On Cowboy Bebop: The Movie

You Still Don’t Understand Cowboy Bebop

I didn’t like the Cowboy Bebop movie on first view. The action movie pacing didn’t let the world breathe in the same way that the tv show’s slow-burn scene-setting transition shots allowed. We’re mostly inside a wealthier colony of Bebop’s wholly original world, so the poor and derelict regions don’t get any screen time. The movie’s backgrounds are more detailed but less diverse, notwithstanding the welcome inclusion of an Islamic neighborhood. But we can’t fault the movie’s team for bringing its world to a bigger audience. The film actually does an excellent job of restating the major themes of Cowboy Bebop. Though an entire 26 episode show is crammed into about two hours the major lessons of Cowboy Bebop are rendered consistently. It’s as if Shinichiro Watanabe and writer Keiko Nobumoto redoubled their efforts to make sure their work would not be misinterpreted.

The movie places its villain Vincent Volaju in between the show’s protagonist and antagonist, Spike and Vicious. Spike has a heart of gold but carries himself with such a blasé attitude that he seems distant and unconcerned about… well anything. Though he gets up for earning enough to eat, ever since he was stood up by his love he barely has a care in the world. A man in a perpetual dream with nothing to really care for, Spike is a passive nihilist on the exterior but a genuinely good person inside. Vicious is a cold, unfeeling killer who only seeks greater power. He openly states that “there is nothing in this world to believe in” and only acts to ascend to the top inside of his criminal syndicate. Vincent is a little bit of both.

Actually, there’s a little bit of nearly every serious villain and hero in the show in Vincent. He is the victim of an experimental nanotech drug given to him during his time in a war (Gren, Jupiter Jazz). A resulting side effect was a complete loss of memory (like Faye). He wanders about the world without any recollection of who he was and therefore has no purpose in the future. He (like Spike) lives in dream world, in his case symbolized visually by bright orange butterflies incessantly flapping around his field of vision – another side effect of nanotech virus. He, like Vicious, has a thirst for destruction and his plan is to kill every last person in the world with a similar virus to the one he was given. There is something of a revenge motive in him but this is brought to the most extreme levels by the near-complete disintegration of his psyche as a result of the virus.

Vincent combines the inescapable hallucination characteristic of Spike with the sinister thirst for destruction of Vicious. He is the bridge that connects Spike and Vicious thematically or, you might say, he allows Spike to come to terms with the fact that he is fated to confront Vicious and his dream must come to an end. I’m not saying that Vincent is half active, half passive nihilist (he is fully active nihilist) but it is the fact that he is stuck in a dream not of his own making that makes him more relatable to Spike.

Cowboy Bebop is filled with characters stuck in a dream. The world itself seems to be going through something of a prolonged fever-dream having shot out from the earth, terra-forming various moons, planets and asteroids. There are dreams of escape to affluence beyond the slums, dreams of revenge against the corrupt, psychedelic mushroom dreams, dreams of regaining a lost sense of home that no longer exists, but also good dreams intended to increase the happiness of others and relieve them of their burdens. Humanity has lost its terra firma, stuck in a state of drift.

Vincent’s dreams are so extreme as to compare with Spike’s – it consumes his entire life. In fact, it has reached a point where one cannot tell if they are alive or dead. Both Vincent and Spike at times wonder and even state plainly that they already died in the past, currently living in a ghostly/zombie state detached from the rest of the living world. The show creates some confusion about this in both of their cases and it leaves us wondering: is Spike/Vincent dead or dreaming? He claims both at various times and it’s all a bit ambiguous, so much so that I think it was deliberate. The loftiness, the groundless of dreaming leads one to wild mood swings and overreactions. The failure of a dream-deferred, as most dreams are, can make it seem like a precious life has been killed and the rest is just an afterlife. What happens when the dream is all over? Is there anything left?

Spike is lucky in this regard. His “afterlife” is a continuation of his dream – he still has a chance to complete some unfinished business. Though he claims to have died, the more fitting condition is that of a dream. It’s through “solving” Vincent’s troubles with a western-style showdown (himself standing in for a host of other characters from the show) that Spike comes to see that his death is off in the future and not something that has already come to pass. Vincent asks him this question at the end:

VINCENT: Tell me before this life of yours ends. Did I died on Titan long ago? Is this world just a dream that these butterflies are showing me? Are they part of the dream? Or are the butterflies real and Titan just a nightmare that I cannot wake up from? I can’t tell.

