Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Reading Racist Books To My Kid

I ran in to a hiccup at bedtime. It wasn’t actually the first time I’ve run into this particular hiccup, but it got me thinking.

Almost every night, I read to my son. It’s great, for all the usual reasons. He gets to discover characters and worlds I loved as a kid, or we discover wonderful new ones. He hears the stories that helped teach me things about bravery, honesty, loyalty, determination, or silliness. We’ve heard from some titans of children’s literature: Roald Dahl is wonderful to read out loud. C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles are better than I remember them: the moral choices children make in his stories are valuable discussion starters for father-son talks about responsibility, consequences, kindness, and listening to your conscience.

But then… at bedtime… there are passages like this.

Cover art from the version I read as a kid.
Turbans and scimitars. Source
From The Horse and His Boy:
"This boy is manifestly no son of yours, for your cheek is as dark as mine but the boy is fair and white like the accursed but beautiful barbarians who inhabit the remote North [meaning Narnia].” (Chapter 1) C. S. Lewis. The Horse and his Boy (Kindle Locations 79-80). HarperCollins. HOLD ON! So... C.S. Lewis believes dark people are ugly? Am I reading this right?

"The next thing was that these men were not the fair-haired men of Narnia: they were dark, bearded men from Calormen, that great and cruel country that lies beyond Archenland across the desert to the south." C. S. Lewis. Last Battle (Kindle Locations 263-264). San Val, Incorporated.

Yes, the Calormenes, from Calormen, across the desert south of Narnia, worship the cruel god Tash (with hints of human sacrifice). They feature in The Last Battle and The Horse and His Boy and they are clearly coded as Muslims: they are dark-faced, wear turbans, and wield scimitars. They are also described as cruel and exploitative. Oh... and some Dwarves mock them by calling them "Darkie.” And in case you thought you could omit a few details and remove the racial coding... they're drawn on the cover of the version I read as a kid. No getting around it.

The Silver Chair's treatment of the character Jill Pole in particular falls into many old tropes about what girls are and aren't, can and can't do.

Cover art of the version I read as a kid.
Source.
Roald Dahl, whom we’d been reading before reading Narnia, had this buried in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator:

'It is very difficult to phone people in China, Mr President,' said the Postmaster General. 'The country's so full of Wings and Wongs, every time you wing you get the wong number.' (Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (Kindle Locations 302-303).

When they do call someone in China... their names are Chu-On-Dat and How-Yu-Bin, and they address the president as Mr. Plesident. Yeah. Roald Dahl went there. Just skip Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, folks. As sequel letdowns go, it gives Jaws: The Revenge and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull a run for their money.

So what do we do about this?

Friday, 25 January 2019

Gillette: The Best A Man Can Get Ad: U Mad about This?



Gillette ruffled some feathers last week with an ad about masculinity, pointing out things that happen, like bullying, casual violence, and casual sexism - some obviously shitty things - suggesting that the excuse, "Boys will be boys" is not a good excuse, and encouraging men to 1. be less shitty, and 2. encourage other men to be less shitty, and 3. stop making excuses for shitty behavior by other men and boys. It ends with close-ups of some kids watching their dads stop other men and boys from being shitty, pointing out today's men are models for the men of the future, so our behavior teaches our kids to be shitty, or not shitty.

It has been hotly discussed in a number of places I frequent online, so I thought I'd put my thoughts in one place.

The ad itself... viewed on its own terms, without having it framed by someone who wants to rant about "SJWs" and the North American culture wars, or by someone who wants to rant about "Toxic masculinity"... isn't that controversial, really.

It's true that people make excuses for boys and men's bad behavior. It's true that some boys and men do shitty things. Among the behaviors identified, it's not controversial to identify these behaviors as shitty:
Groping women
Catcalling
Interrupting women
Patronizing or stealing ideas of female colleagues
Bullying smaller or weaker people with physical violence or verbal harassment
Treating women like trophies or toys

If someone is mad about the Gillette ad because they think the above behaviors shouldn't be criticized, they have much bigger problems than a men's grooming company telling them how to be decent human beings (most urgent: they aren't decent human beings).

Only slightly less slam-dunk obvious is the ad's emphasis on the excuse made for bad behavior: "Boys will be boys" (which is repeated by a whole lineup of men: this is pretty emphatic). I would guess that a lot of people who regularly say "Boys will be boys" will be surprised to hear it pointed out as troublesome. The ad posits a better response for men's shitty behavior than excuses: men stepping in to stop the shittiness.

But remove this from the "somebody is telling men how to behave" pearl-clutching, and again, it's not very controversial. Given a choice, I think most people would say that it's better to stop bad behavior than to make excuses for it.

Anyone disputing 1. that the behaviors above are bad, and 2. that correcting them is better than making excuses for them, definitely carries the burden of proof.

The most common complaint I've heard about the ad is that it's somehow claiming that ALL men are shitty... yet the ad clearly ALSO clearly shows men stopping all the behaviors pointed out (except the man interrupting his female colleague while putting hand on her shoulder and restating her idea in his own words - he seems to get away with it).



So... not seeing that.

The "Woke Ad" thing

The ad is the latest in a string of ads by brands positioning themselves "on the right side of history" by positing progressive and sometimes politically tinged views in their ads. The earliest example of this that comes to my mind (at least in the social media era) is Dove's ads promoting body positivity. The most striking one of those, to me, was this one, where they employed a sketch artist to draw how a person sees themselves, and then how other people see them. That piece faced its own critiques, but it also sure made the rounds. By showing instead of telling, they didn't make much commentary at all on cultural perceptions, the value of women, objectification, or the harm done by images of women in advertising... but as a conversation starter it got people talking about those things, at least.

The history of advertising companies pretending to want to save the world goes back much farther than that, of course. In 1971 we saw the "I'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony... I'd like to buy the world a Coke." This ad was successful enough that I learned the tune from a wind-up toy in my church's nursery, a decade and a half later.


Since the age of Twitter began, we've seen Cheerios (perhaps) surprised by the reaction to their heart health ad, which committed the "crime" of featuring an interracial couple.


General Mills stood by this ad despite the backlash by racists... but really, that's the absolute minimum courage a brand could possibly have, when interracial marriage has been legal in the US since 1967 (where did those haters come from, like really!)

I liked the other response to the Cheerios ad, and while preparing this piece was a bit sad to learn it wasn't made by Cheerios. But it's still a nice parody.



Procter & Gamble (who own Gillette) had "The Talk" ad, which led to calls for boycotts from people who thought the way to fix racism was to not talk about it (that doesn't work). This Medium marketing article mentions the Always "Like a girl" ads.

And Nike, earlier this year, had their Colin Kaepernick ad which led to haters setting their Nike shoes on fire. Nike recorded a big sales bump after that ad, by the way. The Medium article mentions that most of the companies reported spikes in brand awareness and/or sales after their "progressive" ads.

I have three reservations about "woke" ads. The first one is that I just don't think the desire to do social good is really that high on the priority list of advertisers.

When I imagine a company's PR and branding people deciding on their next campaign, I do not imagine them making inspiring speeches about moral leadership and social contribution.
Mr. Smith goes to Washington it ain't. (source)
I imagine them looking at spreadsheets and demographic charts, doing the calculus, and concluding that, for example, the benefit gained by appealing to the 62% of Americans who now support gay marriage... plus the brand awareness caused by the buzz of grumpy right-wing culture-war hot takes spreading across twitter and Fox News... far outweighs the harm done by losing the much smaller number of customers actually willing to change their shopping habits because they are just that mad about an ad supporting gay marriage. In fact, the backlash leads to a whole bunch of free buzz from the branding perspective: few ads manage to actually inspire a hashtag trend, but pissing off the right does so reliably. I am not quite willing to set aside my suspicion that profit motivation is enough for these brands to make "woke" ads, especially now that the numbers are in and it's generally worked, and they generally take on issues where public opinion is mostly on their side. It's not as brave as they want it to appear.


