Off-Topic: Anti-Intellectualism

Or as I like to call it: Pro-Foolishness

tbh both these fellows look sus (the beefcake is supposed to look like the relatable working-man, who did NOT skip leg day.)

So for the past few years (for some unknown unfathomable reason) I’ve become increasingly concerned by, and wanting to learn more about Anti-Intellectualism (with a smidgen of irony I’m just going to say Anti-Int as a shorthand. Anti-Int is a political movement or ideology of undermining, opposing, or even persecuting ‘intellectual’ institutions, groups, and individuals associated with intellectualism, as in Universities, Academics, specialists, and experts, and sometimes media.

Why Tho?

The first question of my journey of understanding was: Just Why? Of any ideology you can have, why literally be opposed to smart people or the institutions associated with wisdom and teaching?

At first I thought perhaps it could just the net effect of politicians often being opposed to the suggestions or input of academics. For example see the Star Wars saga (not the movies this time) where the US government was convinced of the potential of a massive project of missile defence which could effectively render nuclear weapons obsolete. The primary problem was that the project was scientifically and technologically impossible. (There were also political issues of potentially destabilizing international relations but I’ll stay on topic).

The above is an issue of where Science conflicted with Politics, but its not exactly an example of Anti-Int, except not directly – (In my opinion the disregard of Scientific opinion and ultimately reality is Anti-Int)

Similar examples could be made in history where Religion has clashed with Science – specific conflicts aren’t necessarily Anti-Int. However a case could be made than many Religions engage in Anti-Int efforts to avoid undermining their own belief system.

So my research and reflection continued and I discovered that at its heart Anti-Int is in effect anti-accountability and in its extreme anti-reality. I hope I don’t have to explain why politicians or pernicious individuals might want to avoid accountability. In terms of anti-reality this might be harder to explain briefly, but there is a subset of narcissistic belief where people genuinely believe that there is no objective reality – there is simply the will or perception of the powerful (and of course the narcissist is most powerful) who impose their reality on the rest of the world. If this seems a bit far-fetched, consider that this is the psychology of many dictators and cult-leaders.

For the sake of all our sanities I’ll focus on the accountability explanation for most of this Anti-Int discussion.

If you’re wondering how Anti-Int is anti-accountability, consider that Academics are often the source of general scepticism and criticism especially of governments, large institutions, culture and societal systems. The same could be said of the Media – technically media gets its own sort of attention in politics in discussions around Free-Press, unsurprisingly Anti-Int and media-silencing efforts almost always go hand in hand.

Because Academics and Experts are typically smaller in population and don’t hold much direct power, the immediate cost of being ‘anti’ is usually not high. Discrediting and undermining intellectualism is not usually seen as offensive, nor typically upsetting to a large enough population to lose political power.

So how does it work?

I was kinda disturbed when I did some reading, because I’d forgotten that part of school where they teach you about authoritarian regimes that literally murdered and persecuted intellectuals. Its not my intention with this blog to list all the specific crimes and which regimes did such things (although a brief mention of Nazi Germany is necessary) however it was and still can be very common in authoritarian regimes to engage in violence and persecution towards academics and experts. Techniques range from straight up murder, intimidation, scholastic terrorism (engaging in prejudiced rhetoric which encouraged vigilante violence) specifically targeting the educated among known political opponents.

Fascist ideology such as Nazi Germany engaged in a slightly different form of Anti-Int where Academia was co-opted into supporting the regime. Scientific endeavours where encouraged if they benefited and suppressed if they did not.

Also in a move which will move us into modern democratic Anti-Intellectual Nazi Fascists were skilled at weaponizing conspiracy theories to prop up the regime. Like me, you might ask ‘How does that help?’ So here’s the method – firstly embracing and encouraging unfounded and unsupported claims within the population primes people for intentional propaganda and misinformation. If you try and lie to a population that demands a modicum of evidence you might be in trouble. Also by embracing conspiracies, you create a kind of ‘free-market’ of ideas that allows you to literally pick and choose what you say based on what people have generally accepted already – for a recent example Russia started to claim there were chemical-weapon plants in the Ukraine after conspiracy theorists globally started positing the theory and it was getting popular, of course this was after the Ukraine was already invaded and this had never been mentioned before the invasion.

Finally embracing conspiracy theories allowed the Reich to adroitly engage in their own ‘double-think’ and deflect any criticism as a conspiracy theory, a much more believable claim if the population is already rife with conspiracy.

What’s the relevance now?

If you’re reading this it probably means that you have noticed or considered this issue in 2022 and even among democratic nations (which are not supposed to be fascists generally) there are threads in the discourse and sometimes even it seems entire countries embracing Anti-Int.

Of course we haven’t seen professors and experts getting attacked or killed, but we have as mentioned above seen an increase in the adoption and promotion of conspiracy theories. Also as mentioned attempts to undermine media have become common and accepted.

