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 build 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 seires 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 Ramsey 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.

Outrageous Fortune

A companion piece to Episode 8: Destiny's Child. Written by Laurel Hostak.

"Men at some time are masters of their fates./The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/But in ourselves, that we are underlings." Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare

It’s time to play Wheel! O! Fortuna!

If you think that doesn't sound as fun and high stakes as buying a vowel, think again. This week on the Midnight Myth Podcast, Derek and I looked at stories dealing with prophecy, fate, and free will. Starting with the Ancient Greeks and Oedipus, heading through to Shakespeare's Macbeth and concluding with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, we traced the evolution of destiny in storytelling as worldviews changed. We published this episode and blog around the infamous "ides of March," so a spooky feeling about fate and superstition is hanging in the wintry air. But on this blog post I wanted to look a little closer at some of the popular ontological concepts that influence these stories--namely The Rota Fortunae (Wheel of Fortune) and the Great Chain of Being.

Picture a wagon wheel, if you will. (I’ll also throw you a bone with this picture…)

 

There are countlessdepictions of the Wheel of Fortune, but some themes recur that give us some clarity. Often the Roman goddess Fortuna herself is shown, usually painted blind to illustrate her capriciousness and instability. She is the spinner who may lift up some men whilst catapulting others into despair, seemingly without order or agenda. In these pictures, we also see men, women, and sometimes anthropomorphic beasts caught in the spokes or riding the wheel upward or downward. There is typically a figure poised atop the wheel, in the position of greatest prosperity. This might be a king. And he may look happy now, at the height of his reign, but as we all know, what goes up must come down. The apex of the wheel is full with the potential for sudden decline.

The Rota Fortunae is prevalent in Ancient and Medieval philosophy, always referring to the wicked and unpredictable Fate, who might one day be your ally, and the next might spell your doom, all with the random spin of a wheel. In Ancient thought, Fortune is one with chance. This is the kind of philosophy that governs the universe Oedipus lives in. The nature of tragedy is that fall from grace. A character must, as we explored a few weeks ago, rise to some height and then hit rock bottom. Oedipus, who upon hearing the Oracle’s prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, took pains to subvert his destiny. He made what he thought was a decision to break free from Fortune’s wheel, and in doing so, spun it faster toward its purported ends. What the wheel represents to us is a lack of control over our own lives and destinies, the idea that we cannot claim ownership or responsibility over the way our lives turn out. We are all spokes on an ever-spinning disc that knows no morals, manners, or empathy. Oedipus’ story, as we know, teaches us fear and worship. We must never underestimate the power of the gods, and anyone so proud as to attempt to escape their will only exacerbates his situation.

Fortune and her wheel appear frequently in Medieval and Renaissance art, becoming absorbed, like many traditions, into Christian tradition. Fortuna is a common motif in the Medieval series of dramatic poems Carmina Burana (you’ve heard O, Fortuna from the Orff arrangement in a million movie trailers.) She figures heavily in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, some Arthurian romances including Malory’s Morte D’Arthur and many of the plays of Shakespeare. Henry V, King Lear, Hamlet, and more all curse or plead with Fortune to spin her wheel kindly. But the world in which Shakespeare wrote was governed by an opposing ontology.

In Elizabethan England, individuals subscribed to an idea called The Great Chain of Being, the internal hierarchy of every being in existence. The Great Chain, along with many Christian institutions (like the Eucharist, Corpus Christi, and the Holy Trinity) is based on the idea of correspondences. In the same way that the Ancient medical tradition of balancing the four humors corresponded to the four elements/four seasons/four ages of man, the links in the Great Chain of Being show patterns that interpolate and extrapolate to each other. The chain is pictured below:

 

At the top is God, then the angels, then demons (who are fallen angels, like Lucifer). Then we see the internal hierarchy of man, and below that is a hierarchy of beasts with lions at the top and serpents at the bottom (they just can’t shake that association with the Garden of Eden, can they?). The lowest links in the chain are plants and minerals, each with their own hierarchies.  The determination of one’s place in the chain refers to the ratio of matter and spirit in that creature. So God and the angels are all spirit, no matter. Beasts, plants, and minerals are all matter and no spirit. Man is poised in the precarious position of being  both matter and spirit. They are capable of the divine search for knowledge, truth, love, understanding, and reason… and yet they also succumb to fleshly desires, sins like lust, gluttony, and sloth. Man must balance the matter and spirit within himself to remain healthy, and must maintain his position in the hierarchy to avoid disorder in the world.

