Daily Archives: 20 May 2015

The Americanization of Godzilla

Godzilla“History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of men.” That bit of wisdom from Blue Öyster Cult (or Richard Meltzer if you prefer), is a condensation of the 1954 classic, Godzilla. Last weekend, I got the Criterion Collect DVD of the film. It was very exciting. I grew up watching Godzilla films, but I had never seen the original. So I watched both versions — Japanese and American — twice: once straight and once with what is very possibly the best commentary ever, by David Kalat. It is quite an experience — especially because the two versions are so different.

Godzilla was such a big deal in Japan, that when American distributors bought it, they decided not just to dub the film; they shot extra scenes and turned the main (human) character into an American reporter, played by Raymond Burr.[1] And it works remarkably well. The film editor Terry O Morse was hired to direct the whole thing, and with television writer Al C Ward, he used the existing movie to tell the story from a remarkably different perspective. It’s especially interesting to see how conversations are totally changed from one version to the other.

But even while marveling at just how clever Morse and his team was, there is a fundamental problem: they didn’t do a very good job of matching the style of the original. Ishirō Honda and his team made a very good film that is visually interesting even without Godzilla. The camera is relatively fluid, the shots are always well framed, the lighting is realistic. It’s what we’ve come to expect from feature films. The scenes with Burr are static and flat. Great care is taken to make things match up, but it does feel choppy.

In addition to this, the film is excessively narrated. I suspect that this decision was made so as to require as little dubbing as possible. And that does work. There is relatively little on screen dubbing. And despite the fact that the dubbing actors didn’t even get to look at the scenes they were dubbing, it works quite well. But it does mean that we see a lot of the backs of America doubles while the dialog takes place.

Still, all of this occurred to me because I had just seen the original. I think it wouldn’t be nearly as clear if I had just watched the film cold. But the original is clearly the superior film. That’s not just because of the awkwardness of the added material. The original is also a more thoughtful and subtle film. It actively engages with an issue that I care deeply about: the responsibility of scientists for the uses of their findings. The two scientists in the film are disgusted by the state of the world. On the other hand, sometimes you just need to get through the crisis at hand. It doesn’t matter that, “History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of men.”

[1] It’s very cool. At the end, he has Godzilla on the stand. “And was it not you who destroyed Japan — going so far as to chew on a rail car?!” And Gozilla broke down, “It’s true! I couldn’t stop myself!” Alright, maybe not. But I think Godzilla vs Perry Mason would have been a fantastic film.

Wisdom From a Bitter Dead Man

Our TownYes, now you know. Now you know! That’s what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those… of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years. To be always at the mercy of one self-centered passion, or another. Now you know — that’s the happy existence you wanted to go back to. Ignorance and blindness.

—Simon Stimson
Character quoted in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town

Being for LGBT Rights Doesn’t Make You a Liberal

GCHQ Celebrates LGBT

The British surveillance agency GCHQ (more or less their version of the NSA) showed its liberal colors by literally lighting its exterior with rainbow colored lights. Glenn Greenwald is not pleased, GCHQ’s Rainbow Lights: Exploiting Social Issues for Militarism and Imperialism. He related this to a very general tactic that we’ve seen for decades of wars being sold as liberal causes. But of course, all that is really going on is that liberal excuses are being offered for conservative and nationalistic policies. This is how you get people like Peter Beinart and Jonathan Chait to support a bloody good war: give them some (Any!) rationale for the war and they hop right on board.

I remember what is perhaps the best example of this. As we were set to go to war with Afghanistan, we were feed all this information about how terrible the Taliban were to women. This, of course, had the advantage of being true. But just like the old liberal cause for war — “Free people from oppressive regimes!” — this excuse had nothing to do with the reason that we were going to war. There are lots of regimes all over the world that treat women as bad or worse. But we weren’t invading them. (Also note: when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, it too brought equitable treatment of women — but that didn’t change our opinions of that war.)

I used to think about this a lot when I was a kid. We supposedly went to war in Vietnam to keep the country democratic and the people free. Yet we were just fine with Latin American despots like Augusto Pinochet. And as became very clear shortly after that time, democracy is not something we approve of if the people vote for governments we don’t like. You have to be pretty naive to think that we go to war for the benefit of the people we are bombing. It’s a pretty story, but it is almost never the case.

It should be seen as a good thing that now LGBT rights are mainstream enough that they are used by neocons to sell wars. But there is one thing that bothers me. Both LGBT and women’s rights are issues that are most effective to sell to the upper classes — Chris Hedges’ “liberal class.” The ultimate liberal cause would be the poor: that regime is harming the poor! But we don’t hear that. And I think we don’t hear that because no one cares what the working poor in this country think. For one thing, they are too busy surviving to pay much attention. The “liberal class” — like all classes — only care about themselves. The “liberal class” is filled with women and LGBT members. So let’s go to war anywhere because those kinds of people are being oppressed, am I right?!

