Tuesday, August 09, 2011

In Response to Jeffrey Wells, about the London Riots

I was directed by a friend to Jeffrey Wells's latest column at Hollywood Elsewhere, and loath as I am to link to such a presumably well-intentioned but grossly considered piece, you ought to read it and read the string of comments below, at least up to Wells's defense of himself at #28, to know why I was so angered by what he wrote and so unable not to write this public response. In order to post a comment at Hollywood Elsewhere you have to register for the site, which I don't want to do, so I am posting here rather than over there.

Obviously, I don't know Jeffrey Wells and have nothing against him personally, but when you have as large and seemingly unregulated a pulpit as he does, you ought to take responsibility for how you're using it, or at least be prepared to hear back from the outraged and unimpressed. (I'm aware the same caveats apply to me, at my smaller daïs.)

Dear Jeffrey Wells,

Reflecting back at you the implications of your own statements is not the same as distorting them. You write about movies. You know that what people think they have "clearly expressed and intended" does not always come through that way, or often reflects implications or assumptions they haven't fully considered, or turns out to be something that didn't deserve expression on such a huge platform.

From your defense of your own post: "...or in such a way that it wasn't about flames and looting as much as a Howard Beale-type rage about how putrid and corrupted so much has become in Washington, D.C."

What you're talking about is not a modification of what's happening in London but a completely different thing. Maybe London's what made you think about Washington and Howard Beale, and you do make a vague nod to the vast difference in the situations you invoke. Still, linking the thoughts the way you have makes both seem incoherent, to say nothing of insensitive. You say you weren't suggesting any "spillover," yet your whole piece here is structured as a conceptual spillover.

Sometimes a title like "If Only..." matched to a snapshot of a family business engulfed in flames does its own work on your audience, no matter what you write underneath it, which is something else that a person who reports on an image-based medium might have considered. And your repeated invocations of Howard Beale really make it sound as though your ideas about politics and so-called protest come from movies and little else. Possibly not even from movies you have understood very well, as witness the profound political impotence of Howard Beale, no matter how angry he gets, and his swift, barely sweat-breaking corporate annihilation.

Particularly on behalf of any readers who are directly affected by what is happening in London, if not out of any obligation to mature reasoning and calmer reflection, can you possibly admit to having run wild with what you confess to be "rote boilerplate explanations" and "accurate or inaccurate" reporting about a situation that does not affect you? A situation, too, that you do not seem to be pondering in a very humble or subtle way, but which you have used nonetheless as as a platform by which to foment fantasies of something "similar" that is not in fact similar at all, and doesn't get its hypothetical hands dirty with, you know, the "flames and lootings," etc.? If only, indeed.

If you want to hear more Howard Beales shrieking into the wind, you are welcome to hold your ear up to the Internet. As it turns out, you're already on it!

P.S. I want to thank my reader Laika, who provided this link to such an admirable and thought-provoking meditation on what is still unfolding in England, written by a blogger who lives there. I'm sure there are comparably subtle and multi-faceted responses cropping up elsewhere. Anyone who wants to provide more links to that kind of commentary is more than welcome; it's probably the best use of the post.



Blogger Laika said...

At the minute I'm finding most analysis of the riots a bit lacking - either reductive 'just an opportunistic criminal element' denunciations or feints at scoring political points. Even by these standards, though, Jeffrey Wells's rampant projection takes the cake, particularly as I'm battening down the hatches in Camden.

The best commentary I've read so far is at Laurie Penny's blog:


I normally find Penny's writing a bit much, but I think she absolutely nails the current situation in the paragraph where she talks about the centrality of power to a riot: "People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night."
You don't have to do these rioters the credit of associating them with a cause, or any coherent thought at all, in order to see them as symptomatic of larger social and economic trajectories.

Andrew Sullivan, far more conservative than I, has argued that economic policies that disproportionately adversely effect the already disadvantaged will, in the long run, threaten social cohesion, because after a while what's the investment of these kids in anything? This is what that looks like. Not productive pushback or protest, but people being burned out of their homes and wounded kids being mugged.