The preservation of this order in the chain was a useful political and religious tool in Elizabethan England, encouraging peasants and lower aristocrats to remain content with their lot, and in Machiavellian fashion, encouraged rulers to maintain power by any means necessary. After all, a king was ordained by God, and was a mortal stand-in for God in the chain. All links in the chain serve God, and any disorder in the hierarchy of man causes similar disorders in heaven and in the animal kingdom. Thus, it was in one’s best interest to stay in line. When Macbeth and Lady M take the life of Duncan as a guest in their home, they not only commit a mortal sin, they defy the chain, and subsequently, God. Their restless ambition manifests as tremors in the cosmos, and we hear thunder and rain. The night of the murder, we are told that an owl has killed a falcon, and that Duncan’s horses broke free from their stables and went wild—the natural world echoing the disorder and chaos in the chain of man.

When a story lives under the governance of the Great Chain of Being, the impact of a tragic fall is compounded by the introduction of choice. Macbeth’s choices to kill his king, assume the throne, and brutalize women and children, are not excused by the fact that he is in some ways under the influence of the witches’ premonitions. Though Macbeth may think himself guided by Fate, he does terrible things to achieve the prophecy’s ends. By disrupting the order of his world, he sets off a reaction that must, according to the rules set forth, result in his downfall. The microcosm, the little world of Scotland (and of Macbeth’s mind) falls into chaos. The macrocosm, the world of the heavens, crashes and bangs until the destructive agent is removed. We see the same things in Hamlet, King Lear, and the Tempest. Disorder on earth leads to chaos in the mind and in the skies.

It’s funny, when you remove the governing ontology from the Oedipus and Macbeth equation, how similar those two stories are. A good man hears a prophecy, jumps into action, kills a king, becomes king, and falls from grace. But Oedipus doesn’t fit in the world of the Great Chain, and Macbeth, I’d argue, could never just be a spoke in the Wheel of Fortune.  It’s a fascinating meditation on the nature of tragedy, and the distinctiveness of the two characters. One remains pure in the face of terror and despair, and one succumbs to mortal sin and greed with the smallest encouragement. Macbeth’s is a tragedy of his own making, rather than the random and natural turn of events.

Yet we might say that Oedipus and Macbeth commit the same sin—the defiance of the will of the higher power. Oedipus attempts to escape the prophecy of the oracle of Apollo. Macbeth slays the stand-in for God on earth and throws the chain into disorder. Men are unmade, as tragic characters often are, by pride. By thinking they can outrun the gods.

There's so much more I could say (and has been said) about these two stories and the metaphysics that govern them. But I’ll leave you with a little Easter Egg I can’t get enough of:

Upon arriving at Thebes, Oedipus discovered that the city was held at the mercy of the Sphinx, and only one who could answer its riddle would set the place free. The riddle: "What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three in the evening?" Oedipus famously answered “man, who crawls in infancy, walks upright in his youth, and carries a walking stick in old age.” Those ages of man, I think, are masterfully illustrated in the cycle of Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear (and sometimes the Tempest), but that’s another story for another day. This beautifully simple riddle, concerned with the natural order and progression of life, illustrates a sort of bird’s eye view, a broad understanding. A pattern you could only recognize by looking down from on high. Any man who could answer with this perspective must have a similar vantage point…

The Wheel of Fortune, an enduring symbol, shows up again as the tenth trump card in most tarot decks. Here is a picture of how it’s drawn:

 From the A. E. Waite deck

From the A. E. Waite deck

The creature at the top? A sphinx.

Dark Age

Dark Ages: A Companion Piece to Episode 7: There Is No Spoon
Written By Derek Jones    

    Take a journey into the past with me. 

