Monthly Archives: January 2012

The irony of Hugo Cabret: the importance of cinema over child hunger

In honor of Hugo having garnered the most Academy Award nominations this year (11), here is my socialist rant about it.

TL; DR: Audiences have spent millions of dollars watching a multi-million dollar spectacle about a fictional orphan struggling with hunger while millions of real children struggle with hunger in real life.

A key component of Scorsese’s latest film, Hugo, is the destitute situation the title character finds himself in: orphaned, squatting in a train station, twice pushed into slave labor, pilfering croissants in the station café for food and avoiding detection so he won’t be shipped off to an orphanage. The movie never, of course, so much as touches on the systemic reasons behind this poverty, but that’s too much to be expected of a mainstream film. In that case, I suppose the film is to be applauded for making a case for mercy on those who are so poor they must steal for their sustenance, but while watching it I couldn’t help but wonder how much was spent on creating this romanticized depiction of poverty as opposed to actually feeding starving children.

Every film has this problem of opportunity cost, but Hugo’s subject matter renders its existence particularly ironic and insulting. Scorsese (and, presumably, the author of the book) treats the loss of silent films as more tragic than hunger, orphanages, and war, which are treated as necessities of the plot and as foils to the wonders of escapist cinema. It’s as if the creators of this film have concluded that since these problems can never be solved, all we can do is retreat into a fantasy land. The fact that this is a kid’s movie, and thus shouldn’t be expected to treat those things seriously, is besides the point. Every film contains implicit messages that deserve to be examined—perhaps especially if it’s a kid’s movie, given that children in the audience absorb these messages as fact, which serves to form their understanding of the world.

One could argue that the film’s depiction of a starving child will inspire people to donate money they wouldn’t have ordinarily, thus justifying the vast expenditures to make this film. But I highly doubt it. Unlike Slumdog Millionaire, which did result in a spike in donations, Hugo takes place not only in 1930s Paris—an era long-gone, whose problems we assume must have been surpassed as far as steam engines, at least for white people—but an ethereal, surreal version of it: one where children repair clockwork robots and gain entrée into the lives of famous filmmakers.

So how many children in Hugo’s situation could have been saved if the money that had gone toward them instead of the creation of a three-dimensional spectacle? The precise budget of the film has not been released, but according to the LA Times, it’s “under $150 million.” Meanwhile,  according to UNICEF, “Undernutrition contributes to five million deaths of children under five each year in developing countries.” Deaths. Not just so hungry they’re driven to steal croissants; there aren’t even any croissants within stealing distance. They just die.

With that amount of money, each now dead child could have had at least $25 in food. Given the fact that the average family in the developing world lives on $1.25 a day (and yes, that’s after conversion to purchasing power within the United States), I imagine $25 would go pretty far. If you reason that that still may not have saved their lives in the long run, then that’s like saying the station inspector would have been right to snatch back the croissant and milk Hugo stole and reason that he’d die soon anyway.

Oh, I know, this movie is a business venture just like any other, and everyone’s gotta make a living somehow, but that just passes the moral imperative onto the consumer. So far, people have spent, worldwide, around $53 million on seeing this spectacle. If every single one of those people had sacrificed a couple hours of amusement and donated the same amount to world hunger organizations, they could have saved actual children in the same exact predicament as the fictional character they would have watched.

Yes, I saw the movie myself, which makes me culpable, too. However, because I’m starting to feel that film and television are literally immoral in this world of mass starvation (an idea inspired by Peter Singer’s incredible must-read on the ethics of charity in The Life You Can Save), going forward, I may have to cut those things out of my life completely. And would that really be such a great loss? According to Hugo, it would be tragic. But humans survived just fine for thousands of years without film. In fact, for a great deal of our existence, the only form of story-telling was oral recitation (which, by the way, costs nothing to produce), and I doubt that modern humans are able to be happier than pre-historic hunter-gatherers due to access to motion pictures. And I’m sure that those in the anti-media backlash that has existed practically since the advent of the television would agree that I’d be better off getting outside, being with friends and family and reading books instead anyway.

Not according to Hugo, though. Hugo goes even beyond saying movies make you happy: it equates cinema with our dreams, with the pursuit of our very purpose in life. With that line of thinking, it becomes difficult and annoying to think about those real-life children starving out there instead. However, burying one’s head in escapism leads to the destruction of not just the dreams of children, but their very lives. The creators and spectators of this film, however, seem to think it was worth it.

(Btw, if you’re looking for a good charity to donate to, I highly recommend checking out Givewell.org, which analyzes charities in great depth to determine which the most effective are. The current #1 rated charity is Against Malaria Founation.)