Other Anti-Int propaganda has included:

  • The decrying, mockery, or broad stereotyping of Academics and Experts or even just critical thinking. Think comments about ‘The-Elite’ suggesting that they don’t have your best interests at heart. Or avoiding engaging in actual substance of arguments just saying people are brainwashed, or ‘sheeple’
  • Spreading of anti-education conspiracy theories – such as educators have ‘Leftist’ biases or even are part of ‘Leftist Agendas’. (even more atrociously calling teachers “groomers”)
  • The degradation of rhetoric, using argumentation that encourages un-sceptical and non-critical thinking e.g. “Just imagine if only some of these accusations are true how bad this would be.” Ad-hominin arguments that specifically discourage critical thinking “Nit-picking critics, ivory tower policy-wonks, soft/weak academics”
  • Generally not engaging with integrity, e.g attempting to rewrite history, politicians/public figures not taking responsibility for own statements

Here’s an example (really wish I didn’t have to scroll his feed to find these e.g.s)

There is a bit more than just Anti-Intellectualism going on above, but its a great example of a style of rhetoric which simply lacks integrity and trades critical thinking for ‘hot-takes’ and snarky ad-hominin argument. The example would have also been slightly more powerful if Elon was attacking an expert/academic rather than just Democrats…

Oh wait….

This is the perfect example of rather than say, writing an article (or getting an expert employee to write one) explaining that there appeared to be some sort of bias in how ESG scores are determined. This article then could be debated and discussed rationally, instead a simple meme is posted with, if you think about it for a second, obvious bias which is probably going to make any expert who attempts to debunk this tweet look petty and strange themselves “You’re just triggered about getting owned Lib” = Anti-intellectualism!

To generalize my rant out further Anti-Int has had impacts in obvious areas such as the global Covid-19 response, Climate Change, and human rights (to say the least). Anti-Intellectual propaganda is worse than just a cunning way to avoid accountability and criticism, as a side or sometimes intended effect it undermines processes that save lives, create progress, and generally make the world a better place.

To conclude I want to make one final point – one might think that Anti-Intellectualism could be a natural, or authentic movement of a population against experts, but I would counter that this is almost logically impossible. Yes people may have a naturally developed Anti-Intellectual attitude, possibly due to bad experiences or an aversion to what their perception of academics are. Maybe even said individuals are on the rise and have a bit of natural grouping together…

BUT, in order to organize, to co-ordinate messages and generally have an Anti-Intellectual movement there almost by definition needs to be some sort of formal co-ordination (by someone or someones with intelligence it turns out). Check out this article which explains that Covid misinformation was largely spread by just 12 individuals.

What I’m saying is that a population can have a generally negative perspective or opinion of ‘intellectuals’ however this doesn’t translate into a specifically Anti-Intellectual movement without some form of intention and plan. While people might come to their own decision to be cynical of intellectualism, no-one just happens to organize and engage in anti-intellectualism which is specifically undermining the concept without someone having an agenda.

So – that’s my essay on Pro-Foolishness. I’m wondering what your thoughts on the matter are? Do you have any examples of Anti-Intellectual rhetoric or political action? Do you think I’ve missed the mark? Any other random comments?

Review (Non-Fiction): The Dictator’s Handbook

How am I not a Dictator yet??

So continuing my journey to become a cult-leader and/or dictator I stumbled across this handbook while picking up some other pieces and gave a look – pretty happy that I did so, while I am not in fact an autocratic tyrant yet due to some pesky morals (or perhaps just opportunity) its actually a pretty dense educational book on the topic of politics and well worth a read.

I’m actually going to get my only criticism out of the way first – its more of a drawback type complaint, but the amount of detail and knowledge in this book is encyclopaedic, like right from page one there is thorough information on everypoint, and throughout the book often many examples to back up each point. From an academic point of view obviously this is very good, but I did just feel at times overwhelmed with facts and details that my poor working memory could not maintain (maybe that’s why I’m not a dictator yet).

Depending on your reading preferences that above point might not even be a criticism! I just think its worth noting that this probably isn’t a fun/light-hearted personal touch type work on non-fiction, despite the funny title its pretty serious and precise.

Onto the actual material, the title is possibly a little misleading as the book isn’t so much about how powerful unethical politics is, it’s more of an overall examination of political power, corruption, and how it all interacts. For example there is just as much analysis of democracies as dictatorships, and even a brief dive into Public Companies which was an unexpected but very useful tangent!

The chapters of the Handbook are fairly intuitive for the subject – covering how people gain power, maintain power, lose it, the effects of warfare, foreign aid and capping the whole thing with some ideas for improvement.

Probably my favourite insights were some unusual factoids:

  • The more autocratic/unequal in power a country is the straighter the roads tend to be between the capital and the airport, and/or other centres that the leader travels. (this is because dictators would put resources towards roads that help themselves and are more likely to force individuals to move. Democracies have winding roads!)
  • Many of history’s revolutions have succeed because the leadership ran out of money to pay their army, so the army didn’t bother to defend them (or did the revolution themselves)
  • Dictators often encourage corruption through underfunding and then use threats of exposure to control institutions (e.g. police force) this allows ‘cheap’ services and a mechanism of control.
  • CEOs are likely overpaid due to their interconnections and power dynamic with the boards they are supposed to be accountable to (e.g. CEOs often select board–members or manage changes, and/or have external connections – plus there is often little incentive for a board to ethically set the CEO wages as there is no direct benefit to them)

All in all this book was super interesting in terms of understanding politics from a more global perspective, I appreciated the author’s neutral tone and well explained and documented information, they even addressed the challenge of not being about to do randomized control trials in politics!

While the depth of detail did make the reading a little slow and at times overwhelming it was a vital read!

