Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for May 2011

Partial Objects takes on Chomsky

Somebody with the unfortunate handle of “Pastabagel” has written a delightfully snarky post about Foucault vs. Chomsky, where he identifies Chomsky’s core audience (socialist teens who think the United States is a kind of global father figure) and makes some accurate (and depressing) observations about political power.

The root problem with Chomsky is that he either doesn’t understand or is deliberating obscuring the difference between “force” and “coercion.” He doesn’t want to acknowledge the difference between voluntary and involuntary action. No choice is completely uncoerced. By Chomsky’s definition, hunger is a form of coercion. Scarcity is coercion. So the only way to achieve his perfect world would be to abolish scarcity.

Libertarians make a much more limited distinction between voluntary and involuntary action. You signed a contract because you’re hungry, but you signed the contract. Your employer is getting a bargain because you’re hungry, but he didn’t directly cause your hunger. All we can do is make sure you’re free to find another job once your belly’s full.

Conditions imposed by scarcity are not force. These conditions are imposed by nature, not man. We can’t dictate political terms to nature. We can’t abolish scarcity by popular vote. Politics only applies to the actions of human beings.

We can’t abolish hunger by popular vote — all we can do is make violence, fraud and theft illegal, and focus our attention on fighting scarcity.

Only crazy libertarians believe that, of course. The last 100 years of political thought, the entire foundation of our modern world is based on the idea that we can abolish scarcity by popular vote.

The Western world is so in love with this, so committed to the idea of voting away scarcity, they have borrowed trillions of dollars, destroyed decades of productive capacity, and created gigantic bureaucracies trying to turn lead into gold.

Even now, at the end, we’re committed to it. We’ve reached demographic critical mass, when the ratio of workers to consumers has become unsustainable. We’ve tried every trick in the book — shifting blame, unbalancing trade, and finally printing money, but the laws of nature remain the same.

We’re so determined to vote ourselves rich we’ve actually made it easier for human beings to enslave each other. We’ve created regulatory levers that concentrate power in the hands of bureaucrats who can be bought, sold, and traded like baseball cards.

Why bother competing in the marketplace when you can just fly on down to Washington and make your competition illegal?

We’re wasting trillions in productive capacity deciding how to carve a finite loaf of bread while fewer and fewer people are devoted to baking it.

But Pasta isn’t talking about money or scarcity, he’s talking about power — about the fundamental laws that create power and the prerogatives of those who wield it.

Chomsky is presented as the starry-eyed teenager who wants the world to be fair and Foucault is the cynical adult who wants to deal with the world as is.

The video clip below illustrates this fundamental conflict between “should” and “is.” Foucault is saying that even if Chomsky were to wave a magic wand and abolish “the system” tomorrow, the ostensibly neutral institutions of psychiatry and university education would rebuild it.

Foucault is referring to the educational system as an oblique source of power, but in my lifetime it’s become overt. The monolith of public education is obvious, but the university system is now about as “private” as the NHS.

Pasta is annoyed by all this talk of “should.” People with guns and money make the rules and people with guns and money are allowed to break them. Democracy was supposed to be our ultimate hedge against this tendency, but a funny thing happened on the way to the coliseum.

This is the crisis point we find ourselves at today. The utopians may have lost a few battles, but I think they won the war. Politicians who’ve spent a century telling us we can vote ourselves rich are now facing a population who believes them. Europe finally reached a point where even the most fervent true believers were forced to acknowledge the reality of scarcity.

They bit their lips and implemented “austerity” — 4% cuts in response to 40% deficits — and voters are rioting in the streets. Austerity parties in Spain, Germany, Greece, and the UK are all facing disaster at the polls. You told us we could take 8 weeks off and retire at 55 and that’s damn well what we’ll have. Scarcity is somebody else’s problem.

We’re about to face a crisis that democracy can’t solve. And I’m not just talking about Europe.

Written by Not Jaffo

May 24, 2011 at 18:19

Posted in Politics

Kevin Smith uses podcasts, Twitter to prosper in the age of niche marketing

I’ve never really been a Kevin Smith fan.

