Wednesday, November 23, 2016

KISS: Idiocracy

Keep ISimple, Stupid:
A concise analysis of Idiocracy

Idiocracy is a 2006 satirical film built on a simple premise: smart people aren't breeding enough so dumb people are going to take over the planet. The protagonist is an "average Joe" who wakes up from cryogenic sleep in a future where he's the smartest person on the planet. At the end of the movie, he and another frozen "normal person" produce children who are also "the smartest people on the planet" while the idiotic ex-wrestler president produces a bumper crop of idiots. This explicitly validates the idea that smart people only produce smart babies and dumb people produce dumb babies as being a "reality" of this film's world.

Why am I talking about a film from ten years ago? Well, let's just say it's making the rounds again. Internet critic MovieBob suggests that Idiocracy is not a eugenicist movie, because eugenics is not about "identifying the problem" but "positing the solution".  The thing is, there are really two parts to an ideological argument. First, you have to accept a premise: things are this way, people behave like this. Next, you have to accept a solution: this should be done. MovieBob sets this up, but he only does so to jettison the former and focus all attention on the latter.

Look at a film like The Birth of a Nation. The "premise" of that movie is that black people are animalistic savages who run rampant on respectable white people. The "solution" of that movie is to form the KKK. A person who agreed with the first part would be considered racist and ignorant in our society, regardless of whether they agreed with the second part. So why would it be considered okay to say that Idiocracy's premise ("stupid people produce stupid children") is accurate or morally acceptable when it's not?

Idiocracy is really useful for a person like me in a meta sense because people keep citing it as an influence on real politics. The same with Harry Potter or Game of Thrones or Parks and Recreation or the Hunger Games or whatever else. Even Giantbomb's Dan Ryckert (not exactly a fount of critical thinking) admitted that "[action movies are] kind of the prism in which I saw the world growing up". Fiction affects the way that people, in general, think about the world, for good or for ill. And this is just talking about pop culture - nevermind "respectable" stories like 1984 or Brave New World, which are widely accepted as valuable political works despite their fictitious nature. It is getting harder and harder for people to argue that fiction doesn't affect them when they keep bringing fictitious scenarios and values into real life.

If you stop looking at narrative works as "entertainment" and start looking at them like "soft propaganda" then it changes a lot about how we talk about them. Soft propaganda means movies with a political bias that entwines itself in a "normal" story in order to make its message more palatable and less overt.  This is in comparison to hard propaganda, which is what most people think of when they think of propaganda - imagery of jackboots and formation marching and chanted slogans. One of the iconic pieces of "hard propaganda" is Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, which made the Nazi government seem like the head of an unstoppable juggernaut and, for many German citizens, reinforced the feeling that the Nazis had absolute control over them. I have two observations to make about that movie.

1) Like D.W. Griffith and The Birth of a Nation, Leni Riefenstahl fervently denied that Triumph of the Will was a work of propaganda, but was instead simply a secular piece of art and storytelling that did not advance any sort of racist ideology. This refrain should be familiar to pretty much anyone who has even the slightest connection with modern discussions of politics in film. It's the most common reply to someone pointing out a movie's bad implications or political undertones - to simply deny that these things exist at all, because how can a work of mere entertainment be used as propaganda? And yet works that are UNDENIABLY political were also defended as being not so.

2) Hitler himself preferred another movie as a propaganda engine. It was called The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, and is an action-adventure movie depicting a group of British soldiers in India defending themselves against hostile natives. Hitler wrote, "I like this film because it depicted a handful of Britons holding a continent in thrall. That is how a superior race must behave and the film is a compulsory viewing for the SS". He saw it as being more effective than a lifeless work like Triumph of the Will because it caught up the audience in emotional attachment. In short, Hitler himself thought that a "work of entertainment" with political undertones (the aforementioned soft propaganda) was more effective as a cultural influence than overt, directly-delivered "hard propaganda" was.

So what is Idiocracy, then? It's a movie that posits a situation that is unrealistic and impossible, based on actual statistics, but it ties into a lot of people's understanding of "how the world works". Those people do not hesitate to cite it when discussing real politics because its message is considered to be common and understandable - the perpetual sigh of "ugh, dumb people, ruining everything again". They treat it as fact because they want it, desperately, to be fact.

Our society hates idiots. In my opinion, people resist the idea that they are affected by fiction (or advertising or propaganda) because it makes them feel like an idiot. But the average person is not a steadfast rock of sincere rationality; they are a lump of clay being constantly impressed upon by a thousand different forces. Idiocracy exists because people want to blame society's problems on an dehumanized "other" (in this case, "idiots") while separating themselves from bad thought, bad behavior or moral responsibility.

Idiocracy builds itself on dehumanization of a kind that is becoming scarily common in liberal circles - the right-wing idea that poor people are inherently stupid and lazy and should not be appealed to. This is an astonishing betrayal of progressive values, which are meant to champion the vulnerable and the underclass, not make justifications for abandoning them. MovieBob was not citing Idiocracy because he thought it presented a rational plan for helping people, he was citing it because he wanted to feel better about himself as "the last intelligent man on the planet". And he's the kind of idiot who uses a mediocre Mike Judge comedy from a decade ago as if it has actual, supported claims to make about real politics.

My book should be out before Christmas. It is in the final editing phases.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Dehumanization

There's been a lot of talk lately about "political violence". Lots of talk about how to handle conservative extremism; lots of talk about what to do about our potential president, "Hitler, But Also A Rapist". Lots of phrases like "political violence is never acceptable" conjoined with statements like "drone warfare is a political necessity", and on the flipside, lots of people arguing that fascism must be stopped by any means who - surprisingly - are still sitting in front of a computer instead of dying nobly for the cause.

In that climate I think it's useful for me to make it exactly clear what I mean when I say "the discourse around violence is bad", as I often seem to do (like for example here and here and here). The thing is, I'm not a pacifist. I think there are many conditions where violence can be necessary - see my review of SWAT 4 for examples. I just dislike two things: first, I dislike the glorification of violence (it should remain a regrettable tool of last resort, akin to putting down a rabid dog), and second, I dislike dehumanization, which is to say, I dislike it when human beings are depicted as flat and two-dimensional in order to make it more palatable for the protagonist/player/etc to kill them.

The thing about dehumanization is that there's a lot of objections I could make on moral grounds. I could make objections about the inherently sacred nature of human autonomy and individuality, and the basic, fundamental wrongness of stereotyping. To be frank, however, that kind of thing either resonates right away or it doesn't resonate at all. So I'm going to take a different tack. I condemn dehumanization on practical grounds, and here is why:

Dehumanization fails to prepare you for the reality of dealing with human beings.

