Monday, April 6, 2009

Is lee Adama the new Thomas Jefferson?

Is Lee Adama the new (and not so improved) Thomas Jefferson? – thoughts on the Battlestar Galactica finale

Frederick Jameson, the Marxist literary critic, argues that pop culture consistently provides us with interesting rich alternatives to the status quo and then in the end rejects them. We can escape into alternate (even at times radical) possibilities without actually having to challenge our own cultural system. Because of pop culture we can go to Oz while simultaneously renewing our commitment to not leave Kansas.

I know I wasn’t alone in hoping that Battlestar Galactica was going to break that pattern. Throughout the past 4 seasons they’ve consistently raised rigorous questions about the nature of humanity, the role of government, the importance of community, the definition of family, and the correct relationship between humans and technology. I had faith that they were going to resolve these questions in the only way possible – by not resolving them at all but instead forcing us to continue to grapple with them alone. They weren’t going to raise questions and then give us pat answers, I insisted. Frederick Jameson was one smart cookie but he was wrong about battlestar galactica.

But sadly, Jameson was right once again because Ron Moore gave us some really pat answers. He retreated to an old but faithful amalgam – the purity of nature, monotheism, the sanctity of traditional hetero families, and, yikes, colonial expansion. Yes, in the last 5 minutes in Times Square Ron Moore gives us some ongoing questions to grapple with, but let’s face it, those 5 minutes feel like a tag-on. The real ending is the line of survivors spreading out over the green “unpopulated” landscape of earth. Ron Moore took us from Caprica to space to New Caprica to Earth I and then finally right back into our good old American classic colonial narrative. Lee Adama went from being a disgruntled viper jock with daddy issues to president of the colonies to…well, Thomas Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson believed that America’s destiny was not to be a capitalist superpower, but instead to be a nation of small yeoman farmers committed to subsistence and sustainability. TJ believed emphatically that Europe was corrupt because of lack of space. There wasn’t enough land and there weren’t enough resources and so people lived on top of each in cities. These cities bred inequality, class conflict, and corruption. America would be different because the land functioned as a safety valve – we could all stay out of each other’s hair. The only way America could avoid becoming like Europe (corrupt) was to keep spreading out across the abundant landscape. That’s why he negotiated the Louisiana Purchase during his presidency and maneuvered the displacement of Native Americans. He admired the noble savage (uncorrupted by cities) but he admired him from a distance. In reality he had to go or he had to whiten up quick. Either way he had to stop hunter gathering because he wasn’t being productive enough. That land had to be put to USE. Additionally Jefferson (and Madison) believed that expansion was necessary for democracy to thrive. People close together had conflicted interests and couldn’t maintain the necessary distance and objectivity to vote for the common good. Democracy with a messy group of non-homogenous people with conflicting interests just seemed impossible to TJ. Impossible and unrealistic. And in the end Lee and Papa Adama agree.

I get the appeal of the Jeffersonian yeoman farmer. Honestly, I do. My whole family lives in Vermont for chrissakes and cans all of their vegetables. And out of the pantheon of slave-holding founding fathers Jefferson’s definitely my fave. As much as I can critique his utopian vision he does have a nascent critique of capitalism that I appreciate. And if Jefferson’s utopian vision had taken place on an otherwise uninhabited continent I might have been really into it. But the thing is, it didn’t. And so Jefferson developed two tactics to make it uninhabited. Here are some clips from his 1803 secret address to congress about the good old Indian problem:

In order peaceably to counteract this policy of theirs and to provide an extension of territory which the rapid increase of our numbers will call for, two measures are deemed expedient.
First[:] To encourage them to abandon hunting, to apply to the raising [of] [live]stock, to
agriculture, and domestic manufacture, and thereby prove to themselves that less land and labor will maintain them in this better than in their former mode of living. The extensive forests necessary in the hunting life will then become useless, and they will see advantage in exchanging them for the means of improving their farms and of increasing their domestic comforts.
[4] Secondly[:] To multiply trading houses among them, and place within their reach those things which will contribute more to their domestic comfort than the possession of extensive but uncultivated wilds. Experience and reflection will develop to them the wisdom of exchanging what they can spare and we want for what we can spare and they want. In leading them thus to agriculture, to manufactures, and civilization[,] in bringing together their and our sentiments, and in preparing them ultimately to participate in the benefits of our Government, I trust and believe we are acting for their greatest good.

