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Tuesday, March 01, 2005


Objectivists are a lot like like Communists: their ranks are burgeoning with the least remarkable minds you will ever stumble across. Not necessarily stupid, mind you. Indeed, there are often hints of great intelligence, but it in both factions it has been willingly shelved out of adoration for a dead Russian ideologue.

Yes, I know--flaying the Randies again. But this one just begged for it--a blinders-wearing-wrong review of the marvelous Pixar film, The Incredibles. Yes, it's old, but I just saw the film recently, so there. Arranging a babysitter is a bit of a chore.

In other words, it's new to me.

The review has its virtues, starting with the fact that the reviewer, David Kelley, seems like a bright and genuinely nice guy determined to soften the hardest edges of his adopted grim philosophy. A hat tip is especially warranted for the inspired title of the review--"Superhero Me!" However, the problems are legion. What especially stands out is its deft ignorance of a--no, THE--major, bedrock theme of the film.

Go ahead--browse through it. I'll be here when you get back.

Hint--think f-word.

As in family.

Yes, the essential theme--a united family triumphing where one member alone cannot--completely missed by the reviewer. Oh, sure, he uses the word "family" four times--but it is wholly incidental to the review. It could have been replaced with "group" or "band" for all the significance it has to the reviewer. Not surprising, since his guru had no truck with the concept herself.

But since it's a useful insight into the blinding power of ideology on otherwise decent folk, let's examine this more closely, shall we? I'll try to be vague, but beware of the spoiler potential here.
Countless articles and books have exposed the injustice of egalitarian policies, from affirmative action to "comparable worth" pay. Economists have documented their destructive effects. Newspapers bring daily reports of egalitarian lunacy: a school that won't post honor rolls, lest it be sued by parents of C students; SAT tests "re-normed" to boost the scores of minorities; a teacher hauled up before a college court for using the word "niggardly," taken as a slur by semantically challenged students. None of this seems to have done much to stem the egalitarian tide.

Much to agree with here, some not. I'm a big fan of the Vonnegut short story, Harrison Bergeron, after all. But, as do all people driven solely by secular ideology, it overstates the case--what about situations that call for restitution for actual, quantifiable wrongs? Even Antonin Scalia agrees with that, in the area of affirmative action. Still, not too bad.

Who would have thought that an animated film would finally touch a nerve, putting egalitarians on the defensive? That is the achievement of Pixar Studios' new hit, The Incredibles, the story of a family of superheroes who struggle against the reign of mediocrity and finally break free to excel. Along the way it skewers the dumbing down of schools, the mantra that everyone is special, and the laws that give losers special status as victims.

The overstatement continues here, but that's at most a minor flaw. The fatal flaw is in the second sentence: despite the fact this is one of the four uses of the term (remember--replace with "band"), Kelley completely misses the theme of family repeatedly emphasized by the film.

"...[t]he story of a family of superheroes who struggle against the reign of mediocrity and finally break free to excel."

OK, sure: there are some nice jibes at the modern victim- and complaint-cultures, enforced mediocrity and so forth. But they are--at most--subthemes. The Parrs are quite willing to live in suburbia, hide their identities and blend in--so long as they don't have to entirely deny who they are. Remember how the film ends: with the family together incognito at a middle school track race--rooting for Dash to finish second. He could smoke the field, but he doesn't. He's happy to put the family first. Their anonymity depends on it.

Doesn't sound like a gathering of Rand Achievers™ to me.

Banishing Heroes

The movie begins with a droll conceit: Superheroes with miraculous powers have been put out of action by the very people they saved from fires, felons, and other fiascoes. With the help, naturally, of trial lawyers, these "victims" brought a rash of lawsuits against their saviors for incidental injuries and "wrongful rescue." The former heroes are now living in suburban obscurity under the government's Superhero Protection Program, forbidden to exercise their powers in public.

Essentially accurate.


Bob Parr, formerly Mr. Incredible, works as a claims adjustor in an insurance company,

Where he battles his bottom line (and bottom feeder) boss to ensure that the customers get what they paid for.

commuting in a beat-up sedan barely large enough to hold his still-immense bulk. His wife, Helen (Elastigirl), stays home raising the kids, who also have superhuman powers. The family chafes at their enforced normality.

