Ends, Means and the Arbitrary Execution of Power

My sister used to like to, as a sort of coup-fourré of any argument, snap “So, you’re saying the end justifies the means.”

It stumped me for a while, because everyone knows the ends don’t justify the means. But then I realized she had reframed the argument in the wrong way, and began to retort, “The means don’t require justification!” What I had realized was that she didn’t like the ends, and was attacking the means rather than just coming right out and saying she didn’t like the ends. (Sometimes she also didn’t like the means, because she really didn’t much like it when I did anything.)
I thought of this while I was driving and, as many of us do, wondering about whether I might be pulled over. I wasn’t doing anything wrong I don’t think. I wasn’t speeding, hadn’t done any reckless lane changes. I was driving the Bumblebee, which may not be compliant with all the laws. (I recently had to outfit it with a new catalytic converter to pass a smog test.)
And it reminded me of something Althouse said a while ago that appalled me: She said that universally applying the law would be horrible. I think she even used traffic laws as an example.
I, on the other hand, tend to view universal application to be a necessary requirement for justice and reasonable governance. Speed limit laws? If they were universally applied, they’d quickly be (mostly) repealed. And so it is with, I think, most of the laws—particularly “regulations”, which are of course just laws that have been passed in violation of the way the Constitution allows—would go away were they all enforced.
What this means is that the government gets to pick-and-choose who to prosecute, allowing for the arbitrary exercise of power. This is often done for political reasons, but it’s also just done because it can be.
This is particularly relevant in light of the recent James O’Keefe case, where he was prosecuted for doing what has been standard practice in journalism for as long as I can remember. Burying the lede about Senator Landrieu’s lying, the old media completely unselfconsciously is labeling O’Keefe a “criminal” and an “activist” for doing what they’ve been doing since I was born.
It’s such a dog-bites-man story these days that it’s barely worth noticing, much like the old media itself. “It’s only okay when we do it,” they’re telling us.
But this itself made me reflect on the phrase “the end justifies the means”, and how the thinking of that is meant to be the very epitome of evil.
But when you think about it, the intended end is the only thing that can rationalize any means. I mean, think about it: You suffer many injustices in your day-to-day life, don’t you? (I know I do. Well, maybe not many, but enough.) But you don’t (e.g.) fly a plane into the nearest Federal building because they ripped you off on your taxes.
OK, some people do, but we call them crazy, even if we agree they were poorly treated.
People always end up talking about Nazis when this ends/means thing comes up. But the Nazis had no trouble with the means—the means were, in fact, the point. The end was what was hazy. “We’ll kill all the Jews and life will be great!” Hitler sure didn’t believe that. He thought actually achieving that end would be awful and require him to make up a new target.
Stalin and Mao killed tens of millions. In their cases, the means actually were the ends. Yeah, I know all the blather about justice and immanetizing the eschaton and what-not, but the point of communism (and socialism and environmentalism and fascism) is raw, naked power which is what any dictator ends up with. Power and the ability to continue to exercise it.
(Sort of tangentially related, Matt & Ezra’s Excellent Adventure continues unspoiled. One of them is bound to win the Walter Duranty Award for Oustandingly Naive Journalism.)
Nothing really revelational here, I just always find it interesting when I end up analyzing something I’ve assumed for years and found it not to be all that true.

Games and Life

“Nice civilization you’re building for someone else there.”

Freeman Hunt forwarded me this (somewhat hard to read) set of notes from the G4C conference. (There’s an interesting story about Zynga and real-life donations on that G4C link. I’ve been studying Zynga for a while and have a post brewing about it.)

As I was reading it, I thought of the above quote, which I read on the Apolyton forums years ago, regarding the game Civilization. Some poor sap had developed this gorgeous civilization powered by art and culture (Civ 3 introduced the ability to conquer cities via culture) and was fretting because the cretins around him—with their pathetic attempts at art—had instead built up massive armies of guys with pointed sticks.

He was dismayed that all his culture and education was threatened by some barely literate clods still in the Stupid Ages.

And what I wondered at that point is whether or not the popularity of the computer strategy game might not have a profound impact on people’s philosophies regarding the nature of war.

As noted in the pseudo-transcript above, games are models, and they have some limited value in their real-life application. Civ 3 was very good at emulating historical trends (at least as we perceive them from here, which is very skewed, but that’s another story) such that industrialism, nationalism and treaties would almost always lead to massive world wars.

