Detective Pikachu, Avengers, and the Appeal of Esoteric Entertainment

I don’t know anything about Pokémon, but my kids are into it, and so I’ve been checking our reviews of the new Detective Pikachu movie. The reviews from Pokémon fans are quite good. The negative reviews largely complain that it’s inaccessible to people unfamiliar with the source material. Along similar lines, one of the few consistent complaints in reviews of Avengers Endgame is that it’s a movie loaded with fan service.

This sort of criticism strikes me as odd. Why should we expect that cultural artifacts must be entirely transparent to people without knowledge of their context? So much of our cultural output is now embedded in richly imagined worlds with long and complex histories. That’s a great part of their appeal to fans. And while it makes sense for franchises to offer starting points for the unfamiliar—to provide good places to start developing familiarity—it’s unreasonable to demand that every entry play this role. Esoteric entertainment is tremendously entertaining for those initiates into its details, and it’s okay that the entertainment industry occasionally or even frequently produces esoteric entertainment. There’s so much stuff produced, after all, that you can always find something else to watch if this particular movie isn’t meant for you.

I imagine Detective Pikachu would be a good deal less fun for Pokémon fans if it spent the first twenty minutes telling you what Pokémon are or if it had an exposition dump every time a new pocket monster showed up. And Avengers: Endgame is the series finale of what amounts to a ten year, high budget TV show. Of course it’s going to be about what came before, and of course it’s not terribly worried about the needs of viewers who haven’t seen the twenty plus episodes that came before it.

Noting that a movie is inaccessible to newcomers is fine, and a movie review ought to note that. But it’s awfully weird to see reviewers say a movie is bad because it assumes prior knowledge or is targeted at people who already love the fictional universe. Our creative culture is rich enough and with enough variety that we can cater to different tastes.


Loyalty versus Obsequiousness Through the Lens of Donald Trump

A loyal person is never an obsequious person.

Donald Trump demands loyalty from those around him. It’s why he fired James Comey, why he’s mad at Jeff Sessions, and why he pulled John Brennan’s security clearance. He makes everyone passing through his orbit sign non-disclosure agreements, a kind of explicit loyalty oath by way of legal documents. Even his kids get in on it.

Yet, for someone so concerned with loyalty, Donald Trump doesn’t know quite what loyalty is. I don’t just mean in the sense that he believes loyalty to be unilateral. For Trump, you are loyal to him. But he is never loyal to you. It’s not clear he understands what bilateral loyalty would entail.

No, the real problem with Trump’s notion of loyalty is that he’s confused the term with obsequiousness. The former is a virtue, the latter a vice. Loyalty is earned, and continues through a relationship of respect. I am loyal to you because you deserve my loyalty through your continuing demonstration of the characteristics that earned it in the first place.

Obsequiousness, on the other hand, is evidence of a failure of character on the part of the obsequious. Where loyalty comes from a recognition of the worthy traits of another, obsequiousness comes from an internalized sense of servility. Loyalty is about me recognizing your lofty traits. Obsequiousness is instead about me not having strong and worthy traits of my own.

That Trump in fact demands the latter is a telling condemnation of both his personal character and his abilities as a leader. It is a sign of the deep insecurity that is perhaps the president’s single most defining trait. A loyal friend remains loyal in part by holding you to the standards that earned you his loyalty in the first place. Loyalty elevates both sides in the relationship. But Trump sees no need to be elevated, because he desperately wants to see himself as the best there’s ever been, while at the same time harboring constant and crippling doubts about the truth of that belief.

That’s why he instead demands obsequiousness. He needs his underlings to praise him, to always remain supine. Deviation must be punished, harshly and thoroughly and without remission until the offender resumes his groveling posture and empty flattery. To allow anything else would be to admit that loyalty is contingent on quality, and that Trump is maybe not as quality as his fragile ego has convinced himself he is.

Donald Trump is a failure of a man. He has worldly success, yes, but as a person, as a moral being, as a figure to be admired, he falls breathtakingly short. His confusion of loyalty for obsequiousness is but one piece of evidence that deep down, wherever a tiny remnant of his humanity might be found, he recognizes that truth.


On Civility in Politics

Shunning is sometimes appropriate, and politics shouldn’t change that.

Should we shun political opponents? Should we refuse to associate with them, or to serve them in our businesses? The matter with Sarah Sanders getting kicked out of a restaurant has a lot of people staking out what strike me as poorly examined positions on these questions, positions rooted in the silly notion that “we shouldn’t let politics come between us.”

