Mixmas ’15

I stole this idea from, uh, somewhere on the internet. You know how it is. Google’s giving me a bunch of horseshit, so I guess it’s a mystery.

Anyway. It’s 25 songs you heard for the first time this year. Play along at home!

Good albums of 2015

Lady Lamb the Beekeeper – After


Lady Lamb the Beekeeper a.k.a. Lady Lamb a.k.a. Aly Spaltro is pretty obviously an extreme talent. I saw her open for Kaki King a ways back and she clearly commanded attention. Her first album, Ripely Pine, was at least a cut and a half above the heartrending singer-songwriter mold. It was great overall, but one track, “Bird Balloons,” was a wild outlier, a tour de force that somehow did everything at once. After is a much more diverse album on which every track is at that level.

This album is an embarrassment of riches: there’s the tight frenzy of “Violet Clementine,” the ironically hymn-like “Heretic,” the wistfully upbeat “Milk Duds,” the roaring sorrow of “Dear Arkansas Daughter,” and the intensely stoic “Batter,” which takes place entirely in the last second before death. Spaltro has a knack for extracting big emotions out of tiny, even trivial details; “Billions of Eyes” spins an entire narrative thread out of a split-second of eye contract on a train. She’s also got a penchant for tempo shifts that add new dimensions to already great songs.

The fact that someone this talented isn’t hugely famous makes it obvious that we don’t live in a functioning society. On the other hand, fame actually sucks for everyone involved, so it’s better to leave it for the deranged types who care about fame itself, and let people who are actually trying to do something get on with it. But this implies that things are okay the way they are now, and that can’t be right.


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It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home

Okay, I’m done finding this funny:

While using Agrabah as the name of the fake country is amusing and certainly good for mad clickz, it’s actually bad survey design, because it conflates the issues of Islamophobia and support of arbitrary bombing in general. There should have been a second fake country with a non-Middle-Eastern-sounding name to measure the gap. Also, using a recognizable fake country skews the results, because people who get the reference will answer “no” even if they actually do support bombing arbitrary Middle Eastern countries, but again, mad clickz.

Here’s the thing. 57% of Republican respondents were “not sure,” which, in a sense, is a reasonable answer if you don’t recognize that the country is fake. You don’t actually have enough information to decide. It’s not a good answer though, because the only good answer to the question “do you want to kill a bunch of people” is “no” until you have some serious evidence that the “cure” is actually going to be better than the disease (and maybe not even then if you’re like a Kantian or whatever).

And that’s why the liberal response to this, which, as usual, is to point and laugh at conservatives for not understanding a cultural reference, is totally inadequate. Ignorance is not the problem, because ignorance leads you to the “not sure” answer, and that answer is still immoral.

Speaking of which:

So that’s, you know, better, but 19% of Democrats are in favor of killing people for no reason. Still pretty disturbing! Also, the plurality response in both cases was “not sure,” emphasizing how few people actually oppose arbitrary murder on principle.

The real issue here is that concept of “bombing” has become completely detached from the concept of war. Even if you have no idea whether “Agrabah” is a real country or not, you do know that we’re not at war with it, because we’re actually not “at war” with any specific country right now. So what this survey question is actually asking (aside from the very real issue of Islamophobia, which, again, they should have controlled for) is: “do you support attacking a country that we are not at war with?” Which ought to be an unimaginable question.

But, as you know, we live in an unimaginable society. As the very existence of this survey question reveals, bombing is a completely unnotable act within the American political system. There’s only a “debate” when the government wants to start an official war, or at least “send in ground troops.” Bombing just happens whenever the government feels like it. It’s pure banality of evil.

This is the point that Noam Chomsky was trying to get at in his ridiculous undebate with professional C student Sam Harris:

“They are not imbeciles, but rather adopt a stance that is arguably even more immoral than purposeful killing, which at least recognizes the human status of the victims, not just killing ants while walking down the street, who cares?”

That is, we can distinguish between at least a few types of political murder. In one case, a specific target is killed for direct practical reasons, such as the fact that they’re about to commit an attack of their own. This is what the U.S. claims to be doing with its assassination program. In another, many people are killed indiscriminately in order to achieve a political goal, which is what terrorists of all stripes are doing explicitly (by definition, actually). Finally, there is the truly arbitrary murder that is committed for no explicit goal at all, but merely because one is capable of it. This is what the U.S. is actually doing with the drone program, which has only a tiny percentage of “intentional” kills, as well as what we’re talking about any time we talk about “bombing.” This is what that survey question is finally getting at: it’s revealing the number of Americans who support this last type of murder.

But to reduce the debate to whether the U.S. is “more evil” than al-Qaeda or ISIS or whoever is to miss the point. These entities cannot be meaningfully compared because they occupy different structural positions. ISIS does not have the capacity to bomb arbitrary countries, and it’s nonsense to ask what they would do if they did, because if they did have that capacity, they wouldn’t be ISIS. They’d be America.

