Friday, March 14, 2014

Ruminations--Narrativism, White Wolf's EXALTED, and "Buying In"

For a year (with about nine months' of hiatus) I've been running an Exalted game for Luke and DJ.  Exalted was originally White Wolf's answer to D&D, released around 2001 with much fanfare.  For those of you who don't know, White Wolf arose in the late 1980s as an answer to the "dungeon crawl" model of D&D adventure.  It touted itself, through its original game and flagship line, Vampire: The Masquerade, as an edgy, mature, and literary role-playing system in which the aim wasn't to acquire loot and level up but instead to deliberately and consciously tell a story.  In a lot of ways this was a response to the growth of railroads in modular D&D game design (cf. Grognardia's ruminations on the Hickman Revolution) like the original Dragonlance modules.

The problems with White Wolf are legion, true.  If you subscribe to Ron Edward's theories on game design and implementation, White Wolf appears to be Story Now (a.k.a. Narrativist).  A lot of this comes down to application and the Storyteller System indeed has the trappings of Narrativism on the surface.  The games have a mechanic to enforce dramatic tension absent in most other role-playing game lines--Vampire has Humanity, for example.  Dramatic tension increases as player-characters lose points in Humanity and begin to succumb to the animal urges and wanton blood lust of the Beast within them.  Unfortunately, White Wolf as a whole and the Storyteller System as an engine fail to actually elucidate how, precisely, to run a truly Narrativist chronicle.  Numerous "stories" (read: modules) and "chronicles" (read: campaigns) have been produced for many a White Wolf line, the most noteworthy being The Transylvania Chronicles.

I both love and hate The Transylvania Chronicles.  Why do I love them?  Well, coupled with Transylvania By Night, a sourcebook (more properly, a toolbox) full of people, places, and objects with which the player-characters can interact, these books craft a wonderful setting and track the events of Transylvania through the late medieval period into the modern era.  What I hate is that The Transylvania Chronicles are a complete and total railroad--a set of encounters to navigate the players through and giving them little or no actual choice or agency in the long-run (the type of game a Typhoid Mary GM would run, cf DM of the Rings and So You Want to Write a Railroad?).  They are complete and utter pawns throughout the entirety of the campaign.  Granted, one of the major themes of Vampire: The Masquerade and its Dark Ages adjunct line is the power-relations between Kindred and their Elders, Childer and their Sires, young versus old, and how the frustrated childer are always oppressed and kept carefully in check by those vampires who embraced them.  However, The Transylvania Chronicles handles these themes artlessly, bullying the players into obeying their sires even after they've become Princes of their own cities.

This is not Narrativism.  Heck, for most imaginative and intelligent players, this isn't even fun.  Indeed, Ron Edwards argues that playing these sorts of White Wolf games can actually damage your brain, causing emotional trauma that inhibits your ability to comprehend and appreciate stories.

White Wolf lacks a defined mechanic for the very social contract that needs to take place before the players even sit down to play.  As a Narrativist game (or at least, a game that claims to be Narrativist in nature), Vampire: The Masquerade, its fellow White Wolf lines, and its successors (such as Vampire: The Requiem), really require rules for establishing the game's Premise even before the characters are rolled up.  This is something I've only recently realized through playing Exalted.  The various Storyteller Guides and Storyteller chapters of the book are rife with ideas on how to incorporate themes into the story, weaving mood and premise, thematic elements, and other literary concepts into each chronicle.  This is great... but there is no such advice for the player.  Instead, all the player gets is advice on how to roleplay a convincing vampire from Clan Tremere in its attendant splatbook.

What is required is for the Storyteller System is a mechanic or section where the players and Storyteller sit down together, before the characters are even created or the first statistic is jotted down, and decide in concert, what the game's premise will be.  And by premise, I don't mean "the quest to kill the dragon" but rather some sort of situation that will 1) resonate with everyone at the gaming table as a reflection on the human condition and 2) will be resolved through 2a) the choices the characters make and 2b) the Storyteller's fair adjudication of the setting's reaction to those choices.  This not only gives the players agency as characters, it explicitly makes them the protagonists of the story and the narrative resonance of the game's subsequent themes is doubly poignant because they are going to identify with their characters more than they would with the protagonist of a book.  The problem is, do they "buy in" to this sort of social contract about the game?  It requires the players being extremely proactive in deciding some very, very major aspects on the tone, theme, and mood of the game and may even weigh heavily on some fundamental elements such as time and place.  It demands that the GM/DM/RM/ST/etc. effectively cede control of a huge amount of creative authority to the players before the game has even begun.  It also demands that the players actively keep these themes in mind when creating characters and role-playing those characters' decisions.

Take, for example, the Eberron game I mentioned in my previous post.  Let's assume that we all sat down together and together we created an idea for a game like the one I had proposed.  Now, let's assume that the players all agree to the various tropes, setting details, tone and mood, time period-appropriate behaviors and speech, and dramatic themes.  If the players, then, failed to create characters that satisfied these genre-specific elements nor evoke the necessary atmosphere or role-playing required to capture and explore these elements, then the failure of the Eberron game to get off the ground would not have been my fault (as it actually was) but 100% their fault.  In this sense, the players must "buy in" not only to the campaign's style but also to the concept of Narrativist play as a whole.

How does this translate to a game like Exalted, which I've been running for some time?

Last Winter and Spring, I ran a game for Luke and DJ in which they started out as unExalted mortals.  The game was extremely challenging and the lethal nature of Storyteller System's combat resulted in the players having a profound respect for their own mortality and an awareness of just how fragile life is.  Near the end of last year's games, they finally Exalted, imbued with the Essence of the Unconquered Sun.  As Chosen of Sol Invictus, they are closer to being divine, similar to demigods of Greek myth.  They heal faster, they can fight with insane moves like characters from a wuxia martial arts movie or an over-the-top anime, they can use magic powers to speak other languages and punch down buildings, live for about five thousand years, and they can even soak lethal damage (as opposed to just bashing, like a mortal can).

The hiatus allowed me some time to get a breather and figure out how better to run this new sort of game and deal with all the new thematic elements and dramatic tension.  The "Limit Break" mechanic now functions as a source of dramatic tension--each character's highest Virtue (Compassion, Conviction, Temperance, or Valor) is matched with a Virtue Flaw (haughty arrogance, for example, with high Valor and low Temperance and Compassion; a character with high Conviction and Valor but low Compassion might have a Flaw in which they are willing to do anything to achieve what they see as the Greater Good, even if it means being an absolute murderous genocidal monster).  This can lead to some fantastic role-playing and some incredible drama if done properly and, frankly, has worked better as an inspirational guide and personality metric than D&D's Alignment system ever was (at least, in my personal experience).  When a character acts against their highest Virtue they have to roll dice--if they fail, they can act as they wish (the Virtue fails to force the player to act in character, essentially) but if they succeed they must either act in accordance with their Virtue or they must tick off a point of Limit and spend a point of Temporary Willpower to act against their own character.  If too many points of Limit are acquired, the character has a Limit Break, during which they have a meltdown of some sort appropriate to the Virtue (they may go completely berserk and kill everything around them or they may collapse into a sobbing puddle of tears, for example).