The second thing is that these companies don't always demonstrate a commitment to making the world a better place in every way they can. A company is big and complex enough that they could be making progress on multiple fronts, and executives and branding experts are subtle enough to know the value of a good distraction: It's great that Nike has come down in support of Colin Kaepernick and endorsed his courageous stance against racist police violence. Awesome!

But (Nirvana Fallacy ahead) while Nike is on that high horse in America, what's happening farther up the supply chain? Are their shoes still being manufactured in deathtrap/sweatshops? Why did Nike cut ties with the Workers Rights Consortium that runs inspections on factory working conditions? It's nice that Gillette's parent company Procter & Gamble is raising awareness of racism and sexism. But... it'd be nicer if they also weren't supporting deforestation of the Indonesian rainforest (and chasing orangutans toward extinction) to obtain palm oil. Let's make sure Chevrolet is praised for normalizing representations of gay marriage in their ads, but also held accountable for sticking with gasoline powered cars (and some real gas-guzzlers) even as evidence of fossil fuels' environmental impact piled up starting in the 70s.


The third thing is that these ads do not actually push the envelope very far.
Even the "progressive ads" are not planting their flags in very risky territory. The edgy thing about these ads is not the contents of the message, but who is saying it. That a brand would risk annoying people with a vaguely political ad seems to shock people, perhaps because we've been conditioned by Michael "Republicans buy sneakers too" Jordan and his ilk to think that companies should never be openly political or controversial (despite living in a world where companies can openly lobby politicians). Look at the contents of these messages.

The "Like a Girl" ads have the message "Girls should be confident." If you want to organize a backlash against that, you're clearly placing yourself in the asshole column. "Girls should have toys that are intellectually stimulating" and "We should stop marketing science toys as exclusively for boys" (Goldie Blox ad below) are also two positions that are utterly noncontroversial... unless you have a real vested interest in keeping the old boys' club alive, or have been told it is bad by someone in the media who does, or are either willfully or unintentionally ignorant.



All the way back to the 1971 coke ad, during the 70s -- a time of the cold war, mutually assured destruction, despots and dictators, apartheid, racial tension (the Black Liberation Army was on the move)... Coke makes a vague, middle-of-the-road, as-nonspecific-as-possible, mushy-minded statement that "Boy, gee, wouldn't harmony be nice!"

The Nike Kaepernick ad which is held up as the apotheosis of woke advertising doesn't say anything about police violence or racial bias. It just says that it was brave of Colin Kaepernick to take the stand he did. The rest is inferred. It's subtext, not text. (more analysis) Given our cultural moment, the subtext is pretty obvious, but it's not explicitly stated. The closest we get to actual, explicit text might be "The Talk," which clearly and unambiguously (and devastatingly) tackles racial injustice in the way black parents talk to their kids about racism. It clearly says, "we need to talk about race" and shows that black Americans experience America differently than white Americans.



Again, I don't think many would dispute that difference in experiences, but everyone was surprised when a company made that statement. Other than "The Talk," most of these ads stay comfortably non-specific. This is common in advertising -- it allows viewers to fill in the blanks with their own experience, making it more relatable. But it also dances away from the opportunity to make a more powerful statement, because most people fill in those blanks with something that is comfortable for them. None of these ads are specifically made to make people uncomfortable. Even "The Talk" gives parents talking to kids, worried about their kids, coaching and counseling their kids: something anyone can relate to, even if they're ignorant or backwards in their views about race.

The value of these ads tends not to be that they are saying something new: most of them articulate ideas that have been circulating for a while. The value in them is that, through controversy, they pull those conversations squarely into the mainstream in a way that doesn't happen when athletes or politicians or academics talk about them (not everyone follows sports, politics, or academia). Yes, that is value, but look again at the Gillette ad:

Who would disagree that groping women, catcalling, or treating women like objects isn't cool?
Who would disagree that using physical strength to dominate someone smaller is a shitty thing to do?
Who would disagree that making excuses for bad behavior contributes to the problem?

Who would disagree that the world would be better if men participated more in ending those behaviors in other men? Nobody. The ad even gives men an "out" from the pointing fingers: each one of us can get on our #NotAllMen tip and smugly assure ourselves that we are the good ones who would definitely be the ones helping others and stopping shitty male behavior! The ad itself provides a way for men to let themselves off the hook (in a way the "The Talk" ad, for example, didn't).

Gillette is trying to look brave, but making a statement that is pretty middle-of-the-road, if you actually look at it. They flirt with going harder -- the words "Toxic Masculinity" float across the soundtrack about six seconds in during the voiceover montage -- but then they dance away from a stronger statement of what that is and why it's harmful, sticking with open-and-shut examples of shitty male behavior instead.


But Toxic Masculinity tho...

Yeah. Let's talk about toxic masculinity.

The words are said once in the ad, and the examples of bad male behavior are all examples of toxic masculinity, but so little else is said that the concept isn't clarified. This has led to tweets and facebook comments and whatnot claiming that the ad is saying all masculinity is toxic, and allowing people to assert all kinds of definitions of toxic masculinity.

Now the internet is really bad about taking useful terms invented in academia, or political science, or wherever, and using it so cavalierly that soon it could mean just plain anything. Fake news, microaggression, virtue signaling, soft power, mansplaining, privilege, not to mention terms like freedom of expression, freedom, justice, racism - all these terms have been used so much, in so many different ways, on the internet that (accidentally or otherwise) their original meaning has been stretched and mangled perhaps beyond recognition, but definitely to the point it helps to take a moment to clarify what someone means when they use them.

Masculinity is a set of ideas, traditions, behaviors, attitudes, that are culturally specific, and help men understand what is culturally expected of them as men, and give them instructions on what kind of roles they can have, and how to go about filling them. It starts from childhood, and in advertising, TV, comments made by people around, and role models, kids get ideas of what it means to be a man.

Here is a refresher of what masculinity means in North America. In rap form. Because of course.

Toxic masculinity is a specific subset of masculinity: it's a group of ideas and behaviors about being a man that are harmful or destructive. There's a set of ideas about how a man can act, look, and talk, that are very strict and narrow, and anyone who goes outside that is at risk of having their "man card" taken away. This group of ideas paints a picture of a man that is macho, tough and usually uncommunicative, it is very very heterosexual and also homophobic. It takes every trait that is associated with masculinity and stretches it as far as it can go. It thinks of anything feminine as lesser, therefore uses feminine words as insults. It considers part of manhood to be having heterosexual sex (as much as possible), so it also uses homosexuality as an insult. If, as a man, you've ever been called a f*g or a p***y as an insult, you've encountered toxic masculinity.

toxic masculinity in a single image macro

Some of these ideas hurt women -- "Men think with their penises" (subtext: and that's normal and OK and actually kind of cute) "It's normal for a man to pursue sex" has been twisted into "Women are taught to say 'no' to sex, so it's a man's job to turn that 'no' into a yes" - an idea I've heard repeated by characters in movies, men my own age, and men old enough to be in mentorship positions to me. (see also: rape culture)

Jackson Katz did a TED talk about violence against women that is a must-see on this:



Some of these ideas hurt everybody -- "Men have a capacity for violence" is a small step sideways from "It's OK and normal for men to solve problems with violence" which gets twisted into justifications for domestic violence, street violence and so forth. The homophobic undertones in toxic masculinity often lead to cruel bullying of sexual minorities as well as discriminatory language. The idea of always appearing strong leads to bullying of all different kinds, as well as cruelty.

Some of the ideas hurt men -- "Men are supposed to be tough and independent" and "Boys don't cry" gets twisted into "Men shouldn't show their feelings" which then gets twisted further into "It's unmanly to ask for help" -- this leads to funny stereotyped situations like men refusing to ask for directions, but it also connects to male suicide, because men don't seek mental health help when they ought to, because that would be "unmanly," or men refusing to go to the doctor, trying to "tough it out" with sicknesses where early diagnosis might make all the difference. "Men shouldn't show feelings other than anger" (especially not fear) leads to reckless behavior in men, which can lead to injuries, accidents, neglect of workplace safety procedures. It can also lead to unchecked rage, bullying, and verbal abuse.

