Happy Veterans Day. Here is a movie I can’t recommend enough. I saw it in the theater when it came out. Powerful and moving don’t even begin to describe it. Real footage, of real men, often in their last moments on earth.
This is as good as it gets for film to convey history and historical meaning. Watch this movie, and take a moment to be grateful for how good you have it, because of men like this.
Recently I got around to listening to a debate that’s been in my playlist awhile, between Christopher Hitchens and Al Sharpton, to debate Hitchens’s book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. I was very curious what this would sound like, because on one side you have an erudite, scholarly man with a deep knowledge of cultures and history, and on the other side you have…Al Sharpton. One reason I haven’t listened to it is because it’s hard to find time to listen to 90 minute long debates in one or even two sittings, and I don’t like to break up a long speech or debate because I lose focus and lose the points. But another is because I figured listening to Al Sharpton for an hour and a half would be so painful, I might need several Xanax to make it through, and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Kind of like making yourself watch a bad movie that you know your girlfriend likes. It’s a work of procrastination rather than passion.
BUT, having done it, I found myself surprised by a couple of things. First of all, this debate wasn’t nearly as humiliating for Sharpton as I thought it would be. This isn’t because he turns out to be more intelligent or more informed than I thought he was, if anything he seems even less informed and coherent than I imagined him to be. But he does do something well, something that does speak to his intelligence and political experience…he can talk for a looong time without saying anything substantive, and he knows to, and knows how to, evade points or arguments that weaken his position, or strengthen his opponent’s. It’s the skills and techniques of a politician in a primary debate…address nothing your opponent says, stay on message, and repeat, repeat, repeat. That he is actually funny makes him appealing to an audience, and like a politician, he makes obvious but oblique insinuations to the morals and motives of his opponent in order to derail him from his message (if his opponent is susceptible or oblivious to such tricks, which Hitchens is not). If his opponent is easily offended or distracted, he can steer the whole conversation away from what is supposed to be the substance of the discussion into an irrelevant argument. And of course, he wraps it in an “Aw shucks,” “C’mon Man!” patois that will endear him to viewers susceptible to such tricks.
Something else that surprised me is that I actually found myself agreeing with one of the points Sharpton makes, although not for the reasons he gives. This has to do with the relation of morality to God, which is a common enough argument to be cliched at this point, but which I have found a new appreciation for by thinking past the point of which most believers state it, and which most atheists argue against it. But more on that later.
The main thing that saves Sharpton from a night of embarrassment and humiliation, aside from his general ability to deflect and joke away serious points, is that he does in fact come up with a novel argument against Hitchens’s thesis that “religion poisons everything,” by focusing rather on the title of the book than the argument itself.
For those who are unfamiliar or only vaguely familiar with Christopher Hitchens, he is the classic British “Man of Letters,” attending boys’ prep schools as a young man, and studying at Oxford for college. If you read him or listen to him speak, you quickly arrive at the impression that he is one of those gentlemen who has read Everything. At least everything important, of substance, or of canon. For example, he is one of the few who can claim to have read every word George Orwell ever wrote. That type of man.
As such, when he writes of religion, when he criticizes religion, he is writing with a deep knowledge and extensive study of the matter, of the codes and histories of religion, of the cultures from which they came and in which they exist. Hence his book, and his arguments in this debate, are filled with specific examples of fundamental wrongs, inconsistencies, hypocrisies, and evils of religions, in particular moments and across time. His are not the critiques of a dabbler or of someone with a bias who has cherry-picked the weakest points of a philosophy he disagrees with to make snide, shallow criticisms. He can, literally, cite chapter and verse from the Torah or the Hadith to demonstrate why he believes religion, in toto, to be a pernicious force in the world.
Sharpton evades all that by simply ignoring all specific religious, dogmatic, scriptural criticism of religion, Christianity or otherwise. It’s really a startling technique, and again, it certainly demonstrates a high level of craftiness and rhetoric, rather than insight and intelligence. You may find it strange that a man who is introduced in this debate as an “ordained minister” and a “man of god” does not, a single time, defend a word of biblical scripture or Christian dogma in a 90 minute debate about the value of religion. I was certainly startled when I came to realize this as the debate was coming to an end, and the audience as well as Hitchens himself were also taken aback. Hitchens even said at the end of the debate that “this is a first” for him, that a man of the cloth would not defend a word or tenet of the Bible.
What Sharpton does instead is attempt to put Hitchens on the defensive, by asking him to defend the premise that God is not great. He says this every time Hitchens rattles off a litany of crimes against logic or morality (sometimes both) that religion and religions commit: “I am not here to debate the idea that Christianity is not great, or that Islam is not great, or that organized religion is not great…I am here to debate the idea that God is not great, since that is the title of the book that Brother Hitchens has written.” Sharpton wisely concedes that a number of terrible things have been done and are being done by man in the name of religion or in the name of God…but says that does not prove that God is not great, so he asks Hitchens to offer proof of that statement. And of course, the entire point of the book is to make an argument for the pernicious influence of organized religion in the course of human affairs, to point out the evil and harm caused by believing you have God on your side, to point out the terrible things you would only do if you have that belief. Of course, the whole point of the book is about how religion manifests in and affects human society, not actually about the qualities a potentially existent or non-existent sky wizard himself may have. Sharpton knows as well as the rest of us that no one can prove the existence or non-existence of God, let alone what qualities such a being may have, great or not.
Sharpton’s approach was a terrible example of sincere, good faith, rational argumentation and engagement in debate, but it was an absolute master class on obfuscation and deflection, and I have to say I learned something from it, at least. I learned how well a politician can take a straightforward, obvious topic of debate, in which he is almost certain to lose, look bad, or have to make huge concessions, and completely avoid any of those negative outcomes by simply directing everyone’s attention to a fake question, to a false issue, and insisting that that is the crux of the debate. By talking slowly (seemingly thoughtfully), making jokes, and using blatant deflection just a few times, you can eat up time and run down the clock so that you can actually sit there for 90 minutes without ever having addressed the substance of the debate, shake hands, walk away, and look like you at least came out even. So while this conversation was less than enlightening from an intellectual perspective from Sharpton’s end, it was actually a pretty illuminating insight into how politicians think and how they work.