With that in mind, let me summarize a bit of the last few sessions now that we've started the game back up.  Luke's character, Ren, is trying to make the opium trade in the city go out of business by essentially creating his own syndicate, bullying, bribing, and buying up all the small-time dealers in the slums and 1) forcing them to sell only to those of whom he approves and 2) taking a substantial cut of their profits--if they refuse to comply, they most likely wake up in a crate or box in one of the haunted and ruined sections of the city (effectively a death sentence).  Ren uses the profits he gains to build an orphanage, the youth of which he intends to raise as his own small army of spies, assassins, and Batman-style vigilantes.  The payments are made through a dropbox in a ruined building, from which an old beggar retrieves the money and drops into another dropbox for a small fee, which is then retrieved by one of the orphanage workers.

Ren gets word that a new opium merchant has moved into town.  After digging around, Ren and Dekland (DJ's character) find out that one of this secretive, anonymous merchant's distribution centers.  Ren wants to start destroying the competition and, once he has total control of all of the city's opium distribution, cut it off entirely and destroy it while setting up safeguards that the drug will be kept out of the city thereafter.  Hence, Ren wants to take this up-and-comer out.  So he and Dekland concoct a plan to infiltrate one of the distribution centers (a bathhouse for nobles) with Dekland disguised as a slave working there.

Dekland is a soldier and is used to following orders so it seems like a good idea.  However, he's not a slave-soldier but an honorable, highly respected soldier in his homeland so his demeanor comes off as "uppity" to the managers and paid staff at the bathhouse.  This creates dramatic tension.  They start putting Dekland into situations where he's tempted to fight back (his highest Virtue is Valor, which means every time he backs down from a challenge or has to run away, he has to roll against his Virtue).  Finally, they begin to openly mistreat, abuse, and beat Dekland, forcing a couple of rolls for his Valor.  Dekland snaps and begins to beat the everliving crap out of these guys, forcing Ren to come in and help him.

In this way, the system works well--dramatic tension is heightened through a situation in which, in D&D, wouldn't have nearly as much dramatic tension because there is no such associated mechanic enforcing players to deal with the various side-effects of their character concept.  By statting out Virtues and their attendant heroic flaws, methods for dilemmas are introduced that can be mechanically resolved but also give the players the necessity to make meaningful choices because of those mechanics.  DJ could have spent a point of Temporary Willpower and ticked off a point of Limit (bringing him closer to a Break) or he could cut loose, drop all pretense of disguise and infiltration, and just wreck house.  DJ weighed the various consequences and was happy to let Dekland give in to his nature.  Skulls were cracked with big, meaty fists.

As the story progressed, Dekland and Ren made their way through a series of tunnels that night beneath the city and burnt down six out of seven different bathhouses--all containing hidden opium dens.  This made waves.  The merchant, furious that half of his distribution centers were destroyed (he also owned a number of bodegas in the city but the bathhouses were the most profitable), as well as his hub, set his two henchmen after Ren and Dekland.  The henchmen called on connections and contacts, greased a few palms, and ran across one of Ren's slum dealers.  The two henchmen began tracking them all down and killing them.  Then, they tortured and killed Ren's homeless drop-off man (who managed to warn Ren that he was being followed before he was captured, so Ren could tell his orphanage workers to lay low and not make any more pick-ups lest they be next).

So, because of Ren and Dekland's actions, an innocent man died and a number of other not-so-innocent drug dealers died.  Ren's highest Virtue being Compassion, he was pretty upset that his actions led to the death of the old homeless guy.

We can see a number of themes developing from this but the big premise that comes to the fore is that actions have consequences, good deeds often come with a high price, and power and responsibility go hand-in-hand.  I never planned for these themes to happen--they just emerged.

The thing is, I've failed at running a Narrativist game.  This was more Simulationist.  If it was Narrativist, DJ, Luke, and I would have sat down together and hammered out those themes as the central theses of our story.  It would have been a deliberate, not an accidental, exploration of those themes.  I had not initiated these gaming sessions with the intention of having Ren's entire network slaughtered in response to his actions.  I had no idea that it would happen.  I simply rolled for the various stages of the henchmen's investigations and decided what they were most likely to do given the results of their rolls and their particular motivations and personalities.

Running a Narrativist game is something I've never done and am not sure how to do effectively while still preserving a realistic set of consequences.  I think, instead of considering what would be realistic, I would have to react to player choices with the guideline "what would make a good story given our game's overarching premise?" instead of "what would realistically occur?"  Right now, we're just Ouija Boarding, essentially acting as though Simulationist play will yield Narrativist play "without any specific attention on anyone's part to do so."  Currently, I'm running Dekland's quest for his previous incarnation's tomb--something he requested as a story arc.  While this is a step in a Narrativist direction, I'm still in control of where it is, what is there, who is there, what he'll encounter, etc. while he only controls when he goes there, with whom he goes, and (to a degree) how he gets there.

I did warn DJ and Luke that, being Exalted, they're going to be much more like Hercules, Achilles, and Odysseus.  There's going to be a lot of death and tragedy around them.  Hercules killed his entire family.  Achilles lost his best friend/lover (depending on your interpretation) and died after defeating the only man who had a hope of matching him in combat, and Odysseus was away from his wife for twenty years fighting a war and sailing around (not to mention directly and indirectly getting every single member of his crew killed).  They were on board with that but they weren't explicitly involved in the creation of that concept.  It was great that they got to experience it first-hand as players but they were not fully co-authors of the tale.  They didn't craft the overarching premise of that story with me.  They didn't consciously "buy in" to the Narrativist take on the story.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Gaming and Taoism -- A Reflection on Alexis' Recent Posts at Tao of D&D

Yes, it's true, I'm not dead even though I've not posted in, like, forever, and my readership has probably moved on to greener pastures (not that I had a lot of readers with which to begin) but school has been tedious and stressful and I find it not coincidental that getting a Masters in Multicultural Education and a teaching certificate has atrophied by cognitive capacities.  It is a daily struggle to keep myself sharp in a world where indoctrination is heavy.  I feel, at times, like I'm in a reeducation camp instead of a class.

That aside, I want to talk today about some of the things Alexis has been posting on his Tao of D&D blog.  Alexis is currently writing a book on how to be a better DM and it is frighteningly obvious that this will be unlike any other "How To DM" guide ever written and that it is terrifically well-researched, well-thought-out, and a product of years and years of personal experience.  Some of the things he's discussed on his website have been, heretofore, extremely challenging to anyone who would be a DM, GM, ST, RM, etc.  And frankly, Alexis' blog is full of advice and discussion that is unlike that of any other blog I've read, with the possible exception of Justin Alexander's The Alexandrian (although Justin Alexander hasn't been digging into practical advice for a while).  Alexis' advice is often brutally honest and direct--it challenges our preconceptions about what makes a good DM and what a DM's job is.

The more he writes, the more I reflect on my own experiences and the more I want to go into those reflections.  However, I kind of feel that doing so isn't necessarily a good thing to do in his comments section.  For politeness' sake, I try to keep my comments brief even though they do tend to go on for at least three full paragraphs.  I don't really have much to add to his considerations--he's been thinking about this a lot longer than I and a lot more than I.