[*This is the English dub which I prefer in this scene. The Japanese original is translated as: “Before you die, tell me one thing. I died up there on Titan. Is this world the one the butterflies showed me in the dream? Or is that world the actual reality? And my world just a dream? I don’t understand.” I think it was the correct choice to replace the flat statement of death with a question “did I die?” for english.]

He finally resolves the dilemma when he comes to the understanding that “there never was a door.” The reality he wished to escape to was an illusion the whole time. Seeing his past love Electra let him regain his memory and shake him out of his grand revenge plan.

VINCENT: I remembered. She’s the one I used to love. I wanted to get out of this world of dreams. I kept searching for the door that would lead me out. I understand now, there never was a door.

[*Once again, english dub.]

The door blocking his path to heaven was a figment of his imagination, the memories of his loved one are all that remains. His problem was seeking a reality outside of his dream-life that would relieve him and everyone else of a great burden (as well as revenge). In this way Vincent is a copy of Ronny Spangen from episode 23, Brain Scratch.

Vincent’s response to a life saturated by a dream is to attempt to “save” every human being by killing them, ending the “unreality” of this corrupted world into which he projects himself. He would have been better off accepting the dreaminess of life and stop looking for a door outside of it, as he eventually does in the end.

If that wasn’t enough, the complexity gets another added layer. Alongside the dream/reality vs life/death tension we are given another: dream/reality vs heaven/purgatory. Vincent is constantly talking about purgatory. His anger against the corrupt officials who experimented on him blends into a generalized hatred of the entire world as it stands because of his delusions. He thinks we are all stuck in a purgatory that is preventing ascension to heaven/reality. As a frozen people stuck mid-passage we can only be redeemed by total death. Vincent actively attempts to bring about this outcome as a kind of “angel of death.”

The mixing of metaphors in Bebop makes the main lesson difficult to parse through. Is this ultimately a Christian show or anti-Christian? The talk of heaven and purgatory and angels and devils comes mostly from the show’s villains and the tender moments come from the relatively mundane/ordinary acts of kindness. The subtitle to the Cowboy Bebop movie “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” (removed from the English release) only adds further to this confusion, especially when we take a look at the final song that plays during the end credits. This is the final send off from Cowboy Bebop so it is worth looking at the entirety of its lyrics:

Happiness is just a word to me
And it might have meant a thing or two
If I’d known the difference

Emptiness, a lonely parody
And my life, another smokin’ gun
A sign of my indifference

Always keepin’ safe inside
Where no one ever had a chance
To penetrate a break in

Let me tell you some have tried
But I would slam the door so tight
That they could never get in

Kept my cool under lock and key
And I never shed a tear
Another sign of my condition

Fear of love or bitter vanity
That kept me on the run
The main events at my confession

I kept a chain upon my door
That would shake the shame of Cain
Into a blind submission

The burning ghost without a name
Was calling all the same
But I wouldn’t listen

The longer I’d stall
The further I’d crawl
The further I’d crawl
The harder I’d fall
I was crawlin’ into the fire

The more that I saw
The further I’d fall
The further I’d fall
The lower I’d crawl
I kept fallin’ into the fire
Into the fire
Into the fire

Suddenly it occurred to me
The reason for the run and hide
Had totaled my existence

Everything left on the other side
Could never be much worse that this
But could I go the distance?

I faced the door and all my shame
Tearin’ off each piece of chain
Until they all were broken

But no matter how I tried
The other side was locked so tight
That door, it wouldn’t open

Gave it all that I got
And started to knock
Shouted for someone
To open the lock
I just gotta get through the door

And the more that I knocked
The hotter I got
The hotter I got
The harder I’d knock
I just gotta break through the door

Gotta knock a little harder
Gotta knock a little harder
Gotta knock a little harder
Break through the door]

[source: https://animesonglyrics.com/index.php/cowboy-bebop/gotta-knock-a-little-harder]

Though the song is titled “Gotta Knock a Little Harder” and the original Japanese release of the movie is subtitled “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” the door in the song, just like the people shown scattered around the city during their parade, is a door between individuals. Through the door is intimacy, though the door need not be a closed. The door represents the various barriers we erect to keep others outside our singular lives. We shut the door when we are isolated and defensive, unable or unwilling to accept the warmth of friendship or love, or when we lock the door so tight that we crawl and claw our way through the fire of our own making. The door can be shut, opened, walked through, or locked but when it is locked hurt ourselves the most.

