Crime Fiction


Grindelwald apologizes for his crimes

On the plane back from Bangladesh I made the mistake of watching The Crimes of Grindelwald, the latest instalment in Rowling’s exploration of the Potter universe. In this sequel to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Grindelwald has escaped from imprisonment by the wizards in the USA and headed off to Europe to find Credence and begin to rouse a following of wizards who will help him achieve his goals. We follow Newt Scamander, Tina, Queenie and Jacob as they attempt to head off Grindelwald and stop him doing whatever he is trying to do.

I cannot give much more of a review of the movie than that because to be honest I didn’t have a clue what was going on in this messy and confusing story, and I was too incensed by a few details of the movie to care too much about the story anyway. What is Johnny Depp doing in this thing? Quite apart from the fact of recent revelations about his personal life, he is well past his use-by date and should be taken out the back of the studios and quietly put out of his misery. To be fair his performance as Grindelwald is better than pretty much anything else he has done in a long time, but this simply means it could have been replaced with pretty much anyone else. But I persevered! Only to find that fat ugly stupid boring Jacob gets his girl, because while in Hollywood every woman has to be stunningly good looking and have a flawless body and perfect make up and clothes, any fat dude in an ill-fitting suit with the personality of a wet blanket can pull any hot chick. There’s hope for you yet, Homer Simpsons of the world! Also, what happened to the sweet and happy Queenie of the first movie, that she makes a sudden Luke Skywalker-esque zig zag to amoral monster in the beat of an eye? Why can’t modern movie-makers figure this simple shit out? Or at least give us some hint of the change in personality that a much-loved character is going to undergo, so we can at least try and understand it[1]? So having overlooked Queenie’s monstrous change, I am left none the wiser as to what Grindelwald is really trying to do or in fact what his actual crimes are. Has he killed anyone yet? Has he actually done anything? Also, what’s with the incredibly complex and twisted family tale involving baby-swapping on the Titanic? Does everything have to have these super complicated antecedents? Can’t Credence just be, well, Credence? Does he have to be someone important? Is it something weird about Americans that everybody in their movies has to be a fucking Kardashian? Heaven forbid that a powerful wizard should just be an ordinary orphan boy (or worse still, a girl!) with nothing to recommend them except their own innate character and talent! Not that anyone in this putrid sequel had any character … even Scamander was a second-rate version of himself from the previous movie, and Tina and Queenie had lost all of the ethereal beauty and charm they had in the first episode.

So, really, this movie had nothing to recommend it overall and is a good reminder of why I skipped most of the Harry Potter movies. But it offers us a fascinating case study in the problem I identified in my review of Fantastic Beasts: This world we are watching is fucked up, and the sooner the Muggles burn it all down, hoist every wizard on a lamppost, and rid the world of their evil, the better. In my review of the first movie I noted that the magical administration seems to have brainwashed its participants and is cool with summary execution, and I also noted that there is a big inequality between muggles and wizards, that the wizards know about and are doing nothing to stop. In this movie the fascism of the wizards becomes even clearer. In addition to the summary executions of the first episode, we now learn that the administration has complete control of your travel rights and a wizard who travels without permission from the administration gets locked in Azkaban for life; we see that they have a well-organized and extensive secret police; we see that they have surveillance and control measures that they can apply even to famous intellectuals (i.e. Dumbledore) with impunity; and we see no semblance of due process for any of this. We also discover that they have strict anti-miscegenation laws – no one is allowed to love a muggle, and the punishment is terrible. Finally we learn that a lot of them think of muggles as inferior and not human, and want to exterminate all of them. Or, in the case of Grindelwald, exterminate most of them but keep a few around as cattle. So basically the wizards are running a parallel world to the muggles that is much much wealthier than the muggle world, could intervene at any time to make the muggle world much wealthier, healthier and better developed, but doesn’t want to and maintains a strict fascist administration that murders and imprisons anyone who opposes it or tries to help the muggles in any way. Dumbledore is in on the whole thing, and even people who break the rules (like Scamander) don’t do so out of any deep dislike of the system – they just break the rules because they want to have a fling in Paris with their American girlfriend.

Nice people all round.

We also get to see that Grindelwald has seen the future and has seen that in a couple of years the muggles are going to go to war and develop new weapons (nuclear weapons and aircraft) that will make wizards look like chickenshit, and his proposed solution to this problem is the mass extermination of all muggles. When he reveals this information to his followers they gasp in horror at the “arrogance” of the muggles in developing such weapons. Nobody seems to put any thought into the possibility that the muggles wouldn’t have to lift a finger to produce anything like nuclear weapons if the wizards would just share their power to breach the laws of thermodynamics with those who are not lucky enough to be born magical. But such a solution would be a step too far – why would they share their wealth with inferior muggles when it’s much more logical just to wipe them out?

Also why am I watching this movie about a couple of servants of a fascist organization (Tina and Scamander) who are working hard to prevent a radical fascist splinter group of their fascist organization from enacting a global program of genocide to stop a movement of non-magical fascists who share exactly the same principles as they do? It’s fascists all the way down. It seems like the only way that this series could turn a moral corner is if we discover that actually Stalin was industrializing the Soviet Union for the sole purpose of exterminating wizards, the real enemies of global prosperity[2]. By the end of this I was cheering for everyone to kill themselves.

So that’s the problem with this movie: everyone in it needs to die. But the movie does give us something of an insight into how confused Americans (I guess; and Rowling, who is British) are getting about fascism. Grindelwald’s organization had obviously Nazi imagery – his thuggish aides wore obviously Nazi style clothes, he himself is suspiciously German, etc. – and his goal of exterminating all the untermenschen[3] is explicitly Nazi. But the organization he is in opposition to is also a straight-up fascist dictatorship, with far-reaching powers of surveillance and secret investigation, enamoured of torture and extra-judicial killings, who control every aspect of their citizens lives. And the organization he is ultimately scared of and trying to stop is also a Nazi organization[4], which will attempt to do all the things he and his opponents in the wizarding world want to do. Yet, the placement of heroes and villains in this movie in the traditional sense tells me that I’m supposed to be supporting one side in opposition to the other, which means I’m supposed to be supporting fascists who are trying to stop some splinter fascists from fighting some fascists. This is both terrible story-writing and also a sign that modern writers have lost their ability to understand Who are the Real Fascists. Usually stories about people opposed to fascists involve brave, good people who generally stand on the side of freedom and liberty – not Other Fascists. So either the writers have got a really vicious sting in the tail of this trilogy, or the writers have some kind of grimdark vision in which we all side with the fascists, or the writers have not got a fucking clue what a fascist is, and are so unmoored from a basic understanding of politics that they can’t any longer tell the difference between Fascists and Anti-Fascists. There are, we are led to believe, good people on both sides! Or at least on one side, which is a significant advance on “there were no good people on either side”, which was (I would have thought) the standard view of fascists fighting fascists until relatively recently.

My inference from all this is that the people writing this movie actually want us to pick a side, and just haven’t noticed that the side we’re supposed to pick is actually a fascist world government that executes people on a whim and imprisons you for life in a hellish prison with soul-eating demons if you have the wrong boarding pass. The writers are so politically ignorant that they don’t understand the difference between fascism and freedom, and/or are so used by now to the creeping fascism overwhelming their nation that they haven’t noticed that the things the magical administration does are deeply wrong. This is consistent with a lot of other warning signs we’re seeing coming from America at the moment: the fact that Elliot Abrams was defended by almost everyone in “serious” political journalism when a politician pointed out his history of treason and lying to congress; the fact that so many movies now have the good guys using torture and summary execution without any moral qualms; the fact that 23 Republican congressmen can vote against a resolution opposing hate because hate is now cool. I could go on. The moral collapse in the US (and the UK?) is now so far gone that the people who produce its propaganda can no longer tell the difference between themselves and the things that their nation once fought. And so it is that we get subjected to movies like The Crimes of Grindelwald, where we are asked to pick a side when all the sides need to die in a fire.

The only pure people in Rowling’s world are the muggles. They need to rise up and destroy the wizards, or at least enslave them, before the wizards try to exterminate everyone on earth. If we’re lucky that will be the sting in the tail of the final movie, but I doubt it. More likely, we’ll be cheering the fascist government as it beats its fascist splinter movement, and then stands back to watch as fascists burn Europe to ashes. And somewhere along the way the writers will assume that we have lost our own moral code, so that we think this hell makes moral sense. I never thought I would have to say this, but I think the fascists have won.


Other reviews you might be interested in

Why the Last Jedi is shit.

The problems underlying Rowling’s world.

Why Avengers: Infinity War is a bullying disaster.

Mad Max: Fury Road as a perfect political vision of ecofeminist violence.

