Thursday, December 31, 2009

2010: Hold Your Fire

"In the name of the best within you, do not sacrifice this world to those who are its worst... Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish, in lonely frustration for the life you deserved, but have never been able to reach. Check your road and the nature of your battle. The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it's yours." -Ayn Rand

2010: "My God...It's Full of Stars..."

2010: The Year We Make Contact? "Something Wonderful?" Promises, Promises...

Monday, December 28, 2009

Real-Life Heroes: Jasper Shuringa, the "Flying Hero Dutchman"

You've most likely heard, by now, about the Christmas day terror attempt to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253, another demonstration of the truth about Islam. Fortunately, we got a demonstration of true heroism as well. From the Washington Post: "Fear and heroism aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253 after attempted bombing." And our hero of the day is Jasper Schuringa, the "Flying Hero Dutchman." He's an American hero, a designation that goes beyond race, creed, color. May more so-callled "Americans" be as brave.

From the Washington Post:
Jasper Schuringa, an Amsterdam resident, lunged toward the fire in Row 19, jumping from one side of the plane to the other and over several other passengers. He burned his fingers as he grabbed a piece of melting plastic held by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man accused Saturday of trying to bring down the passenger jet with a homemade explosive device.

Schuringa, a video producer, restrained Abdulmutallab as others used blankets and fire extinguishers to douse the flames.

"When I saw the suspect, that he was getting on fire, I freaked, of course, and without any hesitation I just jumped over all the seats," Schuringa told CNN on Saturday. "And I jumped to the suspect. I was thinking like, he's trying to blow up the plane."

Another passenger, Veena Saigal said Schuringa "was holding him from the back, with a strong grip."

"When he went back to his seat, we all clapped," Saigal said of Schuringa.

"I am grateful to the passengers and crew aboard Northwest Flight 253 who reacted quickly and heroically to an incident that could have had tragic results," Napolitano said in a statement Saturday.

This man deserves a hero's welcome, and certainly a few minutes of your time to listen to his story. So here's the story in English AND Dutch.



Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Avatar/Roger Dean Taste Test

Here's a side-by-side comparison of Roger Dean's art and the Avatar counterparts. Hrmmmm....


"Avatar's Savage Message" and the Prog-Rock Revival

"Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends..." Avatar is not only a hash of new-age ideas in a technicolor dreamcoat, it's a rehash of new-age ideas in said dreamcoat (not unlike the "chondritic meteorites of the seventies" that were the progressive rock bands.) Yes, Pink Floyd, and ELP beat Cameron to the punch, and it shows; not only are the visual designs digital animations of a Yes album, the philosophical themes are co-opted as well...including the contradictions.

You know, I went in knowing full well that I wouldn't like Avatar, given my Objectivist leanings. Yet I was intrigued by the Yes-like set designs (which are a little too close to Roger Dean's famous artwork to be coincidence.) So, as a fan of the music (not the philosophy) of Yes and their artwork, I went for the visual experience alone, which was well-worth the extra few dollars for the 3-D; I give credit where credit's due. And I wanted to like the story; there is a certain "sense of life" in those old Yes albums and artwork that appeals to me, that suggests a fantastic, imaginative, beautiful vision of the world. And even though I'm a global warming skeptic, I am concerned with the abuses of ecology that result in blight, and promote the idea of ecological harmony with technology as seen in the organic architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. That said, the story was SO horrid, from a philosophical standpoint. If it had stopped about halfway through (which would have been a regular film length, at that point), I might have been sympathetic to the Na'vi's fight for their home; politically, I am opposed to the government's seizure of land via "eminent domain." But what followed was basically a battle not between freedom and fascism, but a gang war between "Attila's and witchdoctors."

Fortunately, I'm spared the duty of detailing the mess that is this movie, as Ed Hudgins of The Atlas Society has already said what needs to be said in his review,"Avatar's Savage Message." Hudgings hones in on the film's philosophical sources, like the "noble savage" of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the new-age "Gaia Theory," and the irony of using technology to condemn technology. He concludes that "hopefully Cameron has so overplayed his hand with his politically correct plot that audiences will leave the comfort of the theater with an appreciation for technology and no desire to flee to a jungle or support the sort of public policies that would reduce our civilization to savagery."

