As Above, So Below: Alchemy in The Neverending Story (1984)

A high tolerance for ambiguity is necessary in the study of alchemy, just as it’s needed to appreciate the many levels of The Neverending Story. Seemingly incompatible disciplines like magic and science can share a home and inform each other’s development as Engywook and Urgl do. Likewise, the occult tradition of hermeticism can inform the development of harder disciplines like medicine, toxicology, and chemistry.

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Iron Man and Biblical Tradition in the MCU

A companion piece to Episode 101: Who Is Iron Man?

Written by Laurel Hostak

Marvel’s  Iron Man  (2008)

Marvel’s Iron Man (2008)

This week on the Midnight Myth Podcast, Derek and I developed a sweeping character study of the Avenger at the forefront of a media empire that’s now steeped in the lives of so many culture consumers. We discussed the character’s deep roots in Greek mythology, Homer’s account of the Trojan War known as The Iliad, and some of the massive questions that arise when telling the story of a hero immersed in modern warfare.

In this blog, I’d love to draw attention to some of the other literary, mythic, and spiritual references at play in the character arc (reactor). Primarily, I’ll focus on its roots in both Jewish and Christian tradition.

Iron Man (2008)

Our big-screen introduction to Tony Stark came in 2008 with the first film in the now-enormous Marvel Cinematic Universe. The undeniably inspired choice to cast Robert Downey Jr. in the role, along with a tight script and smart direction from Jon Favreau made Iron Man a hit. But the film also reveled in the wealth of comic book mythology to which it had access, and the creators made deliberate choices to include subconsciously recognizable motifs from some of the most widely known stories ever told: those in the religious texts of Judaism and Christianity. In doing so, Iron Man cast the long redemption arc of its titular hero in the light of a powerful narrative tradition.

In the opening sequence of Iron Man, the heir to major weapons manufacturer Stark Industries is in Afghanistan—an instant touchstone for an audience now weary from years of seemingly never-ending conflict in the Middle East—testing his newest weapon: the Jericho missile. The name of the missile clearly evokes the Book of Joshua, the sixth book in the Hebrew Bible. The story goes that in the conquest of Canaan, the first battle that Joshua and his Israelite army’s first battle was the Battle of Jericho. According to Joshua 6:1-27, the Israelites surrounded the walled city of Jericho and blew their trumpets until the walls fell. The battle is also memorably recorded in the African American spiritual ‘Joshua fit the Battle of Jericho.’

This signals a few things to us. First, we’re in a story about war, conquest, and consequence. The real city of Jericho lies in modern-day Palestinian Territories along the West Bank of the Jordan River—an area with a history of violence and conflict between nations. The mythic history of Jericho’s walls falling at the sound of trumpets offers a picture of warfare that’s more creative than destructive, that’s poeticized to mask the horrors of actual warfare. Someone who interprets that narrative literally is in a similar position to Tony Stark in this moment (and a lot of us who don’t live in war-torn countries and can afford some distance from conflict); blissfully unaware of the terrible cost of waging war. What happens next, after testing the missile and taking delight in his own godlike power of destruction, is Tony’s complete loss of control as his convoy is ambushed and he’s kidnapped by Ten Rings, a terrorist group.

The Battle of Jericho

The Battle of Jericho

It’s significant that Tony begins his journey here, with his first tactile experience of violent conflict and a near-death experience, because it’s the catalyst for a changed perspective. Tony is held imprisoned in a cave by Ten Rings, and during his captivity forms a bond with another prisoner, Yinsen, a doctor who has developed a new technology known as an arc reactor. That technology becomes the foundation for a mechanized exoskeleton that will give Tony the power to escape the cave. He’ll emerge like another character of Biblical tradition, this time from the New Testament: Lazarus of Bethany. Lazarus was the subject of one of Jesus’ miracles in the Gospel of John, raising the man from his tomb after four days dead. Notably, Yinsen lays down his life to allow Tony to complete the suit and escape. This introduces Tony to the significance of self-sacrifice, which will pay off much further along in his character journey.

Another major reference we can’t ignore arrives in the film’s central antagonist, Obadiah Stane. A staple of the Iron Man comics and the first to don the armor of Iron Monger, Obadiah is the business partner of now-deceased Howard Stark. His reasons for turning against the organization are understandable (though very very not cool); after years of hard work and sacrifice, Tony Stark returns to the fold and threatens his position of power. Let’s not forget that during the awards ceremony, Tony is referred to as the ‘Prodigal Son,’ a character from a New Testament parable about family, forgiveness, and humility. (Of course, in Iron Man 3, Tony will say “the prodigal son returns” himself, referring to one of his suits. But we’ll get to that in a minute.)


Back to Obadiah. It’s the most overtly Biblical name in the story, and the likely antecedent is an interesting connection. The Talmud describes a minor prophet named Obadiah, a rich man who was, in the rabbinic tradition, also the servant of Ahab. Ahab was the seventh king of Israel, and he’s depicted as a godless, wicked ruler in religious texts. He also has a slight connection with the Battle of Jericho, in that Joshua’s curses upon any rebuilding of the city came to fruition under Ahab’s reign. The prophet Obadiah winds up running out of money; he’s given too much to the poor prophets in his care. Finally, he’s forced to borrow money from Ahab’s son.

So beyond the names, you can see a clear parallel between Obadiah Stane and the prophet. Both work in the shadow of a powerful though morally compromised individual—Ahab as the wicked ruler, Howard Stark as a complicated man with a bloody legacy. Both then have to answer to the son of that individual, a development that feels desperate, shameful, or humiliating. The major difference is that the prophet Obadiah is regarded as a blessed person, a saint in many Christian churches. The man who dons the Iron Monger suit can hardly be called saintlike, but within the construct of the story, perhaps he thinks he is. Obadiah views Tony’s rapid ascension, which comes with seemingly no effort on his part, as an injustice. Obadiah believes he has earned the right to power and control of Stark Industries. The reversal here highlights, like the disconnect between the fabled Battle of Jericho and the realities of warfare, the tension between our expectations of reward and the realities of oligarchy and capitalism. The prophet Obadiah maintains his faith and righteousness in the face of great injustice and under the rule of a godless king. Obadiah Stane, a casualty of a complex and inherently unjust system, turns that injustice into fuel for anger, entitlement, and revenge.

Tony, the Creator

The tale of Tony Stark is one of pride to humility, of self-absorption to self-sacrifice. He is empowered by the sacrifice of Yinsen, moved by witnessing the destruction he and his organization have wrought, and finally initiated into a fellowship that prizes justice. It’s a long journey from the convoy to the Battle of New York (and beyond) because it takes work to forge a man who will willingly give up his life for other. And it’s not a straight line. Tony faces trials along the way; some are external forces or inevitable consequences thrown upon him, and others are natural outgrowths of this intensely creative and proud character.


In this week’s podcast, we spoke briefly about Tony’s desire to create life, which manifests mosts clearly in Avengers: Age of Ultron, but this track originates much sooner. Once you remove Tony’s original purpose: weapons manufacturing, he turns to an alternative. This becomes the perpetual creation, recreation, and modification of the Iron Man suit and the refinement of his arc reactor technology. For Tony, creation is a form of survival, as evidenced by his time in the cave and his recognition of weaknesses in the suit’s performance in the field, but it also satisfies a ceaseless curiosity in him. In Iron Man 3, we’ll see the newest lineup of modified or specialized armor, and he’ll develop the technology to operate the suits remotely. That technology will begin to enforce Tony’s disengagement or disassociation from the armor, and in Spider-Man: Homecoming, it embodies an “absent father” motif. Near the climax of Iron Man 3, as one disobedient suit of armor reappears in the nick of time, Tony remarks, “The prodigal son returns.”

These developments, culminating in the creation of Ultron, a sentient android meant to establish a new order of peace, cast Tony in the light of Prometheus or Dr. Frankenstein: lower beings struck with the inspiration of gods and the hubris to actualize that inspiration. The Jewish myth best associated with this aspect of Tony’s character is the legend of the Golem. As I described on the podcast this week, the Prague Golem was an anthropomorphic figure made from clay by the 16th Rabbi Loew and animated through religious ritual. He was created to defend the Jewish ghetto in the wake of anti-semitic attacks and the blood libel. But as these stories of man stepping into the shoes of gods often go, the Golem—who, like a construct of iron, cannot reason—becomes impossible to control and must be neutralized. It’s a motif we see in the Hulk’s stories, though he more closely mirror another Gothic novel in Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, so it’s natural that Tony’s partner in creating Ultron would be Bruce Banner.

Part of Tony’s ultimate journey, beyond becoming someone who would conceivably guide a nuclear missile through a wormhole to save the world, is the reconciliation of his intellectual superiority with a sense of justice. That superiority—the knowledge that he is smarter than everyone else in the room—makes him a genuinely enjoyable character to watch, but it’s also the engine behind his desire to create life, and thus precipitates major violent consequences. Once again, he’s a mirror for us—particularly Americans. I don’t at all care to argue against advancements in technology or the pursuit of new breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, but especially in the context of warfare, with which the Iron Man franchise is concerned, the absolute power of creation and destruction lies in the hands of a few individuals. Tony has come a long way to admit that the Avengers need oversight in Captain America: Civil War.

