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Threaten Me, Please…

HTF__Threatening_Base_by_FlameBunny700As an atheist, I have a recurring conversation with many believers. They can’t understand why I bother to try to be a good person without the impending fear of judgement and damnation. If I don’t think God is watching me and keeping score, why don’t I just go on a hedonistic binge of barbarism?

I always try to patiently respond that my motivation is mostly internal. I want to judge myself to be useful, productive, helpful, and caring. There is an external aspect to it as well. I want my family and friends to judge me positively. I don’t believe in life everlasting. My only shot at living beyond my mortal years is in the recollections of those who might remember me. And for reasons of my own making, I want that legacy to be based on fondness, respect, and maybe even admiration, not on infamy. That is what I aspire to, and what inspires me.

What I don’t usually share is that their question frightens the hell out of me. The implication (or in some cases, the outright admission) is that the only thing standing between them and a life of raping and pillaging is belief in some exogenous force poised to reign retribution down upon them. They are not a tamed animal, they are a caged one.

Of late, I’ve begun to wonder if this same need for external fear-based motivation extends beyond the realm of religion and morality. In economics, I hear the repeated notion that minimum wages, guaranteed health care, food stamps, unions, and any other program designed to help the poor or the working poor is inherently destructive. It removes the incentive to work harder, train harder, or even to work at all. The underlying assumption seems to be that absent the fear of homelessness and starvation, no one would get out of bed in the morning. It isn’t enough to have a sizable carrot in front of you unless there’s a big angry stick behind you to keep you moving.

This same attitude seems to bleed into foreign policy as well. The notion that the USA must remain the preeminent military power on the planet because otherwise we’ll lose our ability to influence other countries seems predicated on the notion that our power comes from fear that we instill. We repeatedly demonstrate that fear of terrorism will motivate us to actions we would otherwise never consider. In fact politics has largely degenerated into a game of which party can paint the scarier future if the other guy wins.

It even strikes me that much of our gun-culture stems from fears that everyone else, left to their own devices, would pose a threat. It is only by being a bigger threat yourself, that you’re able to keep them at bay.

I do believe that most people view others through their own life-lens. That is, they project their own desires, tendencies, and morality onto the behavior of others. People who worry about the downside of atheism, economic security, and world peace are reacting from the awareness that they themselves realize that in such a world, they would rapidly fall into an existence of varying degrees of unfettered sociopathy.

That there exist so many people contained only by a variety of fears is more than disconcerting. And it would be one thing if there was a recognition that fear-based motivation was destructive and there was a collective consensus to mitigate it. Conversely, what we’re seeing is a resurgence in the idea that fear-based motivation is essential and good.

I had hoped for better, but in the end, maybe we are just barbarians with iPhones.


To Boldly Go…

Star Trek Captains
Original Series (Shatner), Next Generation (Patrick Stewart), Deep Space Nine (Avery Brooks), Voyager (Kate Mulgrew), Enterprise (Scott Bakula), new movies (Chris Pine) From left to right, top to bottom: NBC/Paramount; Paramount; Paramount Television; Braga Productions/Paramount Network Television; Paramount Pictures/Skydance Productions

Matt Yglesias provides a delightful, yet long winded, romp through the history of the Star Trek franchise. It’s a must-read for any serious Trekkie. For the rest of you, suffice it to say that what made Star Trek great was its vision of a somewhat utopian future.

Trek envisioned a world not based on economics and acquisition of stuff, but a world where people were motivated by a desire to learn more, to better themselves. It was more about cooperation than competition.

This didn’t mean the Star Trek universe didn’t have its share of bad guys, but success was often about diplomacy and respect of alien culture. Blowing stuff up was a last resort.  Granted, it wasn’t an uncommon last resort, but it wasn’t the primary point of the show.

Yglesias also observes that the new rebooted movie franchise, while great fun, has sort of lost this vision. It’s become more a series of sci-fi adventure flicks than the morality tales that defined the 5 TV series.  It’s great popcorn entertainment, but it’s not really what Trek was all about. Yglesias blames this on the medium—that feature length films don’t lend themselves to the same type of storytelling as the small screen.  Maybe he’s right.

