Anyone who claims a medium is “apolitical” is lying

Art Spiegelman, author of Maus, withdrew a foreword to a Marvel comic collection because he was asked to edit out a political reference. Don’t you know that Marvel Comics is “apolitical”? What a crock. Marvel Comics lies.

Everything is political. Abstaining from comment on the deepest political crisis of our time is a rabidly political act that takes an offensive stand on racism, corruption, and misogyny. They wanted to remove a disparaging reference to Donald Trump, because, apparently, Marvel Comics never ever took a stance against fascism.

Too political, I guess.

Meanwhile, the chair of Marvel Entertainment, Isaac Perlmutter, is a close confidant and supporter of Donald Trump.

Not at all political.

Fortunately, Spiegelman’s essay will be even more widely read now, since it’s been published in the Guardian, where you can read it for free.

Auschwitz and Hiroshima make more sense as dark comic book cataclysms than as events in our real world. In today’s all too real world, Captain America’s most nefarious villain, the Red Skull, is alive on screen and an Orange Skull haunts America. International fascism again looms large (how quickly we humans forget – study these golden age comics hard, boys and girls!) and the dislocations that have followed the global economic meltdown of 2008 helped bring us to a point where the planet itself seems likely to melt down. Armageddon seems somehow plausible and we’re all turned into helpless children scared of forces grander than we can imagine, looking for respite and answers in superheroes flying across screens in our chapel of dreams.

He has also expanded it a bit, since this closing story was irresistible.

I turned the essay in at the end of June, substantially the same as what appears here. A regretful Folio Society editor told me that Marvel Comics (evidently the co-publisher of the book) is trying to now stay “apolitical”, and is not allowing its publications to take a political stance. I was asked to alter or remove the sentence that refers to the Red Skull or the intro could not be published. I didn’t think of myself as especially political compared with some of my fellow travellers, but when asked to kill a relatively anodyne reference to an Orange Skull I realised that perhaps it had been irresponsible to be playful about the dire existential threat we now live with, and I withdrew my introduction.

A revealing story serendipitously showed up in my news feed this week. I learned that the billionaire chairman and former CEO of Marvel Entertainment, Isaac “Ike” Perlmutter, is a longtime friend of Donald Trump’s, an unofficial and influential adviser and a member of the president’s elite Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida. And Perlmutter and his wife have each recently donated $360,000 (the maximum allowed) to the Orange Skull’s “Trump Victory Joint Fundraising Committee” for 2020. I’ve also had to learn, yet again, that everything is political… just like Captain America socking Hitler on the jaw.

Hail Hydra, Ike.

Portland seems to have weathered the neo-Nazi rally just fine

Much credit has to go to the Portland Antifa, who turned up in numbers to mock and dissipate any action by the racists. Eric Ward summarizes the day on Twitter, as does Robert Evans, with lots of photos. It sounds like the Proud Boys rally mostly fizzled, although there was a scattering of arrests and weapons confiscated. I think the best sign that they failed, though, was that they were reduced to arguing that they won because Go look at President Trump’s Twitter. He talked about Portland, said he’s watchin’ antifa. That’s all we wanted.. Your victory is getting Donald Trump to blab some nonsense on Twitter? That’s what he does every day while sitting on the toilet.

Here’s a great overview of events from Ward:

Today’s white nationalist rally in Portland, Oregon was a complete rout.

The largely non-Portland crowd was mostly abandoned by its leadership the night before. People arrived with no places to sleep and calls to cell phones went unreturned. This morning found hate group members without places to eat, water and access to restrooms. An increasing number of businesses (like the one pictured) were denying service.

The promised five hour hate rally lasted about 45 minutes; participants were forced to rally underneath a bridge and then had to beg police to escort them out (a very long walk) over year another bridge. Rally leaders then quickly took to their cars to allegedly attend a BBQ that just happened to not be in Portland.

Other remnants of the rally were forced to walk around downtown Portand for nearly two hours as they searched for their cars. I heard at least two Portlanders give them wrong directions. Tired, thirst and walked out; people started to drift away in droves, leaving a dejected looking Joey Gibson (leader of Patriot Prayer) with an increasingly smaller and smaller crowd around him. Not getting the physical confrontation he sought and contemplating his growing civil and criminal legal woes, Joey was very subdued today.

