistic language. It isn't only about providing an entertaining storyline; it's about giving a representation of what a certain kind of dystopia would be like. In Katniss' case, she'd have no reason to use extravagant, flowery language. She spends every day hunting to survive and doesn't see a lot in the world around her to give her hope. She's blunt and straightforward and brief; she's not going to give us long winding sentences about the outdoors in an utterly Romantic, Wordsworth kind of way - she doesn't see nature that way (though a reverence for nature still remains). It's a place of safety from the eyes of the Capitol (at least until she ends up in the arena) and full of hidden dangerous, not a space for recreation and leisure. Those acts don't exist for people outside the Capitol or the wealthier districts.
I'm getting a bit ahead of myself; despite the popularity of The Hunger Games, I can't assume that its storyline is known. This novel, told from the viewpoint of Katniss Everdeen (entirely in present tense, interestingly enough) takes place in some future of the United States, where the government has changed and the states are essentially split up into thirteen districts, with a Capitol (the government city) presiding over it. District Thirteen rebelled against this rule, was shot down by the Capitol and presumably destroyed. Out of punishment for this uprising, every year the remaining twelve districts must choose (through a lottery, for most districts) one girl and one boy between the ages of twelve and eighteen to represent their district and participate in the Hunger Games, a gladiator-style event of a fight to the death where only one person can win and survive. And all of this is aired live on television.

It's dark. Really dark. And that's just the first book - hell, that's not even the book. That's the background presented at the very beginning of the book. Of course people are concerned about whether are not kids should be reading such violent material, which is kind of strange question considering all the violence they're subjected to from television news. I haven't heard much about the politics of this book (I think The Hunger Games does very well, allowing it to either be read from a right slant or a left slant, though I believe there's a certain side it leans towards more) which is interesting. Collins is very, very clever - you don't have to see a specific political message if you don't want to. It's there, and obviously can't be overlooked - it's about rebellion and overthrowing tyranny, for crying out loud. People have tried to frame this book as being a new romance focusing on a "love triangle" but I don't think that's really worked out (greatly due to the fact that that's more of a subplot, whereas in Twilight, that basically was the plot). But the political message can be taken in different ways, depending how you frame it. One reason I think it's so popular with young adults is that it is in many ways an allegorical representation of high school. It really speaks to an audience that may feel trapped in school, unsafe, unpopular with "Careers" (the kids in the book from wealthy districts who spend their entire lives training for the Games) (aka the popular students) making their days dangerous. It even speaks to the "Careers" who perhaps spend their days forever performing, attached to a core of their identity that has been thrust upon them that they are lost without but one that will also lead them nowhere (unpopular opinion for those who have read the book: I feel bad for Cato). As a high school student, I would have dug this book. I spent most of my years trying to figure out if I could usurp the school board and whether I could get by with TPing the superintendent's house if I had justifiable cause (long story). There was a bit of a revolutionary in me and this book really would have spoken to that.

The Hunger Games can also be read as an escapist fantasy, for better or for worse, or a narrative that deals with issues in our culture in an slightly abstract way. I always liked The Lord of the Rings because of the narrative of fighting, roughing it in the wilderness, survival, and the triumph of good. I longed to join Aragorn's troupe and having some foe to push back against when I felt like I was always fighting in my own life, but against what, I wasn't sure. Katniss is a bit like Aragorn to me, speaking to ills in our society and fighting back in ways that perhaps I feel like I can't. Albeit the issues in Panem are far more grave than in our society but there are a great deal of parallels when it comes to poverty, tyranny, and change.

I think the real reason I love The Hunger Games is that it questions what we can do to change our world and what sort of forms revolution takes. In the end, Katniss has to play the Capitol's game in order take them down and uses the same tactics they employ. Questions that come up for me while reading the trilogy center around whether it's possible to have a non-violent revolution, whether violent ones do any good or if they just reinforce the very thing you are trying to destroy.