Kevin Smith is a director, responsible for some of the most influential films from my youth. “Clerks“,”Mallrats,” “Chasing Amy,” “Dogma” – his Jay and Silent Bob characters are cultural icons, but I never really drank the Kool-Aid.

Smith is a stoner icon, and while I’m cheerfully libertarian on paper, I’m incredibly conservative in my private life. I was born a 50-year-old man, so now that I’m 40, I feel like I’m finally growing into my age.

So yeah, I’m not his target audience, but I’ve heard Kevin on a couple podcasts lately, and I can’t help but admire his honesty.

Kevin Smith has no illusions about who he is or what he’s here for. He makes no apologies and wears no masks. He’s been incredibly forthright about his successes and failures, and he doesn’t hide from his mistakes.

He wears his mistakes like NASCAR racing endorsements, plastered in plain sight, as if he’s daring the world to notice them.

I admire this because Smith is not your standard bulletproof celebrity, divinely aloof from all criticism. He’s naturally touchy and oversensitive, but he confronts critics head-on, effectively leading with his chin.

He’s got one of the most popular Twitter feeds on the Internet – 1.8 million followers at the moment – and he posts to it constantly, presiding over an army of rabid fans.

Smith made news last year when a major airline declared him “too fat to fly” and forced him off a plane after he was (comfortably) in place with his seatbelt on.

Smith told the story on Marc Maron’s podcast back in January. He got bumped from the plane and begged the airline management for help. When they were condescending and unhelpful, he basically said, “This is your last chance to do the right thing. If I walk away now, in 30 minutes you’re gonna come looking for me.”

Smith was already a “Twitter millionaire” by that time, and he decided to put his fans to good use. He began tweeting like a madman from the airport waiting area, liberally copying messages to the airline’s public relations address.

Thirty minutes later, the manager tracked him down and offered him anything in the airline’s power to give, if he would just stop tweeting.

Don’t you wish you had 1 million Twitter followers?

A cautionary tale about customer service in the Internet age, but there’s a bigger point here, too. When the entertainment press turned on Smith for “bullying” the airline, he realized that a man with a million Twitter followers doesn’t really need the entertainment press anymore.

These days Kevin Smith is truly a “citizen of the Internet.” He’s on tour now, promoting his film “Red State,” but the core of his business is the close relationship he’s built with his fans.

He’s never going to make a Michael Bay blockbuster, but he’s not trying to. I think Kevin Smith is the first of many artists who are going to triumph in the age of niche marketing.

Kevin Smith isn’t making films for “everybody.” He’s found a core audience of fans who love his work and they generate enough revenue to keep him working. In 20 years the whole industry will be like this.

We’ll always have blockbusters, but increasingly, the Internet and alternative media will allow artists to create things cheaply and distribute them directly, bypassing traditional gatekeepers — forcing distributors to come chasing after them.

You don’t need a contract. You don’t need an agent. Just start throwing stuff on YouTube and see what sticks. You won’t get rich overnight, but you’ll be working. You’ll be making art for people who “get you” and that audience will grow every day.

Kevin Smith is exactly the kind of artist who will succeed in the new model. He’s brash with critics and humble with fans. He’s working on a personal level, telling stories that come from his life. He’s a one-man marketing machine who engages with his fans on a level that would terrify a traditional director.

But there’s one more thing that makes Kevin Smith special. Since 1994, he’s been working with Jason Mewes, a self-confessed drug addict who’s using the power of podcasts and public confession to stay sober.

Mewes works with Smith on the podcast “Jay and Silent Bob Get Old,” where he regales the audience with hilarious (and harrowing) tales of drug abuse and recovery. Oversharing as rehab? Not a treatment for the shy or faint of heart, but it’s working, and when you’re playing on the edge like this, results are all that matter.

I’ll never be a Kevin Smith fan, but I think he’s a good person, and the Internet rewards people who tell the truth and play it straight. I think Kevin Smith has stumbled onto a business model for the new millennium, and that a thousand directors will follow in his wake.

Written by Not Jaffo

May 24, 2011 at 05:24

Posted in Movies, Podcasts, Twitter

Once upon a time in the Bandit Kingdoms…

Many years ago, there was a giant Dungeons and Dragons campaign called Living Greyhawk, where the organizers carved up this giant fictional world and matched them up with states and countries in the real world.