There are times when the Republican/Democrat distinction matters and times when it doesn’t, and this is one of the latter. Our current drone assassination program has nothing to do with whether or not Obama is a good person and everything to do with the fact that he is the President of the United States. Anyone with the capacity to occupy that office is structurally obliged to implement these sorts of policies. In the same way, any entity with the kind of world-dominating power that the U.S. has will necessarily commit the same atrocities. To believe in a global superpower that does not arbitrarily murder people is to believe in horsemanship and not in horses.


Humans are supposed to learn

do_not_enterColleen Green’s latest album is called I Want to Grow Up, and she’s not kidding. In addition to the fact that it’s a big step forward in terms of both songwriting and content, this is an inspiring, harrowing, exhilarating record that takes the promise of its title and runs with it. But what makes it a real achievement is that, while it may be a surprise, it’s not a departure; it’s an informed extension of her previous work.

For a while, Green’s M.O. was pretty straightforward: drum machine, Ramones guitars, breathy stoner vocals. It’s the kind of music that very much conveys the impression of one person working alone in a bedroom. But her songwriting skill is more then enough to overcome the novelty effect; the apparent simplicity of her approach is just disarming enough to draw you in for a serious engagement. Her previous album, Sock it to Me, brought this approach to its zenith.


The album starts off with a bunch of songs that are relationship-obsessed to a literally unbelievable degree. The opener, “Only One,” hits you right away with its ridiculous chorus: “oh yeah, uh huh, oh god, I really love my boyfriend.” The simplicity almost temps you into taking it at face value, but nobody’s that naive. It’s so over the top that it sort of commands you to figure out what’s really going on. And in fact, a little attention to the lyrics makes things perfectly clear:

My boyfriend is the best

He always knows just what to say to make me less depressed

Oh, uh, that’s nice . . .

And when he tells me that he wants only me

I get so dizzy I stop breathing his love totally kills me

Yeah. What’s happening here isn’t cute; it’s an expose of the viciousness embedded in society’s saccharine conception of relationships. The pop angle is entirely deliberate: this is what you should be hearing in every clueless radio love song.

That’s also why the masking of these songs’ true intent is deliberate. One of the reasons the post-Ramones “wall of sound” effect became ubiquitous is that it’s actually really versatile. It can be used to emphasize the vocals by placing them against a solid backdrop, or it can conceal them by smothering them in the haze. The softness of Green’s singing voice makes this effect even more pronounced. Here, both things happen: the happy choruses come across loud and clear, and you then have to dig for the buried verses to get the full picture. The effect is to portray a situation where the obvious surface meaning contradicts what’s really going on.

This continues through “Darkest Eyes,” which similarly starts off cute:

My boyfriend’s got the darkest eyes you’ve ever seen

Darker than midnight on Halloween

Then gets unnerving:

I tell him every day he’s the only one I wanna see

And his eyes look right through me

And finally settles on scary:

There’s no better way to keep appearances preserved

A razor to an optical nerve

This all makes the double meaning of the album’s title painfully clear:

When you say you love me

You know it’s music to me

And then you sock it to me

But this isn’t generic criticism. It’s coming from a particular perspective, which is what the second half of the album illuminates.

The appropriately dramatic transition starts with “Heavy Shit,” which isn’t just about, you know, what it says in the title, but specifically deals with the process of becoming informed of the fact that there are more serious things going on than your own relationship drama. Of course, as previously, the naivete here is feigned. It’s making the point that this is something that everyone has to deal with on a daily basis, that we are dealing with it, even though what seems like escapism.

“Every Boy Wants a Normal Girl” takes a turn towards theory. Despite the title, the song is not actually about relationships; it’s about the simultaneous loathing and longing we all feel toward the concept of normalcy (“doesn’t everyone, sometimes?”). “Normal” girls are “like the ones on TV,” i.e. they don’t exist. But that doesn’t stop people from acting as though normalcy was a real thing, from doing what they think everyone else thinks they’re supposed to do.

The catch is that you can’t just reject the script; if everyone else is operating under a certain set of assumptions, rejecting those assumptions means giving up on relating to anyone else. In relationship terms, it means giving up on love. Humanity’s highest value, the thing that’s supposed to transcend everything, is actually completely dependent on the mundane conditions of everyday life.

And this is where we start to get a handle on the album’s perspective. It’s looking at things as an engaged outsider, someone who’s nobody’s fool but has to play the fool in order to get along. She’s not willing to give up on love for the sake of consistency; she genuinely desires things she knows are ridiculous. This perspective is what creates the album’s odd duality of naivete and incisiveness.

Despite being the second to last song, “Taxi Driver” is the album’s core. It’s the song that finally provides a solid standpoint from which everything else can be understood.