As we near the release of the long-awaited Avengers: Endgame, I’m interested in how Tony’s creative impulse will face off with Thanos’ destructive impulse (Thanos’ name references Greek mythology’s Thanatos, the personification of death. Appropes.) Will Tony, who has made Christlike sacrifices on now numerous occasions, find a way to truly transcend his superiority complex? If he survives the next movie, can he embrace his creative impulse without instinctively overreaching? As we hope to teach the Thanoses of the world that the unilateral power of destruction should not be held by any individual, will Tony have to learn the same lesson for the inverse? And can he learn it without losing a part of himself?

Swords of Power: Excalibur, Gryffindor, Anduril, and Lightbringer

A companion piece to episode 95: The Once and Future King, written by Laurel Hostak

Walter Crane

Walter Crane

The Blades of King Arthur: The Sword in the Stone, Excalibur

You know the story of Arthur and his legendary sword. An orphan boy is raised by Sir Ector and serves as squire to his adopted brother Kay. His youth is perfectly ordinary, until the day he accompanies Kay to a tourney and loses his brother’s sword just before he’s about to ride into combat. On this day, in desperation to replace the sword, Arthur instinctively pulls a sword from a stone, and the course of his life—and his nation’s—changes forever.

The sword he draws from the stone is more than a weapon for combat or tournaments. It’s the very symbol of sovereignty that guarantees the boy’s royal destiny. This child will become the greatest king of Britain. He will welcome a golden age. He will ignite the hearts and minds of mankind for centuries to come.

The sword in the stone is one of the most unique and enduring symbols in the Arthurian legend—which says a lot, given the story is sweeping, epic, and littered with magical and significant objects. In contemporary adaptations of the legend, this sword is called Excalibur, though the preponderance of Arthurian texts from the Middle Ages will affirm that Arthur has two magical swords. He pulls one from the stone, and is later given Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake. Whether to avoid confusion or to enhance narrative cohesion, Hollywood and modern writers have overwhelmingly chosen to combine the two blades, and thus combine the concepts of powerful bloodline and military might.

Despite the sword in the stone’s imprint on the collective consciousness and association with Arthur’s upbringing, it’s Excalibur that’s first introduced to the legend. It appears under the Celtic name Caledfwlch in the Welsh prose tale Culhwch and Olwen (collected in the Mabinogion in the 12th century). In the same century it will materialize in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s blockbuster Latin treatment of the legend in his Historia Regum Brittaniae—or History of the Kings of Britain—as Caliburnus. The French tradition will give us the name Escalibor, and our friend Chretien de Troyes describes the sword by its ability to cut through steel and iron. Interestingly, it’s French writer Robert de Boron, who is best known for his continuation of Chretien’s unfinished Perceval, the Story of the Grail, who will introduce the sword in the stone motif for the first time in his poem Merlin.

Walter Crane

Walter Crane

Excalibur has several recognizable attributes that appear in multiple sources. In addition to its uncanny ability to cut through just about any material, it’s also blindingly bright. As Sir Thomas Malory writes in his landmark Le Morte D’Arthur, "thenne he drewe his swerd Excalibur, but it was so breyght in his enemyes eyen that it gaf light lyke thirty torchys." Perhaps most importantly, the scabbard bestowed on Arthur along with the sword stops the bearer from losing blood in battle. In Malory, Arthur’s half-sister Morgan le Fay will steal the scabbard from him, allowing Mordred to deal the death-blow upon him in the field.

The Sword of Gryffindor

Spoilers for the Harry Potter series

Swords of power don’t originate in the Arthurian legend—in fact, we see them in Norse and Greek mythology, folklore surrounding Julius Caesar and Ancient Rome, and even the Bible, in which a cherub wielding a flaming sword prevents Adam and Eve from returning to the Garden of Eden. But it’s impossible to overstate the importance of Arthur’s legacy on Western storytelling tradition, and I’d like to spend some time examining the intersection of these particular magical objects with contemporary popular culture. If you have any familiarity with the books or movies of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, you’ve probably made the connection at some point between the sword in the stone and the sword of Gryffindor.

Much like the sword Arthur pulls from the stone in a churchyard—the one that can only be retrieved by the true king/heir to Uther Pendragon—the latter sword manifests only to a worthy Gryffindor. In a time of need, it materializes inside the Sorting Hat. This happens twice during the series as we witness it, appearing first to Harry as he’s confronting a Basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets, and later to Neville Longbottom during the final battle against Voldemort and his Death Eaters. In both instances, the sword is used to defeat a snake or serpent-like beast who is the servant of Voldemort and symbol of Slytherin house. Voldemort is the heir of Slytherin, a literal descendant of the Hogwarts co-founder’s line, and his life is tied to the snake’s in both cases, making the sword instrumental in severing his own lifeline. What’s interesting about this double-appearance of the sword to different characters, though, is that it suggests a slight departure from the hereditary or divinely-ordained nature inherent in the medieval tradition. Rather than choosing a king, a sovereign who is the offspring of the royal line, the sword chooses a champion who becomes a symbolic heir of Gryffindor. That hero then defeats a literal heir of Slytherin. The Harry Potter series repeatedly affirms the presence of free will and choice in its universe, so this more egalitarian expression of the sword in the stone motif brings home the idea that anyone can become a great hero.

Neville Longbottom severs the head of Nagini,  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, pt 2

Neville Longbottom severs the head of Nagini, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, pt 2

Harry Potter, like the Arthurian legend, is densely populated with magical objects. From the Remembrall and the Golden Snitch to the Goblet of Fire and the Deathly Hallows themselves, Rowling is hyper-aware of the lengthy folkloric tradition each of her objects alludes to. And Rowling is clearly interested in the magical mysteries of Arthur. Not only does she give us the obvious connections between legendary swords, but her most prestigious wizarding characters signify their adeptness by their rank in the “Order of Merlin.” With that, she unequivocally tells the reader that the legends of Merlin, Arthur, and his knights are real in this story universe. But regardless of historicity in- or out-of-universe, the symbolic link is powerful. Let’s not forget that Harry will eventually marry Ginevra “Ginny” Weasley, whose first name is a derivative of “Guinevere.”

There’s a third appearance of Gryffindor’s sword, chronologically in between the two Sorting Hat revelations, in which it reveals itself to an on-the-lam Harry at the bottom of a pond. Placed there by Severus Snape, it gives Harry his first fighting chance at destroying horcruxes and eventually defeating the Dark Lord. At once, the image of the sword glowing at the bottom of a pool of water evokes not just the bestowal of Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake, but the appearance of the grail to Perceval. The Holy Grail has additional analogs in Harry Potter in the form of the Goblet of Fire, the Triwizard Cup, and the Hufflepuff goblet that serves as a horcrux—or truly, any hallowed object that is the subject of a long and arduous quest. Turning to the Deathly Hallows—the Resurrection Stone, the Invisibility Cloak, and the Elder Wand—we have further Arthurian links. The unbeatable wand echoes Excalibur as the weapon of choice for wizards, the cloak denotes the magical scabbard, and the stone once again corresponds to the grail or to Arthur’s rumored healing and rebirth on the Isle of Avalon.

Narsil, the Sword That Was Broken

Spoilers for the Lord of the Rings series

The shards of Narsil at Rivendell

The shards of Narsil at Rivendell

In Malory’s text, the sword in the stone that grants Arthur his divine right as king doesn’t last long. In his first battle, Arthur breaks the sword and use seek a replacement. Merlin leads him to the Lady of the Lake, and she gives him both the sword and its enchanted scabbard. This motif of the shattered sword symbolizes the end of Arthur’s childhood and initiation into a new phase—for himself and for his people. We’ll see the shattered sword image recur time and again in contemporary fantasy literature, most notably in J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings saga.

It’s Narsil, the sword of King Elendil used against Sauron during the War of the Last Alliance, that fulfills the motif. Its name refers to “red and white flame,” symbolizing the Sun and Moon—the “chief heavenly lights, as enemies of darkness.” In battle against the Dark Lord Sauron, Narsil shatters, and Elendil’s son Isildur picks up the shards to cut the Ring of Power from Sauron’s hand. The broken sword and the severing of digits conjure up some pretty blatant phallic references, and these events serve to bring the Second Age of Middle Earth to a close—mankind steps out of its “childhood” into adulthood.

In the Third Age, when we join the story in the Lord of the Rings books, Narsil remains in pieces, waiting for Isildur’s heir to reclaim and reforge it. That heir will arrive in the form of Aragorn, an extraordinarily Arthur-like figure who is destined to usher in a new golden age for the race of men. The blade will be reforged, and Aragorn will give it the name Anduril, the Flame of the West. Its name, like its parent blade, hearkens to celestial phenomena by using an elvish word for sunset. The sun is just dawning on mankind, but setting on the enchantments, magic, elves, sorcerers of the land… those will depart as a new age is born.

It’s just as Robert de Boron wrote in his Merlin:

...when that knight has achieved such heights that he’s worthy to come to the court of the rich fisher king and has asked what purpose the grail served and serves now, the Fisher King will at once be healed. Then he will tell him the secret words of our lord before passing from life to death. And that knight will have the blood of Jesus Christ in his keeping. With that the enchantments of the land of Britain will vanish, and the prophecy will be fulfilled...
— Robert de Boron, Merlin

Lightbringer, the Red Sword of Heroes

Beric Dondarrion wields a flaming sword on HBO’s  Game of Thrones

Beric Dondarrion wields a flaming sword on HBO’s Game of Thrones

Spoilers for HBO’s Game of Thrones

And while we’re talking about contemporary fantasy and legendary swords, perhaps the pop culture property that gives us the largest bounty is George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and the television adaptation Game of Thrones. Every major house in Westeros seems to have a powerful sword associated with its history and lineage. Valyrian steel blades are passed from fathers to sons as symbolic of nobility and pedigree, and some carry mysterious and magical myths. Take Dawn, for example, the ancestral sword of House Dayne, forged from the heart of a fallen star and whose bearer is known as the “Sword of the Morning.” Or Heartsbane, the sword of House Tarly, which Samwell steals from its mantle at Horn Hill to affirm his worth.

