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.





Is Moria the Promised Land?

21 10 2009

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Here’s something interesting that jumped out at me while playing Turbine’s Tolkien-themed MMO The Lord of the Rings Online on Saturday. The Morroval are monsters that live in Moria that the player must battle. These half-woman half-bat demon things are an original Turbine creation based on small references to “fouler things than orcs lurking in Moria” in the books and Morroval NPCs are programmed to issue various statements during battles. Some of them are hints on how to fight them. If one says “Protect me, my sisters!” that’s your Loremaster’s clue to dispel corruption because they’ve got a nasty protective enchantment that can make them really tough to kill. One thing that they say really got me and made me think though. Just before they die they’ll ask the player “Why do you attack us in our home?”

The more I think about that, the more I think that that statement must be deliberately provocative. The storyline in the Mines of Moria expansion is that the death of the Balrog has created a power vacuum in Moria and various factions in Middle-earth are moving in to take advantage of it and claim Moria and its treasures for their own. Throughout the game, the player is supporting an effort by the dwarves to reclaim their ancient home and will see Mordor and Isengard orcs fighting against goblins and other creatures that have been living in Khazad-dum long enough that they could conceivably be considered “native Morians.” Here’s the thing, though — if you apply a post-modern filter to this storyline, shouldn’t your sympathies lie with the Moria goblins and the Morroval?

LOTRO__Morroval_Variants_by_gorrem

Think about it. Khazad-dum was abandoned 7,000 years earlier when the Dwarves dug too deep in their search for Mithril and released the Balrog. That the Balrog is evil isn’t in doubt but what blame do the goblins who took up residence in the abandoned halls of Moria hold beyond doing what they needed to to survive under the brutal tyranny of the Balrog? At what point do the crimes of the past become irrelevant to the modern era? Yes, the Dwarves were kicked out of their home into a diaspora and have finally returned, but by what right do they claim land where hundreds of generations of goblins and Morroval have lived and died?

Even worse, there doesn’t seem to be any common ground between the three factions that could broker any sort of structured solution. Of course while hopeful peacemakers attempted to do so, the Dwarves would continue to build and expand their illegal settlements in the Dolven-view and the Twenty-first Hall while the goblins and Morroval fight back with what weapons they have — stealth, surprise and terror. It’s an endless cycle of violence where killing begets killing that merely begets more killing.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it leads one to make a moral equivalence where there really isn’t any. Yes, each side has some historical validity to their claims but ultimately my sympathy goes to that side that ultimately carries itself with greater moral elevation despite the often tough choices that war can create. In such a case, my sympathies must ultimately lie with the Dwarves not because of what the Morroval or the goblins do to them, but because of what goblins and Morroval do to each other and the kind of culture they create for themselves. Goblin and Morroval culture is one of stark brutality where the strong dominate the weak through murder and fear and rule by force is the norm. They make a virtue of killing and death and under their care Khazad-dum — a land of grace, beauty and freedom literally carved from the unforgiving Earth — became “Moria,” the Elvish word for “Black Pit.” No, the Dwarves are hardly innocents but when choosing between the imperfect and those who consciously choose evil (no matter that some of their claims may be justified), I’ll take the imperfect every time.

Any similarity between Moria and a particular country in the Middle-east is purely coincidental, by the way.





Attention Gays: Democrats are not your Friends

13 10 2009

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I found this little tidbit from from NBC News fascinating. It’s certainly thrown the gay Left into a tizzy. Just a day after the National Equality March where Barney Frank was quoted as saying “The only thing they’re putting pressure on is the grass,” NBC reporter John Harwood says that an anonymous White House source said:

Barack Obama is doing well with 90% or more of Democrats so the White House views this opposition as really part of the Internet left fringe… For a sign of how seriously the White House does or doesn’t take this opposition, one adviser told me those bloggers need to take off the pajamas, get dressed, and realize that governing a closely divided country is complicated and difficult.

To that, the only thing I can say is welcome under the bus, gay Americans! It’s getting pretty crowded under here what with all those racists and tea partiers and Green Jobs advisers and angry reverends and other people that aren’t the people Barack Obama once knew. What is it with this President that no matter how often he lashes out and vilifies anyone with the temerity to disagree with or oppose him, people are still shocked when it happens? Is it because you’re on the Left that you’re supposed to be safe? Is it because you’re gay? Excuse me while I laugh for a moment.