Here's more about how toxic masculinity hurts men.

Along with these kinds of ideas, the media presents us with a steady diet of toxic masculinity, and makes it look tough, cool, or heroic. Neo the stoic hero who never makes facial expressions but kills without compunction. Or John Wick the stoic hero who never makes facial expressions but kills without compunction. Or John McClane the... you get it. And James Bond and Shaft, who are the same, but also make sex.

For example: "The Ten Manliest Men In Movies."

The long and short of it is, Western media has given us a really, really narrow definition of what men are. What men do, how they think, what kinds of hobbies, habits, and jobs are "manly," and anything outside that is not. Man wants to cook? He'd better swear like Gordon Ramsey to make sure everyone knows he's a man. Man doesn't act like a typical man? Make it a running joke how unmanly he is! For a great example, look at how Bruce Willis' masculinity is contrasted with Chris Tucker's character in The Fifth Element.


So all masculinity is toxic?

Well, no. That idea is out there, but I don't think it holds much water: you have to define masculinity really narrowly to make the argument that all masculinity is toxic, and then we're just playing "No True Scotsman" games and moving goalposts around to make a point. Not to mention... anything is toxic if you take it to an extreme.

We have to be honest and admit that there is enough toxic masculinity out there that people-especially the victims of toxic masculine behaviors - are constantly wary of it. The hashtag "Yesallwomen" is a good reminder of this too -- it came up as a response to the defensive #NotAllMen. When people want to talk about shitty male behavior, a common refrain is "But NOT ALL MEN do that!" And #YesAllWomen responds to that by saying "No, all men don't do it, but ENOUGH men do it that YES all women (take these precautions) (worry about these situations) (seriously, read this one) -- it doesn't require all men to be predators or creeps. Only enough that every woman you've met knows someone whose life was affected by a predator or creep's unacceptable behavior. Toxic masculinity doesn't have to be the only kind of masculinity. It doesn't have to be exhibited by every single man, to matter. It only needs to be common enough that everyone can think of an example of it from their own lives (and that bar is well cleared) for us to need to talk about it.

That said... it is also true that there are loads of good men out there, who are good, respectful, gentle, uplifting, caring, who make their family, community, or world better, and each one of them gives another model of non-toxic masculinity.  Sure, the media gives us a steady diet of toxic masculine ideas and behaviors and every gangster movie does its best to make them look cool. But if we look a little closer, we can see other models of masculinity as well. We don't even have to look far.




On Facebook, I discussed this a lot with people who thought the ad was saying all men are shitty, all masculinity is toxic, but I just don't see it. The Gillette ad itself gives examples of men intervening and defending the weak and helpless. I reject the idea that of all the things men do, the ugly gross and rude ones (catcalling, etc.) are the ones that define manhood, and that is the argument of "all masculinity is toxic" as well as the straw man that all the Gillette ad haters are arguing against.

What are some great, non-toxic masculinities?

Mr. Rogers is gentle, empathetic, caring, nurturing, and honest.
Atticus Finch (from To Kill a Mockingbird) is honorable, truthful, articulate, kind, just, and caring.
Barack Obama is decent, dignified, devoted to his family, intelligent, charismatic, funny and thoughtful.
Terry Crews is strong, willing to speak truth to power, vulnerable, and honest. And he's doing this. That's a broad sampling of good examples of men who are manly, but who do not use masculinity to hurt others or make them feel small.

This video talks about some other examples, and gives a good definition of toxic masculinity, and what the alternative would look like:


The guy in the video above makes the great point (about 2:00) that "The point of positive masculinity isn't to just switch out one set of definitions for another. It's to expand what it means to be a man."

My own thoughts about masculinity, and especially toxic masculinity, boil down to that idea of expanding what it means to be a man. In this article by The Guardian, responding to one of those right-wing fellas who frames everything he sees through the lens of the culture war (Yay for right wing snowflakes!), the author writes, "Feminism has endlessly opened up horizons for girls, giving them permission to be anything they want to be.... That paves the way for girls who never fitted the pink princess stereotype to be far more comfortable in their skins. But expectations of boys have remained more rigid, to the detriment both of those who don’t fit the macho stereotype and of those who will grow up to be the victims of insecure male rage."

When I think about masculinity (and femininity) I think it all boils down to kids, and the messages they're given. This is where the pattern is set for the next generation. Little girls have been getting intentional messages that they can do anything when they grow up. That's good. We aren't doing this perfectly yet...


but at the same time as there has been a long-term effort to break glass ceilings and other barriers for women, there has been a parallel effort to tell little girls that they can be president, they can go into STEM, they can climb trees, they can be tomboys, they can hate the color pink and like to play with robots and train sets instead of dolls. We haven't done this perfectly yet, but we, as a society, generally recognize that it is something we need to do, and we are taking steps. Meanwhile, female heroes are held up as role models for little girls to aspire to (another ad from Godlieblox gives good examples).

Now, men (white men, at least) don't lack for role models presented in the media, but too many of them fit that narrow definition of manhood... or are laughed at/belittled for not fitting it. This lack of variety in role models is even worse for men of color. That sustained, intentional effort to tell little girls about Ruth Bader-Ginsburg and Marie Curie and Katherine Johnson is great. Let's have a similar sustained, intentional effort to put good, gentle, caring, respectful men in front of little boys' eyeballs. Atticus Finch, Jonathan and Clark Kent, Bob Parr, Guido Orefices, and Sam Gamgee are good, decent men who are caring, protecting, teaching, supporting and empowering people around them. The article "In Praise of Tender Masculinity" gives more examples. Let's also put men in front of our boys' eyes who don't fit the macho image: Let's stop joking about how Justin Bieber and male Kpop singers look like girls (to diminish them) and talk about how awesome Prince and David Bowie were for introducing new ways for a man to be manly. Let's remember mentors, like John Keating, Juan in "Moonlight," or Professor Xavier.

We can point boys to real life characters like Terry Crews, Mr. Rogers, Daniel Craig, or Barack Obama as great examples of men who are good and decent, who are fathers and supporters and willing to speak truth to power, or demonstrate their commitment to their families. Let's talk about these people specifically as examples of ways to be men who are good and positive, and let's talk about the different ways a man can look, dress and sound, so our boys don't feel like they need to prove anything, or shut off the part of themselves that wants to wear pink.

My own takeaway from this tempest in a Tweetpot: I'd be really happy if this Gillette ad marks the death of "boys will be boys" as a valid excuse for bad male behavior. I'd love to hear people shot down next time they use that to pass off something violent or mean or creepy as innocent. This ad is not going to change our entire society. Toxic masculinity is too fraught and poorly understood an idea for one men's grooming ad to fix the public discussion around it. But more men willing to say "Hey bro... not cool" would in itself would be a meaningful but also plausible upshot from all this. I won't be expecting more than that from a corporate branding campaign, but that'd be a welcome addition to the conversation.

And just to say it again... NOT groping, catcalling, or dehumanizing women by treating them as trophies or pieces of meat or idiots, and NOT bullying the weaker or smaller is a pretty fucking low bar to clear to be a "good man" as defined by this ad, and stopping other people from doing those things is not that much higher, so if you're a man who really got mad about this ad, it might be time to take a look in the mirror.


More stuff I've been reading while I wrote this:
The Good Men Project: Why the Resistance?
Troll Farms are Involved in the Pushback against the Gillette Ad
Unlearning Toxic Masculinity
Why Nike's Woke Ad Campaign Works and Gillette's Doesn't
New Masculinity, New Rules
Men after #MeToo
Tough Guise (video)

Also: this.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

2018 Trump-Kim: Happy to Eat a Nothingburger

The Summit Has Come To Pass.


This happened.


... and I have two minds.

