11/21/17

Justice League: Why we need fewer Superhero Movies

By: David Harris

I had to chance to see D.C. Comic’s long awaited sequel to Batman vs. Superman earlier this week – in an empty theater; this is one of the great perks to waiting for a film to run its one week frenzy in the theaters. There are a few thoughts that I think should be noted about the film and the genre in general, especially in the consideration of heroes in our current entertainment sphere. However, I’d first make some comments on style and craft of the film.

I need to issue a disclaimer: I’m not a consumer of comic books. I’ve never been able to interest myself in them and I’ve been completely lost every time someone says “that’s not how it went in the comics!” during an Avengers movie. That being said, it seems to me that it’s necessary to introduce the back-stories of a comic book film, especially in explaining its universe, for the film to make any sense or have any impact. Justice League did not do this – it starts out sensibly and well-paced enough, but when the villain (who was so forgettable that I can’t at this moment remember his name) is introduced about a fourth of the way into the film, the only explanation of what he wants and why he’s out to destroy the world is given in rapid two minute clarification by Wonder Woman that leaves out a horde of important details (like, for example, what in the world are the “Mother cubes” and why do they have power – where does the power come from? Who is the “Mother”?). Another example comes with the introduction of Aquaman of “The Atlantians.”  We get no back-story on who The Atlantians are. If I was a comic book aficionado then I probably wouldn’t need back explanation, but as a general consumer of entertainment,  the lack of character and story development leaves the film feeling rushed and formulaic to a degree that detracts from the plot in a disastrous way.

Another issue related to the overall story of the film – Justice League is Avengers 2 with less humor. The parallels are uncanny, even to the point that the climax takes place in an Eastern European wasteland. Every (or almost every) character has their equivalent in the Avengers Universe. Batman=Ironman (a self-made superhero through unending riches). The Flash=Spiderman (an excitable teen made “super” by accident). Captain America=Wonder Woman (the one who puts principle over all else and wears a dark American flag as clothing). Superman=Thor (an alien who believes in truth and justice). Cyberman=a cross between Jarvis and the Hulk (because he can’t control his powers). The similarities make one feel as if they are eating a McDonald’s Burger – you would get essentially the same thing if you went to Burger King, the only difference being where your ingredients came from.“Something must be done about the dialogue in these superhero movies!” My compatriot in viewing Justice League uttered a similar sentiment after exiting the theater. Superhero films are beginning to feel like actually playing a video game – the CGI is one reason for this (there are few wide angle shots in Justice League; in one scene Batman pops up out of nowhere – as if he steps up a stair into the camera view), the other is the cheapness of dialogue. As if there are no deep issues of discussion, almost all the dialogue is either played for laughs (this is the minority) or to communicate ideas of persistence (“Let’s go!”; “Keep going!”; “We must fight!”; “We can’t give up!”). While persistence is an admirable quality, is there nothing else to talk about? What about the fact that a demon from another universe (I think?) is using arm-sized cubes to bring a destructive force that can create entire worlds is in the same zip-code? Do none of these circumstances cause people to ask the “big questions?” The best example of this is when Superman comes back to life (oh… the spoiler warning was supposed to come before that statement wasn’t it...). When his long-lost love, Lois Lane, asks him her first question, it’s: “What was it like to come back?” What about the question: “WHAT HAPPENDED WHEN YOU DIED!!??” Apparently she, or the audience, isn’t interested in the number one question all of humanity is most concerned with answering (even Gandolf and Pippin in The Return of the King entertain this question when faced with death).

I will not belabor the point. The film was a disappointment, as I believe most superhero films are, except for the few instances of comedy and the humor inherent in poorly crafted plot. This is not to say that some of the characters aren’t engaging and interesting in their own right (though I wonder about how many male viewers would go simply to see Wonder Woman, whose mere presence is inarguably the most distracting element of the film). I can imagine any one of the characters would make an interesting film by themselves– but this is the problem. Batman has already seen his run – Christopher Nolan (in my humble opinion) has already crafted the three best superhero movies in the D.C. Universe in the Dark Knight films – what made them great? Depth. They raised deep and interesting questions – and were (somewhat) grounded in reality, so we could identify with them more.
The entire genre raises a critical question. Where should we get our heroes from? If we turn the clock back 60 years, the tail end of Hollywood’s “Golden Age,” we’ll find that the majority of popular films (not B-movies) were historical interpretations, historical fiction, or films in a contemporary setting that was grounded in reality. Westerns and war movies. The Searchers. How the West was Won. The Great Escape. Rear Window. Films grounded in reality. They pointed to characters worth emulating juxtaposed to enemies worth opposing, and we understood why they were worth opposing, beyond merely being frightening (which I would note, the “insect” like villains of Justice League were not). This is not to say that there were not films of fantasy and science-fiction –Star Trek, The Blob and The Twilight Zone. The main difference is that you could actually get the general public out to a movie theater to see a historical film about the life of Davey Crockett – and it was popular. Today films based in reality – on true life heroes, are reserved for super-specific audiences or for the Oscars, in which they need to line up and forward a leftist confessional statement that defines what a true hero is.

