October 24, 2012

Breach of Social Contract

As long as we're back in essay mode again, I thought it was time for a slightly "headier" one. See, as much as I love talking about fun stuff like Aliens or Transformers on this site, it's just not as important as some of what's going on in the "real" world. God, that word leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Unfortunately, I've now seen all of the Presidential Debates between incumbent Barack "Everybody Chill the Hell Out, I Know Math" Obama, and Mitt "Makin This Up As I Go While Armed With Money and Binders of Women" Romney. While we're at it, I also took the time to watch the Vice-Presidential Debate between Joe "That's a Bunch of Stuff and Malarkey" Biden and Paul "The Fountainhead Shrugged When I Told My Party Leader to Shut Up" Ryan. Yeesh. If I were feeling diplomatic, I'd describe the events as filibuster-like bouts of political give and take. But I'm NOT so I'll call them what they are: public demonstrations of the reasons I continue to self-identify as a misanthrope. Yeah, we're going there.

By now, the subtlety with which I have lampooned each of the candidates should have tipped off many of you that I have a...oh, let's call it "bias" towards the left wing of American politics. Of course, if you've read any of my posts prior to this one, you should have figured that out by now, but for the newbies here: I definitely do consider myself to be "liberal" on the binary switch that is American political ideologies. But that very duality, my dear readers, will form the subject of today's post. For you see, I think I understand a little better why it is we consistently fail to come together as a people and make this world the shining place many believe it can be. From where I stand, it all stems from a common misunderstanding about human social nature. Most people would categorize us as "Social Animals", and that's essentially accurate. The trouble is we are best classified as "Tribal Animals", but...

We Don't Accept Our Tribal Nature 

I imagine a few definitions will be required to flesh this out a bit, so let me start from there. Social Animals are, to my understanding, animals that typically act as and within a group of their own species to ensure the continued survival of both the individuals of the group and the group as a whole. This is behavior typically exemplified in many kinds of organisms on Earth up to and including Chimpanzees, Ants, Buffalo, Geese, Wolves, Bees, and a myriad of others. This definition absolutely includes Human beings, but, as some of the more zoologically inclined among you may have noticed, not all those animals I mentioned are social animals in the smae way.

Ants and bees fit into a category of social organism often referred to as Eusocial, from the greek root "eu" meaning "good/proper" or "true/real". They get this definition from the way that they act not as a group of individuals, but as ONE individual entity with independently functioning pieces. None, save for a leader organism (often a matriarch in the form of a queen), have any indepenent "will" that guides their behavior, and all effort is directed towards the maintenance of the whole at the expense of any individuals. In this model, no one organism matters as the success of their "society" is dependent on the continued existence of the whole "hive" and nothing more. Obviously, humans (as a species) do not fit this pattern, but we'll return to this soon, so keep it in mind.

Now geese and buffalo, on the other hand, absolutely strive for the protection of the individual, but do so by relying on a "safety in numbers" method of group behavior. The "Herd Social" organisms of the world function, not like a hive, but rather as individuals that share a space and each finds a niche where they can live out a relatively unmolested existence. The social aspect comes in when a situation arises that potentially threatens the herd. If any individual raises the alarm, the rest will follow suit and respond appropriately; i.e. they will all run away or stand their ground as a group to ensure the survival of as many as possible. In many respects, human civilization seems to follow this pattern; the majority don't claim direct responsibility for any other individual and we react as groups to threats to our space or existence by rising to one aid. Pretty close, I agree, but still not quite right. For our answer we look to chimps and wolves: we are "Tribe Social".

Tribalism is basically the form of social living where a given individual lives amongst others of its species where there are strict boundaries set around which others are part of its social circle. The "pack" or "mob", if you will, forms the social unit in question. Often, there is an associated "Alpha" (not always, but often male) who "leads" the tribe by maintaining a strict hierarchy within it of who is permitted to mate, or eat, or enjoy other social liberties within the tribe. This leadership is often absolute, but changes when a challenger of sufficient strength (as defined by the tribe's collective perception of strength) "usurps" the current alpha and takes his/her place as head of the tribe. Additionally, the tribe works as a whole (under the alpha's guidance of course) to expand territory, acquire food and other resources, and protect the community from various dangers...including other tribes.