This, by the way, feeds into my prejudice about computer climate models. Civilization does a better job “predicting” the past than climate models do (but an awful job predicting the future).

But whatever the limitations, there is one thing that is true in every strategy game: The surest way to invite war is to not develop militarily.

The motivations are (one would hope) not exactly the same: Strategy games tend to be zero sum. If you conquer the world in Civ with a bunch of rock-wielding cavemen, well, you’ve still conquered the world. The game ends at that point, with you victoriously ruling the stone ages.

Nonetheless, it only takes one guy—one Attila or Genghis or Napoleon—to convince his people that, yeah, they pretty much should be running the show, to turn a bunch of weakly defended countries into fuel for a war machine.

Peace (for you) is only assured by being substantially stronger than the other guys.

Another interesting evolution in the Civ games is that while you may be hated if you’re very powerful, people will act nice to your face. If you’re weak, you’ll be openly loathed, extorted and eventually conquered.

It’s not just Civilization, though: Every 4x game I can think of (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) has the same basic rule. If you want peace, you have to make war an unpleasant prospect for others.

The modern 4X game is only about 15 years old, and Civilization not quite 20, but it’s not hard to imagine that the lessons they teach might have an impact in coming years.

Bill Whittle on Charity

I’m always impressed by people who admit to their own foolishness in the kind of gory detail Bill Whittle does here. You can argue that it’s self-serving, since he’s talking how he recovered from his youthful foolishness, but he doesn’t really talk about how wonderful he is. He just stops being a jackass (at least in this regard).

But there’s an underlying truth: Charity is the quickest way to get someone to hate you. Nobody hates the gol-durned government like people on welfare. If you ever helped someone a lot and then had them turn on you, you know what I’m talking about. (Or if you’ve ever been that person.)

No good deed goes unpunished, as they say.

Whether it’s because private charities have understood that in some fashion, or because they simply can’t afford to give out endless streams of cash, it’s been traditional for charities to require something back from those they help.

Parents run into this, too: Because kids want to help before they’re capable, the parents get used to refusing that help, and by the time they’re teens, the kids are so pissed they wouldn’t help put the house out if it’s on fire.

Not that this is going to change anything. But it would be nice to reverse this persistent equation that if you don’t want to pour endless money into a problem, you don’t care about that problem

Sonnets and Hosannas

As I grow old(er), I tend to be more convinced of the correctness of core traditional values, but equally so of the correctness of limited government. Hector and I have wrestled over religion before but for right now, I believe that the current Church is too enervated to roll back the tide of libertine-ism.

And, I should note, I’m not really anti-libertine-ism. I think there are probably some people who do the least damage they’re likely to do if left to pursue their own self-gratification.

It just seems to be lacking as a social survival strategy.

I was taken by the use of this sonnet in Adventureland. (Shakespeare’s sonnets are like the “Twilight Zone"s of poetry, they always have a twist ending.) You may recall that the main character sites this sonnet as the reason for his virginity; to wit, that he decided he’d rather forgo sex than have it with someone he didn’t want to be slave to her desires. (My favorite, by the way, has always been sonnet #130, which I take as a 16th century "FACE” to other poets.)

Now, it’s probably not a good idea to encourage kids to pattern their romantic lives after the poetry of 16th century courtiers, much less said courtiers’ actual lives. But it occurred to me that a possible secular solution to licentiousness might be self-esteem.

But wait, you cry! Schools focus on self-esteem! If this were to be true, wouldn’t our children already be experiencing the benefits?

At which suggestion, I point and laugh. And then feel a little bad for you that you don’t know what self-esteem really is, or that it can’t be given through trophies or awards, but must come from actual accomplishment.

Anyway, lacking a connection to their history, lacking any real knowledge or skills, young adults end up not valuing themselves. What’s more, without getting puritanical or priggish, they don’t seem to know from junk.

Now, again, I’m not particularly anti-junk. But I think a steady diet of junk food, junk art, junk accomplishments is naturally going to lead to junk sex, junk jobs and a complete bafflement as to what the hell happened–how one ended up with a junk life.

In Adventureland, the lead has a sense of not wanting his life to be junk. And it’s telling (and accurate, I think) that those around him particularly mock him for those things that he values. (You know, you can’t really be mocked for something you don’t care about, which if you think about it, puts a different spin on a lot of “comedy” today.)