This observation isn't new; it's one of Umberto Eco's listed weaknesses of fascism: "Fascist governments are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy." Dehumanization is why the United States military walks into countries like Iraq or Vietnam expecting an easy victory over cartoonish resistance, and then is surprised when it turns out their aggressively imperialistic approach produces more resistance than it destroys. Dehumanization is why a government tries to justify torture and then has the gall to ask why the enemy is fighting back harder. Dehumanization is a culture that fantasizes about fighting against foreign invaders to the last man in film after film, yet can't wrap its head around the idea of people from other cultures feeling the same way about their own country, their own people, their own faith.

Even progressive people who understand why these things are wrong will occasionally turn around and forget about it when it's in another political direction. They'll accept premises like "trying to violently force western values on Muslim states just justifies their fears about cultural imperialism, making them resist more desperately", or "Demonization of criminals often results in policies that make things worse for them, making it harder for them to re-enter society and more likely to commit more crimes". Then they'll turn around with something like "Conservatives are bad because they treat their enemies like soulless monsters and justify endless violence against them; for that reason, they themselves must be dealt with using endless violence." I can't tell you how many people like that have shared stories about what a bad person they used to be before they changed for the better, but who will turn around and say "those people are bad and they will never change" about someone else.

There's a reason for this. It's called the Fundamental Attribution Error. The FAE is a cognitive bias, a filter that the human brain uses to keep out information it doesn't like. It basically says when people see their own traits as environmental, whereas other people's traits are inherent. When you look at your own actions, you see the road that took you to it. You remember being overwhelmed by emotions, or chemical influence, or social stress, or whatever else. When you look at someone else's actions, more likely than not you're going to say "that's just how they are" without factoring in all that other stuff. This is why a person who's gone on a journey of self-discovery and changed from one political philosophy all the way to another can look at someone else and go "that person is just bad, and they will never change".

The thing about violence is that it's a tool, and like every tool it has to be applied in a certain way to be effective. Again, I am not a pacifist - I believe under certain conditions, violence, even lethal violence, is fully justified. However, there are two things to keep in mind about violence, from a purely utilitarian perspective. Firstly, violence is not inconsequential; even if your side wins, you are going to lose people that you care about. Secondly, human beings engage in violence until they hit their limit, which is different for every person. A normal human will run when things get too hairy, will give up if they can't run, and - this is the kicker - will fight to the death if they aren't allowed to surrender. From a utilitarian sense, combat is about demoralizing an enemy just as much as it's about destroying them, and the more decisively you can demoralize an enemy, the less damage is going to be done to both sides.

Consider these numbers about World War 2:

18 million Germans were part of the military.
4-5 million of them died.
11 million Germans were taken prisoner during the war.

Even adjusting for statistical complexities, the point is still clear: most German soldiers surrendered rather than fighting to the death. Most of them, when put into a situation with no escape, surrendered when they were given the chance. And when the war was over, most of them went home and became normal people again. You had a nation populated by the leftover wehrmacht that somehow failed to rise again in fascist rebellion. If they were so incorrigible, surely they would have fought even if they knew they would have been destroyed by the Allied forces? But they didn't. They accepted the change, with a few stray exceptions, and altered their cultural values. Both Germany and Japan went from militaristic, fascist and nationalist to "liberal democracies", even though a substantial portion of their population consisted of returning veterans from the previous regimes.

I'm going to link now to an insanely pragmatic article by Gary Brecher called "The Confederates Who Should've Been Hanged". Brecher's contention is that, after the Civil War, the most viciously effective demagogues should have been executed - but not the rest. The idea is that you would put down the ones who would absolutely cause trouble in peacetime, but you would leave the others alive to prevent them from becoming martyrs and inviting further rebellion. Brecher believes that the American government was too lenient on the Confederacy out of that fear of rebellion, and thus it didn't take the opportunity to cut out tumors when it could have. And because of that, two things arose: the KKK, the intimidation wing of the Confederate legacy, and"Lost Causer" mythology, the information wing. Both of these wings were headed by former Confederate officers, and both worked actively to prevent the South from changing its cultural makeup.

Violence destroyed "the Confederacy", but it could never have destroyed racism as a whole - that had to be done with cultural change. The ex-Confederates knew this. They did not take on the American government directly, or try to start a second civil war. They used propaganda-based education along with intimidation of their enemies in order to maintain their own cultural presence. In 1871, President Grant sent federal troops and agents in to dismantle the KKK. They did this because state officials couldn't be trusted to enforce the law against the Klan. However, they failed to dismantle the Lost Causer mythology - it was far more far-reaching and harder to detect than a bunch of overt actors in bedsheets. As a result, Confederate-biased ideology remained dominant in the south even after the KKK had been taken down. In 1915, a movie called The Birth of a Nation was released, and, well, I believe you know the rest.

When the Allies conquered Germany and Japan, they were very firm about ensuring that its citizens and veterans knew they were wrong. They exposed them to information about what they had done, tore down the institutions that propagandized for the old regime, staged visible war crime trials for their leadership, and generally instituted cultural change, rather than merely garrisoning an enemy nation. These changes were based not only on destroying the old institutions but allowing the citizens of the country to embrace the new ones. And while Neo-Nazis and Japanese Imperialists still exist in small numbers today, they are usually seen as outcasts - although the further we get from WW2, the less stigma there is, because the less "real" those events feel. The point is that not only did Germany and Japan have to be defeated militarily, they had to be altered culturally. We did not beat the Nazis by shooting a bunch of them and going home. We beat them by shooting enough of them that we could dismantle their cultural systems and replace it with something different, and ultimately that second part de-fanged a lot more fascists than the first part did.

This is how violence works. Violence is sometimes a saw and sometimes a scalpel, but it must always be applied correctly. Sometimes you have to amputate, but even then the focus is saving the rest of the body. Sometimes you make small cuts to prevent larger damage. Violence cannot be random or haphazard or clumsy if it wants to get anything done. Violence needs to be proportional - the most dangerous must be eliminated before they can do harm, but the majority must be given a chance to surrender and repent, because (if nothing else) forcing their backs to the wall will cause more damage.

Human beings with bad beliefs or morals are still human. They take in information, they process ideas, they change, they evolve. Many of them grew up in environments where all their "trustworthy" information came from family and friends. "Pragmatically moral" violence needs to be about putting people in a situation where they can be exposed to contrary ideas while nullifying their ability to do harm to others. Random, senseless violence makes people feel cornered; cornered animals will bite back because their alternative is death. This is not touchy-feely crap. It is not pacifist propaganda. It's not even a moral argument. It is an acknowledgment of basic human motivations and an understanding of how to make use of them. That is why dehumanization is bad.

