Banning “Russia” but not the athletes is crazy

The I.O.C. has prohibited Russian flags and other national symbols, but let in the majority of athletes from Russia (over 170). In doing so, it has splayed its legs across the awkward divide of the Olympics — the one between global sporting event, and global pageant of nationalism.

On the one hand (and, I’m sorry to say, increasingly), the Olympics serves as stage for nationalist expression, not only for the country of the host locale but for every country putatively involved. US television focuses on athletes with the United States flag on their uniforms; athletes are only allowed to participate under a country’s banner if they are citizens of that country. It’s this logic that incenses those watching the Russian doping scandal. “If so many athletes were caught violating the rules of the Olympics,” they say, “then why has the country not been properly punished? Why hasn’t Russia been banned entirely?” In their mind, letting athletes through is a gift to a nation that has violated the terms of this nationalistic get-together.

The I.O.C. should have let through any Russian athlete found to have been clean, regardless of that athlete’s affiliation — not as a favor to Russia, but as a way of saying that Russia doesn’t matter. The nationalist components of the Olympics are a tragedy. I would tentatively say that the nationalism disgraces the athletes as well. Let the athletes compete, and let them do so under a flag — any flag, who cares. Treating the removal of “Russian” displays as a punishment only reifies the worst tendencies of the Games.

Of course, better still if there were no flags at all.


Why “The Last Jedi” doesn’t feel like a female-driven movie

It’s because of Kylo Ren.

I have heard “The Last Jedi” floated as one of several female-led, female-focused, or female-driven movies in the past year. It makes sense: Rey is the next good Jedi, the series protagonist; Leia is the leader of the Resistance. But neither of them is really the main character, I think, certainly not as of “The Last Jedi.” That goes to Kylo Ren / Ben Solo. He may not be the protagonist, but he, and his emotional journey, are the center of the narrative. Ben makes the most important decisions; his feelings control the plot, rather than merely interacting with it.

Rey, although improved from “The Force Awakens,” remains less developed. Her actions often seem dictated by her archetypal role of “protagonist” rather than by her individual character. She gets to do what good-guys want to do. Kylo Ren gets to do what Kylo Ren wants to do. He feels like a modern character for his movie, one written to grapple with older ideas and contain the mixed spirit of the present. Rey, on the other hand, is a character of type — old type, taken from the era of the original series and placed into a movie from today.

I’m glad that Rey is the protagonist, and I am excited to watch her grow and change (I hope) in the third film, but right now, it’s Kylo Ren’s movie.

5000 Words About Why BioShock 2 is the Best of the Series

BioShock 2 has been lauded but brushed over. It is “the best” and “most nuanced” of the BioShock trilogy, but compared to the glorified first game and the explosively controversial third, BioShock 2 gets only intermittent attention.There has not been a really good analysis of BioShock 2 on its own terms (and I am not going to attempt or pretend to provide that here). There are several reasons for this, but one important one is how the series itself side-lines BioShock 2BioShock: Infinite and Burial at Sea involve themselves both narratively and emotionally with Jack’s story from the first game, Infinite towards the end, and Burial at Sea throughout. They invest his journey, and the characters of his game, with symbolic and meta-narrative significance. Blame Ken Levine for this. He worked on the first and third games, but skipped the second, and I guess he didn’t like the one on which he didn’t work.

But there are a ton of important things to say about BioShock 2. Here are some of them.

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Reviewing… I, Claudius (and ripping into modern prestige TV)

I, Claudius (the 1976 BBC adaptation of Robert Graves’s 1930s novels) is the kind of production that would be ripe for a modern HBO remake. It has sex, drugs, incest, plots, murder, and a huge range of characters to act all these things out — a perfect set of qualities to catch the Game of Thrones crowd after that show’s end. And I, Claudius would need to be remade to fit into the current landscape anyway: the cinematography would have to be more adventurous, the lighting more dynamic and varied, the aging makeup better, the crowd scenes actually rendered with CG rather than background noise, the violence done with more spice and less theatrics.

But, by being the kind of narrative that would work perfectly for contemporary adaptation, I, Claudius throws into even starker contrast the aesthetic and violent indulgence characteristic of modern prestige TV.

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Thinking About the Undeserving Poor

A relatively recent article in the LA Review of Books reviews two books, one on the idea of “responsibility,” the other on the use of the word “privilege.” It’s a good article, but what particularly stood out to me about it was the section on Mounk’s book, which discusses the now-prevalent and dominant rhetoric of responsibility in the United States. Here’s a representative quote:

“The problem, Mounk argues, is that we have been getting responsibility all wrong. Lurking behind the current use of the term is a pervasive distaste for the allegedly undeserving poor.”

Although people will invariably look for ways to go beyond the current rhetoric and way of thinking, I think it’s also worth going back, specifically going back and reading some of Shaw’s plays. Major Barbara has its own pantheon of undeserving poor getting handouts from the Salvation Army, but Mr. Doolittle in Pygmalion has the best speeches on the subject. His way of thinking — not just his way of thinking, but that he and Snobby Price in Major Barbara would get such a sympathetic treatment from their author — seems fairly alien today. Here’s part of a scene where he asks Pickering and Higgens for some money in exchange for Eliza:

“DOOLITTLE: … What am I, Governors both? I ask you, what am I? I’m one of the undeserving poor: that’s what I am. Think of what that means to a man. It means that hes up agen middle class morality all the time. If theres anything going, and I put in for a bit of it, it’s always the same story: “Youre undeserving; so you cant have it.” But my needs is as great as the most deserving widow’s that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband. I dont need less than a deserving man: I need more. I dont eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more. I want a bit of amusement, cause I’m a thinking man. I want cheerfulness and a song and a band when I feel low. Well, they charge me just the same for everything as they charge the deserving. What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything. Therefore, I ask you, as two gentlemen, not to play that game on me. I’m playing straight with you. I aint pretending to be deserving. I’m undeserving; and I mean to go on being undeserving. I like it: and thats the truth. Will you take advantage of a man’s nature to do him out of the price of his own daughter what hes brought up and fed and clothed by the sweat of his brow until she growed big enough to be interesting to you gentlemen? Is five pounds unreasonable? I put it to you; and I leave it to you.”

Now, Doolittle is talking about a slightly different sense of “deserving,” here — the idea of “responsibility” has become more strictly governed by the capitalist logic of ‘work-in for goods-out’ in the intervening century. That’s happened to most moral understandings. Still, I appreciate how novel Shaw’s perspective seems today: having sympathy for people who are poor, shiftless, potentially responsible for both, and intend to do nothing about it.