Today’s Moment of Genius: Don’t Stop Believin’ & Lisztomania

13 03 2010

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If you can’t enjoy these kids from PS22 singing their hearts out to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” and “Lisztomania” you might want to just check out of the human race altogether.

My Mom was a teacher like this. If we have any hope for a future it’s because of great teachers.





Defending Bobby Kotick – A Contrarian Take on Modern Warfare 2 and InfinityGate

10 03 2010

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Bobby Kotick is an asshole.

There. I said it and I’ll stipulate to it so you can understand where I’m coming from.

I’ve never met Mr. Kotick personally, and I understand from people who have that he’s actually quite nice and genial when you meet him face-to-face. That being said, Kotick, who’s been the head of the Activision/Blizzard behemoth for many years, certainly doesn’t do much to burnish his public image as being anything other than an asshole. This is, after all, the man who famously wanted to “take all the fun out of making videogames” and create a studio culture based on “skepticism, pessimism and fear.” Kotick by all accounts is a numbers guy who jettisoned the Vivendi portion of Vivendi/Blizzard during Activision’s takeover of the company precisely because he felt that any assets from there weren’t exploitable on year-over-year basis.

The thing is, Bobby Kotick did not kill Infinity Ward, nor did he kill the Call of Duty franchise (and make no mistake, Call of Duty is dead – it’ll just take a few years for the corpse to stop twitching). As events have unfolded in what’s being dubbed “InfinityGate,” it seems to me that Call of Duty was creatively dead the instant that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was released and contrary to popular opinion, it’s Jason West and Vince Zampanella who killed it. Ironically, they did it not out of malice, but out of the same high-minded creative impulses that caused them to create it in the first place. It’s the latest chapter in age-old story of the perpetual friction between the creatives and the suits. At its best, it can create amazing pieces of commercial art that go on to gross billions of dollars for companies and make a lot of people rich. At its worst, it can completely destroy companies and utterly annihilate a successful and enjoyable brand. Often, as in the case of Call of Duty, it does both.

Reading the 16-page lawsuit that was recently filed by Mr. West and Mr. Zampanella reveals some interesting factoids about the root of the issue. Page 7, paragraph 23 of the complaint is the key:

“West and Zampanella were not as eager as Activision to jump into the development of Modern Warfare 2.”

“…Activision forced infinity Ward’s employees to continue producing the games at a break neck pace under aggressive schedules, and West and Zampanella were concerned that Activision was emphasizing quantity over quality. Given Activision’s insistence that Infinity Ward continue to focus on sequels to Call of Duty games instead of new intellectual property, West and Zampanella were also concerned that Activision’s demands risked “burning out” the Infinity Ward employee’s creativity.”

You don’t really need to read between the lines to figure out what’s going on here – West and Zampanella were bored. That’s not really a surprise. West and Zampanella are creative types. What turns them on is the challenge of the new, the untested, the untried. They’re happiest when they’re branching out into areas where they can hit fast and blaze a trail. Bobby Kotick, on the other hand, is a numbers guy. He’s all about market share, ROI and delivering predictable earnings to shareholders in order to get the stock price up. Video games are just a means to that end. People like West and Zampanella start companies to indulge their creative instincts and people like West and Zampanella usually move on when people like Kotick show up. Activision actually had to back up a dump truck full of money and sign a Memorandum of Understanding promising the two complete creative freedom to get them to make Modern Warfare 2.

Was Infinity Ward naïve when they signed on with Activision in the belief that they would be allowed to truly keep their creative autonomy? Perhaps. It’s always possible that they thought they could become the next Blizzard, a developer that has essentially turned the tables on the traditional developer/publisher relationship. The thing is, the existence of Blizzard already makes the development of another developer with that kind of clout extremely unlikely. Publishers hate Blizzard for exactly the same reason that gamers love them – their independence. For somebody like Bobby Kotick, Blizzard is a perpetual nagging headache that he can’t get rid of without cutting off his own head.