Look at the way people talk about "fascism" or "Nazis" in modern parlance. Both terms have been watered down to the point where they just mean "any sort of authoritarian bad guy". Terms like "inhuman" have been thrown around for so long that people genuinely have no idea how close they are to being like them. That's an effect of dehumanization. People should look at fascists and go "it's scary to think how similar to us they are", but instead they look at them and go "those people are so inhuman, we could never be like them". And this is after years of studies about the banality of evil and the effects of conformity and the pressures of obedience. Even after Milgram and Arendt and Zimbardo, people still can't grasp the idea that monsters would have anything in common with regular folks

In the same vein, most rapes are committed by someone the victim knows, and yet the image of a rapist as a horrible thug is so prominent that you get stuff like this, where a well-off college student responds with indignation at the very idea that someone like him could ever be a rapist. He objects to "consent education" because the idea that he could ever be as bad as one of those inhuman monsters is totally alien to him. Society's skewed presentation of rapists in the news and in the media failed to prepare him for the statistical reality, and when it's presented to him, he balks at it. People need to be able to look at the worst elements of society and think "that could be me". And the people who have changed need to remember what they used to be like and why they were that way.

Things are changing. Information is available more freely. I think people get frustrated by the slow pace of change, because they're mad that racism hasn't been wholly eliminated or whatever, but it's happening. A democratic socialist made a viable run for president in a country whose last socialist candidate took a mere 4% of the vote (and that was before the Red Scare), and it's almost entirely because of the youth. Those same youths are the ones that are taking the largest stand against Trump. And statistically, a lot of those youths were raised in conservative households, since most of their elders are voting Republican. People can change. People are able to change.

I Grew Up In A Racist Militia: 5 Things I Learned, Evan V. Symon
What hit Pieter the hardest was simply the fact that his father had looked him in the eye and lied to him, just to avoid having to admit that the story of white racism wasn't one of a steady march toward righteous victory. If you've never had to experience it, let us point out that the complete obliteration of everything you've ever believed in isn't an enjoyable experience..."I can't tell you how much fear and apprehension I had that night ... I went to the library the next day to see international papers on the incident. I knew the AWB wasn't liked, but every article said we were hated." And so Pieter had his moment of realization: "We were the bad guys."

The White Flight of Derek Black, Eli Saslow
He was taking classes in Jewish scripture and German multiculturalism during his last year at New College, but most of his research was focused on medieval Europe. He learned that Western Europe had begun not as a great society of genetically superior people but as a technologically backward place that lagged behind Islamic culture. He studied the 8th century to the 12th century, trying to trace back the modern concepts of race and whiteness, but he couldn’t find them anywhere. “We basically just invented it,” he concluded. “Get out of this,” one of his Shabbat friends emailed a few weeks after Derek’s graduation in May 2013, urging Derek to publicly disavow white nationalism. “Get out before it ruins some part of your future more than it already irreparably has.”

A 'Recovering Skinhead' On Leaving Hatred Behind, Frank Meeink
... So then we're sitting there and everyone starts talking again about it, and I say, 'How 'bout my daughter? My daughter's probably more than 75 percent Italian. Are you saying she's not white?' And he says, 'Nope, she ain't white.' And I just beat the crap out of this guy at this party. And I get everyone off of me and I say, 'I'm outta here.' And I walk back down, and I'm going to go catch the train by myself and go back home, and I had been drinking a little bit. And I remember looking up at God and saying, 'God, maybe there's something wrong. Maybe you're right. Maybe on the black, Asian and Latino issue, maybe we are all equal."

It's Such A Little Thing, Kaleb Horton
This does not make them bad people. They were taught to live and think the way they do, by their parents, by their teachers, by their churches, well-entrenched echo chambers, and they were not seriously exposed to competing viewpoints. Those were away from them mostly, in colleges, in cities. And they are people, regular people, flawed like everybody, and they wake up at night with most of the same fears we have. How to hold on, how to keep going. They are not anthropological curiosities. We cannot forget about them just because the America we live in now is no longer the place they were taught to live in.

Anyways, my book's almost done. It's at around 60k words and I'm pretty happy with it. I'm going to release it as a pay-what-you-want eBook on itch.io or maybe on Smashwords. Here is the list of topics I cover in the book:

Idealized Values | Customs & Traditions | Law & Mediation | Social Castes | Slavery | Gender Identity | Expressions of Sexuality | Types of Religion | Spirits & Souls | Autocratic Governments | Councils & Communes | Centralization & Independence | Nomadic vs Sedentary | Agriculture | Crafts & Materials | Buildings & Architecture | Trade & Communication | Hair & Body Modification | Clothing | Literature & Storytelling | Artwork | Music | Martial Attitudes | Intensity of Warfare | Nature of Soldiery | Ritualism vs Military Science | Combatant Type & Status | Signals & Supply | Cultural Affinity | Transmission & Assimilation

Friday, September 2, 2016

Dissecting "The Necessity of Violence"

I genuinely thought I was done this time. But, you know, every so often I find a post that's just so bad that I feel morally obligated to tear it apart just so I can say "I did something to try and stop this".

The current target is "The Necessity of Violence" by indie game dev Winnie Read. It is an extremely overwrought work. For simplicity's sake I am going to be as direct as possible with my criticisms and phrase them as direct responses to their assertions.

ASSERTION 1: "Violence is natural, and thus a necessary subject in media"
Supporting Statements from Text:
1. We talk about every other truths about our nature through games, we test our greed, gluttony, lust, pride — so why not violence?
2. What violence can say about ourselves both as human beings — beings that are, as we’ve now established, violent by nature — and also as players who are smart enough to distinguish what precise part of violence gives us catharsis.
3. Murder existed in media for as long as media existed, for as long as there were people on earth. Violence is as much a capacity in us as empathy is, as hunger is. It’s unnecessary for video games to compensate for its excess.
4. I believe only once we accept our own biology, and embrace our nature unchanged in philosophy from 10 000 years ago, art is possible.
5. I live for the games that say, “no, no, this is what you are.” And what we are is violent.

Firstly, the "appeal to nature" is well-established as being a fallacious argument unless your discussion partners are Social Darwinists or extremely religious. You will note that in the previous link it is referred to as a "fallacy" and not a "form of argument".

Secondly, there are many "natural" things that it is considered distasteful to enjoy in media, or to support in general. This includes xenophobia, homophobia, authoritarianism, social inequality, and the most prominent, rape. And wouldn't you know it, I've already written about the comparison between rape and violence. But with regards to this current argument, the issue is that people like this generally aren't okay with including (or glorifying) rape in games, especially not as a mechanic. Winnie Read is making a game where one player hunts another to kill them. Would they be willing to make a game where the same mechanics are used but the end result is rape instead? I know some people would be, but most would balk at it.