Yes, the other defining feature of a tribe, that sets it apart from a herd or hive, is that tribes DO NOT MIX WELL. The contact of one tribe by another is either stringently avoided or results, nigh-inevitably, in open conflict or war. Tribes don't get along very well, and under the alpha's guidance, tribes will often fight for the right to control territory, resources, access to mates, and security. Sounding familiar to anyone else? Sounding at all like our democratic process? Obviously, we often choose to dress up our tribal behaviors in the guise of something "civilized" by holding debates, elections, and "campaigning" for resources rather than outright fighting over them; but make no mistake, we are tribal creatures through and through. Besides, we regularly (as a species and a nation) engage in actual violent conflict with other "tribes" for a variety of reasons. The debates between our various candidates represents nothing more or less (to me) than the head-butting of tribal Alphas, campaigning on behalf of tribes labeled as "Democrat" or "Republican" by their various constituents. Millions of Americans align themselves with a tribe and root for "their alpha" to "win" the debate, and therefore gain some sort of claim over the way the nation will progress.

But don't think that we're only tribal at this scale; look at ANY classroom and you'll see the exact same behavior in the form of cliques and circles of friends at any age. To those who would say "my clique/circle doesn't have an Alpha", look carefully, and you'll see that it most assuredly does...it just might not be YOU. In fact, it might not be a proper "human" at all. Sometimes an image or an ideal is sufficient. The punk movement has no organization, but it has beliefs that guide its members. And even in those circumstances, "leaders" inevitably rise who embody the movement. Civil Rights in the US had no nominal official leader, but I'll be damned if someone tries to make the case that people like Dr. King or Malcolm X don't fill that role handily.

This pattern exists at virtually every level of human social gathering that I can think of. Left-wing, right-wing, liberal, conservative, libertarian, socialist, indepenedent, academic, gamer, musician, religious, graduating class, sports-fan, fan-boy, fan-girl, neighborhood (sometimes down to the building!), city, town, state, country, skin color, hair color, height, weight, straight, gay, bisexual, male, female, cat-people, dog-people, lizard-people, and COUNTLESS others all form the basis, for good or ill, for tribalism amongst us. It's actually so imbedded in our nature, that we are often multi-tribal. I know I've identified in my life as many things that all have a "tribe" with an "alpha" who is them-self part of multiple other tribes. In some cases, I have even been the alpha myself. It's nothing to be ashamed of, but it's essential that we pay attention to and remain aware of this behavior. Why? Glad you asked.

So much of our time on this Earth, as a species, is spent looking for a tribe to belong to. Most of us don't need to be an "alpha" of our tribe, just a constituent. But in our quest to find the tribe (or tribes) that that we fit, something weird always happens: we deny that tribal nature and attempt to dress up our world in something more "pleasing". Let me give you a couple examples: recall the definition of the Eusocial Animals - the ones that live in a hive that exists solely to serve the hive itself with no regard for the needs of any individual. Sound anything like Fascism to you? It ought to. The Nazis called themselves "National Socialists", implying that they are a nation of individuals who serve their Nation absolutely. I can almost hear the buzzing. And yeah, their "queen's" mustache, alone, was grounds for re-thinking that idea.

Look at the Communist party of virtually any nation that has attempted to build their infrastructure around its tenets. Communism itself is essentially an attempt at Herd Social behavior. Think of the mantra of the Communist party: "From each according to his ability, and to each according to his need". Sound like the mutual protection of all with no specific elevation of any one? Sound like life in the herd? I, at least, think so. Essentially, the mantra asks that each individual contribute to the heard without being individually responsible for the herd as a whole. In cases of protection, we fight or flee as one, but otherwise we simply carry on.

Of course the problem with that is that you can already see how another form of Herd Social behavior can arise as a direct consequence of that "live and let be" model: Reaganomics! What's more "herd" than simply leaving everyone alone entirely and letting them "do as they please" while simply coming together for a war? I can almost hear Ayn Rand nodding in approval. Under these terms, the new herd is one where some in the herd are doing VASTLY better than others, but still expect the compliance of the rest of the herd. How could this be expected to last? It couldn't!

Which brings us, at last, to the 2012 election. It almost seems like we're finally in a situation where we can embrace our tribal nature. Two parties: one red, one blue (a sign of tribalism if there ever was one), fighting it out for Alpha-status over both tribes. But alas, it is not to be. The governing principle of the last two (if not three) election cycles that I can observe is this notion of "reaching across the aisle". Especially in this election, there seems to be a concerted effort on the part of both candidates to work on a "bipartisan" level. In essence, both tribal alphas are fighting over who could peaceably unite both tribes the best. All I can say to that is: WE ARE NOT A HERD! Although the average American would probably never admit it, we don't want to reach across the aisle. We want the other side of the aisle to shut up and stay down. We want to bludgeon the opposition into submission so that "our side's alpha" can lead us onward. In our heart of hearts, we want, nay, need conflict. And why shouldn't we? It's in our very nature.