So in other words they had to be coerced into giving up their hunting rights to land and become assimilated farmers. This was because farming was more enlightened – “it’s for their greatest good,” and because Jefferson needed that hunting land for white farmers. And those Indians just weren’t making productive USE of it.

Okay so now let’s compare to Battlestar. What is it that Lee says to Papa Adama? Oh right, I remember, “we can give them the best of our civilization.” We can give them language, Lee states explicitly, and implies, we can also give them some of our ideas like democracy, etc. Once Lee gets back from climbing mountains just because they’re there, he can teach these pre-lingual benighted natives civics. And Baltar can teach them how to grow food, even though quite frankly being a hunter gatherer is a more efficient use of time and resources.(Over the past few decades historians and archeologists have concluded that hunter gatherers actually lived quite well). It’s the perfect Jeffersonian fantasy. The colonials (aptly named) get to be purified by the landscape and the simple primitive noble savages, and they get to uplift and improve them at the same time.

The most chilling moment in the finale is when five white men hiding behind a hillock look at a group of black ‘natives’ and express surprise and delight at their shared humanity. “Hard to believe it” Papa Adama tells us. That’s how the early missionaries felt when they landed in Africa. The Africans and the Europeans would spend hours at first just staring at each other in awe, and stroking each other’s faces. And then, the white folks would get to work teaching everybody how to farm, become Christians, and take on western gender roles.

Oh and that brings me to my last point – gender. The best part of Battlestar Galactica I always thought was not just the unconventional gender roles, but the unconventional family structures, the abundance of meaningful but socially undefined relationships. The primary love affair in many ways is the romantic friendship between Bill Adama and Saul Tigh. Kara and Lee’s relationship also anchors the series and yet it’s almost impossible to define – are they siblings? Are they lovers? Are they friends? Are they competitors? Once the colonials and their cylon companions land on Earth II the only relationships that survive and are meaningful are heterosexual couplings. Bill chooses to live alone after Laura dies even though he has a son and a best friend who are still alive. Bill and Saul don’t even get to say goodbye to each other, their relationship is almost forgotten. The only reason Bill says goodbye to Kara is that she is his “daughter,” a conventional relationship that can be validated. Ellen Tigh wins after all – she gets to live out the rest of her days coupled exclusively with Saul without that pesky friendship with Bill getting in the way. In the end even the most unconventional character, Kara, expresses loyalty to the husband that she never seemed to love and refused to divorce for obscure religious reasons I never understood. She barely says goodbye to Lee because their relationship is far too complicated to make sense in the new simplified utopia, but she tells Sam that she loves him and we’re left to believe they will meet “on the other side” in some Battlestar version of heaven. And the Chief (oh poor sweet Galen) abandons the child that he raised for three years because they’re not genetically related anymore. So what happened to all of those complicated and undefined pilot relationships? Those multiple forms of loyalty and affection that made the community of the fleet so revolutionary? Apparently there’s only room for one kind of relationship in the new world order, and that’s hetero couplings. Once again Frederick Jameson rears his ugly head. Throughout the series we got to flirt with these unprescribed complicated unscripted forms of relationship, but once the story ends we’re right back to mom and dad and the half cylon child.

