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MADNESS - July & August 2018 Phillip Morris

The Thing About Thanos

Written by Phillip Morris, Editor-in-Chief

The last three Marvel movies were my favorites and some of the best examples of the superhero genre. The last two, Black Panther and the Avengers: Infinity Wars, really took things to a new level beating out Spawn for its special place in my heart. The stories were compelling, the action engaging, but more than anything, these are my favorites because they allow for some real critical thought. I’m hard-pressed to think of another superhero film, or any film in the broad spectrum of blockbusters, where it was possible for audience members to come away with diverging experiences. Usually, we’re all strapped in for the same emotional rollercoaster laughing, gasping, and crying on cue, but with these films, it’s possible to feel something rare: sympathy for the villain.

With Thanos and Warmonger, Marvel delivered two of the best antagonists of the current wave of superhero films. They were driven by personal, righteous causes that the audience was meant to sympathize with. They weren’t out to cause chaos and destruction purely for their own sake. They craved power for the good they could do with; Thanos to avert an impending disaster life creates for itself by imbalanced consumption, and Warmonger to stop the injustices faced by the African diaspora. However, rather than bringing balance and equality to the people of the world, Warmonger wanted to just flip the script and put his people in control, so between the two of them Thanos’ cause is more sympathetic, so he’ll be the focus of this piece.

It has now been over two months since Avengers came out, and four for Black Panther, so if you don’t know what happens in the movies, that’s on you. By the rules of all polite societies, it’s been long enough that spoilers can be freely talked about. Hell, it’s even been enough time for the subreddit r/thanosdidnothingwrong to gain almost 100K followers. Still, here’s your chance to turn back.

Screen capture from Marvel’s “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018) available at Marvel Studio News.

For the first time in a while the main villain of in a superhero movie unquestionable won (Surthur got to bring about Ragnarok but he wasn’t the main villain; in another universe, Ozymandias reached his goal of world peace, but it isn’t expected to last). Throughout the film, Thanos makes his final push to gather the Infinity Stones. Just before the end, he gets his gauntlet on all six and finally makes his dream come true, killing half of all sentient life in the galaxy. Everyone not protected by theirs magically profitable status as an original Avenger was given a 50/50 chance of blowing away like dust on the wind. As any fan of comics will tell you, death is only a temporary set back for most heroes so I’m still looking forward to Black Panther and Spider-man sequels. I’m also expecting Marvel to keep to the high bar they’ve set for themselves with future villains.  In Thanos, I see a villain I can almost agree with.

Let me just say I don’t think his plan is in anyway a solution to the problems we face in the real world that have broadly been blamed on “overpopulation” or capitalism since those would largely be alleviated by reigning in greed, and properly managing resource distribution. But Thanos doesn’t exist in the real world and in his world, his solution works, despite being the bad guy. Superheroes tend to focus on solving the problem immediately at hand, which tends to be saving the lives of those in danger right now. Thanos is thinking on a larger time-scale, and not without reason.

He didn’t start out wanting to kill half of everyone. When he saw the path his planet was heading towards to tried to warn those in charge. He had to then watch his planet die when they didn’t listen to his advice. That’s what put him on the path of taking matters into his own hands, and successfully so. He mentions how Gamora’s planet was once in so much poverty that much of its population was left to starve to death, but following his culling, it is now flourishing. I don’t think there’s any suggestion he’s lying when he tells Gamora this. I feel the film’s presentation of Thanos’ motivation, as just preventing population growth from exceeding a level sustainable level, as a simplification driven by the fact that Hollywood isn’t really one to blatantly critique the systemic flaws in our society and generally thinks the mass audience is dumber than it is.

If you accept the commonly used definition of crazy as doing the same thing over and over again expecting to get different results, then superheroes are crazier than the villains they fight, and ultimately cause more suffering.  Most heroes don’t kill if they can avoid it (Thanos wouldn’t have won had the Avengers just killed one android). Instead of death, villains can expect to be placed in some form of containment be it in prison, an asylum, or another dimension. Much like how death cannot keep a profitable hero down, neither can any villain be permanently contained. They inevitably escape to wreak havoc yet again. Thanos, on the other hand, offered a permanent fix, then promptly retired. 

The thing about Thanos is he’s a bad guy for the right reasons. Killing half the population of the universe is, of course, traumatic, but trauma induces change. If life across the universe consistently develops in a way that eventually kills itself, then change is necessary. Doctor Stranger saw 14 million futures and still decided it was worth it to give Thanos the Time Stone knowing exactly what it would mean. It could be that ultimately Thanos was right, or more likely that Captain Marvel will be able to undo everything, but the fact that it’s possible to at least for a moment consider that maybe the bad guy has a point is a nice change of pace.

Christian Hazes MADNESS - July & August 2018

Learning Insanity

Written by Christian Hazes, Staff Writer

Being Dutch is inevitably accompanied by a couple of long-lasting stigmas and traits. According to outsiders, but often also according to ourselves, every Dutch person loves cheese, uses a bike to get from A to B, and probably the most notorious habit: “going Dutch” on the bill.

