On Air Issue 002: Boy Scout’s Coming Out, Cloud Atlas, Internet Society, & The Value of Cinematic Flops

The second issue of The Airspace’s digital periodical On Air is now available. In this issue writers Jon Catlin (University of Chicago), Hamid Bendaas (University of Chicago), Christopher Smith (University of Notre Dame), and Max O’Connell (Ball State University) cover the Boy Scouts of America’s policies toward gay scouts, the complex inner-workings of the near-epic film Cloud Atlas, the reality of technological society, and how seemingly awful blockbuster films are actually important. The four articles contain a total of 13,000 words of insightful and tested prose. Excerpts of Issue 002 are available below.

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1. A VISUAL CONCERTO // From The Desk of Hamid Bendaas

Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski spent a year on the script for a film adaptation of David Mitchell’s best-seller Cloud Atlas, a book that had been called unfilmable due to its complex, interwoven structure. As it turns out, the book was not only filmable, but is also one of the standout films of the year. It is a rare achievement for a film to so well balance a narrative of such daunting scope with moments of tenderness and intimacy in its characters.

Cloud Atlas is a bizarre, breathtaking, and demanding story. The six timelines that make up the film ultimately coalesce and are weaved into a grander narrative. The film’s messages, symbols, and energy are to be found inside this larger arc that each of the timelines feed into and from. The six timelines themselves are incredibly diverse and distinct from one another, crossing both genre as well as time and space.

In 1849, we are introduced to a young lawyer, Adam Ewing, who is tasked with protecting a stowaway slave on a ship coming from a Pacific Island back to San Francisco. Ewing also falls prey to the ship’s doctor, who over the course of the film poisons him with the intent of stealing Ewing’s valuables.

In 1936, young Cambridge musician Robert Frobisher parts with Rufus Sixsmith, his lover, in order to work for the aging, famous composer Vyvyan Ayrs as an amanuensis. Frobisher creates his own masterpiece on the side, but is blackmailed by Ayrs who wants to sell the piece, called “The Cloud Atlas Sextet,” as his own.

In 1973, magazine journalist Luisa Rey is tipped off by a much-older Sixsmith, now a nuclear scientist, to the corrupt and deadly plans in his nuclear powerplant. She quickly realizes that any attempt to investigate and uncover the plot will put her own life at risk.

In 2012, Timothy Cavendish is a publisher who is on the run from blackmailers. After being abandoned by everyone he turns to, he is then tricked into staying in a nursing home. However, the nursing home treats him as a resident and refuses to let him leave.

In 2144, Sonmi-451 is a clone in a dystopian future Korea, whose life is engineered to fit a daily routine as a restaurant worker. However, her routine is broken one night when she is woken up by Hae Joo Chang, a revolutionary who offers her both freedom and a chance to begin a revolution.

Centuries later, Zachry is a villager in a post-apocalyptic world, battling both a tribe of cannibals who roam the forest and visions of the devil, “Old Georgie.” His village is visited by one of the few technologically advanced human beings left on Earth, a woman named Meronym who is trying to reconnect with human colonies on other planets.

But summaries of the six narratives tell little of what Cloud Atlas has to say. “You have to abandon the idea that it’s six stories. It’s one story,” Andy Wachowski advised. So what do that ship in 1849 and a post-apocalyptic island centuries later have in common? Well, Tom Hanks for one.

2. THE INTERNET & MODERN POLITICAL LIFE // From The Desk of Christopher Smith

In the dark ages of the Internet, before Reddit and Facebook, before MySpace, Limewire and Napster, The New Yorker published a simple cartoon. A black dog sits before a large computer monitor, his paws resting on the keyboard. He faces another, smaller dog, who looks attentively up at him. “On the internet,” the first dog quips, “nobody knows you’re a dog.” In eight words, the cartoonist manages to capture simultaneously the liberating anonymity the internet provides and the consequences of living in a virtual world with little accountability or responsibility. What seemed an ordinary cartoon quickly morphed into a well-known meme; its popularity underlined the extent to which the internet evolved into a critical component of the American experience, a social, creative, and political tool as fundamental for modern discourse as any other means of communication. In a sense, this new technology created a profound sort of liberty, an expansion of the American identity that reached beyond the wildest dreams of the Founding Fathers.

How, exactly, could the internet ever breach the vast chasm between the world of today and the origins of our political community? In To Begin the World Anew, the historian Bernard Bailyn argues that the provincial nature of the Founding Fathers – and their position as intellectuals on the fringes of an Atlantic community united distantly in thought, if not in experience – helped foster their creative spirit in drafting the American Constitution. We cannot underestimate the importance of such creativity in politics. In an age when it takes mere seconds for news in Paris to reach bloggers in Palm Beach, we must wonder if the beguiling genius of the Founders can still exist; certainly no tech-savvy, internet-connected Americans can call themselves “provincials.” Technology has changed society fundamentally in the two hundred-some years since the Founders drafted the Constitution. The internet and social media are perhaps chief among these developments; the Founders could certainly never have imagined these advances in communication, media, and privacy, and the challenges they raise. But how do we reconcile these changes with the American political process? What dangers do they present, and have they changed our society for better or for worse? Such questions confront the political minds, grassroots leaders, and individual citizens of our era as never before.

