#MeToo'd in cyberspace.

#MeToo’d in cyberspace

Been on a big Julian Dibbell kick this week.

You might be familiar with him as the journalist behind the famous piece, “A Rape in Cyberspace.

Every time I read something about the Internet pre-2010—honestly, pre-1999, I can’t help but think, “Why isn’t this required reading for any and every journalist, culture critic, and public intellectual?”

I think it’s some of the most important writing that’s ever been done.

I mean peep this:

Where virtual reality and its conventions would have us believe that exu and Moondreamer were brutally raped in their own living room, here was the victim exu scolding Mr. Bungle for a breach of “civility.”

Where real life, on the other hand, insists the incident was only an episode in a free-form version of Dungeons and Dragons, confined to the realm of the symbolic and at no point threatening any player’s life, limb, or material well-being, here now was the player exu issuing aggrieved and heartfelt calls for Mr. Bungle’s dismemberment. Ludicrously excessive by RL’s lights, woefully understated by VR’s, the tone of exu’s response made sense only in the buzzing, dissonant gap between them.

Which is to say it made the only kind of sense that can be made of MUDly phenomena. For while the facts attached to any event born of a MUD’s strange, ethereal universe may march in straight, tandem lines separated neatly into the virtual and the real, its meaning lies always in that gap.

The troubles with Belfast

I wrote a review of Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast for The Washington Examiner this week:

Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast is a film that holds back.

There’s the story it tells; the story it neglects to tell; and the little winks woven throughout the film that suggest it might have wanted to say more. Perhaps with different executive producers the film may have had taken on a slightly different tenor.

At first glance, Belfast is a coming-of-age story and a character study about Protestant, working-class Buddy (Jude Hill) and his family.

In typically Irish cinematic style, Belfast is meandering, though it remains enchanting. We see a year of Buddy’s childhood through his eyes: the love he has for his grandparents, the plight of trying to understand maths, the influence of his rabblerouser cousin, who encourages him to shoplift from a corner store and chides him when he reveals he was only able to lift a Turkish Delight.

We also see his parents struggle with the decision to remain in Ireland as the Troubles continue, and his father’s work increasingly keeps him overseas, to England. Will Buddy’s family remain in Belfast? And if they do, what does that mean for their safety, their happiness? Buddy’s mother seems particularly distraught by the idea of leaving Belfast, which is all she’s ever known. In one scene, her friend reassures her that the Irish were meant to leave, meant to live all over the world. After all, who would open Irish pubs if the Irish didn’t spread their influence far and wide? 

Which brings us back to the political backdrop.

The politics of Belfast aren’t incidental, since they drive the central question of the film, “Will Buddy and his family stay in Ireland?” But if you’re not paying attention, it feels as though the Troubles are minimized.

We open with a montage of Belfast in the present day. The very first scene is, appropriately, Samson and Goliath, twin Gantry cranes that live in the shipping yard of Harland & Wolff, which famously built the Titanic. The palette slowly fades to black-and-white, and we’re transported to a working class, loyalist neighborhood in 1969, where Buddy and his friends and cousins play while their parents look on.

It’s in the next scene that the audience is reminded that we are in 1969 Belfast. We are in the thick of the Troubles, not quite at its 1970s crescendo. The simplicity of neighbors and children enjoying the afternoon is broken as street violence erupts, ostensibly led by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), though the film never names them as such.

It’s a funny thing that the movie never names the “Protestant gang” throughout the film, though the clues are all there. Who are they attacking? The Catholic residents of the primarily Protestant neighborhood. What’s their M.O.? To “cleanse the community.” Ethnic cleansing isn’t exactly garden variety gang violence. By the end of the film, the “Protestant gang” ends up feeling less like a gang, and more like a paramilitary group who delight in recruiting children to their ranks.

This isn’t the only unusual way the film handles the conflict. It sticks to “Catholic” and “Protestant,” never uttering the words “republican” or “loyalist.” We also see almost nothing of the systemic oppression faced by the Irish. As far as I can tell, there are no Irish Catholic characters with speaking lines, save for Buddy’s school crush, who gets very little screen time.

But there are two other details in Branagh’s film that I think may have been missed, both of which make me wonder if this was merely an overly romanticized picture of ’60s Belfast, or if something more was going on. 