But here’s where it gets interesting. There is an issue on which Sharpton and I agree.
It’s not one of scripture. It’s not one of dogma or faith. But it is one of morality.
Where does morality come from? This is one of the oldest questions in human history, right up there with where did we come from, what is the meaning of life, and of course, is there a god? Like many people, I’ve always been interested in this topic, have had many thoughts and discussions about it, and have heard many an argument on the subject from a Sam Harris or a Christopher Hitchens.
For a believer, for a person in Sharpton’s shoes, there is a really just one core question that they use as the basis of their view on morality, and which they think is the “Gotcha!” question that pins down atheists such as Christopher Hitchens: where does morality come from if there is no god? Sharpton says says over and over in this debate, “If there is no god, how do we decide what is moral? Who decides it? Whoever is stronger at any given moment?”
This is really the grade school version of a moral argument from a believer’s point of view, one which is easily refuted and shown to be silly and illogical, without much effort. You really only need to take one step of logical thought to refute this line of reasoning, by asking the most immediate, obvious question: whose god? Which god’s morality? Yaweh? Allah? Spaghetti Monster? If you say morality comes from God, and you want to claim you can cite specific moral rules from “a” god, first you have to choose a god. So this premise immediately goes out the window when you are faced with the thousands of religions and gods that have existed throughout human history. Saying that morality comes from God doesn’t tell you specifically what actually is moral any more than saying morality is made up from whatever we want or that it really does come from whoever is strongest. It doesn’t narrow it down to particular moral precepts in the slightest, or tell you what moral rules are logically necessary in any sense. ISIS believes their morality comes from God, too. Hitchens or any atheist can easily brush aside this critique with minimal effort or thought, and the believer proffering this argument can’t offer much in response. In fact, this may be an ideal example of Hitchens’s Razor: “That which can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”
There are many other fatal holes in this argument, for example:
If you say that morality comes from God, why doesn’t everyone whose morality comes from God have the same rules?
How does God transmit his morality to particular people?
Who does he transmit it to?
Can everyone access God’s morality or only certain people (and who are they and how are they chosen?)?
How do I know who to believe when they say they know God’s morality?
Why do so many beliefs and actions of those who say their morality comes from God offend the most basic moral senses of all civilized people?
So this is a rudimentary, easily refutable line of reasoning, and one that does not offer a challenge to Hitchens when offered by Sharpton. It is also fairly obvious and pedestrian to note that we do not need God to know or understand morality. You can and do know that it is wrong to rape, murder, steal, and enslave people without any religious teaching, and in fact everyone in every culture and throughout all of history has known this, even people who do those things. You can be of any religion or of no religion, and know these things intuitively, we all know that it is wrong to kill innocents or children no matter what religion we are, or if we are atheists or nihilists.
I still have to ask…where does this moral sense come from? And despite all the differences, nuances, and variations in the many permutations of the less foundational elements of morality, why does just about every human civilization, particularly in the last few centuries, seem to have the same sense of the core moral precepts against things like murder, rape, and thievery, and why is some notion of “fairness,” however defined, common to all? You may think there is no other way to be, but that’s also partly the point. If one society condemns murder, why doesn’t another condone it as an allowable means of dispute resolution? If one society punishes thieves, why doesn’t another allow them to keep the fruits of their “labor” as their just earnings, and let the chips fall where they may?
The standard atheist or secular answer, which seems stronger and is certainly more complete and logically satisfying than the standard religious answer, is still largely inadequate when you think about it deeply and go a few steps into the reasoning. That answer would be, of course: biology. The atheist would say that humans are simply hardwired to cooperate, and that our sense of what we call “morality” is just a result of the natural and necessary evolution of countless millennia of us cooperating as individuals, tribes, civilizations, and as a species. We have a sense that it’s moral to cooperate, to not engage in cruel or unprovoked violence, and to not take the property of another because…evolution, I guess? In this view, “morality” isn’t a thing that exists in the universe, that has a metaphysical existence or meaning, but is simply a feeling that is programmed into us by evolution, so that we can cooperate and survive as individuals and as a species. To restate it more simply, morality isn’t a thing, but rather a feeling. It doesn’t actually exist, we just feel that it exists. Nothing truly “is” or “is not” moral. We simply feel that it is or isn’t.
And yet…doesn’t this ring hollow? Doesn’t this seem logically inadequate? From a logical perspective, following this reasoning to its natural conclusion, how does this not lead us inescapably to an empty pit of relativism or nihilism? If there is no actual morality, how can we even try to build a society of laws and mores which we are supposed to follow and take seriously? How can we say that one set of rules or laws, or one society, is better or worse than another, when there is no better or worse? For atheists, this seems to be a real problem. While a religious person can’t tell you why you should believe that specific moral precepts come from a specific god and why, an atheist can’t tell you why you should believe in any sort of morality whatsoever, they can’t tell you why any particular thing is right or wrong, because from a biological perspective, there is no right and wrong. All they can say is “It doesn’t work.”
And I personally find this not just unimpressive, but spiritually vacant as well. Perhaps an example is in order.
I’ve been having debates about this topic for around two decades by now. Years ago, when I was living in New York on and in the aftermath of 9/11, I naturally starting thinking very seriously about civilizational and cultural morality and norms. I had countless discussions about this with other New Yorkers, just a few miles from where nearly 3,000 people were killed a few months or a few years prior to our conversations.