It all comes down very abruptly as Vincent has a last-second change of heart when he sees his past love. All of his old memories come flooding back in a single instance and his evil plan is suddenly a big mistake. It’s all much too quick to hit very hard emotionally without taking the same time that the show did with its memory flashes, letting the weight of the past sink in gradually. But let’s be generous and take the movie as a thematic summation. Vincent does indeed fit in with the rest of the moral universe of Cowboy Bebop even if he is overloaded with meaning and his turn too abrupt.

Let’s compare this with the serene ending song of the show, ‘Blue’:

Never seen a blue sky
Yeah I can feel it reaching out
And moving closer
There’s something about blue
Asked myself what it’s all for
You know the funny thing about it
I couldn’t answer
No I couldn’t answer

Things have turned a deeper shade of blue
And images that might be real
May be illusion
Keep flashing off and on
Wanna be free
Gonna be free
And move among the stars
You know they really aren’t so far
Feels so free
Gotta know free
Don’t wake me from the dream
It’s really everything it seemed
I’m so free
No black and white in the blue

Everything is clearer now
Life is just a dream you know
That’s never ending
I’m ascending

[source: https://animesonglyrics.com/index.php/cowboy-bebop/blue]

I believe the lyrics of these two final songs deserve to be included in both the show and the movie’s script because they are sung so clearly and put a fitting cap on their respective works. The Latin chorus flowing through the background is translated as

“As Jesus, the Messiah, you sing to me”

and the last line is “I’m ascending.” This would suggest that Cowboy Bebop is a Christian show after all and Spike’s death a sacrifice as much as much as a settling of a score. It’s a story mixing the genres of Nior, Western and Sci-Fi set mostly to Jazz so it shouldn’t be too surprising that a transcendental morality like this would find its way inside. However, it’s useful to remember that the sagely wisdom comes from a shaman-like character named “Old-Man Bull” and his metaphor of choice is a star. Each life is a star that burns for a time and fades or falls upon death. To fear death is the waste of a good life. The American/western influences of Cowboy Bebop do not forget indigenous voices, in fact they are filtered through such a voice in its most poignant moments.

What sets Spike apart from his villains is his basic benevolence, his kindness to strangers, and, after his long journey through the show and movie, his willingness to forgo his desire to escape and come back to his fate: to confront Vicious. To attack Vicious is to return to his old life and stop running towards an impossible dream, to do the most good in the world by stopping an inevitably bloody and tyrannical future. The passive nihilist casts off the nihilism and finds the courage to defeat the power-hungry active nihilist, even if it means ending the dream and dying (or letting the star fade away).

Spike’s death is something of a sacrifice but it’s also a coming to terms with the inevitability of his fate. He is marked for death in the show’s first episode by Old Man Bull. Another time we hear that Vicious is the only one who can kill him. What Spike’s encounter with Vincent does is demonstrate the fruitlessness of trying to find the door that leads from dream to reality: heaven’s door. The dream that is life is all there is. We cannot escape our fate. Spike must face Vicious, it is in his good nature to put a stop to his rampage and prevent the world from getting even worse than it already is. He must stop running and accept that this struggle will kill him. It’s a heroic assumption of one’s fate but also a sacrifice.

Spike’s story is a happy tragedy. In a tragedy it’s the character defects that ultimately bring down a hero in a fit of hubris. One glaring weakness thwarts a character otherwise capable of great deeds. This is not Spike, he fixes his weakness and assumes his fate. It costs him his life but it is also the most good he can do for the world. The kindness he has displayed is also training for a good death; the benevolence he has seen in others has taught him what it means to keep the world from collapsing into tyranny. Vincent holds up a mirror to Spike and shows him what destruction can be wrought by someone trying to escape their fate, to find an ideal beyond the dream that is their life.

Cowboy Bebop is not The Matrix (a movie released around the same time as the show). Its characters are not stuck in Plato’s cave struggling to find their way to the surface to see the light. That Spike makes his sacrifice and “ascends” is not a transcendence typically depicted in film, it’s a dispersion into the blue of the sky. The door never was a doorway to heaven but doorway to creating greater happiness in the rest of the world and its people. To the extent that Christian terms are used, they are interspersed with indigenous ones, casting as wide a net as humanly possible. At every step of the way in Cowboy Bebop we are reminded that this is a multicultural work of art and everything is blended into the same dream of a common humanity.