I wanna be a taxi driver

That’s assuredly the career for me

The kind of job I could have forever

I wouldn’t have to talk to anybody

Of course, this doesn’t make sense; a taxi driver obviously does have to talk to people all the time. That’s why it’s a fantasy. And the fact that someone fantasizes about not having to talk to people means they’re an introvert, and that, finally, is what motivates the album’s approach: the tension between selfhood and social pressure. But this comes with the understanding that social pressure isn’t just a bad influence that you can push away, it’s a real thing that actually allows you to engage with other people. So the fact that it’s one or the other is actually an impossible choice.

The complicating factor here is that we don’t really have a social script that allows women to be introverts. It isn’t just relationships, either, it’s everything. Women are consistently expected to be emotional managers and to put their own needs second in all areas of life, and this makes it impossible for someone who doesn’t define themselves by their relationships with others to both engage with society and maintain their own identity. And this isn’t something you can just reject, either, unless you’re willing to give up on actually being able to relate to other people, at all. The lyrics finally break the metaphor in order to make the situation explicit: “sometimes I think I’m better off alone.”

And it’s on this dispiriting note that the album ends. Not only does “Taxi Driver” seem to conclude that selfhood necessitates loneliness, but the closer, “Number One,” makes an even more disturbing concession. (I was surprised to find out that this song is a cover, since it bookends the album so perfectly. I also wouldn’t have thought it to have been written by a man.) Here, the singer seems to weigh the scales and come to the conclusion that her only option is to give up her own self-definition. She resigns herself to accepting second place in her own life.

Luckily, this is a blatant contradiction. You can’t really write music about how you’re not expressing yourself. And the fact that this music is clearly written and performed primarily by one person heightens the contradiction. Even if the situation really is intractable, her response to it is still her own.

But this sort of approach ultimately amounts to wallowing; there’s never really nothing you can do. It’s important not be be naive, but cynicism is not an excuse for inaction. Accepting that you still have to do your best even though you know you’ll never be able to get what you want is part of what it means to grow up.


And that’s why I Want to Grow Up starts off with a bang. Not only has the sound been fleshed out with a full band, but the singsong pop vocals have been replaced with a wordier style and more varied delivery. This has contradictory effects: the fuller sound makes the songs feel more open and less claustrophobic, but the ambling, drawn-out lyrics have a very personal, stream-of-consciousness feel.

The album begins very officially, with the title track belting out an unmistakable statement of intent. There’s not much room to misunderstand what’s going on this time. This, along with the new style, makes it seem like the album is starting out by clearing the slate.

But straightforward doesn’t mean simplistic. The signer is not “resigning” herself to responsibility, she’s realizing that she needs to be responsible in order to get the things she actually wants. Despite the more open tone, there’s still a level of irony here. Just as Sock it to Me pretends to be a bunch of simplistic pop sings, a lot of the stuff on this album cues an “obvious” reading of the subject matter that is actually being subverted. For example, the singer here says “I’ve had my fun” and “I think I need a schedule,” but the reason for this is that she’s “sick of always being bored.” This contradiction deliberately problematizes the standard framing of “immaturity” as reckless hedonism and “adulthood” as boring responsibility. The truth is that neither of these constructions holds up: being responsible for something that matters is not boring, and hedonism actually sucks.

The rest of the album follows through on this complication. The direct follow-up to the title track is the two-part “Things That Are Bad for Me.” The first part takes the commitment and moves forward with a strong, steady rhythm that gives it a sense of surefootedness. The bold, wordy lyrics contain everything necessary to pull off a plan of self-improvement: “rid myself of toxicity,” “start listening to my own advice,” “change when things are going wrong.” The catch is that everything here is presented as obvious; the singer already knows what she has to do, so there shouldn’t be a problem. “It shouldn’t be that hard.” And yet.

The second part brutally transitions into the exact opposite: pure, useless self-pity. The transition between the two songs is instantaneous but unmistakable, like suddenly seeing the world through a negative filter. Downshifting from upbeat to slow and plodding, the second part falls from the heights of optimism and crashes straight into the gutter: “I wanna get fucked up, I don’t care how.”

The two-part song structure brilliantly illustrates the fundamental connection between these two perspectives. It isn’t just that we sometimes (always) fail to live up to our ideals, it’s that the very act of attempting to do so is what causes us to fail. It’s precisely the anxiety of knowing what we have to do that freaks us out so bad that we plunge back into our worst habits – things that we know are bad for us. “Kick another habit, find another replacement.”

But the negativity here actually goes deeper than that. Specifically, it goes deeper than love.

In addition to being really, really amazing, this song is the black hole at the center of this album. It’s a revelation of the album’s motivating anxieties, the things that you specifically attempt to avoid by talking about other, easier stuff instead. The simple rhythm and solid, engaging bass line create a undercurrent of tension that colors the soft vocals, turning their normally detached quality into an engaged fearfulness. This gives the lyrics the powerful sense of an internal monologue, making it seem like they really are coming from the part of yourself that you try to ignore.

