She’s a robot.  You get that, right? (Image via IMDb)

So, Ghost in the Shell has been something of a disaster at the box office. Which is too bad, because as I said in my full review, it’s one of the better sci-fi movies I’ve seen in recent years.

A big problem has been heavy criticism of the decision to cast Scarlett Johansson as the main character.  The argument is that they should have gotten a Japanese actress to play the role, since the character is Japanese.

[Warning–I’m about to spoil a few plot points, so proceed with caution.]

But the thing is, the whole premise of the movie is that a sinister robotics corporation took the brain of a woman named Motoko Kusanagi and placed it inside an artificial body. (And re-named her “Mira Killian”.)  We only see Kusanagi’s human body in a brief flashback, and her features are difficult to discern in the scene.  Johansson just plays the artificial machine body in which Kusanagi’s brain is housed.

And this serves a dramatic purpose in the film: in the scene where Kusanagi in her mechanical body is reunited with her mother, the fact that they no longer have any resemblance makes the scene very poignant.  Even though she has her memories back, it underscores that something has been permanently taken away from them by the operation.

In addition, Johansson’s performance throughout the film was fine. So the whole controversy is really misguided–I suspect a lot of the people talking about it didn’t see the movie or even know the plot.

ballad of black tomThis is a little unorthodox: Before I start my review of this novella (short version: it’s very good), I first need to discuss H.P. Lovecraft’s story The Horror at Red Hook, upon which it is partly based. Spoilers for both are ahead, obviously.

Red Hook is H.P. Lovecraft’s work in microcosm; showing both his best–his tremendous talent for creating a chilling weird story–and his worst–his extreme and vicious racism. It’s both one of my favorite Lovecraft stories for its plot and its atmosphere, and also one I hate the most for the way he despises all the non-WASPs at every opportunity.

The plot follows police detective Malone, who is investigating the suspicious activities of a wealthy and mysterious old man, Robert Suydam. Suydam purchases tenement buildings in the immigrant district of Red Hook, New York.

As is often the case in Lovecraft stories, the foreigners populating Red Hook are depicted as sinister, inhuman figures, controlled by the corrupted “Aryan”, Suydam. (Even the bad whites still outrank the non-whites, in Lovecraft’s world.)

Malone’s investigations of Suydam leads him to join the police in a raid of the tenement buildings, where they stumble upon inconceivable cosmic horror that nearly drives them mad. (For those unfamiliar with his work, this is the underlying concept of all “Lovecraftian” horror.)

The denouement consists of people thinking the menace is over when the buildings collapse in the police raid, but Malone, one of the few survivors, knows better; and evil foreigners in Red Hook are still heard murmuring diabolical chants.

I love the atmosphere and pacing of Red Hook–Lovecraft did a good job insinuating  occult machinations to create a powerful sense of dread. Malone is also one of his most complex and carefully-drawn protagonists. (Admittedly, that’s not saying much–more on this later.)

But I loathe calling it one of my favorite Lovecraft stories, simply because of the many paragraphs just dripping with violent racial hatred.

This is the issue LaValle’s novella addresses. The first half of The Ballad of Black Tom is told from the perspective of Charles Thomas Tester, a black man in New York who hustles to support himself and his father.

Tester is tasked with delivering a book of magic to a mysterious woman in Queens, Ma Att. This sets off a chain of events that includes a run-in with Detective Malone and his associate, an ignorant officer named Howard. Both Malone and especially Howard treat Tester with extreme racism and cruelty.

Additionally, Tester also encounters Robert Suydam, who hires him to play his guitar at one of the gatherings at his mansion. Though Tester senses something odd about the old man, he cannot refuse the pay to support himself and his father.

When Tester goes to the mansion, Suydam speaks to him of “the Outside”–meaning, essentially, other dimensions–and demonstrates his ability to move the house at will through space and time while a shocked and frightened Tester plays his guitar.

(While most of the story and characters are derived from Red Hook, this particular scene had shades of The Music of Erich Zann–one of Lovecraft’s best stories. I don’t know if this was deliberate or not, but I loved it.)

Suydam concludes by speaking of “The Sleeping King”–it is not clear to Tester what this means, but all the Lovecraft aficionados will know. In a panic, Tester tries to flee, but opens the door only to see Detective Malone standing in a completely different room than the one that should have been on the other side. Suydam’s manipulation of space and time at work.