Every story in Cowboy Bebop has a final send off and the movie’s is “Are you Living in the Real World?” This adds yet more confusion to the core message. The question is not a provocation to the viewer to “get real.” The question is a spur to contemplation, a challenge for the viewer to confront the fact that “life is but a dream.” You can make it a good dream or a nightmare but there is no escaping the truth that it will end.

Starship Troopers and Intelligence

There has been a resurgence of interest in Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers in the past few years.  Generally speaking, this is bad.  When audiences are looking back to that strange era in American history when there was no ongoing war, the 1990’s, and picking the brilliant satire of fascism as their prophetic piece of art, something should make you uneasy.  Don’t get me wrong here: Starship Troopers might be the best antifascist gift given to future generations because it demands the viewer’s critical thinking to see through.  This is the wonder and joy of good satire after all: we must pierce through the surface of the presentation to avoid becoming part of the joke.  

Starship Troopers does everything it can to make its viewers become invested in its sexy characters and their twisted world.  One could see this as a threat if one has little faith in the intelligence of the broader audience of movie-goers, a fear that the population at large isn’t capable of disentangling the sex, violence, drama, and passion from the critique – or is so enamored by the action that it cannot see the critique at all.  Maybe the public isn’t smart enough to identify fascist tropes anymore and the only thing left to do is shield these helpless people from slipping on that slope and becoming the worst of evils.  Such an attitude says more about the one expressing it than anything going on inside of people writ large, ‘generally speaking.’

People are capable of the most monstrous behavior and are stupid enough to be lured en masse to suicidal orgies of destruction.  They are also capable of great sympathy and kindness.  This is why Starship Troopers is such a fascinating film.  It offers us a mirror: this is what cruelty you are capable of and you will love every minute of it, right up to the moment when you are mercilessly torn to shreds by your enemy.  To prevent such a dystopian future of the total militarization of society requires that we know our limits and that we come to understand those limits as our own.  We must sit with those limits as they grow rigid inside of us, the more thought we give them the more their necessity becomes apparent.  This requires intelligence.

If all that you get out of this essay is a link to a video series that you follow and watch all the way to the end then I will be satisfied. Kyle Kallgren took the time afforded by the Covid-19 lockdown to dive about as deep as one possibly could into Starship Troopers, its source material and everything surrounding it. He even went so far as to include his own family and their own history in relation to Verhoeven’s home country of the Netherlands. It’s an incredibly thoughtful 5+ hours of a video essay in 3 parts.

[Starship Troopers: Brows Held High]

The propaganda scenes in Starship Troopers are the best window we get into its militarized society.  This is a government that apparently does not ensure fair trials and broadcasts its public executions.  It targets children with enlistment ads and shows a teacher gleefully cheering on her students as they “do their part” by stomping out little bugs for the war effort.  It encourages people to get tested for psychic powers, because apparently they believe that some people have special abilities that can allow them to read minds.  If Neil Patrick Harris’s character tells us something about this program then it appears to be a screening program for potential candidates for an intelligence agency, meaning the source of military intelligence in this society is conducted by people who believe that those born with special brain gifts can develop psychic mind powers.  Either that or psychics are an advertising pretense for recruitment. In a political debate show two intellectuals spar over whether insects have the power to think in a vitriolic exchange that feels way too familiar.  One could ask whether ‘thought’ is taking place on a political debate stage such as this. These segments are brought together when our cast of characters are shown in school.

“This year we explored the failure of democracy,” says the teacher (who also happens to become their lieutenant in the war) as he summarizes his “History and Moral Philosophy” course to our main characters during their last days of high school.  This is the only class, as I learned from Kallgren (who read the book, I will not), that does not give tests or grades.  It is a freewheeling conversation like a seminar where students get to express themselves without deadlines and rote learning.  This is the kind of space where an ethics discussion could open up and debate could take place but instead the teacher jolts around the room confronting random students with challenging questions.  The teacher is more like a preacher here that has invaded the space of the student’s desk and forcefully calls them out to respond.  The time and care that comes with forming beliefs and opinions in an open discussion that shape the rest of a student’s life is invaded by a demanding instructor.  One can imagine a safer discussion, where people are secure in voicing their side of an argument, during a previous period in this society, before the “veterans” overthrew the “social scientists” and replaced such a class with this more intrusive one.