Helen was OK with it, actually. Violet (the sister) disliked their existence, but only in the common, general way teenagers can be sullen about everything.

Dash, the grade-school son who runs like a rabbit on speed, is angry that he can't join the track team lest he reveal his special power. "Dad says our powers make us special," he complains to his mother. "Everyone's special, Dash," she says—and he mutters, "Which is another way of saying that nobody is."

Great line.

Bob sneaks off at night to fight crime with an old superhero buddy.

That would be "Frozone," played to perfection by Samuel L. Jackson. One of my favorites.

When Helen tells him he's missing a meaningless ceremony at Dash's school, he grumbles: "They keep finding new ways to celebrate mediocrity." It's only a matter of time before Bob accepts a secret superhero mission, one that eventually draws the entire family into a battle with a surprising villain, named Syndrome.

We will deal with the villain at great length later.

[Accurate summary of the film plot and its animated virtues snipped.]

But the most interesting thing about it is the controversy it has stirred.
In this respect, the film's distinction is not that it features exceptional characters doing heroic things. Such films are a dime a dozen, from comic-book classics like Superman to the latest thriller. What's distinctive is that the film explicitly defends the value of talent and achievement against the leveling values of egalitarianism.

Here's where the review derails. Yes, it does defend the value of God-given talent, which the Parrs possess in a unique way, but achievement? Really?

The Parrs are not self-made success stories. They are gifted individuals who put their talents in service to others. Not to say that the film doesn't give a lot of screen time to a self-made achiever--it does. But it's definitely not the Parrs.

In doing so it has unleashed a storm of commentary, pro and con, by reviewers, commentators, and bloggers.

A Rand Connection?

New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott said the film suggests an "immersion in both the history of American comic books and the philosophy of Ayn Rand." In the Nation, Stuart Klawans sneered: "The superheroes are in hiding because greedy trial lawyers sued them into retirement; and, while concealed, they chafe at their confinement, like Ayn Rand railing against enforced mediocrity."
Scott and Klawans were among the many who cited Rand as a point of reference, and possible inspiration, for the movie's theme.

Which just goes to show that the hard right and far left can be wrong in stereo. I mean, we're talking about the NY Times and The Nation here--Scott and Klawans see creeping fascism in "Right Turn Only" street signs. That they see the hand of Rand says more about them than it does the film.

To judge by the discussion of The Incredibles, Rand is known as much for her unapologetic love of excellence

Those who cannot do, preach. In her case, at wearying length.

as for her ethic of self-interest and her libertarian politics. She was indeed a great admirer of human achievement,


and, as a consequence, defended the rights and the honor of the highest achievers.

And advised the rest of the teeming masses to go to hell.

Her goal as a novelist, she said, was "the projection of an ideal man."


In the world she created in Atlas Shrugged, the economy comes to a halt when the most productive people go on strike

How very...collective.

against the altruist moral code and its demand that they serve as keepers of their less able brothers.

That silly Jew-god and his bronze age moral code.

Rand also understood the envy and power lust that fuel egalitarian doctrines. In an arresting scene in The Fountainhead

Now there is a contradiction in terms.

that has particular relevance to The Incredibles, her power-hungry villain Ellsworth Toohey explains one of the techniques he used to break the spirit of individuals and make them willing to submit to the collective.

"Kill man's sense of values. Kill his capacity to recognize greatness or to achieve it. Great men can't be ruled. We don't want any great men. Don't deny the conception of greatness. Destroy it from within. The great is the rare, the difficult, the exceptional. Set up standards of achievement open to all, to the least, to the most inept—and you stop the impetus to effort in all men, great or small. You stop all incentive to improvement, to excellence, to perfection. . . . Don't set out to raze all shrines—you'll frighten men. Enshrine mediocrity—and the shrines are razed."

Twisting his mustache all the way. BWA-HA-HA-HA-HA!

If it weren't for that meddling entrepreneur and his concubine...

Yeah--gripping. Roll over Dostoyevsky, and tell Tolstoy the news.