When I had these discussions, I would try to pin people down about their moral views in order to understand how they (and people generally) think about this topic, which turns out to be a hell of a lot harder than you might think. It seems that on this topic, like so many others, people who consider themselves very smart and educated generally prefer to try to sound smart by regurgitating some lofty-sounding ideas or concepts they’ve heard before, or name-dropping a writer they’ve heard of and quoting them to make you think they’re a Very Deep Person. “Well, as so-and-so would say…” From these people, these erudite, intelligent New Yorkers, I would very often hear some version of the statement that “There is no objective morality.” Actually, more accurately, that was the universal, stock response from everyone I asked about morality. I heard this so often, I had to come up with some go-to responses.
First, I had to clarify and give them a chance to back out of that statement, to retreat a bit from that position if they wish. “Just to be clear…you’re saying there is no such thing as actual right or wrong?” Once I made sure they agreed to my clarification and really wanted to stake that territory, one of the questions I would ask is whether or not it is objectively wrong to stone a woman to death for any of the trivial crimes that cause someone to be executed in such “honor killings.” [For reference, there are an estimated 5,000-20,000 such killings each year, which may very well be an underestimate] Common responses were things like “Well…I can say I don’t like it, but I can’t say that it’s wrong.” Or “I can’t say that it’s wrong for their culture to do it, but I can say that my culture doesn’t approve of it.” “I can say that I feel like I don’t like it, but not that it’s objectively wrong.”
Does that response satisfy you? Should it? Is that your answer? Ponder this response for a moment, if you will, and mull over what you think about the logic and indeed, morality of such a position.
I find such answers horrifyingly nihilistic, though at least consistent, if that’s a compliment. I do have to say that at least the people who profess to believe this stick to their guns and will not condemn any act, no matter how appalling, as “immoral.” It doesn’t matter what you throw at them, Nazis, genocide, any kind of barbarism or mutilation, any cruel or depraved crime or punishment.
But I do have a couple of questions. What are the consequences of such a belief? What actions and other beliefs naturally flow from it? What does it teach you about humanity and civilization? What can you build from it, and how? What is its foundation for civilization? Does it even have a foundation that you can find or define?
And also, do you think they actually believe that, or are they lying when they say they don’t believe it’s immoral, but simply know that they’re caught in a trap and are forcing themselves to stay consistent in their discussion with me, even if that’s not what they really think? Is this their true belief, or just a result of the cognitive need of their ego to save face? Do they actually, deep down, believe that morality exists, but since they can’t clearly define it or specify it, they prefer to take the position that it doesn’t?
The point of all this is that I don’t find the atheist answers to morality very satisfying either. Because, just like the religious position, there are none. Religious people cannot escape the “religious relativism” of claiming that morality comes from god, and atheists cannot escape the cold, empty moral relativism of morality being a mere biologically-driven feeling. There’s also something missing from their assumptions about the biological evolution of this “feeling” that I want to explore as well.
So let’s dig deeper into this “biological morality” question. I might call this “biological determinism,” since the argument seems to be that evolution necessarily created us this way, with concepts and feelings of cooperation, empathy, morality, and for some reason caring about the welfare and suffering of others beyond our personal sphere who we don’t even know. This idea seems deterministic to me because it posits that humans must have evolved this way in order for us to thrive, that this way we are, hardwired with a sense of right and wrong, is the only way for us to have civilizations and progress. This is an oft unspoken premise of this argument that we could only have civilization if we have this sense of morality and cooperation.
But if morality is only a feeling, and is only derived from materialistic evolution, then we could have evolved infinitely different ways, with infinite permutations that include an existence or lack of morality, compassion, and cooperation, any countless number of which could lead to a thriving human civilization or species. For example, while it may be that cooperation is a necessary component for many successful civilizations or species, and at least for humans to create the kind of societies we have, there is absolutely no reason to think that empathy, compassion, or morality is required. I don’t think that ants care about the pain of individual ants at all, yet ants populate the earth and thrive all over the planet. If you really want to make the “biological” argument that our moral senses, and everything else like our sense of free will is just an evolutionary development designed for biological success, if our every sense of important ideals like morality, choice, and purpose is just a tool for biological prosperity, then you have to think about why we are this way and have these senses, as opposed to countless other ways we could have evolved, and you need to be able to explain why this way is better than ten thousand or a million other ways we could have evolved.
There is really no way around facing this problem with the biological explanation for morality. I suspect the initial defensive reaction to my example above is something like “Well…we’re not ants.” But that doesn’t address the problem at all. We are simply more complex than ants, but complexity is not the problem here, and merely increasing biological complexity does not escape the problems or address the questions mentioned above. In fact, increased complexity might make the problem of why we evolved this particular way even more difficult, because it may mean there are more possible ways we could have evolved than the one we did.
As history has shown us, there are many ways to have a successful, long-lasting civilization with slavery, unshakable predetermined hierarchies, and one’s status, power, and very life and safety determined by nothing more than the accident of your birth. And that’s with our evolutionary sense of morality built in. But at the same time, even with all these horrors, humans have always been obsessed with fairness, justice, and morality, have always fiercely debated what constitutes each, and all along there were many who knew these things were wrong, including those in power and those who benefitted from them.
But why? These questions and inquiries are not necessary for human civilizations to exist and to succeed, as history proves. Our civilizations and species could very well have survived and thrived indefinitely while maintaining castes, slavery, tribal animosities between societies down to the extermination level, and all manner of brutality to one another. And yet the questions of fairness and morality stayed with us the entire time, and all of human history is the history of the struggle against cruelty and unfairness, and constant incremental improvements and victories against them.
I am very sorry to say that the point of this essay is not to inform you that I have the answer. I merely have the questions, and I believe some of the right questions that most atheists never ask or go far enough to discover exist. Unlike most atheists, I am trying to dig deeper beyond the “what” of makes human society work to the “why.” If you’re content with the “what,” your moral inquiry will actually be pretty short and easy, all things considered, for a dense and important topic like this. Of course even the “what” can be up in the air a bit, but there are enough moral “absolutes” that are easy enough to agree on that most people can be satisfied in their inquiry about morality and stop there. Hitler is evil. Stalin is evil. Slavery is evil. Or, as a materialist who doesn’t believe in the soul or in God might say, “They don’t work.” For fun, try making that argument in your next moral discussion with friends, and see how they react. But that really is the best that atheists can do, and honestly it’s not great if you want to look deeper into the concept or the “why” of morality.