 


fn1: Also a shout-out here to the way Rowling pissed away one of the fundamental parts of Voldemort’s back story with the Queenie-Jacob shenanigans. Apparently Voldemort is evil because he is the child of a union that was forced by love magic, and that’s why he’s a psychopath who doesn’t understand love. This is a super important message from the original books! So in this movie we see Queenie rock up with Jacob under the exact same spell, and it is just a passing gag, nothing serious, no reflection on her personality or on the nature of wizards. These moments – like the newfound hyperspace killer trick in Star Wars: The Last Jedi – undermine the seriousness and impact of whole story arcs in previous canon, and are a really fucking stupid thing to do.

fn2: I guess there’s another bridge-too-far story in which Hitler set up the Nazi Party as a movement dedicated to the destruction of wizards, but somewhere along the way the wizards used mind control powers to change its platform into exterminating other muggles instead, thus avoiding being identified as the real threat facing the world, and accidentally sparking the holocaust as a by-blow of their plan. This might seem tasteless, but what are the alternatives when you have fallen down the rabbit hole into a world where you are supporting fascists in their fight against splinter fascists who want to kill other fascists they consider inferior? It’s a kaleidoscope of fascists down here.

fn3: Sorry I don’t know the German word for “magically unendowed and therefore subhuman subhumans”

fn4: It could be said that because he and his little nazi mates are scared of nuclear weapons that they aren’t just opposed to Nazi Germany but to the technological achievements of all of muggledom, but we all know that this would be a weak excuse since the Nazis are blamed for world war 2 and when any movie hero or villain says that they’re trying to stop ww2 we assume that they are trying to stop the Nazis, not the Allies, because it’s the Nazis who started the war. So I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that his primary enemy in muggledom are the Nazis.

Dhaka by night

I’m currently on an extended work trip to Bangladesh, teaching a couple of intensive seminars on epidemiology and related topics in Dhaka. This is the second time I have come here, and I plan to write a separate post soon on my impressions of this country – there is a lot to say about it. For those of you who don’t know, Bangladesh is a Muslim-majority country of 170 million people neighbouring India, and is very poor. It is currently ranked 136th out of 189 countries on the Human Development Index, putting it in about the bottom third of national wealth globally. Per capita GDP is about 1,800 USD, with huge inequality. Although the government of Bangladesh is angling to have the country ranked as a lower middle-income country it is still very poor, with no serious functioning health insurance system, limited skilled employment and a weak industrial sector outside of an extremely well-performing garment sector. Even the Tuk-tuks are imported from India. Bangladesh is something of a success story in health, outperforming expectations for its HDI and in particular making huge gains on maternal and child health. Nonetheless, life here is tough for all but its wealthiest residents. For example a basic garment worker job, which is a sought after thing here, pays about 80USD per month. I learnt this from my local colleagues, who are running a project on the health of these women, and I also helped interview a senior researcher position for a local organization, which was looking to pay a person with a master’s degree and several publications about $500 per month. It’s not a rich place! In particular there is a very large population of unskilled and/or illiterate young people, who are not able to engage in the garment sector or any higher-paid work, and for whom employment opportunities are limited. So it is that these people go to quite outrageous lengths to earn money, including some quite entertaining scams. Here I report on two, one of which I was told about and one of which I and my colleagues almost became entangled in.

Dhaka city centre, with metro works (I think)

The Elephant Man

I took a few hours after work this week to visit a tailor that my colleague Doughty S recommends. This tailor could make me a tailor-made suit, three shirts and a pair of trousers for a mere 170 USD, so is probably worth the two hour slog I had to endure to get there, and the 3 hour slog home. Did I mention that traffic in Dhaka is insane? Traffic in Dhaka is literally insane. It’s exhausting, depressing and soul-destroying, a problem of many cities in developing nations, and about this I will write more in my report on Bangladesh. At one point, driving relatively fast for the time of day, we passed an elephant standing by the side of the road, eating grass from a building site while its rider lounged about atop its broad back. It wasn’t huge as elephants go, but it was still big and more to the point I have never in my life seen an elephant just ambling along in public doing its thing. So I naturally declared “elephant!” and tried (and failed) to get a photo from the car that was suddenly and perversely actually moving for once.

My colleague Doughty S informed me that this elephant wasn’t a working elephant in the sense that it lifts and carries and drags things like an elephant should; rather, it was an essential participant in a money-making scam. Basically the dude on top of the elephant will manoeuvre it in front of your car, forcing you to stop, and then refuse to move the elephant until you pay him. Since it’s an elephant, you probably aren’t going to try and hit it; and if you’re in Dhaka traffic you probably won’t be able to outmanoeuvre it; and you can’t reach the dude to punch him since he’s on an elephant. It’s really a quite foolproof way of extorting a bit of money from passing motorists. So the scam unfolds, but on this occasion we were fortunate enough to be on the opposite side of the road, so no elephant extortion came our way.

Doughty S also told me that the same people who ride the elephant also sometimes have a box with a snake in that they threaten to curse you with unless you cough up some money. But I think we can all agree the elephant scam is way more elegant.

The Sand Gang in action

The Sand Gang

This is a devilishly cunning plan that seems worth far less than the effort and risk required to pull it off, but you have to admire the chutzpah of its architects. I spent two days at a resort town, Cox’s Bazar, during the break between seminars, to unwind a little and get some beach air. Cox’s Bazar is a kind of peninsula, with a single road heading south along the beach side, and over a line of hills the Rohingya refugee camps. The Rohingya fled violence in Myanmar to camps near Coxs Bazar, and there is now a huge industry of aid groups and Bangladesh army tending to their needs[1]. Most of the aid workers stay in Coxs Bazar, and every morning they drive along the road south to the camp. However, recently the government closed a 200m section of road near the hotels for repairs, and now there is no road south from the southern part of the town. Rather than head north and around, the aid workers drive onto the beach in their white SUVs and use the beach as a short cut, as do all the locals who live in the southern stretch of Coxs Bazar. It’s ridiculous that there is only one road and that it has been closed now, but this is Bangladesh so everyone just rolls with the punches.

So, when our time came to do a little beach tourism our driver took us onto the beach – me, Doughty S, his wife and child, in a rundown old van without seatbelts, along the beach and up to the part of the beach where we are to rejoin the road – where we found a couple of cars bogged down, and a queue of cars waiting to get up the hill. You can see the scene pictured above. We sat here for perhaps 10 or 15 minutes waiting our chance to drive up the hill but it seemed every time we tried to gun the engine and go up the hill someone let a tuk-tuk down in front of us, or someone cut in, or a group of people got in our way. Doughty S got out of the car and went up to direct traffic, and we watched as various cars floundered and then got pushed up the hill of sand by gangs of eager men. Eventually a gap appeared, our driver took a risk, and even though a woman in a sari and a tuk-tuk nearly cut us off we gunned up the sand hill, the driver throwing the car left and right with ferocious energy until we bounced up a huge lump and onto smoother, firmer sand, then onto the road where Doughty S rejoined us.

Doughty S reported to us the real story of the floundering cars: a kind of local syndicate of young men had set up a scheme where every time a car attempted to take the hill at speed someone would step in front of it, or they would direct a car coming in the opposite direction into its path. They made sure that children were the ones stepping in front of the car, so that it was guaranteed to slow down, though not so carelessly as to make it stop entirely. Its power gone the car would then hit the bank and flounder, and then the men would offer to push it out for a small fee. The fee was about 30 taka (30 cents or so) for a Tuk-tuk, up to perhaps 100 taka for a car like ours. Many of the drivers were not locals or were not used to driving on sand, and were easy marks; somehow the UN vehicles were never affected by this scam, and neither was the military truck that was just rolling away when we arrived. They obviously knew how to select their targets. Doughty S also told us some drivers suspected the sand gang had sabotaged the road to start with, undermining the sand bank.

Dhaka traffic comes to the bazar

By the time we returned from our tourism trip, the sand gang had also managed to expand to the other slope near our hotel, where I witnessed the traffic jam above. When you see a picture of Bangladesh traffic it is important to remember it’s not just a throng of cars; it’s also a cacophony of horns, because everyone uses their horn all the time for everything, and even the small jam pictured above was raising an enormous racket. Needless to say, we jumped out here and walked the rest of the way to our hotel.

