What Can Superhero Media Teach Us About Ethics: A Pretty Much Pop Culture Podcast (#63) Discussion with Philosophy Professor Travis Smith

What Can Superhero Media Teach Us About Ethics: A Pretty Much Pop Culture Podcast (#63) Discussion with Philosophy Professor Travis Smith

in Comics/Cartoons, Film, Podcasts, Pretty Much Pop, Television | Tagged with: ,| October 7th, 2020 Leave a Comment


Is there no end to the seemingly endless fascination with superhero media? Your hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt are joined by Travis Smith, who teaches political philosophy at Concordia University, to discuss. Travis sees their resonance as a matter of metaphor: How can we do more with the abilities we have? His book Superhero Ethics: 10 Comic Book Heroes, 10 Ways to Save the World, Which One Do We Need Now? matches up heroes like Batman vs. Spider-Man for ethical comparison: Both “act locally,” but Batman would like to actually rule over Gotham, while Spider-Man engages in a more “friendly neighborhood” patrol.  What philosophy should govern the way we try to do good in the world?

Lurking in the background is the current release of season two of the Amazon series The Boys, based on Garth Ennis’ graphic novels, which assumes that power corrupts and asks what regular folks might do in the face of corporate-backed invulnerability. This cynical take is part of a long tradition of asking “what if super-heroes were literally real?” that goes through Watchmen all the way back to Spider-Man himself, who faces financial and other mundane problems that Superman was immune to.

Given Travis’ book, we didn’t really need supplementary articles for this episode, but you can take a look at this interview with him to learn more about his comic book loves and the Canadian heritage that led him to start fighting crime (you know, indirectly, through ethical teaching).

Learn more at prettymuchpop.com. This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts

Why The Wire is One of the Most Brilliant TV Shows Ever

Why The Wire is One of the Most Brilliant TV Shows Ever

There were a lot of moments during my first view of The Wire when I realized I wasn’t watching the usual cop procedural. But the one that sticks in my head was when an obviously blitzed and blasted McNulty, the Irish-American detective that you *might* think is the hero of the show, leaves a bar, gets into his car and promptly totals it. In any other show this would have been the turning point for the character, either as a wake-up call, a reason for his boss to throw him off the case, or to gin up some suspense. But no. McNulty walks away from the accident and…it’s never really spoken about. The cops took care of their own.

Life does not follow the contours of a television drama, and neither did David Simon’s groundbreaking HBO series. Beloved characters get killed, or not, or they just transfer out of the show as in life. Nobody really gets what they want. Neither good nor evil wins.

As Simon told an audience at Loyola University, Baltimore in 2007: ““What we were trying to do was take the notion of Greek tragedy, of fated and doomed people, and instead of these Olympian gods, indifferent, venal, selfish, hurling lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no reason—instead of those guys whipping it on Oedipus or Achilles, it’s the postmodern institutions . . . those are the indifferent gods.”

The Wire still feels recent despite premiering in 2002 and in 4:3 ratio, no widescreen HD here. It feels recent because the problems depicted in the show still exist: corruption at all levels of city government and governance, institutionalized racism, failed schools, a collapsing fourth estate, a gutted economy, weakened unions, and a general nihilism and despondency. Simon may not have seen the Black Lives Matter movement coming, but the recipe for it, the warning of it, is there in the show.

So there’s definitely a reason to give it a re-watch to see how we’ve changed. The above essay from 2019 makes the case for The Wire as a subversion of the usual cop show, with Thomas Flight noting it “doesn’t try to grab and keep your attention. It requires it. And if you give it your attention it will reward you.”

It also reminds us of the literary giants in the writers’ room: crime novelists Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, and Richard Price were on the team, as was journalist Rafael Alvarez, and William F. Zorzi. That combined with David Simon’s years in journalism covering Baltimore and Ed Burns’ experience on the police force meant the show feels right, and the writers did research and actual Baltimore extras were encouraged to speak up if something didn’t.