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My mom, the anarchist

In an effort to combat my own “myside bias”, I decided that I should probably talk politics with a centrist (not a conservative; I figured that would be too unrealistic a jump to expect from myself) with a really open mind, for them to explain why they were a centrist to see if perhaps my socialist ideas were in fact misguided. I even posted a request for such a thing on Craigslist. I got three responses:

1. “So how do you feel about capitalism?”

I was like, ?????? I explained what socialists typically think of capitalism for his edification, but he was obviously incapable of providing the rigorous intellectual conversation I was looking for.

2. “Why are you trying to label people’s ideas, blah blah.”

Some people really have issues with “labels.” They sound like commitment-phobic “non-boyfriends” to me. Clearly, I would not get along with this person.

3. “You are looking for the impossible. Centrists are centrists because they’re either unintelligent or misinformed.”

I wrote back that I knew for in fact that this was not the case, since I knew several “passionately” centrist people who were very intelligent, and my mom was one of them. The only reason I hadn’t asked them to do this little interview with was because the friends had moved away and I already burdened my mom so much with my political rants that I thought I’d give her a break on this one.

But after the disappointing responses to my Craigslist post (I know, big surprise), I decided that I’d have to subject my mom to my questioning after all. I reasoned that, actually, I should have done a little more listening and a little less ranting while talking politics with her anyway, and this would be a great start. So I told her the whole saga.

She seemed a little wary, weary of my political discussions. I was like, “I’ll just ask you one question, I promise.”

Her: Okay.

Me: So why do you like capitalism?

Her: Well, I don’t know any other way, really.

Oh great, I thought. Maybe Craigslist guy #3 was actually right after all.

Her: You know what I think would be ideal? How the Native Americans lived. Everyone was provided before, but if someone didn’t want to go hunting that day, they just didn’t go hunting, women were pretty much just as respected as the men. I don’t know how it would work in modern society, but…

Me: …

Me: Mom, those were basically anarchist socialist societies.

Her: Hm.

Noam Chomsky once said that “Most people are anarchists.” I’m starting to wonder if he might actually be right.

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An open letter to my representatives re: SOPA and PIPA

Please feel free to use this to send to your representatives yourself! (Just remember to use PIPA for your Senators and SOPA for your congressmembers.)

***

As one of your constituents, I am adamantly opposed to PIPA/SOPA and urge you at least not to support it and ideally to do everything you can to stop it completely.

Here are a few quotes that explain the grave implications of this legislation and why so many of your constituents are against it:

“If enacted, either of these bills will create an environment of tremendous fear and uncertainty for technological innovation, and seriously harm the credibility of the United States in its role as a steward of key Internet infrastructure.”

https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2011/12/internet-inventors-warn-against-sopa-and-pipa

“We’re often told that we shouldn’t worry so much because it’s only targeted at “rogue sites” and thus wouldn’t impact any legitimate sites…. And yet, as we’ve seen with the list of “pirate” sites that GroupM put together with help from the music and movie industries, their definition of a “pirate” site is expansive in the extreme. It included the Internet Archive, Vimeo, Soundcloud and a ton of blogs and news sites, including the famed Vibe magazine.

“…On Monster Cable’s own list of ‘rogue sites,’ eBay and Craigslist top the list…. Retailing giant Costco is on the list. As is Sears. There’s also PriceGrabber and ComputerShopper — popular legitimate sites for comparison shopping and computer purchases. These are not ‘rogue sites.'”

http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20111005/10082416208/monster-cable-claims-ebay-craigslist-costco-sears-are-rogue-sites.shtml

In the fight against piracy–both in intellectual property and stolen goods–this bill brings a nuclear weapon to a knife fight. It completely violates due process by shutting down entire sites with no questions asked and will destroy the perfectly innocent freedoms of the internet.

Please stop this horrific legislation from moving forward.

Thank you,
Jack Lindstrom

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When conservatives attack: how to deal with political abuse

In the Twitter/blogo/Facebook-sphere, every now and then we come across an angry conservative who dishes out not just every fallacious propaganda technique in the book, having been well schooled through years of watching Fox News, but flat-out insults.

It can be very hard, if not impossible, to resist the impulse to engage with them. Adrenaline is fired into our system; we feel compelled to defend ourselves. If you don’t engage, sometimes they take that as a victory and trumpet that you’re “running from the truth.” If you do engage, they twist your argument around Bill O’Reilly style and pronounce a victory anyway. You lose either way. So what’s the best course to take?

When I was phone-banking for Obama, the staff advised us to just move on if we find ourselves on the line with a conservative: that our energy was better spent on lukewarm supporters or people on the fence. However, this was during the crunch-time of a campaign; is there no hope of changing people over the long term?

To me, the question isn’t about the possibility of change or not. I see nothing wrong, for instance, in a healthy debate with a William F. Buckley-like pen pal, even if both of you walk away unchanged. You may come away with a greater understanding of both his and your own arguments, or at the very least, it might just be an entertaining, challenging exchange.