To begin with, I want to reference Alexis' post entitled "The Sides of Power," in which he delves into a variety of approaches to the DM-player power spectrum and digs at which philosophy of the power-relationship is most beneficial to the gaming group as a whole.  The conversation and comments made me confront my own experiences and attempt to apply Alexis' ruminations to my own experiences and observations.

First, there is, most certainly, a sort of social contract that is part of any role-playing activity/event.  Now, The Forge and Ron Edwards have devoted a lot of head-space to this idea of a social contract in gaming, which ultimately leads back to its Enlightenment-era refinement by J.-J. Rousseau (although he is by-far not the ultimate author of the concept).  We're not going to really dig into the philosophical nitty-gritty of the idea.  We're going to try to keep it simple.

So, there has to be a basic agreement between players and DM/GM/RM/ST/whathaveyou (henceforth, we're going to keep it "DM" for simplicity's sake and to dovetail with Alexis' term-usage).  And this is a key point I want to address--what are you going to run is actually where this entire contract starts.  A couple people talked in the comments section about "buying in" to a campaign concept.  If they don't "buy in" then it won't be all that fun.  But, as Alexis has discussed in his post on fun in gaming, who is the game really for?  The DM?  Alexis asserts that no, it isn't.  It is the players' fun that is important, not the DM's.

And I have come to solidly agree with Alexis.  Yeah, I can have fun being a DM.  Frankly, I had more fun DMing The Forgotten Realms than DMing White Wolf's Exalted.  The White Wolf game requires a huge amount of preparation time.  Exalted requires me to build antagonists with Charms and abilities that will challenge my players without a simple, easy metric like D&D has but players have come to love White Wolf for its distinct lack of character classes and levels, the extreme lethal nature of the system's combat even late in the game.  Even if a player is an Exalt, unless we're playing with the standard "Extra" rules (severely weakening the mortal NPCs, the likelihood of a ten-year-old with a crossbow getting a lucky shot, blowing through the character's armor and killing him in one hit is still present, just like in reality.  Sometimes avoiding combat is much wiser than engaging in it.  Even with the "Extras" rule, the possibility still exists.  In D&D, if you're playing an epic-level character (roughly the equivalent of an Exalt), that ten-year-old has absolutely zero chance of killing you, period.  Even mages have far too many hit points.

I digress.  To return to the point about playing Exalted, I am essentially running what my players want to play.  I once tried to set up an Eberron game that was going to be centered on exploring Xen'drik, that setting's equivalent of Africa (a dark, mysterious continent).  I had ideas drawn from Indiana Jones, the Alan Quartermain adventures like King Solomon's Mines, Robert E. Howard's Solomon Kaine stories, the historical British Empire in Africa (the expedition to find Dr. Livingston, for example), Edgar Rice Burrough's Tarzan novels, Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness, and a whole host of other literary works.  Nobody "bought in" to the idea.  Nobody created the Big Game Hunter type ranger with a pith helmet and English accent.  Nobody created the intrepid explorer of the jungle.  Nobody created the daring archaeologist seeking ancient treasures amid trap-filled ruins.  I was annoyed by the players' lack of interest in the direction I wanted to take the campaign and the literary antecedents for it.  I toyed with the idea of creating pre-made characters for them to choose from but they rejected the concept outright.  So, I shelved the entire campaign and ran nothing.  I took my ball and went home.

Who was at fault here?  At first, I thought it was the players.  Then, I realized, after reading enough of Alexis' blog, that it was actually my problem, not theirs.  I had the issues here.  I provide a service for the players and my reward is satisfaction at running a game in which they have tons of fun and continually come back for more.  At first I didn't understand entirely what Alexis was getting at.  Now I do.  My fun takes a backseat to the players' fun.  When it dawned on me why I DM and why Alexis' argument is spot-on, I remembered this entry in my record of the old Forgotten Realms campaign.
When I revealed (using Maptool) that the stream had spilled them out at the waterfall, the players cheered in triumph. Yet another seemingly hopeless situation turned into a victory by the PCs.
They cheered in triumph!  I remember it clearly. They had escaped with their lives.  There was backslapping, laughing, fist-pumping.  They had escaped a challenging situation, cheated death, and lived to fight on.  If the campaign had been easy, this escape wouldn't have caused such a strong emotional reaction.  Similarly, if it had been too hard, they'd have become frustrated and felt it was pointless to play.  The strength of the challenge and their ability to overcome was rewarding and that translated to them having fun.

So, it isn't so much the players buying into the DM's idea of a campaign that is important.  It is the DM buying into the players' concept of what would be fun to play that is important.  My enjoyment is derived from the players having a good time and going home hungry to play more.

This led me to thinking about the power-relationship between DM and players.  Alexis discusses a number of them (many of which are dysfunctional or abusive to one or the other).  All of these are indicative of somebody playing out their own deep-seated mental issues in game.  I've long observed that role-playing games are a great way of psychoanalyzing another person and discovering if they're a completely horrible jerk, a functioning psychopath, etc.  Watch how they relate to the other players or the DM.  If they're the DM, watch what they do with the game and how they treat the players.  Personal issues will emerge and play out in game--often to the detriment of the fun level for everyone else involved.

The Forgotten Realms game was also a point in which I realized that group dynamic between players is more important than the concept of "buying in" to the DM's vision of a game.  I went into the Realms game with no overarching narrative in mind.  Let's throw the PCs into a huge sandbox and see what they do.  Here's a few modules--hooks for you guys to start with.  Pick one.  Let's run with it.  The result, at least for Luke, DJ, and Shaun, was fantastic.  Other players who came in and out had trouble.  At first I wondered if I wasn't running well enough.  What I realized, however, is that the players had preconceived notions of what they wanted from the game--notions they either didn't communicate or weren't metacognitive enough to understand they wanted (or worse, so cognitively dissonant about what they wanted that there was no way to please them without deeply analyzing and perhaps overthrowing the entire endeavor).

One of my players wanted to play a True Necromancer.  However, his character was basically an all-around jerk.  He became upset that all of his spells and abilities gradually turned him into a lich and that in the Dales he'd generally have to walk a very, very tight rope or get burned at the stake.  I threw him a few hooks with the Cult of Jergal, a neutral god of death, that he could have followed.  However, he was growing angrier that the populace as a whole would have feared him so severely for riding in on a pale horse with a skeleton army everywhere he went that they'd have tried to exterminate him.  The kicker is... if he had handled his situation differently none of those things would have happened.  However, he was dead-set on being an angry teenager with skeleton minions than someone who could have performed a vital function in society (i.e. tending to the dead, ferrying souls to the afterlife, stamping out evil necromancy, etc.) as a servant of a neutral deity.  Yeah, he'd be feared and been an unsettling person to be around (have you ever seen Departures?) but so long as he didn't act like a threat or like he held everyone around him in absolute contempt, he'd have found a place in the Dales and actually perhaps become a powerful political and social force there.  The problem is, he wanted to play his character a specific way and not deal with the consequences.  More accurately, he was angry that the consequences didn't accommodate his personal fantasies and desires.  In addition, he was only around for about half of the sessions.