A recent SEC filing indicated that 68% of the net 2009 revenue for Activision came from just three titles – Call of Duty, Guitar Hero and World of Warcraft. Looking at total revenue for Blizzard, an astonishing 98% of their revenue comes from WoW. For all the money that Blizzard shovels into Activision’s coffers every year, their prosperity rests on a single title. Should WoW suddenly start shedding players or one of their new games not perform to expectations, it’ll be a disaster not just for Blizzard but for Activision as a whole. Worse from Kotick’s point of view, Blizzard’s position vis a vis Activision means that there’s not a lot of pressure that they can bring to bear on Blizzard as long as WoW continues to be the goose that lays the golden eggs. That means that something that Blizzard by itself could survive, a serious delay in the launch of StarCraft II or Diablo III, for example could spell disaster for a company and an executive cadre that live and die by quarterly earnings reports.

Executives like Kotick hate unpredictability for exactly that reason and Blizzard’s essential autonomy makes them extremely unpredictable. The reason that Treyarch was tapped to bring out an off-year version of Call of Duty was precisely so that the company could shore up its revenue stream if some of its high profile titles slipped with as close to a guaranteed winner as you can get in this industry. Bobby Kotick can say to Treyarch or any of the other studios in his new Call of Duty division something he can never say to Blizzard, “Shave three months off the dev cycle. I need this by September.” Will he dilute the brand? Sure, but that’s a problem for tomorrow. Right now there’s a conference call with some very unhappy Wall Street types and a Board of Directors that he needs to deal with.

The billions of dollars that Modern Warfare 2 brought to Activision was nice, but once the game was out, the question for Kotick becomes “What have you done for me lately?” In Kotick’s world, he cannot and will not allow the health of Activision to be held hostage to the creative whims of West and Zampanella. It’s not about the $36 million dollars he might have to pay the two of them – that’s chump change to Activision. It’s about the Memorandum of Understanding the pair cited in their legal complaint. Assuming their complaint is accurate, the pair have a veto on any Call of Duty or modern Warfare game set in the post-Vietnam era or the near or distant future. Assuming – as is currently speculated – that West and Zampanella were talking to another company about jumping ship, Activision seized its chance to rid itself of two people that were, in fact, threatening to become another Blizzard.

The reason this post is called “Defending Bobby Kotick” isn’t because I think Kotick is a nice guy, but rather that he’s just an ordinary guy acting the way an executive in a public company is expected to act when it comes to defending market share and securing a corporate asset that legally belongs to Activision. Nor are West and Zampanella particularly heroic for fighting for what’s important to them – creative freedom for themselves and their team. In both cases, they’re doing it because they perceive that as a way to secure and enhance their careers and ensure the future prosperity of the business they’re a part of. If there was malfeasance on Kotick or Activision’s part, that’s what the civil legal system is there for and West and Zampanella are perfectly correct to avail themselves of it, but lets not elevate what is essentially a daily struggle between “creatives” and “suits” into a massively overblown David vs. Goliath story merely because it’s happening in public.

Whether Activision’s actions are ultimately good business in the long term is a whole different kettle of fish.

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BioShock 2 — “A Pack, not a Herd”

24 02 2010

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Spoiler Warning: If you have not played BioShock or BioShock 2, this article contains spoilers. Big ones. I’m serious.

BioShock was far more than just a first-person shooter. It was a story told in architecture and voice-overs and character animation. BioShock’s underwater world of Rapture was actually a grand tour through the ruins of one man’s dream. Andrew Ryan was a man who believed — as most Objectivists do — that he had truly understood human nature, and he built a perfect society based on the principles of individualism, capitalism and the ultimate freedom, the ability to carve a life out of the wilderness and rise as far and as fast as your skills and abilities will take you. The tragedy of Rapture was the ultimate flaw in the Objectivist worldview – that human beings are not and can never truly be free because we can never be alone. We are social beings. We are fitted by the millions of years of evolution that shapes our nature to be pack animals, not solitary hunters. We are not cheetahs.

The tragedy of the splicers and Rapture itself is not that ADAM (the gene-modifying substance that gave everyone in Rapture amazing powers) caused the downfall of society, but that it merely accelerated the inevitable destruction of Ryan’s dream. ADAM and the powers it gave were, ironically enough, the ultimate fulfillment of Ryan’s philosophy. It gave everyone the opportunity to evolve in whatever direction they chose and the power to carve out a niche for themselves in the world and defend it against all comers. The end result of the Objectivist dream society resembles the Wild West – an anarchy where those who have the biggest guns rule and those too weak to defend themselves prove their moral unfitness by their failures. In Ryan’s world, there is no greater vice than altruism.

