First Post up at ‘The Everyman’

My first post is up at the new Catholic / Conservative commentary site The Everyman, which you definitely should check out. It’s only a week or two old, but there’s some good stuff there.

In our day, of course, telescopic charity has never been easier. We have television and the internet to bring us tales of want and injustices from all corners of the world to stir our heartstrings. Of course, sometimes this brings real help and attention to people who genuinely need it and who would never have received it otherwise. But there is another side to it, and it’s one that I think is too little addressed.

The fact is that modern media creates an illusion of immediacy where none in fact exists. It has a tendency to fixate our attention, whether in sympathy or anger, on people thousands of miles away whom we have never met and whom we in fact have no contact with whatsoever. But, because we so often hear about them and hear them debated endlessly on the news, we can come to feel like we are involved, and that we must show ‘charity’ to one side or another.

But such ‘charity’ typically doesn’t result in any concrete action for good or evil. As C.S. Lewis pointed out in one of The Screwtape Letters, love and hatred for distant public figures or the people we see on the news is largely imaginary; we do not know these people, they are “lay figures out of newspapers.” As private citizens, our scope for doing either good or ill to them is effectively non-existent. Outside those immediately present, not one person out of a thousand is actually going to have any effect on, say, missionary work in Africa or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nor does voting or campaigning change this; it may or may not be a good thing to do, but again any one person’s scope of action and consequent responsibility in these matters is so narrow as to not exist.

Read the rest here.

On Moral Ambiguity

“There are precious few at ease / with moral ambiguities / so we act as though they don’t exist.”

That’s a lyric from the show Wicked, in which the Wizard – here portrayed as wholly a bad guy, rather than an ultimately harmless ‘humbug’ – sings about why he deceived the ignorant and superstitious people of Oz. I find that rather funny: here is a character who is thoroughly villainous, singing to another character who is thoroughly virtuous about how morally ambiguous their situation is. This in a play that is almost painfully black-and-white in its ideas of morality. The ‘ambiguity’ is simply that a character who, in the context of the story, is considered a good guy by most people is actually a bad guy and vice-versa.

I was never that impressed with Wicked as a story (the music’s very good, though), partly because it is so very one-note. Elphaba is a good girl whose only flaw is that her attempts to do good always backfire, and to whom the world is completely unfair for no other reason than that she has green skin. She never accomplishes anything of note, nor, apart from precisely one song, does she ever come close to cutting the impressive figure of the Wicked Witch of the West, to the point where you have to wonder why anyone is afraid of her (even if it’s propaganda, why would the corrupt government try to build up someone who is in fact so thoroughly ineffectual?). She even needs to be rescued by her boyfriend at one point, mostly because she doesn’t actually know how to do magic; she simply has ill-defined powers she doesn’t understand due to circumstances outside her control (Why is this show considered ’empowering’ again?). Meanwhile, the Wizard is completely villainous, though equally unimpressive, while Glinda is only character who could seriously be called ‘ambiguous’ just because she’s too shallow and ditzy to do the right thing until the very end, when she abruptly grows a spine. And the people of Oz are portrayed as complete hypocrites or superstitious morons, ignorantly confident in their own rectitude while viewing the world through the narrowest and most empty-headed of lenses.

There are a lot of ways to describe this, but a depiction of moral ambiguity isn’t one of them.

This is something I notice a lot in modern fiction: modern writers always seem so confident that they are more realistic and complex and full of ‘moral ambiguity’ than stories from the past, when it’s most often quite the reverse. All they do is portray figures who were generally shown to be good before as being evil and vice versa and call that moral ambiguity, or realism, or some such thing.

For a good example of what I mean, compare the original King Kong with Peter Jackson’s remake. In the latter film, Kong is almost entirely a positive character. Sure, he’s implied to have killed many people before, and he kills many people here (the film is extremely inconsistent in its tone), but he’s never really portrayed as wrong for doing so. Ann stops being afraid of him pretty quickly, and she’s completely on his side by the midway mark. Meanwhile, Denham is, if not evil, at the very least a very unsympathetic character; a thoroughly myopic buffoon who causes most of the problems of the film and continually endangers the people around him while doing little or nothing to redeem himself. The same with the ‘human world’ of 1930s New York, which is pretty much played completely as something to be despised.

Now, in the original it was different. Kong was neither the good guy nor the bad guy, he was simply a wild animal; magnificent and sympathetic at times, but always dangerous and unpredictable. Ann never stopped fearing him, for the very good reason that, even though Kong protects her and seems to love her after his own fashion, he’s still a very dangerous creature with little idea of consequence or morality (as shown in the scene where he curiously starts stripping her clothes off). Moreover, his compassion extends only to Ann; everyone else he pretty much kills without a second thought (including a random innocent woman he mistakes for Ann). We sympathize with Kong, but he’s not portrayed as a positive force.