Adventureland is cast in the mold of an ‘80s teen sex farce, which only gave a fleeting nod (at best) to anything not junk. (They were junk, after all.) But that atmosphere pervaded the ’70s, and into the mid-’80s, when AIDS put a damper on things.

Not just sex, either. If I were to try to capture that atmosphere, it would be a kind of nihilistic, materialistic, hedonistic world where good acts of individuals were overpowered by evil organizations. “If only,” the zeitgeist seemed to say, “there were no religions or corporations, we could all live in harmony and do what we wanted until we died, because that’s all there is or ever will be.”

It’s a seductive philosophy–I mean that in the way that a Twinkie is seductive or a $10 whore: That is, if you’re trained to simply take the quickest, easiest, fastest way to satisfy an urge–or worse, you don’t even have an inkling that there is another way, then the conclusion seems logical. Inevitable.

So, the extraordinary thing is how people immersed in this do end up valuing things that the pervasive social message says they should not. It wouldn’t surprise me to survey kids like that and find real accomplishments compared to their peers. (I don’t, by the way, mean to draw any kind of absolute there.) How does someone like James end up the way he does? And how is he able to stick to his guns? (I actually think the current system puts women at a serious disadvantage sexually, but that’s another topic for another day.)

It also wouldn’t surprise me to find that a strong education with an emphasis on historical traditions and an increasing emphasis on skills would reduce the amount of junk sex, and certainly the number of junk lives.

Which makes this one of those things that I write that seems stupidly obvious by the time I finish.

Perverse Optimism

As things get crazier and crazier in Washington D.C., I find myself more and more compelled toward the libertarian optimism I discussed here. Admittedly, yes, it’s partly because the alternative is grim.

But the level of debt our President has just thrust upon us is unsustainable. We can’t pay it off. Can’t. Without confiscatory tax rates. (I give the Founding Fathers a lot of credit for what they knew could happen; I somehow wonder if it occurred to them that our leaders would simply destroy the economy to get what they wanted.) I think–I hope–it’s too big a bite. I think we will rebel.

So, in that sense, the election of BHO is a good thing: We were complacently sliding into socialism, with just a few hiccups here and there. If this forces us to look it in the face and strike it down for real, our progeny benefit. If we this means the ship is upset for a few decades or more, it will be worth it.

That’s also why things like this “Abortion is a blessing!” thing makes me optimistic. The Anchoress writes eloquently on this topic, and is always worth reading. I’m less concerned about abortion’s legality than its social acceptability. I would like the laws (here, as everywhere) to be largely irrelevant.

But I’m convinced that abortion’s acceptability has a lot to do with obfuscation. While most of the support for pro-choice comes, I believe, from a basically libertarian impulse, more than anyone wants to admit comes from a anti-human impulse.

I often say the impulse to be liberal can come from a genuine belief that government is the best solution, or the belief that people are too stupid to take care of themselves. Just as being a conservative can come from a faith in the individual, or a self lack of concern for others. The media determine which narrative is revealed, so they try not to show the ugly stuff of whatever’s on their side.

And the thing about abortion is that it is really, really ugly. If you believe it’s necessary sometimes or not, there’s still no way it isn’t a tragedy. And, actually, I think that’s how most people view it. I think a small majority of people are uncomfortably pro-choice.

Information about abortion makes them more uncomfortable. Until recently, for example, I did not know that an abortion involved cutting up the fetus and then reassembling it ex utero to make sure you got all the parts.

I mean, look: Every day we see colonscopies, and hernia surgeries and whatever other medical procedures on the various educational channels. Why not abortions? Is it because–and I pause to chuckle here–right wing fundamentalists would protest?

Now, I am pro-choice to this degree: If a fertilized embryo is entitled to full legal protection, every woman’s womb is a potential crime scene. That’s the one extreme, of course. The other extreme is that fully viable babies are delivered and then murdered. And–let’s get really uncomfortable now–that’s where we are.

I’m perfectly fine that the abortion debate isn’t settled; it shouldn’t be. It’s much like torture, in the sense that we have to balance two unethical situations (inflicting pain perhaps for no reason vs. allowing innocent lives to be lost). In this case, we have to balance what might colloquially be called murder against the power of the state to intrude into every person’s most private life. (And I trust at this point in time, even the staunchest of pro-lifers can see that the government ultimately respects no limits to its power.)

I respect democracy in these areas, if only for lack of a better authority. Democracy can say, with stupid arbitariness that 20 weeks is a baby, where 19 weeks and 6 days is not. Injustices will occur.

