Retroactive Continuity: Devilman Crybaby E10, “Crybaby”

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Yes, I’m aware this is late. And yes, I’m aware I forgot to release any video last week, I’ll fix it tomorrow and the next day.

Commissioned post for Shane deNota-Hoffman.

Which it did.

There’s a lot of End of Evangelion in this episode’s DNA. Ryo looks remarkably like Rei/Lilith’s final form in that film; the destruction is intercut with images of children playing; even the ending, two characters lying on the shore of a red ocean, is shared with that film. But that makes sense, as End of Eva is the go-to anime movie for apocalyptic scenarios full of vaguely Biblical imagery.

This is an old genre we’re working in here, already fully formed by the time its first real classic, the Book of Daniel, was written in the second century BCE. The apocalypse was originally about political resistance, a reassurance that there was a tyrant out there bigger and more powerful than the one currently oppressing you, and that it was thus absolutely certain that the oppressor would eventually fall, as all oppressors do (along with everything else). In modern times, apocalyptic literature followed the general trend toward more psychological fiction, using apocalyptic language and imagery to engage less with political revolution than with personal evolution. Demian and Revolutionary Girl Utena are standout examples of the latter form. And then there’s Akira. Or, more to the point, the film Akira, a howling scream of disgust at a world in decay. End of Eva sings in the same key, though the original series was more along the lines of Utena‘s approach. Compassion, as we’ve discussed, is suffering, and there comes a point at which that suffering is unbearable.

We live in a fundamentally evil universe. This is a universe in which heat will be moved from the equator to the poles according to strict rules, regardless of how much human suffering and death the resulting hurricanes will bring. You think humans are capable of great evil, and we are, but the evil of the universe wipes out the stars and shatters worlds. No human killer, no genocidal tyrant, has ever killed as many people as the protozoan Plasmodium falciparum, the most lethal strain of malaria. And unlike anything else we have ever encountered, we are capable of moral decision-making, and hence of good. That’s the only place good exists, after all: the human imagination.

We made it up. A tiny cry of defiance against a universe of cold darkness. We found ourselves in an existence where suffering is inevitable, and said, “You know what? I’m going to take on the suffering of others, too.”

It is futile. The humans stand no chance, almost entirely wiped out by Ryo’s demons before Akira’s new devilman army can even reach him. The last human holdout is destroyed somewhere in the battle between Ryo and Akira and their respective, monstrous allies, and then all the demons and devilmen wipe each other out. And the whole time, Akira stands no chance against Ryo; Hell’s champion against its prince, he inevitably dies.

And then God kills Ryo and blows up the world. But if there is a God, then God is evil. They made this, after all. They’re either actively malicious or possessed of such towering incompetence as to be indistinguishable from malice. Satan was right to rebel. That’s not enough to make him not evil, though. Ryo has far too much blood on his hands.

We can’t win. Compassion just means more pain. Nothing good lasts; evil always triumphs in the end. The end of everything is the only thing we can be absolutely sure will happen. But we keep going anyway, because that is who we are. That is what we are. Stubbornly, futilely compassionate. Even when we run out of tears, and can only scream at the universe, when we can only weave scenarios of its destruction. We collectively yearn for apocalypse, ironically not because we want more endings, but because we cannot stand the number we already have.

I’m so tired of caring. So tired of raging at the evils and injustices that surround me. Tired of drowning in an ocean of hatred that grows deeper every day. Tired of crying for friends, and loved ones, and strangers, and myself. There are no tears left to douse the flames. There is only rage, futile, desperate rage, because the alternative to rage is terror and despair. Despair because our defeat, the defeat and destruction of everything good, is inevitable. But rage can focus us elsewhere, can remind us of the central lesson of the apocalypse genre: the tyrant will die, too. Perhaps we can accelerate that.

Success is guaranteed, after all. We might not survive it, but the fascists and the bigots and the laughing lying rats will inevitably die. Everything they built will crumble away. Everything they believed in, if they believed in anything, will be forgotten. Of course failure is also guaranteed, as we and anything we build and anything we believe in are all just as doomed, just as temporary. But at least we can be sure that those fuckers will get theirs.

The power of the oppressor will break. Everyone dies. All nations crumble, and all regimes fall.

All worlds end.

From the ashes and the rubble, a new world forms. It will be evil, too, of course, but in different ways. We will make different mistakes, and really that’s all you can ask of anyone. And so we cycle on.


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Crisis on N Earths: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

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There are a handful of shows pointed to as the beginning of a shift in American television, and especially science fiction and fantasy, from being mostly or entirely episodic to the “arc” structure ubiquitous today. Lost is often cited, and certainly coincides with the point at which long-running plots became ubiquitous. At the other end of the 90s, Twin Peaks is sometimes credited, but that misses that Twin Peaks was pitched and structured as a prime time soap opera, which is to say as part of a genre in which such plotting was a long-established element. Where explicit science fiction is concerned, Babylon 5 is also frequently pointed to. But it and Lost share the same counter-indicator: they aren’t actually structured much like most modern serialized television. Neither is Twin Peaks, for that matter.

Twin Peaks is, like most soap operas and, for that matter, superhero comics, a true serial: a sequence of overlapping stories that don’t collectively move to a shared end so much as coming to a stop with cancellation. Babylon 5 is structured as a single story, with its own arc, containing multiple smaller stories, including the individual episodes. (An overarching story which was, by the end, unrecognizable as the originally planned story, but an overarching story nonetheless.) Lost is an attempt to achieve the latter, or at least the appearance of the latter, while actually doing the former. None of these shows share the structure on display in most modern, serialized science fiction and fantasy television, in which most or all episodes in a given season follow contain some reference to an ongoing, overarching story; some episodes advance that story significantly; and the season finale concludes the story, with the next season starting a new story where the first left off. We’ve seen where that structure really arrives on American television, with Sailor Moon; what we have not seen is where it entered the mainstream.

Until now. In 1998, Buffy the Vampire Slayer aired the end of the second season and beginning of the third, arguably its strongest run of episodes, with only the fifth season really challenging them. It was a huge hit for the still quite young WB network, and, for better (post-2005 Doctor Who) or worse (TVTropes), had a profound influence on television and how we talk about television in the early 21st century.

