Tuesday, July 15, 2008

On All Those Crypto-Communist Messages Hidden In Wall-E

No, I'm not serious. But some people are....

Ok. I'll start off by saying that I took my two little girls to see Wall-E in the theaters this last weekend. For the Adrenaline Junkie (Age 3), it was her first time ever in a movie theater. For the Pillowfight Fairy (age 5), it was her second--after Prince Caspian, which we saw about two months ago. A good time was had by all, even given the fact that it went on past their normal bedtimes, and the Fairy in particular started to get a little sleepy toward the end.

Pixar, again, has shown themselves the master of the art. The movie was beautiful--even the parts that were supposed to be ugly, were deliciously so. They have a knack for bringing "inanimate" objects to life--displayed in just about every movie they've ever done--that is simply unmatched. I mean, it's possible to convey a sense of personality in an object with the tiniest, most subtle hints; to steal one example I read about recently, think of R2-D2 from the Star Wars movies. All he (it?) has to go with are flashing lights, head swivels, and the occasional beep and whirr; yet he (it?) has more personality than many of the human actors. ;-) But Pixar has mastered this, starting with that bouncing desk lamp they use in their logo; it's almost as though the robots in Wall-E have souls.

Warning: there are random spoilers scattered throughout what follows. If you haven't seen the movie yet, proceed at your own peril.

By the way, as with all Pixar movies, there was an animated short at the beginning of this one that was laugh-out-loud funny. I'll not spoil it, but it involves a magician who's having a bit of a spat with the rabbit who's supposed to get pulled from the hat. This little film is, for all intents and purposes, a Bugs Bunny cartoon--or it would have been, had it been made by Warner Brothers. And, like The Rabbit of Seville and What's Opera Doc?, it would have been one of the best Bugs Bunny cartoons around. Mel Blanc and Chuck Jones would have been proud to call it one of their own.

So my girls and I enjoyed the movie a lot.



I was a little worried going in. You see, I'm a bit of a review junkie myself, and I read whatever spoilers I can find. And being in my character something of a reactionary curmudgeon, I tend to read a lot of opinions by other reactionary curmudgeons. And while the movie has reviewed quite well with mainstream reviewers, my curmudgeonly reactionaries were mostly choking on what they perceived as the politics of the film.

This happens a lot, I'm afraid. A movie will come out and will be praised to the high heavens for the "message" the movie contains, which so often is some sort of overly-earnest, heavy-handed neo-Marxist claptrap that wrecks the story. Even if the "message" is actually worth hearing, it's so often delivered in such a heavy-handed way that it interferes with the storytelling part of the cinematic art. For example, I have nothing at all against reasonable measures to conserve our natural environment. I personally much prefer the natural environment to the man-made urban environment, and if I had the chance I'd spend much more of my time there. But I don't need to be told how evil I am for my supposed over-consumption, thankyouverymuch.

No thanks. I already have a church; I don't need to go to the movie theater to be preached to.

Alas, this means that on those rare occasions where I do find myself in a movie theater, I often find myself unable simply to lose myself in the movie. I start to get into the story, but then: BAM! There's The Message, right in my face, telling me how evil I am--how much I'm like the villains in the story--because I happen to have a different set of values than the director.

It seems several reviewers with similar values to my own had this reaction when they saw Wall-E. Just to throw a couple up here, there's this one from Libertas, entitled "Did We Just Lose Pixar?
Conservatives are understandably up in arms about what is apparently depicted in this film (Earth as Matrix-style, hyper-corporate, eco-apocalpytic wasteland), although we’ve been getting this sort of thing from Hollywood for quite some time. I think that a lot of conservative ire, however, is emerging from the mistaken impression that Pixar was somehow friendly to the conservative and/or libertarian side to begin with. Ever since Pixar’s The Incredibles came out several years ago, I’ve seen it hyped in conservative-libertarian circles to no end, to the point that people began to believe that there was actually some kind of pseudo-libertarian cabal of people who ran Pixar.
Et cetera. This commentary goes on to warn conservatives not to be suckered in by what appear to be signs of "progress" that Hollywood might be moving in a more conservative direction.

And then there's this curious little bit from the Ludwig von Mises Institute entitled Wall-E: Economic Ignorance and the War on Modernity:
The Disney-Pixar film WALL-E has been adoringly received by the majority of the theatergoing public. This adoration is unjustified. The film blatantly conveys environmentalist, anticapitalist, and antitechnological propaganda — and aims it at an audience of children, who still lack the critical faculties and intellectual sophistication to evaluate all relevant aspects of the issues presented.

But I will not focus here on how egregiously unrealistic the film's scenario of humans completely trashing Earth is....

I will, rather, concentrate on a much more egregious error made by the creators of WALL-E — an error made in ignorance of basic economics and of commonsense insights regarding the nature of human behaviors and the incentives facing individual economic actors....

Well, isn't that special. I sometimes wonder whether we conservative/libertarian/reactionary types have been fighting society so long that we've misplaced our senses of humor. I suppose that's part of what it means to be a curmudgeon, after all....