The short answers to the above questions is, yes, of course we should shun political opponents — when their behavior or beliefs are of the sort worthy of shunning. And, yes, we should refuse to associate with them or serve them in our businesses — when their behavior or beliefs are of the sort worthy of such refusal. That their behavior or beliefs are motivated by politics, as opposed to some other value system or ideology or motivation, is immaterial, and arguments to the contrary merely grant ugly political beliefs an unearned and dangerous buffer from the kind of moral opprobrium we find perfectly acceptable when applied to ugly beliefs of other origins.

It is, of course, possible for political disagreement to exist without it stemming from shun-worthy beliefs, and this fact is too often ignored by partisans. But that doesn’t mean that all political disagreement is of an honest and respectable sort. Sometimes people are bad people and their bad people-ness is reflected in the political views they hold. In such instances, we should still treat them as bad people.

If you think it’s okay to kick someone out of a restaurant who holds racist beliefs, because you don’t want to associate with someone so morally repugnant, then you should also think it’s okay to kick someone out who channels those racist beliefs or anti-immigrant beliefs through politics. If you think it’s okay to refuse to associate with someone you know to be morally corrupt and dishonest, you should also think it’s okay to refuse to associate with someone who puts their moral corruption and dishonesty to use defending the actions and policies of the morally corrupt and dishonest.

I wouldn’t want Sanders in my house. I wouldn’t be friendly to her if I met her. She’s a morally corrupt and fundamentally dishonest person. She’s exactly the kind of person I choose not to associate with and teach my children not to associate with. That she was kicked out of a private business instead of a house changes none of that.


An open letter to alt-right, paleo-libertarian, “cultural Marxism”-hating, red-pill-popping dudes.


It’s come to my attention that you’re worried about the direction of this country. Specifically, you’re worried that America’s culture is shifting in ways you see as anathema to America’s values, by which you mean your values. The values of white men of a certain sort.

And I hear you. You’re upset, and you’re pretty sure you have reason to be upset, and that reason has something to do with women and the Jews and political correctness, maybe? Anyway, I want to let you in on something the rest of us, who don’t so much share your concerns, are already aware of, but you appear not to be.

Here goes.

America is not abandoning your culture, or what you imagine to be your culture, or what you imagine to be the true American culture, because of some Jewish or black or gay or feminist conspiracy, nor is it because of women or the feminization of men or social justice warriors or atheism or people eating soy.

American is abandoning your values and your culture because your values and your culture kind of suck, aren’t terribly appealing, don’t contribute much to the world, don’t lead to much in the way of happiness and satisfaction but instead to resentment and rage and cultural and social impotence, and are, frankly, just really, really boring.

America is over you. Deal with it.



Making the World Better

Do libertarians want to destroy social bonds so we can live in a world without cooperation?

If you believe Nick Hanauer and Eric Liu, libertarians are nuts. In a recent commentary, they gave a litany of reasons for “Why libertarian society is doomed to fail.” The trouble is, they’ve managed not only to misunderstand libertarianism, but also to ignore the very problems libertarians see in the authors’ own preferred big government solutions.

Hanauer and Liu attack “radical libertarianism,” which they define as “the ideology that holds that individual liberty trumps all other values.” Yet this isn’t quite right, whether we’re talking about moderate or radical libertarianism. Liberty isn’t the ultimate value. But it is the ultimate political value. It holds this status not because we shouldn’t care about other values, but because a state that aims at liberty will enable us to realize much more of what we value than one that aims at something else. Whether the goal is wealth, happiness, health, culture or any other value we hold dear, political liberty will bring us more of it than officious government.

The authors then call out libertarians for our “defective” theory of human nature. They tell us libertarians believe “humans are wired only to be selfish, when in fact cooperation is the height of human evolution.” But libertarians embrace free markets and voluntary association, which both require and encourage cooperation. What libertarians are skeptical of is not cooperation, but the use of, and threat of, force to coerce people into taking part in schemes they don’t approve of, or that harm them, or that aren’t as efficient or effective as other means. Is it “cooperation” when the state forces poor, minority children into failing schools? Is it “cooperation” when politically connected businesses get regulators and legislators to craft rules in their favor? Is it “cooperation” when politicians send young men and women to die in unnecessary wars? Cooperation, far from being anathema to libertarianism, is in fact a core libertarian value.

Hanauer and Liu tell us that libertarians believe “societies are efficient mechanisms requiring no rules or enforcers.” Yet no libertarian thinks society can function without codes of conduct and methods for enforcing them. Libertarians believe strongly in the rule of law — much more so, in fact, than many on the left and right who would carve out exceptions in statutes and regulations to benefit political friends and powerful interest groups.