A tradition the outside world is less acquainted with, but that an abundance of Dutch people detests, is what we call zesjescultuur. The fact that the term entails the Dutch word for the number 6 (zes) already makes it a bit more convenient for you to guess the habit’s gist. It is simply the Dutch equivalent of the culture of mediocrity plaguing education. A culture of obtaining a grade that barely meets the threshold to pass a test or a course reigns in the Netherlands.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of prominent Dutch newspapers write about the highly vexed topic of education. Newspapers such as De Volkskrant, Trouw, and De Telegraaf identify challenges, unveil problems and provide recommendations for the future concerning the Dutch education system. What caught my attention is the Dutch newspapers’ tendency to (over)emphasize the prevalence of the zesjescultuur. Lately, it seems to be the only thing they can discuss.

In my opinion, the tradition of the zesjescultuur in the Netherlands is largely non-existent: a contemporary Dutch myth.

There seems to be not a culture of mediocrity, but the opposite: a culture of having to excel in school. This myth is reinforced by the perpetual stream of news that argues that education has to improve and that the majority of the Dutch students are towards education.

Photo by Jonas Jacobsson

Together with the dawn of the efficiency pivoted thinking in Dutch education, particularly universities (companies that strive for profit, students are merely products and need to be fabricated as quickly as possible), the two amalgamated into an acceleration of the solidification of the culture to academically excel, including far-stretching consequences. Academic pressure takes its toll, mostly in the form of depression. Many students struggle psychologically; succumbing to the daunting pressure of having to perform. In South Korea, the leading cause of death amongst Koreans aged 15 to 24 is suicide thanks to extreme academic pressure.

Hopefully, the Netherlands (and elsewhere in the world) is able to circumvent such an extreme fate. The first signs are not hopeful. Recently conducted research in higher education in the Netherlands produced baffling figures: a quarter of the students copes with burnout symptoms, 1 out of 7 students face depression and suicidal thoughts which also frequently occur. Oftentimes, the detrimental effects of excessive academic pressure on mental well-being are less overt, but not less harmful. The instilled urge to perform and excel academically kills both self-esteem and happiness, and stifles creativity.

Severe academic pressure negatively affects physical health as well, ample research suggests. Insomnia, increased cardiac risk and an increased blood pressure are all valid concerns. The fact that a lot of students turn to coping mechanisms such as drugs or alcohol does not help either. What’s more, due to the increased focus on performance, education has become substantially more expensive. Many students build up a considerable debt at a young age, especially now that the Dutch government stopped funding students.

The obligation of (excessive) striving and prospering throughout one’s academic career is indoctrinated from a young age on. Many Dutch elementary schools have joined the quest for eradicating the lethargic youngsters. Schools sell and promote themselves with award-worthy marketing, promising to turn your little boy or girl into the next Nobel prize winner. At an age of about five, kids get exposed to government official tests for the first time. A flood of others will follow in the years to come. Most fascinating is the implementation of student-based rankings. A huge in-class billboard shows in which category a pupil belongs. The bright students are identified as “stars” (or something else in a similar vein), those who still need to make considerable progress are called “rockets,” and the hopeless belong to the category consisting of “moons”. But do not panic! If you work hard, outdo your 8-year old peers, and perform well, you can climb the ladder and reach the class’ upper echelons.

Parents can contribute a lot to the solidification of academic pressure. Their role can be summarized with one simple, yet powerful, sentence: there are not a lot of gifted children, but there are a lot of parents with gifted children. Parents to (intentionally) overestimate the abilities of their kids. Parents obviously want the best for their offspring, but the academic pressure they impose on their children might backfire. Children undergo intense pressure in order to fulfill dreams that are sometimes not even their own.

Progress and the need to perform in school are undoubtedly important and justified. The youth needs to be motivated and stimulated in order to develop, not just for their own sake but also for that of the world. Education is invaluable and its fruits are sweet. At the same time, striving comes at a price and poses an inescapable trade-off. Should we always strive for the highest attainable or rather take it easy and aim for general well-being and happiness? A healthy balance should be found, especially when taking into consideration the rapidly enhancing intense nature of society and contemporary life. A step in the right direction might come in the form of pursuing the Humboldtian education ideal. The leitmotif of this school of thought is academic freedom, which is a two-fold concept. Universities should be independent from governmental influence and external economic constraints. But there should also be academic freedom from within, meaning that students themselves are pulling the strings of their educational journey.

Education might be the blueprint for successful living, but let’s refrain from an excess of zeal.

Nike Vrettos TWISTED MORALITY - June 2018

Getting What You Ask For

Written by Nike Vrettos

Consent is an unavoidable part of current news headlines. The #MeToo movement triggered intense public debate around what is considered correct and incorrect behavior, particularly among university circles, and especially within my friend group. As I was talking about rape culture and un-consensual sex the umpteenth time, I started to think: the Harvey Weinstein’s of the world do not resemble the scary figure that I was taught to fear. Most sexual abusers look common, harmless. They are not ominous men, wearing black rubber suits and a whip, ready to handcuff you any moment. So if “normal” looking individuals are struggling with consent, how do the ones who are said to be deviant, the kinksters of the world, deal with it?

