Sunday, June 16, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW: Man of Steel

On February 13th, 2010, I wrote a blog-post about the news that there would be a new Superman film, "rebooting" that franchise, and that Christopher Nolan may be attached as a story producer. Among other things, I wrote this:
"Real bad guys don't think they're doing bad things!  They think that they are saving the world. They almost always have the best of intentions, not the worst... Lex Luthor believes (not unreasonably, I might add) that Superman is the advance guard for a malevolent alien invasion. He's a little paranoid, he's holds many grudges and he's an egomaniac - but his motivation is often well intended... At least in his own mind.

Hollywood doesn't do that kind of character complexity very well most of the time... Especially not in movies produced by Jon Peters. But as a result, the whole thing [Superman Returns] is laughably stupid. And yes, I know I'm talking about "comic books".

But like any fantasy & science-fiction writing, the issue isn't about the believability or reality of the technology or magical abilities - it's about the human character development. Sci-Fi is allegorical... That's kind of the whole point!

...

Christopher Nolan seems to grasp this concept. The powers, the fantasy, are not what's important - what's important is that the world itself has internal consistency and that the people who inhabit it behave like real people. None of the Superman movies have succeeded on that score. Characters have been one-dimensional, the internal logic of the world Superman inhabits has been repeatedly violated, and directors, writers & producers have chased after cheap laughs and idiotic plot lines.

So yeah, I really hope that Nolan can bring the understanding of character and realism to the franchise - as I am still waiting for a Superman movie that isn't completely absurd - but I worry that he will take Superman into the darkness in a way that is inappropriate."
I was a little worried that Zack Snyder wouldn't get that... and that he wouldn't really get who Superman is. I am thrilled to say that I was (mostly) wrong.

Paging Alex Ross.
The story itself isn't linear, which I liked. Rather than drag down the film with 40 minutes of exposition, we jump straight into the action on the dying planet of Krypton, then cut right to a 33 year old Clark Kent (or we may assume) working as a fisherman in the arctic. It's only in flashbacks spread out through the film that we get to see the story of Clark's upbringing in Kansas... His childhood, his interactions with his adoptive father (played perfectly by Kevin Costner), and his gradual discovery of who he is and what he can do.

As I suspected, "Man of Steel" is a lot darker in certain ways than you might expect to see with Superman, but overwhelmingly, the essence of what Superman is and the kind of story-writing I always want to see with that character is what you get with the movie.

I've been talking about this, for a long, long time... But stop and really think about who Kal-El is, and you'll understand why I've been so let down by the writing for Superman.

First off, he's not actually "alone" like so many of the iterations of the story foolishly portray him to be.

"I grew up in Kansas, I'm about as American as it gets."
He's got wonderful, loving and inspiring human parents who are all he knew since he was an infant, and who played a profound role in his morality and character development. Then, as he grew up, he gained access to archives prepared by his birth-father Jor-El (played by a hammy - but good - Russell Crowe) & mother Lara (Ayelet Zurer), and ultimately learned that his Kryptonian parents loved him just as much as Jonathan & Martha Kent (Diane Lane) did.

Most human children should be so lucky.

So to play him off like some sad - or even creepy - lost puppy (like Bryan Singer did in Superman Returns) makes absolutely no sense.

Clark's struggles are much more interesting than simply being an "orphan". Superman may be the child of a doomed planet, but he's not alone and he was raised in a wonderful home with good values, so he's not really all that much of an orphan anyway.

What he actually is, is a man with unbelievable power.

But what's equally uncommon, is that he's also a man with unfailing integrity. Truth, Justice and the American Way (I know, my libertarian friends, nationalism sucks, but what we're talking about here isn't that Supes is a stooge for the state, but that he actually really does believe in freedom & self-determination). He's the guy who actually understands that with all his immense power really did come immense responsibilities.

This is Superman's struggle... and while I think Snyder could have developed this point a lot more, "Man of Steel" was the first movie I've seen to even deal with the issue at all.

This Superman is a man who struggles with not fully knowing where he comes from and what he can do, his need to keep that part of himself a secret, while still trying to protect the people around him. Kal-El's power means that every single choice he makes is hugely important - yet, he's not omniscient and struggles with knowing for sure what the right choices even are. And most of all, Clark must tip-toe through the world, just to interact with people safely. He lives in a perpetual state of extreme self-control. In one flashback, where Clark is getting bullied by some of his classmates for being a weirdo (and honestly, teenage Superman couldn't be anything but a weirdo), we get a great moment where as an audience, we can do nothing but empathize with how difficult it must be to be one of the most powerful beings in the universe and yet be just as emotionally vulnerable as everyone else.

Few people could handle that kind of pressure, let alone actually live up to it without simply going crazy and wrecking the world - and that's what's interesting about the character.

It's what I love about the character. Superman is far more complex emotionally than most modern writers and comic book fans give him credit for... at least, he should be, and is when written right.

