Politics & Policy

Happy Hoax-idays!

From all of us to all of you, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and a joyful anything else you may celebrate at this time of year.

Happy Hoax-idays!

We constantly argue that the national news media has to be more discerning and wary about stories that crop up on social media and seem a little too perfect. It is increasingly clear that day will not come anytime soon. The coming years will be filled with lurid, even farfetched tales of horrific abuse in public places, and a slow trickle of retractions when the details of the accounts don’t add up.

For starters, history has taught us to be wary of “you won’t believe the offensive message written on this restaurant receipt” stories. The one in New Jersey was a hoax, the one in California was a hoax, and the one in Tennessee is sketchy, with a handwriting expert saying the writing on the receipt doesn’t match the customer’s. The gay slur on the cake from Whole Foods was a hoax. How many openly racist, sexist or homophobic wait staff feel the need to offer a perfectly offensive written statement to someone they’re hoping will tip them?

Surely, the world has genuine hate crimes. But a lot of the most covered ones in recent weeks have turned out to be hoaxes. A Jewish family is not fleeing Lancaster County after a backlash to their complaint about their school’s Christmas play. A drunken man did not threaten to set a Michigan woman’s hijab on fire. The November burning of an African-American church and spray-painting of “Vote Trump” was committed by an African-American parishioner. That Manhattan Muslim teen who claimed she was attacked by three drunks who called her a “terrorist” on the subway while lots of New Yorkers stood and watched? Hoax. (The hoaxer’s sister later went on Facebook and criticized the police for being excessively skeptical: “It became super clear to me these past two weeks that the police’s first instinct is to doubt your story and try to disprove it.”)

That “YouTube prankster” who claimed he was thrown off the plane for speaking Arabic? Other passengers say he was being disruptive and was only thrown off for repeatedly shouting.

There are lesser-covered cases, too:

Vincent Palmer, 27, told detectives he taped a note with racial slurs and the words “KKK” and “Trump” written on it to his ex-girlfriend’s mailbox early Saturday before throwing a brick through her car window and dousing the back seat in gasoline because they were having problems over the custody of their children, according to an arrest report.

In South Philadelphia, a group residents found racist, Nazi and pro-Trump graffiti spray-painted on their homes and cars the morning after the election. The perpetrator was a 58-year-old African-American man.

It’s not just the Left, of course; a New York City firefighter said his house was set aflame because he had a “Blue Lives Matter” flag outside. Earlier this month, he was charged with arson, setting his own house on fire.

Note for all future discussions of hate crimes: Did the victim file a police report? If a victim is strangely resistant to the idea of filing a police report, turn your wariness up a notch. If they say they don’t want to make too big a deal out of it, while simultaneously making a big deal out of it on social media, turn it up another notch. Of course, filing a false police report is a crime, and that makes the stunt a lot more dangerous and potentially consequential for the hoaxer.

It’s not just the political realm; social media is full of hoaxes, fueled by credulous people. U.S. Bank Stadium in Minnesota will not be open to the homeless on cold nights. Cee Lo Green’s phone did not explode in his hand. Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern are not posing as being from the gas company and robbing people’s houses during the Christmas season.

We can complain about the media’s eagerness to share and spread implausible tales – completely different from that Macedonian-generated “fake news” on Facebook, right? – but ultimately we need a warier news-consuming public. I fear we’re unlikely to get one.

A Spoiler-Heavy Evaluation of Rogue One

Back in the late 1980s, a small publishing company called West End Games created Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game, emulating Dungeons and Dragons and letting creative super-nerds create their own Star Wars characters and play their own adventures, exploring that vast space opera universe. One of the very best parts of the original trilogy was the sense that you were peering into a world with almost limitless opportunities for excitement and action. What would happen if you walked down a different street in Mos Eisley spaceport, turned down another corridor in Cloud City, or found some other ancient structure on Dagobah?

Game-players were discouraged from playing the characters from the movies, and encouraged to imagine their own motley assembly of heroic Rebels, aliens, and droids, blasting away at Stormtroopers and making their own razor-thin escapes.

Rogue One feels a lot like an old roleplaying game story brought to the big screen. I think it’s the most “mixed bag” of all the Star Wars movies so far, a bold experiment that comes close to being a major disappointment halfway through and then salvages itself with a thrilling, dramatically risky conclusion. Spoilers ahead. . .

Something about the opening scene feels really different and off for a Star Wars film. The ominous score cues us that something bad is about to happen, but it seems to take forever to get there. Krennic’s personal guard of sleek, black “Deathtroopers” look enormously menacing but basically turn out to be Stormtroopers with better fashion sense.