But there’s perhaps no sword so significant in the story world as the mythical Lightbringer. The sword of Azor Ahai (also sometimes called the prince that was promised), Lightbringer was the weapon that brought an end to the Long Night—a winter that lasted a generation thousands of years before the events of Game. The legend goes that Azor Ahai, a great hero prophesied to fight the Great Other (a devil-like figure in the religion of the Lord of Light), labored for thirty days and nights to forge a hero’s sword. When he went to temper it, however, the sword shattered as soon as it touched the water. So back to the smithy he went, this time laboring for fifty days and nights. Azor Ahai captured a lion and drove the new sword into its heart to temper it; still the blade shattered. The third time, he labored for one hundred days and nights, and, with a heavy heart, summoned his wife Nissa Nissa. To temper the blade, he drove his sword into Nissa Nissa’s heart, and her soul combined with the sword, setting it aflame. This sword would be used to defeat the Others/White Walkers and bring an end to the darkness of winter.

Let’s quickly look back at the quote I shared earlier from Malory’s Morte D’Arthur:

...thenne he drewe his swerd Excalibur, but it was so breyght in his enemyes eyen that it gaf light lyke thirty torchys.
— Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte D'Arthur

Lightbringer, like Excalibur, and to an extent Narsil and Anduril, confronts the carrier’s enemies with a blinding light. And just as King Arthur led his society out of a dark age and into a golden one, Azor Ahai issues in summer after a long winter. The sword—as an extension and symbol of the bearer’s power—becomes inextricably tied to the victory of good over evil, light over dark. Numerous theories exist in the ASOIAF fandom about Lightbringer’s literal or metaphorical origins in the story world. Some say the sword Dawn is Lightbringer, and others claim it’s simply the mantle of the Night’s Watch, or the resurgence of dragons in the world. But always, it’s tied to a great hero and the banishment of a dark age, something we’ve come to associate with Arthur and his knights.

Azor Ahai thrusts Lightbringer into Nissa Nissa's breast. Art by Amok.

Azor Ahai thrusts Lightbringer into Nissa Nissa's breast. Art by Amok.

Of course, the prophecy in play in the books and television show now is that of Azor Ahai’s rebirth. And here’s where the Arthurian connection truly solidifies. At the end of Le Morte D’Arthur, as in Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Vulgate Cycle, Arthur and his son/nephew Mordred meet on the battlefield and mortally wound one another. Arthur bids one of his knights (either Griflet or Bedivere, depending on the version you’re reading) to cast Excalibur into a body of water. Thus the fair time of Arthur’s reign comes to a close, presumably to be resurrected when a new, worthy ruler steps into focus. Arthur, dying, is ferried off by Morgan le Fay to Avalon, where legend has it his wounds are healed, and he lives on—waiting to rise again in his nation’s hour of need. He is the Once and Future King. It smacks of Biblical resurrection, of course, but also of various national heroes and kings from across cultures. St. Wenceslas lies sleeping under Mt. Blanik in Bohemia, and will awaken when he is most needed to claim the sword of Bruncvik and deliver his country. Finn McCool will rise again to deliver the Irish people, and Holger the Dane will awaken to save Denmark. Even Charlemagne—the bearer of another legendary ancestral sword—will return one day and fulfill his heroic destiny. From the countless examples of this mythological motif, Azor Ahai emerges as an eternal promise.

Lightbringer, Narsil, Gryffindor, and Excalibur are lost to us now, but they wait for a worthy hero to come along, retrieve it, and usher in a new golden age.


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About this Buffy the Vampire Slayer reboot...

Some thoughts, from co-host Laurel Hostak

It's okay to have mixed emotions about the Buffy the Vampire Slayer reboot. Joss Whedon does too. So do I. I'm working through it.

The Scooby Gang

The Scooby Gang

I came to Buffy as a 10-year old kid obsessed with magic and the supernatural, wishing I lived in a world where mystical creatures, witches, and monsters lurked around every corner. My Hogwarts letter was on its way, it was just a little held up in the owl post. Throughout my adolescence, I lived my private magical life alongside Buffy, Willow, Xander, Giles, and the rest of the Scoobies. I looked to them for strength, for the courage to be different, to feel self-love as a young person. Buffy and Willow, in particular, were my heroes. Buffy--the Chosen One, who longed for a normal life and yet carried the weight of the world without punishing others for her pain--taught me responsibility, generosity, and the chutzpah to speak truth to power. Willow--teased and victimized in high school, who built herself up to become the most powerful person on the show--taught me to live without fear of judgment, and to allow myself to feel my feelings fluidly, not dogmatically.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer was revolutionary in its treatment of women characters. It's clear from episode one that Buffy is not a scream queen. When faced with danger, she scissor-kicks the big bad and sticks the landing with solid quippage. We're introduced to several powerful women throughout the series: straight shooter Cordelia, witchy Willow, techno-Pagan Jenny Calendar, vengeance demon Anya, Buffy's fellow slayers Kendra and Faith, Tara, Glory, JOYCE... Each representing a different facet of a woman's strength. 

What's left?

What's left?

A pivotal moment in the series comes during season two, during which Buffy must face off against a vicious foe, Angel. A few episodes prior, Angel was Buffy's boyfriend. A vampire with a soul, in love with the slayer. Buffy lost her virginity to him. In the act, by achieving true happiness, Angel lost the soul with which he'd been cursed. Back to his vampy ways, he goes after everyone Buffy cares about, torturing and killing her friends before coming for her. In the season finale, Becoming, Part Two, the two go tete-a-tete. Angel disarms Buffy and corners her. He taunts her. No friends, no weapons, what does she have left?

Buffy closes her eyes.

She takes a breath.

She taps into some ancient slayer energy, digs deep within for her own strength, and opens her eyes.

"Me," she says.

As a young girl, that moment was life-changing. It still is. Buffy asserts, with no sense of ironic detachment, that she is enough. It's a message more young people could stand to hear.

I think it's important to call out Buffy the Vampire Slayer's relationship to sex, too. In a coming-of-age story, whether fraught with monsters and demons or not, it's vital to address sexual awakening in the characters. And with a powerful woman as the lead character, it was crucial to be extremely intentional with Buffy's sex life. The series didn't always get it totally right. Early episodes weren't terribly sex-positive (I mean, Angel literally lost his soul), but given network restrictions and Puritanical tv audiences, it's pretty remarkable that the show was able to tackle the subject head-on. Not to mention Joyce and Giles' caring responses to Buffy's experience, which could be used in parenting classes. But as we watch Buffy's relationships evolve, we also witness her relationship to sex evolve. She likes it, she gets it when she wants it, and she doesn't get slut-shamed for it. In later seasons, Buffy even explores her changing appetites with Spike, and though her emotional state isn't the healthiest, there's no shame in openly addressing her sexual fantasies. It's later in season 6 that the series confronts sexual assault and trauma honestly.

I'm under your spell

I'm under your spell

Buffy was revolutionary, too, in its depiction of queer relationships on screen. The relationship between Willow and Tara was unlike anything that had been done before. A genuine romantic relationship between two women grew naturally over several seasons. We watched two women fall in love, find domestic happiness, fight, reunite, and kiss onscreen. After Tara's death, Willow's relationship with Kennedy gave us the first lesbian sex scene on network television. (Unless you count all of Willow and Tara's steamy spell casting sessions!)

It's been 21 years since the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer aired on the WB. In those two-plus decades, television owes a major debt to the series and the ground it broke. Continuing series like Supernatural and Riverdale are obvious successors in tone and subject matter, but Buffy's influence is felt in any drama or comedy that addresses coming-of-age, power, sex, love, and trauma.

So do we really need a Buffy reboot?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer was, as I’ve said, revolutionary in 97. But as I rattle off the elements of Buffy that changed the game, I find myself frequently qualifying my own arguments. I just finished up another full series rewatch. I've been through it at least a dozen times, but this go-around, I watched with my fiancé and co-host of the Midnight Myth Podcast, Derek. As someone who didn't watch in the 90s, Derek had a surprising amount of criticism for the series I love.

Some of that criticism has to do with production value. Because of course 20 years later the stunts, cheap CGI and early visual effects aren't still going to impress. And the show was known and loved for its campiness, so that’s all forgiveable, if a little cringe-worthy at times. But there are more substantial critiques to be found--

For one, the show seriously lacks racial diversity. The few non-white characters involved are generally second or third tier, and don't last long (a la Kendra). The issue is lampshaded at times, like when Mr. Trick in season three reminds us that it's "Strictly a Caucasian Persuasion here in the 'Dale," but rarely acted upon. It wasn't cool in '97, and it's not cool now. Looking back, it's all well and good to see a white woman fight back at the forces of darkness. Especially in the wake of #MeToo and #TimesUp, that's inspiring. But in 2018, when most of the country is just beginning to wake up to the reality that's plagued POC for generations, the fact that black bodies are abused and devalued, isn't it fucking exciting to imagine a black Buffy? Staking vamps and smashing the patriarchy and demanding a better world and changing the rules?