This gets to one of the most depressing elements of politics in America. Over the last thirty years, “liberalism” has largely been cleaned of economics and foreign policy. The Democratic Party mostly stands for social issues. African Americans are largely as poor as they were fifty years ago, but at least they have the right to vote! Women may face systemic career discrimination, but at least they have the constitutional — but often not the practical — right to an abortion! LGBT members may not be able to afford a wedding, but they largely have the right to one![1] Modern liberalism sure is grand: if you are rich, it really does make you equal!

There seems to be a general political law here. If GCHQ or other odious government institutions are ostentatiously in support of certain kinds of rights, then those rights are no longer liberal. They are just mainstream. That’s especially true of LGBT rights. If you are against them, then you are a bigot. If you are for them, it doesn’t mean you a liberal — just that you are a human. Liberals need to be held to a higher standard than just figuring out an issue at the same time the average American does. (And yes: that was a reference to President Obama.)

[1] None of this is to say that any of these gains are unimportant. Most especially, the right to vote is very important. And African American show this by voting at high (for Americans) levels.

The Paternalism of Libertarianism

Matt BruenigAbout a week ago, Matt Bruenig wrote, A Note on Libertarian Anti-Paternalism. It was about this curious fact that the philosophical basis for libertarianism is paternalistic. He went back to Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, and looked at the argument for private property. And Nozick’s argument is utilitarian: yes, private property reduces freedom, but that’s okay because it leads to a society in which everyone is better off. So there’s the libertarian answer to the question, “Why can’t I have the liberty to go wherever I want?” And the answer is, “Because depriving you of that liberty is the best thing for you.” In other words: paternalism.

This is a good example of why Nozick is one of the very few libertarians worth reading. At least he understands that private property is something that has to be argued. Whenever I talk to libertarians, they take private property as a given — a matter of faith. This is why arguing with them is usually so frustrating. Given their unstated assumptions, their arguments are relatively straightforward — still full of problems, but at least they can be argued against directly. It is apparently beyond most libertarians’ comprehension that private property mightn’t be a given. It’s especially ironic considering that libertarians are fond of talking about how “rights imply responsibilities,” but according to them, property rights don’t imply any responsibilities at all.

Bruenig noted another irony. Libertarians commonly complain about state paternalism, but the paternalism of private property is far more powerful:

Under the paternalism of property, you have no choice. The propertarians declare that the system is for your own good, and if you disagree, too bad. You can’t go on ignoring property systems. If you do, violence will visit you shortly.

Under the paternalism of modern-day nudges, you do have a choice though. Laws that put cigarettes behind counters out of sight do not forbid you from buying them. Laws that limit the cup size of sodas does not prevent you from drinking as much soda as you want. Laws that put gruesome labels on cigarettes also do not prevent you from buying them. Conceivable laws that would forbid putting sugary impulse buys near registers also would not prevent you from buying the things usually featured on those shelves. In all these kinds of cases, choice is entirely preserved. The paternalism only changes the decisional environment in which the choices are made. This is done “for your own good” in the same sense as keeping you off appropriated property is done “for your own good,” but again different because property paternalism is choice-destroying while nudging paternalism is choice-preserving.

Of course, when I was a libertarian, I didn’t go around complaining that buying cigarettes wasn’t convenient enough. I complained that the government put me in jail if they caught me anywhere around those particular drugs that it had decided were so bad. (Note: this is not an argument for libertarianism!) But a libertarian commenter, Dr J, responded with this astoundingly fatuous remark, “The ‘nudging paternalism’ of New York’s cigarette taxes ended up choking Eric Garner. It’s difficult to see what libertarians are advocating that’s harder or more problematic than that.” Check out the comments on Bruenig’s article for a full refutation of that. (But is it really necessary? The problem is obvious.)

One of the threads in the comments is worth highlighting, however. It was between the very same Dr J and Matt (not Bruenig). It had to do with something that Bruenig has written about a lot: the non-aggression principle. Following on his ridiculous argument, Dr J said that he didn’t think that police should attack peaceful people. I think we can all agree on that, which pretty much makes it a comment not worth making. But Matt decided to press on just what he meant by the this whole “peaceful” business.

