Thursday, March 24, 2016

Analysis: The Birth Of A Nation

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

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

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

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

Are you ready?

Plot & Premise: Family, Revenge and Dishonor

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

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

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

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

Implications & Themes

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

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

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

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

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

Comparisons To More Contemporary Works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 10, 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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