And this leads me to the point: "violence" is a natural part of humanity. But, like many other "natural" parts of humanity, it can be successfully suppressed or (more commonly) redirected. Saying that violence is natural is like saying that rape is natural. They are founded in the same instinctual drive, the drive to conquer and dominate and humiliate. The Vikings raped both men and women after defeats, because rape was about humiliation, not sexual attraction. That's "natural". Delve too deep into "nature" and you'll probably see something you're not actually comfortable with. This is why you should't use it to justify things you are.

ASSERTION 2: "Violence in Game Form takes harmful instincts and refines them"
Supporting Statements from Text:
1. Embracing violence in gameplay does not encourage and incite, but rather socialize and civilize. It allows for exploration of a fundamental wiring in our biology.
2.What’s more interesting is the hypocrisy of a video game trying desperately not to make reference to or comment on the world we live in through its mechanics and visual representation, while also being interactive media that impacts all aspects of mass culture, with more influence than ever before in history.
3. I think instead of celebrating and advocating for the nonviolence of video games we should consider the language violence provides to talk about what makes us, us.

This ties into the first point in that the author is attempting to solidify the idea that violence is natural. However, they also recognize that violence is undesirable, and so they try to justify the connection by saying that violence in games can be used to "discuss" violence in real life.

This is like arguing that The Birth of a Nation is an exploration of race relations and should be lauded for its artistic creativity.

This is not to say that games cannot talk about violence. Rather, if I am going to say that something is capable of "talking about violence", it needs to reflect something about actual violence. Which means it should not have:
- Enemies who refuse to surrender
- Enemies who refuse to flee or otherwise display concern
- Dehumanization in any form
- Removal of consequences for taking a human life
- Removal of consequences for being hurt or injured or killed
- Removal of consequences to the psyche during the act of killing

If a game glosses over any of those things then it is not talking about violence, it is talking about a cartoon simulacrum of violence. It's relatively well-recognized that a work talking about sexism or homophobia or racism that cuts corners for the sake of "easy access" is incomplete and may even be poisoning the discussion. A discussion of police violence, for example, would be considered incomplete if it did not mention that police are frequently cleared of charges in cases that often seem clear-cut against them. Removing that information would fundamentally change the discussion and more importantly present a false image for the uneducated. Why, then, are we expected to have a discussion about violence when so many people are so fundamentally opposed to including the whole set of components?

When the author writes a sentence like "Outsmarting and outliving another person requires intent and bloody-mindedness that could be only performed by a human with as much to lose as another", I call bullshit. Because what you're playing is still "a game". There are no consequences outside of the immediate win-or-lose. It is still a game. Saying that such a game "discusses violence" is like saying that tag "discusses rape". It is a shallow game that you have chosen - chosen - to cover with a visual layer of violence meant to evoke real-life blood and guts. You are not discussing violence. You are using the idea of it, unnecessarily, to "spice up" your mechanical experience. And in that sense you are making a mockery of the real thing.

ASSERTION 3: "Games are an outlet"
1. Games provide an interactive context in which we can exercise the acts that make us feel things like the thrill, the guilt, the regret.
2. I didn’t intend to make a violent game with BADBLOOD, I intended to create a playable treatise of human nature.

So seriously, is this guy going to make a rape game or what? Clock's ticking here, friend. You want art, that's the way you should be going. Everyone's made a murder game at this point, it's not even taboo.

3. What do I believe the human beings behind the controller are capable of? What do I want to say about them? How will they act in this situation? Will they choose their own safety over the killing of their opponent? Will they hide or will they fight? What is it about the world that I live in that I want to figure out?

And you will never figure this out with a video game, because a video game is designed specifically to depict violence while keeping all involved parties safe. Violence without consequence does not say anything about real violence. It's shallow indulgence into a real issue without any of the factors that make the issue what it is.

The problem with "art games" as a community is that absolutely no one is interested in learning. They're just interested in feeling. You already get information about feelings from every other game. That is what emotions are. You have them all the time. Art games are about provoking a different set of emotions and going "aha, now it's interesting". It's really not. It's a researcher who works entirely by cribbing off of other people's work, never discovering that they themselves are doing the same.

MY OWN CONCLUSION:
1. "I watched Tarantino movies, samurai comics, TV shows like Vikings where violence is both the foundation of society and also the show’s main aesthetic."

Please notice that when the author says he learned about violence, what he was learning from was works of media depicting violence. And in this way he believed he had actually learned about the thing itself.

The reason this article exists, and is even remotely popular, is because most "social justice" gamers are desperately trying to justify the discord between their own critical analysis of sexism and racism, and their blase acceptance of violence. As evidence I cite the staggering number of people who have told me directly that violence is "natural" while also making excuses about why rape and sexism and racism should not be included in those same products.

This article is a weak salve. And it is a poorly constructed one. Unfortunately, moral wounds are highly susceptible to the placebo effect, and thus a good number of people will convince themselves that they've been healed.

If you want to explore violence please, for the love of God, learn something about real violence first.

Relatedly, I am working on a book discussing human cultures throughout time and across the globe. It includes cultural values related to violence as well as cultures that embraced pacifism entirely. Please keep an eye out for it! Do not try to learn about violence from Tarantino films in the meantime!

I mean it! I will be very cross with you!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Analysis: The Birth Of A Nation

The Birth Of A Nation is a work famous as "the Klan movie". While most people haven't seen it, many know of its reputation and legacy. It was one of the very first "narrative movies" as we conceive of them today (hours long, with a specific story structure). It was blatantly and obviously racist. It contributed to the re-popularization and glorification of the Ku Klux Klan. In modern discussions, film buffs awkwardly and delicately try to separate their praise for the movie's techniques from its hateful message; as a result, it currently has a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Whatever else is going on with the movie, there is one unmistakable aspect of its legacy: people agree that it was a "product of its times" (although it wasn't - it was considered racist even back then), and thus, that it could never happen again. When it is brought up as an example of the harmful propagandist effects of a work of fiction, it is usually dismissed. The American public would never accept such an overtly hateful movie, and they would never be persuaded by a work of fiction to engage in violent action against a racial minority.

The reality of the matter is, as much as modern Americans try to separate themselves from their more overt forebears, the legacy of that era, and the underpinnings of its racist morality, have not even remotely gone away. And thus arises the core of this project: it actually wouldn't take that many changes to make the movie palatable to modern audiences. At its core, The Birth Of A Nation shares many story beats and concepts with movies being released even today, and its morals are in line with the politics of many modern politicians.

Maybe you're more optimistic about this than I am. Maybe you think society's evolved too far to fall prey to such blatant propaganda. Maybe you think modern audiences wouldn't accept overt, sweeping historical revisionism that plays into an obvious racial agenda. But if that's what you're thinking, then unfortunately I'm forced to remind you about 300. And I'm also forced to remind you how well it did.

Are you ready?

