Homophobia masked as comedy

I saw Bruno a few days ago, and I thoroughly disliked the experience. The movie had received excellent reviews from many respected movie critics, some of whom claimed that the triumph of Bruno was that it mocked societal acceptance of homophobia.

It was my experience that the only thing that Bruno seemed to mock were the homosexuals it purported to defend. Although I lost track of the number of scenes where gays were portrayed as lascivious perverts, I cannot think of a single scene where there was a sympathetic gay character.

I am reminded of one scene in particular (spoiler alert!) where a naked Bruno is portrayed seated in a hot tub with his adopted African toddler and two naked men. In this hot tub scene, despite the presence of a child, the men in the hot tub pose in lewd positions that would raise the ire of any Children's Aid Society. This scene was unsettling on many accounts, one of which was the fact that such a scene does nothing to quash public fears about the ability of gay men to properly raise children. Another problem with the scene was that there was no follow-up attempt to correct this child-predator stereotype of gay men. Bruno was homophobic without questioning homophobia, and therein lied the offense.

There were many other equally tactless scenes in the film, some of which mocked not only homosexuals, but blacks, foreigners and theists as well. It was as though the screenwriters of Bruno decided they would try to denigrate as many groups of people as possible in 81 minutes of film reel.

Some people will say that the goal of Bruno was not to mock classes, but to mock our caricatures of these classes. That is, it was not Bruno's exaggerated gay mannerisms that were funny, but the fact that we attribute such mannerisms to gays. If this indeed was the intent of the Bruno screenwriters, they failed in a very important respect: At no point in the film was the audience presented with a normal homosexual male who, in contrast with Bruno, would have caused the audience to question stereotypes about homosexuals. If there had been a sympathetic gay character named Joe, for example, who was not overly flamboyant and sexual like Bruno, the film would have done a better job questioning societal acceptance of homophobia. Instead, every gay character in the film was portrayed as either a child abuser, a sexual pervert or a superficial fashionista.

It is tempting to defend Bruno on the grounds that the screenwriters have a right to free speech (a right I heartily support) and, as a result, nit-picky 'liberals' like me should just stay away from the movie if we don't like it. However, as I will discuss in my next post, I believe that there is a critical difference between what you have the right to do, and what you should do. Too often, the right to free speech is used to justify morally questionable behavior.


It's the broken system, stupid

In 1953, the Executive branch grew a little stronger thanks to United States v. Reynolds. In this civil suit, the U.S. government refused to release confidential documents to the plaintiffs, claiming that doing so would endanger national security. The courts agreed to defer to the government's judgment, and the case was dropped.

United States v. Reynolds gave rise to the the State Secrets Privilege, the civil court equivalent of the Classified Information Procedures Act. Basically, this decision granted the U.S. government the right to exclude from court proceedings sensitive information that could endanger national security.

Almost fifty years later, the evidence the government withheld in United States v. Reynolds was declassified and released. As it turns out, this evidence contained nothing confidential; rather, it had embarrassing details that would have sunk the government's case. Clearly, the government's action here was an abuse of power, and given that, it would have made sense to ensure that some checks were placed on the State Secrets Privilege.

Unfortunately, it is much easier to bestow power than it is to take it away. The government managed to ease the fears of the civil libertarians. The abuse of the SSP was blamed on the power-hungry politicians of the past and the government promised that in the right hands, the State Secrets Privilege would make America safer. And the power continued unchecked...

The Bush administration welcomed the SSP, and invoked it a record number of times during its tenure. As we are now beginning to find out, much of the evidence that was hidden from the public eye with the SSP was not confidential at all; it was evidence that would have embarrassed and compromised the Bush administration had it been released. And yet the power continued unchecked...

The fluffy and charming Obama admistration fares no better than the Bush administration in reining in the SSP. In Mohamed v. Jeppesen, the Obama administration took this power a step further and tried to dismiss not only evidence, but the entire case itself (to which the government is not even a direct party) ostensibly due to national security secrets. And the power continues unchecked...

If there's one lesson I've gathered from the State Secrets Privilege debacle, it is that if the system is broken, fix the system.