Review: Eric (Discworld)

Shortish, Funnish, Rincewindyish

Eric is a strange Discworld instalment. It feels a lot like after the last couple of Discworld’s being a little heavier and longer maybe Sir Terry just wanted to blow off a bit of steam with a humorous jaunt (man I really wish Terry Pratchett was still alive and did some sort of book-by-book retrospective).

Rincewind returns in Eric in quite epic fashion, and the main plot of the story is an interesting subversion of Faust – where ‘Eric’ makes three wishes of Rincewind and we see Pratchett’s take on these. It’s hard to say much more without big spoilers but basically we see a lot of puns and literal twists on Eric’s wishes, all the while a Demon-King attempts to catch up to the duo.

At just over 100 pages long Eric is closer to a Novella than a novel, but I didn’t mind this I think the style of story lent itself to something shorter, I suspect that sustaining a whole novel on jokes would have gotten old quick.

Something a little funny to note is I feel like this book was somewhat edgier in humour than other books, which is partly why I wonder if Pratchett was blowing off steam or something. There’s a lot of innuendo which is of course not absent from other books but just seemed a bit more in Eric.

Not much else to say about this instalment, I wonder if it was largely written as an explanation to get Rincewind back as while I have no sauce for this it seems at the time Rincewind was a bit of a fan favourite and was essentially left for dead in his last book – and fans were bothered.

On Writing: “Faceless Hordes”

What’s your stance on “Faceless Hordes”

Well not necessarily faceless – just well, maybe faceless would be an improvment

I’m not actually diving into the issue of Are Fantasy Races Racist but if you want a great video on the topic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YfGbSnGObbU&ab_channel=Vaush

Just wanted to riff briefly on the trope of faceless hordes of enemies, very common in the Epic Fantasy genre but as many have noted almost a stable of the MCU Avengers movies (aliens, robots, aliens again). Also it could be debated that the dispatch of any number of henchpeople in various action films could fit under this trope.

Now just to reassure everyone I’m not going to, like, dive deep into why this is so bad or \ making jokes about this technique in writing, I think its a fine writing technique in general but I want to talk about a random couple of points about whether its problematic OR actually pretty OK in implication.

This is Fine

To further clarify an earlier point there are many MCU and other superhero films that contain some sort of faceless army of samey humanoids or creatures that the heroes have to battle hordes of and/or substantial bunches of henchpeople type situation. In the first Avengers movie it was aliens in the second robots. I think as a trope it has many uses, adding general tension to a scene, showcasing the battle prowess of our heroes and also creating a bit of vindictive catharsis for the audience.

Something similar happens in many Fantasy (and I’m sure some other genres) where the ‘evil’ army is composed of some sort of dehumanized horde. Funnily enough this was very prominent in Lord of the Rings which kinda gave orc’s actual character and existences but didn’t really go beyond like typical bad-guy stereotypes I don’t think it was really clarifies whether these guys actually had a society or what, but in the world they were definitely intended to be evil hordes. It’s just kinda awkward really that most fantasy since then has developed Orcs beyond this (see Warcraft) so they are no longer really a faceless horde race. These days some other bestial creature, often the Undead or Demonic creatures are used to create hordes that no-one feels too concerned about slaughtering on mass.

So my first argument is that as a trope this is not too problematic in fact by purposefully creating a dehumanized army this trope ensures that no real-life group feels targeted, either by implication or (hopefully more historically) sometimes directly.

That’s a yikes for me dawg

Just to emphasize my point I’m going to bring up the movie 300. Now just to be clear I love this film, its intense, fun, dramatic, even quite sad. But I also have no problem stating that this film is racist, ablest, fetishizing, toxically masculine and I’m going to put it out there probably has other issues that I’m not aware of.

Now the purpose of this post isn’t to dig into this (would be quite happy to do so if anyone actually wanted but I feel that ground is well trod), what I do want to do is make a point that I think its totally acceptable to want some sort of story like 300s where heroic character slaughter thousands in dramatic ways what the trope of faceless hordes does is allow that to happy by reduced the problematic parts!

Even if you don’t care about the various social implications of story violence, I think you’d agree that it also removes the general ethical concerns of mass violence and death and also helps codify the heroes of a story as the actual heroes.

On the other hand

Every said above, I do worry that the faceless horde trope can actually do the opposite of what I said. When it comes to problematic interactions basically the worst thing that can happen is people of a particular group or who are different from the observer is to become dehumanized.

Dehumanization has a few features, unfortunately all of which are present in faceless horde tropes, e.g. not seeing people as people, interpreting their behaviour as a mass horde, and obviously not seeing them as worthy of the human right not to be dismembered and destroyed by Captain America’s shield.

What I’m saying is that perhaps using sort of PRE dehumanized enemies may circumvent problematic thinking OR is it just prepackaged.

I suspect as I write this (slight tangent but one reason I blog is that as I put things into words I realized stuff along the way that I never would have) that the real important part is in the details.

For an example In Scott Bakker’s fantasy series the sort of hordy enemy are monsters called Sranc. They are technically sentient and have a bit of language and tool use (largely weapons) but for the most part they are depicted as multitudes of snake monsters available for combat. Any depiction or development of the creatures is usually animalistic, e.g. showing they reproduce via laying eggs, so it would be very hard to assume that these creatures represent any group of people, whether racial, national, or political. This is also set in a pretty intense world with plenty of other potential social discussion points so I don’t think the hordes representing anyone is the issue.

