Twenty-one was “the perfect wolf”

He was a legend — he never lost a fight, and he never killed a vanquished rival

Twenty-one was like history’s highest-status human leaders: Not a ruthless strongman but a peaceful warrior

Twenty-one was "the perfect wolf": He was a legend -- he never lost a fight, and he never killed a vanquished rival
(Credit: andamanec via Shutterstock)

“Why doesn’t Batman just kill the Joker?” Without looking at me, Rick McIntyre quizzes me like a Zen master during one of the strangest conversations I’ve ever had. He’s trying to lead me into a realization about the roots of mercy by talking about superheroes as we’re looking through telescopes in subfreezing weather while watching wolves eating an elk a mile away on a frozen, snowy slope. Rick, a ranger here in Yellowstone National Park, conducts the whole conversation without taking his eyes from his scope. Rick follows free-living wolves every day. I’ve never seen real wolves before, so my eyes are glued to my scope too.

“If ever there was a perfect wolf, it was Twenty-One,” says Rick, using the wolf’s research-collar number as his name. “He was like a fictional character.

“Twice, I saw Twenty-One take on six attacking wolves from a rival pack — and rout them all,” Rick recalls. “I’d think, ‘A wolf can’t do what I am watching this wolf do.’ Watching him felt like seeing Bruce Lee fighting.”

Wolf territorial fights resemble human tribal warfare. Wolves often target the rival pack’s alphas, seemingly understanding that if they can rout or kill the experienced leaders, victory will be theirs.

Twenty-One distinguished himself in two ways: He never lost a fight, and he never killed a vanquished rival. But why? A wolf letting vanquished enemies go free seems inexplicable. Rick’s question about Batman and the Joker is his koan-like way of trying to lead me to a big-picture explanation as to why. But I’m not getting it.

Rick is saying that history’s highest-status human leaders are not ruthless strongmen like Hitler, Stalin and Mao. They are Gandhi, King and Mandela. Peaceful warriors earn higher status. Muhammad Ali — who has been called the most famous man in the world — was a practitioner of ritualized combat who spoke of peace and refused to go to war. His refusal cost him millions of dollars and his heavyweight title, yet with his refusal to kill, his status rose to unprecedented height.

For humans and many other animals, status is a huge deal. For it, we risk much treasure and blood. Wolves do not understand why status and dominance are so important to them, and for the most part, we don’t either. In wolf and human alike, our brains produce hormones that compel us to strive for status and assert dominance. Dominance feels like an end in itself. We don’t need to understand why.

Here’s why: Status is a daily proxy for competition. Whenever mates or food are in short supply, the high-status individual has preferred access. What’s at stake is survival, and ultimately, reproduction — the chance to breed, to count. Our genes don’t need to let us understand why; they just need us to want it. One could hardly expect that wolves would understand, any better than we do, what drives us all. But I still don’t get what this has to do with Batman.

“So, Rick,” I ask, my eye still in the scope watching several ruddy-faced wolves bedding down in snow to sleep off a big meal they’ve just finished, “why doesn’t Batman just kill the Joker?”

“In admiring the hero who restrains himself” — Rick has clearly thought about this — “we are impressed with the hero’s power.” Rick elaborates that in what’s been called the greatest movie of all time, Humphrey Bogart has won the love he has sought. But he arranges things so that the other man does not lose his wife and is not hurt. We admire him for strength combined with restraint.”

But could wolves have such an ethic? If a human releases a vanquished opponent, the loser’s status suffers anyway and the victor seems more impressive. You’ve already won and you show tremendous added confidence. If you show mercy, you gain even more status. But could a wolf be merciful? A wolf might be a super-animal, but he ain’t no superhero.

In wolf Twenty-One’s life there was a particular male, a sort of roving Casanova, a continual annoyance. He was strikingly good-looking, had a big personality, always doing something interesting. “The best single word is ‘charisma,’” says Rick. “Female wolves were happy to mate with him. People absolutely loved him. Women would take one look at him — they didn’t want you to say anything bad about him. His irresponsibility and infidelity; it didn’t matter.”

One day, Twenty-One discovered Casanova among his daughters. Twenty-One caught him and was biting him. Various pack members piled in, beating him up. “Casanova was big,” Rick says, “but he was a bad fighter.” Now he was totally overwhelmed and the pack was finally killing him.

“Suddenly Twenty-One steps back. Everything stops. The others are looking at Twenty-One as if saying, ‘Why has Dad stopped?’” Casanova jumps up and — runs away.

Casanova kept causing problems for Twenty-One. So, why doesn’t Batman just kill the Joker so he simply doesn’t have to keep dealing with him? It doesn’t make sense — until years later.

After Twenty-One’s death from age, Casanova became the model of a responsible alpha male. Though he’d been averse to fighting, Casanova died in a fight with a rival pack. But everyone in his own pack escaped — including grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Twenty-One.