WELCOME TO THE MACHINE

Hudgins's article frees me up to go off on a tangent on my pet topic, progressive rock. Since the comparison has already been made with the visuals to the album covers of Yes, it's interesting to note that the philosophy behind that band, especially that of lyricist Jon Anderson, is almost identical to the theme of Avatar. It's no coincidence that the "Gaia worship" involves floating islands, living planets, and luminescent creatures combined with the sci-fi trapping of Yes album covers, most notable Fragile, with the world giving off planetary spores and the exiles flying in wooden spaceships. (Jon Anderson took this concept further with his solo concept album, Olias of Sunhillow.)

What's even more interesting is that the paradox of using technology to condemn technology in Cameron's project is a familiar one to fans (and critics) of progressive rock. "Man versus machine" is a common theme of Yes songs such as "Machine Messiah" from Drama, which makes mention of William Blake's description of the "dark satanic mills" of industrial England from the hymn "Jerusalem." And by no means was Yes the only group to address this theme; Pink Floyd had "Welcome to the Machine," Alan Parsons and his Project gave us I Robot, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer took it to its apogee with the album Brain Salad Surgery. That album connects with the Yes theme via the album opener, "Jerusalem," and ends with "Karn Evil 9," a Matrix-like story of man conquered by machine. (Also notable is the H.R. Giger cover, which predated his work on Alien, and also brings us back to Cameron.) These bands employed state-of-the-art hi fi, toured with several tons of electronic equipment, and staged elaborate shows to tell tales of technology gone awry while reminiscing of a Romanticized pastoral England (the home of most prog-rock bands.) They, like Cameron, had no problem capitalizing on damning capitalism...


So, then, what is the common denominator of the paradox of progressive rock ideology and the ideology of Avatar? Even more curious; why are some Objectivists fighting over the message of freedom in this movie? It all goes back to the the sixties, of course. Just ask James Cameron:
"I have an absolute reverence for men who have a sense of duty, courage, but I’m also a child of the ’60s. There’s a part of me who wants to put a daisy in the end of the gun barrel. I believe in peace through superior firepower, but on the other hand I abhor the abuse of power and creeping imperialism disguised as patriotism. Some of these things you can’t raise without being called unpatriotic, but I think it’s very patriotic to question a system that needs to be corralled, or it becomes Rome."
This is the same sentiment behind Yes songs such as "Yours is No Disgrace," a song telling the horrors of Vietnam from the side of the Viet Cong. But it also brings up the paradox inherent in the hippie movement, the paradox of advocating freedom while simultaneously being sympathetic to ideas associated with Socialism or Communism. This is not so surprising, however, if one looks at the history of the Libertarian movement, which started, in part, as a reaction by certain members of the hippie movement who were turned off by the dominance of the New Left in the fight for civil rights, for example. Some were attracted to the freedom promised in the philosophy of Objectivism while simultaneously repulsed by what they considered the uncompromising, anti-hedonistic "fascism" of Ayn Rand. This is all detailed in Jeff Riggenbach's In Praise of Decadence. Without endorsing that book's conclusions (see my review) it does a valuable service in explaining the paradox. Ayn Rand's appreciation for religious themed works, or the works of socialistic Victor Hugo, were based on the work's benevolent "sense-of-life," which often clashed with their explicit philosophy. Hence, it's easy to see why freedom-loving people can be attracted to the "spirit of the sixties," the "rebellion" of rock music against oppression, the idea of "peace and love," or the admittedly lush, beautiful landscape of Avatar's Pandora.

It also explains why the themes don't integrate, why Avatar doesn't truly satisfy as a heroic battle for freedom, and is doomed philosophically by the very means it employs. People like Steve Jobs emerged from the hippie era to create the technology for James Cameron, only to turn that technology back upon itself. Unfortunately, however, if enough people listen, it is mankind that is ultimately doomed, for the world we will gain will not be the luminescent planet of Pandora, but the return to the primitive savagery, the "circle of life" that demands "survival of the fittest" and where man is simply meat.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Ode to Christmas Heroes (Slight Return)

To commemorate the Christmas day soldiers of the American Revolution, a sonnet that was written in 1936 by David Shulman.