Dr J was constantly about two questions behind in the dialog. Matt asked what about people who peacefully walk into a building and take things. Dr J said they should be charged for the item. Matt then asked what if the people wouldn’t pay for the item. And so on. I’m sure you can see where he’s going, even if Dr J couldn’t. This led to this clear knockdown:

Dr J: Well, that’s the cool thing about being the cops. There are hundreds of thousands of distinct crimes out there, and the list keeps getting longer. If you’re of a mind to choke someone, you can probably find a rationale.

Matt: Ok great, so you’ve admitted your appeal to Eric Garner was disingenuous.

Dr J: Huh?

Matt: You’ve just admitted that if cops want to choke people, they will find a reason to choke people, whether that’s over cigarette taxes or trespassing on “property.” So what was the point of appealing to the cigarette taxes as an example of deadly paternalism?

And it all begins again with Dr J claiming that the problem is that there are too many laws. But of course most of those laws are related to property rights. And on and on. Eventually, Matt gets Dr J to sort of understand the question, at least. But Dr J is still deeply confused, “So you’d be okay with me exercising my freedom to peacefully break your window, walk through your home, and take your computer?” And that, my friends, begs the question in the mostly clueless way imaginable. All Dr J has managed is to argue himself in a circle: property rights are not paternalistic because property rights are not paternalistic. Or something.

The thing is that Dr J is clearly smart. In general, I find that libertarians are smart — subgeniuses. As I’ve explained before, this term refers to smart people, but not really smart people — ones who don’t understand what they don’t understand. Dr J must have commented at least 30 times on that article, with responses to them all. Yet I doubt he went away any the wiser. There’s a reason why I say that libertarianism is a theology. Libertarians just have faith — it all makes sense to them. And that’s fine. But it is no different than the thinking that comes from a born against Christian.

Morning Music: Blue Öyster Cult

Spectres - Blue Oyster CultFor reasons that will become clear this evening, I’ve had the Blue Öyster Cult song “Godzilla” going through my head. When I was younger, I didn’t like the band. This was largely because I had this friend who was very obnoxious in his fandom for the band. On reflection, I don’t necessarily think he really liked the band. But he saw that certain people he admired like them. There are worse reasons to like a band. Not that I can think any.

But I rediscovered them when I was about 30, and I was impressed. There was one thing that had changed in me: I now understood that heavy metal was the silliest music known to man — the only kind of music even in competition with it was Disco, and it is nice enough to make the joke crystal clear. With heavy metal, it is not clear. And that’s especially true when you are a teenager and all the people you know take it so serious.

My friend Will once noted to me that a huge number of heavy metal songs are about monsters. At the time, I didn’t know what to make of that. Now I know: because it’s silly. Okay, so Rush sings about Ayn Rand philosophy. Very few bands can be that silly. The more serious heavy metal appears to be, the more silly it is. And that is where Blue Öyster Cult stands out for not taking themselves too seriously, even while embracing the faux seriousness of the genre. (Although “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” is an unforgivable sin.)

“Godzilla,” off their fifth album, Spectres, is perhaps the best example of explicit heavy metal silliness. It isn’t even a monster song; it’s really a film song. Is it as silly as Ayn Rand and the sign of the goat? Well, no. But it’ll do.

Anniversary Post: Great Temple Massacre

Pedro de AlvaradoOn this day in 1520, the Massacre in the Great Temple occurred. This happened while the Spanish had Moctezuma under house arrest. He had asked Cortés’ representative, Pedro de Alvarado, if his people could celebrate Toxcatl. While as many as a thousand Aztecs were celebrating the event, Alvarado went in with his men and killed them all. He then took all the precious stones and metal from their bodies. Cortés was apparently displeased and came back, but by the time he made it, Moctezuma had been murdered.

Now there are Spanish stories that supposedly explain all this. Alvarado apparently claimed that he simply intervened to stop a human sacrifice. Why doing that would require killing upwards of a thousand unarmed and mostly naked people is never made clear. It strikes me as an obvious lie to justify his theft. Plus, everything I’ve read about Alvarado indicates that he was a psychopath.

As for the murder of Moctezuma, it is usually reported as his having been stoned to death by his own people — upset about the massacre. But this strikes me as being between unlikely and impossible. Moctezuma was under house arrest. How did these angry Aztecs get to him? About the only possibility would be that Alvarado threw him out to them hoping that he could calm them. So regardless, Moctezuma was still killed by Alvarado.

Finally, I don’t want you to get the idea that Cortés was a good guy. He seems to have been a very capable conqueror. There is no reason to believe that he was especially worse than other Spaniards of his day — and he may have been better. But what Alvarado did made no long-term sense. The least you can say about him is that he wasn’t a psychopath.

So we mark this day, 495 years later.