So to see these kinds of questions even brought up in "Man of Steel" is so exciting to me, and Henry Cavill turns out to be a spectacular casting choice for this role. He's confident, kind, and utterly believable. And it doesn't hurt that when he's shirtless, he looks like this:

Man of Steel, indeed.
But that's not all... Superman is nothing without a good villain!

Comic book writers at DC have struggled with this problem for years, but given how powerful Superman
actually is, having him battle some local thug is usually pointless. He's an intergalactic powerhouse, not a beat cop. The threats he deals with need to be correspondingly huge if the challenge is to be remotely believable. So for approaching a century, writers have racked their brains trying to find worthy adversaries for the Man of Tomorrow.

Lex Luthor's ruthless genius and expertise in science, engineering & business make him a good human nemesis. Doomsday's Kryptonite knuckles and mindless brutality made him a formidable enough foe to actually kill Kal-El... And really, that's nothing compared to Darkseid's Omega Force.

So... Go back to what I said at the beginning.

A real bad guy isn't a cartoon. People who do bad things don't usually wake up in the morning and go,
"And so he says to me, you want to be a bad guy? And I say Yeah Baby! I want to be bad!"
(Only the Evil Midnight Bomber does that. Boom, baby, boom!)

Seriously though... People who do the most damage in society are the ones who single-mindedly believe  that they are doing the right thing, and (this is important), that anything they do to achieve their goals is justifiable.

Michael Shannon's "General Zod" is that villain. And, he's easily the best part of the film.

Here we have a man who was genetically designed by the central planners on Krypton to be Krypton's military leader. His sole purpose is to be the man who protects the Kryptonian people from all enemies - foreign and domestic - and he takes that job very, very seriously. When the council of politicians (who seem to be just as big of asshats on Krypton as they are on Earth) fails to act decisively in preventing the imminent collapse of the planet - after taking actions that Jor-El, chief scientist of the planet advised against - Zod attempts a coup d'├ętat, killing the head of the council.

Why? Because he's "evil"? No. Because his job is to save Krypton and "that's what needs to be done".

"I will find him!!!!"
Then, when Jor-El takes the Codex (a skull-like object containing Kryptonian genetic material and which is clearly of high importance to the survival and expansion of the species) and sends it to Earth with Kal-El, Zod chases Jor-El back to his house, attempts to stop the launch of the spaceship and ultimately vows to find Kal-El, wherever he ends up.

And 33 years later, he does.

Oh boy.... He does.

Michael Shannon is fantastic in this role. I imagine he doesn't especially like being type-cast as "crazy intensity" guy, but he really does it better than just about anybody, and this is so, so, soooo important to a story like "Man of Steel".

Superman needs an adversary who is not only powerful enough to be a legitimate threat to the world and to him (and the sheer destruction in the 2nd & 3rd acts is proof enough on this point), he needs an adversary who's motivations actually make sense. Zod is saving his people. Even though Kal-El is Kryptonian, Zod sees him as collateral damage to a mission that is absolutely crucial to the greater good of the Kryptonian species.

He is - in his mind - the good guy. The entire time. And that's really important!

At this point, you're probably thinking that I see "Man of Steel" as a near-flawless film. Unfortunately... It is not. For one thing, while I actually think Amy Adams did the best job of anyone who has yet played "girl reporter Lois Lane", her character was still a bit under-developed and when it's clear that she and Clark are going to be more than "reporter and source", it comes a bit out of left-field. For another thing, there's a lot of dialogue that goes a bit over-the-top in the cliche department. I don't mind it that much, and I didn't come to see the film for it's riveting dialogue anyway... but still. It is a weakness.

Oh, the things I know about the history of  media...
Another weakness is that the US Military sucked up a boatload of tax-money for promotional tie-ins with "Man of Steel", and it shows. Given the screen time they got for their contributions, US Air Force logo might as well be on the damn cups at every movie-theater showing this flick. The National Guard is now using this promotion as a recruiting tool with their cringe-worthy "Soldier of Steel" campaign. Of course, that's hardly the only product-placement in the movie. IHOP gets some noticeable (although often kind of hilarious) screen time as well.

Don't get me wrong - I've got nothing against product placement. Superman Radio in the 1940s was brought to my grandparents by "Kellogg's Pep" after all!

But it shouldn't take you out of the story, and here from time to time, it does.

All in all, though, most everything was handled pretty well.

We didn't get stuck with a painful origin story for the millionth time. Lois & Clark don't spend the movie making googly eyes at each other. Clark doesn't spend his time whining about how he really wants to tell Lois the truth, but can't (*ahem* Smallville). We aren't subjected to camp and obvious ridiculousness the whole time at the whim of producers who didn't even care about the source-material. The villain is appropriately badass, and represents a serious challenge to Superman. Superman himself is incredible, human, inspiring and has an emotional core that will be easy to develop in further installments. The casting is bang-on. The effects work - while a bit overplayed - is all top-notch, and most everything about the plot mostly makes sense... With the exception of a few "Jor-El ex Machina" moments.

Oh, plus!

Let's all breathe a collective sigh of relief for the fact that neither Tim Burton, nor Nicholas Cage, were involved and not once do we get a giant spider, or polar bear wrestling. All of those things could have happened in this movie, but didn't. Whew!

