Author Archives: Keith Spencer

Stand Your Ground Laws in a Galaxy Far, Far Away

warning: some mild Star Wars: The Force Awakens spoilers follow.

Even before its release, Star Wars: The Force Awakens was the subject of both critical praise (and racist hate) for its multicultural cast. But while the seventh chapter of Star Wars has been lauded for appearing more inclusive, the film ultimately suffers from some of the deeply conservative, even subtly racist tropes inherent to most big budget action movies—the same kinds of flimsy hero logic that provide the moral justification for racist “Stand your Ground” laws across many US states.

Stormtrooper image

Do stormtroopers have humanity behind the mask, or can they be murdered without mercy?

To understand this connection, let’s start with a recent article about Star Wars written by Aaron Bady in The New Inquiry. Bady writes:

[Finn the Stormtrooper’s] psychology makes no sense at all if you think even a little bit […] there’s something extremely unsettling about how easily he shrugs off a lifetime of indoctrination into a fascist death-cult, how quickly and painlessly he becomes one of the guys, just basically a good dude. […] Where is the ideological indoctrination (and psychological scar tissue) that would have accompanied being crassly made into biopower and canon-fodder?

Bady doesn’t quite go so far as to touch on the allegory of Finn-as-slave, though it seems like the filmmakers are rubbing it in our face. Finn (John Boyega) is a “rebel” stormtrooper who describes having been stolen from his family as a child to serve in the despotic First Order—a series of events that, in our own galaxy, we’d be apt to call “slavery.” The Star Wars movies have touched on slavery before—recall Darth Vader (formerly Anakin Skywalker) was a child slave, although as a white character serving an alien master, his character lacked the symbolic thrust held by a black character like Finn. (“Do race and racism exist in the Star Wars universe as they do in ours?” is a wholly different question, and one that is never really examined with any satisfaction). Continue reading

Does this study prove SFBARF’s mission is puke?

You’ve probably heard the urban planning acronym NIMBY, which stands for Not In My Backyard. Often used in a pejorative sense (as in nimbyism), the word recalls the political sentiments of neighborhood groups—nominally, wealthier ones with more clout—to cease any local development or change whatsoever, regardless of social benefit. The term could be applied, for instance, to Marin County’s perpetual efforts to stop BART from running through their county (much-needed 40 years ago when first proposed) —motivated by racist fears of diluting their lily-white demographic.

Then there’s SFBARF, a citizen activist group that promotes YIMBYism—the counterfactual to NIMBY, i.e. a philosophy of “Yes In My Backyard.” A punk-sounding acronym for “San Francisco Bay Area Renter’s Federation,” SFBARF advocates for building more luxury homes and condos as a way of reducing the housing crunch on middle- and lower-income households in the Bay Area. To that end, they travel around the Bay Area and attend city council meetings, lobbying on behalf of developers.

Condo illustration

Illustration by Naomi Rosenberg.

Does that sound confusing? Here’s the economic logic: lots of rich people want to move to the Bay Area, and they don’t necessarily want to live in poorer neighborhoods—but, they will if that’s all they can find. Better to keep building condos and luxury high-rises in wealthy areas, so as to keep the poor and middle-income neighborhoods for those who need them most.

Yet many Bay Area activists have called for SFBARF’s head, claiming that they’re a “faux-grassroots” group that only encourages developers, and poses as progressive. Is there any basis to that claim? Continue reading

The Liberal Line

Why do privileged liberals care more about property damage than black lives?

By Keith Spencer with Teddy Roland and Shaimaa A.

“Riots,” wrote Martin Luther King Jr., “are the language of the unheard.” King is one of many civil rights radicals whose politics have been rewritten, his memory whittled into a sanitized, non-threatening corporate version fit for a Google Doodle. Liberals remember that he had a dream, even if they forget his sermons on sanitation worker strikes. Continue reading

The Stars, Our Destination?

Is interstellar space travel a Western, colonialist fantasy?

considered:
Interstellar (2014)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Bill Irwin, and Ellen Burstyn

space colony

Illustration by Naomi Cogan Rosenberg

The collective consciousness of Wikipedia, in their plot summary of Interstellar, wrote1 that the film’s version of the USA depicts an “agrarian, stateless society.” In Nolan’s not-so-distant-future, America is ravaged by Dust Bowl-size superstorms, crop failures are abundant, and Big Government is a thing of the past—indeed, there’s hardly any government at all, save an allusion to a “federal” textbook. In this world, where the conspiratorial, anti-government pundits seem to have won, the moon landings are widely regarded to have been faked. (Professional conspiracy-mongerers like Alex Jones and Glenn Beck have reason to smile at this.) Continue reading