Ultimately, Tester is allowed to go home with his pay, only to find that Howard has murdered his father. The policeman saw him with a guitar, which he claims to have mistaken for a rifle, and shot him dozens of times. Malone backs up Howard’s story, and they leave Tester broken and furious. This drives him to work with Suydam.

The second half of the story is told from Malone’s perspective. He learns that Suydam is taking over tenement buildings, and that he has a new lieutenant–a man called “Black Tom”.

Malone then returns to Ma Att’s house to track down the mysterious book. When he arrives, Ma Att’s house has vanished–a witness reports that it was seemingly through the supernatural power of a man matching the description of “Black Tom”.

Terrified by the power Tom and Suydam apparently possess, Malone quickly organizes a raid on Suydam’s buildings.  Being well-versed in the occult, he is able to find a hidden passage to a secret chamber that the other police miss, and there he confronts Suydam and Black Tom.

LaValle shows us more explicit horrors than Lovecraft ever would, but the real difference between the climax of Black Tom and Red Hook is that the former balances cosmic horror with personal motivation–LaValle never loses sight of what draws Tom (or Suydam, or Malone), to the weird and the sinister. In the final chapter, Tom makes it clear it was the cruel racism he experienced that drove him to become a monster.

Lovecraft rarely bothered to explore motivations. It was a deliberate artistic choice–he said in some of his letters that human concerns bored him, and so he preferred to focus on the horror of cosmic indifference.  That’s a legitimate storytelling decision; and many of Lovecraft’s successors have gone too far the other way, and overemphasize human emotions, to the point where it dilutes the cosmic horror. (Even the great Stephen King is sometimes guilty of this.)

LaValle gets the balance just about right, in my opinion.  The characters are human enough that we are interested in them, but the cosmic horrors are bizarre enough that we never lose that “dread of outer, unknown forces”, to quote Lovecraft himself.

I bought this book expecting it to be a “critique-by-way-of-story” of Lovecraft’s work and attitudes. And it certainly was that, but what I frankly did not expect was that it would also be a cracking good weird tale in its own right. Good cosmic horror is rare, and good cosmic horror balanced with other genres and techniques is even rarer.  As such, I highly recommend The Ballad of Black Tom to fans of the genre.

I heard an interesting program last week on This American Life about Forrest Carter.  The only work of his I was at all familiar with was the movie The Outlaw Josey Wales, starring Clint Eastwood. Carter wrote the novel that it was based on.  I haven’t read the book, but I remember that the movie featured a trite “Wise Old Native American” type of character, who was a companion to the aforementioned outlaw, a man whose house and family get destroyed by Federal troops, prompting him to join the Confederacy.

Carter also wrote a book called The Education of Little Tree, a purportedly autobiographical account of his upbringing by his Cherokee grandparents. It was a hoax, however; the guy’s real name was Asa Earl Carter, and he had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. He was also a speech writer for the pro-segregation Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, allegedly writing the famous line of Wallace’s: “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” He had not been raised by any Cherokee grandparents, and had no immediate Cherokee ancestry.

What’s weird is that for a long time, Little Tree was accepted and beloved by many people. Although his deception was noticed by some in the late 1970s, most people didn’t find out about it until 1991.  (There’s something that could only happen before the internet.) And during this time, the book was apparently considered uplifting and inspirational by a lot of open-minded, New-Age types, who liked its environmentalist message.  (So I’ve heard–I haven’t read the book myself yet.)

What I can’t quite tell–and maybe no one can–is what exactly Carter’s motivation was in all this.  Did he just think it was funny to have people going around reading a book written by a white supremacist?  Did he come to have a change of heart in his later years, and become more open-minded?  Was he just crazy and came to delude himself into believing his own fabricated history of his life?

Or was it just that his Confederate nostalgia made him sympathetic to the Native Americans simply because they were also in opposition to the Federal troops, just as the Confederates were?  No matter how you look at it, it is quite a bizarre story.

Counter-factual history novels almost always seem better in theory than in practice.  They always sound interesting at first, but too often they end up feeling very contrived and ham-handed, at least in my experience.