Best of all... "Man of Steel" isn't just another dumb re-hash of a movie from 1978 that never deserved the acclaim and adoration it's still clinging onto in the first place. Yeah, I know. Blasphemy. Whatever.

If you're looking for practical advice on whether or not you should see the movie, all I can say is that I will definitely be seeing it again in theaters, and I sincerely hope the powers that be let Zack Snyder continue with the franchise and build on what they've done here in a way that gives the progenitor of all superheroes the respect his character's legacy deserves.

I'm hopeful.

This guy sits on my desk. In case you hadn't figured it out yet... I am actually a really big fan.
[PS. The film also brings up another topic that I won't spend any time on right now- but on which I'm very tempted to devote another post to, or perhaps make a video about, very soon. That topic is one I've discussed on this blog before: "Sci-fi and Inconceivably Advanced Societies". The last time I talked about this issue was years and years ago, and this film provides an excellent opportunity to update those thoughts.]

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Just Stop Being Offended.

I have some useful advice for basically everyone that will make their lives a lot easier and less stressful. Here it is: Just stop being offended.

Now, this may seem impossible to some of you... and I understand that it might be difficult, but I assure you, it is both possible and necessary if you no longer wish to have your mental and emotional well-being constantly compromised by other people whose words and actions are beyond your control.

What's more, I've found over the years that some people are not just offended by things intended to be offensive, but instead, seem to be looking for reasons to take offense to anything and everything that anybody does.

For example... Just today, one of my favorite Facebook friends posted a Salon article about the supposed homophobia present in Disney movies: "Why are there no gay Disney characters?"

And sure... There aren't any gay Disney "princesses", and no sweeping same-sex love-affairs in their whole universe really. Perhaps that's a tragedy... But I actually have far too many other (and I think actually much more substantive) criticisms of most of the messages contained in Disney movies to spend a ton of time on why there aren't any overtly gay characters.

However, that article did have a lot of linked content, and one of those links took me to another article about the supposed "gay slurs" and perhaps nascent homophobia found in Disney Animation Studios' wonderful film, "Wreck-it Ralph".

Here's the thing, though... I loved Wreck-it Ralph and noticed absolutely nothing in it that could be remotely described as "homophobic". In fact, to the contrary, the film has two central themes (first, that you get to choose who you want to be and don't need to be stuck in the roles society has defined for you... and second, that you're ok as you are, even if people think you're a little weird) and both are - or conceivably should be - inspiring to anyone who is a little outside the norm.

Gay people obviously included.

That said, of course I'm not gay, so perhaps I just wouldn't ever be able to pick up on the kind of homophobic references someone who's been attuned to it his whole life might more easily recognize. So... Here's what author, Chris Bogia, had to say in "They Wrecked It: Reflecting on Homophobia in Disney's Wreck-It Ralph":
"I was crestfallen when the game's villain turned out to be yet another mincing gay stereotype. At first I let it go -- I really wanted to enjoy Wreck-It Ralph.

That's when Ralph, the lovable hero (depicted perhaps uncoincidentally as an exaggeratedly tough masculine guy), quips about the King of Candy's palace color story, pink. A gag is had at the defensive king's lispy expense: "IT'S SALMON!" Pink would have been a bad choice for a palace made of candy?

Then it gets much worse.

After some limp-wristed gesticulating by our villain, Ralph grabs him, shakes him, and calls the confectionary monarch a "nelly wafer" (it's like Nilla Wafer, get it?)

"Nelly."

That word is hardly thrown around these days, and I'm sure most young kids seeing Wreck-It Ralph wouldn't know what it means. However, when entered into Google for anyone that didn't already know it's definition, here it is:

"Offensive Slang: Used as a disparaging term for an effeminate homosexual man."

There's very little grey area here. The hero of the Disney animated movie I just saw shook the mincing, effeminate villain and called him a homophobic slur (after already insulting his decorating taste!)."
Ok. I think I see the problem now. Maybe Bogia just doesn't know anything about the history of film, and perhaps he was actually looking for something to be offended by.

First of all, King Candy (not "The King of Candy"... an error that makes me question whether or not Mr. Bogia really paid that much attention to the film) isn't actually a "gay stereotype" at all.

He might be lispy and effeminate in certain ways, but he is - in fact - a virtually spot-on impersonation of 1930s-1950s comedian and character actor, Ed Wynn, as voiced by the utterly fantastic Alan Tudyk.

Ed Wynn started in Vaudeville in the 1920s, and became a well-known radio actor by the 1930s. And of course, the film & television industry grew directly out of those two traditions by the 1940s... and some people, like Wynn, stuck around.

Although you might not have seen Ed Wynn's performances on "The Twilight Zone" or "What's My Line?", I can pretty much assure you that you do, in fact, know his work as the Mad Hatter in Disney's classic 1951 animated feature, "Alice and Wonderland":



Wynn certainly isn't mocking gay people, he's doing Vaudeville schtickle while voicing one of the most absurd characters in Disney's pantheon. And of course, the fact that Wynn's voice is so heavily tied to Disney feature animation, and the fact that the King Candy character is based almost directly on Wynn's Mad Hatter, makes it hardly surprising that Alan Tudyk would be doing a ridiculously over-the-top lispy homage.