After analysis?

The social pressure and evolving diverse and incredibly fun tactics of PopMob; the seriousness of the Portland Police; and the number of city, civic and business leaders mobilized seems to have taken serious steam out of the white nationalist/alt right protest.

It’s clear from the speeches and comments today that White nationalist/alt right leaders are wary of the increasing civil suits led by the Oregon Justice Resource Center and criminal liabilities they are facing from disrupting communities.

Really proud of Portland today. Super impressed, from the leadership in the streets to city hall. Folks will be back to political positioning and eating each other alive tomorrow, but hope everyone gives each other a small nod of respect tonight

You are an amazing community Portand and you showed up this month and it mattered. Community and leadership made this happen and you showed up with a lot of both. Goodnight from the Rose City. #OurCityOurHome

Keep up the pressure. It’s great when the pinnacle of success for the Proud Boys is getting a pat on the head from Daddy Trump, and nothing more.

The Christian Ott story is fleshed out, to the chagrin of enablers everywhere

Christian Ott was a Caltech astrophysicist who was suspended for a year and ultimately resigned over accusations of sexual harassment. As is usual, the university was close-mouthed about the details — gotta protect the reputation of the institution first and foremost! — but now a former employee of Ott dishes out all the details. Handmer was fired so there might be a hint of disgruntlement here, but since he was fired for the petty detail of keeping his bicycle in his office, I think the circumstances themselves suggest that Ott was a rather nasty tyrant.

He also points out some of the failings of the media reporting on it. One problem was the tendency to report Ott’s unwanted relationships with students as “failed romances”, when they were entirely one-sided, constructed entirely out of Ott’s unrequited harassment. Lesson one: harassment is not at all romantic.

Lesson two is about self-serving myths.

The other failure of secondary reporting was lazy references to the mythical trope of the genius asshole. That is, the stereotype of a professional scientist who is both intellectually brilliant and, in compensation, socially clueless or even mean-spirited. Despite propagation in popular culture such as the Big Bang Theory, there is no evidence that links these two traits in the real world. Nor did the reporting provide any evidence that Ott was particularly brilliant, or have any excuse for social cluelessness. I find these tropes particularly corrosive since their primary application seems to be in inflating the perceived quality of a senior researcher’s work, who themselves compensates for relatively poor performance by taking it out on their powerless underlings. This same trope came into play in reporting on Andy Rubin’s departure from Google.

A lot of the long essay is about the failure of accountability and how university bureaucrats worked hard to bury the stories, which is how Ott managed to get employed and survive a huge number of complaints. What happens when you build an institution, like academia, on policies that shelter assholes? It fills up with assholes.

Big brains…what are they good for?

An interesting thought experiment: what if intelligent dinosaurs had evolved? Would we know it?

If, in the final 7,000 years of their reign, dinosaurs became hyperintelligent, built a civilization, started asteroid mining, and did so for centuries before forgetting to carry the one on an orbital calculation, thereby sending that famous valedictory six-mile space rock hurtling senselessly toward the Earth themselves—it would be virtually impossible to tell. All we do know is that an asteroid did hit, and that the fossils in the millions of years afterward look very different than in the millions of years prior.

So that’s what 180 million years of complete dominance buys you in the fossil record. What, then, will a few decades of industrial civilization get us? This is the central question of the Anthropocene—an epoch that supposedly started, not tens of millions of years ago, but perhaps during the Truman administration. Will our influence on the rock record really be so profound to geologists 100 million years from now, whoever they are, that they would look back and be tempted to declare the past few decades or centuries a bona fide epoch of its own?

I agree.Two of the major consequences of great intelligence seem to be heightened conceit about your importance, and an enhanced ability to exploit and wreck the environment on which your success depends. Maybe those are the two things we ought to be working on reducing, if we hope to last a little longer.

Skepticon: the rifts are full of lava!

James Croft reviews Skepticon, and the Deep Rifts it exposes.

Skepticon 11 couldn’t have been more different. This year, of all the main presenters, there wasn’t a single white man – in their place, instead, a queer and colorful array of social justice warriors, exploring topics like intersectionality, race and racism, and secular ritual. The participants, too, were notably more diverse, with more women and genderqueer people than I have even seen at a skeptics event.