The lyrics really run the gamut, imparting a sort of panic attack aspect, but they center around the fear of intimacy. This is more than just psychological, it’s grounded in material conditions: the social constructions that forcibly organize our lives and the hard limits of biology. The knowledge of all this impossibility adds up to a paralyzing fear. The lyrics specifically contrast actual death with the inherent self-negation of intimacy to make the point that the latter is worse, that some of us would rather die than let go of ourselves.

Unfortunately, there’s a solution: “remove the brain and leave the body in charge.” If the problem is that intimacy can’t be reconciled with selfhood, then the self doesn’t need to be involved at all. We can take a purely functional approach to relationships – and to everything else. We can interact with others on a purely “scientific” basis: accept their inputs and provide the correct outputs. We can act out our roles, and keep track of what works and what doesn’t work, and do all the things that normal people are supposed to do, and none of it has to affect our actual selves in any way. From a certain perspective, this is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

And despite the psychological aspect, there’s ultimately nothing idiosyncratic about this. It’s precisely where we’re going as a society. We’re rapidly gaining the ability to manage our lives and interactions to a degree that makes spontaneity untenable. It’s become so easy to just “follow the data” that we don’t even bother trying to figure things out anymore. As an obvious and appropriately banal example, we can talk with a straight face about how a piece of “content” is going to “perform” totally irrespective of what (if anything) it’s actually about. We’ve given up on meaning and settled for efficacy. We’re all functionalists now.

The horrifying line that opens this song makes it seem like a shocking departure, but it’s actually saying the same thing we saw earlier in “Only One,” it’s just no longer cute. Thus, it’s crucial to understand that this song is an outlier only in terms of intensity; it’s coming from the same place as everything else. In the same way, many of the songs on I Want to Grow Up reprise the themes of Sock it to Me from a different angle.

Most obviously, “Wild One” is a callback to the first album’s focus on relationships (the form of the title is the same as the bookends from Sock it to Me). In keeping with the “new beginning” theme of the opener, this song seems to be saying goodbye to that old approach in order to start moving forward. But the tone is largely regretful; it doesn’t imply a clean break. The singer hasn’t actually moved on, she just doesn’t have any choice other than to give up.

What this means is that the relationship angle hasn’t actually been let go. It’s been sublimated; it’s part of what this album is talking about. It notably comes up in both parts of “Things That Are Bad for Me.” In Part I, as part of the song’s positive affirmations, “the first thing I’ll do is get away and stay from you,” and in Part II, as part of the bad habits the singer regresses to, “I really wish you were here right now.” There aren’t two separate issues here, there’s one situation.

The focus on introversion from “Taxi Driver” returns on “TV” and “Pay Attention,” which are ironically the most accessible and fun songs on the album. The contrast on “Pay Attention” is particularly hilarious: it’s extremely upbeat, practically a party song, but it’s about not being able to hold up your end of a conversation. And the irony here is significant: both songs act cute when they’re actually deeply negative. Not only that, but the negativity is explicitly banal. The big promises articulated in the opener end up being ground down by the pettiest possible forces.

“TV” is a reverse feint. Everything about it cues an ironic reading; it deliberately buys in to every cliche about TV’s vapidity. The singer uses TV as a substitute for social interaction, comforts herself with it because it’s “easier than being with somebody else,” and can only relate to other people by mediating those relationships through TV. But none of this is the point, because the song isn’t actually about TV. The lyrics use the word “TV,” but they never actually say anything about it; it’s all “I” statements about the singer’s emotional state. This is why the ironic reading is wrong: like the rest of the album, this song is completely straightforward. By refusing any sort of defensive posture, the song takes the “debate” over TV out of the realm of moral hyperventilating and overwrought theory and brings it back to the personal level, where it should have been in the first place.

And this is why the banality of the subject matter is intentional, because it provides an important grounding to the emotional content. “Pay Attention” in particular is about small talk, which is literally the most banal thing. But the problem wth banality is precisely that you can’t just ignore it, it’s stuff that you actually have to deal with. Part of getting serious means working on the basics – the very basics. Sometimes you really do have to make a conscious effort just to pay attention, even when it seems like it’s “just as well” if you don’t bother.

The longing for normalcy from “Every Boy Wants a Normal Girl” is picked up by “Some People,” which again takes a more theoretical stance. It has a focus on superficiality that recalls the terrible conclusion of “Deeper Than Love”: everything would be fine if we could just get over ourselves and do what we’re supposed to. This is why all the details mentioned in the song are, again, totally banal: it’s a way to “fit in” without compromising anything about your real self, to do things “empirically.” If the introvert’s paradox is that holding on too strongly to your sense of self allows the outside world to define you as it pleases, then the resolution is to strategically give in to the world’s demands while keeping your self-definition to yourself.