Libertarian dreams

There is a cyberpunk air to Dhaka, in the sense that there is no smooth and ordered government-run system and everything is a chaotic mesh of competing businesses and money makers. There are no traffic lights or traffic police, no road rules, most of the time not even any lanes, and in the chaos of the traffic it’s every man for himself. With a weak state and a populace with limited work opportunities and not much money there is a big atmosphere of scamming, grift and graft. Funnily enough despite this lack of oversight no enterprising soul has managed to set up a toll road, or offer some advanced business plan that can cut through the dust haze and klaxon roar to somehow make money distilling all this essence of chaos down to pure profit. It just remains barely controlled chaos, mostly held together not by profit motives so much as by the common decency people usually show each other despite their situation. It’s a bit of a cliche to tell libertarians that if they want a world without a government they should move to Somalia or something, but I think for your everyday Bangladeshi worker that’s pretty much what they face: undiluted libertarianism. Out of pocket payments for healthcare and rubbish disposal, a completely uncontrolled transport system with very little public investment, a government sector where everyone accepts that services are purchased not given, and some dude with an elephant making a living (of some dubious kind) by extorting motorists. This is the reality of unimpeded libertarianism: the elephant man and the sand gang. If you want to see where it takes you, come and enjoy the traffic in Dhaka… but look out for the elephants!


fn1: The Rohingya are a sad story but I don’t get the impression that anyone here resents them. The Bangladesh army set up camps early, and have done what they can given their resources, and the town is generally welcoming of the aid workers and happy to take their money. Bangladeshis I speak to are universally proud of the social harmony in their country, “unlike India,” and don’t consider for example Hindus or tribal people (who apparently live around here) to be lesser people. The government wants to send the Rohingya back but seems willing to not force them while they are still at risk, and although it’s not a pleasant situation everyone seems to be doing what they can. I wonder if the Rohingya have elephants …?

Recently Democratic senator Amy Klobuchar announced that she will be running for president, only to be confronted with reports that she is a nasty boss. The media are avoiding calling it bullying, but the reports are bad and suggest that she is genuinely terrible: throwing things at staff, making them do personal chores, humiliating them publicly and terrorizing them personally. Until 2017 she had the highest staff turnover of any senator, and rumours suggest she was warned about her treatment of staff by a senior colleague. This is bullying, plain and simple, and these actions should be called bullying. Her defense has been that she’s a “tough boss”, and others have suggested that she is just “demanding”, but throwing things at staff and humiliating staff publicly is not “tough”, it’s abusive.

Besides the obvious moral failings of bullies, there are three important reasons why a bully should not be nominated for, or run for, and certainly not become, president.

  • Bullied staff are bad staff: When you’re bullied you avoid reporting mistakes, you bury issues you know will trigger your boss, you avoid communicating with your boss, and all communication and information is carefully managed and manipulated to ensure it doesn’t trigger the boss. This means that errors compound and grow, the boss only hears what they want to hear, and decisions get made on the basis of what the boss wants, not what is best for the organization or what is right. Many people will claim that they wouldn’t behave this way if faced with a bullying boss but I can assure you from experience: Everyone does. Bullies run dysfunctional organizations, and often ultimately destroy those organizations.
  • Bullied staff are vindictive staff: If Klobuchar is a bully and she wins the nomination, you can bet that all through the general election there will be a constant dribble of negative reports about her, as her staff try to stop her from becoming the world’s top bully. This will hamper her effectiveness and ultimately risks Trump winning.
  • Bullies do not play well with others: There is only one way to stop a bully’s bad behavior: smash the bully. The only way to restrain a bully is with power – it is the only language they understand. Bullies always punch down and suck up, they have a natural power to understand where power lies and who uses it, and they don’t collaborate or cooperate with peers or weaker people. This is bad at school but it’s monstrously dangerous in a nuclear-armed and powerful nation. This shouldn’t be a difficult thing to see – we can see how Trump doesn’t play well with others, and he’s obviously a bully.

Public responses to reports of Klobuchar’s bullying have largely ignored these points. This Washington Post article, for example, starts with the question “does it matter?” and finishes with this pearler:

If you think about it, the problem with [President] Trump is not that he’s a crappy boss, it’s that he doesn’t get along well with peers and with the people he needs to work with to get legislation passed … I’m not sure the job of being president is a job of management in the sense of being a CEO, but frankly as I see it, it’s about convincing people to do what needs to be done.

This is exactly why Trump being a bully is a problem: he can’t get along with his peers because he has a history of bullying and attacking them, and he can’t convince people to do what needs to be done because they refuse to cooperate with such an outrageous arsehole. These things are all linked!

On Twitter another response I have seen to these reports is that it’s a double standard, that no man has been subject to these complaints and that it’s just another way of bringing down a “tough” woman (with the addendum if she were a man she’d be called “tough” but because she’s a woman she’s “unreasonable”). I am sympathetic to these arguments and I can see that if Klobuchar were just tough she might well be derided as unreasonable, but that is not what is happening, and conflating the reports with “tough boss” is wrong. Furthermore, it’s not a double standard: reporters were reporting on Sanders’ mistreatment of his staff in 2015, Trump’s bullying was well known and well reported on, and Tim Kaine (Clinton’s VP pick) made Trump’s bullying a central part of his address at the Democratic National Convention. While it’s true Sanders didn’t get hauled over the coals for this, it’s true that in a lot of other ways coverage of Sanders was ludicrously biased (he’s not a Democrat, for example, but he was taken seriously by the Democrats wtf), and the broader issue of how poorly the media handled Clinton’s candidacy is about way more than this issue – and largely unrelated, I think. The fact is that Trump’s bullying was widely reported on, as was his sexual assault. It’s just that a lot of Americans didn’t care, only watch Fox News, or were too stupid to understand how to check the candidates before they voted.

Of course it’s possible all the reports about Klobuchar are lies, but I doubt it. I haven’t bothered investigating in detail because it’s not worth my time – Harris is going to win the nomination, so it doesn’t matter what Klobuchar did – and because if Klobuchar does win the nomination it doesn’t matter, since she’s obviously better than Trump. But the fact that this comes up now shows the importance of a simple principle: At all levels of society, at all times, we have to confront and beat down bullies, and we need to always be aware that a lot of people love and support bullies, and we need to confront and deal with them too. I will talk about the importance of this at a more prosaic and local level: the US role-playing scene known as the “Old School Renaissance”, or OSR, where a major figure in that scene has recently been uncovered as a rapist and a shocking bully and power abuser.

Zak S and the personal politics of bullying

Zak S is a major figure in the OSR, who runs the Playing D&D with Porn Stars blog and has been involved in a great many OSR projects, especially Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Zak S has been involved in the OSR since about 2009, when he started the blog, and in his early days was well enough behaved. He occasionally commented here in 2009/2010, before he discovered he had bigger fish to fry, and then I lost interest in the OSR and stopped paying attention to the recycled junk they produce for many years. But somehow in Twitter I stumbled upon a report that Zak S’s porn star players – who, it turns out, were all his lovers as well – have started posting reports on Facebook about how he raped them and abused them for many years. He was apparently a gaslighting, emotionally manipulative abuser, since probably about the time he started blogging. As it stands at the time of writing two women have reported similar behavior and abuse, and it seems pretty unlikely that this is some kind of political campaign. The truth is out and it’s not pretty.

I was not surprised, because Zak S is an obvious bully. He has been bullying people for years, with help from a coterie of vicious internet allies, and has been an incredibly disruptive presence in the OSR. Multiple producers of OSR content and various bloggers have had to bow out of the whole scene or disappear because of his behavior; in 2016(?) a group of women marched out of the Ennies in protest at him winning prizes (they walked out on political grounds; aesthetic grounds would have been sufficient!); he was banned from one of the big forums (RPG.net I think) with an epic post listing his behaviors that I can’t now find; and various people have taken sides over his behavior over the years. It’s no surprise that a man who showed the kind of public aggressiveness and rudeness he showed should turn out to be a manipulative rapist, because bullies only listen to power, not to moral claims, and rape is a crime of power. But by the time this came out he had managed to leverage his vicious public behavior into a role as a “consultant” on D&D 5th Edition and some kind of advisor to Vampire: The Masquerade[1]. He had also ingratiated himself with Lamentations of the Flame Princess to the extent that he is one of their main contributors, and was involved with various other OSR/DIY gaming[2] outfits. Somehow this thoroughly unpleasant man had managed to become popular with a lot of people despite his repeated public bullying of weaker figures. How did this happen?