This question becomes more nuanced when you incorporate the fandom and the franchise aspects. Now with the merchandise you can buy surrounding the film and books, it would seem that The Hunger Games has become the very thing it's supposedly posed against - consumerism, celebrating violence, ignoring the criticism of media at the heart of the books. It's awkward and difficult to deal with, especially when things like this game I saw at Barnes and Noble exist:

"A Game Of Strategy" it reads at the bottom of the box. If by strategy, you mean not getting killed and killing everyone else so that you can survive, then I guess?. The merchandising feels rather inappropriate to me and makes it really hard to identify with being a fan. There's the issue of "Who would ever want to live in Panem?" that really makes interacting with The Hunger Games different than other fandoms for me. While Middle Earth may be war-torn and dangerous, it's still pretty awesome. Panem sucks no matter what.
The ending of the final book in the series, Mockingjay, is as mixed and unsettled as my feelings towards the franchise and what the long term effects of this book will be. I'd like to think it's creating a more media literate, politically conscious generation or at least leading readers to think critically about the world around them. But it's also introducing a really, really important question itself: what kind of effect can a book have on the world? Can art change culture? Or does it just reinforce the culture its in?

My hometown of Lakeville wanted to ban this book from its library (which would have been a terrible idea; do you know how many people would just go to different libraries to get the book instead?). This isn't the first time they've wanted to ban a book like this; they did the same thing with Harry Potter. Considering Harry Potter had lead to the Harry Potter Alliance and a certain degree of activism from its fans, I'd love to see the same for The Hunger Games. Now that the books are being adapted into films, they have an even more influential power. Given how the next two films are shot (and I'm very excited and simultaneously terrified to see what Catching Fire is like), they could be really revolutionary. But if they were really revolutionary, would the be popular? Would people want to watch them or would they seem too avant garde? All I know is that after I read the series and saw the film, I wanted to fight back, to change my world. I wonder how many others out there felt the same and I hope that the further films will have the same affect.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

As you can tell from the title, today's post is on a fandom known as the Nerdfighters. I'm rather new to the fandom, as I hadn't heard of it before last fall (oh Tumblr, you have broadened my horizons in so many ways). Nerdfighteria is centered around two brothers, John and Hank Green, and their Youtube channels, as well as John's books. However, to be a Nerdfighter, you don't really have to know a lot about these things - though it's generally the case that you do know of them. Basically the main goal of being a Nerdfighter is wanting to decrease worldsuck because, you know, the fact that the world sucks... sucks.

Anway, there's this great video about Nerdfighters, sent to me via Twitter by faithful follower Anna. It's on the long side again (20 minutes) but it's worth the watch and immensely entertaining, with sketches in between discussion and interviews. A bit like the video on fandom identity, it discusses what it's like to consider oneself a Nerdfighter and some controversy surrounding the fandom. So take a look, if you've got time:

This video is focused in on a case study of Nerdfighters in order to discuss the idea of YouTube fandoms, something I'm really new to. It's mind-blowing to me how much this website has caught on in the last few years (and by few, I mean eight. I have a hard time recognizing that it's been four years since I graduated from high school). YouTube, to me, used to be a place where I might go to watch a music video or look up some educational vid for class or replay the "Numa Numa" video again. I didn't really have an interest in YouTube then. But now, all of these arenas have expanded into something more and, along with the rise of vlogging and immense variety of channels, YouTube has, in some ways, become like a sort of alternative television, creating and producing material that can be watched as long as you've got wifi and can be embedded into webpages and other sites. And out of this, a new sort of celebrity status has been created, one that can be found through views and likes and shares. A causal vlogger or video maker could become a viral hit overnight if their video becomes popular. It's incredible.
The discussion about Nerdfighters is really interesting to me. The emphasis of belonging to Nerdfighteria is placed on identifying with values and themes that are expressed in the videos. It's thought to be value-based rather than stuff-based, but there is a certain stuff element to it. A lot of Nerdfighters happen to be Doctor Who fans, Harry Potter fans, fans of certain books, music groups, films, etc. Now, correlation does not imply causation, so it's tough to say whether people are attracted to Nerdfighteria who like these things because both Nerdfighteria and, say, Harry Potter, have similar values or if the presences of these texts in Nerdfighteria brings people in. Or both. Either way, it's a a great illustration of how one fandom bleeds into another and how, really, deep down, all fandoms are connected in the circle of life.