Plot & Premise: Family, Revenge and Dishonor

The Birth Of A Nation centers around two families: the northern Stonemans and the southern Camerons. The story begins just prior to the civil war; the Stoneman family visits the Cameron family's estate, and there is some positive feeling between the two families. Shortly thereafter, the war breaks out. During the war, the Cameron estate is ransacked by malicious black soldiers (operating under a white leader); the Cameron women are only rescued by the timely intervention of  the Confederate soldiery. The war ends soon after, with several members of both clans dead or wounded.

After Lincoln's death, the Stoneman patriarch (an abolitionist congressman) is able to push through legislation intended to punish the south. He travels to the area with a psychopathic Mulatto, Silas Lynch. Swaggering black soldiers march through the streets, abusing white civilians and preventing them from voting (while committing vote fraud themselves). The new state legislature, mostly black, engages in disgraceful and vulgar behavior (including the messy consumption of fried chicken), whites are required to salute black people, and mixed-race marriage is legalized.

During this time, Ben Cameron notices that white children are dressing as ghosts in order to scare black children. In a Batman-like leap of logic, Cameron formulates that dressing white adults like ghosts will scare black adults as well. Ben's sister Flora is followed into the woods by a black soldier, who says he wants to marry her. Fleeing the implied rape, Flora throws herself off a cliff rather than submit to him. Ben Cameron's new vigilante organization - the Ku Klux Klan - hunts down and lynches the soldier, and delivers his corpse to Silas Lynch.

In response, Lynch fights back against the Klan. The Cameron family patriarch is arrested because of Ben Cameron's Klan costume, but he is busted out of jail with the help of loyal black servants, as well as one of the Stoneman family's sons and sympathetic Union soldiers. In the meantime, one of the Stoneman daughters pleads for mercy for the Camerons; in response, Lynch attempts to rape her. In a bit of "it could happen to you" irony, Congressman Stoneman is happy when Lynch says he wants to marry a white woman, but furious when he realizes the white woman is his own daughter. The Klan mounts a rescue of the Stoneman daughter, capturing Lynch. Afterwards, the earlier scene of voter intimidation is reversed - the Klan protects the rights of white voters while keeping away the brutish black soldiers. The white citizens of both North and South are united against "the real enemy", and the film ends on an optimistic note of peace and harmony among white Americans.

Implications & Themes

When you get down to it, what does this movie do? And then, by contrast, what do other movies do?

First and foremost, this movie plays on the emotional fears of its audience in order to convince them that those fears are real. It does not present evidence or claim to educate; its appeal is entirely rooted in visceral reaction. Yet, despite this, it is "convincing" to them. It portrays a situation so horrible that people cannot help but treat it as inevitable. Is it alone in this? Of course not. How many people cite 1984 or Brave New World or Fahrenheit 451 or even Idiocracy as the inevitable, real result of political policies? All of those works are fictional, yet people push those images into their mind and live in fear of them coming to pass. Even though they will acknowledge that those works are fictional, and not backed up with actual research or statistics, they will still cite them when discussing their real fears and concerns.

Secondly, the movie brings a "positive" message - not only that black people should be controlled and suppressed, but that white people (and blacks who know their place) should come together in order to prevent swaggering bullies from running their lives. This is a key element. People are not willing to commit to evil, but evil can be easily phrased in a way that makes it seem logical, even moral. It's not "racist" because there are good blacks (who know their place). It's not about hating blacks, it's about loving whites. It's not about discrimination, it's about protecting your own rights. The movie presents itself not as an extreme, but as a moderate, neutral opinion - slavery was bad, but "anti-slavery" (and "reverse racism") is just as bad. Does that one sound familiar?

Thirdly, the movie crafts its situation so that it is unambiguous and unmistakable. The black villains in this movie are "thugs", and I use that word for a very specific reason. The "thug" is an omnipresent figure in movies, past, present, and future. The "thug" is a hostile individual who is overtly, even spitefully evil and cruel. He hurts, he kills, he rapes. Any attempt to negotiate with a "thug" will meet in failure. The only proper response to a "thug" is violence, or torture if you need information out of one. There is no need for remorse or moral questioning; if you feel bad about it, it is made obvious that the "thug" forced you to do these things by his unthinkingly hateful actions, and of course he deserved it in any case. Within the fictional scenario presented, the actions of an organization like the Klan are absolutely justified. The problem, of course, is that the scenario in question is far from realistic, but when people are bombarded with this stereotype in every outlet of media, they start to believe it's true despite a lack of real evidence.

In short, The Birth Of A Nation is a movie that uses effective, manipulative techniques in order to blur the line between reality and fiction. It plays off of people's fears and desires, and crafts a particular, unrealistic situation in order to convince its audience that the solution it presents is the only effective one.

Comparisons To More Contemporary Works

Death Wish. A liberal architect's family is attacked by thugs, and the liberal architect is forced to understand that his lefty peacenik ideas are false and that violence is the only true answer. Both Death Wish and The Birth Of A Nation revel in the idea of a progressive-minded northern liberal being forced to realize that his high-minded naivete is empowering the brutish criminal class, and eventually coming to the understanding that violence is the only answer for these unthinking thugs. This phenomenon has a trope of its own, and it plays off of the idea that conservatives see progressives as "naive" individuals whose values don't work in real life.

The Punisher. Come on, do I even have to explain this one? The Punisher is an ex-soldier whose family was killed by thugs. As a result, he becomes a vigilante and kills thugs forever. Ben Cameron is an ex-soldier whose sister died because of a thuggish rapist black man. As a result, he leads a team of vigilantes and kills black thugs forever. The core motivation ("they hurt my family, now I'm morally obligated to hurt them forever") is a well-established trope that exists throughout fiction.

American Sniper. Chris Kyle refers to his Iraqi enemies as "savages" and states that he is glad to have killed them. He supports the "good Iraqis" (i.e. those cooperating with the government) but views his enemies, unequivocally, as unthinking monsters. His position has been criticized, yes - but also defended pretty widely. The Federalist, in particular, says that Kyle "called evil what it was", and assures its readers that his view of the world was totally 100% correct. In the same way, The Birth Of A Nation builds itself on atrocities committed by vengeful blacks, and assures its audience that those actions are incredibly common and statistically significant. "It's not racist", the movie assures you, "they really are all like that! Stereotypes exist for a reason!"

All of this is why it's ridiculous to argue that you can have a violent narrative without it being "political". As soon as you assign an enemy, it's political. As soon as you're pushing a view of the world, it's political. As soon as you make an emotional appeal, it's political. The idea that politics is this sanitized, academic concept comes entirely from privilege. Politics is life. Politics is every facet of life. You cannot live your life without it being political. You cannot talk about life without it being political.