The result was, he never really meshed with DJ, Luke, and Shaun.  So, even though he scrapped the True Necromancer character and rolled up an elven archer, he still never really fit in.

Vetting players to ensure they'll fit the party dynamic is hard.  It's also something I'm not sure Alexis has tackled (or even if he believes such vetting is necessary).  I actually have no idea what his take on this is (I haven't found posts on player-group-dynamics yet).  Most people are, as I've said, not very metacogitient and most people also suffer from cognitive dissonance.  Therefore, deducing what they want from a game can be problematic.  Alexis does discuss spoiling players (here) and catering too much to players who whine about class limitations, etc. (here), players who don't support the party against the DM's monsters/villains/etc. (here), sociopathic players (here), and more.  He's got a definite handle on what makes a "bad player."  What I want to know from him (if you're reading, by any chance, Alexis) is whether or not there's a way to decide if a player should even join your game in the first place or if eliminating a player from the game (as opposed to a character) is a bridge best crossed when the player's behavior makes it optimal for the enjoyment of the DM and everyone else.

While the game is primarily about the player's fun, if the DM is becoming actively insulted and frustrated by ignorant players who have no respect for the time and effort the DM puts into creating interesting events, NPCs, scenarios, locations, and materials with which the PCs may interact, then there is a definite problem with the player and it is not the DM's fault.  Boot the guy (or gal).  (Yet two more awesome posts by Alexis here and here.)

Considering I work, am applying for a teaching certificate in two states, and taking education classes--combined with running a bi-weekly Exalted game that requires much more time and effort to prep than a D&D game--I don't have the time to even want to deal with problem players, let alone have them disrupt the precious little time I get to game.  While Luke, DJ, and I are only three, one DM and two players, and we're seeking a third player, the scheduling conflicts make our preferred additions difficult to implement.  There have been suggestions but I'm frankly sick and tired of taking risks on players I don't know for certain aren't going to cause problems and kill immersion.  I put far, far too much of my free time into my games.  It takes work.  In fact, it is taking me more work than ever before to prep for Exalted.  Plenty of players don't get that, I think.  It would be so easy to wing it, make stuff up on the fly (even though I still have to to a small degree) but basing all of the game on arbitrary DM fiat breaks all of the tension and suspense.  I don't care if they'll know or not, it isn't fair.  I'm not reffing the game, I'm controlling the narrative.  No, the DM's job is not to make the game his story.  It's a collaborative effort and the PCs are the main characters.  They should have narrative agency.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Retrospective: 超時空要塞マクロス (Super Dimension Fortress MACROSS). Part Two.

Part One.

To continue with my analysis, today we're going to be discussing the theme of war in Super Dimension Fortress Macross.

The entire frame in which the personal drama takes place in Macross is the overarching drama of a sudden and incredibly destructive war between humankind and the Zentraedi.  The shadow of the Pacific War stretches forth from the Japanese psyche to loom heavily over the series.  The tremendous loss of life, property and infrastructure from the firebombings of major cities and the destructive atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are reflected by the bombed-out buildings on South Ataria Island, the destruction of a city due to a barrier malfunction, and eventually the annihilation of almost every population center on the planet during an orbital bombardment (see this video, which is taken from the Robotech adaptation).

The YouTube video here (fast-forward to about 2:00), although from the film Do You Remember Love? and not the series, reflects the sense of defeat and futility against the inexorable Allied advance in the later years of the Second World War.  In Macross, the enemy is an indescribably powerful force, nigh unstoppable, a literal race of giants to be compared to the proverbial "sleeping giant" that Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku warned that Japan had awoken at Pearl Harbor and "filled with a terrible resolve."  This defeat had an incredible impact on the Japanese psyche, much more profound than the American experience in Vietnam.  In a sense, the entire society took on that proverbial "thousand-yard stare" of a shell-shocked survivor.  Other films, such as the original Gojira, Akira, or Nihon Chinbotsu (Japan Sinks) explore this sense of destruction and national annihilation--something that, ironically, is very much a revitalized concern with the worsening of the ongoing Fukushima nuclear catastrophe.

The Zentraedi have a powerful galactic armada far beyond comprehension.  Their resources are immeasurable and twice in the series (the second occasion being Earth) a mere fraction of their total military strength bombards a planet's surface into barren, cratered desolation.  The ignorance of the U.N. Spacy regarding the power of the Zentraedi matters little, in fact, throughout the entire series.  From a military standpoint, the Earth is an insignificant backwater.

The strange truth where both Earth in Macross and Japan in reality have power are not through military might but through culture.  How poetic, then, that Macross would have such a phenomenal impact across the Pacific in the very nation which had bombed Japan's cities.  Although this indubitably stretches the metaphor far, far beyond the intentions of Kawamori, if the Zentraedi are a sort of stand-in for the United States and the Earth for Japan, then anime in general is music and Macross in particular is Minmay.  Animation has perhaps done more to foster positive feelings towards and interest in Japanese culture throughout the West than any number of 19th century linguists and scholars ever achieved.

There is much more to the conflict than a mere metaphor that explores Japan's experience with war, destruction, and rebuilding.  Although I will go into greater detail about the following in a future post, allow me to briefly discuss the impact of warfare with regards to the society of the Zentraedi species.  The Zentraedi also represent a society that is, in some ways, more of a mirror for Japan's own than of any Western nation.  Japanese society is infamous for being very homogeneous (although I would argue that Korean society is more so).  The group takes precedence over the individual, who must submit their own feelings and desires to the group in order to attain  和 (wa--social harmony).  To a Westerner, this may sound quite oppressive but in reality it is a common feature of all societies--Japan simply exhibits a more defined and elevated manifestation of the concept.  Those in Japan that tend toward individuality or sub-cultural interest (especially otaku) can find themselves socially ostracized for expressing their uniqueness.  "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down" is a common proverb attributed to Japanese society.

The Zentraedi are a reflection of an extreme version of this group-identity.  Hierarchy is paramount.  The Zentraedi are cloned, not bred.  Each clone is genetically engineered for a singular purpose in the military hierarchy of the species (officer, soldier, pilot, adviser, fleet commander, etc.).  Their entire purpose is to fight.  The culture and society that created them has long since gone extinct and only relics persist (such as the gigantic ship-producing facilities).  No engineers or scientists are to be found in the ranks of the Zentraedi, so no new technologies are developed and nothing is ever repaired (although the ships themselves seem somewhat capable of "healing" damage given time).  Nor are there entertainers, poets, writers, philosophers, or artists of any sort.  The entirety of Zentraedi "culture" is geared towards military conflict.  Their entire existence is predicated upon conquest and battle.

Macross does not simply spoon-feed the viewer with a "war is bad" theme.  Kawamori produced a narrative that is far more complex than that and wrestles very deeply with the occasional necessity of war juxtaposed against the stupidity and ignorance of blindly choosing war without considering its consequences.  Characters like Lynn Kaifun are very representative of anti-war movements (especially anti-Vietnam War protesters) during the mid-to-late 20th century.  It is ironic that Kaifun, for all of his posturing, is a master martial artist that does not hesitate to use his skills to subdue rowdy customers and stars as the hero in a wuxia-style martial arts action film.