Wolves can’t foresee such plot twists any more than can people. But evolution can. Anything that’s helped descendants survive will remain in the genetic heirloom, a driver in the behavioral toolkit.

So, say you’re a wolf; should you let a beaten rival go free? I think the answer in both wolves and in our own tribal human minds is: Yes — if you can afford to. Sometimes, your rival today becomes, tomorrow, a vehicle for your legacy. Perhaps that is the basis for magnanimity in wolves, and at the deep heart of mercy in men.

Excerpted from “Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel” by Carl Safina, published by Henry Holt and Company LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Carl Safina.  All rights reserved. 

Carl Safina’s work has been recognized with MacArthur, Pew and Guggenheim fellowships, and his writing has won Orion, Lannan and National Academies literary awards and the John Burroughs, James Beard and George Raab medals. Safina is founding president of the not-for-profit Safina Center at Stony Brook University. He hosted the 10-part PBS series “Saving the Ocean With Carl Safina.” “Beyond Words” is his seventh book. He lives on Long Island, New York.

The Wolfpack, Dope: American experiences, oddities

The Wolfpack, Dope: American experiences, oddities

By Joanne Laurier
3 July 2015

The Wolfpack, directed by Crystal Moselle; Dope, written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa

The Wolfpack

At the center of Crystal Moselle’s debut film, The Wolfpack, winner of the Sundance Film Festival’s U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize, are seven young people who have been locked away for most of their lives in a New York City public housing apartment. Their father’s social fearfulness lies at the heart of this peculiarity.

Six boys and a mentally disabled sister lived with their parents in the Seward Park Extension projects, which house some 800 residents on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Homeschooled by their mother, the children were forbidden by their father, Oscar Angulo, to leave their 16th-floor, four-bedroom apartment.

The Wolfpack

Confined to one thousand square feet of space, the boys became absorbed in watching films, of which there were some five thousand in the apartment. Making props and costumes and reenacting scenes from their favorite movies became their mode of existence. In Moselle’s film, the boys come across as endearing, articulate and emotionally vulnerable. Their long black hair—which their father forbid them to cut—only adds to the mystique. Their overall appearance and the peculiarity of their circumstances, however, tend to distract the viewer from considering what must be serious psychic scars.

Only in the barest outlines does the filmmaker trace out why the Angulo children were confined. Susanne, their mother, briefly explains that she and her husband Oscar were afraid of their offspring being “socialized” by a bad and hazardous world. The Wall Street Journal cites Moselle’s comment: “It’s not like they were chained. … They were just not socializing with the outside world. They didn’t leave the house because they were scared.” She documents the family’s odd and fascinating—mostly by virtue of its oddity—story, but seems generally unconcerned with probing the larger questions at work.

The movie’s production notes provide a sketch of the family’s background: Peruvian-born Oscar aspired to be a musician. He met and married Susanne, a hippie from the American Midwest, in 1989 and became a Hare Krishna devotee. In 1994, after the birth of five children—Visnu, Bhagavan, Govinda, Narayana and Mukunda—the family traveled around the country looking for opportunities for Oscar to become a rock star, during which time one of the children was birthed in their van. In 1996, the family moved to the Manhattan housing project. There, the last two children—Krsna and Jagadisa—were born.

In The Wolfpack, the boys explain that Oscar believes that having a job makes one a social slave and robot. Susanne gets money from the state for homeschooling. Clearly protective of their shy, somewhat bewildered mother, they discuss Oscar’s abusive, domineering nature, made worse by his drinking. Only toward the movie’s conclusion does a dejected Oscar appear on screen. Earlier, he makes a brief comment regarding the family’s shabby living quarters.

In January 2010 Mukunda finally escaped the apartment, wandering the streets wearing a Michael Meyers mask. (Meyers is the psychotic killer in theHalloween horror movie series.) He was arrested and spent some time in a hospital psych ward. In April 2010, the brothers started regularly leaving the apartment as a pack, a bizarre vision of dark hair, black suits and sunglasses.

The Wolfpack

It was at that time that Moselle met the boys. She states in the film’s production notes that it “was serendipitous that I met these boys the first week they started going out into the world. It almost felt as if I had discovered a long lost tribe, except it was not from the edges of the world but from the streets of Manhattan. I was moved by their openness, resilience and sense of humor, and I formed a trust with them that could never be duplicated.”

Explaining that it was Oscar who introduced his sons to both classic and cult films, Moselle states that the boys “liked the violent, horrific, morally complicated films the best.” Thus began their obsession with filmmaker Quentin Tarantino [hence the Reservoir Dogs look]. “It opened their eyes to film outside the realms of the standard Hollywood films they were used to watching. Since films were their world, they started to interpret these looks into their wardrobe.”

At one point, the boys explain that their apartment was raided by a police SWAT team looking for a cache of weapons, but finding instead an array of home-made props. Although everyone in the family was handcuffed—a frightening ordeal—the Angulo boys speak about the incident very casually.