The authors also make a mistake when they claim that libertarians believe rolling back the state is the solution to every problem. It’s not. Rather, it is often the way we can enable solutions, in whatever form they may take. Private individuals are capable of amazing things if given the opportunity to exercise their ingenuity. Too often, the state stands in the way, protecting established industries and special interests by preventing the growth of new and better ones.

This isn’t a path to progress Hanauer and Liu are willing to entertain, however. Instead, they see the very act of shifting power from government to private citizens as destructive and necessarily at odds with the very idea of creation. Yet we need only look at the inventions and discoveries that have radically improved our lives to see how much creation occurs outside of the direct control of the state. Libertarians demand policies to accelerate that, not to undermine it.

Defenders of the status quo are always quick to label as unreasonable those who advocate for a different and better world. There was a time when activists for democracy were called unreasonable, and told that turning over power to the people was a laughable idea. “Reasonable people” argued for solutions within the systems of monarchy and theocracy. Hanauer and Liu are just modern versions of these “reasonable people.”

Libertarians believe the status quo isn’t good enough. Not because we’re selfish or destructive or anti-community, but because we want to make the world better for everyone — and believe freedom is the best catalyst for progress.

This article appeared on The Wichita Eagle on September 17, 2013.


America’s Hyperbole Problem

Why our culture has become so exhausting.

Ours has become a culture of hyperbole. Nothing characterizes American social interaction, mediated through politics and social media, more than our need to assure ourselves, and broadcast to others, that whatever is happening now — whatever currently grasps our unexamined attention — is the most, greatest, acutest of whatever has ever been.

Everything — sexism, racism, political differences, economic differences — is a war. A war on women. A war on blacks. A war on the poor or on the elderly or on immigrants or on Christmas. We are all soldiers for equality, religion, ideology. We engage not in debate, but in skirmishes. We face not interlocutors, but enemy combatants.

This war footing turns our interactions toxic and destructive. Twitter shame mobbing, or counter protesting, or who we allow to speak on our campuses, accomplishes little of value but causes great harm, because we’re fighting the good fight, no matter the costs and no matter the stakes — which are, let’s face it, typically enormously low.

We do this because it’s fun. Because it makes us feel like important players in battles of significance, instead of the playacting trolls we so frequently actually are. None of it matters, except insofar as we’ve opted to destroy livelihoods or lives or just faces when we thrill in punching instead parley. But we can’t admit we do it for fun, because that would be admitting we’re not at war, not really, but instead seek only the rush of pretending to be foot soldiers in whatever Battle for the Fate of Civilization strikes our fancy at the soon-to-be-forgotten moment.

Without the belief in culture war, we’d burn out. Adrenaline takes its toll. With the belief in culture war, we keep up this destructive and deranged momentum through an irrational sense of moral urgency. “This matters,” we tell ourselves and signal to our tribes. “We can’t stop now, lest we capitulate to them.”

As one side stumbles drunkenly into this process, the other ratchets up its hyperbole engines in response, and the cycle accelerates, tearing through decency and respect and social bonds. Nobody wants to be the one who calls a halt, who halts themselves, for the war of the moment must be won, and besides, it’s all so gratifying and fun.

Except it’s not. Not at all. It’s degrading and the fun is false, like the rush of skydiving without a parachute. What’s needed is a culture-wide calming down, a letting out of breath. What’s needed is an understanding that things aren’t as dire or urgent or aggressively bad or dangerous as we’ve worked ourselves up to believe.

Can we do that? I don’t know. But you can. You can step away from your hyperbolic guns and find something better to do.


Has There Ever Been a Box Office Smash Scifi Movie With Less Cultural Impact Than Avatar?

We’re on our way to four(!) Avatar sequels, which is probably the same as number of people excited about Avatar sequels.

It’s pretty striking, really, how quickly Avatar vanished from the public consciousness. The movie came out at the end of 2009, and in the years since, we’ve seen really no lasting attempts to keep the universe alive. There aren’t any Avatar toys, novels, or comics being sold. No video game franchise. People don’t wear Avatar t-shirts, or reference it except in occasional satire. Nobody’s wondering what the Avatar universe holds, or about the backstories of its characters. It was a pretty 3D movie, but otherwise entirely forgettable. And “forgotten” is exactly what happened to it, except in the mind of James Cameron and as trivia about top box office receipts.