Also, on a purely aesthetic note, I'd simply point out that there's just nothing about Wynn's lisp or inflection that is stereotypical "gay man". Not all lisps are created equally.

Compare Wynn's Mad Hatter (which is basically just... Ed Wynn), to say... Mario Cantone (a little NSFW):



Also... Try to forget that Mario Cantone is actually a gay man, thus rendering the whole notion of this lisp as an inherently insulting stereotype a bit weak.

The point here is that when people do the "gay lisp" to mock (or celebrate!) gay people, they're doing Mario Cantone, Nathan Lane, or maybe Harvey Fierstein... They're not doing the Mad Hatter.

These are different things.

So... Right out of the gate, there's probably nothing intentionally homophobic or offensive by the vocal character of King Candy. To me, Bogia's interpretation of it as homophobic strikes me as at best a simple misunderstanding of the characters being referenced and an ignorance of cinema.

No crime there... But.... It's hard for me to imagine getting offended by that.

And, fair enough, Mr. Bogia says that didn't bother him that much, but that what really got to him was Ralph's use of the word "Nelly" in the phrase, "Nelly Wafer". Yet, curiously, Mr. Bogia leads his explanation of why this is offensive by noting that "the word is hardly thrown around anymore". As far as I'm concerned, that's a massive understatement. Except through extensive Googling, would you have ever assumed that word to be a gay-slur?

I've heard the word "Nelly" used in literally only one context - and it's an ancient one: "Nervous Nelly".

My guess is that your experience lines up with mine pretty closely. Furthermore, in the context of "Nervous Nelly", there's  really no sense of sexual orientation being involved. Effeminate, sure... Wimpy, definitely... But...... Gay?

Not really.

But even if it did have that connotation, it's a connotation that absolutely no one in the audience - and I'm guessing on the writing team - had any knowledge of. Instead, while I was reading Bogia's article, I suspected that what was more likely was simply that sometimes writers are looking for unique, silly or clever ways of working dialogue into the story that both fits the tone and makes sense.

The character's name is "King Candy". He's surrounded by candy. He has two donut guards named Wynnchell (*cough* Wynn *cough*) and Duncan. The entire universe being inhabited is filled with puns!

Beard Papa was a security guard.

Speaking as a scriptwriter, I would be looking for every available opportunity to cram another candy-related pun into the movie. So to assume that "Nelly Wafer" is a gay slur, you really have to assume quite a bit else as well.

Namely, that:
  1. The writer had ever heard it used as such (which, I seriously doubt, as it's incredibly obscure)
  2. That there are literally no other possible interpretations (obviously false),
  3. That the writer was to some extent deliberately sneaking in homophobic or anti-gay messages into a movie about being true to yourself and accepting yourself you are.... even if you have giant hands or glitch all the time.
See?
None of those things seem especially likely to me... And what's more, I went looking on Disney's wikia about Wreck-it Ralph, and curiously enough, instead of "Nelly Wafer" being listed under the "other names" section, the word is actually "Nilly Wafer". They also directly confirm my observation that the character is based on Ed Wynn's Mad Hatter.

What's more, I also looked at a copy of the screenplay. Here's the scene [emphasis mine]:
RALPH
Well, maybe I’ll just have to have a little talk with the winner then.

KING CANDY
Is that a threat I smell-- beyond the halitosis you so obviously suffer from?

RALPH
Listen Nillie Wafer, I’m not leaving without my medal.

KING CANDY
Yes, you are. Wynnchel, Duncan, get him out of that cupcake and on the first train back home. And if I ever see you here again, Wreck-it Ralph, I’ll lock you in my fungeon.

RALPH
Fungeon?

KING CANDY
Fun Dungeon. It’s a play on words.... Nevermind. Now, I’ve got a glitch to deal with, thanks to you. Goodbye Wreck-it Ralph. It hasn’t been a pleasure.
Nillie/Nilly (as in... "Nilla", obviously). Not Nellie.

So it's even more likely that Mr. Bogia is getting upset because he heard something in John C. Reilly's performance that merely sounded to him like something that virtually no one else in the world would even know was insulting.

And again... It's just a pun.

Is there any reason to believe for a second that it's some covert slight against gay people? A secret homophobic slur or a gay-bashing "dogwhistle"? Really?

Can common sense enter into the picture at some point? For some people, the answer to that question is unfortunately.... No.

Far too many people I encounter on a regular basis seem to be looking for a fight or to get their feelings hurt. Maybe I should be more sympathetic to people who grew up as victims of frequent insults and bullying, but this really brings me full circle.

It's up to Chris Bogia whether or not to be offended by things that happen in life. It's up to all of us to choose how to react to the world outside our control. And spending your life on constant high-alert that people might sometime... somewhere... be saying hurtful things about you as an individual or as part of some specific group just isn't healthy.