In the end, atheists have a morality problem, and they don’t know it. Sharpton can’t say where morality comes from, but Hitchens can’t either. They both can only say that “it exists.” Sharpton can’t go further than the kindergarten-level first question, but he’s got the right sense of the question, and at least he knows that it is a question. As much as I love Christopher Hitchens, saying that “we innately know what morality is” is not an answer to the question of “where does morality come from?” Yes, Hitchens is correct that we don’t need the Bible or Koran to be moral or to understand morality. But that still doesn’t answer why we do. “We just do” is insufficient and honestly lazy.
Even if biology did make us this way and impart a moral sense to us, that still can come from a creator or higher power. As Ben Shapiro likes to say, “Two things can be true at once,” which on a matter like this, a materialist can’t admit. Everything in us has to have a biological mechanism, just like everything in the universe has to have a physical mechanism. So even if God created us and the universe, the way he created us would operate within the bounds of our physical reality. Even if God gave us love, it’s going to be expressed biologically, so when it comes to love or morality or anything else we feel, a higher power could create us to evolve this way or instill this sense in us. So the fact that all these senses and intuitions have some biological basis is not much of an argument or rebuttal for the atheist’s side, though most seem to think it is. “We just did” evolve this way doesn’t do it for me, it rings hollow and circular, it assumes what it claims to prove, it’s a “what” not a “why,” and I personally suspect that our moral sense comes from something with a spiritual origin. I suspect the origin of morality is similar to or related to the “First Mover” problem of who created the universe, and like the First Mover problem, it is most likely not graspable by our limited, finite human mind, and also likely not describable by reason or logic. It seems likely that the “why” of morality is just as unanswerable as the “why” of creation, and of course there is the related suspicion that the two are closely connected. We don’t know, and probably can’t know, how the universe was created, but the universe does exist. Likewise, we don’t and probably can’t know where morality comes from, but in the end morality does exist, contrary to the claims of the abject materialists, and knowing that allows us to work within it and understand it as best we can, however incompletely or imperfectly, just like the physical universe.
I have always been interested in questions like this about humanity, society, and morality. In recent years, I’ve read and listened to a fair amount of Sam Harris, who wrote a book about the topic as well as a number of articles such as Thinking About Human Values in Universal Terms, which breaks down a rational analysis of morality into twelve pretty digestible points. Sam was a friend of Christopher Hitchens, and is one of today’s leading thinkers on deep and complex topics such as this. But Sam is also an abject materialist, so dedicated to being an anti-theist to combat the very serious historical and present evils of organized religion, that he makes no place for spirituality or the metaphysical, and is wed to the “biological” explanation of all that drives us. As I mentioned, biology does explain the “what” and the “how” of most of these things, but not the “why,” and I feel like digging deeper into this question as I have in this essay, I am approaching “Escape Sam Harris Velocity,” and I believe you must in order to push past rote atheist answers to the origins of morality. Hitchens likes to say that religious people “still have all their work ahead of them” to prove where their morality comes from, but it appears that atheists do as well.
As I said earlier, I had this debate at the bottom of my list in my “Hitchens” collection, but I’m glad I watched it, and also glad that I had an open mind. I despise pretty much everything about Al Sharpton, but you always need to be honest and keep an open mind, because you never know who is going to make a good point or make you think about something. I honestly didn’t want to watch this debate because I considered it an insult to even have Al Sharpton on the same stage as Christopher Hitchens, but it turns out I learned something from Sharpton as well. I didn’t learn interesting or informative facts the way I did and always do from Hitchens, but Sharpton’s approach to posing a simple question to one of my idols made me think about that question in a much deeper way that I ever have before, because I was able to notice that my idol was not able to answer this question in a satisfying way, or even address it at all. So that just proved to me more than ever how important open-mindedness and good faith are in all inquiries and endeavors. I hope this essay has given you some food for thought as well, and as always, if you would like to discuss this topic further, please comment or reach out to me personally.
All the best, and Happy New Year!
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If you’re looking for a fun but scary, smart but heartfelt, dark but campy popcorn movie this month…well, you’re going to have to look elsewhere. While none of the preceding adjectives accurately describe this movie, here are a few that do:
A lot of bad movies are bad for very obvious, easy to describe reasons. Bad acting. Unlikable characters. Cheesy writing. This one is hard to describe, but I would describe its unbearable awfulness like this: the complete lack of coherent writing and narrative. That’s it. That about does it.
What does that mean? It means that literally every scene in the movie is “just some shit that happens.” *shrug*
There is absolutely no rhyme or reason to anything that happens in this movie, and if you allow yourself to think for one second why any of a dozen different things happened, it will just ruin your suspension of disbelief. It’s a movie that’s pretty obviously written as a kids’ movie with a bunch of pastiched scenes that are supposed to be “WHOA, COOL!!” moments…but can only have such an effect on children who haven’t seen more than ten movies, or any movie more sophisticated than a Disney cartoon.
Let me name just a few things about this movie that ruin the suspension of disbelief for anyone who allows their brain to work and wonder about anything for just a second or two in this movie:
1. The story doesn’t lead from one thing to the next in any sort of cohesive way whatsoever. The entire movie can be described as “This thing happened. Then another thing happened. Then something else happened. And all of these things happening is our story.” With no narrative or causal connection. One thing doesn’t lead to another, coincidentally, necessarily, or logically. The scenes in the movie do happen successively, of course, due the nature of spacetime in our universe, but they don’t lead into or cause the next one(s) in a way that flows as a narrative arc for a movie. No scene has to happen because of an event leading up to it. Each one is pretty much just its own vignette that you could cut and paste anywhere, no matter which scenes came before, or after it.
