Category Archives: Culture

Protagonists, Heroes, and Anti-Heroes

One of the frustrations and beauties of the arts is that they are subjective. There is no quantifiable standards to most of that arts that can be applied for a good/bad judgment, it is matters of taste and opinion. What follows here are my opinions on how you differ the roles of Protagonist, Hero, and Anti-Hero. I realized that my definitions are not quite in line with what most people use and that’s just fine, but if they make sense to you, please feel free to use them.

When we talk about story these three terms get tossed about quite a bit; Hero, Protagonist, and Anti-Hero but I don’t feel everyone is using them in the same manner. I am going to discuss this in relation to the lead character of a story, but side stepping just what it means to be the lead character. That is a subject for its own essay.

A hero is a character whose goals and means are aligned with what is considered by society to be good. Certainly Superman fits the definition. His goals are justice, to protect those unable to protect themselves, and to bring wrong doers to justice. To achieve his goal Superman will not do evil. He defines that as no more violence than is required, to not kill, and so on. Many western ‘good guys’ are heroes. Will Kane in High Noon has the goal of saving the town from Frank Miller, and you know what sort of man Frank Miller is. However to achieve his goal he will not blow up the train with innocents aboard, he will not hide and gun Frank Miller down from ambush. The code of the hero binds him in means as tightly as it does in goals.

A protagonist is simply the lead character in a story who has a major objective and faces serious opposition in achieving those objectives. Morality has no place in the assignment of the category ‘protagonist.’ A Hero is often a protagonist, but a protagonist need not be a hero. Consider for example Walter Neff from the classic film Double Indemnity. His goals are clear, he wants the girl and he wants the money, these goals by themselves are neither good nor bad, but to achieve them he is willing to commit fraud and murder. Neff is no hero but he is clearly the protagonist.

Anti-Hero is the term that I think is most abused. Too often I see it applied to a protagonist that has amoral or immoral means and objectives. I have people describe Walter Neff from Double Indemnity as an anti-hero, or Walter White from Breaking Bad, but these characters while protagonists are not anti-heroes as I see that category. To me the anti-hero is someone who still has the hero’s objectives, but has abandoned the restrictions on how those objectives are achieved. A classic example of this is Harry Callahan in the Dirty Harry franchise of films. Callahan in Dirty harry never is self-serving, his goal is a societal good the reduction or elimination of crime, particularly violent crime. However to get to his end Harry will use any means at his disposal, torture for example ceases to be an objective wrong and becomes tool the anti-hero deems allowable for his just goal. Westerns and police drams lead the way in placing the anti-hero in the forefront of American Culture but the concept of a hero whose hands are not tied quickly spread fast throughout popular culture that now the very thought of a hero who will not make the ‘hard choices’ to save the day feels antiquated. Think about how much Captain America seems out of step with the world he now inhabits.

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On Being a Good Citizen

Democracy requires good citizen, but what does it mean to be a good citizen? Certainly not that a citizen should shut up and do as they are told. That’s not citizenship that servitude.

A good citizen is one who is informed and engaged in the civic life of their democracy. Now not all citizen have equal talents, time, or resources and so therefore the criteria for informed and engaged is a highly variable one. For some it means making sure you know the issues and candidates when you vote, I would say that is the bare minimum, but with greater ability and resources come more challenging standards.

Volunteering, for work both charitable and political in another means by which someone can contribute to the civic body and be a good citizen. Public service is also a means of active participation, both in local and national matters civilian or military.

Advocacy for cause and issues is another route to participation. In the era of social media it is one that is becoming easier and easier for people to participate in. Those with platforms that amplify their voices, extend their reach have a greater obligation to advocate issues and concerns to the greater body politic.

That brings me to what is going on today.

There are a number of voices out there shouting at public persons that those persons should ‘shut up and sing.’ As though choosing a life of the arts has someone removed their rights and duties as citizens. I reject such a notion categorically. Anyone who has read my blog knows I have a passion for the arts and for politics. I am never going to shut up about either.

To be clear I am not saying that speech should be or can ever be free of consequences. I make a statement advocating the concept that Trump is likely to be a terrible president and perhaps someone decides then and there that they will never buy my stuff.

I won’t lose any sleep. That is the sort of thing that discussing politics will invoke and I would never tell that person that they are wrong, because they are not. The hypothetical person has their principals, their deeply held convictions and if that means they shun my writing, that’s their call.