What I object to, however, is the one-sidedness of the speech currently given exposure. It’s important to realize that all these poor, non-white people having abortions was pretty much what the eugenicists wanted. (And what a sleight-of-hand to get their cooperation!) It’s important to know what an abortion actually is. (I forced myself to look at a few pictures while writing this, something I’d always previously avoided.)

I object to those who wish to keep information away from women considering an abortion, if that information might tilt them away from having one.

So I applaud those who come out and say that it’s a blessing. Or, for the more secularly inclined, that it’s no big deal. Women should have more of them. And so on.

It wasn’t long ago that we were inundated with stories about the crazies bombing abortion clinics–the anti-choice crowd you might call them; now let’s get some stories about those who feel they should be allowed to completely shield a woman from any possible negative consequences of an abortion.

We can call them the anti-life crowd.

So, how was your week?

Despite the cash outlays, it was still a very good week. The birth of Ethan is a marvelous thing, not just because babies are wonderful, but because the Freefamily is, well, Chicken Little called Freeman “the strength of America”, and that’s not just poetic imagery.

I think one of the things feminism robbed from women–though not with complete success–was their specialness. The prevailing philosophy got it completely backwards: “Women’s work” was always the important stuff. The world exists for the future. Men do important things, of course, but they do them–if they’re good men–to make the world a better place.

None of which matters without a new generation to carry on. “Women’s work” is senior, fundamental, primary.

So let us put you on a pedestal and worship you, while we have the luxury. We’re clear-eyed about the work that needs to be done, and how you do a lot of the hardest and least glamorous of it. Treasuring you is both a great joy and fulfillment of our masculinity.

We know you can take care of yourselves. We know you’re not weak. But you are precious to us. Letting us express that is a gift.

I Feel It In My Fingers, I Feel It In My Toes

It must be spring, because we’re talking about sex again.

Althouse had a thread about prostitution in New Zealand and, predictably, like clockwork, the “all women are whores” meme surfaced. Though this was “all women trade sex for material goods” which is the complement to “all men pay for sex,” I guess. (You don’t hear “all men are johns”, much, though, do you?)

I stayed out and let Freeman tangle with it for a while, and then Darcy added her two cents, and finally–I swear, it’s like a mouse to cheese, putting up these dubious philosophical propositions–I caved and wrote a very lengthy response. Which I’m going to repost here and add a few things because, believe it or not, I had even more to say.

First off, the emphasis is wrong. And men are likely to make this mistake because they’re so strongly sex driven, but relationships aren’t “about” sex. Sex is part of a relationship. If it’s the reason for your relationship, you probably are better off with a prostitute or–if you’re more monogamously inclined–a mistress.

But it’s such an impoverished view of the whole man-woman dynamic. Anyway, here’s what I wrote, with some additional notes:

Actually, the theme of the “cheapskate girlfriend” is not at all uncommon in a relationship where the woman has or controls the money. That particular phrase isn’t common, I’d grant. (“Stingy bitch”, maybe.) This reflects more the fact that men don’t complain much about their women not giving them money because society associates masculinity with economic prowess.

Women talking about cheapskate men was used as evidence of their material natures. But women also complain of stingy lovers and, truthfully, stinginess in all areas of life. Sometimes people just complain. Other times, well, it’s easier to say “He’s tight with money” than “he doesn’t love me.”

And, certainly, women make this association, too, to a degree. Women who use this as their primary criterion are known as “gold diggers”, a phrase which most wouldn’t appreciate as a descriptor much more than “whore”.

Saying that “most women trade sex for material goods at one time or another” but then trying to defend it as “well, it’s not professional, so they’re not whores” seems a bit specious to me. Isn’t “trading sex for material goods” the very definition of prostitution? How is it not “professional” if they’re getting paid for it? Are they pro-am?

I also don’t buy Sofa King’s addition of “a close personal relationship”, either. The phrase was “material goods”. There’s a qualitative difference between “close personal relationship” and “jewelry”.

There was a little sleight-of-hand here. Revenant used the word “material” and Sofa King added relationships as something men give women for sex. This is one of the creepier notions. Young people get into relationships because of sex–and, certainly, women were traditionally the gatekeeper (“no sex until we’re married”) because they were risking more.

