Corporate Social Irresponsibility: Models of Ethical Whitewashing and Stolen Valor

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WWE Superstars posing with Nestlé products and employees to publicise the new partnership between the two corporations. Credit: Nestlé

As someone who has worked the majority of his life in the charity sector, I have both been encouraged to work with the Private Sector, and have always watched with interest how many businesses exploit their relationships with charities to shirk their ethical responsibilities or mask their otherwise questionable activities.  Everyone has different ethical standards and personal missions, but for me, the strongest one has always been against the Nestlé corporation. It is Nestlé who, again, have got my blood boiling, and whose new charitable partnership with WWE called the ‘Nestlé Waters Challenge’ was the final catalyst for an article which has been stewing for some time.

In a now infamous tweet from 2015, WWE’s Chief Brand Officer, Stephanie McMahon admiringly quoted Twitter co-founder Biz Stone from an interview with WWE’s Michael Cole in which he said ‘Philanthropy is the future of marketing, it’s the way brands are going to win.’ This of course laid bare the rationale for any charitable work WWE engages in, and it engages in a lot. Now it’s important not to be so over-zealous in your in your analysis of these activities that you denounce meaningful charity work like Make-a-Wish, which all of the wrestlers seem to enjoy, or even the positive elements of the shadier partnerships they are involved with, but knowing that WWE’s charity work is a branding decision as opposed to a moral one certainly puts it in a different light. Of course, this strategy of Corporate Social Responsibility is by no means unique to WWE, and is indeed the norm for big corporations, but as WWE is a brand I have dedicated a lot of time to, and is one which is now engaging in unconscionable practices, they will be the focus for the most part here.

In retrospect, while I have been snide about many of WWE’s corporate practices in the past, it is only now – far too late – that I have started to be appropriately disturbed by them. They have always been bad, but between emerging partnerships and announcements regarding them seemingly snowballing recently, they are now verging on cartoon baddie status.

Tackling cancer is obviously a very worthwhile cause, but where good causes are, there will always be some unscrupulous people willing to profit from a cottage industry, and in charity terms, unfortunately, ‘cancer awareness’ has become the most bloated cottage industry going with Susan G. Komen being a poster-child of the worst of it. ‘Komen’ have been accused of about every bad thing a charity can be accused of, from marketing products and policies which are linked with causing cancer, to backing industries they receive donations from, to ‘Pinkwashing’ – focusing more on selling merchandise than actually trying to cure cancer, while keeping much of the profits for themselves. Despite this, possibly because more respectable charities won’t go near wrasslin’, WWE chose to partner with Komen to get skin in the charity awareness game, promote the charity, and enable them to do more damage. The best you can say for WWE is that they were ignorant of the dark side of Komen, didn’t care to consider it, and went ahead as a business decision, not caring about the ethics of it.

I have written extensively about my cynicism regarding the merits of the armed forces, and my nausea with celebrating them too much. That said, I understand that it is natural and sincere for many people to want to celebrate them, that there isn’t anything terrible about corporations like WWE doing so, and that often it is the troops that are the real victims of the military-inductrial complex. What is terrible, however, is the money which changes hands when corporations celebrate the military, and the fealty that is required in return. WWE is by no means alone in this; the NFL is just as bad if not worse, taking vast sums of taxpayer money to promote the US military. While veterans are spat out of the military to lives of PTSD, financial struggles, and problems to re-integrate in to life without the military once they have served their purpose, the military has an insatiable appetite for recruits. The US military is desperate for bodies, and it drives them to recruit youngsters, play to false notions of patriotism, and use the platforms of major corporations to spread propaganda for them. So corporations like the NFL and WWE promote the importance of the military, the apparent ‘freedom’ they secure, and also programmes like Hire Heroes, which helps gets veterans in to work. Again, I won’t pretend that Hire Heroes is a bad thing, but what it is, is a shoddy clean-up effort, a tacit admission of guilt and of the problem at hand, and a solution that amounts to a drop in the ocean that they hope will absolve them in the public eye. It’s the equivalent of burning someone’s house down, buying them a sleeping bag, and expecting a thanks. What makes support of these military-linked charity partnerships so uncomfortable is the blatancy of the quid pro quo. The military pay corporations like WWE to promote them and absolve them of their sins.

This theme is repeated with WWE’s new Nestlé partnership.

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WWE Chairman Vince McMahon and COO Triple H posing with Saudi despot Mohammed Bin Salman. Credit: Forbes

But before I get to that, there is another WWE business decision which doesn’t really count as corportate social responsibility, but has thematic links, and that’s the elephant in the room: WWE’s ongoing contract with the Saudi Arabian royal family. There are much better explanations of the crimes of Mohammed Bin Salman and the Saudi monarchy elsewhere, but in short, the ruthless evil of a state which is bombing and starving their poorer Yemeni neighbours and brutally murders critical journalists is an evil which is impossible to defend. What Saudi Arabia would like to do, however, is have you forget about it, and they have some ideas for how to do that. One is to pay WWE outlandish amounts of money to put on a series of stadium-sized house shows there to contribute to a cultural whitewashing of the oppressive state and to add a (thin) veil of cultural progressivism to the rulers there. There’s talk of letting the women wrestle over there in the name of ‘progress’, but that hasn’t materialised yet, and increasingly, this seems a hollow carrot dangled above the WWE superstars who make the trips there to make the whole thing seem less greasy. That said, there are some superstars – Daniel Bryan, Kevin Owens, and more, who are conscientiously objecting, but it should be many more. WWE are so ashamed of what they are doing that they don’t even refer to the country the shows are in when they promote their broadcasts on the WWE Network, and they should be ashamed. Unfortunately, they are not ashamed enough to hand back the cash. Again, their partnership is a straight exchange of money for good PR, but there isn’t even any hint of charitable activity this time.

When WWE entered in to this disgusting arrangement, that should have been enough for me to stop watching, but to my shame, it wasn’t. It has taken until now for me to speak out (for what that’s worth), but when I saw that WWE were entering in to a PR clean up campaign with Nestlé, that was the equivalent of a punch in the stomach to me. To be extremely clear: Nestlé are evil. Nestlé has caused the death and hardship of millions. Nestle is everything that is wrong with corporations. It is a company which owns and operates a huge amount of brands to engage with, from foods, to hygiene products, and are very hard to avoid consuming, but I have been trying my best to for years now after learning about their practices. Again, many more have written better and in more depth than I will, but if you can think of any unethical corporate practice, Nestlé have done it with incredulity. Most famously, their promotion of their baby milk formulas in developing countries where poor sanitation made the process lethal to many babies, and their bribing of doctors there to push their products on mothers is perhaps their most infamous scandal, killing as it did, babies. That is just the tip of the iceberg though, and again, please seek out detail in more depth, but Nestlé have also practiced child labour and trafficking in their chocolate production in the Ivory Coast; systemic pollution; forcing famine-stricken Ethiopia to pay them a ‘debt’ of $6 million; promoting mis-labeled products as ‘healthy’ when they are not; and of course, good old fashioned price fixing and tax avoidance. What led us here though is another of their major scandals: their bottled water business practices.

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Credit: Rachael Romero and the Inkworks Press Archive

There are so many rotten layers to this it is almost hard to follow. Two days ago, WWE announced they were ‘teaming up’ with Nestlé for their ‘Nestlé Waters Challenge’, a ‘campaign’ which aims to get people to choose healthy options and choose water. Fair enough. But wait, Nestlé are the ones selling you water. In fact for them it’s a multi-billion dollar business. And wait, not only are Nestlé selling you the water, but more accurately, they are selling you back water which they have effectively stolen from the public. The Nestlé water business model is a simple one: they pay next to nothing to monopolise what should be public water with the promise of jobs and economic benefits in return (but which rarely materialise), and then sell the public back their own water in a Nestlé branded bottle. They have outwardly said that they don’t believe access to water is a human right, and they practice what they preach, repeating this model in whatever vulnerable communities they can find with water springs. They do it all over the world: in Nigeria, in Pakistan, and in Michigan. In Michigan, the state where Flint is and which hasn’t had safe drinking water in years, Nestlé hog the only safe water around, and sell it to the desperate residents. In this context, Nestlé encouraging you to ‘choose water’ is transparently disgusting, and WWE providing a friendly platform for them to do so, is equally as bad.

Again, WWE is helping whitewash the crimes of an rotten organisation, helping characterise Nestlé as the friendly corporation which wants the best for you and your health while they steal your water behind your back. WWE are again, for money and exposure, aiding and abetting Nestlé’s evil, and are again using a charitable promotion as the very thinly veiled vehicle to do so.

I may write soon about my current hiatus from watching wrestling, but this relationship with Nestlé may make my hiatus permanent, at least for WWE.

The idea for this article has been bouncing around in my head for some time now and from a slightly different angle from the arguments above, so I will move away from the WWE microcosm of the problem now to talk about some other phenomena.

As discussed earlier, a big driver for corporations to do charitable work is pure PR, which is really a form of marketing themselves as a kind company who you should want to give your hard-earned money to. ‘Pinkwashing’ was discussed earlier, but perhaps the cause which has become most linked with this, to the point of parody, is LGBT Pride. Pretty much every organisation, and every product going, displays the rainbow during Pride month. There are positives to this of course. Seeing people engage with that throughout the month helps remove stigma and make people feel more accepted, or more able to be themselves, and that is undoubtedly a good thing. It is important though that you don’t mistake the gestures of brands as friendliness. If there was no money in it, far fewer would bother to do it. Selling a pride version of your product is still selling your product, and the financial benefits of this are inconsistent at best. If a company says they will give a certain proportion of profits to an LGBT charity, they still take a share, and even if they give all profits charity (which is a rarity), it’s a tax write off for them which gets you in their place of business. In the grand scheme of things, this is not the most egregious form of corporate social responsibility, but it is nevertheless to be wary of, and audited when you consider engaging.

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A positive action, but also an infamous example of what might be considered ‘Pridewashing’. Credit: Pinknews

There is another element to this kind of corporate social responsibility, where companies sell a product and donate some of their takings, and it’s that it’s not really them donating the money, is it? At best, they are curating your donation. They decide who that money goes to, not you, and what’s worse, they get the credit and good PR for their ‘donation’, not you, the customer. This is what I mean by the slightly tongue-in-cheek use of the term ‘stolen valour’ – that the power and presence of large corporations allow for them to undertake seemingly charitable endeavours, profit from it, and take the credit for the money flowing from their customers with them as a middle man. Think of whenever you go in to a McDonalds or a KFC. There are always little boxes for your change that goes towards their charitable foundations. Aside from the same old story of fast food companies ‘investing’ in healthy food programmes by way of apology for serving addictive and unhealthy food to children, those customer donations go some way towards funding their charitable endeavours. Now i’m not naive enough to think that the change from your Big Mac alone funds these causes, but it certainly subsidizes them. Now again, the work of the Ronald McDonald house, for example, is good and valuable, but they are there with your support, while McDonald’s gets to pat themselves on the back and get forgiven for their promotion of unhealthy foods.

There has also been another recent trend within Corporate Social Responsibility which is even more transparent as sheer marketing – the ‘engage to be good’ model, if you will. I first saw this with an infamous charity tweet (though not so infamous that I can properly remember it or find it online) along the lines of ‘1 like = 1 meal for a hungry child’. While donating a meal for such little effort seems like a nice gesture, the tone of the tweet betrayed the intent – i.e. you were being held hostage, and the company will only give the hungry kid a meal if you engage with them. It was roundly lambasted at the time, but amazingly, not enough to kill the trend. Just last week, the makers of the film Aladdin started a twitter campaign whereby Disney would donate $5 for every public post including the hashtag #FriendLikeMe. Cool right? Yeah, except #FriendLikeMe refers to a song in Aladdin and is accompanied by a custom emoji of Aladdin whenever posted. Twitter users were literally being asked to help promote the film in return for a donation to Make-a-Wish. Disney would in fact only make the donation if  you first promoted their film. Now of course, there will be benefits as a result of this campaign, but we mustn’t treat this as a selfless act. It is blatant emotional manipulation for profit, and unfortunately, it is a trend that we are just used to now.