Denham is also a more ambiguous character. Like Kong, he is admirable in his own way, but also rather dangerous. He’s willing to expose other people to danger, but he’s also always going to do what he can to protect them (note his story about the cameraman and the rhino). He takes massive risks, but he isn’t callous about his people, and he’s perfectly willing to put his own life on the line for Ann’s sake (in fact, everyone of the crew practically jumps at the chance to run to her rescue, to the point that they have to turn people down). Yes, he makes a huge mistake in bringing Kong to civilization, but he does it for understandable motives and he at least tries to avoid any unnecessary risks, warning the reporters off when their flashbulbs enrage the monster (in the remake, Denham urges them on to take more photos).

In short, Denham in the original is a basically good man carried away by hubris. Denham in the remake is a callous moron who carelessly gets people killed. Kong in the original is a magnificent, but dangerous wild animal tragically destroyed by his encounter with civilization. Kong in the remake is a victim of the myopic greed of men in the benighted past.

Or take another example: in the original Mighty Joe Young we had the character of Max O’Hara (also played by Robert Armstrong), the show promoter who convinces Jill Young to sign a contract bringing Joe to the States to put him on stage. When she decides she’s had enough, he promises her that after one more show they’ll send Joe home…then keeps pushing the final show back further and further to squeeze a little more cash out of him, until Joe finally snaps and goes on a rampage.

Now, in a modern film, O’Hara would almost certainly be portrayed as thoroughly bad guy: a heartless corporate suit whose only concern was money. But he isn’t: he’s genuinely a decent, kind-hearted man (we see him defending one of his cigar girls from some loutish drunks) who was simply carried away by greed. After things fall apart, he comes to his senses and puts everything on the line to make amends.

That is real moral ambiguity: fundamentally decent people doing bad things because they were tempted or carried away in the moment or because it ‘seemed like a good idea at the time.’ Or ultimately positive forces (such as the civilized world in the original Kong) committing grave errors or being forced by circumstances to destroy something magnificent because there’s no other way.

Wicked has no moral ambiguity; it’s just a good person being ostracized because the people around her are mostly horrible, then ineffectually opposing a corrupt government and bigoted populace. It is only the fact that these characters are ostensibly ones we know from another source where they played different roles that makes it appear to be anything else (ditto for Maleficent).

And this is pretty much how most of the supposed ‘realism’ and ‘ambiguity’ works in contemporary fiction: take a label that the writer imagines means “good guy” for the audience and slap it onto the villain. So, the ‘ambiguity’ is that the police officer is corrupt, or the priest is a hypocrite, or the US Military is evil (was anyone surprised in Daredevil when the Punisher’s former commander turned out to be a bad guy? Does anyone actually expect Muslim extremists – rather than evil veterans – to be behind terrorist attacks in contemporary fiction?).

In fact, of course, this is actually far more one-note and black-and-white than older fiction tended to be. In The Longest Day, for instance, there’s a scene where a US soldier guns down some Germans trying to surrender because he didn’t know what ‘Bitte! Bitte!’ meant (it means ‘please! please!’). That doesn’t mean the Americans are suddenly the bad guys and the Germans the good guys. It doesn’t even mean that this particular soldier suddenly becomes unsympathetic; it’s just one of the tragic mistakes that happens during a war (The Longest Day has a lot of that sort of thing: these days it probably would be condemned for being too sympathetic to the Nazis). Likewise, there’s the scene in The Lord of the Rings where Sam wonders whether the dead Haradrim soldier was really evil after all, or whether he was just a normal person who would much rather have stayed home.

Now, both The Longest Day and The Lord of the Rings are fairly ambitious and sophisticated works, but as the examples from King Kong and Mighty Joe Young show, this extended to lighter fare as well. Just consider, say, The Mummy, where Imhotep is a monster, but also somewhat sympathetic in his deathless love. Or the way Creature from the Black Lagoon created sympathy for the murderous Gill Man, far more so than for at least one of the human characters, who is nevertheless mourned when he gets killed and goes down in the process of partially redeeming himself. Or take The Thing From Another World, where the obsessive Dr. Carrington’s insane actions are discretely erased from the record after the monster is defeated.

I could go on; the point is that I see much more genuine moral ambiguity in old works of fiction that came from a real understanding of right and wrong than in modern works that self-consciously try to be ‘edgy’ or ‘subversive’.

