A story is a machine that kills fascists. A story is a machine that kills whatever you want it to. (The Last War in Albion Book Two, Part Six: Before Watchmen: Minutemen)

(16 comments)

Previously in The Last War in Albion: Darwyn Cooke got the job of writing and drawing Before Watchmen: Minutemen in part on the strength of his previous work on DC: The New Frontier, which, like Watchmen, was a formally thoughtful and heavily historicized look at the history of comics.

Figure 854: The portentous opening monologue
resolves into a gag about writing styles. (By Darwyn
Cooke, from Before Watchmen: Minutemen #1, 2012)
Before Watchmen: Minutemen shares much of that formal thoughtfulness, taking an often playful angle on Watchmen’s style. The comic opens with two pages of four stacked page-width panels that evoke the lush visions of The New Frontier while also utilizing the object-to-object transitions that define Watchmen. The first page, for instance, jumps from a first person perspective of an infant Hollis Mason staring out of his bassinet, defined by an arc traversing the panel, to a skyscape of New York City from within a tunnel, also providing a central arc, to a Kirby Krackle-filled panel of the Solar System, the sun providing a third central arc, and finally to a panel of Doctor Manhattan’s forehead. Over these panels is a portentous monologue, in caption boxes that wind down the page in a backwards S: “You come into this world, and your point of view is narrow. If you’re lucky, it’s a safe and loving place. As you grow, your view of the world broadens and you struggle to find your place within it. If you’re strong, you learn to survive it. Over time you may not decipher the mysteries of the universe, but you can make your peace with that and find strength in what you know to be true. If you’re wise enough to approach this seeming impasse with humility, you may even find a sustained happiness. Then one day you meet a guy, and he throws a wrench in the gears. He takes away your understanding of the world you live in.”  The approach continues on the second page, only with the object-to-object transitions slowly zooming out to represent the whole of the circle until, in the third panel, the entirety of a clockface, the time still hours before midnight, is visible. The text here stutters - the caption box reads “you hope that over time…” while a dialogue box, the speaker off-panel, repeats “over time…” The fourth panel simply zooms out further from this scene, the clock moved to the midground, while in the foreground, at the right of the panel, a typewriter containing the first page of the epilogue to Under the Hood is visible. The off-panel dialogue continues with a punchline rivaling “that’s quite a drop” from the seventh panel of Watchmen: “this is terrible.”

Figure 855: Cooke subverts the nine-panel grid.
(By Darwyn Cooke, from Before Watchmen:
Minutemen
 #3, 2012)
But Cooke’s moves following this punchline pull in two different ways. On the one hand, the opening panel of the third page features Hollis Mason staring out at the reader as he says (ostensibly to his dog), “I’ll just have to face facts, girl. I’m no Tolstoy. Going for a deep, philosophical ending here isn’t going to work. I guess we’ll just have to stick to being ourselves, huh?” But even as Cooke abandons the Moore pastiche narrative he alters his panel structure to a three-layer stack that, while not a strict nine panel grid due to the fact that Cooke cuts panels within the tiers idiosyncratically, nevertheless clearly echoes the form. Cooke does this throughout Before Watchmen: Minutemen, with numerous sections that play with and around the nine-panel grid while distorting it in various ways. For instance, in the two page section in the first issue where Cooke introduces Byron Lewis, the Mothman, Cooke uses a nine panel grid that elongates the middle tier to take up half of the page height, subtly giving the pages a sense of expanse that suits the introduction of the flying man. And in the third issue, during the sequence in which the vote is taken to expel the Comedian from the Minutemen for his rape of Silk Spectre Cooke uses a nine panel grid that is frequently interrupted by panels from a Minutemen-licensed comic (cover modeled off of the iconic Everett E. Hibbard cover to All-Star Comics #3, which introduced the Justice Society of America, DC Comics’s Golden Age superhero team), which depict the team as kitschy and over-the-top paragons of virtue, in marked contrast to their behavior in the scene. Cleverly, these inserted panels, each taking up two slots of the nine-panel grid and thus the largest panels on their page, all feature a circular panel that extends slightly past the edges of its tier, slightly cutting into the panels around them.