Each state in the union (and quite a few foreign provinces) were matched up with countries in the world of Greyhawk.

Texas was given the Bandit Kingdoms, a group of lawless frontier kingdoms full of thieves and criminals.

Then, as part of the overall plot development in the world, an evil king named Iuz moved in next door and started turning everybody into undead slaves.

Each region in the Living Greyhawk campaign had a web site to keep their particular group organized. The Bandit Kingdoms site was my favorite. It featured a list of t-shirt slogans that I regard as a masterpiece of dark humor and game geekery.

If you ever played Dungeons and Dragons, if you ever rolled a character in Greyhawk, this list should be good for a smile at least.

=====
T-shirt design debate

Being co-ordinated by Pat.

List gathered by Marcia: Please thank her.
Wanted, Demonslayers with HP’s, AC’s, GMW’s and a better healer.
“We came. We fought. He kicked our asses!”
“You can serve me just as well dead as alive!”
“We keep planting the paladins but the population never seems to grow.”
A friend in need is just another opportunity for profit.
According to the campaign rules, you can play any non-evil alignment, so you can choose anything neutral or suicidal.
All our heroes work in Hallorn.
All you need for speak with dead is the head, right?
An average of 2 lost characters per player and growing.
Anything that is not nailed down is mine. Anything I can pry loose is NOT nailed down.
Anything that is not nailed down is ours. Anything we can pry loose is NOT nailed down.
As a matter of fact I DO detect as evil
Bandit Kingdoms Underground – Resistance or Death!
Bandit Kingdoms: Good is only skin deep. Evil goes all the way to the bone.
Bandit Kingdoms: The Original Rogue State
Bandit Kingdoms: Where the plot hook rarely catches you in the mouth.
Bandits R’ Us
Been there, done that, got the whip scars.
Brains, its what makes a body good.
Can someone give me a hand with the paladin? He tried to detect evil again.
Can’t we all just get along?
Children go hungry, demons walk the streets, and an evil demi-god rules over the land…looks like everything is back to normal.
Conga line of death starts here.
Dead adventurers are the biggest portion of our economy.
Death: it does a body good
Dishonor before death.
Don’t antagonize the Demon. He’s dating your sister.
Don’t antagonize the Demons! They run the tax office.
Don’t cut off their heads it ruins the resale value!
Don’t get excited — it’s just another demon.
Don’t oppress me, I get plenty of that back home.
Everything’s worth something to somebody.
Evil schmeevil
Free Lords Forever! (Time to kick Iuz’s butt)
Free Lords Forever, viva la Revolution!
Give me every thing you got. Yes even the boots.
GM: “You hear screaming at the end of the hall.” PC (40′ from the end of the hall): “I take 10 searching the square in front of me.”
Greyhawk the bodies!
How many evil acts does it take to be removed from the campaign?
How much do you think we can get for this?
I *AM* the lesser evil.
I came, I saw, I lost some levels!
I don’t have to outrun HIM; I just have to outrun YOU!
I exemplify all the BK virtues: Jaded, cynical, and amoral.
I gave my soul to Neroth and all I got was this stinking T-Shirt
I kill him and take his shoes.
If the bounty gets high enough, I’ll turn myself in!
If you’re reading this, RUN! The forces of IUZ are right behind me!
I’m not touching that.
I’m right behind you.
In the BK no one can hear you scream.
In the BK we don’t believe in evil, we believe in opportunities.
It’s a dead body; let’s just shoot it from here.
It’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye… then it’s down right hilarious!
It’s no use killing the city watch. They’re already undead.
It’s not an evil act if it hurts Iuz in any way.
It’s not theft if he’s dead.
Its only meta-gaming if you haven’t actually encountered Osyluth’s and Cornugon’s before.
IUZ is offering 500gp for my head… I wonder how much he’d give for the rest of me?
Iuz’s Conscription Center: We Want You Dead or Alive
I’ve been to the Old One’s silver mines, and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.
I’ve got your back.