It’s instructive to compare the response of some people to this news today with the way they defended him for years. People have known about the claims about Zak S and they defended him, over and over, for years. They repeatedly dismissed any criticisms of his behaviour as lies, slander, “social justice warrior” posturing, jealousy, conspiracies, or people being delicate snowflakes. But all the criticisms were true, and all the defenses were the usual bullshit that the enablers always give for bullies. The reality is that a lot of people in the OSR were willing to side with Zak S and supported or defended his behavior when they realized that he was going places. They didn’t dissociate quietly from him, they didn’t refuse to support him, they didn’t confront him – they actively defended and encouraged him. Now they’re all acting ooooh so surprised that he’s a rapist and that all the tactics he deployed online were deployed to devastating effect in his personal life, and a lot of them even now are trying to back out of responsibility by claiming it’s a social media storm, or blaming the women or pretending that they were blinded by political considerations. It’s all bullshit: these people were the sycophants to the bully. Just like every bully in school has a gaggle of hangers-on who applaud his every tawdry move, the leading lights of the OSR clung to Zak S. They hung on his every word. Even now Raggi at Lamentations of the Flame Princess is waiting to see how everyone reacts before he makes comment, because that’s the kind of coward he is. The rest of them are trying to pretend that they had no clue – no clue! – that this guy who had been banned from multiple forums for abuse, who was a known sock puppeter, who broke every social norm and paraded around like the Sun King on Meth, was completely unknowably bad. How could they have guessed? They could not have known!

Well they’re lying. Bullies are nothing without their enablers, and the enablers always crawl out from under their rocks when they see someone who might be going places, someone who they can suck up to for some benefit, even if it’s just the vicarious coolness of being around someone who is “popular” – and even if that popularity is just other morally backward people like themselves cheering the bully as he hurts others. That’s what happened with Zak S, and now we’re watching all these people come to terms with the fact that they spent years helping a rapist and a bully get popular and famous in their sordid little scene.

That’s what happens when you don’t confront bullies. That’s what happens when you stand by while they act like shitlords, and tear up the communities that welcomed them. Every single one of us has a personal responsibility to confront bullies and to drag them down, to shame them and humiliate them. If we all did this from the very beginning there would be no Zak S’s, no Klobuchars, no Trumps – they would all have learnt that it doesn’t work, and they would have stopped. But too many people make excuses, say that Zak S is just confrontational, that Klobuchar is tough, that Trump says what he means and means what he says, and ignore what is really happening. They let it pass, and then someone genuinely weak and helpless – someone like Mandy Morbid, Zak S’s girlfriend, who has serious disabilities and is a foreigner in America – has to finally break everything and make the stand that everyone else could easily have done years ago. The burden falls on the weakest, the victims, instead of on people like Raggi from Lamentations of the Flame Princess who could have sent Zak S a very strong message years ago by telling him “fuck off Zak, you’re a fuckwit.” Instead of years of humiliation for being a fuckwit, Zak S got years of support and ennoblement, and learnt repeatedly that there is no penalty for being evil.

Not everyone can stand up to bullies. Bullies know power, and often their victims have no power to say no. But bullies always seek the powerful for approval and support, and they know how to accrue power, social and financial resources, and the kinds of capital that protect them. If you control that power, those social resources, or that capital, then the responsibility is on you to attack those bullies. If you have money, a steady job, love, physical strength, tenure, stable and supportive networks – it is your responsibility to confront these people and tell them to fuck off. You may fail or they may try to hurt you but if you don’t it comes down to this – a disabled sex worker crying for help on facebook, anonymous staffers having their stories dismissed in the national press because they’re anonymous cowards, victims of Trump U taking him to court in a fevered national election environment – vulnerable and scared people, risking everything to tell the rest of us what we already knew. But if every day those of us with power and position used that power and that position to tell these people how they are wrong, and to take away their power to do wrong, then those vulnerable people would not have to risk everything to warn the rest of us about what is coming.

The responsibility to smash the bully lies with you, not with anyone else. And if we all use that responsibility, if we do what we should do, then the bullies will never thrive, and the world will be a better place. Or we could be like the cowards in the OSR, and achieve some measure of temporary fame by sucking up to a known bully.

The choice is yours.


fn1: I have always hated Vampire, which is a classic attempt to tell the story from the bully’s perspective, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that they would be attracted to a bully and a rapist.

fn2: “DIY gaming” appears to be some sort of euphemism for “we do D&D”

 

The new documentary Fyre, available on Netflix, describes the events surrounding the collapse of the infamous Fyre festival in 2017. The collapse of this festival gained worldwide notoriety because the festival was billed as a super luxury elite event full of models and influencers and famous people, which only the very rich could afford, but which ended with the “elite” guests having to camp in the dark in emergency response tents and eat soggy sandwiches before they fled home. It was covered extensively in the media and was often covered as a kind of disaster for the instagram age, a festival as fake as the world we build on social media, and a moral story about the collapse of truth in an era of influencers and instafame. It was a particularly attractive FUBAR because it involved rich people being scammed out of their money for what on its surface appears to be a completely vainglorious and shallow status symbol event.

I think a lot of that narrative was either untrue or a pernicious interpretation of the evils of social media. This documentary goes some way to helping to clarify what really happened and helps us to understand who some of the real victims and real villains were, but I think ultimately it fails because it does not go far enough or deep enough, and to some extent it is complicit with the scammers. It has three key flaws: 1) it fails to really contest the accounts of the organizers; 2) it does not give much of a voice to the guests; and 3) it does not offer any deeper commentary on the social media aspects of the SNAFU. I want to talk about each of these three problems and give a little opinion about what this festival tells us about social media and scams, again returning to my old saw that there is nothing new about the evils of social media, and no special skills are required to understand and deal with the problems social media creates.

First though I would like to say that although this documentary is flawed it is worth watching: it will give a much more detailed understanding of what happened and help to put the events into their proper perspective. I did not know, for example, that the organizer of the festival had been involved in a previous scam with all the same players; that a website and twitter account started to debunk the festival long before it happened; and that a great many of the attendees were not the super rich. Some of these points are not really clarified or explored properly in the documentary, but if you watch carefully and pay attention you can see these facts.

The first problem of the documentary is that it is highly dependent on footage of the entire project planning that was taken by the organizers themselves. I don’t know why they filmed themselves but it appears that the boss of the whole thing, Billy McFarland, has something of an obsession with filming his work – even at the end of the movie when he is on bail and living in a penthouse running a new direct mail scam he is filming himself doing it, which is weird. But it seems to me that in order to get this footage the documentary makers had to treat many of the organizers with kid gloves, which gives many of them the opportunity to provide self-serving and I suspect highly biased accounts of their own responsibility for the disaster. Four figures in particular – Carolla the financer, an old guy who has backed Billy McFarland for too long and has 30 years’ showbiz experience, the key guy responsible for logistics and the key guy responsible for booking acts – are up to their necks in the scam and it’s just not believable that they weren’t part of it. When one of them says that Billy would keep going away and finding new investments, it’s obvious that he is scamming new investors and they must know – and sure enough it turns out that he has been lying egregiously in documents to investors. Other people not so close to Billy were quick to get out when they realized the shitstorm that was coming, and one guy who saw right through it was able to get direct photos of the development of the festival and could clearly see it was going to be an omnishambles, yet these four couldn’t see it? Some of them, in particular Carolla and Ja Rule, were involved in Billy McFarland’s previous business, Magnises, which was clearly and obviously a scam, so it really stretches credibility when they tell the documentary makers that they didn’t know what was going on and kept not seeing the wood for the trees even when it was really clear what was going to happen. It’s very clear that Billy McFarland has a powerful effect on these people and is good at keeping them disoriented and confused, and he is always ratcheting up the chaos and demands so that they don’t have time to get clear-headed perspective on the damage he is doing. It is also really clear that he has found typically devious ways to keep them entangled in his dramas so that not only they but a lot of people who depend on them will be damaged if they back away; but these people have been around Billy McFarland long enough to know that this is his shtick, and to find ways out. There is a story in here about how incredibly dangerous people with personality disorders are when they have access to money and authority; but there is also a moral tale about the importance of not enabling these people, and of ultimately being willing to take the risk of walking away from them. This documentary shows in the end that when you enable the disordered leadership in order to protect those around you, all you really do is set those people up for a bigger fall when the narcissists’s schemes finally collapse. There’s a definite cautionary tale for Trump’s America in this documentary, but unfortunately by not properly challenging the stories of Billy’s fellow travelers the documentary fails to draw the proper lessons about the dangers of sticking with a leader with personality disorder.