I’ll get into this more later, but sex sex. In other words, if a man and a woman have sex, it’s not necessarily an equal exchange. In fact, it’s probably almost never an equal exchange. The woman’s risk is greater, partners’ sexual apettites are almost always going to be different or out of sync, and just the raw value of time and attention is unequal from person-to-person.

Men and women in relationships do things that lead to sex. You could cynically attach a monetary value to all those things, and say they were both trading things for sex.

This is belied by the fact that the exchanges continue even when sex isn’t in the picture. And sex continues even when there’s no material trade.

One might: have sex to strengthen a unit that better survives in the word; have sex to get pregnant; have sex because it has a physiological and psychological benefit for your partner; have sex just for sex–because it’s fun.

None of this is prostitution or “trading for material goods”. Most of it falls into the category of “moral”.

Sofa King actually said “What is the moral basis for saying that any one of these forms of compensation is superior to any other?” Which is just kind of silly. Morality has all kinds of things to say about when sex is okay and when it’s not. Sex is one of the driving forces of morality.

But the part that made Darcy sad and which I thought was–well, demonstrably false as well as cynical–was when Rev said “A guy who tries building a relationship on kind words and deeds and going dutch on everything isn’t going to get any. The relationship is probably going to die early on, too.”

If I were to make an observation about women, it might be that they’re shallow. I’d say the same thing about men, too, though, and I’d add a caveat: They’re superficially shallow. Heh. That is to say, we all judge based on outward appearances at first. Guys go for the pretty girl, women go for the rich guy–and, frankly, I’ve never seen good looks work against a man, or money work against a girl.

But ultimately, most of us look a little deeper, and a guy can go a long way on kindness–even if he doesn’t mean it.

As clichéd as all this stuff about women + gifts is, isn’t there also a cliché about the poor young couple starting out with nothing but love? (True story: A friend of mine is celebrating his wife’s birthday by taking her to the park and picking flowers from their garden, etc. Guaranteed he’s “getting some” tonight.)

There are a lot of other clichés that don’t fit neatly into the women-as-whore paradigm. Lots of men are supported by women. Medical students hook up with nurses (and then when they’re established drop them for showgirls). Starving artists hook up with waitresses. Starving artists mutually work menial jobs, supporting each other as best they can.

No, in practice, there are only a few situations where this idea works out at all.

Do women sometimes receive an expensive gift that they respond to with sex? Sure. Some relationships degenerate to the point where the only worthy expression of affection is money from him and sex from her.

But in a healthy relationship–one that isn’t going to end when her beauty or his money runs out–when an expensive gift moves a woman to sex, it’s because it represents something else: The attention of the male and his demonstration that he values her, that he’s willing to work or sacrifice for her, and so on.

In other words, there is an exchange going on. It’s just not a material one.

Rev and I have locked horns many times over materialism. He’s a materialist; he believes in nothing but matter. I think that’s pretty silly because, you know, why would I bother with a piece of meat? Heh.

But a materialist is sort of stuck here: If there is no spiritual component to life then there has to be a material exchange of some sort, if you are kind to someone, that has to trigger something in their brain that releases a chemical that makes them feel good, or some damn thing.

In the stereotypical situation, where the man wants sex more than the woman, his sexual attention is at less of a premium. It can be self-centered. If she’s not in the mood, sex can be her gift to him. (Wise women know this and wise men appreciate it.)

But how does he reciprocate? However good and considerate a lover he may be, where’s the exchange in terms of doing something for your partner that you wouldn’t necessarily be inclined to?

You think women respond to expensive gifts? Try doing the dishes. Paint a room. Fix something around the house. Rub her feet. Give her a back rub (that doesn’t end up as a breast massage). Try easing her burden a little bit. Do something you wouldn’t do except that it makes her feel good.

Try writing a poem or a song or doing something that demonstrates her place in your heart. Yeah, you stink at it, and it’s embarrassing, but she loves it. Perform it in front of an audience.

Hell, just show her affection during day-to-day life. Maybe you both have jobs and kids and things are crazy, but you give out the same sort of “we’re on our honeymoon” types of signals as you pass in the hallway, and see if that that diamond ring doesn’t turn brass.

The “sex for stuff” paradigm only works with particular sorts of relationships with particular sorts of women.

Most women won’t put up with it.

Boy, is that last line true. My favorite female commenters: knox, Darcy, Freeman, Ruth Anne, Amba–I can see them kicking a guy in the nuts who gave them a shiny bauble and expected sex in exchange for it. Women with any sense of self-esteem have a sharp sense of when you’re calling them a whore, no matter how masked.