Kaifun is disingenuous and self-serving.  He despises the military and accuses soldiers of being "warmongers."  He exhibits no gratitude towards the pilots or officers who sacrifice their lives in order to protect the Macross and its precious cargo of civilian refugees.  It is clear to the viewer that Kaifun is both ignorant with regards to the realities of the conflict against the Zentraedi and is uninterested in being properly informed.  His mind is made up.  His relationship with Minmay develops in very unhealthy ways and he grows into a very disappointed, alcoholic and abusive person.

Macross' depiction of Kaifun is not-at-all flattering.  He is not the stereotypical heroic hippy that swoops in and disabuses the characters of their "evil, capitalist notions" and single-handedly dismantles the military-industrial complex of the U.N.  (The Zentraedi cannons are far more effective, more's the pity.)  Hikaru and company are engaged in an existential conflict--survival is the reason they are fighting, not economic gain, resource acquisition, or imperial power.  He serves as the foil to Hikaru on three levels--with regards to Misa, Minmay, and the war itself.  Through Kaifun, Hikaru's heroism is enhanced.  Kaifun possesses all of the traits that would make him a hero but he chooses to persist in naive idealism, assuming that the characters prefer war as opposed to their true desire for peace.  When Kaifun says, "War is not the answer, it only serves to strengthen those in power," we may recognize that he's right, but we know that his reasoning is flawed and his personal agenda is highly suspect.

The war was not chosen by Earth, Captain Global, or the U.N. Spacy.  This war arrived at their doorstep and they choose to fight because there does not appear to be any option of surrender.  Indeed, their ignorance of the enemy makes any option of surrender highly dubious and so they persist in fighting.  Ignorance is a powerful weakness and every opportunity Global and his crew have to learn more about their enemies is seized.  When Misa, Hikaru, Max, and Kakizaki escape from Britai's flagship, they return with a great deal if information that eventually leads to the hope that a peace may be brokered between the two.

Kawamori demonstrates that war may be necessary at times in self defense.  Learning about one's enemy, however, may plant the seeds of peace between the two.  Doing so, however, may threaten the established hierarchy.  The current U.N. Spacy high command is loath to consider peace talks because of their trump-card--the Grand Cannon in Alaska.  Similarly, Boddole Zer realizes the threat that human culture presents to the Zentraedi and seeks to annihilate the Earth and destroy those Zentraedi exposed to culture in order to preserve their strict militarized existence.  Both are blind to what is really best for their own species because they cannot see past their own fears and vested interests.  This is a very common problem with political authority--from the Roman Republic to the Japanese military government during the early 20th century to modern American politics.  Kawamori doesn't shrink from this and paints these characters as understandable but still tragically blinded to their own catastrophic failings.

The consequences are tremendous.  Victory is achieved for the Macross but the cost is nearly total extinction coupled with the near-total annihilation of all life on the Earth's surface.  What is both surprising and brave of Kawamori's vision is that Macross continues on after the eponymous vessel lands on the devastated Earth like Noah's Ark (in a crater instead of on a mountain) and disgorges humankind upon the surface to resuscitate and repopulate the world.  Instead of ending here, though, the narrative forges ahead, giving the viewer the full scope of the consequences of victory.  These consequences give value and meaning to the triumph against the Zentraedi.  Reconstruction is not easy and no one gets the Hollywood ending.  Life goes on and everyone is forced to rebuild and readjust--especially the Zentraedi.

The most tragic victims of both the war and the eventual victory of the Macross and her allies are the Zentraedi.  The readjustment that the Zentraedi are forced to endure is tremendous.  Although many come to enjoy their new cultured lives a sort of existential ennui sets in for many of them.  Since battle was all that they knew and was their purpose, without a commanding hierarchy over them providing direction and a strict chain of command, many of the Zentraedi become disgruntled and listless, turning to violence and raiding as a means to try and reachieve their lost sense of purpose.  Many of them become a sort of "lost generation" in the post-Great War sense.  Even though rebellion will result in death, that death in battle seems preferable to a meaningless existence.  I am reminded of reading about the many veterans of war who returned hope with severe cases of post-traumatic stress disorder and am certain that Japan's own experience with Pacific War veterans discharged after the United States' victory and the horrific price Japan paid in defeat deeply inform Kawamori's depiction of the Zentraedi after the Space War concludes.

This also leads into a discussion regarding the value of individuality and the responsibility for each person to choose their own purpose in life and to pursue it, and will be touched on in greater detail in future posts.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Retrospective: 超時空要塞マクロス (Super Dimension Fortress MACROSS). Part One.

Part Two.
The Macross

Let's begin an analysis of Super Dimension Fortress Macross in earnest, beginning with a broad overview of the plot.

Fair warning.  In this analysis THERE WILL BE SPOILERS.  If you haven't yet seen the series, you have been warned and this analysis is written with the assumption that the reader will proceed upon his or her own discretion.  If you have seen the series, by all means, please continue reading.

The series opens with the crash-landing of an alien warship on South Ataria Island in a remote part of the western Pacific Ocean.  Earth is in the midst of a world war but the appearance f this alien vessel quickly unites mankind under the auspices of a powerful United Nations, which forms the U.N. Spacy.  Over ten years, the ship is rebuilt and remodeled, its technologies reverse-engineered, and is christened the Macross.  To support the massive undertaking of repairing and examining the ship and its technologies (including a spacefolding FTL drive), an enormous city springs into existence surrounding the vessel and occupying most of the island.

The story begins in earnest with the celebrations to launch the vessel.  It is here that we are introduced to most of the characters that will dominate the narrative.  Captain Bruno J. Global, an Italian submarine captain who had fought for the United Nations during the unification wars and whose appearance exemplifies the "Mustache Pete" stereotype.  His first officer is First Lieutenant Hayase Misa, a Japanese woman whose father, Admiral Hayase Takashi, was Global's superior during the wars.  Her coworker, companion and close confidante is Claudia LaSalle, an African American bridge officer.  The leader of the Skull Squadron, Roy Focker, is a heavily drinking, smoking, womanizing, American cowboy who started out as a stunt pilot before joining the United Nations forces during the U.N. Wars.  He is in a romantic relationship with LaSalle and hosts his young friend Ichijyo Hikaru, the son of the air circus owner for whom Roy flew before the wars.  Ichijyo Hikaru is introduced as an energetic, brash Japanese pilot of age 16 with a record of seven championship awards for stunt piloting.  Finally, Lynn Minmay is a 15-year-old, half-Chinese, half-Japanese girl from Yokohama who moved to South Ataria Island with dreams of becoming a star.

Britai's flagship
The celebrations and launch preparations are interrupted by the arrival of the Zentraedi, an alien race of giants who are searching for the crashed vessel since it is identified as belonging to the Supervision Army, an enemy force with whom the Zentraedi are at war.  Their commander, Britai Kridanik, orders an assault to capture the vessel, brushing aside all orbital defense platforms encircling the earth and bombarding the island before launching ground and air attacks.  Hikaru and Minmay are immediately swept up into the events and find themselves, along with many of the survivors, as refugees aboard the Macross when a space-fold operation goes wrong.  The Macross, with its precious cargo of civilian refugees, then battles its way across the solar system back to Earth.  Once it arrives, the crew and refugees alike must navigate the complexities of government policy and military command that wants to mitigate the impact of the alien attacks on Earth and use the vessel to distract the Zentraedi away from the home planet.