But when the other person comes out swinging, it’s a different issue. There’s no good reason to subject yourself to abuse. It will only hurt. There is no way to change this person—either their political views or their behavior, no matter how patient or ingenius you are. From what I can tell, these types seem to be prime candidates for a borderline personality disorder diagnosis due to their lack of sympathy and manipulativeness, and any medical professional will tell you that the only way to deal with these people to get the fuck away. Block them immediately and don’t give into the temptation to lay into them—thus becoming one of them and getting locked in an eternal battle that you will never win.

One could argue that engaging them is not for their sake, but for that of your audience, who may include those who are on the fence and whom you could win over. I guess you’ll have to weigh for yourself whether slim chance is worth the mental and emotional wreckage. To me, it’s not.

More likely, the main reason you feel tempted to engage them, even at the risk of emotional fall-out, is the “political junkie” effect:  reward circuits in the brain that are activated when making political counter-arguments “overlap substantially with those activated when drug addicts get their ‘fix.’” Undergoing a great amount of pain in order to get one’s fix sounds an awful lot like those rats in that experiment who crossed highly electrified panels to hit the button that induced pleasure in their brains. Don’t be like those rats. It isn’t worth it. It’s a bunch of sturm und drang without effecting any actual political change.

It may hurt to “lose” by fleeing the argument, but you haven’t lost at all, of course. If the feeling of having “lost” persists, see it as a lesson in humility. “Give” them the win. You’ll find you haven’t lost anything in doing so. You may even feel a bit generous.

If you keep hearing their invectives echoing in your head and maybe even start to believe them (a classic sign of having encountered someone with borderline), think of yourself as a psychiatrist with a mental patient who can’t help their vicious outbursts. Just as a psychiatrist wouldn’t take seriously any of the harangues directed at them by their patients, you have no need to take any of those from your encounter seriously.

And lastly, pray for them. You don’t have to believe in god for this; in Buddhism, it’s called metta meditation, whereby you just stir up feelings of loving-kindness in yourself towards that person. And I don’t mean that you should pray for them to “see the light;” pray for their well-being. They’re human just like you, with susceptibility to illness, death, and all sorts of struggles. After all, they’re probably in the 99%, too. They’re sick and need help (the fact that people with those disorders are some of the least likely to seek treatment, and when they do, it’s rarely effective is besides the point). These people spend much of their lives consumed in anger, and anger is painful; have compassion for their being continually caught up in that turmoil. Humanize them, in counter to their having demonized you. It may be difficult at first, but you should soon find that it acts as a soothing antidote to the adrenaline that the exchange has sent coursing through you.

You will now have the time and energy to get to more important and effective activist work.

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It could happen to you: why we must stop indefinite detention

Last Saturday, two accounts from former Guantanamo detainees came out in the New York Times, one after five years, the other seven. They are horrifying stories, in which these two innocent men are detained for little reason, interrogated, beaten and tortured.

Although Obama banned waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation” techniques shortly after he assumed office in 2009, not only has indefinite detention remained in force for non-citizens—Obama signed its extension to American citizens into law. (I agree that the law should apply equally to citizens and non-citizens—God didn’t grant more “God-given rights” to Americans than to everyone else—but this isn’t exactly what I had in mind.)

Although I feel that compassion alone should be enough for us to act against indefinite detention (and it is for some, as evinced in the many protests against Guantanamo over the years), unfortunately, it’s clearly not typically strong enough a motivator for most people, or Guantanamo would have been closed long ago. It’s only human; we’re wired to act primarily in our own best interests. We may feel that what’s happening in Guantanamo is unfortunate, but we’re not going to take a day off work to go to a protest against it or call our representatives; that would be boring/pointless/a pain in the ass. Others actually support indefinite detention (and even “enhanced interrogation”) as an unfortunate necessity in the war against terrorism. As disparate as the ideals of these two camps are, they have something in common: they are not taking seriously the real possibility that it could happen to them.

“No, no,” you might think. “I’m not even close to being suspected of being a terrorist. I’m white, after all, and an upstanding pillar of the community.”

John Walker Lindh was white. So was Timothy McVeigh. Racial profiling is, of course, going on in terrorist investigations, but don’t think that just because you’re white, you get a free pass.

Moreover, the definition of terrorism is expanding. Under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, the label of “terrorism” was expanded not just to animal activists who blow up laboratories, but even to those who merely sneak into places to videotape abused animals.

“So this is just a concern for crazy, tree-hugging lefties, then,” you say. “I would never be in an animal rights group, so what do I care?” Well, how easy would it be to expand this to pro-life groups? They’ve blown up abortion clinics before; what’s to stop the government from calling any non-violent civil disobedience they may participate in terrorism, too? The AETA sets a dangerous precedent: now the government can declare your group a terrorist organization (or, even if they don’t use that exact word, to apply the same laws to you). Why would we want to leave the system open to that possibility?