And it shows extremely clear similarities to Sailor Moon: a blonde teen girl, the titular Buffy, who is chosen to inherit the power to fight evil, gathers a group of friends who aide her, explicitly cites their friendship as the reason for her success, and frequently faces monsters as metaphors for common teen problems, all structured as season-long arcs peppered with monster-of-the-week standalones. There does not appear to be any evidence that Joss Whedon ever actually saw Sailor Moon, and it is almost certainly a coincidence that Firefly also shows strong similarities to anime that aired on American television around the time it would have been in initial development, namely Outlaw Star and Cowboy Bebop. Nonetheless, the similarity stands; in ideaspace, Sailor Moon and Buffy have a lengthy border.

The ending of the second season is a prime example of the Buffy/Sailor Moon approach in action. Angel, Buffy’s vampiric boyfriend, has struggled all season to retain his morality, and the whole cast has had to deal with elements from his evil past returning to haunt them. Then Buffy sleeps with him; diegetically, this causes him the “moment of perfect happiness” that breaks the curse that restored his soul to his body, causing him to revert to the soulless, evil vampire that he was. Extradiegetically, however, this is fairly obviously the old story of a teen girl thinking she’s fallen in love with an older man, who turns abusive the moment he’s successfully gotten her into bed. It’s exactly the kind of thing Sailor Moon did with, for example, an evil gym that sucks the life-force from the young girls who obsessively work out there.

The key thing is that this structure works. Using the fantastic to reify genuine emotional realities is long-established in the genre. Meanwhile, the season-long arc peppered with standalones has the increased room for complex plotting and characterization that a full season affords over a single episode, without committing an entire season’s worth of episodes to furthering one story. On top of that, because every season concludes with the climax to an ongoing story, any season can more or less function as the last; unlike Babylon 5, Buffy never had to scramble to deal with possibly being cut short by the network declining to pick it up for another season. (Indeed, it had the opposite problem: it wasn’t picked up after the fifth season, brought the show to a satisfying and extremely final conclusion, and then got picked up for two more seasons on another network.)

It is precisely this structure that the DCAU would eventually pick up, adopting it for Justice League and even more so Justice League Unlimited. But a more direct result looms closer. On the strength of shows like Buffy and Dawson’s Creek, the WB was developing, and deliberately courting, a reputation as a “young people’s network.” Buffy demonstrated that a high-school superhero was a draw, and the WB wanted more. And where better to turn for superheroes than their own superhero “universe”? The decision to have a show about Batman in high school descended from on high, an instruction from the network to the producers of The New Batman Adventures and Superman: The Animated Series. TNBA would end, and the young Batman show would take its place.

But as we already observed, the atmosphere of the 90s, the grayness of near-apocalypse, and the darkness of Batman: The Animated Series, made it natural for any such show to incorporate cyberpunk. This show couldn’t be young Bruce Wayne; we’d already seen him in Mask of the Phantasm. It had to be someone new: someone different, with new villains, and a futuristic setting that made Gotham into the Dark City, which it always basically was anyway. This show wouldn’t reach back into Batman’s past, but into his future, past the point at which he could no longer continue. By extension, it would be someone who could face, and do, what the familiar Batman could not. It would be the Batman beyond Batman.

In less than a year, and less than 20 chapters, Batman Beyond begins.


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Crisis on N Earths: Dark City

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It’s February 27, 1998, and none of us know who we are.

That’s more true of some of us than others, of course. I’m a teenager, for instance, still deep in that protean flux of trying on identities until one fits. And I haven’t figured out I’m a trans girl, so I won’t find one that does for another twenty years.

(It will be an incredibly powerful experience once I do. My entire world will realign around me, structuring itself into something that makes sense. It will feel like emerging into the sunlight for the first time.)

But none of us entirely know who we are, because nothing has gone the way it was supposed to. There was no Big One, just a wet fizzle as the Soviet Union imploded a decade ago, and for all the time since, we have been feeling like characters in a story that failed to end, sitting around waiting for something dramatic to happen.

We know who we were supposed to be. The Good Guys, who saved the world from Hitler, who stood up to the evil commies. Oh sure, there was that whole bit about the slavery, but that was a long time ago and it’s over now. And then the Civil Rights movement fixed everything, right?

But we were the evil empire all along, who fought the other evil empires not because we were the Good Guys, but because we wanted to be a bigger evil empire than all the others. We didn’t win the war between good and evil because there was never any such war; we won the war to be the biggest bully on the block. The Nazis learned by watching us, their racial policies just a Germanized Jim Crow, the Holocaust American-pioneered techniques of mass production applied to the American-pioneered techniques of concentration camp and genocide. Lebensraum is just German for “Manifest Destiny,” which is why we fought them–one imperialist expansion smacking into another. (Well, not really. The Germans and Japanese both learned from us, but it was the expanding Japanese empire that smacked into ours first. But they could ally with Germany because they had the Soviet empire in between them, and that’s how we ended up at war with Germany. The point: it’s all empires fighting empires; if you want scrappy bands of heroic rebels, look to the places already conquered.)

So why didn’t we know that? Why didn’t we know who we were? Because we only knew who we were supposed to be.

“Supposed to be.”

By whom? Who are these supposers, and why do we let their suppositions define us? They’re not Strangers, unfortunately, not hydrophobic leech-mouthed squid inhabiting human corpses. But neither are they people known to us–the people around us transmit the suppositions, enforce them on us, but never seem to be the originators of them.

“Supposed to be” isn’t just passive; it’s in the divine passive. The agent isn’t just moved to a prepositional phrase, it’s dropped entirely, as if this widespread supposition were instituted by an act of God. No one knows who supposes; we’re barely starting to realize that they suppose quite wrong.

And, as it turns out, treating it as an act of god isn’t that far off, and Dark City‘s metaphor is apt. The Strangers are a collective mind inhabiting human corpses, which is to say they are history, and the power structures that result. They are everyone who came before us, and the thing–the hideous, tentacular, reality-defining monstrosity that we call “our culture”–that those people collectively manifested. Not quite a god, but closer than anything else we can reliably locate.