Here’s the bottom line, people. It’s not just that Barack “marriage is between one man and one woman” Obama merely gives you lip service to your agenda, it’s that the Democrats are not and have never been your friends. The biggest difference between the Democrats and the Republicans has always been that Democrats are a fractious alliance of left-wing splinter groups who have agreed to unite and help advance each other’s agendas — despite the fact that they very often have little to do with or often have conflicting beliefs. The Right has its factions also, but there’s a lot more common ground between social conservatives and libertarians than there is between a global warming doomsayer, a militant feminist and a “tax-everything-till-it-can’t-breathe” socialist.

Very often all that holds these groups together is the fear of the “evil religious right” and the Taliban-like regime that would undoubtedly take over the country if we allowed a Republican to win an election. This is encapsulated in the classic question — “What are you going to do? Vote Republican?” Well here’s my question. If you’re gay, is there a difference between how far your agenda advanced under George W. Bush than there was under Bill Clinton who ushered in DOMA and “Don’t ask, Don’t tell?” Bush was in power for eight years, six of them with a Republican-controlled Congress, yet somehow those lavendar-colored gulags remained just a figment of some overheated imaginations.

Gays have always been a reliable source of votes for Democrats and as such, they’ve never felt the need to do more than give lip service to the issues that matter to you and as long as you vote monolithically Democratic, they never will. I’m not suggesting that you start voting Republican, but there are plenty of other ways to get your point across. Start running candidates whose first allegiance is to your agenda in Democratic primaries. Reach across the aisle to people you think of as being “on the right” and you might find more allies than you think on issues that don’t pivot on your sexuality. As I’ve said in the past you don’t have to be straight to want lower taxes and less government interference in your life and you’re not betraying your sexuality if you don’t think single-payer health care is a good idea.

As for me — if you want to get married, good luck God bless. Everyone should have the right to be miserable with the partner of their choice.

For you, you’ve already come out of the pink closet, it’s OK to come out the blue one too.





Allen Rausch on what Schoolhouse Rock Has Become

24 09 2009

Welcome to my first attempt at Search Engine Optimization. If you’re seeing this because you’ve searched for my name after hearing me on the Lars Larson radio program, welcome! “Allen Rausch on what Schoolhouse Rock has become” was the phrase that Lars used yesterday and seems to be the one that’s showing up in my search logs, so I thought, lets try and direct you folks to exactly what you’re looking for.

Yesterday was the second time I’ve been on the show and as always, it was great fun and a pleasure to talk to Lars. If you’re here about my series on the politics of Schoolhouse Rock, you’ll find them right here!. Once you’re done with those, though, please feel free to take a look around. there more politics and if you’re a gamer, a lot of stuff on that too. While you’re here, why not get Angry Bear updates on my Facebook fan page or pick up my RSS feed.

And again, Welcome!

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Can a Critic be Too Biased?

15 09 2009

I really like A.O. Scott, the film critic for The New York Times. He’s smart, usually on target and manages to do it without picking up the obnoxious “I’m so much more sophisticated than you” tone that seems to creep into most of the Times writing. Probably comes from being a veteran of Newsday, the big Long Island newspaper. Speaking from experience, Long Islanders never quite get over their awe at being in “The City.” Here’s the thing, though. I’m about to accuse Mr. Scott of being biased — yes, a biased critic — because of his review of “The Baader-Meinhof Complex” on the latest episode of At The Movies.

According to Mr. Scott, this is a film that takes a middle road in its portrayal of the 1970s German terrorist organization. According to Mr Scott (and I’m paraphrasiong from memory here as the show’s not up on the offical site yet) the film doesn’t ask you to sympathize with them and doesn’t shy away from showing the consequences of their actions but also gives insight into their motivations as a bunch of idealistic kids trying to make a better world. While this already sounds like the words of an apologist for Baader-Meinhof excusing mayhem and murder because their motivations were pure, what really puts his comments beyond the line for me is when he later wonders why Hollywood can’t create political movies that portray controversial topics with the kind of passionate intesity on display in this film. He surmises that Hollywood is “so afraid of offending its audience that they won’t take a stand on issue.” (again paraphrasing)