Around these bits of formal cleverness is a story very much in the same vein as The New Frontier - a superhero story tied tightly to the material history of the time. But where The New Frontier offered a fundamentally optimistic vision of superheroes based on a utopian vision of American progressivism, Before Watchmen: Minutemen is, in the end, a story tied to Watchmen and its deeply pessimistic take on the genre. The 1960s emerge not as a hopeful teleology to the Silver Age but as a generational transition from an era of heroes tragically unable to meet the problems of their age to an era of heroes tragically able to do just that, a point emphasized in a pair of twin cameos in the final issue, the first a wide panel of Ozymandias as part of another monologue, the second a page later in a splash of Doctor Manhattan casually dismantling a gun into component parts that’s been divided, arbitrarily, into a nine-panel grid. The book’s central dynamic is the “unexpurgated” version of Mason’s autobiography, which reveals numerous details about the Minutemen that are ultimately cut from the “published” version used as the endmatter for the first three issues of Watchmen after, in the story’s climactic moment, the Comedian shows up to reveal that Mason was wrong about a key aspect of what had happened, causing him to rewrite the book into the version from Watchmen.

Figure 856: Cooke expands upon the brief explanation of
Silhouette's origin provided by Moore. (By Darwyn Cooke,
from Before Watchmen: Minutemen #1, 2012)
In and of itself, of course, this is hardly an objectionable move on Cooke’s part. Given the importance of individual subjectivity to the narrative of Watchmen it seems almost certain that Moore, had he gone back and told the story of the Minutemen himself, would have undermined the narrative presented within Under the Hood (as, indeed, he subtly does at various points within Watchmen). And this revision forms the book’s primary narrative - a story built largely out of the throwaway line in Watchmen #2 that “a young woman who called herself The Silhouette broke into the headlines by exposing the activities of a crooked publisher trafficking in child pornography, delivering a punitive beating to the entrepreneur and his two chief cameramen in the process,” and that culminates in the firm clarification of the deliberately ambiguous final fate of Hooded Justice within Watchmen. The problem comes in what the changes actually are, and particularly how they relate (or rather fail to relate) to race and gender.

Figure 857: The death of Hooded Justice. (By Darwyn Cooke, from Before
Watchmen: Minutemen
 #6, 2012)
The problems with race hinge on an accidental parallel within Cooke’s career. Before Watchmen: Minutemen ends with Night Owl having killed Hooded Justice by grabbing the stretch of rope around his neck, effectively pulling a noose around him and killing him. This is ultimately revealed to have been because of a ruse on the Comedian’s part to frame Hooded Justice for a series of child murders investigated by Silhouette and subsequently Night Owl throughout the book, a series of murders the Comedian had in fact solved (they were committed by the strongman Mason speculates might have been Hooded Justice in Under the Hood), meaning that Night Owl killed an innocent man, and leading him to rewrite the book “for the sake of my old friends.” But in featuring the unjust death of a character whose costume consists of a black executioners hood with a decorative noose around the neck is, perhaps surprisingly, not a first for Darwyn Cooke, who used a similar event in The New Frontier for the death of John Henry.

Figure 858: The tragic downfall of John Henry, one
of The New Frontier's most powerful moments. (By
Darwyn Cooke, from DC: The New Frontier #4, 2004)
John Henry is an interesting character within The New Frontier; he’s the one character of the period that Cooke invents entirely, creating him as an antecedent to the 90s character John Henry Irons, one of the replacement Supermen offered following the infamous Death of Superman storyline. More to the point, his origin is framed entirely in the racial politics of the late 1950s: he is a black man who becomes a superhero after his family is murdered by the KKK. His death in the fourth issue of The New Frontier is the book’s most shockingly effective moment: injured in a fight with the Klan, he stumbles into a back yard and collapses, where he’s found by a young white girl. Rolling up his mask so he can look the girl in the eyes, he begs her to help him. Cooke draws a single panel of the girl looking down at him, the very picture of innocence, and then ends the page with a brutal wide shot of the young girl shouting, “he’s here! He’s here! The nigger’s over here!” The