In spite of The Wolfpack ’s somewhat careless construction, it has endearing moments. It is almost heartbreaking, for example, when an emotional Susanne sends the boys off to see their first movie at a cinema (The Fighter), acting as if they were traveling to the other side of the world. Or when for the first time in decades Susanne speaks to her mother in Michigan, thrilled like a kid in a candy store. There is also the amusing sequence of the boys at Coney Island, lathering their bodies with sun block (“We don’t need sun. We are vampires.”)

The film never addresses itself to the reasons why Oscar and Susanne are so overwhelmed by the problems of society and especially why Oscar is such a misanthrope. One would have thought that this was rather central to any serious examination of the family’s circumstances. It is telling that Moselle apparently takes all this for granted.

Indeed, the parents’ disorientation is consistent with that of a substantial social layer, and even a portion of a generation. The Wolfpack never makes what seems an obvious connection between the father’s view of American society as a bottomless pit of sin and iniquity (crime, violence, drugs, gang activity, etc.) to be shunned at all costs and his sons being drawn to Tarantino’s shallow, sordid output and other gloomy films of the last several decades, likeThe Dark Knight, Taxi Driver, Halloween, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Don’t these films, in their own way, reflect and even validate precisely the outlook Oscar espoused, that the family needed to be locked away, protected from the dangerous, sinister modern world?

In any event, The Wolfpack still intrigues, largely because of the Angulo boys’ liveliness and tenacity.

Dope

Another form of individual effort at escape is at the center of Rick Famuyiwa’s comedy Dope, which starts with three dictionary definitions of its title—a term for drugs, a term for someone stupid and a term of high praise.

Dope

Malcolm (Shameik Moore) is a high school senior living with his single mom (Kimberly Elise), a bus driver, in the Bottoms, a gang-controlled neighborhood in the city of Inglewood, in southwestern Los Angeles County. He is a self-described “black geek,” a moniker that also applies to his best friends Jib (Tony Revolori, the lobby boy in Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel), who claims he’s 14 percent African, and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), a lesbian whose family tries to “pray away the gay.” Malcolm, who sports an old-fashioned flat-top hairdo and button-down collar, is a straight A student, has aced his SATs, plays in a punk rock band with Jib and Diggy and is determined to get into Harvard.

While the film’s opening sequences are amusing and charming, Dope veers off in a convoluted, scrambled direction involving the unloading of drugs that have fallen into Malcolm’s possession (to prove the point—see Wikipedia’s endless plot description). Implausibly, he sets up a clever and successful online drugstore, wowing an admissions officer who turns out to be a drug kingpin!

Moore is worth watching; Revolori and especially Clemons are also amiable. There is nothing cynical about the lead trio. Through them the movie attempts to break down certain stereotypes about “typical” Inglewood residents. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is drenched in clichés and populated with boilerplate bad boys: sneaker-stealing school bullies, neighborhood drug dealers and teens negotiating typical “hood traps.”

While it is refreshing to see a reasonable facsimile of working class youth on screen, most of the film’s better moments end up by sermonizing, along the lines of platitudes such as “Don’t underestimate yourself” and “Always aim high.”

Famuyiwa (The Wood, 1999, and Brown Sugar, 2002) has a reputation for making films that dare “to show middle-class blacks as ordinary Americans.” This seems a pretty limited and limiting ambition. While individuals like the overachiever Malcolm may well escape the relatively mean streets of Inglewood, Dope seems largely unconcerned with the majority condemned to remain.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/07/03/wolf-j03.html

“Steve Jobs,” portrait of the artist as tech guru: What we lose when we worship at the altar of commerce

When we abandon the arts, this is what’s left 

"Steve Jobs," portrait of the artist as tech guru: What we lose when we worship at the altar of commerce
Michael Fassbender in “Steve Jobs” (Credit: Universal Pictures)

The trailer for the new Steve Jobs biopic has just been released, and it looks like the movie could be formidable, maybe one of the films of the year. Despite changes in cast and director, the matching of director Danny Boyle with actor Michael Fassbender (along with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin) could summon serious dramatic firepower.

The movie seems to make explicit something that’s been swirling for a while now: That engineers, software jockeys, and product designers are the capital-A Artists of our age. They are what painters and sculptors were to the Renaissance, what composers and poets were to the 19th century, what novelists and, later, auteur film directors, were to the 20th.

The likening of tech savants to artists goes back at least as far as Richard Florida’s books about the creative class, but it picked up energy with the 2011 death of Jobs, who was hailed as a job creator by Republican politicians and mystic genius by many others. You see this same impulse in the opening of Jonah Lehrer’s now-discredited book “Imagine,” which compared the inventor of the Swiffer (which “continues to dominate the post-mop market”) with William James and Bob Dylan.

The metaphor becomes quite clear in “Steve Jobs,” which is based on Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography. In the trailer, Fassbender’s Jobs announces that he is not a musician – he is the conductor. “Musicians play their instruments,” he says. “I play the orchestra.” Stirring orchestral music – with stabbing violins – plays through the trailer. “Artists lead,” the Jobs character rants to a meeting at a particularly fraught time, and “hacks ask for a show of hands.”