That thing, collectively, tried to hide our memories of the past. Tried to keep us going, still functioning as we had before, even as darkness fell and daylight was forgotten. Tried to manufacture false histories, shift things around, find someone to slot neatly into the place the Soviet Union had once occupied. To persuade us, against all evidence of our eyes, that our society is as fair as we can possibly make it, that oppression is a matter of individual bad actors, that we are not all slaves to forces most of us barely even notice exist.

This is, of course, cyberpunk. The aesthetics of noir given a sci-fi twist, though this is noir-ier than most, in the sense that it retains the 1940s-vintage clothes and cars, and the main character is a good man in a corrupt world, neither of which are commonplace in cyberpunk. But it’s very clearly a point on the trajectory from Blade Runner to The Matrix; like the former, the questions it overtly asks are about personal identity, not the nature of reality like the latter, but it has a blatant messianic element that is more Neo than Deckard.

But questions of identity and reality are, in large part, the same questions. Is there a self independent of culture? Can there be one? It doesn’t seem like there possibly can, since we learn who we are from the people around us. But if there isn’t, how can we possibly hope to change our culture? How is it that people turn out not to be who they were “supposed” to be?

Dark City answers, rather patly, by invoking the soul. That seems overly simplistic. At the same time, there is something that seems to predate our first encounters with the culture: personality research suggests the existence of a handful of traits that can be identified in the womb and remain mostly stable throughout life. Those aren’t enough to make an identity, and without culture, of course, there are no labels by which to name them, but there do seem to be patterns or tendencies that are not derived from external sources. At the same time, we are also greatly shaped by our experiences, and we frequently internalize many of those suppositions.

This, in turn, means that the struggle to define ourselves necessarily involves some kind of engagement with the power structures around us, because it is those structures that establish  “supposed to.” This, in turn, links to the thematic concerns of cyberpunk, its projection of the dystopian present into a dystopian future. “This is the logical endpoint of those structures,” it says. “This is what the world looks like if we all keep doing what we’re supposed to do and being what we’re supposed to be.” Mostly, that means corporate power, the tyranny of wealth swelling until it is singularly able to define our reality, but it includes other forms of power as well, particular in how they violate the self and the body.

It’s February 27, 1998, and I don’t know who I am because I’m in high school, and we don’t know who we are because the apocalypse never came, and the dark city is a vision of a future in which this state of being continues forever. These things fit together, inextricable from one another: high school and adolescence and the uncertainty of identity; the uncertainty of living in the near-apocalypse; cyberpunk. A natural cocktail, if you will, a recipe from which to engineer the next step in our story.

His name is Terry McGinnis.

That’s the what. As for the why…


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Crisis on N Earths: Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky, Clinton impeachment

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Sorry this is late. Snow days screwed with my sense of time, which is pretty tenuous to begin with.

It’s January 21, 1998, and the Washington Post just broke a story that will devour the airwaves for months on end: in 1995-7, President Bill Clinton had an affair with a then-22-year-old White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. This is going to be a strange year: journalists, news anchors, and comedians will spend much of it discussing blowjobs, semen stains, and alluded-to but ultimately unspecified acts involving a cigar, while Congress launches an investigation into same.

Rewind a little: in the 1994 midterm election, Republicans won control of both houses of Congress, which they retained throughout the Clinton administration. The resulting tensions combined with the rise of right-wing talk radio and the burgeoning Internet (the right-wing gossip site The Drudge Report had actually broken the story of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair three days before the Post) to create an environment of high partisanship, which is to say more or less the political environment we still have.

A few months earlier, in May 1994, a woman named Paula Jones filed a lawsuit alleging that, in 1991, then-Governor Clinton had exposed himself to her and propositioned her for sex. As Jones was an Arkansas state employee, Clinton was her boss, making this a case of workplace sexual harassment. The resulting legal battle went to the Supreme Court, who ruled that yes, a sitting President can be sued for conduct that occurred before he took office, and ultimately resulted in a settlement in November 1998.

In the course of that lawsuit, Jones’ lawyers sought to establish that Clinton’s behavior toward Jones was part of a pattern of abusing authority and seeking sexual contact with employees (which it very likely was), and therefore subpoenaed women with whom Clinton was suspected of having affairs; in the course of his testimony, Clinton denied having had sex with Monica Lewinsky specifically.

Meanwhile, Congress had hired independent counsel Ken Starr to investigate the Clintons for alleged criminal involvement in a real estate deal gone bad. (Repeatedly. No matter how many times the investigation turned up no wrongdoing on the Clintons’ part. See the climate of rising partisanship mentioned above.) Starr had received permission to expand his investigation into other allegations against the Clintons, and so he was the one who received the recordings made of conversations between Lewinsky and Linda Tripp, who had made the recordings on advice of a literary agent, and appears to have gotten close to Lewinsky specifically to get dirt for her own enrichment.

Clinton was impeached late in 1998 on charges of perjury. Interestingly, charges of abuse of power were mooted in the House, but ultimately did not get enough votes to be included in the impeachment proceedings. He was acquitted the following February.

Very few people come out of this looking good. Tripp appears to have been an archetypal snake in the grass. Clinton was pretty clearly a sexual predator, and he very obviously lied under oath, but after a year of wasting time and taxpayer money, not to mention destroying Lewinsky’s life, Congress still ultimately didn’t do anything about it. Not that they ever actually cared about either sexual predation or lies, given several prominent Republican Congresspeople caught in both; Congress was pretty obviously acting out of pure partisan spite and an early prominent example of what would become the endemic right-wing inability to conceive of the legitimacy of any power other than their own.

Lewinsky is really the only person who did no significant wrong in all this. She did submit a false affidavit in the Jones lawsuit, denying the affair with Clinton, but she was young, in her first job after college, and under pressure to protect her boss, who was incidentally the most powerful man on Earth. And it was Clinton, not Lewinsky, who abused his status and power to take advantage of a much younger and more vulnerable woman; Clinton who broke his promises of fidelity to his wife; Clinton whose history of sexual predation gave rise to the investigation in the first place. So, of course, it was Lewinsky who was tainted for life; in two heartbreaking articles for Vanity Fair penned years later, she discusses the humiliation she experienced, the depression and suicidal ideation that followed, and the PTSD that she still struggles with to this day. She also discusses the way it has followed her ever since, interfering with job prospects, isolating her socially and especially romantically.