I do call out those who insist that artists and celebrities should stay silent. It is not anyone’s place to silence a citizen. Criticize what they say, call on others to voice their opinions, even boycotts, are all fair game, and if they happen to you or me, that is the price for advocacy, but never call for silence. Never for someone to ‘shut up and sing.’

We are citizens, not servants.

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SHERLOCK’s Evolution

2010 the BBC release into the wild an adaptation of Conan Doyle’s classic detective the television show; SHERLOCK. My wife, who loves all things British, and I caught the series from the start and were immediately entranced. By coincidence just a few weeks earlier I had decided to read A Study in Scarlet, the first adventure of Sherlock Holmes and his trusted aid and friend Doctor John Watson. The premier episode of Sherlock was titled A Study in Pink and it was a direct adaptation of that first novel.

Having the original novel fresh in my mind deepened my application of what the show endeavored to achieve; an adaptation of the original stories but in a contemporary setting. They navigated the tricky channels of this news course. Many of the things that made Holmes so far ahead of his time in 1887 are now simply standard police procedure, finding a way to bring in the character’s brilliance and unorthodox views was a challenge that I think the writers, producers, directors, and cast achieved.

Last night my wife and I went to our local movie theater for the series four finale of Sherlock. I had a thoroughly good time but it has occurred to me that an evolution has transpired over the course of four season and seen years. Sherlock has transitioned from one genre to another.

A Study in Pink, while populated by extreme characters such as Sherlock and Mycroft, sits firmly within the genre Detective Fiction. Last night’s episode, The Final Problem with it fantastic devices, super-human abilities, and a villain toying with the heroes by means of death traps, seems to me as something that belong in the genre of Superhero Fiction.

The Final Problem is not the transition, that occurred some time ago but it did not happen all at once. Gradually, as the stakes rose, as the antagonists grew and heroes swelled to outpace them, the stories slipped further and further from being about a man who can deduce to about the struggles between people with abilities beyond that of normal humans.

Mind you I am not complaining. I enjoyed my excursion last night and regret none of the time I have spent watching the series, but I do think that this change in tone is something worth commenting upon.

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Gravity Always Asserts Itself

As a kid I watched countless hours of Warner Brother cartoons and among my favorite were the Roadrunner and the Coyote. Invariably at some point in his futile attempts to catch the Roadrunner the Coyote would find himself suddenly without ground beneath his feet. For the first few moments, everything was fine, but once became aware of the fact, gravity took command and his fall began.

For more than six year the Republican Party has railed against the ACA and encouraged their political base to view it as an evil that must be destroyed. That destruction has been their premier promise in every election cycle and now, with control of both congress and the White House, it is within their grasp. However, like the Coyote they have discovered that the ground beneath their feet is not what they believed it to be.

Immediate repeal means throwing twenty million or more people off of their insurance. Even if you are not inclined to think of the news media as hostile to conservatives there is no universe where that plays well on the evening news and with number that large nearly every person will know someone who lost their coverage. It will be a painful, personal, and powerful storm of anger.

Not repealing means enraging the base, encouraging the dreaded ‘primary opponent’ that all officials in safe districts fear, and sparking intra-party warfare between the more pragmatic and Freedom Caucus wings.

Repeal and delay, vote for repeal but word it so that the effect occurs two, four, or more years down the road throws a hand grenade into the individual insurance market. What company will want to participate when the market will cease to exist in just a short time? Insurers flee, people loose their coverage, mandate are not enforced and a death spiral for the industry is a real possibility. That means people with deep pockets and political connections will be very angry.

Complicating this terrain is the fact that the President-elect is well known for his lack of consistency. Is he committed to repeal for ‘conservative’ reasons? This is a man who has praised single-payer nationalized healthcare, hardly a conservative policy. And just recently his spokespeople have affirmed that under the President-Elect’s plans no one will their coverage, no one.

They have dashed off the precipice, there is no ground under them save the disastrous and countless distance below, and no one will be inclined to give them any aid.

If they do manage to repeal, without dealing with the very thorny and difficult issues infusing this problem, (Which is likely because in six years they have advanced zero legislative packages to institute a ‘conservative’ solution.) they will have done more to hasten single-payer in this country than any ten liberal politicians.

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What Made the NAZIs so lethal?