    If you've read my first blog or listened to the podcast, you likely know that history is my intellectual passion. When planning on how to complement this weeks episode, "There Is No Spoon" I'd like to take us back to Ancient Greece and Rome. The question Laurel and I were asking in "There Is No Spoon" was centered around stories that searched for the truth. What is the truth, and how do we find it? The search for truth in philosophical form is part of the study of epistemology. In epistemology one asks the very big question, "How do we know what we know?" Every piece of knowledge has an epistemology at its core. For example, the scientific method is very much an epistemology. In the scientific method, a person or group of persons asks a question, comes up with a hypothesis to potentially answer the question, tests the question, and then publishes their results to have other people verify and retest. Eventually the hypothesis is either proven to be true or false and humanity learns something about how the world works. The epistemology of the scientific method presupposes that the universe is made up of observable phenomenon, raw material with core governing principles-- we can walk on the Earth because of gravity, we can breath air because of evolution, etc... Most of us associate scientific thinking with our current age, but the epistemology is ancient, ancient and Greek.
    A thousand years before the birth of Christ, the ancient world was in a dark age. Famine was widespread, people were nomadic, and major empires either collapsed or shrunk. The only place that had food was Egypt, thanks to the Nile river depositing mineral rich soil on its banks. No one really knows why the ancient world was in a dark age, and there are several theories from global climate changes, to leadership corruption. Out of the dark shadow of famine and social disruption, these tiny city states that shared a common language started popping up, and they were coming up with some radical ideas. Constitutions became the basis of government, not gods. Art was made to capture and understand beauty, not display the power of a king. People went to theater to laugh and cry. These city states became the basis of our way of life, the building blocks on which current American and Western European culture is built. I'm talking about Ancient Greece. In particular, there was man named Socrates, and his student Plato, who envisioned a world where the smartest individuals would talk to each other and debate the nature of reality, knowledge, morality, politics, art, and everything and anything else. They called this place the Academy, and it its core there was a new Greek way of thinking called, "logos" (what we call today logic). Logos has an epistemological presupposition, and it is the same one the scientific method has. The universe is knowable. When humans observe phenomenon and study it, we can learn how things happen. From the epistemological core, a golden age of ideas flourished of the likes humanity never saw before, and would struggle to replicate again. 
    Flash forward about 1,300 years and Rome was the master of the Ancient Mediterranean World, and had been for sometime. Rome had a major Greek culture crush. Roman philosophy, art, literature, law, history, clothing, I mean pretty much everything, had some type of Greek connection, appreciation, and/or heritage. But that would change as the Roman Emperors started putting their patronage around a new way of thinking, Ancient Christianity. The Christian thinkers of the time had a fundamentally different epistemology than the Grecian Academy. The ancient Christians argued that with the advent of the Bible, all human knowledge stopped. There needed to be no further debate, no further discovery, no further quest for truth, other than debating what the Bible said and how to better incorporate Christian orthodoxy into the Roman state. A battle over how the universe worked ensued, and the Academy was burned-- literally. We will never know what knowledge was burned with it. Logos lost the war over how knowledge is gained, and with the advent of all knowledge being derived from the newly formed Catholic Church, the Ancient World made way for another dark age.
    Just like the dark age before the rise of Classical Greece, Western Europe would not stay in a dark age forever. The classical writings of the Ancient world were preserved by the Medieval Muslim Caliphates, and were eventually rediscovered. The study of Ancient writing would endure, ushering a return to logos and the Academy of the Ancient Greeks became the modern university system we have today. Humankind would see a new era of logos, and the Medieval world would lead us to the Modern world. Now, nearly every American walks around with a networked super computer in their pocket and all human knowledge is accessible. 
    So what's the lesson here? Today we are witnessing a new battle over knowledge. Powerful people are telling us to believe their version of facts, divorced from logos and without evidence. Simply put, it matters how we come to know the things we know. And human society without a generally agreed consensus on epistemology squashes debate, silences dissent, and disenfranchises the truth. Creating an epistemology that is not based on logos is the intellectual soup that feeds a dark age. Should we challenge general assumptions about how the world works? Absolutely. But we can an ill afford vanquishing knowledge for convenience, facts for fictions, and reason for madness.  

Ch-ch-ch-ch-cherry Bomb

A companion piece to Episode 6: Rebel Rebel. Written by Laurel Hostak

This week on the Midnight Myth Podcast we talked about rebellion and the stories of underdogs who stand up to powerful empires or oppressive authority. It's a narrative that's cross-cultural of course, but it finds a foothold in American storytelling that continues to inspire and enthrall us. Our favorite stories often harp on this theme, from Star Wars to Hamilton. I don't think it's a leap to conclude that Americans as a whole gravitate to stories that reflect, however subtly, the circumstances of our nation's birth and its intrinsic individualism. We look for stories that feature long odds and celebrate rebellion against evil or injustice, because as kids in school, we're taught that revolution and heroism are often synonymous. When we first learn about the Boston Tea Party, we're not concerned with the destruction of property, we're clapping our hands and exalting the men who protested unfair taxation. That glorification of the underdog and righteous revolt is written in our bones and woven into our American spirit. Rebellion is our national myth. In this blog post, I'll explore a figure close to this narrative, and look at some of the implications of his influence upon American values.

The history of a land and its people is as much a collection of its national myths as its factual events and faces. In the intricate map of a culture, human beings are often as tied (or more so) to their folklore and their legendary heroes as to their generals or presidents. Think of Robin Hood or King Arthur in Britain, two folk heroes whose historical veracity is questionable at best but whose stories suffuse the cultural tapestry of that land. To the people of that land, they might be as influential as William the Conqueror or Elizabeth I. These folk heroes pop up in all cultures. Beowulf in Scandinavia, Hua Mulan in China, Cuchulainn in Ireland, Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill here in the US... and though they may be fabrications or exaggerations, they represent a national ethos.

As a comparatively young nation, the United States has fewer folk heroes than countries that boast thousands of years of history. The ones we do have are usually the subjects of tall tales. But sometimes the lines are blurred between the historical and the legendary. Sometimes we turn our flesh and blood heroes into myths on earth. The most obvious example, of course, is our first president.

