Don’t Psychoanalyze the Villain Please

Or, to paraphrase Woody Allen playing Alvy Singer: I resent movie-makers’ attempts to reduce evil down to simple psychoanalytic categories.

Which is why my top three movies of the last two years all feature major characters that emerge, fully-formed with no backstory, as evil motherfuckers that wreak havoc on the moral fabric of their surroundings.

I’m talking about Anton Chirgur in “No Country for Old Men”, Daniel Plainview in “There Will Be Blood”, and of course, The Joker from “The Dark Knight”.

All three characters emerge fully-formed, out of some circle of hell which Dante hasn’t visited, and their awesomeness makes them much more interesting characters. All three are driven purely to do acts of evil, without explanation, and they won’t stop until they have done those evil acts, and one gets the feeling that they will never stop, because that is their nature.

There is often a tendency in the mainstream culture to rationalize evil using folk psychology: it’s either the traumatized childhood, or that mommy didn’t hug the villain enough when he was young. For the life of me, I cannot understand why film-makers feel the need to explain away evil. After all, the evil is the point of the character: just take the evil for granted, and then create a realistic portrayal that is consistent with the internal logic of the movie.

Of course you have to have great actors to inhabit these fully-realized characters, and in all three cases (Javier Bardem, Daniel Day Lewis, and Heath Ledger) absolutely embraced their characters.

Hopefully this trend will continue, and there is reason to hope, seeing how No Country and Blood both received nominations, and one of them won, and The Dark Knight made tons of money.


Who’s Nailin’ Paylin?

Who indeed? (totally safe for work, trust me):

Better watch it fast, because the original link on Digg is no longer valid, as Google says that “This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by Larry Flynt Publications.”

So as a responsible citizen who is interested in how politicians are portrayed, and as a connoisseur of all things strange and amusing of pop culture, I just HAD to find the full copy. It really isn’t hard at all to locate if you know where to look…

Now, onto the video itself: suffice to say, the fictional “Sarah Paylin” (I’m guessing the name is changed for copyright issues) amply demonstrates her ability to deal with our Russian enemies (who is so closely located to her mansion that they snuck in)…through a variety of physical means.

And I’ll just leave it at that.

But seriously folks, is this stuff really surprising? I mean, for Christ’s sake, the instant that Sarah Palin was nominated, her looks were brought into discussion. This is merely the logical extreme of that train of thought. Someone should send the full video to Chris Matthews: maybe he’ll get an even bigger thrill up this leg this time.

This is what I don’t understand: during Hillary Clinton’s primary campaign, her physical appearance was, for the most part, not part of the diarrhea ejaculated by the punditry, in part because I think people thought that commenting on her physical appearance seriously denigrates her skills and expertise and is condescending to her as a woman. But when Palin gets nominated, suddenly her physical appearance was not only not off limits, but became part and parcel of the narrative about her.

Now what kind of bullshit is this? Why does the fact that Sarah Palin can somewhat qualify for MILF (or even GILF) status count for fucking shit?!?! In what way, shape, or form is her appearance relevant for her potential position as Vice President? But no, people couldn’t stop drooling all over themselves, especially Bill Kristol, that lascivious asshat.

I ask you, gentle and decent readers, which is the more vulgar: that Sarah Palin and certain elements of the political punditry have exploited her physical appearance for electoral appeal, or a fictious film of pornographic nature inspired by the former?


Apparently there is a script available for your perusal (this is definitely not safe for work), and as Brian Griff once said: I won’t do it!…unless I see a script first. So I’ll be back once I plow through the script (pun definitely intended).

What is Pornography? (Bow Chicka Wow Wow)

First, a false start: for those of you (oh you prurient few) interested in the porno-music genre, there is a definitive compilation on Amazon, featuring none other than Ron Jeremy on the cover. Don’t ask me where I got it.

Now, onto the real subject at hand (ahem). Whether the First Amendment protects pornography turns upon an ontological question: just what is porn? Without first answering the ontological question, we can’t answer the legal/normative question.