If that video essay intrigues you, there’s more in the series, though with many more spoilers, such as this one on Character and Theme.

Not long after The Wire finished its fifth and final season, there were plenty of books published on the show. And now we’re nearly two decades in from its premiere, The Atlantic’s Jemele Hill and The Ringer’s Van Lathan decided to spend quarantine kicking off a podcast where the two black cultural critics give the show a spirited re-watch. Does the show feature too much “copaganda” as my leftist critics now contend? Does it hold up like white liberals (its biggest fans, let’s be honest, despite President Obama’s shout out) think it does? The hosts just wrapped up Season Three, but if you’re ready to start the show again with commentary, here’s their first episode:

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

Devo De-Evolves the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”: See Their Groundbreaking Music Video and Saturday Night Live Performance (1978)

Devo De-Evolves the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”: See Their Groundbreaking Music Video and Saturday Night Live Performance (1978)

in Music, Television | July 23rd, 2020 Leave a Comment


In 1978, the debut album by a forcefully idiosyncratic new wave band out of Akron, Ohio both asked and answered a question: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! When we look back on the still-active group’s career more than 40 years later, we may still ask ourselves who, or what, Devo are. Given that they’re a rock band — albeit only just recognizable as one at the time they hit it big — we could define them by their songs. Were Devo made Devo by their their first single, “Mongoloid”? Or was it “Whip It,” their biggest hit and the Devo song we all know today?

There’s also a case to be made that few of us would ever have heard of Devo if they hadn’t recorded their cover of another band’s defining song: the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Devo’s “wicked deconstruction,” writes Allmusic critic Steve Huey, “reworks the original’s alienation into a spastic freak-out that’s nearly unrecognizable.” At The New Yorker, Ron Padgett tells the story of the recording and release of Devo’s “Satisfaction,” a process that began with a rhythm track co-founder Gerald Casale calls “some kind of mutated devolved reggae.” Aesthetically, this tied neatly in with the band’s central concept: “that instead of evolving, society was in fact regressing (‘de-evolving’) as humans embraced their baser instincts.”

It was Casale, by day a catalog designer for a janitorial supply company, who discovered the baggy yellow waste-disposal suits Devo would wear in the “Satisfaction” music video — a daring enough medium to begin with, given the paucity of venues for such productions in the late 70s. But “when MTV launched, in 1981,” writes Padgett, “very few bands had videos ready for the network to play. As a result, Devo’s ‘Satisfaction’ video earned endless rotations.” But the big break came “when they performed the song on Saturday Night Live, wearing the suits and pitch-black sunglasses, and doing the same jerky robo-motions, as in the video.”

You can see their SNL performance, introduced by the late Fred Willard, in the clip above.  Negotiated by the band’s manager Elliot Roberts in exchange for bringing Neil Young on a later broadcast, the appearance exposed Devo to an audience that included no few viewers hungry for just the kind of subversiveness the band’s music exuded. All this only happened because Mick Jagger himself had given Devo’s spastic freakout his blessing — and, as recorded in the book Devo: Unmasked, somehow managed to dance to it as he did so. Later, as Casale remembers it, Roberts claimed to have suggested in advance to Jagger’s people that he “just says he likes it, because it’s going to make him a lot of money.” Or could that living embodiment of rock stardom be a closet subscriber to the theory of de-evolution?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

John Cleese’s Comedically Explains the Psychological Advantages of Extremism: “It Makes You Feel Good Because It Provides You with Enemies”

John Cleese’s Comedically Explains the Psychological Advantages of Extremism: “It Makes You Feel Good Because It Provides You with Enemies”

Extremist: in any political squabble, and especially any online political squabble, the label is sure to get slapped on someone sooner or later. Of course, we never consider ourselves extremists: it’s the parameters of acceptable political discussion that wrongly frame our entirely reasonable, truth-informed views. But what if we were to embrace the extreme? “What we never hear about extremism is its advantages,” says Monty Python’s John Cleese in the television advertisement above. “The biggest advantage of extremism is that it makes you feel good because it provides you with enemies.” When you have enemies, “you can pretend that all the badness in the whole world is in your enemies and all the goodness in the whole world is in you.”