This is a marked shift in a relatively short time: something has happened to organized secularism, such that its priorities and population have rapidly changed. Today, there is a deepening rift between two wings of the movement, and the changes in Skepticon demonstrate this perfectly. The new rift in the secular community, it seems to me, parallels one deepening in the culture at large: it is between those who are on board with contemporary social justice culture, and those who are not.

In the community of skeptics, this rift is filled with lava: there is an incredibly intense animosity between those on different sides, and the divide seems impossible to cross. I think I know why this is. The USA, being deeply religious and deeply wedded to certain forms of woo, tends to dislike those who reject religion and supernaturalism. Thus people who value the fact that their beliefs are the result of rational scrutiny are treated as if they are wrong or even immoral, driving them to find community with like-minded skeptics. (I have observed that in the countries and regions where religion and supernaturalism are strongest, so is organized skepticism – one drives people to the other.)

This community is to them a safe space. For the mainly cishet white men who originally found their home in organized skepticism, it was a place where they could feel valued, welcomed, and smart despite holding views which were not always esteemed in wider society. There they could say what was really on their mind. They could rail against the stupidity of creationism and the dangers of dogmatism. They could relax, and be themselves, and be celebrated for being themselves. It was a place to celebrate skepticism qua skepticism, without the disapproval they experienced in the wider world. Safe spaces are intoxicating and beloved: sometimes they are the only place where those people can live into the fullness of themselves.

Yet organized skepticism was never safe for everybody. Those spaces, while affirming skeptics qua skeptics, consistently failed to address the issues which make wider society unwelcoming to everyone who isn’t a cis straight white man. Skeptic events had problems with sexual harassment. They invited mainly cishet white male speakers. They focused on issues which were of interest and importance to cishet white males (as well as a small selection of other issues where the connection with religion was particularly clear). Thus the movement was mainly a playground for white cishet men.

Yeah, I’ve noticed. I can’t take credit for noticing, though, because I was stunned by the abrupt emergence of the split in the community — I remember blithely assuming that of course atheists and skeptics would find common cause with oppressed minorities everywhere and gladly welcome them into the fold (they were already there!), because they were constantly preaching about how the godless were discriminated against. I was shocked at the vehement anger that greeted my early suggestion that there was more to atheism than not believing in a god, and it took a couple of years for what Croft summarizes here to sink in, while that community and I were mutually alienating ourselves.

It’s clear with hindsight that there was a cishet white male skepticism, and a whole ‘nother branch of diverse skepticism, and I was a traitor to the former. Man, that lava burned when crossing it.

Andy Ngo is a fraud and a right-wing provocateur

Nothing more. Ngo is an empty vessel who has found a way to gain the attention of right-wing chuds. He’s probably foaming at the mouth today at the opportunity to fire up violence in the streets of Portland, with the eager of his friends, the fascists.

Burley says, “One way to think of Andy Ngo is he is part of a far-right mediasphere that creates victimization narratives of conservatism and profit from it. It’s all about the embattled American man who is under siege at every turn, whether its trans children, immigrant criminals, anchor babies, or dangerous college campuses. ‘They are all out to destroy us and our values.’ It’s an entire infrastructure that’s moved from commentary like National Review to populist media hucksters drumming up a controversy. Ngo doesn’t seem to have many real journalistic credentials, and any he does is from creating controversy. He gets in the Wall Street Journal and New York Post from being a conservative celebrity. His actual reporting is very infrequent and sparse.”

Ngo adds a new element in facilitating violence, intentionally or not. Burley says, “He appears to target ideological opponents, which can make them fair game for harassment and violent confrontation.” The scale of the threats keep escalating. Now Portland is bracing for the August 17 rally.

Or maybe not. Right-wing organizers have been backing away from Portland, since some of them have been getting sued or arrested for their violent acts, and Ngo hasn’t publicly committed to attending the demonstrations today. If there’s a hint that the powder keg will blow, though, he’ll come running. That’s his chosen grift, after all.

The Proud Boys are claiming that they are rallying to “end domestic terrorism”…if that were true wouldn’t they just disappear themselves?

Let’s all hope that the Nazi show fizzles today. Another factor is that Portland Antifa has been doing an amazing job of making them afraid to show their faces — they’ll be mocked as cowards and clowns.