As a boy, George Washington's father gave him a hatchet as a gift. Washington then used it to cut down his father's beloved cherry tree. Seeing his father upset that someone had damaged the tree, the boy famously said "I cannot tell a lie" and confessed to the crime. His father was so impressed with the boy's honesty that he said something like "the truth is worth a thousand cherry trees," and forgave the boy.

If you grew up in the United States, you've heard this story. Probably in kindergarten. It's probably the first story you heard about George Washington or any American president. And you probably thought, "wow, what a great guy, he tells the truth even when he makes a mistake!" Maybe it encouraged you to tell the teacher the truth about those crayons you ate, and maybe the teacher was really proud of you for owning up to it even though your public school is constantly cutting its arts budget and most schoolteachers buy their own supplies with no reimbursements. I digress. The story drove home the point. Honesty is the best policy. The truth is its own reward. A gallant example set by our first president and a revolutionary hero.

From the outset, we are more familiar with this story of Washington's childhood than we are with his role as the general in the Revolutionary War, his crossing of the Delaware, his eventual triumph, his farewell plea to a nation divided, his warning against partisan fighting, his peaceful transfer of power... We know the cherry tree story better than we know the very problematic pieces of his legacy. He made colossal mistakes in battle. He struggled with the institution of slavery, yet he held hundreds of slaves at Mt. Vernon. The real man is much more complicated than the repentant youngster with the hatchet.

And the irony of our familiarity with the Cherry Tree honesty parable?

It's a lie.

It was invented by an early biographer of Washington, Mason Locke Weems.

The intention is pure enough--give an insight into the extraordinary character of this great American figure, and teach a lesson about good morals.

Here is my question: in the case of the cherry tree, is it harmful to "mythify" a founding father?

I don't have an answer to this question. I'm working through it. Derek has been reading biographies of many of the founding fathers, and this is much more his area of expertise, but I can't help dipping my toes in after this week's episode. Of course, having a story of our first president exemplifying the virtue of honesty is good. It inspires us to value honesty, to own up to our mistakes, and to offer forgiveness to others. But does this story, perhaps, cloud us to the faults and hypocrisies of the man? When we are ready to process nuance and more difficult subjects, is it already too late to change our feelings? And do we find ourselves making excuses and moral calculus for the figures we've come to laud as paragons of virtue? If our myths inform our culture and values, it stands to reason that we do ourselves a disservice in presenting our earliest political figures as incapable of anything but absolute honesty and moral uprightness. 

Or am I misinterpreting the cherry tree tale entirely? Does the writer, in fact, purposely demonstrate a moment of poor judgment in our otherwise unbesmirched Washington, to show us that we can all seek redemption despite our many missteps?

They say to never meet your heroes. That's because human beings are inevitably messier and more complicated than we often want them to be. The idea is that if we came face to face with someone we admire, we'd be crushed if they turned out to have an unpleasant personality or obvious character flaw. But I'd argue that those nuances can only be helpful to us. I believe that we must seek more complex portraits of our heroes, be they folk or flesh or some combination. We must demand more intricate understanding of our political figures, historical and contemporary. 

Myths are deep within us. They form the foundation of our societies and many of our core principles. But when our myths are born of real human beings, our foundation is bound to have cracks. Time exacerbates those cracks, makes them more obvious and more dangerous. But acknowledging the cracks, the faults, the deceptions, gets us closer to mending them. By looking for the unvarnished reality of those who influence us, we can begin to recognize our own intrinsic biases, and the vulnerabilities in our culture. Then we can start the great work of rebuilding.

Everything is Batman

Everything is Batman: A companion piece to Episode 5: The Joke Written by Derek Jones