The structure of this class reflects the content of the message the instructor is hammering into his students: force and no other niceties grant power and authority.  Only by brute force is society held together and violence is what bestows authority on government.  “Violence is the supreme authority from which all other authority is derived” – the movie couldn’t get much clearer than that.  This is the bedrock teaching a thoroughly militarized and fascist society drills into its people but what makes Starship Troopers so special is what comes immediately after.  Beyond hiding fascism behind a thin-veil of an action flick, it demonstrates what happens to the intelligence of humanity under such a government.  Every military at war (and a government controlled by the military must always be at war) needs an inhuman other as an enemy.  What better way to maintain military authority than to be at perpetual war with perhaps the least human organism, bugs?

The next classroom scene puts an added twist on the fascist schooling.  As they dissect these space insects another teacher seems almost reverent towards the achievements of this new arachnid species.  Donning goggles that make herself look bug-like she extols the arachnids for their great achievements in both mindless reproduction and colonizing outer space. “We humans like to think we are nature’s finest achievement, afraid it just isn’t true. The Arkellian Sand Beetle is superior in many ways, it reproduces in vast numbers, has no ego, has no fear, doesn’t know about death, and so is the perfect selfless member of society…  By human standards they are relatively stupid. But their evolution stretches over millions of years.  And now they can colonize planets by hurling their spores into space.”  If you stop and think about what she is teaching you can see that the values of this society are perfectly reflected in the bugs.  Though “relatively stupid” everything the bugs are doing is what the Federation would like to do.  Pursue your high-school crush relentlessly, reproduce, unleash your primal urge to attack and kill, don’t think about death, expand and colonize: its just natural.

When the bugs attack earth and destroy the city of Buenos Aires (an impossible shot from a Jupiter moon that is either plot-necessary or another hint at their intelligence) the Federation responds swiftly and stupidly.  A full frontal assault on Klendathu is wiped out instantly.  The intelligence that indicated those massive blue cannon balls coming from the arachnid home moon are harmless is wrong.  A fleet of massive warships and nearly all ground infantry are slaughtered.  “We can ill afford another Klendathu.” So much for those psychic powers.  

In a rare moment of second thought a reporter mentions that some believe humans should stop provoking the bugs and that a “live and let live” policy is best, before our main character jumps in: “I say kill ’em all!” The reporter turns to the camera with a look condescension as if to say, “Well, that’s the end of that.” The idea of non-interference and respect for a separate sphere of influence is skillfully suggested by Verhoeven briefly, only to be swiftly cut down. Only one species will dominate the galaxy and all opposition must be crushed. It is unfathomable that the arachnids could have their own space to develop a civilization. They are too different. Bugs can’t think.

In the final act we find out the arachnids have been sucking the brains out of the humans they capture by a “brain bug” in order to absorb the intelligence of their adversaries. As it turns out these arachnids have learned to think. They want to gain the intelligence of humans. Whether arachnids want to use this intelligence to conquer humanity or it’s simply a matter of natural envy we will never know, humans in this form of civilization would not allow for such a question to be asked. To find out what they want requires diplomatic negotiations of some kind and the Earth Federation isn’t the negotiating type. A non-verbal communication short of antagonism is never considered.

What makes Starship Troopers so fascinating to me is that there is this extra layer of critique beneath the satire of militarism or fascism. The arachnid species the federation targets to keep its military society mobilized offers itself up as a mirror to what has become of humanity. The government hurls their soldiers mindlessly at a threat when the hive is attacked. Their lives mean nothing compared to the preservation of the group or the species. Neil Patrick Harris fully clothed in a gestapo trench coat explains: “I’m in it for the species.” Despite their technology and glittering cities, human behavior resembles the bugs they love to kill.

Meanwhile, the bugs have been evolving. The literal brain-sucking we witness at the end of the movie is the final and unmistakable cap on a movie that has been demonstrating in scene after scene what it looks like for people to collectively lose their intelligence. Sympathy for the bug is unthinkable, their raw animal difference is so great that instead of settling with that difference humanity becomes bug-like. There is a becoming-bug in a hyper-militarized culture that is shown to develop here paradoxically from fighting the bug. Attempting to eradicate the bugs only drains our intelligence. Humans governed by the Federation have created a zero-sum game where brain-power can only be transferred away because they have no way to increase their own or share it with another. There is an intelligence-against (data gathering to use against your opponent) and intelligence-with (collaboration).