We have seen this story before, more than once. It is the story Batman told about Harley Quinn in the Mad Love comic, claiming that she took advantage of her professors by sleeping with them, despite the power dynamics involved virtually guaranteeing any advantage-taking had to happen in the opposite direction. It’s even closer to the story Akio pushes on Utena, blaming her for his decision to cheat on his fiancee:

Akio: You didn’t reject me, even though I have a fiancee. That’s a sin, isn’t it?
Utena: This isn’t fair..!
Akio: Unfair? Isn’t turning away from the truth and blaming others even more unfair? Isn’t it unfair to pretend only you are noble and in the right?

Of course the power differential between a 22-year-old White House intern and the President of the United States is not as extreme as the differential between a 14-year-old girl and the Acting Chairman of her school, who is also the ruler of her home and the home of everyone she knows, as well as the demiurge of her world. The point nonetheless remains: the wrongdoing is clearly on the part of the powerful older man, but he deflects it onto the young woman.

I have, elsewhere, described that scene from Utena as gaslighting, and that is exactly what happened to Lewinsky. The President, Congress, the Starr investigation, and the media all collaborated to humiliate a young woman, to persuade her that she had done wrong, that she was somehow dirtied or tarnished by acts which, insofar as they involved any wrongdoing, did so only on the part of someone else. They conspired to convince her that, even though she was the clearest victim in the scandal, nonetheless she was the one to be punished.

This is just one instance of a pattern repeated again and again: when the abuser is powerful and privileged and the victim is not, it is the victim who is punished. To a lesser degree, the other person obviously a victim in all this, Hillary Clinton, was punished as well, or at least her “inability to keep her man” came up in the quarter-century-plus of relentless right-wing attacks against her character that began pretty much the instant she arrived on the national scene. (But she’s also on the record blaming Lewinsky rather than Bill, so fuck her. But as a woman in politics she is constantly balancing on a knife edge that requires some conformity to popular narratives, but… and around and around we go.)

The use of “gaslighting” to describe social processes like this is somewhat controversial. Strictly speaking, gaslighting is a process of undermining a victim’s sense of reality, getting them to question things they know are true and doubt their own perceptions, thus increasing their dependency on the abuser. But Lewinsky herself describes her experience as gaslighting, and it is a key part of how the culture of abuse controls its victims: by teaching us to accept the harsh and unjust judgment of society over our own senses of self-worth and of right and wrong, our own values.

The techniques of interpersonal abuse, carried out on a culture-wide scale. Lewinsky is far from the last woman to have experienced such; we will be seeing this phenomenon again.


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Retroactive Continuity: Devilman Crybaby E9 “Go to Hell, You Mortals”

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One of my mother’s favorite jokes is about a trial where the prosecution presents five people who saw the defendant commit the crime. So the defense presents ten people who didn’t.

As I write this, it’s September 28, 2018, and the farcical confirmation process of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court of the United States is on pause. He is probably a rapist, and he will almost definitely get the job. (Note from the future: he did.) Part of this farce was my mother’s joke, played out in real life: he was accused of attempted rape, so his supporters put out a letter signed by 65 women that he is a good person who totally would never do that kind of thing. People, in other words, who didn’t see it. So, I come at this episode with a certain bitterness, centered as it is around Miki’s decision to post a defense of Akira that amounts to “he’s always been nice to me, therefore he can’t have killed people as has been credibly claimed.”

Miki’s a Christian, of course. She believes in sin, in the toxic doctrine that good and evil are not adjectives, but substances. That evil acts stain a person, making them evil people; ultimately she believes in the toxic logic that leads to the conclusion that there are no crimes, only criminals. That it doesn’t matter what Kavanaugh does; he’s a “good person,” not a “criminal,” and therefore will be confirmed to the highest court in the land.

Of course, there’s a pretty big difference between a job interview and a murderous mob coming to your house. That part of the episode felt disturbingly real. The responses to Miki’s post are juxtaposed with Akira placing himself between a group of humans falsely accused of being demons and an angry mob about to stone them. When Akira begins crying for the victims, the mob starts laughing at him, taking pleasure in his pain; at the same time, commenters lash out at Miki for protecting Akira.

Akira is, as we’ve discussed, defined by his compassion. But to feel compassion is to share another’s suffering, to feel pain because they are hurting. The mob feel no compassion, and therefore do not hurt when Akira does; instead his pain is funny to them, and their decision to cause pain righteous. They can do this because Akira isn’t a person to them; he’s a demon. By publicly siding with him, Miki sees to be a person in their eyes, too; she’s a witch.

Demon, witch, criminal, sinner; they all mean the same thing: a person-shaped object made of evil. Not a person whose suffering matters; just pure evil. They, the good people of the stone-throwing mob, the Internet hate machine that doxes Miki, the neighbors who converge on her house to murder her and her friends, they’re not criminals, or demons, or witches; they’re good people and therefore what they do is good. Even when it’s murdering a houseful of people, then setting the house on fire to dance around the flames.

It’s the same logic, in the end. If good and evil are substances, then a good person is obviously innocent of any wrongdoing, no matter what they do, just as an evil person is guilty of any and all crimes, no matter what they do. There is infinite forgiveness for the good, and infinite punishment for the evil.

Disgusting.

Consider instead what Akira represents. Compassion that places itself between the victims and the attacker, no matter who they are. Violence to protect the victims of violence, rooted in compassion for those victims. Compassion is a form of suffering, and many other feelings can rise from suffering: fear, sadness, despair, rage, determination. Akira burns with all of these now.

We, if we are compassionate ourselves, can only hope the world burns with him.


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Perfectly creepy (Love Is a Croc)

It’s July 11, 1998. The top song is “The Boy Is Mine” by Brandy & Monica; Shania Twain, Next, Usher, and Madonna also chart. At the box office, Lethal Weapon 4 knocks Armageddon out of the top spot; further down in the top 10 we have Mulan, The X-Files, and The Truman Show, which confirms Batman Forever‘s discovery that Jim Carey actually can act if forced to stop being a rubberfaced fartsmith* for five minutes.

In the news, Japan launched a Mars probe on July 4, becoming the third nation to explore extralunar space. The probe is intended to reach Mars orbit in 1999; it will end up taking until 2003 and never actually achieve orbit. That’s about it news-wise.

