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Sat, 2005-Jan-29

Swastika ban

Since Prince Harry's gaffe of wearing nazi paraphanalia to a costume party the segments of the world population have been up in arms. Now we see attempts to ban nazi symbolism as part of the European Union's effort to stamp out racism.

It's an admiral goal, and an important one given Europe's history. Europe has long been a set of fractured nation states with racist tensions used to incite war and violence. If a united European people is to ever emerge they must not continue their internal hatreds. Ideally, at the same time, they would improve their view of all human peoples and everyone would live happily ever after in a humanist paradise. But how do we get there, again?

I'm no psychohistorian but I think that one method of stamping out behaviour that has proved ineffectual in the past is the use of a unilateral ban. Prohibition showed that a ban not supported by the people can't be forced onto the people. It's much more complicated than that, and requires generations of painstaking social manipulation.

Issues of freedom of speech aside, I think we need to be careful about what we're banning. If individuals identify themselves with a banned trait and feel that they can't be separated from that trait then the ban of the trait is a ban on the person. Be it christianity, communism, neonazism, or any other trait that identifies an individual as belonging to a group the ban is not going to stop that person being part of their group. More than likely it is going to make the community tighter-knit than before, and more exclusive. People can feel special when they as people are banned. They are outsiders. Noone understands them but their peers. They're unique together. It plays right into the teenage angst thing.

It makes me wonder if acts like that of Prince Harry are actually more of a solution than a problem. When we make the traits that identify someone as part of their clique generic we may go some way into breaking up the clique. When we take from someone the thing that made them unique they may have to adapt to become part of a wider society again. On the flipside, of course, is the danger that spreading their symbolism throughout society would make them bolder and more dangerous as a group. It may give them the impression they are more widely accepted than they really are or have a wider support-base than they really have.

The response to Harry's gaffe has been overwhelming (although much of it has come from the world media), reminding us that it is not just people in racist cliques that we need to think about when trying to solve the problem that racist symbolism stirs. We must also think of those who were damaged in the name of those symbols in the past. Many have suffered enough and there is no excuse for increasing their trauma. Sensitivity to those people dictates that the problem of the symbolism may not be able to be solved constructively or conclusively until they are gone. Their existence morally binds our hands in what we can express and limits the ways in which we can approach racism head-on.

Sat, 2005-Jan-08

I, Robot

When I first heard about this series of Isaac Asimov's short stories being adapted for the big screen I also heard about Will Smith's leading role. This didn't inpire me to watch it, and I felt I needed independent confirmation that I wouldn't cringe at some wild misintepreation of the three laws.

Having now seen the film myself, my educated opinion is that it is not a travesty. That point concluded I can now look at the film in its entirety.

Let's get this straight: We're looking at an action film. In fact, I would say that the three tiers of the film are action, Will Smith, and a hint of 1984's big brother and world gone mad with love for something broken. No, I haven't even read 1984. Slap me.

It's an interesting blend. I am not a Will Smith fan, but found the other aspects of the film enough to keep me engaged with the character he played. That character is Del Spooner, A policeman who hasn't trusted robots since a past tragic event. He doesn't trust how the robots think, and that mistrust is central to the plot of the film. A character from the book that should have been more useful than she actually was is Susan Calvin (played by Bridget Moynahan). She is a robot psychologist who really is a bit of a wet fish in this intepretation, although it is difficult to see how she could have been better used without giving away too much of the plot in the early stages of the film.

Atmosphericly, the tension builds nicely throughout to a high-flying and enjoyable climax. My biggest complaint overall within the first fifteen minutes of the film's end was that the resolution itself was a little too audience-friendly.

Ultimately, the link between this work of the theatre and Asimov's books is fleeting and subtle where the link can be made at all. The main points that do survive are the laws of robotics themselves, and a few points that come out late in Asmiov's Foundation series of books rather than in "I, Robot" itself. "I, Robot" is a series of short stories rather than a single narrative but the film adaptation is a nice summary of the different worlds that exist in these and other Asimov narratives.

I've been thinking about the connections a little since I saw the film on DVD come New Year's Eve (I'm a party animal). I may start tending towards spoilers at this point so tune out if you don't want any major plot points revealed.

Hmmm... now that I look up specific stories from the compendium I find that the stories prompted by scenes from the film actually have come from other Asimov stories. I believe they came from "Robot Dreams" and "Robot Visions". I don't seem to have either volume in my library at present but I can recall the following:

Anyway... I've spent far too much time rereading robot stories while pretending to write a review, so I'll sign off now. To round it out I'll leave you with this final link: be sure to read the fliers. Repeal the second law! Oh, and my final score? I'd give it an 8/10, but maybe that's my supressed Asimov fan-boy youth speaking.

Benjamin