Friday, September 22, 2017


The past few columns I've been writing about popular entertainment. If it seems shallow, I apologize. It's just that my recent work, away from academe, has me a little more narrowly focused in code and in processes. Popular entertainment is my periscope to the world, is still enjoyable to some degree, and affords some common ground with which to relate to others.

All the same, I am somewhat leery of popular entertainment, in particular, the geek culture that I once so loved. Last time, I said it had reached levels of obsessiveness and that it seemed too much like work to keep up. In recent years, I've noticed that it's taken on more sinister undertones which have contaminated our world view.

When I was growing up, the appeal of the geek culture -- fantasy and science fiction -- was in its fairy tale-like qualities. In the fairy tales of my time, the lines between good and evil were clearly drawn and one could readily tell which was which, with no need to quibble about baggage. In the end, good triumped over evil.

If perhaps that seems too idealized, it's because that's what is function is: to entertain as well to instruct. Those fairy tales gave us a template of the virtues that we could aspire, even if we couldn't always hold them up in the real world. We could look to courage, loyalty, perseverance, fidelity, wisdom, understanding, and sacrifice.

Take, for instance, the original Star Wars. As a self-contained story, it was clear Luke Skywalker was good and Darth Vader was evil. It held up the wisdom of Obi Wan Kenobi and offered a redemptive arc for the mercenary Han Solo. We left the theater feeling good because evil had been vanquished.

But something happened along the way as the story expanded. The Jedi were no longer good nor wise but staid and inflexible. I would daresay more fans lean towards the Empire, with their snazzy uniforms and their vision of order. Tongue-in-cheek, there are people who claim: "The Empire Did Nothing Wrong!"

We grew up but we remained nostalgic for the stories of our youth. But they did not conform to our realities of our adulthood, or perhaps we did not live up to the virtues of that they proposed. So we demanded more texture and more realism in our fairy tales, part of that "realism" being that our heroes became as damaged and flawed as we are, if not more so.

So now we have new fairy tales like Game of Thrones, essentially the high fantasy cribbed from Arthurian legends and perfected by J.R.R. Tolkien, now perverted with incest and wholesale murder, all in the name of realism and grown-up-ness. The new virtues proposed are cunning, deceit, compromise, lust, utilitarianism, and the will to power.

Whereas we read the old fairy tales and were inspired by virtues that we could aspire to, now we watch the new fairy tales and take comfort that we have not yet descended into such levels of depravity. Not yet, anyway.

But they're only just fairy tales! We don't take them seriously! Don't we? Fairy tales are a template for behavior, even subconsciously. They influence what we are willing to accept. How else can we explain why we support leaders who espouse infidelity, deceit, injustice, and murder, all supposedly in the name of the greater good?

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