#96: We Need Neutral News Media

After four years of news reporting that seemed more animated than ever, the change in the U.S. presidency carried one hope: a change of tone that would make it a bit easier to go through the our day-to-day lives. Sure, the pandemic still rages, but is politics not something now that has gotten much more palatable?

Think again. In fairness, the craziness that is American news predated Trump; in fact, he was able to plug in to an existing culture of media dysfunction.

What I mean by dysfunction consists of several elements:

  • The amplification of conflict by restyling news as a courtroom. Typically, there are advocates for two sides, and two sides only, and both have to be depicted as somehow equally believable, no matter which alleged position is more true than the other, or not true at all.
  • The opinion bias in ANY news source – in whatever news medium – is hurting the news. Some are worse than others, but all have some bias. It is good if you know the bias and you can discern any possible distortion due to your being educated about these issues, but how do you know? And why should we accept this? Can’t we have a clear and neutral agreement on what is news, and can’t we have balanced commentary sections that are true to the issues, not true to the division?
  • News-only channels are a problem in themselves. The over-hyped news cycle in its relentlessness is contributing to an already out-of-control entertainmentification of news. Additionally, for any 24-hour-news channel, there is frighteningly little news actually being reported. It’s a big planet. But the provinciality of all-day news channels is puzzling. The problem becomes even more confusing when comparing, for instance, CNN International with CNN USA. The former seems to be an actual news station, the latter – allegedly suited to its domestic American audience – is fishing in much shallower waters. The increasing partisan focus has also hurt the channel. We already have FOX News and MSNBC for those on either side of the political aisle, why pick up bad habits when you obviously could be able to run a serious news station instead. Dumbing it down for your audience is not a good idea. You’ll always lose to the station that is already doing a more efficient job in that respect.
  • Within commentary, there needs to be critical distance to the issue. We need complex, competent people sharing their genuine analysis (not just opinion) on matters of importance with us. The denigration of experts as somehow being too much of an expert is a saddening phenomenon.
  • Partisan politics invade not just commentary but also the selection of news. The problem goes beyond one channel. One or two (or three, or four? who knows) may be more over-the-top partisan than others, but it is certainly a matter of degree. At this point, every single American News Channel – with the possible exception of PBS – deserves at least some scorn by an audience with a legitimate demand to be given that which is true and balanced in analysis. Is it any wonder that – given this failure – the feeling about news in the country seems to go in the direction of “a pox on both your houses”?
  • Money in news channels is a further bad idea. Corporate ties seem to influence what gets reported and how. If you look at which corporations own which channel or which paper, and then if you look what these corporations also do abroad, any  reporting about some foreign country in which the parent company of the news corporation may be heavily investing, will always have to be suspect to reporting bias.

There are alternatives. This post has focused on the American market, but the difference to other news markets can be striking. The British, French, German, Canadian, and Australian markets, for instance, have a strong presence of public broadcasting. Privatization may create opportunities for more diverse content, but when it comes to the news, its effect has not been a benign one. The profit motive is not easily compatible with the search for truth.

There is much more to say on the subject, but let’s leave it here for now, to be revisited later.

#87: Stargate as Classical Science Fiction

The Pandemic has made me a bit nervous. As a consequence, I have felt it to be difficult to concentrate on any new form of entertainment, and have chosen – as I understand, like millions of other people – to revisit some older shows or formats that are still familiar. This has led me to re-appreciate and rethink some old favorites that may have faded over time in the mass of new material that has emerged since then.

When you think of science fiction shows or franchises, people will typically mention Star Trek and Star Wars. Sure, both shows take place in space, but one (Trek) is science fiction, the other is, well, complicated. What role does science actually play in the Star Wars universe? Or better, what is science fiction?

As there are as many definitions as there are consumers of science fiction, I would propose the following limited set of parameters as minimum requirements:

  1. Science: discussion of real and extrapolated scientific ideas
  2. Politics and Society: The discussion of political and social utopias or simply alternatives, as facilitated by the philosophical reflection about other cultures and worlds, which may point to the possibility of changes to our own culture.
  3. Ethics: The discussion of classical philosophical, ethical and psychological problems through the plot
  4. Mythology and Religion: an engagement with themes of a mythological nature, the building of new mythological narratives, the raising of questions about the nature of existence

This list is probably not perfect but may serve our needs here.