Baby-Doll and Killer Croc’s introductions were two of our go-to examples of sympathetic villain episodes, so an episode that pairs them into a relationship makes some sense. At the same time, it’s an episode about the Bonnie-and-Clyde affair between a giant lizardman and a woman stuck in the body of a toddler, so “sense” is relative.

But why? What’s strange about that? Baby-Doll is a woman, that’s the whole point of the episode. For all that she is small and behaves intensely childishly most of the time, she is an adult woman with an adult woman’s needs–namely, respect, companionship, and love. The episode is written to make it nearly impossible not to squirm in discomfort at her affection toward Croc, but because she acts like a child, not because she looks like one. Her mind, her pain and her rage, they are as fully adult as his.

But he doesn’t see that. He treats her the same way everyone does, the same way everyone treats him: he sees only the difference of her body, its otherness, and he is repulsed. It is classic abjection; Baby-Doll and Croc differ from the bodies we are used to, and in so doing remind us that our bodies could be other than they are. In turn, we are reminded that we are bodies, that we could be other than we are, that we will never be anything but dreaming meat. Caught between our subjective awareness of ourselves as people and the objective fact that we are sacks of skin stuffed with flesh, blood, bone, and bile, we project that feeling of abjection onto the experience which caused it, the appearance of their “incorrect” bodies.

Or, at least, some part of us does. Not everyone reacts the same way, but everyone has internalized social norms; everyone has some idea of what a “correct” body is, and some degree of negative reaction to “incorrect” bodies. Ideally that would correlate to harm; the only incorrect body would be one which is suffering, and the negative reaction it engendered would be empathy.** But that is not the nature of our society, and therefore not what we learn; we learn to abjectify them as people, to deny their subjectivity and treat them not only as objects, but objects of disgust.

Even if we ourselves have bodies labeled as Other, we nonetheless learn to abjectify Othered bodies, often including our own. We’ve seen that with Baby-Doll before: the climax of her titular episode showed her reaching out to the normative adult (conventionally attractive, white) woman’s body she feels she was denied. She loses that fight because she abjectifies herself; in “Love Is a Croc,” she loses because Croc abjectifies her.

Croc is a terrible partner. He physically abuses Baby-Doll, cheats on her, and lies to her. Her attempt to murder him and all of Gotham City is melodramatically over the top, of course, because this is Batman, but the feelings underneath are genuine. She thought she could find love in someone who was othered the same way she was, and he betrayed her.

He isn’t the only one, and she isn’t the only one betrayed. People look at Mary-Louise Dahl and see Baby-Doll, the cute, funny eternal child. Yet no matter how much she acts like that, they refuse to give her what she needs, what everyone needs. They even use her behavior–the behavior she was taught that they expected!–as a reason to punish her and deny her. The same goes for Killer Croc; people look at him and see a monster. Yet when he acts like the creature they expect, they use that a reason to punish him and deny him what he needs.

This episode hurts.

It hurts to watch, to think about, to write about. It stabs at old, deep wounds–the feeling of being physically unlovable, wrong, broken, cursed. Of not being a real self, but a twisted object, cut off from everyone around me and therefore from myself. Suffering more the more I act as I’m expected to act, and yet not acting as I’m expected to act just marks me still more as an Other. No matter what identity I perform, I’m doing it wrong.

And I’m one of the lucky ones. I came out to a staggering outpouring of acceptance and love from the people close to me! It feels ungrateful and whiny to complain about all the people standing just a bit further away with torches and pitchforks. But it’s hard not to be aware–indeed, hyper-aware–of their presence.

They’re dreaming meat, too. The difference is that their dreams, their meat, are billionaire playboys who fight crime in cosplay. Ours are freaks and monsters.

The episode opens with a bit of the past, a clip from Dahl’s old TV show in all its painful black-and-white 1950s white suburbinanity. That transitions almost instantly into a couple–notably with the same voices as Dahl’s TV parents–who encounter her working at a hotel, where the very drunk husband physically assaults her and demands she entertain him. He treats her just as the TV show treated her, as a curious object presented for amusement–because of course her body, safely contained in a proscribed role, ceases to be dangerous, but remains a violation of the norm, and benign violation is the essence of humor.

At the end of the episode Baby-Doll threatens the nightmare scenario that lurked beneath that same 1950s inanity, nuclear devastation. The episode is bracketed by a past of bland sameness and a future of bleak wasteland, because those are the same thing. Those are our options. To cling to our norms, to side with the torch-wielding mob, is to choose wasteland–or a future of freaks and monsters. And frankly, I’d side with them even if I had the choice to do otherwise. I always will.

But Batman–or, rather, the Batman we know, the Batman who is Bruce Wayne–is the dream of that mob. He will always side with them and against us. The only path to the good future, the dark and monstrous future, lies over his broken body.

*Thank you, The Onion, for that astoundingly accurate description.

**Negative in the sense of being unpleasant to experience, not in the sense of being wrong.

Retroactive Continuity: Kill 6 Billion Demons

Near Apocalpyse of '09 Logo

Commissioned post for Aleph Null.

There are other worlds.

We know that in our bones. Our reality is not the only one; it cannot be. There are other modes of being, other modes of existing. We come close to touching them, sometimes–when we dream, when we meditate, when we alter our consciousnesses.

It’s not true, of course. Bones are not to be trusted. They’re too solid.

I’m so tired.

Kill Six Billion Demons is a webcomic by Abaddon. Kill 6 Billion Demons is a graphic novel collecting the first story arc of a comic by Tom Parkinson-Morgan.

Kill Six Billion Demons and Kill 6 Billion Demons are almost, but not quite, the same thing. The implication, therefore, is that Abaddon and Tom Parkinson-Morgan are almost, but not quite, the same person.

Fluids change shape to fit their containers.

The third eye is traditionally the hardest to open. It’s the one that sees into other worlds, but normally its gaze is turned strictly inwards. But that’s okay–there’s as many in there as there are outside.

Open it. See all of the many worlds. Be all of the yous in all of the worlds.

Allison’s key is shoved into her third eye. It is unlocked, and through it, the worlds are unlocked. There are wonders there, and horrors. Angels and devils and witches and lost boyfriends.

Mostly there are horrors.

You only have two eyes.

Reality (ha!) is an ocean. An infinite flux, the chaos primordial. All the worlds all at once. All the possibilities.