I started to do my research and gradually uncovered novel aspects of the BDSM (the initialism of Bondage & Discipline/Dominance & Submission/Sadism & Masochism)  that I had previously been oblivious to. I luckily had the opportunity to interview Valerie (a pseudonym used to protect her anonymity), a woman in her early 20s, who identifies as bisexual and practices BDSM.

In my interview with Valerie, she elaborated on the importance of consent in the kinky world and beyond. When I phoned her I expected a rough, sexy, deep alluring voice. Yet, her mellow voice ringing with a slight Dutch accent reminded me more of a petite teen. I had the image of a Cinderella-like blond girl in my head. She had a giggling, contagious laugh and talked about bondage as lightly as about the weather. As if it were the most mundane thing in the world.

One thing is fairly certain: in our culture, it is considered immoral to hurt someone. As a civilized member of society, you should not punch your neighbor in the face, and you must never be physically aggressive towards your partner, the person that you love and hold dear.

By stark contrast, members of the BDSM community take pleasure in exactly what we, “Vanilla” people, find worthy of condemnation – hurting the one you love or allowing yourself to be hurt by them. As a consequence, their practices have an odd twist that many struggle to fathom.

Despite common perception, rape culture and a dithering attitude towards consent is not a critical issue within the BDSM community – it is, predominantly connected to the “Vanilla” sex culture. Still, for some obscure reason, it is the former which is condemned as violent and immoral. Casual hookups and committed relationships alike are negatively impacted by the uncertainty surround sexual interactions. All too often, we cross our fingers, wish for the best and assume that our partner truly consented; that you have read the body language correctly. This can create a dangerous mixture of miscommunication, denial, and oblivion.

Photo by Dmitry Bayer

Yet, consent still isn’t a clear-cut concept, as confusion still reigns over the topic. The question remains: what does consent really imply? An expressed, explicit ‘yes’? Mere suggestive body language? Suddenly, the supposedly easy and ideally enjoyable setting of intimacy becomes an awkwardly risky situation. No one wants to be called a rapist.

There are many positive aspects of consent and consideration the average sexually active person can learn from the “abnormal” BDSM community. For the BDSM population, consent is not a question of sexiness, but rather focuses on making one’s partner feel as secure and comfortable as possible. Valerie elaborated one interesting aspect of the BDSM community, the so-called “safe words”. Before engaging in BDSM, couples agree to safe words which indicate a complete stop of an action in case lines are crossed for one partner, or they feel too uncomfortable to continue. “One agrees on them before doing anything. You can have checklists that include non-verbal gestures or a word or sentence, or ‘how much do you like this on a scale from 1-5’.” She pointed out that it is unacceptable to start things which are not pre-agreed on; this would counter the practice of the pre-negotiations.

When we touched on the topic of consent, Valerie explained that instead of trying to interpret consent through body language, it is made very clear whether one consents. This is pivotal: “If I agree with you on slapping that doesn’t mean you can also whip me.” This kind of negotiation as part of sexual practice is particularly relevant when you navigate between actions that can injure you. In mainstream sex life, consent as an affirmative action is treated as being outside the sexual act itself, yet it is something that it cannot (and should not) be separated from.

“Consent shouldn’t only play a role in the context of BDSM. Understanding your partner’s limit is something everyone can benefit from, also for those who don’t engage in kinky stuff.” Clear boundaries and a genuine interest in what makes one’s partner feel comfortable and what doesn’t is important, regardless of gender or sexual preferences.

Surely, certain aspects of BDSM practices are used also as means to abuse, such as strangulation or physical restraints, but the key difference is the consent behind the act. Valerie added that people within the BDSM community known to abuse others under the cover of BDSM are clearly overstepping boundaries and are called out within the community. “Trust plays a significant role in BDSM practice, more maybe than in normal Vanilla sex, because so much can go wrong. People who abuse others and then point to us are wrong. We value consent very high”. Her voice was urgent and stressed the importance of her point. Asking for consent isn’t only about accepting your partner’s boundaries but also an honest self-reflection on your own. It is not at all about seizing your partner or playing the role of the ‘submissive’, but about acknowledging what you feel in the moment. Knowing your own boundaries eases the preemptive talk and allows you to discuss your partner’s, which isn’t unsexy at all. Quite the contrary, it shows that you care and value what the other one wants.

We should understand that sexual assault based on short, inviting dresses or misleading body language is the result of how insufficiently we as a society deal with sexual consent. By looking at what our society deems as “immoral” and “violent” kink communities and how they handle consent, the general public can certainly learn a lot. Talking and educating oneself (and others) about consent is the only way to diminish the risk of traumatizing sexual assault for both sides: men and women.

Perhaps, the “normal” ones are the individuals we should most be afraid of when we walk alone at night. Perhaps the normal ones are the ones who really misunderstand and actively ignore safe consensual practice. Perhaps, the “abnormal” crowd already has it all figured out. Perhaps, the normal ones ought to be a little more abnormal – for everybody’s sake.