But politics isn't just "what you do". It's also how you see the world. And in fiction, the way a writer sees the world affects what he or she thinks is "realistic" in their work. And this is the scary part: D.W. Griffith did not necessarily think he was being "unrealistic". He may well have thought he was being true to reality, albeit presenting a narratively clear-cut story. This is what "politics" means. When people talk about politics in media, they usually identify certain ideological strains as being political. When other ideologies seep into politics, they're identified as being "normal" - i.e. "that's just how things are, that's not 'political'". You can have a movie where a heroic American guns down cruel, thuggish foreigners who do not exhibit a single human characteristic, and people will still say that the movie "doesn't mean anything" or is "just a regular action movie". If you criticize it as unrealistic then the conversation will change from "it's just fiction" to "well, thugs like that exist in real life! Look at ISIS!" Recently, I was engaged in an argument where my opponent used the Spartans as a justification for enemies who do not surrender in games, specifically in Tom Clancy's The Division. Which is to say, this person was using an extremist culture of people raised as warriors from birth in order to justify the AI behavior of opportunistic looters in a simulacrum of modern New York City. And he wasn't even right about the Spartans never surrendering.

This lack of self-reflection, coupled with the emotionally influencing effects of propaganda-like material, is what scares me about "fiction". You don't need something to be "true". What you need is to convince people, subconsciously, that it is. And you need to also convince them that belief in that particular effect or phenomenon is normal, and disbelief in it is extremist. This is an invocation of the Bandwagon Effect - in short, popularity legitimizes, and the more popular a belief is, the more popular it becomes. So when you've got movie after movie presenting a particular image, you start to see that image as "normal". And once something is normal, you stop thinking about it - and when someone says "hey, maybe you should think about it", you get mad. Why do they have to drag politics into this? Why do they have to make a fuss?

So what would happen in The Birth Of A Nation was released today? Some people would say "that's racist as hell" and other people would tell them "it's just a movie, keep your politics out of it", or "thugs exist in real life, reverse racism is real, someone called me mayonnaise boy", or both at the same time. If you made it about Muslims instead of black people, there'd be no question of the vocal support this movie would receive. They'd talk about how brave the filmmaker is for presenting the "unvarnished truth", regardless of the Politically Correct SJW Cucks trying to tear him down. And even people who disagreed with the film's morals would go "yeah, but it's a fun action movie. It's possible to acknowledge that a work is problematic without dismissing it entirely." It would make so much money, you guys.

Nothing has changed. In a hundred years, nothing has changed.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Survivalism

With the recent release of Tom Clancy's The Division, I think now's as good a time as any to do a brief examination of the post-apocalyptic concept in fiction. Post-apocalyptic fiction is defined by a few major traits:

1) Regular people turn into unstoppable thugs, as if they were waiting their entire lives for an opportunity to become irredeemably evil and aggressive.

2) Everything is scarce except for guns and prepackaged food, both of which are commonly found for centuries afterwards.

3) People become incapable of building anything more complex than "a pile of corrugated sheet metal in the shape of a house".

4) Some people actually participate in communities and work together to make the most of their situation, but those people are boring. The interesting people are the ones who go around living off the land and murdering the aforementioned thugs from point 1.

"Post-apoc", is, in short, a fantasy for the masculine "self-sufficient" survivalist. It allows for the unrestricted use of violence and the machismo of the struggle for survival. It allows one to condemn the "coddled" modern world and see oneself as a lean predator who'd be manly as hell if only he had the opportunity. And while that makes sense in works like Mad Max and Fallout 3 - intentionally braindead, and designed to plug into that instinctual desire - the problem comes when it actually spills over into what people think is "realistic".

Take 2014's "This War of Mine", for example. Ostensibly patterned after the Sarajevo Siege of '92-'96, TWoM has less in common with the reality of that situation, and more in common with the average zombie survival game. Another writer covered the issues with the game pretty thoroughly, so I don't feel the need to go point-by-point about it, but in short: the game was patterned after the assumption of a scarcity scenario, not the reality of it.

TWoM is not a game about cooperation or negotiation. It is not a game about communities working together. It's not even a game about invaders versus inhabitants. It's a game built on a fictional model, because people at this point have seen that fictional model so often that they think it's real.

And then you get into games like "I Am Alive" or "The Last Of Us" or even "Alien: Isolation", where "hostile survivors" throw themselves at the protagonist until one party is utterly destroyed. Like, do you guys know what "survivor" means? Anyone who throws themselves into mortal combat with the first human they encounter is not actually going to survive very long. Do you get opportunists in scarcity scenarios? Yes, absolutely. But the thing about an opportunist is, they're concerned with self-preservation. They're going to run or surrender if the opportunity presents itself. That is how they survive.

The core idea that permeates our media of the "perpetually hostile, never surrendering antagonist" exists for one purpose: because proportional violence is boring, and disproportional violence is BADASS. So we craft scenarios where disproportional violence is wholly justified, and then, inevitably, we repeat that fantasy so often that we start to think it's what would really happen.

And then, in 2016, our society produces a game where heroic soldiers shoot evil looters, then heroically loot things themselves. Although really, "Dead Rising 2" had them beat on that account, but who's splitting hairs on that one?

Monday, February 29, 2016

Analysis: Mobile Suit Gundam


Mobile Suit Gundam is, to put it bluntly, the Japanese Star Wars. It's an absurdly popular franchise built on the core premise of "World War 2 in space", starring young men with mystical psychic powers defeating Nazi-themed empires using cool vehicles and laser swords. Eventually the quasi-realistic aesthetic is replaced by unrealistic CGI and over-the-top ridiculousness and everything goes off the rails.

The biggest difference between Gundam and Star Wars is that Star Wars was designed around optimistic good-vs-evil works like Flash Gordon, while Gundam was designed by depressive nihilist Yoshiyuki Tomino. Tomino essentially kickstarted the "Real Robot" genre (which I mentioned in the last article) so it only makes sense to talk about him. It's also something I can tie into my overarching views on morality and realism.

Premise

The basic premise of original, "Universal Century" Gundam is simple. Humans have left Earth and pushed out into space, building massive cylindrical colonies in the orbital Lagrangian points. Tension arises between terrestrial humans and "spacenoids" due to the proselytizing of Zeon Zum Deikun. Zeon's philosophy was that the Earth was sacred, and humans would have to move into space in order to avoid polluting it. His ideology led to an independence movement, creating the Republic of Zeon. Zeon himself died shortly thereafter and the mantle of leadership was taken up by the Zabi family, who declared war on the Earth Federation in the name of colonial liberation.

Three major concepts define the Gundam universe. Firstly, the "Minovsky Particle", which jams long-range sensors, and is necessary to justify short-range combat in a space environment. Secondly, the "Mobile Suit", an agile weapon that can be used in space or on land. Compared to spaceships, Mobile Suits are ostensibly more maneuverable and versatile, especially in the short range battles created by the Minovsky Particles. Thirdly, the "Newtype", a key component of Zeon's vision. Newtypes are psychic individuals predicted to be the evolution of humankind in space. Their ability most commonly manifests as a vastly superior piloting level.