The French political philosopher Yves Simon attempts to address the interplay of technology and politics in his 1951 book Philosophy of Democratic Government. Simon’s book addresses the moral and ethical implications of a technological society; although Simon could never have predicted the invention of the internet, he nonetheless addresses many lasting problems inherent in a technological society in general. According to Simon, “the first law of a technological society is a tendency to remain technological,” which somewhat foresees the creation of the world wide web forty years later, or at the very least views technological development as unavoidable. Simon argues that “by fostering a belief that things can be done in the present, [technology] weakened our sense of dependence upon the past and future of society”; technology, it seems, forces the mind to wonder at its present marvels while considering neither lessons from the past nor implications for the future. To Simon, the eventual evolution of tools and technologies is an unchecked juggernaut that charges dangerously forward, unconcerned with the moral or ethical problems these innovations may present.

Horse on Computer illustration by Eric Harsh

3. BOY SCOUT’S COMING OUT // From The Desk of Jon Catlin

When you’ve spent 14 of your 19 living years affiliated with an organization, it becomes your second nature and you largely internalize its values. For some people this activity is religious or ethnic. For others it’s a sport or a musical instrument. For me it is Boy Scouts. Unlike most other groups, which hone specific skills, Boy Scouts takes on the task of teaching manhood itself.

Like any meaningful activity, scouting constantly tests one’s commitment. There’s a reason only two percent of scouts become Eagle Scouts, scouting’s highest rank: Boy Scouts is a physically, mentally and emotionally trying experience for every boy. Joining scouting is similar to enlisting in the military in that it requires subjecting oneself to often unrealistic external standards of what it means to be a “good man.”

In the case of BSA, gay manhood is not part of that standard, as I experienced firsthand. I realized I was gay just a few weeks after I had completed my Eagle Scout service project and a few months before I would earn the rank. Though I was out at school, I didn’t risk coming out to my fellow scouts or to my father (who was then also my Scoutmaster), for fear of being denied Eagle.

I was lucky in that my troop, though registered through a church, was not composed of especially religious or conservative members. Years earlier, two scouts in my troop had come out as gay and promptly quit, despite my father’s urging them to stay. However welcoming an individual troop may be to gay youth, it’s understandable that having to take an oath to be “morally straight” once a week can feel morally repugnant.

Yet as much as I was ready to be done with scouting once I went to college, I soon missed it and became involved with a group of former Boy Scouts at the University of Chicago, which I found by a web search. I am now the chairman of this community service group, which organizes independent campus events for Boy Scouts and is not itself affiliated with BSA. When the school newspaper ran a story on the group, the article spawned bitter comments and heated emails to myself, the campus LGBT group, and university administrators calling the group “a campus branch of the Hitler Youth Organization” and demanding that the it be abolished for violating the University’s non-discrimination clause.

Oddly enough, many of the former scouts who founded the group were gay, and somehow that legacy continues with me. As much as we agree with said angry e-mail-writers that BSA is to be condemned for its discrimination, scouting in practice has an entirely separate story and many redeeming qualities. This is an essay about why myself and literally dozens of organizations are trying to reform Boy Scouts from within, rather than simply boycotting it as many outspoken critics have suggested.


The Scouting movement was founded in 1908 in the midst of a “crisis of masculinity,” particularly for boys. Its leader, Lord Robert Baden-Powell, a British military hero from the Boer War, was alarmed at the lack of physical and mental preparedness he saw in his British troops. This crisis of boyhood overlapped completely with rising nationalism in Europe—the deficiencies of his British soldiers were taken as deficiencies of Britain itself.

Those nationalist fears about faltering masculinity made it across the Atlantic when the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) was founded in 1910. These trends are discussed at length in the work of Jay Mechling, an American studies scholar at UC Davis who has built an academic career out of scouting and the way it reflects broader aspects of American culture. He writes:

“Boy Scouts… must be understood, at least in part, as a nineteenth-century solution to the cultural trauma experienced as a result of the twentieth century’s assault on traditional understandings of what it meant to be a boy and a man.”

Scouting was founded in the midst of rapid urbanization and increasing numbers of urban immigrants whose supposedly deficient youth gave rise to the term “juvenile delinquent.” Turn of the century thinkers saw programs like scouting as melding of “scientific” social Darwinist beliefs with notions of the Protestant work ethic and Christian selflessness. Around this same time, Andrew Carnegie created the Carnegie Hero Medal to reward those who acted selflessly in an increasingly Darwinist and individualist urban America. These movements combined to form a youth movement founded on American exceptionalism and “muscular Christianity.”