Left-to-right: Lynn Minmay, Ichijyo Hikaru, and Hayase Misa.
Throughout the story, interpersonal drama unfolds in the form of a love triangle between Hikaru, Minmay, and Misa.  Hikaru is initially attracted to Minmay who, although she finds herself drawn to Hikaru, is ultimately career driven and extremely capricious due to her youth.  However, the 19-year-old Misa and 16-year-old Hikaru, despite the intense dislike the two have for one-another, gradually find solace in companionship.  As the series progresses, years pass and they grow older and more experienced and mature.  As they age, Hikaru gradually detaches himself from Minmay and finds in Misa a more sophisticated and meaningful relationship.

What sets Macross apart from other "real robot" anime?  Mobile Suit Gundam arguably has a sophisticated plot full of intrigue and illustrative of the horror of war (especially involving advanced robotic technology and futuristic weaponry).  There are a great deal of similarities between the two, as well.  Hikaru appears to be much like Amro--both are excellent pilots who become leaders.  Both the Macross and the White Base are iconic vessels that serve as major targets for the enemy to capture or destroy.

Mobile Suit Gundam
The similarities are mostly surface.  Macross actually subverts many of the elements that are prominent in Mobile Suit Gundam.  In addition, Macross isn't as unambiguous about war.  Where Mobile Suit Gundam simply depicts war as bad, Macross demonstrates how war can often be unavoidable.  Nevertheless, Macross still tries to provide a positive message by exploring how misunderstanding and lack of communication can create military conflict and give methods by which negotiation can lead to peace.  Mobile Suit Gundam is far more pessimistic in its outlook.

The characters in Macross are multifaceted.  It is difficult not to care about them and find oneself deeply engaged by the narrative.  Actions have consequences.  People live, love and die.  They are beautifully, wonderfully flawed in the most human and believable ways.  Characters have real motivations that go beyond simply winning the war.  Unlike Mobile Suit Gundam, the characters of Macross have lives outside of the conflict.

The war against the Zentraedi is a catalyst for much of the drama but it is by no means a mere situational MacGuffin.  It forces characters to analyze themselves and become more introspective.  It provides a vehicle for experience.  They change, grow, and develop as people.  Kawamori Shoji invested a great deal of time and effort into creating these characters, their needs, desires, hopes, and motivations.

The narrative of the series is also challenging to the viewer.  There is no clear-cut good-guy/bad-guy dynamic.  Kawamori refuses to spoon-feed the viewer with a morality.  Instead, he uses the themes to make the viewer think.  One may not agree with the choices certain characters make.  They mess up, fail, fall down and occasionally some don't climb back up.  There is heroism and sacrifice, tragedy, foolishness and tunnel vision, blind ignorance, love, appreciation for beauty, loss, and triumph.

Ichijyo Hikaru is the hero of the tale.  He starts out as a kid.  Although he is an experienced air-show pilot he is unready to deal with the realities of air-combat and warfare.  Nor is he prepared to pilot a transforming mech.  He stands out as a protagonist because he, like us, is thrown into this conflict.  The viewer can identify with him very quickly.  He's not "the One," a Newtype, or the Kwizatz Haderach.  He's just a kid who gets swept up by events far beyond his control.  Hikaru is forced to adapt and grow in order to survive.  His journey becomes our journey through the series and we experience the story, the love, the loss, and the lessons vicariously through him.

He stands in direct contrast to Amro in Mobile Suit Gundam.  Amro is a Newtype, a sort of psychic whiz-kid at piloting robots.  Amro's alter-ego is Char Aznable and the two engaged in one of the most legendary feuds in all of anime.  Enraged at the destruction the Zeon forces are wreaking, he jumps into the cockpit of a Gundam, barely glances at the instructions and immediately starts piloting in a combat situation.  He is entirely untrained and untested, yet he successfully defeats the enemy Zacks.

View the scene here.

Hikaru's first experience is quite the opposite.  In fact, it's terrifying.  Hikaru is absolutely overwhelmed.  He ended up piloting a Valkyrie fighter entirely by accident and ends up escorted to safety by his mentor, Roy Focker.  Even this escort barely rescues him and he is instructed to transform in order to avoid colliding with the Macross.  He may have the skills and training to fly a plane but he is entirely incapable of piloting a bipedal robot, crashing into buildings and causing a lot of damage.

Amro is special by having an innate talent.  Hikaru isn't special.  He's entirely mundane.  He's a human.  The fact that he becomes an ace fighter pilot is not through virtue of being a Newtype like Amro but a result of hard work, training, courage, and willpower.

Next time, we'll take a look at the circumstances of war and its impact on Macross as a major theme.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Retrospective: 超時空要塞マクロス (Super Dimension Fortress MACROSS). Introduction.

Part One
Part Two.

Several years ago, I wrote this post, discussion the value of 超時空要塞マクロス(Choujikuu Yousai MakurosuSuper Dimension Fortress Macross) as a science-fiction drama.  If you've already read that post, please bear with me because I'm going to cover some similar ground.

My discussion of Macross inevitably begins with Robotech.  For many Generation X'ers who were children during the 1980s, including myself, our introduction to Japanese アニメ (anime = "animation") was through the various work of Carl Macek (who passed away in 2010).  Macek is either a hero or a villain depending on to whom you speak.  While Macek did a lot to bring アニメ to North America and other Anglophonic countries, this often required mash-ups, heavy editing, and sometimes even complete and total rewrites of entire series.  The most notorious (and, indeed, his first big) project was Robotech for Harmony Gold, which took three unrelated anime, 超時空要塞マクロス (Super Dimension Fortress Macross), 超時空騎団サザンクロス (Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross), and 機甲創世記モスピーダ (Genesis Climber Mospeada), combined them into three consecutive generations and changed names, dialogue, and even edited out certain scenes in order to make the show more palatable to an audience primarily composed of American and Canadian children (and possibly their parents).

Carl Macek
Interestingly enough, Robotech was not the only program to receive this treatment.  Captain Harlock and the Queen of a Thousand Years was a mash-up of two separate anime, 宇宙海賊キャプテンハーロック (Space Pirate Captain Harlock) and 新竹取物語 1000年女王 (Queen Millennia).  Both were taken from manga series written by 松本 零士 (Matsumoto Leiji), the genius behind 宇宙戦艦ヤマト (Space Battleship Yamato) and 銀河鉄道999 (Galaxy Express 999).  The reason for these mash-ups revolved around syndication regulations in the United States--in order to air a weekday television series, there needed to be at least 65 episodes (essentially a minimum-length run of five episodes per week over the course of thirteen weeks). マクロス (Macross) had 36 episodes, サザンクロス (Southern Cross) had 24, and モスピーダ (Mospeada) had 25.  Individually, they didn't have enough--combined they had 85 episodes, well above the minimum requirement for U.S. syndication.