IF you want some TVTropes (internet black hole warning) the sorts of tropes I’ve been talking about are listed as:

Faceless Goons

Hordes from the East

and 😀 Mooks

I’d be interested to hear others thoughts on the matter – where do your preferences sit?

On Writing: Endings and Catharsis

After analysing and over-analysing the recently finished Netflix Series Ozark I’ve been stewing on Endings a wee bit, and the link between Endings and catharsis.

So obviously there is lots going on in Endings, there are whole books out there (actually I take that back a very quick search tells me there aren’t actually that many! Niche opportunity anyone?).

Anyways back on track, a lot of people didn’t much like the ending of Ozark and I think one of the reasons is that it didn’t really have any cathartic elements, the events of the show kinda just came together and ‘happened’ without a sense of strong emotion.

To explain a bit further catharsis is generally assumed to be an important part of fiction – catharsis is an emotional release that provides a sense of relief. Outside of fiction its usually used as more of a stress/anger/grief expression type situation, but within fiction I think it can apply across the emotional spectrum.

How does it apply to stories?

Catharsis has a relationship to Tension, which funnily enough as I write this I realize that many teachers focus a lot on tension building and seem to assume that once this is achieved the release part is a given. So basically tension can be built many ways and at some point is the story is released with a resolution, this doesn’t have to be the end of the story, in fact often the best stories have a dynamic mix of tensions that co-occur throughout the story with usually a major plot resolution being the official climax.

It seems to be that what isn’t as often discussed in the emotional side to this process. Tension can be built many different ways, physical danger, relationship uncertainty, mysteries. How that happens in story and how that tension is resolved creates different cathartic effects which is what I’m going to spend the rest of this post discussing – I’m not going to list all the different emotions that one might feel reading a story, but rather the different patterns of resolution with perhaps some examples feelings along the way.

Happy Endings

Many people would probably describe a happy ending as one where the Main Character(s) have and get nice things. Which is true, but my thoughts are that happy endings are also achieved when the story is resolved in a way which feels ‘correct’ or more specifically characters get what they deserve.

I think there are two ways this relates to endings, and probably many stories include a portion of both. It usually entails a villain or antagonist getting punished, and a hero or protagonist getting what they wanted. This may sound very simplistic, however the bit that I’m building on here is that the tension and resolution should fit together snugly to help create this effect.

An example of where this doesn’t work is any action related genre where the hero has obvious “Plot Armour” because Plot Armour removes any sense of fear for the character, a happy ending has no catharsis so doesn’t satisfy.

Another example where this tends to fail is when in a Romance story (because I’ve been reading so many lately LOL) the writer adds a DANGER plotline to shove the love story towards its inevitable (you know what I’m talking about) conclusion – but it often feels a bit silly because the physical fear tension is resolved into relationship success?? I know many people don’t like relationship plotlines predicated on simple misunderstandings but the sort of tension created (frustration etc) fits well with a romance style ending.

I don’t know this I’ve explained this very well but what I think I’m getting at is that a ‘happy ending’ really hits home if the emotional beats for the tension and resolution match well and line up with how we want the story to end.

Unhappy Endings

If we continue with the same framework I think this has interesting implications for unhappy or bittersweet endings. Resolution still matters here, as there is still an ending in place but its typically not what we OR the characters want. In terms of the match or mismatch of tension and resolution I think what makes an unhappy ending is one where the resolution still occurs but in an unexpected or unpredictable way – one what notably might still contain an ounce of tension.

This is the ‘at great cost’ type ending or the last minute relationship fail, or even the twist ending. The important part is that there is still catharsis -that is some sort of significant resolution, its just not the obvious one. I think this the key to an ambiguous or open ending too, ensuring that there is something emotionally resolved even if there is some sort of openness to the tale.

To round up, and clarity a little, my theorem is pushing a little beyond tension and resolution – tension in stories can be resolved many, many different ways. We’re often told to make stories all about the MC however this doesn’t mean every tension resolution throughout a story needs to be through their action, in fact it makes sense to try and vary different resolutions and save the MC solving for the main climax. So when this does happen its important to consider what the emotional effect is going to be, have readers been reading in fear of the Dark Lord the whole, book? It’s going to be nice when the MC stabs them. Has Ross been severely immature season after season, its going to be a relief when he is just honest to himself and Rachel.

Not to bang on about a point but how silly would it be if on the last episode of Friends Rachel gets kidnapped and upon being saved Ross and Rachel thusly decided to cement their relationship?? You’d have no satisfaction of their actual relationship being resolved at all. This is also why Magic can be SUCH a risky trope in fantasy, solving problems without the payoff isn’t just lazy plotting, but also emotionally unsatisfying.

So bit of a different take today – not sure I explained it very well but I like the theory. It ties into musical theory a little bit which I often use to understand writing principles, but I often forget that not everyone is thinking that way so have troubles explaining myself!

Take care out there – as always keen to hear thoughts or examples.

Review (Non-Fiction): Don’t Think of an Elephant

I’d seen this book mentioned I think on the same Contrapoints video that mentioned Conflict is not Abuse. Its an unashamed lefty book, essentially pointing out that the Right Wing of politics are frankly much better at persuasive argument than the Left, and much better organized.