It leads people - like perhaps Mr. Bogia - to see insults and offenses where none truly exist. For those of you who will yell at me about being white, straight and male... I'm guilty as charged. I don't know what Chris Brogia's life has been like (neither does he know what mine is like... I've been "bullied" and mocked too, you know), and I cannot judge the way he feels about anything. His feelings are his own. But I can say that regardless of how he felt, the offenses he's reacting to are imagined.

The solution to this is to remember a few things about life.

  • First: Nobody thinks about you as much as you think about yourself. The world doesn't - contrary to every feeling you might have - revolve around you. So don't assume that everything is some secret coded message designed to make fun of you or make you feel bad.
  • Second: The only person you can control is yourself. So get a grip. Unless someone actually means to offend you, try not to be offended. In spite of what you might wish to believe, it's not actually everyone else's responsibility to know in advance what may or may not hurt your feelings and tip-toe around them at all times. It's not fair or even possible to expect others to read the minds of every person they meet and avoid every touchy area for each and every one of them. You can't and don't do it for them... Don't expect everyone else to do it for you.
  • Third: When someone does say something actually offensive, and they mean for it to offend you, take a step back and ask yourself whether or not the source or the content of the offense is even worth the headache. Is the offending person someone whose opinion you actually care about? Was this person just lashing out in anger during an argument? Did they know you would be offended by what they said and say it anyway? Are a few words you didn't want to hear worth ruining your day over?

In short. Just STOP being offended so much.

If you do, you'll make the world a much better and less stressful place for yourself, you'll avoid assuming the worst in everyone else, you'll also reduce your level of narcissism, and you'll completely dis-empower everyone who seeks to get under your skin by saying mean things to you,

On Presenting Libertarianism

NOTE: This blog-post was originally written January 14th, 2013... It has been updated somewhat to reflect additional information and changes to my life in the intervening 6 months. With that in mind, I want to have an in-depth conversation about Libertarian Marketing.


* * * * *
The back story to what I'm about to discuss is a little complicated, but this past weekend way back in January, I produced a video with Cathy Reisenwitz, which was a response to what we felt was a somewhat sexist and tactically counter-productive video by the popular libertarian vlogger, Julie Borowski, on the subject of why there aren't more female libertarians.

This is Julie's video:



...and this was our response:



Our video ultimately became the first episode of what is now, essentially, "The Libertarienne Show", a (now bimonthly...ish) webseries that I've been producing on YouTube ever since - and for which, quite sadly to me, Cathy is no longer my partner and host.

This, along with a few other responses to Julie's video (including this bomb-thrower by Sarah Skwire & Steve Horwitz), threw some fuel onto the growing fire of a debate among a number of libertarians over a few issues. One of the biggest - yet most uninteresting - issues that exploded at that time was over whether you can or should be a social conservative and still be a libertarian.

This actually seems like a non-issue to me in philosophical terms... You can. Of course.

As long as you do not try to force other people to hold the same personal preferences about religion, sex, culture, language, etc. as you have, you may believe whatever you want and still be considered a libertarian. You can (theoretically) be the most socially conservative, or the most socially liberal person in the world. You can be kind, charitable and caring, or you could be stingy, greedy and cold-hearted.

As loathed as I am to say this, you can even be a racist or a sexist (or happily, an anti-racist and sexist)... and still be a "libertarian". 

Libertarian philosophy has little to say about anything directly except the role of force in society. If you think it's not ok to initiate force or to use government to do it on your behalf, you're in the club!

So that's the first issue. But for me, it's really not the important issue.

The second big issue debated was over the original question... Why, precisely, there aren't many libertarian women out there. But honestly, even though Cathy went on radio shows and spoke at ISFLC as a byproduct of our video on that topic, I'm really not that interested in that question either. At least not precisely...

What I am interested in is the way ideas are presented, and why presentation matters.

So, what's ultimately important to me is that regardless of whether or not you "can" be a proper "libertarian" and believe different things about culture, sex and religion, the way you present yourself if you wish to be a representative of "libertarians" in a public forum matters a ton.

Sure. You can be a jerk and also be a libertarian, but you shouldn't... for two major reasons:
  1. Being a jerk isn't a very good way to be as a human (regardless of political philosophy)
  2. If you are a jerk and you represent a political philosophy, all those who interact with you and are put off by your behavior will associate that behavior with other people who support your political philosophy - thereby tarnishing not only your reputation but that of others.
Fortunately, Julie isn't a jerk!

I don't know her very well, but in all of our interactions, she's seemed to be a very sweet and kind person. I actually like her a great deal. She's certainly bright and usually a decent representative for other libertarians. Sometimes, she's a downright fantastic representative, actually. Check out her video on "Why a $9 Minimum Wage is a Bad Idea" as one fabulous example.

Ultimate sweater-vest champion, Rick Santorum. Also
the nemesis of everything most people actually like.
However... The implicit social conservatism and mockery of popular social/cultural mores and personal preferences that the video Cathy & I responded to seemed to express does (in my view) reflect poorly on the rest of us.