So why does this matter? In cases like #FriendLikeMe, maybe it doesn’t matter all that much – its the least we can expect from corporations; that every good deed comes with a price, but that it doesn’t really harm anyone. Even if that’s true, I think it’s important to be cognizant of it – be aware of what your engagement with these campaigns do and consider if you really support it. Always remember, as well, that it would be far more effective to just tax these corporations effectively and let the state decide where their money goes, rather than corporations doing a small amount themselves instead and getting a tax write-off for it. In cases like the WWE and their legitimising of Nestlé though, there should be no forgiveness. The top brass of these companies don’t care, but especially in WWE’s case, they have high profile faces that they link to these campaigns, and they might. I think it’s important to let them know the implications of what they are lending their faces to and if they still want to do it. Also, frankly, if you are boycotting Nestlé, it may be time to extend that to it’s partners, like WWE. I’m lucky in that I was already on a self-imposed hiatus, rather than a boycott, but when that hiatus is up, a difficult decision will have to be made. I don’t believe I will ever pay for their Network again though, at least while they are in league with Nestlé.

From the point of view of someone who works for a small charity, I would suggest the following. Firstly, investigate what the corporation is trying to achieve in their charity work – it won’t always be something ethical. Secondly, if you want to support a cause via a corporate campaign, at least look in to where the money is going – it won’t always be to an appropriate place, even if it’s masquerading as a charity. Thirdly, related to that, if you want to support a cause – research it, and choose who you want to support directly – you don’t need a corporation as a middle man, taking a cut for themselves and choosing for you. Finally, and perhaps with some bias – small charities are facing a tough time now, and are always reliant on income. While larger charities do fantastic work, they don’t always need your donation as much as your local, hard-working, coal-face organisation does. Find out what small charities are around you, and if there is one you like, consider offering them your support instead. They will likely never have the pull to benefit significantly from corporate input, but you can always help.

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Game of Thrones and A Song of Toxic Headcanon and Hyper-reaction

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Far from being a fable of heroes or villains, the finale ‘The Iron Throne’ showed what Game of Thrones has always shown – that our leaders are kinda disappointing. We shouldn’t have expected anything else. Credit: HBO

I started thinking about this article between episodes 5 and 6 of the final season of Game of Thrones, and am finishing it after the season finale. Game of Thrones won’t be the only TV show I discuss here, but it will be the main one, and is the one that best exemplifies the phenomena I will be discussing: ‘headcanon’ and hyper-reaction from fans and critics. So for the purpose of clarity, ‘headcanon’ is a term I have seen used to mean fan’s individual understanding of the show they like, and also their view of how it will, or should, end; and by ‘hyper-reaction’ I mean the largely online culture of criticism that is based around a cycle of microscopic viewing, reviewing, previewing, and theorising which manages to be fairly simplistic despite the detail they go in to. It is this recipe of influences which can be so toxic, and which we have seen recently with Game of Thrones.

I do not enjoy fantasy really. I can’t put my finger on exactly why, but magical realms of elves and demons and what-have-you has never appealed to me. I think it is because I always enjoy human stories the most and fantasy seems a bit removed from that. Game of Thrones, however, has been a mighty big exception. This show featuring magic, various gods, dragons, and resurrection became one of my favourites ever as soon as Ned Stark’s head left his body. By this time, the reality that this was really a story of personal and political intrigue first, was clear, and the fact that it’s rich setting included such fantasy elements was no longer an issue for me. This slow introduction of fantasy elements is part of what has made the show such a smash hit. Perhaps if the dragons and magic were prominent from the off, I would have been less enamoured, but surely, these elements were introduced as a crucial part of the universe – more pieces on the ever-developing chess board. It was clear that expectations, as well as sentiment, could be thrown away. The game would play out as it would, not as fans expected.

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Ned’s beheading is cited by many as a quintessential Game of Thrones moment that set the scene for the rest of the show. Credit: HBO

I started watching Season 1 in early 2017, between Seasons 6 and 7 and made my way through the show fairly (and increasingly) quickly, until I caught up with the show and everyone else for Season 7. I have therefore consumed the show both as a binge-watcher, and now as an episodic watcher, and these two experiences are different in many ways. Of course watching multiple episodes back to back leaves you with a different experience to waiting a week between episodes, but one specific way I will primarily write about is the ‘quiet time’ between watching episodic shows, the time where all you have is the speculation of yourself and others. A lot has also changed from 2011 to now from the show being a cult hit and there being less of a review/’deep dive’ culture online to now when the show is perhaps the most popular show of all time with countless fans ready to make as many reaction videos, blogs, and tweets about it as possible, either out of love, or good business sense given the traffic the show inevitably brings.

Fandom has never been so intimate, and the intimacy comes in cycles. Unfortunately, the cycle itself and the online output it encourages is almost exclusively harmful to enjoyment of the show.

I am as culpable and vulnerable to it as anyone else. Here is my unofficial Game of Thrones schedule for this season:

1) Watch Episode > 2) Tweet reactions > 3) Listen to multiple reviews of episode > 4) Listen to multiple previews of the next episode > 5) Watch next episode > 6) Repeat.

Mix in to all of this conjecture, predictions, and discussions with others about the overall narrative journey of the show, and thoughts about how it will end, and it becomes all consuming. It becomes something almost apart from the show. This seems to be the case for many people too. People have their own individual view of both how they would like the show to behave and end, of how individual characters should behave and end their story, and how the show and characters will behave and end. This is all independent of the episodes already in the can and waiting to be televised. Viewers are obsessed with all facets of the show, and, like Littlefinger himself, imagined multiple different directions for the show at different times – some they like, and some they don’t. This is what is meant by ‘headcanon’: an imagined version of the show that exists only in the fans mind (and hopes). There is a degree of personal and even emotional investment involved with headcanon. Game of Thrones has done an excellent job of creating several characters we care about or are interested in, that we think we understand and can predict, but this creates expectations for fans that the show cannot possibly cater to singularly.

Most Game of Thrones characters are, and are celebrated as, morally complicated and hard to predict, but in a culture where predictions are prevalent, people will still do it. They perhaps want to believe they understand the show closely, and even know how it should, and will, end. So when it doesn’t happen in a way they like, something feels amiss, or even missing. I’m perhaps playing pop-psychologist a bit here, but they may even feel their fandom is invalidated. This is where people get defensive, and where at least part of the problem lies.

Let’s take a couple of examples which are being talked about a lot currently:

1) Daenerys becoming the ‘Mad Queen’. Daenerys has had an interesting character journey, from abused sister to powerful Queen in waiting, the ‘Breaker of Chains’, to now, where she has become a murderous tyrant. Criticism has been multiple and emotional, claiming that her turn to ‘mad queen’ has come out of nowhere and doesn’t fit the rest of her ‘arc’* given how much she spoke of breaking chains and wheels of power. It is certainly a disappointment if you admired her, that much is certain, but what it isn’t is unexpected or unearned**. If you view Dany in broad strokes, then yes, the progression seems nonsensical. But remember, the characters in this show all show what George RR Martin calls ‘the human heart in conflict with itself’ – they are morally complex, and situationally torn characters, and as such, can be powerfully human, even in their inhumanity. Look at Daenerys in more detail, and it is clear that violence and strength are always tools near to her. She has incinerated multiple people who she believes has done wrong or got in between her and the Iron Throne, she talks of burning cities to the ground and using ‘fire and blood’, has crucified scores of people, and her advisors are there explicitly to try to curb what are the more vengeful and violent aspects of her Targaryen bloodline. Throughout the eight seasons, it has been made explicit that as much as Daenerys may speak in purple poetry about being a liberator, her primary ambition is the throne, and the possibility of her using violence has always been just below the surface. My personal reading of her is that when she was conquering lands away from Westeros with relative ease, and was receiving the love of the people, she was happy to imagine herself the revolutionary, and maybe even believe it, but when challenged significantly, and when unable to inspire that same love, she was more than happy to choose fear over love if it meant reaching the throne. Even further, when the common people of Westeros didn’t immediately rally to her cause, that was all the excuse she needed to follow her father’s example and ‘burn them all’. None of this is inconsistent. How many times have we seen coups from people claiming to bring some sort of ‘change’ only for them to become tyrants? How many times do we see politicians support both humanitarian aid as well as military interventionism? Bad people rarely think they are bad, and in Dany’s case, I think she has convinced herself that getting the Throne, and the steps she has taken to do so, are absolutely necessary to her cause. The degree to which she will actually break chains or wheels is in doubt though when it’s compared to her wielding power.

Is this a pleasant direction? Absolutely not, but does it make sense? Does it fit? Absolutely. People were shocked and stunned to see the grisly images of her fire bombing of civilians, but that doesn’t make the story bad, it makes it affecting. There seems to be some confusion in this differentiation. Viewers of Game of Thrones should know now to expect a pleasant show with clear saviours or heroes, and getting upset when they don’t get it is astounding to me. Many viewers pictured Dany liberating Kings Landing either with or without Jon Snow by her side, they imagined a peaceful transition of power and a life of happiness and freedom for all. That is rarely the case in real life, let alone this universe, and if you expected that, you were watching the wrong show.

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Perhaps the defining image of the season, and the most divisive. Dany’s fall was foreshadowed, but not enough for some. Credit: HBO

2) Jamie Lannister comforting Cersei as they both died. Jamie Lannister is perhaps the most morally ambiguous character on the show. In the early seasons, he is an infuriating, incestuous golden boy and (attempted) child killer, as well as a ‘Kingslayer’. He’s about as hateful as it gets aside perhaps from his son Joffrey and, later, Ramsay Bolton. But a funny thing happens as the episodes and seasons go on. We spend more time with him as a captive. He loses his hand, explains that he killed the king to save the lives of civilians from a bloodthirsty tyrant, knights Ser Brienne of Tarth, and generally seems to have good intentions. He becomes so close to Brienne that fans started to imagine them together – something that comes to pass in season 8 before he suddenly leaves for Kings Landing to be with his sister/soulmate Cersei. It is true that the rehabilitation of Jamie is remarkable from hated to almost revered, and when Jamie chose being with Cersei over being with Brienne, some fans presumed he must be going to kill her himself. Prophecies and presumed neat narrative arcs drove this belief, but when Jamie instead held Cersei as they died, rather than killing her himself, the consternation was powerful. Fans saw it as the ‘destruction’ of one of the show’s most powerful ‘arcs’. Again, in broad strokes, this makes sense, but in finer detail, and with nuance of reflection, it seems unfair.

There are two things that are certain about Jamie: 1) is that he was indelibly linked to Cersei and had a deep love for her, even when she drove him away, and 2) He was never an uncomplicated good person. Even during his redemption ‘arc’ he was killing relatives, supporting a tyranical regime, forcing himself on his sister, and threatening great acts of violence. If he knew a person, he would generally fight for them, but otherwise, he had no qualms about his actions. I was surprised when he left Brienne in Winterfell, and disappointed in how he did it, but again, I didn’t feel it was particularly out of character. His bond to Cersei, and love for her was so strong, that she would always be a consideration for him, and I believe that once he heard Cersei was about to be in a war, whatever happened, he knew her had to be there, either to stop her from doing anything evil, to save her is needed, or yes, possibly to kill her himself depending on how the situation unfolded. When he makes it Kings Landing, his aim becomes to convince Cersei to stand down and surrender – whether he would run away with her or go back to Brienne is an open question. As events unfold though, he reaches her with the walls crumbling around them and himself mortally wounded. The time for surrender has already passed, so they try to escape, and when escape is impossible, they comfort each other. Whether he quite believes it in the same way he once did, he repeats to her an old refrain that ‘nothing else matters’ and dies as he once told Bronn he wished to – in the arms of a person he loves. None of this means he doesn’t also love Brienne (in a different, less complicated way), and there was also no reason for him to kill or confront her. These were obviously desperate moments for them, and every action and reaction of his made total sense.

*I wanted to add an aside about the term ‘arc’ because I swear I have heard it 1000 times during this season from fans and critics alike. For a show where characters can obviously develop and change, people’s tolerance for this seems to have totally disappeared. I have heard the phrase ‘destroyed their arc’ countless times, and it goes to show how people now understand the show – they have predetermined expectations for every character, and if the destination isn’t the same as they have imagined, or changes course from what they understand, they read it as the breaking of this holy structure of the ‘arc’ – not even imagining that change and development can be part of a larger journey. Maybe Jaimie’s journey isn’t so simple as arsehole golden boy to loved up honourable knight because he isn’t either. People, in fact, are rarely so simple – they can fall back in to old habits, do irrational things, and have special bonds with people even if they are bad people. Jamie’s ‘arc’ isn’t a simple redemption story but the story of a person who has been torn his whole life between honor and immorality, depending on the situation, and who, in the end, reverts not to type, but to Cersei, the one constant in his life. Is it something I was happy about? Not really, but was I surprised that Jamie was drawn to Cersei? Absolutely not. This unthinking use of the word ‘arc’ has not only started to sound like fingernails on a chalk board to me, but is used recklessly and unthinkingly. I think what people mean by it is the journey to change for a character which is gradual but definite, and which they have personally perceived. No character in this show does, or should, however, develop like that. Narrative isn’t simply about change – its how people act or change when they do, and why. It’s not always some clean A to B journey, and yet many of the most prevalent criticisms continue to treat it as such.