The Incredibles elicited predictable howls from the egalitarian Left. One blogger saw the movie as a page out of Nietzsche: "The strong, the movie suggests, should be allowed to thrive outside the false laws and values of the weak, acting according to their own superior, self-generated code." Another complained that the filmmakers were "apparently oblivious to the critiques of the Nietzsche/Rand/Nazi undertones beneath every superhero from Superman on down…. There's a huge difference between respecting difference, and instructing the weak to honor the inherent superiority of the great." Peter Conrad, a writer for England's left-wing Guardian, wrote a particularly nasty commentary on the superhero genre. "The superman is a man of power, which means that from the first his mission was political…. Superheroes are instinctive bullies and despots," he claims, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, or George W. Bush—or America as a world power.

Wow--the sky is a striking color on LeftWorld. Anyone who sees "instructing the weak to honor the inherent superiority of the great" in the film, much less has the ability to pick at his own hateHateHATEHATE! Chimpy S. Bushitler scab in the context of the review of a Pixar film is someone who long ago ceased breathing oxygen like the rest of us.

Give Kelley credit: It's nothing short of deranged to read the above themes into the film. The Parrs battled on behalf of the "weak" in the film, to the point of putting their lives on the line, against those who were basically superpowered id complexes. Afterward, the "supermen" were content to live in middle class anonymity among those same "weaklings."

Its the exact opposite of what the pinkos are saying. So much so, that it's hard to comprehend. Now back to whacking the righty.

In The Incredibles itself, however, there is no sign whatever that the heroes are interested in power. Nor of course did Ayn Rand believe that great ability entitled a person to control others, as she made abundantly clear in distinguishing herself from Nietzsche and defending the rights of all people to live as they choose.

Unless, of course, that civilization populated by lesser beings becomes so inconvenient to the talented that it must be destroyed. Other than that, hey--smoke if you got 'em.

Egalitarians insist on reading elitist political motivation into every work that recognizes differences in ability because of their own collectivist blinders. If one assumes from the outset that the group is the primary unit of existence, which controls the lives of individuals and gives them their identity, then indeed there are only two basic choices: an egalitarian society with democratic governance or a hierarchical society with aristocratic governance. But the assumption and the dichotomy are false.

Well, a "group" is the primary unit of existence. It's called "the family," and to an extent it does control the lives of its members and assuredly gives them their identity. The fact that it's despised by both social engineering-leftists and radical individualists is not surprising. But its also given both the civilization they are hungering to raze and remake.

That neither set of reviewers wanted to see the family theme is instructive.

A Few Complaints

While The Incredibles has a theme to warm the hearts


of Objectivists and has made the right people angry, it is not Atlas Shrugged. For one thing,

It's not a ham-handedly didactic morality play populated by stock characters speechifying at exhausting length masquerading as a novel?

the heroes are not productive geniuses who create value through exceptional ability in art, science, business, or invention.

Oh. Anyway, I dealt with this above. That's a pretty significant difference from the Rand oeuvre.

They are traditional heroes who ward off the destruction of value by criminals or natural disasters.

"DESTRUCTION OF VALUE"? That's certainly an "objective" way of putting the saving of innocent human life. You could not ask for a better example of objectivism as a mental straight-jacket.

The film's only scenes of work are of Bob in his miserable insurance-company cubicle and of his conflicts with his boss—a Scrooge-like caricature of the greedy capitalist who wants to turn down every customer's claim and watches indifferently when a man is mugged on the street outside his window.

And what Bob Parr does to his boss is....Just see the film. Then again, it's a sad scene, if you see the boss as trying to prevent the destruction of value...

In fighting crime and rescuing people, traditional heroes embody the classical virtues of the warrior, especially strength and courage, combined with the altruism of the Christian knight, dedicated to protecting the weak.

Bingo, as we Catholics are wont to say.

In a review for Box Office Mojo, Objectivist Scott Holleran accused The Incredibles of altruism on this score, because the superheroes are engaged in "saving lives as a moral duty for 'the greater good.'"

Exactly, Mr. Holleran.

For those of you unacquainted with the Ob weltschaung, "altruism" is a very, very bad thing indeed.

It's true that the Parrs risk their lives to help others, battling a villain portrayed as a selfish monster. Nevertheless, it seemed to me that their deeper motivation was the joy of exercising their powers—just as someone might choose to practice medicine, a profession whose goal is to heal the sick, because he loves the challenge of the work.