But after having seen the movie for myself, I'm not on board with the above opinions. Not only did I enjoy the movie thoroughly, I think it displays some important insights about human nature, and about Natural Law. I think this guy is actually a bit closer to the mark.

Some conservatives have dismissed "WALL-E" as a crude critique of business and capitalism. This is only true if capitalism is identical to boundless consumerism -- a conviction that Adam Smith did not seem to share. Smith argued that human flourishing requires "good temper and moderation." Self-command and the prudent use of freedom are central to his moral theory. And these are precisely the virtues celebrated in "WALL-E." The end credits -- worth staying to see -- are a beautiful tribute to art and work, craft and cultivation.

"WALL-E" is partly an environmental parable, but its primary point is moral. The movie argues that human beings, aided by technology, can become imprisoned by their consumption. The pursuit of the latest style leads to conformity. The pursuit of pleasure displaces the deeper enjoyments of affection and friendship. The pursuit of our rhinestone desires manages to obscure our view of the stars.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a big, big fan of the idea of personal liberty. And I'm a big fan of the idea of limited government. And I believe that those of us who cherish personal liberty need to be extra vigilant against usurpations of this liberty by those in power. After all, as I blogged about here, the existence of liberty in a society makes it very hard for people in power to get things done, to order things according to their desires. Our liberties are inconvenient to people in government; and as such, they will have a tendency to go away if we aren't vigilant.

But--just because liberty is to be valued, it doesn't follow that we--as individuals--shouldn't spend some time soul-searching about how we should be using those liberties. Misused liberties can wreck our lives; enough misused liberties can wreck society.

After all, consider a hypothetical example of two city-states, both of which permit their citizens to own firearms. In the first of these city-states, let's say that the people are trained from a very young age in the proper way to handle these weapons; the guns are well-maintained and carefully stored. There are frequent firearm competitions with widespread participation--biathlon, marksmanship, so forth. Accidents, murders, and suicides are rare.

The second of these city-states more closely resembles the proverbial Wild West. The population is unruly and violent. Accidents, murders, and suicides are common. People think nothing of threatening each other. Young children get their hands on poorly-stored guns all the time, and tragedies are frequent. It is not considered safe to walk the streets after nightfall.

Now, both of these city-states have the liberty of gun ownership, but that's where the similarity ends. In the first example, the people use their liberty responsibly. In the second, they don't. As a result, the first of these city-states must be considered a much better place to live. The second illustrates the important point that liberty without responsibility results in disaster.

When a society claims a liberty without choosing to wield it wisely, ultimately one of two things happens: either the society devolves into anarchy, or it eventually decides to abolish the liberty in the name of "the common good". It's not hard to imagine that the government of the second city-state might start flirting with the concept of gun control; it's much harder to imagine that the first city-state would, given that the people are doing fine without it.

This principle--that our liberties become insecure when we abuse them--applies to far more than just gun control. In fact it applies to pretty much every liberty we have.

And I'm not the first one to notice this fact. I was musing the other day about the similarities between the human society in Wall-E, and the society presented in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, when I came across this little snippet at Wikipedia (comparing Brave New World with Orwell's 1984):
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
It occurred to me that the human society displayed in Wall-E expresses Huxley's fears--as described in this paragraph--pretty much perfectly. They existed in a technological world that could supply their every need, could indulge every whim--and they chose to use it irresponsibly, until they were barely human. By the time of the events of the movie, they couldn't even read, they had utterly forgotten their history, and they were completely oblivious of some of the really cool things that were right next to them.

Now, this could be considered a critique of Capitalism, except for two things. For one, the critique--if anything--is that Capitalism has worked entirely too well. After all, every one of their physical needs was being met, and likewise every one of their desires for material stuff. Any economic system that can do that has to be considered at least a little bit successful, no?

For another thing, Socialism also operates toward the goal of meeting people's material needs and alleviating their pain. I'm not convinced that the European Socialist model, if taken to its would-be extreme, looks all that different from the society on board the Axiom. Governments would prefer if everyone played by the rules and colored within the lines; they would prefer that people come to them for their needs instead of developing self-sufficiently and taking care of business themselves; governments aren't known for tolerating individuality well. And this is exactly where the political appeal of Socialists comes from: the desire on the part of suffering segments of society to have a strong government swoop in and make it all better; alleviate the suffering, and provide wealth for all. If Socialism could actually deliver on its economic promises, I suspect it too would start evolving toward the society of the Axiom.