We have a scene showing Obligatory Teenage Angst and Crush, and one showing the Obligatory Lonely Nerdiness of our Mary Sue, we have another that shows the Obligatory Wit and Utility of Sidekick, etc. etc. etc., all the necessary, cliched moments of The Formula for a kick-ass kids’ adventure movie. But they are all inartfully just…there. All one at a time, stand-alone cliches, just…doing their job, I guess, of filling in the blanks of the cliches of the stories and the characters. But we don’t get any real character thought or development, or any reason that any scene should be related or connected to the next. Each scene is basically a snippet of the formula for what that scene is supposed to do, you can almost see the lines in the script “[insert exposition of x here]” in every scene.
You know how in Stranger Things every character’s story has its own unique development throughout, and then at the end you see how they all tie in together and bring the characters together, like how it all couldn’t have happened any other way due to how each thing happened to and affected each of the characters?
This is the opposite of that.
2. The main character is an absolute Mary Sue, from top to bottom, in every line of dialogue, in every action she takes. She literally knows how to do everything. Without research, training, or even a montage, she knows how to jerry-rig and restart a nuclear proton pack that her actual physicist grandfather took years of trial and error to build with a doctorate in physics by just “replacing some solenoids” or something. When she wonders out loud how he was able to put all this information and knowledge together to figure out how to solve the physics problems of the proton pack, the audience is directed to his wall with about ten different degrees on it. But she can get it working again in just one night tinkering around with some spare parts leftover in the basement.
Earlier, when the actual geologist who teaches summer school explains volcanic P waves and tectonic S waves to her (or vice-versa, who fkn cares), she’s like “DUH! I’m not STUPID.” Like, DUH. Fo’ REALS! Any kid who like, READS, knows all about stuff like this and well…everything! I mean, like any nerd, I love a smart kid in a movie, but this just exemplifies how the characters in this movie have no depth or character arcs. They don’t struggle, they don’t overcome, they don’t fear, they don’t fail, they don’t learn anything, they don’t progress. They’re just…there. Like one-dimensional set pieces.
3. All the “nifty contraptions.” Oh my GOD. These are also insufferable, and also obviously pandering to children who just want to see something “AWWWEEESSSOOOMMMEEE!!” on screen without any appreciation for a half second’s thought to the practical limitations, just to try to make it logically fit into the physical universe these characters live inside, which is presumably the same as ours.
For example, this ridiculous thing:
So let me get this straight: a 15 year old who can barely drive is going 60mph+ down Main Street (we know this because we can see the odometer speeding up to increase the “tension” of the chase), with his sister sticking out of the car, chasing a ghost around…
And she lives through it.
Allow me to state the obvious: that girl would be a red puddle of goo in about ten seconds when her crazily zig-zagging brother smashes her against the row of cars parked on Main Street. Her residue along those cars and in her chair would be the only reminders of her, and that ghost would spend eternity munching on whoever or whatever the hell he wanted.
This thing is literally the most useless contraption I’ve ever seen in a movie. It’s worse than any failed “dad” or “nerd” invention in any movie, worse than any “toaster helmet” ever invented…and we’re supposed to actually take this one seriously as a serious weapon in this movie. The only use that this “gunner’s seat” has in this ghost-mobile is to elicit a “WHOA! That’s AWE-SOME!” from kids ages 5-? who won’t think for a half second about what driving around with someone sticking that far out of a car would be like.
Then there’s this little fella:
Oh look! A cute little Wall-E type roving ghost trap! What a neat idea…a rolling, pseudo-sentient robotic contraption that makes cute little noises and needs saving. How original!
I’m just…ahhhh…I’m just…I’m sorry, my brain turned on for a second…I’m just uhhh, wondering how this cute little Wall-E ghost trap can keep up with a car going full speed at 60/70/80mph as they chase or flee a ghost. And uhhh…how Sidekick is able to keep track of it and control it with the remote at that speed, at night, while the car’s bouncing around and swerving around the road…I’m sure he can do it because he’s really smart and uhhhh…stuff.
Dammit! Stupid Brain!
4. Just generally… KIDS.
Really, the whole premise of kids doing all these things is just…too much. When the Precocious 12 Year Old and Sidekick go test out the nuclear energy beam weapon at an abandoned factory for some target practice and melt the shit out of everything in sight…too much. The fact that these children are instantly able to use these supposedly incredibly powerful devices confidently and accurately to fight demons and save the world…too much. That the kids chase and capture a ghost that SHOOTS ACTUAL BULLETS but aren’t scared, harmed, or in any real danger…TOO. FUCKING. MUCH.
Just the very conceit of making this a kids’ movie, and of kids playing around with nuclear proton packs…just imagine that everything in the original Ghostbusters, a 12 year old does. Just picture that same movie with a scrappy gang of junior high kids sleuthing out the answers to 3000 year old historical questions of gods and demons, and fighting them and an army of the undead with the power of advanced nuclear physics. Would that make sense to you? Would you be able to believe it “inside the movie?” If the Goonies weren’t Goonies but 12 year old physicists using nuclear technology to trap ghosts and fight demonic gods, would you have bought it to enjoy the movie? Somehow I doubt it.
There are so many “What’s wrong with you, don’t THINK about anything!” moments I can’t keep track of them all. Like when Mary Sue finds a random ghost trap buried in the house. Ok. So she takes it to school and her and Adult Prop #2 [Teacher] decide to open it up for funsies. Let’s take a look at a handful of questions that arise from a split second of brain activity in this one scene:
1. They have to jerry-rig power for the contraption to turn it on. Great.
EXCEPT IN THE ORIGINAL GHOSTBUSTERS ALL THE GHOSTS ARE FREED BY TURNING THE POWER OFF
Very obviously you need some kind of power source to provide whatever kind of energy field traps a ghost. But now a ghost trap doesn’t require power to work, and it can just keep them in there just…being an empty metal container…?