BioShock 2 takes the ultimate story point of BioShock and flips it on its head. It places you in the clunking boots of a Big Daddy and has you hunting through the still crumbling ruins of Rapture some eight years after the events of the first game for your “Little Sister.” Your foe this time around is Doctor Sophia Lamb. Lamb was a clinical psychiatrist brought to Rapture by Andrew Ryan to combat widespread depression and dissatisfaction in Rapture. The problem for Ryan was that Rapture’s philosophy was diametrically opposed to her own. Lamb is a collectivist. More than that, she’s a “communist” in the truest sense of the word. She views humanity not as a series of discrete individuals but as an extended family, a commune of essentially interchangeable parts where individualism is not only frowned upon, it’s a crime against group solidarity. Love is the universal possession of all humanity and to love one more than another is a tear in the fabric of society.

In BioShock 2, the player must battle against the Rapture Family, a collectivist society molded by Lamb to be the very model of a socialist future. Throughout the game, one is exposed through voice diaries to the tenets of Lamb’s philosophy and it’s here that BioShock 2 has its greatest success. I’ve rarely come across a more devastating critique of socialism than Sophia Lamb. This is a woman who understands the inherent contradiction at the heart of the socialist enterprise – that it’s not a society that can ever be realistically created by human beings. The fact is that for a socialist society to work, one must have a race of beings that are utterly selfless. You need people that can work for the good of all without a thought to their own benefit. You need people without individual attachments or families or loyalties to anything beyond the collective body politic. In short, you need a herd. The thing is, just as humans aren’t cheetahs, neither are we cows.

The solution that Lamb comes up with is far more monstrous than anything that Andrew Ryan ever did. Since humanity as it’s presently constituted is incapable of creating a truly socialist paradise, she will create a new breed of humanity that is capable of living there. She will turn her own daughter Eleanor into the mother of a new human race where everyone’s memory lives in everyone, where individualism as we know it has simply been bred out of the breed.

As Lamb herself says “Utopia will arrive when the first Utopians come to claim it.” Anyone familiar with the socialist ideal of the “New Man” knows the kind of horror that leads to – the socialist Utopia can only be built on a foundation mortared with the bones of non-Utopians. The existence of even one ‘counter-revolutionary” puts the entire socialist enterprise at risk. Lamb herself points this out to the player, cursing Subject Delta because his psychic connection to Eleanor Lamb has “infected” her with individualism, causing her to act in defiance of the Family’s wishes – the social imperatives first laid down by Sophia and hardwired into every member of the Family.

Comparing Jack Ryan and Subject Delta, the protagonists of BioShock and BioShock 2 makes for an interest study in contrasts. The first game had the player playing as a man who believes himself to be free only to find his mental conditioning has chained him in the worst sort of slavery imaginable. The second game has the player playing as a Big Daddy, a person so twisted and warped that all semblance of individuality and free will is supposed to have been eliminated. And in fact, it’s pointed out throughout the game that the reason you’re traveling to find Eleanor is that you literally cannot help it. You’ll die without her. Yet within your slavery lie the seeds of freedom.

The choice to kill or save the Little Sisters is the only truly free choice you have – in both games. The ultimate result in both cases is the same – you’ll pretty much be able to “win.” Therefore with no external consequences, only the dictates of your conscience can guide you. As they say, morality is how you behave when you think no one is watching. We may be a slave to circumstances but our reactions to circumstances can set us free, even at the cost of our own lives.

The odysseys of Jack Ryan and Subject Delta are great examples of the contradictions of the human animal. We are not cheetahs. We are not cows. We are wolves. We are pack animals playing a perpetual game of King of the Mountain. Just as a human alone is not a human, neither is a being without self-interest. Our entire history is a constant struggle between the pull of society and the struggle for a freedom we can never truly attain. Our nightmare is that we’re smart enough to understand this yet stupid enough to try and change it.