Jaded, cynical, amoral, but not bitter. Never bitter. No.
Just say ‘No’ to Paladins.
Looting and pillaging contribute over 66% of our GDP.
Mercy is for the weak.
Morality may be relative, but all my relatives have moved to Furyondy.
Must be nice to have ruler who doesn’t eat human flesh.
My region can kick your region’s butt!
Never surrender; never give up
Never trust a doublin.
Nice kingdom you’ve got here. Be a real shame if something were to ‘happen’ to it…
No mission too dangerous, no fee too high!
Of course we get to keep anything we find. Now, let’s discuss our *fee*.
One man’s medusa victim is another man’s lawn art.
Our cops are demons and undead. Our ruler eats souls for breakfast.
Our Zombies could kick your Zombies’ asses.
Over 10 billion souls reaped.
Paladin. It’s what’s for dinner.
Pick a direction and let’s go kill something.
Possession is 10 tenths of the law.
Providing charitable services at reasonable prices since CY 591.
Relax, they just drain levels.
Remember the Steelbone Meadows
Resistance is futile
Scream once for ‘Run away’, twice for ‘Help’.
Selling out our grandmothers since CY 591.
Serving the lesser god of evil since CY 591.
So, we get to keep *anything* we find in the mine other than the gems, right? Great. We’re gonna need a few mules.
Somebody tell that Lawful Good Bozo to keep his mouth shut!”
Soul, I don’t need no steenking soul!
Squeeze the little gnomes and watch their heads pop off.
The Bandit Kingdoms – Home of the Good, the Bad, and Old Ugly
The Bandit Kingdoms – Resistance even if Dead
The Bandit Kingdoms – Where every step may be your last!
The Bandit Kingdoms – Where the only ones you CAN trust are the bandits!
The Bandit Kingdoms – You’ll be screaming for your mommy.
The few, the proud, the Bonehearts!
The few, the proud, the undead
The Good, the Bad, and Old Ugly
The Good, the Bad, and the BK
The Good, the Bad, and the Undead
The Old One – out of sight, but never out of mind!
The Quick and the Dead
The Quick and the Undead.
The reward’s too low and they didn’t spell my name right.
The town has been destroyed by fire? We search the place for any valuables that might have survived.
There is no lesser evil. There is no greater evil. There is only Iuz.
Trust me.
Uncle Iuz wants YOU in the Bonehearts!
Undead, Demons, and Betrayal. It’s nice to be home!
Under the heel of the Old One
Wanted by Assassins of the Temple Grimacing
Wanted for Questioning by the Forces of Iuz
We BK the bodies.
We didn’t start out like this
We need more paladins! It’s almost lunchtime!
We strip-search the corpses and take everything with us.
Welcome to the BK. While you’re reading this, my partner has picked your pocket. Thank you.
We’ve got two kinds of heroes: the dead ones and… Never mind. It’s just one kind of hero.
What are YOU looking at?
What are you talking about? We *are* the wrong hands.
What the heck is a doubling?
What’s in it for me?
Where the good men are dead and the smart ones don’t eat jerky
Where ya get that huge frickin badger?
Who cares about thing that go bump in the night. I care about the ones that go wooooohooooo!
Yeah, I’ll hold that for ya.
Yeah, show’em your holy symbol, that will go over REAL big!”
Yes, that IS brimstone you smell.
You go first.
You may HATE him, but WE have to live with him!
You’ll want to choose me. I’m the lesser evil.
Your money or your life? What kind of pansy bandit are you, giving people a choice?
You’ve got three options: quick, smart, and dead. Choose two.
“The Bandit Kingdoms: Where the good men are dead, and the smart ones don’t eat the jerky”.
The Bandit Kingdoms… where ALL (live) bards have fighter or barbarian levels….

Written by Not Jaffo

May 20, 2011 at 08:18

Posted in Games, Humor

Is America still good enough for Superman?

D.C. Comics stirred up controversy all over the Net last week when Superman promised to renounce his American citizenship.

It happened in Action Comics #900, in a story written by David S. Goyer. In it, Superman joins a group of pro-democracy demonstrators in Iran, creating an international incident. Iran claims he’s acting as an official representative of the U.S. government and calls it an act of war.

