Politics -

Who can’t get enough! Red or Blue? Left or Right? Paper or Plastic?


With the torrent of controversy surrounding Rockstar after their mea culpa on the hidden sex mini-game in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, it seems the dangerous publicity which Rockstar so happily embraced to promote its games has finally come back to bite them (and perhaps the entire industry as well).

Rockstar screwed up big time, and anyone who defends the company’s objection to an AO rating for GTA:SA is fooling himself. The content may not have been accessible without hacking the game, but it was still created by the developer and shipped with every copy of the game. It was the product of Rockstar, not that of creative modders (a la the nude patches for Tomb Raider or Dead Or Alive). There’s no way to get around the reality: a game’s rating must be based on the entire content shipped to the consumer, not just what is normally accessible. It is safe to assume that Rockstar must have cut normal access to the content because it would have resulted in an AO rating; if it was intentionally left in (as an anti-establishment programmer just might do), it was blatant circumvention of the rating system, and the game should be re-rated. But you can bet your sweet ass we will never know the real answer to that question from Rockstar, FTC and Mrs. Clinton be damned.

On the broader question of videogame ratings and the recent trend towards mandatory enforcement (partially thanks to the Hot Coffee controversy), I don’t believe that government enforcement on the M and AO ratings is an outrageous notion if the retailers themselves refuse to make it official policy to enforce the ESRB guidelines. In a perfect world, we would rely only on parents to decide what their children play, but that is not our world, and where parents are neglectful, you’ll find elected officials only too happy to step up and take credit. Consider the v-chip, shipped in every modern television sold today and indeed more pervasive in the U.S. than any other country in the world (at least 40% in 2003). It allows parents to block content they object to, based on a voluntarily adopted television rating system. However few parents even know what the V-Chip is, much less actually use it. So the rating system is toothless in the face of ignorant parents. Contrast that with the voluntary rating system adopted by the movie industry. It needs no/less government intervention because movie studios will not permit their movies to be shown in a theatre that does not enforce the R and NC-17 ratings. Could you imagine how quickly retailers would reform if game publishers only shipped to retailers that enforced M and AO?

As with so many things, it all comes down to money. Admit it or not, publishers market their games to teenagers whether it is rated T or M, and an enforced rating system would create a fiscal incentive to shed the violence down to T (much like PG-13 is considered the sweet spot of MPAA ratings). That would result in a squeeze on developers’ ability to express their art with unbridled freedom, hence the outcries from the industry against the government attacking their First Amendment rights. If those in the industry truly stand behind their rating system and the assertion that M rating games are not meant for children, they should stop marketing to them and do more to enforce the voluntary system. It’s the hypocritical idea that Mature games are not meant for children, yet the ability to sell said games to them is too important to the publisher’s bottom line to demand strict enforcement, that has put the industry in the situation in the first place.


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Follow-up to the last post… perhaps I am approaching the issue from too American a perspective. The time here in Oxford has shed fascinating light onto Britain’s unique system of government. Unlike the U.S., The United Kingdom has no written constitution. It is a constitutional monarchy, governed by a parliamentary democracy. Many of the rights codified in the U.S. Constitution from free speech to gender and racial equality are just as valid here as in the States, but written down nowhere. Instead, convention dictates much of the government’s function, enforceable only by morality and each political party watching the others’ moves. The net effect, in my opinion is a mixed bag. It becomes very difficult to know the rules of the game, since the courts are no longer the final arbiters of justice (oh yeah, no judicial review either. again, by convention). But just because that is the way in the U.S., is that really the best way to do things? Unlike the States, the unelected judges (and “Supreme Court” of Britain’s Law Lords) are not absolute and unaccountable. They cannot overturn statutes with binding authority (though this is changing in recent times, especially with regards to the European Court of Justice).

What does all this have to do with Harry Potter? Maybe nothing. But maybe it’s a real world illustration of an American/British cultural divide on how, and by what conventions, authority figures govern themselves. It’s nice to think Rowling’s characters are the products of societal differences rather than sloppy storytelling. But hey, whatever makes me feel better about obsessively reading a children’s book! Right?


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When I first heard that the new Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith might be laden with political, anti-Bush messages, one part of me was inflamed at the thought of George Lucas (as though he couldn’t screw up his beloved series any more) lacing this final chapter with partisanship. The other part of me was saddened that, whether intentional or not, skeptics were looking for such messages in the midst of our beloved melodramatic space opera.

Personally, I had found little reason to quibble after I saw the film at the Arclight a few days after it was released. It contained some definite “political messages,” but it wasn’t a political film by any stretch, and given what I knew of George Lucas’ dislike of President Bush and how much he could have inserted, I cut my losses and dismissed the political klaxons in my head as paranoidly looking for windmills with which to tilt.

But oh, how wrong I was.

I since stumbled upon a leaked draft of the Ep III script, which is pretty authentic considering it was reported on at least a week before the film’s release. It is spot-on accurate for every line the film I can remember, but also includes numerous lines and entire scenes left out of the final version. I’m saddened to say the deleted parts leave little doubt that Lucas intended the political aspect of RotS to be a commentary on the Bush administration, the Patriot Act, and the war in Iraq generally.

*** OBLIGATORY SPOILER WARNING ***
A couple of the more salient points include:

Regarding the Patriot Act:

PALPATINE: There are times when we must all endure adjustments to the constitution in the name of security.
ANAKIN: With all due respect, sir, the Council is in no mood for more constitutional amendments.
PALPATINE: Thank you, my friend, but in this case I have no choice . . . this war must be won.