But what motivates the wistful quality of the song (as well as the sarcastic dig implied by the title) is that acting this way is obviously impossible. This provides a sort of failsafe: it’s actually really hard to do what seems like really basic stuff to fit in when that stuff goes against your self-conception. If we accept that this sort of “empiricism” is one of the great dangers of our time, then the intransigence of the self, the very thing that makes our desires seem impossible to fulfill, becomes a sort of saving grace.

Finally, “Grind My Teeth” takes “Heavy Shit” and makes it even heavier. Actually, this results in an odd inversion: the title of “Heavy Shit” is partially a joke; it’s denotatively serious while referring to the fact that the song itself is kind of goofy, while “Grind My Teeth” takes a seemingly cutesy title and turns it into serious fucking business. The thrashy sections at the beginning and end of the song are connected by a slow-burning middle that creates a deeply unnerving tension through the apocalyptic imagery of a destroyed human face.

More to the point, this song actually connects the dots. It starts off by providing what seems like an easy interpretive out:

Can’t help but picture you with

Someone other than me

Such a sickening image

It makes me grind my teeth

Then the dramatic tempo shift presages a refocusing of the subject matter:

Fragile teeth bear the pressure

Of a generation failing

Which confirms, if you hadn’t already noticed, that nothing here is escapist or self-pitying, it’s all borne out of a deep concern for the present situation. Finally, the hard-rocking beginning is reprised at the end, but with the content shift intact:

They wanna wire my brain

And try to control me

The sad fate of my planet

It makes me grind my teeth

This construction explicitly links the relationship angle to serious concerns about the world, spinning the breadth of subjects on both albums into a single tight braid. The buried anxieties from “Deeper Than Love” are what motivate the behaviors described in all the other songs, and the reason all of this matters is because it actually determines the fate of humanity. I mean, let’s not beat around the bush, the cause of global warming is patriarchy. A man beating his wife is the same thing as a robber baron dumping pollutants into a river. It’s not just that our relationships are central to our experience as human beings, it’s that the way we conceptualize relationships is the same as the way we conceptualize all of our other issues, from everything as big as the physical planet to as small as our subjective selves. This, for example, is why the banal subject matter of “Pay Attention” actually matters: how do you expect to do anything about the state of the world when you can’t even handle one person?

And this is when Colleen Green plays the ace up her sleeve. The real surprise is that the album ends on a note of unambiguous, inspiring optimism in “Whatever I Want.” The seemingly bratty title is important for the contrast it draws. The first and last tracks on this album are both based on childish statements – caring about what counts as “adult” is a characteristic of children; wanting to grow up demonstrates that you’re not there yet – but again, the standard framing for this is wrong: “growing up” doesn’t mean giving up on what you want, it means doing what you want for real. Just as the album begins with a conventional sentiment employed in an unconventional way, so does the ending take a seemingly petty perspective and turn it into something deeply mature. It brushes off the anxiety and insecurity of the rest of the album for a cool, clear statement of purpose. Amazingly, after an exhaustive description of why there doesn’t seem to be anything that can be done, the conclusion is that what we can actually do is anything.

But this shouldn’t be a surprise, because we’ve already seen that the strength of the self really is all it’s cracked up to be. There really is “no reason to conform” and no obligation to “take advice from fools.” There’s ultimately no such thing as compromise; with our everyday actions, we continually create the situation that we have to live with. This is the fundamental insight that opens up the possibility of transcendence: “the world I live in’s a design of my own.” Being an adult means accepting this responsibility. And “now, more than ever before,” this is the necessary response to an irresponsible society, one that pretends to be sober and serious, but is in fact run by children.

Limits and limitations

This may be slightly outside my area of analytical competence, but it’s sort of bothering me, so here we go.

Here’s Lily LaBeau describing how James Deen assaulted her:

“At one point in the scene, Deen grabbed a cattle prod, a shocking device that is sometimes used in kink, and held it near her head. LaBeau said the device was on her ‘no’ list and that Deen was well aware of it. ‘The cattle prod makes me go into complete panic,’ she said. ‘When you pull it out, I’m done, I’m scared, I’m crying, I can’t think.’

. . .

While his foot was in her mouth, she said, ‘I just remember him taking his hand really far back and then just hitting me hard. Hard. Like, too hard,’ she said. ‘I heard and felt an almost crack in my ear, from my ear down to my chin. I couldn’t close my mouth.’

. . .

‘I honestly don’t remember what happened after that,’ she said. ‘I’m still dealing with trauma from it. Even talking about it right now, little tears come to my eyes.’ LaBeau later added, ‘Even to this day, certain people holding my head a certain way will bring up a lot of trauma and cause me to start crying.'”