And it seems to me that in order to answer the ontological question about porn, we must adopt a phenomenological approach, Heidegerrian style.

To this end, I think Andrew Koppelman‘s paper in Legal Theory (Vol. 14, No. 1), titled “Is Pornography Speech?”, engages in this phenomenological task, even if Koppelman never explicitly states that his approach is phenomenological. His thesis:

“Is pornography within the coverage of the First Amendment? A familiar argument claims that it is not. This argument reasons that (1) the free speech principle protects the communication of ideas, which appeal to the reason (the major premise); (2) pornography communicates no ideas and appeals to the passions rather than the reason (the minor premise); (3) therefore pornography is not protected by the free speech principle. This argument has been specified in different ways by different writers. The most prominent and careful of these are Frederick Schauer and John Finnis. Both founder on the attempt to distinguish pornography from art, which both would protect. If art, film, and literature should be protected, then this protection should extend to the pornographic subsets of these genres.”

The rest of the article is devoted largely to rebutting the argument that pornography has no cognitive content. To simplify, opponents of First Amendment protection of pornography argues that porn, unlike other forms of art, has no cognitive content but only seeks to produce a purely physical sensation and effect: namely, arousal and orgasm. And since in principle, sensations and ideas are separate, and since the First Amendment protects only ideas, not sensations, pornography should not be protected under the First Amendment.

To support his claim that pornography does in fact have cognitive value, Koppelman uses what I would consider to be a phenomenological approach, even if he doesn’t explicitly acknowledge it to be such. For example, he argues that:

“The intentions of these viewers seem clear enough. Orgasms are what they are after. Nonetheless, it is plainly mistaken to say that those intentions are merely intentions to masturbate. It can safely be assumed that they already know how to do that, even in hotel rooms without television sets. Why would they pay to rent these movies in order to do something they can already do for free? What are they paying for during those eight minutes?”

This suggests that Koppelman is arguing from the porn-consumers’ point of view, and surely his observations are plausible. But if porn-consumers are not paying merely for a physical sensation, what else are they paying for? Koppelman says:

“They are paying for a fantasy—a kind of fantasy that is appealing to them only in a state of preorgasmic arousal, but a fantasy nonetheless. Moreover, not all uses of pornography are as a prelude to orgasm. (Porn magazines are sold in airports, and the men who purchase them very much want not to have an orgasm, since their other pants are in the luggage. What they want is to pass their time imagining certain things.) The common denominator is not any particular physical effect but the presence of fantasy. The real First Amendment issue here is whether the amendment is implicated when government deliberately interferes with efforts to imagine and describe other worlds.”

Again, Koppelman’s observations are phenomenological plausible, if not correct.

But even if pornography has cognitive content, this is not the end of the matter, because the First Amendment protection of ideas is not absolute, and as far as obscenity jurisprudence is concerned, the relevant standard was set out in Miller v. California, which states:

“The basic guidelines for the trier of fact must be: (a) whether “the average person, applying contemporary community standards” would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest, Roth, supra, at 489, (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law, and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. If a state obscenity law is thus limited, First Amendment values are adequately protected by ultimate independent appellate review of constitutional claims when necessary.”

But what exactly is the point of the first two prongs (a and b) if it is only the third prong that is the only sufficient one? After all, if something meets the test of the third prong, it is sufficiently established that it falls under First Amendment protection. I just think it is a weird way of stating things: instead of saying what qualifies for protection, the Supreme Court instead states what does not.

If only the third prong test is sufficient to establish protection under the First Amendment, then this puts judges in a position of aestheticians, a role which they are not familiar with. As Koppelman says, “The adjudicating of questions of high aesthetic theory is a strange task to assign to courts.”