As to Star Wars, aside from some episode of Clone Wars or Rebels, I cannot remember any science-centered story, nor any protagonist that would be a serious scientist. Points 2-4 though are well represented. With Star Trek, all notes are typically hit, but in my opinion less so recently. Ever since the Kelvin-timeline movies and Discovery, Star Trek has been following the Star Wars path more closely. The science that remains (the spore drive) is treated almost like magic, and actual scientific discussion is rare.

This is where Stargate is different, in all its incarnations (SG-1, Atlantis, Universe). Stargate is even interdisciplinary: There are natural scientists (Dr. Carter, Dr. Lee, Dr. McKay, Dr. Zelenka, Dr. Rush, Dr. Volker), humanities and social science scholars (Dr. Jackson, Dr. Weir, Jonas Quinn), medical doctors (Dr. Fraiser, Dr. Lam, Dr. Beckett, Dr. Keller, Lt. Johanson), and several engineers, bureaucrats, diplomats, and specialists. Lead characters with a doctorate other than medicine are almost unheard of in the other bigger franchises (notable exceptions: Dr. Bishop on Fringe, Dr. Sato on Enterprise and Dr. Balthar in Battlestar Galactica – both though underused in their scientific functions. Spock and T’Pol don’t have human doctorates).

Besides personnel, Stargate episodes frequently and sometimes exhaustively discuss science (real or extrapolated). Science drives the plot, experiments are made, success or failure (sometimes catastrophic failure!) can occur, and even the real scientific community is brought in. Just as Dr. Stephen Hawking guest starred in Star Trek TNG, Neil Degrasse Tyson and Bill Nye guest star on Atlantis.

This is not a trivial observation. Scientific reasoning and thinking – in all possible disciplines – seems in short supply right now. It is one of the purposes of science fiction to actually communicate science. Without it, all the other elements mentioned can still exist, but it should be science that ties everything together. The highlighting of scientific thinking, the portrayal of scholars and scientists – granted, in fantastic scenarios, but still – is sorely needed in our world which so deeply relies on science.

This should not be given up for the sake of entertainment, or for the assumed expectations of the audience. Let’s hope that whenever the new Stargate series – which is reportedly in the planning stage – will finally hit the screens, that it will remember its original formula which has inspired so many young would-be scientists and scholars so far.

#54: The Dictator as False Messiah: A Belated Review of Game Of Thrones Season 8

I.

Game of Thrones has been a mainstay of recent television mania. Each year, the excitement built up more and more, and for the very last season, expectations were high, and, as it goes with genre shows, fans had their very concrete ideas about how things should develop. This now is a very belated, spoiler-filled review.

The reaction to the conclusion of season 8 of Game of Thrones has typically not been kind. In a nutshell, it runs like this: “All the buildup. All the pathos. All the scheming. And it ends like this. Why?”

That’s basically the criticism. Well, you can see it that way. You could also ask, well, let’s just accept this is what’s happening, and ask what it is meant to accomplish and say. Rather than to allow the frustration over the disappointment of one’s own expectations to govern one’s opinion about the show (i.e. How does that make us feel?), we might instead learn something from the experience (i.e. What might that possibly mean?).

We accept audience frustration in the short run – which drives the popularity for basically anything done by Christopher Nolan (Memento, Inception, Interstellar, Tenet), the current master of surprise turns of narrative once M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village) lost favor. The gimmick of the unreliable narrative and of surprise turns of events seems to work well with audiences if it comes in the form of a movie-length experience. But if it comes in the final run of a 8-year television series, audiences that have fallen for the trick seem to be frustrated. The same happened with Lost and its absolutely brilliant (and apparently equally not understood) ending. Maybe there’s a lesson here. Limit surprise twists to movie or even television season size (like Dr. Who under Steven Moffat – but even he suffered from frustrated audiences).

Or, in short, people who loved Game of Thrones so much that they named their daughters Daenerys or Khaleesi probably were put off a bit by the ending, one would hope.