The time of BSA’s founding was one of great social changes. “Honor” and “duty” were included in the Scout Oath because they were perceived to be in decline, and Scouting is thus, as Mechling puts it, “an inherently conservative, even restorative social movement.” The nineteenth century’s praise for “character” was giving way to the twentieth century’s acceptance of “personality,” and the result was perceived moral slippage and the crumbling of concrete notions of individual responsibility for the collective. For Mechling, “‘Duty before self’ was giving way to ‘self before duty.’” It is in this light that the first edition of the BSA’s Handbook for Boys included a medieval code of chivalry and a code of honor derived from Native American traditions.

Notions of American exceptionalism remained popular tenets of Boy Scouts and broader politics through the trials of the Cold War. Defeating communism in particular demanded a “conflation of religion, patriotism, and vigorous masculinity,” which was popularly accepted until the Vietnam War. But starting in the 1960s, anti-militants began labeling Boy Scouts “little fascists” and comparing the organization to the Hitler Youth. However, Mechling considers this a mislabeling since Scouts, like most organizations of the time, didn’t yet have a set political leaning. That changed when BSA “chose sides” in the culture wars beginning in the 1980s by affirming its investment in absolutes and traditional values against pluralism and relativism. After this choice, Mechling notes, the group began “to act more like a hierarchical church than like a secular youth organization” as troops came to be predominantly sponsored by churches rather than secular institutions. BSA began centralizing its mission around a codified “morality”—a concept that Mechling notes was deliberately left out of BSA’s founding charter in an effort to draw boys from many religious and ethnic backgrounds. The perceived “moral panic” that brought about the culture wars is remarkably similar to that which led to BSA’s founding one hundred years ago and led BSA to promote the slogan “Character Counts” in the late ’80s.

Mechling notes a perceived “feminization of American primary education” in the 1990s that replaced traditional boyish qualities like heroism and self-reliance with Kumbaya-style kindness and toleration. National news stories like school shootings, declining academic performance, and violent video games creating a “toxic boy culture” further strengthened the need for Scouts to reinforce traditional masculine values.

4. BAD BLOCKBUSTERS // From The Desk of Max O’Connell

Is there a more hated figure among modern cinephiles than Michael Bay? It seems that each year brings a new article lamenting either the recent Bay film or the state of modern blockbusters in general. It isn’t completely without reason: Bay’s films and their counterparts are noisy, visually incoherent, and jam-packed with juvenilia. Bad blockbusters are particularly depressing for auteurists who wish for the 1980s heyday of the great, personality-driven blockbusters of Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, James Cameron, and others. True, there have been plenty of great directors working in big tentpole productions since the end of the first real blockbuster decade (Sam Raimi, Christopher Nolan, Peter Jackson), but they’re largely outnumbered by interchangeable journeymen (Simon West, Peter Berg, Brett Ratner) and their more distinctive but equally terrible peers (Bay, Joel Schumacher, Roland Emmerich). It’s easy to complain about them.

It is also boring. Bad as their films might be, too many people use “modern blockbusters” as shorthand for “the worst in film.” It’s rarely so: there’s more junk in the independent film market than in the much-hated studio world, and whatever can be said about bad blockbusters, they don’t have the same unbearable self-importance that the worst of independent film and middlebrow prestige candidates have. More notably, blockbusters, even at their worst, are valuable cultural documents in a way that the worst of more reputable sides of cinema could never be. They’re designed to appeal to the widest of audiences, and they can’t help but reflect the mood of the times. With that in mind, it’s important to keep up with what something like Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Rush Hour 3, or the Twilight series. Where middlebrow dogs like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and independent junk like I Melt With You are destined for irrelevance, bad blockbusters are often dispiriting but nonetheless valuable cultural documents.

Take the films of Michael Bay, for example. The Bay touch can be spotted from a mile away—a striking orange-blue hue that’s spoiled by choppy editing, relentless noise, and Maxim-like fetishization of women, cars, and explosions. Bay mixes the influences of James Cameron macho action, Steven Spielberg wonderment, and the late (often hacky) Tony Scott’s sleek and swift MTV-editing into a muddy soup that’s a complete headache to process. It’s also one of the most influential aesthetics in modern filmmaking: for better or worse, the modern action film is largely defined by either adherence or diversion from the Bay aesthetic. Some have even argued that he’s a pop-artist or impressionistic director working within the blockbuster format. I’ve never completely bought it—a director’s action scenes need to be coherent for them to work as entertainment, and it wouldn’t excuse the racial and gender politics of his films—but Bay is undoubtedly more interesting, at least on a theoretical level, than most bad directors.

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