If there’s one lesson to take away from both BioShock games it’s this: beware Utopians. Lamb herself points out during the game that the word “Utopia” comes from the Greek for “no place.” Our current social turmoil is just a repeat of an age-old struggle between social controllers and the price of freedom – the realization that granting any amount of freedom to a society means that someone’s going to use it in ways we don’t like, often in ways that hurt other people.

I’ve raised my flag with those willing to pay that price often enough, but merely believing in maximizing human freedom as much as possible doesn’t make me an anarchist. I acknowledge that I am a social being. I am a member of the pack and I owe some sort of duty to the social body. The fact that Lamb and socialists like her are subscribers to a monstrous theory doesn’t make Andrew Ryan right. Like most of us, I’m stuck in the middle – far closer to Ryan than Lamb but forever trying to strike a balance between the two that can never be found.

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Avatar — The New Testament of the Church of the Left

26 01 2010

So against my better judgment, I decided to fork over a bit of my hard-earned cash to multi-gazillionaire James Cameron in order to take in his latest big-budget extravaganza Avatar. I freely admit that I came to the movie prepared to hate it. After reading quite a few of the reviews and seeing pretty much the whole story in the trailers (I liked this movie the first time I saw it when it was called “Dances with Wolves”) I was braced for the inevitable political sucker punch. I wasn’t disappointed. It wouldn’t be a James Cameron movie after all if it didn’t take a smack at conservatives, Republicans, the military, corporations, technology and contain the underlying Marxist world view that shows up in much of Cameron’s work.

Despite all that, I found myself enjoying the movie. Nobody does popcorn-chomping eye-dazzling action-packed spectaculars better than Cameron and Avatar shows off Cameron at the top of his game. The movie is stunningly beautiful. The world of Pandora is a lush Eden crafted with the eye of an artist and the latest in cutting edge technology to be completely appealing and wondrous to a crowd of people safely ensconced in a comfortable theater seat in a climate controlled environment (remember that, it’ll be important later). The incoherence and stupidity of the plot set aside, Avatar is a fun movie, essentially a beautiful sci-fi landscape painting created by a master.

What I found most interesting though, is that Avatar is incredibly valuable as a roadmap to the mindset of the modern left wing mind. It is, essentially, the New Testament to the anti-Church of the Left.

Allow me to explain that. If you’ve ever read the work of Neil Howe and William Strauss, they predicted years ago the alteration in character that would come over American politics as Baby Boomers began to take the reigns of national power. Baby Boomers are a “Prophet” generation. Prophets:

“… are values-driven, moralistic, focused on self, and willing to fight to the death for what they believe in- and they can convince other people to join them in the fight. They grow up as the increasingly indulged children of a High, come of age as the young crusaders of an Awakening, enter midlife as moralistic leaders during an Unraveling and are the wise, elder leaders of the next Crisis.”

Thus what we’re dealing with in modern American politics is a Left that is no longer a political force but a religious one, one that recognizes no separation between the political, the personal and the religious and is not averse to using secular politics as a club to push its agenda. It no longer just defines itself by what it opposes (western culture, individualism, capitalism, Judeo-Christian religions, patriarchy, industrialism) but has congealed a sort of “anti-church” built on philosophical pillars every bit as dogmatic, irrational, intolerant and inflexible as anything proposed by a Crusading Pope.

Basically what this philosophy seems to boil down to is a classic return to Eden myth as portrayed in “Avatar.” This difference is in the character of that Eden. Rather than an impersonal and patriarchal sky god, the centerpiece of this faith is Gaia, the warm, matriarchal communal spirit of the Earth. This is represented in the film as a literal biological link between the Nav’i and the native wildlife as well as a bio-electric network that links all the planet’s life in a sort of communal oversoul. Humans have sinned against the Earth Mother through all of those things I previously mentioned. As the main character in the movie says, he comes from an Earth with no green, where the humans killed their mother — the goddess within the planet.

Once the tenets of the new religion become clear, so much of modern Left-wing thought also becomes clear. Everything from the zealous belief in global warming (persecution of “deniers,” humans as a disease giving the Earth a “fever”) to the Messianic appeal of Barack Obama, to the embrace of socialism, the sinful nature of unapproved extravagances (SUVs, fur coats, McMansions, processed foods), the attempted suppression of heretical texts (FOX News, talk radio), and the enshrinement of perfect equality (of outcome, not opportunity) as the be-all and end-all of social organization.