But the underlying problem with the Axiom society isn't Capitalism, and it isn't Socialism; it isn't the economic system, nor is it the governmental system. The Axiom society existed as it did because at some level, The People (or their ancestors) chose this way of life. And that isn't such a far-fetched idea, either. There's a well-observed life-cycle to civilizations that goes a little like this:
  1. Some down-and-out society develops customs, mores, or traditions that "toughens" them; it makes them strong and/or aggressive, and inspires people to make sacrifices to strengthen the society.
  2. This society starts growing, expanding, conquering, colonizing, and prospering.
  3. The society reaches a "Golden Age", where culture flourishes in a mostly-peaceful empire. Quality of life improves for all.
  4. New generations are raised that neither know nor understand the sacrifices made by their ancestors; they lose the cultural "toughness" that allowed their ancestors to thrive and take their prosperity for granted. The society starts coasting on accumulated cultural capital, as the population becomes "degenerate"--sacrificing only for their own pleasure, and not working for the future of the society.
  5. Other growing societies ("Barbarians") which are now culturally "tougher" than the empire, start to defeat it, take parts of it, and plunder it.
  6. The empire collapses, and the cycle repeats with the "Barbarians" now assuming the role of the central civilization.
This sequence has been observed many places before: everywhere from the biblical Book of Judges, to Ibn Khaldun, to Edward Gibbon. So it's not totally off-the-wall to think that the human race, given the chance at some point in the future, would choose to live a life of sterile, decadent luxury. The societies in Brave New World and Wall-E exist roughly at Stage 4 in the above sequence--except that in neither case is there an outside "Barbarian" society to interrupt their decadence.

What makes Wall-E so much more optimistic, of course, is that the people wake up. They start noticing the world around them that they've never seen before; the Captain starts learning about all that society lost when it started its perpetual cruise; he shuts off the autopilot and starts making his own decisions again. Depending on the way the image sequence over the ending credits is interpreted, it appears that the humans started relearning why slothfulness and gluttony are vices-- and labor and patience are virtues.

That, right there, is known as Natural Law, and it's an idea that's been around since at least St. Augustine. I refuse to accept that this idea isn't thoroughly conservative. ;-)


The big question--and it's not an easy one, and one for which I don't have a straight answer yet--is: how do we form a society of people who choose to use their liberties wisely?

Emphasis is on the word "choose". If we do something because the Government makes us, that's not "choosing", and it's no longer a liberty.

As I said, I don't have a straight, closed-form answer to this question yet. But I suspect it depends upon building a strong Civil Society. And I define Civil Society as the way We the People organize ourselves and behave when Government isn't looking over our shoulders.

Unfortunately, that's a topic for another really, really long column, and another evening....


patrick said...

Wall-E totally looks like the robot from "Short Circuit"... minus the cheesy 80's style of course

Big Doofus said...

Here's something that, perhaps, you didn't know about Wall-E: The creator, writer and director of the film, Andrew Stanton, is a Christian. Furthermore, he NEVER intended for the movie to be an environmental film. In his own words, it's a movie about relationships. Stanton is a Christ-centered man. How cool is that? Here's an interview he did with WORLD magazine:


Roger Z said...

"I already have a church; I don't need to go to the movie theater to be preached to."

Ha! How true. I've been frustrated more than once by this, as well as the opposite: churches that are turning their services into an entertainment venue. I've railed about this more than once to friends ("I don't go to the movies to be preached at, and I don't go to church for entertainment!"). Maybe it's just that people who don't attend church don't know where to get their message from anymore?

You raised another great point when talking about guns and the two societies (you raised a lot of great points, can't comment about them all). What you were describing seemed to me a bit like what we see in the news about corporations and the scandals therein (Enron, Fannie Mae, etc). A couple months ago, I thought- maybe the problem isn't capitalism, or corporatism, or any "-ism," maybe the problem is a lack of ethics.

That's really the distinguishing characteristic of your two gun societies, isn't it? One has an underlying order, a code of interpersonal behavior that is largely shared, the other doesn't. As a society, we seem to think ethics=morality=religion=can't-teach-that-in-school! so we have a bunch of people who have no common code for interacting with others. Whether that's about embezzlement or how you treat your staff, ethics is an underlying principle in every situation you face, it's... it's how you behave when God isn't looking, so to speak.

And if a deteriorating ethical situation is the problem, it doesn't matter what the solution is- unethical people would go to the government just as quickly as they'd go to a business.

Anyway, very interesting post about Wall-E. I probably won't see it until it comes out on video, but I can't wait to see that opening skit!

Oh, and ps- you pack A LOT into these posts of yours!

Timothy Power said...

Hey Roger! Thanks for dropping by.

I'm not sure I followed what you meant with your line, "ethics ... [is] how you behave when God isn't looking, so to speak."

Were you meaning to say that one is not truly being ethical if one's actions stem from religious motives (fear of divine wrath, for instance); or were you meaning to say that in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society, we have to find some other basis for ethics than religion, since no one religion is dominant; or did you mean something totally different?

I've heard variations on both of the above statements before. Not sure how true these statements are, but I'm certainly open to hearing and considering, if someone wants to make the case.

But I certainly agree with your statement about our society no longer having a "common code for interacting with others." The sad thing is that this common code didn't die of natural causes; there have been plenty of social reform movements out there (including, but not limited to, Marxism) that have seen any common code or culture as oppressive (bourgeois, patriarchal, ethno-centric--pick your ten-dollar adjective), and explicitly sought to destroy it, in the hopes of imposing a new and different different common code in its place--one that allows them to order society more to their liking.

But that's a subject for yet another long, depressing, well-packed essay or three. :-)