Friday, 26 August 2011

Scaremongering

Today's Bild headline: 'Wasp swarm: how to protect yourself from stings.' Odd, I haven't seen a single wasp this year. Maybe they're all hiding behind that cloud, waiting to launch a precision strike?

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Gratuitous Censorship, or Why the German Censors should be Censored.

gratuitous (adjective): uncalled for; lacking good reason; unwarranted [OED]
In the aftermath of World War II, the Allied Powers (naturally enough) eliminated Nazi ideology from Germany's educational curriculum. But they went a step further: in 1949, the constitution of West Germany divided educational authority between the various federal states, to all intents and purposes abandoning a centralised system. The rationale behind this was to ensure that, should an objectionable party rise to national power again, it would be much harder for it to indoctrinate school children.

This devolution of educational responsibility has led to any number of problems for the German school system, not least that some states do not recognise the qualifications of others (meaning that, for example, someone who has trained as a teacher in one state may have to go back to university if they wish to teach in another). But for the purposes of this post that is beside the point. What's important is this: that in the matter of education, one group of elected officials acts a buffer to the potential excesses of another group of elected officials. Effectively a system of checks and balances, the constitution does not trust elected politicians to act in the best interests of the people.

So why is it that unelected German censors are able, without any opposition whatsoever, to dictate what is appropriate for me to see?

German censorship was always a bit idiosyncratic. As if uncomfortable with the farcical association of the erotic and the macabre, Woody Allen's 1975 film Love and Death had its title changed to The Last Night of Boris Gruschenko. Perhaps for a similar reason, Peter Jackson's 1996 film The Frighteners was awarded an 18 age rating in Germany, in contrast to its 15 in Britain (that's really the only reason I can think of here). Most ridiculously, however, is the fact that the 1963 film version of Tom Jones is still rated an 18. It is, and as far as I know always has been, a PG in Britain. The mind boggles.
But the German censors are having a field day with computer games. And no, I'm not just talking about highly controversial games like Postal or Grand Theft Auto. No. I'm talking about Portal. [Spoilers follow]

Portal
If you're not aware what Portal is about, I'd advise reading the wikipedia article I linked to, or picking it up on Steam for €9. In short, it's a physics based puzzle game in which you have to escape from an experimental complex run by a rogue AI. The player acquires a 'portal gun' which may be fired at two surfaces (floors, ceilings, and so on) in a room, thus creating an 'entrance' and an 'exit' and letting you reach otherwise unattainable areas. Falling through a portal allows the player to gather momentum and so 'throw' yourself across greater distances. The graphic on the right (taken from wikipedia) explains this mechanism a bit more.

The point is simply that this is what the game is about. It isn't about shooting old ladies or dismembering aliens. It isn't about stealing cars or fuelling gang warfare. It's a extremely well-scripted and inventive game which demands some actual thought to complete. To be sure, we're not talking about the puzzle complexity of Riven or the Rhem series, but Portal succeeds because it gradually introduces the player to a few simple mechanics and challenges him or her to combine them in interesting ways.

But surely, for it to fall foul of German censorship, there must be some of the more stereotypically gratuitous elements of computer games involved? Well, there aren't. There is no nudity or swearing. The player does not have access to a weapon of any kind; to defeat enemy gun turrets (which crop up on only a handful of levels) the player must knock them over by, for example, opening a portal underneath them. The rocket launchers encountered on the last level are indestructible, but can but used to destroy obstacles (and the final boss) by forcing them to fire through portals.

So, if there is no nudity, no swearing, and no actual violence in the game, what exactly was censored?

Well, there's some blood on the walls, as can be seen in the image below:
portal03.jpg
And here is what the censored version looks like: (both images taken from schnittberichte.com)
portal02xx.jpg
Now, I played through Portal yesterday before being aware of the extent of the censorship, and you know what? I thought those marks on the walls were mud or dirt. I honestly have no idea how prevalent they are in the game, because I hardly noticed them at all. At one point I found myself in a corridor with what looked like sewage on the floor; I am guessing that it was actually supposed to be blood.

An apologist might ask whether the blood was really necessary. After all, haven't I just been talking about how surprisingly cerebral the game is, especially for such an unexpected hit? The answer is that yes, the blood is necessary. Because there is this thing called narrative.

For example, in that corridor which I thought was covered in sewage, what passed through my mind was, 'Ooh, stinky.' What should have been passing through my mind was, 'Ooh, danger'. Instead of a warning about what might be waiting for me at the end of the corridor (a room full of gun turrets), I thought it an unnecessarily crude environmental detail.

The blood on the wall is the same. As mudstains they are just ambient dirt; as bloodstains they serve to increase tension as you progress through the game. There was meant to be a contrast between the computerised voice promising to reward me with cake at the end of the test, the increasing danger, and the suspicion that not all is as it seems.

As I played, I found myself wondering when the 'story' would begin. It already had; but as the game designers had chosen to give visual hints, and because many of these hints were subsequently gutted by the censors, I didn't notice. All I saw was mud.