Dedicated to the brave men and women serving on this day.

A hard, howling, tossing water scene. Strong tide was washing hero clean. "How cold!" Weather stings as in anger. O Silent night shows war ace danger!

The cold waters swashing on in rage. Redcoats warn slow his hint engage. When star general's action wish'd "Go!" He saw his ragged continentals row.

Ah, he stands - sailor crew went going. And so this general watches rowing. He hastens - winter again grows cold. A wet crew gain Hessian stronghold.

George can't lose war with's hand in; He's astern - so go alight, crew, and win!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"All I Want For Christmas..." Heroic Toy Nostaligia

Remember making a Christmas list as a kid? I remember anxiously getting my grubby little fingers on the department store "wishbook" catalogs, eagerly awaiting the Star Wars toy displays. They'd do it up in a big cinematic display of all the new figures and playsets. I especially remember getting the Ewok village one year. We certainly weren't rich, so it's the one time of the year I felt anything close to spoiled! So, in memory of childhood heroism in plastic, enjoy!








Sunday, December 20, 2009

Taking Christmas Back From Christ

"It's the season for earthly pleasures, and embracing the spectacle is no sin."

US News and World Report recently published ARI's Onkar Ghates' op-ed, "Commercialism Only Adds to Joy of the Holidays". He starts off by stating: "I'm an atheist, and I love Christmas. If you think that's a contradiction, think again." It's not a contradiction to anyone already familiar with Ayn Rand's defense of Christmas:

...The secular meaning of the Christmas holiday is wider than the tenets of any particular religion: it is good will toward men—a frame of mind which is not the exclusive property (though it is supposed to be part, but is a largely unobserved part) of the Christian religion.

The charming aspect of Christmas is the fact that it expresses good will in a cheerful, happy, benevolent, non-sacrificial way. One says: “Merry Christmas”—not “Weep and Repent.” And the good will is expressed in a material, earthly form—by giving presents to one’s friends, or by sending them cards in token of remembrance . . . .

One would have to be terribly depressed to resist the wonderful gaiety of that spectacle. -The Objectivist Calendar, Dec. 1976.

So, why would one be "terribly depressed" at such a spectacle? Because America's current corruption of capitalism is not Rand's "unknown ideal." I'd like to use Rand's own words to zoom in on WHY Christmas and commercialism have gotten a bad rap. In Atlas Shrugged, Dagny Taggart's comments on the problems at a fancy party mirror those of Christmas commercialism:

…do they think it's in reverse?…The lights and the flowers. Do they expect those things to make them romantic, not the other way around?...There wasn't a person there who enjoyed it…or who thought or felt anything at all. They moved about, and they said the same dull things they say anywhere. I suppose they thought the lights would make it brilliant.

Isn't that what we often see at Christmas? People running around, stressing about the details, the lights, the presents, the shopping, running up credit card bills on presents that they really can't afford, for which they'll pay with sleepless nights and bailouts for bank failures? They get so caught up in the concrete details, expecting those things to make them happy...but as Dagny observed, those things only have meaning if they are an outward manifestation of the joy within. It's no surprise, given the dominant anti-life morality, that people would feel betrayed when the happiness promised isn't delivered, and they blame all the commercial aspects and not their religious values. The depression and suicides associated with the holidays are not the result of Rand's commercial Christmas, but that of Gordon Gekko's consumer capitalism, where value is gained second-hand, or worse, a materialism divorced from values. It's the work of Immanuel Kant, with his sacrificial "call of duty." With that said, I'm going to conclude with some words from Onkar Ghate's op-ed:

...there is no commandment, "Thou shall buy a present for every one you know." This is the religious mentality of duty rearing its ugly head again. Do and buy only that which you can truly afford and enjoy; there are myriad ways to celebrate with loved ones without spending a cent.

Merry Christmas, Whoville.