If you “have a lot of anger and resentment in you anyway,” you can justify your own uncivilized behavior “because these enemies of yours are such very bad persons, and that if it wasn’t for them, you’d actually be good-natured and courteous and rational all the time.” Sign on with the “hard left,” Cleese says, and you’ll receive “their list of authorized enemies: almost all kinds of authority, especially the police, the City, Americans, judges, multinational corporations, public schools, furriers, newspaper owners, fox hunters, generals, class traitors — and of course, moderates.” If you prefer the “hard right,” they have a list of their own, one including “noisy minority groups, unions, Russia, weirdos, demonstrators, welfare sponges, meddlesome clergy, peaceniks, the BBC, strikers, social workers, communists — and of course, moderates.”

As Cleese tweeted this past weekend, “Hard to tell if I recorded this 30 years or 10 minutes ago.” In fact he recorded it more than 30 years ago, as an endorsement of the centrist SDP-Liberal Alliance between the United Kingdom’s Social Democratic Party and Liberal Party. Having formed in 1981 and gone defunct by 1988 (when it became the party now known as the Liberal Democrats), the SDP-Liberal Alliance leaves little in the way of a legacy, but this clip has only grown more relevant with time. As an extremist, Cleese reminds us “you can strut around abusing people and telling them you could eat them for breakfast and still think of yourself as a champion of the truth, a fighter for the greater good, and not the rather sad, paranoid schizoid that you really are” — a statement that, uttered in our internet era, would surely make more than a few enemies.

via BoingBoing

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Revisiting The Wire During 2020’s Black Lives Matter Movement

Revisiting The Wire During 2020’s Black Lives Matter Movement

George Floyd’s murder while under arrest for allegedly passing a counterfeit bill of small denomination sparked massive worldwide demonstrations against police brutality and in support of Black Lives Matter.

It also led to the abrupt cancellation of television’s recent hit, Live PD, and its longest-running reality show, Cops.

As Amanda Hess recently observed in The New York Times, public opinion has turned on any show that promotes an image of police officers as universally decent forces for good, “lovable goofballs,” or anti-heroes whose rough edges make a play for viewers’ allegiance by suggesting the characters are realistically flawed and thus, relatable:

The “good cop” trope is a standard of both police procedurals and real-life police tactics, and now crowdsourced video of the protests has given cops a new stage for performing the role. In recent days, supposedly uplifting images of the police have spread wildly across the internet, competing for views with evidence of cops beating, gassing and arresting protesters. In Houston, an officer consoled a young black girl at a rally: “We’re here to protect you, OK?” he told her, enveloping her in a hug. “You can protest, you can party, you can do whatever you want. Just don’t break nothing.” In Nashville, the police tweeted a photo of cops kneeling next to a black boy with a “Black Lives Matter” sign, smiling from behind their riot helmets. And in Atlanta, a line of National Guard soldiers did the Macarena. On the final rump shake, a black rifle slung over one soldier’s back swung to the beat.

These images show cops engaging in a kind of pantomime of protest, mimicking the gestures of the demonstrators until their messages are diluted beyond recognition. They reframe protests against racist police violence into a bland, nonspecific goal of solidarity. These moments are meant to represent the shared humanity between officers and protesters, but cops already rank among the most humanized groups in America; the same cannot be said for the black Americans who live in fear of them. Cops can dance, they can hug, they can kneel on the ground, but their individual acts of kindness can no longer obscure the violence of a system. The good-cop act is wearing thin.

According to Hollywood Reporter critic Inkoo Kang, almost any portrayal of cops on TV right now rankles, even one that was lauded for its realistic portrayal of corruption and abuse on the force, HBO’s critically acclaimed The WireBarack Obama’s avowed favorite.

