Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Daenerys vs. Bran: a Game of Thrones rant

Monday morning water cooler talk is now about, by and large, Game of Thrones, the best selling series of books that has become the hugely popular made-for-HBO TV series. If you're not interested in GoT, or if you have only watched occasionally, never fear. You're not a bad person. And you're not living under a rock. As popular as GoT is, it's not Dancing with the Stars. Nor is it NCIS. Still, it has now snuck up on and surpassed The Sopranos as the most watched HBO series in a season. It has a large following, and much of this following is preoccupied with theories, with supposing what will happen next, figuring out prophecies, what symbolizes what, who is going to die, who is going to live, and who is ultimately going to end up on the Iron Throne. If you're starting to get a little lost, read no further. What follows is for people who know the show well (at the very least).

Okay, so it looks like Daenerys is headed to Westeros in the season finale, via the ships of the raping and pillaging Iron Islanders, taking with her the raping and pillaging Dothraki hordes. Oh, and also those three dragons, who enjoy picking up a random sheep or small child for the occasional snack. And why is she headed to Westeros? Why to reclaim her throne, of course. You know, the one her ancestors won with dragons and blood, then pissed away because it turned out they were incest-loving shits. Still, Daenerys is the rightful heir. Go team D!

Because it's not much of a stretch to say that Daenerys is one of the three most popular characters in the series, the other two being Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister. Pretty much everyone seems to think these three will each ride a dragon and will, in fact, embody Daenerys' vision of the dragon that has three heads. It seems to me that this is the worst kept secret in the series; obviously both Tyrion and Jon are bastards and it's completely plausible that both carry Targaryen blood (though neither possess the immunity to fire that Daenerys possesses).

Being Team D thus means one can also be Team Tyrion and Team Snow (me, I'm Team Arya) without surrendering a thing.

The messageboards that I frequent have a number of threads devoted to Game of Thrones. The primary one—now centering on the series, since it's left the books behind—is peopled mostly by members of Team D. And frankly, the reactions to many of the things that Daenerys does are quite giddy, in a schoolgirl/fanboy sense (I've had some of these reactions too, by the way). And the talk about her is mostly of a lionizing sort, not only because she is the Mother of Dragons, but also because she is the Breaker of Chains. She is, after all, handing out a lot of just desserts.

In direct contrast to this is the general reaction to Bran Stark. You remember him, the Stark child crippled by Jamie Lannister, dragged around the North by people who keep telling him he's got to fulfill a prophecy, and forced to become one with a tree. People don't much care for Bran, to put it mildly. They especially don't care for him since he more or less caused the death of Hodor (many think Bran basically murdered Hodor, in fact). And I grok all of this; I don't much care for the Bran storyline, as it's rather boring (in the same way that Frodo and Sam's journey in The Lord of the Rings was boring as compared to Aragorn's). Still, Bran is a critical character. It's likely that he's actually Bran the Builder, in fact, that he was the founder of House Stark and the architect of The Wall (via his ability to enter the past and affect it in his visions).

While I don't like the Bran storyline so much, I don't really have it in for Bran, himself. And frankly, the criticism of Bran's actions, the blame that is being heaped on him, is really starting to piss me off, especially when it's compared to the love affair so many have with Daenerys. And as we all get ready for the season finale, wherein Daenerys is likely set to return to Westeros, let's put this all in perspective.

Daenerys has caused a lot of death and destruction. Some of it was in service to noble causes, no doubt, but some of it was just about ambition. And she personally executed all of the Dothraki Khals, not because they were bad leaders, but because she wanted the Dothraki to use in pursuit of her ambition. And again, that ambition is the naked pursuit of power, the reclamation of the Iron Throne, not because Westeros is being unjustly ruled, but because she want to rule it, plain and simple.

So she and her dragons are going to take the Dothraki to Westeros, with the help of Yara Greyjoy and her freebooters. And the crowd is going wild, because Team D! Nevermind the consequences from this move, it's all good; there's no moral or ethical issues to consider, at all. And yet, the death and destruction that Daenerys is bringing is, at the end of the day, not much different than what the White Walkers are bringing.

And against the looming threat of the Long Night and the White Walkers, there is mostly just Bran. The handful of people (and Children) who have been involved with him are getting killed off, one by one. Maybe some of that is Bran's fault. Maybe. But he's had a pretty shitty run so far on GoT. He's not had much in the way of fun, of pleasure, or even of rest. He's been crippled, he's been frozen like a popsicle, he's been assaulted by White Walkers and the walking dead, and he's been forced to commune with a tree.

Yet somehow, he's a shitball. Why? Well, I guess most of his critics will probably say that he whines too much, that he's made some mistakes, and of course that he caused the death of Hodor (that's really the big one). That's what they would say. But the truth is, I think, much simpler. And it's a truth that also explains why Daenerys can apparently do no wrong: Bran isn't cool, while Daenerys is way cool.