If there is a philosopher I loathe more than Jean-Jacques Rousseau, I am hard-pressed to think of him. As awful as modern monsters like Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn are, they don’t hold a candle to the influence of Rousseau’s theory of the “Natural Man.” Check out this passage:

“The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naive enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody. ”
— Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, 1754

That may very well be the most damaging passage written in all of human history and Rousseau’s fingerprints are all over “Avatar.” The Romantic and frankly racist idea that mankind in a state of nature is somehow living a better life than those who utilize technonology reminds me of a comment written by P.J. O’Rourke (paraphrased) about how the only people who call the jungle a rainforest are those who have never been there. The irony of “Avatar” is that Pandora is exactly what Rousseau envisioned — natural people living in harmony with the land, sleeping in a tree that literally envelopes them in love when they lay down for the night — and it took the most sophisticated technology mankind has ever invented to create it.

It’s no concidence that people like Cameron, who view the natural world through the windows of an 8,500 square-foot bungalow in Malibu or at the wreckage of the Titanic through the glass of their own personal submarine, have a Romantic view of nature. Like Marie Antoinette and her court who used to play at being peasants once a year in a suitably cleaned-up peasant village, James Cameron and his ilk sit at the top of technological pyramid supported by an enormous amount of infrastructure built by people who work harder for much less money in much less glamorous circumstances. Life for folks like Cameron is so nerfed and removed of it’s rough edges that they don’t even realize how utterly removed from the reality of life for 99.9% of humanity throughout history they really are.

Thank goodness you're one of those hot aliens, otherwise I'd never betray my own species for you.

At one point in the movie, the main character say that the Na’vi want nothing from us, that all we can offer them is “light beer and blue jeans.” Ya know, for the majority of humans who live lives as “natural” as the Na’vi, that sounds like a pretty good deal. We tend to forget that rattlesnakes, tornadoes, smallpox, a 35-year life span, 40% infant mortality and rancid food are also “natural.” These are all things that Cameron has never experienced but I guarantee that the Na’vi have. Of course, neither have I, but the difference is I’m appreciative of the collossal level of human ingenuity and industry that has worked for two million years to give me a really comfortable life and I never take it for granted. Nor would I make a movie that called me a monster for encouraging others to improve their own lot in life.

It’s not for nothing that Cameron is taking flak for his comments in Entertainment Weekly that he “likes ecoterrorism.” I’m sure he does — at least until it’s his own house that gets burned or his own movie set that gets sabotaged. For “kings of the world” like Cameron, money and jobs and economic disruption are just unfortunate things that happen to little people. They don’t really count anyway, after all. They’re just proles who’s major function in life is to fill theater seats in Cameron’s movies.

Indeed, it’s sort of ironic that even within the movie, the characters rely on a technological solution — transferring their conciousness into a cloned body — to get back to nature. Without that technology, they can’t even breathe the air. I think that’s a metaphor also, but not quite the one Cameron meant.





Disney’s Give a Day, Get Some Guilt

11 01 2010

I had an interesting experience this weekend. My daughter’s Sunday School class has gotten involved with Disney’s Give a Day, Get a Day program. For those of you unfamiliar with the program, the basic idea is that if you volunteer a day of service, you get rewarded with a one-day pass to the Disneyland theme park. The idea is that everyone in the class and their parents would volunteer to do some “tzedakeh” or charitable work and we would all go together to Disney with the kids as a class.

This is hardly the first charitable thing my family has been involved with both on our own or with the Temple, so we were quick to get involved. We ended up working down at an elementary school in East LA working to clean the place up, weeding and resoiling a garden that had been completely overgrown with weeds. It was a couple of hours of not tremendously difficult work that really needed to be done and will hopefully make a school in an area that really needs it a better place for education. And we get a day in Disneyland.