2. Apparently it occurs to neither Mary Sue nor the adult science teacher that the ghosts are trapped by the Ghostbusters FOR A FUCKING REASON, and decide that the best use of a ghost trap is to…free the motherfucking ghost??? WHAT???
Just…it never occurs to either Mini-Hawking Mary Sue or the, uh, adult, that ghosts might be, I dunno…dangerous?? After they nearly destroyed Manhattan, and the world, and it’s all on YouTube??
3. THE ghost, the one that just happens to be contained in that one particular trap, turns out to be a ghost that can reopen the gates of hell and re-summon the demons that threaten the earth? Just coincidentally, it’s not a fat green blob of slime, or a kinky sex ghost that hides in the fridge, it’s literally the demon-freer ghost, and Egon, who [spoiler alert] moved to this town in the middle of nowhere to save the world from the demons should they return, brings back a ghost that can open the gates and stores it five miles away from said gates of hell?? In a trap with no power?? What the hell kind of sense does that make?
4. Once the dangerous ghost that blows up everything around them is freed, both Mary Sue and Adult Prop #2 [Teacher]…slink the fuck off and pretend like nothing ever happened, to avoid getting caught and getting in trouble. I guess it never occurs to either of them that…there might be a…proooob-lem here…? There might be…danger here…? To them or to anyone else?
Nawwww, they just get back to being Stereotypically Morose Child Prop and Horny Adult Hilariously Trying To Bang Mom again. Because: Formula.
And this is just one scene.
I could go on. I could wonder why Angsty, Crushing Teenager goes from being dumbstruck, picked on, and alienated, to partying with the (appropriately diverse) cool kids from work, literally from one scene to the next, and then suddenly finding himself in a romantic moment of connection with his crush despite the fact she supposedly finds him pathetic and supposedly has a boyfriend (who we only hear mentioned once). Again, there is no arc, there is no series of events, there is just: kid has crush, crush laughs at kid, kid and crush are suddenly close.
I could wonder why Sidekick and Mary Sue, when they start thinking something is going on and looking around the house for clues, out of the 500 books lying around the house, find the exact right book and the exact right chapter that mentions the undead bad guys they have to defeat in our story. Again, no exposition, no story, no events no build up, no tension…let’s just pick up a book at random and discuss the backstory of the demon that threatens the town. It’s not even a tense, anticipatory scene, it’s just like a fun scene where Diverse Sidekick practically looks at the camera to explain the exposition to the audience.
I could wonder, when supernatural events start happening, why they happen when and where they do. In the original Ghostbusters, there is a very specific reason that there was a Stay Puffed Marshmallow Man. You remember what it was, don’t you?
That was a statement, not a question.
Here we got a bunch of cute Mini-Stay Puffeds…becaaauuuuse….sequel? There is literally not a possible, plausible, or potential reason these things show up in the movie at all, let alone precisely when and where they do, amusing and affecting one of the main characters, who doesn’t even seem too shocked by these fucking creatures even existing. Is this more where I’m supposed to fill in the blanks myself? With…nostalgia, I guess? Drugs? Certainly not with plot, reason, or backstory, since none is presumed nor implied.
In the end, this is just a movie with no story. It’s like a (shitty) Disney them park ride of your favorite movie, a mechanical pastiche of moments that are supposed to trigger nostalgia and for which you’re supposed to fill in the emotional blanks yourself, I guess. A collection of disparate, unconnected, nostalgia-inducing moments that are totally contrived and have nothing to do with each other. Every aspect of what passes for a story here is just a coloring book of a Hollywood cliche, with no heart or explanation, and no thread connecting one character or moment to the next. This movie wasn’t a story, it was just a series of individual scenes that you only understand because you’ve seen the original a dozen times.
If you’re looking for a fun and spooky kids’ adventure movie, I’d suggest rewatching Stranger Things, or any of the 80s movies that inspired it, rather than a cut & paste random mashup of the formulas they inspired. This movie is more like seeing the Chuck E. Cheese robots performing without their masks, so that you can see the gears and levers underneath, their faces all a-smiling, yet also grimacing death. When I watch a movie, I personally like to avoid seeing the levers, so that I myself don’t feel like one of those gears or one of those robots, being manipulated by the mere mechanics of it all.
I just finished reading Ayn Rand’s first novel, We The Living, an utterly terrifying glimpse into a fictionalized communist society that I’m sure is not as frightening as a real one. I’m currently reading Why Orwell Matters by Christopher Hitchens, and to my surprise, the topic of communism, and/or rather anti-communism, is coming up again.
Hitchens devotes his second chapter to “Orwell and the Left.” In it, he discusses how a number of leading leftist intellectuals, particularly leaders and founders of the now-dominant “cultural studies” or “anti-colonialism” fields (e.g., Raymond Williams or Edward Said), which now infiltrate and influence (if not define) nearly all the humanities and social sciences, disliked, critiqued, and even despised Orwell, for both his writing and his influence.
This seems a bit shocking at first, since such writers, like Orwell, were openly and ardently socialist or communist, and they all shared at their deepest core and founding principle a fundamentally marxist worldview that all of life, history, politics, and society is defined by class struggle. They all shared as an ultimate, utopian goal a vision of “equality” for their societies and mankind as a whole. But if so, why the scathing critiques, if not outright rejection?
The answer: betraying “The Cause.” Because Orwell had a belief even more foundational and further down in his hierarchy of values…honesty. Orwell could not close his eyes to the truth, he could not make himself look away, and he could not make himself lie about what he saw, whether it suited him or not, whether it affirmed his views or not, and whether it served his cause or not. This skill, the skill of simply being brutally, fearlessly honest with himself, was what he considered his greatest gift, his real power, the real thing that set him apart from other thinkers and writers. Not genius, not eloquence, not searing originality (though of course he had more than most), but simply “of fronting the world with nothing more than one’s simple, direct, undeceived intelligence.”