First of all, has the world ever breathed a bigger sigh of relief simply because "Oh good. He didn't fuck it up"? Recency bias being what it is, probably, but I can't think of when.

I've followed a lot of the hot takes on Twitter, only to have trouble finding them back again, but they basically boil down to kind of Robert E Kelly's "This is a bad idea" take here, all in one place on the thread reader app. Click on the tweets to read the whole thread.

also here on Twitter:



or Ask A Korean's "let's go with it" view:


or click on this one for a more detailed 14-part tweet thread.

Going back to my previous post on this, where I talked about what would be a positive sign of substantive change, and what would mostly be window-dressing, most of what happened at the summit was on Tier one: could be window-dressing. We will need to wait and see what is borne out in ground-level negotiations before we can say whether this process was a success.

ON THE OTHER HAND

Given how erratic and impulsive Trump is, as evidenced amply by the fact he picked a fight with CANADA the weekend before his North Korea summit, and has managed to invent a new style of diplomacy that will be named after him as his legacy: Trumpism, meaning "Burn Down Every International Relationship"... I'm perfectly happy for that to have been the main outcome.


Source



The main points of the Trump-Kim agreement were as follows:

1. The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new U.S.-DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.

2. The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.

3. Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

4. The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.

That is... very thin. Not much there at all. This summit was mostly just theatre, but given that the other possible outcome could have been for Trump to do another Justin Trudeau on Kim, insulting him, offending him, and then trying to bully him, I'm glad they went for a photo op.

On the other side, if Kim had come to grapple, to talk brass tacks, checkpoints and details, the laziness, ignorance and arrogance of Donald "Preparing all my life" Trump would have resulted in Kim Jong-un eating his lunch. That he opted for a puff of air, effectively punting negotiations to lower level diplomats and bureaucrats who know the terrain, is not far from the best possible outcome I could have expected.

The danger of a head-of-state summit is that it is one huge point of failure, and if it fails at that point, the failure could be spectacular and (moreover) calamitous. Starting with working-level talks and tacking a summit on at the end makes more sense because there are more points where negotiations might stall, but also more incentive to work them out: the process is more robust and after all that work, it's more likely both parties will adhere to whatever is agreed. Trump-Kim is putting the grunt work AFTER the photo-op instead of before. Then, if negotiations stutter, the risk that one of the heads of state will walk away as a way of saving face is higher, and they have already gained as much political capital as they probably will from the talks anyway: they have less to lose walking away now, photo-op photos in hand, than if they had failed to achieve a summit in the first place, and never got that photo-op and world media coverage.


Who wins?

Trump gets to claim a win that's actually just a puff of air.

Kim Jong-un gets a huge legitimacy boost as the North Korean leader who got the US President to the table for a one on one, and hasn't given up anything they haven't already promised. His domestic legitimacy -- and let's never underestimate how important it is for him to maintain his domestic legitimacy -- is as high as it'll ever be, and he needs to have consolidated power to bring North Korea to the negotiating table like this.

The prospect of a nuclear war remains on the wane, as North Korea continues to signal a willingness to deal, or at least stretch out these conversations as long as they can. So South Koreans win.

The process: If my guess about Kim Jong-un is right -- that he wants to be the leader who brings North Korea in a new direction -- this process will be going on for a while. Incremental changes are the only way he can do this without unleashing domestic chaos, because North Korea needs a lot of work before its infrastructure is ready to compete in the global economy. Strategically, North Korea hasn't yet received the kinds of non-aggression assurances or relaxation of sanctions they are angling for, but we are also pretty far from having unassailable proof that North Korea is acting in good faith. They have gone back on enough promises in the past that they have to earn that trust.

However, the incentives still line up, and as I said in my last blog, North Korea's negotiating position will never be better than it is right now. I hope they realize that. They have smart people there. If I can know that, they must, right? Right?

North Korea still has an advantage over USA and South Korea, in the long, long run, because Kim Jong-un doesn't have to run for reelection, and has no term limit, so he can set up a ten or twenty-year strategy a lot more easily than South Korea or USA can, where every presidential and mid-term election might upend what policies and strategies are viable.

Who loses?

South Korean conservatives look pretty stupid now, for letting North Korea improve its weapons capabilities on their watch by refusing to engage, and then for opposing a set of talks and meetings that so far look promising. They seem to have been punished in South Korea's local elections this week, as the ruling party has had an overwhelming victory.

The biggest loser far and away, though, are North Korean political prisoners and the victims of the totalitarian dictatorship. All the talk so far has been about the security or diplomacy situation in North Korea, and vis a vis North and South Korea. The fact North Korean freedom of speech and press is bottom three in the world, the unknown number of people in political prisons, and those whose lives are touched by rampant corruption, poor infrastructure, and so forth... well relief for ordinary North Koreans has made less than a ripple in all the media coverage I've seen.

And an agreement like the Trump-Kim agreement, characterized this way by Rob York on twitter





Buys everybody more time to sort through a lot of touchy issues and compromises. That's good, because there's a lot to sort through. It's also good to have punted that stuff to working level diplomats who know the issues better than heads of state do.

But by this point, if the media had shifted the focus a bit, Doctors without Borders could be moving into North Korea and assessing situations, vaccinating kids, reaching out to vulnerable populations, setting up clinics... but they're not. Destroying nuclear testing sites is one kind of good-faith gesture, but getting medical aid to North Korea's people is another, and one that is a no-brainer. There are touchier areas that we could be closer to broaching as well: human rights inspectors, prison camps... don't get me wrong, I'm glad we are farther from a nuclear calamity than we were last December, but if Kim Jong-un wants to sell this opening to his domestic population, opening the border to aid and rights groups might appear more substantive to them than widely circulated photos of him with the US president.

What's ahead

My biggest hope remains pegged on South Korean president Moon Jae-in, who has demonstrated the ability to manage both Kim and Trump adeptly. I predict that Moon and his people will work on getting involved in the working level processes and setting up checkpoints, and keeping Trump in the loop, flattered enough to go along with things, while not involved in the day-to-day discussions. I also think this is the best possible path. North and South Korea have the most to gain and the most to lose from this process, and Moon and Kim seem like the natural choice to get on with proceedings. Moon has most of his five-year presidential term ahead of him still, so he can accomplish a lot, and his legitimacy as a leader is sky-high, as his approval rating is just bonkers right now. This is his moment, and if he can use it, the future of the peninsula might be different. And as I said in the paragraph above, I'd sure be happy if some of the first steps on the roadmap they negotiate would involve getting different kinds of humanitarian help to the North Koreans who need it. So far Kim Jong-un hasn't given up anything that actually hurt to give up, and the main thing the US has given is intangible: the prestige/legitimization/status of meeting a US president one on one is now in the past, and cannot be taken back.

Yes, guarded optimism remains the rule of the day. Yes, denuclearization remains a sticking point, and yes, I'd like to see NK pass a few checkpoints along the pathway, and I'd like to see a roadmap with time-specific targets, and a few of those targets being met, before I'm really convinced that they've changed their direction. Go back to my tiers of hopefulness lists in the "looking forward" section of this blog post for the brass tacks, but... a Trump-Kim summit that wasn't a disaster is another step toward getting things worked out for real.



Be nice in the comments, and feel free to share links! I'm very interested in informed, interesting and unique takes on what's happening.

Monday, 23 April 2018

Peace Breaking Out on the Korean Peninsula

A lot of this stuff is cut-pasted, mix-and-matched, or snatched from the ether that is Twitter: it's great for getting bite-sized insights, but really hard to find back a comment read one time, so parts of this post will be combinations of things other people have said, but which I can't find back. John Delury, Sino NK, Jonathan Cheng, Robert Kelly and Ask A Korean's twitter feeds have been covering this stuff in detail, so do take a moment and spend time clicking the links they share, and if anything here was in a tweet you saw, please leave a link so I can attribute it properly.