 I just googled, "How popular is Batman?" The simple answer is, a lot. The first published comic book appearance of Batman was May of 1939, followed by a solo title in 1940. Since 1943, 13 live action or animated movies were made starring the Caped Crusader, 5 since 2005. Also, in 2018 Warner Brothers has slated another live action Batman movie. Lego just followed up its smash hit, The Lego Movie, with a Batman movie that made 53 million dollars in three days! Even Batman as a Lego has captivated our collective imagination and delighted audiences. No matter where we go, what we do, where we look, Batman has become America's Dark Knight, he is the superhero darling of our imagination. I'd like to think he's the American Achilles. Achilles’ deeds, immortalized by the epic words of Homer's Iliad, captivated the Ancient World and served as the template for all heroes, as Batman does for us today. For a thousand years, everyone recited the words of the Iliad, just to remember the heroism of Achilles and his tragic fall during the sack of Troy. One could argue that many Ancient Greek myths serve to detail the lineage of the heroes who would sail across the sea to fight in the Trojan War. The tales of Perseus, Hercules, Jason, Theseus and so on, are the origin story, the build up of the final act of Ancient Greek heroism: sailing across the Mediterranean Sea to retake Helen and burn Troy to the ground. If one endeavors to understand the psyche of the Ancient Western World, one must look at it through the prism of Achilles. A story resonates and holds on to the collective imagination of a society for a reason. Often, that reason is reflective and aspirational. The hero of the story reflects a crucial aspect of cultural identity and can only succeed if they aspire to become the best versions of themselves. In the case of Achilles, he is a proud warrior who fearlessly leads his troops and has the blessings of the immortal gods that equip him with invincible armor. Achilles is the ultimate Ancient Greek man, and what person in the ancient world would not romanticize their actions as they attempt to reflect an Achilles image?  
    The ancient world is very different from the world we live in, and if we can learn about the ancient world by understanding Achilles, what does our understanding of Batman teach us about ourselves? In other words, why Batman? There are a ton of really smart people who have looked at Batman and given amazing answers to Batman's astounding popularity. As a comic, he's always well drawn, with amazing writers giving life to the art work. In movies, film greats such as Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan have put their full creative prowess behind the character, reimagining and reinvigorating Batman for subsequent generations. Many people point out his lack of superhuman powers. This appeals to us, because somewhere deep down, believing in Batman means believing in humanity’s power to save itself. It isn't some fluke science experiment that goes wrong that enables Batman's journey into superhero status, he isn't from another galaxy, he can't read minds or fly, heal or teleport. Batman is a hero because he chooses to be. His choice to dawn a cape and mask separates himself from so many other heroes. What would Peter Parker be if a radioactive spider didn't bite him? More importantly, we know what he would not be: Spider-Man. What if planet Krypton didn't explode? No superman. What if Reed Richards went to space and the radioactive blast that gave him superpowers missed him and his family? Bye bye Fantastic Four. Because Batman chooses heroism, he represents the epoch of American rugged individualism coupled with self-determination. If Bruce Wayne lives a double life and fights super villains by sheer force of will, anyone of us can do anything. 
    We also have some of the greatest villains to pit Batman against. I have a theory about why his villains are so good, and it starts with understanding that all great Batman narratives are tragic. We all know what happened to Bruce Wayne, who watched his parents’ brutal execution. Faced with horrific trauma, Bruce Wayne becomes Batman, to avenge his parents, heal from his loss, and prevent others from a similar dark fate. Tragedy allows Batman stories to appeal to adults as much as they do to children. And with the rise of Batman, so rises the villainy of Gotham City. Each great Batman nemesis is part Batman, and Batman is always walking the line between hero and madman. Take for example, the Riddler. The Riddler has no superpowers, is ingenious, inventive, and cunning. However, because of his crime-ridden pathology, he leaves clues that invariably lead Batman directly to him. The Riddler could plan the perfect crime, but his compulsion to challenge Batman always leads to his capture. The Riddler needs Batman as much as Batman needs the Riddler. The duality of Batman manifests in his relationship with himself, as Bruce Wayne, his relationships with Alfred, Robin, and every twisted villain who plans Batman's downfall. But it's so very tragic. The Riddler hates Batman as much as he needs him, his compulsion to tackle Batman's weaknesses is a curse, and because of it, the Riddler-- and Batman-- will never be free. This is not a very new idea, after all, Achilles also needs Hector
    In Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight, when the Joker finally gets to talk to Batman, the Clown Prince pontificates about how much he needs Batman, and without Batman his life is boring. "Kill you? What would I do without you?" the Joker says. Indeed, what would we all do without Batman? There is so much more one could say about this hero. But one thing we can not deny, Batman is here and here to stay. He is the hero we need, the hero we deserve, and he is going to delight our imaginations for a long time.    
    

 

 

    

How the Mighty Have Fallen

A companion piece to Episode 4: Rock Bottom. Written by Laurel Hostak

"What prompts one person to act boldly in a moment of crisis and a second to seek shelter in the crowd? Why do some people become stronger in the face of adversity while others quickly lose heart? What separates the bully from the protector? Is it education, spiritual belief, our parents, our friends, the circumstances of our birth, traumatic events, or more likely some combination that spells the difference? More succinctly, do our hopes for the future hinge on a desirable unfolding of external events or some mysterious process within?”

Madeleine Albright, Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War 1937-1948

I am a huge Joseph Campbell fan, and his name will continue to pop up in this blog and on the Midnight Myth Podcast. It's hard to talk about myth and storytelling in a modern context without citing The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell's theory of the archetypal hero's journey. He argues therein that world mythology tends to conform to a universal structure, dubbing it the "monomyth," and draws several comparisons from the ancient to modern pop culture applications of that universal structure.