The spoiler for this review is as follows: It Makes Perfect Sense. In fact, the entire series can be read as a playbook that lets us understand how people fall for a genocidal dictator, how they end up supporting a violent revolution that in fact runs counter to their interest, and how nothing good can ever come out of supporting someone pretending to be a messiah that will solve all your problems.

II.

Daenerys “Danny” Targaryen sees herself as a liberator. She has been abused, she had to fight for survival, she rose to the top, became Khaleesi (basically, a female Khan), she is a sympathetic character overall, but she has always had a cruel streak. She brutally kills her brother (Season 1). She locks Xaro and Doreah in their own vault in Qarth to die (Season 2). She kills the slavers of Astapor (Season 3) and has the slavers of Mereen crucified (Season 4). She feeds a Mereen nobleman to her dragons (Season 5). She kills the Khals that threatened to abuse her (Season 6, and yes, that was sadly very satisfying). She kills Randyll Tarly and his son (Season 7). She kills Varys (Season 8, now we’re finally suspicious). At every point, these are all signs for what’s to come.

Just because some of her victims are bad people, it is telling that Daenerys’ default answer is cruelty. The audience typically likes it because the show is pulling a Hannibal Lector – audiences tend to identify with the protagonist, especially if they are good-looking, charming, played by a great actor, or can claim to fight for the greater good. Her fight is not for justice, it is for revenge. She clearly delights in the violence, it is visible. Every season shows us a reminder of her character. She may have been a victim in the past, but she has become a perpetrator of violence and cruelty. And like every cruel person in history, she has willing accomplices unable or unwilling to stop her.

III.

Tyrion as Daenerys’ advisor basically plays the role many philosophers have played when trying to appease a brutal tyrant. As Plato fails with Dion of Syracuse, Socrates with the Thirty Tyrants, Aristotle with Alexander, Cicero with Augustus, Machiavelli with Cesare Borgia, Thomas More with Henry VIII., Voltaire with Frederick II, Robespierre with the terror he himself helped unleash, Trotzky (no innocent either) with Stalin, and, arguably, Heidegger with Hitler, and Oliver Stone with Castro and Putin, the philosopher/artist typically cannot keep the brutal tyrant from being a brutal tyrant. They may delude themselves into blunting the blow, into convincing the inconvincible, into preventing the worst. In the end, they never do. In the end, they may soil their reputation by getting too close to power, and by enabling the tyrant and providing legitimacy to a reign of terror that they should have seen coming. Cicero and Thomas More finally stood up against tyranny and paid the price. Heidegger is still being read, but with well-deserved disgust. The Faustian bargain hardly ever pays off.

On Game of Thrones, Tyrion’s fate – as likeable as he might be – should be much harsher. He should have seen what was happening, but he himself has gotten himself deeper into the dark shadows of questionable morality. When escaping King’s Landing, there was no need to kill his father Tywin, who was quite incapacitated at the moment as he was sitting in his bathroom. Tywin may have been a bad father, but killing him – as emotionally pleasing this may have been for Tyrion – was unnecessary, and it led to the downfall of the city eventually. Always the ultimate narcissist, Tyrion shows his lack of morality. The years of being humiliated by his family finally lead him to his breaking point – or do they finally reveal his true, evil character? In order to seek personal vindication, he ushers in the destruction of the city that never loved him. Naturally, he will partner up with the other murderer in the show. Tyrion, too late, realizes he has been playing the Goebbels to Daenarys’ Hitler.

And Jon Snow, he indeed knows nothing. He is the idiotic Siegfried character, duped by Burgundians (by political power), having abandoned his Brünnhild (Ygritte), lusting after Gutrune / Kriemhild / Daenerys, manipulated somehow by Hagen (now there’s a reason for Tyrion as a dwarf!). Enough Wagner, but it’s certainly fun to cross-read these texts. Jon is hopelessly in love, being seduced by Daenerys, and once he realizes the difference between right and wrong, it is rather late. In his very original defense, he indeed did die and was raised from the dead, so he might just as well be dead inside.

IV.

