Internet Histories | 10 March
The new News | True Detective
A mix of Monday reading|Glasses half-empty and half-full in Ukraine
Marc Fisher’s story on the new crop of online newsrooms in the Columbia Journalism Review goes a little more in-depth than the usual “news is so fast nowadays, facts come second” narrative. Although there is plenty of that, Fisher isn’t dismissive of outfits he visits. One of those outfits is NowThis News, whose grand innovation is to throw up sub-iMovies titles over world events. Undoubtedly many will and have read the piece, snorting like disturbed cattle at learning many of these outfits are just coming to realise the value of checking sources (Traditional media has problems of its own on this score, note the apparent debunking of the meticulous Jon Stephenson’s reporting of the claims of an Afghan contractor to the NZDF. Hopefully there’s more to come on this from Jon).
The article is more interesting as snapshot of the messy collision of news and entertainment, that space Jon Stewart has made desirable to occupy for those in the currently lacklustre mainstream TV business. The problem is: if you want to live there, you have to get it right. If you’re off mark, prepare for that special kind of awkwardness reserved for state broadcasters.
Awkwardness, with a hint of unease, is maybe the best way to describe the feeling when you realise your new favourite TV show is reinforcing some lame ass tropes. In its tone, writing and technical execution TD has been gripping. I’ll definitely be watching the final episode (so perhaps the rest of this late night heave may seem jarring or even hypocritical). Unfortunately it’s argued the show sidelines its female characters into either whore, mother or victim roles. The way the show treats women has been an online back and forth just as engaging as watching subreddits of screen capture fiends trying to figure out who the Yellow King is. Not unreasonably the show creator Nic Pizzolatto points out the misogyny of the two lead characters can’t help but swamp the piece because we’re seeing events from their POV and their relationship is the focus of the show. Furthermore others have pointed out that art doesn’t have to endorse the perspective of its characters. Furthermore, TD has taken much appreciated pains to have female characters point out how fucked up the men in their lives are; we’re not supposed to think of these guys as heroes.
Alas all of that ultimately comes off as empty gestures when the camera lingers over Alexandra Daddario breasts like a half-drunk house fly. It’s also disappointing to learn the two male leads won’t be getting their kit off (to be fair McConaughey butt kisses air briefly), yet nearly every woman (including Michelle Monaghan) in the series has disrobed. According to Pizzolatto “there is a clear mandate in pay-cable for a certain level of nudity.” It’s doubly irritating when HBO has cancelled the great Enlightened, a show that broke the mold of dark male asshole protagonists in favour of a perky female narcissist and never really reached its deserved audience.
The much linked to column by Emily Nussbaum, where she talks up the show’s good points while she lets some air out of the balloon, probably says it best:
“Don’t get me wrong: I love a nice bouncy rack. And if a show has something smart to say about sex, bring it on. But, after years of watching “Boardwalk Empire,” “Ray Donovan,” “House of Lies,” and so on, I’ve turned prickly, and tired of trying to be, in the novelist Gillian Flynn’s useful phrase, the Cool Girl: a good sport when something smells like macho nonsense. And, frankly, “True Detective” reeks of the stuff. The series, for all its good looks and its movie-star charisma, isn’t just using dorm-room deep talk as a come-on: it has fallen for its own sales pitch.”
I’ve read a lot of good stuff this week that doesn’t really cohere to a single theme, so I thought I’d share a few examples.
The New Yorker does longform investigative features real well, and this piece about a carefully planned hunger strike is fascinating – the political savvy and nouse associated with such a successful scheme aren’t characteristics we’re usually ready to assign gang members:
Ashker, allegedly a senior member of the Aryan Brotherhood, had for years shared a pod with Sitawa Jamaa, allegedly the minister of education of the Black Guerrilla Family, and Arturo Castellanos, allegedly an important leader of the Mexican Mafia. In the next pod over was Antonio Guillen, allegedly one of three “generals” of Nuestra Familia. According to the state, these men have spent much of their lives running rival, racially aligned criminal organizations dedicated, often, to killing one another. But over a period of years, through an elaborate and extremely patient series of conversations yelled across the pod and through the concrete walls of the exercise room, the four men had formed a political alliance. They had a shared interest in protesting the conditions of their confinement and, eventually, a shared strategy. They became collaborators. The men planned for the hunger strike meticulously.
One of the publications I find most consistently interesting is Aeon magazine, and this week they published a feature by Mark Haddon, the guy who wrote The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. It’s ostensibly a feature on how we (humans) parse ourselves through the lens of animals, but the focus is far more wide-ranging than that alone, and the prose is excellent:
The exclusion zone around Chernobyl is just over 1,000 square miles. State employees work in shifts, most of them tending the ravaged power station itself, but the area is largely uninhabited, apart from a couple of hundred elderly local refuseniks who have been grudgingly allowed to carry on living there, and the occasional group of tourists who have grown tired of Machu Picchu and the Northern Lights.
For the first couple of years after the disaster, there were mutated plants – weird growths, dwarfism, gigantism, a couple of specimens that, rather thrillingly, actually glowed in the dark like something in a 1950s sci-fi movie, but the animals looked fine. No two-headed moose. And pretty soon their numbers were rising in the absence of people. Wild boar, wolves, bison, otters, badgers, lynx, white-tailed eagles, marsh harriers. They’re all somewhat radioactive so you wouldn’t want them for lunch, but I don’t think the wild boar are going to be complaining about that any time soon.