But how many Americans – including those who can tell you the difference between every generation of iPhone – can name a single living conductor? What about a real visual artist? (That is, someone besides Lady Gaga.) As a recent CNN article asks, what about a famous living poet? (“No, not Maya Angelou. She died last year.”)

So how did we get here, where technology designers claiming the mantle of the Artist have replaced – in both the media and in the public’s esteem — the actual working, living, breathing artist?

The reason is not just the weird technological fetishism that has gripped American culture since the ‘80s. It also comes from how we as a society have spent our resources, and it goes way back.

While Americans, on the whole, didn’t worship culture with the same dedication as Europeans, the whole West saw the arts as something central, even a replacement for religion: After Nietzsche told us God was dead, theaters and concerts halls that looked like churches sprouted up not just in Britain and the continent, but in the wealthier and more settled cities in the States as well. Conductors like Toscanini became cultural heroes. Nations and plutocrats alike spent money to spread the gospel.

Cold War funding supported culture even more directly – Eisenhower sent Louis Armstrong overseas – and television stations and magazines considered the dissemination of the arts part of what they did. Maria Callas, Thelonious Monk, and Leonard Bernstein showed up not just in small-circulation specialty publications but on the cover of Time magazine.

For all the difference between their politics, generations, and backgrounds, the president who followed Eisenhower did not abandon the religion of culture: Kennedy had Robert Frost read at his inauguration. JFK spoke often, publicly and privately, about the importance of culture, writing that “There is a connection, hard to explain logically but easy to feel, between achievement in public life and progress in the arts.” Lyndon Johnson followed him by founding the National Endowment for the Arts. Nixon made war on a lot of the previous administration’s achievements, but not this.

Even more important, public schools offered music and arts education that gave at least some students a sense that this stuff mattered and was a basic part of being an educated, informed citizen.

How did all of this edifice collapse, so that music, poetry, theater, painting and everything else would be just another part of mix of commerce and “content”? That’s hard to make sense of, but let’s just say that the culture wars of the Bush I years, the demonization of artists and other subversives as a “cultural elite,” and the attacks on the canon by the academic left didn’t help. Nor did the conquest of neoliberalism, waged by Reagan and Thatcher and their respective brain trusts, which told us that markets are supreme and more important than musty old ideas like society or culture. And the globalization that came after gave narrow-minded utilitarians reason to slice and dice arts education. It’s still happening.

In the simplest sense: When you use state funding to help develop computer technology and what would become the Internet, and cut support for arts and culture, what do you think is gonna happen?

So what’s wrong with making Steve Jobs and others who came up with cool gadgets and efficient apps for getting pizza to people in San Francisco into the artists of our age? Doesn’t culture change over the decades and centuries?

Well, sort of, but here’s the key difference. The whole idea of poetry or a symphony or a novel is to get past daily life. It’s not just about cool or efficiency or even entertainment but an aspect of – to mangle the title of Geoff Dyer’s excellent essay collection – what was previously known as the human condition. We used to see culture as something that could be deeper than a really fast computer or a cordless mouse.

The literary essayist Richard Rodriguez has said that we live in “the age of the engineer.” If so, something really has died inside us. The Jobs movie looks great, but if this guys is our John Lennon or Nina Simone or Bernstein or Beethoven, we really are cooked.

Scott Timberg is a staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash.He’s the author of the new book, “Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class.”

Addiction is not a disease

A neuroscientist argues that it’s time to change our minds on the roots of substance abuse

A psychologist and former addict insists that the illness model for addiction is wrong, and dangerously so

Addiction is not a disease: A neuroscientist argues that it's time to change our minds on the roots of substance abuse

The mystery of addiction — what it is, what causes it and how to end it — threads through most of our lives. Experts estimate that one in 10 Americans is dependent on alcohol and other drugs, and if we concede that behaviors like gambling, overeating and playing video games can be addictive in similar ways, it’s likely that everyone has a relative or friend who’s hooked on some form of fun to a destructive degree. But what exactly is wrong with them? For several decades now, it’s been a commonplace to say that addicts have a disease. However, the very same scientists who once seemed to back up that claim have begun tearing it down.

Once, addictions were viewed as failures of character and morals, and society responded to drunks and junkies with shaming, scolding and calls for more “will power.” This proved spectacularly ineffective, although, truth be told, most addicts do quit without any form of treatment. Nevertheless, many do not, and in the mid-20th century, the recovery movement, centered around the 12-Step method developed by the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, became a godsend for those unable to quit drinking or drugging on their own. The approach spread to so-called “behavioral addictions,” like gambling or sex, activities that don’t even involve the ingestion of any kind of mind-altering substance.