I found that to be a little odd, since she began the video by suggesting that the reason there aren't more female libertarians is because libertarian ideas aren't well-represented in mainstream pop-culture. It seems to me that if your goal is to increase the presence of your ideas in pop-culture, insulting some of the most mainstream magazines (i.e. Cosmo) and social mores out there doesn't advance that goal at all.

Consequently, all of this aspect of the discussion created a new debate about "marketing", and opinions started flying.

And now that the backstory is all caught up, that brings me to the real subject of this post.

Presentation & Marketing

A lot of libertarians fundamentally don't understand why presentation matters or even acknowledge that it's an issue we can do anything about. A few days ago Quite a while ago now (again... mea culpa!), Bryan Caplan chimed in with the argument that certain types of personalities just won't be very receptive to libertarian conclusions, no matter what "marketing" you do.

At EconLog, Caplan wrote the following:
"Thinking people tend to have "hard heads" and "hard hearts," while Feeling people have "soft heads" and "soft hearts."  Unsurprisingly, then, Feeling people tend to hold more anti-market views.  I've similarly found strong evidence that males "think more like economists."  This gender belief gap increases with education, consistent with a simple model where male and female students gradually learn more about whatever their personalities incline them to study."
While I don't disagree that there are differences in personality that predispose people to being better economists or philosophers vs. artists and creators (and I've recently written extensively about this), I disagree entirely that these facts necessarily mean that certain conclusions about the world will or will not be accepted.

And I certainly do not believe that there is something intrinsic about being male or female that predetermines a person's political conclusions. The fact that an academic of Caplan's caliber would even say that is really disappointing to me.

As such, I wrote a lengthy post on Facebook in response to a guy who cited Caplan's arguments as "proof" that marketing is irrelevant, and that anyone who doesn't "get" libertarian ideas intuitively and isn't likely to be persuaded by white papers and plainly stated logical arguments won't ever get it.

Steve Horwitz re-posted my comments shortly thereafter, saying:
"Sean Malone just nails it in a comment on another thread. ‎I have cut some specific references, but otherwise not changed a word because I couldn't have said it better myself:"
Here's what I had written:
"I don't agree that being "soft headed" has anything to do with being a good or a bad candidate for "recruitment to libertarianism", nor do I believe that being "soft headed" leads to anti-market views necessarily. I believe that libertarians ... package libertarianism in such a way that tends to lack any appeal to empathetic thinking, and THAT is what turns people who have a more empathetic approach to life - regardless of their gender.

What you're saying is blaming the audience for not liking what you've presented to them. But it's your presentation that's the problem. This whole line of reasoning that says that empathetic people are going to want government to control everything is ludicrous.

Government is a violent killer and imprisoner of sons & daughters, husbands & wives. It's a destroyer of opportunity, wealth, homes, families, lives. There is NOTHING about the nature of thinking empathetically or being "soft" in that way that should necessarily lead anyone to be anti-market or pro-state. Libertarians over the last several decades are 100% to blame for the piss-poor presentation of libertarian ideas as exclusively the province of male intellectuals.

That realization was, in fact, precisely why I got into the line of work I'm in.

I saw the presentation of libertarian ideas, and how abysmally poor it is at reaching anyone who doesn't innately want to view the world as a logic problem to be solved and of that small subset of people who are exceptionally rational, even only a few reason through with premises that lead them to libertarianism anyway. The overwhelming majority of people in this world are people who think emotionally and empathetically, and are not very analytical or critical in the way they approach their decision-making.

Instead of throwing your hands up in the air and say that those people just aren't capable or "suited" to being libertarians, perhaps you might consider that the reason those people don't automatically gravitate towards supporting freedom is because people - like you in this case, unfortunately - act in ways that completely turn them away."
The always brilliant John Papola (co-creator, with Russ Roberts, of EconStories "Fear the Boom & Bust: A Hayek vs. Keynes Rap Athem"), echoed my comments:
"The art of communication is crafting your message so that it is understood by the listener and the art of persuasion is making it compelling. Story is overwhelmingly about humanizing parable and is the single best engine for communication AND persuasion. We may wish to spend more time actually TRYING these techniques before dismissing people for the softness of their heads. It is the great challenge of humanity to translate emergent order and the abstract beauty of the market ecosystem (the "macrocosm") to our fellow creatures whose natural inclinations are to project their personal experiences at the family level (the "microcosm") to the broader society. Ours is the harder task. It's easy to say "let's all act like one big earth family". It FEELS great. On a spiritual level it can even be true. But in the material world, it's a path to deception and despair. Our challenge is to make our case in the context of people's natural biases. It IS about marketing. And it's crazy to dismiss the power of great marketing when our kin have barely tried it while others have demonstrated its effectiveness so clearly."
This - unsurprisingly - sparked a whole other discussion on Steve Horwitz' page, and eventually Bryan Caplan added to that debate as well... Among other things directed specifically to me, Prof. Caplan wrote:
"I wish you were right, Sean. But the evidence is against you. Personality predicts opinions fairly well on a very wide variety of issues, most with nothing to do with libertarianism. While we can *imagine* great emotional appeals in favor of liberty, that's no reason to think they will actually convert lots of Feeling people.

