Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Defending The Defenders

Netflix recently dropped The Defenders, which is the culmination of four other Marvel TV shows spread across five seasons. If this were a comic book series, it would be akin to the Summer Annuals, where all of the stories converge and everyone gets together to team up against an enemy that they can’t handle solo.

If this sounds like how The Avengers movie came together, well, that’s kinda the template. And while the results weren’t quite the same, overall, The Defenders works very well for what it is, if not for what it’s supposed to be. It’s shorter than the other series by a full four hours (making it seem more like an event) and it resolves character’s ongoing storylines and sets up future seasons nicely.

Granted, the show is not without its detractors. The online chatter was varied, with some folks doubling down on Iron Fist being a “thundering dumb-ass” (thank you, Stick, for that colorful phrase) and others claiming he’s “not as horrible” when paired up with other heroes. Some folks took issue with Jessica Jones, for reasons I still don’t fully understand. A lot of people had a problem with The Hand, the criminal empire who resurrected Elektra and is the main adversary in The Defenders.

Still a great many more tried to watch The Defenders without having seen all of the Netflix series that preceded it. I think this is where a number of complaints came from, and their subsequent bafflement is, as a result, somewhat out of place. Of course, the Netflix shows aren’t for everyone; if this Age of Media Super Heroes has taught me anything, it’s that everyone brings their own baggage to these shows, and the spectrum of opinions around them are so wide and varied that you have no choice to chalk them up to subjective personal tastes and not as any kind of objective criteria or metric for quality.

I think that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the most ambitious and inarguably most successful of the various world-building exercises, and the Netflix shows are doing something equally as interesting, and they aren’t being talked about in toto. In short, Marvel Studios tried to do with Netflix series what they successfully did with The Phase 1 of Marvel movies that culminated in The Avengers. And like that Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the Marvel movies, the sub-plots and background Easter eggs are just as important as the main storylines in each movie.

Astute movie-goers and life-long comic book fans now know that all of the glowy bits and bobs that have appeared in various movies are now about to make glorious comebacks at Infinity Stones in the massive and sprawling two-movie epic, Avengers: Infinity War, which starts in 2018. But the Marvel universe is not all cosmic happenings and Earth-shaking events. Crime continues apace in places like New York City. And this is where the Netflix shows come in.

Why The Defenders is Better Than You Think
What makes the Netflix shows different is that the focus is not on the heroes so much as it’s on the villains. This is specifically true for the Hand, which ran through three of the five series, but in general, it’s the villains that rank higher than the heroes in Netflix’ storytelling structure. Let’s briefly consider the five seasons that went into The Defenders

Season 1 was, at first glance, all about Matthew Murdock and his troubles with the Kingpin, Wilson Fisk, played with incredible verve and intensity by Vincent D’Onofrio. And a lot of the first six episodes are all about Fisk, with Murdock and Daredevil (not yet in costume) relegated to sub-plots. The momentum changes about halfway through when it’s revealed that Fisk is doing some things at the behest of a sinister and secret organization that, among other things, employs ninjas, runs drugs, and uses a stylized dragon for a symbol.

In season 2, with the Kingpin out of the way, Daredevil (aka “the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen,” which is a much cooler name) is free to concentrate on The Hand, and even as he’s making those overtures, here comes the Punisher to distract everyone. Meanwhile, the Hand have built a building on the block they bought from Fisk in Season 1 and are digging a hole. Oh, and they have more ninjas, and made it clear that they were taking over the Asian drug cartels in the wake of The Kingpin’s incarceration.

Jessica Jones
This series did a better job of splitting its time between Jessica Jones and her contemporary situation and the past tense threat of Kilgrave, the Purple Man, and what he did to Jones. Jones is a stand-alone series, with tie-ins through Claire, the nurse, and also serving to introduce Luke Cage and partially explain his back story. But the Purple Man dominates the series from the first episode, driving the narrative and with good and terrifying reason, as the series repeatedly demonstrates.