A film like Justice League can be good fun – it and films like it are typically cleaner than the majority of films in the theaters. They can give a much needed brake to a mind that is drained and tired – but unfortunately that ends up being ALL they can function as – a distraction; a brief diversion from the realities of life. There’s nothing to aspire to, nothing to take away, nothing to remember beyond a few punches, explosions  and depending on who the viewer is, Wonder Woman’s curves or Superman’s chiseled abs (both which are given ample camera time in a massively obvious fashion).  Sadly, these don’t forward positive cultural values – because there aren’t values at all. Superman is concerned with truth and justice, but we never know the obvious question: Whose truth and whose
justice? We need more real heroes from real places. Who is going to make the film about the Siege of Malta in 1565 by the Ottoman Turks, one of the most epic battles in history? The adventure film about Jedediah Smith, the illustrious explorer of the early American West. The biography of Salva Dut, the Sudanese refugee who walked thousands of miles to freedom in East Africa. Someone please make these films. We desperately need them. We need fewer Superhero movies. 
                                                                                                                                                   

11/18/17

Where does bland food come from? “Thanksgiving with White Families” and Suburban Culture

By: David Harris    
    
A July 2017 article from Buzzfeed.com, the hallmark of all popular wisdom of our time, was entitled, “15 Things You'll Understand If You've Ever Eaten At A White Friend's House.”[i] In the article, a series of snarky memes and illustrative pictures were meant to communicate the idea that “white people” don’t know anything about “spicing up” their food. In other words, food made in the houses of Caucasians is bland. This is an extremely common stereotype, probably best exemplified in recent memory by the “thanksgivingwithwhitefamilies” hashtag that was trending all throughout last year’s Thanksgiving season. There’s no doubt that the 2017 Thanksgiving season will see similar viral phenomena castigating perceived Caucasian culinary fare.

So called “white people food” can be difficult to categorize. If you do a quick Google search you will come up with any number of articles that define it either as low income, highly processed cuisine[ii] or as pricey, “urban rooftop garden” hipster fare[iii]. For the purposes of our discussion, we will go with the former and more common definition, stressing the idea of “blandness.” The assumption is that “white people” boil the flavor out of their food, don’t use or at least don’t know how to use spices and rely primarily on store bought, overly processed items without variation (for example, putting ketchup and mayonnaise on everything). This would be, at least in an American context, juxtaposed to African-American, Hispanic and other immigrant culinary fare that is brimming with delicious spice and flavor.  There are two fundamental flaws in this generalization. First, that the cultures and peoples who now embody what is defined as “white people” are not, at least at their roots, characterized by bland food. Second, that the generalization of “white people food” actually has nothing to do with ethno-cultural background, but instead is concerned with the suburban way of life.

Before addressing these two arguments, it’s first necessary to point out that the generalizations of “white” and “black” people, at least in specific cultural conversations, are not at all helpful or constructive. There are a host of “white” cultures, for example, that have little to nothing to do with each other outside of a somewhat similar skin tone. One would be hard pressed to point out the cultural similarities between Caucasians from the Caucasus Mountains area of Central Asia, who have been traditionally Muslim for the better part of 1,300 years, abstaining from both liquor and pork, from a Caucasian hog farmer in Scotland who ends his evenings with a glass of Scotch. The point being made is that there is an extremely wide variation of “white” people throughout the world. The exact same truisms hold for “black” cultures. There is a wide variety of belief, practice and lifestyle that can be found from North Africa, to Mozambique, to St. Lucia to Mississippi. While referential statements based on color can be helpful in police reports (white male, 6’3, 250 lbs…), they are not in making gross generalizations about culture, and the analysis of food is a cultural matter, as it is the embodiment of a way of life.