The focus on the sort of popularity of identifying "socially awkward" was really interesting too. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Well, say it's one or the other would be simplifying it far too much. It's beneficial for people to be more accepting that social situations are not always natural for everyone and that talking with people is sometimes really, really hard. Is there a risk in fetishizing it? Possibly. Being a nerd has certainly been fetishized, but that hasn't really stopped people from celebrating being a nerd. However, I think it's really important, for both critics of this identification and people who have this identification. to keep in mind the difference between social awkwardness and social anxiety. They have similarities, but social anxiety is certainly something that deserves serious discussion, not light-hearted identification with. I think most of the people who have social anxiety would tell you that it is nothing to aspire to and is something that one wouldn't want to celebrate. People who have anxiety should have support and a space to talk about it, but they should not be turned into objects of fixation or have their anxiety become a label of identification with. And so, social awkwardness treads a... well, an awkward line with this connection. I think we should embrace and accept that being social creatures is very complicated and that not all humans communicate in the same way, but wearing and/or treating "social awkwardness" as a badge or like a logo may trivialize what it could represent.

I could write a whole reaction to the idea of hating arrogant nerds, but that's a post all on its own (oh, the tension between hipsters and nerds and the fact that they need each other like the sharks need the pilot fish). And the idea that "hate is beautiful... hating things is what makes us human" - also needs a post of its own. But very interesting remarks nonetheless.

What this video once again reveals is that fandoms, like people, are very, very complicated. They are full of individuals who all have their own interests and their unique opinions and quirks, and yet somehow come together and find similarities and bond over these similarities. Does this require giving up a little something of their individuality in return? Maybe a little bit, but I don't think that means you have to utterly lose that part of yourself. Sometimes it's a struggle not to (I'm thinking back on my unwillingness to admit that I liked certain musical artists for fear of being called a hipster or embracing my love of Shakespeare because I was afraid I wasn't smart enough to like his writing) but I think it can be done. Are fandoms more of a collective full of individual minds or more like, as a speaker described in the video "an army of people willing to do whatever you want them to do?"
(Loki, I, ugh... *sigh*)
Once again, I think it's a bit of both. As Ben said in the video, all have capacity to be dicks and all have the capacity to be awesome. Studying fandoms and being in fandoms, especially new ones I've come to realize, is a bit like watching a city be built. You never quite now what direction a street is going to go or what sort of landmark is going to pop up and when it does, you change your mental layout of what the city is going to look like. You may not always like it and think it really inconvenient that a street goes one direction over another or a certain landmark doesn't incorporate some element you were hoping for or maybe you're really upset that the city council is acting like a gaggle of gits again . But overall, you still identify with the city and belong to it and want it to do well. If you end up not liking it - there are always other cities. Perhaps this sort of thinking comes from the anthropological nature of how I view fandoms, but there's also something cartographic about it. I continue to see maps of Tumblr spring up and there's a reason beyond the fact that maps are fun. I think it comes from a draw in fantasy narratives that have maps to help describe the spaces that they create and that's exactly what fandoms do - create new spaces of collectivity that have a similar core for identification and values. It's a bit like creating nation-states, minus actual dealing with land, politics, nationality, and government. Okay, so they aren't really a lot like nation-states at all. But that idea of creating an identity to unite people still rings true. And despite differences in age, race, nationality, and location, fandoms bring people together from all around the world. In case of the Nerdfighters, it brings them together to express similar ideals, to better understand themselves and each other, and to try to make the world a better place. And I think that's pretty fantastic.

If you want to read more about Nerdfighters, check out this article in the New Yorker from Michelle Dean, which has a great description of what Nerdfightia can provide for teens. Otherwise, that's all for now. But one last thing: don't forget to be awesome. :D

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Dual Blogging

After getting brunch with my friend Danielle today, I decided to finalize a decision I'd been pondering all week long: should I create another blog, one on which to talk about things that don't pertain to fandoms? One where I can talk about my experiences of meeting with Mormon missionaries and philosophize even more than I already do and maybe talk about my personal life in vignette-style writing bits and maybe talk about writing itself?