On this week's episode, we spoke about some of the trials our favorite heroes endure along that universal journey, and we met them on common ground. This ground was what we called "Rock Bottom." Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

We know that all heroes must face obstacles, and that conflict is an essential element of any storytelling. In Screenwriting courses I took in college, professors broke story structure down in this simple way:

Step one: Get your hero stuck in a tree

Step two: Throw rocks at your hero in the tree

Step three: Get your hero down from the tree

Or, an explanation of the hero's journey I've always liked, Jeffrey Schecter's Four Archetypes: Orphan >> Wanderer >> Warrior >> Martyr

In other words, our hero begins alone. Looking out for numero uno. Sometimes literally an orphan (Bruce Wayne, Harry Potter, Dorothy Gale, etc...). Disconnected from others or from a cause in life. Then our hero receives a call to adventure and sets out willingly or is cast into a significant journey. Along the way, our hero finds the inner strength or passion to take up a righteous or important challenge. Fights for it. Then, makes a powerful sacrifice for this cause or objective and either wins or loses with honor.

What we're looking at this week is that decisive moment between the hero's last two phases, warrior and martyr. In the stories we examined in Episode 4, including Hercules and the movie Gladiator, and countless others across time and cultures, this moment is one of incredible suffering. Our hero has lost everything and now faces the question of whether to pick up the sword again for a final battle. Whether to make the noble sacrifice or to surrender in disgrace. Hercules and Maximus are epic heroes. They embody strength, determination and force of will. They are also creatures of intense suffering, upon whom grave misfortune has been wrought by outside forces. When they hit bottom, they hit hard. These are men who lose their entire families pretty close to the BEGINNING of their stories. How much worse can it get for them? Quite a bit worse, it turns out, as both quickly lose their autonomy, their sense of worth, and faith in their gods.

So why keep going? Why do Hercules, Maximus, and the countless heroes who follow in this tradition stand and fight when all is already lost? What do they have left to fight for? Maximus continues to fight for the souls of his brothers in arms, for their freedom as much as his, for the honor he has earned. Hercules perseveres in pursuit of that most elusive arc, redemption.

In the above quote, Madeleine Albright asks a similar question of us--why do some of us hide from challenges, and others face struggle with grace and renewed strength? What is the difference between someone who stays there at the bottom of the wall, surrenders, and someone who finds the strength to crawl out? I tend to wonder what makes a real-life Warrior-Martyr. We may not be epic heroes of myth and war, preternaturally gifted, or the children of Olympians, but there is a reason we still connect to these stories of persistence. We know that in the noblest hearts there burns a light that cannot be extinguished. What sets a hero apart is the strength of that flame, the audacity to fan it, and the purity of that intent. It is a bravery to which we all aspire.

Out of the Chaos

A Companion Piece to Episode 3: Detected

Written by Derek Jones 

    At many points in life, I sit back and gaze at the stars. Sadly, I've been a city guy for the past 15 years, and star gazing often doesn't work well. The glow of the city is just bright enough to dim out the diamonds of the night sky. However, when I'm under a clear night sky and I can witness the awesome beauty of our galaxy, I'm overwhelmed about the sheer size and scope of existence. Sometimes (but not always), I get an extreme sense of anxiety because the night sky reminds me that Earth is simply one small rock of billions floating around stars. The universe often feels like a chaotic place, where natural forces determine the destiny of us all. The feeling of dread when one contemplates their own cosmic insignificance is fairly universal. It fuels and drives us all. Some go mad under the weight of it, some are driven to unusual and dogmatic doctrines, while others choose to stifle this dread in blissful ignorance. I think this anxiety of awareness, the dread of knowing that I am just a minuscule part of a cosmic play that may or may not have meaning, drives me to stories. Stories can offer escape, but more often offer something more valuable: psychological sublimation. I can sublimate this dread into a story which has a definitive temporal framework. Stories begin, have middles, and end. Within the temporal framework, there is always a high degree of control. Regardless of the medium, the story is always within tight control of the story's author/director. In this way, the end of a story is always a foregone conclusion, a representation of a type of imaginary determinism one where the audience scribes a character's illusory freewill.  
    This gets me to Sherlock Holmes and the narrative of the detective. To understand Holmes, we must first ask, what is a detective? A detective, as defined by the dictionary is: "a member of the police force or private investigator whose function is to obtain information and evidence, as of offenses against the law" (http://www.dictionary.com/browse/detective). To put it differently, a detective brings justice to right injustice by collecting verifiable data gathered scientifically (evidence) which will stand up under intense scrutiny (a court of law). A detective brings order to chaos. When a crime is committed, the victim has fallen to the chaotic elements of human society. No one chooses to be victimized by crime, and often times the victim is simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Out of the chaotic event, the detective analyzes the situation, looks for evidence in precise and exact details, and brings order to the situation. Based off of the evidence, a determination is made about who perpetrated the crime and an arrest is made. If the detective did his/her job correctly, the evidence will lead to the criminal's punishment in the form of a conviction in court. Out of the chaos of the crime, comes order. Sherlock Holmes is a fascinating character, one whose brilliance has entertained generations of people. But I would surmise that it is his ability to bring order to chaos that gives him such a longstanding and widespread appeal. The interpretation of Holmes is very diverse, but what prevails in every iteration is his ability to see clues where others cannot. He effortlessly sees order where everyone else sees chaos, and it has fascinated audiences since the 19th century. 
    So remember the next time you feel small, it's because you are. But that's ok. Chaos is so intermingled with order that even a drug addicted genius can become the greatest detective in popular culture. I don't pretend to have any answers to the great questions that accompany humans on our journey through this thing called existence. But chaos is manageable, and from the utterly unpredictable there comes predictable, just as in the eye of a hurricane. Perhaps detective stories live in that calm, reassuring all of us that knowledge can bring justice to the unjust.    
    