The first is that you never hear Buddy, or his family for that matter, identify as British either. They are Irish, they love Ireland, they are concerned with missing Ireland, if they were to relocate to Australia or England.

Not “Northern Irish,” not “Northern Ireland,” two names you only hear in the film when spoken on the TV. To Buddy’s family, to his mother, to his father who travels to England each week for his construction job, Belfast is a city in Ireland. One must wonder if the reason designations like “republican” or “loyalist,” or “British” or “Irish,” are mysteriously missing from a film set during the Troubles is because in Branagh’s eyes, whether Protestant or Catholic, they are Irish all the same.

For those unfamiliar with the conflict in the North of Ireland, these details may seem insignificant. Isn’t this a war about religion, after all? Not quite. The fault lines in the North are less about religion and more about who the North belongs to: the United Kingdom or Ireland. A loyalist would most likely say they’re British (or Northern Irish), whereas a republican would say they’re Irish.

The second detail is the role of the British government in the plot.

Is the government criticized for its treatment of the Irish? Again, no. But it also acts as a secondary antagonist in the film, for example when it’s suggested that Buddy’s family is being unfairly taxed.

It’s as though the movie wanted to criticize the British government more robustly but settled for smuggling it in, reminding the viewer that the British government didn’t treat anyone of a working-class background well. As a friend from Armagh put it, “As a child of the Peace Process, who lived through the Troubles, content that broaches the fact that the British government mistreated the working class, Catholic and Protestant alike, is missing.”

Why would Branagh shy away from more explicit criticism though? It could have been that subtlety was the only way he could have said his piece without igniting political drama of his own. Maybe the lack of words like “loyalist,” or “republican” was the work of an executive producer. Maybe what we see on the screen is from his unconscious mind, at once able to identify who the antagonists are but unable to give them their rightful name.

Cahir O’Doherty, an Irish critic, wrote this of Belfast:

As though anticipating our growing reservations Branagh's screenplay suggests that it's really the local loyalist psycho “gangsters” who are the real ringleaders of the Troubles, […] who just make unwelcome trouble for all the ordinary decent Protestants […]

Look, at best that’s a reductive claim and at worst it’s indefensible. It lets an awful lot of people off the hook for a three-decade-long civil conflict that erupted at the turn of the 1970s. It suggests that the larger culpability of unionism—the blanket refusal to grant the same rights to others that they demanded for themselves—isn’t really addressed. Barely once. In a film about Belfast in the Troubles. It's extraordinary. 

Perhaps O’Doherty is right, and my read is too generous. Perhaps there are no winks, no dog whistles, nothing to indicate that there is something else beneath of the surface.

If the intended film is the film we got, then while Belfast may not be a fair or historical treatment of the Troubles, it is at the very least a charming depiction of one little boy’s childhood. 

One point that I wish I had included in my review is that it’s also possible that the lack of political exposition is because the film is from the point of view of a child.

How would a child understand the UVF? Probably as a gang.

We’re loyal fans, but are we loyal friends?

Sherry Turkle writes a lot about the impact technology has had on empathy.

I also think it’s had an impact on loyalty. We’re loyal to our ideologies, our careers, our fan objects, but we’re much less loyal to friends, perhaps as the threshold for who counts as a ‘friend’ has lowered.

I wonder—is loyalty is an inextricable piece of empathy? Is the lack of loyalty due to a dearth of empathy? Or of intimacy, something Turkle also has written about at length?

I hate to be so cynical on a Friday morning, but I feel like too many people inhabit their own worlds and their own worlds alone… loyal to nothing but the movement through their own narratives, a never-ending quest to be the most special, the most loved, the most important. The protagonist at any cost.

Everything, and everyone, is a means to an end. You’re so special, your side is so special.

To close today’s newsletter, I return to Ireland.

I think of one of my favorite Irish songs, The Recruiting Sergeant:

This is an anti-recruiting song and was composed by Seamus O'Farrell in 1915. It was branded a ‘treason’ song by the British and anyone heard singing it in public rendered himself liable to six months' imprisonment.

There’s a great lyric in The Pogues’ interpretation of it, that I think has wisdom beyond the conflict: English men fight English wars.

It may be warm in Flanders, but it's drafty in the trenches.