Good Luck in the New Year

It goes without saying, 2020 has been a brutal year.  Many of us stayed home and wore masks to try to prevent the year from getting worse.  But, in the end, so much of the suck of 2020 were things we couldn’t control.  We couldn’t control mask wearing being made political instead of something we do because we care for our neighbors and fellow Americans.  We couldn’t control how aid was distributed, if jobs were available and as safe as they could be, and we couldn’t control how fast we got a vaccine (which in the end is being delivered at an astonishing speed).  One of the most stressful things you can do to a person is give them negative reinforcement based on something someone else does but the receiver has no influence over.  It is a formula that will induce anxiety in the most stable person and 2020 was an anxiety machine.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

I have a friend, Marie Vibbert, who loves the Browns.  In a city full of super fans, Marie is in the top 100, she even played women’s football with the Fusion. Marie is also one of the most rational people I know (outside of my father who is the type of atheist who, the day after open heart surgery, nearly broke the hospital’s chaplin; my father described the poor man as “very upset” after a conversation with him.)  Yet, this very rational woman has lucky socks.  She tries to repeat everything she does when the Browns win.  If you are a guest at her house when Cleveland loses, don’t expect to be invited over again.  If they win, you will have a standing invitation for any game night (and Marie will secretly blame you for the loss if you don’t show up).  Some of this is for fun but, deep down, I suspect some of it is more than just fun.  Watching the Browns lose season after season is enough to shake even the most stable of people. 

The truth is finding things that give us the illusion of control in a world where we have limited control can be a good thing.  Good Luck charms and rituals are like the comfort blanket of a toddler.  They are something to cling to in a turbulent world where the social rules and economy are temporarily (we hope) upended and a new order hasn’t yet asserted itself.  Good luck charms can be abused.  No four-leaf clover is going to assure you don’t pull the short straw on COVID.  They are to be used as Marie uses her lucky socks, with hope and good will, but not as a sure thing.  Even if the Browns lose while you are at Marie’s house, she can be convinced to invite you over again (bringing alcohol and cheese also helps).

With that in mind, I did a quick survey of worldwide New Year good luck traditions.  I went through the traditions I was willing to do, those that my family wouldn’t be annoyed with me about, and those that were practical.  Jumping waves seven times was out, Lake Erie is very cold right now and the waves aren’t that big to start with on most days (assuming the shore line isn’t frozen).  The husband and child were not going to eat cabbage.  We aren’t big on pomegranates except when they come from the tree in my father’s back yard. And I like bread too much to bang it on a wall and I’m not about to smash plates on my neighbor’s porches.  All those are out.  Here is what is in:

Before Midnight

  • Put money under a rug
  • Put on something white
  • Put 12 fruits on the dining room table
  • Toss coins into every room of the house
  • Light up the house with every light I have

At Midnight

  • Eat 12 grapes in 12 seconds
  • Open a door to the outside to let out 2020
  • Kiss

On New Years Day

  • Eat Hopping John (black eyed peas)
  • Wear Green
  • Cook something green
  • Serve fish
  • Ring the doorbell 108 times.

Later (when available)

  • A vaccination shot for everyone in my household

Will any of these things do anything?  Very unlikely (with the notable exception of vaccination which is about as sure a thing as the world has to offer).  What it will do is give me some small sense of control.  What are you doing this New Years to recapture your sense of agency? 

I wish you the very best in the coming year.  Chins up. 

The Problem with Sister Night

Over the Juneteenth weekend, HBO offered the Watchmen TV show for free.  It’s a alan moorecontinuation of the movie, based on the comic book by Alan Moore.  Alan Moore hated the movie and he’s pretty bitter about the TV show.  There is not an Alan Moore adaptation that Alan Moore can stomach. You can’t judge how good an adaptation is by how much Moore hates it, though, I would argue that he isn’t wrong.  As problematic Alan Moore’s work can be (sometimes intentionally and sometimes, like his treatment of women, unintentionally), somehow in adaptation it gets more problematic.

I was worried Watchmen would be another Joker, an adaptation stripped of complexity and boiled down to some simple aphorism that was appealing to angry white men.  Or, worse, it would go the way of Scar Face, American History X, Fight Club, and American Psycho where the folks most into the movie are people who seem to have missed the biting satire and confused irony with glorification.

My friend Adam, who is about five times better a feminist than I am told me it was very good.  So I watched it.