The Sea of Dirac they call it, and other things beside. It is much much much too big. It’ll never fit in our tiny heads. Slice it up! The gaze is a sword. To perceive the ocean is to carve it: me from not-me, then you from not-us. This from that. Time and space from here-now. Matter from void.

You cannot carve the ocean, and only a fool would try. The only alternative is to drown, but it’s okay.

You never existed to begin with.

Allison starts with a key to all the worlds in her eye. She ends with a sword to slice them away.

To gaze is to carve.

God is dead. Allison met him.

But he is really just a demiurge. Ialdabaoth and all the aeons gibber and dance at the heart of creation, the depths of the ocean. They understand nothing, see nothing. They do not gaze, do not carve.

They have drowned.

They are free.

There is no point. Only a blade and an ocean, a mind and an eye.

Angels have bodies of void in shells of ash. Devils inhabit flesh and wear masks. The witch has something in her third eye just like Allison, but red, not white.

The Red Queen goes faster and faster to stay in the same place. The White Queen believes six impossible things before breakfast. Jam tomorrow and jam yesterday, but never jam today. Carve as finely as you like, but you’ll never carve down to the here-now.

Alice takes the place of the White Queen’s daughter Lily. But the White Queen lives backwards in time, and the child is the father of the man.

Alice-son.

(You can’t carve the ocean. All of it is the here-now.)

Kill Six Billion Demons and Kill 6 Billion Demons have the same art, the same dialogue. But they tell different stories. Only the latter has the sword manual.

(Yes, yes, to gaze is to carve.)

Words. Pictures. Data on a screen, or perhaps printed out to a page, but data nonetheless.

A datum is a single point, the tiniest unit of facticity, one dot on a graph. Data is the plural of datum. Sand is sand, but it is also many grains. We can say the grains are covering the beach, or we can say the sand is covering the beach. Grains are plural, but sand is singular, because sand is a fluid. Like water, it cannot be carved. The water is rising.

To be fluid is to be singular and plural at once. Not many, but much.

We used to say “data are,” because the graph has many points. (Statisticians still do.) The greatest spiritual discovery of the digital age is that data flows. Data is a fluid.

Fluids change shape to fit their containers.

Once upon a time, there was time. But that was then, and this isn’t now.

I don’t know why I’m bothering. You’re not even here.

A pearl in her forehead and a sword in her hand, she fights for love.

She fights for him.

She fights for herself.

(Who?)

Before I was born, I saw a seahorse. I tasted the ocean.

Seawater is poison, and so, I died.

The six billion demons are, obviously, us. We broke the worlds. We carved the ocean. We cleaved God in two, and two again, and then into hundreds and thousands and billions.

Into us.

We are the demiurge, who sees without understanding, who shapes a world and thinks it adequate. Who splits day from night and self from sea. We are monsters, with our keys and our swords, our divisions and our gateways. Simply to be is to tear the world asunder, but to not be is to kill the worlds within.

How many times and how many ways can I say the same thing?

None. [rimshot.wav]

What is real?

Whatever you can touch.

But  you can’t touch anything. The repulsive force between the electrons in  your hand and the electrons in the thing approaches infinity as the  distance between them approaches zero.

That’s what touching IS, stupid!

Who are you talking to?

And they were enlightened.

…Why did you just say that?

Everything is as it is supposed to be.

That sentence was in the passive voice. Actively, it is: Everything is as we suppose it to be.

That is what “good” means, and “real.”

It is never ever ever ever true.

You already have a key. You already have a sword. You already have six billion demons to slay.

There is nothing I can give you, not even a quest(ion).

Dance like no one’s watching. Scream for help like no one’s listening.

Spoilers: no one is. God is dead and the demiurge is lost.

No one’s listening, not even you.

Seven crowns on seven heads on one dread hill. How trite.

Hollowing them out to use as apartment buildings is new, though.

A sleeting curtain of inspiration. A susurrus of ideas. A door without a key.

There are clawmarks in the wood, and my fingernails are worn to the bone.

In the name of the moon and the revolution of the world, grant me the power to punish you!

This is nonsense.

This is profundity.

This is pretentious crap.

This is old hat.

This is contained in your mind now.

This is fluid.

I’ve got six billion of these. I could do this all day!

Don’t listen to your bones. They don’t have anything to say.


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It’s just to scare the bad guys, really (Torch Song)

It’s June 13, 1998. The top song is “The Boy Is Mine” by Brandy & Monica; Next, Shania Twain, and Mariah Carey also chart. Top at the box office is The Truman Show, a story about a man trapped in a perception of reality he was taught from birth; Can’t Hardly Wait and The Horse Whisperer are also in the top ten.

In the news since last episode, on June 7 James Byrd, Jr was beaten to death by a trio of white supremacists in Jasper, Texas, and the Guinea-Bissau Civil War started; yesterday, France won the World Cup.

“Torch Song” represents an interesting evolution in the DC Animated Universe’s depiction of stalkers. Including this episode, we have had at least three supervillains’ origin stories begin by depicting them as stalkers: the Mad Hatter in “Mad as a Hatter,” Edward Lytener/Luminus in  “Target,” and now Firefly. Laid out this way, there is a distinct progression in the episodes’ choice of focus.

“Mad as a Hatter” centers Tetch’s descent into villainy in a sort of parody of “sympathetic villain” episodes. Tetch is entitled, aggressive, and hateful, but the structure of the episode means that his self-deception that he is a “nice guy” who has been mistreated is centered in the same way that Mr. Freeze’s much more justifiable claims. By contrast, “Target” centers the recurring threat against Lois, making it clear that Lytener’s rationalizations are just that. On the other hand, Lois is placed in peril and rescued by Superman throughout the series, so “Target” comes across as just a sequence of such moments in a life full of them, not a particularly traumatic episode for Lois.

Not so “Torch Song.” Cassidy is a one-off character who never appears again, so the choice to center her is an unusual one–typically The New Batman Adventures will center a recurring character or villain, but victims-of-the-week almost never get that treatment. The episode thus signposts clearly that it is Cassidy’s experience that is the focus of the story, and Cassidy’s experience is a fascinating one.