All this got me to thinking about why I’ve always preferred Star Trek to Star Wars. While I’ve enjoyed the Star Wars movies, they simply aren’t as personally compelling to me. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says for him it’s because Trek stays more true to science as we understand it. Phasers just seem hard to build, while light sabers seem to require different laws of physics. As a science geek myself, I like the bad science explanation, but I don’t think that’s it.

In the end it’s rather simple. The universe of Star Trek is a place I’d like to live.  Star Wars? …not so much.   And it’s not even that Star Wars is always centered on, well, wars… and frankly, war zones aren’t appealing places to live. But the overall culture is maybe too familiar.  In some ways it’s too similar to the world we live in. Governments are corrupt. Power struggles and armed conflict are rampant. Everyone is constantly angling for an advantage. Thanks, I can turn on CNN and see that.

Yet in the Trek world, I can explore, learn, grow, and I still occasionally get to blow something up. It may still have dangers, but it’s an inviting and appealing culture. It emphasizes the best in humanity while recognizing that the worst still lurks.

It’s not clear this difference is because Star Wars was spawned from feature films rather than television.  Each writer built their universe to suit their vision and the story they wanted to tell. Roddenberry was an optimist. He believed the best in people would always prevail and projected a future where it truly blossomed. Lucas was more of a realist. He reprojected the culture of man onto a different galaxy and gave them hyperdrives and blasters.

Bottom line: If the Enterprise (any of them, NX, NCC, A, B, C, D, E, or Q for that matter) drops into orbit and offers to take me on as a crewman, I’ll be texting Kim from space that I will be out of town for awhile. I will be boldly gone. Hell, I’ll even agree to wear a red shirt. But if the Millennium Falcon  drops by, I may well go for a joy ride, but I’ll be home for dinner.


Why Blubberella, Why?

Blubberella_CoverThe movie trailer sounded so promising. “A plus-sized superhero takes on Hitler’s Nazis.” “She’s half vampire and two and a half women.”  “She will kick ass with her big ass.”  This sounded like B-movie cinematic gold.I mean look at that movie poster!

It was Saturday evening. The fire was crackling, and the 6 months of free Showtime service we’d just received beckoned from the flatscreen. My baby, who usually is only willing to share watching such drivel with me if she’s asleep, actually suggested we watch together. She knows I’ve always had a fondness for so-bad-they’re-good movies—something she’s never shared, but she was up for a taste.

You see, this genre of flicks come in two flavors. The classics are the films that tried real hard to be serious movies. “Glen or Glenda” or pretty much anything by Ed Wood falls in this category, as do most of the vintage sci-fi creature features like “The Creeping Terror“. But there’s also a world of campy comfort to be found in films that never intended to take themselves too seriously. “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” or even the more recent “Mars Attacks!” are in this vein.  All are worthy of a couple hours on the couch calling out one-line quips at the TV in the finest tradition of “MST3K“.

Blubberella tries to be in the second category, but it doesn’t try real hard. And now, this is the point in the article where I should recap the plot for you… ummm… fat girl… Nazis… cotton candy… dead Nazis… fat joke… blood… hero sandwich… evil doctor… gay joke… look, I have a sword!… Jewish joke… hey, remember I’m a vampire, okay?… Holocaust joke…  It’s entirely possible there was some narrative thread that held these elements together, but that will have to be someone’s Film Appreciation class thesis to discern. I am not watching it again to try and figure it out. Although, in fairness, I didn’t watch it all the way through the first time. A half-hour in I voted to go back and watch Homeland on the On Demand channel instead.

I wonder if director Uwe Boll truly appreciates how monumentally bad a movie needs to be to get me to turn it off?  After all, I’ve watched “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” to the end, and I even enjoyed “Battlefield Earth“.  I can’t help but wonder what Ron Howard thought of his baby brother Clint’s featured role in the film. Did he call him afterward and remind him that he should never be too proud to call and ask for rent money? Or at least take him out on a Tranya-fueled weekend bender to forget the horror of the 36-hours it took to produce this mind-numbing waste of photons?

Worst of all, does Boll realize this has forever tainted my lady’s view of the genre? She may never again suggest we watch such a thing. And when I wish to, she will roll her eyes so far up she’ll actually be able to see how dumb she thinks the idea is.

It’s all ruined. Why Blubberella, why?