Six million Jewish people, five million others, and even more war dead what made it possible for that evil empire to kill so many people? Of course I an not talking about the technical problems. Mass industrialization make many things formerly impossible, from moon landings to genocide, possible, but that doesn’t provide the will, the commitment to carry out such monstrous deeds. It is that commitment that is truly frightening.

Think for a moment on the 80’s genre movie They Live. (Spoilers ahead.) Nada played by the late Roddy Piper discovers, thanks to special sunglasses, that a secret cabal of alien living amongst us has been directing human affairs. They control the media, the economy, and the government. Some are in positions of great power and others occupy more menial posts such as police officers. When his eyes are opened to the truth, he goes on a killing spree, killing the aliens wherever he finds them. Soon he is pulled into a secret resistance group of people who know the true, who see behind the lies and the propaganda, and are dedicated to fighting this clandestine subversive threat.

Because the film is clearly set in Nada’s Point Of View and he is in no manner presented as insane or otherwise as an unreliable narrator, we the audience accept the premise of the a small group of beings secretly controlling world events as factual (within the confines of the story) and judge Nada’s killing spree not as murder but as justified. Accepting the worldview justifies the horrific murders.

For the Hitler and the NAZIs the anti-Semitism was not a tool, it was not propaganda, it was not a way to motivate followers and seize power, it was a worldview. It was a sick, insane conspiratorial view rooted in hatred that created their goals not their methods. I am reminded of a documentary The Goebbels Experiment which consisted of archival footage and Kenneth Branagh reading from the propaganda minister’s private journals. When the Enabling Act passed, making Hitler absolute dictator of Germany Goebbels didn’t note privately that they finally had the power to crush their enemies, that they had taken what was they thought of as rightfully theirs, no he wrote that at last they were ‘free.’ He believed, utterly and insanely, that they had been living in a world as controlled as Nada’s in They Live.

There is a bit if advice often floated to writers – the villain is the hero of his own story, and that is true. It is a lesson we must also apply with vigilance to the real world.

When people of position and power put forth conspiratorial explanations for how the world works, we must not let ourselves be lulled into complacency with notions of ‘just talk’, ‘playing to the room’ or that’s for ‘internal consumption.’ We need to always take such statements as dangerous examples of their worldviews and be prepared to fight them.

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What I Miss In Science-Fiction

I’ll admit that what I am gripping about here is mostly in the areas of film and television, thought the prose area is sparse just not as bare as the visual media.

There used to be a time when SF movies and shows were about professional explorers. Perhaps the best known and best overall example of this is the classic television series Star Trek. Every episode opened with a prolog telling you in no uncertain terms that this show was about explorers and their now famous five year mission.

But before Star Trek this was a well plowed field, most movies about going to the moon were about the competent professional crew, and the dangers they face. Forbidden Planet, for all of its lifting of themes and ideas from the Bard’s The Tempest, abandoned the concept of the shipwrecked visitors for the intelligent and hyper-competitive crew of the United Planets Cruiser C-75-D. (And yes Joss I spotted that reference in your film Serenity.)

I will admit that the idea of the explorers over time and misuse got beaten into a trope. A trope that met its end when in the wake of Star Wars 20th Century Fox release Alien.

The blue-collar truck drivers of space took their big rig Nostromo and turned the profession explorers into road-kill. Yeah I get the trope had been way over used, but now we have turned too far away from what is a very useful and interesting sub-genre of science-fiction.

I think cynicism is one of the reasons why this style of story has fallen out of favor. To have a serious story, without eye rolling irony, about professional explorers you need to accept that people, human people, can be intelligent ad ethical while exploring ad that is a thing few people are willing to admit that they can believe in. It is easier and cooler to play the cynic to substitute that cynicism for wisdom and optimism.

As a culture and as a language we elevate the cynic, the very term sounds of gravitas but we have no comparable word to act as its antonym.

I really hope that the new Trek series gets back to exploration, but that universe is so mapped that my hope is a fool’s hope.

Still, I hold on to my hope and refuse to give in.

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Genes and Gene Expression: an Analogy and Some Speculations

Consider something purple displayed on your monitor. It looks purple, the color is vibrant and clear. However if you take that monitor apart and examine it down to the smallest components you will never find a purple pixel. The only pixels you will find will be Red, Blue, and Green. Where does that purple come from?

