February 18, 2021

Posted by orrinj at 11:47 AM


An Art That Offers Choices : Video games are an art form, and cultural critics on the right ought to take note of this powerful medium. (Spencer Klavan, 2/17/21, Law & Liberty)

I will fully concede: video games are highly structured. They can be repetitive, and this is one of the challenges against which designers have to work if they want to tell a fluid, organic story. Slashing down your 100th minotaur in God of War (2005) does not teach you anything about your character or his journey that you didn't already know from slashing down the first one. Games also tend to have recurring structural features like levels, bosses, puzzles, and powerups. Fire up a new platformer, even a highly innovative one, and you are likely to recognize its basic elements from any number of similar titles.

But the conventionality of games isn't in itself a strike against them. In fact, it's what makes them stand out from older forms of art, which have become dissipate and amorphous in the wake of modernity. We are long past the days when it was shocking for James Joyce to write a "sentence" of 3,687 words or for Mark Rothko to bathe a canvas in pure color. The traditional rules and limits of the literary and visual arts have been so thoroughly exploded that innovation in them has no meaning any longer.

By contrast, gamers were riveted in 2005 by Indigo Prophecy (AKA Fahrenheit), whose storyline depended on players' choices to a greater degree than had ever been tried. Each decision in the game led to outcomes and consequences, just like in real life. Those consequences determined how the narrative developed and concluded. There were kinks still to be worked out, but the medium was clearly advancing to new levels. "Despite its flaws, Indigo Prophecy is the definitive interactive story," wrote one critic. "Not only does it perfect the genre, it redefines it."

You can only "redefine" a "genre" if there are typical patterns it tends to follow--if its forms and conventions are understood and agreed upon by a community of artists and audience members. Virgil,  Dante, and Apollonius of Rhodes are significant epicists because of how they modify, subvert, and repurpose the tropes of Homer's masterworks. William Turner's glowing landscapes are thrilling in part because of how they deviate from the sharp precision of masters like Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain. When the free-form narrative techniques of Indigo Prophecy caught on in more polished games like Assassin's Creed (2016), everyone could see that a new kind of storytelling was being born against the backdrop of an established tradition.

A persistent misapprehension of our era is that rules stifle creativity and betoken a lack of imagination. A highly stylized form like the sonnet seems intolerably artificial to us, as if imposed from the top down by fusty ideologues. In fact, though, sonneteers like Giacomo da Lentini and Francesco Petrarch chiseled the form out of ballads and folk songs, honing rhythms and rhyme structures which were already common practice. Contrary to the going assumption, structure often emerges organically in art out of popular demand.

People love rules and the cogency they enable. They are part of how we express the rational order we perceive in creation. And yes, of course those rules can gradually become calcified and oppressive--witness for example the stultifying rigor of late French Baroque drama. But without any conventions at all we become unintelligible to each other, which is how you end up with a $120,000 banana duct taped to a wall (Maurizio Cattelan's Comedian, which inspired ridicule and incomprehension among all but the elect few who "got it").

This dysfunction--the total breakdown of structure and the reduction of high culture to absurdity--now plagues almost every kind of art, from painting to poetry to music. For that matter, it plagues our politics and our communal life: we no longer agree on the meaning of America, the conventions of marriage and gender, or the importance and role of religion. This leaves us completely at sea and makes us look either ridiculous or evil to one another: we caricature each other as "blue-haired libs" or "white supremacist rubes" because we do not share even the most basic premises about who we are or what the rules should be.

Video games do not suffer from this problem. They are a creative form with rules and constraints. This makes both community and meaning possible. Gamers can team up across the globe, can celebrate the triumphs of their form, can experience the heights of elation and wonder that living art so often inspires, because they are working within a recognizable medium upon whose conventions they can build. The lyrical fairytale of Ico (2001), the melancholy parable of Braid (2008), the tense and fluid drama of Inside (2016): these achievements were hailed by gamers because they used the rules--and broke them judiciously--to convey moving and truthful accounts of the human experience.