Lakoff’s main point is talking about framing, and basically how setting the context for the argument IS half the argument. Lakoff argues that the Left often falls for the trap of trying to engage with politics using facts and figures and tends to see reframing as some sort of unethical action. The book explores examples of ethical and unethical framing and how to make it work for Lefty politics.

For an example – let’s say I’m caught out stealing my workmates lunch. When caught I lament: “I didn’t realize it was Ross’ sandwich.” This puts the frame of the argument into my knowledge of the sandwich ownership being important. Now, assuming the desired outcome is an apology, the facts approach would be to say “It’s got Ross’ name on it”. But this is where it gets interesting from a Framing point of view. That’s a valid point but is kind of a distraction, e.g. trying to ascertain how obvious Ross’ sandwich was.

A Reframing would be someone saying to my greedy self “surely a grown man would recognize a lunch that wasn’t his” that changes the argument to what would be an appropriate action of a grown-a** man.

Slightly more serious – Framing is a common tactic in politic debate where an issue is guided towards a distraction or sub-element of the whole thing which isn’t as relevant. Take for example the common assertion that welfare creates ‘doll-bludgers’ which Frames the debate morally about people’s character but its a bit of dead end trying to explain that human behaviour is more complex than that – instead you can reframe the concept as “welfare is good for economic growth as it supports consumerism”

Oddly this book was published mid 2000s so has a lot of references to George W Bush, and 9/11, I mean not irrelevant topics but its odd to read about that time politically, and most of Lakoff’s points are still totally relevant.

Review (Non-Fiction): Conflict is not Abuse

Conflict is not Abuse is an interesting read – I was originally put in the direction of the book by a video by ContraPoints and I was intrigued by a comparison between supremist ideology and trauma.

But to summarize the book, Sarah Schulman is an author of fiction and non-fiction and teaches creative writing at a university level. In her own words the word is “undisciplined” its a personal expression of a collection of ideas that is not intended to be empirical nor completely anecdotal either. Schulman actually does pretty well with this – without having a central non-fiction frame to structure it, a non-fiction book can often fall to rambling, (for the most part) this book is fine.

So about the central thesis Schulman begins with personal relationships, and discusses the challenge of separating Abuse from Conflict. Now I have to say I have actually disagreed this this perspective up until now as I’ve interpreted strict definitions as a way that victims may get underserved if their experiences don’t meet the criteria for ‘abuse.’

But Schulman does a great job explaining aspects of power dynamics, abuse, punishment/retribution and actually convinced me that there is merit in being a little protective of the term abuse. Its interesting because I feel this topic could easily be interpreted as under-protective of victims, however its quite clear in the book that Schulman is not minimizing the challenge of conflict but emphasizing that the best outcome of conflict is communication and de-escalation.

Schulman is particularly scathing of practices such as ‘ghosting’ or shunning, intentionally ignoring and in some cases false or exaggerated accusations. Just to be a bit cheeky its pretty obvious that Schulman is not the biggest fan of email or online communication from this book!

So the main thesis of the first part of this book is straightforward in idea, but complex in consideration – basically pointing out that yes people can do all sorts of diabolical things to each other in conflict – but the solution is still to communicate and resolve UNLESS there is a power-over abuse happening.

The next sections I think are much more challenging but definitely worth a treat.

Section 2 Schulman explores and advocates for HIV positive people who may be prosecuted for certain actions such as failure to disclose their viral status to a sexual partner. I imagine for many this would be a challenging read as HIV/AIDS is obviously a very emotive topic and my assumption is that most people won’t be specifically familiar with legislation or advocacy in this area.

It might seem like a jump in topic but the thesis is that concerns around HIV status in a relationship is usually ‘conflict’ not ‘abuse’ so the criminalization of the situation is problematic.

The final section focusses on the Israeli / Palestine situation and Schulman expands her thesis to political action, where conflicts can be escalated to claims of abuse and thusly prompt overreaction. While the metaphor doesn’t hold perfectly in my opinion I will say its definitely a deft political analysis in that many powerful groups will frame the actions of vulnerable groups as intensely dangerous and use this framing to justify their own over-reactions.

This section was quite powerful, and I would have enjoyed more political analysis about different conflicts or even some historical examples.

So I really enjoyed the read – I will say its a little hard to recommend because its kind of very niche, its probably good for people who have some interest in the area and want to hear a different perspective, or perhaps those who are very entrenched in the topic and want a challenging read.

(Spoiler-Filled) Review/Analysis: Ozark

For anyone interested, the final half of Ozark is now on Netflix and I’m assuming if you were interested you’ve already binged it, OR simply reading this post to see the ‘whats what’

If I have my facts correct Ozark is actually one of the seminal ‘Netflix’ series by which I mean one of the first ongoing series actually produced by Netflix, although in saying that its not exactly held as a flagship or anything so its just an interesting factoid as this stage.

Enough rambling – I’m just going to do a brief spoiler filled summary, to be honest I can’t remember every details and twist and turn but the show is interesting enough to warrant some over-analysis so here goes:

Bumbling Beginngins

Ozark is interesting is that its obviously heavily inspired from Breaking Bad, in a good way, it kinda watches a bit like a ‘what if’ or kinda takes some key elements and tropes from the Breaking Bad story and spins them its own way. Generally the tone the concept are very similar.

So Ozark starts by introducing Marty Bryde, a sort of depressed middle-aged financial guy who seems to have it ‘all’ but also have ‘nothing’ – by which I mean he has a good job, friends a family however seems joyless and trapped and as we soon learn his wife is cheating on him his colleagues seem to be full of joy and ambitious and Marty just frowns.