Princess: Blowing up the template

A companion piece to The Midnight Myth episode 2: Princess Theory. Written by Laurel Hostak.

Princess is a complicated word for me. I was raised on the Disney animated classics, and I love them. I looked up to Belle and Ariel and Jasmine. It was very important to me to see these beautiful, charming women who were more than just their looks. Belle is smart, she reads. Ariel is curious, she seeks out adventure and questions authority. Jasmine is restless, she longs for autonomy. But at the end of the day, these were love stories. They were about scoring the handsome prince (or peasant) who might give her what she's missing. I think of Shakespeare's comedic cross-dressing heroines--Viola of Twelfth Night, Rosalind of As You Like It. Those girls ride off into the sunset with a handsome hubby too. But does anybody really think the self-involved men of those stories are going to keep such headstrong, resourceful women satisfied? Are they going to settle down and be good little wives?

Looking back, with all the Bechdel-test-failing, romance-obsessed, two-dimensionality of those Disney princesses, it's important to remember that they're actually an improvement on some of the earlier ladies. I'm looking at Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora. I'm not trying to shit on any of these movies, they're from a different time and they were absolutely revolutionary in terms of their technical and visual achievements. Creating realistic and fully dimensional characters wasn't necessarily priority numero uno for the company pioneering cel animation in feature films. Hats are, and will always be, off to you, extremely talented artists and technicians. But it's been a long road to gender equity in storytelling, and there's still so much work to be done.

Obviously, Disney didn't invent princesses. But the word "princess" and Disney are inextricably linked in modern culture--it's hard to think of one without thinking of the other. And the thought takes you to familiar images. Ball gowns. Tiaras. Sparkles. Bows. Ponies. Pink. They are the ultimate study in femininity. They are, for too many young girls, the definition of female.

This is why Princess Leia is important to me. I first saw Star Wars when I was maybe seven or eight. She's the first face we see, and she's on a reconnaissance mission, wielding a blaster on a ship full of armored imperial dudes. She wears a modest white dress, a symbol of her purity. She talks back to the big guy. Leia's utmost allegiance is to the rebellion. She is here to shut you down. She is here to blow up the patriarchy. She happens to be a princess.

I don't think it's a mistake that the details of Leia's royalty are pretty scant. It doesn't really come up too much over the course of the films. She is Princess Leia and that's that. We do see her consistently assume responsibility in any situation. She shows extraordinary leadership, from her "don't just stand there, find something to brace it with" moment in the trash compactor to the Battle of Hoth, where the rebel general defers to her authority. She is the most important person in any room. But is that because of the title? I don't think so. I think Leia would be who she is with or without the hypothetical crown. The title isn't for her--it's for me.

After Carrie Fisher's death, Twitter user @anne_theriault posted a stream of tweets explaining her belief that "General Organa was Carrie Fisher's Most Important Role." It's a beautiful tribute, and I don't disagree. Anne writes "She's not young. Not wearing a gold bikini or a robe. She's dressed to do what she's been training her whole life to do: lead the rebellion." If you want to hear me pick apart the objectification of women in the Star Wars universe, I can do that. I could discuss the slave bikini until the sun blows up. And I could go on for days about poor George Lucas decisions. But I'd argue that calling her Princess Leia was a good one, and that title means something really powerful to me.

I've read a lot of Czech fairy tales and legends in exploring my national heritage, and it strikes me how many of them center around princesses. And these are not just king's daughters who pine for true love and go to royal balls. These are girls who rule countries, unite warring tribes, and outwit the devil himself. Studying these stories has made me realize that the word Princess means different things to different cultures.

The simplest definition: the daughter of a king and queen

The American definition: the beautiful daughter of a king and queen, who embodies quiet femininity and probably requires the love of a prince to reach her full potential; also a derogatory term for an effeminate male or a spoiled young woman

The Czech definition: the daughter of a king and queen, who has serious power

There's a petition circulating these days (I first saw it on Nerdist) to make Princess Leia an official Disney princess. At first I was kind of tickled but not particularly interested in signing it. It kind of reminded me of posthumous canonization. A symbolic gesture, but would it mean anything to me? Probably not. Yet as I write this, I find myself wanting to seek out that petition and add my name. To see my blaster-wielding, force-sensitive, leader-of-the-resistance, haver of the tumultuous, epic love affair with Han Solo (because sometimes women really can have it all!) heroine alongside an ever-growing, ever-diversifying cast of fierce females would be significant. It would help to expand the definition of princess.