Much of the potency of AA comes from its acknowledgement that willpower isn’t enough to beat this devil and that blame, rather than whipping the blamed person into shape, is counterproductive. The first Step requires admitting one’s helplessness in the face of addiction, taking recovery out of the arena of simple self-control and into a realm of transcendence. We’re powerless over the addictive substance, and trust in a Higher Power, and the program itself, to provide us with the strength and strategy to quit. But an important principle of the 12 Steps is that addiction is chronic and likely congenital; you can be sober indefinitely, but you will never be cured. You will always remain an addict, even if you never use again.

The flourishing of the 12-Step movement is one of the reasons why we now routinely describe addiction as a “disease.” To have a disease — instead of, say, a dangerous habit — is to be powerless to do anything except apply the prescribed cure. A person with a disease is unfortunate, rather than foolish or weak or degenerate. Something innate in your body, particularly in your brain, has made you exceptionally susceptible to getting hooked. You always have and always will contain a bomb, the important question is how to avoid setting a match to it. Another factor promoting the disease model is that it has ushered addiction under the aegis of the healthcare industry, whether in the form of an illness whose treatment can be charged to an insurance company or as the focus of profit-making rehab centers.

This conception of addiction as a biological phenomenon seemed to be endorsed over the past 20 years as new technologies have allowed neuroscientists to measure the human brain and its activities in ever more telling detail. Sure enough, the brains of addicts are physically different — sometimes strikingly so — from the brains of average people. But neuroscience giveth and now neuroscience taketh away. The recovery movement and rehab industry (two separate things, although the latter often employs the techniques of the former) have always had their critics, but lately some of the most vocal have been the neuroscientists whose findings once lent them credibility.

One of those neuroscientists is Marc Lewis, a psychologist and former addict himself, also the author of a new book “The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction is Not a Disease.” Lewis’s argument is actually fairly simple: The disease theory, and the science sometimes used to support it, fail to take into account the plasticity of the human brain. Of course, “the brain changes with addiction,” he writes. “But the way it changes has to do with learning and development — not disease.” All significant and repeated experiences change the brain; adaptability and habit are the brain’s secret weapons. The changes wrought by addiction are not, however, permanent, and while they are dangerous, they’re not abnormal. Through a combination of a difficult emotional history, bad luck and the ordinary operations of the brain itself, an addict is someone whose brain has been transformed, but also someone who can be pushed further along the road toward healthy development. (Lewis doesn’t like the term “recovery” because it implies a return to the addict’s state before the addiction took hold.)

“The Biology of Desire” is grouped around several case studies, each one illustrating a unique path to dependency. A striving Australian entrepreneur becomes caught up in the “clarity, power and potential” he feels after smoking meth, along with his ability to work long hours while on the drug. A social worker who behaves selflessly in her job and marriage constructs a defiant, selfish, secret life around stealing and swallowing prescription opiates. A shy Irishman who started drinking as a way to relax in social situations slowly comes to see social situations as an occasion to drink and then drinking as a reason to hole up in his apartment for days on end.

Each of these people, Lewis argues, had a particular “emotional wound” the substance helped them handle, but once they started using it, the habit itself eventually became self-perpetuating and in most cases ultimately served to deepen the wound. Each case study focuses on a different part of the brain involved in addiction and illustrates how the function of each part — desire, emotion, impulse, automatic behavior — becomes shackled to a single goal: consuming the addictive substance. The brain is built to learn and change, Lewis points out, but it’s also built to form pathways for repetitive behavior, everything from brushing your teeth to stomping on the brake pedal, so that you don’t have to think about everything you do consciously. The brain is self-organizing. Those are all good properties, but addiction shanghais them for a bad cause.

As Lewis sees it, addiction really is habit; we just don’t appreciate how deeply habit can be engraved on the brain itself. “Repeated (motivating) experience” — i.e., the sensation of having one’s worries wafted away by the bliss of heroin — “produce brain changes that define future experiences… So getting drunk a lot will sculpt the synapses that determine future drinking patterns.” More and more experiences and activities get looped into the addiction experience and trigger cravings and expectations like the bells that made Pavlov’s dogs salivate, from the walk home past a favorite bar to the rituals of shooting up. The world becomes a host of signs all pointing you in the same direction and activating powerful unconscious urges to follow them. At a certain point, the addictive behavior becomes compulsive, seemingly as irresistibly automatic as a reflex. You may not even want the drug anymore, but you’ve forgotten how to do anything else besides seek it out and take it.

Yet all of the addicts Lewis interviewed for “The Biology of Desire” are sober now, some through tried-and-true 12-Step programs, others through self-designed regimens, like the heroin addict who taught herself how to meditate in prison. Perhaps it’s no surprise that a psychologist would argue for some form of talk therapy addressing the underlying emotional motivations for turning to drugs. But Lewis is far from the only expert to voice this opinion, or to recommend cognitive behavioral therapy as a way to reshape the brain and redirect its systems into less self-destructive patterns.