The collapse of Fyre festival was a social media spectacle that was turned into a morality play about millennial idiocy by the media, but it’s worth bearing in mind that there were real victims of this farce. The documentary makes a good case for the low-paid workers of the Bahamas and the businesspeople who were left out of pocket on the island by the scammers, but it does not put much time into the feelings and experiences of the guests who paid to come to the festival and got scammed. It even manages to broadcast Billy McFarland’s point (made through Ja Rule) that nobody got injured or died. Nonetheless, the people who attended this festival turned up to an island far from home and got dumped on a fake beach in the dark with nowhere to stay except damaged tents with sodden mattresses, barely any food, and no idea what to do to get home. A large number were locked inside the airport without food and water for a night while the authorities tried to figure out a way to get them off the island. The fact that they were rich beautiful people doesn’t lessen the fear and hardship that they had to endure for a day or two while they found a way out of this scam – they were poorly mistreated. The documentary finds a couple of customers who were willing to speak on camera about their experience, and it uses a bit of social media footage of other victims, but it does manage to build up an image of these people as wealthy people who were paying for an elitist experience. It even shows a clip of a beautiful girl (possibly one of the influencers who was supposed to get free villa accommodation, though the documentary is careful not to reveal who the people in the social media clips are) saying that the “private” plane was “worse than the lowest class in economy”, which makes her seem kind of snobby from her tone. On twitter today I have been seeing people saying that what these people were really paying for was exclusivity, buying an experience that no one else could have, but I did not get that impression from the documentary: they were pretty clearly paying for the experience of a party on a beautiful beach, and paying for a luxury experience. Everything was marketed as a luxury experience and that’s what the guests were paying for. They weren’t necessarily driven by a desire for exclusivity. After all, they knew lots of other people were going to be there and fundamentally, like with any festival, wanted to go there and share the experience with those people. Any music event is never about exclusivity – you go to live events so you can share the experience with other people. But worse still, this documentary slides over the possibility that actually a lot of people weren’t that wealthy, and had actually been scammed out of real hard-earned money, not disposable income. You can’t tell from the people they interview, or from the prices they display on the documentary screens, but the lowest price tickets were between $500 and $1500. It’s not beyond a person on a normal income to spend a large chunk of their savings on this festival, so that they can have this experience. Looking at the people on the social media footage the documentary shows, and judging by their clothes and reaction, a lot of these people were not throwing away a casual weekend’s cocaine money to drink champagne off models’ tits in an exclusive villa: they were dumping a large portion of their hard-won savings on a chance to enjoy their favourite music in a geodesic luxury tent on a beautiful beach. Now, I have experienced a really enjoyable music festival on a secluded beach (the San-in Beach Party), and it really is a very nice experience, and to do it in luxury on a beach in the Bahamas is something that a lot of people would consider worth burning their savings on. It’s well-established that millennials, knowing they can’t afford a house or a stable retirement, choose to spend what limited savings they can scrape together on experiences like this. No matter how much David Brooks might sneer at their ephemeral spirit, it’s no reason to scam them of their hard-earned cash. That’s not exactly Robin Hood stuff is it? But by carefully avoiding investigating these peoples’ backgrounds, and not trying to do any deeper investigation into who went and why, the documentary falls into the usual traps that bedevil any attempt to explore modern youth culture, and makes it seem once again like a bunch of entitled millenial trustafarians got what they deserved.

Finally, the documentary does not properly explore the central role of social media in the debacle, and what the implications of that might be. The Fyre festival’s initial hype was built up by a bunch of influencers – perhaps 400 – all posting a picture of a blank orange tile to their instagram accounts at the same time, with a link to the Fyre page, where people could see videos of these influencers cavorting in the sea. It was a masterfully done advertising campaign, that used the viral power of instagram and other social media to multiply the value of each user’s post. But let’s not be coy about how this worked: they sank an enormous amount of money on this advertising. The documentary reports that the top girl in the influencer group they gathered, Bella Hadid, was paid $250,000 for that one post. They set up a website that was basically just a collection of movies, and then through a very well designed visual campaign they got a lot of people interested in their product. The documentary reported that in the aftermath of the Fyre farce the US government introduced new rules for social media stars, requiring them to indicate when they’re being paid to advertise product, and the documentary suggested that their behaviour had been duplicitous. The documentary also suggested that they should have done due diligence on the product they were selling, but this point was rebutted by some of the people involved who pointed out – fairly, I think – that these girls are models not scientists, and it’s not their job to vet the quality of a good they’re paid to advertise – that’s what regulatory authorities are for. Fundamentally what happened here is that Billy McFarland paid them to market a scam that neither they, the buyers, any of the contractors in the Bahamas, or apparently any of his colleagues, recognized was a scam. I don’t think under these circumstances these girls are the first people who should be blamed.

More importantly, none of what this advertising campaign did was new. It girls have been around since Audrey Hepburn (Holly Golightly was a classic It-girl), and in the era of the big people magazines girls like Paris Hilton were huge news, without ever making a single social media post. The fact that you can be an it-girl on Instagram doesn’t change anything, and although Bella Hadid is more ubiquitous in the feeds of her followers than Paris Hilton might have been, she is no less ubiquitous in popular media than Paris was. I am old enough to remember the Paris Hilton era, and let me tell you, there is nothing that Instagram could teach her about how to get rich and famous by being nothing and doing nothing. Yes the Kardashians’ famous-for-fame-itself lifestyle and business model is repulsive, but so was Paris Hilton’s. Similarly the problem of these girls advertising products without announcing they’re paid: it may shock my younger reader(s) to learn this, but a mere 20 years ago all the Hate Radio stars in Australia – Alan Jones, John Laws, that repulsive dude in South Australia, and the racist pig in Western Australia – were all advertising products all the time on the radio without telling you they were paid. They had a conversational tone in which they told you personally that they used this car oil, and never once mentioned that this conversation was paid for. This scandal blew up in the late 1990s and you should have seen the entitled whining they did when they were forced to admit on air that they were paid to make their endorsements. Now as far as I know, the late 1990s was approximately 60 years after the widespread adoption of radio. So it took approximately 10 times as long for the authorities to wise up to payola on the radio as it did for them to crack down on these pretty young things on Instagram. I’m sure that their haste to crack the whip on those girls has nothing at all to do with their age and gender … and of course all the top 40 charts and bullshit rankings on MTV and radio charts are still completely bought and paid for by the music industry, but we should worry that occasionally a model will slip in an unannounced endorsement on Instagram… No, as I have said before, the problem here is not social media – it’s you. Indeed there were even social media accounts dedicated to revealing the truth about Fyre but they didn’t take off – because nobody cared about the truth. If you cannot tell that a party on a remote island in the Bahamas where you get to cavort with models in a villa with a private plane for a couple of thousand bucks is smoke and mirrors, you won’t be saved by seeing that scam advertised on tv instead of Facebook. And if a slimy con artist decides to lie to you that he has villas for 5,000 people on that beach when in fact there are no houses on the entire island, it doesn’t matter if he does it on TV, Instagram or a message written in the sky – he’s a liar and a con artist, and the problem is that he lied. Unfortunately, while this documentary does make clear much of the way in which he built his lies, it also glosses over the simple fact that the world is full of liars and rubes in favour of the easy lure of social media panic, and schadenfreude at rich people getting duped.

So, watch this documentary if you want a more detailed account of that fateful party and the garbage fire it became, but don’t let yourself be fooled by the easy targeting of social media and rich entitled millenials. The story of Fyre is as old as the story of liars, and our natural faith in the honesty of our fellow humans. Whether you lie to someone’s face, on tv, on Instagram, or on stone tablets, a lie is a lie: and Fyre was a bonfire of stupid, vicious lies that left a lot of people hurt. Let’s hope we’ve all learnt from it, and that this documentary will help us all ensure it does not happen again.

You want to do *what*!?

By now the series of indictments and convictions of Trump’s hangers-on are old news, but there are some things about these stories that I am finding really mystifying, and/or confirmatory of the suspicions I have always had about super rich people. Trump’s hangers-on give the appearance of being super-rich, and they’re all attached to the “conservative” (i.e. religious radical) side of US politics, but some of the things we learn about them have been, shall we say, disappointing? I’m not sure if there is a word for how you feel when you learn what these people have been up to, especially now that “WTF” is about to be patented by Proctor and Gamble. Some things that have particularly amused (and surprised) me include …