I don't know about you, but I generally like a doctor who's into the profession primarily because he wants to heal the sick, and secondarily, if at all, because he regards it as a "challenge." My daughter's hacking cough might not be a challenge, but I want it treated with the same professionalism as the fellow who might be carrying the Andromeda Strain down the hall.

Consequently, if you ever discover your physician is an obbie, I suggest switching. There obvious hint that Doc shares such views is that he has the bedside manner of a mounted trophy salmon.

In all seriousness, these mental gymnastics are tragicomic--Kelley is desperately trying to avoid even the slightest hint of the kryptonite which is "altruism." Most real human beings can't think this way for long.

Deo gratias.

Bob embarks on his heroic exploits not because others need him but because he needs to break out of a life he finds stifling. It was, after all, an ungrateful public that consigned him to that life in the first place.

At a certain level, true--he certainly misses the old life. But he lives TO SAVE PEOPLE, and he risks his life to do so. There's no evading the altruism.

Indeed, many liberal commentators complained that the film's superheroes are too selfish in pursuing self-realization rather than service.

They would be wrong.

A hostile article in the York Observer, for example, quoted liberal author Richard Goldstein: "And what is The Incredibles? It's really a movie about people sort of bursting out of this model of decency and concern for others, and all of those values that now get labeled politically correct, and bursting forth with their true strength and power, like an animated Hobbes."

Sigh. What's the word I'm looking for? Ah, yes--it's "b--ls--t." Sounds like the gibes hit Mr. Goldstein a little too close to home.

Again, what did the family do again?

The one unambiguous flaw in the movie's conception of heroism lies in its portrayal of the villain. Syndrome has invented technological marvels, like boots that enable him to fly, a fortress run by computers, and a ray gun that traps its target in an anti-gravitational force field. Though he puts these tools to evil uses, they are obviously the product of exceptional mental ability that makes the superheroes' athletic gifts seem crude by comparison.

Yes. That Syndrome is quite the acheiver.

By invoking the stock figure of the evil genius, the filmmakers have signed on to the conventional view that intelligence is at best amoral.

That's because it is amoral. How that intelligence is employed is what determines its morality.

Had they simply omitted any character of heroic mental powers, they would have conveyed a merely limited conception of heroism; by introducing such a character and making him the villain, they have offered a distorted conception.

Actually, what it did was this--it completely obliterated any possible linking of the heroism of the Parrs with the ob worldview. There is an objectivist in the film, all right--and his name is Syndrome.

Think about it--Syndrome is entirely self-made. He compensates for the innate gifts of supers by using his remarkable intelligence. In fact, he more than nullifies their God-given advantages, to the tune of being able to beat almost all of them. He creates value, all right.

Moreover, he does so while showering traditional morality with contempt. Syndrome ridicules Mr. Incredible as being weak for the hero's regard for all human life, including that of his foes, even when it apparently throws away his only chance to defeat the villain or even save his own life. Talk about your misguided altruism.

No wonder Kelley doesn't like the depiction of Syndrome: the villain embodies the logical conclusions of his own philosophy.

In an extraordinary moment near the end, Syndrome says his goal in inventing the technology was to destroy the superheroes by enabling everyone to do what they do. "Everybody will be super, which means no one will be." In that one line, writer Brad Bird managed to equate murder and invention as acts of envy-driven hatred, and to elevate native physical abilities over the exercise of man's distinctive ability to think, create, and magnify his powers through technology. The latter is an especially bizarre statement for the wizards at Pixar to make.

Murder and invention can easily be "acts of envy-driven hatred." It's a story as old as the race (oh, the irony of his "brother's keeper" crack!). Would that Kelley could acknowledge that the distinctive abilities of man he describes are too often abused, and objectivism offers no coherent way to condemn them.

And it's hardly bizarre--he could only say that if he has only a nodding acquaintance with the Pixar library. If anything, A Bug's Life is a better argument for his creed than The Incredibles. But even in the former film, the analogy falls apart at several points.

But it's only one line. Write it off as temporary insanity and enjoy the rest of the film.

I heartily endorse enjoyment of the film. It's a masterpiece.

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