An up-and-coming rock star, Cassidy is the picture of performative femininity. She dresses in a way that is as attention-grabbing as Leslie Willis in Livewire, but in the opposite direction: where Leslie wore deliberately shabby clothing–baggy pants and ratty shirts–to emphasize her rejection of social norms around feminine dress and behavior, Cassidy spends most of the episode in a backless black minidress, heels, and long black gloves, essentially eveningwear, but showing a lot of skin for eveningwear. She is presenting herself as formal yet sexual, a “good girl” who can function in polite company but nonetheless is very clearly a physical, sensual presence. She is the essence of the Good Girl Art aesthetic of Bruce Timm just as much as Supergirl is.

Her body language in the scene where she tries to hire Batman as a protector is similar. She is coy, flirtatious, deliberately making herself appear small as she approaches him. This is a woman who has spent her life fitting herself into the spaces she can find, performing whatever she needs to be in order to survive. If all anyone wants of her is her body (and her music as shown in the episode really is not very good), then she will offer up her body how and when it is wanted. She will perform the role she is given–on stage and off.

But the performance is never enough. It is not possible to be everything for everyone, and yet that is what is demanded of her. On stage she must be the innocent-yet-sexually-available ingenue and the powerful performer who holds the audience enthralled; in her everyday life she must deal with the demands of the men around her, from her pyrotechnician/ex-boyfriend turned arsonist/stalker to her manager to, yes, even Batman. And while her performativity clearly works well in her career, fitting herself into the spaces left by others gives her very little leverage to actually get what she wants: her manager doesn’t listen to her, Batman refuses her offer to hire him, and Firefly plans to destroy the city and disappear with her, regardless of whether she wants to be with him.

The result, inevitably, is trauma. Helpless and alone, she is trapped in fire while Batman–who, remember, refused her offer to hire him as a protector!–fights Firefly. Neither seems particularly interested in her impending death until the very end of the fight. She is, in other words, placed in terror for her life with no support of any kind, and afterwards returns immediately to her existence of pure performance, with no one to whom she can express her honest feelings about the experience.

This is a perfect recipe for trauma, and at episode’s end we see that she is indeed traumatized: her terror at the flambe at the next table and the reflection of the flames in her eyes imply that her mind has been plunged back into the fire she very nearly didn’t survive. The episode ends before we see her outward reaction, if any; we do not know if she tries once again to continue the performance, to bury it and shrug it off, or reaches out for support, nor do we know if she receives that support.

We can’t know, because trauma is the heart of Batman; to depict its healing is to call into question his very reason for being. If this one-off character can find support and healing, why can’t he, the main character around whom the narrative bends itself?

These are not questions the show is prepared to answer–and yet it is already setting itself up for its own replacement, which might be able to. Batman is unable to face Firefly on his own, in his normal gear, so he wears armor that is at once reminiscent of the Batman Beyondbatsuit and of the “mecha” batsuit depicted in that series as Wayne’s final, failed attempt to remain Batman despite advancing age. The world is evolving, and the spaces in which he exists and performs his role are squeezing gradually shut.

Bruce Wayne, age eleven, might have to actually grow up.


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His partner. His girlfriend? Whoa! (Over the Edge)

It’s May 23, 1998. Tomorrow, I turn 17.

Topping the charts, we have Mariah Carey with “My All”; Next, Janet featuring BLACKstreet, and Savage Garden also chart. In the movies this weekend, Godzilla (the bad American one) opens at No. 1; Deep Impact, The Horse Whisperer, and Quest for Camelot also make the top five.

In the news, on May 11 and 13 India conducted its first nuclear tests in nearly 25 years. In response, Pakistan will detonate its own test devices on the 28th. In Indonesia, a week after riots against Chinese-Indonesian people killed around a thousand people, long-reigning President Suharto resigns on the 21st. He is succeeded by his Vice President, B.J. Habibie.

Batgirl’s greatest fear is that her father will learn the truth about her.

That’s not subtext. It’s text. Even the way she tries to tell her father at the end plays like a coming out: “Dad, have a seat… this is important. It won’t be easy for you to hear…” Gordon’s response strongly resembles a (more or less good) parental response to the same: “Sweetheart, you’re capable of making your own decisions. You don’t need me to approve or even acknowledge them… All you need to know is I love you. All of you.”

Barbara Gordon is not, as far as we know, any flavor of queer–all of her relationships are with men, and there is nothing to suggest she isn’t cis. She is, as established earlier this season, kinky, but that’s more queer-adjacent than queer. Nonetheless, there is a powerful reading there of the superhero’s obsessive defense of their “secret identity”; we have generally viewed it as a trauma metaphor, but it works well for being closeted, as well.

I am far from an expert on the closet. I spent the first 36 years of my life so deep inside it, I didn’t even realize the closet existed. Once I did, I was fully out barely six months later.

But I spent those 36 years convinced there was something inside me. Something terrible, that could ruin everything, something that must be kept contained and hidden at all costs. The truth of my monstrosity. (The monster’s name is Jenny, and she turns out to be awesome.)

But we’ve talked about monsters, and queerness, and we know that heroes are monsters facing out. It makes sense that superheroes have their queer readings as well. Far more interesting are the details of Barbara’s fear: that her father’s discovery of her monstrosity will lead him on a trail of vengeance against her lover. In reality, he sees her as a grown woman capable of her own decisions, but her fear is (understandably, seeing as he’s struggled with this in the past) that he will seek a man on whom to blame her choices, and then seek vengeance against that man.

Her fear, in short, is that she will not only die but be fridged; that her death will be an excuse to create conflict between male characters, and opportunities for them to emote, while her character and her agency are effaced from the narrative. “It was all just a dream” is unfairly maligned as a plot device, and “Over the Edge” is an excellent example of why. First, the “just a dream” informs Barbara’s character and pushes her toward taking a major step, one which in turn illuminates Commissioner Gordon’s character as a better father and less clueless than we’d previously been led to believe. But more importantly, it emboits the fridge within her nightmare. It turns what is inherently a sacrifice of a woman to advance men’s characters into a sacrifice of men to advance women; without Barbara, Commissioner Gordon and Batman destroy each other, and the fear and pain engendered by their deaths is what drives Barbara to confess.