Excuse me? Has he seen the output of Hollywood in recent years? Never mind the list of anti-Iraq war movies as long as your arm. There are liberal jibes, commentary and messages in virtually everything put out by Hollywood. And they’re often in the places where you’d least expect them and where they’re the least appropriate. Take Definitely, Maybe, a treacly little romantic comedy starring Ryan Reynolds and Abigail Breslin. This is a film where the main character is made a political consultant (a Democratic political consultant, natch) stricly for the purpose of becoming a mouthpiece for the director and writer’s liberal political views. In one scene for example, Reynolds expresses shock and outrage that a woman he’s interested in isn’t a Bill Clinton supporter (a man well known for how well he treats women) or at least a Democrat! There’s also one scene that has nothing whatsoever to do with the movie and exists solely to take a potshot at George W. Bush. The idea that Hollywood is somehow afraid to offend half it’s audience flies in the face of the reality that that’s exactly what Hollywood does — continually. To the point where they continued to make anti-Iraq war movies depite their box office failures and continued to come up with desperate rationalizations about why they kept failing.

Now I don’t expect critics to adhere to some sort of nonsense about being “objective.” They’re critics, after all. Their whole existence is based on them having opinions which are, of course influenced by their biases –including their political ones. This is not my objection. One of my favorite film critics, MaryAnn Johanson over at The Flick Filosopher is an outspoken liberal, something that comes across quite often in her film reviews. Roger Ebert, who I also enjoy, is the same way. I read them and I trust them because their biases are right out where everyone can see them and my judgment on their judgment can be filtered through my understanding of what colors their opinion.

What I object to is when a political bias becomes so strong that it distorts everything about a particular review including the reviewers judgment. Mr. Scott did this in his “Baader-Meinhof Complex” review. Is his political judgment so far to the left that he honestly thinks that Hollywood films are middle-of-the-road politically because they’re afraid of alienating the audience? What does that say about his judgment of “The Baader-Meinhof Complex?” Is he somehow so sympathetic to the aims if not the methods of the Red Army Faction that iT skews his judgment of the film’s quality? I don’t know. After that comment I can’t tell and as a result I can no longer trust Mr. Scott’s judgment.

Too bad. He’s a big improvement over Ben Lyons.

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Is it Right to Boycott? Peter David Responds to “The Turn of an Unfriendly Card”

9 09 2009

One of the great things about living in the Internet age is sometimes the little bit of attention you garner for your work can draw in the very people you’re discussing to put in their two cents. That’s what happened with my Angry Bear article “Turn of an Unfriendly Card (Read the original article here.) In the comments I came across a response by none other than Peter David himself who has a decidedly different take on the whole issue. Here’s what he wrote:

I think you make a lot of valid points in your very balanced and well-reasoned view of the situation (and thanks for the shout out on my work on X-Factor.)

The one place where we diverge, I suppose, is whether boycotts are a free speech issue. I feel they most definitely are, because the endgame (as you put it) is ultimately to restrict free speech. They are designed to put people who have voiced unpopular ideas out of business, and they are designed to make sure that anyone who possesses unpopular ideas think twice or three times about saying anything for fear of facing economic sanctions and potential loss of livelihood. The underlying strength of a free society is, “I disagree with what you have to say, but will defend to the death your right to say it,” not, “I disagree with what you have to say, and will do everything in my power to punish you for saying it.”

Should free speech mean freedom from consequences? Well, no. But the answer to free speech is always more free speech, and that should be the only consequence of speaking your mind. Boycotts are not free speech, no matter how much the practitioners of them claim that they are. Boycotts–particularly as utilized by those who take issue with opinions that are in opposition to theirs–are attempts to bludgeon someone into submission economically.

It’s not that people are offended because, for instance, the CEO of Whole Foods has opinions they don’t like. They’re offended because they KNOW his opinions, and the reason they know them is because he availed himself of free speech in a free society. So they’ll boycott Whole Foods and shop at Pathmark or Shop & Stop, and for all they know the CEO of the former is opposed to gay marriage and the CEO of the latter thinks that abortion should be criminalized. So unless they’re performing due diligence to check and see the corporate record of every store they’re frequenting, I’m forced to conclude that this is entirely about free speech, because it’s the use of free speech that’s getting people in trouble and it’s the intolerance of free speech that’s causing the boycotts.

I suppose what it comes down to is this: Protecting popular ideas is easy. Unpopular ideas are the ones that need the most protecting, if for no other reason than that many of the ideas we accept today as truth or even simple common sense, began their existence as unpopular ideas. The Church boycotted Galileo because he opined that the Earth moved around the sun; is that really the lead we want to follow?