** The second term I have taken aside is ‘earned’. Critical fans have been saying of these plots and others that certain moments were not ‘earned’. What they mean by this, I think is, something happening which they didn’t see coming and which they think is at odds with what they understand of a character. That nothing they have seen previously has hinted at a certain action. Not only does this term scream entitlement and arrogance, but it is also incredibly simplistic, asserting that every action or twist must have the ingredients carefully laid out before it. There are times where that is satisfying, of course, but that cannot be the only way to execute drama. Again, as with humans, sometimes actions can come from nowhere obvious, we can be surprised by others or by ourselves when confronted by difficult choices or situations. I would argue that plenty of the shocking moments in this show and others weren’t ‘earned’ in the way some use it, but were still effective. What is more, perhaps such surprises aren’t going against a character, but are instead adding to it. Perhaps your pre-determined feelings for a character are actually constraining the story as well as your enjoyment of it.

Now, despite my righteous typing, I can’t help but feel a little odd about defending such a juggernaught franchise so passionately. So, even-though, on balance, I love the show, I will discuss a few recent aspects of the show I have been disappointed in.

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Arya’s interaction with this white horse seemed silly and didn’t lead to anything. No one said the season was perfect. Credit: HBO

  1. While I defended the way Jamie gravitated to Cersei and dies with her, one element I was disappointed in was how he left Ser Brienne. As easily as I believe his continuing love for Cersei, I also believe in his different kind of love for Brienne. Their scene together in an pool in an earlier season is one of the most emotive scenes in the show and that as well as the rest of their time together sells their bond well. So when they finally spent the night together post-Long Night, it made sense. Their real feelings mixed with the post-battle energy makes that completely believable. However, him leaving her the next morning felt a bit flippant, even if it wasn’t. To sleep with Brienne then leave her feels cold in a way that doesn’t fit him I think, and seemed to rob this hugely honourable character of some of her dignity. The same story without the sex would have been better I feel. While Brienne eventually found herself in a strong position as the first female head of the King’s Guard and so wasn’t defined by Jamie, it would have been nice to have seen a bit more from her rather than her dutifully updating his pages in the Book of Brothers.
  2. With regards specifically to everything up until the finale, and especially to do with the Battle of Winterfell, while I presume Bran was doing a lot more than was shown, it feels like his role until the finale was less memorable than it felt it would be before the season. He seemed like he was going to be a crucial chess piece in everything, and even if he is, that hasn’t really been shown. Some mystery is necessary, but not even knowing basically anything about his role in the grand scheme of killing the Night King is a bit much. Obviously more is revealed when he assumes the throne, and with regards to that, there is some interesting mystery – i.e. did he know/intend to be King, and will that be a good thing or the protection of a status quo?
  3. The closing scenes of episode 5, with Arya escaping King’s Landing were a little over the top for me. Her escape cut alongside The Hound’s final defining battle was a nice bit of storytelling given their connection, but once it was over, her being seemingly the only survivor of the attack, completely alone save for a white horse to help her escape felt like gilding the lily. This is especially the case now episode 6 has aired, and it became clear that not only was Arya not going anywhere, but the horse was never seen again. What, did she just go up the street? It’s really a small thing, but this may have been the most egregious moment of the season.
  4. The way The Hound spoke to Sansa about her rape bothered me. I should stipulate that I don’t share the common criticism of this scene that it wrongly attributes Sansa’s maturation to her rape at the hands of Ramsay Bolton. I think that was always a short-sighted and a simplistic reading of the scene where I saw it as a moment for Sansa to show that probably the worst thing that ever happened to her would not be something that would define her. This is also Sophie Turner’s reading of the scene according to a recent interview. Naturally, it was part of a series of tragedies, which also included her experiences with Cersei and Littlefinger, that helped shape her view of the world from innocence to experience, but it was never portrayed as something ‘beneficial’ to her. What I did find troubling, however, was the way The Hound spoke to her about it, about her being ‘blooded’ violently. I thought it was needlessly raw and harsh, even for a character like the Hound, and I don’t think it achieved anything really.
  5. Most importantly, the one thing which I think has unquestionably somewhat damaged the show, and which I think the vast majority of people agree on is that even if the events make sense and are entertaining, they seemed to happen in a rushed fashion, without much of the quiet time or breathing space which allows for extra development and contemplation. While I am still enjoying the show, I would enjoy it even more with this extra storytelling time, watching people on their journeys to their battles and making plans; and in the case of those who claim to ‘hate’ the show, that might have been enough to improve their experience. This was especially the case with Daenerys’ short reign in the final season. While the writers and actors portrayed her tunnel-vision for power and delusion that she was doing ‘good’ well, I would have liked more time to see her in the triumphal aftermath of her sacking of the city. I think this would have built more tension with regards to the fate of both her and Jon, and the lack of this did take away a little from an excellent conclusion for them.

One caveat I would add to this is that it makes sense that at a time of climactic wars that the action becomes quicker and more packed together than at times of intrigue or relative peace. A show should be able to change pace at times. Nonetheless, it is still undoubtable that this show and the last two seasons needed more episodes and more time left for contemplation. This part made a great show a little weaker.

YT Criticism

There is plenty of simple and dismissive clickbaity content on places like Youtube. Credit: Youtube and these channels.

While these aspects of the show left me cold, it is important to see them in the context of the wider show. If they lower an episode’s stature from ‘masterpiece’ to a more tempered ‘excellent’, that is fine, it’s the ability to properly critique. Unfortunately, in a world where the ‘hottest takes’ and most eye-catching thumbnails, released to the public the quickest grab the attention, and clicks, this kind of nuance is not encouraged in online criticism especially. Saying that you enjoyed Game of Thrones except for a a few moments or plot points is probably a more accurate, but less attractive read in a place where binary reactions are the most common currency. So you see videos with titles like ‘Game of Thrones rant’ or ‘Why Game of Thrones sucks now’ and so on and so on, and people watch, and these criticisms become more widespread. In some cases I believe this leads to something of a self-fulfilling prophesy that the writing will be bad or the ending unsatisfying before the final episode has even aired. If you create a framework of negativity, it’s hard to see the show in a more nuanced and truly critical light.

This is especially infuriating when criticisms feature calling the writers of the story ‘stupid’, ‘nonsensical’, or ‘lazy’, like these professional screenwriters are clueless iconoclasts while these amateurs could just write it perfectly themselves. I’m all for democratizing writing and criticism, but these criticisms rarely come with viable or interesting alternatives, and indeed, usually when they do suggest something, it’s dull, without nuance, or has similar problems to what they have complained about. Again, there’s no need to over-defend these writers, and they aren’t flawless, but I think if people consider what they would do instead of what was written, it would show them the delicate balance it entails and maybe temper some of the nonsense I have outlined.

It must be said that when there is such a groundswell of opinion, there may be something to it, and that the greatness of the writing is undermined by the fact that it couldn’t convince the fans that what it showed was better than their headcanon. That said though, I really worry that the (sometimes financial, in the case of Youtubers and other critics) encouragement of this obsessive prediction/breakdown/review culture is becoming more influential. The media we are consuming is being swarmed by multitudes of opinions that really clouds the experience. Yes, I am aware you can avoid all of this, but it can be difficult to if you’re genuinely interested. Ultimately, this is not an attempt to convince disappointed fans that they are wrong or anything like that, and even if I don’t understand it, if you don’t like the show, then fair enough.

An extra effect of this is that there are a lot of mediocre shows that end up getting lauded almost by flying under the radar of this same criticism. Rather than being adventurous or subversive, they play it down the middle, do it well, and so don’t leave themselves up to much specific criticism. In the context of hyper-reaction described above, something mildly pleasing and inoffensive can have it’s quality inflated simply by virtue of not rattling any cages. Any show that can do this consistently may be able to get enough momentum to encourage the opposite reaction from fans and critics. The other side of the negative clickbait coin is a trend towards overly-complimentary content, describing safe, decent shows as ‘masterpieces’.

stranger-things-westworld

Shows like Stranger Things and Westworld play simple tunes and get lauded for it. Credit: GoldDerby, HBO, Netflix

There are many, many examples of this, but the two most prominent are other recent smash-hits which have been received far more positively than Game of Thrones: Stranger Things and Westworld.

Stranger Things is a visually entertaining show featuring talented cute child actors playing a story which is not only pretty shallow ‘monster of the week’ fayre, but even worse, effectively repeats the same story in it’s second series. It dines out on there being a big audience for 80’s nostalgia, and this mixed with the other elements has made it very appealing to a large audience. In terms of the depth or layers of story, it can’t compare with a show like Game of Thrones, for all it’s faults. In fact, nothing is special about it at all, but nevertheless, it is lauded as a great show.

If you’ve ever read a ‘philosophy for beginners’ book or taken a beginners philosophy class, or even if you haven’t, you will be familiar with the major themes of Westworld. Part of my lack of reaction to Westworld is that it is fundamentally not a human story, it is about, almost exclusively, robots and artificial intelligence. This is, admittedly, a personal bias, and even though a story featuring artificial life forms can meaningfully reflect on human life, this show does not. Again, it is interesting visually, and certainly not poorly made or acted while trying to elucidate on the nature of consciousness, self-determination, and sentience. Critics and online reactors fall over themselves to laud this aspect of the show like that’s anything, frankly speaking, original, interesting, or particularly intellectual. It relies very heavily on countless timelines and the fact that anyone could end up being revealed as a robot, or ‘host’. When you do this, no action really has impactful consequences because any action can always be overturned with a plot twist. The risks and the stakes are low. It tells the story in it’s stylised way, while still effectively playing it down the middle, and again, this can be enough to establish it as a quality show.

When anything is hyper-criticised – in this case, TV shows – and any perceived inconsistency is treated so unforgivingly as ‘bad writing’ or ‘stupid’, it limits the parameters of ‘successful’ television, and  discourages shows which genuinely experiment and explore the human condition and complicated human stories. People act like characters are algorithms who would only act in certain specific ways and would always act logically, and if they don’t behave within these parameters it ‘doesn’t make sense’, is ‘stupid’ or ‘bad writing’, or heaven forfend ‘BETRAYS THEIR ARC’. I’m not saying these people are always wrong when they raise talking points like this, but that their approach to criticism and review is fundamentally flawed. When you hold characters, and plotlines, to higher standards of consistency than you do real people and real life, you are heading for problems. Sometimes people do weird, stupid, or out of character things; sometimes they learn and change, and sometimes terrible or unexpected things happen to you. If a TV show can show this in a realistic way, that is something to be treasured, and I believe that Game of Thrones is a show that regularly does that.

Dresden

Dresden, in the aftermath of the Allied Forces. Credit: Business Insider

If you think Dany the liberator burning King’s Landing to the ground is unrealistic, look in to the history of the Dresden bombings the sequence is largely based upon. Game of Thrones is an anti-war show, and for a fantasy show featuring dragons and the un-dead, it is one of the most accurate portrayals of the evils and madness of war you will ever see on television.

Similarly, with Jon, in the context of the finale, people seem confused about why Jon needed to be revived and/or discovered to be a Targaryen and/or why he didn’t end up on the throne as the ‘rightful’ king, because they don’t feel his ending was appropriate given these plot directions. In answer to the first question, I suggest that his being the one to kill Dany was fairly significant and justifies his resurrection having meaning. As for the second question about his heritage, their contention seems to be that the tension this created with Dany didn’t come to pass because she seemed keen to rule with him during their final scene. This is another simplistic reading – even lovesick Jon Snow could see that this was her way of neutralising the threat he posed by making him complicit, and that no one could control her expansionism. It was the basis for much of the paranoia she had towards him, and what’s more, it is a good example of how the show doesn’t treat every ‘arc’ as some clean journey of destiny. Just because Jon was a Targaryan, it doesn’t mean him on the throne is the only plausible result, and in fact, given that a Stark ends up assuming the throne anyway, it probably was a hindrance to that outcome. Answering the final question is easier. Jon never wanted to be King, and what’s more, the Greyjoys, Unsullied and probably more didn’t want him as King due to what he did to Dany. What’s even more is that the different houses decided that a monarch should be chosen, not a role that should be simply inherited, so his claim by inheritance meant nothing anyway.