News outlets reported that North and South Korea are working on officially ending the Korean War, a war fought from 1950-1953, but which never moved beyond an armistice to an actual peace treaty or normalized diplomatic relations. After announcements of planning a summit, and indications that denuclearization is on the table, Kim Jong-un's visit to China, and Mike Pompeo's visit to North Korea, it is starting to look like the ducks are getting in a row for some actual, substantive progress in the area, something I have not suspected to be possible pretty much since I came to South Korea.

Now, prognosticators have been wrong time and time again about North Korea, both when it looked like things were headed toward normalization, and when it looked like things were headed for war. In fact, on this very blog, during my Pyeongchang Olympics downer post, I predicted that nothing would come of the two nations marching together at the opening ceremonies, and fielding a unified women's ice hockey team. Of everything I've written on this blog, and I've stuck my foot in it a whole bunch of times, I don't think there is anything I've ever said, predicted, or concluded on which I'd be happier to eat crow.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves or anything!

While we try to keep our hopes guarded at Roboseyo whenever it could just be that Kim Jong-un opened a new box of girl scout cookies and "All The Single Ladies" came on the radio at the same time, there are indeed indications that this is not your run-of-the-mill repeat of North Korea's patented "Global Media Attention Maximizing Friendly/Unfriendly Yo-yo Diplomacy" actTM. Let's go through some of them, and let's read/write quick, before everything goes squirrelly again.

North Korea's Strongest Position Ever

First of all, let's start off with the notion that getting together for the Pyeongchang Olympics laid some groundwork for this.

In fact, let's go a little earlier than that. The point at which the Obama Administration was using the phrase "Strategic Patience," and Park Geun-hye's official North Korea policy was some weird modge-podge of trust-building language, greedy "bonanza" lip-smacking over potential riches to be gained upon unification, and inaction supposedly forced upon them by an unmet demand for an apology over North Korea's sinking of a South Korean boat in 2010, while North Korea recycled boilerplate threats without backing away from their weapons development program, I got the feeling that South Korea and USA had played every card they had, and didn't know what to do next. North Korea, too, seemed to be working from the same playbook they had used since the "Axis of Evil" speech. It was an uncomfortable stalemate, and North Korea was clever enough with its brinksmanship that they always backed away from the line before drawing too serious consequences, while also always pushing the envelope and getting away with further nuclear tests and missile launches.

With their final successful test of a missile that could deliver a nuclear payload to the continental United States, however, the situation had changed for good. North Korea had the negotiating chip it had been working towards all this time. Previously, I've written on this blog that developing nuclear weapons is mostly a dumb show for North Korea's domestic politics: its own people need to see NK's leaders working to defend the nation, because that's the only type of legitimacy available to NK's leaders. Meeting an urgent military threat is a great way for a government to deflect criticism of its leaders, create a sense of national unity, and justify or at least hand-wave deprivation if there are shortages in areas like material goods or freedoms. Until North Korea had that final, ultimate bargaining chip, it made sense for North Korea to play the hot-cold game to buy time, run a little distracting brinksmanship to buy time, but also occasionally play nice to buy time, just to keep'em guessing, and buy time!

While North Korea had a lot to gain from those delaying tactics, and going back on the promises it made at that time, because its nuclear program was not developed yet, that is no longer the case. Denuclearization and joining the global community are the two main chips North Korea has to negotiate with, and by having functioning intercontinental missiles that could be armed with nuclear warheads before heading to the negotiating table, North Korea has put itself in the strongest bargaining position it possibly can. Successful PR at the Winter Olympics helped demonstrate that North Korea could be receptive to overtures, and respond in good faith, and South Korea finally had a president who was willing and capable of coming to the table as well: the optics would never get better than this, either. The time was right!

From here, North Korea probably doesn't have anything more to gain from delaying, and a lot to lose by further flip-flopping. If there ever was, this is the time to show good faith in bargaining.

Between writing the above paragraphs and today, a few days later, this has been borne out: North Korea is promising no more nuclear testing and closing down testing sites, which cedes ground that is no longer useful anyway: they are finished with the testing phase, so it does not hurt them to do this, but it sure looks nice on a headline!


Is China Making its Move?

It has been taken as a truism for years now that the North Korea situation will never be resolved to NATO's satisfaction as long as China is around to throw Kim Jong-un a rope. China's veto on the UN Security Council, and their willingness to trade with North Korea just enough for the country to keep its head above water quite may have stopped the state from collapsing a few times, especially given that North Korea has no petroleum.

I've generally believed that China likes keeping North Korea around: every eyeball focused on North Korea's shenanigans is an eyeball not focused on China's own Human Rights record, its political prisoners, its heavy censorship, etc.. North Korea was a great distraction from China's own domestic issues! Also, North Korea served as a buffer between China's own landmass and South Korea, a nation with a US military presence. Having a state that borders China hosting US military bases was not something China wanted, so China had a strong incentive to maintain the status quo in the region.

That said, backing North Korea after the Yeonpyeong Island shelling and the sinking of the Cheonan cost China a lot of credibility internationally, and North Korea's repeating of its tired brinksmanship and bluster in a world where Barack Obama and South Korea's leadership stifled yawns at it, followed by South Korea's moves to ensure its own security, like the installation of the THAAD missile defense, which China took as a threat to its own national security, and which wouldn't have been necessary if North Korea had been better kept in line... it wouldn't be that difficult to believe China was starting to rethink the incentives of maintaining this status quo.

Enter Donald Trump. His style of leadership, his diplomacy, his temperamental knack for changing his mind, making rash decisions, or starting trade wars for spite and a failure to understand how comparative advantage works in complex economies with large-scale manufacturing, his willingness to scuttle international agreements that don't fit a narrow view of "Good for America"... USA was basically pissing away its international goodwill and, even worse, its international credibility as a global leader/stabilizer. If there was ever a time to make a move, this was it, and a guy who flatters himself as a dealmaker, but has also complained about the cost of maintaining troops on the Korean peninsula... might be just the patsy to invite to the table in order to flatter him into deals that make him look good but down the road, weaken USA's position in Asia and set up China as the regional leader.

Before agreeing to meet with the USA, Kim Jong-un had a visit to China. I don't know what they talked about during that visit, but it seems China wanted that meeting to happen, and wants North Korea-US meetings to happen, too. While we all see Donald Trump puffing and rutting for credit and maybe a Nobel Peace Prize, things like leaving the TPP and questioning the cost of keeping troops in South Korea show that Trump is also unconcerned about abdicating the role of regional stabilizer in Asia. That power vacuum is ripe for Xi Jinping, who just recently consolidated his own power as leader of China, and I wouldn't be that surprised if analysts look at the terms of whatever deal North Korea, South Korea and USA hammer out, and spot a few easter eggs that benefit China. It doesn't help that on the US/South Korea side, the most powerful person in these negotiations will also be the dumbest, while the probable best negotiator, Moon Jae-in, will most likely struggle to have his voice heard by Trump.


Madman Theory 2018

The Madman Theory was invented by Nixon to scare communist leaders into concessions, by trying to convince them Nixon was just crazy enough to actually use nuclear weapons on them. Some have suggested that Trump is hailing back to the madman theory with North Korea, as he tweets about "Fire and Fury." Frankly, he comes across as unstable and impulsive enough to sell the madman theory, and naming warhawk John Bolton his National Security Adviser is another "I'll do it! You'd better look out! We're crazy over here!" move. I think some of my readers will say it is giving Trump too much credit to think his behavior is part of a calculated act... but between his apparent unconcern for the stabilizing international institutions the US has always put stock in, his own personal impulsiveness, his complaints about stationing troops abroad, and the shit he tweets, we get a chance to see a different kind of world: a world where the US has abandoned its place as the guarantor of global stability, and different countries have to actually work things out amongst themselves.

In fact, it might well have been a very effective strategy for Trump and South Korean president Moon Jae-in to to basically play good cop/bad cop here... more on Moon in just a minute...

(side note: it's interesting to see the Madman theory used on a leader who has used it himself)

In the Absence of...