No generation on the planet has managed to grow up without a major war as the single most powerful cultural influence of their time; no one gets through life without establishing boundaries and pushing against the boundaries of others in the name of progress (high-school  anyone?). But this, I submit to you, is not a flaw in the human condition...merely its natural expression. See, while it might be uncomfortable to admit it, the peace and harmony of "reaching across the aisle" doesn't get us anywhere. I've watched the "bipartisan" politicians utterly fail to achieve anything. Obama can't get things done because he can't garner the support of the Republicans AND Democrats alike. Congress can't ever pass a decent law that would make any noticeable progress in our lives because they can't do anything without compromise. Harmony, however comfortable or ideal it may be, is stagnation and mediocrity. Conflict, at it's core, is our life.

With the elections just around the corner, I just want to remind everyone to PLEASE go and cast your vote. We may not have this whole thing down perfectly, but nothing improves without the participation of its tribe in the social order. This promises to be a very divisive election, so please make sure to contribute to this very important conflict. With any luck, we will see some improvement.

Happy voting.

I'm Trevor and that's my Frame of Mind.

October 1, 2012

Transform, and Sell Out

Ok. So it's been a while since I've gotten something more traditionally "Me" on this site so I think it's time for a return to form. I know some of you are expecting my Post-Con entry, and I assure you it is coming, but I have something special in mind for it that will take some more time. Don't worry...the further away from Con we get, the more cold water I feel justified in pouring over it (spoiler alert). I can virtually guarantee you'll like it (spoiler alert).

What, you might ask, do I have in mind then? Well, I may not have Dragon*Con to complain about right now, but that doesn't mean I can't get in my two cents in (which in this economy will be worth far less than two cents by the time this goes live) about something else relating to my beloved "Geek Culture" world. So then, let's get down to business, eh? I've got a bone to pick with the people responsible for bringing one-time Nerds-only icons into the larger popular culture. See, I've been speeding down memory lane by going over cartoons and such from my childhood (read: the 80's and 90's) and I think I've finally nailed why so much of what has emerged lately just doesn't sit right with me. Put succinctly:

Even Products Have a “Soul”

Of all the many, MANY, icons of my childhood that I've been re-consuming rabidly, one of the most important and often misunderstood by both geek and pop culture is The Transformers. No, stop! Do not close that browser window! Yes I know they're basically just toys and toy commercials. I also know that you probably can guess where I'm about to go with this. Maybe you can't or simply don't care. Either way: patience, grasshopper. Patience.

Since the last decade has only provided me Michael Bay’s incarnation of the property alongside a couple newer, well-meaning-but-empty cartoon iterations, I’d been craving some of the old-school version. To that end I've been watching the first two seasons of The Transformers cartoon from the early 80’s known as the G1 Transformers. I fully expected it to be pretty pathetic compared to the rose-tinting of my memories, and I was partially right about that. I have so many fond memories of the characters and their antics, and I still treasure those memories. I went into this stroll down memory lane confident that whatever flaws I found in the show (and make no mistake, they are there), I’d still cherish those positive associations. However, as I got through the first season and switched over to the second, a funny thing happened: I didn’t feel the rose tinting dissipate. In fact, I felt my fondness for the show and it’s “shtick” grow.

And then another strange feeling; I instantly knew what it was that got to me about their recent transition into modern world, and specifically with the recent movie adaptations. Michael Bay has made, as of this writing, three Transformers movies in live-action using CGI robots, and a fourth is currently in the works. All three of them worked in many of the classic G1 Transformers I’d expected along with some of the original iconography of the show. All three were sprawling epics depicting explosive battles and near constant action. All three were box-office mega-hits grossing billions of dollars. And all three of them…how shall I put this….SUCKED!

Don’t get riled up…if you personally enjoyed them, then good for you. You’re wrong, but good for you. All kidding aside, there were some definite bright spots to the “Bayformer” movies, and I confess to having enjoyed some of the blatant fan-baiting this franchise has managed to crowbar into the script and sets. Unfortunately, that’s actually the problem: in attempting to make something to appease its fan-base (i.e. people like me who grew up on them) and make it marketable to a wider less devoted audience, they can’t do anything but pander while basically tossing out everything that made Transformers what it was. In essence, they managed to (mostly) replicate the body of the work, but left out the “soul” of it that gave personality and meaning.

Those who would (rightly) point out that Transformers is, was, and always will be a toy commercial with an overly-elaborate budget should keep in mind that this kind of “simplicity” actually gives writers and directors a good deal of creative freedom to create the “product” in imaginative and intelligent ways. Look underneath the hood (get it? Car joke? No? Fine, I’ll stop this now) and you’ll find a pretty well thought out show with well realized characters and a consistent moral and philosophical infrastructure.