Anyways – very quickly we learn that Marty’s firm is not only laundering money for a cartel but his colleagues and friends have been skimming. Abruptly Marty sees his lifelong friends murdered in front of him, and only through some desperate quick thinking Marty convinces the Cartel guy to spare his life as he has a great idea to launder money in said ‘Ozarks.’ Marty is challenged to launder an inordinate amount of millions in a ridiculously short space of time to spare his and his family’s life.

Just a quick symbolic aside just before Marty is almost killed he flashes back to a scene where he plays with his younger children and wife an idyllic scene. I mention this moment as this perspective doesn’t really appear again in the show which I will mention in discussing the end.

So the rest of Season 1 is a darkly almost slapstick crime drama where Marty tries to build his laundering scheme and finds himself embroiled in the local crime scene, both street-level AND massive heroin dealers already operating. I say slapstick as there is a lot of humour but my gosh some of the events of this show are dark AF. Marty also of course tries to balance keeping his family around and safe, informed to some extent – another thematic thread is his son Jonah appears to have some sort of psychopathic tendencies developing.

The Season comes to a surprise climax where Marty against all odds manages to broker a deal between the Mexican Cartel and the local dealers, only for the locals to kill several cartel members over perceived rudeness.

Seasons 2-3 carry on the story and the theme shifts a little. As Wendy Bryde gets more involved with the business a political angle comes to forefront and Wendy begins to show a ruthless streak and more aptitude than Marty at illegal activity. By now the FBI are involved and almost everyone is plotting against everyone else. One climatic point is that Wendy’s brother Ben is introduced, he’s almost universally liked however has Bipolar disorder, and struggles to manage his impulses. As he learns more about the illegal activities Wendy makes the decision that he needs to die to protect everyone’s interests.

As Season 4 begins the Bryde’s are tasked with getting the head of their cartel ‘out’ and against all odds the first half of the season deals with the Bryde’s successfully negotiating a deal to make this happen, however this is highjacked by an ambitious and annoyed FBI agent who arrests the Cartel Leader despite the plan.

By the time the 2nd half of Season 4 comes about the Bryde’s have become or are becoming considerably wealth and politically powerful as their cartel connections make them rich, like their political playing builds their power. The tension of the last part of the season is really about lining up all their pieces to finally get the “Bryde Foundation” running, the drug dealers docile, the FBI non-litigious, but the major tension ends up being Wendy’s father arriving and deciding to leave with the children. This affront creates a bizarre sequence within Wendy where she pulls an awful lot of moves to prevent this happening either cementing herself as a complete manipulator OR highlighting just how bad her father really is.

I have to admit I found this sequence fascinating in story-telling – we know that Wendy is pretty ruthless but a major theme of the last season is that her ambitious appear to be getting out of control. So when Grandad plans to take the kids (with their agreement mind) the initial though is fair enough, after all. This thought only accelerates as we see Wendy go to extremes to manipulate the children into staying. However as the story progresses we start to see the real character of her father, a mean drunk, misogynist, cheat, who physically beat Wendy severely in her childhood. The only reason he wants to take the grandchildren is to punish and humiliate Wendy.

The reason I say this part of the story was deft, is its pretty hard to justify how Wendy is the ‘good-guy’ here yet somehow through revelation of Grandad’s character we feel empathetic.

As the story progresses we see the Bryde’s get almost everything they want, the ‘legit’ foundation takes off, the cartel are relatively satisfied however still slaughter a few more characters before the end, a consequence the Bryde’s simply decide to weather.

Finally the show ends on a surprise twist. After spending the season unhappy with his parents and estranged, Jonah comes to their rescue blowing away one final obstacle, a PI who tries to threaten the Bryde’s with exposure. Just to back-track a little the significance of this is that Jonah had been shown to be developing tendencies but up until that point not engaged in any violence.

So to summarize that – the Bryde’s start off desperate and mostly broke, and emerge ridiculously rich and powerful, almost everyone around them has been killed or had their lives ruined, they are likely to get away with it all and it looks like their formerly innocent children are going to head in the same direction.

So what does it all mean?

Hmmm, so I have to confess the first thing that this was kinda what ran through my head when this series ended. Most endings have at least on some level a basic theme to their ending, for example Breaking Bad ended with Walt dying among the apparatus which had both given his life meaning but also ruined its and other’s. Son’s of Anarchy ending with inevitable Shakespearean tragedy.

Ozark’s ending actually has a lot going on other than just contrived plot threads being shoved into an ending. For example, the Bryde’s decision to simply bear their friends death, Wendy’s decision to oust a corrupt politician from their circle (this is depicted as a bizarre moral line at election fraud but I think is more about similarities of the politician to Wendy’s father). The fact that Jonah is the one that stands in to make the final murder.

My point is – what is the point :D. Flicking through online there are quite a few ideas, some are saying that the Bryde’s represent “real life” in that corrupt evil sometimes wins, others have suggested that underneath the carnage their are messages about sticking with family, being driven and single minded.

But I have a stranger take. Ozark is about good and evil across generations, and what Marty does or doesn’t do about it. Obviously good and bad choices are a massive part of the context, particularly every episode is about characters making choices and the implications of them. However if we examine the characters we see almost all characters enmeshed in generation harm. Wendy and Ruth become the most obvious examples – Ruth pretty much the entire series, but as mentioned Wendy becomes intensely an example of this with her father being more revealed.