When the US was positioning itself as the global stability people, it could be pretty well relied upon to tamp things down when feelings got chippy between allies -- who could forget those awkward get-togethers when South Korea and Japan's leaders were press-ganged into pretending to get along?
Source: Reuters
But in the end, however many police boats Park sent to Dokdo, and however many Japanese Diet members visited Yasukuni Shrine, both knew that the USA would slide in before either could make a move that would permanently disturb the security or economic infrastructure of the region. And everybody in the region knew that, all things being equal, USA tended to prefer the predictability of maintaining the status quo (a status quo where USA was preeminent) to the unpredictability and possible chaos of radical change.

feel a chill? source
With the Trump presidency, the world is coming to grips with a US that is fickle, perhaps even capricious, in its overseas involvements, blown by the winds of whatever crap #45 says on Twitter, and whoever is around to put a bug in his ear (and with the installation of "Bomb-em" John Bolton, those ear-bugs are getting more worrisome). In this atmosphere, it suddenly becomes a lot more important for the rest of the world's leaders to hammer things out on their own, because North and South Korea have a much better chance of working out these delicate issues than the orange-haired bull in a china shop.

What will the world look like if the US abandons its support of the international institutions it helped establish? A lot less certainty than before. But one thing we can be sure of is that the other major powers will be pitching their weight around as hard as they can to maximize their influence in it, and the medium powers -- countries like Australia, Canada, Norway, Thailand or South Korea -- will have a lot more leeway and opportunity to set the agenda, and assert themselves, if their leadership has the talent and ambition to do it.


The Real Engine of Detente

Now, ol' Donnie has been soaking up as much credit as he can for Kim Jong-un's sudden openness to talks and cessation of tests. I'll not hold my breath on actual denuclearization until we've seen a little more of actual meetings and actual agreed upon results, where step-by-step processes are agreed upon and then executed in good faith. In case we've forgotten, North Korea has even gone so far as to demolish a reactor tower in 2008, in a so-called show of good faith which, ten years later, we know was bullshit. So... talk is cheap, k?


But the thing that has been missed as The Orange One once again sucks up all the oxygen in the room, is Moon Jae-in, doing the ol' duck routine: serene on top, paddling like hell under the water.  Blogger Ask A Korean's twitter feed has been helpful in pointing this out. Moon's negotiations brought North Korea to the Olympics, brought important North Korean statespeople to the Olympics, and the positive press and good reception from that got the ball rolling for everything that is happening now: without Moon, Trump and Kim would be in a holding pattern of tweeting mean things and issuing nasty press releases at each other.

Some critics on Twitter argue that heading straight for summits between heads of states is putting dessert before dinner: a lot of lower level negotiations and processes should really be agreed on before presidents are stamping important-looking papers for photographers. Other critics say North Korea's freeze on testing means less than it seems to mean. This is not a perfect chain of events, and different than probably anyone could have imagined.

A lot is still up in the air, and a lot could still go sideways when you have two parties that have zig-zagged in the past doing negotiations, but if this new round of talks goes anywhere useful, I predict that it will be because of Moon Jae-in's steady hand reassuring both Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump that they can set up a process to end the war, normalize relations, maybe even re-integrate North Korea into the global economy, and denuclearize North Korea, in an order and with a speed that is satisfying to everyone. There is a long ways to go -- I said on twitter that marching a unified Korean team in the Olympics was step R when we hadn't yet done steps A, B or C. Now it looks like there is enough goodwill and the beginnings of trust to proceed with steps A, B, and C. That's great! I'm thrilled! But if things go as well as we're hopeful they do (and I sincerely do think we have more cause to be hopeful now than we ever have in the time I've watched North Korea), let's at least make sure the credit goes where it belongs: to our man Moon.


Looking Forward...

So about those steps a, b, and c.

We've seen North Korea play nice before, only to pull the rug. As I said above, North Korea has more reason than ever before to act in good faith now, as it runs out of allies and holds the strongest negotiating chip it has ever held, or ever will hold, frankly. Speaking of that chip, my most confident prediction is that it will be harder and slower to persuade North Korea to surrender that chip than just about any other point of the negotiations. I predict it will be the stickiest sticking point in a tough set of negotiations, that North Korea will ask for a lot of shows of good faith before starting the denuclearization process, while USA will want denuclearization to BE North Korea's show of good faith. If these negotiations fall apart anywhere, it will be there.

But things can still go sideways in lots of spots along the road: there are about a zillion ways Trump or Kim could fuck this up. So here are things that might happen in the future, which would be positive signs. The effect of these kinds of things is cumulative: if one or two happen, it could just be for the cameras, but the more of these appear, and from the higher tiers, the more confident we can be that this is a change that will stick.

Tier 1: Might just be Window Dressing

Announcements of any kind.
 --which are announced by Ri Chun-hee
A summit with heads of state.
A declaration or a peace treaty to end the Korean War (which, as pedants everywhere will tell you, never really ended)
Any exchange between North and South Korea that is one-time only (for example, family reunions, mail exchanges, symbolic highway or railway openings where highways or railways are never actually used, cultural exchanges like performances)
Re-opening of venues for North-South exchange that were open in the past (Gaesong Industrial Complex and Geumgang Mountain Resort) but closed down during a time of heightened tensions.
More unified teams at sports events and stuff


Tier 2: Meaningful

Establishing North-South exchanges on a permanent basis: a permanent site for family reunions, establishment of cinemas or media outlets in Seoul and Pyeongyang where media from the other side can be viewed or even broadcast
Permanent infrastructure for mail exchange from north to south
Opening of new highways or rail ways for trade or transit
Loosening of restrictions on tourism to North Korea for non-Koreans
New countries opening diplomatic relations with North Korea and sending ambassadors there
North Korea allows nuclear inspectors into the country
A "No First Use" pledge


Tier 3: OK this is for Real

Negotiations of a step-by-step process for Complete, Verifiable and Irreversible Denuclearization of North Korea
North Korean efforts at renewing/reimagining their economy and integrating it into the world economy
Opening North-South highways or railways to civilians
Removing some soldiers and artillery from the Demilitarized Zone, and changing the rules of engagement for soldiers there.
Establishing protocols for tourism of Koreans from North to South or South to North
Establishing protocols for North-South Migration border-opening for family members (next level after family reunifications) to allow family members to cross and live together
Discussions about the citizenship status of North Korean defectors living in South Korea, in the event of South Korea recognizing the North as a sovereign nation (this is going to be touchy)
Meaningful, brass-tacks discussions about changing the nature of the US military's presence in North Korea
North Korea negotiating trade agreements with different countries
North Korea promises to re-join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty


Tier 4: EVERYBODY Gets a Nobel Peace Prize (AKA Pie in the Sky: even if these things don't happen, achieving most of tier 3 would probably make most people happy)

Execution of the step-by-step process for Complete, Verifiable and Irreversible Denuclearization
Constitutional change in North and South Korea to recognize each other as sovereign countries
Establishing procedures for migration from north to south or south to north
Discussion of the legal ins and outs of a Korean federation.
Removing all soldiers and artillery from the Demilitarized Zone.
Establishment of a civilian government in North Korea
Democratic elections in North Korea, transition of the Kim Dynasty to figurehead status
North Korea opening its economy to foreign or South Korean investors

Finally:
Whatever process has been negotiated survives the shifts and twists in political climate that come from regular electoral cycles, especially the next South Korean and the next US presidential elections, and extra-especially the next set of presidential elections where the incumbent party loses.

Weigh in in the comments, readers: what signs are YOU looking for, and which tier would you put them on?


Further reading:
Some Cold Water
Moon Jae-in's position on defense issues is strong enough on defense to satisfy many conservatives. (Sino-NK)
A US/North Korea timeline
More detail on that pledge to halt nuclear testing

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Kendrick Lamar's Pulitzer Prize

Kendrick Lamar's album Damn. won the Pulitzer freaking Prize! I have a few thoughts.