For this reason, I have never been satisfied with the Miller test: what qualifications and/or expertise, if any, does a judge have in finding that Lady Chatterley’s Lover is protected and Deep Throat is not? Note, however, that I am not making any claims about the objective aesthetic qualities of either. I do not need to maintain that Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Deep Throat are of equal aesthetic value; all I am doing is making an argument that courts and judges are not the appropriate institutions and actors to be making aesthetic judgments.

But this is also not to say that courts have no role in regulating pornography, but the standards by which pornography is regulated should not be an aesthetic one, for the reasons that I’ve outlined. Rather, the standards should be consequentialist: that is, pornography is/ought to be regulated based on whether it produces consequences that the state has a legitimate interest in.

For example, I think there is a plausible prima facie case for regulating pornography if its production involves law-breaking: i.e., employing under-age actors, coercion, so and so forth. And of course this is already the case. A second example would be regulating pornography because consumption of pornography would lead to socially harmful consequences that the state has a legitimate interest in preventing: i.e., increased chances of sexual assault/abuse, psychological damages, so and so on.

These standards would of course have to rest on very sound empirical basis: they must be supported by sound science and research. So it would not be enough to regulate pornography on mere assertion or insinuation, for example, that porn-consumption leads to a rise in sexual abuse. This claim would have to be backed up by rigorous scientific studies.

A rigorous consequentialist test for regulating pornography has the advantage of avoiding making courts aestheticians, like Miller does. It would not put judges in the role of having to adjudicate between competing metaphysical and aesthetic theories of pornography. Instead, all judges would have to do is to look at whether specific assertions about the consequences of producing and/or consuming pornography.

One objection to the consequentialist view might be that it really doesn’t make the judge’s job any easier: instead of having to adjudicate between competing aesthetic claims, the judge would now have to adjudicate between competing scientific claims. In this sense, the consequentialist test is just shifting a difficult decision to another sphere. What I want to say is that while it is difficult for judges to adjudicate between competing scientific assertions, surely this particular adjudication is easier than adjudicating between competing aesthetic claims for the reason that at least in science, a consensus about fact is conceivable (or at least more conceivable) than a consensus about facts in aesthetics (if there are such things as aesthetic “facts”).

So in the end, I want to argue that judges are ill-equipped to answer the question of “what is pornography.” Rather, they should try to answer the question “what does pornography do?”

Putting the Responsibility on Consumers

The Templeton Foundation has a series of “Big Question” discussions featuring intellectuals, policy-makers, scientists, etc: the current question is “Does the free market corrode moral character?”

One of the participants in this round is Robert Reich, who served as the Secretary of Labor under the first Clinton administration, and who currently teaches at Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy. First, a disclaimer: I’ve taken a class with Professor Reich, so I might be biased.

Reich’s response to the posed question is largely taken from his latest book, Supercapitalism (now out in paperback). In a way, Reich’s response to the posed question is not a direct one, because he doesn’t so much answer the question as he puts out the fact that most people in consumerist societies don’t even want to confront the question to begin with:

“Most of us are consumers who try to get the best possible deals in the market. Most of us are also moral beings who try to do the right things in our communities and societies. Unfortunately, our market desires often conflict with our moral commitments. So how do we cope with this conflict? All too often, we avoid it. We would rather the decisions we make as consumers not reflect upon our moral characters. That way we don’t have to make uncomfortable choices between the products and services we want and the ideals to which we aspire.”

The reason for this is that some of our choices in the market have social consequences that we, as consumers, either don’t know or perhaps more important, NOT want to know about:

“Our market transactions have all sorts of moral consequences we’d rather not know about. We may get great deals because a producer has cut costs by setting up shop in poor nations and hiring children who work twelve hours a day, seven days a week, or by eliminating the health and pension benefits of its American employees, or by cutting corners on worker safety. As moral beings, most of us would not intentionally choose these outcomes, but as seekers of great deals we are ultimately responsible for them.”

This is a pretty stark conclusion, one that most public figures would hesitate to make because it places some responsibility on the consumer. And as the saying goes: the consumer is never wrong (except when he is). I gave Reich a lot of credit for having the balls to say this, because it forces people to acknowledge that they are not entirely innocent.