Create your amazing female character. Give her a blaster. Or let her wear pants. AND a dress. Let her sparkle if she wants or command rebel armies if she wants. She can even do both and it's not a contradiction (Princess Bubblegum, anyone?)! Figure out who she is and THEN call her a princess. That's how we rewrite--or maybe even destroy the template. Blow it up like the Death Star. That's how we change the definition. That's how Princess Leia did it.

Villains, Podcasting, and Elections

    Podcasting has been on my radar for awhile. When I first learned of the medium, I instantly knew that I would one day start my own. I have a background in audio, from years of being a unsuccessful punk and hard core drummer, I love to write, and I love the sound of my own voice. Doing a podcast seemed like the natural culmination of my previous creative endeavors. It wasn't until I met Laurel, when I realized that making a podcast was do-able. In Laurel, I met my ultimate partner, someone who's intelligence and talent challenged me while simultaneously being the most supportive partner, friend, and lover any man has ever had. Together, we both love stories, and believe that stories have to power to influence, mold, and change our lives. Life often feels like one is a log floating down a vast and rock laden river, with no guarantee that the current will avoid smashing us into oblivion. To me, a good story is the lifeline that helps me steer through the rocky current of life. It keeps me from hitting the rocks, and when I inevitably falter and find myself off course, it's stories that get me back on track. I'm also a student of history and everything I'll talk about in this podcast will have that filter on it. A great work of history blends finding the fundamental causal veracity of human events with a narrative prose that delights the imagination as much as it feeds the intellect. A historian is equal parts philosopher, detective, and story teller. Each part of a story is tied to it's other parts-- there is no beginning without a middle and an end-- in the same way human events are linked to our history. In this respect, I believe understanding stories, who tells them, how they tell them, and when they tell them, gives us a unique insight into ourselves. To the best of my knowledge, all human societies have had storytellers to impart wisdom, delight and inspire imagination, cathartically help cope with loss, and help us remember why we are the way we are.
    So this first episode is about villains, and Laurel and I were inspired by the 2016 US presidential elections. As we watched Democrats and Republicans make the case to the American people to vote for their candidate, one thing became increasingly clear: no matter who won, one side believed the other was villainous. President Elect Trump made the case that Clinton's life was one of exploitation and self-aggrandizement at the expense of the American people. Meanwhile, Clinton made the case that Trump was a womanizing narcissistic businessman who could not be trusted with the power of office. This left me asking, who was the villain in the story of the 2016 election? I started doing some reading on how a villain is constructed in melodramatic story telling. The melodramatic villain is signaled to the audience by a visual or audio cue, such as a man in black twirling his mustache to dark music. But it isn't enough to look or sound evil, a villain has to have some type of action that hurts someone or something. In other words, the audience only knows who the villain is when they have a victim, a person or persons caught in the villains path. The victim's suffering makes way for a hero to avenge and right the wrong done by the villain. The hero can sometimes also be the victim, who in the face of suffering takes matter's into their own hands and restores balance by defeating the villain. But in all cases, it's the villain's actions of hurting another that calls the hero into action. Think of it like a triangle, with the hero at the top of the triangle, connected to both the villain and the victim. Every story doesn't follow this exactly; sometimes there are anti-heroes (like Tony Soprano from HBO's the Soprano's or Alex, from A Clockwork Orange). But most stories adhere to this basic principle on some core level. Looking back at 2016, it became clear to me that Donald Trump was able to create this kind of a narrative. Trump argued that Clinton was a villain, a selfish establishment political force, and the victim was the American people. Trump argued that Clinton, as the ultimate face of Washington elites, had allowed American jobs to disappear. Trump time and again reiterated that America was losing because of Clinton and those like her, making him the hero that could avenge the victimized American people. He did this so effectively, that his base of supporters stuck with him despite many political gaffs, allegations of misconduct, and evidence of avoiding taxes (to name just a few). It was precisely this rhetoric of melodramatic villainy that helped him carve a path to the White House.
    One final thought: elections are complex and I'm not an expert on politics. Sometimes villains look the part, other times it isn't clear who the bad guy really is. All of us get it wrong from time to time. I'm not trying to argue that Trump was right or that Clinton was right (just to be transparent with those of you reading my blog, I voted for Clinton). I think what matters is that understanding stories can help with navigating the complexity of political rhetoric. Thinking critically takes practice, and it's important in all aspects of life.