The creative team tried to make some of the main protagonists complicated and nuanced, but they ended up giving them a lot of murky and confusing motivations. Why does Jyn initially have no interest in striking back against the Empire that murdered her mother and took her father away? Does the Rebel spy Andor shoot all of his best sources in the back? If he doesn’t trust Jyn, why did he send his loyal droid and a Rebel team to break her out of jail? Perhaps the movie is most confused about breakaway Rebel leader Saw Gerrera, who’s willing to use an alien brain-probe fitting the Dune novels and yet is still supposedly one of the good guys.

Finally, the main villain Krennic seems almost too “normal” and relatable: He’s trying to finish up a giant project at work to get that big promotion and deal with backstabbing rivals in the office and unresponsive bosses.

As usual, the most interesting characters are the supporting ones: a blind warrior monk who gives us our first sense of just how the Force shaped religion and belief in this universe; his gruff partner, fiercely loyal for never-to-be-mentioned reasons, and Alan Tudyk’s fantastic K2SO. I had heard the rumors of a computer-generated version of Grand Moff Tarkin, which exceeded my expectations. (You realize what this means, right? No actor in Star Wars will ever really die; their computer-generated alter-egos will just keep on making movies forever. In the meantime, give British actor Guy Henry an award for the greatest performance that no audience will ever actually see.)

I described the first third of the movie as Star Wars: Zero Dark Thirty, and the “Holy City of Jedha” setting leaned really heavily on the “exotic Middle Eastern city” tropes. I actually liked all of this part; the movie’s most troublesome portion was just around the corner.

In that old Star Wars role-playing game rulebook, the creators offered some tips about how to write a good adventure in this fictional world. One key point was that you could write some fascinating stories about moral dilemmas, exploring “What is right and wrong?”. . .  but that wasn’t really what Star Wars stories were about. In Star Wars, the good guys are good, the bad guys are bad, and anybody who’s initially unaligned doesn’t stay that way for long: think Boba Fett or Lando Calrissian.

By the time Jyn and Andor were arguing whether the Rebellion was really morally better than the Empire, I cringed, and was ready to chalk up the film as an interesting experiment that failed. The “you might as well be a Stormtrooper” scene is a giant tone change from the films we know and love. As many wonks and writers have observed, Han shoots Greedo first, Obi-Wan literally disarms some punk who tries to pull a gun on him in the bar, Luke blows up the entire Death Star. . . the original trilogy is full of the good guys mowing down bad guys with nary a thought, because they’re bad guys. Arguing about collateral damage from Rebel strike missions takes our fantasy fictional warfare and brings it too close to today’s real-life debates.

And then the “rogue” mission to steal the Death Star plans begins, and the movie kicks into higher gear, with genuine momentum and the suspense of a classic heist film. (We know something will go wrong, the question is what and when and how our heroes will adapt.) (LAST SPOILER WARNING!)

Killing off all of the major characters is the boldest decision by any major studio in ages; there will not be a Rogue Two. It’s the opposite of a narrative cheat, a decision that neatly explains why these characters aren’t mentioned in any subsequent films. This wasn’t just a “big” mission; it was the biggest imaginable, one where the MacGuffin (the Death Star plans) was so important, everyone was willing to die to ensure other Rebels got it.

I’m contemplating whether everything that has gone wrong with Star Wars began in the middle of Return of the Jedi, with the decision to make Darth Vader more than just the main villain. In Rogue One, he’s back to being the relentless, merciless, ruthless enforcer that we remember from the first two films. His two brief scenes create the impression he can barely stand anybody else in the Empire, either. Forget insulting the Force or failing your mission; Darth Vader will Force-choke you just for whining in his presence. Lord Vader, I’ve never admired you more; let me introduce you to some Millennials.

Finally, we all knew the movie would end with something leading into the opening scene from Episode IV, but there was something thrilling about how they led to that final scene. We get that last line of dialogue, the music swells, and we smile inside because we know exactly what happens next. We know that as downbeat as this film seems, the happy ending is just two hours away in the original Star Wars.

ADDENDA: Enjoy the holidays; the next Jolt I write will be Tuesday, December 27. Enjoy any vacation you take; Tevi Troy notes that for presidents, there isn’t much of a real vacation:

President James K. Polk frowned upon vacations. “No President who performs his duties faithfully and conscientiously,” he wrote in his diary in 1848, “can have any leisure.” Consequently, he expected “to remain constantly in Washington.” In four years as president he was away from the White House for only six weeks. And workweeks for Polk typically lasted a full seven days. All that took its toll: He died only four months after leaving the White House. Many historians surmise he was killed by exhaustion.

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