1:18 PM, August 09, 2011  
Anonymous Guy Lodge said...

I've told you already how much I value this, but it merits a written comment too. While a clear-eyed and cleanly targeted response to the immediate issue at hand, it also functions as a handy riposte to so much reactionary online commentary in any number of social and political areas, where rhetoric trounces empathy and any hypotheses are deemed self-excusing by virtue of their distance from the initial subject.

We all make these errors, either in speech or in writing, from time to time, but it never hurts to be called out on it. (Already, I regret one particular bit of phrasing in my own reply to Wells's column, which sounds like more of a blanket swipe at London's youth than I'd ever intend.)

I never cease to marvel at your ability to argue so pointedly yet politely in the wilds of online communication, when so few others manage either of those adverbs. I don't know if Wells will find this, but if he does, I hope his response is just as generously considered.

1:28 PM, August 09, 2011  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Laika: Thanks so much for this link, which I've added into the post. I'll be thinking about you tonight and hope you're safe, and that cooler tempers start to prevail, if only out of exhaustion.

@Guy: Thinking of you, too, as you know. Whoever decided that blog posts should be editable but comments shouldn't clearly ought to be arraigned. I sympathize.

I should say that I sympathize, too, in a way, with Jeffrey Wells. There is so much happening right now, everywhere in the world, that beggars such outraged disbelief and emotional reactions but does not furnish any kind of encapsulated explanation or possible solution. We're all a little hard-pressed to know how to react, or to judge our own thoughts. If Wells hadn't basically reiterated his offending claims by way of "defending" them and shown zero humility in the face of other points of view (more far-sighted and worked-out points of view, at that), I'd probably have cut the posting more slack as an all-over-the-place first-wave response. As it was, it put me in the same place as watching all those people bouncing beach balls and singing stadium chants in front of the White House the night Osama was assassinated. (I'm comparing my reactions, not the motivating episodes.) I understand people are going to feel all kinds of ways about such viscerally confronting and high-stakes events, but if there is no modesty or caution or dialogue or self-patrolling in our responses to such complexity, at a moment when all the world's fuses already seem to be crackling away... I don't even know how to finish.

1:51 PM, August 09, 2011  
Anonymous Chris Pesch said...

Thank you very much for your sensible words.

What puzzles me most is the fact that Wells resorts to the London riots to make his point, when right now there are so many more other things going on in the world that would support his opinion in a far more succinct way: Madrid, Cairo, Damascus, to name but three places where there's a real struggle to "overthrow" and to "change".

2:03 PM, August 09, 2011  
Blogger James T said...

I have so many vague thoughts about this phenomenon (riots all over the world, for similar and/or different reasons) that I really don't know how to express an opinion without sounding offensive or cliche or narrow-minded or completely nonsensical.

I can say with confidence that your tweets related to the issue are well-balanced and helpful for anyone who wants to find a sober direction to think on the particular subject.

I'm not taking sides but I think Wells's piece was more careless than anything else. I mean, yes, the title combined with the picture is foul, the timing is wrong, the reasons for the riots might not be all that relative to what he describes as good reason for "doing something" in the USA but still, all that aside I think no one says that there is something, indeed, that should be done. Or at least considered to be done or not. But I'm talking about something so general and vague that I don't see how anyone would not want to do...it.

So, I guess what I'm saying, if I'm saying anything meaningful at all, is that no matter how flawed his piece was, is it total trash or is there something in there worth considering?

By the way, Chris Pesch, not to be sensitive over something that is kind of beside the point, but it is my city/country so I feel I have to say you didn't mention Athens. And I don't mean the "Athens is burning" days but the days when hundreds of thousands of people gathered in front of the Parliament and reminded politicians that we will not stand anything. There are limits.
Whether or not that has helped so far is another subject.

2:45 PM, August 09, 2011  

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