The purpose behind the heavy editing was two-fold.  First, Macek had to rewrite names and dialogue enough to explain the progressive generations and put them into a narrative framework that would make sense.  Thus, for example, the Zor in サザンクロス (Southern Cross) were rewritten as the Robotech Masters, the overlords of the Zentraedi from マクロス (Macross).  In addition, dialogue and visual content had to be edited to make the show fit for children, since in the 1980s it was assumed that cartoons were strictly for kids.  Thus, dialogue that related to mature themes (such as sex or suicide) had to be sanitized for American child audiences.  The brief and occasional nudity also had to be excised.

What was shocking, however, to me as a kid, were the abundance of mature themes and ideas that persisted.  Characters died and the price of war was high.  There was a continuous narrative that flowed from episode-to-episode.  This was during a time when G.I. Joe and The Transformers were self-contained, independent stories and it mattered little if you missed a few episodes.  Robotech was the first show that I made certain I watched daily as a child.  If I missed episode 13 of G.I. Joe, I could still pick up and watch episode 14 the next day because Cobra Commander would be hatching a completely new and unrelated plan.  Missing an episode of Robotech meant that I missed out on character and plot development.

In addition, when a plane was shot down in Robotech, there wasn't always a parachute to let the censors know the pilot escaped.  People died, good and bad.  Robotech was about war and the cost of war.  Robotech challenged me far more than the other television cartoons that I viewed and it inspired me to a wider and more complex world of stories and storytelling.

I'm not writing this series of blog entries, however, to discuss Robotech.  I'm writing a retrospective that will analyze and review 超時空要塞マクロス (Super Dimension Fortress Macross).  To that end, I want to discuss first how Macross came about and then, in subsequent posts, explore the narrative elements and themes of the series.

Kawamori Shoji
The Genesis of Macross
Macross was the brainchild of 河森 正治 (Kawamori Shoji), an animator, designer, and conceptual artist who began working in the Japanese animation industry during the late 1970s.  His influence as a designer is extremely heavy--he's done designs for Matsumoto Leiji's Space Battleship Yamato and even had a hand in creating a number of Generation 1 Transformers.  If you've seen Eureka 7, the Patlabor movies, the Ghost in the Shell film, Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory, Outlaw Star, or Vision of Escaflowne, you've seen mechanical designs by Kawamori.  Kawamori got his big start working as an intern and assistant artist at スタジオぬえ (Studio Nue), which produced Matsumoto's Space Battleship Yamato in 1974.  Kawamori would eventually come to helm 1996's 天空のエスカフローネ (Vision of Escaflowne) at Studio Nue before branching off to create many science-fiction and fantasy anime that would come out during the new century, particularly 2001's 地球少女アルジュナ (Earth Maiden Arjuna), 2005's 創聖のアクエリオン (Genesis of Aquarion), and 2012's AKB∞48.  However, he always seems to return to the universe of Macross from time-to-time, revisiting it with Macross Plus, Macross 7, Macross Zero, and most recently, Macross Frontier.

Macross is a foray into what is known as the リアルロボット ("real robot") genre in Japan.  The basic idea of this genre centers on somewhat explainable scientific and technological advances that make possible the construction and piloting of giant robots.  The first true real robot series is usually considered to be Mobile Suit Gundam, and Kawamori’s Choujikuu Yousai Makurosu helped to better define the tropes and characteristics of the genre.  This genre is noteworthy for its departure from other giant robot shows like Voltron because the core concepts are more realistic, don’t rely upon gimmicks like “blazing swords” and “monsters of the week,” focus on weapons that are known to be technologically possible, don’t have special attacks that are activated by voice-command, and so on.

What first inspired Kawamori to create his own "real robot" series was the immense success of 機動戦士ガンダム (Mobile Suit Gundam) during the late 1970s.  Combined with his experience working on Space Battleship Yamato and the immense success such space-opera programs had, Kawamori drew up plans for a space-opera of his own.  This time, he would incorporate a great number of themes absent from those series.  He would use the backdrop of interstellar war to galvanize the action but the real drama would always be interpersonal.  Thus, Kawamori teamed up with Studio Nue colleague Kazutaka Miyatake for mech design and Artland’s Haruhiko Mikimoto for character design.  By 1982 the result was an epic story of the power of music and love amidst the tragedy of futuristic space-war.

In Part One, I will give a brief overview of the plot for 超時空要塞マクロス (Super Dimension Fortress Macross) and initiate discussion of its more salient themes as well as occasionally compare it to other popular "real robot" anime, especially Mobile Suit Gundam.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Sic Semper Tyrannis?

My good friend, Kevin W. Boyd, wrote this and mailed it off to a number of Senators, Congressmen, and organizations (I hope also newspapers).  Although I almost never blog anymore (and probably won't have the time to do so until summer rolls along) I felt it important to post this and give it some circulation.  Whether you agree with Kevin or not, I believe that his essay has some definite merit.

Philadelphia, PA
14 Apr, 2013/5 Iyar, 5773
Sic semper tyrannis?

Just this week, Senator Cruz reiterated his vow to “protect our 2nd Amendment rights” by opposing, among other things, a national gun registry (which of course is a misnomer, it is the owners that would be “registered”).  His words were a clarion, clearing the fog of battle rather than summoning one; American citizens have been crafting tactics in the fight over gun control while adhering to a faulty strategy.  While it is commendable that the skirmishes over hunting have been won, and gun grabbers seem to be conducting a rear guard action over self-defense, without recognizing the true threat to popular sovereignty which inspires the many demands to more rigorously regulate possession of firearms, the rights defended by the Constitution will eventually be lost, or more precisely, stolen.
            “Unarmed citizen” is, if not a personal choice, an oxymoron.  If government officials, elected or not, mandate a defenseless polity, then the people are no longer citizens, they are subjects.  This idea is foreign to an increasing number of Americans.  But our libraries are full of evidence that the people who rejected their status as subjects of George III thought this way.  Those same stacks show that the originators of democratic civilization, the Greeks and Romans, thought this way as well.  The 20th Century alone provides evidence enough of the wisdom of such philosophies.  And it is this conception of independence that motivated the inclusion of the right to bear arms in the Bill of Rights.
            Despite the Heller decision, many still argue, or simply believe, that the 2nd Amendment is a corporate right, intended to maintain militias as a check of Federal power.   I shall dispense with this silly argument briefly, by pointing out that the principal grievance of those at the South in antebellum America was founded on a false understanding of the Bill of Rights.
            The Civil War resolved the issue of states’ rights; they are inferior to those of the Federal government.  This anyway is what we are typically taught.  But there is a deeper lesson.  The 10th Amendment says nothing of states’ rights in the first place.  The 9th Amendment explains that the people have other rights which have not been put in writing.  But the 10th explains that there are many powers which the states retain.  A power is not a right.  The 10th is not a protection of corporate rights, it is a final check on Federal power.  This raises an implication about the 2nd.
            The proof resides in the Declaration of Independence.  People are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; governments are instituted among them, for the single purpose of securing those rights.  This alone demonstrates that the American system is predicated on the idea that governments do not grant rights to people; in fact they possess no rights to grant or exercise.
            The Bill of Rights protects individual rights from government tyranny, exclusively.
            As a philosophic refresher, this is all well and good.  I should hope the argument clear enough to sway some honest thinkers.  My higher aim though, is to upend the debate over gun control. 
            It is a sad irony that the greatest moral battle of 20th Century America has led to an electorate convinced that they have no need for all of their rights.  The civil rights movement successfully persuaded Americans and their elected representatives that it was wrong, based on nothing more than the color of one’s skin, to prevent millions of their neighbors from equal participation in governing this country.  This is not the place to detail the countless victories and failures over the last few decades.  The point is that the two principal conflicts, voting rights and education, made Federal issues out of topics barely addressed by the Constitution; education was such a local issue the word isn’t even in the Constitution, and control of elections was explicitly reserved to the states.
            This is not to suggest that civil rights are not Federal issues; clearly when representative government fails at lower levels, redress must be sought from a higher authority.  This is the purpose of the 14th Amendment.  Indeed, this is why so many wish for Congress to “do something” about guns; they believe that lower governments are failing to contain nuts with guns. 
            The shift I am pursuing is the recognition that the bearing of arms is a civil right.  We are given rights, equally, by God; it is a disingenuous oversimplification to claim that the majority of colonists thought of Jefferson's god when hearing the Declaration. The Founders were particularly sensitive to having their liberty dangling at the end of a thread tied to the king’s finger; their government was to have explicit limits to its power.  Its acceptance hung finally on the inclusion of the Bill of Rights.  Since we agree that the ability to vote, like the freedom to be educated, are vital to our health as a nation, we should also be able to agree that each of the rights, enumerated in the Bill of Rights, including those of both pen and sword, are equally fundamental.
            American citizens (those who support the erosion of the 2nd Amendment are in fact not citizens but rather subjects) need to reconsider its importance.  We also need to seize control of the narrative.  It was largely Democrats who opposed the original civil rights acts in the 1860s.  It was Democrats who built Jim Crow, instituted poll taxes, and fought integration.  It is Democrats who are, once again, maneuvering to eviscerate the Bill of Rights, through speech codes and gun registries.  One need not imagine how all that might end.  Conservatives, Libertarians, and Republicans must demonstrate, rhetorically and legislatively, that the citizen, free to live and worship as he sees fit, is the only reason this country exists.  The final expression of that is the defiance, and destruction, of tyrants.  And on this Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel’s Day of Independence, we would all do well to remember this struggle is that of all mankind.