To explain further, in the beginning we see Marty thinking of the love he has for his family and reactively dealing with the cartel to save himself. At first the plot has the sense of a man doing what he has to, to survive and protect his family, and as mentioned this shifts to ambition. Another telling scene is where the cartel boss tells Marty that he sees Marty “wants to win” this tells us that Marty doesn’t just want to protect himself and family (which partially explains how he fell into laundering in the first place).

So while the plot appears to be Wendy taking over and becoming the more ‘evil’ Bryde and Marty just kinda gets side-lined I see the story as more like a “two wolves” analogy where Marty lets his ambitious wolf take over (it just so happens his ambitious wolf is represented by IRL Wendy). He makes half-ass attempts to do ‘good’ but ultimately goes along with the ‘evil.’

It’s odd to me that most of the other characters get a lot of family development whereas Marty is somewhat of a blank slate, it does kinda make the message that the strength of intergenerational abuse is almost invincible, especially ending on the note of Jonah shooting the final obstacle. Both Wendy and Marty look immensely proud of their son as he does this, Jonah himself closes both eyes before pulling the trigger which speaks to themes of darkness, giving up on goodness and so forth.

In conclusion I think the theme of Ozark is a bit of a bait and switch, we’re introduced to a story about a relatable, but in a terrible spot character, who keeps having to do Wrong to get Right and where will this lead? But I think as the tale evolves this struggle is bit of a red herring. Over and over again we are presented with messages about family, and impact of parent’s evil deeds on their children. I don’t think the ending is nihilistic because the Bryde’s become successful, I think its nihilistic because the ‘Good’ in Marty is powerless against the tide of evil entrenched in the generations of families we meet. The cartel is endlessly violent with little regard for family bonds, the Langborn family is sadly hopeless in the face of poverty and petty crime, Wendy is damaged by her Father’s abusive treatment. Even a relatively minor character introduced in the last season – the head of a pharmaceutical company whose name escapes me – is in her position as CEO of the family company due to some sort of familial scandal. My points is that the story isn’t really about a singular decision of a flawed man and then what happens, its about family. The final message does feel pretty darn nihilistic though.

I say nihilistic as well because unlike similar tales one feels there isn’t that much opportunity for a better outcome or escape. Yes there were a few parts where Marty or the Bryde’s were offered deals from the FBI, one had the sense that these would not have been particularly safe and would still have left many many people’s lives in a total mess.

We also have the general ‘no good people’ style of story, where very few people in Ozark were classically ‘good’, the FBI are presented as mercantile, ambitious and callously unreliable, local law enforcement both naïve and corrupt. Characters with moral traits are often presented as doofy and foolish, or hypocrites. Our most sympathetic characters were flawed but with some redeeming code such as Ruth.

The ending in my opinion is very unusual in terms of storytelling – as usually doing ‘nothing’ for MCs is a deal-breaker, yet Marty’s decision to do nothing is the face of Wendy’s ambition, Ruth’s death, and finally as his son shoots a man in cold blood sends a more interpretably and interesting message than a more clear-cut storybook ending.

Over-analysis done!

Have you seen the Ozark series – comment your thought’s I’ve be keen to hear them!

Review: Guards Guards!

Vimes! Vimes!

I’ve had a bit of an enforced break from my Discworld readthrough due to Library availability, but finally got my hands on Guards Guards!

For me personally this one is a bit of a classic, while not the first Discworld I’ve read, it is probably the first Discworld I read that I found myself really getting sucked into the world and the characters, I loved Carrot and while my young self didn’t 100% get Vimes I enjoyed his growth too. I have to confess (spoilers sort of) my younger self also didn’t realize that Pratchett was going to subvert many expectations and fully expected Carrot to finish the story king of AnkhMorpork!

Guards Guards is the first ‘Night Watch’ or ‘Vimes’ book one of the recurring characters which in my opinion is the most popular of all the Discworld series, I think there is just so much character within these stories that its hard not to get attached and drawn into the tale. Guards Guards is also set entirely within Ankh-Morpork and its very fun getting to know the city and the world a bit better.

Something which hits a bit harder nowadays is the interplay of politics in Discworld. In my youth I largely took the world as a joke, but now much of Pratchett’s writing seems like a scathing critique of the world. That said I was intrigued by interactions with Vimes and the Patrician. As I’ve mentioned earlier the Patrician is actually in many of the early Discworld novels but is somewhat less developed, he is initially presented as a haughty placeholder ruler, however in Guard’s Guards we get a bit more development. And to be honest its quite strange. On the one hand the Patrician is depicted as fairly cold and more than willing to do evil (perhaps for good ends?) and also a master 4D chess manipulator, yet he also obviously has some sort of good or honorable streak in that his ends seem to be relative peace.

There is a highly unusual speech at the end of Guards Guards, much in the same format of dystopian novels where the ruler/authority explains the ethos of the dystopian world. The Patrician explains that humanity is basically a wave of evil, with islands of idealistic goodness among it. He sees his role as keeping the population organized enough to prevent chaos.