“But I’m completely politically apathetic!” you say. “I’m sure I’ll never be involved in any political organization!” Well, that’s another problem entirely. Moreover, as the accounts from the former Guantanamo prisoners make clear, it takes precious little to arouse their suspicion, so even you are not safe.

Is this fear-mongering? In a way, yes, but only to the extent one would engage in while negotiating a contract. You don’t draft a contract with the assumption that the other party will always do right by you. You have to take into account every possible way they could screw you over and make all the necessary precautions. The making of laws is no different. The risk of not doing so—such as your losing years of your life for absolutely no reason—is too great.

What might the necessary precautions be in this case? Maybe we need to call for the elimination of the entire Suspension Clause (which allows the writ of habeas corpus to be suspended “when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it”). Or maybe we just need stricter definitions of all the terms of the Suspension Clause so that Congress cannot take advantage of it by saying that the threat of terrorism is never-ending, thereby putting habeas corpus itself into indefinite detainment.

Unfortunately, even a threat to oneself is often not enough to motivate people into action against it. That is, after all, why many people don’t save for retirement or prepare for natural disasters (or fight climate change). It’s another unfortunate quirk of human nature; we’re primarily wired to “live in the moment.” The whole “frog in slowly heated water” or “First they came for the Jews, but I did nothing” thing has become so familiar it’s practically lost all meaning.

However, luckily, we also have a certain amount of logic to supplement or, in some cases, counter our natural drives, and we have the laws and retirement funds to prove it. We must take action—and I don’t mean signing an internet petition; I mean calling your representatives or protesting in the streets—to give the prisoners of Guantanamo a fair trial, reverse NDAA and AETA and even write new legislation to ensure that such things can never happen again.

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The ethics of grocery shopping; or, why I went to the Occupy Los Angeles General Assembly

TL; DR: I got so frustrated over trying to decide whether I should go to Ralphs or my local coop that I went to the Occupy LA General Assembly instead.

I spent half an hour debating with myself over whether I should buy groceries at Ralphs or the Santa Monica Coop. It’s much more complicated than it sounds; each one has moral and tangible implications, and if you want to “be the change you wish to see in the world,” these implications are important.

I literally wrote out the pros and cons. I know, I sound like a ludicrous tree-hugging, bleeding-heart liberal Rush Limbaugh and his ilk make fun of. But if compassion and long-term thinking makes you a ludicrous, tree-hugging, bleeding-heart liberal, then SIGN ME UP.

What it came down to was that what I wanted—decent labor conditions and no insane executive salaries—was the longest drive away and the most expensive. I don’t begrudge paying more for good labor conditions and organic and fair-trade products: if all I did was cater to my bottom line with absolutely no consideration of other factors, I’d be no better than CEOs and shareholders who do the same. But the more I spend on my own groceries, the less I have to spend on charity (my god, I’m starting to sound like a parody of myself), and the idea of spending more than I have to on groceries just smacks of over-privilege to me.

Ralphs employees are in a union, but that apparently hasn’t helped them get pay and treatment comparable to those at, say, Trader Joe’s. (I know these websites aren’t exactly scientific surveys, and you might say, hey, Ralph’s’s average rating is labeled “OK”, so to get a basis of comparison, I checked out Starbucks’ average since I worked there for about a year. Starbucks’s rating is 3.5 out of 5, while Ralph’s is 2.6. I thought, my god, if working at Starbucks was hell on earth, what is it like working at Ralphs??

I was unable to find corresponding labor info on the Coop online, but it’s at least a consumer-owned cooperative rather than a mega-corporation whose CEO is raking in over $10 million a year, like Ralph’s.

I could have driven the extra miles to the coop, but that would have meant burning fossil fuels, which causes multiple problems we’re already very familiar with. I could have taken the bus, but that would have meant like an hour-long slog—each way—just to go to the grocery store.

A capitalist would argue that my desire to simply walk to Ralphs is a perfect example of the triumph of the free market: as relatively inexpensive and the most convenient choice, of course I  want to shop there. But the fact that its CEO is making millions off the beleaguered backs of his minions—regardless of how much that may benefit his customers—is not a triumph. It’s a travesty. In a dirty fight, of course the biggest cheater wins.

As I debated and debated the wisest course in this conundrum, it finally occurred to me that I shouldn’t have this problem in the first place. Good labor conditions should be ubiquitous; I shouldn’t have to debate over whether I should encourage the subjugation of my fellow human beings to low pay and cruel management or contribute to the destruction of our planet.

I realized that I really had no choice. Each choice was bad. The only logical course of action was to fight for a world where one of my alternatives was actually good.

So I didn’t go shopping. I went to the GA.

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