I find it hard to read about the place without my heart lifting a little: nature flourishing in our absence, our capacity for destruction not quite as great as we thought.
But what if no one was ever allowed back in? What if we really screwed up and a quarter of the whole world was like that? Half the world? Three-quarters? What if we completed our covenant with silence and a plane plunged over us into the sea and, thereafter, nothing? Just the horses and the lynx and the deer. A world without people.
Finally there’s this great piece in TIME, this curiously-written almost-present-tense terse account of a standoff between Ukranian and Russian forces outside a Crimean airfield. It’s the sort of thing you’d never read in the Herald, but might nevertheless lend you greater insight into the currently-unfolding crisis than all the talking heads in the world babbling at once:
Just before morning reveille, Colonel Yuli Mamchur, the base commander, got word from one of his lieutenants that the Russian officer in charge of the siege, a lieutenant colonel of the special forces who only identified himself as Dima, had called again. His terms were the same, only the deadline was different – surrender by 4:00 pm on Tuesday or the Russians would cut off the power and the gas lines to the base. “What they’re trying to do is make us snap,” Mamchur told TIME. “It’s a mind game.” He decided to call Dima back. Without consulting his ranking officers, Mamchur told the Russian officer that the men under his command – Ukraine’s 204th Tactical Aviation Brigade – was about to march on the Belbek air field that the Russians had occupied. Then he hung up the phone.
Apart from the warm and welcome sight of Steven Seagal’s hemispheric goatee on Russia Today, the recent fortnight of upheaval, reconstitution, and occupation in Ukraine has been grueling. With most journalists unable to be there on the ground, there’s been a sort of recasting of Cold War armchair absolutes.
A Girlfriend-style “How Hegemonic Is Your Boo” pop quiz: Your friends think your latest protest, the Euromaidan, is either A: a heroic DIY grassroots resistance against a corrupt oligarchy or B: a case of a democratically-elected government getting overthrown by 100% blackshirted fascists. Caution: A or B may be oversimplifying your boo.
Although American and Russian media are following reasonably predictable scripts (the odd Network moment aside) , Slavoj Zizek and dozens of other incredibly able academics came out with a glowing open letter of support for the protests; the Ukrainian wing of Anonymous, who I’d assumed would generally endorse chaos for chaos’s sake, are leaking against the activists and the foreign funding they received for their people’s movement.
When you’re dealing with a lot of tired and angry people, they probably don’t hew to one belief about why they want change and exactly what that change looks like, and this alone makes it difficult to quantify ‘what it all means’. Someone who claims to have all the answers may also have an agenda. That said, my essential glass half-empty read of this is by Romanian sociologist Florin Poenaru on Lefteast:
“Corrupt and inefficient as his regime was, Yanukovich’s presidency represented, at least minimally, concrete interests of a large section of the Ukrainian post-communist working class. I see no concern regarding the political representation of these people who are now forced to accept a political decision taken in Kiev by virtue of force. On the left, by casually accepting the deposition of Yanukovich because he was corrupt, we simply accept the language and politics of the liberal-conservative local and international forces and forfeit the language of class and class politics….
…the truly critical stance for people on the left is neither to take sides in this conflict, nor to just simply take a safe distance from it by proclaiming that the two sides are similar. Rather, one should vehemently criticize the Madian and especially its actual, practical political outcomes. Instead of simply fetishizing the mere presence of people in the streets – as conservatives like to do – a critical perspective should question the very social basis and political aims of mass gatherings.”
A glass-half full one, too, from The Bullet’s Richard Greeman:
“The crowds who have accomplished this victory for ‘peoples' power’ unite people of all classes and all ethnicities, including not just native speakers of Russian and Ukrainian, but also Muslims, Jews, and various nationalities of the Caucuses. A recent interview with a marvelously lucid and well-informed Ukrainian revolutionary syndicalist named Vlatislav, who has been in the thick of things, confirms the spontaneous, self-organized, multi-class and multi-ethnic composition of the revolutionary crowds. He dismisses the idea that the people are ‘pro-Europe’ as anachronistic, dating from the early days of the occupation, when it was largely symbolic…In contrast to these creditable on-the-ground reports, what we find in the media is mostly sheer propaganda. The Times and the networks portray this revolution as a defeat for Russia and a victory for Western neoliberal capitalism. Period. On the other hand, part of the Left sees it more or less through the Cold War lens as a ‘right-wing coup’ engineered by U.S. imperialism.”
Lastly, though it’s a discussion that resonates beyond whatever happens in the Ukraine, the war of letters between Mark Ames (ex-the eXile, now Pando) and Glenn Greenwald (Salon, Guardian, The Intercept) is really interesting. Ames points out that First Look, which owns The Intercept, has an owner who funneled money into Ukraine revolution groups (along with USAID), and that Greenwald and others’ national security reporting needs to be seen in this context. Greenwald defends himself pretty well – he correctly points out that The Intercept is not the first publication to have owners who think and do questionable things. It leaves the reader in a position of what I guess could be called ‘due vigilance’ – don’t assume that everything you read is untainted or untaintable, don’t churlishly assume that everything you read must be compromised.