Nero Fiddles, Man Burns

Silicon Valley’s Great Be-In

by Keith Spencer

In 1965, on the cusp of the counterculture movement, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organized the first “teach-in” at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. In contrast to a lecture or symposium, the teach-in was oriented towards action; indeed, SDS’s goal was to teach about Vietnam and organize students against the war. Remarkably, thousands attended the teach-in, yet this paled in comparison to the tens of thousands who turned up a few months later at Berkeley for an anti-war teach-in that included a range of intellectual luminaries, including Norman Mailer, I.F. Stone and Alan Watts. Continue reading

Superheroes & Ideology: FilmFront Episode #1

What do superhero films tell us about American culture? How do the ideas in superhero movies inform our beliefs about society, individualism, gender and power?

Join PopFront’s resident critic, Keith Spencer, in this video article about cultural politics and superhero blockbusters—the first of the occasional FilmFront series.

Marxist Mixtape: V.I.P. – “Buut Wallz”

A quick survey of the most memorable lines from nineties hip-hop is enough to confirm that the dominant hip-hop culture at the time was saturated with a normalized sexism. “B*tches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks” growled Dr. Dre on 1992’s The Chronic; growing up in the nineties, I recall hearing children repeat this during middle school P.E. long before I ever actually heard the song. Likewise, Snoop Dogg’s motto/anthem “G’z Up, Hoes Down” was so embedded that these words were frequently etched onto bathroom stalls at the same school.

One notable response to the industry culture was Lil’ Kim’s 2000 song “Suck My Dick,” an aggressive ur-feminist reaction to the breed of mainstream hip-hop culture that glorifies sexism and objectifies women. On “Suck My Dick,” Lil’ Kim delivers a harsh response in the same vein as the sexist lyrical mode she emulates. She pulls out all the same tropes—glorification of her genitals (“Imagine if I was dude and hittin’ cats from the back/ With no strings attached / Yeah n***a, picture that! / I treat y’all n***as like y’all treat us”) and demands of oral sex and money (“All I wanna do is get my pussy sucked / Count a million bucks in the back of an armored truck”). Continue reading

Marxist Mixtape: Michael Smith and Mark Fischer – “Go For it Mike” (1984)

Long before Tim & Eric made a career out of avant-garde parodies of commercial culture, American video artist Michael Smith cultivated an alternative persona to do just the same.  Meet “Mike,” the lovably simple, middlebrow hero of Smith’s ongoing (now decades-long) series of art videos, “Mike’s World.” In Smith’s own words, “Mike” is “a modern-day Candide,” perennially confused and overwhelmed by technology, glued to routine and infinitely suggestible. He is, in other words, the perfect consumer, naïve enough to be molded by whatever advertisement or scrap floats his way.

In the inaugural (and my favorite) video from the “Mike’s World” series, “Secret Horror,” we are treated to scenes of Mike whining over spilling his bridge mix (his favorite snack), being overwhelmed by appliances that gnaw at his attention, and getting abducted by sheet-wearing ghosts—themselves manifestations of the ghosts in the television to which he is addicted. Continue reading

Allen Ginsberg: “The Ballad of the Skeletons”

Featuring Paul McCartney, Lenny Kaye and Philip Glass
Mercury Records
Music video directed by Gus Van Sant

In 1995, two years prior to his death, poet Allen Ginsberg published “Ballad of the Skeletons” in The Nation magazine. The poem, a scathing condemnation of Newt Gingrich’s America, received attention from other aging artists, including Philip Glass, Paul McCartney, Lenny Kaye and the considerably younger filmmaker Gus Van Sant. With rallying, Ginsberg was able to convince the four of them to work on producing a song and eventually even a music video to accompany. Continue reading

Mayor Lee’s Civic Priorities

Civic Center poverty

illustration by Justine Neuberger

In an editorial entitled “SF needs to make the Main Library safer,” the San Francisco Examiner lauded Mayor Ed Lee’s effort to “institute stronger consequences for breaking the rules” at the main branch of the San Francisco public library. “Give Mayor Ed Lee credit,” wrote the editorial staff. “[Lee] is right in making a big push to rid the Main Library of what he called [the] ‘small number of people who create disturbances and commit crimes, tarnishing the experience for everyone else.’”

“People who commit crimes” is a rhetorical construction designed to obfuscate. If the Examiner were being truthful, they might have rephrased this sentence to something like: “people—many them poor, and many of whom have untreated mental illness, and have no where else to go—whose desperation leads them to commit crimes.” The truth is that poverty in San Francisco’s civic center is nothing new—nor is the civic tendency to criminalize them.

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