Derek also held my feet to the fire a little bit about Spike. "How do you feel," he asked, mid-season 7, "watching Buffy go back to her abuser?" I pulled out my excuses about how it's different because Spike has a soul now and it's all complicated by the supernatural mojo and he went to the ends of the earth to achieve this redemption arc and blah blah blah... But here's the deal. It's not that different from reality. Abusers don't typically endure rounds of ritual combat to win back the trust of the abused, but you will hear people like me make stubborn, bullshit excuses for abusers because we don't want to believe the truth. Because they apologized. Because it wasn't that bad. Until we remember that behind the 'importance' of preserving a man's reputation, there's a woman's very real pain. Don’t we expect more from the Buffyverse when it comes to stories of sexual violence? Don’t we deserve more?

Last year, Wonder Woman came out in theaters. It was the first female-led superhero movie in more than a decade, and the first directed by a woman. And it was great. The Amazons training on Themiscyra, Diana's emergence from the trench to take the fire, the sincere assertion of love as the most powerful force. It wasn't the most feminist movie ever made, but it was groundbreaking in 2017, leaving many women in tears at the sheer excitement of seeing Diana onscreen. How is this possible? If shows like Buffy laid the groundwork for women superheroes twenty years ago, why did it take us this long to get a relatively tame Wonder Woman? A Wonder Woman that can’t go beyond mild innuendo in addressing the comic books’ covert lesbian narratives? Why is it so hard for producers (and audiences) to see women's stories, POC’s stories, and queer stories as worth telling?

The work that Buffy the Vampire Slayer did cannot be understated. It will always be my favorite show of all time. Always. I wouldn't be who I am without it, and I know a lot of people who feel the same way. But I can't turn a blind eye to its shortcomings, and though I'll defend the show as progressive for its time, the criticisms stand. We can do better. When I first heard about the reboot, I got upset. Why ruin something so special? Why try to recapture lightning in a bottle? But god, I really don't want to be that guy. The "You ruined my childhood" guy. My childhood is fine. You can't take it away from me. And no television reboot, or Star Wars sequel, or Harry Potter spin-off can change what the originals meant to us. I would love for Hollywood and television producers to greenlight more original content, tell new stories, and give us new perspectives. But I also co-host a podcast that continually illustrates that no story is really new, and that there is tremendous value in revisiting characters, themes, and moments that are meaningful to us. That nostalgia can sometimes act as a springboard to greater innovation. Buffy's story was revolutionary for my generation, and it deserves to be revolutionary for the next. I don't get to claim ownership over that story. Neither does Sarah Michelle Gellar, or Joss Whedon for that matter. Guys, the reboot might actually be AMAZING.

The glimpses we got of slayer lore in the original series showed us that the first slayer was an African woman, chained up by the men of her village and violated by a demon's essence to imbue her with supernatural abilities. And one girl in all the world has lived briefly and died with that same trauma in every generation since. Until Buffy, who changed the rules. She stood up to the men who controlled her and broke those chains. She embraced community, and shared her power with all the girls who chose to help carry it. She forged an intersectional community to fuck up the forces of evil.

It's okay to have mixed emotions about the Buffy reboot.

But don't we need her now more than ever?

Yeah, Buffy. What are we gonna do now?

Yeah, Buffy. What are we gonna do now?

Thoughts on Season One of Battle Star Galactica and American History


This was written in September of 2016. Derek was invited to speak at a lecture series around Battle Star Galactica and these in the first season. He choose to speak about military decision making and the nature of power. It was written before the Presidential Election where Donald Trump defeated Hilary Clinton.  


    Good evening everyone, my name is Derek Jones and I am excited to be here and talk with you about one of my all time favorite shows, Battle Star Galactica. To begin with, I should probably tell you I have absolutely no professional credentials to justify me being here. I work in IT management, and I do consider myself a life long nerd/geek/dude who likes Sci-Fi and fantasy a little more than any 35 year old man probably should. I have no experience in TV, film, or videography and I don't have a creative bone in my body. What I do have, is a degree in history, one of my great passions in life, and a close friendship with Beth, who invited me here today. I'm going to be talking about BSG season one. 


    So where to begin? There's a lot of scholarship around season one of BSG. And despite my insufferable lack of credentials, I do think season one of BSG is a masterpiece. It has interwoven astounding special effects into a compelling narrative that touches on themes such as the nature of consciousness, what constitutes political power, sexual and gender identity, attacks of horrific terrorism, war, espionage, and I could go on and on. In so many ways, season one is a mirror into modern American political, social, and judicial life-- that is, if we were all in space ships. Just like the Lords of Kolbol, our current American problems are unlike the vastness of space. We do not live, act, breath, decide, and ultimately die, in a vacuum. As Martin Luther King Jr said, "We are not makers of history. We are made by history."


    I'm here to point out and discuss how BSG draws from American history, to which season one gives us many opportunities to explore. In particular, I'm going to draw parallels to the American Revolutionary War. To me, this comparison was obvious. When war broke out in Massachusetts in 1775, the odds were stacked against the rebels. The British Empire was the strongest military force on the planet. The small group of colonial militia needed to band together to survive, least their way of life would be annihilated and the great, albeit imperfect, American experiment would have been over before it began. The comparison is not a perfect metaphor, and it will have rhetorical and argumentative holes. My aim here is not to say that season one and the American Revolution are synonymous. Rather, I hope to inspire people to see that American narratives-- whether they are shows, movies, or political positions-- are intertwined with her history, and that having a rich appreciation of how we were, will tell us volumes of who we are.


    Let's get right to it. I'd like to start over two thousand years ago, back in Ancient Rome. Rome was a young Republic, growing into a vast power that was already reshaping the mediterranean. Rome soon found itself at odds with the North African neighbor Carthage. Carthage was home to one of histories most famous generals, Hannibal. Most of us know something about Hannibal, we probably know he's a general, he fought Rome, he liked elephants a lot, wasn't too keen on mountains and crossing them, but got it done somehow. What most of us may not know, is how he was defeated. (You might be asking yourself, how is the pertinent, but stick with me, I promise it will become clear.) Defeating Hannibal came down to one guy, Quintus Fabius Maximus. See, after Hannibal somehow got his elephant riding army over the Alps, the Romans sent a large force to engage and destroy him. Well, turns out fighting an army that has war elephants was a lot harder than the Romans thought, and this force was destroyed, nearly to a man. Rome was in a panic. It had lost nearly all its fighting force to Hannibal, and it seemed that the entirety of Rome was on the eve of it's demise. Imagine if ISIS wasn't off in the middle east, but in Georgia, and they just destroyed America's army and you'll start to understand the fear the Romans where living under. So what do they do? they appoint Quintus Fabius Maximus as the dictator of Rome and give him full sweeping legal and military power to combat the invading Carthaginians at all costs. So what does Fabius do? He musters as many soldiers as quick as possible. He marches to the field of battle and realizes that it would be stupid to attack an army that is riding on elephants. So he just doesn't. He maneuvers around the army, like a long horrific dance. He only allows his army to engage in battle if he is 100% certain he'll win, and never commits his full force. He realizes that time is on his side, not his enemies. Hannibal's elephants were expensive and difficult to maintain. His soldiers also needed food and shelter. The Roman's were on their turf and Fabius realized that if he could just keep his army together long enough, eventually the Romans would train, equip, and muster a superior force. To make a long story short, Carthage does not defeat Rome. Rome wins the war and goes on to become one of the greatest empires of human history. The strategy of exhausting the enemy through attrition and mobility became known as Fabian military tactics. 


    So I bet your thinking,"Great, thanks for the lesson about Rome, I thought you were talking about BSG and American history?" Well, here comes my comparison. You know who know all about Fabian military tactics? George Washington. I could stand up here all day and talk about George Washington, luckily for you guys, that isn't gonna happen today. To put it simply, he was obsessed with military glory. This was pointed out by one of Washington's biographers, Joseph J Ellis. Letter after letter, war council after war council, Washington wanted to meet the British on the field and with musket, bayonet, gun powder, and cannon ball. Early in the war, Washington makes such a stand in New York City. The year was 1776, the Americans had been at war with the British since fighting broke out in 1775, and the Declaration of Independence had recently been signed. The British sent Lord Howe with a major force of both men and ships to put down the rebellion. Washington had caught the British unprepared at Boston the previous year, forcing the British to retreat. Washington's next maneuver was to dig in at New York City, knowing it's strategic importance. Washington also guessed that the British would want to take it from the rebels. The British fleet sailed up the Hudson river and landed their troops with such ferocity and ease, the rebel forces took flight, causing General Washington to exclaim, "Are these the men with which I am to defend America?" 


    General Washington envisioned a New York battle where his men would muster under fire and deal such damage to the British that there army would be destroyed, ending the war after only one year of fighting. However, Washington was out manned nearly 2 to 1 and had no navy to speak of. His naïveté lead to several blunders-- blunders that lost lives and nearly destroyed the cause of American freedom. Luckily, narrowly, Washington escaped New York City with a semblance of an army, and the British were to hold New York under their control for the duration of the war. However, Washington had read his history, and he knew the lessons of Qunitus Fabius Maximus. Like Fabius, time was on his side. If he could keep his army together, he would instill a will to keep the fight in the American people and gain the respect of European powers, namely France. Washington, the founder of our country, put aside his selfish visions of grand battle and implemented Fabian military tactics. The war for independence would not be won quickly, nor would the cost of victory be minimal. Five years later, an American and French force gave Washington the victory he so envisioned, and thus our republic was born.