The reality, of course, is that any intentional similarity came when Cooke, creating John Henry, decided to draw on Hooded Justice’s costume from Watchmen for him as a metatextual joke, never imagining that he would eventually end up writing Hooded Justice himself a few years later. Nevertheless, the two scenes are impossible not to compare in hindsight, and the comparison does Before Watchmen: Minutemen no favors. It is not merely that Hooded Justice’s killing lacks the animating fire of historical engagement that made John Henry’s death so stunning. It’s that the comparatively damp squib of Hooded Justice’s death ends up highlighting that fact that Before Watchmen: Minutemen covers the same period that Cooke covered in The New Frontier without meaningfully engaging with race at all. There are no significant black characters anywhere in the book, and the only two significant people of color are a pair of Japanese characters who show up for a single and largely awkward plotline in the fifth issue that’s disconnected from almost everything else in the book, unhinted at in Watchmen itself (it’s apparently one of the bits Mason excises), and who, in a painful stereotype of Japanese culture, heroically sacrifice themselves. 

The book’s treatment of gender in its central plotline is, unfortunately, similarly dismal. It’s true that Cooke makes a huge amount of the story hinge on Silhouette, a character who gets exactly one line in the entirety of Watchmen, thus providing it with a major female character. And again, this is probably consistent with what Moore would have done had he ever written the Minutemen-centered series he was contemplating; given his explicit interest in gay rights, it’s all but certain that he would have done quite a bit with the explicitly lesbian Silhouette, as well as the relationship between Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis. The problem comes in how Cooke goes about it. Silhouette is a major character, but she’s viewed entirely through Hollis Mason’s description of her, and Cooke writes Mason as explicitly in love with her, even after she’s revealed as a lesbian. When the narrative gets to Silhouette’s murder (she and her partner are, as explained in Watchmen, murdered in their bed after she is outed and dismissed from the Minutemen), Mason reflects that “horribly… terribly… they died. Together. Leaving me alone.” 

Figure 859: Cooke made the largely needless choice
to have Silhouette and Silk Spectre's relationship be
antagonistic. (By Darwyn Cooke, from Before
Watchmen: Minuteme
 #3, 2012)
It is not that Mason’s perspective on Silhouette is particularly crass or lecherous, at least as heterosexual men lusting after lesbians go. But it does serve to simply put the character on a pedestal. Mason refers to her as an “angel” several times throughout the narrative, and she’s treated as the most straightforwardly and purely moral voice within the narrative. But she’s also put at a remove from the rest of it; that she dies in the fourth issue is essentially inevitable given Watchmen, but the decision to make her relationship with Silk Spectre an entirely antagonistic one is a profound missed opportunity that keeps the book’s two significant female voices isolated from each other, in effect a divide and conquer strategy for the purposes of having a female perspective within the book. Worse, for all that Silhouette is positioned as the book’s moral center, she’s entirely absent at a key moment. When the vote is taken to expel the Comedian from the Minutemen for raping Silk Spectre, it’s explicitly taken at “a special men-only meeting.” This, in and of itself, is fine; it’s a perfectly serviceable commentary on the widespread and patronizing sexism of the time the book is set (and indeed, of the present day). The problem is that Silhouette is never even given an opportunity to comment on this. The men-only meeting happens, the Comedian is kicked out, and Silhouette, the moral voice of the entire series, is just completely and utterly absent from the plot. Making it even worse, the book goes out of its way to give her an opportunity to defend Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis from Night Owl’s accusation of hypocrisy when they subsequently vote to expel her for her sexuality, telling Night Owl that “you cannot know what living such a life is like. The fear of exposure. It is not for you to judge.” 


As with race, the real problem here is a lack within the book; it is, in the end, pretty much only interested in white men. And, of course, this is a complaint that can readily be leveled at Watchmen as well: essentially all of its non-white characters are supporting characters who are killed in the book’s climax, and women are thoroughly marginalized within its plot, which also focuses almost exclusively on white men. These are well-trod and valid criticisms of Watchmen. [continued]

Comments

Jeff Heikkinen 1 year, 7 months ago

This is easily the worst installment of The Last War In Albion in months, if not ever.