Women are funny that way: They’ll give freely and generously something you couldn’t ever buy from them.

More Fun With Superheroes and Politics

My post on the ultimate underlying message in Watchmen spurred some fun comments, including from Ron, who asks the eternal question:

hmmm…Is Superman a liberal?

Others have tackled this question, including those in charge of the heroes at the moment. However, there is an inherent simplicity that people often miss, which is touched on by Joe M:

I do suppose that that action is the logical extreme of super-heroism: hero is special and is therefore allowed to act outside the rules for normal people for the benefit of those normal people ; once you’ve placed hero outside the rule of law for the greater good, this kind of utilitarianism would be the end result, yes?

Almost. While superheroes do act outside “the rules” for normal people–for example, wearing their underwear outside their tights–they don’t act outside the law, or at least not much. The Batman, for example, will do some B&E, but not much beyond what any TV PI might do. It’s not against the law (yet) to stop a crime.

Traditionally, heroes and superheroes capture the criminal–but leave them to the law to prosecute.

So, what is the political framework of the masked hero genre? One might be tempted to suggest Objectivism, since John Galt is a sort of superhero.

But you have people who worked for–or were blessed with–abilities beyond that of normal people. They use those powers on a local, individual level to make others lives better. They don’t work for the state, but they do work with law enforcement agencies. They sacrifice personal lives for the good of the community, but not because they’re compelled to by an external authority. Rather they feel their ability to help translates to a responsibility to help. (This is a conservative value that has a perverse expression in the statist’s “you must do everything you can for the government, and accept whatever the government says you deserve in return”.)

Ultimately, then, what you have is a full-on conservative paradigm–classical liberalism, really. Until the ‘70s and ’80s, the masked vigilante operated on the principle that society was okay, except for a few criminal types and some organized crime rings. Even Spiderman, hounded as he was, had his most pernicious opponent in a corrupt tabloid journalist, not society per se.

Of course, comic book writers come in all political stripes, and like the rest of the arts have been seriously corrupted by statist ideologies, but even so, the very concept of the powerful individual using his power in a way to benefit society while not being under control of a ruling body is inherently conservative.

It’s no coincidence that when heroes are driven underground (Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, The Incredibles), it’s the state that drives them underground. The state says, “No, you can’t be special.”

I don’t believe the USSR had superheroes. First of all, crime is not a problem in the worker’s paradise. Second of all, the glorious grand-poobah doesn’t need any help. Third of all, those gaudy outfits are a sign of western decadence. (Set me straight if I’m wrong on this.)

Even the “soft” fascism of modern “liberals” is anathema to the superhero paradigm. After all, why are some blessed with powers and abilities that others don’t have? Doesn’t that indicate unfairness in society? Why does Batman go every year to “Crime Alley” to beat up poor people? Why doesn’t Superman use his super-powers to spread the wealth around a little bit? He can make diamonds, why not diamonds for everybody?

The masked vigilante works by correcting aberrations in society. Society is okay, basically, but it can perverted by the dishonest. But once corrected, people are free to go about their business.

One of classical liberalism’s strengths, as well as its ultimate undoing, is that it creates a framework in which ideas can be freely expressed. Freedom of speech includes speech that undermines freedom of speech (the very concept of “hate speech”, to say nothing of gay activist and feminist groups agitating for repressive Islamic societies). So, with the genre firmly established in freer times, comic books are now free to speculate in ways that undermine their future.

And naturally, some do.

The difference between Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns is that the former says, “Man needs a super-powered guardians or he’ll destroy himself” (a truly statist message) where the latter says, “The more things go off the rails, the more heroic everyone has to act.”

But is Superman a liberal? Some people say so, because he fits the trappings of a liberal. Yet, he could easily achieve liberal goals and never does. A theme echoed by the Donner movies and found in the comic books I’ve read is that Superman has a respect for individual freedom. Individual freedom is supreme: In that sense, he’s positively libertarian; he won’t use his powers to take freedom from others. That’s a line for him, just like not killing is a line for Batman. (Superman is really an analogue for God, isn’t he? His power is “nigh” limitless, but he only grants a few miracles.)

What this all boils down to, unfortunately, is the misuse of the labels “liberal” and “conservative”. The only political struggle that matters is whether you’re for freedom or for coercion. Are you a statist? Are you convinced that the government could make everything right if only it had more power? As I’ve written, nothing in a free society keeps all the laudable goals of socialists from being achieved.