In a culinary context, it should additionally be noted that spicing is not the only thing that makes food flavorful. For thousands of years, people in various places throughout the world have either not had direct access to spices because of their geography (for example, those living above the Arctic Circle), or have simply not had any such variety to speak of. Food flavored with spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and even cracked pepper have traditionally been available only to those on or near the equator, or those who had the money and means to afford such luxuries – the rest of society had to either fare with what they had or come up with ways to get to where the spices were grown and sold (hence, the beginning of the Age of Exploration in the late 1400s). That being said, the food that individuals without means subsisted on should in no way be considered “bland.” On the contrary, much of the “poor” food would have been very delicious, as it continues to be in many third-world nations throughout the world even without access to diverse spices.

The principle is that the freshness of food is directly proportional to the amount spice used in it when considering how tasty it is. The Mongolian herders living in yurts on the Asian steppes cook a goat from the inside out by sowing up a “hot rock” inside it. There is no spice to speak of and the method is primitive, yet the result is succulent meat that melts in one’s mouth – a phenomenon made possible by thousands of years of practicing the perfect time to leave the rock inside the goat as it cooks in its own juices[iv]. Similarly, one has not truly tasted a banana until one has partaken of one that has ripened on tree – produce consumed where it has grown is far superior to that which is picked and then shipped. Picked before it has ripened on the tree, by the time it arrives to its destination, thousands of miles from its source, it has become bland.

The impact of suburbanization cannot be underestimated. It could be argued that the move from the country (and even the city) to the suburbs for countless families across the Western world in 2nd th century has had the greatest and most negative effect on the quality and taste of food. If one lives in the country, they typically eat what is common to their area. Thus an Indiana farmer eats a diet high in corn, vegetables and local livestock because that is what is available to him. Similarly, a fisherman in Bangor, Maine will consume more shellfish, blueberries and potatoes. While the local foods may seem bland and boring to the local residents who are used to them, any traveler who passes through these regions and tastes the fare will probably rave about how delicious it is. Why is this? Because it’s authentic. Not only are the ingredients richer and full of flavor, but they are connected to a specific culture and way of life – authenticity improves the taste of food.

Even the purely urban dweller is able to take part in more authentic eating than the suburbanite because where he lives is a center for trade and commerce. This is why places like New York City, Miami and Los Angeles have become known as culinary destinations – though not all the ingredients used in cooking in those locations are “authentic” in the strictest sense of the word, the wide availability of so many kinds of ingredients lends itself to a soaring variety of different kinds of food, many of them of superior quality. Unfortunately, the suburbanite does not have this variety accessible to him, but he also doesn’t have the authentic cuisine of the countryside.

Suburban culture must be seen as the primary reason for bland and boring food. There are two principal reasons for this. One, as mentioned above, there is not the access to authenticity and variety in food choice. The second reason is because of the suburban lifestyle. The individual living in a neighborhood of identical houses, working in a cubicle or assembly line – not present in his dwelling for at least 10 hours of the day (when factoring in his commute) has not the time for the cultivation of authentic food at home, nor the time to search for authentic ingredients. He comes home, perhaps to his wife, who has been at a similar job all day and children who have been sitting in classrooms since 7 or 8 in the morning. The only solution that conforms to the reality of time is to either heat up premade/prepackaged food (without freshness) or pick up similarly reheated food from a fast food restaurant. Thus the suburbanite has lost all connection to his food. The family dinner table serves not as a place of community where common effort has been exerted to bring the meal together – rather the food merely serves the function of propelling the family through several more droll hours of suburban drudgery – television, video games and tabloids, the “relaxation” before the next identical day.

If suburban culture is to blame for bland food, why the association with “whiteness?” There is definitely a socio-economic factor at play. The development of suburban culture has a number of sources, not the least of which is the “white flight” from the cities (in the United States, primarily in the North) after World War II that led to the creation of suburban sprawls. The simple reason suburban (and therefore, “bland”) food became synonymous with whiteness is because it was mostly white people who lived in the suburbs. However, the generalization that this produced “white food” or was in keeping with traditionally white cuisine is a complete misnomer. To demonstrate this we’ll briefly look at two examples of “white” cuisine.

A prime example of “bland white food” is gastronomic fare coming from the British Isles. The common discussion around British, Scottish and Irish cuisine is that because of the limited access to spices, food in this part of the world developed into boiled and bland plates and stews. Time and
space prevent describing and examining the history of dishes like shepherd’s pie (Ireland) and haggis (Scotland), both bursting with flavor (if done right), both indicative of a culinary tradition rooted in necessity that is still being enjoyed and rediscovered today in those nations. In examining English cuisine it should be noted that while the nation may deserve some “bland” labels, especially in the last 30-40 years, this blandness was not due to the “Britishness” of the cuisine but rather the movement to a suburban culture. The English reputation for bland food is a modern phenomenon – there was a time when the “full English breakfast” was famous for its tastiness.