    I see this struggle in Commander Adama in season one of BSG. Adama was a relic of a bygone age, a man of war in a time of peace. Instantaneously, he is thrust back into war, as the Cylons unleash a nuclear holocaust in the 12 colonies of Kolbol. In an odd way, Adama is comfortable in this scenario. We hardly see him mourn or lament the loss of 12 planets full of billions of people. Instead, he goes directly into command. And his first, primary, and only objective is to bring the fight to the Cylons. His determination and military make up will not permit submission to the enemy, and he will fight at all costs. Similar to Washington, he envisions a grand battle where either the humans or the Cylons are destroyed. I find this attitude to be very relatable. Like Washington, one doesn't rise to a high rank in military office without some internal identity as a solider. And what makes a solider successful? Bravery, fortitude, discipline, strategy, and ultimately, killing your enemy or die trying. Thankfully for the show, newly appointed President Rosalyn quickly and demonstrably displays the flaw in Adama's quest for glory or death. She is a civilian, with no training, background or knowledge in interstellar combat. However, she is thrust into a position of prominence and importance, only to butt heads with a great military commander. Like Washington, Adama has antipathy for running from the enemy. But, thanks to Rosalyn, he soon realizes that his military objectives have to adapt or he, and the fleet he commands, will die. 


    So what does Adama do? I would argue, he switches his military strategy away from direct combat with the enemy in favor of Fabian tactics. His job is to outlast the Cylon empire, to keep his fighting force intact, and to only engage the enemy when in the most favorable terms. This strategic shift is essential to the survival of the fleet, which is tantamount to the survival of humanity. And, I hope you don't mind some spoilers, his strategy ultimately proves successful as he leads humanity to the lost 13th colony of Kolbol, Earth.


    I'm not sure if the comparison to Washington and Adama is intentional or subconscious. I have no way of knowing if the writers of the show knew about the Battle of New York or Fabian military tactics, or if they knew George Washington was obsessed with a great military victory. I would argue that what's significant is that our history naturally manifests itself into the cultural archetype of what a great military leader should be. In order for us, fans of the show, to view Adama as a great leader and one of the central hero's of the narrative, he has to be Washington-like.


    Why does any of this matter? While it may seem like a cool imaginative exercise to argue that Washington and Adama bare a similar personality make up, and military decision quality, it may also seem kind of pointless. This brings me to the theme that is at the center of BSG (at least season one and two) and the American Revolution. The question at hand is, what is power? Where does it come from? Does power manifest form military might, or does it derive from the consent of the governed? This conflict is laid out in season one, as the question who controls the fleet arises. Does Adama outrank Rosalyn or vice versa? Do the articles of colonization, the constitution of the colonial government, even exist after the planets are destroyed? These fundamental questions bare a similarity to some of questions asked by 18th century political philosophers, statesmen, and farmers. Why should 13 colonies submit to a parliamentary monarchy that did not advocate or represents the interests of said colonies? But more importantly, as we look at our history and BSG, it is important to remember that we should be asking the similar questions today. We can not pretend that the fate of the fleet, just like the fate of the American Revolution, was a forgone conclusion. The choice that Adama made, to submit to civilian authority and abandon his quest for military glory, was as significant and impactful to the show as Washington's decisions were in the  War for Independence. To put it more simply, it matters who's in charge. It matters who wields power when the chaos and unpredictability of life intercedes into human affairs. As I reflect on the mountain of history books I have read and this wonderful show, I am reminded that we have the honor of choosing who will be the most powerful person in the world for the next four years. The nature of that power, and the person who yields it, can and will shape our planet for years to come. We can ill afford an apathetic attitude to the awesome responsibility we have. I know that at times we may feel like we are adrift in the vacuum of cold space, like the fleet under Adama's control. But as we grapple with the difficult decisions we face going forward, I can't imagine what it would have been like to be Washington or Adama. To face complete and total deduction on a daily basis, and to make mistakes that cost lives, but have perseverance to overcome them and lead people to freedom. Our future is as uncertain as the colonial fleet's was at the end of season one. I do not know about you, but I am excited. 


Thank you to Vox Populi for having me, thank you Beth for asking me to come here, and thank you to everyone that came and listened.         

Come Together, Y’All

Seatbelts, friends, we're talking climate change. If you heard our Jurassic Park episode a few months back, you probably already know that I'm pretty passionate about the issue, and that I look for climate change narratives everywhere. But it's no secret that the human race faces an existential crisis--one much larger and higher stakes than the one I'm grappling with since realizing I actually liked DC's Justice League...

Most audiences and critics don't care for this one. It's sitting at a cringe-worthy 41% on Rotten Tomatoes (hey, that's up 5% from the last time I checked?), and reviews have been pretty painful to read across the board. Full disclosure, I am a Zack Snyder hater. Like, I straight up hate that guy's movies. And I carry such disdain for Batman v Superman that I went into this movie (against my will, mind you) excited to hate it. But I didn't. I thought it was really pretty good. The story was clear and compelling, and I felt the writers were strategic and smart about how they chose to sketch in the new characters so that they fit this big ensemble piece with maximum emotional bang for your buck. But if you didn't feel the way I did, if you threw tomatoes at the screen, good for you--this is not a review, and I respect and validate your experience. I'm just here to point out a few observations that left me in a pretty good place about this movie.

Justice League, against all odds, delivers a rather well-articulated critique of humanity's response to our existential crisis--the threat of a changing climate. As Bruce Wayne so poetically puts it, mankind likes to act like the "doomsday clock has a snooze button." (It's two and a half minutes to midnight, by the way.)

The major rallying threat of Justice League is Steppenwolf, a very tall, ironclad demon (god? demigod? I don't know, put me in my place, DC bros) who's homesick for the hellscape of his origin, and who yearns to turn Earth, and any other pesky world he might encounter, into a blazing inferno. That nightmarish imagery mirrors our own fears about our planet's future, unbearably hot and uninhabitable. Join that with several references to rising sea levels, the existence of "mother boxes" (like Mother Nature, get it?), and constant questioning of techonology's role in human progress, and you've got yourself a man vs nature conflict structure, albeit an allegorical one.

Here in the real world, the President of the United States just withdrew from the historic Paris Agreement--a non-binding, universally agreed upon as not-good-enough-but-at-least-it's-something, global initiative to reduce carbon emissions--to send a message that market deregulation is more important than safeguarding our planet and our future. That today is more important than tomorrow. Here in the real world, we may not be facing alien insects and  hellbound titans, but we are facing devastating natural disasters, and we stand on the brink of global disaster if we don't act immediately, and by some measures it may already be too late to undo the damage we've done. What's abundantly clear to climate activists and scientists, though, is that in an era of heightened division and political tribalism, half the battle is in convincing the immovable fossil fuel lobby/religious right/rabble of climate change-deniers to join the fight.

This is where superheroes come in. Yay! Here's a fun thought experiment for those of us who sometimes find ourselves completely paralyzed by the overwhelming anxiety and despair of a superobject like climate change: what would the Justice League do if faced with this problem? (Also, what would the Avengers do? I'm all up for this being the new Marvel vs DC standoff, which team of heroes would be better at saving the earth from itself?!) And that thought experiment is part of what grounds this movie. It's about "getting the band back together" to fight a global disaster--one that closely parallels the one we currently face. Superman is dead, the world is divided, and we can't move forward until we come together. Right now. Over me.

In this experiment, we have to view each Justice League character as an archetype or a certain player in this worldwide game. Let's break it down!

Aquaman! In touch with the ocean and blue collar folk, Arthur Curry makes a surprising splash as the everyday climate change denier. Even though he would literally be the first to know if sea levels rose (or if the water suddenly started boiling, as Bruce suggests), Aquaman insists that wouldn't bother him. He reminds us of the coastal fisherman who, in the face of overwhelming evidence, can maintain skepticism to avoid giving any political ground. And yet we cannot win without Aquaman, or the fisherman. We need the intimate knowledge of aquatic ecosystems and the firsthand experiential data. We need that guy to recognize what's at stake, and get in the game, or we'll drown.

Batman! His superpower is that he's rich. Okay, he's also a master sleuth, but most of Batman's material advantages lie in his access to resources, and Bruce Wayne's advantage lies in his influence over institutions. It's no shocker that the Dark Knight represents the powerful aristocracy that holds so much sway over the body politic. As the head of a major corporation and a noted philanthropist, Bruce has serious capital. He literally buys a bank. And while Bruce shares leadership in this film with Diana, his is the guiding voice that reminds us again and again of our responsibility to our world. Now, this is only a fraction of Batman's appeal, but it's so inspiring to see a rich white power broker pursue nobler aspirations than controlling the fossil fuel industry. Love you Bats.