Luke Cage
Continuing from Jessica Jones, this series intentionally establishes itself as being separate from the rest of the Netflix series. Harlem, in specific, is not Hell’s Kitchen, and Luke Cage is adamant about taking care of his corner of New York City and not much else. But the series managed to get a number of past, present, and future villains on-screen and all cued up for later development, which was impressive. That Luke Cage’s backstory is tied to Diamondback’s origin helps double up on the flashbacks and keeps the episodes flowing.

Iron Fist
After two seasons of worldbuilding featuring a person of color and a woman as the lead, and with both of these shows getting rave reviews, Iron Fist had a lot to live up to, and it failed, almost from the get-go, mostly by not being “the thing that people wanted it to be from inside of their heads.” This is not quite fair to fans, but it’s really not fair to Iron Fist, who has, in the Netflix series, been reimagined by Marvel Studios as a real novice and not at all the cool and interesting character from the comic books. See “thundering dumb ass” above. Pacing problems that were somewhat overlooked and forgiven on Daredevil were now the primary focus of everyone’s ire. No one, it seemed, was particularly interested in Iron Fist’s agonizingly slow “Year One” story, and most of the fault for that was laid at the feet of showrunner Scott Buck. But the series dropped the other shoe on the Hand’s grand plot, which was essentially muted in Jessica Jones and Luke Cage.

If we are keeping score, I would rank the series in order of my preference thusly: Luke Cage, Daredevil Season 1, Jessica Jones, Daredevil Season 2, and Iron Fist. I'm going to write more about this in a future blog post, but let me again remind all of you over the age of 40 that, had any of these series--oh, to hell with this--had Iron Fist, as is, been available to us prior to the year 2000, we would have lost our collective minds at how good it was. So, let's not throw the baby out with the bath water just yet. I'm still slightly amazed that we're even talking about five TV shows that include Power Man and Iron Fist among them. There is no way--NO WAY--that my ten year old self, twenty year old self, and even thirty year old self, ever thought we'd be having this discussion to begin with. I want you all to keep this in mind as you continue reading. 

This brings us neatly to The Defenders. All of the connective tissue from the other Netflix series is in place; the lawyers, Night Nurse, and most importantly, the street-level sensibility. The Marvel movies frequently take to the air to give you a bird’s eye view of the action, but the Netflix TV shows do just the opposite. They plant the camera at ground level and let you look up as someone scurries over a fire escape. Or they pin you into hallways (where Iron Man and Thor would have a hard time maneuvering). In these series, bullets can kill. Knives can cut. The stakes are much closer to us. That’s why a woman with super strength or a black man with invulnerability is such a big deal.

And that’s why The Hand is such a big deal, as well. Or Kilgrave. Or Cottonmouth, or Diamondback, or any of the other corrupt politicians, drug pushers, real estate moguls, and criminal organizations with their own selfish agendas to enact. This sentiment was best echoed in Spider-Man: Homecoming, and make no mistake; the Vulture’s salvage operation is right at home with the Marvel Knights (can I just go ahead and call them that, for crying out loud?)

A perfect example of what a super hero
battle might look like from the bystanders
point of view, from Kurt Busiek and Alex
Ross' seminal work, Marvels.
This “looking up” perspective, first used brilliantly in Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’s Marvels mini-series, is kind of blasé’ now in comics, but for television, it’s perfect. After all, who among us can’t relate to the destruction of a skyscraper in downtown New York City? That’s a big deal, and it should be. The scale is smaller than the movies, because in some ways, it has to be. These heroes, Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, are saving lives, one person at a time. And the shows make a point of showing how that matters, how it impacts people, a community. This is something that the large-scale Marvel movies can’t quite dwell on, not in the same way that the TV series can. And it’s a positive.

In the Mighty Marvel Manner
Another positive is that The Defenders sticks ably to its comic book roots, and especially the “Marvel Storytelling” method. To wit, two heroes find themselves on opposite ends of the same problem and they have to fight before they realize they are better off working together. But just because they are working together doesn’t mean they are automatically friends, or that they even like each other. This staple of Marvel comics culture is perfectly encapsulated, more so than the first Avengers movie, and runs through the whole series. Everyone sticks to their guns, too, right up until circumstances force them to do otherwise:  Luke Cage is helping a single family out; Jessica Jones is trying to clear one case; Matt Murdock is doing lawerly stuff to keep from beating people up; and Iron Fist, along with Colleen Wing, are chasing their tails.