As Tyrion, and others in the show, have said, a good compromise is when no one is really happy. I think this is a line emblematic of the show’s message. War is terrible and corrupting and our leaders are disappointing and corrupted. Yes, Westeros progressed from a monarchy to an oligarchy, but a democracy is some way off; and yes the existential threats to life are gone, but will life be better for everyone. Time will tell. In many ways though, it’s more of the same. Again, this is disappointing, but then again, look around you. How many radical progressives hold any power? Society craves the status quo. If you expected a revolution, you’ll be disappointed, but in a world where Theresa May is about to be replaced by another flaccid Tory or an impeached Trump would be replaced by Mike Pence, can you really call that disappointment unrealistic?

Ultimately though, who cares? As I said earlier, I know I don’t need to seek out the opinion of others about the shows I like, and I’d go further to admit that it is strange to continually listen to the opinions of people online that I don’t agree with. That said, it is perhaps the curse of the invested fan. I enjoy listening to people discuss the things I like, and in this case, it has become habit. Aside from that, it worries me that the general discourse around shows is becoming increasingly influenced by hyper-reaction and is even bleeding in to mainstream criticism, and ultimately in to the consciousness of the screenwriters themselves. I just hope that writers don’t start to write shows with this kind of criticism in mind because it will just lead to more mediocrity which people will laud at the time but won’t ultimately have much of an impact. As with everything, I would rather we have art which tries to do something special, and doesn’t necessarily please everyone than art that is successful by playing it safe and relying on crowd-pleasing tropes and aesthetics.

VAR From Imperfect: The Cleansing of Football and the Magic of the World Cup

VAR

The comic, ‘iconic’ image of referees helping make game-changing decisions from a truck no where near the pitch. This is VAR. Credit: digitaltrends.com

Football, even at it’s highest levels, is a fairly messy, frustrating game. There are more scrambling, flukey or mundane goals than any other, but when the game truly becomes beautiful, when everything is put together to score a beautiful goal, it makes the wait and the messiness worth it. It is this mixture of imperfection, scrambling to success, and sometimes, sheer poetry in motion that makes it truly the sport of humanity.

It comes with the territory then that football, and especially those in charge of it professionally, is far from perfect. This game of the world has become tainted by money and commercialism; it caters increasingly for the middle and upper classes with game tickets pricing out grass-root fans and coverage increasingly being held hostage on subscription channels like Sky or BT Sport. The World Cup, however, has managed to hold off a lot of these regressive progressions, being found more on free or more accessible stations world wide.

That said, there have been some new facets to the World Cup this year which have worked to undermine this higher level of engagement with the game. One of these ‘advancements’ is goal line technology, but while a lot of what this article will say applies to that, it’s been around for a while already. The main subject here will be the introduction of VAR, and how it is part of an ongoing insipid campaign to cleanse football of it’s imperfections, and some of it’s character.

Theoretically, I understand why some fans have called for VAR in football. Refereeing mistakes happen, to some degree, fairly commonly, and that can be frustrating for fans; but when you think about it, what are the most memorable, passionate moments you share with football? First, I would argue, are the rare moments of sublime beauty, like Archie Gemmill passing and ‘megging the Dutch to score in ’78, or Maradona running through the English to score; but secondly, I think it’s the moments of controversy, like Scotland definitely being cheated out of Euro 2008 qualification or Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’.

Scotland

The pain remains, as does the memory of what should have been after Italy end Scotland’s 2008 qualification hopes in controversial circumstances. Credit: Getty Images

Whether it creates something memorable like the Hand of God, or something painful, controversy creates conversation, debate, and something to wonder about. Righteous anger, disappointment, and sadness are as important and meaningful to the human condition as joy, and as dark as that sounds, they aren’t feelings we should be scared of. Often, they shape us. At the very least, having controversial incidents occur that allow you to talk about the football, be it in a friendly way or a more heated debate, is part and parcel of what makes the game so special. It’s part of it’s lifeblood.

Then enters VAR.

Now it’s crucial to note that VAR hasn’t ended debate in football altogether – talking heads seemingly can’t get enough of discussing ‘whether VAR has worked this time’, but what it has done is shifted the arena of contentious footballing incidents from the interpretation of the action on the pitch, to a swithering discussion about the purpose and processes of VAR itself. The memories of the incidents are muddled with images of referees looking at screens and hand-wringing over whether the ‘correct’ decision was made. The moments of joy, anger, or despair we might witness are dulled by the inevitable period of second-guessing while we wait for VAR to clear the incident.

My issue isn’t that I actively wish for refereeing mistakes to happen; rather, that I see the collateral value in them when they do happen. To use an example I mentioned earlier, as a Scotland fan, there is a certain righteous comfort I take in knowing (well, believing) that Scotland were good enough to qualify, had the World Champions bang to rights, and were just screwed over. In this World Cup, the specific issue that spawned this article was the Spain vs Iran match in which Iran had a goal disallowed that could have ultimately sent them to the knockout rounds and ‘dreamland’.

Group B Iran vs Spain

The whole Iran squad and coaches in ecstasy before their equalising goal was disallowed. Credit: EPA

By the letter of the law, the goal being disallowed was correct, Ezatolahi was offside. All I remember though is what a downer it was. Iran scoring against an – admittedly wilting – historic Spain side would have been memorable enough, to do so to earn a point against them would be even more significant; to do so on the way to progressing to the knockout rounds would have been the most significant moment in Iranian football history, and you could see it in the sheer outpouring of joy from the Iran players and coaches. Five minutes later though, the jobsworths at FIFA had overturned the goal, Spain went on to win, and Iran were later knocked out after another valiant effort against Portugal. A moment of joy became a mere talking point after the game, and while Iranians might won’t forget it for a while, they don’t have the same recourse as before – either the wry enjoyment of getting something past the ref, nor a real controversy to at least hold on to for consolation or motivation. It was the correct decision, there’s not much else to say.

Again, I don’t rub my hands at the prospect of a wrong decision in football, but in cases such as this, I see the value of them. That moment for Iran was a beautiful outpouring that was also truly relatable as a fan – it must be said – of a currently smaller nation. In previous competitions, the fallibility of the officials mixed with the power of the celebrations would have been enough to carry the day for the goal to stand, and I just don’t think that’s a bad thing. It would have been a defining moment of the tournament that would have helped shape it if Iran would have progressed. But no, the fun police were called, and normal service was resumed. It’s part of the obvious worldwide trend towards the automation of work taking the humanity out of society, but football is something that needs it’s humanity to maintain it’s magic.

I have been genuinely disheartened to hear commentators, pundits, and some fans alike praise with relief that VAR has led to the correct decision. Of course it’s good in a sense that the right decisions are made, but this obsession that ‘the correct decision must always be made’ fundamentally people’s relationship with the sport – it’s a space where all aspects of humantity, good or bad, wrong or right can be shown off, and it’s always beautiful in some way.

 

Hand of God

One of the most infamous, iconic moments in football history. A moment that would have been erased by VAR. Credit: ITV

An opening and closing argument for this is the Hand of God. Of course Maradona cheated, no one disputes that, but it made for one of the most memorable moments in World Cup history, and one that fed in to the aura of Maradona as a roguish nutter-genius. It’s almost anti-football (he literally handballs it) but it’s also a pillar of football experience. If VAR had been in place though, the goal would have been disallowed, Maradona booked, and an iconic match may not be remembered really at all. It whitewashes the game, and while there will be times the reviews will be welcome, it surrenders too much of that humanity away from the sport.

Another element of the game that is a rather dull talking point, again, at this World Cup is how to dissuade players from ‘unsportsmanlike’ behaviour, things like crowding the referee or most notably, diving.

Starting with the element I’m perhaps least protective of, the crowding of the referee has been an ‘issue’ for as long as I can remember. I must say, it’s not something I revel in, and it can be uncomfortable, but I think the hand-wringing over it has reached a bit of a critical mass, especially after the Colombia-England game in which the English pundits were falling over each other to demonise the Colombians. There are two ways to look at this, and the purists want you to see it both ways: either that they were intimidating the ref, or that they were using it as slight of hand to scuff up up the penalty spot. In the latter instance, it’s a bit of clever gamesmanship where the Colombians took the opportunity to try to salvage the situation; not something you would applaud, so to speak, but understandable. It’s harder to defend them intimidating the referee, but I also stop short of condemning them – heaven forbid they get a bit hot after giving away a penalty in a knock out game at the World Cup that was nearly the deathblow of their four-year journey! As bad as it is, the referee was never assaulted or anything, just noised up a bit. The fact that the talking heads want robotic ‘role models’ doesn’t mean you should expect it, and as a football fan, I like seeing some fire from the players.

Colombia v England: Round of 16 - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia

Surrounding the referees, diving, and generally cheap or dirty play was much maligned after the recent Colombia-England game. Credit: Metro

Next up is the monster bug bear of the modern game: diving.

To sound repetitious, I should state that I don’t condone diving, so to speak, but I also see it’s place in the game. Whether we like it or not, fouls and free kicks are a fundamental part of the game, and with football being such a free form of expression, of course players are going to engage with them and try to gain an advantage. It’s an aspect of football that I wouldn’t describe as beautiful as I would others, but I admire the extra element it adds to the game, even if it frustrates me too at times. For me, if someone takes a dive rather than stay on their feet for a viable attack, it doesn’t even really make sense, and when done badly, it certainly looks pathetic. That said, it’s a phenomenon of evolution and not worth existential concerns it creates in some people.

Here’s the thing – it already self-governs to a large extent. The players pundits tear their hair out over for diving, like Neymar especially at this World Cup, aren’t gaining much of an advantage. Those who overdo it, or do it without smarts are well-known and referees often look upon them with extra skepticism. Indeed, earlier in this competition, the deeply unpopular Pepe hit the deck after being overpowered by Diego Costa, stayed down, and wasn’t around to stop Costa scoring his excellent individual goal in that game. Between embarrassment and the risks of doing it, diving doesn’t go unpunished anyway.

That said, a simple solution to help address the issue in a more sensible way. Calls for every single dive to result in a yellow card will never be successful because no one likes dishing out yellows. I think they should be treated as normal fouls and judged on severity. Diving should only be an automatic yellow card if someone is trying to gain a penalty, otherwise, players should get yellows for persistent diving. That’s manageable and not too much of a puritanical solution I think.

There’s a saying that ‘rules are meant to be broken’, but I think something more along the lines of ‘rules are meant to be played with’. Maybe it’s because I love wrestling and Eddie Guerrero, but I admire the attempts of some players to try to gain an advantage for their team by getting one past the referee. Any structure or framework is just that, something man-made that can, and maybe should, be challenged. It’s where the greatest art and expression comes from, and while it may not always be pretty, it’s part of human curiosity, expression, competitiveness, or all of the above.

Think of the football that those with voices and power are trying to create: one where the players are all well behaved, reserve their passions for goals, and any controversy on the pitch is quickly mopped up. It’s not the same – it’s a procession lacking in the imperfections which make the sport accessible to everyone. Rather than aspiring to being kinda crazy geniuses like Cantona, Zidane, or Maradona, the ultimate footballer role-model will be clean, unquestioning cyphers.

Pogba

When Paul Pogba re-signed with Manchester United for near £90m, it was announced with a hype video cross-over marketing excercise between Pogba, Man Utd, Stormzy, and Adidas. It explains how a player can even be worth that much money in the first place. Credit: Adidas

I don’t think this is accidental. As with everything else, follow the money. The financially bloated, sponsor-dependent cottage industry that football has become doesn’t have much time for true individualism, and certainly not for controversy. It deals increasingly in idealised visions, nothing to do with the actual game but with image – haircuts, kit designs, video game covers, and social media impact. TV stations love being able to spend money on new graphics for goal-line technology and VAR but start wringing their hands after even harmless acts of character, like a delighted flipping the double fingers at the Nigerian fans after surviving their challenge. He got excited and expressed it in his own way, and people are still practically tutting at him. There’s no room for that. Well-behaved, quiet, humble players and clean games are better for the image of the millionaires and billionaires holding the purse-strings.