Why Relativism is Intolerant

I don’t know about you, but I can’t help noticing that people who argue that truth or morality are relative tend to be much more intolerant than those who adhere to the idea of objective values. The tolerance they boast of is purely specific: that they don’t object to certain given acts (e.g. homosexuality) that traditionalists do. Like Father Brown pointed out, they only forgive sins that they don’t really think sinful. Against real differences in philosophy, principle, or even politics, relativists tend to be the most narrow-minded and intolerant people you will ever meet.

Thinking about this the other day, I realized that it makes perfect sense that this should be so. Because when you remove a topic from the realm of objectivity, you introduce a factor that wasn’t there before: choice. If something is merely a matter of taste or individual preference, then the question of why you have this particular taste or preference enters in.

If ethics are a thing like mathematics: a matter of reason, then two people may disagree on ethical questions, but if they both believe in objective value then they will not (unless they are arguing in bad faith) assume that the other’s ideas are a matter of arbitrary choice which he could have chosen otherwise if he wished. They will think that each is working off of the best he knows, and in any case that the truth is something impersonal and exterior to both. Moreover, if value is objective then understanding and applying it is a matter of skill and aptitude: differences in which are only to be expected.

However, once you make morals subjective, so that each person chooses his own and no one’s is better than anyone else’s, then if someone has a moral objection to your conduct the question arises “why do you choose this moral value if you know it’ll hurt me? In fact, what does it say about you that you have such taste? There must be a reason, and the reason must be in you.”

In other words, subjective value puts all the onus on the person who holds a given value system rather than on the system itself, because it contains the idea that each person chooses his values and could choose otherwise if he wished. Thus if someone objects to, say, homosexuality, it is not because he sees by reason that it is morally wrong and believes it in the impersonal way he understands mathematical formulas, it is because he personally hates people who act that way and wants to hurt them for some pathological reason. It is not a matter for debate or reason (you can’t reason people out of tastes), but merely for condemnation. There is no space for mutual respect for someone trying to follow the best he knows even if you think him mistaken (as Grant honored the Confederates even if he thought their cause “one of the worst for which men ever fought”): the fact that he chooses to hold this shows him to be a fundamentally evil person. If he weren’t, he would think like me, because I know that I am good.

I notice most modernist ideas produce the exact opposite effect that they claim to intend.


Establishing Morality

In addition to establishing setting, character, and plot, it is important, when writing a story, to establish morality. That is, to make sure the audience will consider your protagonists to be on the right side and your antagonists on the wrong. It needs to feel that the protagonists deserve to win.

Obviously, this is not the case in every story: you can have one where both sides are wrong, or the protagonist is a villain, or so on. Only, if you do that, you still need a reason why people should care what happens.

For a simple example of this being done well, I offer the episode Rooting for the Enemy from Milo Murphy’s Law. The idea of this one is that Milo – a middle-school boy cursed with absurdly bad luck – decides to help out his school football team by rooting for the other team, ensuring that his bad luck rubs off on them. It’s a funny premise, but the problem is that this does look a little like cheating. By imposing his abysmal luck on the opposing team, isn’t Milo unfairly influencing what is after all just a game?

The show sidesteps this in a clever and amusing way: they establish that the opposing school is already cheating, since they’ve been purposefully failing all their best football players for years until their team is basically made up of “a group of angry adults.” Not only is that cheating, but it’s a lot meaner than anything Milo does, putting his team in an impossible and rather dangerous position. So, when Milo plays unfair, he does so to redress a much worse unfairness that the other team has done.

This device also serves to one, give Milo a reason to be at the game in the first place (the team specifically asks him to stay away, as his bad luck inevitably spoils their chances, but since they’re obviously going to lose they give him permission to come this time) and two, put his team into a position that would require Milo’s intervention to extract them.

Now let’s look at an example of this done badly: the episode The Mysterious Mare-Do Well from My Little Pony (yes, My Little Pony has its share of bad episodes). The premise is that Rainbow Dash, after receiving praise for saving ponies in need, becomes even more self-absorbed than usual, to the point of being arrogant and careless. Her friends then show her up by creating a masked hero who is better than her at everything, forcing her to confront her bad behavior.