The Defenders gets the group together and talking in a way that should make comic fans happy. Jessica and Matt Murdock have a moment (several, actually) that sets up her working for him in an official capacity at some point down the line, a plot device straight out of the comics. Jessica and Luke Cage reconnect, wedging the door open for further romantic entanglements (in the comics, they have a child together). And last but certainly not least, Luke Cage and Danny Rand, aka Power Man and Iron Fist, square off in a couple of sparring matches, verbal and otherwise, that are satisfying for all of the Danny Rand haters out there (insert your own, out of whack reason here), and perfectly set off their unlikely friendship.

Bring on the Bad Guys
Once they have established the hero’s need to cooperate, we get more information about The Hand, and in this series we see they are very similar to DC’s League of Assassins by way of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. This isn’t plagerism, as they are both drawing from the historical Assassins to make their ancient mythic karate people, but it is very clear that, if the extraction of the dragon skeleton destroys New York City in the process, c’est la vie. That’s a hell of an omelet to make for the breaking of the eggs. I’d had to calculate their profit/loss statement at the end of the year.

But it’s also not surprising in that The Hand wears a corporate face, and their members all wear Armani suits, and in all other ways exhibit the outward appearance of corporate culture. One of the things Iron Fist drove home (admittedly, repeatedly and often ham-fistedly), was that some corporations care more about profits than people. It’s not an accident that the bad guys in Luke Cage are politicians and developers. Ditto Daredevil. These street-level heroes, these champions of the underdog, are fighting the 1% for the other 99%. It’s the villains that we need to pay attention to in these series, not the intricate details of each character’s origins. The fact that all of them are shown in flashbacks emphasize that. Super strength and invulnerability matter less than the suckers and shitheads trying to poison us. That’s the focus of Marvel’s Netflix series.

It’s not clear if the gang will reunite for another event. But we do know that all four Marvel Netflix series are moving forward from here. Daredevil Season 3 is confirmed. Jessica Jones Season 2 is filming now. Luke Cage Season 2 is about to start up again. And we presume that Iron Fist Season 2 is getting a major overhaul and a tonal shift. This would be possible, now, thanks to The Defenders, specifically how the show ended.

Also, there is ample evidence to suggest that eventually we’ll see the Power Man/Iron Fist team-up we’ve all been hoping for, as they were some of the best comics in the 70’s and 80’s. Especially now, with those two characters serving as excellent foils for one another. Also, now that Misty Knight is, um, off the police force (I guess), we would all love a Knight-Wing Investigations series. Or combine both ideas. Perhaps it’s where Iron Fist Season 2 is headed.

You can’t watch The Defenders without having seen the other series first. Some say you can, but trust me, you can’t. Not without experiencing some information gaps, some character and plot motivation that runs through the majority of the Netflix series, and also some connective tissue that makes The Defenders hang together. Whatever you might think about it (and you will, I have no doubt), it’s well-constructed and dovetails nicely together, much like the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Obviously, your mileage will vary, but if you are enjoying Marvel’s massive multi-media experiment, and check your pre-conceived notions at the door, you’ll enjoy Marvel’s The Defenders even if it’s not greater than the sum of its parts.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Nazis. I hate these guys. Part 2: How Did We Get Here?

As much as I love sociology, and read the occasional book and article concerning same, I am not, and never have been, a sociologist. However, as a writer, I have made a lifetime's habit of watching people and trends and taking note of situations that interest me, particularly when it comes to people changing the way in which they behave and interact with other people. Understanding that is important if you are writing fiction or doing anything that relies on interpersonal relationships.

How great is it that the makers of the Tiki Torches have
condemned the actions of everyone at the Luau?
That means what I'm about to do is go back through my own head and try to put together for myself how we ended up in a world of people who don't vaccinate their kids and people who think the Earth is flat and people who think they are better than other people based solely on their skin color, in America, in 2017. In this meandering discussion, I'm not purporting that what I say is necessarily factually true, in that I may be mis-remembering dates and times and maybe even incidents. I'm going to do this quickly, before I lose the threads of my thesis. If there's corrections to be made, let's do it in the comments, because while I may get some particular details wrong, I feel that my larger conclusions will still have merit. We'll see.