Thanks to the appearance of a “brain-bug” we know that the arachnids are capable of intelligent evolution in their own way. One could imagine a future within the universe of the movie where bugs gain parity with human intelligence. They could even learn a thing or two from their opposite civilization. Unquestioning antagonism has transformed the human mind into a hive-mind. The distance between the two species is shrinking.

A moment of self-reflection would have a character stop, draw inward, and look at the greater scope of the war with the bugs and wonder what it all means. That doesn’t happen in Starship Troopers. Instead we are engrossed in the war and the high-school soap-opera drama transported into that war. The viewer would be swept up in the action if they could not stop and think. One could say that the film is therefore not teaching its viewers to recognize fascism and playing a trick on them. But would such sermonizing have given Starship Troopers its longevity? Would we still be thinking about it over twenty years later if there were not for the trick? That many saw through the rollicking flick while others didn’t creates an in-group/out-group dynamic that isn’t mendacious (one could always say they were too young to “get it”). Talking about the movie with friends and acquaintances provides an opportunity to show off but it’s also a teachable moment. It’s these moments that help satire live on and gradually boost the intelligence of the population. And that is the kind of intelligence that fascism can’t produce, an intelligence that stops amid the rush and whirl to question what it is we’ve been doing this whole time.

So what has our civilization been doing this whole time? Yours?

Some Thoughts on Gorgias

In Plato’s Gorgias we’ve received one of those Socratic dialogues that feels more like a conversation with friends than a treatise. This is a dialogue where Socrates distinguishes his philosophical method from the Sophist’s oratory, yet Socrates himself winds up giving longer speeches and his interlocutors frequently call him out for his own inconsistencies and perceived conversational offenses. After one such episode Socrates will reply that such frank remarks are like the stones on which gold is tested for its purity, he wishing his souls to be made of gold and requiring a sharp friend to smash his rock on Socrates’ gold. In another humorous episode (humorous to me anyways) Socrates tires out his bold and inquisitive friend Callicles to the point where Socrates himself will play both roles in the dialectic and reply to himself with the typical responses “yes I do think that is necessarily so” and “of course it is Socrates.” Socrates even suggests one time that they end the discussion since there seems to be no one left willing to carry on until the dialogue’s namesake in Gorgias speaks up. Socrates continues, pleading Callicles to listen and also interrupt him if he is ever off the mark. This is one dialogue that is not one-sided, it’s flow shifting with multiple contestants from Gorgias to Polus to Callicles. The order here is maintained by Socrates who must constantly reaffirm that his quest is not to win an argument but to find the truth, to search after what is good and just in a spirit of collaborative conversation rather than victory or defeat.

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Origins of the Term ‘Nihilism’

In searching for the origins of the term ‘nihilism’ we are brought back to a moment in history marking a great turning point in Europe. Great Britain had just won what has since been called “the first world war” (The Seven Years War) and its market-based colonial empire could now extend itself across the oceans of the earth “freely.” New ideas about human nature and nature itself had sprouted in France and would charge a gigantic revolution, which had vast consequences everywhere. A faith in reason brought with it a promise of reform and an understanding that scientific inquiry into the natural world would reveal natures laws and even the secret to human happiness. With the expanded development of humanity’s capacity to reason, universal truths would soon be discovered, religious principles would receive firm foundational support, a just ordering of the world could be maintained, and people would generally get smarter. But The Age of Enlightenment would see challenges within its own discourse that would bring it to a crisis in the late eighteenth century. Reason and the authority it claimed would eventually come into conflict with the authority of the church or traditional faith in general. Very few could accept resting on atheistic conclusions in Germany as David Hume’s skeptical atheism could in Great Britain, yet Hume’s arguments gained wide attention. Reason, criticism, faith, nature: where did the authority lie? What would become of society when the human powers of reason were fully actualized?