Without a doubt, AA and similar programs have helped a lot of people. But they’ve also failed others. One size does not fit all, and there’s a growing body of evidence that empowering addicts, rather than insisting that they embrace their powerlessness and the impossibility of ever fully shedding their addiction, can be a road to health as well. If addiction is a form of learning gone tragically wrong, it is also possible that it can be unlearned, that the brain’s native changeability can be set back on track. “Addicts aren’t diseased,” Lewis writes, “and they don’t need medical intervention in order to change their lives. What they need is sensitive, intelligent social scaffolding to hold the pieces of their imagined future in place — while they reach toward it.”

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of “The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia” and has a Web site,magiciansbook.com.

BAN “GONE WITH THE WIND?”

Gone_With_The_WindP33P20026

 

Whatcha say folks? Now that we are banning/censoring all things Confederate, should we ban “Gone With The Wind?” (Both the book and the movie?) If so, we could have book burnings/BBQs for the 4th. How about the yearly commemorative charge of the VMI cadets (one of my distant relatives was in the original)? Trash all the Confederate graveyards? I understand people are rushing to buy GWTW DVDs lest pressure mounts to take it off the shelves.

Why Apple’s response to Charleston is so stupid

Banning games isn’t the answer: 

When it comes to disowning the Confederate battle flag, there’s a right way and a wrong way. Apple chose the latter

Banning games isn't the answer: Why Apple's response to Charleston is so stupid
Tim Cook (Credit: AP/Richard Drew)

Earlier this week, in response to South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s call for the Confederate battle flag to be removed from the state’s Capitol grounds, I wrote a post commending the governor for doing what was obviously right.

But I also expressed concern that she was doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, and that, by defending her move with the language of feelings, she risked perpetuating a misunderstanding of why so many find the Confederate battle flag objectionable. It’s not about politeness or manners, I argued; it’s about fighting white supremacy.

In the mere two days since that post went live, it has become clear that Haley’s break with the flag, that once-unimpeachable shibboleth of Southern politics, wasn’t an act of bravery so much as good professional instincts. Not only has Haley been followed by fellow Southern Republicans in the South Carolina legislature, as well as inMississippi and Alabama, but private sector behemoths like Walmart, Amazon, Sears and eBay have decided to ditch the flag, too. And now comes word that mighty Apple has hopped on the bandwagon, kicking multiple rebel-flagged games from its App Store.

Unfortunately, however, it appears that Haley was ahead of the curve in more ways than one. Because just as Apple has joined her in no longer wanting to legitimize the trademark of the Army of Northern Virginia, its seems to have also done so without actually understanding why. The company claims it’s only zapping apps that feature the flag “in offensive or mean-spirited ways.” But when you look at some of their targets, including many games about the Civil War itself, that doesn’t hold up. A different, stupider explanation — that the company is treating the flag as if it were no less dangerous than the eyes of Medusa — makes more sense.

Take the “Civil War” game series by HexWar Games, for example, which saw at least four of its editions banned by Apple. To state the obvious, there are war games; and they’re war games about the Civil War. When it comes to the mission of the Confederate army, I’ll agree with Ulysses S. Grant’s famous description of it as “one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.” But that hardly makes the use of the flag in a game about the war “mean-spirited” or “offensive.” Apple says they won’t touch apps that “display the Confederate flag for educational or historical uses,” and though I doubt these war games are educational, they are historical, at least.

Now, if these games soon get their App Store privileges back and once again find themselves on Apple’s virtual shelves, I won’t be surprised. According to Kotaku, this isn’t the first time the people running the App Store have shown signs of being either confused or incompetent. And despite what the angry young men of #GamerGatemay argue in dozens upon dozens of ever-so-angry tweets, this is not exactly the greatest infringement on liberty the world has ever seen. Stipulating all of that, though, I still think Apple’s decision was ominous; and I still believe it should especially concern sincere anti-racists.
Because if we adopt a zero-tolerance policy regarding the Confederate flag, you can guess, looking at the present, where it’s likely to lead. The idea that white supremacy is a distinctly Southern affliction would likely be reinforced, even though it has always been a fantasy. The mistaken view of racism as an artifact of history would likely get strengthened, too. People would likely treat the flag like we treat the word “nigger,” hoping that if they ban it from their consciousness, they can make racism disappear. And the myth that we can wall ourselves off from the nasty parts of our heritage, which is one of American society’s more distinctive neuroses, would become even harder to shake.

A superior course, I’d argue, would be to deepen our understanding of our past, so that we can see the connections between the injustices of history of history and the iniquities of the present. Instead of exiling the flag from the culture as if it never existed, we’d acknowledge how the legacy of the Confederacy is still with us today. We’d recognize white supremacy as an inextricable part of the country’s founding, but not one we can’t defeat so long as we have purpose and conviction. And the cherry on top? Nobody would have to give up their video games.

Elias Isquith is a staff writer at Salon, focusing on politics. Follow him on Twitter at @eliasisquith.