In other words, this is me talking out of my ass, okay?

I'm not sure when my awareness of Nazis morphed from "those bad guys in the war movies" to "skinheads and clansmen." I remember Raiders of the Lost Ark and the profound influence it had on me, a few years before I discovered punk rock and started watching movies like Repo Man. There were pictures of these guys on the news, right? Shaved heads, swastikas, and so forth, power-skanking around bonfires and moshing in clubs, and this footage was trucked out on the news whenever some square in a Brooks Brothers suit needed to "tsk tsk" about these kids today with their weird haircuts and their wild ideas.

I didn't take it too seriously back then, because (a) I had a healthy distrust of anything the news said was dangerous and related to youth, because (b) they did the same thing with Dungeons and Dragons and Heavy Metal music, and later on, Warner Brothers cartoons, and video games, and anything and everything else that we were into at the time. I thought that the skinheads were using the swastika in the same way that the metalheads were using Satanic imagery--as something to frighten parents with. But they weren't really into it, right? I mean, come on, who does that?

Then Geraldo Rivera let some of those guys onto his program, and it ended in a brawl. November 11, 1988. Geraldo got his nose broken from a sucker punch, and without realizing it, ushered in the next wave of daytime live television by putting intentionally combustible elements in the same space and acting outraged and shocked when those elements blew up.

As the 80s gave way to the 90s, there would be the occasional think-piece about White Power groups, usually a "special report" where reporters would trek out into the woods to the collection of run-down mobile homes and dilapidated shacks where these people would gather to talk about White Power and genocide. It was always the same report, too: the walk to the woods, shots of the camp or compound, pictures of poor white people sitting on picnic tables, holding forth about how "we're just like everbody else, only 'cept we see this country going to hell, is all." Then the cross would get lit up and maybe the KKK hoods would come out, or maybe not.

For anyone not living in the woods, or the deep south, it must have felt like a real relief. Whew! We don't have back woods around here. We're safe from Nazis! Well, except for David Duke. He kept running for political office until he eventually got in somewhere, but the press was always dutiful to point out his ties to the KKK (the former grand dragon, don'tcha know) whenever they mentioned him. But even he was a joke, not to be taken seriously, right? I mean, come on, these are NAZIS we're talking about. when the band GWAR makes fun of you, alongside hippies and goths, it's hard for anyone to take you seriously, amiright?

Okay, so, bear with me, because we have to back up a bit.

I don't know exactly when I first became aware of the phrase "political correctness," but I'm pretty sure it was in the early 1990s. There were court cases and some legislation being thrown about, and I can't recall if Affirmative Action happened first, or the Women in the Workforce initiative. But they were real close to one another. My memory is hazy, but what I DO remember was the sudden backlash that went something like this: "What? We can't slap our own secretaries on the ass, anymore? What's the point of living? Why hire a good-looking broad in the first place?"

The Affirmative Action push back was worse: "You mean we have to hire THEM, now? What if they just aren't qualified? They could be criminals!"

"Oh," the next comment went, "and if it's a Black WOMAN..." Pause for knowing guffaws.

Classy stuff. It sounded just as bad then, in the less-sensitive 90s, as it does now, I assure you.

Political Correctness came in with those legislative changes, and the initial idea was well-intentioned, if not well-implemented. After all, we'd already been doing it to some degree for years, right? African-American was the preferred term, and it took a little futzing to get everyone on board, but as long as no slurs were being used, this was a cordial, civilized step forward. If we are going to have these conversations, let's all agree on the terms, right?