  1. None of them seem to have any money: Cohen seems to have been sucking in vast quantities of cash, but none of it ended up in his pockets, and he was constantly lying to banks about his money in order to get loans to have more money, which promptly seems to have been blown paying off past loans. The Hunters were basically up to their necks in debt, and one assumes using their entire salary to pay off their overdraft fees, and then financing their lifestyle with campaign money, but refusing to tone down the business class rabbit seats despite being in hock. Pruitt was trying to use his position in the EPA to score his wife a chik-a-fila franchise to pay their debts. And of course Donald Trump, supposedly a billionaire, couldn’t manage to find 130k to pay off a porn star in order to smooth his path to becoming the president – instead Cohen did it, and did it by fraudulently leveraging his house because none of these people have any money. And of course Broidy – the only one who seems to have had any money, probably from Russian sources – paid for Trump’s girlfriend’s abortion, and was repaid not with money but with political favours. Beyond the question about whether any of these people have even a basic sense of public ethics, do any of them have any actual money?
  2. These people have no taste: Ostrich jackets, really? Golf? Who goes on vacation to Boise Idaho? Did you really need to fly your rabbit on holiday with you?[1] And we all know about the Donald’s penchant for ridiculously tasteless furniture and fittings (that family photo really is a gem). I used to joke that rich people had no taste, but I mostly made that joke on the basis that I don’t like Foix Gras, champagne or cognac. I didn’t realize that they actually really are this tasteless! Looking at the reports of their personal extravagancies, one is inclined to believe the theory that the super rich really are lizard people wearing skin masks. Surely no human could be this prurient? But apparently they are.
  3. They’re all having affairs: Manafort, Gates, Hunter, they all had a bit going on on the side, and this was part of the reason they were up to their neck in campaign expense violations. Trump of course is most egregious in this regard, and the really cynically ironic thing is that the one person in this little coterie of corrupt fuckwits who appears to have been genuinely devoted to his wife, Broidy, was the one who took the public fall for Trump fucking Shera Bechard and impregnating her and paying her for an abortion. It’s also telling that even then – when these people are caught fucking someone not their wife – they won’t (or can’t) buy their way out of it with their own money, but need to use Russian money (or Broidy’s Emirati money). These people are dirty, soulless losers.
  4. They don’t believe a word of their politics: The Hunters’ indictment is particularly merciless reading on the topic of these peoples’ abject hypocrisy. They used campaign funds to pay for golf shorts[2] and passed it off as a donation of golf balls to a veterans’ organization; they bought haberdashery and pass it off as an event for teachers; they tried to use the navy as an excuse for an international trip and then when the navy wouldn’t comply they said “fuck the navy”. These people have absolutely zero respect for the politics they espouse. They’re traitors, liars, economic wreckers and leeches, and the only time they make a pretense of caring about the politics they supposedly believe in is when they’re trying to cover up illegal spending on their fucking bunny. It’s not unusual in politics to find people who are hypocrites to the cause they believe in, who don’t always toe in private the clear line they maintain in public, but these people obviously don’t give a flying fuck about any principles of any kind at all. They are empty, soulless consumers. The only reason they are Republicans is because – as Trump himself so memorably stated on national TV – Republicans are easy to fool.

I guess it’s reassuring in a sense to see all my prejudices about the tastes and peccadilloes of the super rich confirmed, but it’s also kind of disturbing that people could be such caricatures of themselves. What is less amusing and certainly less satisfying is the clear evidence that these lying fucks are traitors, economic wreckers, and arseholes of the worst kind. Once they’ve been thrown out of office in November I do not want the Democrats to spare them the rod. I want to see them all nailed to the wall for what they have done.

fn1: I can appreciate wanting to buy your rabbit a seat if you do. On an American airline it’ll die in cargo. And I sympathize with the problem of having to find accommodation for your pet when you’re on work travel … except this wasn’t work!

fn2: Seriously what is with these people’s obsession with golf? It’s fucking golf, people. They spend all their time publicly complaining about how the NFL is being ruined, but good luck finding even a cent of their expenses spent on an actual sport!

News continues to trickle out concerning the latest bullying scandal in American academia, on which I reported briefly in a previous post. Through the Lawyers, Guns and Money blog I found a link to this excellent Twitter thread on the damage done to the humanities by celebrity academics like Ronell. These celebrity academics don’t just exist in the humanities, and not just in the “literary theory” cul-de-sac of humanities. They also exist in the physical sciences (think of people like Dawkins and Davies), and they are also a thing in public and global health. In public and global health they are typically characterised by the following traits:

  • They build large teams of staff, who are dependent upon the celebrity academic for their positions
  • They have a flagship project or area of research that they completely dominate, making it hard for junior academics outside of their institution to make progress on that topic
  • They attract very large amounts of grant money, a lot of it “soft” money accrued through relationships with NGOs and non-academic institutions like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, AXA, the World Health Organization, and similar bodies
  • They have cozy relationships with editorial boards and chief editors, so that they get preferential treatment in journals like The Lancet, New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, etc
  • They attract a lot of applications from students and post-doctoral fellows, who often bring in their own funding in the form of scholarships and prestigious fellowships
  • They often have a media presence, writing commentary articles or having semi-regular invitational positions on local and national newspapers, in medical journals and on certain websites
  • They are on all the boards

This means that these celebrity academics are able to drive large amounts of research work in their field of expertise, which they often parlay into articles in journals that have high impact through friendly relationships with their colleagues on those journals, and they also often get invited into non-academic activities such as reports, inquiries, special seminars and workshops, and so on. Even where these celebrity academics are not bullies, and are known to treat their staff well and with respect, and to be good teachers and supervisors, this kind of celebrity academia has many negative effects on public health. Some of these include:

  • Their preeminence and grip on grant funding means that they effectively stifle the establishment of new voices in their chosen topic, which risks preventing new methods of doing things from being established, or allows shoddy and poorly developed work to become the mainstream
  • Their preferential treatment in major journals pushes other, higher quality work from unknown authors out of those journals, which both reduces the impact of better or newer work, and also prevents those authors from establishing a strong academic presence
  • Their preferential treatment in major journals enables them to avoid thorough peer review, enabling them to publish flawed work that really should be substantially revised or not published at all
  • The scale and dominance of the institution they build around themselves means that young academics working in the same topic inevitably learn to do things the way the celebrity academic does them, and when they move on to other institutions they bring those methods to those other institutions, slowly establishing methods, work practices, and professional behaviors that are not necessarily the best throughout academia
  • Their media presence enables them to launder and protect the reputation of their own work, and their involvement in academic boards and networks gives them a gatekeeper role that is disproportionate to that of other academics
  • Their importance protects them from criticism and safeguards them against institutional intrusion in their behavior, which is particularly bad if they are abusive or bullying, since junior staff cannot protest or complain

This is exactly what we are now learning happened to Reitman from his lawsuit – he tried to transfer his supervision to Yale but discovered the admissions officer there was a friend of his supervisor, he tried to complain to a provost who also turned out to be a friend of his supervisor, and he could not complain while a PhD student because of fear that his supervisor would destroy his job opportunities through her networks. We also see that Ronell (and friends of hers like Butler) have a disproportionate academic influence, which ensures that they maintain a cozy protection against any intrusion into their little literary theory bubble. Ronell’s books are reviewed (positively) by Butler, who then writes a letter defending Ronell from institutional consequences of her own poor behavior, which no doubt Butler knew about. There’s a video going around of a lecture in which Ronell’s weird behavior is basically an open joke, and in signing the letter some of the signatories basically admit that they knew Ronell’s behavior crossed a line but they saw it as acceptable (it was just her “style”). We even have one shameful theorist complaining that if she is punished, academics in this area will be restricted to behaving as “technocratic pedagogues”, because it is simply impossible for them to teach effectively without this kind of transgressive and bullying behavior.

One of the best ways to prevent this kind of thing is to prevent or limit the ascendance of the celebrity academic. But to do so will require a concerted effort across the institutions of academia, not just within a single university like NYU. Some things that need to happen to prevent celebrity academics getting too big for their boots:

  • Large national funding programs need to be restricted so that single academics cannot grab multiple pools of money and seize funding disproportionate to their role. This already happens in Japan, where the national grants from the Ministry of Education are restricted so that an academic can only have one or two
  • Private and government funds such as Ministry funding, and funding from organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, needs to be more transparently accessible from outside the academy, and also more objective and transparent in assessment – you shouldn’t be able to work up a large amount of money for your research group just by being able to go to the write cocktail party / hostess bar / art gallery – basically at every level, as much as possible, grant funding should be competitive and not based on who you know or how much money you’ve already got
  • Journals – and particular senior journal editors – should stay at arms’ length from academics, and journal processes should remain transparent, competitive and anonymous. It simply should not be possible – as often happens in the Lancet, for example – to stitch up a publication by sending an email to a senior editor who you had a chat with at an event a few weeks ago. No matter how many times you have published in a journal before, your next submission to the journal should be treated in substance and spirit as if it were your first ever submission
  • Journals need to make more space for critical responses to articles, rather than making stupid and restrictive rules on who and what can be published in response to an article. I have certainly experienced having a critical response to an article rejected on flimsy grounds that I’m pretty sure were based on a kneejerk response to criticism of a celebrity, and it’s very hard to publish critical responses at all in some journals. A better approach is that pioneered by the BMJ, which treats critical responses as a kind of comment thread, and elevates the best ones to the status of published Letters to the Editor – this insures more voices get to criticize the work, and everyone can see whose critiques were ignored
  • Institutions need to make their complaint processes much more transparent and easy to work with. Often it is the case that serious harassment cases – physical or sexual – are easy for students to complain about the smaller and more common complaints, like academic misconduct and bullying, are much more difficult to complain about. I think it is generally true that if an academic is disciplined early in their career for small infractions of basic rules on misconduct and bullying, they will be much, much less likely to risk major misbehavior later
  • Student complaints need to be handled in a timely manner that ensures that they are able to see resolution before their thesis defense or graduation, so they can change supervisors if necessary
  • Academic advisors should never be able to sit on their own student’s dissertation committee, or on the committees of their close friend and co-author’s students, since this gives them undue influence over the student’s graduation prospects and kills dead any chance of a complaint (I can’t believe this happens in some universities!)
  • The academic advisor’s permission should never be a requirement for submission. At the very least, if your relationship with your advisor goes pear-shaped, you should always be able to just tell them to fuck off, go off and do the work by yourself, and submit it to an independent committee for assessment

