Consistency

I have tried to remain non-political on the blog. And it will mostly remain a non-political place. I mean, c’mon, talking about Ghostbusters or Lost or The Avengers is way better than wading into that crap. In fact, let’s not even call this one “political.” Let’s call it “philosophy.”

It’s not that I don’t have opinions, I most certainly do. But I find—and studies have borne this out—the proliferation of media has given us the freedom to consume the content we want and ignore what we don’t; and most of us don’t want to discuss politics or philosophy that may challenge us. “Conservatives”* consume content that reflects that ideology and “liberals”* do the same. On the surface, I understand this perspective. We all work. We all commute. We’re living our lives and just making it through the day is hard enough sometimes without needing to get worked up in political conversations that shake us or make us uncomfortable.

But I can’t stay silent. The truth is we are not as different as MSNBC or Fox News tells us we are. I have many friends of various political stripes and 9 times out of 10, in our day-to-day lives, we agree or, at least, we can compromise on important subjects. If nothing else, we can have a discussion. But the reason things seem polarized, when viewed through the media’s filter, is because they only juxtapose issues between two points. Liberal or conservative. Democrat or republican. Wrong or right. But there is almost never a situation in our lives that comes down to just two choices. We’re faced with a spectrum of options at any given moment and so too are we representative of a spectrum of opinions, positions, and philosophies.

Just in case you think this is going to be an argument for “centrism,” let me stop you right there. I’m not a centrist. But my overall point is that I don’t think centrism is real because I don’t think there are only two positions between which there is a middle ground into which some people fall. But if you’re married to existing terminology if I’m arguing anything it’s that most people are “centrists” in the traditional sense. We simply get pulled into choosing one side over another when we would probably choose neither one if that was a legitimate option (and some do this, incidentally).

Since we’re forced to choose between two positions we often twist ourselves into argumentative knots to fit our complex views into the most compatible position. I won’t use an arbitrary example; I’ll use myself. I believe in a small government of specified and limited powers. I believe that’s the surest way to prevent the abuse of power by our elected leadership. What should the government’s specified powers be? Let that be a debate for another day. Let’s stay general here. I’ve said that I believed this for many years, going all the way back to high school. But I didn’t. I was like many people; I was partisan and really just parroting my parents’ values.

You see, when I was in high school, the US was attacked by Islamic fundamentalist terrorists who knocked down the Twin Towers in New York City and crashed a plane into the Pentagon. I, like everyone else it seemed, was shocked, horrified, scared, and angry. As the government grinded into action with a military response, I cheered them on. When Congress passed the Patriot Act, billed as a way to unify our intelligence efforts and make it easier to pursue terrorists, I cheered. Someone was doing something.

The problem, and it took me years to realize this, was that we compromised our principles to address this threat. What’s the saying? “We had to burn down the village to save it?” It’s melodramatic, but my point, and again I’m only talking about myself, is that I said I supported a small government of specified, limited powers except in certain circumstances. There it is. A lack of consistency.

If I had been consistent with my beliefs, I would not have supported many provisions in the Patriot Act. I believe in the philosophical basis that formed our country and supported documents like the Declaration of Independence. That declaration notes that all men are created equal and have certain fundamental, inalienable rights that come from our creator. Whether or not you believe in God is immaterial, if you’re alive, you have the right to live and all the others. Those rights belong to you simply by existing. I believe that with sincerity. Therefore, how could I support treating some people, in this case “enemy combatants,” as less than people? How could I support holding people indefinitely without trial and without representation? If I am being consistent, I cannot.

Now, please make no mistake: one of government’s express powers is national defense. And fighting a war takes commitment and certainty. If you’re going to do it, name your enemy and define victory. I supported, and still do, our response to attack Afghanistan which housed the Al Qaeda terrorist leadership. But I cannot support the invasion of Iraq if I am being consistent with my principles. Iraq was a dictatorship run by a madman. Is the world a better place without Saddam Hussein? Unequivocally so. But it’s also a more complicated place. And simply because Hussein was a bad person, does not mean that invading his country was the right policy decision for the United States. Despite what some may think, the question is still open on Iraq’s weapon caches, which was our justification for waging that war. The NY Times reported on the thousands of chemical weapons found over the course of our engagement there and some suspect that more of the active weaponry ultimately ended up in the hands of the Syrians. But you know what, this is immaterial to my larger point.

I supported something in which I didn’t believe because my philosophy mostly aligned with the stated policy objectives of those driving it forward. But over time, I realized that the political party pushing that agenda forward, for all its talk of small government and responsible foreign policy, merely wanted big government to advance its interests and reward its political allies. And sadly, the only other legitimate political alternative is doing the same thing with a different set of big government objectives.

I eventually came to a place where I couldn’t honestly defend my personal philosophy and support some of the public policy choices made by representatives in the party I traditionally supported. I’m suspicious of overreaching government power. I took to heart the chief lesson learned by the Founders of the United States of America – unchecked power can and will be abused. So, they designed a system where no one entity of government could act without the cooperation—and compromise—of the other entities. But that system is gone now. When the President of the United States takes unilateral action and half the country cheers him because he’s a member of their political party, and they would jeer if a President from the other party tried the same thing, it’s hard to believe in the process. The process has been replaced by parties.