I'm surprised this book is currently
out of print. Maybe it's coming back.
Well, it only took a couple of comedians to highlight the ridiculous extremes that, to be fair, were never on the table in the first place. Who remembers "Sanitation Engineer" for "Garbage Man?" And when the book Politically Correct Bedtime Stories came out, it sold like wildfire, because it was genuinely amusing, but it also shined a light on a perceived problem that people felt on an intuitive level: they weren't allowed to talk about certain things anymore. They weren't allowed to use the words they'd always used. Politically Correct speech became a band-aid to be applied to a specific situation that covered up a slur, or an unconscious bias, but it didn't teach the controversy.  It didn't explain why these old things were bad. It just said that they were bad, and didn't offer any context. People all over the country started using the phrase Asian-American, because they were told to, but no one explained to them why "Oriental" was now off-limits and horrible. This was, according to President Bush, all part of our Kinder, Gentler Nation, our Shining City on the Hill, and our first Gulf War.

In the wake of all that came Multiculturalism, an educational initiative that, alongside of everything else, was designed to expose white children in the suburbs to things that weren't white, in the hopes of making them better citizens and not White Supremacists. Its detractors were many, and of course, the first thing they seized upon was the idea that there was more than one way to celebrate the Winter Solstice. This was where the first "War on Christmas" bullshit started, in the Mid-90s, right up against the howls of outrage that Christian children were learning about Hanukkah and Kwanzaa in schools! Right alongside other children, some of whom weren't even white! Horrors upon horrors!

Of course, by the time South Park got around to lampooning it, the outrage was a fixed condition, and the annual running of the angry Fox commentators was a given. That was largely unimportant, because there was a bigger take-away message from all of these efforts, even if the execution and implementation left something to be desired: Acceptance. We were being asked, sometimes forcibly, to accept people who were different from us. Skin color, culture, education, whatever the difference--the message here was acceptance.

I was slow to come around. A lot of people were. Oh, not on the big things, mind you. Women should earn the same dollar that men earn. I've always believed that. Also, women that want to serve in the military in active combat? Go with my blessing. That was never the issue. Nor was Affirmative Action or changing my language--out of respect for my friends who were people of color--and why wouldn't you? "No, listen, I know you want to be called an African-American now, but honestly, I think I prefer to call you a Negro. So, now that that's settled, you want to come over and play Dungeons and Dragons on Friday?"  You'd have to be a nickel-plated asshole to not respect other people's wishes in that way.

I had, and continue to have, no problem with that. And, once Multiculturalism was explained to me, I thought it was okay, too. It had merits. It's good for white kids in this country to understand that they aren't the center of the universe.

But that whole "you've got to accept everyone" thing...

See, there was a lot of "expose" shows in the 1990s on cable news. There were also a lot of "extreme lifestyle" shows on daytime TV. Thanks to Geraldo and the Nazis, it was suddenly all right to parade any given clutch of people that the producers dug up from under some rock and show them off on the Jerry Springer show. Or have some CNN Special Report on, for example, Vampires in New Orleans, a special investigative report. An hour-long show about twenty-somethings who were living "as vampires" in New Orleans. With interviews of Rubenesque women in Victorian dresses, saying out loud and being completely serious, "I'm more of a psychic vampire. I take energy from people, but I don't drink blood." Oh, you're a drain, all right. And then, they'd cut to the bumper for the next segment, and show a pale young man with stringy hair sitting in a wooden throne and the voice-over would say, "Up Next, meet a vampire who drinks blood."

The daytime television nascent-reality TV shows were much more sensationalistic. "Meet Adults who prefer to live as Babies!" The audience would gasp and boo, and just when it was about to turn into an angry mob, they'd put a psychologist on to explain how this was just another way to cope with stress or abuse or whatever, and it's Okay. It's Normal. It's not hurting anyone. Therefore, we need to accept it.

We need to accept it.

And that tone was carried through in every single one of these documentaries. I remember getting into a huge fight with my girlfriend over the vampire documentary. She couldn't understand why I was so hostile. "Because vampires don't exist!" I yelled.

"But they aren't hurting anyone!" she yelled back.

"Bullshit," I said. "They come into the comic shop, in broad daylight, I might add, wearing their vampire fangs that aren't their real teeth because they aren't real," I said.


"So? So, commit to the bit, I say. If you're a real vampire, you don't get to go out in broad fucking daylight every Wednesday to pick up your comics. Your servants should do that for you. If you're really a vampire, I shouldn't have to see you. And moreover, take those damn fangs out of your mouth."