SuperHero Saturnalia: Kiss Saves Santa

Now, here at Superhero Babylon, we distinguish true heroism from the abuse of the word to describe athletes, musicians, or kids who fall down wells. But when Kiss saves Santa, they earn a place as true rock and roll heroes. (Who else but Kiss, with their Jack Kirby style!). Best line: "Wait a second...everyone knows that pterodactyls can't stand the screech of a guitar!"


From FAMILY GUY:

Friday, December 18, 2009

What Fresh Hell is This?

"Kick a Jew Day." Really? REALLY????

I've
already said it, but I guess it needs repeating (or maybe to be beaten into their puny little brains by the Bear Jew?): CARTMAN IS NOT A ROLE MODEL. Maybe this is a good time to introduce my Inglourious Basterds review....(It is coming out on DVD, anyway...)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Clash of the Titans 2010 Trailer

Already I prefer the Harryhausen classic...this looks too slick for my taste, but I'll give it a chance...and there is that classic line..."Release the Kraken!"


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

SuperHero Saturnalia





Monday, December 14, 2009

An Ode To Christmas Heroes

I'm not a Christian, and consequently, not big on Christmas. Yet, I still consider the classic Christmas specials a guilty pleasure. So I thought I'd give a atheist shout-out to those Yuletide heroes who stand up for freedom and individualism in their own way: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Hermey the Misfit Elf, and Yukon Cornelius. Both Rudolph and Hermey were put down for being "different," while Yukon was looked down on for his lust of "silver and gold," but is really a capitalist hero. Santa and the other elves and reindeer were revealed to be nothing but tribal conformists (and possibly homophobic; Hermey is my personal bona-fide gay-icon.) Ever notice how angry they all are? Why was Santa so down on Rudolph from the get-go? If a shiny red nose sets him off, it makes me wonder about his criteria for his "naughty-or-nice" list...But our heroes not only save the day against the Bumble, but also help to find homes for the other misfit toys. So, Rudolph, with your nose so bright...Hermey, with your pearly whites...and Yukon with your gold-bug bite...shine on.


Thursday, December 3, 2009

Smallville: "Would You Kill Hitler as a Baby?" or, "Kneel Before Zod?"

The mid-season finale of Smallville put a Kryptonian spin on a popular hypothetical: "If you could go back in time, would you kill baby Hitler before he could start WWII?" " It's a question that I don't take seriously, personally, since there is no such thing as time-travel. But by questioning the question itself, we reveal more about the philosophical mindset that creates such a question.


In the case of Smallville, Hitler is replaced with General Zod, after Clark witnesses a future where Zod takes over. When returned to his own time, Clark decides to answer this question in the negative: instead of killing Zod, he decides to befriend him and change him in order to change the future. An interesting choice, considering the nature of the question. It's normally put to the questioned whether or not to KILL Hitler, not save him. Clark's choice got me thinking about the nature of the question in general, which is a fantasy assumption of omniscience.

The fantasy assumes that someone has special knowledge of the, whether via time travel or whatever, and can somehow go back and undo the past. By placing the person back in the past, with the knowledge that Hitler will go on to murder 6 million Jews, the questioned is assumed to be omniscient about the situation. It's really a useless question, practically speaking (at least until time travel is possible.) So the question is not really about "saving the world" as much as it is a moral test of the questioned. Would one kill for their ideals? Would one break the moral commandment "thou shall not kill," even if for "the greater good?" When the question is put to someone like Superman, a Christ-like figure who swears never to kill another "sentient" being, Christianity itself is put to the test. (As a song from ELP puts the question to "God": "How could you lose/six million Jews?")

Clark's decision to "save" Zod needs to be taken in context of the earlier versions of the Superman/Zod battles. General Zod is a Kryptonian as well, and Superman's equal in power. It's the morality that separates them. In the movie Superman II, Superman defeats Zod and his Phantom Zone allies by taking away their powers (their actual fate is left uncertain, as they are buried in the snow.) In the comic Superman #22, however, the fate is MOST certain: After Zod and his allies commit mass genocide, Superman, as judge, jury, and executioner, exposes them to Kryptonite, killing them. It's a decision he did not make lightly, as it violated his code. As a result, Superman exiles himself into space, wracked with guilt.