I think if these kinds of rules are followed it’s much harder for academics to become celebrities, and much harder for their celebrity status to become overpowering or to enable them to stifle other students’ careers. But a lot of these changes require action by editorial boards, trustees of non-profits and NGOs, and government bodies connected to specific topics (such as ministries of health, or departments responsible for art and culture). Until we see wholesale changes in the way that academics interact with editorial boards, grant committees, private organizations and government agencies, will not see any reduction in the power and influence of celebrity academics. In the short term this influence can be fatal for students and junior academics, but in the long term – as we have seen in literary theory, it appears – it can also drag down the diversity and quality of work in the whole discipline, as a couple of bullies and pigs come to dominate the entire discipline, ensuring that no one deviates from their own line of work and no one ever criticizes their increasingly weak and low quality work. Academia as a whole benefits from genuine competition, diversity of funders and fund recipients, spreading grant money widely and fairly, and maintaining rigorous standards of independence and academic objectivity in assessing work for publication. Celebrity academics weaken all of those processes, and bring the entire academy down.

A final note: I cannot believe that academics invite students alone to their houses, or (as in this case) invite themselves to their student’s houses. There is no legit reason to do this. Every university should tell its academics, from day one: if you invite a student alone to your house and they lodge a sexual harassment complaint against you, you’re on your own – we will believe them every time. Just don’t do it, under any circumstances. And they should tell students from day one: if your supervisor (or any academic) invites you alone to their house, report it immediately. It’s simply terrible behavior, and no good will ever come of it. Reading the report that this student lodged against his supervisor, it’s simply impossible to believe that she wasn’t up to no good, and simply impossible to accept that the university did not uphold his complaint of sexual harassment. He has now launched a lawsuit, so we can now see all the details of what happened to him and how he dealt with it, and it looks like a complete disaster for NYU and for the professor in question. If the university had disciplined this woman much earlier in her career for much lighter infractions; if it had a clear rule forbidding these one-on-one home-based “supervision” arrangements, or at least making clear that they are a sexual harassment death zone for profs; and if the university gave its senior academics a clear sense that they are not protected from such complaints, then this situation would never have arisen. There is no excuse for this kind of unprofessional behavior except “I knew I could get away with it.” And the academic world needs to work to ensure no professor can ever know they can get away with it, no matter how famous and special they are or think they are.

Recently I had the opportunity to watch three movies in quick succession: Solo, Death Wish and Pacific Rim: Uprising. Solo was kind of fun but overall these three movies were pretty ordinary, and none of them is really worth its own separate review. I thought I’d put reviews of all three in one post, as exemplars of how America’s cultural industries are falling apart before our eyes. It’s worth noting that all three of these movies are either remakes, sequels or part of a “franchise”, so there’s nothing truly original in any of them. In many ways they’re also movies that are designed to appeal, well, not even to the worst elements of our nature, but to the most banal elements of our nature. Is this how western civilization ends: not with a bang or a whimper, but a long drawn-out sigh of boredom?

Pacific Rim: Uprising

I want to start this review by pointing out that just a few years ago, when the Lord of the Rings, was first made (or was it the Hobbit? I forget and don’t care) a bunch of LoTR fanboys were ruing the fact that Guillermo del Toro didn’t get the gig as Director. Surely he, more than Jackson, would have been able to make these movies soar? Well now, having watched him royally fuck up two movies about giant robots fighting giant monsters in giant cities, are you still sad that he didn’t get to make a movie with dragons and elves? A man who can fuck up a formula as invincibly, trivially easy as giant robots would surely have made an absolute dogs breakfast of something as subtle and culturally significant as LoTR. Thank God Jackson pipped him to that one, because this movie – even more than the shit sandwich that was the first one – was an absolute disaster. The worst thing about it obviously is the two people operating the one machine, in the bullshit “neural mesh” setup, who despite being neurally enmeshed have to operate their stupid giant robot by physically doing whatever it does. Watching the scenes of the soldiers in the brainpod (or whatever stupid name it has) I could only think of those ‘90s comedy skits in which terribly earnest acting school students pretend to be trees or ducks or something. What a fucking joke. Don’t get me wrong, if some idiot paid me a million bucks (or a fraction thereof!) to pretend to be running inside a giant robot I would be all in on that shit, but let’s not pretend it’s a contribution to western civilization. God no, burn that crap down. Also is it just me or is there some new phenomenon in action movies, let’s call it jockburn, where the lead characters are first introduced into the mess hall/ bunk room/ shower room where the other soldiers eat/ reside / fuck and your heart sinks when you realize that you are now going to have to sit through several minutes of macho posturing that is obviously meant to be in the vein of Aliens, but you know before it starts that it isn’t going to come close? And then there is the related experience where the leader is about to make a big speech, and suddenly you know the big speech is coming and you’re going to have to sit through about 20-30 seconds of “stirring” speech about how everyone has to fight and die for glory / the glistening tear on the cheek of a golden child / a sack of French porn and you know it’s going to be a disappointing and shamelessly unselfconscious pile of cliches that will just make you squirm? What do we call that feeling? I think it’s an identifiable and common experience in modern action movies. Occasionally you get a good one (the one at the Gates of Mordor, the speech about taking chances in Rogue One) but mostly they’re just shit. And they aren’ t improved when, as in this movie, they refer to the speech in the previous movie (because that’s how low we have sunk) and try to pretend that this one won’t even be trying. Look, Guillermo (or whoever else squatted out this pile of shit), if your work is so bad that you know ahead of time that it isn’t going to compare to even the last steaming turd you dumped on us, please don’t insult us further by pointing out that you aren’t even phoning it in. Just fuck off home and don’t make this waste of pixels. Oh, and while you’re listening to tips from me, can you please please please drop the daddy issues? They weren’t constant and overwhelming in this movie like they were in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (thank the gods of shit movies that that arsehole had some trouble buried in his twitter feed! Now if we could just kill off the cast we can all go home happy!) but right at the peak of the movie, when they’re about to save the world, someone manages to make the resoundingly important point that the lead character is going to make daddy proud. Really? He’s going to risk his life saving the world and all those billions of people are going to be looking up at him as the dude who saved the world but his real single only concern is that his dead daddy will finally love him? He’s an adult, right? What is wrong with Americans and their daddy issues? Also what is wrong with the Chinese people in this movie? I can’t figure out if they’re meant to be the bad guys or patsies, if there’s a message about copying technology in there, or something else, but why did they have to be such arseholes? Also, when you choose to portray America’s current Big Trade Enemy as arseholes in an action movie, can I suggest that you perhaps go and check on how the Japanese were portrayed in the 1980s and ask yourself if perhaps, just perhaps, you’re just repeating a massive flyblown cliche? Because at this point in the cultural cycle of the west, any opportunity to do something original would be appreciated kthxbai. This movie also suffers from another weird problem of action movies that needs a name, perhaps something like self-referential SNAFU, in which there is a central problem or barrier that they have to overcome through some special means, but at some other point in the movie they immediately do exactly the thing they said they can’t do. In this case we’re told that you can’t make the giant robots (I refuse to call them Jaegers, fuck off) fly because there is no fuel that powerful, but in the very first action scene the stupidly named giant robot with the enormously stupid flail (fuck off already I cannot believe how stupid that flail is) jets out of the ocean and onto land using just the rockets in its feet which is exactly what they said these things can’t do. Also we’re told that they had to build these giant robots to fight the giant monsters because the giant monsters are invincible, presumably cannot be beaten with say a rail gun from space or a missile, but then their solution to the final massive, extra super powerful monster, is to drop a disabled giant robot on it from space. Now I don’t know how much these giant robots weigh but right now the Falcon Heavy rocket can put 64 tons of material in space, so it seems pretty easy and cheap to me to hoist say 600 tons of material into space, stick it all together, and drop it on your annoying giant monster. Why build stupid giant robots that need two terribly earnest method actors to neurally mesh (impossible – method actors don’t have brains) when you could just use your reusable rocket to build a makeshift rail gun at a fraction of the cost? This is the self-referential SNAFU I mentioned earlier. To be clear I don’t care if the pretext of the movie is that we need to build giant robots that can only be driven by method actors but I want the movie to stick to the pretext throughout. Failure to do so bursts me out of the bubble and just leaves me disappointed and feeling ripped off. Which is probably the best description for how this movie leaves you feeling. In conclusion: this movie was a joke of a reheated disaster, and if you can fuck up two movies about giant robots fighting giant monsters in giant cities, you should fold up your director’s chair and go home.