"What's wrong with them wearing fangs?" she asked. "Why are you so judgmental?"

"It's a desperate cry for attention, is all that it is," I said. "They are looking for a reaction. They want to freak people out so they can feel superior to them. Well, I don't want to give them that satisfaction, but I also don't want to ignore the fangs, because it makes it seem like I'm accepting of their stupid-ass lifestyle choice."

"They aren't hurting anyone! You're being an asshole!" she stormed out of the room.

I was an asshole a lot in the 1990s, it seemed. Because I didn't understand. I didn't know why I suddenly had to accept people who called themselves vampires, but didn't turn into mist and float under doors. It wasn't fair. But I got tired of being called an asshole, and so I learned to keep my mouth shut.

So, when the preppers and the survivalists started showing up in the documentaries and the exposes and the Special Reports, I kept my mouth shut. After all, they weren't hurting anyone, right? They were just off in the woods, doing their thing, and not bothering anyone. The reports were always quick to show how these people had families with kids...hell, I know families who like to go camping. This can't be that much different, right?

They were still occasionally featuring Neo-Nazis in their special reports, but these days, it looked more and more like preppers and survivalists and those folks with the little churches who dance with snakes. It all had the same tone. The same feel. And the same implicit message: They aren't hurting anyone. We need to accept it.

What we should have been doing instead is questioning it. Why are they doing this? To what end? How does this impact the rest of us, the vast majority of American Society and Culture? Why weren't those questions asked by the reporters? (Insert rant here about how cable news' number one goal is to make money by selling you stuff, and not by actually educating the public, and since everyone likes the Freak Show best of all at the county fair, they truck out the vampires and preppers so we'll be sure to watch.)

Before I go any further, I want to say this: if someone needs something to bring them back up to baseline functionality, and it's legitimate therapy, I have no problem at all with it. There's some really wacky therapy solutions for real trauma and damage and I get that, I really do. But...and this is a big BUT, here...even IF we were to extend that courtesy to, say, fringe behavior, such as dressing and acting like a vampire...I think my acceptance of that, and you're expecting the rest of society to accept that, stops at your front door. This is a larger version of "the right to swing your fist ends at the end of my nose," right? You can think you are whatever you are, in the privacy of your own home, but as soon as you leave your home and get on the bus and queue up in line at Chipotle and go to work everyone else, you are part of society at large, and we've got a fairly generous set of do's and don'ts to make it easier for everyone to get along, all right? If this makes me a monster, then I'll take that hit.

I think we got lulled into a false sense of security by how the media chose to cover all of these fringe groups. I think we watched the Neo-Nazi documentaries and saw how they were being treated the exact same way as the survivalists and the vampires and the Amish and the Heavy Metal fans. Sure, they are different, but they are also just like us, see? They have jobs and kids and eat dinner with forks, just like regular Americans. And so, we should accept it. "If vampires are okay, then surely my White Power group is all right, right? I mean, I just hate people who aren't the same skin color as me, never mind the decades of genetic studies and mountains of evidence that states there is not, and never was, an "Aryan Race," okay? I'm not nearly as bad as the guy who thinks the Earth is flat! That guy's nuts!"

This is my long-winded way of saying the media normalized crazy.

I may have lost some of you there. I understand. For those of you still hanging on, here's my final point about all of this:

It's hard to find pictures of Alex Jones from the 1990s on his
Austin Cable Access show. Those things are gold. And also
scrubbed from the Internet, for some strange reason. 
Alex Jones was a staple of Austin Cable Access TV in the 1990s. If you lived in Austin, Texas, at that time, and you were ever drunk or stoned on a Friday night around 11:30, then you watched him. You watched him scream into the void; a much younger, thinner, and ironically, more sincere man, yelling about the New World Order and Black Helicopters and the police state and oh, brother, it was a cornucopia of paranoid delights. We didn't think he was hurting anyone, either. Live and let live. And besides, who is going to take this guy seriously? I mean, just look at him. He looked like an angry Jehovah's Witness in his suit, yelling in front of a Chroma Key display with weird blinking messages scrawling across.  He's batshit crazy, but he's not hurting anyone.