So let’s summarize. A group of mostly white people called the colonists land right in the heart of the “dark continent.” They encounter a group of black natives who they simultaneously dismiss as pre-lingual and primitive and admire for their blank slate purity. They decide to bring these natives the “best” of their civilization. In Lee’s case that’s language and I guess democracy. In Gauis’s case it’s cultivation and his notion of the one god because, let’s face it, if Lee is the new TJ, Gauis is the new British missionary. This finale manages to replicate the western United States and British Africa all in one! The only explicit difference is that the Battlestar crew explicitly states their intention to interbreed with the natives, while the British and the Americans did it on the sly.

And so I’ve officially declared the last half of the season null and void. For me Battlestar ended exactly where it should have, with the discovery of the destroyed remnants of the original earth. My last image of Battlestar Galactica is a group of humans and cylons walking around a devastated planet forced to face each other without the comfort of their mythical utopian ending. Because in the end the really radical solution isn’t a new utopia, it isn’t starting over, it’s figuring out how to live with the people around us.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Twilight: a how-to guide to abusive relationships

So last Christmas break I had too much time on my hands and a copy of the first in the Twilight series and so I read it and I'll admit it I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it kind of like I enjoyed Wuthering Heights when I re-read it recently (not that I in any way want to impugn Emily Bronte by comparing her to Stephanie Meyer). They were both kind of hot BDSM relationships with no safeword, was my spin. Unfortunately I somehow forgot that BDSM relationships with no safeword are, um, abusive relationships. Yeah, kind of a big oversight. An oversight that became appallingly clear to me when I recently went to see the Twilight movie just last week. I was looking for some good trashy distraction and instead worked myself up into a feminist lather which was its own kind of fun distraction I suppose. The Twilight movie might as well be a how-to guide for teenage girls on how to seek out abusive relationships and then stick with 'em. It creates a longing for that distant, hot and cold, potentially violent man who is kind and loving to you and only you. And the thing that upsets me the most is that I get it, I get why it's sexy. It's appealing to feel like somebody dangerous and powerful is dangerous to everyone but you, that somehow you're exempt from their violence, that you're special. And I've got years and years of good feminist training so if that desire taps into the inner twelve year old in me I can just imagine how it affects actual twelve year olds. So my proposal is that when you buy your movie ticket you also receive a free guide to consensual BDSM sex and an explanation of how to have healthy sexual power plays, you know the kind with safe words. The kind where in the bedroom your lover pretends to be a vampire but around the breakfast table he asks what you think about the interesting editorial in the New York Times and listens to your opinion.

There’s been a lot written about the way in which Edward is a classic abusive partner: isolates her by separating her from her friends and family; is jealous and deeply stalker-y (watches her while she sleeps); hurts her and then goes into fits of self-recrimination about it (their first sex scene in the third book). Oh and there’s one more characteristic of abusive relationships that stuck with me - “Makes "jokes" that shame, humiliate, demean or embarrass you, whether privately or around family and friends.” What’s with all the jokes at Bella’s expense about her clutsiness and her clumsiness? Wasn’t that a weird and unnecessary plot point? I could keep going but I mean we all get it. It’s abusive, especially the jealousy and the watching her while she sleeps stuff. But honestly the part that I find most interesting is the way female sexuality is represented. There’s an interesting article in Bitch at the moment about Twilight as a newly emerging form of abstinence porn. Here’s the link:

The article is called “Bite me or Don’t” by Christine Seifert. It’s a good article, read it, but I think she leaves out an important point.

Seifert astutely analyzes the sexual politics of the first few books. Sex she points out, is literally disastrous for women. It can kill them. And even when it doesn’t they emerge bruised and battered (see Midnight Sun). Of course if they’re married they like it even when the emerge bruised and battered.

That seems like a fairly traditional message – sex is dangerous for girls, stay away from men who just can’t control themselves. The good men are the ones who want to hurt you but manage not to. It’s too much to expect to find a man who doesn’t want to hurt you and in fact if they don’t their not sexy. Real love is when men want to devour you, when they desire you so much they’ll lose control.
But all of that is far less disturbing to me than the other message of the book which is that if women do get hurt by men it’s their fault.