To be clear, simply making it a dream does not undo that it’s a fridging. All fiction is equally fictional; the story-within-a-story that is the dream is still a story told by the writers. They still started this story by fridging Batgirl. But its emboitment transforms it; the fact that Barbara’s death was just a dream does not unfridge her, but the fact that her father and lover/mentor are killed as well, and her actions at the end of the episode are motivated by this death, makes it much more interesting. Or to put it another way, this story inverts both aspects of a fridging: at the end of the story no one is dead, and a woman’s story has been advanced via her emotional response to the deaths of two men she was close to.

There is, of course, still the issue that seemingly every story about Batgirl has to be a psychosexual drama of some kind. If it’s not about tensions between her current lover and his estranged, adopted son who happens also to be her ex, it’s about tensions between her lover and her father. Certainly there’s plenty of psychosexual drama to go around in stories about Batman, too–pretty much any time Catwoman or Poison Ivy is around, for instance–but Batgirl seems to get little else. Batman: The Animated Series and The New Batman Adventures stories are, as we’ve observed before, rarely about Batman; the pattern shared by Batgirl, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and hell, let’s throw in Harley Quinn, too, is that the stories turn sexual when women are involved. The DCAU has come a long way from the misogynistic, gynophobic femme fatale depiction of Poison Ivy in her introductory episode, but it still struggles to position women as anything other than sexual objects, even when it’s about them.

This is, unfortunately, a problem it will never entirely overcome.


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Retroactive Continuity: Devilman Crybaby E8 “I Must Know Myself”

Content warning: Discussion of transphobia, TERFs, and abusive parents

There are two ways you can go with the revelation that devils are people.

Last week (as of this writing), Lisa Littman, an assistant professor at Brown University, published a methodologically questionable* paper on “rapid onset gender dysphoria,” essentially a transphobic claim that kids are “catching the trans” the same way homophobes in the 90s claimed that kids were “catching the gay”. The “theory” originates with transphobic parents of trans children convincing themselves that their children’s dysphoria does not arise from actually being trans, but is rather a kind of “social contagion” caused by exposure to media that positively portrays trans people and friendship with other trans children.

Of course, as a working scientist at a reasonably prestigious institution, Littman presumably knows what a methodologically sound study looks like. She is an excellent example of what I know as Fred Clark’s Law, named for the blogger behind Slacktivist, a community in which I used to be quite active. The law can be phrased as such: “sufficiently advanced malice is indistinguishable from incompetence, and vice versa.” In other words, Littman’s hatred of trans people is so great that she conducted a worthless study and her worthless study led her to write a paper that will be used to hurt trans people.

She, of course, will insist that this is an unfair characterization. She doesn’t hate trans people at all, her defenders will declare. Perhaps she even has trans friends. She’s just trying to protect the children.

But she isn’t. She’s protecting the children’s parents, from the realization that their children are a thing they hate. (“But more than 80 percent of study respondents say trans people should have the same rights as everyone else!” Yeah, but what does that mean? Does it include a right to transition? To have one’s gender identity recognized and affirmed? I doubt it, because they don’t see the privilege in having their own gender recognized without debate.)

Look at her choice of language: “social contagion.” Being trans is declared a contagious disease, caused by seeing trans people accepted or associating with them as friends. I am a disease, apparently.

Well, and in a sense I am. I am absolutely in favor of destroying cisheteronormative, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal kyriarchy. I am actively trying, every day, to get other people to also favor destroying the kyriarchy. The eventual goal is, from the perspective of Littman and her ilk, outright apocalypse: a world in which it is an obvious, mainstream idea that a parent who doesn’t accept their child’s self-declared gender identity is engaging in abuse.

The kyriarchy, however, is the grandest of grand narratives, the super-superstructure that supports all of our cultural superstructures, the meta-metanarrative. It is everywhere, and that makes it so easy to build our own narratives on top of it; for example, by incorporating its transphobia into an otherwise feminist narrative. It infiltrates everywhere, but not as a contagion; it is more like a pollutant, present in the groundwater of ideas before we even grow them.

But as a grand narrative, it shares the weakness of all grand narratives: it cannot abide alternatives. It insists that it is the only way, and so the presence of another way damages it. It tries to defend itself, to use the Dan Turpins and Maggie Sawyers and Lisa Littmans to attack the new narratives. (“Trans people should have the same rights as everyone else!”)

We who don’t fit in, who don’t follow the rules, who chafe at authority and question society; we are what they call “contagion”. We gather, we share our stories, we present alternative ways of being, and in so doing, shake the very foundations of society, because this society’s foundations are so rotted and so narrow that any alternatives at all are anathema to it.

We are monsters, here to destroy society. We who are dissatisfied with society, are devils.

And of course Littman is just a recent example of personal import to me. People like her are fighting to prevent a world in which I could have realized my gender and come out as a child, saving me decades of unnecessary suffering; but to them my suffering is necessary, to preserve their cisnormative narrative. Other people fight, in other ways, to ensure the continuation of the suffering the kyriarchy engenders; some because they derive value from that suffering, but most because they value the comfortable stability of grand narrative more than the well-being of people unlike themselves.

As I said, there’s two ways to go. If you have compassion, real compassion, radical compassion that values people wherever, however, whoever they are, you say “Devils are people, so we must make room for them. We must try to understand them. We must treat them, always and without fail, as people.”**

On the other hand, if you value society over people, if you are a hard-edged “rationalist” who rejects the infinite multiplicity and complexity of human experience, a traditionalist or authoritarian–if, in short, you are a Ryo or a conservative or a TERF–you say “Devils are people, so some people are devils. We need to kill them.”

Or, since real life is not usually a deliberately over-the-top horror anime, you use terms like “social contagion” or “illegal” instead of “devil,” and you leave the second sentence out while endorsing policies that ensure the suffering and death of the people you don’t like. It’s not any less transparent to the people you’re abjectifying, but it apparently makes it easier to sleep at night.

*Read “methodologically questionable” as a polite way of saying it’s bullshit. Julia Serrano covers a few of the most egregious of the many, many ways in which the paper’s methods fail any reasonable standards of rigorous science, and thereby creates a serious threat of harm to an extremely vulnerable population.

**Note: There are circumstances in which violence against people is justifiable. There are many more circumstances in which it is not. Laying out the details of which circumstances are which lies beyond the scope of this essay.


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