Death Wish

This movie is a straight remake which has the single redeeming feature of having Bruce Willis in it. Bruce Willis is a legend, and anything he touches is made better (although I note that he was not in either Pacific Rim movie and I think we all know why). I haven’t seen the original but I remember when I was a kid it was hugely controversial because of its ultra violent story and the perhaps morally neutral approach towards vigilantism. Now, 40 years later, as militias roam the landscape and Sasha Baron Cohen can convince American politicians to advertise gun self defense schools for four year olds, we can look back to that time of controversy as a purer, more moral era. Now we can watch as the movie-maker postures through the issue by having talk radio hosts debate whether vigilantism is right or wrong without ever making a decision one way or the other, because heaven knows it would be terrible for someone’s career if they made an actual moral judgment on something as grey and uncertain as whether vigilantism is okay. So it is that Bruce (let’s not waste our time pretending his character has any other name) wanders this morally free and pure space murdering random criminals and getting his own back on the people who refrigerated his wife. Unfortunately for the pretext of this movie, the dudes who refrigerated his wife didn’t really even want to, and they’re just small time criminals, and two of them didn’t really even come across as especially bullying, and we didn’t see their faces, so it’s really really hard to get any strong feeling of revenge when he murders them. In fact it seems pretty clear that two of the criminals, at least, were strong candidates for rehabilitation – they were clearly intending just to rob him, they wanted as little trouble as possible, they didn’t want to hurt anyone, they clearly knew that rape and murder are wrong and should not be done, and they were just trying to make a buck. This isn’t to say they were nice people or anything but here’s the thing: this is a vengeance movie. I absolutely love watching bullies get murdered, beaten up, humiliated and destroyed, it’s pretty much the only reason I am still sitting through Game of Thrones. But for my bullies to deserve brutal murder instead of say 10 years to life, they need to actually appeal to my baser instincts. They need to be real arseholes. Not participants in an armed robbery that went wrong. This is why the only really truly satisfying murder is the death of the Ice Cream Man, who steals children’s money when they walk to school and shoots them in the foot if they don’t pay up. His death – and the subsequent looting, essentially, of his still warm corpse by the residents of the block – was the only satisfying death in this bland flick. The deaths might have been slightly more appealing but there was this additional subtext in this movie that made it really hard to fully get behind our hero Bruce – America’s ridiculous and unsustainable levels of inequality, and rich people’s fear of what will happen when America’s poor decide to do something about it. Bruce is a doctor, he’s obviously super rich, and he works in a hospital – a US hospital. We all know that hospitals in the US are key drivers of inequality, and the doctors who work in them get rich working in institutions that refuse healthcare to people who can’t pay, and bankrupt people who come to them for healthcare with bullshit emergency services like charging $500 for an aspirin. So some poor people break into Bruce the emergency doctor’s house to steal some of his ill-gotten gains, and their theft goes wrong because they’re idiots, so they kill his wife, and then this man goes on a spree, murdering poor people across the city. Additionally, at one point he goes into a gun shop and a smily second amendment girl called “Bethany” tries to sell him some guns and makes it really really fucking clear that she doesn’t care who he is and will sell guns to anyone (though she makes the weak sauce excuse that she doesn’t sell them to criminals haha). This entire fucking movie wouldn’t happen if the gun shop was closed down, “Bethany” was put out of a job (sorry Beth!) and everyone got access to universal health coverage. Bruce wouldn’t have got robbed, nobody would have been able to shoot Bruce’s wife and daughter, and Bruce would be able to go home from his job satisfied that he had spent all day saving lives rather than worried deep down inside that he actually spends all day saving only wealthy lives. And we wouldn’t have to feel guilty about the (only very partial) thrill of watching a rich man hunt down and murder poor people for doing whatever they can to make ends meet in a world with no universal health coverage, no minimum wage, no gun laws and no sense. Now I guess someone is going to come on here and make some stupid point that I’m making excuses for murderers but I hardly need point out that anyone who defends Bruce is also making excuses for murderers. You can’t watch this movie and not make excuses for murderers (well, I guess you could tut!tut! at everything but where’s the fun in that). And if you live in Japan (as I do) you can be confident that nobody’s going to murder you for your watch, certainly not with a gun, and everyone can afford healthcare at Bruce’s swanky hospital, so Bruce’s riches are genuinely morally deserved, and he can be confident that his valet isn’t going to take a screenshot of his navi (except perhaps to steal his daughter’s underwear from the washing line). Call me a sad-arsed SJW if you will, but a movie where Bruce hunts down some people who brutally murdered his family for shits and giggles is slightly more engaging than a movie where Bruce the rich doctor hunts down and murders a bunch of poor people because they tried to rob his wife and daughter in a society where they can afford guns but can’t afford healthcare. (And don’t even get me started on how the cops are underfunded and overworked!) It’s not like these movies can’t be made! Korea makes awesome gangster movies, and Korea has gun control and universal health coverage. When a rich doctor goes on a murder spree in a Korean gangster movie I’m all in. Not so much when it’s against a backdrop of a crumbling empire with a huge inequality and gun problem, the contradictions of its own oligopolic order now so apparent that you simply can’t squint past them anymore. It steals some of the thrill, and it also makes the whole thing just … boring. In crime movie genre terms, making a boring revenge flick is like making a bad giant robot/monster movie. It should be impossible, but somehow whatever loser made this reboot managed to do it. Thanks for your efforts Bruce, but this wasn’t your best showing.

Solo: A star wars movie

This movie was actually fun! The train heist was a gas, and although the Mad Max elements were a bit obvious and overdone it was enjoyable watching the marauders having their fun. Han Solo was kind of forgettable and the less said about Amelia Clark’s acting the better, plus the betrayals and double-crossings were predictable and the bad guys were not exciting. But otherwise the movie kind of hung together, and although the whole thing in the maelstrom was sort of tedious bullshit, at least there was a tenuous effort at explaining the Kessel run, and given they took a short cut it made sense to refer to doing the kessel run in 12 parsecs (also I like that Han rounds it down and it actually took 13 parsecs, nice touch). That fixed a minor issue in the original movie that had always bothered me. Apparently – my friend tells me, because I won’t go into any cesspit of star wars fanboys – lots of people are pissed off with the director for fucking up a few parts of the original canon, because (spoiler alert!) at the end Darth Maul makes an appearance. Apparently the same fan boys who were pissed off that he died 12 years ago are now pissed off that he’s not dead, which doesn’t bother me at all because about the only thing that was good about the three prequels was Darth Maul’s fighting style (which I guess we won’t see him repeat since the stunt actor who did it must have retired). Also Jar Jar Binks, whose contribution to star wars lore by setting up a plausible theory that he was a Sith Lord is probably the only good cultural contribution of the three prequels. But I digress! One aspect of this movie that pissed me off was the way it implies Han started the rebellion by giving the hyperfuel to the tween girl in the groovy mask. In a universe of trillions of people over billions of planets, why does every single thing that affects the history of the universe have to hang on the actions of just four people? Can things be maybe slightly less incestuous? (And on a related note, the idea that Rey’s parents are nobodies is a ridiculous joke. There’s no way an American franchise is going to let that happen). So overall this movie was light, bearable fun. But I think it says something about Disney and modern American entertainment culture that a movie written by Lawrence Kasdan and directed by Ron Howard, set in a classic science fiction setting like this, would be just “light, bearable fun,” and that we are satisfied with this because at least he didn’t massively fuck it up.

Which brings me to my conclusion about these three documentaries on America’s cultural decline. What has happened to the production of cultural stuff in America that three movies set in three basically failsafe genres can be so shit that “bearably not fucked up” is our new standard of excellence? And why is it that they can’t make anything original anymore? Almost every action sci-fi now is a super hero movie from the same dumb universe, with no original thought put into any of them. I think the only original movie I have seen in the past three years was Atomic Blonde, and almost everything else has been either a remake, a fixture in an existing franchise or setting, or a sequel. What has happened in the past 30 years that the industry that produced Star Wars, Rambo, Aliens, Robocop, Last of the Mohicans, and that insanely cool Charles Bronson movie about the dude whose dog dies, cannot now produce a single original or interesting movie, and can’t make even half-decent movies in the genres and franchises it already has at its disposal? What’s going on in America now that what was once its powerhouse of cultural production has become so incredibly lame? And what will replace it?

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