The irony of this whole situation is that the proponents of censorship, who would claim that computer games are just exercises in sleazy violence and sex, are cutting off the nose to spite the face. Portal is exactly the kind of game which they seem to think doesn't exist: a clever, inventive game in which there is little or no objectionable content, and yet became extremely successful. Yes, there is some blood; but it is used as a narrative device rather than as a gratuitous gimmick. Rather than neutering Portal, the censors should have used it as proof that they are not opposed to computer games in general, but only those mired in excess.

They could even have acknowledged it as having educational value, not only in the problem solving skills, but also as an illustration of there idea of 'Show, don't tell'. They could have used it to help young players to be able to recognise precisely when a game—or a film, or a song, or a book—is being gratuitous, and when it is not.

Of course, that would never happen. Computer games are the but the latest scapegoat of the narrow-minded. When it was published in 1749, Henry Fielding's Tom Jones was blamed for a number of earthquakes (which helps to put Boobquake in context). We don't blame books anymore; Charlotte Roche's Feuchtgebiete was the best selling novel in the world in March 2008, and few people even batted an eyelid. In the 1950's, Elvis was condemned for his 'black' music and 'erotic' hip gyrations; today, few people care about the pseudo soft-porn videos which usually accompany the 'songs' of the latest pop starlet. But some blood in a computer game? Too much, too much.

In the end, it would be easy to conclude that 'dumb censorship is dumb'. Yet I feel the issue goes deeper than that. Though computer games were blamed for the Erfurt massacre in 2002, the educational system of Thuringia left the perpetrator with few job prospects. The educational structure is broken in part because of the distrust of elected officials, and a constitutional safety measure to prevent them from imposing an ideological agenda. But that is exactly what these censors are doing to the population of Germany. They have decided what is good, and what is proper, and what we are allowed to see, and what we are not. By what right do they make these judgements? On whose authority? They were not elected, and they are not answerable to the public. The system does not trust publically-elected officials to do their jobs without prejudice; so why should the system allow those who are not even elected to be beyond question?

The gratuitous censors, I think, are the ones who need to be censored.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Journalism in Der Spiegel #2: The apocalypse in anime and manga

The second of two articles lambasting journalism in Der Spiegel.
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While we're on the subject of poor journalism from Der Spiegel, I'd like to point to this recent article, published in the wake of the March 11 earthquake Japan. The basic idea here is that things like anime and manga, for all their weirdness to Western audiences, have now proven themselves to be a prediction of the future.

Let's take a look at what the article has to say about this picture, which it gives (my translation) the title Tsunami-Victim in Natori: As if lifted from a manga:

There is a photograph that a photographer took after the earthquake in the town of Natori. Before the earthquake some 70,000 people lived there; today the town has been reduced to rubble. In the picture, a girl cowers at the side of a road. She's perhaps 20 years old; hair dyed red, wearing a black jacket and hugging her naked legs, it looks as if the girl is freezing and she herself is the only thing she has left to hold on to. Next to her are a pair of wine-red Wellington boots, behind her the remains of civilization. As if Godzilla had trampled through the town.
To me, this is dreadful in several ways.

First of all, in an article which claims to be about the artificially of culture, the only way it seems able to view the suffering of this girl is through the lens of popular entertainment. Saying that it looks like something out of a comic book does not suggest much empathy.

Secondly, I'm quite sure that the photo looks the way it does because of that. The photographer, or editor, wanted to create an image which made you think of manga / anime. In that sense, the fault is not entirely with Der Spiegel, although they should have noticed the implicit manipulation.

But more importantly, the argument that Japanese popular culture is a prediction of such disasters is, to put it midly, completely arse-about-face. Yes, the geographical situation of Japan leaves it particularly susceptible to natural disasters, and the Japanese have always been aware of the fragility of their existence. But those recurring images of destruction in anime and manga? They're about something far more specific that has already happened.

Yes, you've guessed it: the two atom bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima by the USA at the end of the Second World War. Such manga, anime, and movies like Godzilla are not haunted by destruction because of an apocalypse that might happen, but because of the apocalypse that already has. I find it completely unfathomable that the author of the Spiegel article does not feel it necessary to mention this: the bombs are mentioned in passing, almost like inconvenient details which to not fit into the argument of the article. To be sure, some (recent) manga and anime do specifically predict what might happen in the event of an big earthquake in Japan, such as Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 or 51 Ways to Save Her. But these are really the exceptions; works like Akira , NausicaƤ of the Valley of Wind, and Neon Genesis Evangelion are far more representative, and in all of those the apocalypse has already happened. Talk about a hint.

This should be so obvious that it doesn't need pointing out. Yet despite discussing NausicaƤ, it still doesn't occur to the author of the Spiegel article. But perhaps it explains why they find Japanese culture quite so weird.

Journalism in Der Spiegel #1: The school teacher in Penthouse

The first of two articles complaining about journalistic standards in Der Spiegel.
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This week, the German weekly Der Spiegel published an article entitled 'Not fit for school: Why a teacher is fighting for her right to undress' (my translation). Unfortunately, it isn't available on the Spiegel website, so I can't provide a link; the week before did contain a summary of the news, without commentary.