What I found interesting about the experience though, was the conversation I had with a woman who got out of a car loaded down with bumper stickers. You know the kinds I mean — they say things like “Coexist” and “War is unkind to children and other living things” and “Like your rights? Thank a liberal.” She carried her self-righteousness with her like a cloak and it trailed behind her when she walked. Her first words to me while we were waiting on the line for our assignments were “Oh, you must be here to get the free day in Disneyland.”

Not that it was any of her business, but I decided to be nice and admit that yes, that’s why we were there. Her response: “Typical. All these people couldn’t be bothered to come out to help others without some giant corporation figuring out a way to make money off of it.” Someone on line pointed out that Disney was hardly making money off of their charity since they would be giving away the tickets. She pointed out that by getting people into the park, they ensured that they would be spending money on food, drinks, parking, souvenirs and all sorts of other things so Disney was hardly being completely altruistic.

I realized that that this is the kind of galactically stupid misunderstanding of human nature that leads hard-core leftists to misunderstand the nature of capitalism and embrace idiotic ideas like socialism. They somehow believe in something that never has and never will exist — the completely selfless act the utterly other directed person. The bottom line is this — the exchange of commodities isn’t just a facet of life — it is life. There is nothing that anyone ever does with another person that doesn’t have some element of self-interest behind it. The secret to a healthy society is respect for that enlightened self-interest.

The heart of capitalism is the win-win. It’s the exchange of value for value. Why shouldn’t that work in a charitable situation? Why is it so bad for some people to do good by doing well? Disney gets people to the park when the economy is down. A bunch of people get a day of fun for free. And a school in East LA gets the help that it needs. Is our motivation somehow less “pure” than the woman who so looked down on us? Perhaps. But I would also point out that prior to Disney’s involvement, the school was struggling to find volunteers to do what needed to be done. Judging by the effect of my day of service, if Disney gets a few more buck in their coffers for it, I’d say that was money well spent. And I plan on enjoying my day in Disneyland with my kids with a clear conscience.





And A Happy 2010 to You All!

31 12 2009

So this is it, the last few moments of the last crappy year of — let’s be honest — a truly crappy decade. It’s 10 years that started with the World Trade Center coming down and ended with an America seemingly so dispirited that it can’t muster up the will to even fix the holes in Manhattan left by the collapse of the towers. This was not the future I think any of us envisioned when we last stood watching a ball come down on the 20th century ten years ago wondering if human civilization was about to end thanks to the Y2K bug. It turns out we might have been right — just wrong in how long it was going to take.

And yet — and maybe this is just the glow of my Christmas hangover and the wonderful week I just spent with my family enjoying each other talking. Ultimately loving one another is what it’s all about and why in the end I have faith in the future. I don’t believe America’s as finished as a lot of people think and I don’t think humanity’s quite the lost cause we seem to be in our worst moments. If I’ve learned anything as a gamer, it’s that there’s always one more quarter you can pump in the machine and maybe this time we’ll get it right, rescue the princess and beat the big boss and win the game. Tomorrow the real future begins — what’s say we make it a good one? A little less “Blade Runner” and a little more “Tomorrowland” would be nice.

Happy New Year to all — Left, Right and Center!





An Agnostic Jew’s Annual Christmas Miracle

25 12 2009

If there’s one thing I miss since leaving GameSpy, it’s what I referred to as my “Annual Christmas Miracle.” All year long, game journalists are inundated with PR tchtotchkes and free games and I was certainly no exception. That meant by the end of the year I had a desk filled with dozens and dozens of games (mostly PC titles but quite a few console ones as well) along with about a hundred T-shirts, key rings, stuffed animals, tote bags and all the bits of detritus that game companies send out with copies of their games in the hopes of getting some coverage. Throughout the year I would take my own stuff and collect bits of PR junk from other editors and put it all in a pile until the week just before the Christmas break. Then at a specific moment i would send around an e-mail to the entire company welcoming everybody to come down to my desk and just grab whatever they wanted from the enormous pile of stuff I had collected throughout the year.

It was wondrous (and loud given the annual stampede of feet to my desk).