It is flawed logic, as Reich points out, for consumers to expect that producers will morally regulate themselves, because there is always the problem of racing to the bottom unless all companies do the morally responsible thing.

Barack Obama as Invisible Man

David Samuels has a piece in The New Republic, comparing Dreams From My Father and Invisible Man:

“What’s even more remarkable about Dreams from My Father is the fact that it was written by a man who has since decided to run for president by disowning the most striking parts of his own voice and transforming himself into a blank screen for the fantasy-projection of the electorate. It is hard to overemphasize how utterly remarkable it is that Dreams exists at all–not the usual nest of position papers and tape-recorder talk, but a real book by a real writer who has both the inclination and the literary tools to give an indelible account of himself, and who also happens to be running for president. In which connection, it seems right to mention that the Barack Obama who appears in Dreams, and, one presumes, in his own continuing interior life, is not a comforting multiracial or post-racial figure like Tiger Woods or Derek Jeter who prefers to be looked at through a kaleidoscope. Though there are many structural parallels between Dreams and Invisible Man, Obama believes in the old-fashioned, unabashedly romantic, and, in the end, quite weird idea of racial authenticity that Ellison rejected. He embraces his racial identity despite his mixed parentage through a kind of Kierkegaardian leap into blackness, through which he hopes to become a whole, untroubled person.”

To be really simplistic about it: Dreams from My Father  (DFMF) is Invisible Man  (IM) with a happy ending, much like Lion King is Hamlet with a happy ending.

But to be more specific, DFMF is IM run in reverse. The Obama character (and I use the word character because the Barack Obama in the book is wholly the invention of Barack Obama the writer; in this regard an analogy can be drawn between Dante the traveller and Dante the poet in The Divine Comedy) runs the reverse course as the protagonist in IM. The protagonist IM starts out as an idealistic, color-unconscious, smart, overachieving youth who believes that his skin color will not be a source of prejudice for other people. But by the end, the IM protagonist realizes the bitter conclusion that everyone else refuses to recognize his individulity and is thus rendered “invisible” as a human being.

The Obama character in DFMF, however, starts out with the bitterness (albeit a kind of caricaturized, teenage bitterness) about his lack of a clear identification with either blacks or whites. The narrative of DFMF is the Obama’s character eventual reconciliation with his “black” heritage, culminating in his marriage to a “real” black person, living in a “real” black community, and joining a “real” black church. All this is topped off with the belief that the Obama character has somehow transcended the black-white racial divide.

So whereas IM is a story about the collapse of racial reconciliation, DFMF is a story about synthesizing the dialectics of race relations in this country.

Now, the real interesting question to me is this: does Obama the writer, nay, Obama the person, actually believes his story in DFMF? Or is he just writing the story to present a non-threatening, uplifiting, and optimistic view about race relations to a country that is not quite ready to really talk about race relations in a honest, subtle way?

As well writte as the DFMF is, it reminds me of one of those Asian American novels in which the protagonist manages to reconcile the dualing aspects of his identity. Well, in reality, all that reconciliation stuff is hogwash. I’m even having trouble doing that, and I’m not even biracial: just a Chinese immigrant who grew up in his formative years in America. Now, imagine what it’s like for someone who is bi-racial?

In the end, I’m afraid Ralph Ellison’s pessimistic conclusion is correct: we just can’t get past the Other.

Still No Word on Judicial Appointments

Aside from one ill-conceived and incoherent speech delivered by McCain many moons ago (when I was still in Berkeley no less), I haven’t heard anything resembling a meaningful statement from either campaign on their judicial appointments.

I went on the Obama campaign website’s issue section, and there was nothing on judicial philosophy; the only thing the McCain campaign site had was that speech.

Look, judicial appointment is not exactly a sexy topic, and of course, the economy overshadows all right now. But for an institution whose members have life-time tenure, and who meaningfully and substantially impacts public policy, I think it’s pretty goddamn fucking important to find out whom the candidates will appoint and why.