In any event, there is one entitled Dominion by C.J. Sansom, about an alternate history wherein Britain and Nazi Germany are allied.  I have not read it.  I have only heard about it because of Peter Hitchens’s column addressing the book’s controversial portrayal of Enoch Powell. If you don’t know who Enoch Powell was in real life, the short answer is that he was a British politician who got a reputation as a racist because in 1968 he said:

A week or two ago I fell into conversation with a constituent, a middle-aged, quite ordinary working man employed in one of our nationalised industries. After a sentence or two about the weather, he suddenly said: “If I had the money to go, I wouldn’t stay in this country.” I made some deprecatory reply to the effect that even this government wouldn’t last for ever; but he took no notice, and continued: “I have three children, all of them been through grammar school and two of them married now, with family. I shan’t be satisfied till I have seen them all settled overseas. In this country in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.”

I can already hear the chorus of execration. How dare I say such a horrible thing? How dare I stir up trouble and inflame feelings by repeating such a conversation? The answer is that I do not have the right not to do so. Here is a decent, ordinary fellow Englishman, who in broad daylight in my own town says to me, his Member of Parliament, that his country will not be worth living in for his children. I simply do not have the right to shrug my shoulders and think about something else…

The most famous part of the speech is his conclusion:

As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood”. That tragic and intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror on the other side of the Atlantic but which there is interwoven with the history and existence of the States itself, is coming upon us here by our own volition and our own neglect. Indeed, it has all but come. In numerical terms, it will be of American proportions long before the end of the century. Only resolute and urgent action will avert it even now. Whether there will be the public will to demand and obtain that action, I do not know. All I know is that to see, and not to speak, would be the great betrayal.

I don’t know if he was a racist or not, but I think on the evidence of that speech, we can safely say that he had an intense dislike of immigrants.

So, that’s real-life Enoch Powell for you.  Meanwhile, in this book Dominion, Powell is portrayed as very friendly to the Nazi-government that fictional Britain is allied with.   Peter Hitchens–though not really a Powell fan–doesn’t like this one bit, writing:

Powell was one of the first to volunteer for war in 1939. He was , as it happens, deeply opposed to the policy of ‘appeasement’ .  It is infantile leftism to imagine that there was anything in common between his conservative opinions and the exterminationist Judophobia of the German National Socialists. In fact, I think it typical of the unthinking modern Left, that they cannot see the difference, and indeed do not want to see it.

Well, now this is kind of an interesting question.  If we conclude that Powell was an ardent nationalist, who opposed foreigners mixing with the native population, I think it is fair to say there is something in common with the ardent nationalism and protection of German soil that characterized the Nazi party.  You could say they are not the exactly same thing, and that Powell would never have gone to the same violent and evil lengths in service of his views, and by all appearances this is true.  But still, there is something in common.

But again, this in itself proves nothing.  The Nazis also wore uniforms and had weapons, thus giving them “something in common” with every other military in the world.  This does not automatically mean that they are all the same thing.

In his book Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War, Patrick J. Buchanan wrote:

By its nature, nationalism, especially a virulent strain like Nazism, is difficult to export. When Britain went to war, Oswald Mosley, the head of the British Union of Fascists, volunteered at once to fight for Britain. [p.346]

Exactly.  Fanatical nationalists will ultimately end up fighting against any foreign influence, including attacks by other fanatical nationalists.  (Mosley, by the way, also is apparently in Dominion, also as a pro-Nazi.) You may disagree, but Buchanan seems like a good person to consult about this, since he and Powell seem, based on their writings, to be almost of one mind on the immigration issue.

So, Hitchens is probably right, although not in the way he thinks. A nationalist like Powell would naturally have fought the Nazis–after all, they were foreigners!  This is the thing about nationalists: not only do they fight other people who are not nationalists, they also frequently end up fighting each other as well.

In addition to the other points I made in this post, I should add that it’s not in fact true that lower-class whites are depicted as the sole source of racism in To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s true that the Ewells are the most egregious example, but really everyone except Atticus Finch “goes along” with racism. Even educated people, such as the Judge, are going along with the racist system, even if they do have some feeling that they ought not to.

That’s sort of a major point of the book, actually, and I’m surprised how many people miss it.

Via Ta-Nehisi Coates, a review of the film The Help, which in passing says something with which I strongly disagree. The reviewer, Patricia A. Turner, writes:

“Jim Crow segregation survived long into the 20th century because it was kept alive by white Southerners with value systems and personalities we would applaud. It’s the fallacy of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a movie that never fails to move me but that advances a troubling falsehood: the notion that well-educated Christian whites were somehow victimized by white trash and forced to live within a social system that exploited and denigrated its black citizens, and that the privileged white upper class was somehow held hostage to these struggling individuals.”