Where is Gay America going next?

future queer

chee-lede

BY ALEXANDER CHEE
ILLUSTRATION BY NEIL GILKS
JUNE 23, 2015

THE DAY IN 2011 THAT I WENT TO THE OFFICE of the city clerk in lower Manhattan with my partner Dustin to register for our domestic partnership was coincidentally also the first day same-sex partners were allowed to register for marriage in the state of New York. A reporter was on hand, hoping to get a quote. As a prompt, she told us that the state’s marital forms had not been updated: Any couple registering that day would be required to designate one person as the man, and the other, the woman. Did we have any reaction?

“We’re not here for that,” we said, smiling, as we passed her, and then we found we had to keep saying it at every point of the process, to all of the helpful clerks at each step who reminded us that we could register to marry instead. We thanked them and continued on to get our partnership. We had discussed marriage and decided it wasn’t for us, not yet, maybe not ever. A domestic partnership suited us. We joked a little afterward about which one of us would have been the man, which the woman, but without question, I had the uncanny sense of entering another world, one in which government officials recognized our relationship in a friendly, helpful way, even if we weren’t going to marry—and even if the forms weren’t quite ready for the many people like me about to get married. I remember thinking: This is the future.

I’ve lived through several of these moments. In 1995, for example, whenhighly active antiretroviral therapy, or what became known as the “AIDS cocktail,” was approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and then later entered the lives of my friends with HIV or AIDS, I went from worrying if they were going to live, to worrying that they still smoked too much now that they were going to live. Or in 2007, when my sister, who’s a teacher, invited me to speak to her high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, and the students there asked me why I didn’t come out in high school. I had to explain that such an act was unimaginable for a boy from Maine in 1984—as was anything like a student Gay-Straight Alliance—and I could tell my past was as unimaginable to them as their present was to me.

Or in 2008, when the Democratic National Convention adopted “Health care is a right” into its platform for the presidency. I remembered staffing a volunteer table for ACT UP in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood in 1991, on the corner of Castro and 18th Street, and on my table were posters, stickers, and t-shirts that bore the same slogan in all caps—ACT UP slogan house style.

I wore one of those shirts to model for passers-by. People walked by me, uncomfortably most of the time, but on occasion, someone would come up and ask for a sticker or a t-shirt, and it felt like a little victory. This presidential platform moment, while huge, felt strangely small at the same time—still not enough.

ACT UP was trying to explain to Americans that AIDS could affect all of us, that health care that ended once your disease was expensive could affect more than gay men with HIV or AIDS. We were trying to tell them about the future—a future they didn’t yet see and would be forced to accept if they failed to act. But there was an epidemic of denial happening alongside AIDS, the belief that you could not get AIDS, not really, unless you were gay—and that you would never need the protections people with HIV needed. In 1990, health care was not something most people feared losing, and employer-based health care was not yet considered a business cost too high to bear. Blue Cross Blue Shield was not yet run for profit. But we had seen our friends and lovers abandoned by doctors and shunned by hospitals, and as we knew only too well, drug companies were run for profit, and there were drugs that needed to be tested in order for people with HIV to survive. The number of people infected in 1990 seemed too low to the people running spreadsheets at drug companies, and so they weren’t doing the tests on drugs that they could. There was no upside for them in making drugs that they believed would only benefit perhaps 50,000 people. This is a fate any American with a rare disease has faced—not just people with HIV—they quickly learn that their lives are the cost of doing business.

As of 2013, according to the World Health Organization, 35 million people were estimated to be living with HIV or AIDS globally, and 39 million have died from the disease. The epidemic of denial won, and now everyone knows there is money in the making of drugs for AIDS. There is now, sadly, a great deal of money in it. And, as some of my old ACT UP friends have noted, there is now no money in curing it. Instead, there is PrEP, the one-pill HIV, pre-exposure prophylaxis, which promises condom-free sex, if you can afford it, at a price tag for the uninsured of $8,000 to $14,000 a year.

WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS OF WHAT YOU’VE INVENTED?That’s a question I often ask my students in fiction writing, as a way to get them to generate plots organically out of the little scenes that first come to them. So what are the implications of what we’ve invented?

For many Americans, marriage equality represents a capstone “here at last” moment for gay people, but it really is more of a beginning.

I live in a world today that I never would have imagined possible. I can serve in the military as openly gay, if I wanted. I can join my friends as they passionately, freely, and publicly debate the merits and downsides of the sex life that PrEP makes possible. I can choose from male, female, and “custom,” as well as my preferred pronoun, on my Facebook profile, where I get notices about the upcoming reunion of ACT UP SF alongside updates about my upcoming high school reunion. And, yes, I can marry in 37 states.