I already know (well, sort of) McCain’s position, but from that one incoherent speech alone it is not enough to fully understand his thinking. As for Obama, aside from scattered remarks here and there on partial-birth and gun control Supreme Court cases, I know nothing, unless someone can point me the right way to look.

Not to mention the fact that thus far, no one has really talked about his administration’s Cabinet appointments. Again, it’s pretty fucking important to know these things since the cabinent-level people do most of the actual rule-making that government so much our day to day life. Weber is so right on the money.

And this is the problem with “rationally” voting in an American election: in what ways are we voting rationally? Is it purely formal? In other words, are we simply using all the information avaiable to us (which, by the way, is simultaneously incomplete, unspecific, and often times incoherent) and make the best decision possible? Or, is this rationality more substantive, meaning, that our decision actually meets a standard for rationality?

Stuck in Identity Politics…Forever!(?)

Neal Gabler does a pretty decent job tracing the politicization of “Americaness” in this op-ed piece from the LA Times:

“One of the most important components of our recent presidential elections is the redefinition — actually the narrowing of the definition — of what constitutes an American. Since 2000 at least, we’ve been asking ourselves which candidate is the one we’d rather belly up to the bar with for a beer. Never mind George W. Bush’s Brahmin pedigree and Yale education; he reinvented himself as a cowboy. By comparison, Al Gore was ridiculed as a Harvard stiff and John Kerry as Frenchified. Now Barack Obama is being subjected to the same mockery.

It is tempting to attribute this sort of demagoguery entirely to Republican calculation. By constantly promoting the notion that Republicans are just a bunch of NASCAR fans and that Democrats are effete, the GOP has successfully divided the country not between red and blue politics but between one version of America and another, between the allegedly authentic and the allegedly inauthentic. But in reality, Republicans have only been exploiting a vein deep within the American consciousness. And who can blame them? What Republicans realize is that most Americans always have been desperately afraid of being seen as phony, and they are actively hostile toward anyone with airs. In fact, liberty is only one foundation of America. The nation rests just as securely on fear and resentment.

In the beginning, that resentment was understandably directed against the British. American rebels needed a strong sense of identity, something that would anoint them as unique and fill them with pride. And although the founding fathers may have embraced elitism and looked askance on true democracy, ordinary Americans nurtured a particular vision of themselves as homespun, pragmatic and lacking the affectations of Europe. In short, real.”

A bit simplistic, to be sure (and owing not so subtly to the Hegelian master-slave dialetic), but fairly plausible.

The real wonder of identity politics is that it turns the whole notion of political representation upside down. The Founders designed an institutional framework in which the interests, not the identity, of the people are supposed to be represented; that interests and identities can and often converge is no reason to conflate the two.

But now the situation is reversed: identity now has priority over interests (witness the ridiculous HRC supporters who proclaim that they will support the McCain-Palin ticket).

The priority of identity over interests in contemporary American politics raises a serious challenge to Rawls’ concept of the veil of ignorance, because identity politics violate the most fundamental epistemic condition of the veil, namely, that people have no knowledge of who they are. Instead, in the original position, people choose public policies based on a strategy of risk minimization, a strategy of rational pursuit of self-interest.

But with identity politics, the fundamental epistemic condition is violated, because the very nature of identity politics depends on one’s knowledge of self-identity, something that is explicitly denied in the original position. What this means that risk minimization as a strategy is abandoned in favor of maximizing rewards for one’s own identity group, whatever it might be.

What about Obama’s campaign though, which has billed itself as running a post-identity politics campaign? But a closer examination reveals that even a “post”-identity politics is still a identity-based politics, namely, the identification of those who deny identifications.

I’m not optmistic that we can ever get out of this cycle, and I think we are better off if we just adopted a Rawlsian approach (as problematic as it may be) and just voted out of rational self-interest.