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Blowback: The 1997 East Asian Financial Crisis

When I picked up Chalmers Johnson’s Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire what I was expecting was an elaboration of the term ‘blowback’ and some examples of the negative consequences of US military operations.  What I got was much more.  The book shines when it dies into financial machinations centered in the East Asian pacific region, blending gruesome stories of what goes on in US military bases with complex currency manipulations designed to keep those countries from growing too strong economically.  Written before the events of September 11th, 2001 and the subsequent war on terror the book lets us see the workings of US imperialism from a less spectacular era.  The Cold War having been won and US global dominance assured, the full power of dollar diplomacy and economic intervention is brought to the fore.

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Act, Speculate

Could anyone have predicted this would happen? Is anyone using this event for their own advantage?

It’s odd how in times of genuine crisis people begin to ask the most speculative questions when those same questions are derided as paranoia during periods of relative calm. Millions of people worldwide have been isolated for months, told that halting income generated work and trade to its barest “essentials” (don’t even get me started) was the only way to prevent mass death. Then a horrendous murder is shown on video and out comes all of the anger, the guilt, the rejection of hopelessness onto the streets of cities all across the US. Sometimes the simplest explanations are the best, narrowing down all of the scenarios for “how this will play out” along the common party lines of who will win and lose election capital or taking sides with ‘non-violence’ or violence or saying “pro” or “con”. Sticking to the tried and true can create a certain sort of clarity that calms the nerves and straightens thinking. Other times wild speculations offer extreme scenarios that serve as giant blaring signs in bold red letters: DANGER do not let this happen! or ONWARD to liberation!

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Capturing the Battle for the Soul of Gotham City

I’ve been holding off on writing about The Dark Knight for some time. It’s impact on American culture can hardly be overstated but for a long time it just felt too close to home to tackle head on. It wasn’t until I rewatched the old Tim Burton Batman of 1989 that it started to click. Heath Ledger’s Joker, while original and alluring (most of all for succeeding in capturing that ever sought after and highly profitable “zeitgeist”) is not that difficult to understand. When compared to Jack Nickolson’s Joker of 89, our new and more nerve-touching Joker is another beast entirely – even if many of his defining scenes are ripped right out of the old. Christopher Nolan and David Goyer attempt to put their version of Batman and the Joker in a real city and act out real contemporary political issues but, in spite of its resounding success, The Dark Knight is mired in War on Terror ideology and will remain frozen in that time. Their placement of Batman in a real world Gotham only diminishes his fantastic potential of visualizing and story-fying our unconscious desires.

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More on Conversations

Initiating a conversation is not always a matter of holding an idea inside of your mind and then releasing that idea into someone else’s mind for a shared time. Sometimes a conversation with its topic and type of participants is already there in the atmosphere, latent and easily brought to the forefront of our minds. It was in this second sense of conversations that I wrote an early little essay in my blog called On Conversations. The words and the ideas were already there and just waiting to be spoken. Someone or something had cracked the code of what people wanted to start talking about but couldn’t quite find the right avenue or opportunity to begin. And then all of the sudden it hits like an EMP, electrifying a crowd of people, and suddenly even timid individuals are transformed into loud-mouths.

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Don’t Get Schwifty, Raise Your Posterior

Of all the episodes of Rick and Morty that bend serious sci-fi to a casual comedic audience, ‘Get Schwifty’ sticks out the most. A giant head appears from the dark recesses of outer space and causes major geological disasters immediately before it issues one command to the people of earth: “SHOW ME WHAT YOU GOT.” The allusion to climate change is made immediately by a tv news reporter who is swiftly told to “not make this political.” The entire fate of the earth and its inhabitants now depends on showing the giant space heads, the Cromulons, what we got. It’s so simple and thrusts upon us so suddenly that there is no time to collectively discern how to react. The Cromulon heads are calling on us, demanding us to give them what they want.

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Electrified Stories

Electronic images pass through the mind, a plushy chair cushions a straight back.  Simpler times are conjured up by an graphic bits of light set upon a screen.  Sitting still, the imagination soars backward and we try place ourselves in a natural setting performing essential tasks.  I fetch water in a wooden pale from my own well dug up by my great grandfather, I buy a sickle to ease the next harvest, I feed the livestock with grain stored up in the barn, I head to the pub to find my neighbors – all of whom I know, I get into a brawl with my rival and nobody is actually hurt.  I am inside of a community and feel reassured by this sense of belonging as I lay me head to rest.  Night becomes day, day night, and “harmony” is won again.

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