Even worse is that, those who call for a clean VAR process and demonise ‘dirty’ players take these positions while propping up far worse instances of questionable behaviour and corruption. They throw up their hands about the effect Neymar taking a dive has on the game while sat at a World Cup in Russia, and preparing for one in Qatar, while sat next to stadiums which will barely be used again, that local people were displaced so they could be built.

The World Cup should be hosted around the world in succession for sure (and I plan to write at length about that and related subjects in the near future so won’t expand too much here), but it needs to be done with a genuine understanding that the people want it and will genuinely benefit from it. The World Cups in Brazil, Russia, and Qatar don’t sit right for many different reasons. Brazilians protested with vigour hosting the World Cup, despite their love of football, because they knew they would never see the billions being spent on it again, billions that could go towards improving some of the country’s desperate social and infrastructure issues while this Russian World Cup is seen as a propaganda exercise for Vladimir Putin and his evil, oppressive, intolerant regime. Qatar provides a mixture of both issues. All three will leave their countries and maybe more beyond in worse shape. These are giant, troubling issues that are the real rotten core of the football bureaucracy, not controversy or foul play.

Maracana

The Maracana, treated during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil like the sacred home of Brazilian football, at a cost of around $500m, now lies practically abandoned and unusable. Credit: AP

On this topic, I see hosting major competitions  like the World Cup as a huge honor and morale boost. It’s not inherently bad as an idea, just in current practice. Scotland will beat England 7-0 in the World Cup final before this happens, probably, but this could be a hugely positive process. If FIFA actually worked with potential hosts in genuine good faith to help fund needed infrastructure improvements, to build stadiums, if necessary, and to only accept proposals which agree to do this in a sustainable way which doesn’t disrupt ordinary people’s lives unreasonably without costing tax-payers too much. Of course it’s possible – those with the coffers have no interest in them being lighter though.

Controversy, and players diving, or acting aggressive is no existential threat to the game, but the continuous inflation of ticket and jersey prices, and the ongoing process of excluding the working classes from the magic of the game is. We can trust the fans, we can trust the players and all of their personal flaws; it’s just those with power in football that we can’t, and that is the real existential threat to the game.

ICW Wolf of Sauchiehall Street Review and the Current State of Indies in Scotland

ICW WoS poster

Wolf of Sauchiehall Street poster, credit: ICW

A few years ago, Glasgow seemed like the indy wrestling capital of the UK, and maybe even beyond. That was something I took a maybe misplaced pride in, but it inspired pride nonetheless. A few things have shifted over the past year or so though, and when looking at shows to attend recently, I really struggled to find something. The rise to greater prominence of feds like Progress, Attack, IPW, Defiant, and in outer Europe, OTT and wXw have expanded the pool of talent with notoriety and added more varied competition while in Scotland, the talent seems like something of a gold-fish bowl of the same faces.  As passionate as most fans and the workers remain, the scene up in Glasgow has started to seem pretty stagnant.

Then of course, there is Bram. The domestic violence allegations against him are shocking and upsetting, making many of those I know who follow Britwres uncomfortable with promotions that book him. That includes me. It’s made worse by ICW, SWA, and Pro Wrestling Elite, the main promotions in Scotland, closing ranks and apparently booking him feverishly with misplaced righteousness. Indeed, many of his colleagues including the likes of Lionheart, Kenny Williams, Viper, Session Moth and more came out to publicly defend Bram and endorse him. On a human level, they are clearly friends with Bram and it’s hard to blame them for supporting a friend, but to address a point they kept making, of course their friend who they are more of an equal to hasn’t treated them that way, and the fact that they’ve only seen his good side does not make him innocent.

Regardless of that, it’s a bad hill for ICW et al to die on and one that at least makes it harder to choose ICW in the aftermath. I myself had eschewed some cards thereafter due to the booking of Bram but have now been caught out a couple of times. The first time was last year when I went to see Pro Wrestling Elite in Ayr specifically to see Pete Dunne and was upset to see Bram on the same cared. Yesterday was the second time. After the excitement I saw on Twitter to do with wXw 16 Carat, I got a hankering to see a live show, and I saw a version of yesterday’s card which didn’t include the Bram match and snapped up a ticket, only realising he was booked a day or two before the event. I decided I would still go but would leave for the bar/bathroom during his match. Unfortunately, when the time came, I was so jammed in that I couldn’t really get out easily and so I decided to just watch the floor. Unfortunately, there is so much crossover between promotions here and such an old-boy style protection of Bram that if you want to see wrestling in Scotland, you may have to choose between supporting an alleged domestic abuser or not seeing wrestling which is a real sad state of affairs.

With all that in mind, I want to give some thoughts on the show and the talent there.

ICW DCT

DCT soaking in the chants before battling Big Grizzly. Not really pictured: Coach Trip who helps make DCT a very entertaining act. Credit: Me.

I had seen DCT and Coach Trip a couple of times before, but this was the first time I really got in to the fun of it fully. Big Grizzly is a huge impressive figure but wasn’t getting much of a reaction and seemed somewhat irrelevant to the hugely popular DCT.

Next up was Stevie Boy w/ Kay Lee Ray against the replacement for Jordan Devlin, Dickie Divers. Out of the three, i’m only really particularly familiar with Kay Lee Ray so while I was disappointed she didn’t have a match of her own, it was great that she was so involved with the match. I slightly recognised Divers but given the way Stevie reacted to him, he was clearly set up to be a jobber, but building on that first impression, these folks put together a really cool, interesting match. Divers kicked off the match, literally, with a stiff strike to Stevie and was chasing the upset. KLR kept involving herself to try to help put Divers down, and this was mixed with some more light-hearted moments surrounding easter egg shots and mini-eggs-as-thumb-tacks comedy spot which worked well. One spot I really loved was Divers nearly outsmarting the two to win. KLR was ubiquitous in the match and eventually, Divers put her in a figure 4 before rolling up Stevie so that she couldn’t interfere. That only led to a 2-count but Divers did manage the shock pin after Kenny Williams interference. Really a way to build to the Kenny Williams-Stevie Ray match at Barramania, but one of the most entertaining matches on the card and a great showcase for Divers. If he is indeed more of a jobber, matches like this should push him up the card.

ICW KLR

Was pleased to see the renowned Kay Lee Ray, even if it was in a secondary role on a card with no women’s matches. Credit: Me.

While I was happy to see Kay Lee Ray wrestle, her appearance as essentially a valet highlighted all the more that there were no women’s matches on the card at all. That’s really not acceptable in 2018, and while no particular match deserved to be bumped from the card (except for Bram-Lionheart, but that wouldn’t happen), ICW should have made more effort to book a women’s match. This may be a reason it’s lost a bit of an edge. She is an excellent inter-gender competitor too. I’m hoping to write about that topic in the near future.

I enjoyed The Kings of Catch vs The Purge, and it was a good match though The Purge seemed a little like another version of a gimmick we’ve seen a million times. I can’t really fault them for it, I just hope they get to develop it a bit more. The match was interrupted by a genuinely freaky video featuring a man in a Texas chainsaw monster mask which got actual reactions from the crowd. Unfortunately it was followed up by two people (I don’t know their names) from the video with the monster in a slightly different, cheaper-looking mask, playing the simple country monster and seemingly affecting some sort of hand deformity like you might see a disabled person have and if so, that it really disappointing. The country monster wasn’t that impressive to be honest and led to some ‘shit Mick Foley’ chants. I don’t think it worked. Anyway, a decent match undermined by that weird stuff.

ICW BTG

BT Gunn is definitely ‘over’ but I didn’t see much in this match to convince me of why. Credit: Me.

The came the Triple Threat for the Zero G title as the main event of the first taping. This was one I was very interested in because I wanted to see what the fuss was about regarding BT Gunn. I hadn’t seen that much of ‘The Oddity’ but didn’t think anything particularly much of him, so I was surprised to see ICW get behind him so much as to give him the heavyweight title as well as the Zero G title which is unprecedented I believe. His reputation has been growing and I wanted to see if it was justified. He was in a match with ‘The Phoenix’ Jody Fleisch and the ‘Power Forward; Mark Coffey, which is the first time I’ve seen him with that nickname. This match was pretty good, but hampered by a couple of things. First and foremost, Fleisch seems to be a very talented high-flyer but he seemed limited by the environment at The Garage with the low lights. He did some aerial moves, but it seemed like he had some things that he couldn’t do.

The second issue was that this highly-anticipated title match was essentially an angle, with masked henchmen of Mikey Whiplash abducting Gunn half way through, leaving just Fleisch and Coffey who would go on to double-pin each other. I rolled my eyes a little at this, but was more intrigued when Dallas announced that the title would be vacated, rather than it just being a shortcut to allow a normal rematch. Nice to see a different way of treating that finish. I’ve mentioned that I didn’t feel I really saw the full potential of Fleisch but the same goes, unfortunately for Gunn. He did some OK work, but spent a lot of time knocked out of the ring and being kidnapped, so I will defer judgement for now. As for Coffey, I was a bit taken aback by the ‘power forward’ monicker. I’m stuck between not really getting it, or getting how it relates to anything, so in that sense it doesn’t really work for me, but at least it’s different to some of the overdone staples in wrestling currently.

ICW Leyton Buzzard

Leyton Buzzard ‘in concert’ with his ukelele. A very entertaining segment. Credit: Me.

To start the second show taping seemingly, we were treated to ‘a concert’ from Joe Hendry intern, Leyton Buzzard. They leaned in to the Elias parody but Leyton made it his own by making it a more cheeky kind of funny and he really won over the crowd with it. Then came out Chris Renfrew. My enjoyment of Chris Renfrew has shifted greatly over time. When I first saw him a few years back, I didn’t really get him or the New Age Kliq, I thought it was a bit try hard and didn’t think the writing on himself was as cool as others did. I then watched his match with Grado at Square Go a few years back and enjoyed it a lot and was more content with him. On Sunday, I really enjoyed him. He has become something close to late-era Steve Austin in that he has an aura of unpredictable danger around him, and of course, he has a Stunner in his move set. His coming out and being unironically moved by Buzzard’s performance was warmly funny and even though it ending up in a Buzzard vs ref match with Renfrew as the special guest referee didn’t make a lot of sense, it was a lot of fun. I also enjoyed the closer of Renfrew and the victorious ref getting stuck in a trance pointing at an imaginary sign. Now at this point, WrestleMania sign gags are pretty tired, but this worked because of how much they committed to it. Both had to be carried/led out by several crew members while maniacally pointing at the imaginary sign. I am super impressed by Renfrew’s range from being psychopath to being genuine comic relief.

Next up was Ravie Davie vs Iestyn Rees. I don’t know much about Ravie Davie as a real guy, but I’m not a huge fan of the gimmick. It has the same issue as Session Moth Martina which is it strikes me as a classist caricature aimed at hipsters. People from all backgrounds like wrestling, but in the case of these indies, a big portion of the fans are middle class and it comes across as utilising a tabloid view of the poor. Iestyn Rees is a very different wrestler. I’ve seen him three times now and while i’m impressed by him and his look, he’s ultimately a bit of a Chris Masters which, to me, means he’s got everything expect for a unique charisma and stand-out skills. He’s very clean, but ultimately doesn’t create a lot of tension or excitement. He needs a bit of seasoning, but with that could be a bigger star. Not much of a match to be honest.

Lionheart vs Bram next. As I said before, I did my best not to watch, staring at the floor and I won’t acknowledge it more than that. I will talk briefly about Lionheart. Currently he’s working a veteran face character but it’s not one that works for me. He had two talking segments across the whole taping and both struck the same tone. He was going for a sort of badass pipebomb style promo but he says it with only imagined fire and with very little of interest to say. I must say he’s over with some people, but I don’t know why.

ICW Tag

A rare glimpse of traditional tag team wrestling. I welcome rest holds breaking up the action in such a high octane show. Credit: Me.

I really enjoyed the next match of Ashton Smith & Rampage Brown against Kenny Williams and Aaron Echo. I don’t really understand Echo’s gimmick, but I like Williams a lot and I really dug the brutality of Smith and Brown. They looked like they wanted to hurt Williams and Echo, and maybe even more. A good mix of styles and excellent tag team spots – something that ICW often loses a bit due to them frequently going to a tornado-style because of the no holds barred style.