There’s an appalling scene in the first book which is even more appalling in the movie. Bella and Edward decide to see what happens if they kiss. They begin to kiss but instead of pulling away Bella, overtaken by desire for Edward and his deliciously cold skin (yuck), deepens the kiss. Edward violently pushes her away shouting “stop.” Bella looks horrified at the sexual rejection (as anyone would) but Edward explains he just couldn’t control himself, if the kiss continued he would hurt her. Therefore he’s going to leave. “Don’t go” she pleads and so they spend a chaste night together talking about who the hell knows what because they’re actually both deeply boring characters. But the message is clear – Bella’s desire is dangerous. If she acts on it or expresses it she’ll get hurt and it will be her fault. So young girls, take this to heart. If you act on your desire and have sex you’re going to get hurt and, as usual, it’s going to be your fault. Because men, vampires, whatever, just can’t control themselves when faced with female desire even if they have hearts (or the vampire equivalent) of gold.

First blog post ever

So I woke up this morning after having stayed up way too late on the internet and concluded that I need to start a blog because if I'm going to be bound at the hip to my computer and let's face it, addicted to the internet, i might as well have something semi-productive to show for it. Also, if I have a place where I can comment all I want about the world as I see it maybe I can actually do freelance audio and writing pieces that will get me paid instead of trying to make them into a vehicle for informing everybody just how I see things. So here's my first post, a review not of a movie, but of a movie trailer because I REALLY DON'T WANT TO SEE THE MOVIE. It's another in the fat people are destroying American genre and they're all the same. But unfortunately you can't really pitch a review of a movie trailer. But I CAN post it on my blog. You see, already I feel liberated by this thing called blogging. So here goes. Post #1. Tune in tomorrow (or later today depending on how bored I am) for a review of Twilight: a how to guide to abusive relationships.


As 2008 draws to a close, so hopefully does the film festival run for “Killer at Large,” the newest in an ongoing series of panic-inducing documentaries about the obesity epidemic. I have to confess I haven’t even seen this one although I’ve watched the trailer a number of times and shown it in my “politics of obesity” class. And I honestly don’t think I have to because the trailer hits on all of the salient points. It starts out with former Surgeon General Richard Carmona’s famous quote “obesity is the terror within” and then moves seamlessly into weeping overweight teenagers, headless Americans at the beach spilling out of their bathing suits, and visions of fat-inducing fast food crosscut with the wiggling fatty byproducts of liposuction. After an action packed two and half minutes we’re left with the conviction that fat and fat people are destroying America.

I just finished teaching a “politics of obesity” course at the university of California at Santa Cruz where we carefully analyzed the ways in which the “obesity epidemic” hijacks meaningful conversations about over-consumption and very real anxieties about the failure of the American economy. With the help of a bevy of theorists we concluded that the fat body embodies the contradictions of neo-liberalism – to be good citizens we’re told to consume (remember after 9-11 when bush told us to go shopping) but we’re also supposed to self regulate and control ourselves because the government certainly isn’t going to take care of us if we get sick or mismanage our finances. Fat bodies are the symbolic representation of the ways in which that system doesn’t work. We can’t overconsume and remain svelte, borrow imaginary money and not (oh I don’t know) have an economic collapse.

And if you think this all sounds like high falutin’ mumbo jumbo seriously just watch the trailer to “Killer at Large.” ( I mean are fat people really “the terror within” or should that title perhaps be given to Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac?

I’m curious to see how the war on obesity is going to play itself out in this current economic climate. The old neo-liberal contract is pretty much dissolving – even the good old boys are admitting we need a little government intervention , like 700 billion dollars worth. And hopefully Obama will begin to recreate some of those social services we’ve been losing slowly since Reagan. Self-regulation may be out and structural change may be in. In which case we might start actually having the conversations we need to be having about poverty, inequality, social change instead of displacing them onto fat bodies.