Friday, February 21, 2014

Shakespeare Q & A at Dagblog

I'm answering questions about Shakespeare for any curious Dagbloggers (or other friends of the blog) here.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

An Armed Society Is a Bloody Society

Gun-rights advocates love to quote Robert Heinlein's line that "An armed society is a polite society." Heinlein argued that in a culture where many are packing lethal weapons, people are more careful with their manners because they're afraid of being killed over a minor lapse of etiquette. Heinlein is wrong on his facts; history makes it very clear that real armed societies don't work that way. But what's really ghastly is that Heinlein and his fans imagine his fantasy as a good thing. The belief that "an armed society is a polite society" depends on a conviction that murder is better than bad manners.

So we have Chad Oulson shot to death for texting before a movie started. We have Jordan Davis killed for refusing to turn down his music in a parking lot. We have two teenagers killed in separate incidents for egging cars. 18-year-old Tavarus Erving was killed in Atlanta on Halloween by someone who thought Erving had egged his Mercedes; his killer fired ten rounds. 15-year-old Adrian Broadway was killed with a shotgun last Saturday night in Arkansas; she was with four friends, egging the car of a boy who had earlier played a prank on them, and the boy's father responded with deadly force.

Those four killings happened in the last three-and-a-half months, between October 31 and February 15. That's an average of one meaningless gun death every 29.5 days.

What all four killers had in common was the idea that they were allowed to kill people who were not being sufficiently respectful to them. They were armed, so everyone else had to be polite, and the man with the gun got to decide what was polite.

Let's not pretty this up. None of this was self-defense. The killers weren't interested in self-defense. All four assailants knew damned well that their victims weren't armed. Two of killers actually fired into fleeing vehicles. This was always about using a weapon to extort deference from other people. That is what today's twisted and mutated "gun rights" movement actually wants. An armed society is a polite society.

The movie-theater murderer allegedly told his victim, "I'll teach you to throw popcorn at me." The loud-music murderer, who was willing to kill a teenager rather than tolerate rap music on his way into and out of a store, writes letters from jail opining that more black people would have better manners if more of them were killed:

“The jail is full of blacks and they all act like thugs. This may sound a bit radical but if more people would arm themselves and kill these (expletive) idiots, when they’re threatening you, eventually they may take the hint and change their behavior.”

The killer wrote that letter to his grandmother.

This senseless violence isn't a side effect of Stand Your Ground laws. It is one of their primary goals: a feature, not a bug. Extracting "respect" through intimidation is what today's sick version of the gun-rights movement is about. The whole point of Stand Your Ground laws is to take away the idea of necessity from self-defense. Today's gun-rights advocates don't think it's fair that they can only shoot someone dead if they absolutely have to. They believe they have a right to kill someone in order to teach them a lesson in manners: I'll teach you to throw popcorn at me. Stand-Your-Ground advocates consider the right to shoot someone else dead a privilege to which they are entitled. That is their idea of The Polite Society.

cross-posted at Dagblog

Friday, February 14, 2014

Gay Athletes to the Rescue

Michael Sam's brave decision to come out as gay before the NFL draft has been exactly the story that the NFL desperately needs. 

Now that the Superbowl has ended and the focus is no longer on the league's stars playing national games, coverage of the NFL was going to drift back to ongoing storylines that make the league look absolutely horrible. There's the ugly bullying case in Miami, where the league's investigator has just released his final report. There's the murder trial of star player Aaron Hernandez. But even worse than all of these is the steady drumbeat of medical news about concussions, brain damage, and the terrible toll on former players. Retired stars have killed themselves with bullets to the heart and requested that their brains be autopsied. As shocking as that is, the concussion story isn't merely a scandal. It suggests that football itself might be fundamentally unsafe, that even routine play causes long-term neurological damage. That story line has the potential to kill organized football, because it makes the case that organized football deserves to die.

Right in the nick of time comes poised, photogenic Michael Sam, talented enough to get drafted despite his orientation, brave enough to come out before draft day even if it might mean being taken in a later round with less guaranteed money. And he, knowing the stakes for other gay players and for his own career, has played the media superbly. He could not have managed this announcement better.