Conceptually, these concepts justify the idea of short-range mech combat where "unusual" characters (primarily "untrained teenage boys") are able to triumph over experienced adult veterans. In short, the Gundam series is designed to facilitate that dynamic first and foremost. For this reason, the later series abandon the pretense of realism or consistency and become far more about teenage boys with psychic powers destroying entire armies. The idea that "bigger is better" is pushed heavily, and Gundam goes from a series where the main character must fight seriously to defeat even basic opponents to a series where thousands of enemies are killed with barely any effort.

Morality, Or, "War Is Bad"

The biggest problem I find with people who write fiction about war is that so few of them are really interested in understanding it. The best you usually get is a contrarian "You think combat is good? Well, actually, it's BAD" sort of take, without any real effort to examine why. You could say that the reasons war is bad are obvious, but it's pretty remarkable how few people manage to get the idea. This is my problem with Spec Ops The Line, for example, and it's also applicable to Tomino's handling of the Gundam series.

In Gundam, war is bad because it's scary, and people get hurt. That's about it. The fact is, Gundam is a series where "bad guys" exist who will destroy the world and kill millions if they aren't stopped. Gundam purports to be a morally grey setting where war is not about good vs evil, yet at the same time even the low-level spinoff 08th MS Team ends with a boss battle against an omnicidal lunatic. In the original Gundam, the Republic of Zeon commits massive war crimes against civilian targets and their soldiers dress and act like Nazis. In the followup Zeta Gundam, the new enemy faction takes up that same behavior - unstoppably hostile cruelty that must be resolved with violence. It goes on like this.

Here's the thing about characterizing war as "scary" or "bad": that's not the problem. People talk a lot about how hard it is to create a truly "anti-war" film, because depicting war inevitably leads to a Death of the Author situation. Depictions of the "horrors of war" are often positively received by audiences because they think that stuff is cool and awesome, and conversely, many people excuse glorification of violence because "that would happen anyways". Here is what it's important to understand: heroic suffering is a major component of Ur-Fascism. That might sound like it came out of nowhere so let's work our way back to it.

In Umberto Eco's "Ur-Fascism", the author describes the traits that create fascism as a concept - hatred for dissent, hatred for weakness, love of militarism, love of masculinity. Look at #11: "the Ur-Fascist hero craves heroic death, advertised as the best reward for a heroic life. The Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die." The components that are used to say "war is bad" do not work, and this is the cause of the aforementioned difficulties. If you have a masculine society that praises stoicism and enduring suffering, and you tell people "war is suffering", then people are going to respond "good, war gives me a chance to show that I can endure suffering".

This is the problem with Gundam. Gundam says "war is scary". Gundam says "war is hard". Gundam says "war is hateful". But it also says that war is necessary, and that's what people are listening to. The conflicts in Gundam are not presented as pointless, they are presented as aggressor and victim. The protagonist doesn't like piloting the Gundam, but he has to, and when he whines he's slapped until he gets in line. The villain starts it, but the protagonist has to finish it, and if he doesn't innocent people are going to get hurt. It's the same with every other form of "heroic violence". This is true of Death Wish. It is true of Mad Max. It even true of Spec Ops The Line, because if you stop shooting, the enemies are just going to kill you. War is "bad", but it's necessary, and if you don't do it you're a failure who's condemning millions of innocents to death and suffering. That is the lesson.

If you want to dismantle the cult of "glorious war", if you want to defang toxic masculinity, you have to address the actual problems. People propagate the myth of inhuman superpredator thugs because it's something they can think of as "realistic" that justifies their worldview. Are there bad people in the world? Of course there are. ISIS is real. But even ISIS is made up of human beings, not psychopathic robots. As hateful as they were, even Nazis surrendered - in pretty substantial numbers, too. Most "anti-war" media shows suffering, but not humanization. Without empathy, "anti-war" is a meaningless concept. Without negotiation, "anti-war" is an ineffectual idea. I hate to keep bringing up Rorschach and The Punisher, but there's a reason comic fans were drawn to their methods, and it's because the "non-violent" methods don't work. If violence is constantly pushed as the only real solution to a problem then it doesn't really matter how unpleasant it's depicted as being, because it works. People complain about the Gundam fandom only caring about robot fights and not actually getting that "war is bad", but the fact is, Gundam is a series in which cool robot fights are the thing that solves all the problems. Violence achieves goals, negotiation fails. Period.

Yoshiyuki Tomino

I'd like to take some time to talk about Tomino himself, since he's a pretty important component of the moral aspect of the series. Rather than doing an overarching analysis of him, though, I'm just going to post some snippets about things that he's done.

Yoshiyuki Tomino's original novelization of Gundam ended with the main character dying randomly in the middle of a battle.

Yoshiyuki Tomino thinks video games are "evil" and contribute nothing to society because of a lack of creative vision.

Yoshiyuki Tomino, despite being famous for the "real robot" concept, mocks the very idea that Gundam is realistic or worth taking seriously.

This entire interview deserves its own sub-heading. In it, Yoshiyuki Tomino:
- Reveals that he doesn't think space elevators are possible, and used his most recent Gundam series to express contempt for the idea.
- Discusses how he intended to depict war from two viewpoints, to show both sides of the conflict.
- Admits "since anime is something people usually watch at a younger age, if you only tell about the principles and the position of one side, you will inevitably end up influencing their thoughts in a sense".
- Says that the whole "adults slapping children to convince them to fight" thing was something he viewed as positive ("children need you to show them a clear example")
- Says to his fans: "If there are those among you who started thinking about something because of Gundam, it’s time you broke out of it."

The reality of anti-war (or pro-war) media is that it's often the blind leading the blind. People with no experience of war commenting on war in order to teach other people with no experience about war what war is like. When an auteur like Kojima or Tomino shows up and says "this is what war is like" in a decisive voice, it's easy for ignorant people to look at them and go "yeah, I guess it is". And now even Tomino himself has admitted it - that Gundam is a limited model, and people need to worry about real information.

Anyways, apropos of nothing, here's a list of nonfiction books I assembled a while back.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Analysis: Battletech


Battletech is a franchise that began as a hilariously complex tabletop wargame, expanded into novels and technical manuals, and eventually found more mainstream purpose in videogames like "Mechwarrior" and "Mechcommander". Despite years of financial difficulties, bankruptcy, and legal troubles, Battletech continues to exist today in the form of Mechwarrior Online and the recently funded Battletech video game (EDIT: the tabletop game and novel series are also still in active publication).

I grew up with Battletech, and it's one of the few nostalgic properties that I'm still genuinely fond of. However, I discovered over time that there were some strange aspects of the series that would vary wildly depending on the author or developer of the work in question, and that's what I intend to write about now.