‘I knew,’ said Orwell in 1946 about his early youth, ‘that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts.’ Not the ability to face them, you notice, but ‘a power of facing’. It’s oddly well put. A commissar who realizes that his five-year plan is off-target and that the people detest him or laugh at him may be said, in a base manner, to be confronting an unpleasant fact. So, for that matter, may a priest with ‘doubts’. The reaction of such people to unpleasant facts is rarely self-critical; they do not have the ‘power of facing’. Their confrontation with the fact takes the form of an evasion; the reaction to the unpleasant discovery is a redoubling of efforts to overcome the obvious. The ‘unpleasant facts’ that Orwell faced were usually the ones that put his own position or preference to the test.
Christopher Hitches, “Why Orwell Matters”
Unfortunately, this is a “power” that most people, even (especially?) most intellectuals do not have. As such, when the vast body of academics, public intellectuals, and private intelligentsia were confronted with the excesses and abuses of communism, especially but not limited to the Soviet Union, they nearly unanimously chose to close ranks, turn their backs to these revelations, undermine factual criticism of their nearly-arrived people’s utopia(s), and smear the messengers of that criticism, including those with first-hand accounts, and including their own “up until now” fellow travelers. This included many dedicated, honest socialist brothers like Orwell who had not only supported the cause intellectually, but had put their bodies and lives on the line physically. Orwell himself had enlisted to fight fascists in Spain, and took a sniper’s bullet to the throat while in the trenches of the Spanish Civil War, which left him with a lifelong rasp.
It was in the context of this background that Hitchens took the above-mentioned Raymond Williams to task for attacks on George Orwell, representative of this type of influential, early communist intellectual. “One figure of the Left can be taken as representative of the general hostility” Hitchens says, explaining that Williams “was a member of the Communist generation of the 1930s and 1940s,” and “one of the germinal figures of the 1950s New Left.” In just one of the many unfair and untrue accusations Williams hurls at Orwell, he attempts to subtly undermine the reader’s possible admiration of Orwell’s worldliness and wisdom gained from years spent living abroad, including more than five years living in Burma as a colonial policeman, nearly two years in Paris, and a brief tour fighting the fascists in Spain, where he caught the aforementioned bullet.
Rather than simply and tritely admire the perspective gained from such experience, Williams, in what he surely believes to be an act of subversion of a norm (western, colonial, or otherwise), attacks from an angle in describing the admirable qualities gained from such experience as “largely illusory” and “largely negative,” acquiring for the traveler only the “appearance” of strength or hardness of character. Important among these criticisms is that the “vagrant” who lives in “exile” lacks “the substance of community.” Tying Orwell’s famous anti-authoritarian literature and stance to his “lack of community,” he writes:
“‘Totalitarian” describes a certain kind of repressive social control, but, also, any real society, any adequate community, is necessarily a totality. To belong to a community is to be a part of a whole, and, necessarily, to accept, while helping to define, its disciplines.’
To which Hitchens replies:
In other words, Williams is inviting Orwell and all of us to step back inside the whale! Remember your roots, observe the customs of the tribe, recognize your responsibilities. The life of the vagrant or exile is unwholesome, even dangerous or deluded. The warmth of the family and the people is there for you; so is the life of the ‘movement’. If you must criticize, do so from within and make sure that your criticisms are constructive.
Which brings me to the meaning of this essay. When Hitchens writes “Williams, having awarded Orwell the title of exile, immediately replaces it with the description ‘vagrant’,” I immediately thought: “Because he’s a collectivist.” That explains why choosing “exile” from the “community” is such a repulsive idea to him: to a collectivist, your identity springs not from you internally, but from your “community.” It does not blossom through and from you, it is adopted by you and gifted to you by the “community.” The “community” is invaluable and immortal. The individual is disposable, even dangerous and contemptible if he dare defy the community.
This perspective and the euphemisms that describe it are easy to spot and well familiar to anyone who has even a cursory familiarity with communist theory and history (and if you don’t, I implore you to acquire it as soon as you can; it is invaluable in understanding the world). When you understand the mind of a collectivist, you understand how much the lone thinker, the solitary individual, the man who would live in exile and reject or defy his “community” terrifies and threatens him.
“Community”…such an innocuous word, how could anything described as a “community” ever be wrong, how could it ever be insidious? What sort of insensate, what manner of brute, what kind of lout doesn’t have warm feelings about their “community?” Certainly not a good communist or revolutionary.
And this made me think about the heart and the mind of the collectivist “revolutionary,” the communist of the history books, and the Macbook-wielding marxist “revolutionaries” of today. Collectivist “revolutionaries” will only “revolt” as part of a collective or mob, within an already-existing, hermetic society of fellow-travelers applauding their virtue and bravery. To a very substantial and important degree, they’re in it for the accolades and affirmation. They revolt for validation. They will never revolt without approval from a group or their collective, never as an individual against the world, if the world be wrong or condemn them. They will never stand with the truth against the world because in the core of every communist revolutionary, besides their immense hatred of those more successful and more accomplished than they, and their enormous jealousy of those who have more, they fundamentally, desperately need approval. They wear the slogans of rebellion, but in truth are the most passionate conformists, the most desperately insecure, and the most pathetically needy. Like members of any cult, it’s not the cause that drives them, but the approval of the cult. It’s the disapproval of the cult that they fear the most, and the undermining of the cult by the individual discrediting their sacred beliefs that they find most dangerous and threatening.
That is the difference between the George Orwells and the Christopher Hitchenses of the world, and the Raymon Williamses and Ivy League communists. While both types are “of the left,” and the radical left at that, one type prefers and chooses “above all other allegiances the loyalty to truth,” whatever the consequences to one’s material circumstances or precious beliefs, while the other is a mere creature of the herd, who values above all else approval of the “community,” and will take any measures, go to any lengths, to gain the herd’s approval, and tell any lie about those who wander from the herd, and punish them for their apostasy.