Avatar’s disappearance happened so fast, with so little cultural impact, that I got to wondering whether any other movie comes close.

The answer is “No.” Avatar looks rather unique in this regard. To figure it out, I went to Box Office Mojo’s list of all time top “Sci-Fi — Adventure” movies, and sorted it by estimated ticket sold. Avatar sits at #5. People bought 97,000,000 tickets to see it. Here’s what its company in the Top 20 looks like, skipping movies that are sequels to films already in the list, and so piggybacking on their parent’s cultural impact.

  • Star Wars
  • E.T.
  • Jurassic Park
  • Back to the Future
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  • 2001: A Space Oddessy
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Star Wars, of course, has more cultural influence than any movie ever made. The others either continue to live in public consciousness, are considered eminently rewatchable classics, or have inspired entire genres. The only that might not fit this are the last two. Guardians of the Galaxy is part of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, and so it’s impossible to judge what its impact would’ve been without membership in the MCU. (My bet, however, is that without the MCU tie-in, it wouldn’t have cracked the Top 20 in the first place.) Star Trek: The Motion Picture itself is something of a forgotten film, but it kicked off the Star Trek movie franchise, and there’s no doubting the importance of that. Avatar, which falls between E.T. and Jurassic Park in box office receipts, stands alone as leaving not a ripple.

And it’s not like Cameron has no experience making culturally influential films. He gave us Aliens, the Terminator movies, and Titanic. That’s nothing to sneeze at.

The easy answer is that Avatar was just a spectacle. People didn’t see it for its characters, story, or worldbuilding. They saw it because it was the first major 3D movie to make full use of that medium. But still, really popular scifi stuff tends to take on a life of its own. That’s the nature of scifi fandom. The fans want to live in the world, explore it more, expand upon it. Or, at the very least, reference it incessantly. And yet, nothing.

Now 3D’s been done. We’ve all seen Avatar. Four more Avatars will be nothing more than four more Avatars, without the breakthrough to drive ticket sales. Still, the movie’s absence from pop culture remains interesting. It’s not even parodied. To make something so big and yet so forgettable is, itself, a rather remarkable achievement.


Maleness, Whiteness, Respect, and Donald Trump

Culture is shifting under the feet of white males, and many of them aren’t reacting well to it.

Much of white male American has long felt it was owed respect because of its whiteness and maleness.

And for decades, they pretty much got it. Now that’s changed, with people recognizing that respect has nothing to do with race or gender.

For many of us white males, this hasn’t been a problem, because we draw our sense of self worth from other things and offer our fellow citizens reasons to respect us that aren’t our whiteness and our maleness.

But a segment of white males in fact do draw their sense of self worth from their race and gender, and so can’t cope with this change.

This is what drives them to the alt-right, to Trumpism, to feeling threatened by kneeling black athletes.

They fear — many of them rightly — that if whiteness and maleness don’t earn respect, they’ll have little else to earn it with.

That’s scary. For them, yes, but also for the rest of us affected by their raging against the loss of unearned respectability.

This is why it’s encouraging that, for instance, athletes aren’t cowed by Trump’s bullying. And why all of us should applaud them.

So #TakeAKnee. Not just to protest police violence, but also because not giving in is how we move society in a better direction.


How Aristotle Predicted Twitter and the Alt-Right

Moral development can’t begin until the passions are under control

I’m rereading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics for the umpteenth time for a book club with some of my colleagues, and a passage early on struck me as informative about much that’s going on in American culture today. It comes in Book 1 of the Ethics, and for those classics nerds among you, falls at 1095a.

It’s important to note that Aristotle sees his project, in the Ethics, as providing not just a moral theory — as philosophical texts on ethics do today — but a broader guide to leading a good life. The Ethics is an instruction manual, meaning it’s meant to be used by an audience. Thus, in the passage, Aristotle is setting out who that audience is.

Hence a young man is not a proper hearer of [these] lectures…; for he is inexperienced in the actions that occur in life, but its discussions start from these and are about these; and, further, since he tends to follow his passions, his study will be in vain and unprofitable, because the end aimed at is not knowledge but action. And it makes no difference whether he is young in years or youthful in character; the defect does not depend on time, but on his living, and pursuing each successive object, as passion directs. For to such persons, as to the incontinent, knowledge brings no profit; but to those who desire and act in accordance with a rational principle knowledge about such matters will be of great benefit.

Think about that passage in the context of contemporary debates about what’s going on on college campuses with free speech, safe spaces, the airing and censoring of disfavored ideas, etc. Or in regards to the negative reactions to NFL players kneeling during the anthem, the backlash to taking down of Confederate statues, or, on the technology front, the shaming and call-out culture we see on Twitter.