The main event of the whole evening was Jimmy Havoc vs Mikey Whiplash. I don’t often like matches quite this violent, and I also don’t like the style of some of the sports in this match, but … this match really ended up working for me. It started out with each inviting the other to staple them. Watching live, I thought it looked stupid, like one of those (great) Laurel & Hardy slapstick sketches where they offer up themselves to the other for more punishment. The reality isn’t really far from that I guess in that it seems like some early bar-setting, trying to ‘out-hardcore’ the other and when I got that, I got in to it more. This was really just a brawl and while it didn’t make for a great wrestling story, it was a great experience. This match culminated with a Death Valley Driver from Whiplash to Havoc which led the pane of glass to explode with glass flying everywhere including in to the crowd. Whiplash took the victory and both paid their respects to the other, before agreeing to a rubber match in the future. In fact, I loved how Havoc addressed that. After being pinned following such brutality, he signed and then very casually said ‘that’s 1-1’. It was very funny and showed me something about the normality Havoc’s character attributes to violence and that makes for a cool character.

ICW Deathmatch

The aftermath of the Whiplash-Havoc death match. You can’t help but admire the heart of both men. Credit: Me.

I went away thinking the most about Whiplash. I’ve always liked Mikey Whiplash’s presentation but I was blown away by this event, not just his incredible heart in the match, but how significant he seemed. Some of the roster can feel they melt together a bit but while there are some who pretend to be dark or ‘alternative’, Whiplash is one of the few who really achieves it in ICW. He believably seems like a somewhat psychopathic sadomasochist with a kink to him. He stands out more than anyone on the roster by a mile. His entrance music is an absolute banger too.

If it was me, while I know he’s an older performer, I would put the title on him and let him put ICW on his back for a while, and I think Kenny Williams would be an excellent foil for him. I don’t know what history they have together, but you have the purest babyface there against a really dark cultist character. I think they would have excellent chemistry.

Overall, I enjoyed the card this Sunday. There were some fun matches and an excellent main event. That said, there is definitely something stale about the company now. I think they rely a little bit on the swearing and loud Glasgow-style banter in an attempt to seem cool and adult. While some of that is needed to give the fed some character, I think it is definitely over relied on and gets a bit grating. I can see why existing fans like it, and I like it in places, but I can also see why it would alienate new outside fans a bit. It just seems like it’s spinning wheels and I hope they can freshen up the regular roster a bit and take some cues from from other feds in terms of presentation. There is a bit of compromise to be had.

During an interview segment I didn’t review here, Dallas alluded to ICW maybe not being as successful as before, acknowledging the success of other promotions, but I put it down to scene-setting. Then, after the taping had finished, he came out again and did the same. This wasn’t being filmed so I don’t think it would really contribute much to the story, so maybe there is a feeling of distress in ICW. I want it to succeed and I want to be proud again of having something so impressive on my doorstep. This evening showed me what it can offer, but it also showed me reasons why it still might have a while to go.

 

 

 

Free Speech, Humanity, and Mediocre White Knights

dankula watson

Don’t make these people your heroes: Count Dankula (centre) and Paul Joseph Watson of Infowars and God knows who the other guy is. Credit: twitter.com

One of the more prevalent stories making the rounds in Scotland certainly, but around the world, has been the arrest and charging of controversial Youtuber, ‘Count Dankula’. Free speech and comedy have had a bit of a tenuous relationship for centuries as comedians defend their jokes from a mixture of the prudish, and most recently, liberal progressives. I have had an interest in this intersection of comedy and free speech for at least eight years when I wrote critically of the South Park creators for playing around with depicting the Prophet Muhammad. As a self-identifying progressive as well as a more shakily self-identifying comedy writer, free speech and what is ‘acceptable’ has been a dichotomy which has shifted uneasily between a few positions regularly often depending on the latest convincing opinion I have heard. Luckily, I have come to something like a final position, in no small thanks to this latest controversy.

Shortly before Count Dankula made his unfortunate rise to relative prominence, Ricky Gervais released his latest stand up hour, Humanity, on Netflix which created it’s own free-speech-storm – not Gervais’ first. The two men aren’t the same, and they represent different approaches to their material; one being a more sincere craft, and the other being formulaic clickbait, but both somehow ending up in the same position as self-appointed white knights.

It’s at this point that I want to make a couple of things as clear as possible so that what I say is neither misunderstood or wilfully misrepresented. A refrain for the article:
1) No one should ever be arrested for mere words unless they explicitly incite violence against specific people or groups.
2) You should be able to tell jokes about whatever you like, no matter how dark, but part of freedom of speech is receiving any criticism that accompanies it.
3) Criticism is not censorship.

That said, on first to Ricky Gervais, who has a track record of writing funny, considered comedy shows with heart – his seminal sitcom The Office remaining a masterpiece on all those fronts. He is indeed a controversial figure though and despite protestations, this is an image he cultivates and as his comedy has become less consistent following The Office, his ability to write with heart has also been hit and miss. The first real mis-step I remember from Gervais was in 2011 and the public telling off he received from Richard Herring for his flippant use of the word ‘mong’ which he then doubled down on by repeating the word along with mocking faces, asserting his right to say it and that there was nothing wrong with it. To be fair to him, he would later climb down and sincerely – I believe – apologise.

Gervais Golden Globes

Gervais during one of his famous Golden Globes performances, notorious for the roasting of those in attendance. Credit: NME.com

Since then, especially as a result of his Golden Globes hosting routines, he has become associated even more with controversy, and Humanity has been no different. When reading about the show, it became clear that the main charge against him was of transphobia, but before jumping to conclusions I wanted to watch the whole show for myself because even a whole 15 minute, seemingly self-contained bit can have a different effect on the context of a whole show. So I watched Humanity and i’m sad to say, I believe the bit in question is definitely transphobic, even if it’s not intended to be. He talks about how carefully he considers the targets of his jokes, but if that’s the case, he either made an unbelievable miscalculation or considered trans people a target. The bit starts off well. He’s reflecting on an earlier controversy of his regarding a Caitlyn Jenner joke, explaining how the person, morally, was the target, and not the fact that she is trans, as well as explaining a clever joke which played against old-fashioned jokes about women drivers.

Unfortunately, his clear disdain for Jenner leads him in to a bizarre second half of the bit where he explains ‘deadnaming’ and then gleefully and repeatedly does it before describing the decision to become trans as quite flippant and as similar to him identifying as a chimp and insisting people treat him as a chimp. He seems disgusted that trans people ask simple, basic consideration of others, and in comparing it to him identifying as a chimp brings to mind the kind of nut who responds to gay marriage with the ‘humans will be able to marry animals next’ complaint. It’s not funny, it’s awkward, and it makes a marginalised group the undoubted target of the bit. He’s clearly obsessed somewhat over his controversial Jenner joke, and in an effort to defend himself, has made a joke in bad faith which has gone on to punch down to trans people.

The rest of the show gets better in the sense that it’s rarely particularly offensive after that save for some clumsy lines and is capped off with some insightful routines about rape jokes, animal cruelty, and a warmly funny story about his mother’s funeral. The rape joke bit is especially eye-opening as it makes his point about free speech in a much more coherent way, saying that there is a difference between finding rape as a concept funny, and finding certain jokes which include rape funny. He gives a good example of a funny, totally harmless joke which plays with the word ‘rape’ while making it sincerely clear that a joke that trivialised rape as an experience or it’s victims would be out of order. The trans bit is the only really deplorable part of the show, and though there are a handful of funny bits, what it is overall, is mediocre. He is bogged down in his ‘shocking’ style, including a couple of lazy clangers about cancer where he seems to expect a laugh simply for making a dark cancer joke. He is hogtied by the theme of his show, and his overarching career theme of awkward offensiveness and often forgets to be particularly funny while performing his lecture about free speech.

He says as a quick aside towards the end of the show that it’s ‘never the point’ to offend people, but I beg to differ. The idea that he isn’t trying to offend people while telling so many jokes he knows are offensive doesn’t pass the smell test, and that’s a shame, because generally speaking, I think Gervais is sincere in trying to have a positive message in his comedy – he just has some blind spots, obscured by his interpretation of free speech. He says, quite rightly, that finding humour in even the worst of situations is important as it helps us through pain and through adversity, but I would then ask him how laughing at trans people helps with adversity?

 

Gervais athiest

How Gervais portrays himself as a literal martyr for Free Speech. A bit over-dramatic? Credit: New Humanist

I recently joked with friends that the modern ‘white man’s burden’ is constantly having to talk and be heard, and it apparent that Gervais feels his need to assert his unalienable right to do that is more important that the upset doing so may cause. That’s fine, and I defend his right to do it, but it points to the privilege he and some of the other people I will mention benefit from. He simply doesn’t know what it’s like to be joked about due to his race, religion, sexuality, disability, or  gender, and maybe that’s why it’s so easy for him to make and defend jokes about trans people.

For Gervais, his controversy/free speech double-team has become a cottage industry. After his first Golden Globes performance where he ‘roasted the elite’, he was later invited back, and like Daniel Kaluuya at the end of Fifteen Million Merits, dutifully played the role of the provocateur. It’s not quite as edgy when your targets invite you to roast them. His comedy has become more dependent on him acting, to paraphrase, as ‘police for free speech’ on outlets like Twitter, and due to the gravitas of that topic, his fairly pedestrian comedy can be propelled to the zeitgeist of some fairly prurient conversations. Humanity is an OK stand up show easily co-opted as a platform for Gervais’ imagined martyrdom.

But Ricky Gervais is not the only person who has settled in to that niche. Enter, unfortunately, Count Dankula. Dankula, real name Mark Meechan, was until recently, a very little known YouTuber known for, if anything, a back catalog of drearily unfunny videos that mixed the lazy tropes of social media sketches and the ‘lulz’ of the Daily Stormer playbook. Bland sketches and memes. One of his latest unfunny sketches, depicting him training his dog to make ‘Nazi salutes’ at jokey commands such as “gas the Jews” and “Seig Heil” has ‘gone viral’, however, due to his being convicted of a crime for making it and may face jail time. It is no surprise that several people, and especially comedians, have raced to defend Meechan from this injustice, because that’s what it is. Getting back to the refrain from earlier, no matter how distasteful someone’s speech may be – and I think Meechan’s is more hateful than he has let on (more on that in a moment) – he didn’t explicitly incite violence against anyone, and so he should be able to say it.

As a Scot, I am as angry at the Scottish court who convicted Meechan as I am at anyone involved here. Not only is it embarrassing for my country to be the home of such an action, but it is also a phenomenally stupid move that has made this no-talent idiot a voice, but it has, in making him a victim of censorship, allowed him a martyr complex he is riding towards an undeserved relevance. Meechan has my support in terms of absolutely not facing conviction or censorship, but that’s where my support for him ends, and the reason for that comes from a look at the rest of his material and the company he keeps.

Dankula robinson jones

Quite the trifecta: Meechan palling up with Tommy Robinson and Alex Jones. Credit: Youtube.com

Though he denies having specific political beliefs, if you scratch the thinnest of surfaces on Meechan, it’s clear that he’s an alt-right personality. As mentioned earlier, his ‘comic’ choices, references, and explicit opinions are generally alt-right, right from the Daily Stormer style guide. Pepe the from is a prominent reference for him, using ‘autistic’ as an insult, using ‘globalist’ as a dog-whistle, memes, and flippant homophobia and Islamaphobia. He is deeply unpleasant, and uses ‘I was joking’ as a fallback, That’s fine of course, ultimately, but it is definitely dangerous. If the era of ‘Fake News’ is anything, it is one of manufactured confusion. The likes of Breitbart and the Daily Stormer may be evil, but they have their finger on the pulse of how people disseminate information online, and they know that even saying things like this as a joke has the desired effect. Here’s a quote from the oft-mentioned style guide:

“The tone should be light.

Most people are not comfortable with material that comes across as vitriolic, raging, non-ironic hatred.

The unindoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking or not…

This is obviously a ploy and I actually do want to gas kikes.”

Apologies for quoting that word at the end there, but their hateful vitriol needs to be seen I think.

Dankula pepe

Meechan surrounded by the symbols of the alt-right. This is prevalent in his online presence. Credit: iNews.co.uk 

Consider this, and then consider that the more prominent figures he has since been cosiest to have been former EDL leader Tommy Robinson, Paul Joseph Watson, and Alex Jones. All different levels of insane and stupid, but all right wing bigots. Don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean anyone who defends Meechan should be tarred with the same brush, but it should give the likes of Ricky Gervais, David Baddiel, Stephen Fry and more pause when it comes to the nature of their support. Meechan has been closest to Robinson and Watson, meeting them in person and appearing with them with not even a veiled enjoyment of them and their support. I therefore think it’s credible to think that he shares their bigoted beliefs on a number of topics, and given he is unquestionably reading from the alt-right play book of lulz, he isn’t necessarily doing so ‘just as a joke’. The more of this material the indoctrinated see, the more emboldened they are, and while his joke, in a vacuum, is in bad taste but ultimately innocent, in that ‘lulz’ context, it is more serious. Indeed, after the pug video being published originally, the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities received messages of abuse which made some members feel unsafe.