What was notable about the Cosby allegations was the consistency of his M.O.; America’s goofy dad turned out to be a classic predator. What’s notable about the Deen allegations is that they all describe different situations, but they evidence a consistent motivation. Deen is clearly the type of person who gets off on knowingly violating boundaries (with the awareness of the victim that this is what’s happening). The enlightened cool dude turned out to be a class-A creeper.

(Fun fact: living cautionary tale Hugo Schwyzer once had Deen deliver a guest lecture to one of his classes. Birds of a feather flock together.)

[Update 2: Here’s an informative article explaining what the actual deal with Deen’s fanbase is/was. I didn’t talk about the Deen-as-alleged-feminist thing here because I didn’t actually know what was going on, but this pretty much clears it up.]

Of course, in neither case should this have been a surprise. Cosby was a patriarch through and through; his show was sexist entirely apart from his personal behavior (as is generally the case with family sitcoms. Family structure is a microcosm of social structure). It’s the same deal with Deen: the fact that he’s primarily known for making rape porn is bad enough without his let’s say “cavalier” attitude towards the subject.

That link includes the hypothesis that Deen was a “missing stair;” that is, his rapism was a known issue that everyone ignored because it would have been too much of a bother for them to have done anything about it. Given Deen’s apparent ubiquity, this is almost certainly the case, but it’s insufficient as analysis. It amounts to bad apple-ing him.

Here, for example, is Joanna Angel:

“Angel brought a notebook with her to the show with notes she had about the relationship, clarifying that Deen’s behavior ‘does not represent porn; this represents a specific individual.’”

LaBeau disagrees:

“LaBeau emphasized multiple times that she believed this incident should be used as evidence that the industry needs better safeguards to protect performers, not just to condemn Deen. ‘The thing is, James isn’t the only one who’s crossed boundaries,’ she said. ‘James is the one that was the worst, but there’s been other ones. It’s not just James and that’s the problem.’”

The swiftness of the retribution against Deen may seem heartening, but it’s actually suspicious. Not that it’s a bad thing; it’s actually completely amazing that a sex worker can go on Twitter, accuse a successful, popular man of rape and get instant results, especially since this is a new development that has occurred within the past 10 years. The problem is that the current dynamic allows everyone to take the correct, socially approved set of actions (hashtag solidarity), wash their hands of the issue, and change nothing. In particular, the fact that Kink.com dropped Deen immediately is cause for extreme eyebrow-raising. This is a popular actor who’s done tons of work for the company, and they axe him on the basis of one accusation? Doesn’t this suggest rather strongly that Kink.com was already aware of the problem, that dropping Deen was a deliberate attempt to get positive press ahead of the news cycle, knowing that the floodgates had been opened? Indeed, doesn’t this attempt to save face indicate Kink.com’s recognition of its own culpability?

[Update: corroborating evidence. Not that this was a hard call or anything.]

Which is to say that LaBeau is correct. Consider the context in which she was assaulted:

“In a later incident, LaBeau was performing in a scene for Kink.com’s Upper Floor, a live-streaming BDSM group sex series. LaBeau was the star of the scene, the conceit of which was that she was being initiated as a sex slave; there were several other female performers involved, as well as multiple male performers and a number of people simply in attendance watching. LaBeau and Pierce, who was also performing, said Deen was not scheduled to perform in the scene, but that he began to participate.”

Isn’t this pretty clearly a lit match/powder keg type of situation? Is it at all probable that someone like Deen wasn’t going to push boundaries here? And let’s be clear: LaBeau was doing her job; she was no more free to say “fuck this, I’m out” than you are when your boss starts swinging his dick at you.

“Pierce said he asked LaBeau why she had greeted Deen politely in the first place and she responded that she saw him all the time, since he got so much work, and didn’t want him ‘getting pissed off.’ According to Pierce, when he then asked her why she agreed to the impromptu filming with Deen, she responded, ‘I didn’t, he just picked up the stuff and I didn’t want to make a scene.’”

This is why the “missing stair” angle is not good enough: the problem is not individual behavior; indeed, the supportive response to the accusations indicates that we’re actually doing a good job on that front. The problem is institutional incentives.

“It was supposed to be a regular boy/girl sex scene (anal was one of her ‘no’s’), but her co-star apparently had other plans. ‘James [Deen] kept trying to get inside my ass but I kept pushing him away, so he choked me, then he slammed my face down into the couch and forced himself in my ass anyway,’ says Peters. ‘The crew all high-fived him and told him what a great job he did getting an anal scene for the price of a boy/girl scene.’”

Yes, these are bad people. But the problem isn’t that they think rape is a good thing, the problem is that they don’t care, they’re just happy that they got a good scene out of it. They’re happy to have done a good job.

Of course, there are Serious Official Policies in place for preventing this sort of thing:

“When shooting a scene, performers and the director typically set boundaries and expectations for all individuals before filming. Particularly in BDSM, for which actors are often involved in pain play and seemingly aggressive acts, these boundaries help to keep the cast safe and ensure that their limits are respected. Prior to a scene, an actress might, for example, indicate parts of her body where slapping or flogging is off limits or what specific sex acts she consents to—often she does so on a physical checklist that is given to performers on-set.”