Flash! Ezra Miller's performance is certainly a standout in Justice League. He provides welcome levity, but also acts as an audience stand-in and brings a lot of heart to Barry Allen. He's a millennial. He's awkward and antisocial, but also charming and vulnerable. He's whipsmart, he's dedicated to vindicating his dad, he watches Rick & Morty, and he's in the market for some human connection. Us millennials are so socially isolated by our snapchats and our hashtags ya know. Barry is also afraid to get in there and fight. Until now the work has been hypothetical and bubble-bound, like so many of our personal crusades. The battles waged on Facebook and Twitter aren't always meaningless, but they're rarely more meaningful than IRL activism. At the very least, social media movements need to transcend the medium and reach outside the screen. Likewise, it's only when Barry bursts his bubble and is introduced to a team of powerful individuals--who elevate his abilities--that he's able to make a significant impact.

Cyborg! Victor Stone is literally a man merged with technology, so it's fairly obvious that he represents the role of science and technology in facing this global threat of climate change. But Justice League introduces an internal conflict early on. Victor struggles with his existence and his place in the universe. He’s supposed to be dead, and his survival is the result of unnatural, unwanted tampering by his scientist father. Victor and Barry refer to themselves as “the accidents” of the group. In the fight to reverse the effects of climate change, technology plays an undeniably important part. Scientists and innovators have dedicated countless hours to researching methods and applications for clean energy and waste reduction. But too many—fossil fuel companies and individuals alike—place starry-eyed hope in the idea of a tech fix, a magic solution just around the corner. In reality, there is no basket to put all our eggs in. Solving this problem will take work. It will take energy from both man and machine. Cyborg epitomizes the marriage of technology and humanity while serving us the inherent tension of that union.

Wonder Woman! My favorite of the Leaguers, Diana takes on a leadership role alongside Bruce in this flick. While dedicated to love and justice, she’s also still in the shadows as a hero. She’s still paralyzed by the pain of losing her loved one, overwhelmed by the task at hand, and reluctant to allow Bruce to bring her out of the darkness. I identify her as the beaten down environmentalist, and I relate to her pretty hard in this context. All my passion and blogging often feel like a scream into the void, and I’m so shut down by the seemingly hopeless situation that it can be difficult and painful to look directly at it.

And then there’s Superman. He’s largely absent (dead) from this film, existing as a memory or a shadow over the characters and their actions. With him gone, we have “a world without hope.” Journalists can’t figure out what to say, rural moms sell their houses, and bigots taunt minorities in the streets with no repercussions. I found him a little harder to pin down in this metaphor, but I’ve settled on pairing him with political leadership, both symbolic and literal. His removal from the world sends the message to the rest of the universe that Earth is undefended from alien attacks—much like Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement signals businesses and foreign governments that our priorities no longer include carbon reduction, aka it’s a free-for-all for pollution and pipelines. And Superman’s return—the return of strong, positive leadership—restores balance and inspires others to keep fighting.

By bringing all of these individuals together, we create a team that has a chance. Each character faces tremendous internal conflict that hinders their ability to face a major challenge, superpowers or not. And in the context of this allegory, I’m more interested in the human side of the characters than their super-side (which I think gives points to the movie for development!) We’re in the same spot with our challenge. Slacktivists can’t fix it alone. Neither can rich white guys or a decent president. But in the final battle, each and every presence is ESSENTIAL. With one cog missing, this machine fails. Maybe that’s our answer too.

We should also look at the significance of the final battle’s location: Chernobyl. The whole of humanity is at stake in this fight, but most urgently, the Justice League is responsible for the lives of a few civilians left in the abandoned nuclear disaster site. We are reminded that those hit first and worst by Steppenwolf’s terror—and by the effects of climate change—are those who contributed least to the causes, and those too vulnerable to defend themselves. Consider the small country of Nauru, an island in the South Pacific that’s been plundered for resources, used as a dumping ground for refugees, and bombed over the generations. WIth a total GDP of only $160 million and no major carbon contributions, Nauru could literally sink in the coming years, turning its 10,000 into desperate climate refugees. An entire country could sink.

It’s because of the Chernobyl detail that I think Justice League advocates for something more than an end to dangerous divisiveness. That’s an important part, of course. Never underestimate the impact of a super simple message like “tribalism isn’t so helpful, come together y’all.” But I think there’s a subtle globalist message hanging out right beneath the rallying cry. Justice League, as I see it, urges us to not only join forces with other sectors, countries, sides, but to work proactively. Pro-activism. To advocate for those who don’t have the resources or political power to do it themselves, even if that means putting our necks on the line for a country that’s not Murica. The fate of humanity just might depend on it.

Location, Location, Location

A companion piece to Episode 35: The Podcast We Deserve, written by Laurel Hostak

As a writer, I am more inspired by place than anything else. The ability to describe the atmosphere of a location, smell the smells, hear the music or simply the bustle of the street, physically experience the climate-- these are the first tools I reach for when crafting a story.

In my personal experience, the place my mind goes first when searching for inspirational locations is Prague, Czech Republic. It was always a dream of mine to visit the motherland, and when I finally made it there, the city was more than I could have imagined. It's the kind of place that sings so powerfully in my heart that I can't help but try to capture it. The city is old and the streets are cobbled. There are monuments from various centuries and architectural movements stacked on top of one another, creating a hodge-podge of history from block to block, rather than a unifying style like Paris' 19th Century limestone buildings. You can feel the layers of myth and legend in the stone bridges, in the gleaming, and in the Gothic and Baroque towers piercing the sky. The city rises and falls along the Vltava. Every hour, it becomes an echo chamber of clattering church bells. For me, Prague is a place of character, spirit and timelessness. It absorbs the stories within its limits, they seep into the stone. It breathes, it comforts, and it frightens. The atmosphere is thick and palpable. That's what I need as a writer--to be surrounded by the story. And that is how other stories do a number on me. That's how Batman does a number on me.

In each expression of the Caped Crusader, his city of Gotham figuratively and literally looms large. The "episodes" is Batman's adventures take place in the shadow of tall buildings, beneath forced perspective that reminds us of our smallness and helplessness. It accentuates the divide between the rich and the poor, the have's and the have not's. It creates the underbelly of corruption and indulgence that oppresses the poor crime-ridden communities as it festers below the decadent upper classes. It's a tale of two cities that echoes the split in Bruce Wayne/Batman's own consciousness. It's Batman's head, inside out.

A tale of two cities. Gotham in the shadow of Wayne Industries.

A tale of two cities. Gotham in the shadow of Wayne Industries.

We owe a great deal of Gotham's lasting aesthetic to Tim Burton's movies as well as the subsequent Batman: The Animated Series, which evolved in continuity with the former. The combination of 1920's and 1930's Art Deco style with film noir visuals and a haunting nod to the gothic (listen to episode 35 for lots more on gothic genre influences on the Batman universe!), reinforces the dichotomies of Gotham's heroes and villains. We are reminded that one can be motivated by justice and good intentions and still feel compelled to achieve those ends by perpetuating a cycle of violence. That it's possible to be a billionaire philanthropist seemingly well-adjusted businessman and still wrestle with personal demons or post-traumatic stress. That the idea of reconciling all of the conflicting impulses that create our day-to-day existences is cumbersome at best.

Batman is one of the best-drawn characters in contemporary culture precisely because every comic, series, or movie wrestles head-on with this duality, with the "two cities" that struggle inside all of us. Even in a universe where all-powerful men can fall to earth and others can resurrect indefinitely by bathing in "Lazarus pits," this treatment of character strikes me as more realistic than most. Batman shows us that the divides between all binaries are blurrier than we like to think. Good and evil, light and dark, strength and fear, justice and revenge. Gotham is instrumental, as an expressionistic landscape, in bringing these themes to the surface.

I start with location as a writer because of how it can express character on a visual and emotional level. Because of how it affects me, even from a simple establishing shot. Every shot of Gotham in all its menace and opulence reminds us that we never know what lurks in the shadows or around the corner. This is true of the Burton world, the animated series, and even of stories like the Dark Knight Returns and the Nolan films, which serve to ground Gotham in more recognizable geography. But it's impossible to imagine these stories taking place in real world New York, or Hoboken, or LA. Even in the handful of time Batman adventures stray from Gotham, we know he brings it with him. To rephrase an old cliche, you can take the Bat out of Gotham, but you can't take Gotham out of Batman.

Batman is always timely and always timeless. His relationship to Gotham, in any iteration, is key to understanding him, because he is both a product and producer of Gotham. He was formed by its decadence and corruption, and he also feeds that decadence and corruption. He is literally, for better or worse, the hero Gotham deserves—and we can identify with that as Americans because we are a product of our own complex national or local histories and we continue to make our future while more ignorant of that than cognizant. The Dark Knight Returns has a huge place in that legacy because in making a darker, grittier Batman for the flashy excesses of the 80s, it grounded much of the action in specific real-world conflict and fear. So contemporary Batman feels personal because it took those cues, and turned Gotham into our world, our world into Gotham.

Divine Comedy

A companion piece to Episode 20: Dark and Full of Terrors. Written by Laurel Hostak.

This week, on the Midnight Myth Podcast, Derek and I dove into a case study of the one and only Stannis Baratheon from George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series (and the HBO tv show Game of Thrones). You probably heard me call Stannis a POS multiple times-- and I stand by it. He's one of the most irredeemable garbage humans on that show, but he's different from the Joffrey or Ramsay archetype: a petulant sociopathic man-child with a born tendency toward grotesque violence. He's as close to a classic tragic hero as we get in Game of Thrones, with a close second being Jon Snow. We explored this a lot on this week's show, drawing parallels to some of the most immortal characters in tragedy (Agamemnon, Macbeth) and in Western history (Constantine). We compared beats of those narratives, and saw how closely the prince-who-was-promised lines up with those.