Initially I did it cynically just for myself, I liked seeing everybody rush around and leave with a bunch of ridiculous bits of junk that would end up collecting dust in their cubicles. Then one year I hit on the idea of selling all that junk for a suggested donation of a dollar or more for a charity that really meant something to me and I discovered something more — how good it feels to to do good and how good it feels to watch other people be good. The first year I did it, I found myself stunned not at the dollars that flowed in for useless pieces of plastic but at the fives and tens and twenties for PC games I had given one and two star reviews to. I nearly cried when one person dropped a pair of twenties in my basket for a copy of Shadowrun for the Xbox360. Shadowrun sucked. This person wasn’t buying a video game, they were connecting with me and others in the office. We had found the embers of goodness in our hearts and fanned them — at least briefly — into a flame. it became my annual “Christmas Miracle,” The one time of the year when I’m happy and uncynical for about 24-48 hours.

Considering that I’m an agnostic Jew, I love Christmas more than is probably seemly for someone of my cultural background. Considering that I’m also a cynical angry bear of a person, you’d think I’d recoil at the obvious plastic phony commercialism of the season. Yet I don’t. Cynics don’t become cynics because they don’t care — they become cynics because they’re frustrated idealists and there’s something about Christmas that breaks through the seventy-five layers of calcified rage that’s built up around my heart and makes me happy for at least a 24-hour period. It’s not the faithful aspects of the holiday, either. There’s no danger of my becoming a Christian. It’s the very plasticky cheesiness of it. It’s the tinsel and Rankin-Bass characters and the Charlie Brown Christmas specials themselves that touch me.

They remind me that we’re all ridiculous and lonely and sad and pathetic and ultimately glorious because of, not despite, our inherent silliness and that the only time we’re worth anything at all is when we reach out and touch the heart of another human being. Yet those moments are enough to redeem humanity for all the awfulness we do to each other on a daily basis. Our goodness can dwarf that of the mythical angels and Christmas speaks to that for me. I wish we would do it more often and not just this time of year, but the fact that we do it at all is what keeps me a cynic and not a nihilist. We can be the kind of people we dream of being — sometimes we are, and that’s what keeps hope alive for me.

I’ve said before that my relationship with God got a lot better once I realized He wasn’t real. I’m a writer and a storyteller so I see the inherent power and danger of the calcified mythology that becomes organized religion. Stripped of the mummery and institutional corruption of religion, our figures of worship join characters like Sherlock Holmes and Mr. Spock and Santa Claus and Ebeneezer Scrooge and the Grinch — figures worthy of emulation because of not despite their unreality. They speak to the best aspects of ourselves and tell us we can be this way, even if seems rather unlikely most of the time.

The nihilist will laugh at that the way they laugh at any indication of some kind of order in the universe. They’ll tell us all the things that are precious in the world are just illusions. That love is just our genes pushing us to reproduce, that society is just a shared illusions foisted by the powerful on the powerless, that a nation is just a line on a map, that the truths we hold to be self-evident are merely consensual hallucinations we cling to in order to stay sane in a universe of chaos that’s ultimately indifferent to our fate. My response to that is to quote Puddleglum the Marsh-wiggle’s restatement of Pascal’s Wager from C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair:

“‘One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things–trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies playing a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.”
— (C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair, Harper Collins Publishers, 1953, pp. 181-182.)

The beauty of this is that Puddleglum’s not real either, but he became a hero of mine in that one moment. Lewis, of course, was writing this as a Christian apologist’s response to the idea of atheism, but the context works for almost anything we cling to in order to stay sane. I may love my family because my genes tell me to do so in order to propagate themselves– but I still love my family. I may cling to an American ideal that the real United States often fails to live up to, but I must believe a nation is better for having such ideals than not bothering with them at all. And I may be a fool to believe an over commercialized holiday blown up every year by retailers because the health of our economy depends on it really can speak to the best in ourselves but you know what? I’ll happily accept that moniker. I’ll believe in Christmas and Santa and Rudolph and Coca-Cola and maybe even a little bit about the fictional kid in the barn in Bethlehem because it makes my world better and it inspires me to make others’ lives a little bit better too. Maybe my theology’s a little messed up, but that makes me no different than the six billion other screwed up, persnickety ultimately wondrous souls I share this planet with.

Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Joyous Festivus and greetings for whatever other silly, sappy, Hallmarky traditions you cling to to beat back the dark, cold night. Be happy and help others to be happy too.







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