When Superman starts collecting taxes and throwing people in jail for economically oppressing the masses, I’ll believe he’s a “liberal”. If a masked vigilante agitates for statist government, he’s just a clown (I’m talking to you Green Arrow) or a mouthpiece for an artist who’s swallowed some propaganda.

Watchmen, the underlying truth

While my full review of Watchmen is up here, it seems to me there is an underlying truth to it. But expressing it might be a spoiler, so I’m letting you know up front. Somehow, this aspect of the film wasn’t particularly surprising to me, it was more of a “sigh”-and-a-“it figures”. But others may have been, so here’s your warning.

I’m not going to reveal any action that occurs, but if you think backwards from what I’m saying, you’ll probably be able to figure out where the movie is going.

Enough warning?

Last chance!

OK, the underlying truth to Watchmen is this:

If you give a leftist super-powers, he’ll act like a super-villain and still consider himself a hero.

Think about it, won’t you?

Man’s Laughter

I posted on the Althouse about humor being equal to rejection, which raised some eyebrows. I then launched into a rambling explanation of what I meant, but I’m not sure I was very clear, or even that I expressed it properly.

Here are some points I was using to highlight the idea:

When children single another child out to laugh at, they’re rejecting him. We instinctively know that and that’s the whole basis of the “at” and “with” consolation. (I’m actually not sure that this is humor, but I think it’s related to the concept of laughter and rejection.)

Q: How can you tell an elephant’s been in your refrigerator?
A: From the footprints in the butter.

Humor there comes from the rejection of the notion that, of all the ways you might be able to detect an elephant, sleuthing out butter cubes is at the top. We reject that notion.

Or non-joke jokes:

Q: Why do firemen wear red suspenders?
A: To keep their pants up.

Very meta. We laugh because there’s nothing there to reject. It’s a perfectly sensible answer to the question. In this case, we’re rejecting the joke itself, or our expectation of something clever.

Times change of course. 1940 movie house audiences were in stitches when Bugs Bunny first said, “What’s up, doc?”

They rejected the notion that a rabbit would react that way to a hunter.

Nowadays, the out-of-place reaction to danger by a woodland creature is so common as to be tired. We no longer laugh uproariously at wisecracking rodentslagomorphs.

OK, let’s flip to some other kinds of comedy.

Charlie Chaplin, eating his shoe: Audiences doubtless related to the hunger, but they rejected the notion (as we do, though far less profoundly) of eating one’s shoe as though it were a gourmet meal.

Buster Keaton, running The General. He’s fleeing for his life in the steam train. His girl is throwing wood into the engine and as she picks up the wood, she evaluates it for suitableness, in one case throwing out a large piece because it has a small hole in it. We reject that rejection. Heh.

The Marx Brothers were steeped in odd behavior that was totally inappropriate for the situation, and surrounded by people whose reactions were impossibly indulgent.

A lot of modern comic writers, especially Woody Allen, give us neurotic characters. Always, of course, a little too neurotic. We reject their exaggerated responses, and at some level probably reject the idea that neuroses are just wacky fun.

How about puns? A pun–should it make us laugh or groan–is a rejection of the use of a word.

A lot of physical comedy is based on social propriety, which may be one of the reasons that physical comedy is much harder to do effectively these days. Pie in the face? Seltzer down your pants? Hell, it’s a rare day one of my co-workers doesn’t come in with pie on their face and seltzer down their pants.

In fact, life in general may be less humorous because it’s not polite to reject people any more.

Not all laughter is humorous, of course. One can laugh out of joy or exhilaration. Or out of meanness.

Similarly, not all rejection is humorous.

I’ve often thought that black humor (like, Network) is relatively unpopular because it gives very faint signals that it is to be rejected. Black humor, ultimately, is a rejection of mortality, or at least the significance of mortality, as well as other Very Serious Things.

But again, times change. One of the great Richard Brooks’ last movies was the muddled Wrong Is Right. I was sort of amused and sort of befuddled right up until some people started blowing themselves up–that was my cue that this was all meant as over-the-top satire. Audiences today might interpret that signal completely differently.

But I’ve rambled on enough for now. I hope that clarifies.

(NOTE: I originally typed this up last June and never posted–at least I can’t seem to find it on the blog anywhere. I’m not sure why I didn’t post it, but here it is now.)