Daenerys is smoking hot (with her fine figure, her white hair, her semi-nude scenes, and her sex scenes), she rides dragons, and she keeps getting the best of big strong men, despite her sex, her slight stature, and her age.

Bran is a dirty, disheveled mess, a cripple, is barely avoiding death, and talks to trees.

No contest.

But none of this makes Daenerys a better person than Bran. If he is a murderer, she is a murderer a thousand times over. If he's put some others at risk to save his skin, she's done far worse to feed her ambition. And it's about to get worse. Far worse.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Has the media become overly self-referential?

Source: Shall Not Be Questioned
In the wake of the Orlando killings and the assassination of Britsh MP Jo Cox, there's been an awful lot of talk in the media (from both pundits and columnists, alike) about labels and lists. Glenn Greenwald—ever the bastion of rationality—is whining about the media not labeling Cox's assassin a "terrorist." And after the Orlando killings, other columnists busied themselves with pieces complaining about the incident being called "the worst mass shooting/killing" in U.S. history by people in the media, or about the lists of mass killings that fail to mention Indian massacres of the 19th century, the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, or the Rosewood Massacre of 1923.

This is what much of the 4th Estate was and is apparently concerned with: using the "right" label and compiling the "correct" list.

Lest dispense with Greenwald and his complaints, first. Newsflash, Glenn: you're a part of the media; call Cox's assassin a terrorist if that is what you think he is, if that is what you believe is the correct label. No one is stopping you. But what exactly is the consequence of other media sites not following your lead (to be sure, some are, both with regard to complaining about this like Greenwald, and with regard to not simply labeling the guy a terrorist)? I, for one, have no issue with the label. I'm not sure it's the best one, though. "Assassin" is better and more accurate, and "terrorist" can be subsumed within it (i.e., any assassination can also be a potential act of terrorism, but not the reverse).

And regardless, where exactly is Greenwald going with this complaint (aside from producing filler)? What's the benefit of convincing all other media sites to call the guy a terrorist? Hey, he's in custody and may still get charged with terrorism, but getting bent out of shape because he's just getting tagged as a murderer and an assassin? I don get it, since it's not like there's been this wave of attacks based on this guy's point of view. Maybe if there had been, I might grok Greenwald's complaint. A little. But right now? It's fairly empty-headed.

As to the issue of mass killings or mass shootings and Orlando being "the worst in U.S. history," the complaints on this are really bumming me out. I know my history and I know all about the Indian massacres of the 19th century, from Wounded Knee to Sand Creek. There's not much to say for many of these massacres; they were horrible, horrible things. Some occurred under the auspices of the U.S., State, or Territorial governments, some didn't. The largest ones, by and large, were military actions to some extent, heinous and unjustified (in my opinion) military actions, but military nonetheless. All of them deserve to be remembered and treated for what they are; as far as massacres go in U.S. history, these dominate any such list.

The Tulsa Race Riot of 192, while not military in the least, was a large scale event involving thousands of people on both "sides." At it's core, I think it best described as an incident wherein a good chunk of Tulsa's white community saw an opportunity to put the black community of the city to the torch, to display their racist points of view for all to see. As such, it has something in common with the Indian massacres (the overt racism), but it is most definitely its own thing. And given that there is no agreement on the number of deaths (estimates run a gamut from thirty to three hundred), it's tough to find a place for this incident in any list. The Rosewood Massacre is not much different, insofar as it was an action of a group of racist whites who put the all-black town of Rosewood, Florida to the torch, killing everyone whom they could in the process. Again, there is a less-than-clear death total, with it ranging from ten to over one hundred. And again, this incident belies placement on any lists, imo. It does require remembrance and acknowledgement, as a matter of course.

So what about the lists of mass shootings and killings that are all over the place, in the wake of Orlando? A simple look at these lists reveals that they are about single-shooter incidents (or in a few cases, a couple of shooters). There's no point in comparing them to Indian massacres or to massive race riots. They are different sorts of things. True enough, there is a common thread of hatred running through almost all of these things (thought the target of the hatred varies greatly), but mass murder (indeed, murder alone) of any sort tends to have that component. And note that what few of the complainers talk about is 9/11, which—as a mass killing—dwarfs all of these other events, from Wounded Knee, to Tulsa, to Orlando. The ones who do reference 9/11 explain it away as not counting because it was "foreign terrorists." For some reason, that's a valid qualifier, but no other ones—that might differentiate the massacres from the mass killings—are.

And that's really the simple line here: massacres versus mass killings. One might say it's pretty awful that we even need to make this distinction, but that can't be helped (as much as I might wish it could be). So given this plethora of horrible moments, what is the problem with a sensible division in this regard? And note too that not all incidents of mass killings (by one or two people) are absolutely known, thus the list of the same is weighted heavily towards more recent years. In contrast, the U.S. Government doesn't go around killing large numbers of Native Americans anymore, to make room room for settlers, new development, or the like. And as bad as race relations can sometimes still get, there's nothing going on approaching Tulsa or Rosewood these days (thank goodness).