That he did is a stroke of enormous luck for the lords of the NFL. Suddenly, in the dead of off-season winter, they have a major feel-good story. Even if a few anonymous team executives mouthed some code-word reservations about having an out gay athlete on their teams, the story has largely played out as a great step forward for the NFL. Instead of stories about crippling brain damage, the league gets stories about advances in social justice.

It's worth noting that the first team owner to announce that gay players like Sam are welcome (in principle) on his team was Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, whose former tight end is about to go on trial for murder. (Kraft was careful to say that he left the actual football decisions to his head coach, and that Sam would only be drafted by the Patriots for football reasons.) I don't doubt that Bob Kraft had genuinely noble reasons for making a public stand other team owners weren't brave enough to make. It does show good character on his part. But this is also a good moment for Kraft's organization to show off all the good character they can muster.

What's most amazing is that we have reached the point where an athlete coming out of the closet is no longer treated as a scandal, but as an uplifting relief from scandals. It's a good day when a gay athlete making a stand is the good news that a pro sports league is looking for. That's what make me most optimistic for the future of gay rights in our country. So bravo to Michael Sam for his bold step forward, two cheers for the NFL's ability to recognize good PR, and -- in honor of the day -- hooray for love.

cross-posted from Dagblog

Sunday, February 02, 2014

J. K. Rowling Is Wrong About Her Own Books

So, J. K. Rowling has told an interviewer (the actress Emma Watson), that she paired off the wrong characters at the end of her Harry Potter series. Instead of marrying Harry's right-hand girl Hermione off to his left-hand boy Ron, Rowling has decided that she should have married Hermione to Harry himself. So, Rowling concludes, she was wrong when she wrote the books. In fact, she's wrong now.

Almost anyone who's taken a college literature class has been told that figuring out the author's intentions isn't the point of reading a book, that the author isn't the final judge of what the work means. That claim sounds weird to lots of people: of course the author gets to decide what the work means! She wrote it! Professors just don't have any common sense! [Cue jokes about pointy-headed academics who believe in the "death of the author."]

But it's not just a pointy-headed theory. It's common sense about the way books work. And Jo Rowling has given us a perfect example. The books don't mean something different because she's changed her mind about them. They don't get better or worse because of how she feels about them at a given moment. The book is the book. She wrote those books, but now they are their own thing, and she doesn't get to tell you how to read them.

Rowling's current claim is that the Ron and Hermione match, which she painstakingly builds up over the seven books in the Harry Potter series, is motivated by her own "personal" desires, rather than by artistic considerations:

"I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfilment. That's how it was conceived, really.
“For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron." 

What that sounds like, as far as I can tell, is that Rowling paired up Hermione, a character who fairly clearly represents an imagined version of Rowling's younger self, with a character whom she initially based on someone from her own early years. If I've got that right, Rowling sees the Hermione and Ron relationship as a story of her adolescent self getting a boy who got away. Of course, only Jo Rowling herself would read these characters this way, since none of us read Ron as Sean Whathisname that Jo Rowling had a crush on in sixth form. Why would we? We have no idea who Sean from Sixth Form is, and we don't care.

More the the point, although Jo Rowling might have intended Ron and Hermione as wish-fulfillment versions of Young Jo Rowling and Her Teen Crush, the characters aren't actually Young Jo and Teen Crush. They're independent characters. The reader figures out who Ron and Hermione are from the things they say and do on the page. There is no Ron or Hermione separate from the Ron and Hermione on the page. They don't have any other existence. They're characters in a book.

Now, if Rowling says her reasons "have very little to do with literature," that suggests that marrying those two characters off is an artistic mistake. Rowling is saying that her books would have been better books if Hermione married the main character in the end.

But Jo Rowling doesn't get to decide this either. She wrote the books she wrote. The rest of us decide if they work or not. If Rowling wants to persuade us that her ending stinks, she has to make an argument for that just like the rest of us.