Then 9/11 happened. And suddenly, in a world looking for answers, in a world shattered by unspeakable tragedy, and for a nation who had never been asked to look at a complex situation and think and reason and have an informed opinion about Sixty Years of American Middle East Policy, the only person who had all the answers was Alex Jones. It's what he'd been waiting for his whole life. "Nine-Eleven was an inside job." That was his message. It was easy, simple, it fed into his pre-existing narrative, and for a large number of people who didn't go running back to church as fast as they could go (a topic for a whole other blog), this answer seemed to make the most sense.

Now he's a global brand, with a media empire. Millions of people are checking out his bullshit and, in the absence of anything else that helps explain why things are the way they are, they are drinking some, if not all, of his Kool-Aid.

I've written before about Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories, and this link is a great examination of that topic. But anyone who really thinks that our government would fly planes into buildings so they can take away our guns is deranged. And we should have stamped that weird, stupid thought out a while ago.

"But Mark," you say, "That's horrible! You can't 'stamp out' an idea, no matter how repellent."

No? Look at the number of conspiracy theories out there right now. The "field" has mushroomed into an encyclopedic array of topics. Among them? Anti-vaccinators. A clear public health risk. Flat-Earthers: science-deniers who now have a growing number of converts thanks to YouTube. Hmm, let's see, I wonder what other theories and contrarian thoughts and socially-abhorrent agendas could be found online, easily searchable and accessible to everyone?

What about these hate groups and these White Supremacists and these disenfranchised loners who have been isolated in the woods and operating out of dilapidated trailers? They're online, looking for answers, because they aren't in control of their lives, and don't really know how they lost it. Desperate for answers, any answers, they will seek out and find whatever makes the most sense to them. Anything but the truth. Conspiracy Theories, floated out there by Fringe Groups, sound way better than the reality, than the truth. Surely not...but's not hurting anyone, right? We have to accept it, right?

This is how we get Golf Shirt Nazis in 2017. We never needed to accept them. We just didn't need to give them the airtime.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Nazis. I hate these guys. Part 1: Instant Karma

I do not live in a part of Texas that anyone would call by any definition "liberal." I'm ensconced, in North Texas, with a small coterie of entrenched Democrats, and we have banded together for safety due to the overwhelming redness that glows, like a fiery coal, around us every day.

Indiana Jones hates Nazis. I want to be like Indiana Jones.
I wouldn't mind the redness so much, ordinarily. I've never known Texas to be anything but. However, there's a tinge of something else in the redness that I don't like. In a political system that is completely bereft of nuance and common sense, to be Red these days means that you tacitly accept a whole lot of people and ideas that, up until a few years ago, were rightfully regarded as wingnut chuckleheads, well outside of the political system, out there where the buses don't run, and well off into their own world.

Nowadays, their world is our world. And it sucks. I mean, it just sucks. And I think it's all our fault. Bear with me; I'll get there.

My small Texas town has an appreciable Black and Hispanic community--you know, like most Texas towns. You wouldn't know it from the way people act. The streets in "the Flats" aren't paved, for example. Whenever rodeo or car club events happen, there's always some asshole with his Confederate flag tied to the back of his truck, driving around with a chip on his shoulder. There had been an effort to quietly knock that shit off in recent years, but after the last election, all bets were suddenly and mysteriously off, and so out came the flags again.

And this is such as non-issue that it really pisses me off. I'll be brief here: no matter what you might personally think that flag stands for, and no matter in what spirit you are personally attempting to invoke when you fly it, you have to recognize that for some people--people who may be your friends and neighbors--that flag is a dark and ugly thing. Regardless of how you feel about the "history" of the "issue," when you fly that, you're upsetting people. And these people have told you this, and asked you nicely more than once to not fly it. So, you're a guy with a Confederate flag, and you're just as proud as you can be of your ancestors who fought for state's rights and killed people in our nation's bloodiest conflict. And even though you didn't realize it, your big-ass Confederate flag is out there on the porch, flapping away and upsetting people left and right.