The story is this: Rachel Whitwell, a New Zealand school teacher, and girlfriend of one of the country's biggest porn kings, decided to pose nude in the Australian edition of Penthouse. The New Zealand educational authority found out, decided to investigate, and ultimately revoked her license to teach. The original photos caused a minor scandal two years ago; then she posed again a year later; and the educational authority's recent verdict is now causing a much bigger scandal. As the title of the Spiegel article indicates, it isn't really about a teacher who strips before the camera, it's about one woman's fight for freedom.

Or not. Der Spiegel goes out of its way to tell us a story about a young woman who wants to be a good mother and spend more time with her daughter, so decides to supplement her teaching job with better-paying nude modelling. Which is such a shame, as she's clearly an exemplary teacher:

She taught five and six year-old children from socially disadvantaged families. She taught them reading, writing and arithmetic, and tried to encourage them. She says she wanted to bring them up to be free thinkers.
As a teacher myself, I'm not convinced that's such a big deal. She taught the kids The Three R's. She did her job. Incredible.

Worse, Spiegel seems to have got its facts wrong concerning the original motivation for her to strip. Just to prove how lame Der Spiegel's research is in this article, here's how I found out.

The summary article I linked to above refers to a publication called the 'Sunday Times', in which the Ms Whitwell said she saw no reason why posing nude should affect her job as a teacher. Curious about what such an august publication as that had to say about this topic, I googled 'Sunday Times Rachel Whitwell'. In fact, the publication is actually called the Sunday Star Times and refers to itself as 'Sunday News' (article here). Excellent use of sources, Spiegel. Anyway, right above the google link to that article is another from the New Zealand Daily Telegraph in 2009 which contains a little more information from around the time of the original photo shoot. And it turns out that she originally posed nude, not spend time with her daughter, but to get back at her pornographer boyfriend. Half his age, she had decided to test him by anonymously flirting with him on facebook; he organised a rendezvous; she confronted him and sent the photos to Penthouse in revenge.

See any mention of the caring mother in there? Nor me. Sounds more like a retcon.

The latest Spiegel article also fails to mention, as the summary one admittedly does, that Ms Whitwell had previously had erotic stories published in adult magazines, and has her own table-dance studio. I suppose such omissions are understandable when you're trying to make the case for a struggling single mother who accidentally becomes embroiled in a fight for truth. Oh wait, that was Erin Brockovich.

Indeed, the Spiegel article reads as if its attempting to answer the call of another article by the Sunday Star Times which bemoans that, with regard to this case, no feminists are coming forward to demand that a woman's body is her own. Let's think for a moment why that might be.

First of all, no one has said that she isn't allowed to strip before the camera if she wants. She's not being prohibited from posing in Penthouse. The NZ education authority has just decided that she's not allowed to do that and teach children. That may or may not have to do with the conservatism of the authority; but given the erotic stories, the table-dancing, the pornographer boyfriend, and then the photos and subsequent interviews, you can't exactly say that she's making it easy for them to be open-minded. Challenging them at every opportunity, more like.

Secondly, Ms Whitwell hardly went out of her way to be anonymous. Claiming, as she does here, that she had no idea that anyone in New Zealand would see the original photos is naive beyond belief. There's this thing called the internet, see? And Australia? It happens to be this huge mass of land not far (relatively speaking) from New Zealand. Penthouse? That's hardly an obscure magazine. And actually posing as a teacher in the photos and on the cover of the magazine? Very tasteful.

Thirdly, this isn't about women's rights, because a male teacher would be treated no differently, and probably worse. Indeed, that fact that Ms Whitwell is a woman probably made the whole posing in Penthouse thing more acceptable, despite the authority's verdict. I'm quite sure they would have come down on a male teacher posing in Penthouse like a tonne of bricks, and I can easily imagine suspicions of paedophilia flying around too.

Finally, the key question, and one which Spiegel conspicuously fails to ask, is whether you would want such a woman (or man) teaching your children. For most people, the answer is surely, 'No'. Spiegel almost suggests that this is hypocrisy, since no-one bats an eyelid about a fireman posing in a nude calendar. But firemen and women aren't responsible for children in the same way that a teacher is. And as I said before, Ms Whitwell hasn't exactly been discreet about this whole issue.

What I'm really getting at, though, is Spiegel's botched attempt to make this about freedom and women's rights. It isn't at all: it's about responsibility. If Ms Whitwell wants to pose nude, let her. But she should take responsibility for the consequences. If she taught at a university, she would have to deal with students and teachers who are capable of googling her name; if she worked in an office, she'd have to deal with colleagues and customers who do so; as a primary school teacher, she has to deal with parents. That's part and parcel of the choice she made by posing nude in the first place.

The women's rights movement was always about choice and equality: the right to choose the same things as men. It was never about freedom to do anything you want without concern for the consequences. That's a form of anarchy. The fact that Spiegel, which is supposed to be 'good' journalism, can't tell the difference, is disappointing.