But Martin and the GoT showrunners have a lot more going on than aping classic tragedy. So I want to look closer at something Derek said on this episode-- that Game of Thrones often takes us to the place where classic tragedy meets existentialism. Sexy! Let's go!

What is existentialism? Here's the basic definition: a philosophical theory or approach that emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will. We'll get back to that.

I'm primarily going to look at Jean-Paul Sartre, a leading existential thinker of the 20th Century. One of his most prominent ideas was that human beings are "condemned to be free." By this, he implies that there is no creator, no master plan for our existence or predestined outcome for our time on earth. We are responsible for what we do--the noble and the ignoble, the fair and the unjust. Human beings cannot blame outside forces for their existence or their actions. We are "condemned" because there is no heavenly father figure guiding us in the right direction or the wrong. Free will means the onus is on us. All puns intended there. Zing!

From here, we can imply another component of existentialism from Sartre, that "existence precedes essence." It's similar to the above point, but a step further. Essence, in this equation, amounts to meaning or purpose. If a thing's essence precedes its existence, then it was brought into being to serve a distinct purpose. Like someone creating a paper cutter. The creator says "I need a thing to cut paper," and from this essence, the paper cutter is born. Human beings, according to Sartre, are the reverse. Here we are. We exist. And no matter how many religions or philosophies take on the big question of "why?", existentialism will always drive home the futility of this question. We were not formed by a creator out of a desire to serve a purpose on earth. We got here, and now we're on our own in the search for a deeper meaning. Existence is a given, so now what? In some ways, it's a liberating idea, to know that we have the power to shape our own essence, to forge meaning in our own lives. But it's also scary--and that's why Sartre says we're "condemned to be free." Because if you look close enough, you can slip into nihilism. Our existence is meaningless.

So where does tragedy enter the picture? As a genre of drama or storytelling, tragedy has a simple definition: a play dealing with tragic events and having an unhappy ending, especially one concerning the downfall of the main character. Key point: downfall. Aristotelian plot mapping gives us a tragic structure that looks a bit like the outline of a mountain. It goes up, and then it goes down. It follows the path of the tragic hero, who arises to a great height, then tumbles back down in disgrace, usually due to a "tragic flaw," an incredibly specific character weakness that directly leads to their fall. More often than not, this flaw is hubris, which manifests as excessive pride in defiance of the gods in Greek tragedy.

Aristotle's tragic plot structure

Aristotle's tragic plot structure


Hubris, I think, is the heart of the genre. All of our famed tragic heroes from Greece to Elizabethan England suffer in some way from a lack of sufficient respect for the power of the gods or the reigning ontology (see my blog post Outrageous Fortune for more!). They frequently subscribe to an overabundance of human pride, sometimes equating themselves with divine figures or believing themselves immune to divine will. Oedipus' downfall is a direct result of his attempt to escape the fate ordained for him by the gods. Macbeth's downfall is a result of his ascent and destruction of the social ladder put in place by god. Agamemnon, in the story we related this week, is struck down for killing a stag sacred to the goddess Artemis. Tragedy becomes an exercise in man's futility in the face of the divine or other cosmic or natural forces. The very nature of tragedy implies the existence of gods or a greater power, the wrath of which is to be avoided. Tragedy is predicated on a belief system that, unlike existentialism, is somewhat shackling. We have no control over our actions or destinies; we live at the mercy of larger forces. And if we have no control, why even continue our search for the essence?


It strikes me as I write this that both sides of this coin seem, at times, to teeter on the edge of nihilism. How classic tragedy and religion seem as much of a scream into the void as Sartre's play No Exit. If you follow each to its furthest conclusion, it's hard not to arrive at "everything is meaningless."


But here, right at the edge of meaninglessness, lies Stannis Baratheon.


Made in the image of Agamemnon and the archetypal tragic hero, is the reluctant man who would be king. Bolstered by a vague prophecy and a priestess of the Lord of Light, Stannis leads an army of supporters of his claim. We watch as Melisandre demands greater and greater sacrifices in the name of the god from whom she receives her power. We watch Stannis take on more and more difficult challenges and pay higher prices in the quest for a title he might never have pursued without the spur of others. Stannis hits every milestone you would expect from a Greek tragedy on his long climb to the top and his swift fall from grace. And yes, there are gods and supernatural forces at attention. But when Stannis, backed into a corner and given a way forward into battle, sacrifices his daughter, Shireen, to Rhllor, divine fortune does little to secure victory. In fact, Rhllor melting the snow and clearing a path to Winterfell is inconsequential. Half of his men up and leave because they've witnessed an atrocious act and can no longer march under morally bereft banners. It's not defiance of the will of god that dooms Stannis, but defiance of the laws of man.


If we had to ascribe a tragic flaw to Stannis, we'd probably land on something more complex than hubris. In fact Stannis is the opposite of tragic heroes whose pride gets the best of them. Even if he's conflicted, he obeys the will of the god who has named him the future king. The problem is that he is a cocktail of moral hypocrisies, with no consistency in his understanding of right and wrong, the greater good or the higher morality. He speaks in moral absolutes that often directly contradict each other, sometimes in the same breath, always serving to justify his actions in the moment. He is existence before essence personified. Make the decision, then look for the meaning--even if that requires some ethical gymnastics, to which Stannis is no stranger.


At times, I think Game of Thrones plays up these dualities and conflicts between tragedy and existentialism to point to another school of thought: Absurdism. This philosophy refers to the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and the human inability to find any. As Stannis lies dying, we have to assume he reflects on the actions that led him here, and we have to assume he feels regret. What was it all for? What did he achieve by hurting so many? What meaning has he found in this existence? This has a greater pattern in the show. How many times did you, as a viewer, become attached to a character or a house, only to witness its ultimate destruction? What was the greater purpose of Ned, or Robb, or Oberyn? And did Martin, as we like to jest, simply kill them off to shock or damage us?


As viewers of this universe, we have the unique privilege of observing the many intricacies of Westeros and its characters. We get to zoom out and see the patterns. We watch the ignoble deaths and humiliations. We still search for meaning in the narrative (we're only human), but we've begun to recognize it as a Sisyphean task. We are coming face to face with the fact that there is no cosmic force that governs or steers this ship. That men are messy and make poor decisions and often die before their arc is complete. There isn't always catharsis. Like reality, it's absurd. It's a joke.


In some ways, Game of Thrones is little more than a comedy.



For more on Existentialism, read Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness.

For more on Absurdism, read Albert Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus.

Am I Elite? By Derek Jones

Am I Elite?

I’m a 35 year old college educated white, straight male that lives in Philadelphia Pennsylvania. I think it’s super important for me to start this blog with the social constructions by which I am bound to and identify with. Here are some of the things I do with my time: For starters I work in retail and make a decent lower middle class income with a team I enjoy being around. I live with my girlfriend, who works in the arts, part-time, and supplements her income with a part time retail gig (yes, this is how we met). Our combined household income isn't much but it’s enough for us. Together, we rent a small three bedroom row home in South Philadelphia. Our neighborhood is diverse, made of families, a few druggies, and some people that mostly keep to themselves. We have a kitten and we are about to adopt our second (because let’s face it having one doesn’t cut it). All in all, I have a really nice life that I’ve worked hard for, and I am very much looking forward to the future as I contemplate my next steps in life. Despite having worked hard, I acknowledge that there are millions of Americans working hard, yet can not make ends meet. 

I think it’s also super important to say, I’ve fucked up a lot. As a young man, I made sure to rebel against my loving and warm home by being a self-indulgent short sited arrogant ass clown that made a long list of mistakes. The very parents, who I so arrogantly rebelled against, shielded me from doing any permanent harm to myself. I mentioned these mistakes because it highlights my privilege. Being in the mainstream has cushioned my mistakes and given me ample opportunities to course correct and live a nice life. I am conscious of the many people who aren’t me, who don’t get second, third and fourth chances, who sometimes don’t even get a chance. I’ve never been in those shoes, so it would be a lie to say I am truly empathic to their struggle, but I am a good listener and my digital and literal door is always open to good people. 

If I am to answer the question, “Am I elite?” I have to examine myself through the prism of the social construct. Like all of us, I am also trapped in the cliche and mundane that defines us. On one hand, I’ve lived a privilege life and yet on the other, I feel so very far removed from the wealthy and powerful.   

I recently wrote a blog on my website about Lord of the Rings and tribalism. The blog made me think about the media and the cultural impact of the 2016 presidential election. It think it is safe to say that many really smart people got the election completely wrong. Right up till election day, everyone, and I mean everyone, believed Donald Trump didn’t stand a chance. Even Trump seemed to believe that the polls sealed his defeat as certain as the sun rising from the east and setting in the west. Otherwise, why did he have no transition plans in place? Take a moment and look at the pictures of Trump as his victory was announced. I think those photos encapsulate the way many people felt, dumbstruck. The media coverage post election night 2016 made one thing apparently clear: 

Smart people don’t like to be wrong.  