This is an interesting, and typically overly class-focused, charge to level at To Kill a Mockingbird–both the film and the book–and I have to say that, especially in the latter case, I disagree with it. First of all, while it is a stereotype, I suspect it was true that those who had received an education from the schools–which were largely established by the North during Reconstruction–would be more likely to have more liberal views on race,  and those who didn’t–like the Ewells in the novel–would be less likely to.

Moreover, it is believable that the lower-class whites would be more likely to have to resort to racism at that time. I hate to keep quoting Paul Graham all the time, but once again, he put it very well:

“To launch a taboo, a group has to be poised halfway between weakness and power. A confident group doesn’t need taboos to protect it. It’s not considered improper to make disparaging remarks about Americans, or the English. And yet a group has to be powerful enough to enforce a taboo.”

This offhand comment in Turner’s review is symptomatic of an increase in hostility towards not only the film adaptation, which I suppose is reasonable, but also towards Harper Lee’s excellent book itself in recent years. About a year ago, the Wall Street Journal published a critique of it by Allen Barra, in which he criticized the book for being too simplistic. Barra claims–correctly, in my view–that “[i]n all great novels there is some quality of moral ambiguity,” but then goes on to say that “[t]here is no ambiguity in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird'”. However, Barra does make one interesting point when he compares the character of Atticus Finch to the portrayal of Sir Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons.

Barra’s choice to make this comparison is interesting to me, first because I love both To Kill a Mockingbird and A Man for All Seasons, and second because it sets up an interesting compare and contrast exercise. Take, for instance, my favorite exchange from Bolt’s play, when Roper is demanding that More have someone arrested and More refuses:

 “ROPER: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!

MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? 

ROPER: I’d cut down every law in England to do that! 

MORE: Oh? And when the last law was down and the Devil turned round on you–where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast–man’s laws, not God’s–and if you cut them down–and you’re just the man to do it–d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law for my own safety’s sake.”

Compare the philosophy espoused here by More with the final scene of To Kill a Mockingbird. The sheriff says he’ll do exactly what Roper would do: ignore the law to see what he considers “Justice” done, despite Atticus’s hesitation. Who is right?

Both Atticus and More are what D&D players call “lawful good”.  And both of them pay for it; Atticus’s children get attacked by Ewell, and it is only by the actions of Boo Radley that they are saved. Radley and the sheriff, not Atticus, are the ones who ultimately save the day. In A Man for All Seasons, More pays with his own life for his insistence on adhering to both his conscience and the law.

You can can look at them as exemplary, flawless heroes–or you can look at them as naive, holier-than-thou types who cause needless grief to their loved ones because of their own righteousness. The point is, there’s more moral complexity here than some people realize.  

Having apparently gotten bored of attacking Woodrow Wilson–or perhaps surprised by Wilson’s unresponsiveness–Glenn Beck has decided to turn his attention to George Soros, a wealthy businessman who funds various left-leaning activism groups.

Beck’s much-hyped two-part report supposedly “reveals” that Soros has a five-step plan for destroying countries. It is as follows, in Beck’s own words with my comments in [brackets]:

  1. “Form a shadow government using humanitarian aid as cover.”
  2. “Control the airwaves. Fund existing radio and TV outlets and take control over them or start your own outlets.” [Beck apparently believes that funding Media Matters, NPR and Huffington Post constitutes “controlling the airwaves”.]
  3. “Destabilize the state, weaken the government and build an anti-government kind of feeling in this country. You exploit an economic crisis or take advantage of existing crisis — pressure from the top and the bottom. This will allow you to weaken the government and build anti- government public sentiment.” [An old saying about pots and kettles occurs to me.]
  4. “You provoke an election crisis. You wait for an election. And during the election, you cry voter fraud.”
  5. “Take power. You stage massive demonstrations, civil disobedience, sit-ins, general strike, you encourage activism. You promote voter fraud and tell followers what to do through your radio and television stations.”

The first thing one can do with this is to ask just how much of it describes what the Conservatives do, but apart from that there is also the fact that all the other governments Soros has taken on in the past have been communist governments. That Beck, the man who fears that President Obama is a Marxist, conveniently  fails to mention that reveals–as if there were any revealing to be done–the dishonest nature of his whole operation.