The difference between Meechan and Gervais is that I believe Gervais is sincere in what he says even if I think he gets it wrong at times, while I believe strongly that Meechan is riding the ‘free speech’ wagon to relevance and prominence. He is nailing himself to a cross over the injustice done to him, but that wasn’t the case when he was promoting petitions to criminalise Antifa groups due to their beliefs. In short, he doesn’t give a shit about free speech, he gives a shit about his ability to make racist memes and videos. It’s unfortunate that this is something we should all support, and that good people will fight for it when he wouldn’t do the same for you. I don’t know how familiar Gervais and the other comedians who have defended him are aware of the alt-right playbook, but this isn’t anyone who should be being held up as a protector of anything. He is a statistic, and a serious one, but when that is taken as endorsement, it is a problem.

While David Baddiel and others have later voiced some pause regarding the kind of guy Count Dankula is and his kind of material, Gervais has yet – I believe – to do so and has followed up his original comments with a tweeted picture of his cat with its paw up joking that it had watched the pug video. Maybe he’s just moved on since then, which is fair enough, but again clumsy. Gervais is possibly the most famous comedian in the world and like many celebrities, has a very loyal and organised fanbase. His popularising and typical doubling down on Meechan goes beyond defending this guy’s right to freedom and more towards endorsing him and the bad gag generally. This association is something the likes of Dankula and the rest of the alt-right are likely to bolster as it furthers their ultimate goal of making their hateful speech socially acceptable.

At this point, I would like to go back to my refrain:

1) No one should ever be arrested for mere words unless they explicitly incite violence against specific people or groups.
2) You should be able to tell jokes about whatever you like, no matter how dark, but part of freedom of speech is receiving any criticism that accompanies it.
3) Criticism is not censorship.

Stanhope

Doug Stanhope is an excellent example of a comedian with edgy, controversial material who doesn’t care if he offends you but generally does it in good faith. Credit: Ticketfly

Despite my criticism of the comedians here, that is all it is. Make your jokes, and unless someone is genuinely censored from doing so, who cares? If it’s funny, great; if it’s not, i’ll probably not watch again. That’s how it works. The shame here is that this baseline isn’t holding true due to the niche of comedians being offensive at the altar of free speech. Probably my favourite stand up is Doug Stanhope (I doubt he’d like this article but still) because as dark or offensive as he can be, it’s never in bad faith, he’s never punching down at people. He just writes what he thinks is funny, and while it’s not always to my taste, I know he’s not doing any of it maliciously and he doesn’t really care if he gets criticism for it.

In the case of Ricky Gervais, Count Dankula, and others, I think they protest too much. They pretend to be aloof while going on to make jokes or entire routines about those critical of them, and that makes for fairly dull material more than anything else.

That got me thinking, and while I don’t want to over-generalise, I think it’s clear that the vast majority of those who wax concerned about free speech are those least vulnerable to hateful speech: straight white men. To straight white men, the worst thing you can really say to them is that they’re wrong – we’re almost invulnerable to prejudice and can never truly understand it. That’s what privilege is. Perhaps if we knew they fear and de-humanisation of hate-speech we would be a bit less eager to ‘push the envelope’ just because we can. Personally, I would argue that if something is funny, it is worthwhile and it’s as simple as that, but that things aren’t really funny if they mock marginalised people or their experiences. People get it wrong at times, but don’t be scared to apologise if you do, it’s part of a healthy society to discuss these things. As ever, as long as you’re sincere, no one can ask more.

Freedom of speech is incredibly important, and should be fought for, but in defending it, we need to be careful not to embrace and put on a pedestal that sometimes hides behind it. I would rather admire the likes of Ricky Gervais for great material rather than mediocre material which seems more meaningful because it’s tacked-on to a debate about free speech. I certainly don’t want to even think about ‘Count Dankula’ at all again after I’ve finished this article. See him and defend him for what he is, a horrible person who has suffered an injustice, and not for this imagined view of him as a white knight of liberty. He’s not even funny.

How I Would Keep the Winter Olympics More Or Less The Same But Complain About Some Things

Pyeong Chang

South Korea hosted the 2018 incarnation of the games. Credit: The Week UK

This article is a direct companion piece to the stupidly titled How I Would Ruin the Olympics for a Lot of People and has a similarly stupid title because they should match I guess. That article was a fairly nerdy deep-dive in to the ‘spirit of Olympic competition’ and what events I think should and shouldn’t be represented there. This article isn’t about ‘the spirit of Olympic competition’ for two reasons: 1) because I’ve learned that exploitation is the major ‘spirit’ of Olympic competition (but I’ll let the likes of Dave Zirin and Jules Boykoff explain that better), and 2) because, crucially, I have never seen the Winter Olympics in the same light as the Summer games. While I see as the Summer games as a competition of remarkable physical competition steeped in ancient history, the Winter Olympics don’t have that same heritage based on sheer physical prowess and indeed, are less than 100 years old.

I’ve always had a very soft spot for the Winter Olympics. It shares the trait with the Summer Games of featuring sports very few people at all consider in the 4 years before games, but aesthetically, it is so much more unusually striking and beautiful. Every event is competed in an arena of glistening white, and instead of in a stadium, they are usually on stunning hillside settings. Maybe it’s my aesthetic enjoyment of these games that mean that I think the types of artistic disciplines I would eliminate from the Summer Games suit the Winter counterpart; events like figure skating which is so uniquely beautiful and awe-inspiring it barely even seems feasible or, less majestic but similarly impressive, other judging-based events like the ski and snowboard half-pipe. I can’t stress enough how fondly I regard the Winter Games when they are on, until they’re over and I forget about them like everyone else.

mixed curling

Mixed Doubles curling emerged as an exciting new version of the sport where two people play more intimately and with extra intensity. Yes i’m talking about curling. Credit: Team Canada’s Official Olympic website

I have always loved curling, partly because of it’s inherent connection to Scotland, and partly because it’s a puzzle game which is both relaxing to watch but requires excellent technique. I’ve also always found the sliding sports wonderful. All of the sliding events require such incredible bravery, I can never even imagine what they must be like to do, especially Skeleton, which involved going down the track head first but also the slightly goofier bobsleigh which is no less dangerous. I also have an almost grudging like of ski and snowboard cross because, while they are based on activities I find kinda bourgeois, the quick, tight racing is competitive and exciting in a way most racing actually isn’t. Finally, mogul, while also based on skiing is the only sport which effectively and interestingly mixes racing and judged tricks. It’s so fast, mesmerising and impressive that it’s always something I look forward to at the Winter games.

This year though, I didn’t quite enjoy them as much as I had previously though, and that’s why we’re here. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed watching some of the events, like the ones I have just listed, but I was able to put my finger on some reasons why it didn’t resonate with me as much this time, and it’s not just because they aired live in Britain between midnight and mid-day when I was at work.

Part of the problem was with some of the sports I’ve listed above as my favourites. Curling suffered from almost upstaging itself. The new ‘Mixed Doubles’ curling event was great – no less tactical but very exciting and made more sense. I only realised this after the Mixed Doubles was decided and they moved to the traditional 4-person men and women’s events and I realised that, while I still enjoyed the game, some of it’s slow pace and counter-intuitive rules made it seem a bit dreary in comparison. The primary problem is the relationship between scoring possession of ‘the hammer’ (the crucial last stone of each end). In the mixed doubles, like a serve in tennis, the teams exchange the Hammer alternately, regardless of the end result (pun intended). It’s an advantage which is necessary to the sport but shared equally for fairness and adding an interesting tension to the game, i.e. an advantage where there is pressure to press your advantage. This isn’t missing in the traditional game, but it is much weaker because the Hammer only switch sides when the team wielding it scores. Not only does that mean that often one team has the Hammer more than the other, but it often incentives ‘blank ends’. These often occur if an end isn’t forming the way the team with the hammer likes, and so they play to blank the end so they can keep the Hammer rather than risking only scoring one point and losing the Hammer. There are genuine tactics behind this, but a shamefully high number of ends are played through mechanically with each team knocking the others out of the ‘house’ until they run out of stones. This can take a while and has absolutely no tension to it. I still enjoyed watching it as I enjoy the sport, but the amount of time I spent watching meaningless playing of it became a disappointment.

skeleton

Skeleton requires a lot of heart to do and is very cool to watch, just maybe not four separate times. Credit: Team Canada’s Official Olympic website

There were other sports I enjoy which didn’t quite land as much because of how the competition (as opposed to the sport itself) was designed. This included all of the sliding events, the winners of which were determined by cumulative times over four runs. I understand the strength of this, it measures consistency, but it doesn’t necessarily reward the fastest run. That, to me, is the most important measurement in the sports but, in some circumstances, someone could own the fastest run but still not win. Even worse, because the event is realised over four runs, by the time we get to the fourth run, it’s often a procession where the contenders only need clean, steady runs to win because the gap is small. This isn’t always the case, but it happened with a couple of the events and made for a pretty dull conclusion with more tension at the start, rather than the end of the competition.

Speed skating is another sport which I had an affinity for that the design of the competition kinda spoiled. I understand that this ‘long track’ version of the sport is more of a time trial than the short-track version, but the look of it gives off, shall we say, mixed messages. Two skaters would skate at the same time, pair after pair until the field had all raced with the fastest time winning. The problem was though, that while everyone was just plugging in their time, they were sharing the track with someone else. This looks like a race, but as the commentators couldn’t stop pointing out, the two competitors weren’t directly racing. It looked like a race, but it wasn’t, which meant that the competitive promise that came from how it looked, was lessened by the lack of racing which only served to dampen the tension of the event. It was stuck between two things: a race and a time trial but was kind of neither totally either (it really is a time trial, but you still need to be faster than the other person overall of course). Seen as the event isn’t really a race, I think it would have worked better with a smaller field and each racer going one at a time and taking turns, one by one, to get their time in. I think that would increase the tension and the focus of each person taking on the entire field and the clock.

Even worse and, frankly, absurd was the phenomenon of the Netherlands short-track team breaking the world record but only getting a bronze because they were in the ‘B-Final’. Short-track is generally the more instinctive version of the sport, but this event is a real thing of nonsense. It happened because there was such a small field of teams and the teams that didn’t advance to the final for some reason were put in Final B, essentially a meaningless, ‘Best of the Rest’ race but because only 4 teams were racing in the medal-deciding ‘Final A’ and two were disqualified, they gave the bronze to the winner of Final B, who happened to set a new world record. It seems less ridiculous in that description, but it is still terribly counter-intuitive. Either Final B should count or it shouldn’t be raced, and so either the Netherlands should either have won Gold, or be knocked out in the semi finals. For the record, I think it should have been the latter. If you have semi-finals to qualify for the final, it should be a straight knockout or there’s no point in it at all; and so even though the Dutch were clearly capable of more, they didn’t show it in the semi finals and wouldn’t be skating again. Final A should just be the final and 1st and 2nd should have got Gold and Silver respectively and no one gets a Bronze.

biathlon

Biathlon. If they were really talented, they would shoot with the gun on their backs while they’re skiing. Credit: Berliner-zeitung.de

Then there are the weird events, and not in an endearing way, in a puzzling or disappointing way. I’m thinking first of Biathlon, the combination the impressive but dull cross-country skiing and, for some reason, shooting. I have no idea why this happens, and I don’t see the connection between the disciplines unless you’re trying to find the most technically gifted (and therefore worst) potential Bond Villain – guys that maybe would have killed Roger Moore in The Spy Who Loved Me. Usually, weird combinations like this can be surreal and fun, but unfortunately not in this instance. Weird in a disappointing way were two versions of the Ski Jumping. The main version of ski jumping would be a great sport if it was just about measuring sheer distance, which , given the look of the event, it should be, but for some reason, they add in a judges portion for the style of flight and landing like that either significantly differs between jumpers, or even matters. It adds an x-factor to the most intuitive part of the sport and makes it a bit less impactful, though I still like it overall. I was very disappointed, however, by the Nordic Combined. I heard that it was a combination of ski jumping and then skiing and I was very down for it, imagining people jumping, landing, and then going straight in to a race. Instead, they did both sings separately, at different times of the day. Instead of being this cool, intense hybrid, it was drained of it by methodically separating them. I’m sure this design makes sense but even if it doesn, it doesn’t mean it’s interesting.