  • These lines were cut from the scene when Palpatine informs Anakin he will be his personal representative on the Jedi Counsel. (as a side note, yes I am aware the Patriot Act is not a constitutional amendment)

Regarding Bush and Republicans generally:

  • When Palpatine has been disfigured and is announcing the Galactic Empire to the Senate (from which Padme’s now-famous quote, “So this is how liberty dies, with thunderous applause,” stems), a few additional lines were deleted:

PALPATINE: In order to ensure our security and continuing stability, the Republic will be reorganized into the first Galactic Empire, for a safe and secure society which I assure you will last for ten thousand years.
PALPATINE: (continuing) An empire that will continue to be ruled by this august body, and a sovereign ruler chosen for life . . .
PALPATINE: (continuing) An empire ruled by the majority . . . Ruled by a new constitution . . .

  • Maybe I’m reading too much into this one, but do I smell some Democrat minority angst here?

And let’s not forget the politically-charged that actually made it into the film:


PADME: What if the democracy we thought we were serving no longer exists, and the Republic has become the very evil we have been fighting to destroy?
. . .
PADME: Anakin, this war represents a failure to listen . . . Now, you’re closer to the Chancellor than anyone. Please, please ask him to stop the fighting and let diplomacy resume.

The final line, and the one that stuck in my craw from the moment I heard it, isn’t as much about current politics as modern philosophy, and I think is more dangerous and hair-raising than any of George’s whiney sour grapes lines:


OBI-WAN: Anakin, my allegiance is to the Republic … to democracy.
ANAKIN: If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy.
OBI-WAN: Only a Sith Lord deals in absolutes. I will do what I must.

Anakin’s line here is arguably a jab at Bush’s 2001 comment regarding the war on terror (though in light of the deleted and other lines it seems increasingly likely). It’s Obi-Wan’s second line that bothers me – if only Sith Lords deal in absolutes, what do the good guys deal in? The logical answer seems to be the opposite, which would be moral relativism. Contrary to what the Jedi seem to espouse (ironically it is actually Palpatine that urges Anakin to take a look at the softer side of Sith, not merely that Sith = Evil), Obi-Wan’s message here seems to indicate that good and bad are relative ideas, and that strict or enforced morals are dangerous and oppressive. This is the school of thought that gives sympathy to terrorists and frames all political issues from homosexuality to abortion in terms of individual rights upon which we must not infringe. Why not? Because my morality may not be your morality, and who are you to impose your morality on me?

Fortunately, this brief homage to “no true good or evil” is easy missed, since it is so contrary to Star Wars’ consistent message of pure good (Jedi) and pure evil (Sith). Like Lucas’ abhorrent writing and abysmal directing, pointless partisan commentary serves no purpose other than to further denigrate an already beleaguered series. It’s fortunate that someone got to Lucas – as someone no doubt must have – and convinced him to remove some of the more shameless moments, references to some newfound “constitution,” etc., or Revenge of the Sith really would have been seen as a political movie with an unabashedly political message. Well done, George! You’ve successfully completed six episodes of the Star Wars saga without shattering the childhoods of thousands (despite your best efforts, I might add).


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Whenever I hear talking heads on either side of the aisle spout about the threat of “activist judges” legislating from the bench, the legal-minded part of me cringes. Bill Maher jokes that in a world of terrorism and pretenses for war, “activist judges” are the least of our worries, while Sean Hannity says that judges with lifetime tenure can’t be allowed to unaccountably reshape the law as they see fit. I think the truth of the matter falls somewhere in between.

The United States has always subscribed to a common law system of jurisprudence, adopted from the British system from which we derive many of our legal principles. Under that system, laws are adopted through a variety of means (legislative acts, executive orders, constitutional amendments, etc.), and it is the job of the judicial branch – judges – to flesh out the meaning of those laws. That means that simple phraseology used by legislators, such as granting Congress the power to make all laws “necessary and proper” to carry out the powers granted to them (Article I, Sec. 8, Cl. 18 of the US Constitution), gets scrutinized and considered by judges to determine how those standards should be applied. Unless overturned by a higher court, one judge’s interpretation of that law then receives the full weight of law in the future – in essence, it becomes another way of deciding what the law is. It’s always been done this way, and it’s important that this privilege continue. Judges become the final arbiters of how laws are applied because the laws themselves are not written specifically enough to be directed to every applicable case! To do away with judicial interpretation would require a law to be on the books for every conceivable scenario, and even then new, unforeseeable interpretations would still crop up (for example, how the Internet is changing the way we view traditional copyright laws).

So judges need their power to apply the laws in specific cases. The problems arise when they use this interpretive power to make laws where the shoe doesn’t really fit. Abortion is an example of this – framing the abortion of a viable fetus in a woman’s right to liberty or freedom to contract. The judges are in a Catch-22 here, when there is no law on the books applying to the specific situation and yet they are called upon to make a ruling because the case at bar requires it. Most often they do the best they can, but in truly polarizing issues, it’s impossible to keep personal beliefs from creeping in. This problem has been the source of numerous heinous court rulings and the potential for abuse is real. But the solution is neither to dismantle the common law system by neutering judges nor to put the fear of God into them by removing them from office whenever a politically unpopular decision is written.


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