I have an idea: How about evaluating the book for what is actually IN it, rather than what isn't? Heaven knows you've been demonstrating for years that you have the intellectual jam to do this, but this entry feels phoned-in and prey to the worst, or at least laziest, instincts of what might be called "tumblr feminism".

Your criticisms seem to boil down to this: (1) Cooke didn't twist the plot into a pretzel to include minority characters. (2) Cooke included a depiction of a lesbian character that... well, was actually pretty good, as you yourself admit in the same breath. (3) Something about Hooded Justice's death that honestly didn't even make sense to me, but seems to hinge on the idea that any reference whatsoever to hanging must always and everywhere be a reference to race relations in the country you happen to be from, a country that didn't even exist for most of the long history of said method of execution. Which is kind of awkward, being an excellent example of the kind of cultural myopia that you seem to take yourself to be taking a stand against. (I'd remind you in this context that neither Moore nor Cooke is American. Throughout this series you've been very good about understanding the implications of this, then here you suddenly seem to forget everything you know about the subject.)

Inclusiveness is good, but it is not the only thing that is good. And the occasional entries where you just go out of your way to find/invent racial politics at the expense of all other critical tools (as here and in your Celestial Toymaker entry, which the comments clearly showed warrants a retraction) is lazy and hurts your credibility.

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Philip Sandifer 1 year, 7 months ago

You know, I really wish people who hate the Celestial Toymaker entry would just fuck off, stop reading my work, and leave me alone, because as far as I can tell every single one of you are rude little shits.

I would suggest, first and foremost, that the idea that racial and sexual politics can ever be invented in a situation is inherently racist and sexist. Race and sex are fundamental parts of how contemporary anglophone society is structured. There is never a moment where they are not relevant and present.

I would also point out that with Watchmen, more than with Book One of Last War in Albion, there are some games being played with the order in which information is presented and concepts are introduced.

Not to cross into the artist explaining his work too far, but this sidestep into Before Watchmen is paralleling the Under the Hood extracts at the ends of Watchmen #1-3. Extracts that I note in this entry are a subjective perspective undermined elsewhere in the work.

That is not to say that I don't stand by what I say here. But it's a selected perspective. I think the critique of race and gender within Watchmen is a real and relevant one. Especially gender. And it is an aspect of the first issue that I allude to; note that there are six characters. The Comedian is introduced as negative space. Laurie, on the other hand, is a tiny figure in the background of Dr. Manhattan's intro panel. Laurie has an odd and slightly excluded relationship with the story that's problematic, and that's going to be a major theme eventually. I wanted to set up that theme, so I used it for a swipe at Minutemen.

Why not read Minutemen according to any of the axes in which it's pretty good? I mean, I did, and it is. But there's nothing extraordinary in it, though. Its alchemy never sparks to greatness; it's a boring mediocrity, interesting only because of its incidental connection to an infinitely superior work.

More to the point, though, Last War in Albion *has* to be hostile to Before Watchmen. I have five characters: Moore, Morrison, Gaiman, Ellis, and Gillen. Ultimately, the project only ever tries to understand the world through their eyes. And four of them wouldn't give a shit about Before Watchmen, while the fifth would conclude that it doesn't do anything interesting with his ideas and push them into new directions. So that's the angle I had to take.

Past that, it was a matter of figuring out what the most useful line of attack in terms of setting up my themes was, with a bit of imagining what Moore would have done if he had written a Minutemen series, and judging Cooke's take against that. Because I do think Moore would have unpicked race and gender in the 1940 and 50s, simply because those are parts of what the seedy and corrupt underbelly of America included at that time As, notably, Cooke demonstrates deftly in New Frontier.

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Jeff Heikkinen 1 year, 7 months ago

I'm mildly tempted to feign offense at the hypocrisy of your first paragraph (who's calling who a rude little shit, etc), but it wouldn't be honest. All I can really summon up over that is mild amusement.