Now if you know anything about monitors, or color theory, or light, you already know the answer to my rhetorical question. Red light plus Blue light will create purple light. If both Red and Blue pixels light, then their combined color will be purple, that much is simple and straightforward.

Now for an analogy, think of genes as pixels. Each gene does its one thing; code for mRNA from which a protein is created. There are a lot more different genes then there are pixels. For full color you only need 3 pixels, but humans have an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 genes, so a directly analogy, like all analogies, can only go so far but stay with me here.

Like pixels genes are either on or they are off, and they are not always on to full intensity. Just as a pixel can be dim or bright a gene can express, that is produce, either a little product or a lot.

Most of the genes in your cells are actually switched off Livers cell have no need to produce proteins for muscles and the same if true for nerve cells acting like skin cell and so on. Critical to life and everything that it entails is proper gene expression. Just as there is circuitry that controls the pixels, switching them on, off, dim or bright, there is a control system doing the same for genes and that is epigenetics. It is the system outside of your inherited genes that controls when and how your genes express.

There is a growing body of evidence that epigenetic traits are inheritable and may be responsible for a wide range of things never before suspected, including sexual orientation.

This would explain the paradox of twins. Identical twins can and do vary in sexual orientation eve though they have identical genes. Some have tried to use the twins data to argue that orientation is then not inherent but somehow chosen. However your epigenetic settings are not under your control and many of them are determined during gestation. And even identical twins in the same womb do not have identical experiences in gestation. The search for a ‘homosexual gene’ is misguided both due to excessive binary thinking, people are not either simply gay or straight, and it’s a quest to find a non-existent purple pixel. All sexually reproductive species will need to have a sexual response mechanism. It is likely that the form of the response, activated by maturity, is a result of gene expression over a number of genes. I suspect the same may be true of gender identity.

Any species with sexual reproduction and sexual dimorphism is going to have some form on internal gender identity and if that is a result of gene expression that variation in expression may result in variation in internal gender identification.

Your phenotype may be male but if your pixels light up for female that may be your self-identified gender.

This gets very science-fictional when you consider that the epigenetic controls look to be hackable. In mice we have already changed the epigenetic settings and changed behavior.

What if we unlocked such keys and controls in humans? Is it ethical for parents to modify a child’s orientation or gender identity? If it is ethical for a person to under go treatments that alter the phenotype to match and internal model is it also ethical to allow that person to alter the internal model to match the phenotype?

I am not proposing answers. These are big big questions, but they are questions we may very be faced with sooner than we think.

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Should a woman play James Bond?

That may look like an easy question, but I think it is the wrong question. There are deeper levels and assumptions that need to be teased out to find the right questions. The next level question is really:

Can a woman play James Bond, for is the answer to that is no, the ‘should’ never comes into it.

Clearly ‘can’ does not refer if a female actor has the ability to learn the lines, the blocking and such because only a fool would think otherwise. No, the can in that question pertains to the nature of gender and the character, and thus leads us deeper to another question that requires answering first.

Can the character of James Bond be a woman?

In the strictest cannon sense one would think the answer is no, but that same sense you could never remove Bond from an immediate post WWII setting. therefore I reject a strict cannon based answer. That hardly means the answer is an automatic yes. What we’re closing on is:

Can the essential characteristics that make James Bond who he is be also present if the character was a woman?

Ahh now we are getting into the meat. I know there are people who feel that a male author can never justly write a female character and there are those who disagree and believe that men can write believable and credible female characters. This divide and where you fall on it is the real answer to the question of casting a female actor to play the role of James Bond. (But I suspect that some will not follow through to the logical conclusions of their stand on men writing women.)

Start with the assumption that Men and have core characteristics they derive from their sex. (That is a highly debatable to assumption and not one I am putting forth as necessarily true, but it is essential to this discussion.) You can think of it as a Venn diagram, a red circle for men a blue one for women (or vice versa, the colors are meaningless.)

In your mind how much do the circles overlap?

Not at all? are Men from Mars and Women from Venus and they are so different in core characteristics that no man can credible get into the head space of any woman? If that is the case and the circles do not overlap then James Bond could not possible be a woman as the core characteristics of the character would not be found in a woman. But if that answer makes you happy it also means that if you are a man you can’t write women. They are alien to you as any being from a distant star.