The point is, not listing these events from the past—which are very different from single shooter killings, anyway you slice it—isn't an attempt to obscure the past, anymore than it's an attempt to "whitewash" that past (which is the term some dim-witted commentators are actually using). Media sites that highlight Orlando as the "worst mass shooting in U.S. history" aren't doing anything wrong, aren't being dishonest, aren't "whitewashing" the past.

But regardless, let's suppose that they were doing all of this, that past mass killings were being purposefully ignored. Who exactly would this be serving? Let's be honest: the people complaining about this are all on the Left and they have a burr under their saddle about Right-wing people being racists and homophobes. Yet in this case, the Orlando killings were predominantly of gay people at a gay nightclub, and they weren't all white. Even if they were, no one knew the racial breakdown in the beginning, but everyone (in the media) knew the killer was targeting gay people. The "whitewashing" claim just doesn't fit; it's nonsensical.

The whole angle of complaint here is thus nonsensical, insofar as there's no purpose being served that can be reasonably defended. It's an exercise is trying to subvert a tragedy in service to an unrelated agenda, and in my opinion, it's an ugly, ugly thing.

Beyond that, it also represents exactly what the Greenwald bit represents: elements of the media more concerned with navel-gazing than with what is actually going on in the world, with talking about themselves than with saying something meaningful about current events.

And maybe this is partially a consequence of the need to provide filler, to say something every minute of every day, to get those all-important viewers or clicks.

Me, I think it's mostly about just being intellectually lazy.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

After Orlando: observations in the moment

There are at least forty-nine people who will never see their loved ones again, who will never enjoy a latte, see the latest blockbuster, spend a day shopping or at the beach, go to work, or do anything else. Why? Because they were gunned down in cold blood at a nightclub in Orlando by a man who had somehow convinced himself that killing as many gay people as he could was a good idea.

After the fact, there are plenty of people trying to climb inside this man's head (he's dead too, shot by police). He's a domestic terrorist, he's an ISIS sympathizer, he's a homophobe, he's a self-loathing homosexual, he's evil, he's mentally ill, he's all of these things and more.

Whatever else he is, he's a cold-blooded murderer, that much is certain. His actions, regardless of his motivations, were pre-meditated. He showed up at a gay nightclub in Orlando looking to deal out as much death as possible. Whether or not he thought he might escape from this alive is largely immaterial, for he certainly knew he'd likely end up dead in short order, one way or another.

And he's far from alone in this regard. Other people have made this same decision in the recent past and no doubt more will continue to do so in the future: to purposefully kill a bunch of innocent people in service to some ideology or point of view, inspired by politics, religion, bigotry, or just plain hatred.

The morning after, the day after, the week after, there is talk about "how," and "why," to be sure. But mostly this talk is limited, insofar as it goes no farther than finding reasons so people can be outraged and indignant. And there's talk about prevention, but mostly it's about gun control. And of course, there's the talk emanating from politician and their ilk, who use such tragedies to push agendas or to score political points.

What there is very little of is talk about how and why individuals manage to convince themselves that these sorts of massacres serve a purpose, are—for lack of a better way to say it—good ideas. The shooter in Orlando—one Omar Mateen—is, or rather was a thinking person. He was a son, a father, and at least at one point, a husband. He had a job, he had a family, he was seemingly a part of society. We are learning more about his past, to be sure, and there's apparently a lot of hate in that past, but hate isn't—or at least it shouldn't be—a permanent aspect of existence. Lots of people hate. All. The. Time.

Yet for some, hate becomes a critical and omnipresent aspect of their existence. How and why?

There is also the issue of goals here. Mateen is dead. What did he actually expect to accomplish? What do any of these killers, these terrorist-types, hope to accomplish when their deaths are almost a foregone conclusion? If they imagine they're helping to change things, for whom are they doing this? Because they aren't going to be around. Or perhaps they want to be remembered, they want to be famous. And that's something I just can't wrap my head around, this desire for fame or infamy.

If I go out in a blaze of glory, I'm gone. The fame I accrue is meaningless to me necessarily because I'm dead. There's no actual payoff in this regard. I won't ever know that I'm famous, that I'm remembered (and this is no less true of everyone else who is so determined to achieve fame; at the end of the day, it's a Pyrrhic victory, at best). Why isn't it enough to live life as best one can?

Yet for some, fame is critical; being known has become their chief goal in life. Again, how and why is this happening?