If the American political system is such that you need a perfect human being to make sure you don't start a war or torture people, then the system is broken. Maybe every 200 years or so, we may be lucky enough to find political leaders benevolent and intelligent enough to largely stamp out corruption and injustice in our country, but why wait 200 years for that? I don't disagree that it is unlikely we will ever find laws and constitutions perfect enough to render even a Pol Pot or Mussolini innocuous, but if we could reduce our dependence on the fleeting sense of virtue in power-hungry politicians, we would be better off. President Obama was the message of hope for many optimistic Americans, but I wonder if we should not be on our guard a bit more.


Context is key

In 2001, Judge Sonia Sotomayor gave a speech at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law on the role gender and racial identity have in a judge's interpretation of laws. Given the partisan nature of confirmations to the Supreme Court, it is not surprising that this speech was twisted and contorted to serve the interests of her critics. In particular, I want to focus on one tidbit from the speech which has been the playpal of many a Sotomayor critic.

At one point in her talk, Sotomayor says the following

"I further accept that our experiences as women and people of color affect our decisions. The aspiration to impartiality is just that--it's an aspiration because it denies the fact that we are by our experiences making different choices than others."

Taking her words a step further, this quote seems to suggest that Sotomayor believes that unbiased decisions will never be a reality in the courts. That in itself is not an earth-shattering idea (can an ideal in any instance ever be attained?), but she leaves open the question whether an aspiration to impartiality, because it cannot be more than an aspiration, has any function at all in the courts. Should judges refuse to keep their personal prejudices and biases in check whilst reaching decisions given that, as Sotomayor believes, their efforts will never free them of the choke hold of their background? Indeed, this quote, taken out of context, paints Sotomayor as a judicial extremist, a candidate for the High Court who believes that because judges cannot be perfectly impartial, they ought to sit back and let their race and gender define them.

Yes, Sotomayor does take the view that judges cannot achieve perfect impartiality. She does not, however, leave it at that. Further on in her speech, she goes on to say

"I can and do aspire to be greater than the sum total of my experiences but I accept my limitations. I willingly accept that we who judge must not deny the differences resulting from experience and heritage but attempt, as the Supreme Court suggests, continuously to judge when those opinions, sympathies and prejudices are appropriate."

And therein lies the soundbite that critics of Sotomayor leave out when discussing her judicial extremism. Going back to my previous point, Sotomayor confirms that point that I believe many of us are apt to agree with: that the impossibility of reaching an ideal does not mean we shouldn't do our utmost to reach it. Judges should not confer their verdicts with the air of superiority, believing that they possess an infinite wisdom. Rather, humility in rendering a decision, whether that means admitting that the precedent in a certain case is unclear or recusing oneself from a case in which one's prejudices will be unwieldy, should be the quality we look for in judges. In writing this post, I have not decided to join the You Go Latina! Sotomayor bandcamp; but I did become more wary of the age of Gotcha journalism. That being said, if anyone would like to forward Judge Sotomayor's entire speech to some of her critics, you will be doing them a favor.


Where no director should have gone...

I saw Star Trek (the movie) yesterday, and I feel compelled to write about the film. If I don't write about the film, I'll regret it in the future and time-warp back to today to write about the film. And by time-warping back, I will have changed the dynamics of my future, thereby creating an alternate reality. Whoops - spoiler alert!

Back to reality. And by 'reality', I mean this reality. (I can't lay off the alternate reality jokes!) So what did I think of the film?

Not much at all, actually. It wasn't slam-dunk horrible, but I hope I never see it again.

I was impressed by the caliber of acting, even if some of the lines were cringeworthy ("My ex-wife got the planet in the divorce. I have nothing left except my bones.") Chris Pike was spot-on as Kirk, especially when it came to the signature flailing-arms run. Zachary Quinto was fantastic as Spock, although the resemblance to young Nimoy was a bit unsettling. Same goes for the rest of the Enterprise Crew, with the possible exception of Zoe Saldana as Nyota, for the reason that her character was rather one-dimensional and underdeveloped, as female characters often are in movies.

That being said, I would have liked to see more of a focus on Treknobabble in the movie.