Even if, strictly for the sake of argument, I accept your premise that "[t]here is never a moment when [race and gender] are not relevant and present", it doesn't follow that every possible way of reading them into a situation is above reproach. I still think what you say on the subject in this entry, insofar as I follow it (which as I've admitted, is probably imperfectly), is a tremendous stretch. I've already given reasons for this, and I don't see anything you've said that is directly responsive to those reasons. Certainly nothing that justifies what could be easily interpreted as an accusation of racism, something I really, really don't think should ever be just casually tossed out in a public blog post - but that's a whole other topic.

I find your reasons for saying LWiA has to be hostile to Before Watchmen unpersuasive. (Not that I'm opposed to the *idea* of being hostile. Indeed, part of me was hoping this entry would be EVEN MORE of a hatchet job, if one less focused on percieved social justice issues. I just think the "five and a bit sets of eyes" bit, at least with the information available to me at this early stage of LWiA, seems silly. [For one thing we've seen plenty of at least one other perspective - yours!] "Because the very idea was ill-concieved and disrespectful" seems like a much better reason to be hostile, and better supported by what you've said so far in the main text.) Even if this really was the only way to follow through on an artistic decision you made about how to structure the piece, who MADE that decision in the first place, and retains the power even now to revise it as needed? At any rate, even granting the artistic necessity of finding a way to be hostile, I can't seriously believe this was the best way to do it.

(I also think Moore would - and indeed, does - dismiss BW out of hand, rather than getting anywhere where he'd have an opinion on its artistic merits. But I don't think that's a particularly important point.)

The Toymaker entry is, in any case, far worse. In that entry, you go beyond dubiously interpreting the (admittedly very bad) story at hand into making objectively false claims about the intent and thought process of members of the production team - real, flesh-and-blood people many of whom are still alive. I'm sure that at the time you wrote the entry, you believed in good faith that was the best interpretation of the then-available evidence. But there is now other evidence, and this been brought to your attention, and when that happens, responsible academics change their minds. Or at the very least, give a better reason for not doing so than an irrelevant and arguably hypocritical jab at the social graces of the person who raised the issue.

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Philip Sandifer 1 year, 7 months ago

I really have no problem being rude to someone who comes to my house to pee on the carpet.

To be clear, I am completely indifferent to the question of how my work is received by people for whom the statement "there exist moments when race and gender are not relevant and present," or "an accusation racism should never be just casually tossed out in a public blog post" is persuasive. These are both essentially axiomatic premises of my approach. If you reject them, I am unsurprised that you don't like my work, but I'm also uninterested in why; the answer seems obvious.

I will say, however, that it is worth considering what tipping my hand on the question of Before Watchmen's ethical validity in Chapter One would mean for the rest of the book. The critique of Before Watchmen you're suggesting depends too heavily on what is, ultimately, the resolution of the plot here.

Also, The Celestial Toymaker is disgustingly racist and everyone involved in it should be ashamed of themselves for their work on it.

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Jeff Heikkinen 1 year, 7 months ago

You are aggressively misreading me in much the same way you're aggressively misreading Cooke. For one thing, if I didn't (generally) like your work, I wouldn't care enough about it to call out instances where I don't think it's up to snuff.

It may, at the end of the day, be true that there are racial problems with TCT (I'm not too fond of the yellowface aspect myself), but much of your particular case for that conclusion is built on clear-cut factual errors. You may have been ignorant at the time of writing the entry, but you're no longer ignorant of it. I don't understand the purpose of doubling down on this. It's possible to retract the claim, for example, that they consciously chose the term "celestial" for racial reasons, and still be as offended as they day is long at the yellowface.

I'm a pretty firm believer that reality has a fairly strong left-wing bias as it is, and therefore, that a progressive political agenda can be perfectly well-served in an entirely honest and above-board manner. If you don't have a problem with pursuing those ends dishonestly, then you're quite right that there's a large and perhaps insurmountable gap between our worldviews, though you've seriously misunderstood why.

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Jeff Heikkinen 1 year, 7 months ago

Bleh, the middle sentence of the middle paragraph came out wrong. "You may have been ignorant OF THOSE PARTICULAR FACTS at the time..."