In all of their defense, if such a defense should be justified, this is the story of a world gone mad. It is not easy to maintain your morality under such circumstances. But this is precisely when it counts. Morality in good times is meaningless if it is not challenged. Morality shows up when it matters most, when you have to decide in favor not of your own selfish survival or comfort, but in support of the greater good. It matters whether you give in to the seduction of a violent quick fix, or whether you seek the path that is complicated, painful, laborious, and time-intensive. Put differently, do you save yourself, or do you save your soul?

Difficult times are no excuse. This is not about surviving a concentration camp, or some other liminal experience, this is about the point where you choose to become a perpetrator to avoid being a victim. You may not have a choice when you are ordered to shoot somebody. But you can always aim to miss. Historical evidence shows that most soldiers in battles actually do everything that keeps them from killing. Ironically, Star Wars was right all along: Most stormtroopers fail to hit their target, and it may just be deliberately. Human beings tend to know what is right and what is wrong.

There has to be a caveat here: We ourselves cannot know how we would act in these circumstances. For good reason, we are talking about exceptional situations. It should not be ours to judge too facetiously, lest we be judged also. We all make mistakes, we are all fallible, we are all human. What I am talking about here are deliberate and coherent patterns of cruelty, displayed by the protagonists of a keystone television show. This is not about characters under momentary duress, this is about characters deliberately and knowingly committing or condoning violence. It’s the difference between self-defense and murder.

V.

The show has always been a historical allegory, initially seemingly about the Fall of Rome, but additionally now about World War II.

The gravity of history is unforgiving. Tragedy is when characters end up doing the wrong thing despite having tried everything to avoid doing it. No matter how much they may have wanted to change, they cannot change their nature. Jamie Lannister realizes this. Daenerys Targaryen realizes this. They give in, because that was always their supposed destiny. They are weak, they surrender to the darkness inside. Contrast this with Arya and Sansa Stark: Both have suffered greatly, and yet they eventually beat the darkness and grow beyond the need for revenge. There is always a choice.

Daenerys has always been not just violent, but outright cruel, sadistic, indulgent in violence, almost a mirror image of Ramsay Bolton. We were warned time and again. She has always been nothing but a combined version of Julius Caesar, Attila the Hun, Napoleon, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, all in one package. She is all dictators. She is all deluded violent revolutionaries. What brilliance to make her into an attractive young girl to allow the audience to fall for her. She has taken all the tragedy of her life and turned it not to wisdom, kindness or compassion, but into a weapon. Once she has the chance to release it, she does.

Like Ahab, she is mad in her pursuit to break the wheel. Yet the wheel of history cannot be broken. This has always been the truth of the show. It had to be revealed eventually, and shockingly, and the audience had to be punished for believing otherwise.

The business of dictators is seduction, and Daenerys has certainly seduced us into (false) hope, just as the show and its producers have seduced us, almost soma-laden, into believing that the wheel of history can be broken, that violent and unprincipled psychopaths shalt lead the way to the revolution, and that everything will be all right.

No, it won’t. It never will be. That way, there’ll only be dragons.

#6: Star Trek Discovery: Mea Culpa

I have sinned, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I disliked Star Trek Discovery when it came out. Somehow it seemed too different, both in style and tonality resembling more the newer Battlestar Galactica and others. To me, Star Trek was always a stage play, with better funding than the original Doctor Who, of course, but barely. I disliked the movies because they were too cinematic, and cherished the TV shows for being minimalist.

Now I felt I was seeing 10 lights where there should have been only four (and if you do not get this, you may not know as much about Star Trek than you think — just kidding. This kind of passive-aggressive fandom nerdiness is never helpful. But seriously, TNG 6.10-11 “Chain of Command I+II” should be required viewing).

Everything is urgent, flashy, you need subtitles, Klingons look different again, what the Data is a “spore drive”, and why are there holograms, and a holodeck, etc. Who are these people on the bridge that I never get to know really. — Eventually, I got it out of my system.

Star Trek fans can be the most unforgiving. But we’ll come around, hopefully, eventually. Discovery is great, and it may even had a better start than most other Star Trek shows in each of their own awkward first seasons.

Rewatching season one, this show clearly needs to live long and prosper (couldn’t help it).