The modern world is a big place, full of many, many people. And as compared with the not-so-distant past, it is very, very different. I think—per the writings of Hannah Arendt—that modernity is effectively detaching many people from day to day existence, that they are losing their links to humanity. And I think these are the people who are subject to being drawn in to twisted ideologies and belief systems, that these are the people where hate festers and grows. And I think this confluence represents the key to understanding why there are people who are willing to commit mass murder, to feed their hate, to justify their ideology, and to secure their piece of history, their fame as it were.

And I'm not sure there are solutions for any of this. But if there are, we're never going to find them if our after-the-fact conversations continue to be as limited as they currently are.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Ali and a triumvirate of icons

Yesterday, Muhammad Ali passed away at the age of 74 from a respiratory condition. Widely considered to be the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time (if not the greatest boxer, period), Ali is also one of the most widely recognized athletes, indeed one of the most widely recognized public figures, in the modern world. To call Ali an icon would be an understatement. And this is not only because of his success as a boxer, it is because of his larger-than-life personality.

When Muhammad Ali lost to Joe Frazier in March of 1971, Ali was 29 years old. When he exacted revenge on Frazier in 1974, then followed it up by beating George Foreman (the "Rumble in the Jungle") later in the year, he was 32. I was 6 and 9, respectively. I can't claim to remember much about Ali, apart from remembering that he was a boxer and a Big Deal. In an age without ESPN, without the internet, where sportstalk occurred primarily primarily between real live people in face to face situations, Muhammad Ali generally held a highly revered position: the greatest of all time. As a child, I vaguely remember the references to Ali that I heard from adults or happen to catch on TV and I partook of that reverence. I may not have known much about boxing, about life in general, but I know Ali was The Greatest.

And as I got older, this knowledge became a standard, a fact as it were. Years later, when Mike Tyson was forging his career and being widely lauded as the true successor to Ali's throne, I understood. Even as I watched Tyson demolish opponent after opponent in real time—which was not the case with Ali—I knew still that Ali would always be the greatest, for that surety was, by then, ingrained in me from childhood. I knew as a child knows; I still do. Such is the way of things.

In this regard, there are other figures in the realm of sports who occupy a similar place in my mind, a position of absolute greatness that will never be challenged, much less overcome. They are from that same period of my life, the formative years when I was aware of what was being said around me by adults, when I began to exchange ideas with other kids my own age, when I was able to fully process what I saw on TV and in newspapers.

To this day, there are three who still stand out, who will always be firmly fixed in my mind as the gods of their respective sports. The first is, of course, Ali. I am very much a fan of boxing to this day and while I have seen many great fighters, it is and will always be Ali. If someone says to me "so and so is the greatest fighter of all time," my retort begins and ends with Ali. Show me numbers, footage, or what have you, it doesn't matter.

The second, well the second is a baseball player. I honestly don't care much for baseball, but my father is a huge fan. And his team was and is the Yankees. Unsurprisingly, it's a former Yankee who is fixed in my mind here: Reggie Jackson, Mr. October. Because in those same formative years of mine, when Ali was reestablishing his dominance of the heavyweight division, Reggie Jackson was becoming Mr. October with his clutch-hitting in the playoffs, first with Oakland, then with New York. And like Ali, Jackson was a larger-than-life personality. Do I think Jackson is the greatest baseball player ever? No, of course not. But to me, he is baseball, he's the guy who walks up to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, with thousands of fans booing him mercilessly, who then drills the first pitch over the center field wall. And he always will be.

The last of the triumvirate is not a man. It's not a woman, either (though if I was to choose a fourth icon, it would most assuredly be Chris Evert). It's a horse: Secretariat. I'm not a horse-racing fan, either. I went to the track a few weeks ago and it was the first time I had been in well over a decade. It's just not my thing. But in 1973, everyone was watching the Triple Crown, or at least everyone around me was. And I watched, too. And I cheered for the horses, not really knowing much more than what I was seeing were races. But races were easy understand. And when one racer beats the tar out of everyone else, it's pretty obvious. The awe of the adults around me was obvious, too, especially after the Belmont. I get kick out of the build-up to the Triple Crown ever year, when it so obvious that the broadcasters are hoping, praying for another Secretariat. But they never get one. And in my mind, they never will.

What does all this mean in the grand scheme of things? Well, not much. Ali's passing just got me to thinking about my perception of him, how it was a product of childhood idealism, and how that perception persists to this day. So too for Jackson and Secretariat. Ali and Jackson have there foibles, to be sure (Secretariat is still a horse) and I'm not recommending either for sainthood. But this is ultimately about the simplicity of perception in a child's point of view, and the role of the same in shaping and producing our assumptions about the way things are, how things from different times compare, and how personal experiences define expectations going forward.

I wonder about my own children, in this regard. How will they see their recent past in relation to their present and future, not just with regard to sports, but with regard to all things? Who will be the iconic figures of their childhoods? Who will they consider to be The Greatest? Will any of my icons even warrant a mention?