So official. Much checklist. Note that the assumption here is that the male performer is going to be as much of an asshole as possible, and it is the woman’s responsibility to articulate each individual action that is “off limits.” Recall that in LaBeau’s scene, a cattle prod, which was on her “no list,” just happened to be present and available for Deen to use (also, maybe I’m a prude, but: a cattle prod? Really?). Indeed, the “no list” concept itself precisely illustrates the problem: the industry creates a maximally dangerous situation for its female performers, and then puts the onus on them to defend themselves. We’re in a situation where women actually have to say “don’t electrocute me.” This is not an accident. It is a natural limitation of the consent standard.

In an ideal world, consent would imply mutuality. But the fact that we don’t live in a world where men and women can engage each other on equal terms is sort of fundamental to the whole “feminism” idea. In the world we actually live in, consent implies acquiescence.

Crucially, this applies even to the stronger standard of informed consent. Again, ideally, an active “yes” to a sexual encounter would indicate real desire. But in the world we actually live in, women are expected to cater to men’s desires. Women are expected to be “cool,” to not “make a scene,” to be emotional managers who consistently put their own feelings second. Because of this, informed consent is a mere improvement that retains the consent standard’s fundamental flaw: a “yes” can be coerced.

We need to quit patting ourselves on the back for meeting basic standards of human decency and realize that we’ve entrenched ourselves in a fully defensive position. The true standard of justice is mutuality: the condition in which all participants do not merely accept what is happening, but actively will it. As I’m sure you realize, this requires a complete rehabilitation of the way we conceptualize sexuality. Despite everything that’s happened, we’re still very much stuck in the “man fucks woman: subject verb object” framework. And porn, particularly in the absence of substantive sex education, is the primary vector for reproducing this ideology.

The second wave feminist critique of porn has fallen entirely out of vogue, which is the right conclusion, but it happened for the wrong reasons. We’re all aware by now that the “ban all porns” approach is a non-starter. You can’t really ban a mode of expression. More than that, you can’t fix anything by just identifying the “bad things” and getting rid of them. Ideas have an inconvenient stickiness; having come into being, they rarely die out completely. The only workable approach to dealing with bad concepts is redemption. You have to engage them in order to transform them into something that’s compatible with justice.

This may strike you as exactly what’s happening with porn right now. To an extent, that’s true; like I said, the right conclusion was reached for the wrong reasons. The errors in the second wave approach were tactical, but they’ve been taken as foundational. Second wave feminists were not prudes, they had an actual critique of porn, which was that it reflected and reproduced patriarchal ideology regarding sexuality. This is still the case, and it’s what is missing from the current discourse.

What this means is that there’s a world of difference between engagement and naive engagement. Ideas are powerful. Anyone participating in the porn industry (including consumers) is necessarily going to end up reproducing its ideology. It doesn’t really matter how much of a feminist you are when the institutional logic of your situation is against you. Again, this does not mean that asceticism is the only option. It means that any engagement not backed up by a substantive critical framework is doomed. This is a battle, and we need to be armed.

Obviously, this doesn’t just apply to porn. It applies to everything. Naive engagement is perhaps the great failing of our current era. Feminists have been doing a spectacular job in recent years of rejecting the flawed approaches of their predecessors – too spectacular. It’s becoming increasingly clear that we’ve been throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Feel the burn

The AP fact-checked all the presidential candidates on global warming. The results are exactly what you’d expect; the only important thing to note is that this has nothing to do with “scientific literacy” and everything to do with pandering. Clinton got the highest score because she’s currently pandering the hardest to establishment liberals; Cruz got the lowest score because he’s currently pandering the hardest to the know-nothing crowd. None of these people are actually going to do anything about the issue.

Aside from that, though, there’s something a little disturbing in the perspective of the scientists who performed the review. Sanders lost points for the following statement:

“The scientific community is telling us that if we do not address the global crisis of climate change, transform our energy system away from fossil fuel to sustainable energy, the planet that we’re going to be leaving our kids and our grandchildren may well not be habitable.”

This is apparently an “overstatement,” which I guess is technically true. There will probably still be a few places on the planet that are actually livable. Given the situation, though, it’s hard to argue that a little hyperbole isn’t justified.

Here are the scientists’ criticisms of this statement:

Dessler said, “I would not say that the planet will become uninhabitable. Regardless of what we do, some humans will survive.” Harvard’s Jim McCarthy also called the comment an overstatement, as did other scientists when Sanders said it. Recent research on the worst heat projections in the hottest area, the Persian Gulf, finds that toward the end of the century there will be a few days each decade or so when humans cannot survive outside, but can live with air conditioning indoors.