First of all, in a world where Bob Dylan can win the Nobel Prize in Literature, anything can happen, so why the heck not a Pulitzer for a Hip-Hop album?


Second: I am much happier at Kendrick Lamar winning a Pulitzer than I was about Dylan's Nobel Prize. The Nobel Committee claimed they were looking outside the conventional "box" of literature, which is cool I guess. It is admirable if a committee as prestigious as the Nobel committee sometimes tries to draw attention toward outsiders -- people living away from the world's cultural centers, using languages that don't hold global power and status. But Bob Dylan is the most insider outsider you could possibly find for a literature prize: he's a rich and famous American rock star who writes in English who's already had awards, tributes and accolades heaped upon him since the freaking sixties. Heck, a white savior even used him to reach inner-city black kids in a '90s inspirational teachers' movie once. Really, folk music, singer-songwriter music, and white songwriters who peaked in the sixties have had more than their share of kudos already, and worst of all, Dylan's lyrics sound cool, but Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen's poetry look better on the page. One in fifty of Dylan's songs is a perfectly written gem, but twenty of fifty sound like they could have been much improved by a second, third or twelfth draft, and by cutting the fourth or fifth verses, and rephrasing a few lines in the bridge. Leonard Cohen never sang a verse whose lyrics seemed to need a once-over to tighten the screws, so I wasn't inspired by Bob Dylan's Nobel. But you know: "Is songwriting literature? So outsider! Such edgy! Many nice work, Nobel!"  Moreover, music genres and artists coming out of black culture have been historically under-appreciated and under-represented in media coverage, acclaim, respect and awards, more so as the awards get more prestigious, so giving the Pulitzer to a black artist making black music when almost every other winner of the Pulitzer for music has been a white person making white music...that's cool. Let us hope that balance continues correcting.


Third: I'm not an expert in rap or hip-hop, just a fan. I enjoy it a lot and listen to a lot, and I've been learning more and more how to listen to rap, what makes it good, and how to appreciate it better. Some rap is just silly pop, but the good stuff rewards more careful study. It's great to see Kendrick getting recognition like this, when the Grammys can't even figure out that people will remember his work far after everyone's forgotten Macklemore and Bruno Mars (who both won Album of the Year awards over Kendrick).

While black culture doesn't need validation from white institutions to be legitimate or deserve respect, I am still happy to see hip-hop recognized by the Pulitzer committee as a legitimate, exciting, artistically respectable genre. The black artists who create it deserve to stand shoulder to shoulder with any artist from any genre that's long been considered more "respectable" (which is of course code for white), and while that is true even if white folks like myself are not saying it, I'll happily add my voice to the chorus acknowledging this reality.


Fourth: from where I stand, Kendrick is peaking higher than just about any rap artist has ever peaked, combining social relevance, artistry and popularity. Lamar is the undisputed top rapper in the game right now, and really, the level he is peaking at right now is mind-boggling. His combination of ambition, social consciousness, musical adventurousness (especially on To Pimp a Butterfly, the album which was his application for "Most Important Rapper Alive"), lyrical complexity, rapping skill and awareness of his place in rap... has any other rapper been the most socially relevant, the most musically interesting, the most critically acclaimed, the most ambitious, and the most popular rapper at the same time, to the degree Lamar is right now? Only three or four other rappers ever took bigger swings than Kendrick has in the last three years, and he's been absolutely nailing his marks.

Which other rapper has peaked as high as Kendrick is right now? Make your argument in the comments, but I can't think of someone who's peaked in terms of social relevance, sheer rapping skill, sonic adventurousness, and popularity all at the same time, the way that Kendrick is peaking right now.


Fifth: Crazy as it seems, (and this is exciting) I don't think we've even seen his best yet. When Kanye West released "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy," it was the sound of Kanye peaking, and everybody knew it. I think that will happen with Kendrick as well. I believe he still has one more gear, and one day he'll release an album that everyone will immediately recognize as an all-time artist's all-time peak. A Joshua Tree, a Lemonade, a Purple Rain, a Thriller, a Blue. It's going to be incredible.


Sixth: I've said for a while, if you love language and a beautifully turned phrase, you should be listening to rappers, full stop. The way the best ones stitch together beautiful, brilliant or complex and dense lines and deliver them at speed is amazing. If you're not so sure about that, here is a primer for how dense the lyrical music of good rap can be, based on the rhyme schemes in the rap musical Hamilton (which is a good place to start if all rap seems inaccessible to you).


Seventh: When someone says "I like all kinds of music. Except rap," it makes me sad. But ... I used to say that, so there's hope for them yet. I've been ranting for a few years now that rap and hip-hop are far and away the most interesting musical genres in Western culture right now: they're the most socially relevant, they have the most exciting artists, the highest ratio of artists trying to change the world, as well as massive popularity. Looking forward, I think that much of the most important protest music for our time, and much of the most interesting and challenging music, period, will be in the hip-hop and rap genres, so pay attention, and remember to read the lyrics.

Go get your hands on his album Damn., readers. Give it a few listens: it rewards repeated listens. Pick out a track and listen to it four times while reading the lyrics. It rewards that too. Read some reviews of it and listen again, after being told what to listen for. It rewards that, too. Watch the videos. Videos are part of the text... but the songs stand alone, too.

And congratulations, Kendrick Lamar!

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Pyeongchang Olympics Are Here! Brace For the Letdown!

The Pyeongchang Olympics are here! Some of my friends are really excited about this, so of course I take it as my Roboseyoly duty to throw some cold water on the proceedings. We have a lot of cold water around the house right now, because our laundry room's pipes have been frozen for literally three weeks! Before running out to the coin laundry to ensure I have underpants for the next week (rueing that cancelled trip to Hawaii more and more), I'd like to say a few things about the Pyeongchang Olympics.

Part One: Tempering Expectations

I had intended to write this about two or three years ago, but never really got around to it, which means I am now Johnny-come-lately instead of being stylishly ahead of the curve, but I've been telling whichever friends would listen that the Pyeongchang Olympics are going to be a letdown pretty much since they were awarded.

Whoa now, spoilsport!
I'm evil. I know.

See, Korea's previous experiences with global mega-events (through a carefully calibrated filter of selection bias) has been really really good! The 1988 Seoul Olympics were one of the most successful games in history, at a time in history when the Olympics really, really needed a games to come off smoothly without a massive boycott or a tragedy. The biggest scandals of the '88 Olympics were in the context of sports (Ben Johnson's steroids; and Roy Jones Jr.'s screw-job) unlike previous Olympics, where the flies in the ointment had been things like cold war politics (1984 and 1980) huge boycotts PLUS catastrophic financial overruns (Montreal 1976), or freaking massacres (Mexico City 1968, Munich 1972... which adds up to the previous twenty years of Olympics)... the Seoul Olympics set records for countries in attendance, ran more or less smoothly, and basically got the Olympics back on track.

The redevelopment and city infrastructure built for the Olympics was much-needed: highways, expressways, bridges and several subway lines were started and/or completed to help move sports fans around Seoul, and everyone's been using them ever since. Yeouido was set up as the media center, giving Korea's mass media a huge shot in the arm. Being located in the middle of Seoul's huge population center, most of the Olympic facilities have since been earning their keep as venues for sports teams, concerts and performances ever since.

Finally, the narratives around the '88 Olympics were pretty darn triumphal. It is looked back on as Korea's coming out party, its entry to the club of advanced nations. Korea announced itself as a contender, a regional and global player. It was no longer the backwater you saw in M*A*S*H* (which is what people thought of Korea before then).

The 2002 FIFA World Cup -- the other universally positive experience remembered in "Mega-Event Fever" has been credited with re-igniting national pride after the beating it took in the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. The run to the semifinal, watching Korea play on huge screens in downtown Seoul, sits as one of the fondest memories of Koreans of a certain age. Less discussed is that it was a hugely expensive World Cup ever to that date, as Japan and Korea competed to build more, more impressive stadiums than each other. That kind of washed away in the excitement of Ahn Jung Hwan's golden goal.