And it’s frustrating because, like I noted near the beginning, I find tremendous agreement with friends and colleagues on important issues that affect our day-to-day lives. A government represented by people like us, not entrenched ideologues, would be something indeed. My wife and I just had a baby and as we prepare for the future, I’m drowning in the details of our finances. My wife and I (seem to) make a good living, but when I look at the costs ahead I’m worried. And no one is talking about that. No one is working to address the problem in our tax code that doesn’t take enough taxes out of a married couple’s income so that they owe money during tax season. That issue, and many others like it, isn’t sexy, so it’s rarely addressed.

So… I don’t know where to turn. The only thing I know how to do is be true to what I believe. I stand by my principles. To anyone reading this, I would simply ask that you be consistent. If you think it’s wrong for the government to stick its nose into the parenting style of people who let their kids walk, alone, to the park, then it should also be wrong for the government to stick its nose into the consensual relationship between two adults be they a man and a woman or two men or two women.

And if you think it’s wrong for the President to exercise too much unchecked power when he’s a democrat, then I hope you feel the same way when he’s a republican. And vice versa. I think we would get better representation if we were more consistent like that.

Ugh.

Now that we have that out of the way, how about that Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer??

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Stop Criticizing Superhero Media

Over-saturation? If they’re bad, yeah.

I’m late to the party on this, but I’ve wanted to address the rising criticism of superhero properties and storytelling for some time. Life interfered. Fortunately (or unfortunately), these criticisms keep coming so it’s just as relevant now as it was a month or two ago when these pieces began to propagate.

The first piece I saw that really struck a chord with me was one in which Simon Pegg said superhero movies are “dumbing us down.” He said they deal with “childish” subjects and take away from “real world issues.” Other than the irony of “Scotty,” from J.J. Abrams’ dumbed down Star Trek films (especially …Into Darkness…) saying this, I think he’s merely jumping aboard a popular train of criticism.

Superhero films are a genre like “action” or “comedy.” Criticizing superhero films for dealing with “childish” subjects is akin to criticizing comedies for making dick jokes. And to that I would say, a good dick joke is funny. So it is with superhero movies, too. X-Men: The Last Stand is a bad superhero movie. The Dark Knight is a good superhero movie (dare I say film). Or apples-to-apples, X-Men 2 is a good superhero movie.

The point is criticizing all superhero movies as “childish” is generalizing. It would be like criticizing Jaws as a “shallow” monster movie. It has popcorn moments to be sure, but the theme of Jaws is “man vs. nature.” It’s about a man with a fear of the water forced to confront a literal monster that lives in the water that threatens his home and his family. So, yes, there is a “monster” in Jaws, but it’s so much more than a monster movie.

More than anything I’m arguing that superhero films, like any other genre, have good ones and bad ones. Criticizing them all as childish—as the same thing—is simply inaccurate. It’s also conveniently forgetting the time before 2000 when Batman and Robin was the only kind of superhero movie we got. We should celebrate the serious and reverent way these properties are adapting to live action. We should even celebrate the quirky, fresh re-imaginings that we get like Guardians of the Galaxy.

We should be thankful that we now get movies like The Dark Knight and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. TDK was a movie with a guy who dresses up like a bat, yes, but it was also about self-sacrifice and what it takes to do the right thing. It was about chaos and savagery vs. humanity. TWS was about a guy who wears stars and stripes, yes, but it was also about unchecked government power and the surveillance state. It was about an individual who always believed in the system learning that the system was wrong. Of course, there was a lot of punching and kicking in the midst of these heady themes, but that doesn’t negate the fact these were good movies independent of the fact their protagonists wore outrageous costumes.

But superhero movies don’t need to confront serious issues to be taken seriously. The Avengers was two hours of fun. It’s exciting to see the disparate characters from separate franchises get together and fight a war. And what’s wrong with that? So what if the summer of 2012’s best movie moment was a giant green muscle monster punching a humungous flying alien worm in the face? It was a rousing moment that excited and galvanized the audience.

Superheroes are the Greek gods of the modern era. They tell larger than life stories about issues that matter. Spider-Man teaches us about power and responsibility. The X-Men teach us about discrimination and unfair judgment. Batman teaches us about the difference one man can make and about justice. It goes on and on.

More than anything I think these criticisms are elitism of the worst kind. The content contains costumes and superpowers so it couldn’t possibly have something substantial to say about government surveillance or corrupt institutions, etc. I wouldn’t describe Simon Pegg as an elitist, but I would call him a hypocrite. He’s made his money with comedies about zombies and aliens and super-spy thrillers and I don’t see how that material is any less childish than Iron Man or Batman. In fact, I would juxtapose The Dark Knight against Mission: Impossible 3 (or any of the slew of sequels in which he’s taken part) and argue there is less “childish” content in TDK than in those films.

But you know what? It shouldn’t matter. This shouldn’t be a pissing contest over what movie is less “childish.” When we get into the business of criticizing content based on superficial values rather than what those films are saying or how well the story is told, we go down a dangerous path.

Movies and TV are escapism, but they’re art, too. It’s hard to admit that about something like CHiPs or CSI: Miami, but it’s storytelling at the very least. But Game of Thrones is art. It’s about dragons and giant wolves, but it’s art. The people that put that show together take great care to present a highly visual, dense, visceral show that challenges the viewer. To bring it back to superheroes, specifically, Daredevil on Netflix goes to great pains to present a world of visual and figurative beauty where characters are motivated by their demons as much as their better angels. And yeah, the hero is a blind guy whose other senses are superhuman and he’s kind of a ninja.

If we’re going to criticize superhero films and media, let’s criticize them for when they don’t rise to the high standard that we’ve earned with The Dark Knight or Daredevil. Let’s not criticize them simply for existing based on some arbitrary standard of what’s “childish” and what’s not.