Talk about cold comfort. “Some” humans will still survive, probably! It will only occasionally be impossible for people to go outside! Like, I get it. The planet is not literally going to go up in flames, and it is important to have an accurate understanding of the specific things that are going to happen. But what’s actually disturbing here is the bit about air conditioning.

It’s disturbing because it reflects an assumption that we’ll be able to do an effective job of ameliorating the consequences of global warming, even though right now we aren’t doing shit to actually prevent it. Recall that not everyone has access to air conditioning under current circumstances, even in America. The scientists here are considering the worst-case scenario, but assuming a best-case response to it. This assumption is not justified.

Our collective failure to do anything about global warming has two root causes. The obvious one is that humans are terrible at long-term planning, especially when there short-term benefits to be had by ignoring it. Not much more needs to be said about this. But there’s another problem that gets much less attention, despite how fundamental it is to everything that’s wrong with society: humans care more about their relative status than their absolute status.

This fact explains how we got into this mess in the first place. It wouldn’t really be that hard for rich fucks to create a stable, sustainable society, given the sort of resources they have at hand. It would, of course, cost them a lot of money, but they’d get a lot out of it: there wouldn’t be any railing against the 1%, they wouldn’t have to bother controlling the political process or hiring mercenaries to shut down protesters, etc. Economic activity could be redirected toward more improvements in technology and medicine, which would benefit rich fucks the most even as they also benefited everyone else. Furthermore, this wouldn’t be much of a sacrifice in practical terms, since no one can actually use the amount of money these people have. They could spend like 90% of their wealth on this and still maintain their ridiculous standards of living. They’d just be normally obscenely wealthy instead of obscenely obscenely wealthy.

And that’s the problem. Being unfathomably richer than everyone else is what actually motivates these people. In other words, what they care about is their relative status. It isn’t just rich fucks either; everyone is like this. For example, this is why poor white people can be persuaded to abandon their class interests in favor of white supremacy: it gives them someone to look down on. If they united with poor black people, they could make themselves better off in absolute terms, but then they’d all be together on the bottom; poor white people would be worse off in relative terms.

So this is why pollution happens: people are willing to destroy their environment to gain a competitive advantage over their neighbors, even though they all have to live together in the same destroyed environment (note that “competitive advantage” is the actual term used in business). But that’s not all. This is also why global warming is going to get worse before it gets worse.

Everyone assumes that once really bad things starts happening, we’ll all get serious and start doing something about it. But if we aren’t doing anything now, why would we start once it gets harder to do so? Indeed, the opposite is true: as the overall situation worsens, there will be more to gain from minor competitive advantages; fossil fuels will become more valuable in a situation where fewer people have access to them. Ergo, people will keep burning them, and things will keep getting worse. And that will be humanity’s epitaph: we chose to be rulers of a wasteland rather than citizens of a decent society.

And Sanders isn’t going to do anything about this either. Here he is playing coy in Rolling Stone:

. . . His [Eugene V. Debs’] vision is a vision that I share.

Including an “overthrow of the capitalist system”?
No, no, no. Now you’re being provocative. If you follow my campaign, have you heard me talk about overthrowing the capitalist economic system?

I mean, obviously. The guy is running for President of Capitalism. What else is he going to say?

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been consistently impressed by Sanders (excluding his position on gun control). I wouldn’t have thought the Democratic Party was capable of fielding this good of a candidate [update: in the least surprising turn of events ever, it turns out they’re not]. But in this case, “good” isn’t good enough, because “overthrowing the capitalist economic system” is the one and only thing that can stop global warming.

This is old news by now, but the amount of oil that is currently owned is about five times more than enough to push us over the brink. In order to avoid catastrophe, this oil must not be burned. But for the owners, this is equivalent to burning the amount of money that the oil is worth. This will never happen. This is also why “clean energy” isn’t going to do shit: the oil is already owned, so burning it in addition to using clean energy sources will still provide a competitive advantage, so it will still happen even in an ideal situation where there’s enough solar power to provide free energy for everyone. And, as mentioned, as things get worse, the incentives to use these resources will only increase. The only solution is for the government (that is, all the governments) to buy up or otherwise appropriate all of this oil and keep it in the ground.

And of course, this isn’t a one time thing. Even if some miracle invention fixes global warming (n.b. not happening), the incentives that caused the problem will still be in place. There will eventually be some other technology that destabilizes our environment in the same way, and the same thing will happen again.

It’s usually a sort of saving grace that our ruling class is totally incompetent. As Machiavelli pointed out when he wrote The Prince, just because someone happens to meet the current criteria for being a member of the ruling class doesn’t mean they actually know shit about ruling. And this is great, because the fact that there’s no master plan is what allows the rest of us to make our own lives in the cracks of the system. A competent ruling class would have already undermined us all so thoroughly that I wouldn’t even be able to conceive of any of the stuff in this post. In this case, though, it might be worth the tradeoff.