The way Star Trek TOS positioned it, space was a vast expanse of nothingness in which matter was more precious than gold. Yes, there were many planets and ships to engage the crew members' senses, but despite the action, the Enterprise crew members could not completely dissociate themselves from the dark void surrounding the ship. It was this juxtaposition of action and nothingness that created some of the more poignant moments of the series where such issues as free will versus fate, faith versus reason, compassion versus justice were given free reign.

To see space transformed into a circus of armadas and admirals was perhaps inevitable. This is Hollywood, land of the 30 second attention span, after all. The screenwriters themselves admitted that their focus was on creating an action-packed thriller attractive to a mainstream audience because, you know, normal people don't understand pseudoscience and Big Ideas. Without a solid storyline, however, this Star Trek is doomed to obsolescence; there's a reason why the original Star Trek series still inspires a legion of fans, and it has nothing to do with fancy graphics and pretty faces.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go back to yesterday and avoid watching a certain film...


Ruminations on intellectual property law

I want to write a bit about a book on intellectual property law I stumbled across, and kudos to anyone who isn't bored by the end of the post (assuming you make it so far). Entitled Free Culture, the book was written by Lawrence Lessig, a renowned intellectual property scholar who has argued notable copyright cases (e.g. Eldred v. Ashcroft) in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Free Culture provides a clear and well-reasoned argument against taking a one-sided view of U.S. intellectual property (specifically, copyright) doctrine. Lessig carefully treads a legal minefield and persuasively argues that current copyright law occupies an extreme favoring the creative content providers.

What I found especially refreshing about Lessig's book is that he takes the time to explain why we should care whether our copyright regime favors content providers. For Lessig, it's not as simple as saying "Copyright enriches corporations; therefore, copyright is bad". Lessig does not shy away from discussing the effects of legislation such as the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act and the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, and, for an issue as controversial as copyright law, he is surprisingly effective at avoiding partisan polemic.

It is frustrating to encounter news stories that place the copyright debate at one of two extremes: You either support property rights (and by extension, copyright law as it stands today), or you support freedom of culture. I was unsurprised that Lessig made it clear that supporting a free culture does not necessitate dropping all property rights, as some copyright advocates claim. I was, however, surprised at how well-versed Lessig is with regard to the other extreme of copyright law: that of allowing unrestricted access to creative content, whether this access is for commercial or private use. Lessig is careful to warn of the pitfalls of a free-for-all copyright regime.

Although I find the book to be careless with some of its analogies. (e.g. at one point Lessig adopts the specious comparison of libraries with p2p software), I would love to see Free Culture more widely distributed to the legislators tasked with copyright reform. Lessig knows his stuff, and it's a shame that our legislators continue to pass harsher copyright laws without considering the impact of these laws on our culture.


Temporal Piggy-banks

Time is money when you weave your way through a slow-moving crowd, muttering obscenities as you contemplate the important meeting you are late for.

Time is pleasure when you inch your car toward your turn, hoping to intimidate a pedestrian into interrupting her leisurely stroll and hurrying up.

Sometimes I wonder, what will you do with those few seconds you saved?

Do you go home and place your precious seconds in a temporal piggy-bank, waiting to accumulate enough time to finish your violin concerto or the great Canadian novel?

Will you squeeze in an extra sentence in the bedtime story you grudgingly read to your child?

Or will you finally have enough spare time to tell your spouse I love you before it is too late and regrets set in?


Waste Not, Want Not

Last fall, my mother made a delicious preserve using fruit from an apple tree she found in our neighborhood. My mother was surprised that this apple tree was not picked clean by hungry scavengers; people walking by the tree were not tempted by its supple fruit, preferring to leave the apples on the ground to form compost.

Having grown up in a country where food shortages were not uncommon, my mother could not imagine letting the apples she found go to waste. Despite living in a country blessed with an embarrassing abundance of food, she has not forgotten to Waste Not, Want Not.

Then there's me.

Despite the example of my mother, I am ashamed to admit I have adopted the culture of waste that many of us are fortunate to experience. I say fortunate, because it truly is fortunate to live in a country where food is so plentiful, you don't think twice about wasting it.

My behaviour is all the more baffling because I often deride the vapid consumerism that leads to a culture of waste whilst scraping my leftovers from dinner into the trashbin. Perhaps it's time to confront this incongruence and resolve to minimize my contribution to the culture of waste.