On Smallville, however, Clark decides to befriend Zod. Now, despite the impracticality of time travel ethics issues, it will help to assume it for this exercise in ethics. In the Hitler hypothetical, the question is put to kill or not to kill a child Hitler. Clark is seemingly omniscient on the matter: he saw it with his own two eyes. But if Clark knows it, and can try to change it, why can't Zod? If Clark can convince Zod of what happens, now Zod is also omniscient. The power of omniscience brings choice: if Zod speculates on what will happen, and genocide is not his original goal, he still acts as a moral agent with choice. If he plans for genocide, then he has already chosen. If, however, it's a pre-genocidal decision, as in the case of a child Hitler, and one decides to honor the question as framed, and kill him, the omniscient is presented with two situations: by being "omniscient," he is admitting that fate is inevitable, that omniscience brings no real choice; things will happen regardless.

However, if we are dealing with an omniscience that allows for change, then it is not true omniscience, but simply an awareness of possibility, which places the would-be-savior back to square one: he does not know whether or not the child Hitler, if informed of his future genocide, will still continue to choose that path. Free will is a killer for the concept of omniscience, and for godhood. The question tries to place the questioned in a god-like position with the assumed knowledge of fate. But without the power to change fate, the godhood itself needs to be questioned. It's assumed that the Christian god is all-powerful and can change fate, but this was not the case with the Greek or Norse gods, who could NOT escape the fates; hence, the "Twilight of the Gods."

So Clark's decision to befriend Zod is in keeping with the Judeo-Christian concept of forgiveness and choice. This is in keeping with the "self-sacrifice" of the Old Testament God, who incarnates himself in his "son," Jesus Christ. The self-sacrifice replaces man's need to offer up sacrifices to an angry God (and arguable, represents an "about face" by God, who is "atoning" for his past punishments of man, the actions of an "angry and vengeful God.") But, by NOT killing Zod, he recognizes that Zod has free will, while admitting that he is not truly omniscient, a problem for a would-be Christ symbol. Clark not only brings a twist to the "Kill Hitler" question, but also highlights the question/contradiction of free will in that question, as well as the Bible. If man has free will, yet if God is omniscient, and knows what choice man will make, then either we are only under the illusion of free will, or God is not truly omniscient.

What consequence will Clark's choice bring? Since we, somewhat omnisciently, know from comic lore that Zod will be Zod, we can surmise that Clark's friendship will probably not take, and he will again be confronted with the choice to kill or not to kill, and deal with the fallout of not killing Zod when he had the chance, and deal will with issues of "godhood" once again.

By this logic, the very question of "whether or not one should kill baby Hitler" becomes clearer in its intent. It's not really whether a question about stopping Hitler, or saving lives...it's to question whether or not the answer reveals a "god" complex, and unfairly suggests that since we are not omniscient, we are not qualified to make such judgements of life and death as humans, that free will of other trumps one's own self-defense. If one is Christian, the answer will probably reveal a deference to God, and decline to take on that responsibility. But if one is Jewish, or a Holocaust survivor, the answer may be a most certain "yes, of course!" If one is atheist, however, that opens up a variety of possible answers. In Libertarian terms, this is the principle of "non-initation of force" which prohibits the idea of a "pre-emptive strike."

An Objectivist answer, however, would acknowledge that man is not omniscient, and recognize free will. Because of the fantastic nature of the question, it would be rejected as a serious hypothetical. But if reframed, there is an answer. We can't time travel and undo the past. We aren't all-knowing. We can only deal with the choices in front of us. Objectivism does recognize free will, the potential for good and evil actions, and treats others in a way represented by that other sign on the dollar: the olive branch and the sword. The olive branch is extended as a sign of good faith, while the sword is a reminder: "Don't Tread on Me." If the situation presents a possible threat to life, with evidence that some individual or organization is planning to commit such an atrocity, the Objectivist morality would not prohibit self-defense, up to and including death. In that case, the answer would be: "judge, and prepare to be judged."