As a small-ish example of this, let’s look at the way the Autobots and Decepticons (the two opposing forces, for those who still haven’t clicked the link above) are depicted as teams. The Autobots function as a sort of Arthurian democracy where their well-respected and beloved leader rules absolutely, but with compassion, and who maintains a healthy respect for his “subjects” and there contributions throughout their struggles. The Decepticons, on the other hand, would seem to operate under a similar structure, but their leader is a megalomaniacal tyrant who inspires his team, not to cooperate, but to betray him and each other at least once per episode; often to the detriment of their mutual goal. See what they’re saying here? Heroism is achieved by unity under a respectful and thoughtful leader, while villainy is ultimately its own downfall due to the failure of its leadership to achieve that unity. That’s pretty deep for a toy commercial, wouldn’t you say?

So if a commercial can make philosophical statements with just its setting and characterization, why is it that a multi-million dollar special-effects laden spectacular has to boil down to a story about a suburban teenager trying to get laid? Seriously, if you haven’t noticed, the plot of all three of these movies is basically “how do I get into Meagan Fox’s (and eventually Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s) pants?” repeated ad-nauseum, while occasionally being interrupted by some explosions caused by giant robots. Well, it’s because the G1’s were basically a cult phenomenon (slightly bigger, I’ll grant, given the legions of followers; we…er….they are called “Trans-fans”), and cult phenomena don’t sell enough movie-tickets. So the solution: use the images, language, and iconography of the old show (the easiest pieces to replicate – even I could design an Optimus Prime themed website, for example) and swap out the infrastructure for something broad and pleasing to allow for greater audience reach. The results speak for themselves.

Any of you who haven’t had their heads in the ground while reading this will know that I am absolutely for inclusivity in all things, and that absolutely applies to the franchises I love. So why does the obviously far-reaching approach to Bay’s Transformers bug me so much? You’d think that this would be a form of that ideal made into reality. Well, unfortunately, it isn’t. Because inclusivity is not about making people like what you like. It’s about allowing people to discover why they like it, too. Exposing new audiences to Transformers is a good idea; great even, by my standards. Doing it by removing the thing that made it a phenomenon in the first place so that more people will be “convinced” they like it? Not so much. That’s not inclusivity at work; it’s just pandering. Moreover, it yields an entirely different product than the original. In essence, Bay’s Transformers is NOT The Transformers of my childhood. It’s something new, masquerading under the marketable name of The Transformers. This isn’t a problem in-and-of itself, but it will ultimately just disappoint people like me who have built up an expectation over the years and simply mislead “new fans” by offering something completely unlike what is claimed to have inspired it.

Just to prove that it can be done properly, look at Marvel’s The Avengers. Tons of fan-service, lots of flashy special effects and gorgeous actors (seriously…I don’t care what your sexual orientation is, that’s one hot team) all designed and marketed to invoke the world of the comic books that inspired them. What did they do right? They didn’t toss out the underlying principles and ideas that made them The Avengers. Instead, they tossed out the specific details and minutiae from the comics. Any comic book fan will tell you that the fine details don’t resemble any of the Avengers books with much fidelity. Sure, the heroes themselves are visually recognizable as their comic counterparts, but the reason that works is that they feel like the heroes from the books. They speak and behave like The Avengers rather than like walking monuments to a previous incarnation of the same name. The story isn’t actually much like any of the canon that I know, but it feels like an Avengers story just the same. Pandering iconography like the Tesseract (or The Cosmic Cube, for you fans out there) or the tease at the end (which I won’t spoil) are all present, but they work because that “soul” remains that keeps the whole enterprise grounded and coherent. Now that’s how it’s done.

So if anyone else out there reading this hopes to bring some vestige of my childhood to the world at large, just keep this in mind: everything (commercial, art, or both) has something like a “soul” that defines it. Those things also have their distinctive looks, language, and icons, but that soul is the most important part to understand. If Transformers doesn’t feel like Transformers, your job wasn’t done right. And remember, lackluster or uninspired source material isn’t a license to “not care” about or disregard that soul. One of the most successful films of the last decade was about a billionaire who dresses up like a flying, rodent-like mammal and beats up a criminal in clown make-up because his mommy died. It can always be done.

I’m not saying you “shouldn’t” enjoy something like the Bayformer movies and I'm also not suggesting that these two new groups of fans can't get along or even unite. But I am asking that we take a moment to consider that real inclusivity and real outreach means giving others a chance to discover the thing it is, not the thing it was marketed to be. You might find something great, but at the very least, you’ll have learned something more about yourself in the process: this just isn’t for me.

Well, I hope you've enjoyed this return to my over-crowded mind.  It's good to be back.  Given the subject matter, I suppose there's really only one thing left to say: ‘Til all are one!

I’m Trevor, and that’s my Frame of Mind.