The “Santa is real” narrative

This is a repost of a short article I wrote in 2012.  Yes, at one time I wrote short articles.  Enjoy.

Last year, I talked about how lots of kids actually believe in Santa.  This was surprising to me, because I  previously thought Santa-belief was a just as much a myth as Santa.

In particular, I remember lots of Santa-related movies, where the kids believe in Santa but the adults do not, and it’s the kids who are right.  This is mostly a general impression, but to name a specific example, I watched The Santa Clause (starring Tim Allen) several times when I was young.  These movies did not strike me as strange at the time, but they strike me as strange now.

The moral of those movies was essentially, “Santa is real, and you kiddies should believe in him.”  It just seems like a rather wacky moral to me.  It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing which is appropriate to kids.

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Seeing Job from both sides

The interesting thing about the biblical story of Job is that it permits diametrically opposed interpretations. From an atheist point of view, it’s a terrible story about how terrible God is. From a Jewish or Christian point of view, they may have multiple ways of reading it, but they certainly wouldn’t see it as a terrible story about a terrible God.

But what I really want to talk about is A Serious Man, a 2009 black comedy by the Coen brothers.  A Serious Man is a retelling of Job, and just like Job it permits diametrically opposed interpretations.  But unlike the book of Job, people on both sides can enjoy A Serious Man.

The book of Job

The book of Job is about a man named Job who has had a very fortunate life.  Satan tells God that the only reason Job praises him, is because of Job’s good fortune and wealth. God accepts the challenge, and allows Satan to take away Job’s wealth, his children, and his health. But Job still remains faithful to God. Thus proceeds a TL;DR dialogue between Job and his friends, where they argue that Job must have sinned, and should repent. At the end, God speaks to Job, and he doesn’t need to explain himself, he laid the foundations of the earth! In the end, Job is blessed with twice as much wealth as he started with, and with new children.

The book of Job is a popular target among atheists, because it’s just so easy. God is obviously a jerkass, allowing Job to be punished for a petty bet. God’s defense is like an abusive parent saying “Who was it that brought you into this world?” And the happy ending seems to brush aside Job’s dead children. I have to strain to see this story from the other side, but we’re gonna try.

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Great classics

I consider myself very “anti-classics”. Which is to say that whenever someone praises the great “classics” of literature, such as Shakespeare, or Tolkien, or the Bible, I have a negative gut reaction. And it’s not so much that I think classics are bad, if only it were it so simple to explain. Some classics are good, some are bad–all as a matter of subjective preference–and to call something a “classic” is simply no recommendation in my eyes.

I have had difficulty translating these thoughts to ideas, and ideas to words. But it recently came up when I went with a group to see a small stage production of Hamlet, and we also had some conversations afterwards. So I’m sharing some of my thoughts on Hamlet and Shakespeare to illustrate my viewpoint.

To be clear, we all enjoyed the play. I hadn’t seen Hamlet since my high school put on a musical version of it themed on Queen, so it was nice to see it again, now with a more developed taste in literature. To the extent I complain about any aspects of the play, I have to say there’s a special appeal in having something to complain about, so it should not be taken as evidence of dislike.

By merit or by accident?

After we watched the play, someone in our group wondered aloud how Hamlet became so great a classic. In response, some of us speculated that it was a historical accident. These things happen! For example, the reason the Mona Lisa is so famous is because it was stolen (link is to video). For the two years it was missing, the media talked up the Mona Lisa as particularly great art–with textual descriptions rather than photos. After its recovery, its fame was self-perpetuating.

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The intelligence hierarchy

Never Let Me Go is a book about a bunch of unusual kids, who grow up without really understanding how unusual they are. They go to a special school, and the school is particularly intent on having the kids show creativity, and produce artwork. The reason the school wants artwork is… oh, I shouldn’t spoil it. The kids don’t really understand why. All they understand is that to have an artwork chosen by the school officials is an honor.

And therefore it is a basis for social hierarchy.

To the kids, art isn’t an outlet for creativity, it isn’t a matter of amusement, but a matter of achievement. There’s one kid who drew a silly picture one of an elephant one time, and as a result the kids perceive him as lagging behind. For years, he gets teased, pranked, and throws huge tantrums. He finds peace when a teacher takes him aside and tells him it’s okay to be less creative. The other kids are scandalized by the very idea.

I’ve been thinking about this story, and how it resembles our own situation. The truth is, we grew up into a system that we didn’t really understand, but where we understood that being smart was an achievement. We’ve had personal experience building social hierarchies around perceived intelligence, before even understanding what a social hierarchy is, or why intelligence is important. We’ve pinned the labels “smart” or “stupid” on other people, and had them pinned to ourselves, often on flimsy evidence, and these labels have governed the early years of our lives.

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Authorial intent is magic!

This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2015, although I changed the title.

The author is magic

Death of the Author” is a famous 1967 essay by Roland Barthes regarding the interpretation of literature.  He argues that the intentions and context of the author are irrelevant when interpreting the author’s work.  At most, the author provides a single interpretation, which must compete with all other interpretations.

Intent! It’s fucking magic!” is an influential 2010 essay by Kinsey Hope regarding the moral judgment actions.  There’s a common circumstance wherein a person tries to justify their mistakes by emphasizing their good intentions.  The essay snarkily observes that good intentions have the strange and magical power to erase all harms.  “Intention isn’t magic” has become a common saying among activists.

Though the two essays live in completely different contexts (literary criticism vs moral discourse), I would argue that the sentiments behind each are substantially similar.  Indeed, in the modern age, when we increasingly look at popular works of fiction through moral lenses, and when “actions” often consist of tweets or other comments, it is questionable whether they even live in different contexts.

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Star Wars wars against itself

[cn: mild Star Wars: The Last Jedi spoilers]

I dislike mainstream movies almost categorically. They cost too much to make, which means they need to appeal to broad audiences, and it turns out that broad audiences really like Hero’s Journey stories full of standard archetypes and tropes. The original Star Wars trilogy was a case in point, so you might imagine I don’t care for it.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi was okay though. One of the things I liked about it was its clear rejection of the Hero’s Journey. Usually in these stories–and Star Wars stories in particular–you have the hero take a huge risk, and achieve a brilliant victory. The Last Jedi makes nods to this trope, by focusing on characters who take huge risks to strike at the enemy’s critical weakpoint. But the characters fail, and in the process they screw up the more intelligent plans of Vice Admiral Holdo. (Later, Holdo herself takes a huge risk to strike at the enemy’s weakpoint, but I won’t dwell on this bit of thematic incoherence because I’m sure someone in the comments will explain how it all makes sense.)

Because of its rejection of conventional heroism, many critics have argued that The Last Jedi has progressive themes. The Guardian calls it “triumphantly feminist“. Vanity Fair says it offers a “condemnation of mansplaining“. Another critic says “toxic masculinity is the true villain“. Even anti-feminist fans agree, resulting in some backlash.

My reaction is, The Last Jedi sure is rejecting something, but is it really toxic masculinity? The whole idea of small band of heroes taking a huge risk to achieve a linchpin victory, that’s something that mostly happens in fiction (and Star Wars in particular), not in the real world. Neither the rejection nor acceptance of that trope seems to say anything about the real world. It’s just a dispute between works of fiction.  I agree more with the critic who says The Last Jedi doesn’t care what you think about Star Wars.

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