Tulsa

First, the Tulsa “race riot” scenes are breath taking.  I had seen a documentary including the surveying of mass graves several years ago.  I knew the history enough to know exactly how not over the top it was.  White folks did bomb Black Wall Street from the air.  The attention to detail was amazing. Most of the white men murdering blacks left and right were deputized.  They were engaging in the slaughter under the official ok of the sheriff.

Each time the TV show touched on history, or the fears a cop has making a traffic stop, or the danger of white nationalists the show rings true.

SisterNightWhich is what makes Sister Night such a powerful character and such a problematic one.  Early on Sister Night is shown beating information out of a suspect.  It’s a pattern that repeats.  And, as American entertainment consumers, I’m certain most people didn’t bad an eyelash.  In the movies, books, and TV, police and the military regularly use torture to gain important life saving information.  And, Watchman is no different.  The information obtained turns out to be true and actionable.

Here is the problem.  Torture doesn’t work that way in real life.  Study after study reveals that torture (or “enhanced interrogation techniques” for those who think changing the words somehow magically changes the action) rarely works. When exposed to pain the vast majority of people will say anything and everything to make it stop, including things that aren’t true.  Detainees will make things up if they think that is what their interrogators want, sometimes not even aware they are confabulating.

sisternightbeating

You could argue, in a show where there are no heroes, just like the OG Watchman comic, showing Sister Night’s cavalier attitude about torture is a way to demonstrate that even the hero of the story is not a “good guy.” And that would be fine, if the torture didn’t work.  But because it does work, it becomes a tool the character uses instead of a signifier of the brokenness of the process.

In the last 30 years I think I’ve only ever seen one TV show or movie that has the “good guys” using torture that accurately reflects reality.  Spoilers: season one of Battlestar Galactica , Flesh and Bone, we have a capture Cylon terrorist who claims they have a ticking time bomb.  The good guys torture him for information on where the bomb is and get information–false information.

I don’t know if this is a uniquely American thing, the conviction torture works.  I’m guessing not as it is practiced legally and extra-legally by police around the world. Regardless, US media is swimming in the idea.

In reality, an effective interrogation is much more like “The Closer”.  The interrogator builds a rapport.  They tell the prisoner things to reassure the captive that the interrogator is on their side.  Maybe they get the prisoner something the prisoner shouldn’t have (“a special favor”).  A skillful interrogation more closely models what happens in Stockholm Syndrome where the captive begins to identify with the captor.  In the end, the prisoner turns over information because they want to, not out of fear.  Unlike in “The Closer”, though, this takes time. It also makes for boring television.

This begins my spoiler section of my posting. If you haven’t seen Watchmen and care about spoilers.  STOP.  Stop reading right here.

This brings us back to the problem with Sister Night.  She is a cop who works within a system where torture is deemed acceptable.  She is not a good guy.  Oh, she’s painted as a good person.  We see her as a mother.  Her personal traumas are shared with us in sympathetic ways. We watch her chase down the real bad buys even when they turn out to be the good guys.  We mostly see her out of costume as Angela.

You might say, “What about her conversation with Hooded Justice where he tells her to let go of the anger?”  Yes, that conversation happened.  And certainly Hooded Justice has had his epiphany (not, of course, before murdering people himself).  But did she earn redemption for her evil acts?  Not really.  She simply nods along with Hooded Justice as he completes his character arc.  Despite sharing pre-epiphany memories, his redemption is not hers by default.

Doctor Manhattan warns that anyone who would want his power would be inherentlywatchman egg untrustworthy.  Yet, he gives her the vehicle by which to gain that insane, world smashing power.  The same power she had fought so hard to keep out of the hands of those who would make the world in their own image.  This power is entrusted into the hands of a woman who tortures people for information (and had done so just that night).

I can hope the creators are thinking it through.  Maybe a second season will explore the problem of someone who has spent years running around under a mask, who tortures people for information, and what taking on the terrible and unhealthy power of Doctor Manhattan would do.  That shouldn’t be a good ending.  Yet, our final scene shows Sister Night walking on water like Doctor Manhattan and Jesus.

walk on water

If they don’t, at least you can start approaching depictions of torture with a more critical eye.  When torture is used in media, ask yourself a few quick questions:

  1. Is the torture being depicted as entertainment?
  2. Is the torture being depicted realistically?
  3. Is torture being used to dehumanize the “bad guy”?
  4. Is torture yielding unrealistic results?
  5. Is this a lazy way for a writer to move the plot along quickly?

JustSayNo

Oh, and if someone hands you a raw egg with omnipotent power, just say no.