In the face of getting the entire election incorrect, media experts, political scientist, professional pollsters, scrambled to explain what went wrong. To examine this, exit polls where being utilized the find who voted for Trump, didn’t vote for Clinton, or simply stayed home. In the wake of this data, people ceased to be people, we become subcategories. America became a product of socioeconomic geographical blah blah blah. Depending on where you lived, how you earned your income, if you went to college or not, your gender, your race, you fit neatly into the baffling puzzle media pundits and social scientists alike were piecing together. That puzzle? “How did Trump get elected?” Hearing myself being lumped into a category got me thinking, am I this category? I do live on the east coast, so I can’t argue against the geography. I have already acknowledge that privilege is part of my successes in life. I have a degree, a massive collection of books I’ve read cover to cover, I go to the theater on a regular basis, I like adventure travel, I’m an atheist, I have a beard and long hair, and oh my god, I am the costal elite!

However, slowing myself down, I thought it would be prudent to discover where this term came from, and how it came to encapsulate the white professional urban class. Good luck finding out who coined the term, because I couldn’t. Scratching the surface of the internet lead to digging deep into forums and websites, hopeful of finding who first used the term “costal elite” and why. While it is hard to find where this term came from, it’s everywhere and it’s an insult. Those who throw this term around with frequency and fervor utilize it in the rhetoric of othering. Rhetorical othering occurs when one person (or a group of persons) utilize language to draw a metaphoric boundary between large populations of people. It involves arguing why there is a “we” and a “them”. For example, any nation that prepares to go to war, has to make a rhetorical argument of othering. The aggressor needs to make a case that their enemy is an “other” one that can only be stopped by killing them. Popes did this during the Crusades, changing the laws of Catholicism to grant spiritual immunity to knights that killed Muslims— making Medieval Muslims the other, whose existence was outside of the commandment “Thou Shall Not Kill”. “Costal elite” is the rhetorical sword that draws the line on the battlefield where on one side is the “real” America, rural, tough, Christian, and proud. On the other side are the elites, agnostics/atheists, New York Times reading (no surprise I read it everyday) latte drinking, Wall Street trading elites, who are out of touch and look down at the “real” America. Trump realized that there was already a line in the sand, and he ratcheted the rhetoric up several notches. He exploited the current debate around a binary America (rural vs urban), and said that he would finally win this battle by breaking the perceived stranglehold costal elites had on American political discourse and media. 

Sailing the sea of rhetorical arguments creating a binary America can often feel depressing. If I am this costal elite, I don’t want to be. Like many Philadelphians, I am originally from a small rural town. If someone works with their hands, or in a field, and if they forget to wear sun screen maybe they get a sun burn on the back of their neck, I don’t want to assume, de facto, that they are ignorant and racist. On the same token, if a rural American sees me in Starbucks sipping a mocha reading the New York Times on my MacBook, I don’t want them thinking I’m a snob. And what really is at stake here are two different classes of America, the working and the professional. But why are we at odds to begin with? My latte comes from a complex business infrastructure that involves farmers, truck drivers, and baristas. For my life to function, I need rural America. Surely there are differences between us, but our interconnection and interdependence is real, both economically and culturally. So why all the cultural antipathy? To answer that question, one needs to ask another, more pertinent question: who benefits from our cultural antipathy? 

The answer: many people. Rhetorical othering, historical, is not engaged in sincerely. I would argue that Pope Urban II, who called on Western Europe to Crusade against Jerusalem, knew that war was diametrically opposed to Christian theology. He also knew that calling for a crusade would be bloody, costly, and that thousands of Christians— whom God commanded him to protect— would meet their demise. But the prize of adding Jerusalem into his sphere of influence was worth the cost. To justify this battle, he deemed a Holy Crusade, whereby killing a Muslim was not killing at all. It was a holy act praised by God. The common solider who marched from France to Jerusalem and bled on the battlefield needed the rhetorical othering to justify his action. Today, the beneficiary of creating a rhetorical class battle between workers and professionals is a billion dollar business, involving websites, podcasts, books, television, speeches, etc. A small group of powerful people, motivated to enrich themselves, wield the sword of rhetorical othering and line their pockets with cash. Do me a favor, google how much Ann Coulter is worth. Then, google how much Rush Limbaugh is worth. And finally, google how much Rupert Murdoch is worth. 

I’ll wait.

Now, let’s ask, who really is “elite”?

On a Quest For a Tribe



On a Quest For a Tribe: A Companion Piece to Episode 9 and 9B of The Midnight Myth Podcast 

What is it about us and tribes?

When I say "us" I mean humans, people, society writ large. According to Merriam-Webster, tribalism is defined by “tribal consciousness and loyalty; especially the exaltation of the tribe over other groups.” In simple terms, any time we think “our team is better than your team” we are engaging in some form of tribalism. Sometimes I wonder if the paradigms of tribalism are inherent in humanity, like a ghost in our genetic make up that whispers, "it's us and them, never forget that." We encounter this in every aspect of our lives. We, humans, siphon off the world and delineate between the collective and the other. I can remember a time when a coworker of a different ethnicity humorously reminded me that I was an outsider to them, despite literally being on the same team. Have you ever been to a major sporting event in a sports town? Ever see a fan of the local sports team booing the rival fan who gloats when his/her team wins? Right or wrong, it is normal and never feels out of place when one reminds another of their tribe. In other words, we all know what tribe we are on at all times, our tribes constitute the partition between what walls "us" and "them" into "we" and "other". 

The question around tribalism came to me while doing research for the companion blog to episode 9 and 9B of The Midnight Myth podcast. I was doing some reading about the history of Rohan. In case you aren't familiar with Rohan, it's a major kingdom in JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings saga. The people of Rohan live in the grassy plains between the Shire, home of the Hobbits, and Mordor, home of Sauron, Orcs and pretty much all things evil. If you want to get an appreciation of JRR Tolkien, google the history of something, anything, in his books. The amount of literature, depth, and density to his world is staggering. Every ruler of Rohan, where they came from, what they did, and why they did it, was documented by Tolkien as if it were the genealogy of a real place. The reason for this depth of history makes sense. It brings Rohan and the Rohirrim (which I learned means "people of Rohan") to life. The saga of King Theodan of Rohan is part of a longer saga, in which Theodan is simply the recent installment. Rohan matters because people, albeit imaginary people, lived and died within its borders for thousands of years establishing an identity that is Rohan. The people have long blond hair, fair skin, and have used the grassy fields to master horse ridding. This has made them formidable warriors and a force to be reckoned with in Middle Earth. 

While reading this history, I started reflecting about the world and saga of Lord of the Rings. It was clear that Tolkien organized this world into tribes. Different types of races lived in different areas which took on different traits, and all tribes were inherently mistrusting of the other tribes. Dwarves dislike Elves and Elves don't trust Men, and the Men of Gondor look down on the Men of Rohan, and all pretty much don't care or have forgotten about Hobbits. I think Tolkien is telling us something about ourselves when he created a world so divided. It reflected the world he knew, a world in which mechanization and nationalism brought about the largest wars in the history of humanity. In World War I & II, humanity was forced to tear down the partitions between us and unite, only to kill each other in more horrible ways. Fear of destruction united us, however, only to become better at war. In World War II, the Allied and Axis forces were capable of being one, of truly overcoming our tribal nature, to become a bigger, more capable killing tribe. 

The choices of the Allied and Axis powers of World War II are mimicked by the main powers of Middle Earth. Faced with the resurgence of Sauron, Mordor looms to be the power of the world. Mordor can only rule Middle Earth if all the other races are destroyed or enslaved. The inhabitants of Middle Earth are faced with the choice, they can tear down their tribal nature and unite to face off against this threat or join the threat and assist in ending the free kingdoms. Sitting out and letting other tribes deal with Mordor is not an option. Every race of Middle Earth is represented, either by sending delegates to decide the fate of the one ring of power or by sending their armies into the fight. The heroes create a Fellowship, a symbol of multi-racial politics working out their cultural antagonism to protect the world from evil. From this symbolic unity, Dwarves can become best friends with Elves, the people of Rohan can come to the aid of the people or Gondor, and Hobbits, the forgotten people, can save the world.

But this unity is not pan-Middle-Earth. It is not a unity of ideals, nor is it a world order based on principle. It is a reflection of-- and part and parcel of-- tribalism. Why is it so easy for Aaragorn, Gimlie, and Legolas to massacre Orcs? More importantly, why is it so easy for the audience to cheer this violence on? The rise of Sauron forces Middle Earth into two tribes, those with Mordor and those against. The Orcs are the manifestation of othering, a race outside the good races, one whose very existence embodies the rise of evil. Consequently, the life of an Orc is worth less than the life of all the heroic races. I am not trying to say that the audience of the Lord of the Rings should be more sympathetic to the Orcs. To the contrary, the Orcs have to be evil for the narrative to work and we must believe them to be. But it is the precise tribal nature implicit in all of us that allows us to view the Orcs as bad. If we were to sympathize with Orcs, the entire structure of the story melts like a ring of power in the under belly of Mount Doom.

Does Lord of the Rings reinforce tribalism? I'm not so certain. I think Tolkien was holding up a mirror and using his vast insight into the human condition to create a counter factual reality. In Tolkien's world, evil is easy to spot, but every bit as difficult to overcome. I think that fellowship, a true break between the behavior that seeks to divide humans, is as difficult in Tolkien's world as it is in our own. It takes extraordinary circumstances for a Dwarf and an Elf to become best friends. But it can happen. For example, look at the civil rights movement in American history. People banded together, despite their tribes and in a time of relative peace, to end laws that discriminated people on the basis of race. Our tribal nature isn't a ghost in our genetic make up. We are not forced to live our lives in constant reminder of who we are at the expense of the other. And if we all overcome our tribal nature, we can keep our own symbolic Mordor at bay.