Again, Korea's image had a lot of ground to gain at the time, given that most Korea news going global in 2002 was related either to the Asian Financial Crisis or Kim Jong-il's nuclear intentions and the Axis of Evil stuff, so a World Cup with some nice, exciting moments was a great shot in the arm. It was also right up in Seoulites' faces (and Seoul is where Korea's media and narratives center): foreigners were filling up the hotels and restaurants and walking the streets.

The Pyeongchang Olympics, though... well, if you expand the memory a little, you start noticing that Korea has hosted more mega-events than just the 1988 Olympics and the 2002 FIFA World cup, and I have a feeling the Pyeongchang Olympics will be remembered less like those two events, and more like the poorly-attended 2014 Incheon Asian Games (also debt-racked), the 2011 World Track and Field Championships in Daegu (went smoothly but... did you remember it happened before I mentioned it here?), or the 2012 Yeosu Expo (organizers were giving away free tickets to drum up attendance numbers; massive organizational problems; did Yeosu need a mega-convention center?).

Back when I was cooking up this blog idea, I was going to sound all clever predicting all kinds of stuff... but now it's coming to pass, so here, not looking nearly as cool, in short, is Why Pyeongchang Won't (Couldn't) Live Up To The Seoul Olympics.

1. The Winter Olympics Just Aren't As Big a Deal as the Summer Olympics

Unless you are Norway or Canada, the world media just doesn't care as much. Sorry.

2. The Narratives Around These Olympics Just Aren't as Exciting

The 1988 Olympics were Seoul and Korea's coming out party. Problem is: Korea's already had its coming out party now. Korea is already a player on the world stage. K-pop and K-dramas are out there, Youtube and the internet mean anybody who wants to find out about Korea can. South Korea's image in the world just doesn't have anything close to as much to gain in global standing from these Olympics as it did from the 1988 Olympics. 

The narratives about the state of the Olympic project are also not as heartening: Yeah, Sochi ended on a sour note as Putin defiantly invaded Ukraine just weeks after the Winter Games ended, and the Summer Games in Rio had some sour spots as well (though not as many as the FIFA World Cup two years before) so the possibility that these games will be a step up from those is certainly up for grabs. But comparing that to twenty entire years of cold war politics, massive boycotts and massacres, before corporate sponsorship ensured that the amount of money to be made on TV rights guaranteed there would always be more Olympics as long as a sucker city could be found to provide a venue... well in 1988 it would have been reasonable to suggest shuttering the entire Olympic project, as it had expressly failed in its stated goal of bridging gaps between nations, and a plausible argument could have been made that the '88 games saved the Olympics, or at least marked a turning of the tide. Now, the Olympics are in no danger, just as long as Coke and NBC and Visa are there tuning it into the money-printing machine they always dreamed of.

The Winter Games do much less to set those bigger narratives anyway: it's more important that, after the mess of the 2016 Rio games, the next three Summer Games are in cities that have pretty good odds of running a smooth games: Tokyo, Paris, and Los Angeles, all three of which have hosted the games before, Paris and LA twice! Frankly, with the 2022 winter games set in Beijing, considering the way Beijing went all-out for the 2008 Summer Games, there's a more than fair chance South Korea will be upstaged anyway, unless anything short of Korean Reunification happens because of these Olympics.

3. The Money Stuff

Olympics have almost never turned a profit. At best, the national narratives generated were worth the cost (though this is difficult to prove because it's a counterfactual argument: there's no control for how a country's reputation would have done WITHOUT hosting an Olympics) -- if Brazil had spent the cost of the Rio Olympics or the World Cup on improving infrastructure and life for its poorest 20%, it might be a very different country... but we just can't know that, because they didn't.

That said... as sad photo essays about abandoned Olympic venues show us, many governments simply give up on maintaining the facilities they built for their showcase event. I read one critique of the Olympics that basically argued the games were little more than a method for reallocating national wealth from the public to building contractors... the last thing many countries need.

In South Korea, the Central and Provincial government have already been bickering about the cost. Unlike the olympics in Seoul, where Seoul needed that infrastructure, and Seoul's cultural life could sustain all those performance venues, Pyeongchang doesn't have enough people to fill a bunch of stadiums with crowds for sports or cultural events after the crowds leave. This article says the Pyeongchang organizers have designed the facilities with this in mind. But nobody seems to be sure who will foot the bill for maintenance after the games close.

(Hosting the Olympics is a Terrible Investment)
They only happen every four years... so how can there be a to SEVEN list of the worst Olympic financial disasters?

4. The Olympic Spirit Itself

The Olympics are in trouble.

Back in 1988, I think people were still willing to buy that rhetoric about the unity of humankind, the binding power of excellence in competition, and the potential for sport to lead humans closer to peace and unity, or at least wanting to... though the three previous Boycott Olympics in a row might put the lie to that. As the Olympics get bigger and more media-saturated, and as the Games get cynically instrumentalised by governments wishing to score a propaganda or national image boost  more and more often (Beijing, Sochi, Berlin), as the number of cities willing to host dwindles, as countries more and more nakedly obsess over medal counts and gold medal ratios as a proxy for national prestige (and will cheat on a massive, institutional scale to do it)... as the IOC is second only to FIFA in its corruption-inducing mix of prestige, money at stake and organizational opacity, and Coke ads seem to take higher priority than exciting performances... the world is just less ready to swallow what the Olympics are serving than before, and it's harder to drum up excitement when the Olympics stir up a medal-count-obsessed rivalry and petty nationalisms, all enabled by Coca Cola, Visa, McDonald's and Samsung, instead of joy and excitement and all that. I think the world has come onto the fact it's impossible for the Olympics to actually be non-political, as much as the IOC micro-manages helmet designs to maintain that fiction. The very act of choosing one country or city over another makes it inherently political (Uhh... Moscow 1980/LA 1984 during the Cold War? Can we just stop pretending?)...

The only reason the Olympics still exist is because Samsung and Coca Cola et al couldn't get everybody to watch if they organized a spectacle to the shit they're selling, so they had to slap some flags on it to drum up viewers. If the Olympics REALLY wanted to be non-political, athletes would march in without flags, but then everybody would notice how it is now nakedly and unashamedly about money.

It's not Pyeongchang's fault, but the world is different, and mega-events are way different.

Part Two: But North Korea!


1. North Korea won't try any crap during the Olympics. They have more to gain from showing they can play nicely. After the Olympics, it will probably be same old same old, until DJT needs to distract the US media from another revelation by the Mueller Investigation. At that point, the American guy is the wild card. North Korea's been very predictable.

2. Does anybody else find the fawning coverage of the pretty North Korean cheerleaders more than a little creepy? I sure do.

Source


3. North and South Korea's Olympic teams marching together is meaningless, sorry. It's your kid sister grabbing your cap and gown and putting it on while you're showering before the graduation ceremony. It's putting the cart before the horse. More than that. It's putting the cart before the horse, before the horse has even been born. It's putting the cart before a freezer of stud samples at a horse breeding facility. It's putting the cart before the plot of land where a horse breeding facility will one day be built.

For The Koreas to actually, meaningfully, substantively improve relations, so many things have to happen, that marching athletes under the unification flag means absolutely nothing in the larger scheme of things. That Kim Jong-eun's sister is attending the games... still means nothing except that North Korea saw an opportunity for some good propaganda shots.

If the Koreas marching together were another step on a long trail of increasingly confident steps of rapprochement between North and South Korea, the march would be meaningless because those negotiations would be considered much more important by anyone but the most sentimental of souls. Without that process, marching together is like lifting a sports trophy you didn't win. It's step T without steps A, B, C, D, etc.. Let's not get carried away, OK? Nobody is winning a Nobel Peace Prize here, folks.


The Pyeongchang Olympics will be a letdown for Korea. After the narratives around the Seoul Olympics and the excitement of the 2002 World Cup, anything would be... but they will. Sorry.