Would wedding bells for Ron and Hermione have been better? It would certainly have been a more obvious ending: main male character marries main female character. And some people have clamored for that on the internet since the nineties, because they feel it's a story-telling imperative that Male Character #1 pair off with Female Character #1. But it's hard to feel that adding yet another cliche would improve the Harry Potter books. The problem with these books isn't that their points aren't too obvious or on-the-nose.

It's much easier to argue that Rowling's actual ending works quite well. The three main characters end up as part of a large happy extended family, with Harry marrying Ron's sister. It's a classic Dickens conclusion. And it creates a nice structural completion. The main character is an orphan who is repeatedly depicted as longing for a family. (At one point, the character looks in a magic mirror that shows you your heart's fondest desire. What he sees is himself surrounded by hordes of relatives.) In the first book, he's hapless and alone at the station where he's gone to catch the school train, and he gets taken under the wing of Ron's family. (It's worth pointing out that we meet Harry's future wife in that early scene, before even Hermione has been introduced. The book is setting things up already.) In the last scene of the series, Harry is putting his own children on the school train, surrounded by his in-laws and his old school friends. The character has what he's been shown to want most: he wished to be part of a family like Ron's, and now he's a member of Ron's family. And his own children have their parents to put them on the train, as he did not.

It works, because it's a decent story. "Orphan gets family" is more specific and interesting than "hero gets girl." The hero always gets the girl. It's also nice to see the boy hero actually, you know, form a genuine friendship with a girl. That the Harry Potter books don't girlfriendzone the female lead is a point in their favor. And it's also pleasing that the main female character is allowed to have a marriage where she will be the senior partner. But most importantly, the ending works because it's structurally satisfying. The last scenes of the book recall earlier scenes and rhyme with them. Structure is one of Rowling's best things.

Rowling now objects that the Ron and Hermione match lacks "credibility," meaning they wouldn't be a good couple long-term. But that's just silly. The one thing you learn in a college English class before "the author isn't always right" is that characters are not real people. What's going to happen to Ron and Hermione in the future after the book ends? Nothing. They only exist in the book. If Jo Rowling belatedly decides that they're maritally incompatible, so what? She depicted them as happily married in the last scene of the last book. Jo Rowling now imagines them as growing estranged and needing marital counseling. I imagine them growing more compatible as one of them matures and the other learns to live with his more benevolent quirks. I mean, that's what Jo Rowling's actual book suggests. Who am I going to believe? The person who put the words on the page? Or the words on the page themselves?

Rowling is talking about the characters in terms of psychological credibility. But the characters don't actually have independent psychologies. They're parts of a story. And the Ron and Hermione characters are structurally paired for hundreds and hundreds of pages. The plot provides the ending that it has prepared the readers for. Rowling complains that it was "the plot as she first imagined it" but it's the plot as she actually executed it, and she executed it pretty thoroughly. She started laying the trail of breadcrumbs for the Ron and Hermione ending from the start of the series. She didn't drop even a crouton on the Harry-loves-Hermione trail. The thought is never presented as crossing either character's mind. Providing a different set of romantic pairings would require her to rewrite all seven books. It would be like saying "I think Pride and Prejudice ends wrong. Elizabeth should be with Bingley and Jane should be with Darcy." Effecting that change would require you to change the whole book, start to finish.

If Rowling wants to rewrite her entire series to have a "better" ending, I'm sure her publisher will indulge her. But that doesn't mean it will be better. George Lucas re-edited Star Wars to reflect his second thoughts, but the rest of us are free to prefer his first version and most do. Han shot first, whether George likes it or not. He's the creator. He's not the decider.
The great W. H. Auden decided late in his career that some of his famous early poems needed to be improved, and that some should never again see the light of day. When rewrote his poem "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," he was mostly right; the rewritten lines are better poetry. When he decided that "Spain, 1937" should never be published again, he was wrong. "Spain, 1937" is a great poem, whether Wystan likes it or not. He doesn't get to tell the rest of us not to like it. The author gets to write the book. But that's the end of her job. She has to leave the reading to us.

cross-posted from Dagblog