You now have two responses. Response one is, "Oh, wow, I'm sorry, I didn't realize. I'll take it down." Taking the flag down doesn't mean you suddenly have decided that your ancestor was on the wrong side of history and fought and died so that civilization could lurch forward out of the Bronze Age. No. It just means that you care enough about people who are alive and well (and may still be your friends and neighbors, inexplicably) to not want to upset them with your flag.

Response two is, "Screw all'a y'all, y'all just don't know your history, it ain't offensive, get over it."

Only one of these responses makes you an asshole.


I woke up this morning to the news of the violence that happened overnight in Charlottesville, Virginia. I didn't have a chance to get into it, because we were on a tight time-table to get to Wichita Falls by 9 AM. So, in the middle of dropping off our dog and gassing up the car, we decided to stop in at a local taqueria and make use of their drive-through window. Their breakfast burritos are big and filling and take almost no time to make. Perfect.

As we rounded the corner of the building to take our place in the line, I noticed two things: there was a large work truck in front of me, the only other vehicle in line. It was one of those big-ass trucks with the bed built out, and extended sideboards on it. You've seen them. The other thing I noticed was the four flags the driver had affixed to the four corners of the  truck bed. Wooden dowels, very tall, with large flags billowing merrily in the breeze. A Confederate flag. A second Confederate flag with the POW-MIA logo in the middle. A Texas Flag, and an American flag. Those two were in the back. The Confederate flags were up front.

Cathy put a hand on my arm to calm me down. I didn't realize it, but I had already started to bow up. "Honey, don't say anything," she begged, as I rolled the window down.

"He's just sitting there," I said.

"Well, that's because..."

And then we saw why.

From Preacher, by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon. A mixed
bag as far as comics went, and it wore its 90's-ness on its
sleeve like a Medal of Honor, but when it was on,
it was 100% Spot-On.
This asshole had driven his truck up under the awning of the drive-through window and wedged all four of his wooden flagpoles to the underside. If this guy crept forward another foot or two, there would have been real damage. He and the owner of the taqueria were speaking calmly. Then this guy got out of the truck and I won't even bother to describe him, because you can do it for yourself and you'll be right. I will say that his shirt had yet another Confederate flag on it, along with some slogan about being proud of his heritage. Yeah, we got that. Message received.

He got out of the truck and walked slowly and deliberately around to the far side of the truck bed and snapped the wooden flagpole off at the base. He tossed the flag unceremoniously into the ample back. You know, the flag he's so very proud of.  He then did this with the other three flags. Just tossed them into the back like they were old fishing rods. I specifically heard him say, "It don't bother me none. Not a bit."

This done, and his truck now looking 90% less racist, he got back in, paid for his breakfast, and thundered off.  Presumably to regroup and re-affix his now shorter flags elsewhere.

I pulled up to the window and the owner saw the look on my face and started laughing. We joked at the driver's expense about how he didn't realize the irony of patronizing a place full of people who might be negatively affected by his choice of flag display also. "He was already mad," the owner told me. "He said that a black guy at the gas station told him those flags were offensive. I asked him, 'Why do you think that is?'"

"What did he say?" I asked.

"He said, 'I have no idea.'"

"And then he drove right here and got stuck," I said.

"That's Karma," the owner laughed.

He's not wrong.

I ordered my food and we finished our transaction. It was the same transaction we'd done hundreds of times before, but today, it wasn't just an exchange of goods and services. The owner and his family frequent our business, as well. We like them, and they like us. We talk about movies a lot, and the problems of raising youths in a small town, and all of the normal things you do with folks in your community. There was never any cultural currency in it before now. We've never had a talk about Racism before, but our shared incredulity, the absurdity of the situation, my outrage and his bemusement, put us in a different bracket today, and if he ever doubted or wondered how I felt about things like Confederate Flags and Alt-Right Potato-Faced Slack-Jawed minions, well, now we're on the same page.

How the hell did we get here, anyway?  This article makes some great arguments now that we are here. But I want to go back to the beginning. When did we get so upside-down? I have some thoughts about it. Stay tuned.