There is a word for something which uses color, light, sound, and language to convey what it is like to live a human life: we call that art. It is a structured creation that expresses emotions and experiences which cannot be expressed in any other way. "The objects of imitation are men in action," wrote Aristotle in his Poetics: events and the people who make them happen are the great subject of that elaborately symbolic communication called mimēsis.

This communication is what video games accomplish. 

Posted by orrinj at 10:20 AM


Paul's Letter to a Prejudiced Church: How the apostle's instructions on the Lord's Supper speak to multiethnic congregations today. (MICHAEL J. RHODES, FEBRUARY 16, 2021, Christianity Today)

The apostle Paul writes to a multiracial, multiclass church made up of Jews and Gentiles, enslaved people and free people (12:13). This made their congregation far more diverse than the typical North American church today, which, according to Edwards, lacks even a single member from another ethnic group.

Paul nevertheless tells the Corinthians that their gatherings "do more harm than good" (11:17-22). The reason? The way they came to the Lord's Supper reinforced socioeconomic divisions among them. Some had too much to eat. Others had nothing at all.

To understand Paul's critique, we need to understand the way that meals worked within Corinthian society. Corinth had a clear hierarchy, an obvious social and economic ladder. Where you stood on that ladder depended on whether you had enough social capital to be considered "wise," "influential," and "of noble birth" (1:26).

This social hierarchy could be a matter of life or death. Earning one of these labels meant that you were more likely to get the economic opportunities and social network on which your survival might depend.

In Corinth, communal meals provided a primary way for individuals to claim their spot on the ladder or even move up a rung. Like middle-school cafeterias today, where you sat at the meal said a lot about where you stood in the social pecking order. Bringing more food or claiming a more honorable seat, for example, were strategies for trying to climb the ladder.

This was all just business as usual in Corinth, but Paul declares that such behavior has no place in church. Because of the way this multiethnic, multiclass congregation humiliated the have-nots, they couldn't call what they were doing the Lord's Supper at all. They were acting more Corinthian than Christian.

By mirroring oppressive Corinthian hierarchies in the way that they gathered, the Corinthian believers "despise[d] the church" and sinned against the very body and blood of the Lord himself (11:22, 27).

Posted by orrinj at 10:17 AM


Marwan Barghouti insists on running for president in Palestinian elections (Daoud Kuttab, 2/17/21, al Monitor)

The biggest problem facing the Fatah leadership has been the popular and imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who insists on running for president. A visit by Hussein al-Sheikh, the minister of civilian affairs and a member of Fatah's Central Committee, to the Israeli prison where Barghouti is held Feb. 11 did little to change his insistence. Barghouti was reportedly offered to head the Fatah list for the Palestinian Legislative Council elections and to name 10 members of the list.

According to the official Palestinian news agency Wafa, Barghouti told Sheikh during his visit to prison that he welcomes the "historic decision to hold the elections" and the success of the dialogue between the main Palestinian factions held Feb. 7-9 in Cairo. According to Sheikh, Barghouti "called for the widest possible turnout to polling centers during the upcoming elections," which he reportedly said was the main pathway toward ending Palestinian division and restoring national unity. [...]

Barghouti, who is serving multiple life sentences in Israeli prisons over his alleged involvement in multiple Israeli deaths during the second intifada, has been in jail for 19 years and has regularly polled better than Abbas. The latest poll conducted in December 2020 by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research showed Barghouti as having a much higher percentage of support in head-to-head competition with Hamas' Ismael Haniyeh (head of the movement's politburo), with Barghouti polling at 61% and Haniyeh at 37%, while Abbas, in a head-to-head with Haniyeh, polled at 43% to the Hamas leader's 50%. 

Palestinians ought to elect the leader they prefer. 