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Daru 1 year, 7 months ago

I thought that this was a great entry of The War. Last episode the start of The Minutemen was set up and from the first few panels I actually loved the look of it and felt drawn into possibly reading a comic I had vowed never to read. I now feel like I don't have any interest in reading it.

"As with race, the real problem here is a lack within the book; it is, in the end, pretty much only interested in white men. And, of course, this is a complaint that can readily be leveled at Watchmen as well"

Great petrol bomb thrown into the audience, and looking at the responses above, it certainly seems to have worked.

I have read none of the above except Watchmen and I cannot do anything but agree that Phil is right with the idea that Watchmen is dominated by white males. And the treatment of gay and black characters, and gender on Minutemen sounds awful.

I won't be reading it. And look forwards to where you are going with Watchmen, for myself I love the structure of having topics are nested within others.

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Daru 1 year, 7 months ago

This essay was a great taking apart of a comic that not only does not work, but really should not have happened. I don't think Phil is assessing the book based on what is not in it, but his thoughts are based on problems *with* it.

"The entire story is based around having a Fu Manchu style villain who is evil precisely because he's Chinese. To an audience watching and even remotely aware of these stereotypes, the fact that he is Chinese is how we know the moment we see him that he's evil."

The Celestial Toymaker is racist. *That* was the essay entry that nailed my commitment to this blog and to Phil's work. What happened? My mind was opened, that's what.

AS Phil's statement above says, the racism was based not only on yellowface or use of the word "celestial", but basically the presentation of an evil character who was known to evil simply by the fact that they were seen to be Chinese. It's racist.

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Daru 1 year, 7 months ago

Meant to say that Phil's comment is from the original Toymaker post.

http://www.philipsandifer.com/2011/04/most-totally-closed-mind-celestial.html

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arcbeatle 1 year, 7 months ago

Strangely, this article has made me more interested in reading Before Watchmen than any thing ever has before. Even while its flaws are obvious, and at times damnable, at least Minutemen seems to have an understanding of what made Watchmen interesting that was utterly absent from, well, most of Before Watchmen that I'd taken a glimpse at. The previews of Nite Owl, Ozymandias, Rorschach, and the Comedian I saw all looked awful, and the only one I remember looking interesting was Silk Spectre. The art of Minutemen also looks pretty nice here.

With how utterly, utterly, totally I had no interest in reading Before Watchmen in any way shape or form, I suppose finding out any part of it was interesting is enough to make me curious. It looks like the local Library has a copy of the trade paperback, that also has Silk Spectre. Might be worth an afternoon pass.

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arcbeatle 1 year, 7 months ago

The structure of this Watchmen chunk of "Last War" is fantastic. I love the nesting as well.

It sounds like every complaint Phil is leveling here is totally justified, but as you can see below this actually did push me over the edge into the "reading it" category, despite the massive flaws and failures.

At this point in life I expect someone to explode anytime someone points out a flaw in a work anytime there is any problem with diversity or representation, sadly. No surprises here it seems. Its really too bad though-- with all the other interesting things with the comic, if it had only been better in those areas... But I digress.

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Jeff Heikkinen 1 year, 7 months ago

Again, I feel I'm being pretty egregiously misread. It's not so much "I disagree with Phil's conclusions" as "I think these specific arguments are very bad (even though ultimately I agree, or at least am not prepared to actively disagree, with the conclusions they're meant to support support)".

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Jeff Heikkinen 1 year, 7 months ago

Or just support, for that matter.

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Daru 1 year, 7 months ago

"Again, I feel I'm being pretty egregiously misread."

I don't believe I have been derogatory towards you at all. I all my comments so far I have posted my feelings towards the article and none about you personally.

I'm happy with Phil's arguments.

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Daru 1 year, 7 months ago

I mean to say "in all my".

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Josh04 1 year, 6 months ago

the idea that there are times when you 'shouldn't' consider something from an angle of race, gender, class or any other actually existing social perspective is anti-intellectual drivel

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