Most of the criticism of Beck’s piece, however, has revolved around allegations that it is anti-semitic. Beck’s use of words such as “puppet-master” and  “blood sucker” to describe Soros, they say, call to mind Nazi propaganda.

The terminology is similar, there’s no doubt, as is the unbelievable and convoluted conspiracy theory. Still, it must be admitted that Beck never said Soros did the things Beck alleges because he is Jewish. Beck’s story is one of a supposedly evil man who happens to be Jewish, and I never felt like Beck was trying to insinuate anything else.

As Beck himself pointed out at the outset of his show, he [Beck] is a more hard-line supporter of Israel than is George Soros himself. For once, I think he’s not lying; this does indeed seem to me to argue against the charge that Beck is anti-semitic. Indeed, the vast majority of Conservatives/Republicans are fervent supporters of Israel, and more to the point, hard-line opponents of the Palestinians. There are exceptions, such as Pat Buchanan, but for the most part this is the case. So, why would Beck even want to encourage anti-Jewish feeling among his Conservative viewers? It appears to be inconsistent with practically everything else that goes on on Fox.

(One possible explanation is that Beck really is as insane as he acts. However, I doubt this because it’s hard to imagine he would even show up at the studio reliably were that the case.)

Frankly, I think that Beck’s problem with Soros isn’t that he’s Jewish, it’s that he funds Democratic-leaning stuff, and Democrats, of whatever religion, ethnicity, sex, and so forth, are viewed by Beck and most of the Fox news crowd as illegitimate, evil and generally undeserving of representation.

Interesting article by David A. Love claiming that the group of female politicians Sarah Palin calls “mama grizzlies” are motivated by hatred of black people.

The problem I see with this article is principally that it assumes (as does almost everyone) that all attempts to paint President Obama as “foreign” are necessarily racist. I believe that, while that may be the driving force of some of those attacks, many of them are motivated by hatred of Obama’s internationalist outlook. He is, after all, something of a “Davos Man“.

Take, for instance, this passage:

 “One loony lady of the right uses the legal system as a platform to express their hatred of black people. Orly Taitz–a prominent figure in the insane asylum known as the birther movement, which claims President Obama is a foreigner–filed a series of lawsuits challenging the President’s citizenship.” 

First of all, Taitz isn’t part of the “Mama Grizzly” crew. Secondly, before proceeding, it is vital that I point out that Taitz is, by all appearances, hopelessly insane. But what I don’t think is proven is that she has a “hatred of black people.” After all, one of her many lawsuits claiming Obama isn’t a citizen was filed on behalf of Alan Keyes.  

But let us leave Taitz to her madness, and examine instead some of the more relevant women the article discusses. If true, the Sharron Angle story is indeed bizarre, and suggestive of a strange worldview. And Palin’s defense of Laura Schlessinger seems to me to be a very bad idea; so much so that one is forced to wonder about just what Palin’s motivations might be in doing so.

However, while these are good points, there is also this:

 “California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman refused to attend a forum of black and Latino churchgoers. And of the $50 million she has spent on radio, TV and print ads, not a penny went to black media. By contrast, the atypical GOP Senate candidate Carly Fiorina showed up at a Juneteenth event in South Central Los Angeles wearing a kente cloth.” 

Which is interesting, but omits the rather important fact that Palin endorsed Fiorina but, as best I can tell, not Whitman.

But where the article really runs into trouble, in my opinion, is with regard to Nikki Haley. The author says:

“I am stumped on this one, and can only assume that the fair-skinned Nikki Haley is popular because many South Carolina voters missed the memo, and actually think she is white.” 

Now, it is not unreasonable to suppose that most racists are stupid. But still, it strikes me as a bit of a stretch to say that they are so stupid as to allow someone from a race that they supposedly exist to oppress to become a prominent member of their movement. As such, Haley’s candidacy seems to me to argue somewhat against the Tea Party being a racist movement.

But race is always a dangerous and controversial issue, and I welcome any comments you may have on this.

I wanted to look up one of the “death quotes”  from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 about nationalism for a post I’m working on. Unfortunately, I accidentally wound up on a forum at this place. (No, I’m not going to link to their actual site.)

Apparently, they believe that Call of Duty is pushing “globalist propaganda” (which us normal people call “being against insane racists”) and are, of course, outraged by it.

This could make for an excellent ad campaign for Activision: “Fight neo-nazism! Buy Call of Duty!”