The major problems here are one, that the other ponies never tried simply talking to Rainbow Dash about her behavior, and two, that Rainbow didn’t do anything wrong. The worst you could say is that she was getting careless and rude, but she was still helping people. Also, Rainbow becomes seriously depressed and upset over the situation (she has a history of emotional fragility), but still the others don’t simply tell her what’s going on and even rub it in her face at one point, which is frankly a lot meaner than anything Rainbow does (all the more so because, when they do tell her what’s happening at the end, it takes her all of two seconds to agree with them, meaning the whole rigmarole was unnecessary). It’s jarringly out of character for them to behave this way, and frankly our sympathies are entirely with Rainbow Dash. The episode failed to justify the actions of the ‘good’ characters relative to the actions of the ‘bad’ character.

The Milo episode works because the writers recognized the potential moral pitfall and carefully turned what could have been a liability into an asset, making the story stronger and raising the stakes. The plot device of the other team cheating by keeping their players into adulthood both provides the conflict and justifies Milo’s actions. One side is cheating in a way that could cause real harm, so Milo rectifies it by arguably cheating to help his friends.

The MLP episode doesn’t work because the writers failed to establish the conflict to the point that it would justify the heroines’ actions. This could have easily been solved by simply having a scene of Twilight confronting Rainbow Dash and having her blow her off and by having another scene where Rainbow Dash’s self-aggrandizement actually caused real problems, rather than just being annoying. Those two scenes would have pretty much salvaged the episode by putting the morality of the story on firmer grounds.

The point is that basic moral rules are as important in creating a good story as anything else. If the characters’ actions don’t fit the reaction we’re meant to have to them, the story won’t work.

Doctor Simon’s Remedy

There was a small town somewhere tucked back among the hills. The people there were much the same as everywhere; some beautiful, some ugly, most rather plain. Several would have been lovely if not for noticeable scars, and all got cuts and abrasions once in a while.

One day a traveling doctor rode into town upon a brightly colored wagon. He claimed to have the solution to all their problems of ugliness, pain, and scaring.

“The problem, my good people, is skin! Why is one person beautiful and the other ugly? Nothing but skin! Why are some left with scars from past mistakes while others are not? No fault of their own; it is all because of skin! Why do you suffer from cuts, bruises, and other painful abrasions? Skin, skin, skin! My solution will spare you forever from these ills, and will cost you not a penny. What is my solution, you say? Simplicity itself; remove the skin!

“Think about it; each one of us a squishy, flesh-coated skeleton, walking nightmares. When all are beautiful, no one is, and when all are ugly, ugly is beautiful. No more cuts, no more bruises, no more scars. Have you ever heard of muscle scaring? Or bone? A skinless world is an equal world, where none must suffer and each may face the world with a straight back and unafraid!”

His remedy was met with unexpected enthusiasm. Of course, those who were already beautiful, or who only rarely suffered from bruises and the like thought he was merely a quack, and those who were generally plain thought his idea interesting, but probably not worthwhile. The ugly and the scarred, however, flocked to his wagon. A man with a terrible scar running down his face volunteered to be the first.

Well, the remedy didn’t quite go off as expected. Having one’s face cut off is a rather unpleasant experience, and then of course the doctor had to stop after that because the poor man was bleeding all over the place. But Doctor Simon, as was his name, assured him that this was just a temporary reaction, and that he only need keep replenishing his blood with a supply he, Doctor Simon, would provide until the body accustomed itself to the lack of skin and then they could finish the procedure.

This man, Mr. Portnus, declared himself satisfied and left the tent praising the doctor’s skill while trialing a stand holding a large vial of blood hooked up to his veins. The town was shocked by his new appearance, but he and the Doctor insisted that was just a reaction to what was new; once more people had the procedure, everyone would soon come around.

And more and more people did get the procedure. Mrs. Sodor had the skin of her arm removed, Mr. Prasman had his leg stripped, even the Vicar went and had the skin of his chest removed. The more people who had the procedure, the more were interested in it. They all began speaking of how wonderful it would be when their bleeding stopped and they would be able to finish the procedure, so all the town would be skinless. Mothers had started to bring their children to have it done, and there was talk about training the school teacher to do it in class. It became something of a point of pride to have had part of your skin removed. Those who had been uncertain to begin with had it done just avoid being ostracized, and the beautiful people in town who weren’t interested at all and who still thought the whole thing horrible began to get a lot of nasty looks from their neighbors and to be snubbed by their friends. A few of them gave in and had the procedure done.

So things went on; almost the whole town went wrapped up in bandages and trailing vials of blood, thinking about how very clever they all were and how much better it was now that they didn’t have to worry about bruises and scars, and that the ugly and plain didn’t have to worry about their looks, and how horrible those who hadn’t gone through the procedure really were. So high and mighty, pleased with themselves, vain and snobbish.