The answer was yes. Maybe I really shouldn't have, but I did. So, if you like reading this but the twice a week posting still isn't enough and you'd like to read some other thoughts of mine, check out The Rambling Rabbit (yeah, I stuck with the animal references. I like this theme). There's not much there (I mean, seriously, I created it about ten minutes ago) and it doesn't mean there's going to be less stuff here (trust me, there won't me; I've got at least 18 drafts waiting to be finished). But it exists. Just so you know :D

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Peanut Gallery: Long Way Round

First off, I need to sigh in disbelief at the lack of Ewan McGregor on this blog. McGregor was the first actor I ever really, really fangirled over. And the fact that he's made so few appearances on this blog - well, clearly that needs to be accounted for.
Anyway, this is all related to a book I recently read called Long Way Round, written by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman. I stumbled across this book in an odd way a while ago and finally got around to reading it. After seeing an episode of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson where Ewan McGregor was a guest in which he talked about both his love for motorbikes and about a trip he took with Boorman around the world on their bikes, I wanted to find out more about it. I don't ride motorcycles (for future reference, any sort of vehicle that involves wheels does not come to good ends in my hands) but I'm fascinated by them and find them both elegant and badass. So when I found out that McGregor rode them, not only did my fangirling reach new levels, but I really wanted to watch the documentary made about the trip. I have a huge interest in travel stories anyway; they're such a thrill for me to read, so this was a natural draw. I still haven't seen the documentary but I did stumble across the book at Half Price over a year or two ago and just now got around to reading it. But it was well worth the wait.

The thing I like about travel stories/memories is that they can show you the world through someone else's eyes. Considering these were the eyes of two actors, this added a different sort of element to it. While the majority of the story was about Ewan and Charley's journeys and their epic bromance that sustained near-disasters and unexpected mishaps, there were also a few instances of reflection upon being a celebrity. At one point while traveling through Kazakhstan, they begin encountering welcoming communities that, while McGregor and Boorman find this touching, takes away from the vacation element of their trip. They want to be treated just like other travelers and to leave their celebrity status behind rather than feeling like they are on a media tour, but it is a struggle at times. "It felt like our adventure was being snatched away from us," McGregor describes (155). A few pages later, Ewan describes staying with a family in Kazakhstan and seeing footage of he and Charley on the road that day, paired with footage from McGregor in Moulin Rouge and Star Wars. The family looks at Charley and Ewan, point at the TV, Ewan and Charley smile and nod, and things go on as before. "We were going around the world, we were in their house and we were on television. It was as straightforward as that," Ewan says (157). Despite the hullabaloo from earlier in the day, this family casually accepts that they have celebrities in their home and don't make a big deal of it.
However, the celebrity issue continues throughout Kazakhstan, with media groups waiting for them along the way. While Boorman and McGregor would prefer to see the country through their own eyes rather than how the media and Kazakh authorities waiting for them would like to portray their country, it becomes a struggle for them treat their journey as other anonymous travelers would. As Boorman describes, "We hadn't ridden all this way to be mollycoddled and for Ewan to be treated like a celebrity" (176).

Despite the struggle, Boorman and McGregor have fewer interactions like this outside of Kazakhstan and are able to get a view of the countries they are traveling from people they meet while traveling through. Some of this is aided by Ewan's connections to Unicef (in which a bit of celebrity status has its perks) as Ewan and Charley stop to meet with Unicef centers in Kazakhstan and Mongolia. (I know what you're thinking - what, wait? Another charming British actor who has Unicef connections? Ah, yes. What the heck, boys.) These were my favorite bits in the book. While in Mongolia, shortly before meeting with the Unicef group, McGregor says:
"But with everything that was going on in the world at that time, if we hadn't been so isolated we might very easily have traveled through these countries without becoming aware that ultimately we are all the same: we all love our kids, we all need somewhere to sleep and some food. We all want the same things; the world isn't that big of a place. I lay in my ger thinking that if the likes of President Bush, who might even struggle to find Mongolia on a map, had spent some time finding out what was happening outside their own countries, they would recognize what all people of all nationalities and religions have in common, instead of focusing on the differences, and maybe the world wouldn't be in such a mess" (233).
Not only do we get this beautiful gem of though, there's also a wonderful description of Unicef from McGregor. He has described the situation in Mongolia and the aid they gave to get medical care for a girl who was severely ill. He continues:
"But it was still only a drop in the ocean. Even if this little girl received better care, there would another child and then another to take her place. Unicef, I had learned, was not about handouts but about working to prevent children ending up no the streets in the first place; helping them to stay with their families and communities; encouraging them to stay in school and ensuring they received proper healthcare. So I vowed then and there to devote as much time and effort as I could to Unicef once I returned home. The journey would be over in another six week but I was determined to make working with Unicef something I'd do for the rest of my life" (240).
I'm not crying; there's just a stick in my eye. This is exactly the sort of push I'd need to get involved with an organization like Unicef. After the criticism I found about Teach For America, I'm wary of any groups like these now. But to hear that an organization is working both on aid and prevention and recognizing that no collective like this is going to be perfect, I'm even more intrigued than I was before. Personally, it's time for me to do some serious researching and see if maybe Unicef is right organization for me to do some volunteering with. Regardless, if you're interested in hearing more about Unicef and their work, definitely check this book out.