Finally, I want to talk about the trick-based judged snowboarding. As I said earlier, I enjoy snowboard cross, and I would like to add to that that you need to be very brave and talented to perform these tricks, but overall, I found the whole presentation fairly painful. To be totally unfair to the sport, I’m not used to watching it and it was rare that I really noticed significant differences between the tricks and could discern differences in difficulty and technique, so i’d be watching and someone would do something that looked great but would get a mediocre score, and then the next person would do something similar and the commentators would lose their minds. Maybe the sport is just fairly narrow in terms of what can be achieved, but for this reason, it somehow became a bit boring to watch even incredible stunts. The worst thing about the sport though is how ridiculously uncool the whole thing somehow is, from the big personalities, who all kinda seem like entitled douchebags (i’m sure they’re not, but they seem that way. Shaun White obviously is), to the try-hard, painfully hip commentators who can’t stop saying things like ‘gnarly’ and making lame jokes because I guess that’s the scene. It’s like Tim Westwood is commentating. This of course is a very personal and definitely unfair criticism but it’s one I had to get off my chest.

speed skating

The Netherlands won all their Golds in speed skating. They really like speed skating there for some reason.  Credit: SB Nation

Finally, and more seriously, while I have no interest in disqualifying events from the games like I would for the Summer Olympics, the Winter games do suffer from the same problem of medal weighting, doling out dozens of medals for some disciplines, and relatively few for others. There are 12 cross country skiing medals to be won, but only 4 for the luge, 22 for speed skating and just 5 for figure skating. Especially at the Winter Olympics, which has a limited selection of sports comparitively, this means that if a country specialises in a sport with a lot of medals, they can be over-represented on the medal table, for as much as that matters. Over half of Norway’s Gold tally came from cross-country skiing alone, and two more came from other skiing disciplines. Norway are excellent at skiing apparently and because there are lots of medals in that, they won the Winter Olympics. Every single one of the Netherland’s Golds came from speed skating, and because of that, they came 5th. Not only is this bad for the weigting of the medal table, but it makes for fairly repetitive action at times with events that are only marginally different from each other and allow for teams to pad their medal haul. I would like to see sports like skiing and speed skating have some of the events discontinued and try to diversify the events overall. I’m not claiming to be especially creative or a genius, but winter sports feel like a ripe setting to invent events for. However, for the fun of it, let me try:

Triathlon: Mass start snowboard slalom; 5k cross-country skiing; 1500m speed skating

Now this admittedly sounds absurd, but i’m not sure it is. Have it as a big race all at once and racers have to essentially change footwear at each stage. They are very different disciplines, but I can imagine there are athletes who can become proficient enough at all three to race. Athletes have to snowboard a longer slalom course all at once; they them change footwear in to skis and race for 5km (a thankfully shorter distance) and ski to/inside the speed skating arena almost like marathon runners entering the stadium; and then they speed skate for 1500m. Add that to the Winter Olympics.

Overall, I wouldn’t change much about the Winter Olympics, I don’t want to ruin it for anyone, but I do think there are ways to improve them, make them more diverse, and make them even more exciting by eliminating the more broken competitions. Regardless of the relative negativity here and the fact that i’ll soon forget about Pyeong Chang 2018,  I still look forward to the next games. There’s something magical about the Winter Olympics, even if they’re also a bit lame.

The Curious Case of Abbey A and the Question of Just What a Community Should Do

This article obviously references tweets made by people I know, like, and respect. Even if I disagree with these people on this issue, in most cases, I still respect them. I considered contacting people directly to let them know I was writing this but didn’t want to cause any arguments or further discord, so i’m writing this instead. Please know, this isn’t intended to ‘subtweet’ anyone, and in most cases, the positions or even wording I refer to are a composite approximation of many people’s. A full breakdown of what happened can be found here: http://lulzstorage.com/. Just an FYI, some of the content and images here may make for a difficult read.

If you’re a wrestling fan on twitter, and if you identify as a member of ‘wrestling twitter’, you will no doubt have seen mention of one of a number of controversies from Ric Flair selling then retracting branded sexual consent forms, to Powerbomb parting ways with co-founder Adam Lash over his public criticism of the streaming service broadcasting an IWA show featuring Michael Elgin, leading to strange debates about Powerbomb’s contractual obligations; and finally, the main event, the bizarre tale of ‘Abbey A’ and her clear faking of cancer and later death. The whole soup was a real mess, but this article will deal mostly with the Abbey A situation, and most specifically, what could, and possibly should happen to her as a result.

Until late last week, I had never to my knowledge heard of Abbey or read any articles or anything else by her while she was a somewhat well-known wrestling writer, so I had no preconceptions of her when I saw the story of her supposedly faking cancer and soliciting around $10,000 of donations for treatment. Indeed, when I first saw her tweets, I believed her and even tweeted something along the lines of ‘this is unbelievable, I can’t believe people are doing this to someone with cancer’. Moments later I was deleting that as it was clear that something was at least fishy about her situation.

A combination of twitter users did some digging, and the whole thing became, I admit, a bit addictive. One reason it garnered so much attention was that Abbey’s attempts to fool people, including the infamous use of a google image search picture of jelly, were so pathetically transparent that it made for easy jokes and memes. Another reason for it being such a talked-about topic was that it’s almost a caricature of evil – a person claiming to both friends and strangers that she had a terrifying terminal illness to grift money from them. As many people pointed out, no wonder it overblown comic and dastardly undertones appealed to wrestling fans so much.

Jello

Notable in it’s needlessness, Abbey faked nearly everything, even having a cup of jello. Credit: @Llamaoftruth

Though it was easy to laugh at Abbey’s ridiculous forgeries of doctors letters and the improbable appearance her ‘sister’ who took over her twitter after Abbey ‘died’, and to imagine what Abbey might do next, it shouldn’t understate how serious her crime is.

I want to be clear, what Abbey did isn’t serious because it’s a crime, but it is a serious crime. She defrauded many people of a total amount in to the tens of thousands of dollars across numerous crowdfunding sites. Yes, most contributions were fairly small, but not all of them, with some of them being substantial or repeated donations. I would also argue that the size of the donation is a minor point anyway. $20 could be a significant amount for someone who is kind enough to donate it – the reality of living poverty is a big reason why people create and donate to crowdfunders in the first place, so we shouldn’t assume these losses are insignificant. Indeed, not presuming is going to be a bit of a running theme here. My point is, this wasn’t a faux-pas, this was a con of people; many of whom clearly considered Abbey a friend. The fact that it was a particularly sick con – including the theft of a real (and unfortunately now deceased) cancer patient’s photo – doesn’t necessarily make it worse as a crime, but it does make it harder to forgive.

Drip

Abbey stole this image to legitimise her story. The picture is of Emily Agnew, who had died of cancer when Abbey used this picture Credit: @Llamaoftruth

Indeed, to my surprise, the final subplot of this whole messy saga was what exactly people should do about Abbey, if anything. While those at the forefront of outing Abbey encouraged those affected by her con to report her to the authorities, a not insignificant collection of twitter users, some of whom I genuinely respect a lot, started to openly mock and criticise the idea. One tweet that I think summed up this initial tone best read

“lol at all the fucking cops outing themselves on wrestling twitter right now”

Initially, I put this down to a kind of meme-style language you see online all the time, e.g. ‘if you believe X, you police’. To be fair though, this led to more detailed arguments, but arguments they were, and in time-tested twitter tradition,  these disagreements were drawn diametrically and with at least a sense of ill will; with, to paraphrase, one side believing that the police be informed about Abbey’s crime, and the other side not thinking so.

The ‘no police’ side’s argument, from what I can tell is that, while they didn’t like what Abbey did, they were worried that getting the police involved could be a mistake because she could end up being killed by the police. I don’t write that with any sarcasm, I understand the thinking. The world has seen many cases of the Police in the US, poorly trained and armed to the teeth, killing people and getting away with it, regardless of whether or not the person was a danger. I believe that most of the people cautioning against involving the Police indeed were just concerned about Abbey’s well-being and the potential of this befalling her being tragically disproportionate.

That said, I fall largely on the other side of the argument. While this fate absolutely can befall anyone, including white people, let’s not kid ourselves that the police are anywhere near the same level of threat to a white person suspected of fraud who they would go to investigate than they are to a young black man on the street. Similarly, even-though these tragedies do happen, the way people were talking about this, you would think it was likely that a call to the Police would end in the death of Abbey, with users discussing the weighing up of the crime with a person’s life. I’m no defender of killer cops, but even a suspicious person must concede that only a miniscule proportion of police call-outs, regardless of circumstance, will lead to death. I struggle with the notion that a logical person can reasonably believe Abbey being reported to the police would have any significant chance of leading directly to her death. It comes from a good place, but it’s hysteria.

There was another element to this argument, and that’s that the ‘no police’ side seemed to think that those who thought the police should be involved were ‘European’, didn’t understand the US justice system, and supported authoritarianism. Not only was this aspect of the disagreement insincere and needlessly partisan, but I don’t even think it’s true. In my line of work for a charity working with many of the most vulnerable in society, I am super suspicious of areas of government and police divisions, and I know all too well that the US and the UK at least share a lot of the same judicial problems. Our systems are geared to punish petty, largely victimless crimes as much as anything else (I’m thinking mainly of drugs, but there are many other similar kinds of crimes), and target vulnerable and/or minority groups disproportionately because that satisfies the tabloid right wing and boosts the profits of corporations involved with prisons. The only difference is that people aren’t shot in the streets in the UK because our police usually don’t have guns.

Fraud

Fraud is nothing new to Abbey, and there’s no reason to think she wouldn’t do it again if left to her devices. Credit: @Llamaoftruth

So I can’t stress enough that my belief that Abbey deserves to be reported to the Police doesn’t come from an authoritarian stance. If she was taking drugs or even defrauding a corporation (i.e. if she was committing a victimless crime, or a crime which only ‘punched up’) I would never support her being reported, but I can’t stress enough that I think there are real victims of her actions, and so restitution can and should be pursued for them at least without wringing our hands about it. People are assuming that ‘she must have needed the money’, that ‘she is obviously going through mental issues’, and/or ‘she needs help’ but do we really know that? As I say, I don’t really know anything about her personally, but they seem like leaps of logic for people to defend their position and make further assumptions that her victims don’t need the money, that her victims aren’t going through mental issues themselves, or that the trauma she has caused for people by deceiving them won’t create or exacerbate existing issues. These seem to be purely assumptions, but they are all in Abbey’s favour when, to be frank, I don’t believe she deserves that benefit of the doubt, especially given that further digging has shown that this isn’t her first time defrauding people and so it can be fairly deduced that a great deal of this was premeditated.

The next bit is not even an assumption on my part, but a general feeling – I can’t help but feel that giving Abbey so much the benefit of the doubt isn’t incidental, and that, in fact, it is to protect her from accountability. Abbey was a fairly well known personality in wrestling twitter, and one who seemingly outwardly displayed tendencies which are quite common in the community: e.g. mental health issues, depression, and, well, the love of this weird niche interest we share. Many people felt betrayed by Abbey specifically because they felt close to her, and I think this may explain why some of the ‘no police’ side are so protective – through the disgust at what she did, they possibly still recognise a peer they relate to, someone they like.

‘Accountability’ specifically has become a dirty word in this argument, but I think it’s exactly what should be aimed for here, partly because it’s something a lot of these recent wrestling controversies have lacked. Abbey has hurt people, stolen from people, sullied reputations, and on this occasion, has done so in a criminal way. I think that warrants a fair, balanced restitution. Her reputation is already shot, and whatever the punishment for the brand of fraud she has committed is, she deserves to face. Nothing more, but also nothing less. The wrestling community can’t go on shielding people from accountability – it’s a cloud that hangs over the whole culture and one that can really ruin the magic of it. While there isn’t equivalence in the crimes, we can’t in one breath call for the punishment of the likes of Bram and Elgin and then say it’s wrong to do the same for Abbey. Again, while the victims of what Bram and Elgin have done have suffered a lot more, there are still victims of what Abbey has done, and that shouldn’t be forgotten.