Another example indigenous to the United States is Southern style barbecue, as it is one of the most important food cultures in the world. It’s one of those highly specific culinary styles that involve a chef’s dedication all throughout the cooking process, frequently checking the slow roasted meat over hours of time. True Southern style barbecue cannot be done quickly or without commitment – it is often mimicked and copied with varying results, but as any Southerner will tell you, “nothing beats the real thing.” As food cultures go, it’s hard to think of anything quite as authentic while still encompassing a wide variety (because barbecue is very regional, differing state to state, county to county, town to town and even house to house). This traditional developed primarily among poor, white farmers and is the complete antithesis of all things “bland.”

One could spend countless hours delving into the nuanced cuisines of the plethora of cultures stereotyped as “white.” From Reykjavik to Dusseldorf, Pretoria to Melbourne, culture is and remains much more than just the color of one’s skin. The variety is just as pronounced within the United States, from Tampa to Tulsa and Pierre to Portland. In the same way, one will find that when hopping from one suburban sprawl to another – be it in Liverpool, Chicago, Cape Town or Sydney, we will encounter at least hints of bland, tasteless or at least inauthentic cuisine. And so “Thanksgiving with white people” will once again occur this year – it may be delicious or it may be dull – it depends on where you are, how you live and what you value, not on the color of your skin.
    


https://www.buzzfeed.com/pablovaldivia/15-things-youll-understand-if-youve-ever-eaten-at-a-white?utm_term=.lnzOvgbxr#.dyZPK5xZO
[ii] https://thegrapevine.theroot.com/dear-white-people-here-s-a-list-of-things-we-d-wish-yo-1790887918
[iii] https://www.good.is/articles/food-for-thinkers-the-rise-of-white-people-food
[iv] http://www.travelchannel.com/shows/bizarre-foods/episodes/mongolia

11/5/17

Remember Mississippi by Ryan S. Walters: A Review

By: Jonathan Harris

“Remember Mississippi”, a book about the Chris McDaniel’s 2014 campaign was released over the weekend. Ryan S. Walters, author and personal friend of McDaniel, takes his readers deep into the underbelly of the GOP’s “establishment,” and what we find there isn’t pretty. . . Incumbent Thad Cochran’s race-baiting, progressive-leaning, disinformation campaign against McDaniel culminates in perhaps the worst part of it all: a stolen election.

Although most of my extended family is from the state of Mississippi, I was not intimately acquainted with the present political condition of the “most conservative” state until now. Not only is Mississippi ranked the most corrupt state in the union. It also takes more in Federal handouts per capita then any other state. The major reason for this incongruity has more to do with an out-of-touch political class than it does a supportive electorate. Halley Barbour’s political machine makes Boss Hog’s look more reality than fantasy, and ten times as bad! Warning: Reading this book may cause you to need a shower.

At the same time, Walter’s remedy may offer hope! McDaniel accomplished something still causing reverberations within the establishment: He showed them for what they really were. His bravery in standing against a 6-term senator and subsequently exposing GOP corruption inspired grassroots conservatives to turn against establishment candidates during the 2016 presidential primary. McDaniel’s political career is not over, but Mississippi’s establishment has weakened. Constitutional conservatives need to keep standing up against immorality, gutter tactics, and corruption even when it exists in the Republican party. There is no better time than now. Remember Mississippi!

Order here!

11/3/17

An Argument for the Abolition of 11th and 12th Grade

By: David Harris

We have a problem with education. Scratch that. We have a host of problems with education. It would not be in the interest of practicality to belabor all the various issues, concerns and outright crises within our education system– except the underlying one. Constitutionality. There is no framework for a federally funded education system found in the American Constitution. Any education system, constitutionally speaking, should fall under the broad umbrella of the 10th Amendment (any power not delegated to the Federal Government is delegated to the States/People). This means local, community and if desired, State governments bear the responsibility for administering education among their peoples. Sadly, most citizens of the United States, both on the right and left, incorrectly assume that all children (and people in general for that matter) are entitled to a free education as a necessary right, despite the absence of this principle every really appearing in any tangible way throughout history.

The informed conservative may groan at the constitutional abuses suffered under the implementation and administering our modern educational system (among others) that we now think of as integral to the fabric of our nation. The liberal will bemoan that schools are “not working for our children.” Ironically, both sides of the ideological aisle will come to the same place in regards to the way education is administered today, best summed up in this declarative statement: “We must stop teaching to the test!” Indeed, you will rarely encounter an individual on political, philosophical or even occupational level within or outside of the field of education that supports the idea of “teaching to the test,” that is, instructing for the sole purpose of passing a standardized test that supposedly proves the absorption and retention of knowledge. While there are varying reasons why specific perspective points arrive at this conclusion (for example, educational pragmatists would prescribe more “real life” education, while educational progressives tend to think of education as a medium for people, young and old, to self-discovery and self-expression), it is most important to note that many of the prime shortcomings of our education system are agreed upon almost universally, “teaching to the test” being the prime example.