True, a few people had bled to death, but that was own fault for not keeping their supply topped off, wasn’t it? And there did seem to be quite a few nasty infections going around, but that had always been the case and people were just more open about it. And, well, one had to pay the good doctor for another supply of blood every day, and there were a fair amount of bandages to be purchased, but that was the fault of the beautiful, wasn’t it? If they paid in, it’d all be cheaper for everyone. Besides, they were the ones going about saying you should stop going to Doctor Simon, that you shouldn’t have had your skin removed in the first place, and on and on, bothering the poor souls until they didn’t know what they were doing. They were morally responsible, really. If only they’d go along with it everyone would be fine and maybe then they’d stop bleeding at last.

Some of the few beautiful people left were saying that the rest of the town really ought to see another doctor and have their skin replaced. As if that were possible! You can’t go back, and anyway putting the skin back, even if you could, would surely result in some very nasty scarring, and the whole point of this procedure was to avoid scarring. They were saying the people should do it for their children, but sure it was much better just to give the children the procedure as soon as possible so they’d have the most time to adjust. That way the next generation would be able to fully enjoy the benefits of a skinless life!

Meanwhile, Doctor Simon had become by far the richest man in town. The few beautiful people left soon learned to keep their heads down and their mouths shut, lest they offend him and his servants. Even those who had had the procedure took care to always speak well of the Doctor. After all, if he took offense, where would they get the bandages and blood transfusions they needed? Even worse, he might not complete the procedure once the bleeding stopped.

And so the whole town took on rather a frightened air. No one would speak ill of the Doctor, and even a failure to praise him was looking on with suspicion. No one dared question the procedure publically, and as more and more people bled to death, or died of infection, everyone just sort of stopped talking about it. Better to focus on the wonderful things the Doctor’s procedure had brought them, rather than moon about what couldn’t be helped.

After all, one couldn’t go back.

The Land Before Time and the Proper Approach to Prejudice

Over the weekend I posted my first video review, of The Land Before Time. I discovered how time-consuming such things are to make, and so I wasn’t able to address everything I wanted to. In particular, I glanced over the film’s approach to prejudice, partly because it’s actually kind of a minor theme compared to its dealings of faith and love (Cera’s the only character who evinces any real bigotry), and partly because it’s not a subject that really interests me that much. Everyone and their dog talks about the evils of prejudice these days; that and global warming constituted the main bulk of my public school education. It’s gotten to the point where I think it actually does more harm than good: people are so sick of being lectured about the evils of racism that they actually start to wonder whether the racists have a point. At least, that’s my experience.

(And for  the record, no, the racists don’t have a point. In the first place, a cursory knowledge of history shows that virtue and excellence are to be found in every race under Heaven. In the second, the Christian faith is clear both in Scripture and Tradition that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, but all are the children of one God, made in His image and likeness. And finally, any differences in accomplishment observable between the children of Europe and the rest of the world are explicable culturally and vanish to the extent that that culture is expanded. That Christendom was long limited to Europe and hence to ‘white people’ is a historical accident brought about by the Muslim conquests).

Anyway, I oppose racism, but I also oppose our chosen method of combating it, which is to view everything through the lens of race and insist that some races are naturally racist and need to own that fact, which will somehow lead to racial harmony. In other words, we fight racism with racism. Call me crazy, but I always thought that would backfire.

(By the way, if whites are ‘born racist’ wouldn’t that, by LGBT logic, mean that racism is okay? I mean, if they can’t help the way they feel, that means there’s nothing morally wrong with it, right?)

What I would propose instead is something more like what’s shown in The Land Before Time, and was a popular notion before critical race theory became the order of the day. Cera’s an unrepentant bigot for most of the film. Littlefoot responds by trying to make friends with her. He doesn’t demand she change before he’ll have anything to do with her; he just tries to be as nice to her as he can, partly because that’s just the kind of person he is, and partly because he recognizes they’re in the same boat together. Even when she’s being a complete jerk, he still shows her kindness, as when she refuses the food they’ve gathered in favor of trying to get her own, and he just tosses her down some anyway.

I’ve always been of the opinion that prejudice and bigotry ought to be met with good-will and, well, tolerance. People don’t change their convictions overnight, and they’re not likely to change if you just arbitrarily demand they do so while constantly insulting them. Instead, it’s best to prove them wrong by your own actions. What changes Cera in the end is the fact that her friends do show her great kindness despite her bad attitude. She sees for herself that she was wrong because her friends have proven her wrong; that they’ll be there for her when she needs them, even if she won’t be there for them.

The point is that you can’t just demand someone change: you have to give them a reason to. Constantly telling someone he’s a horrible person who can never change is unlikely to inspire him to reform.