Perhaps the circles overlap a bit. That there are characteristics found in both men and women, but by and large the defining characteristics are unique to each sex. If that is the case James Bond can be woman, and played by a woman, but only if his characteristics are found in that sliver of overlap between the circles.

Maybe you think the circles overlap a great deal and that differences between the sexes are primarily culturally generated. That at heart men and women are human beings sharing more in common with each other than not. If that is the case than certain the character of James Bond could be credibly written as either sex and could therefore the portrayed by an actor of either sex.

What I find curious in the thought experiment are the people I think who lis ikely to be dead-set on one answer or another. Many of the people I know who that insist that men cannot write women I suspect would jump at a female portrayed James Bond, and yet I don’t see how you square that circle about the core characteristics to make it plausible. Conversely those who would insist that James Bond must be a man, no women allowed at all in the job, would also be insistent that they can get into a woman’s mind-set easily and as such work from an assumption that there is no real difference.

It is a curious thing to ponder.

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The Power and Dangers of Narratives

Humans are pattern finding engines. Look up into the sky and you’ll find patterns int he clouds, watch the seasons and you’ll see the patterns in birth, life, and death. Finding these patterns are essential to our survival and success. Among the most powerful patterns that we are sensitive to are narratives.

Narratives are how we transmit culture to each other, how we teach morality, how we explain the mystery of life purpose, and explain to ourselves how the world works. Narrative is often the heart of understanding. We live under layers of narrative but usually there is a foundational structure that speaks to our interpretation on a basic level about the workings of life. Are you a liberal, a conservative, a libertarian? Odds are the reason is due to that fundamental narrative. Pessimist, optimist, realist? The answers the same, it’s that underlying substructure that explains to you how and why the world is what it is.

These supporting narratives are powerful tools in helping us navigate a life that is far larger and far more complex than anything we can fully understand. These analogs for reality break it down into comprehensible bits that we can manipulate and understand but they have a danger to blind us.

Just as that cloud that looks like a dragon is not a dragon, it is nothing more than a multi-ton collection of water vapor, the world is not a narrative. The world is the world, the narrative is a model in your mind representing the world but a model is never what it symbolizes.The danger of forgetting that is what happens when you encounter something at odds with the model.

The danger of forgetting that is what happens when you encounter something at odds with the model. What do we do when we run into something that contradicts our narrative? We tell ourselves we that we are rational creatures but often narratives are more powerful than our reason. If we lazily approach an event the narrative is in control and facts that contradict it are often distorted or ignored. Like sculptors, we break off and discard that which is not part of our mental statue.It is hard not being lazy. I joke at my day job that I work hard so no one knows how lazy I am, but it is only partially jest.

It is hard not being lazy. I joke at my day job that I work hard so no one knows how lazy I am, but it is only partially jest. It’s even harder to change a well-accepted narrative in yourself. It’s far easier to dismiss others, to ignore evidence, and retreat what is safe and familiar. It is easier, but it only drives you further from reality.

Take the hard path. Work at seeing where you are wrong and not where you are right. Write new narratives.

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A few thoughts on the death of Scalia

This president’s day weekend I was off at the Southern California Writers Conference in San Diego, so I have been busy and light in posting. (The Conference was good, though I have gotten sick and missed the last day as I stayed home without appetite and with a light head.) I was at the conference when I saw the news appear on my phone that Scalia had died.

First I will not take in joy nor will I celebrate in any fashion his passing. His family, his friends, and those close him are in grief and to them I offer my sincere condolences.

I am relieved that he will no longer be influencing the Court, though it would have been better for all if this result had come from retirement and tragedy.

Yes, he was a brilliant man and he was a complex man. (Through back channels advocating for Kagan to be elevated to the court alone shows that he was not a simple caricature of a right wing extremist.) However, his clearly displayed intellect made his failing as a justice even more plain.

He was not a champion of human rights and liberty, he was a champion of states right when the states acted in a manner of which he approved.  If a state moved in a direction that he did not approve of, such as legalizing marijuana or legalizing assisted suicide then his used his considerable intelligence to craft logical arguments designed to arrive at his predetermined and desired outcome even if that flew in the face of his stated beliefs about states’ rights and such. To my eyes, he was not a principled justice, but one who consistently applied the power of government to compel his views on morality. I will not miss his voice denying individuals their liberty.

You are certainly welcome to feel differently.

 

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