To repeat, I wouldn't be surprised if better marketing had a substantial effect. But high confidence that better marketing is a full solution is not warranted."
As I said in my reply, I think Caplan misreads "the evidence".


People learn in different ways, and they respond differently to different types of arguments and presentations of ideas. Building somewhat on Howard Gardner's theory of "Multiple Intelligences", even on a basic level, teacher education all over the world now recognizes that different students need different teaching approaches.

None of this means a person is more or less likely to accept specific conclusions, it just means they're more or less likely to respond well to certain approaches. A person who learns visually will be better able to learn accurate conclusions and attain competency in science or mathematics if the subjects are taught visually instead of analytically through a textbook or lecture.

We know all this. Conceivably, Caplan is aware of this as well.

Libertarians who may be naturally inclined to become economists and think like economists have, unfortunately, spent all of their energies on outreach ignoring anybody who doesn't naturally think the way they think and have mostly just cultivated the people they know how to easily talk to. This has been to the overall detriment of the libertarian community, which is now much less diverse in personality (and in choice of profession) than it otherwise could have been.

But. Caplan still disagrees. So he posed what he calls a "simple challenge":
"Several critics replied that this is just a failure of imagination on my part.  If you can make an idea appealing to Thinking people, you can make it appealing to Feeling people.  Just skillfully repackage the product, and you're done.

I'm skeptical, but I'd love to be proven wrong.  So I propose a simple challenge to pave the way to my refutation: Tell me how to sell the abolition of the minimum wage to the typical Feeling American.

Please don't give me any "hard heads, soft hearts" answers.  Give me "soft heads, soft hearts" answers.  You're trying to persuade Oprah Winfrey, not Data from Star Trek after he gets his emotion chip."
The thing is, though... This isn't a "simple challenge", at all!

Part of the issue with presentation - especially to those with "soft heads" and "soft hearts" as Caplan put it - is that it's not really about rhetorical argumentation. It's not a single re-brand or advertisement that influences the way people think about these ideas - and especially in the face of literally decades of great marketing for non-libertarian positions.

As my friend Jeff likes to say, this is about "drops on a rock".

Watch this movie. Now.
One of my most well-supported arguments is that people have been influenced somewhat slowly over time through consistent and frequent exposure to persuasive, narrative, stories that offer a perspective negative to markets and positive to government. This has come from "consumer reports" on nightly news, writers of film & television, college professors and other cultural influencers.

Further, I would argue that people in the US didn't just wake up one day and have a split between economists and artists. In fact, one of my favorite pro-business/market scenes of any film ever comes from Billy Wilder's romantic comedy, "Sabrina" from 1954.

Consider the following exchange between William Holden and Humphrey Bogart:
Holden: "You've got all the money in the world."
Bogart: "Making money isn't the main point of business. Money is a by-product."
Holden: "What's the main objective? Power?"
Bogart: "Ah! That's become a dirty word."
Holden: "What's the urge? You're going into plastics. What will that prove?"
Bogart: "Prove? Nothing much.
A new product has been found, something of use to the world. A new industry moves into an undeveloped area. Factories go up, machines go in and you're in business. It's coincidental that people who've never seen a dime now have a dollar and barefooted kids wear shoes and have their faces washed.
What's wrong with an urge that gives people libraries, hospitals, baseball diamonds and movies on a Saturday night?"
[Bogart calls in his secretary]
Holden: "You make me feel like a heel."
This wonderful moment of support for business & markets in popular media was in a successful film in 1954 starring Audrey Hepburn and two of the biggest male movie stars in the history of the business - written by one of the greatest play & screenwriters there ever was.

And the film was critically acclaimed, to boot!

Billy Wilder was nominated for an Academy Award that year both for Best Direction and Best Story & Screeenplay.

The male hero in Sabrina is a rich, successful businessman who spends too much time at the office, but is a moral, worthy man. The guy who doesn't wind up with the girl (one of the most beautiful in cinematic history, by the way!) was a trust-fund Lothario living off the wealth his brother created.

You won't find that in the films of today.

In the 60s and 70s, the ideas expressed in art and popular media started to change. I've got theories on why, but my real point is simply that when that changed, and when people started growing up with media that promoted the idea that business and markets were evil and government solutions were preferable, the culture began to seriously change. This exploded in the 80s - partially as a rejection to tough economic conditions.

In any case... By the time people grow up, they've often consumed thousands of hours of media that presents a negative view of the market. If you're a "hard-headed" individual - i.e. you use reason and analysis to come to your opinions about the world - then perhaps those hours of entertainment watched will have no effect on you, assuming you were interested in spending your time watching movies or going to plays and enjoying popular art at all. But if you're not "hard-headed" in that regard, it's my contention that those thousands of hours will influence you - and you're probably someone who spends more time consuming media than someone who wants to read philosophy textbooks.