Posted by orrinj at 8:52 AM


Yogi (Alex Belth, September 23, 2015, Sports Illustrated)

Of all the elite catchers in the game's history, Bill James wrote in 100 Years: The Yankee Retrospective, "Berra was the only one who played every day, batted cleanup, did the job defensively, and never had a bad season ... Roy Campanella was as good as Berra was in his best seasons, maybe better, and so was Johnny Bench and maybe Mickey Cochrane, too. Put all three together, and they had about as many great seasons combined as Yogi did by himself."

When Yogi's second manager, Casey Stengel was asked to identify the secret of his success, he said "I never play a game without my man," by which he meant Berra.

The Yankees' catcher amassed 358 home runs and 1,430 RBIs and struck out only 414 times, feasting on the kinds of pitches that other hitters disdained. "If you'd bounce the ball to the plate, throw it over his head or throw it at him, he'd hit it solidly," said Eddie Joost, a Philadelphia Athletics infielder. And yet Berra gained just as much fame for saying things like, "90% of the game is half-mental," "You can observe a lot by watching," and "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."

He wasn't trying to be funny; he was just Yogi. It was the guys behind the typewriter who did the rest and largely created his persona. "The media was good with him," wrote David Halberstam in October 1964, "inventing a cuddly, wise, witty figure who did not, in fact, exist." Even Yogi admitted, "I really didn't say everything I said."

Behind this image, though, he was a tough, prideful man and a fierce competitor. Berra had a flair for business and was a formidable contract negotiator at a time when players, particularly the Yankees, were at the mercy of remorseless team executives. Shrewd enough to realize that he could capitalize on his image, Yogi became one of the most successful celebrity pitchmen, a lucrative sideline that lasted 50 years, surfacing in ads that sold everything from Yoo-Hoo to the Aflac duck.

"They say he's funny," said Stengel. "Well, he has a lovely wife and family, a beautiful home, money in the bank, and he plays golf with millionaires. What's funny about that?"

Posted by orrinj at 8:46 AM


The Chinese 'Debt Trap' Is a Myth: The narrative wrongfully portrays both Beijing and the developing countries it deals with. (DEBORAH BRAUTIGAM AND MEG RITHMIRE, FEBRUARY 6, 2021, The Atlantic)

China, we are told, inveigles poorer countries into taking out loan after loan to build expensive infrastructure that they can't afford and that will yield few benefits, all with the end goal of Beijing eventually taking control of these assets from its struggling borrowers. As states around the world pile on debt to combat the coronavirus pandemic and bolster flagging economies, fears of such possible seizures have only amplified.

Seen this way, China's internationalization--as laid out in programs such as the Belt and Road Initiative--is not simply a pursuit of geopolitical influence but also, in some tellings, a weapon. Once a country is weighed down by Chinese loans, like a hapless gambler who borrows from the Mafia, it is Beijing's puppet and in danger of losing a limb.

The prime example of this is the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota. As the story goes, Beijing pushed Sri Lanka into borrowing money from Chinese banks to pay for the project, which had no prospect of commercial success. Onerous terms and feeble revenues eventually pushed Sri Lanka into default, at which point Beijing demanded the port as collateral, forcing the Sri Lankan government to surrender control to a Chinese firm.

The Trump administration pointed to Hambantota to warn of China's strategic use of debt: In 2018, former Vice President Mike Pence called it "debt-trap diplomacy"--a phrase he used through the last days of the administration--and evidence of China's military ambitions. Last year, erstwhile Attorney General William Barr raised the case to argue that Beijing is "loading poor countries up with debt, refusing to renegotiate terms, and then taking control of the infrastructure itself."

As Michael Ondaatje, one of Sri Lanka's greatest chroniclers, once said, "In Sri Lanka a well-told lie is worth a thousand facts." And the debt-trap narrative is just that: a lie, and a powerful one.

Our research shows that Chinese banks are willing to restructure the terms of existing loans and have never actually seized an asset from any country, much less the port of Hambantota. A Chinese company's acquisition of a majority stake in the port was a cautionary tale, but it's not the one we've often heard. With a new administration in Washington, the truth about the widely, perhaps willfully, misunderstood case of Hambantota Port is long overdue.

The PRC is trapped.