Aristotle believes children — which isn’t age limited, as it can mean also childish adults — aren’t ready to study ethics, which for him means something broader than morality, something closer to the principles of how to lead a good life. Children lack the life experience to understand what ethics aims at. And they’re too ruled by their passions, for which the end is action, not knowledge. Children want to live in their passions and operationalize them, but they’re too ruled by them to care much about the how and why of their exercise.

It struck me that this sheds light on the behaviors mentioned above, all of which seem to have in common the embrace of simple “feelings,” which are trusted and acted upon without critical examination, and with a lashing out at anyone who would ask us to consider more carefully their source or the actions that ought to flow from them.

In a sense, then, these aspects of culture might be the result of a lack of moral growth on the part of a range of American subcultures. Made worse, perhaps, by the incentives that exist in the online world (chasing likes and retweets, or the fun of joining a Twitter mob), which actively discourage the kind of reflection on passions and ends Aristotle thinks is necessary for the study of ethics.

In other words, I’ve come to think that quite a lot of what’s wrong with American culture — or at least some of its most vocal subcultures — is that we’re stuck in an indefinite adolescence. We’ve become uninterested in rationally examining our beliefs and behaviors so as to learn how to lead good and ethical lives, and instead are interested only in living out our (unexamined) passions.

America, I fear, is becoming a nation of unethical children.

I’ve written a follow-up to this post, exploring one of the ways this has played out in American political culture:

View at


Free Speech and the Whims of College Kids

Hadley is still a child, and so administrators should listen to her, but they should’ve give her an equal say in the institution.

When I was in middle school, my history class staged a walkout. I don’t recall the reasons, but I’m sure at the time we all thought them righteous and just. I’m also sure that if I remembered those reasons today, I’d find them silly. Embarrassing. Childish, in a word, because that’s exactly what we were at the time: children.

That seventh grade walkout came to mind as I watched Michael Moynihan’s recent report on Evergreen State College for VICE News.

The details baffle, but for my purposes here they’re largely irrelevant. The short version goes: a professor objected to a stunt put on by the students, a stunt they thought was righteous and just, and now they want him fired because he’s clearly too filled with hate, and thus too opposed to righteousness and justice, to continue teaching at Evergreen State.

The professor stood up to the students, as he should, but the administration, while not acceding to their demands, has allowed the students to berate the dean and the professor, physically menace both, and generally get treated as equal players at the table when it comes to how Evergreen State, the institution, should address whatever issues set the students off so.

The wave of similar campus tantrums has attracted quite a lot of press and think pieces, offering quite a lot of theories about the cause. Do America’s youth no longer value free speech? Is this a variety of “social justice” morality run amok? How can we right the next generation’s ideological course?

But such thinking goes wrong because it fails to grasp a key ontological point about the perpetrators. Namely, college students are still children.

Of course, college students will tell you different, and many will be insulted by this label. But all children believe, in the moment, that they are not children. When my seventh grade peers and I walked out of history class, we didn’t see ourselves as mere kids, assessing our situation through our underdeveloped lenses, and with our underdeveloped critical reasoning. Instead, we were heroes standing up to injustice. We were roleplaying the plight of the oppressed and playacting a stand against our oppressor. In short, we still had growing up to do.

So do 19 and 20 year olds. That’s why they’re in college. A university takes kids fresh out of high school and provides them an enviroment in which they can learn the skills and develop the traits that will allow them to become adults. But they’re not there yet.

How do I know they’re not there? Because I was in college once, I was 19 and 20 and 21 once. I thought, at the time, that I had it all figured out. But now, as a 38 year old, it’s obvious that I didn’t. I was still a kid. The same’s true for everyone old enough to actually be an adult. Ask them. With age and experience and perspective, they can look back at their college years with clarity.

The blame, then, for the rise of campus protests lies not with the students — they are, after all, still children, still with growing to do — but with the faculty and administrators who refuse to see them as they are, and instead pretend they’re fully adults. The adults on campus are the adults on campus, and the relationship they have with their students should be the same as at any other level of schooling. To act otherwise, to humor these outbursts, is to fail in the very purpose of education: to teach children how to be functioning adults.

These Evergreen State students will grow up and look back on their youthful outbursts the same way all of us look back on our. That is, unless the adults around them, tasked with helping them in their growing up, convince them, through misplaced humoring and an unreasonable fear of being perceived as condescending, that they’re already there.