Setting

Battletech takes place in the 31st century. Humanity has spread across the stars, originally as the unified "Star League", but now as the divided "Inner Sphere". The many planets of the Inner Sphere are controlled by neo-feudal aristocracy. Unifying these disparate states is ComStar, an entity responsible for operating the technology that allows communication and transport between worlds. The Inner Sphere is rife with combat between noble houses, but its combat is of a very controlled and deliberate form. The rules of war are set by the Ares Conventions, which prohibits combat in civilian areas and defines codes of conduct for combat, but also establishes armed combat as a reasonable and justified method of settling political issues. In short, it is not "war" as it exists in our modern era, but closer to the wars of 18th century Europe - the "Kabinettskriege" fought by small numbers of professional soldiers as part of an endemic system of territory control.

On the edge of the Inner Sphere are the Clans - the remnants of the old Star League, now a genetically modified and strictly organized fighting force. Like the Inner Sphere, they operate within a very strict code of honor called zellbrigen. While the Ares Conventions were designed around minimizing collateral damage, zellbrigen is more about honorable combat and martial decorum, but they functionally serve the same purpose: war is a controlled event subject to many rules and regulations. It is not "total war", but a political struggle waged by professionals in set arenas.

I mention this because, while it makes sense and is essentially the only justification for "big stompy mech fighting", it's a thing that's almost buried in most of the games and books.

"Fighting" vs "War"

Most Battletech material presents itself as a fairly traditional sci-fi war. The invasion of the Clans, especially, was treated as this big alien threat instead of a relatively benign regime change. The reason for this is that it's hard to get invested in what is essentially a minor political struggle, and much easier to get invested in a hard-fought war for survival. Yet this approach drastically changes the nature of the setting and the way things are within it.

In "proper" Battletech, nobody needs to give a shit about combat except for the government and the soldiers it employs. Sure, some people might be loyal to a given government, but in reality, it's a feudal system that's entirely out of their hands. We're not talking about representative democracies and ideological battles, here, we're talking about two groups of nobles squabbling over land.

Part of this is an issue of scale. In Battletech, each successor state has a population in the hundreds of trillions, spread over hundreds of worlds. However, the number of combat regiments is far smaller - only a few thousand for that entire area. This works perfectly fine in the "political fighting" system, but not at all in the "war for survival" system.

The concept of "mechs" also makes more sense in the former category. Mechs are a great way for noble pilots to distinguish themselves from the masses, in a very showy, theatrical form of combat. However, as instruments of war, they're honestly pretty silly. In a setting that includes nuclear weapons and orbital bombardments, it's kind of ridiculous to drop a skyscraper-sized robot onto a battlefield and expect it to accomplish anything. As a fighting machine they're fine - as a war machine, they're goofy as hell.

(I will note here, though, that the mechs in Battletech were one of the first significant advances for "real robots" in the West - that is to say, robots that essentially functioned as combat vehicles, with believable limitations and technical specifications. Take that for what it's worth.)

The Moral Angle

I'll interrupt here with a history lesson. I've already mentioned the "Cabinet Wars" of the European Early Modern Era. However, this tradition of professional soldiers extends even earlier. In the Battle of Crecy, 1346, the English king's army of roughly 10,000 fought the French king's army of roughly 30,000. At the time, the population of England was roughly 3 million, and the population of France was roughly 17 million. In short, the two royal armies battling at Crecy were barely a fraction of the total population - they were groups of professionals engaging for political purposes.

In 1793, the French Republic instituted the concept of Levee en Masse. This was due to their desperate political and tactical situation; for the sake of their new government, it became every citizen's duty to defend France. This decision changed the face of warfare; in response to the increased size of France's armies, its enemies began instituting similar policies. By the time the First World War rolled around, wars involved millions of combatants on both sides, taking up a massive chunk of each country's total population. As such, wars caused massive amounts of damage to their participants, win or lose. Civilian populations were inevitably dragged in by conscription or occupation, and the scope of war was irrevocably changed.

This, in essence, is the difference between the two ways Battletech depicts combat. As a controlled political exercise, the setting makes sense. As a "total war", which is more dramatic, it falls apart. Yet because of the need for that drama, many works within the setting - from action games to tactical games to cartoons - set themselves up as good-vs-evil battles for survival. And, as a result, that's the attitude that ends up defining the setting. So why does that matter?

The thing is, as it's written, Battletech is essentially a controlled, ritualized form of combat. There are rules for surrender. There are rules for wounded enemies. There are rules for peaceful retreat. There is a level of respect for one's enemies, even if it's tempered with animosity or contempt. There's rules. And those rules exist because, ultimately, the wars aren't that important. Like the Cabinet Wars, wars in Battletech exist for the benefit of, and concern of, the ruling class, and the honor of the warrior caste.

As mentioned, the "total war" angle sets up the concept of good vs evil. The problem is that "good" in this setting is a despotic, aristocratic society engaged in constant intrigue and violence, and "evil" is an outsider society that's morally on the same level. The entire point of Battletech is that every major faction is equally petty and shallow, and they spend billions of dollars on giant war machines for the sake of their own politics. It totally changes everything about the setting to present it as a traditional "war narrative". And it changes Battletech from a dignified bout between combatants to a brutal fight for survival.

Diversity

As I mentioned earlier, I grew up with Battletech, and it was a big influence on me growing up. One aspect of it that doesn't often get mentioned is that it's pretty egalitarian in a period where that's not always guaranteed. A broad array of races and creeds are spread across the stars, and "old world" religions like Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism still thrive in the cosmos. Pretty much any ethnic group can fit into the setting reasonably well, and non-white characters were common in the lore.

While there is the occasional cheesecake, female mechwarriors are usually depicted as tough, muscular, and capable, and the setting's most famous and skilled pilot is a woman, as well. Women from the Clans are depicted as being just as massive as their male counterparts (being genetically bred entirely for that purpose). Alongside works like Aliens, it was always baffling to me how well 80s sci-fi had established a relatively broad spectrum of characters, and how that seemed to get dialed back in the following years.

It's one of those things where it's just baffling to me that the core concept of "taking women seriously as combatants" is such a divisive concept even today. Fantasy has always been fraught with "sexy armor" and "Europe only" designs, but it seemed like, in most cases, sci-fi stuff had that shit figured out pretty well. Between Aliens, Battletech, and classic Metroid, sci-fi was doing all right for itself. So the idea that including women and minorities in games would be considered "controversial" in 2015 would have blown my mind as a kid.

Anyways, here's the takeaway: Battletech is at its best when it's an egalitarian-but-feudal universe characterized by honorable, ritualistic combat between tactically ridiculous walking robots. And really, that's distinct enough to call it a niche, isn't it?