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As much as I respect Mr. David, I’m afraid this is an issue where he and I are going to have to disagree. I told him so in an e-mailed reply:

“Boycotts aren’t free speech. What they ARE are other elements of freedom that are just as important — freedom of association, freedom of commerce and freedom of conscience. Note that none of those things necessarily make boycotts moral or ethical to use but by your argument I give up some freedoms (association, commerce, conscience) to protect the freedom of speech of a man I disagree with.

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I’d have to reject that. I don’t believe my choice to buy or not buy a game prevents Card from saying what he will. If he chooses to modify his speech in the face of such things, that too is the free market in action and it works for both the right and the left. I have the right to, for example, choose to purchase my groceries only at markets owned by Caucasians or refuse to buy a game created by a designer who has donated to the Republican party (bye bye Sims!) and I should bear the full moral burden of exercising those rights (including the disapproval and possible boycott of those who disapproved of my actions). In doing so though, I don’t believe anyone else’s rights are endangered. These interactions are how societies get ordered in the first place.”

Peter responded again with the following:

I don’t think boycotts are free speech either. We don’t disagree on that point. What I was pointing out was that people who believe in boycotts contend that they ARE a form of free speech, of free expression, equal to and on par with voicing one’s opinion through the media or on line or wherever. And that if someone says something or puts forward an opinion that they find disagreeable, then it is an equal and appropriate response to declare that they are going to cease supporting that individual’s work and, even better, try to get as many people as possible to follow suit.

Except it’s not. Boycotts are not free speech (as you yourself say). They are a punitive measure designed specifically to get someone else to shut up, or to destroy their income in retaliation. Does the act of buying or not buying a game prevent Card from saying what he will? No. But it is an ATTEMPT to STOP him from saying what he will. It is an attempt to punish him for doing so. What else is punishment except trying to ensure that the target of the punishment ceases the behavior that the person inflicting the punishment finds disagreeable?

To say, “I have the right” to shop wherever you wish is utterly beside the point. I’m not contending that you don’t have the right. But just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean that you SHOULD do something. If you truly believe in a free market society, then where you shop should not be determined (to use your example) by the color of the shop owner’s skin. It should be determined by who has the best product for the best price. Everything else is beside the point unless you choose to make it the point.

Boycotts that are started up purely to shut people up have a chilling effect in a society that is supposed to value the free exchange of ideas. There’s a superb book on the subject by Nat Hentoff: “Freedom of Speech for Me, But Not For Thee.” It’s about the lengthy history of the right and the left to shut each other up.

I didn’t want to respond directly to Peter (though he is, of course welcome to elaborate further and I’ll be happy to print it) because I think we’ve each outlined where our disagreements are and while we’re actually not that far apart, they come right to the crux of the morality of using boycotts. Put in simple terms, each of us agrees that boycotts are a private act and as such, shouldn’t be subject to some sort of government interference. Each of us as individuals have the “right” to boycott. The question is — and this is what I was wrestling with in the article — is it “right” to boycott? Is it morally and ethically correct and if so, what are the rules for doing so? These are the questions we as a society are not answering, although Peter’s already given his. He says “no, boycotts aren’t moral.” I envy him that level of clarity because I haven’t found my answer yet.

In a larger sense, we’re throwing economic clubs and brickbats at each other and we don’t seem to be concerned with where they’re landing. It’s really easy to envision a future where every corporation and small business has to have a position paper on every controversial issue in the public domain in order to do business at all. That is after all, what the “Buy Blue” campaign was all about and is what powers sites like Buy Blue USA (no commercial endorsement implied in that link). I don’t think I like that very much and I’m a little frightened about whether we can get off the ugly road we seem to be on.

On a lighter note, if you’re interested in Mr. David’s work, why not check out his blog? I’m also adding it to my blogroll at the right.

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The Politics of Schoolhouse Rock

6 09 2009

I’ve added a new section to the blog — The Politics of Schoolhouse Rock. After the response my essay on Elbow Room (Everything I Need to Know I learned from Schoolhouse Rock, I decided that I might like to go through the rest of the old videos (especially America Rocks) and see what kind of thoughts they inspired. I started by expanding my initial “Cultural Imperialism is a Crock” block post into a whole new essay about The Great American Melting Pot.

Please enjoy! And if you do, why not share the blog with some of your friends:

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