The story opens with Superman getting scolded by the president’s National Security Advisor. Superman accepts the rebuke and says he can no longer tolerate having his actions associated with the U.S. government. He declares his intention to appear before the U.N. and renounce his citizenship.

Superman reminds us that he’s an alien and should therefore look at the “bigger picture.” He says, “I’m tired of having my actions construed as instruments of U.S. policy.”

This story can be interpreted in two ways. The first (most charitable) interpretation is that Superman is giving up his citizenship for our own good. He wants to protect America from the consequences of his actions. Viewed in this light, renouncing his citizenship can be seen as Superman acting in America’s best interests.

But most comic readers, and most people who hear the news, are not going to interpret it that way.

There is a very ugly subtext in this story. Superman is essentially “getting in trouble” for doing the right thing. The U.S. is ready to declare him an enemy of the state. When he first lands at Camp David, a Marine sniper is pointing a Kryptonite bullet at his head.

Kryptonite bullets aimed at Superman's head

This is not a pro-America story. People are reacting to it emotionally because Superman is a powerful symbol – a distinctly American symbol, carried forward into another time.

There are a lot of cultural forces in conflict here. I’m fascinated by this story because it’s a great example of how our culture has changed since Superman was introduced.

There are two big trends driving this story. First, my generation is obsessed with the idea of bringing comic book heroes into the adult world. Comic book films are a billion-dollar industry, and modern comic books aren’t really aimed at kids anymore.

Superman vs. HitlerThe second trend is more cultural. Superman is a Modern Age hero, but we’re living in a postmodern century. Superman came from a world of sharp contrasts and clear lines, when good was good and evil was evil – a four-color hero making black and white choices.

But that world is long gone. Even in childhood, our national fairy tales have been replaced by lessons about moral ambiguity. Our kids are trained to accept all cultures equally, to consider all perspectives and feel sympathy for underdogs.

Our parents and grandparents were taught to worship America. Modern kids are trained to question America – to look for chinks in our national armor and focus on America’s mistakes.

But Superman wasn’t made for this world. He was made for an older, simpler world where America was always right and its enemies were always wrong.

Modern storytellers have done amazing work, redefining old-fashioned heroes for a postmodern world. The shelves are full of outstanding books based on this contrast, from Mark Waid’s “Kingdom Come” to Brad Meltzer’s “Identity Crisis.”

But Goyer’s story doesn’t strike the same note with me. It feels ham-handed and coarse – turning Superman into a political creature in a way he was never meant to be.

Goyer’s presentation of Superman as an alien isn’t just a postmodern conceit, it’s a betrayal of the character. Superman’s story is an immigrant’s story – an old-fashioned immigrant story lifted straight from the ’20s and ’30s.

He came to America as a child and adopted our values. In those days, that’s what America was – a set of values that anyone could adopt. It didn’t matter where you came from; if you were willing to work hard, play fair and deal honorably with your fellow man, you could wear the label “American” and be part of something that was bigger than any national identity.

Superman was the ultimate symbol of this transformation, proof that anyone could come from tragedy and ascend to greatness. But now America has changed. Our perception of America has changed.

Modern children don’t see America as a set of values anymore. Today America is just another nation on the map — no better, and often much worse, than the others. Superman is an unambiguous symbol of good, and a good hero can’t represent an evil country.

That’s the statement I think Goyer is making in Action Comics 900. America isn’t good enough for Superman anymore. How can he stand for “Truth, justice and the American Way” when we can’t even define what the American Way is?

The concept of an American Way has been swept aside, replaced by a postmodern muddle of guilt and shame. I understand the temptation to throw stones at DC Comics, but I would rather use this as the springboard for a larger discussion.

Does superhero morality really belong in the adult world? Can we see America in context and still be proud of it? Can we admit our mistakes and still celebrate our virtues? Is patriotism a feeling we must “grow out of” as we study history?

I think there’s still room for an American Way in the 21st century. I think we can celebrate America without ignoring history, and I think there’s still room for patriotism in the American heart – not the blind, childish patriotism of our youth, but a mature, adult patriotism that keeps America in context and takes honest pride in what we’ve done.

Written by Not Jaffo

May 6, 2011 at 19:32

Posted in Best Of, Comics, Politics

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