Kevin W Boyd

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Defining "Achievement" in Schools

In my Learning and Cognition course, I've been assigned to read Engaging Schools by the Committee on Increasing High School Students' Engagement and Motivation to Learn and the National Research Council.

The following consists of my preliminary reaction to the first two or three chapters and executive summary of the book.

As I've been going through the readings, I'm struck by a number of social problems with the book that most people probably haven't noticed.  They have nothing to do with class or race.  Instead, they have to do with what we consider standards and how we define achievement.

The fact is that there aren't enough jobs for the number of people graduating college.  Entire fields are overburdened with hopefuls in the unemployment line, bearing their degrees that their teachers promised would make them wealthy and give them a better life.  Indeed, I have to ask, is the implementation of these reforms contained in Engaging Schools producing false hopes in students that academic achievement and college are tickets to a meaningful life?

Indeed, it goes beyond standards and strikes to the core of why we teach.  What is our mission?  To see the students succeed, one would assume, especially while reading Engaging Schools.  However, there is a subtle subtext running throughout the book that seems to interpret academic achievement as providing a way to be successful in life.  The constant need to motivate students is countered by the bevy of assessments with which teachers inundate their students.

I'm reminded of Shamus Young's online "Autoblography" where he writes

“Just make sure to do all the work, and you will pass my class.”

"My heart sinks. I hate when teachers say this. It means the bulk of our grade will come from doing things, not from knowing things. It’s the first day of tenth grade, I’m sixteen years old, and I’m hearing this a lot today. Some teachers even go so far as to grade the notes we take in class. This is infuriating to me. In the past I saw school as this perfectly arbitrary trial of mysterious activities. Now I see it as a house of incompetents. Our goal is ostensibly to learn things, but the system of rewards and incentives is often completely divorced from this idea, and sometimes even runs counter to it. 

"If we think of grades as “pay”, then we aren’t being paid to learn. We’re being paid to turn out volumes of worthless forgettable busy work."
Indeed, I fear that the attempts to engage students actually fail because our consistent reliance upon assessment and its equation to achievement and success.

We've already set up a generation of people who have been lied to by their teachers about good grades and success.  The more I speak with many of my fellow Gen X'ers in fields outside of academia, the more I am inundated with statements like, "I didn't learn anything in school," "School was worthless and a waste of time," "School was bullshit," or "Yeah, I learned how to be a student, that's all."  Those who went to college felt as though that was the first time they were able to actually learn something and the point was driven home by the fact that during a single semester, they had two or three assessments and nothing more.  They either passed or failed.  It was actually liberating for some of them.

So what do we have?  A book written by a committee.  The product of bureaucracy and reads as such.  I have little faith in it thus far--Marc Bloch was wrong when he said the bureaucratic mind was the highest form of intelligence.  This committee begins its book with a report on findings and a list of recommendations.  To what end?  What is achievement to produce?  The committee's language in the "Executive Summary" is vague and full of Orwellian doublespeak.

In my interpretation, we are to compete with the Asian schools that are producing competitive workers, scientists, engineers, businesspeople.  It is no secret that schools are pushing math and science to the detriment of the humanities.  History and English teachers aren't nearly as sought-after as math or science teachers.  Meanwhile, we forget that those students are also taught to read and write effectively in their schools.  We are not.

And so we pump out graduates who go to college as if it is the entire goal of education.  This is the teachers' greatest failure.  Education is not, never was, and should never be, simply a vehicle for success.  The fruits of our labor have resulted in apathy among those who know they aren't college material and the unemployment line coupled with staggering debt for those who are.  Why should our students thank us?

A recent article in the Atlantic Monthly describes how a single principal overhauled one of the worst schools in Staten Island and made it a success story by teaching analytical writing to students.  Math and science scores improved substantially--a rising tide floats all boats and our disinterest in the humanities have led to student engagement and achievement at a low ebb.

The ability to write effectively means these kids can think effectively.  Engagement in New Dorp High School increased because the students realized that they were capable of achievement, comprehended material better, and therefore had a greater stake in what they were learning.  It started to matter.

The ability to write effectively also means that adults can think effectively.  And this should be the goal of education--a populace that is aware, knowledgeable, and able to think analytically, critically, and creatively.  Sadly, rubrics don't leave room for kids who can think outside the box--rubrics are, themselves, a box.  Furthermore, the goal of education should not be to enrich students' wallets but their lives.  A student who gets straight Cs can still grow up to be a happy, healthy, productive member of society be he a manager at a store, a car mechanic, or owns his own plumbing business.  Somewhere along the line, we gave our kids this idea that hard work and an honest living were inferior to a college degree and

I don't want to engage my students because I think it will help them score high on tests and get them into college.  Indeed, I honestly couldn't care less about any tests, assessments, or colleges.  I care that they learn because I believe what I have to teach them will enrich their minds, help make them better decision-makers, informed voters, and give them a stake in their society and community.  I believe that a car mechanic can be just as important a pillar of his community as a CEO.