The pursuit of marriage equality has changed us. We privilege the life of couples over those who might never marry in a way we never did before. For many Americans, marriage equality represents a capstone “here at last” moment for gay people, but we know it really is more of a beginning. It is still legal to be fired for being gay or transgender in more than half of U.S. states. Those openly gay soldiers, should they marry, can be denied shared retirement benefits for their spouses in states where marriage equality is not (yet) the law. Increased trans visibility and the conversation around gender identities have generated more awareness than ever before about trans lives, and has resulted, for example, in advances, such as the inclusion of trans girls in the Girl Scouts. Yet terrible violence against trans people continues, often as brutal murders, many of them left unsolved, should they even be investigated, especially against trans people of color. Religious conservatives, meanwhile, are busy using the courts and legislatures to try to deny us the rights we have only recently gained—claiming that upholding the laws that have been passed oppresses their religious freedom, and that they must be allowed the liberty of their bigotry.

And so it is with a very strange sort of ambivalence that I await news regarding marriage from the Supreme Court. I feel we are at the edge of another one of those uncanny thresholds—that the future is sneaking up on me again. At my most pessimistic, I fear that this decision, along with the appearance of PrEP, is a sign of some sort of Freudian repetition cycle the whole country is in, in which marriage equality is always being fought for and decided, and AIDS is always the ground for advances in treatment instead of a cure—all while these other very serious issues also need attention, and we fight forever over the same inch of ground.

 

IF I WERE TO WRITE A NOVEL ABOUT A GAY MAN LIKE MYSELF in the future—let’s say the year 2035—his ability to marry another man, whatever the Supreme Court ruling, wouldn’t be in question—it could even be the conventional choice, the one his friends laugh at even as they attend because they love him. He might even be descended from two generations of officially recognized gay marriages. “Gay,” “Queer,” “Straight,” “Same-Sex”: these would be deeply retrograde terms—orthodoxies to be resisted, or historical fictions, even. Given the press of overpopulation on us now, I could imagine my character as having chosen a childless, single queerness, and could depict this as the green choice, sexually and emotionally. The rearing of children could be something that is done only rarely, especially given its increasing cost. More and more, having children is something only the wealthy can afford in the United States, so in 2035 it wouldn’t be science fiction to imagine an entrenched oligarchy as the only class legally allowed to have them. In a political twist, China’s one-child policy could be seen retroactively as both visionary and not having gone far enough.

My protagonist could find the process of questioning his sexuality and gender as normal as we now find deciding what to watch on television. He might have no single sexual identification—omnisexuality—and that could be the overwhelmingly mainstream norm. Or he could be a part of an elite group of wealthy gay men, all of them seronegative and residing in an intentional community sexually sealed off from anyone who can’t pass a credit check and an HIV test.

Marrying more than one person at the same time might also be possible for him within this system, especially if marriage is finally seen as the economic system it is—with fundamentalist Mormonism as something of a model for the legal future queer, but more like if the sister wives all ran away with each other and set up a home together. Or maybe my protagonist lives closeted inside a Christian radical white supremacist plantation state, complete with death camps for sexual deviants, married to a woman who is, perhaps, closeted herself.

Yet, when I think of the future for myself in real life and not fiction, I stick to what I know. Which is almost nothing. My hope is that marriage equality queers marriage, rather than straightening queers—that we reinvent it and keep reinventing it, and sexuality is finally acknowledged as having no inherent moral value except, perhaps, when it is ignored. But my generation never planned for this. Many of the men and women who might have showed us how to grow old while being queer are dead, and most of us, well, we didn’t think we’d live this long, either. One of the most punk rock things I can think of now for me and my friends from ACT UP, is for us to grow old with the people we love, however we choose to do it. Getting to be an old queer is our next revolution.

If I am alive in 2035, I will be 67, and I can easily imagine myself stepping down from a plane in Berlin to begin my retirement with Dustin, who, while he doesn’t quite believe in marriage and may never marry me, will also never leave me. In Germany, our immigration status as a domestically partnered couple is today protected in a way it wouldn’t be, say, if we were moving to the United States. And given the way marriage equality is in some states delegitimizing domestic partnership as a path to shared benefits, it could be that, at that time, we would be moving to avoid being forced to marry.

If I’m still in the United States, most likely, I’d be in the Catskills, having expanded the hunting cottage I just bought with my partner and our friends, Kera and Meredith, into something like a retirement compound. Kera and Meredith’s son Theo will be 23 by then, have just graduated college, if we still educate our young that way. Dustin and I are his gay uncles, and I will have taught him to pee standing up in the woods—we’re working on it now—and he won’t probably even remember it.

The future I can’t imagine, but want to imagine, is one where we’re all at peace, working toward something else. I find myself wanting to ask the religious right, which has fought so hard, all my life, to demonize me, if that is really the best use of their time on this earth. Because, as I think of my future, I think of all that I could have done if I hadn’t been fighting for the right to the basic freedoms we’re all supposed to enjoy as Americans—freedoms gay people have never fully had. I hope we find some way to live together in peace. I just don’t yet see how.

Alexander Chee’s new novel, The Queen of the Night, is forthcoming in February 2016 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 

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