Kang writes:

In the first season of The Wire, just about every on-the-ground cop participates in police brutality — often as a kind of professional prerogative. Their violence is meant to add darker streaks to the characters’ otherwise heroic gloss, but it also has the effect of normalizing police brutality as a part, even a perk, of the job.

Her comments touched a nerve with actor Wendell Pierce, whose character was based on a Baltimore homicide detective, Oscar Requer, who achieved his position at a time when black officers routinely faced racial harassment from within the force. Pierce published his response on Twitter:

How can anyone watch “The Wire” and the dysfunction of the police & the war on drugs and say that we were depicted as heroic. We demonstrated moral ambiguities and the pathology that leads to the abuses. Maybe you were reacting to how good people can be corrupted to do bad things.

If The Wire did anything right, it depicted the humanity of the Black lives so easily profiled by police and the destruction of them by the so-called war on drugs; a deliberate policy of mass incarceration to sustain a wealth disparity in America that thrives keeping an underclass.

The Wire, if anything, was the canary-in-the-mine that forecasts the institutional moral morass of politics and policing that lead us to the protests of today. “The bigger the lie, the more they believe” was a line of mine that is so salient and profound in today’s climate.

“The Wire” is a deep dive study of the contributing variables that feed the violence in our culture: in the streets and at the hand of police. Classism, racism, destruction of public education, and moral ambiguity in our leadership all feed this paradigm of American decline.

I know I sound defensive and I probably am, The Wire is personal for me. The Wire is also Art. The role of Art is to ignite the public discourse. Art is where we come together as a community to confront who we are as a society, decide what our values are, and then act on them.

The critique here is that television seems to follow behind the current events of the day. I would ask that you consider that maybe The Wire was a precursor to the discussion that is mandatory now. It was an indicator, a warning light, of the implosion we are feeling today.

At a time when the world is called upon to listen carefully to what black people are saying, and much of the world has shown themselves ready to do so, Pierce’s words carry extra weight.

His assertion that the show, which ran from 2002 to 2008, accurately depicted a system so rotten that collapse was inevitable, is echoed in interview clips with creator and one-time police reporter, David Simon, above.

The video essay was put together by aspirant screenwriter Nehemiah T. Jordan whose Behind the Curtain series aims to provide insights on how celebrated scripts for both the big and small screensFight Club, Uncut Gems, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad—come by their aesthetic quality.

Simon’s ambition for The Wire was that it truthfully convey what he had observed as a reporter, as well as the lives of the people he interacted withboth Baltimore cops and those they mostly failed to serve.

In a 2015 White House conversation with then-President Obama, Simon remarks that an emphasis on drug-related offenses led to an epidemic of presumptive police work, and a decline in “competent retroactive investigation of felonies.” A disproportionate number of young black and Latino men were incarcerated during this time, and upon their release, their felony histories meant that few of them were able to secure meaningful employment. America’s problems were compounded.

Whether or not you are moved to watch, or rewatch The Wire, we heartily recommend Where We Go from Here, a recent New York Daily News op-ed by actor Michael K. Williams, who played fan favorite Omar Little, and whose real life counterpart Simon discusses with Omar-fan Obama.

New York native Williams, who has worked to end mass juvenile incarceration, foment collaboration between police and at-risk youth and serves as an ambassador for The Innocent Project, possesses a deep understanding of the New York Police Department’s structure, chain of command, and day to day workings. Stating that tangible action is needed to “shift police culture” and “transform the relationships between law enforcement and communities of color,” he makes a case for six concrete reforms:

  1. Overhaul CompStat, the NYPD’s crime tracking mechanism.
  2. Eliminate plainclothes units.
  3. Create an independent body to investigate “use of force” incidents at the time they occur.
  4. Reimagine the duties of civilians within the department tasked with community-building.
  5. Implement ongoing trauma-centered training, education and activities for officers, executives and the communities they serve.
  6. Make racial justice a core component of NYPD training and education.

Read Michael  K. William’s Op-Ed here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.