So markets are vilified. Business is vilified. However... Plenty of non-economic, yet still libertarian, ideas are actually ascendant in popular culture... gay rights, drug legalization, etc.

Not coincidentally in my view, most popular media presents those ideas in a positive light, and not for any intellectual reason, tons of "soft-headed, soft-hearted" people now accept that marijuana is ok, gay marriage and homosexual relationships are ok, and more individual freedom to choose the life-style they want is usually good for people.

But... We all need to realize that it's thousands and thousands of hours, hundreds of separate pieces of media in film, television, radio, live performances & print, which influence people over the course of their lives.

So presenting a single story about minimum wage isn't exactly the "solution". This is a long-term issue.

As such, I find it incredibly different to really respond to Caplan's "simple challenge". I know there's no way for me to offer a single, catch-all, story that is a magic bullet for people who think empathetically and are "feeling" personality types.

I might even suggest that the reason Caplan seemed to believe that that might be possible is precisely because he is "hard headed". Those types of people (and I am in a lot of ways among them) often find a single, well-reasoned and expertly supported argument to be convincing enough. The idea that a single, exceptionally emotionally-compelling story would be conclusively convincing to "soft headed" people might seem normal to Caplan, but that's just not how it works.

I could - and frequently do - write and produce stories that I believe might be a step in the right direction. For example, here are a couple videos I've produced supporting entrepreneurial freedom based around sharing a business owner's personal experiences instead of just presenting a series of facts - as most of my economist friends would prefer.



I've got a very exciting project on the horizon which will be made public pretty soon that expands on this idea. I've also written narrative scripts and tons of other stories that offer arguments to what Caplan calls "soft-headed" people.

But... I know that I cannot offer any legitimate answer to Caplan's actual request, because there is no single story that works. Using emotional story-telling to reach people about libertarian ideas - or any ideas - is about touching the hearts of your audience members. Every audience member is going to respond to different stories based on how well they connect to their own experiences and beliefs. That's not a rational argument, or something that can be done in the abstract. A story has to resonate directly... and that's hard to do, and absolutely not even a little bit "one-size-fits-all".

And this is partly what interests me the most. As a rather explicitly libertarian media producer, I find myself caught between a rock and a hard place constantly.

On the one hand, I'm surrounded by people who seem to finally understand that they have a serious marketing problem and struggle to get most ordinary people to actually care about - and thus, buy into - better ideas about economics & political philosophy. On the other hand, it seems that virtually none of those people respond to the kinds of stories and arguments that actually move "normal" people, and thus they're typically unable to fully appreciate or understand exactly how things need to be changed in terms of our presentation.

...or they still don't even know why we should bother to change our presentation in the first place.

So it's turned out that even though I now have a position where I can make a lot of what I think is best, it's still an uphill battle to get anybody to put the resources and support behind it to actually have those products be produced at a high level, or get seen by anybody - which really inhibits their effectiveness.

All Caplan's post and the surrounding arguments did for me was remind me that my crusade is far from over. There's a lot of work yet to be done - not just in reaching out to non-libertarians, but also to get more of our own community to actually understand why they're so bad at this stuff.

Don't worry though. I'll win eventually!

I, Pencil: The Movie

I should have actually published this blog months and months ago when the video came out... I've failed massively at consistently blogging for a while, but in a fit of procrastination today, I've rediscovered a bunch of worth-while posts that I should have never left unpublished. So, quite a bit late... I give you the following.

For years, people have been attempting various efforts at making a short film version of Leonard Read's classic essay, "I, Pencil".

I'm sure I haven't seen every attempt, but I've seen a lot of them and not a one compares to this beautiful little film made by Nicholas Tucker for the Competitive Enterprise Institute:



This video is the first film in what I am lead to believe is an on-going series exploring the concepts behind the essay which incorporates voices of some of my favorite economists and thinkers, like Larry Reed, Art Carden, Deirdre McCloskey, and Walter Williams:



What's more, I cannot imagine a better statement than this by my friend Larry Reed.
"Every second we're alive, we benefit from the products of voluntary, spontaneous cooperation. This is the modern world. It's miraculous. It's intricate. And it gets better every day - so long as people are free to interact with each other.

If we can leave the creative energies of human-kind uninhibited, there's no limit to what we can accomplish."
This reflects a vision of the world that is not only completely true, but broad and all-encompassing. Too often, I find that people - perhaps like the goldfish who can't conceptualize the water in its own tank - fail to see the millions of independent, voluntary and completely spontaneous transactions that take place every day facilitating the lives we all take for granted.

The keyboard I am typing on now is the consequence of an untold dozens, perhaps hundreds of individual people's labor, and perhaps thousands of individual people's supporting efforts, and not a one of those individuals (save perhaps the lone salesman who I paid for this machine) knows a thing about me, nor cares for me at all.

Each one acted in their own interest, working for money, for food, for personal enjoyment or interest, for a better life for themselves, for their families... That's it. And the end result of all of these transactions is something that benefited me.

It's incredible, and it needs to be celebrated more often.