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.