Overall, I loved this book, and I highly recommend it. Also, on a final note, McGregor and Boorman refer to a medieval pancake at one point as a pudding (or dessert, for people like me who were confused at first when ordering a pudding in Scotland and it being decidedly un-Jello pudding like). Pancakes can be pudding. This makes me ridiculously happy.
All citations from: 
Long Way Round by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman, with Robert Uhlig. Atria Books, 2004.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Power of Pop Culture

My friend Nate sent me a link to this video from Al Jazeera on Facebook a few days ago. It is over 30 minutes long but it's worth a watch if you've got the time. Even just the first few minutes of it are pretty info-filled. And fun fact: I'm a bit of a fan of Franchesca Coppa, a professor they interview in the video; I read an essay of her's on Sherlock for my senior paper. I just really love this video. A lot.

There's a lot of good stuff in there, but if you can't watch it all, I totally understand. The main premise of this video is the question of whether fans are more active in the world around them rather than just using TV, books, films, etc as a means of escapism. The answer here seems to be a resounding yes. Yes, fandoms are capable of great change, of turning their love for their favorite pop culture texts, making connections with them back to the world around them, and acting on it. The one that really stood out to me was the Harry Potter Alliance, a non-profit organization created out of love for Harry Potter but wanting to help change the world around them. I really liked the sound of this group and, lo and behold, if they didn't show up on a Youtube I came across, featured by the website Upworthy. Check this out:
Okay, besides the fact that I currently can't eat chocolate without feeling a tremendous amount of guilt (CHILDREN DIE SO I CAN EAT CHOCOLATE???? IS NOTHING SACRED?!), I am really, really loving the HPA. A lot. Like... Can I do this for a living? Can I start a nonprofit organization and help reduce worldsuck? If I go out and someone start an organization (how does one do this anyway, just do it?) called "Avengers Assemble" or, I don't know, something not tied to an exact fandom, or something and find an issue to take on and... I don't know, blog and vlog about it, will stuff happen? Am I capable of becoming Sherlock Holmes and "creating my job," use this blog to start something bigger, and maybe feel like I'm helping humanity at the same time? Or is this all wishful thinking?

As much as I'd love to do this, I honestly know nothing about running a non-profit organization and am instead looking more into the HPA and seeing if we have a chapter here in Minneapolis. As we know from my applying for Teach For America, I want to try and do more sort of outreach work. Words are one thing, actions are another. While I love blogging, there's only so much I can say on here before I start to sound like an armchair critic who'd rather sit back and complain about what's wrong instead of trying to fix the problems around us. And so I'm kind of guiding my plans for the future off of this quote from the YouTube user Kid President: "If it doesn't make the world better, don't do it." I really, really want to make the wold better. And as Gandhi so famously said, "Be the change you wish to see in the world."*

*Wait, okay, time out. According to the internet (okay, according to this site), that's not actually what Gandhi said. This is what Gandhi said: "If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world of the world change towards him... We need not wait to see what others do." You know, I think I actually like this quote better. The more you know.

Anyway, I want to make a difference, so why not through fandoms? Seems like a no-brainer, right? So what am I waiting for? The right cause, the right fandom, the right idea? Yeah, something like that. Ideas of civic engagement and aid have been bouncing around my head a lot lately and, like Shakespeare's characters through their soliloquies, I'd like to work through them in these posts. So a lot of upcoming topics are going to be about charity organizations and providing aid and, sadly enough, why this all seems to be proving more difficult to do even while technology seems to make helping easier. More of that in the road ahead. (And by the way, this twice a week posting things looks like it should work out great. So yay to more frequent updating!)

Saturday, March 2, 2013

And now a quick word from the Bronte sisters

My friend Danielle tagged me in this video she posted on Facebook and I liked it so much I had to share it here. Basically if you love the Brontes, feminism, mustaches, and pudding, you will enjoy this video (yes, I know; all of those things in one place on Youtube; it's my dream come true).