As I’ve explained before, one thing I try very hard to do, even though it is sometime challenging, is to humanize people who disagree with me about issues that I find important, or about politics in general, to understand what their actual positions are, and to not just dismiss their arguments without consideration or dismiss them personally as stupid or evil. I think that’s something that everyone struggles with. Or, more accurately, something that most people don’t even try to do, but should be struggling with, as it’s just not something that comes naturally to us. Most people don’t even attempt to understand others who disagree with them, and are blissfully content seeing such people in one-dimensional, villainous tropes, which makes it very easy and emotionally satisfying to quickly dismiss them as people, and what they say and believe.
Over the last few years, for example, many have found it impossible to empathize with people who voted for Donald Trump, to intellectually understand how they could do so, and to see them as real, thoughtful, decent human beings. I heard NPR and its listeners “struggle to understand” how Trump could have been elected with their special “First 100 Days” broadcast of “Indivisible,” a show supposedly designed to foster a “national conversation about America in a time of change,” a masterfully evasive euphemism for venting NPR’s and their listeners’ existential dread and frustration regarding Trump’s victory. This call-in show was basically a screaming pillow for liberals, designed for those inside a certain political echo chamber to give each other virtual hugs and validate each other’s outrage and confusion. Well, mostly outrage feigned as confusion and interest in “bipartisan understanding.” I heard a daughter call in and say that she hadn’t talked to her mother since the election because she had voted for Trump, and while the host did the responsible thing and (very, very gingerly) suggested that severing one’s ties with a parent was not a healthy or helpful response to losing an election, the bulk of such calls focused on the callers and hosts trying to “work through together” how to reconcile that people they know and love had voted for Trump, and how to continue to love them, respect them, and maintain relationships with them despite the horrible, evil, unforgivable thing they had done.
I found the whole exercise to be immature and self-pitying in the extreme: I don’t know if anyone told these people, but, get ready for a shock: people lose presidential elections every four years. Everyone on the losing side is pissed off for awhile, stays politically annoyed during the entire term of the winning president they don’t like, and then tries to win the next one. The attitude that this particular election and the loss of their particular preferred candidate called for some extraordinary measures and national grief counseling seemed self-indulgent at best and in some way deeply dishonest at worst.
Perhaps I shouldn’t insert my own judgmental critique in the middle of an essay claiming to be about understanding. But what I’m trying to illustrate with this example is that I heard people on the left purportedly try to understand Trump voters every day on NPR, and countless times over in other media, when really what they were doing was trying to validate and understand their own feelings, not those of the people they were claiming to try to understand and reconcile with. Truly understanding why someone would vote for Donald Trump, actually intellectually grasping it and being able to articulate it, even if you drastically disagree, was something I saw little to none of. That’s why I wrote an essay about it a year later, to help those who are genuinely interested understand why someone would have voted for Donald Trump in 2016, even though I did not. There were some other great articles that explained it for those who sincerely wanted to learn, like this interview with J.D. Vance, the author of the excellent Hillbilly Elegy (which you simply must read, if you’re a reader and interested in politics). A brief, uncomfortable foray into reading a justification for supporting Donald Trump is a very important intellectual exercise for those reflexively repulsed by him, and especially those repulsed by your fellow Americans who voted for him.
I belabor you with this lengthy preamble simply to tell you that I have found another fantastic article that can help the skeptical and confused understand how Trump supporters think and what their real, authentic views actually are, as opposed to the caricature you’ll get from CNN, The New York Times, NPR, or The Washington Post. This article comes from a guest writer spot on the page of the estimable Glenn Greenwald, a prominent left-wing journalist who, in his personal politics, is probably as far left and progressive as is possible in America. I will say much more about him later, and expose you to a lot more content and arguments from him, but for now, let me just recommend that you browse his page to find all sorts of excellent, detailed content regarding today’s politics.
This particular essay comes from the author of a recently viral Twitter thread, who Glenn invited on his platform to write a full essay to fully flesh out his argument. This thread and now essay succinctly encapsulate how people who do support Donald Trump view politics, the media, and the bureaucratic security state. Specifically the “Alphabet Agencies” and their role in manipulating public opinion, as well as their apparent enthusiasm for jumping into the mud of partisan politics for whichever side they happen to pick at the moment. So while I share this essay with you to give you an honest, detailed analysis of how a large number of Americans view our political world, this essay may actually be more important in that it should give you a sobering wake-up call to the lengths enormously powerful federal agencies are willing to go to in order to spy on and destroy the lives of citizens who are inconvenient to or in the way of their political agenda.
I’ll post excerpts on my Twitter page because I know not everyone has the time or interest to read a ten page essay, especially one on as dense a topic as this. One thing I want to do for my friends and readers is cut to the chase and give them the bottom line or most important parts of a book, article, or argument, so they don’t have to dig through it themselves, and can just get right to the point and the heart of the issue.
So definitely read that essay if you can, bookmark it for reference material or to read later, and for now, note the highlights I’ve posted. The points this author raises are honestly mostly about how the media and security apparatus operate, so while the subject and point of view seem partisan because the essay is about Donald Trump and how these organizations have been weaponized to favor Democrats for now, those with any historical memory will know that not too long ago the FBI was tracking and recording every movement of Martin Luther King Jr., persecuting and blackmailing him and anyone else viewed as “subversive” or in the way of the agency’s political agenda. If you’re comfortable with the FBI and other agencies being used this way against your political enemies at this moment, then don’t be surprised and don’t feign outrage if a few administrations or a few elections from now they are turned against you.
Today, let’s take a moment to remember when men were men, who believed there were things worth fighting and dying for, and actually did it. When 18 and 19 year olds showed bravery that few grown men would today.