Let us take a step back for a moment and take note of a couple of critical truisms. There may be no abolishing the Department Education, at least in our lifetimes. Various conservative leaders have tried and failed to do so (Ronald Reagan, for example took steps to defund it). We may be stuck with it for quite some time to come. For the liberal in a similar quandary about what to do about education, it is highly unrealistic to think that “teaching for the test” will be abolished in any reasonable timeframe – it’s been here and will probably be here to stay as it represents the most bureaucratic, machine-like way of administering education that is supposed to be “free and available” to all children in America. Thus the dreaded “c-word” must be invoked: compromise. We must find ways to improve our education system while simultaneously lessening the tax burden (and it is indeed, a monumental one; for example: New York dedicates more than a quarter of its budget to education).

This leads to the inevitable purpose of this brief contemplation: hypothesizing a way of accomplishing 1) educational reform, and 2) making the reform work for all parties involved. An effective way of achieving these ends is to abolish 11th and 12th grade. Over the past several years there have been a number of voices calling for not an abolition, but an extension of high school. The opposite is needed for reasons that will now be laid out:

1) The first two years of college are essentially a repeat of high school

While the above axiom is especially true in reference to public colleges, there is a widespread reality in college that those who have not stacked up credits in high school and pass with only average marks end up spending thousands of dollars and up to two years of their lives taking prerequisite or entrance level “101” classes. Most of these classes are only meant to establish a framework for academic grammar, form and convention, something that is already explicitly expressed in standards like Common Core.  The idea of sending 16 year olds into college would no doubt be met with a chorus of objections. “How can you possibly think that a 16 year old is ready for college!” The response is simple: Because they are if standards are being followed. Historically speaking, it was not rare in the slightest to have even 14 year olds beginning their university studies. Additionally, students who are paying for an education are far more likely to put time and energy into their studies – this is the reason that the behavioral issues 

2) The most useful of academic skills culminate at about 10th grade

For math, science, English and history, the 10th grade represents the summit of what students will actually use in their lifetime. The image of a student asking “Why do I have to learn this? I’m never going to use it!” is painful for teachers who know that the question rings with truth – they will not use much of what they will have to sit through in school, and furthermore, much of what they learn is causing them to miss out on learning things that will be far more useful once they leave school (i.e., practical life skills). If academic standards are actually being met, students will reach the basic level of needed academic skills in 10th grade – higher achieving students could be placed in advanced classes, and struggling students in lower ones, just as is already done in public schools.

3) Less time in school will result in a more mature populace

Students who have every need supplied to them from kindergarten through college are often shocked when they are thrown out into the world. This is why we have a crisis of unemployed, or at least underemployed, young people throughout our nation – when they finally get out of college they have not developed practical life skills and lack work experience. If parents and children both understand the impending end of school, they will be much more likely to invest in their futures earlier. Young people, as has been proven over and over, will rise to level of expectation – if faced with the real world, they will adapt and not lean on the State for their livelihoods, but instead contribute to society at large.

4)  Telling students that they need to go to college to be successful hurts them and damages the economy

One of the greatest fibs told to students in the US through the education system is that they need to go to college to be successful in life. This is one of the underlying fallacies with the movement to make college tuition free. There is no guarantee of a job at the end of a college degree, and many majors actually damage a student’s chances of getting a job after college in a timely manner (for example: ethnic studies, art history, etc.). Additionally, there are many careers that pay well and are very fulfilling, but are grossly understaffed because young people are not encouraged to attend tech school or enter a trade, despite the fact that trades often represent fulfilling and stable work (carpentry, welding, metalwork, etc.).

5) The shrinking of the education system would provide a lessened tax burden and more investment into other educational venues

Private education, home education, expanded university programs, increased tech fields and schools, the K-10 public school system – these are just some of the areas that would be stimulated by dropping the burden of 11th and 12th grade, not to mention the increased investment into the economy at large because of the tax break.

This is a short list of ways that the US could benefit from abolishing the 11th and 12th grades. There would be, no doubt, a laundry list of issues that would arise from implementing a change such as this, and it would have to be done progressively, but could lend itself to great benefit for individual families, communities, states and the Nation at large.
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