I would love to pick Pratchett’s brain about what his thoughts were behind this interaction. Obviously Vimes is our MC and thusly would be the favoured point of view (e.g. gritty honour) although through sheer competence and control its not clear whether Pratchett thinks the Patrician is a monster, necessary monster, or ultimately good. I do feel as the series continues that the Patrician largely is portrayed as ‘good’ but that doesn’t mean that his speech is the be all end of.

Probably my favourite thing about rereading Guards Guards is the anticipation of some of the upcoming amazing Guards books. Feet of Clay has always been a favourite, and Men at Arms is great too.

Dangerous Amnesia: Examining a Specific Trope

Technically that would probably result in executive function difficulties!

So quite a while back I did a post about Writing Amnesia: a risky trope where I talked about Amnesia, while being a relatively common story trope, can be a little difficult as it can undermine character development. I decided to revisit the topic as I recently played a game which used a very niche aspect of the trope where the MC has amnesia, (re)discovers a nefarious plot and in fact finds out that they themselves were a major part of it along the way.

(Some Spoilers ahead largely for a pair of games Amnesia the Dark Descent, and Lamentum)

While I’ve recently encountered this more in horror video games, it is a common trope in (usually B-grade) murder mysteries where the killer ends up being…. The Main Character Themselves.

This is not always pulled off with amnesia, although its often employed as otherwise the whodunnit story would make no sense (and sometimes still doesn’t) and is often a bit over the top as an obvious attempt to be ‘twisty’ rather than an intriguing story.

But today I’m more interested in a more cosmic horror perspective where characters delve into a mystery only to discover they’ve already delved into it before, and – at least in the games I’ve played! – , have done a considerable amount of wrong along the way to their goals.

In Lamentum the story beats go something along the lines of: our MC Victor meets and marries Alissa, who falls incurably ill after their marriage. We initially see the pair travel to Grau Hill were an obviously magically problematic statesman Edmond lives and promises to look into a cure for Alissa. Very quickly things take a turn for the eldritch as Alissa disappears and Victor awakes after some kind of episode and the mansion is full of freaky monsters.

While its obvious something ‘has happened’ its only as the game progresses and we meet some other characters that the amnesia elements comes into play. The initial hint is that all the characters Victor meets appear to know him, but not Alissa (although this sort of doesn’t quite work as will discuss later). As the story furthers we finally learn that Victor has in fact been a major part of the magical goings on (which is a very soft way of saying multiple majorly evil deeds) – not a recent visitor caught up – and in fact Alissa died and Victor’s goal is to resurrect her.

The amnesia part of the trope serves several functions in a story like this. First it provides some obvious extra intrigue personal to the MC, rather than simply exploring a horrorland we are also teased with some information about their own involvement. The amnesia is a necessary element because otherwise it raises the question of why the MC doesn’t reveal their knowledge or behave with their knowledge intact. Something that Lamentum does quite well is that they position the MC’s action as essentially the same, e.g. one Victor ignorantly continues the process to resurrect his wife even though he is oblivious to the plot.

There are some limitations however – having a character with amnesia can risk repetition, e.g. it gets fairly old fairly quickly when every character you meat has the same “how do you know me, have you seen my wife” dialogue. The obvious problem being that the story doesn’t want to reveal that Alissa is dead too soon so have to make it so the characters simply never heard of her (despite the being whole reason Victor is there).

This is a major problem of the trope where its practically useful for creating intrigue and mystery but also highly risky where readers/players will feel vaguely annoyed either at being kept in the dark or by unnatural contrivances.

Ethics

The other side to this amnesia trope is that its used to ‘whitewash’ the character ethically so that their own evil actions can be drip-fed to the audience. This makes sense as stories can depict morally corrupt characters from the get-go, but it does create a significantly different tale. Having a more apparently heroic character be revealed as part of the evil creates a uniquely tense situation at the climatic end of the story where you have some powerful choices to be made – will the MC return to the evil plan, or fight against it. Also obviously avoids potential audience disgust at the beginning.

(if for example the MC’s evil actions were revealed from the start it wouldn’t make sense to have a choice like that in the end as they’d still just be working through their plan)

Again their are some obvious risks here. Revealing that the MC has been up to depraved stuff might alarm audiences, or disrupt the flow of the tale. How this is done is key, in the case of Lamentum its actually quite a deft strategy where Victor’s involvement AND wife’s demise are revealed together – it might seem a little tacky but it creates an interesting double effect. At first the plot seems like it may be leading towards a revelation that something went wrong with trying to cure Alissa and thusly her disappearance. However when its revealed that she in fact passed away and Victor’s goal is a resurrection, this ramping up of stakes makes us more comfortable with his increased immoral behaviour for said goal…

Note: I am not saying that this technique justifies evil actions OR that audiences would feel neutral. Rather that the double reveal makes it easier to accept than not.

So like my previous post I think there are some general risks to using amnesia which I’ll quickly summarize below:

You need to be careful not to erase your character OR effectively create two characters (unless that’s the effect you want)

Characters actions need to be integrated carefully – if an MC is punished for forgotten actions they will seems like a victim, if they are not held accountable they’ll seem like a villain.

Contrived reveals only stretch so far, an advantage of video games is you can place plot information pretty much where you want in the game to have it work, in a novel it will be hard to explain to an audience why an amnesiac MC only bumped into other characters in order of plot reveals.

Anyhow – hadn’t posted for a while so figured I’ll find a post out of the most recent game I played 😀

Thoughts?